Capturing War

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I grew up during the Vietnam era. This conflict in Southeast Asia officially began in 1959, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. I was a four-year-old baby when Ike first sent advisers over, and a high school graduate when the boys came home under Nixon.

An opinion has grown among historians that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War came about because of particularly intense television coverage. Some claim that support for this “police action” shifted when the draft expanded to include middle class, college-bound boys. Mothers across the country grew alienated, and distressed by the relentless coverage flickering across all three networks; images of  Vietcong ambushes, exploding fire fights, and mounting body counts, soon drained any support women felt for the war.

I recall in particular doing dishes after dinner watching a little black and white Sony portable on the kitchen counter. It didn’t matter which network I switched to, the same footage blended into a mingled blur . . . jungle, fear, wounds, and an odometer-like graphic, tallying up the day’s body count.

The Vietnam War didn’t come to us through paintings, or photographs, or movie house newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, viewed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the war told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this involvement was awful. That war is an awful event.

CBS, in particular, ran special reports highlighting varying aspects of that endless nightmare. News cameras exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel–doctors and nurses splattered with blood–and set out with nervous reconnaissance patrols edging through deadly elephant grass, and huddled with desperate Marines battling at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue. All of it awful.

So many years have flown by, and I find this little girl is now officially middle aged. Yet, as I type my graphic recollections from fifty years ago, I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. The human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the American public isn’t quite as riled as 1970, nor as focused, the price of overseas conflicts remain the same for those beautiful young souls now in harms way.

In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captured the true awful, using no film crew, or photographer, or painter.

Dreamers

By Siegfried Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Have a safe weekend, and accent the memory in Memorial Day.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the non-fiction memoir, River of January

Capturing War

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I grew up during the Vietnam era. This conflict in Southeast Asia officially began in 1959, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. I was a four-year-old baby when Ike first sent advisers over, and a high school graduate when the boys came home under Nixon.

An opinion has grown among historians that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War came about because of particularly intense television coverage. Some claim that support for this “police action” shifted when the draft expanded to include middle class, college-bound boys. Mothers across the country grew alienated, and distressed by the relentless coverage flickering across all three networks; images of  Vietcong ambushes, exploding fire fights, and mounting body counts, soon drained any support women felt for the war.

I recall in particular doing dishes after dinner watching a little black and white Sony portable on the kitchen counter. It didn’t matter which network I switched to, the same footage blended into a mingled blur . . . jungle, fear, wounds, and an odometer-like graphic, tallying up the day’s body count.

The Vietnam War didn’t come to us through paintings, or photographs, or movie house newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, viewed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the war told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this involvement was awful. That war is an awful event.

CBS, in particular, ran special reports highlighting varying aspects of that endless nightmare. News cameras exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel–doctors and nurses splattered with blood–and set out with nervous reconnaissance patrols edging through deadly elephant grass, and huddled with desperate Marines battling at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue. All of it awful.

So many years have flown by, and I find this little girl is now officially middle aged. Yet, as I type my graphic recollections from fifty years ago, I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. The human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the American public isn’t quite as riled as 1970, nor as focused, the price of overseas conflicts remain the same for those beautiful young souls now in harms way.

In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captured the true awful, using no film crew, or photographer, or painter.

Dreamers

By Siegfried Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Have a safe weekend, and accent the memory in Memorial Day.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the non-fiction memoir, River of January

Fighting Joe

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His name was Joseph Andrew Tucker, and he was my grandpa–my mom’s biological father. We didn’t see him very often growing up in Spokane, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly close to this grandparent. Yet, purely by instinct, I found that I did respect him. There seemed to be an aura of dignity surrounding Grandpa Joe, along with an abiding cloud of cherry pipe tobacco, that also swirled around him. Yet, other than my youthful impression, I knew very little about Joe.

The following is what I’ve pieced together from my family.

Joe Tucker arrived in Spokane, Washington in 1937. He came west from Arkansas following his five-year-old daughter, when his ex-wife settled in the Pacific Northwest. A short time later, Joe found work with the Great Northern Railroad, as Spokane was, and still is, ribboned across the middle with busy, screeching rail lines. At about the same time he met and married a local widow, a woman with three children to care for.

Joe Tucker had been in and out of the US Army since initially enlisting in 1929; and discharged after a second hitch ending in 1938. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, and America’s entry into World War Two, Joe realized he’d surely be called back for more active duty. Not anxious to leave his young daughter, or his new family, he requested a deferment of some kind, due to his previous service, and current domestic responsibilities. He was promptly denied. And, once again, Joe found himself in uniform.  Part of the XIX Corps, Joe Tucker and his new outfit underwent infantry training in support of an armored division. (When he departed Spokane, his new wife, Velma, turned on a kitchen radio, and didn’t turn it off for the next four years).

After six months at Camp Polk, Louisiana, the entire Corps shipped out for England as part of the buildup for the D-Day invasion. Joe and his company was stationed in the south of England, in Wiltshire, adjacent to Southampton, the primary staging area for Operation Overlord. In a letter to Velma on eve of the June invasion he cautioned her that “Your’e going to see a lot of frightening news, but really, it’s not as bad as they say.”

On June 6th, the first Allied wave crossed the English Channel, securing a beachhead in Normandy at the expense of thousands of American soldiers. Days later, Joe’s infantry unit, and accompanying tanks, rolled onto those same blood-soaked beaches; members of the XIX Corps bracing for their own European crusade.

For the next five months the XIX slugged their way from Castilly, to St. Lo, fighting their way through the storied Siegfried Line, then crossing the Meuse River in Holland. However, by mid-December, the slog to Germany came to a sudden halt with an unexpected push-back in the Ardennes Forest, later called “The Battle of the Bulge.” During the darkest days of this German counter offensive, Joe and his buddies switched to defensive warfare, retreating back into Belgium.

My grandfather’s utter surprise at this sudden German attack is evidenced by an optimistic Christmas card he mailed to my mother’s elementary school in early December, 1944.

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On guard duty at the worst of the Bulge, his Sergeant voiced concern that my grandfather might have fallen asleep at his post. “Go check on Tucker, make sure he’s awake,” the Sarge ordered one of Joe’s squad members. But the fellow soldier came to his friend’s defense. “Sir, you can bet Tucker’s eyes are open.” And they were, Joe heard the whole exchange from his guard post.

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Joe Tucker, second from left.

When Hitler’s last gamble failed in early 1945, the XIX Corps turned toward the east, battling their way into the Rhineland. Near Katzenfurt, Germany, an exhausted Joe Tucker, stumbled across an abandoned American tank left by a roadside. Weary, he crawled inside the hatch, falling asleep almost at once. Waking hours later, uncertain of where he was, or the time, Joe bolted awake to the sound of men shouting. He realized at once that the language was German, and that some kind of patrol was approaching his armored sanctuary. Alert, Joe sat up and seized the 50 calibre machine gun mounted on the tank. He opened up on the German patrol, saving his, and probably other American lives. For this action, Tucker was awarded the Bronze Star.

German resistance began to noticeably give way the deeper into Germany the XIX Corps moved. Reaching the Elbe River, in Southern Germany, the Army encountered the Red Army for the first time. When the German surrender came, and the war officially ended,  Joe Tucker received his orders to head home. Finally back in Spokane by September, 1945, Sergeant Joseph Tucker was formally discharged the next month. His wife, Velma finally switched off that kitchen radio. Her Joe had come home.

Once again, my grandfather resumed his job as a switchman at the Great Northern Railroad. And despite his earlier reluctance to activate in 1942, Joe Tucker volunteered for duty with the Washington National Guard.

In the years following the war, Grandpa became an active member of the Spokane Democratic Party. With deep Arkansas roots, Joe carried his New Deal sensibilities to Eastern Washington politics. His tireless work canvassing neighborhoods for local, state, and national candidates eventually earned notice across the Cascades, in Olympia, and from gubernatorial candidate Albert Rosellini in Seattle.

By the late 1950’s, Joe Tucker’s modest home on Boone Avenue became the center of vital party planning. Velma mentioned that on one occasion Governor Rosellini, Senators Henry Jackson, and Warren Magnusson all sat among her quilts and afghans consulting with my grandfather for major strategic planning. Joe was a valuable asset, working city precincts with the same determination that he marched from Normandy to Germany. And the party counted him a senior operative.

All Joe wanted was a level playing field–that those with power and money would have to follow the rules everyone else did. The powerful could not exploit those who lacked position and privilege. He saw firsthand the power that every day American’s brought to enormous obstacles–he fought with them in Europe. Joe believed that the rest of us were as worthy as the richest people in the country. His wartime experiences exposed the cost of tyranny, and the absence of democracy.

You see, Joe Tucker was a foot soldier, nothing more, nothing less. In war, he committed himself to serve his country–an enlisted guy who lugged a rifle for the rest of us. In peace he poured that same devotion to his family, his job, and his wider community. There was work to do for America in both scenarios, and my grandfather never shirked away from doing his bit.

Have a safe and thoughtful Memorial Day.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mixed Emotions

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It’s been uncomfortable to watch the media coverage from Louisiana about the removal of General Robert E Lee’s statue in New Orleans. As a life-long student of the Civil War the idea of removing reminders of our nation’s past somehow feels misguided. At the same time, with a strong background in African American history, I fully grasp the righteous indignation of having to see that relic in the middle of my city. Robert E. Lee’s prominence as the Confederate commander, and the South’s aim to make war rather than risk Yankee abolitionism places the General right in the crosshairs of modern sensibilities. Still, appropriating the past to wage modern political warfare feels equally amiss.

Robert Edward Lee was a consummate gentlemen, a Virginia Cavalier of the highest dignity. So reserved and deliberate in his life and career, that he was one of a very few who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Married to a descendent of Martha Washington, Mary Custis, Lee had American royalty added to his already esteemed pedigree. (The Lee-Custis Mansion, “Arlington House” is situated at the top of Arlington National Cemetery. And yes, this General was a slave holder, however he appears to have found the institution distasteful). When hostilities opened in April of 1861, the War Department tapped Lee first to lead Union forces, so prized were his qualities. But the General declined, stating he could never fire a gun in anger against his fellow countryman, meaning Virginians.

On the battlefield Lee was tough to whip. But he also wasn’t perfect, despite his men seeing him so. Eventually, after four years of fighting, running out of men and supplies, facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate General surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Meeting Lee for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck in the company of the celebrated General, blurting something about seeing Lee once in the Mexican War, years earlier.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged cries to arrest and jail Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve. And that’s in the hysterical aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s death. Robert E Lee remained a free man, taking an administrative position at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. It was in Lexington that the General died and is buried.

Lee consciously moved on after the Civil War. He performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what little I have learned regarding General Lee, he would have no problem with the removal of a statue he never wanted.

Moreover, I don’t believe he would have any patience with the vulgar extremists politicizing his name and reputation.

This controversy isn’t about Robert E Lee. It’s about America in 2017.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available on Amazon.

Strike Up the Band-a few more hours!

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River of January‘s Free Kindle Weekend!

Enjoy a read on the house compliments of Kindle. Available from Saturday morning through Monday night.

When you’re done tell a friend, and say something nice on Amazon Reviews!

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January. Also available on Kindle.

That’s All

Worth a second look.

Gail Chumbley

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Colonel Clark used to bring his son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had registered my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers enrolled when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white uniforms.) Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be seated in the chairs around the mats. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too–not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though they kept their eyes on their boys competing out on the mats. They never seemed to look each other in the eye, but still seemed caught…

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The Long Weekend

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A former student posted pictures yesterday of a cadet event at West Point. In a formal ceremony he and his classmates were presented with gold class rings in what looked like an annual military tradition. According to the post these rings were made from gold melted down from deceased former cadets, and shavings from the remains of the Twin Towers. A moving and inspiring affair for sure.

Parades on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, The Fourth of July, festooned with waving flags, highlight the modern veneration Americans feel for their warriors, past and present. But this honor and respect wasn’t always held for our fighting forces. In fact from the close of World War One in 1918 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Americans across the country roundly rejected and criticized anything to do with the armed forces.

As I go about the Northwest, speaking on “River of January,” folks are consistently surprised with the contempt the public held for soldiers and sailors in the book’s setting. The central figure in the memoir, Mont Chumbley shared with me before his death that at the time he enlisted in Norfolk Virginia, signs appeared in city parks warning, “dogs and sailors keep off the grass.” And it is that quote that draws stunned reactions from listeners.

The killing fields of World War One dragged on for three bloody years until America joined on the side of the Allies. Woodrow Wilson, the sitting President betrayed his earlier campaign promise of, “He kept us out of the war,” quickly changing his mind about Europe. He ultimately asked Congress for a declaration of war in April, 1917 to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” This idealist Chief Executive sent American boys across the Atlantic to remake the world in the image of America’s republican system.

American soldiers, “doughboys,” weren’t in any way ready to deploy, quickly activated and barely trained. Still the recruits and draftees were promptly loaded onto troop ships landing in time to stave off a final German offensive. Gung ho and naïve, US forces made the difference almost at once, charging enemy trenches in blind innocence, with a faith in their youthful invincibility. The exhausted, war-weary combatants, particularly the German “Huns,” soon collapsed, requesting an armistice in November of 1918, ending hostilities.

World War One had unleashed unthinkable horrors in tactics and weaponry. Foul sewage-filled trenches, poison gas, machine guns, aerial bombing, torpedo launching u-boats, tanks, barbed wire, and “no man’s land,” sickened the American people. An outraged sense of being duped into war by big business and self-serving politicians became universal.
Beleaguered President Wilson attempted to salvage purpose from the unspeakable carnage with his “Fourteen Point” peace plan, including his “League of Nations,” a forerunner to the United Nations. Citizens universally rejected Wilson’s efforts to remake a peaceful world. In fact, Americans rejected any form of internationalism whatsoever. War was pointless, and the nation resolved to never venture abroad again, period.

An attitude of isolation gelled and hardened into popular opinion for years to come. Any boy who joined the service was considered a no account scoundrel with no ambition, or self respect. It was in this hostile atmosphere Mont Chumbley bucked popular opinion choosing to join the Navy and ultimately fly airplanes.

It came as no surprise that his family vehemently opposed his enlistment plans. The entire clan closed ranks, certain the family name and reputation was at stake, and the boy could not be permitted to sully the rest of them. And that is only a single anecdote of one family in a nation appalled by anything military.

All three branches faced draconian budget cuts in the 1920’s, with more slashed during the Great Depression. Military leaders hustled to find ways to justify their shrinking budgets before Congress. Military planners were met with answers such as that concluded by Congressman Gerald Nye. Results of Representative Nye’s study determined the US only entered the World War to enrich munitions manufacturers and bankers. The Navy had already taken an earlier hit when a moratorium was placed on building any new battleships. America didn’t need them anymore, the country would never go to war ever again.

And that attitude persisted from 1919 to 1939 until Hitler’s blitzkrieg shattered the peace. But even then the US did not involved itself, even as England stood alone before the Nazi onslaught. Instead Congress passed Neutrality Acts tying the President’s hands to help the English. American entry into that war didn’t occur until the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor two years later, in December of 1941.

The “Long Weekend” starved America’s military for twenty years. That Mont Chumbley managed to join at all, and managed to fly the few aircraft the Navy possessed is nothing less than a miracle. That farm boy from Virginia overcame immense barriers; stiff family opposition, social ridicule, and crossing an immense chasm to become a Navy pilot.

But he did.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir River of January