Much to Celebrate and Mourn

The following is an excerpt from River of January: Figure Eight

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For three anxious days reports trickled in from the Pacific, dispatches that were spotty, vague, and inconclusive. When details emerged of this first-ever clash in the sky, the United States Navy found much to celebrate and, tragically, as much to mourn.

The particulars surfaced days after the attack, presenting a clearer picture of the Battle of Midway. At a morning briefing, base personnel learned firsthand the events surrounding this aerial showdown. “The Imperial Japanese Navy,” began an officer Chum recognized as Lieutenant Commander Kirby, “in an attempt to eliminate US forces on Midway Island, launched multiple airborne assaults. The number of enemy aircraft carriers present in the attack has convinced the Department of War that the Japanese military intended to occupy the island in order to menace US installations farther west in Hawaii.” Kirby paused, somberly measuring his words. “The Empire of Japan has utterly failed in their effort.” The lieutenant commander smiled faintly. “Of the six Japanese carriers under Admiral Yamamoto’s command, four now sit at the bottom of the central Pacific.” 

For a moment, the gathering seemed to hold its collective breath, pondering the lieutenant commander’s words. When the full significance sank in, the men jumped to life, roaring in satisfied approval. After the shouting and fraternal backslapping, the crowd finally stood together in a rousing standing ovation. 

Kirby couldn’t help but grin at the enthusiastic response, but quickly quelled the celebration with a brief “As you were.” When everyone was seated again, he continued. “Ahem. Yes, this is good news, good news.” Glancing down at his notes and taking a deep breath, he said, “Gentlemen, this great triumph has come at a grim price for the navy. Fellas, we have lost the USS Yorktown. An enemy sub took the old girl down. She was too disabled from the Coral Sea campaign to maneuver away. Our losses so far are sobering—over three hundred casualties at latest count.” 

Kirby’s eyes scanned the crowd. “Among the dead, five squadrons of Devastator torpedo bombers from both the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet. These bombers were utterly blown from the sky while executing attacks on Japanese vessels. The Department of the Navy verified the few who survived the shelling were slaughtered in the water by the enemy rather than rescued. Initial reports from Honolulu indicate that Wildcat fighters, assigned to protect these torpedo bombers, lost all contact, leaving the Devastators hopelessly exposed to Japanese ordnance. Boys, we lost them all, all of our torpedo bombers and pilots—but one, a pilot from Texas.” 

The room fell silent, as if there had been no good news at all, no victory in the Pacific. Kirby concluded the briefing with, “Their brave sacrifice made it possible for the rest to find and sink those Japanese carriers.”

Seated among his fellow pilots, Chum shook his head sadly, reminded of a conversation nearly fifteen years before, when he was just a boy—a Seaman, First Class. After a morning of training—of war games—he and a buddy were perched on stools at the base canteen in Panama. Flying his torpedo bomber yards from service vessels had left him unsettled, and he said to his friend, “We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”

“A suicide mission,” he repeated, in a hopeless whisper, coming out of his reverie.

“Permission to speak, sir,” came a voice from the rear of the hall.

Kirby responded, “Permission granted.”

“How does a sailor go about transferring to the Pacific, sir? With all due respect to our mission here in New York, I want to whip those Japs bad.” Murmurs of agreement swept across the room.

“Fill out the proper paperwork, son.” The lieutenant commander sounded weary. “Complete with your commanding officer’s signature.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Available at http://www.river-of-january.com or at Amazon.com

That’s All

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Colonel Clark used to bring his young son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had enrolled my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers 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 gear).

My Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be present. 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 their eyes remained on their boys training on the mats. They never seemed to look each other, but still seemed absorbed in their conversation.

My own attention span, something close to that of a hummingbird, only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by my Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous had happened in the back and forth of these two old men.

My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I unwillingly witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on the Bataan Peninsula when General Douglas MacArthur was evacuated from the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to Japanese occupiers, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle. The men suffered from heat exhaustion, and dehydration, staggering on, hat-less and barefoot. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading.

Colonel Clark had witnessed this nightmarish brutality, forced to suffer in ways words fail to recreate.

In defiance of considerable odds, Colonel Clark survived his ordeal. And that was the ordinary older man who spoke quietly with my Grandfather, watching a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.

I am a much better listener today, and recognize that valiant warriors everywhere are frequently disguised as harmless old men. Listening to these elderly gents has enriched my understanding of the past far more than I thought possible.

For example there was George, the high school janitor. For many years he pushed a mop down the halls where I taught American history. Sporting two hearing aids, this diminutive man wielded a mop that was wider that he was tall. All told, George looked like a gentle and harmless grandfather.

I’d often find George standing outside my classroom door listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I discovered that that mild mannered 80-year-old had once packed a M-1 Garand, shivering aboard one of those Higgins boats motoring toward Omaha Beach in 1944.

“So George, what do you remember most about D-Day?”

“It was awful early, and the water was awful cold.”

Then there was Roy. Smiling, white-haired Roy.

As a teenager he had gone straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps right into the US Army.

“What do you remember most about D-Day, Roy?”

“I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Later I was regrouped with survivors from other platoons. You see that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with the new bunch. For days, as we moved inland, these new boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger.” Roy begins laughing.

“I missed the branch, the birds flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.”

Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply chuckled.

Colonel Clark, George, and Roy. They were just boys who found their lives defined in ways we civilians can never comprehend. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and hungry, and suffering, and ultimately lucky. They returned home.

That’s All.

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

Go Get ‘Um

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The date was June 5, 1944, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had made the decision to begin the Allied invasion of France the next morning. Christened “Operation Overlord” the massive campaign required disruption inland from the Normandy coast to insure a solid beach-head. The task fell to soldiers of the US 82nd Airborne, the US 101st Airborne,  and members of the 6th British Airborne. The mission was to impair the Wehrmacht’s ability to move their Panzer units toward the five invasion points.

General Eisenhower met informally with soldiers of the 101st, chatting and encouraging, to build morale. He must have felt an enormous responsibility sending these young Americans on such a hazardous and vital mission. While he mingled with the men, Ike suddenly wondered, “Is anybody here from Kansas?” A voice replied from the crowd, “I’m from Kansas, sir.” Ike looked the boy in the eye and responded, “Go get ‘um, Kansas.”

That story always leaves me teary. I don’t cry in movies, poetry doesn’t move me, and books have to be awfully emotional to elicit a sob out of me. But that moment of raw, honest regard, with so much at stake, hits me in the heart.

Washington at Trenton, Grant at the Wilderness, Doughboys in the Argonne, GI’s at the Bulge, Marines at Hue: the devotion to duty chokes me up. Every time.

But today Americans seem somehow lessened, cheapened. There are no Eisenhowers, or Washingtons, or Lincoln’s to describe what we represent. The institutions that inspired countless young people to lay down their lives are now attacked by an ersatz strongman from within. How could this happen? How can citizens of good conscience condone this very real threat? Where is our collective honest regard for our past, present , and future?

Makes me want to cry.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Amazon.com

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 order. 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 stature 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 army’s adoration. Eventually, after four years of bloody fighting, low on fighting men and supplies–facing insurmountable odds against General Grant, the Confederate Commander surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.

Meeting Lee face-to-face for the first time to negotiate surrender terms, Ulysses Grant became a little star-struck himself in the presence of the General, blurting out something about seeing Lee once during the Mexican War.

In a letter to his surrendering troops Lee instructed, By the terms of the agreement Officers and men can return to their homes. . .

But Robert E. Lee’s story doesn’t end there.

Despite outraged Northern cries to arrest and jail all Confederate leaders, no one had the nerve to apprehend Lee. And that’s saying a lot considering the hysteria following Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s Southern roots. The former general 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 in 1870, and was  buried.

Lee led by example, consciously moving on with his life after the surrender at Appomattox. He had performed his duty, as he saw it, and when it was no longer feasible, acquiesced. He was a man of honor. And from what 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 usurping his name and reputation for their hateful agenda.

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.