Memorial Day Reading

Builders,

On this Memorial day,  most Americans will limit their consideration to looking at a few bumper sticker length slogans photo shopped onto pictures of tombstones, and perhaps a cursory glance at a well-meaning, but highly suspect, moving WWII story with a simple uplifting moral that could have been a John Wayne movie. For those that feel the day would be better spent with more depth, a few suggestions;

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“The Two Thousand Yard Stare” Thomas Lea, 1944, subject is Marine on Peleliu

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Last month I read E.B. Sledge’s memoir “With the old Breed”

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/With_the_Old_Breed)

An unflinching account of how a human being goes from a normal American life in Mobile Alabama and is transformed into a Marine who fights on Peleliu and Okinawa. Americans suffered 10,000 casualties on Peleliu; The Japanese had nearly 11,000 men on the island. Only 1/5th of one percent of them lived.  For all the savagery, it is a name unknown to 98% of Americans.  The fighting gave birth to the painting above. After rendering it, the artist Tom Lea wrote these comments:

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“Last evening he came down from the hills. Told to get some sleep, he found a shell hole and slumped into it. He’s awake now. First light has given his gray face eerie color. He left the States thirty-one months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. There is no food or water in the hills except what you carry. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded but he is still standing. So he will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?”

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Right now I am reading a little know work, by a well-known author, James Jones. He is best known for two other books, “From here to eternity”  and “The thin red line.”  Jones was in the Army before WWII started, and was present at the attack on Pearl Harbor. Le later fought at Guadalcanal. The book I am reading is “WWII” which is a look at the art from WWII, including the painting above. Very rarely is the commentary on art valid, or from a man who knew the subject matter so well. Jones is raw, and at time obscene, but he is widely thought of as brutally honest. Consider how different the films made from his books are from the simple and uplifting stories spoon fed to us by John Wayne. You can learn a lot from Jones: He points out that the Thousand yard stare is not to be confused with Shell shock: A man with the stare still has the agility of a cat, and still is an effective fighter, which means he is not pulled out of the line.

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Vietnam infantry man Tim O’Brien wrote this in his book “The things they carried”:

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“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. ”

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A month ago I found an old copy of the companion printed work for the film  Victory at Sea, and mailed it to my father. It is largely a photographic work, with very little type. What is there is sparse and harsh commentary. My mother said my father spent many quiet hours looking at it.

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 In the middle of the book are two photos of the aftermath of D-Day, the first showing the faceless bodies of Germans sprawled in the sand, the second, a similar image of allied dead.  On initial glance, it is hard to distinguish. At the bottom, a small caption on the German photo stated “Some died to enslave the world” and on the allied photo is said “Others died to free it.”

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An important distinction between the US and Allies and the Germans and Japanese that is often left out of popular culture it that the Germans and the Japanese had a full generation to develop an absolute blind and unquestioning  allegiance to militarism, as obedient and fatalistic as any cult.

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This is very different from the admiration and respect we have for our military, yet you will find endless novels and films, particularly about the conduct of German officers (frequently aviators) trying to paint them as no different from our Fathers. 50% of my DNA lived in Germany 150 years ago, I have met, in person, Gunter Rall and I know large number of Germans, and it is a misguided fallacy to  suggest that their WWII officer corps was identical in morals to ours. About a week ago, a man born in Germany after WWII told me that “All nations are the same, the US was no better nor different from the Germans were”.  I politely told him that I disagreed, because my Father was an enlisted man in WWII, and neither he nor anyone he knew, put human beings in gas chambers.  I told him I didn’t believe that 9 million humans were exterminated without the assistance of any willing German fathers. The US does not generate, follow and protect life forms like Franz Stangl, but his country did, and he is not entitled to unilaterally elevate the men who did to the same moral level as those that liberated Bergen-Belsen.

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It is reading, not Hollywood films and bumper sticker quotes that protect us from revisionist propaganda. I am ashamed to say that one of the single most impressive jobs of cleansing history was done by our own government. Anyone who wishes to read a little, can examine the case of Wernher von Braun. In popular culture, he is the hapless German scientist who just tries to survive WWII, and then is relieved to come to the US where he can work for peaceful space flight. It is a pleasant myth.

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Von Braun could have left Europe just like all the Germans, Austrians, Italian  and Hungarians who worked on the Manhattan project did. Instead he stayed, became a Major in the SS, Worked directly for Himmler, and developed the ballistic V-2s that took thousands of lives, both in their attacks and in their construction by slave labor. Yet, for several decades he was portrayed by elements within the US government as a pleasant man of science. If you actually read in-depth, he is reveled as a willing Nazi, glad to do anything that advanced his research. In his own words:

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“Thus, my refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activity.”

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Today we kill people who are just thinking of developing weapons of mass destruction. Von Braun is the granddaddy of them all,  and yet we not only put him on the covers of magazines, we taught our kids he was a great and admirable human being. The fact that many Americans accorded him the same respect as another European who was an actual scientist gravely concerned with his role in balancing peace with contributing to weapons, Albert Einstein, is a good demonstration of what happens when people don’t read enough and just believe simple tales they are told.

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Von Braun was not the only occasion were our government decided to relieve responsibility for crimes in WWII, supposedly to benefit the post war world. Consider this excerpt from the biography of Hirohito:

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 “MacArthur’s highest subordinates were working to attribute ultimate responsibility for Pearl Harbor to Hideki Tōjō by allowing “the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the Emperor would be spared from indictment.” According to John W. Dower, “This successful campaign to absolve the Emperor of war responsibility knew no bounds. Hirohito was not merely presented as being innocent of any formal acts that might make him culpable to indictment as a war criminal, he was turned into an almost saintly figure who did not even bear moral responsibility for the war.”According to Bix, “MacArthur’s truly extraordinary measures to save Hirohito from trial as a war criminal had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war.”

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In you care to read about it, The Emperor of Japan was a tough sell as a saint. He had personally ordered the use of poison gas against civilians in China 375 times. Sadam Hussein was hung for less. I believe that it was disrespectful to the 405,000 Americans killed in WWII to be less than honest regarding the actual roles played by men like Hirohito and Braun.

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If you have never seen it before, take a moment to read Major Michael Davis O’Donnell’s poem, he wrote in Dak To, Vietnam, in January 1970:

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If you are able,

save them a place inside of you

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and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.

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Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always.

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Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own.

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And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane,

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take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.

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Major Michael Davis O’Donnell was an aviator, killed in action 3/24/1970. His name on Panel 12W, Row 40 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, ‘The Wall,’ stood for 19 years before his remains were recovered, 31 years after he was killed. He was laid to rest on the other bank of the Potomac,  in Arlington in 2001. As long as people are willing to take the time to read what he wrote and consider it, his life will still have meaning.

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About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

3 Responses to Memorial Day Reading

  1. joe says:

    I was drafted for two years in 1964. Started basic training March 1964. In the middle of basic I was offered fixed wing and helicopter school. I was very excited, but when they told me I had to reenlist for 4 years, and they would not take three. I decided to just do my two. When six weeks of basic ended two of the drill instructors where being sent to a place called Viet Nam. Never heard of it. By late1965 my battalion (armored infantry Fort Hood) was reduced from 420 to 135. All our officers from 1st lieutenant up were from supply or such, except for the Colonel. It amazed me how many civilians thought I was stupid for not taking flight training even after I told them I would have gone to Viet Nam where twenty% of army pilots died. They still thought flying was so cool I should have gone.

    When I visited THE WALL I looked for my name. It was a strange feeling I don’t bother to analyze it.

  2. Bruce Culver says:

    There is nothing redeeming about war – it usually brutalizes all who participate, and removes the vestiges of civilization we think are necessary for normal life. This allows the combatants to deal with the inevitable unplanned and planned atrocities that are part of any conflict. One of my favorite stories from WW2 is Ernie Pyle’s “Death of Captain Henry Waskow”, written during the Italian campaign, a bit of humanity and loss in the midst of the most terrible war in history.

  3. Harold Bickford says:

    While Vietnam was the subject of the day I went to a place called Berlin, the divided city. Five years later when I came back for reassignment there were those who said that what I saw was not what I saw. Needless to say they were neither impressive nor amusing.

    Harold

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