The Legacy of the USS Indianapolis

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1937.

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35) on station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1937.

The USS Indianapolis (CA-35), was sunk on this day sixty-nine years ago. As a former sailor myself, just thinking about what the Indy’s crew went through in the coming days after having their ship sunk from underneath them, still gives me shivers.

Also, I have never understood how the Navy held Captain McVay responsible for the loss of his ship and the majority of his crew due to enemy action. “He didn’t zigzag enough or at all,” is such a horrible and almost laughable charge, if it wasn’t so tragic in the end for McVay, who blamed himself for the tragedy for rest of his life. The article by Captain (retired) William J. Toti, does a great job explaining why McVay was court-martialed and why the entire debacle was unfair. The surviving crew of the Indy sought justice for their captain for years, whose earthly torment only ended with his suicide in 1966.

Captain Charles McVay

Captain Charles McVay

Legacy of the USS Indianapolis

Survivors from the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), onboard the USS Bassett (APD-73) after being rescued.

Survivors from the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), onboard the USS Bassett (APD-73) after being rescued.

The Bocage Myth: Allied Planners Did Not Leave Out the Norman Hedgerows in Planning D-Day

Last week I received a phone call at work from FOX News in Washington D. C. They wanted to send a crew up here to look at the items we hold concerning the D-Day landings that occurred on June 6, 1944. That very same day, a box of items was found in our classification vault. The box was from the Arthur S. Nevins Collection. Nevins was Eisenhower’s assistant in the War Plans Division, on the Army’s General Staff, and a close friend of the Supreme Commander. The documents within the box include a document from June 5, 1944, seventy years ago today, detailing how the Allied Commanders met in the early hours of the morning to discuss Operation OVERLORD. This was one meeting in a long series regarding the execution of the invasion of Normandy, and featured great concern over “chancey” weather conditions. The document pictured here are pages 1 and 2 of the original copy of the memorandum of record detailing the final Commanders’ Meetings, which occurred on June 4, 1944, at 9:30 PM, and again on June 5, 1944, at 4:15am.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

For decades now it has been almost taken as gospel that Ike and the rest of the Allied planners completely failed in even noticing the bocage, the notorious Norman hedgerows that held up the US Army inland during the Normandy campaign. The bocage slowed the Allied assault down for the rest of June and the better part of July, until Bradley’s Operation COBRA began a breakout of that bitterly contested French countryside towards the end of July 1944. COBRA was a success, but many Americans had died fighting in the small country lanes of Normandy. Immediately and now for decades afterward, the blame was laid at the feet of men like Eisenhower, Bradley, and their staffs.

Interestingly, also within Nevins’ collection is a photo, map, and some documents pertaining to the bocage:

A map showing the locations of the bocage countryside.  From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

A map showing the locations of the bocage countryside. From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

An aerial photograph from the Nevins Collection, showing just some of the hundreds of hedgerows the Americans had to contend with in June-July 1944. Photo by Guy Nasuti

An aerial photograph from the Nevins Collection, showing just some of the hundreds of hedgerows the Americans had to contend with in June-July 1944.

Included within that same folder is a typed report on the forests and bocage. I’m including a photo of the document (as well as a close-up of the same page) which discusses the bocage and how they may or may not be useful to the men that had to do the fighting in the fierce French foliage. In my estimation, the planners did not leave out the bocage, but perhaps in typical military thinking, just figured they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. England also has hedgerows, although they are quite different from the ones in France. The English hedgerows were typically smaller and not as thick as the French bocage. American troops had conducted training in these smaller English hedgerows, but it took good ‘ol American ingenuity to cut through the denser ones in France as the GIs also had to learn how to launch attacks against Germans making good use of the bocage.

I have not come across any evidence showing the Allies totally ignored the bocage, so where did this long-held belief of negligent military intelligence come from (other than the oft-mocked oxymoron “military intelligence” itself)? Surely Allied operatives and French Resistance members on the scene relayed information on Normandy’s terrain back to England before the invasion. Was it then just a fundamental misunderstanding on how large these formations could be? Some confusion is obvious from a statement within the report itself, and I quote: “It is difficult to judge whether such terrain favors defending or attacking infantry.” So in some ways, perhaps, the Allies did not know what the French bocage was all about. But to state they missed it or ignored it is completely false. In any case, the Germans once again made great and strong defenses from the hedgerows, as they had the bombed-out abbey at Monte Cassino, and as they would again later in the Hurtgen Forest, making the Allies pay dearly in blood for every square-inch of ground gained during the war.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

And a close-up of the same document:

Close-up of the document detailing the bocage in the French countryside of Normandy.  Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

Close-up of the document detailing the bocage in the French countryside of Normandy. Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

The Dead and Those About to Die

dead and those about to die

Before everyone begins moaning about a new book focusing on not just the Normandy invasion, but also the American task of invading and securing Omaha Beach, Dr. John McManus has been researching D-Day and the 1st Infantry Division for years. A full professor of U. S. military history at Missouri University of Science and Technology, his latest book The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach, is out in book stores now. This coming Monday, May 5th, he will be discussing and signing the book at the National Press Club in Washington, D. C. This is McManus’ 11th book, and I’ve read probably 8 or 9 of them and have yet to be disappointed. From what I’ve seen so far, the reviews on this one are very good. Plus, with the 70th anniversary of D-Day a little more than a month away, McManus’ new book is very timely.

I will post a review of the book once I have read it. I’m about to deliver my Final Exam in the Civil War course I am teaching this semester, so once that is through, I’m hoping to have a little more free time for reading. If you’ve read it already, shoot me a comment or email and let me know what you thought!

GIs of the 1st Infantry Division "Big Red One," leave port at Weymouth, England, for the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944.  Photo by Robert Capa

GIs of the 1st Infantry Division “Big Red One,” leave port at Weymouth, England, for the invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944. Photo by Robert Capa

On the Passing of “Wild Bill” Guarnere

William "Wild Bill" Guarnere

William “Wild Bill” Guarnere

I once had the opportunity to meet William “Wild Bill” Guarnere a couple of years ago, as I acquired a ticket to the memorial service for his former Commanding Officer, Major Richard Winters, when the good Major passed in January 2011. I acquired the ticket through the former director of the US Army Heritage and Education Center, Colonel Mark Viney. At the last minute, I had a personal family matter come up that I had to attend too, and so I passed the ticket on to my father, a big fan of Major Winters’ leadership skills, fighting abilities, and moral compass. I think my dad, a former Navy signalman, enjoyed hanging out with a bunch of old Army paratroopers, and he wanted to pay his respects to Winters.

As expected, my father regaled me with tales of the memorial service, including meeting and shaking hands with Tom Hanks, one of the most beloved and acclaimed actors in the world, and also the producer of the ‘Band of Brothers’ HBO miniseries with Steven Spielberg. He then handed me an item with an autograph that immediately stood out to me. It was the memorial program with a photo of Major Winters on the front. On the back of the program, I was immediately excited to see the signature “Wild Bill” Guarnere. William “Wild Bill” Guarnare gained a fierce reputation for being a fast-talking, Philly-tough hellion. He was also a well-respected non-commissioned officer and hero, earning a Silver Star for losing a leg while rescuing his good friend Joe Toye, badly wounded and having also lost a leg during an artillery attack in Bastogne. I couldn’t stop looking at the signature on the program. Hell, even Guarnere’s handwriting looked tough! But having an autograph from Wild Bill still means more to me than having it signed by Hanks himself. And fortunately my dad sensed that; he shook Hanks’ hand and moved right on over to talk to Guarnere, who he said was still sharp and still had that Philly swagger. He shook Wild Bill’s hand also, but then persisted in getting an autograph, as well as giving the old paratrooper a hearty “Thank you” as well. He sensed that despite all the attention he has received since ‘Band of Brothers’ came out, Guarnere was still a really humble, down-to-earth man.

Wild Bill passed away this past Saturday at the age of 90. From South Philly, the tough-talkin’ Guarnere earned his nickname for his ferocity in battle, and special hatred for the Germans, after losing his older brother Henry near Monte Cassino during the war. He tried to kill as many as he could and during the 101st Airborne’s drop into Normandy during the D-Day invasion, and could “not wait” to get out of the plane to get after them.

I’m only sorry that I never got to meet Wild Bill to shake his hand and thank him myself. But that program was long ago framed, and has a special place of honor in my Man Cave at home.

So thank you for all you did Mr. Guarnere. Thanks for putting your life on the line when you were just a kid and helping America and the world take its freedom back. Thanks for all you did for our veterans and for new generations of Americans that maybe did not understand the war, or became interested in it because of guys like you and Major Winters.

Rest easy Wild Bill. “Currahee!”

A Real Life Case of Saving Private Ryan

Four of the five Smith brothers, killed in action during World War I.

Four of the five Smith brothers, killed in action during World War I.

While the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is often thought to be loosely based on the true-life story of the four Niland brothers with the US Army, there was a British mother during World War I that suffered the unthinkable-the loss of five of her six sons to war. It took the efforts of relatives and the Queen of England, to have the surviving son sent home from the front.

Real Life Saving Private Ryan Story

The Village of Marwencol

Marwencol

So yesterday I posted saying how much I want to see the Monuments Men movie. And while I still do, I went looking up various war movies online, and stumbled across a movie that looks extremely interesting that I thought didn’t have much to do with war….at first.

Marwencol Movie Poster

Photographer Mark Hogancamp in his village Marwencol.

Photographer Mark Hogancamp in his village Marwencol.

There is a documentary titled ‘Marwencol,’ and it is the story of a man named Mark Hogancamp. In April 2000, Hogancamp was beaten outside of a bar and spent nine days in a coma. He suffered brain damage and an almost crushing, paralyzing anxiety after his attack. Unable to afford therapy, he began to build a 1/6-scale model Belgian village set in World War II in his yard. Acquiring several dolls, models, and other props, he began to paint them and set them up in various scenarios which didn’t have much to do with the actual war as they did with what was going on in his head. The dolls represent himself, family members, friends, and even his attackers, and he poses them to tell stories or act out various battle scenes. Usually, the various stories combine to make up a much larger narrative in which the townspeople, with help from the Allies, turn on their German overlords. Hogancamp also photographs these scenes, intentionally or unintentionally creating art. While some people will simply scoff and say the man is doing nothing more than playing with dolls, it’s important to note that Hogancamp remembers little of his life before he was beaten into a coma. The poignant scenes of death and the trauma of war shown in his photographs are countered by those of romance, love, and heroism, and perhaps in acting the scenes out, he is trying to make a connection to the life he lost and can no longer recall. Hogancamp’s fantasy-take on the war become his means of therapy, and it is only after his photos had been published in a magazine, and then displayed in a New York art gallery, that the real world he had been avoiding begins to intrude upon his less painful and fantastical existence.

Saving the Major by Mark Hogancamp

Saving the Major by Mark Hogancamp

I’m not by any means an expert on art, but I do believe the creation of something tangible is a great thing for both mind and soul. I’ve met several veterans of various wars that have tried their hand at creating art, whether it’s a photograph, a painting, poem, or memoir. And here is where Hogancamp’s connection to war and war veterans seems so pertinent. The continuing study of PTSD, the silent tormenter of so many of our nations veterans, has included various therapies that have been tried to reduce the psychological pain of the sufferer. Of course veterans are not the only ones to suffer from PTSD, as sex-assault victims and physically-assaulted victims can attest. PTSD has become marginally better understood just in the last decade with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several veterans throughout history have attempted their own brand of therapy by making art. However, art therapy isn’t only restricted to war veterans, but anyone that has suffered a physical or psychological wound. Of course the results of art therapy will differ from person-to-person, but the attempt in exploring one’s emotions and memories, whether repressed, or as in Hogancamp’s case, completely obliterated, is worth the challenge.

Various photos of Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp

Various photos of Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp

marencol2

marencol4

For anyone interested, here is a link to the webpage about the Documentary: Marwencol

wla

War, Literature, & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities is an excellent journal with various artwork, photographs, short stories, and poems, many written by former combat and military veterans. It began in 1989 and is based at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. For their main webpage, visit:

War, Literature, and the Arts Journal

Or find them on Facebook:

War, Literature, and the Arts Facebook page

Monuments Men

Second Lt. James J. Rorimer, second from left, supervising the recovery of paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle.  NARA Photo

Second Lt. James J. Rorimer, second from left, supervising the recovery of paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle. NARA Photo

I still have yet to read the book, but I’m really looking forward to the Monuments Men movie. It opens on February 7th, so still a little while to go. A description from the website: Monuments Men

WHO WERE THE MONUMENTS MEN?

​The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Most had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.

These men not only had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, but then joined the front lines to do something about it.