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.

Pinups of World War II

Actress Gene Tierney as seen in Yank Magazine

Actress Gene Tierney as seen in Yank Magazine

Having been a military photographer, photo researcher and editor, and just an overall fan of photography for several years now, I am researching and collecting photographs and art for what I hope will result in a new book about pinups in World War II.

Pinups have been around since at least the 1920s, but gained fame during World War II, when soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines pinned up photos of scantily clad women to their barracks walls, footlockers, tents, or wherever there was a spot that could hold a photo. Yank, a magazine written by and for the soldiers, included a pinup in each issue, usually of a famous Hollywood starlet. Stars such as Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, and Gene Tierney all graced the pages of Yank, serving cheesecake to the boys that were serving far from home. Some veterans would claim after the war that these women were the very thing they were fighting for, but we also know these women represented the beauty, longing, and hope of home against the ugliness of war.

Actress Anne Baxter Photo by Frank Powolny

Actress Anne Baxter
Photo by Frank Powolny

My personal interest in pinups began many years ago, even before serving in the Navy. While a young sailor, I read many of the men’s magazines of the time, including Maxim, FHM, and the always-popular Playboy. Having had a lifelong interest in World War II aircraft and nose art, I rediscovered the World War II pinups all over again just a few years ago, when I was going through some old periodicals of Yank magazine. I was fairly amazed at the pinups and somewhat surprised that I recognized many of the names of the actresses and models in the photos. I was even more amazed to discover, when first dating my now-wife Kimberley Dawn, that she also has an interest in pinups (and is a huge Betty Boop and Jessica Rabbit fan as well), and since then has done some modeling, including a couple of pinup shoots. She’s the redhead in the photograph I’ve added below. Not too shabby, eh boys?!

My beautiful wife Dawn in a pinup photo from this past summer.  Photo by Swadley Studio

My beautiful wife Dawn in a pinup photo from this past summer.
Photo by Swadley Studio

The legacy of pinups today has branched off into what has become the pornography most men of my generation recognize. When even Playboy seems tame in comparison to what is out there now, I personally still find the photos and artwork of pinups from the 1940s and 50s to be sexier then many of the show-it-all images made today. The thing that made pinups great in my mind is that the women in the photos seemed classy and sophisticated, even approachable. Sure many of them were gorgeous Hollywood actresses and may have seemed unattainable to the average GI, but all the women had an innocence about them that made one believe they could have been from the next town over, or the Prom Queen from your high school, and therefore, willing to talk to a lonely sailor out at sea, or a soldier dug in on the front lines. That’s not to say that other men didn’t think more lascivious thoughts upon gazing at the photos, and this dichotomy is what has made pinups somewhat controversial in this politically-correct day and age. But that is what also makes it art-each individual thinks and feels something differently about the images-which is what good art is supposed to do, and is also exactly the type of individual right our boys were fighting for.

I have to say that I’m pretty excited about this project and hope I can do it justice. If anyone reading this has any photos of dad or grandpa with a pinup, whether it’s tacked on the wall behind them, or on the nose of their airplane, and you’d be willing to share it, please feel free to contact me, as I’d really love to put it in the book.

Pat Clark in Yank Magazine

Pat Clark in Yank Magazine

Global War Studies Conference-1944: Seventy Years On

I wish that I could attend this, but unfortunately I won’t be able to get across the pond anytime soon. This conference will take place at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in April 2014. There should be some very well-known historians and authors present, and I am actually quite upset I won’t be able to attend, especially since I have a standing invitation to receive a tour of RMAS through Dr. Simon Trew. If anyone with an interest in World War II will be over in London this spring, I suggest you take the time to attend the conference. And get some good photos for me!

Here is the registration form:

1944 Conference Registration Information — UPDATED

A True Halloween Ghost Story

Boo!

The Phantom of the Barge

It was around this time of year back in 1999, a somewhat cool autumn day. I was serving in the Navy at Naval Station Norfolk. I served aboard the USS Nassau (LHA-4), an amphibious landing helicopter assault ship or “Gator Freighter,” as it was also known. The ship was undergoing repairs in the shipyard in nearby Portsmouth, and those of us that didn’t live out in town had to stay in a barge, since it was not possible to live onboard the ship in the berthing compartments while repairs were going on. I was new to the Nassau and the Navy in general, and was doing my 90-day tour of “cranking,” or serving on the mess decks, mostly doling out good ‘ol Navy chow or scrubbing pots and pans. Anyways, I had made a good friend in another “boot,” as those of us new to the fleet were called. Josh Jacobs was a Jewish-American city kid from Philly, a good-natured, loud-mouthed funny guy that I liked immediately. We had one of those classic American friendships you see in old war films. To mess with one another, we took shots at each other’s background, and I often called him “Heeb,” or “Jew boy,” and he called me “Wop,” or “Dago.” It wasn’t disrespect for one another’s heritage that led us to do so. It was shared camaraderie, an acknowledgement of the things we had in common, such as the fact that we were both a bit older than most of the crew, and probably a bit more well-educated (both of us having some college under our belts), but stupid enough to voluntarily join the military. Jacobs and I had the same taste in music, movies, and both liked hockey (he being a Flyers fan, and I being a Red Wings fan) and history, especially anything about World War II. It was our shared interest of history that forms the basis of this story.

Living aboard a barge can be lonely and boring. Those of us that read books read a lot. Josh was telling me about a book he was reading called The Spear of Destiny, and asked if I wanted to take a look at it. Not having anything else at the time to read, I said I’d check it out. The book was about Hitler and the Nazis and their quest for finding occultist and religious-type artifacts to help in their bid for power over the rest of the world. For those not overly-religious, the “Spear of Destiny,” was the spear used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce the side of Christ during the crucifixion. The myth went that anyone that possessed Longinus’ spear would hold God-like powers. The Nazis were crazy enough to believe in that stuff. Well, I had always been interested in history, especially anything concerning World War II and those wacky Nazis, and had had a slight interest in Occult topics and the macabre, so I took it from him and put it under the pillow on my rack to do some late night reading after lights out.

Most weeknights I would get to bed around 10 or so, having to be up at 4 in the morning to get breakfast for the crew ready. I slept in the bottom rack in our berthing compartment on the barge. The racks were stacked three-high and were known as “coffin lockers,” due to the fact that they were not very large or comfortable, looking and probably feeling like an actual coffin. If you were unfortunate enough to have a middle or bottom rack and were a tall or big guy, turning over in your sleep was near impossible. Sleeping on your side was likewise difficult. The locker part was just under the “mattress” part of the bed that you would lift up, and where we would keep our socks, underwear, and other clothes. While lying in your rack, just over your head, there would be a small light that could be turned on for reading. I began reading the book Josh loaned me that night, and the next couple of nights after, really getting into the story of the Nazi search for a 2,000 year-old spear. When I would start to fall asleep, I would put the book back under my pillow and check to make sure my alarm was set for four in the morning.

Another note about the racks and the berthing area: My rack was the bottom one and closest to the door of the head (bathroom to you landlubbers). I would sometimes awaken to the sound of the creaky door being opened and closed, as a fellow sailor would go in to take a shower or brush their teeth at any and all times of the night. These guys sometimes made a racket moving around, and it took me a long while to be able to sleep through the noise they made, something I never could really get used too. Privacy while sleeping in your rack was essentially achieved by pulling two blue curtains shut. I don’t recall anyone that would leave them open, and I always kept mine shut while I was in my rack.

One night I was lying in my coffin reading, possibly the only member of my division actually on the barge that night. Being the new guy, I didn’t really know anyone, and the first couple of months pretty much stayed to myself, only occasionally going out to a bar with someone that had a car. Most of the guys had been on the ship awhile and so they would head out to the bars in Norfolk or Portsmouth, drink like sailors do, and then head back before having to get up for another workday. I read a chapter or so of the book, describing the archeological arm of the SS under Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, and quickly found myself getting sleepy, put the book under my pillow, turned the light out and promptly conked out.

I awoke to the sound of a door opening from the other side of berthing. It was pitch black in the compartment, and I just figured some half-drunk sailor was trying to find his rack. Occasionally a drunken swabbie would turn the lights on, pissing those asleep off, but there had been no light flipped on at all. The door shut and heavy footsteps began walking towards the back of the compartment, closer to my rack. What I found strange at the time was that this person was able to maneuver around the racks in absolute darkness, with no light on at all, something that would have been difficult for any sober person. Also, there was no sound at all except for those loud footsteps. No sound of breathing, no exclamation by a sailor about how damned dark it was in there, nothing. And the sounds of the footsteps themselves were almost methodically slow, as if each one should have been accompanied by an exclamation point. It seemed to take forever, and I remember my heart suddenly starting to beat like crazy, as that solid, deliberate sound stole right past my rack. I then heard the door to the head open with a smooth creak, not as violent as I had remembered it in the past, but again, slow and deliberate, and it seemed as if every footfall became even more pronounced alongside that of my pounding heart. Then, all of the sudden, the curtains to my rack began to blow in towards me, and I can’t even describe the cold that accompanied it. It was as if a freezing wind was howling in upon me, and I could feel my jaw lock tight, my teeth instantly becoming a solid block of ice that froze and fused together. I grew up in Michigan and had never known such a cold in all my life. I tried to cry out as the cold pierced me deeply to the core, like ten million frozen needles stabbing me all at once. It was truly indescribable. It was as if I was high up in the Himalayas, suffering from frostbite and barely clinging to the side of a mountain, scrambling before an avalanche of falling snow and ice, but I was conscious the whole time of where I was, my mouth frozen and unable to cry out. Again, whatever had entered the head did not turn on a light, and there still was no sound from it; no turning on of the water faucet, no flushing a toilet or urinal (all of which was normally highly audible from my bottom rack vantage point).

I just couldn’t move to save my life, although I recall I was on my left side facing the privacy curtains, watching in a stupefying horror as they continued to blow in violently, accompanied by a loud wind-like noise that had been piercing my ears. It seemed as if all my senses were being assaulted at once, and it also seemed to last for minutes (when in actuality it was probably only seconds). I then heard the door to the head open, and the heavy footsteps returned, walking right by my rack again. They moved just as slow and purposeful as before, and the bone-chilling cold continued to grip me the entire time. Not a word was said, not a whisper from the unseen phantom reached my ears. I heard the door to the front of the berthing compartment open and close, and the room suddenly returned to normal as before, as if nothing had happened. I was no longer freezing, the curtains had stopped blowing in, and there wasn’t a sound in the berthing compartment at all, aside from the beating of my horrified heart. I admit, I was scared out of my mind, and took many long minutes before working up the courage to get out of the rack to investigate for any sign of prank or phantom. It took awhile to calm down, and most of the rest of the night was spent awake and trying to reason with myself that I had just dreamt the whole thing. I still believe I was the only one in berthing when that supernatural occurrence took place, my brain trying to reason with my being that I had just suffered through some weird sort of sleep paralysis. But I was so sure I had been awake throughout the entire thing! I had never been a sleepwalker, suffered from sleep paralysis, or had especially terrifying dreams before. In the days that followed, I waited for one of my shipmates to laugh and tell everyone else what a great prank they had played on the new guy, but it never came. Nobody ever confessed to it or even mentioned it to me, because no one had been there. The next morning, I went down to the mess decks with the book.

I found Jacobs wiping off some tables and almost threw the book at him saying, “Here, I don’t want to ever see this damned book again!” He laughingly asked what the hell was wrong and I told him about my terrifying night with the spirit of some dead Nazi paying me a visit. As I thought he would, he laughed at me again and called me a bunch of names, “pussy” probably being the kindest. I neither said nor thought anymore about it until one morning a couple of weeks later, Jacobs and I arrived at the galley to get chow ready for the crew. I noticed he was unusually quiet and looked a bit out of sorts, somewhat pale and clammy looking. I asked him if he was sick. After a pause, he told me he had been reading the book he loaned me, the one that gave me the bad experience. He then went on to say that the EXACT thing I claimed had happened to me had happened to him. He spoke somewhat wild-eyed about the footsteps, and then the door shutting, and the curtains blowing up like a hurricane was passing through. He told me about a cold unlike anything he had ever experienced, thinking he would freeze to death right there in his rack. He then related the rest of it, the end coming only when the door to berthing leading out into the hallway closed. I looked at him closely, thinking that he might be having a little fun with me. His eyes looked somewhat red and tired, and the expression on his face was not of someone playing a joke. He looked dead serious, and although I did not know Josh all that well at that point in time, I just had a feeling he wasn’t messing with me. He was telling the truth. I could see it in his eyes. We served together aboard the Nassau for the next four years, going on two cruises (including a stop for the kickoff of the Iraq War in 2003), and are still good buds to this day, over a decade later. We speak about our strange barge experience every great once in awhile, and on one occasion even ventured who our unholy visitor may have been. Had it been the conniving former chicken farmer Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS, or could it have been someone even more foul and loathsome; the evil spirit of Adolf Hitler himself, exacting a little payback scare on two active duty US servicemen, the grandsons of men that had helped defeat his military machine? We both would probably tell you now, with so many years having passed, that it had all been just a dream. But the reasoning part of our brains still can’t explain it, or the fear that two grown men could experience from such a nightmare. It’s funny thinking about it now, and we have joked about acting like a couple of scared five year-olds; and how those five year-olds would have been braver than two big, bad sailors.

I asked Josh once not long after our experience what he did with the book. He told me he gave it to some other poor dumb sailor. I asked him why he didn’t just throw it out in the garbage, and I remember his look of indignation at my question. “No way,” he had said, alluding to a scene in a horror movie involving the reappearance of a Ouija board in the main characters bed, after that character had thrown the Ouija board away in the trash. “You think I want that goddamn thing showing back up underneath my pillow the next time I hit the rack?! I’d shit my pants!”