There’s Always More To The Story

Being a history nerd has its challenges. One of those challenges is the complete inability to accept just the “common view” when it comes to events about which you know a thing or two.  In life, as in (good) fiction, there is always more to the story.

Which brings me to today’s post…

Now, most folks (likely) realize that last Wednesday was the 74th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy landings. Honestly, that is one of those rare events in history that is burned into all of our memories. Most of us share the same iconic images of the soldiers wading ashore, most of us have seen the same movies, heard the same programs. Most of us have the same “common view.”

But to a history nerd — especially a naval history nerd, like me — there is just so much more to that day. Stories you don’t often hear, aspects of the invasion not “interesting enough” to make it into the movies, contingencies that are seldom remembered…

Operation Overlord was, at that particular moment in history, the single biggest logistical operation in the history of the world. In fact, even to this day, it has been eclipsed only one other time — by the invasion of Okinawa in 1945.

The images of D-Day that I find most intriguing, and most telling, are not those iconic pictures and movies of the soldiers wading ashore, but rather those from the days that followed. On June 6th, 160,000 men landed in Normandy. Each day thereafter, additional forces were brought ashore to join the fighting. And every single man had to supplied over those same beaches that they had so recently assaulted. In fact, it wasn’t until June 30th, when the Allied forces ashore had grown to almost a million men, that the port of Cherbourg was captured and the first deepwater ships were able to start coming in…

It takes a lot of bullets and beans (and boots…and band-aids…and benzene…and on and on) to supply a million men engaged in sustained combat. There is a famous Napoleonic quote that “amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics.” Well, below are a few pictures showing what very few amateurs bother to think about:

The other thing to keep in mind is that D-Day was not the “unstoppable might” of the Allies rolling over an exhausted, quiescent German army. There was every chance the invasion would fail, and the men responsible for planning and carrying out the landing knew that fact very well. I think most folks are probably familiar with the letter Eisenhower released when the invasion kicked off. You know the one I’m talking about — it starts, “You are about the embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months…”

Well, that’s not the only letter he wrote about the landings. He also wrote one in case of failure…and it is as telling (and as unknown) as those pictures above:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Yes, failure was a very real possibility…as the man at the heart of that invasion knew so very well.

Look, I’m not going to do an actual history of D-Day in this post. There are amazing ones already out there, ones I turn to when I want the full story. For just a short list: go read Shaara’s historical fiction for the landings themselves, or try Samuel Morrison’s naval history for the USN role and activities.  Max Hastings and Stephen Ambrose both have outstanding books on the subject.  Hell, just go watch The Longest Day, or try Tom Selleck’s (surprisingly very good) biopic about Eisenhower.  Go read Churchill’s memoirs, or Eisenhower’s, or Montgomery’s.  Personally, on the memoirs front, I’m a huge fan of Omar Bradley’s autobiography, as it gives some amazing “behind the scenes” insights.  Or, in the end, you can turn to the best military historian of the last hundred years, and read John Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy.

Me, personally? I’ve started re-watching (yet again) Band of Brothers

I Have No Words

I’ve never heard the drums of war.

I’ve never lived the reality of combat.

As a writer, and as a student of history, I try to learn and to understand, but that understanding is merely intellectual. I know the truth as it has been told to me, but I have no true understanding of the reality.

For this Memorial Day post, I am not going to use my own words. My own words are as inadequate as they are disconnected from that reality. No, instead I am going to use the actions and words of those who know.

From Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, USN — Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Purple Heart:

“Too often, Memorial Day becomes just another three-day weekend, a holiday that marks the beginning of summer, the opening of public pools, the excitement of children who know that the school year is about to end.
The holiday doesn’t have to be this way. It can be more. And it can be more with just a little bit of an effort. You don’t have to give much to get a lot.

If you have not suffered a loss, think of someone who has. Consider what they gave. Consider what they are giving now.

In my case, I will take a few minutes to quietly remember the men I knew who died before this day had a meaning for them. They were too young, too free of terrible memories, too unburdened of wondering if they were good men.”

—Quoted from “How I remember my lost military comrades” in today’s New York Daily News. Read the whole thing.

I wasn’t sure how to approach today’s post, until Lt. Kerrey gave me the idea. Below are the formal citations for several Medal of Honor winners, one from each service…every one of them posthumous.

9E6A169B-35E3-4F55-AEAA-185BC0FD1E30Commander Ernest Evans, USN — Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Purple Heart
— Killed in action October 25, 1944 in the Philippine Sea

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Johnston in action against major units of the enemy Japanese fleet during the battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. The first to lay a smokescreen and to open fire as an enemy task force, vastly superior in number, firepower and armor, rapidly approached. Comdr. Evans gallantly diverted the powerful blasts of hostile guns from the lightly armed and armored carriers under his protection, launching the first torpedo attack when the Johnston came under straddling Japanese shellfire. Undaunted by damage sustained under the terrific volume of fire, he unhesitatingly joined others of his group to provide fire support during subsequent torpedo attacks against the Japanese and, outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile fleet units and our carriers despite the crippling loss of engine power and communications with steering aft, shifted command to the fantail, shouted steering orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and battled furiously until the Johnston, burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after 3 hours of fierce combat. Seriously wounded early in the engagement, Comdr. Evans, by his indomitable courage and brilliant professional skill, aided materially in turning back the enemy during a critical phase of the action. His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will venture as an inspiration to all who served with him.”

02E7682F-7CE5-4185-A483-4B74F35F1CE9Corporal Jason Dunham, USMC — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action April 4, 2004 in Husaybah, Iraq

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rifle Squad Leader, 4th Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (Reinforced), Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division (Reinforced), on 14 April 2004. Corporal Dunham’s squad was conducting a reconnaissance mission in the town of Karabilah, Iraq, when they heard rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire erupt approximately two kilometers to the west. Corporal Dunham led his Combined Anti-Armor Team towards the engagement to provide fire support to their Battalion Commander’s convoy, which had been ambushed as it was traveling to Camp Husaybah. As Corporal Dunham and his Marines advanced, they quickly began to receive enemy fire. Corporal Dunham ordered his squad to dismount their vehicles and led one of his fire teams on foot several blocks south of the ambushed convoy. Discovering seven Iraqi vehicles in a column attempting to depart, Corporal Dunham and his team stopped the vehicles to search them for weapons. As they approached the vehicles, an insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

32EEA3A4-2B54-4B49-BA84-94A9A2B68421Private First Class Anthony Kaho’ohanohano — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action September 1, 1951 near Chup’a-ri, South Korea

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty Private First Class Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano, Company H, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy in the vicinity of Chupa-ri, Korea, on 1 September 1951. On that date, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano was in charge of a machine-gun squad supporting the defensive positioning of Company F when a numerically superior enemy force launched a fierce attack. Because of the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, friendly troops were forced to execute a limited withdrawal. As the men fell back, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano ordered his squad to take up more defensible positions and provide covering fire for the withdrawing friendly force. Although having been wounded in the shoulder during the initial enemy assault, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano gathered a supply of grenades and ammunition and returned to his original position to face the enemy alone. As the hostile troops concentrated their strength against his emplacement in an effort to overrun it, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano fought fiercely and courageously, delivering deadly accurate fire into the ranks of the onrushing enemy. When his ammunition was depleted, he engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat until he was killed. Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s heroic stand so inspired his comrades that they launched a counterattack that completely repulsed the enemy. Upon reaching Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s emplacement, friendly troops discovered 11 enemy soldiers lying dead in front of the emplacement and two inside it, killed in hand-to-hand combat. Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s extraordinary heroism and selfless devotion to duty are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 7th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”

48954FA8-0C46-452C-9FB6-C552CE83FFEECaptain Steven Bennett, USAF — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action June 29, 1972 in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam

“Capt. Bennett was the pilot of a light aircraft flying an artillery adjustment mission along a heavily defended segment of route structure. A large concentration of enemy troops were massing for an attack on a friendly unit. Capt. Bennett requested tactical air support but was advised that none was available. He also requested artillery support, but this too was denied due to the close proximity of friendly troops to the target. Capt. Bennett was determined to aid the endangered unit and elected to strafe the hostile positions. After four such passes, the enemy forces began to retreat. Capt. Bennett continued the attack, but, as he completed his fifth strafing pass, his aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile which severely damaged the left engine and the left main landing gear. As fire spread in the left engine, Capt. Bennett realized that recovery at a friendly airfield was impossible. He instructed his observer to prepare for ejection, but was informed by the observer that his parachute had been shredded by the force of the impacting missile. Although Capt. Bennett had a good parachute, he knew that if he ejected, the observer would have no chance of survival. With complete disregard for his own life, Capt. Bennett elected to ditch the aircraft into the Gulf of Tonkin, even though he realized that a pilot of this type aircraft had never survived a ditching. The ensuing impact upon the water caused the aircraft to cartwheel and severely damage the front cockpit, making escape for Capt. Bennett impossible. The observer successfully made his way out of the aircraft and was rescued. Capt. Bennett’s unparalleled concern for his companion, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.”

A10772B0-7E3C-45E9-AA55-14010FBA02F4Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, USCG — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
— Killed in action September 27, 1942 near Point Cruz, Guadalcanal

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as petty officer in charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal on 27 September 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered marines, Munro, under constant strafing by enemy machine guns on the island, and at great risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

From The Prosaic To The Profound

I was walking through Sears, back when there really was a Sears. Just walking through to go into the mall and do that most pointless and prosaic of activities: shop.

Still on my first cup of coffee, still disgruntled from being out of bed after having worked late the night before. I’m in the electronics section, not paying attention to anything in particular.

Then it strikes me: why the hell is the World Trade Center on fire?

I stop a minute, to watch one of the hundred or so TVs all showing the same thing. The sound is up, but — as usual— I just ignore the idiot talking.

An image, blurry and indistinct, of a plane. Of that plane flying into the second tower of the already burning, already doomed, WTC.

Then I did start to listen.

It sounds trite, it sounds like cheating to use a phrase so often tired and overworked, but everything really did change that day.

As ever, I keep myself and my own politics out of this blog…very intentionally. But…but…but, there’s always a but.

But, that day started a chain of events, and of stresses, that are leading very, very directly to that civil war here in the US that I think is so inevitable. Inevitable, and coming nearer.

Leaving aside Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the world, the US is beginning to tear itself apart. And this one won’t be the relatively simple two-sided affair of 150 years ago. No, this one will be seven- or eight-sided, with economics and geography and sociology creating a pool of hate, resentment and blood that will put the struggle of North and South to shame.

That is, however, not the topic of today’s post. Today’s post is here to pay my respects to those who are no longer around to type their idle and cynical thoughts sixteen years later. To the three thousand who died that day, and to those who died in the days and months and years since.

I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is a passion of mine. It is actually a mite more than that, and I have many good friends who were, and still are, in harm’s way.

A good friend was an officer aboard a destroyer that day, was headed back to port after a training exercise. No one believed the captain, at first, when he announced what had happened, announced they were heading back to sea.

My friend did not see the US for another nine months.

Another friend, ostensibly a “support” specialist who typically would live “in the rear with the gear”, was attached to an SOF element. He never saw home again.

Two examples.  Two examples of the dozens I could give.  Two examples just to offer some perspective. I could talk about the friend who never said “No” to a deployment, who is now paying with his soul for eight straight years of war and stress.  Of another, an accountant by trade, who did enough to make even the most hardened and cynical of veterans sit up and take notice…and has never said a single word about it.

I am, I have said before, a libertarian. I don’t care what are your politics. I don’t particularly care what you do, so long as you don’t hurt anyone else. But today…today I talk about what I care about.

Don’t tell some random person “Thank you for your service.” Don’t throw five or ten bucks at some feel-good charity like Wounded Warrior.

Be real, do something real.

Give your time, give your passion. Money helps…oh, yes, does money help…but so much more do people help. The disconnect today between the military and the rest of the population has never been greater…and that is part of the problem.

Go to a VFW and talk. Don’t offer platitudes, don’t talk about yourself…buy some drinks and listen. Listen to those who know, those who lost and who understand the reality. Listen and learn, and make sure your children learn.

Give your time to a charity/clinic helping those with PTSD. I don’t care if you’re cleaning the fucking toilets, do something to help. I have too many friends, too many loved ones, who still hate and fear the nightmares to give two shits about your pride. Just help.

Throw a fishing trip, or a tailgate party, or a backyard barbecue, for those in your area who served, and those who are still serving. Don’t go to your Rolodex, don’t go to your own pool of friends, go to theirs.

And, by the way, the spouse who is still at home, who is trying to do it all, is just as much a hero…do not overlook them. Those still in the sandbox and the rockpile do not, of that I can assure you.

I am going to do something I have never done before: I am going to steal from someone I admire.  This has nothing to do with politics today, with the White House today.  I have my own opinions thereon, but they have nothing to do with this.  Read the letter…read the letter and feel.  Whether you agree with his politics or not is of no import; this man knows.

From: Kelly LtGen John F
Date: November 12, 2010 10:23:20 PM EST
Subject: FW: My Boy

Family and Friends,

As I think you all know by now our Robert was killed in action protecting our country, its people, and its values from a terrible and relentless enemy, on 9 Nov, in Sangin, Afghanistan. He was leading his Grunts on a dismounted patrol when he was taken. They are shaken, but will recover quickly and already back at it. He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets, and we are thankful. We are a broken hearted – but proud family. He was a wonderful and precious boy living a meaningful life. He was in exactly the place he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do, surrounded by the best men on this earth – his Marines and Navy Doc.

The nation he served has honored us with promoting him posthumously to First Lieutenant of Marines. We will bury our son, now 1stLt Robert Michael Kelly USMC, in Arlington National Cemetery on 22 Nov. Services will commence at 1245 at Fort Myers. We will likely have a memorial receiving at a yet to be designated funeral home on 21 Nov. The coffin will be closed. Our son Captain John Kelly USMC, himself a multi-tour combat veteran and the best big brother on this earth, will escort the body from Dover Air Force Base to Arlington. From the moment he was killed he has never been alone and will remain under the protection of a Marine to his final resting place.

Many have offered prayers for us and we thank you, but his wonderful wife Heather and the rest of the clan ask that you direct the majority of your prayers to his platoon of Marines, still in contact and in “harm’s way,” and at greater risk without his steady leadership.

Thank you all for the many kindnesses we could not get through this without you all. Thank you all for being there for us. The pain in unimaginable, and we could not do this without you.

Semper Fidelis

John Kelly