Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Hell of Hacksaw Ridge

Over Veterans' Day Weekend I ventured to the movie theater with some fellow history buffs to view director Mel Gibson's latest historical tale of violence and redemption. As many of you know, Hacksaw Ridge is based upon the real life story of Army medic Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who earned the Medal of Honor for saving seventy-five comrades during the bloody struggle for Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Every war movie that has been released over the last eighteen years is largely measured by the Saving Private Ryan barometer of carnage and quality. While Gibson never quite reaches Spielberg's mastery of combat orchestration, Hacksaw Ridge is certainly on par with the level of bloodshed. The opening shots of the cinematic battle unfold a constant cacophony of whizzing bullets and incoming shells that is not for the feint of heart.

Like Full Metal Jacket, the film is essentially three different stories combined into one. In this case, those narratives include 1) a home front story of love and family struggle, 2) basic training and a testing of spiritual conviction, and 3) the triumph of that conviction tested by the hell of the Battle of Okinawa.

To offer some insight (and potential spoilers) of what the film overlooks or condenses, we first need to examine the life and beliefs of protagonist Desmond Doss (portrayed admirably by Andrew Garfield, who very well may receive an Oscar nomination for this role.) Born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919, Doss grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist and became a devout pacifist at a young age. As a youth, Desmond witnessed his father's arrest following an altercation between the dad and his brother-in-law. Only after Desmond's mother interceded did the father relinquish the pistol in his hand. Desmond never wanted to hold a gun after witnessing that violent episode within his own family. Later, he worked at a Newport News shipyard during the outbreak of World War II.

Doss's religious conviction earned him much grief after being drafted in the Army in April 1942. Contrary to what the film shows, he was never beaten by comrades who thought him cowardly, even if they did consider him an impediment to unit cohesion. Mockingly referred to as "Holy Joe," he campaigned to do no work or drill on the Sabbath. This certainly did not gain him celebrity in the ranks. His non-commissioned officers sought to give him a Section 8 for discharge, claiming he was mentally unbalanced. However, the ruling officers determined that religious tenets alone were not grounds for dismissal. While Doss was threatened with court-martial, formal charges never proceeded as the film depicts.

The film makes a big chronological jump between the second and third acts. The movie completely overlooks Doss's experiences on Guam and Leyte, giving the audience the false impression that Okinawa was Doss's baptism of fire. A member of the 77th Infantry Division, Doss had undergone multiple Pacific Campaigns and had likely warmed up to his initially suspicious comrades by that point.

Nonetheless, the film excels at presenting the bleak landscape of Okinawa. One of the best accounts of this battlefield comes from Marine Eugene Sledge, whose With the Old Breed itself became the basis for Hollywood interpretation with HBO's The Pacific. Sledge wrote that the island was "the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed. . . . Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them." Everywhere were "maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool." Gibson captures this grim vista in the most realistic of ways. Rats devour rotting human flesh. Combatants embrace in violent death throes. It is as bloody as a war movie can be.

As the title would suggest, the pinnacle of the film is the struggle for "Hacksaw Ridge," a cliff that seems to loom over 100 feet above the division's staging area. (In actuality, it was about forty feet high). According to the West Point volume The Second World War: Asian and the Pacific, "On April 29, when the 77th Division replaced the 96th, [Andrew D.] Bruce's troops began a bloody, close-in, demolition battle with the determined Japanese; but as the Americans advanced, the local Japanese commanders launched vicious counterattacks to recover lost ground. This pattern of close attacks typified the fighting in the Shuri defensive area. In this close battle, which caused heavy casualties on both sides, tanks were often the key to success." Time and again, the Japanese sought to funnel in the Americans through this relatively narrow gap in order to maximize casualties. As the film accurately shows, Japanese troops intentionally targeted medics to deprive the wounded of treatment. The Maeda Escarpment, known thereafter as "Hacksaw Ridge," was finally captured on May 6 after incomprehensibly brutal fighting.

See the real Okinawa and Hacksaw Ridge. Featured here is Ernie Pyle before he was killed by a Japanese sniper as well as a snippet of Doss standing atop the escarpment.

The 77th Division estimated it had killed some 3,000 Japanese in a seven day time span. During and following that time, Doss lowered seventy-five wounded comrades down the cliff with an improvised pulley system. He was wounded four times by both grenade fragments and sniper fire. For his efforts, he was awarded the Medal of Honor that October by Harry Truman. Undoubtedly, Mel Gibson was drawn to this story of faith and adversity as he tries to redefine his own life and career in the wake of his past scandals. The movie is as intimate as his The Man Without a Face, as grand as Braveheart, and as gut-wrenchingly gruesome as The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Needless to say, the film possesses far more strengths than weaknesses.

Yet, as both an historian and cinema aficionado, I would be remiss not to mention some of the film's stumbles. Beyond the super picky material culture flubs such as green GI t-shirts, undubbed boots, technical bungles, and some continuity dilemmas, the movie is rife with some of the most repeated war movie clich├ęs: lots of tough guys with Brooklyn accents, grenade pin pulling with teeth, firing mortar rounds off helmets a la Saving Private Ryan, and more. Most heinous of all, one soldier picks up the blown-off upper body of a comrade and uses him as a shield as he simultaneously fires a twenty-four pound Browning Automatic Rifle one-handed. Come on, Mel.

While Hacksaw Ridge falls short of the power of All Quiet on the Western Front or Platoon, it nonetheless wields its own sense of importance and stands proudly within the canon of anti-war films. Above all else, it reveals to us that amidst these divided times that a little bit of empathy and compassion goes a long way. Most poignant of all is actual footage of Desmond Doss at the film's finale. In Doss's own estimation, the Medal of Honor was not the greatest award he ever received. He notes, "You can't always win, but when your buddies come to you and say they owe their life to me, what better reward can you get than that?" Who could disagree?

The real life Desmond Doss passed away in 2006.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The White Lady of Wopsy

Finding the Historical Roots of a Pennsylvania Ghost Tale

Painting by Joe Servello.
As Halloween approaches, tales of ghostly occurrences and mysterious happenings invariably drift into our popular consciousness. With its rich history spanning multiple centuries, Blair County, Pennsylvania certainly does not lack legendary stories of the supernatural. One of the most persistent of all tales revolves around the so-called “White Lady of Wopsy.”

The celebrated story first appeared in a Halloween 1973 issue of the Altoona Mirror, which stated, “The White Lady of Wopsy [the nickname for Wopsononock Mountain] wanders the misty wooded lookout area atop Wopsononock Mountain, seeking revenge. Neither man nor woman is safe as the ghost floats on the dark, mysterious mountain breezes, venting her wrath on unsuspecting individuals.” The “legend claims that she was the victim of an auto crash and fire after being left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. She avenges herself on all who see her three times by causing horrible death. Some couples vow they have heard her scratch on the car roof.”

The traits of the tall tale vary depending upon the storyteller. In some renditions, the apparition committed suicide because of the death of her newborn. In other instances, the bride hurled her carriage off the road (with her husband onboard) after she learned of his infidelities on their honeymoon at the Wopsononock Resort (destroyed by fire in 1903). One question remains, however: From where did this story originate? I am certainly no believer in paranormal activities yet the legend has long intrigued me, as it has many others from my region. Granted, many tragic accidents have occurred on the perilous curves of the Buckhorn Road descending from Wopsy. Yet, one particular incident from 1926 stands suspect above all others.

Shortly after midnight on October 11 of that year, Margaret Gray and Chester Troutman (a WWI veteran) were presumably returning to Altoona when their large touring car skidded on the meandering highway. In September 2016, Gray’s great-grandson, Greg Sheets, noted that according to family legend, “she was supposedly running moonshine from Cambria County” with Troutman. Such activity on the remote mountain roads of Central Pennsylvania was not uncommon. 

Six years prior, the Volstead Act forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages. Pious and law-abiding citizens fully supported the measure amid the tumultuous era known as Prohibition. Preacher Charles Bame said in an impassioned sermon at Juniata’s Park Church of the Brethren the same year as the Gray-Troutman accident, “We have too many older folks who make their bodies a swill-pail for rot-gut booze, robbing their families and society of the help they ought to give.” Meanwhile, some blue collar workers desired nothing more than a frothy glass of beer after a day in Altoona’s railroad shops or mills.  Others were opportunists who saw a chance for illegal profiteering or daring entertainment. Gray and Troutman likely fell within that latter category.

Near the aptly-named “Devil’s Elbow,” where the “White Lady” presumably roams, their vehicle rolled down the ominous embankment on that night of October 11. Gray suffered a compound depressed fracture of the skull, among other injuries. Admitted to critical care at the Altoona Hospital at two in the morning, her injuries were beyond repair. She succumbed to her wounds at 11:10 that morning.

The Gray-Troutman accident is steeped in mystery. First and foremost, the female passenger was married to another man, John Gray. He was apparently not aware of her late night cruising with Troutman. According to newspaper reports, “the family was under the impression that she had gone to Gallitzin to meet a [visiting] woman relative.” Troutman, who suffered only minor abrasions and dizziness in the accident, later claimed to be returning Gray home that night.

Additionally, the circumstances of the wreck itself were unusual. For these reasons, Troutman was brought up on manslaughter charges a week later. According to court testimony, Troutman contended that he and Gray stopped and switched seats multiple times coming down the Buckhorn and that she was the one who lost control of the vehicle. He said this despite the fact that in his initial hospital interview he claimed he was passing another car at the time of the accident. Regardless of this conflicting testimony, Troutman was acquitted of any wrongdoing by the jury. Troutman married Olive Pearl Jones in 1937 and likely tried to move on to the next chapter of his life. He was highly involved in local veterans’ organizations and lived until 1965. Naturally, these were luxuries Gray could not enjoy. Accordingly, this unfortunate anecdote of lost love, death, and a possible miscarriage of justice represents all the ingredients of a classic ghost story.

Does Gray’s spirit roam the woods in which she was mortally injured? This article cannot claim to answer or promote that. However, one can carefully speculate that she did have important tasks remaining in her incomplete life. She left behind five children.

Margaret Gray pictured at left. In 1962, local WWI vets held a reunion at Altoona's Penn Alto Hotel. Chester Troutman is the last man on the right--seen thirty-six years after his fateful Wopsy accident. The Gray photo is courtesy of Greg Sheets, Gray's great-grandson. The WWI veteran photo is courtesy of David Seidel.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

For the People: Visualizing Gettysburg

Sunset at the Angle by Buddy Secor.
What new can be said about Gettysburg? One of the most studied military confrontations in human history, the three day struggle and subsequent address by Abraham Lincoln have come to represent epochal transitions of the national ideal. But the story does not end in 1863. This is the story my new book, Images of Modern America: Gettysburg National Military Park, seeks to delve into. Through this visual record, I hope to convey the ongoing history of the battlefield where this momentous clash of the Civil War took place. The book devotes particular attention to the profound role of the National Park Service and its stewardship of the landmark since the 1950s. With this book’s release coinciding with the centennial of the National Park Service, now is a timely moment to reflect upon the people, strategies, and dramatic changes that continue to mold our perceptions of a turning point in history.

My good friend and former boss, Christopher Gwinn, the Supervisory Park Ranger at the battlefield, was good enough to pen an insightful and humbling introduction to my book--which I share below:

"On July 5, 1863, a team of photographers arrived on the still-smoldering battlefield at Gettysburg. They brought with them the innovative tools of their trade—transported in a mobile dark room for the development of fragile glass plate negatives. The three men, Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and James F. Gibson, began the laborious and time consuming process of capturing what they saw—images eventually to be reproduced, distributed, and sold. Altogether they recorded over fifty unique negatives that conveyed the most immediate and visceral testimony pertaining to the Battle of Gettysburg.

By the time Gardner and company arrived, two days had passed since the battle’s conclusion. The once-thriving town and surrounding countryside were scarred by the unmistakable signs of slaughter, chaos, and destruction. Formerly peaceful households were riddled with shot and shell while previously bucolic farms were ruined by the hard hand of war. The wounded and mangled spewed forth from every church, shack, and barn as burial parties embarked upon the task of digging shallow graves. As Gettysburg resident J. Howard Wert recalled, “No pen can paint the awful picture of desolation, devastation, and death that was presented here to the shuddering beholders….It was a hideous and revolting sight.”

Over the ensuing years, Gettysburg struggled to overcome the carnage and devastation inflicted in 1863. In many respects the community never recovered. The photographic record of the enterprising artists of the time permits us to partly comprehend the challenges of soldiers and civilians. These photographs, and others taken over the following 150 years, allow us to describe the indescribable and decipher the indecipherable. The images are simultaneously a bi-product of creative expression and invaluable tools of historical understanding.

Casting light on events and lives of the past, photos allow us to walk in the theoretical footsteps of our predecessors. Photographs capture moments beautiful and transcendent as well as episodes dark and painful. Visual records spare these episodes from the inevitable evaporation that befalls so many historical events through the passing of time.

Much of the 1863 battlefield is today preserved within the nearly 7,000 acres of Gettysburg National Military Park. Contemporary visitors will find little outward vestige of the true horrors inflicted by the armies during the American Civil War. Rather, they encounter a well-maintained park, a quaint downtown, and a hauntingly serene pastoral landscape. Above all else, the battlefield remains a place of pilgrimage and remembrance for millions of individuals from every corner of the world.

Stoic monuments and markers dot the landscape where armed combatants once waged a desperate struggle for the future of a nation. Temporary, muddy graves have been replaced by granite stones in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery to denote the sacrifices. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln’s venerated words of consecration have been transmuted into bronze. The landscape continues to beckon and inspire modern Americans in dramatic ways. In this sense, photographs from the 20th and 21st centuries serve as significant forms of historical reflection. Gettysburg’s vibrant heritage is a never-ending tale of how we seek to connect with those who have gone before us.

Historian Jared Frederick, himself intimately connected to the Gettysburg Battlefield as a former park ranger, has scoured the park archives and other collections for images of the famous and not-so-famous moments that have defined the present-day battlefield. His efforts have yielded a fascinating collection of photographs and commentary that chronicle the broad scope of the park’s evolution since the bustling tourism days of the 1950s. Analyzing the Baby Boomer era through the battle’s 2013 sesquicentennial, readers will be treated to a visual chronology of Gettysburg National Military Park’s continual transformations. Most importantly, the images on the following pages highlight the ways in which the National Park has been commemorated, celebrated, defined, and redefined throughout the ages.

Chapter one explores various episodes of park history from the 1950s through the 1990s, when battlefield visitation skyrocketed. The second chapter examines snapshots of the visitor experience in more recent years. The book’s subsequent section studies the dramatic changes brought forth through Landscape Restoration while the final chapter marks the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Denoting the contributions and observances of staff and visitors from all walks of life, the visuals presented in these chapters are a mosaic of America’s most-visited battlefield. Much like Alexander Gardner’s 1863 negatives, the photos here elicit the alluring power of Gettysburg and its centrality to our national story. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, these images serve as a timely reminder of the many meanings and emotions Gettysburg evokes.

My book is now available on Amazon and various stores in Gettysburg itself. For personalized copies, feel free to email me. While hundreds of books have been written on this iconic landmark, I guarantee that this book has some new perspectives to offer.

 Pickett's Charge: 150 years later.