Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Fierce Glory

A Review of Justin Martin's New Antietam Book

Second perhaps only to Gettysburg, Antietam remains a highly studied and quite pertinent battle of the American Civil War. Waged on September 17, 1862, the fierce clash in western Maryland became the bloodiest day in American history--inflicting more American casualties than D-Day eight decades later. The literary canon chronicling the Maryland Campaign is a long and distinguished one. Historians Ezra Carman, James Murfin, Stephen Sears, Tom Clemens, and Scott Hartwig have each left their left valuable imprints and observations on Antietam's story. All that being said, one might be left to wonder what else could be written about this momentous campaign.

This is ultimately the question author Justin Martin attempts to answer. Stemming from his previous works on poet Walt Whitman and renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, readers should be immediately aware that this is not a typical analytic strategy study. Only three maps can be found in the book. If anything, Martin's A Fierce Glory is a cultural study of the engagement that engulfed Sharpsburg and how it molded people, society, and politics.

Balancing out the narrative of combat itself is the approachable story of Abraham Lincoln's struggle to maintain the fragile Union and his simultaneous attempts to slowly dismantle slavery. Martin presents a fair portrait of an imperfect man attempting to achieve great tasks in the process. This story line serves as a fitting prologue to the broader military summations that follow. Lincoln's time in Washington was consumed by woe and death. The killing of his trusted military aid-de-camp Elmer Ellsworth in 1861 and the death of Willie Lincoln in 1862 were only a sampling of the tragedies to befall Lincoln during his tenure as commander-in-chief. Amidst all this heartache, Lincoln sought refuge at the Old Soldier's Home on the outskirts of the city. Here, the president further pondered the emancipation of the South's four million slaves. The Maryland Campaign had the potential to sway Lincoln's decision making as he navigated troubled political waters.

Diehard Civil War buffs seeking new, revelatory information on the bitter military struggle that ensued are unlikely to find much new here. Martin's comparatively concise 250 page work is overshadowed by the meatier studies done by the likes of Sears and Hartwig. Many of the highlighted anecdotes have been culled from post war reminiscences and digitized regimental histories. The book, however, is well suited for general audiences wishing to gain an introductory overview of this important moment of the 1860s. Undergraduates in my Civil War course would enjoy a book such as this. The story is presented in a way that is highly personable and digestible. Martin's mission is not to convey every conceivable element of a military engagement but rather interpret a searing, human experience.

While far from comprehensive in its scope, the book nonetheless shines in its visceral descriptions of the battle. Some opening description of the fight's initial phases in and around the Miller Cornfield come to mind:

The battle was getting frantic. The topmost section of the field fairly crawled with soldiers; they were in the corn, the surrounding pastures and meadows, and the woods that girded the open spaces. The sound had grown deafening. There were the pops of muskets, the peculiar whistling of bullets, the clip when they hit a cornstalk, the crack of striking wood, the thud of connecting with a body. Cannon fire poured in from all directions. The heavy shells screamed and sizzled, clattered in the treetops; shrapnel plopped in the soft earth or ricocheted with a metallic zing. "If all the stone and brick houses of Broadway should tumble at once the roar and rattle could hardly be greater," Alpheus Williams, a Union general, would recall of the cornfield fighting (Martin, 45-46).

Such visual descriptions of the fray carry well throughout the book's text. Elsewhere in the book, additional cultural context is offered through the themes of religion, mourning, and the infancy of battlefield photography. Slavery also comes to the forefront of the conversation, including Robert E. Lee's association with the institution, which has so often been misinterpreted by Civil War aficionados.

There were two elements of Martin's book I found particularly refreshing. Firstly, he did not succumb to the perennial military bashing of Federal commander George McClellan. In comparison to the caution he exhibited in earlier campaigns, the general is depicted as comparatively aggressive in his approach to the battlefield and his plans to resume the fight on September 19. While McClellan exhibited his fair share of despicable traits in his lifetime, his performance at Antietam should not be considered among them, Martin asserts.

Secondly, readers can truly tell that the author spent much time hiking the battlefield. He has a keen sense of the terrain and cites in the end notes park ranger tours he attended while conducting research. He traveled to the New York Public Library and National Archives as his quest for information continued. This extra effort pays off in the long run.

A Fierce Glory is a highly recommended read for anybody with a fledgling interest in the Battle of Antietam. Martin reminds us that battles are not merely the stories of right wheels and left flanks but of common individuals shaped by the dramatic circumstances of their times.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Sole to Keep

The WWII Odyssey of Gerald Barker

Lt. Gerald Barker and his B-24 crew.

This article, written by guest contributor Mark Frederick, tells the tale of Pennsylvania veteran Gerald Barker, who passed away this week at the age of 99. We honor him today by sharing his life story. This article previously appeared in the Morrisons Cove Herald.

Darkness still covers the landscape. A fiery sunrise begins to creep over the English countryside as the gray morning haze clears. Fresh dew lays on the cracked concrete of the airfield’s runway as hundreds of B-24 Liberator Bombers prepare for their daily crusade into Nazi-occupied Europe.

The damp fog slowly dissipates as the crews assemble. Bombs are loaded. Prayers are whispered. The engines are soon sputtering on the runway. As the sea of Liberators take-off and their tires leave the safe ground of base, some airmen wonder if this bombing mission will be their last.

That day, on April 8, 1944, Lieutenant William “Bill” Champney and his B-24 crew were operating as usual. His co-pilot, Lieutenant Gerald “Jerry” Barker sat in the seat beside him. The two aviators had become close friends since they both grew up in Pennsylvania. This would be their fifth mission together in this aircraft.

Officially nicknamed “Don’t Shoot—Out of Season,” their plane humorously had the image of a fat pelican painted on the side. Jerry, however, often called the aircraft “The Ruptured Duck” since it often swayed like a duck when it landed at Attlebridge Airfield, near Norwich, England.

Often these planes flew at high altitudes, making missions bitterly cold. Temperatures sometimes reaching 50 degrees below zero. As a result, the crew bundled up in their layers of sheepskin clothes, plugging their suits into the plane’s power supply to keep warm.

The bombardier peered into his Norden bombsight, patiently awaiting to drop his three ton payload of explosives. From below, the now vibrant blue sky prominently highlighted the group’s 350 bombers. As the squadron approached its objective, artillery flak exploded around them. The bomb bay doors opened like a roll-top desk. Whistling could be heard as the explosives fell.

The sporadic air bursts caused the group’s formation to become lose and open. In the distance, the purr of German planes could be heard. These fighters dove down from the sun, making it difficult for them to be seen. The bomber’s .50 Caliber machine guns opened up in defense.

A German Messerschmitt sprayed its bullets across the body of the bomber. Explosive shells hit the waist and nose. Gunner Sergeant Stein felt a sharp sting in his leg. He screamed in pain as he landed in the shells that lay below him. Sergeant Colbaugh, the other waist gunner, had his arm paralyzed, his oxygen mask blown off and his eyes temporarily blinded.

One of the four engines began to squirt oil, spilling out over the wing. The break accumulators were shot and hydraulic fluid began to gush. Jerry left the cockpit and grabbed a helmet to catch the dripping liquid, so to have enough juice to brake when landing. Luckily, the plane and crew made it back to base. Stein and Colbaugh were hospitalized. The plane was never quite the same. This unforgettable mission stayed with Jerry Barker for the rest of his life.

Gerald Leslie Barker was born on June 21, 1918, his mother’s 31st birthday. He, along with his other three siblings, lived with their parents in the West End of Pittsburgh. Jerry excelled in elementary school, skipping two half years. He eventually attended Langley High and joined the school band.

When the Great Depression hit in October 1929, Jerry and his family struggled financially. Yet, with the help of his band director, he was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Juniata College at age 16. Graduating in 1939, Jerry majored in music and minored in English and Biology. According to his yearbook, he was “quiet and reserved,” but always had a unique “twinkle in his eye!”

Jerry began teaching music at the high school in Armagh, PA. While retrieving his mail at the local post office, he met Eleanor Hess, a music teacher who taught in the neighboring town of Seward. They began dating, enjoying school activities, operettas and other social functions.

In August 1941, they decided to get married. However, Eleanor’s hometown church in Johnstown was being renovated and the minister was on vacation. Therefore, it was arranged that the two of them would be married at the minister’s summer cottage in the Delaware Water Gap.

At that time, Daylight Savings Time was a local option and after a long four-hour drive, Jerry was disappointed to find that all of the local flower shops had closed the hour before. Luckily, when the two families arrived at the cottage, they discovered that the minister’s wife had picked roses for the occasion. Jerry crafted a corsage for his bride. It was a day to remember.

However, four months later, a day of infamy overshadowed any other. On December 7, bombs fell at Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States’ into World War II. Similar to other young Americans, Jerry felt the urge to fight and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

Jerry continued to teach until he was finally called up in December 1942, reporting to San Antonio for training. A pregnant Eleanor desired to be closer to her husband, so throughout 1943 she and several other wives carpooled to Texas to visit their husbands. Eventually, though, Eleanor’s pregnancy progressed to the extent that she could no longer travel easily.

On July 4, 1943, Eleanor gave birth to Nancy, unfortunately while Jerry was still enduring intense aerobatics in Texas. Seven weeks later, Eleanor and Nancy drove to Waco for Jerry’s pilot graduation. With the help of her mother, little Nancy pinned the silver pilot wings on her dad. Before going overseas, Jerry removed the soles from Nancy’s first pair of shoes, eventually carrying them with him on the 30 bombing missions that would follow.

Assigned to the 466th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, Jerry eventually rendezvoused with his B-24 and its crew in Kansas. From there, they flew the plane to Florida where ground crews inspected the bomber while officers searched the airplane for black-market contraband.

Unbeknownst to their superiors, the crew had hidden several bottles of liquor in the belly of the aircraft. They traveled from Florida to England, stopping in Brazil and Morocco along the way. The liquor was never discovered and the crew was able to secretly enjoy their libations in Marrakesh.

Life in England was difficult and tiring. Living in a small, concrete barrack with no running water, Jerry and the other three lieutenants of his plane bunked together. Their small stove was inadequate in providing warmth on bitter February nights.

When a plane crashed on the runway, Jerry acquired its hydraulic lines, ran water pipes from the base’s wash house and snatched a spare oil can, eventually crafting a makeshift hot water heater. Unfortunately, it only provided enough warm water for four men to shave every morning.

His squadron entered combat on March 23, 1944. The group was typically responsible for destroying aircraft plants, railroad yards, oil refineries and ball bearing factories.

On June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, commenced on the beaches of Northern France. Ships were already on their way across the English Channel when the crews of the 466th were ordered to assist. Their mission, officially named Operation Cover, would not only target coastal defenses, but also weaken the enemy’s transportation routes. As “The Ruptured Duck” made its way to Normandy, Jerry stared down at the colossal armada of 7,000 Allied vessels.

Meanwhile, Eleanor had not received any letters from Jerry, unaware that the military had halted all mail circulation so no news of the landings could be leaked. She later received his letters – all at once.

In August 1945, he returned to the states and became a military flight instructor in Albany, Georgia until he was discharged. Jerry returned to the classroom, teaching music and directing band at Williamsburg High School.

During the summer months, Jerry attended Penn State University, working toward his master’s degree in music education, plus a course in aeronautics. Eleanor taught elementary music, until their daughter, Patricia Jane, was born on March 9, 1946. Jerry retired from teaching in 1947.

In 1948, Jerry created the Keystone Milling, Co. in Williamsburg. Even though he did not know wheat from barley, the business soon flourished, manufacturing custom-mixed feed and flour.

On July 18, 1953, the Barkers had their third daughter, Evelyn Claire. In August, Jerry and his brother bought the Clouse Farm near Alexandria and began the Short Mountain Nursery. In 1987, the family sold Keystone Milling so they could concentrate on their growing tree farm. The brothers later separated the business, and Jerry’s portion became known as JB Tree Farm, which still operates today under the ownership of Evelyn and her husband.

The Barkers never really retired though. They were always involved in their community. Eleanor played the organ at church. She loved to paint, sew, bake and garden, remaining active until she became ill before her passing in 2007. Jerry directed the church choir and played in the Altoona Symphony Orchestra for almost 40 years. He built his own experimental airplane, rekindling his love for flying. A talented handyman, he even designed and built their last house.

Jerry passed away in March 2018, just three months shy of his 100th birthday. He certainly had a full life, collecting a surplus of memories that some of us will never attain in our lifetime. Similar to the rest of his generation, he learned from the lessons of pain and love, gaining years of wisdom, ultimately surviving and thriving in a sometimes cruel, difficult world.

His granddaughter, Bonnie Butler, summarized his life best. “Although small in stature, he is a giant, never letting size stand in the way of anything he wanted to accomplish. He is brave, incredibly smart, funny and hardworking, the best grandfather a girl could possibly ask for. He lived his life with vigor and enthusiasm, using all of his considerable gifts to make the world a better place.”

The shoe sole that Jerry Barker carried with him on all 30 of his bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Its inscription says “Nancy’s Shoe Sole - I pray the Lord her sole to keep.”

Thursday, January 4, 2018

From D-Day to VE Day

Battle-Hardened: An Infantry Officer’s Harrowing Journey from D-Day to VE-Day
One of the great joys I receive from this blog is the opportunity to interview authors and filmmakers regarding their latest projects. I recently received a review copy of Battle Hardened by author Craig Chapman. The author delves deep into the personal recollections and mental state of his late father, Bill Chapman, as he fought against the Nazis, enduring frontline combat and witnessing horror on a massive scale. Lieutenant Chapman of the 4th Infantry Division maintained his sanity by isolating his emotions from the chaos of the battlefield and struggles to hold onto his humanity. The author does a thorough job of balancing the micro and the macro picture of war. Please enjoy our conversation and consider purchasing his very revealing book.

First off, for the sake of our readers, tell us about your dad and yourself.

My father, Bill Chapman, was born and raised in Oakland, California as the only child in a middle-class family. In 1943 he graduated from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree. Despite his degree he volunteered for the infantry. After commissioning at Fort Benning, he wound up in the 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division as a replacement officer. He landed on D-Day at Utah Beach, then spent an ungodly amount of time in combat, somehow surviving dozens of intense battles—though wounded twice. After the war he left the army and went back to school to get a master’s degree from Purdue University.

I grew up in a classic baby-boomer household. Dad had a budding career and Mom stayed home with four growing boys. Dad’s job took us to Milwaukee where he climbed the corporate ladder to an executive position in a Fortune 500 company. The father I knew growing up is sometimes difficult to match with the driven combat leader who dealt in death and destruction—except for his obvious determination to seek perfection in all endeavors from himself and others. I knew him as a devoted and loving father, as well as a considerate and thoughtful person.

I guess I inherited my father’s patriotism and sense of duty. Even though I attended one of the most left-leaning colleges in the country, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined ROTC rather than the street protests of the Vietnam era. I served 28 years as an infantry officer during the Cold War. Never heard a shot fired in anger—though one of my sons has.

What was your methodology in depicting the life story of a man so hesitant to tell his own war story? How did you connect the dots?

One point of clarification. My father wasn’t hesitant to talk about his combat experience. He shared his stories openly, though very matter-of-factly. He just refused to write about the war. Not sure why he drew such a sharp distinction.

My book has three, no five, foundations. The first major task was cataloging as much of my father’s oral history as possible. My entire family jotted down every anecdote we could recall over the years. I compiled these stories and wrote them into narrative form. After circulating the written anecdotes to family members, especially my mother, I reconciled differences in the way each family member recollected my father’s words.

Once the oral history was on paper, my mother turned over my father’s wartime letters. These letters provided the second foundation of the book, Bill’s state of mind as he went through combat. Due to censorship, the letters said little about the fighting but revealed valuable insights into his emotions, concerns and mindset. Reading between the lines, I could see the transformation of his motivations over time. At the start of the war, Bill wanted to prove to himself that he could stand up in the face of danger. The letters helped explain what kept him in the fight long after he had fulfilled that mission.

The last three foundations are research-research-research. When I started this project, I was determined to do more than spin out a long series of fascinating, personal stories of combat. Bill’s oral history needed to contribute to the historical record of World War II. To do that, I had to place his anecdotes within the context of the Northern European Campaign and add his personal perspectives to our understanding of those battles. That meant scouring written accounts of the 12th Infantry Regiment and digging into primary sources. The regiment had a pretty good history written by Gerden Johnson but the genuine details I needed were found in the National Archives. I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to College Park. To my surprise the archives yielded fourteen boxes of records for just the regiment! The boxes contained journals, small unit histories, after-action reports, daily unit summaries, casualty lists, annotated maps, orders, overlays, unit commendations and personal interviews with key leaders. During one trip we fished out a five-page deposition made by my father, covering the campaign across southern Germany. No one in the family knew the deposition existed, yet it provides nearly the only written account left by my father. I ended up making five trips to comb through the written and photographic records. Then came the hard part.

How to match my father’s recollections to what I learned about his unit? Some stories were easy to place, like the time at Utah Beach when he admonished Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. about not wearing his helmet. For others I had to play the part of a detective to pin the anecdote to a time and site. Each story presented a few tidbits of information that helped whittle down the possibilities. Mention of a hedgerow meant Normandy. A battle in a Belgium town could only have happened at one or two places. Once I had specific details of the story and a general idea of when it occurred, I sifted through the records to find matching facts. One story perfectly illustrated this process. Bill related a story about leading a tank-infantry force that was taking enemy artillery fire directed from a distant tower. One of the tanks blasted the tower and the artillery stopped. My research showed that Bill led combined arms teams only certain days. During one such attack the journals recorded his team taking artillery fire. When I examined the topo map of that area I spotted a tower at the right distance from where Bill’s unit maneuvered. Bingo! All the facts lined up, allowing me to place Bill’s story to a precise time and location.

It seems your father was often balancing the needs of raw replacements and fatigued combat veterans. How do you think he maintained his composure as an officer in those trying times?

One of the sad discoveries coming out of the history of the Northern European Campaign was the Army’s awful procedure for replenishing unit strength. This is not the place to describe the Army’s callous, neglectful and cruel process for replacing casualties but Bill and other small unit leaders were left to deal with the effects and the resulting mental strain. My father admitted that he and the other veterans felt little emotional attachment to replacements. It made it easier to avoid anguish when the untrained soldiers got killed or wounded, which often happened within a day or so of their arrival. The time pressures of the campaign allowed no time for training. Veteran leaders did their best to get the newbies to perform in combat but they fared poorly. After the regiment was nearly destroyed at Mortain, Bill and his men finally got some days of rest. They used the time to train the replacements and refresh the veterans’ fighting skills. The succeeding weeks spent pursuing the German Army across France and Belgium gave them the opportunity to turn the replacements into infantrymen.

What surprised you most while conducting your research?

How much I didn’t know! After a career as an infantry officer I knew my craft but I discovered that I didn’t know how the U.S. Army fought back in the 1940s. Times, techniques and weapons had changed more than I appreciated. I had to run down copies of the Tables of Organization & Equipment (TO&E) and old field manuals. It took some homework to figure out how the Army of World War II used their weapons and their tactical doctrine. I was further surprised by the deficiencies in the Army’s doctrine and tactical execution. Frankly, the Army was not fully prepared to face such a well-armed, skilled and experienced opponent in the summer of 1944. I gained a greater appreciation for my father and his troops as they displayed ever-improving combat skills and learned to dominate a much-depleted German Army. My father surprised me, too, at least his state of mind did. He became so mission-focused and driven that I could barely reconcile his demeanor with the composed fatherly figure I grew up with. He had pushed emotion out of his mind as he concentrated on winning the war. By the end of the fighting he was so addicted to combat command that he had difficulty dealing with the boredom of occupation duty.

Why do you think the saga of the 4th Infantry Division is comparatively overshadowed?

Overshadowed is the right word to describe the Ivy Division’s reputation. Plenty has been written about the division. Ernie Pyle and Ernest Hemingway traveled with and wrote about them. The men of the Ivy Division sure saw more than their share of action—and casualties. Unfortunately, they were just outside the spotlight. The storyline from D-Day was Omaha Beach, not Utah Beach. Patton’s bold advances excited the public while the Ivy Division slugged its way through Villedieu, St. Pois and Mortain. The French Army freed Paris, though the 12th Infantry Regiment was there, too. Headlines during the Battle of the Bulge concentrated on Bastogne instead of Luxembourg. Everyone was talking about the race to Berlin while the Ivy Division fought ardent SS troops in southern Germany. The 4th Infantry Division suffered the most losses of any division during the Northern European Campaign but the casualties came from sustained, brutal fighting in places the cameras preferred to avoid. Now that so many years have passed the public only recalls the highlights of the war and the popular unit histories that have captured attention. Ask and most people can tell you about the Band of Brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Big Red One or the Rangers that saved Private Ryan. The country has largely forgotten the contributions of the other millions of troops. Think of all the stories that have slipped from the public’s consciousness!

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer or researcher digging into their family history?

Start with the oral history. Memories and recollections are very perishable. Get them on paper! Capture every detail of a story from the veteran him/herself or, if they’ve already passed, from the people who heard the stories firsthand. Each detail is precious when trying to correlate a memory with history. This can be harder than one might expect. Stories of terrible living conditions and quirky incidents away from battle abound. The ones about fighting are more difficult. First person accounts of combat action are extremely personal and intense yet, frustratingly, limited in perspective on the conflict around them. People who go through combat cannot “see” a battle. Soldiers fight from behind trees and bushes, close to the ground. They rarely see anything. They hear plenty, feel the terror and often relate what happens to themselves individually. Recalling exactly where, when and why these things happened can get lost in a blur. As an historian you must keep in mind that you’re hearing a story from someone who was pumped full of adrenaline and nearing complete exhaustion when they experienced the events they describe.

Once the details of the oral history are safely recorded the historian should research the circumstances surrounding the veteran’s service. A trip to a university or large public library will uncover books that describe campaigns, normally from a high level. Nevertheless, the historian needs a firm grip on the big picture before diving down into small unit movements. These historical accounts, if well-documented, often lead the researcher to more specific histories that deserve exploration. Eventually, the historian should look for primary sources to drill down to the level that is meaningful for an individual veteran’s story. Luckily for World War II researchers, the National Archives in College Park, Maryland houses the contemporaneous records of the U.S. Armed Services. These records seldom yield direct statements concerning individual soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines but do provide a tremendous amount of information that can corroborate, or sometimes correct, a veteran’s oral account. A Missing Air Crew Report can spell out the mission, location and circumstances about when a lost relative was shot down. An entry in a unit journal might validate a veteran’s anecdote about the time his tank got stuck in the mud, holding up an attack. An overlay may show the precise spot a field hospital set up when a nurse got wounded by artillery.

A productive, illuminating individual history links the highly specific stories of a veteran to the overall story of the action he/she took part in.

Many thanks to Mr. Chapman for sharing insights on his new book!