Tag Archives: military

596. Memorial Day

My father was the tenth of eleven children. He had brothers and sisters much older than he was, some of whom I never met. The ones I knew were my father, his immediate older and immediate younger brothers. All three were of an age to serve in WW II.

The older brother was a welder. He spent the war working at a bomber plant in Tulsa. I never knew which one. He would have passed through the war on a deferment for someone who was essential to the war effort at home, and so he never entered the military. I didn’t say he never served. Making bombers was service, but he got to sleep in his own bed at night, and nobody was shooting at him.

My father was drafted into the Army, and joined the First Division somewhere in France, not long after D Day. He stepped into the shoes of the ones who had already fallen. He fought across France and into Belgium, where he endured the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded shortly after. When he had recuperated, the war was over and he spent the occupation in Bavaria.

My father’s younger brother was also drafted, probably after VE day. He trained and was put on a troop transport. In his words, “they put me on a ship and sent me over to Japan to die.” While he was crossing the Pacific, America dropped two atomic bombs and the war ended. His service was spent in occupation of Japan.

None of my immediate relatives died in service, but when Memorial Day comes around, I still feel the weight of those who did. I think of Frenchy, a man I never met, who was my father’s friend before I was born, and who died somewhere between France and Germany.

It was a war that had to be fought, and a lot of men never came home.

Two decades later, I was quasi-drafted. That is, my draft lottery number was up, and I joined the Navy to have some kind of say in where I served. Times were different. Viet Nam was a war without justification.

I spent my time working at a Naval Hospital that sits in the middle of Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the place Marines were trained just before deployment to Viet Nam. I was head tech in the oral surgery section, which meant I spent my days chairside assisting our oral surgeons. Over three and a half years, I helped relieve about 5000 marines of their wisdom teeth, helped set about 350 broken jaws, and assisted in about a dozen maxilo-facial reconstructions.

I often wonder how many of the Marines I worked on never made it back.

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593. Flying the Good War


A note before we begin. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 10 liftoff is Saturday, but my post on that event will wait for the anniversary of the descent, next Wednesday.

For Americans, WWII was The Good War. For many of us, it was the last war we could be proud of. It is also the last war we won. There has to be a connection in that somewhere.

My father came home from the war, found a wife and had a son, all in a year. I grew up in the shadow of the war he had just fought. The idea of being a pacifist, or even questioning going into the military never came up for me until much later when America found itself in Viet Nam.

In 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, my cousin and I played refugees escaping to America. In 1962, when the first theatrical movie played on TV, it was The Enemy Below. Our whole family watched together as an American destroyer played a game of wits with a German U-boat. After that, I wanted to join the Navy.

(I did, eventually, but that was an entirely different set of circumstances, and a whole different story.)

That’s how it starts for a boy, and reading can be a big part of the story. A lot of space adventure juveniles are really stories about space navy or space marines. The Bullard and Rip Foster books mentioned about a month ago (post 582) are examples, but they are much toned down compared to the juveniles about WW II, written while we were actually fighting.

God is my Co-pilot wasn’t a juvenile, but it is still that kind of book. During the days just before America entered WWII, Robert Scott was a volunteer pilot fighting the Japanese on behalf of the Chinese. Millennials will have to do a mental reset on that issue; Japan was an industrial powerhouse then, China was a backward country of peasants, and the Japanese attacks were brutal. America’s sentiments were with the Chinese.

Robert Scott wrote his memoir in 1943 and thousands of American kids read it from that time forward. I was one of them. When he shot Japanese planes out of the sky, I cheered him on. But he also strafed soldiers on the ground. That was a little tougher to read about, but they were the enemy, after all. He nicknamed his plane “Old Exterminator” . It was quite a bit different from fifties TV where the cowboy always shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.

Even though Scott’s tone was dispassionate, hating the enemy came through clearly. That was also true of R. Sidney Bowen, who wrote the Dave Dawson series, but there was nothing dispassionate about his way of putting things. For example:

The dark of night had come again to war besieged England, and from the northern most tip of Scotland clear south to the Isle of Wight British eyes and ears were on the alert for any and all surprise moves by Hitler’s devilish hordes on the other side of the English Channel and the North Sea. . . . At Lands End Base, however, there were two who were not waiting for “Satan,” with his trick mustache and ever drooping lock of greasy hair, to make the next move.

The Nazi was almost screaming by the time he finally came to a pause. Dave, looking at his flushed face, spittle drooling mouth, and popping eyes, knew that he was not looking at just one man but at a living symbol of the whole rotten to the core Nazi breed. Just as Air Marshal Manners had said, “Clever, cunning, and a genius at his work, but a black hearted, ruthless murderer.”                         both quotations from Dave Dawson on Convoy Patrol

Like Scott, Bowen had been a military pilot. He started out driving an ambulance during WW I. He later lost that job because he was underaged, returned to the US, and when he turned seventeen, volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He saw limited service as WW I wound down. He then joined the US Army Air Service.

He became a journalist, and later became editor-in-chief of Aviation Magazine. When WW II broke out in Europe, he began the Dave Dawson War Adventure series which produced fifteen volumes during the war. They were still available in one local library when I discovered them fifteen years later.

They weren’t literature. They were really pretty awful. They did have something going for them besides slam-bang action and hyper-patriotism, and that was all the airplanes. Dave and his buddy Freddy were constantly flying different Allied planes, forever getting shot down or parachuting behind enemy lines for reasons of espionage, and always escaping in a captured Nazi or Japanese plane. Over the course of fifteen volumes, they must have flown sixty types of planes.

Whatever Bowen lacked, he knew his planes.

Dave Dawson began as an American volunteer in the RAF, just as Bowen had done one war earlier. When America entered the war, Dave and Freddy bounced back and forth between flying for Britain and flying for America. Eventually, they fought in every theatre, taking young Allied readers with them.

They hated Nazis and they hated Japs (Bowen’s word), but they were never cruel. They would never have strafed troops on the ground, as the real Robert Scott did regularly. In Dave Dawson with the Pacific Fleet, two spies were escaping from the boys’ aircraft carrier, carrying vital information to the Japanese. Dave and Freddy shot down their plane, but the spies parachuted. Dave and Freddy agonized about the situation; the information the spies were carrying could cost American ships and lives, but in the end they could not bring themselves to machine gun the spies as they floated down.

Robert Scott would not have hesitated a heartbeat.

Dave and Freddy couldn’t keep the spies from reaching a pair of Japanese cruisers, but they did manage to singlehandedly sink both ships, killing thousands of Japanese with a clear conscience. (If you think you detect my tongue jammed securely into the corner of my cheek, you are quite right.)

I admit to liking the excitement, the danger, and the mystery of those books, but for me it was mostly about the planes. Before the space race started with Sputnik, I was already in love with hot planes, and there are no hotter planes than military ones. I put those sentiments into the mouth of Snap in Like Clockwork, when he said to Pakrat:

“Weapons of war are the most beautiful machines men build. I don’t know why it is so, but it is.”

The Dave Dawson books are available in an e-book megapack, which I bought while doing this post. I don’t recommend them, but one reviewer said, “I appreciate that they are clean books, but with enough adventure for a boy.”

Okay, maybe. If John Wayne shooting a few hundred Indians to save the fort was good clean fun, so was Dave Dawson.

When I was a kid, I used to watch those cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-ups, but I can’t do that any more. I can still ignore the Dave Dawson book’s failings under the excuse of nostalgia, and read one once in a while when it’s late at night and I’m too tired to think. I’m sure it’s the planes that make the difference.

I don’t see books like these any more, but today’s youth don’t need them to get a military fix. They have video games. (There’s that tongue in cheek again.)

592. Armed Forces Week 2019

Armed Forces Week comes in May. It runs from the second to the third Saturday. The third Saturday is also Armed Forces Day.

As holidays go, Armed Forces Week isn’t particularly notable. Mother’s Day also gets caught up in the mix as the only Sunday in the week. For “right thinking people”, that probably seems appropriate. For those of us whose thinking is always a bit off center, it is ironic.

It all depends on your view of the question of the legitimacy of military force. To a very few (not including me) it is always wrong. To the average American, a simple statement that, “We support our servicemen,” ends the discussion.

It really doesn’t end anything.

We all know, whether we want to admit it or not, that every military organization in history has committed atrocities. If your answer to, “Do you support [fill in the military action of your choice?]”, is “I support our troops.”, you are just avoiding the question.

I have problems with all this. I’m no pacifist, and I believe in defending my country. Still, I see example after example of our government screwing things up and getting our servicemen and women maimed and killed for unsupportable reasons. Viet Nam comes to mind, but the problem didn’t stop when that quasi-war was over.

It hits close to home for me in a rather odd way. My wife and I make quilts, and are members of a local quilt guild. There are several organizations like Quilts of Valor which coordinate the making of quilts to be given to veterans. It would be hard to find any organization which seems more useful and harmless, but I don’t participate. Most people see these organizations’ efforts as support for troops and veterans. I respect that position and I never argue with them, but, for me, it feels too much like validating the jackass generals in all the stupid and useless things they do.

It is the same with  Armed Forces week. Most people see it as an appreciation of our soldiers and sailors, but it looks to me like a smoke screen. It tends to make legitimate questions about American military actions look like a lack of patriotism.

I came to this opinion when I was in the service. To clarify that, it was in the Viet Nam era, but I was not deployed to Viet Nam itself.

And it all starts with boot camp. I wrote a post about that experience for Armed Forces Week of 2016, That was three years ago when the blog was new and not many people were reading. I repeated it two years ago, so I won’t print it again, but if you want to know what I think of that institution,  go to 432. The Making of a Navyman.

586. Slogging Toward Space

One of the things I have to offer is a viewpoint that reaches back half way through the twentieth century. That can be a problem, actually. I don’t want to talk about the good old days. Fortunately, I never thought the good old days were all that good. They were, however, both exciting and hard.

It has become almost cliché to point out how little computing power the Apollo 11 computer had, but there are a thousand other instruments which we take for granted now, which were also not available during the early space program. I used a few of them myself, early on.

Some of these instruments became fossilized into early science fiction, as in Slip-stick Libby, one of Heinlein’s regular characters. Slip-stick was a slang term for a slide rule, an instrument of sliding scales which was used in computation. It was only good for estimating to about three significant figures. I learned to use one in high school in 1966. Early Texas Instrument portable calculators made them obsolete a few years later, although you will still see them in use at Mission Control when things began to go bad in the movie Apollo 13.

Another nearly obsolete instrument from the Apollo era is the theodolite. I learned to use one in the same class. We took it out to the back lot of the school for some practical examples of the uses of trigonometry. We didn’t call it a theodolite, however. We called it a transit, which is somewhat less accurate. Real surveyors called it a gun.

A transit measures elevations and angles. You level the instrument on its tripod and align it to true north, then you look through a telescopic sight, with crosshairs, at a distant target, usually a rod with red and white inch markings.

(We’re talking sixties here — everything in America was in inches, feet, and miles.)

This instrument was used in surveying everything from house foundations to radar installations before lasers replaced them. It gave you direction. It didn’t give you distance. For that you walked, dragging a measuring device called a chain.

The dictionary will tell you that a chain is a unit of length equal to 66 feet, subdivided into 100 links. It may not tell you that a chain (of length) was represented by a heavy, physical, steel chain that the rod man dragged behind him — for thousands of miles during a career.

Today, laser radar does it all.

An alidade or plane table worked like a transit except that it was attached to a narrow steel plate which moved freely on a plywood table. It was used for mapping. You would slide the alidade around on the table, over a sheet of paper, take your sightings, and use the edge of its base as a ruler. It allowed you to  draw a map as you went. I used one of them two years after high school at an archaeological site in Bay City, Michigan.

To fully understand what a tremendous undertaking the space program was, you should remember that a line of radio/radar stations was built all around the world to track spacecraft in orbit. At the same time, the same Russian missiles which scared American into the space race had to be watched for. A line of radar installations (the DEW — distant early warning — line) was built across Canada for that purpose.

The building of these two sets of installations was an immense undertaking. Even before the first foundation was laid, the positioning of these instruments had to be determined to the highest possible tolerances. This was done by survey engineers working with transits and doing their calculations by hand, with rod men dragging chains. A slide rule might provide estimates, but after that it was paper, pencil, and mathematical tables — which had themselves been calculated by hand.

The word calculator first meant a person who calculated such tables. By hand.

These engineers didn’t all come from Harvard, or other prestige colleges. There were thousands of them, possibly tens of thousands, and they came from every college in America. Bear that in mind as we contemplate the present college entry cheating scandals.

Speaking of which — prestige colleges my &#^$%!  Math is math, whether you learn it at USC or Palomar Junior College.

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I want to introduce you to a survey engineer you have never heard of. He is a distant in-law, a fine man I only met once. I ran across a decades old newspaper clipping of his obituary the other day, and it triggered this post.

I’m appending a copy of that clipping, minus family matters, to give you an idea of how the space race, and the missile defense of America, looked from the mud below. The gentleman’s name was William Mussetter.

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Mr. Mussetter graduated from Willmington College in 1917 and also attended Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. He retired after working 40 years in government service as an astronomical geodetic engineer. He served with the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, Army Map Services, InterAmerican Geodetic Survey United States Department of Foreign Services where he worked in many different countries.

Mr. Mussetter was a veteran of World War I, serving as a second lieutenant. In World War II he served as a captain and taught artillery.

At the end of the World War II, Mussetter received a call from Washington, D. C. He was assigned to head a survey group to be based in Panama and to work in south America, principally on the west coast of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia to Venezuela. This project lasted four years.

The Mussetters came home to Wilmington and he worked with the Ohio State University doing contract research for the U.S. Air Force. There was a need to connect the continents of the world, locating them with respect to each other, then to lay out guided missile courses from Cape Canaveral to the Bahamas. [This means during the early testing of IRBMs and ICBMs, before they began to be used to launch space vehicles. The same tracks were used through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. See 578. That Odd Spiral.]

In 1953, he transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to define the Earth’s parameters, its diameters, flatness at the Poles and other data. [We are talking about building the DEW line here.]

He worked with a survey team measuring the arc of the Meridian at 30 degrees East Longitude from the Mediterranean Sea at Egypt to South Africa, down through Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, and into North Rhodesia; 4800 miles. [Many of these names no longer exist.] He also did some survey work for the Aswan Dam on the Nile River.

In 1964 he was sent to Antarctica, to Byrd Station, and the South Pole.

He had retired in 1964, but during the last four months of 1964, he worked in Peru, S. A. on a contract for a hydro-electric project; and in 1966 he was sent back to Afghanistan for three months, to inspect the work that was begun in 1961, and complete the Tri-lateration of Afghanistan.

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All this without a computer. Imagine that.

583. Mutually Assured Destruction

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and every year I taught the manned space program. It was never called for in the required curriculum, but I always managed to shoehorn it in while still teaching everything I was required to. It wasn’t just because I loved the subject, although I did. There were plenty of things in science that I loved but never mentioned.

The plain fact is that seventh graders don’t listen unless you excite them, and the manned space program was exciting.

Here is a schtick I used in my middle-school classroom all through the eighties and nineties. The subject was, “What motivated Americans who didn’t care about space to spend billions to outrun the Russians in the Space Race?”

I would choose two pushy, self-assured young guys and call them to the front of the room. I would put them face to face, about ten feet apart, and say, “Now, imagine each of you has a .45 automatic, and each of you hates the other one. We’ll call one of you America and the other Russia. I don’t want to insult you, so I won’t say which is which.

“Point your guns at each other. (They would gleefully assume the position.) If either one of you fires, the other will have just time enough to pull the trigger, too. You will both go down. If you sneeze, though, you’re a goner. If you blink, you’re a goner. If you look away, same thing.

“Now hold that pose for fifty years.”

Clearly, I couldn’t get away with that today, but this was pre-Columbine. My kids were thinking about cops and robbers, not  a terrorist who was out to kill them.

Do I have to point out that the guns represented the American and Soviet nuclear armed arsenal of missiles? It was a demonstration of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known by its entirely appropriate acronym MAD. If either side had attained an overwhelming superiority in number of missiles, the delicate balance would have been disrupted. Witness the Soviet’s parading their missiles in Moscow, and taking them several times around the block to look like they had more than they did.

The balance could be disrupted by having missiles closer to the enemy than the enemy did to us. Witness secret American missile bases in Turkey, on the Soviet border, which led them to put missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not an unprovoked Soviet threat.

The balance would have also been disrupted by an effective missile defense system. There is no such thing as defensive in the MAD scenario.

What does this have to do with space travel? Two things, one positive and one negative. The entire business was a race for the nuclear high ground. If either side had managed to put an orbital missile platform into orbit, it would have been bad news for the other side. That was not possible, so each side tried to maximize their capabilities in space while proving to the hundred plus other nations on the Earth that they were the firstest with the mostest.

I would repeat that in Russian if I could write Cyrillic.

All this turned into the Space Race, culminating in a manned lunar landing, It’s nice that something good came out of all that nonsense.

The other side of the coin was a reinforcement of fear of nukes, whether it was bombs, powerplants, or space drives. In the fiction of the sixties, the solar system was filled with nuclear powered spacecraft. In the real world, fear killed the idea.

Should we have nuclear spacecraft? I think so, but it isn’t for me to say. It isn’t for you to say, either. It isn’t even for the people to say.

Why? Because we’ve shifted our focus from the Russians to the Chinese.

If history is a guide, we will have a nuclear spacecraft — a few years after the Chinese launch their first one. We’ll be running behind and playing catch-up as usual.

Remember Sputnik?

571. Nothing New Under the Sun

There is nothing new under the sun, but the old things keep coming back to poke you in the eye, and it all seems interconnected.

On MLK day I talked about growing up and shaking off racism. Then I talked about America’s love affair with great men who really aren’t all that great.

That led to a back and forth in the comments in which I talked about trying to teach truth in American schools, by using the space program as an example. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to remind my younger readers of the incredible reality of what was happening fifty years ago in space exploration.

On President’s Day and we looked at the last half century’s sad and depressing crop of leaders.

Then it all came together in one coincidental discovery. I bought a copy of Apollo in Perspective by Jonathan Allday to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, and found this inserted as an epilog:

Men who have worked together to reach the stars are not likely to descend together into the depths of war and desolation. Lyndon B. Johnson, 1958

I need to insert three paragraphs of blank space here, to express my incredulity.

In 1958, Sputnik had just been launched. America was in a panic. The bureaucrats and the military were fighting (as usual) and the result was that American satellites were not being launched. The space program had begun in fear, riding on rockets which had been designed to carry nuclear warheads, and fueled by the terror those same warheads represented. Men were not working together to reach space; countries were working against each other for the best capacity to wage war.

Not only was every word in the quotation a lie, it was all a set of lies that no one could have believed, even then. Every word was the exact opposite of the truth, even as contemporary Americans understood the truth.

And all this from Lyndon Johnson, who would, a decade later, give us the Viet Nam war.

It seems that the greatest of our achievements and the most poignant of our failures remain inexorably intertwined. I guess that’s the human condition, but it’s hard to take sometimes.

568. Presidents Day

I agonized over this post more than any in memory. I am not completely cynical, and the presidents I address, even the worst of them, also did things worthy of the office. I came back to this post a dozen times after I wrote it to ask myself, “Do I really want to say these things?” The answer is, “No.” But I will say them anyway, because the truth is the truth.

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Presidents Day. Humm.

We used to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday, and ignored the rest of them. That wasn’t such a bad system. It allowed us to avoid linking Andrew Jackson with his betters.

How about our recent Presidents? Should we celebrate them?

John Kennedy. I have a friend who grew up in Boston and would punch out anyone who spoke against JFK, but let’s tally up what he really did. He lost the Bay of Pigs by abandoning the Cuban insurgents he had encouraged. He faced Khruschchev over the Cuban Missile crisis so let’s give credit for that, but he also sent Americans to Vietnam. Kennedy supporters claim he would have pulled out, if he had lived, but who knows. The jury will always be out of what might have happened.

Lyndon Johnson. He has massive accomplishments pushing through Kennedy’s programs and his own War on Poverty, but he also lied to the American people, lied to Congress, and conducted a secret war including massive bombings outside Vietnam. He, and Nixon after him, are responsible for over three million unnecessary  deaths. There is no responsible way to avoid calling him a war criminal.

Richard Nixon. Watergate, of course; it hardly needs repeating. He also opened up China and got us out of Vietnam by declaring that our defeat was a victory, and then running like hell. I really don’t know what else anyone could have done by that time, but why did he wait all those years and waste all those lives before telling the Big Lie? Maybe to win a second term.

Gerald Ford. They say his pardon saved the country from division and heartache. I say it only gave later Presidents bad ideas that should have been squelched fifty years ago by trying Nixon for his crimes.

Jimmy Carter. An attack on an embassy is an attack on American soil, but Carter sat impotent in the White House through the Iran hostage crisis.

Ronald Reagan. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Trickle down economics that never trickled down. Also the Iran-Contra affair in which Regan himself avoided punishment but fourteen members of his administration were indicted.

George H. W. Bush. “Read my lips.” Actually, going back on his promise regarding taxes was an act of courage that probably cost him a second term. That honorable act was sullied when he pardoned those convicted in Iran-Contra.

Bill Clinton. Plenty of good ideas, but we just remember him as the man who couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

George W. Bush. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, and other stumble-statements too numerous to list and too painful to remember.

Barack Obama. I like the man, but I spend eight years cussing under my breath at some of the foolish things he did.

Donald Trump. I once said I didn’t consider Trump evil, just foolish. Subsequent events suggest that I was probably wrong. His fake declaration of emergency pretty much clinches matters.

Were these the best men in America?

Let’s celebrate President’s Day by taking a hard look at what’s coming our way in 2020. They don’t all look good. Let’s vow to make better choices for the future.

Lincoln and Washington, where are you?