soldiers

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Weapons of warfare have changed over the years, but one of the strangest fighting systems was during World War I, when the planes were not as sophisticated as planes are today. They were slow and at that time, they did not have the guns attached to the planes. Of course they were usually two-seaters, so unlike the World War II planes that had a pilot exclusively assigned to fly the plane, both occupants of the plane had to shoot, or they would be shot down. That was how war was. Kill or be killed.

The problem of not having guns attached to the plane was really one of control. There was the problem of controlling the plane with shots being fired all around you and no protection in the open cockpit. Then there was controlling the guns in the wind of flight. Not to mention the shots being fired at the open cockpit. The guns the soldiers had on these early planes were carbines and pistols…to take down a war plane…yikes. Of course, there were other problems too. Trying to shoot at the enemy from the cockpit of the plane, the soldier had to be careful not to shoot off the propeller. That would definitely be problematic.

Really, I can’t imagine being a pilot in that war era. You would really be taking your life in your own hands…even more so than the men who flew in later eras, who were also in grave danger, but maybe a little less so. Imagine being the co-pilot in the plane when your pilot is waving his gun around trying to hit the planes flying around you. If the soldier shooting could shoot off the propeller, they could just as easily shoot the other occupant of the plane. I suppose that the pilots fighting in World War I would say that they were just doing their duty, but it seems to me that their “duty” took great courage. Of course, any soldier, no matter what their duty, does their duty, and it always takes great courage. Any soldier must exhibit great courage in battle. There is no way to go into battle and not be concerned for your safety. And thankfully, as time goes on, weapons of warfare are getting more advanced at being effective, while protecting the soldier in the fight.

Of course, those old biplanes had some advantages too. The open cockpit design allowed for easy spying. They could also see the enemy better, and it was easier to drop bombs in those planes, but the later planes made for easier shooting with the attached gun, multiple guns, and the nose guns of the men below the pilots. I’m thankful for the many improvements that have made it easier for our soldiers to come home alive.

The United States is a great nation, but it would be very hard for a nation to remain great, if that nation did not have a strong military. These days, national security is not guaranteed. That makes our military men and women absolutely essential. All too often, I don’t think we give our veterans the respect and recognition they deserve.

Veterans and soldiers are unique characters. Most of us are not interested in running off to some other country at the drop of a hat to defend people we don’t even know. Nevertheless, when a people are being oppressed, it is a soldier who is called to defend them. These soldiers leave their homes and families, often for months at a time, and go off to another country to defend strangers. They miss births, first steps, school plays, graduations, and so much more. They miss tucking their children in at night, dropping them off at school in the morning, watching their sporting events, and having weekend barbecues, just to name a few. By the time they have left the military, their children are often mostly grown up. It is time they can never get back, and yet they consider it time well spent, because they did their duty and they saved lives. What more could we ask of them?

Veterans Day is a day when we honor those who served and upon their discharge, came back home. In this case, while it does honor veterans who have gone to their Heavenly home, it is not about those killed in action. Theirs is a different day…Memorial Day, the day we remember those lost in battle. All of these men and women served their country and the world, but a veteran came home and lived out their life…hopefully with all their limbs attached, but many times that was not to be either. Those veterans, and those with PTSD need our help badly, but all veterans, no matter what the outcome of their service was, deserve our complete and total respect. Veterans Day began on November 11, 1919, making this year the 101st anniversary of that date. To all those among us who served, thank you for your service, and to those veterans who have gone home, including my dad, Allen Spencer and many family members, I thank you!! Happy Veterans Day.

When we think of war, we think mostly of battle, but we should also think of the spies that gather intel. Most often, spies are men and women who have been carefully trained to avoid the enemy, and very possibly to live among the enemy without being detected, so they can hear the plans of the enemy and pass the information to the intelligence community, so it can be used against the enemy so as to win the war. There is, however, another kind of spy that has long been used in war, and was used especially during World War I and World War II…the pigeon. Now this is a spy I would have never have imagined.

The reason pigeons caught the attention of the military was that they were trained to fly home…from wherever they were dropped off. I have no idea how they can do that, but they can and do. The spy pigeons went in as Operation Columba, during some of the bloodiest years of World War II. The idea was to drop cages attached to parachutes into the occupied areas of France, with the hope that the people and resistance members, as well as soldiers could attach messages with critical intel on the enemy locations to the pigeons, who would then be sent back to their home base. There, soldiers would be waiting to get the messages to the intelligence community. The plan was perfect, but very risky for the pigeons. So many dangers awaited them…the guns of the enemy, not being found and dying in the cage, and one most of us wouldn’t think of…hungry people. The operation, on its face, was deceptively simple. The British planes dropped 16,000 homing pigeons over occupied Europe during the course of the war, parachuted in small baskets with rice paper, containing a list of questions to be answered by civilians who found them, tucked into canisters tied to their legs. Then the pigeons were to be sent home. Many were lost to the perils in their way, but there were a good number who made it back. A some were decorated with the Dickin Medal for their service…32 pigeons in all were awarded the medal. Pigeon Soldiers like “Winkie” (1943), “Commando” (1944), “Paddy” (1944), “William of Orange” (1944), Mary of Exeter (1945), “G.I. Joe” (1946), Gustav (1944), and Beach Comber (1944), just to name a few. The homing pigeons were donated by their owners…no small sacrifice when you consider that so many lost their lives during the operation. Still, like their human counterparts, the pigeons did their duty, and made their owners proud.

The pigeons did other work, besides just delivering messages. The military equipped some with tiny cameras and they pigeons took reconnaissance photos as they flew back to their home base. The military didn’t have drones in those days, and planes flying “low and slow” would surly be shot down, so the pigeons served as drones in their day too. Most of us think of homing pigeons as being a hobby, and I suppose it started out as that for most of the handlers, but then they grew to love their pigeons…just like family. Each loss was felt deeply, and each successful return met with great relief. They were proud of their very special soldiers, and we as a nation should be too. It gives me a whole new view of pigeons, which I have always enjoyed watching whenever I am in downtown Casper, where we have a beautiful flock of them that grace the skies above town…dipping and soaring high above the buildings, as if in play, but we should remember that at any time, they could be called upon to serve in a different capacity, if the need arose.

I am sometimes amazed at the ability of humans to be heinously cruel to other human beings. From murders, to slave owners, to prisons or prisoner of war camps, man has the ability to act out evil in its purest form. Still, one would not have expected such evil in the American Revolutionary War era. Well, one would be wrong. We all know that war is a horrific event, but worse than losing life and limb in battle, seems to be the fate faced by those who are captured by the enemy forces, only to be tortured and even killed.

During the Revolutionary War, being captured by the British often meant being sent to a prison ship, the worse of which was the HMS Jersey. Over the years of the war, approximately 11,000 prisoners of war perished on the HMS Jersey. The number of American field casualties during that war was approximately 4,500. That is a stunning difference. The HMS Jersey often held thousands of prisoners at one time, in quarters that were so close, that it could be likened to being packed in like sardines in a tin. There was no light, no medical care, barely any oxygen, and very little in the way of food and clean water. The guards on the prison ships were not concerned with keeping their prisoners alive, and HMS Jersey was the worst of them all.

The little food the prisoners were given was moldy, putrefied, and worm infested. The prisoners had to choose daily to eat the horrible food, or starve. One prisoner Ebenezer Fox, who survived said, “The bread was mostly mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck, before these worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit. As for the pork, we were cheated out of it more than half the time, and when it was obtained one would have judged from its motley hues, exhibiting the consistence and appearance of variegated soap, that it was the flesh of the porpoise or sea hog, and had been an inhabitant of the ocean, rather than a sty. The provisions were generally damaged, and from the imperfect manner in which they were cooked were about as indigestible as grape shot.” That pretty much says it all, I would say. The British soldiers were seemingly unaffected by the image of prisoners banging their biscuits against the deck to remove worms, because this treatment continued throughout the conflict.

Because the prisoners were kept at sea, the smell of a piece of dirt from the shoes of a soldier back from shore leave became one of the prisoners’ greatest delights. I guess that one can always find some good, even in the worst situations, if one looks for it. Captain Dring, a survivor who wrote prolifically about his experiences on the Jersey, recalled one particularly strange consolation. When someone died on the ship, their remains were usually thrown overboard, but occasionally they were allowed to be taken ashore and laid to rest. Dring was part of a group that was tasked with digging graves on land. The men chosen for this duty were ecstatic to be on land again. Dring even took off his boots simply to feel the earth underneath his feet. However, when the crew came across a piece of broken-up turf, they did something extraordinary: “We went by a small patch of turf, some pieces of which we tore up from the earth, and obtained permission to carry them on board for our comrades to smell them. Circumstances like these may appear trifling to the careless reader; but let him be assured that they were far from being trifles to men situated as we had been. Sadly did we approach and reenter our foul and disgusting place of confinement. The pieces of turf which we carried on board were sought for by our fellow prisoners, with the greatest avidity, every fragment being passed by them from hand to hand, and its smell inhaled as if it had been a fragrant rose.”

The known fate of the men on board the prison ships, and especially HMS Jersey was a slow and painful death. Most knew better than to expect to survive their ordeal. They had seen too many of their comrades die right before their eyes, to have much hope that they could make it out. To make mattes worse, the majority of the prisoners aboard the Jersey were young, inexperienced farmhands, not hardened soldiers with survival experience. Only a few of Washington’s army were soldiers with any experience. The rest were provincial people, and many had never traveled beyond the limits of the small county where they lived. Imagine the horror of war, and then the conditions on HMS Jersey to the young, innocent men. The constant punishment, meager rations, lack of light, and lack of privacy could be tolerated, but the inactivity and helplessness most likely added depression and despair to their suffering. Times were different then, and there were things that were not available, but many of the things the prisoners suffered could have been avoided, especially the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, but apparently they just didn’t care.

Wearing a white armband with the red cross signifying that a soldier is a medic, did not guarantee their safety in combat. Bombs raining down from the sky could not distinguish the target as a medic when they fell, nor could bullets shot from the guns of the enemy. Nevertheless, they ran into the line of fire at the cry of, “Medic!!” Of course, they were scared. They knew that, at that moment, their life expectancy was about one minute. They had to dodge the bullets and bombs just to do their job. Most of us can’t imagine the fear they must have felt. Still, in that moment, they were the only thing standing between the wounded soldiers and certain death. Soldiers were stunned to see a medic running through the machine gun fire just to put a tourniquet on the battered arm of the wounded soldier. The medic risked his own life to save the lives of others.

The medics received the same combat training as the other infantrymen, but they didn’t carry a weapon. Imagine finding yourself in the middle of a war zone and all you have with you is a first aid kit. The idea, I’m sure, is that the soldiers will protect the medics, but can they really. The soldiers are fighting for their own lives. It’s not that they don’t want to protect the medics or their fellow soldiers, but rather that they can’t. They are too busy fighting off the enemy.

Often the men who went in as medics were volunteer conscientious objectors. I don’t know if they realized that a conscientious objector didn’t get out of the war, but rather just didn’t get a gun…for shooting or for protection. Something like that would make me reconsider conscientious objection. I’m not one that wants to kill people, but self defense is another thing entirely. When medics went through their training, the other soldiers were rather negative toward them, often calling them “pill pushers,” but all their disdain disappeared when they saw the medics in action on the battlefield. The medics were right there beside the soldiers in the foxholes. They were with them as they advanced during offensives. Then, while the fighting raged, they went between lines attending to the wounded. They disregarded the danger to themselves, and did their duty. The tools of their trade were limited. Often their examination would be followed with a tourniquet and a morphine injection, before cleaning the wound and sprinkling sulfa powder on it. Then they bandaged the wound and dragged the wounded soldier off the field…all in a matter of minutes or less.

Medics were protected by the Geneva Convention, but the Red Cross that was displayed on their helmet, was a practice that was abandoned during the Vietnam War. Believe it or not, the cross on the helmet became a target for the enemy. By then, medics also had weapons…just for protection, but my guess is that they were probably glad they had it, but not so in World War II. Armed or not, many were severely injured or killed while attending to the wounded, and that made them a unique kind of hero.

There a number of ways for a soldier to be killed in a war, but we very seldom think of an avalanche as one of them. Nevertheless, on Dec 13, 1916, hundreds of Austrian soldiers in a barracks near Italy’s Mount Marmolada, were killed when a powerful avalanche came sweeping over them. As shocking as this seems, over a period of several days, avalanches in the Italian Alps killed an estimated 10,000 Austrian and Italian soldiers that December.

The avalanches occurred as the Austrians and Italians were fighting World War I, but some witnesses claimed that the avalanches were purposefully caused to use as a weapon. I suppose that could be a possibility, but there was little evidence to prove that theory. Nevertheless, it is possible that avalanches could have been used as an unusual weapon of war at times during the war. It would make sense to use whatever was at your disposal, and the heavy snow could be an easy weapon of mass destruction.

The Italians entered World War I on the side of Britain, France, and Russia against Germany and Austria-Hungary in late April 1915. Over the next three years, a series of bloody battles between the Italian army and the Austrians occurred in the mountainous region along the Isonzo River near the Italian-Austrian border. The weather conditions in the mountains were often a bigger hazard than the actual fighting. An Austrian officer once said “The mountains in winter are more dangerous than the Italians.” This was certainly true in mid-December 1916 when heavy snowfall in the Alps created conditions ripe for avalanches. That left hundreds of Austrian troops, who were stationed in a barracks near the Gran Poz summit of Mount Marmolada, in particular danger. The camp there was well-placed to protect it from Italian attack, but it was vulnerable because it was situated directly under a mountain of unstable snow. The approximately 200,000 tons of snow, rock, and ice plunged down the mountain directly onto the barracks on December 13, killing 300 soldiers. About 200 soldiers were pulled to safety, but of the dead, only a few bodies were recovered.

As heavy snow and high winds continued over the next week, incidents like the one at Marmolada continued to happen with disturbing frequency. Entire regiments were lost in an instant. Some of the bodies of victims weren’t found until spring. The best estimate of the losses incurred that fateful December is somewhere between 9,000 and 10,000 soldiers…a shocking number for a weapon of mass destruction that we wouldn’t have ever expected to be a weapon of war at all.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world without wars, so our soldiers are a vital part of our national security. Of course, we hope and pray that all of our soldiers will eventually come home from war, be discharged from military service, and become veterans. Sadly that is not always the case. For those who do not come home, we have Memorial Day, to honor their memory. Veteran’s Day, however, is a day to honor those who served, and then came home and went back to their lives. For those who are veterans, we take this opportunity to thank them for their service and their sacrifice, because they did sacrifice. They left their families at home, and went out to fight for people they don’t even know, and probably never will. We, here at home, have no way to really repay them for their acts of selflessness, so all we can do is thank them for their service. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem enough. How could we possibly repay them? We can never give them back the lost time with family, the memories, the births of children, and the multiple firsts that go with them. Those things are gone forever for the soldier, because they chose to go out and protect their country, and the people in it.

Our soldiers are an amazing group of people…the best in the world. They have blessed the people of this nation in so many ways. Their service goes beyond just fighting a war. They show kindness to the people in war ravaged countries, sometimes risking their own lives to do so. The biggest problems with civilians in war zones, is that you never truly know if the people you meet need help, or if they are out to kill you. Nevertheless, our soldiers set aside the worries and fears, and go out to do their duty. That is what makes us proud. We wish it was unnecessary for them to go, but we are thankful when they do, because we know that we are safer.

I wish all our soldiers could come home and that peace on earth could become a reality, but that is not to be. Nevertheless, to all our veterans, I thank you for your time in the service. We would not be where we ar today without you. Happy Veterans Day to all of you, from a grateful nation!!

As I have researched the infantry soldiers of World War II, my thought was that I was really thankful that my dad, Allen Spencer was not one of those men on the ground during the fighting. I felt bad for those men who were on the ground, fighting from the foxholes. I still do, because they were in constant danger. Bombs fall from the sky, and bullets fly from across the battlefield. If those things didn’t kill a soldier, the freezing cold, trench foot, or dysentery from the horribly unsanitary conditions could. It seemed that my dad’s situation was by far safer, but now, I’m not so sure that’s true.

The book I had been listening to, that took in World War II from D-Day to The Battle of the Bulge, talked mostly about the ground war, but then at the end, the reader said something that really struck me. It was about the look that crossed the face of a bomber crew’s faces before certain missions…those that would inevitably find the plane flying through flak. The look was one of fear. I knew flak was dangerous, but somehow I didn’t really connect flak with bringing down a plane, or seriously injuring its occupants. Nevertheless, it is quite dangerous for them.

As I researched the dangers of flak, a shocking revelation made itself known. I had written a story about the life expectancy of the ball turret gunner. My findings were that that life expectancy was about 12 seconds. That may be true when one is talking about the prospect of being shot, but when it comes to flak, that cannot be said. Apparently, where flak is concerned, the best place to be is in the plexiglass structure of the ball turret. Plexiglass holds up better against flak than other areas of the plane, so the ball turret gunner is much more protected…at least from flak. The same cannot be said for the bullets flying through the area. I was thankful that my dad was not a ball turret gunner, and that he only filled in as a waist gunner periodically. The waist gunners were in the open, where protection from bullets, and from flak was minimal…at best, non-existent at worst. I can’t imagine how those memories must have affected my dad, but in the book I listened to, the main reason many of the men didn’t want to talk about their experiences in World War II, or any war, was because talking about it brought those memories flooding in again.

After researching flak, and how it works, I can see why the men would get a look of fear on their faces as they prepared to go through areas anti-aircraft weapons shooting flak into the air. Some men said that they could see the red hot glow in the center of the flak, if it was very close. That tells me that it was like a small explosive devise. No wonder it could bring so much damage to a plane. I had known that flak could put holes in the fuselage, but somehow I hadn’t tied that with bringing down a plane. I surmise that it was the B-17 bomber top turret gunner’s daughter in me that wouldn’t allow me to place that danger around my dad. I didn’t want to think about the dangers of his every mission in World War II. My mind seems to have placed his plane in a bubble or a force field, so that no danger could come near him. I think every veteran wonders why they were spared, when others didn’t make it back home. I don’t think anyone can answer that question. As a Christian, I have to credit God for bringing my future dad home.

World War II had dragged on for almost six years, when the United States took things to the next, and as it turns out, final level. For quite some time, Japan had been one of the forces to be reckoned with. Now, with so much new technology, a plan has begun to form to put an end to this war, once and for all. The Japanese had no idea what was coming…how the 6th of August, 1945 would change things forever.

That August 6th in 1945 dawned like any other day, but at it’s end, the world would find that everything had changed. The power to destroy whole cities in an instant was in our hands. At 8:16am, an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The ensuing explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, a second B-29 dropped another A-bomb on Nagasaki, killing an estimated 40,000 people. With these two events, it was very clear that the nations had the ability to bring mass destruction. Hopefully, they would also have the compassion, not to do it.

With such a show of power, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s unconditional surrender to the Japanese people in World War II in a radio address on August 14th, citing the devastating power of “a new and most cruel bomb” as the reason Japan could no longer stand against the Allies. I’m sure the war-ravaged people of Japan were almost relieved. Of course, that meant that they did not know what their future would bring, but the recent past hadn’t been so great either, so they didn’t have too much to lose really.

Japan’s War Council, urged by Emperor Hirohito, submitted a formal declaration of surrender to the Allies, on August 10, but the fighting continued between the Japanese and the Soviets in Manchuria and between the Japanese and the United States in the South Pacific. During that time, a Japanese submarine attacked the Oak Hill, an American landing ship, and the Thomas F. Nickel, an American destroyer, both east of Okinawa. On August 14, when Japanese radio announced that an Imperial Proclamation was coming soon, in which Japan would accept the terms of unconditional surrender drawn up at the Potsdam Conference. The news did not go over well. More than 1,000 Japanese soldiers stormed the Imperial Palace in an attempt to find the proclamation and prevent its being transmitted to the Allies. Soldiers still loyal to Emperor Hirohito held off the attackers. That evening, General Anami, the member of the War Council most adamant against surrender, committed suicide. His reason was to atone for the Japanese army’s defeat, and he refused to hear his emperor speak the words of surrender. I guess the surrender was not a relief to everyone.

For many years, my husband, Bob Schulenberg and I have gone to the Black Hills to celebrate Independence Day. It has been our tradition for about 30 years. This year, things got changed up a bit. Our daughter, Amy Royce and her husband Travis invited us to come to Washington to spend the holiday with them. We will be watching the fireworks display at Semiahmoo Bay on the 4th. Bob and I went there a couple of years ago when we spent Thanksgiving with Amy’s family. The bay is beautiful, and I’m sure it will be even more fun in the summertime warmth…although it wasn’t very cold in November. We have never seen fireworks set off over water, so that will definitely be something new, and something about which we are very excited.

Celebrating our nation’s independence has always been a favorite holiday for Bob and me. We love everything about it. The fireworks take my thoughts back to history lessons, of the Revolutionary War. The rockets shot at ships, and the fighting that took place because we were a nation ready to be our own country. The fighting was sometimes brutal, but it was necessary. The patriots willingly gave their lives for the cause of independence. The fighting took place on land and water, and yet we have never seen fireworks over the water…until now. In my mind, I can see the ships from the Revolutionary War out in the bay. I can imagine the fireworks are the rockets, and the war is real. Nevertheless, I am glad that it isn’t really real, because I would not want our soldiers to have to relive that, but I can feel like a mouse in the corner, watching as history unfolds in front of my eyes…at least I can imagine it.

Of course, the fireworks aren’t the real thing, but rather just reminder of what our nation and the soldiers who fought for our independence, went through. My imagination of happened is just that…a figment of my imagination, because those events are long in the past. Still, I don’t believe that we should ever forget the lessons of war. There is always a reason we go to war…a wrong that must be made right, tyranny that must be stopped, killing that must be squashed, and slaves who must be made free. Good nations don’t go to war for evil purposes. I believe that the most important lesson to be taken away from any war, is that we must never trust our enemies, and even more importantly, we must never allow the enemy to infiltrate our nation and our government. Happy Independence Day to our great nation…the United States of America. Forever may our flag fly and forever may our nation stand.

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