Friday, July 30, 2010


The story about which I write today – on the 65th anniversary of its occurrence – is one which I revisit each year at this time because of the impact it had on me at the age of twelve, and because its fascination factor is only magnified by the confluence of so many ripples and eddies of history. In June of 1945, World War II in Europe was over, and the boys were coming home. The War in the Pacific was gearing up for the final push toward the Japanese home islands, and a transition in military priorities was obvious across America.
For one thing, the mighty Eighth Air Force, whose B-17s and B-24s had hammered the Axis powers from bases in England and elsewhere was being broken up, and its personnel by the thousands were slated to be reconfigured into a “New 8th Air Force” taking shape in the American West and Mid-west, at bases where many air crews were being retrained in the new and larger B-29 Superfortress.
To understand the bitter-sweet nature of this “homecoming” for the flyboys of the Mighty Eighth, one has to consider what they were leaving behind. 45,000 of their comrades would not be coming home again ever, and those who had survived the deadly skies over Germany and occupied Europe had been welded into nine-and-ten-man crews whose intimate unit cohesion knew no parallel in modern warfare. From early 1942 to the end of fighting in 1945, much of the Eighth were scattered among bases situated throughout the countryside of England’s East Anglia, adjacent to small villages with names like Rattlesden, Old Buckenham, Bury St. Edmunds, Grafton Underwood, and Polbrook. More than 40 U.S. Bomber Command fields, carved out of English farmland were home to at least one operational Group each, composed of four squadrons of twelve bombers per Group.
One of those air combat veterans coming home in June, 1945 was Lt. Col. William Franklin Smith, Jr., who during his two-year combat tour had risen from 1st Lieutenant to Lt. Colonel, having served as Commander of the 750th Squadron, and then Deputy Commander of the entire 457th Bomb Group flying out of an AAAF field at Glatton. He had accumulated more than 1000 hours of mission time, and witnessed the planning and execution of 236 missions during those 24 months. A graduate of West Point, and a popular and widely-respected leader, he had been awarded the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He was 27 years of age as he planned a routine flight through civilian air space on July 28, 1945.
Compared to destinations like Berlin, Merseburg and Schweinfurt, the flight from Boston to New Jersey probably appeared to hold no particular threat to Smith’s plan to pick up his Commanding Officer at Newark, so that together they could proceed to their new stateside assignment at Sioux Falls Army Air Base in South Dakota. This time, he would not have to wrestle with the controls of a four engine heavy bomber like the B-17, but would be flying the fast, twin-engine B-25 Mitchell, retired from tactical combat roles, but much favored for short-range transportation between bases in the states. Fittingly, this plane, with the tail number -0577, was named “Old John Feather Merchant” a vernacular terminology among the military for someone who preferred to carry a light load, or do less than their share. Traveling with him was one crew member, and a “hitch-hiker” from the Navy.
At about 9:45 AM, Colonel Smith had a conversation with the tower at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, noting the heavy fog covering the area. LaGuardia thought he should land there rather than Newark – for reasons that have never been clear to me. The operator noted that “from where I am sitting, I can’t even see the top of the Empire State building”. Smith apparently caught sight of the East River, and believing it to be the Hudson, began to let down, looking for a view of the ground, which – if he had been over the Jersey swamps – would have made perfect sense. In fact he lowered his landing gear in anticipation of an approach to Newark. The plane was at 500 feet when he realized he was in downtown Manhattan, with skyscrapers all around him. Veering to avoid first the New York Central building, then the Chrysler tower, he would have had only a split second to see the world’s tallest building filling his windscreen. It was too late, and the plane no longer had the power and lift to respond to his attempt to turn aside.
At 9:49 AM, Saturday, July 28, 1945 the B-25 bomber plunged into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building at close to 225 miles per hour, entering from the 34th street side amidst a rolling ball of burning aviation fuel, one engine and the landing gear on a trajectory which carried them out the 33rd street side, only to tumble onto the roof of a 13-story building below, setting yet another fire. The other engine severed the cables of elevator No. 6, carrying it and its two passengers 75 floors to the building’s basement. The elevator operator, Betty Lou Oliver survived the fall (thanks to a buffer of oil designed into the shaft), despite a broken back. The passenger died later. Ten office workers employed by the Wartime Catholic Relief Agency died, along with the three men in the plane, bringing the death toll to 14.
Three miles away, on the Jersey side of the Hudson, a twelve-year old boy who anxiously followed every smidgeon of war and aviation news was shaken by this breaking bulletin. The next day, my aunt took me to see for myself the tail half of that sad B-25 protruding from the 79th floor 975 feet above where we stood on the street below.
Lt. Colonel William F. Smith, Jr. is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Birmingham, Alabama.

Smoke pours from the 18X20 foot hole in the 79th floor of the Empire State building in which a WW II B-25 twin-engine bomber is embedded. Smoke also arises from a nearby building whose penthouse was set ablaze by one of the plane’s engines. The wreckage was disassembled and retrieved from inside in the days that followed the July 28, 1945 event.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Pemaquid Point Light captured in a setting no longer possible after years of change in the surrounding landscape. Stones weighing many tons are sometimes deposited here by surging storm tides.

Shortly after Shirley and I were first married, I was stationed with a USAF Fighter Interceptor Squadron on Washington State’s Puget Sound. We lived off-base in a home in the ocean-front village of Mukilteo which we shared with the Coast Guard couple who manned the nearby lighthouse. I can’t be sure, but that may be where my love affair with “lights” actually began.
What is certain is that over the next fifty years, our affection for coastal New England blossomed into an almost-familial connection with the lighthouses of Maine. While I have researched, visited and photographed lighthouses on both coasts and the Great Lakes, and gathered lighthouse lore and history along the way, there are a handful of lights which have carved out a special place in my heart.
Our primary “Down East” destination has long been the village of New Harbor, home to the Pemaquid Point Light, perhaps the most-photographed beacon in the U.S., often gracing calendar pages and magazine covers. Built in 1827 during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, it marks a jutting rocky finger of glacial debris which has claimed many wrecks over the years. The small building with a white “pillar” attached houses one of the few remaining Phillips’ Striking Bells, a fog signal designed around a wind-up timing mechanism like that of a grandfather clock. A natural drawing card for seascape artists, it is also a favorite gathering place for local residents who hold a traditional sunrise religious service there every Easter morning. One of our own traditions is to gather wild rosehips from a clutch of flourishing sea roses near the base of the light, from which we make a batch of rosehip jelly to bring back west with us. Like most Maine lighthouses, Pemaquid was a “family” light until 1934 when it was automated. The old Keeper’s house has been turned into an excellent fishermen’s museum.
Officially, the first place to see the rising sun on the mainland of the continental United States lies in the extreme northeast corner of Maine at a place known (oddly) as West Quoddy Head. The lighthouse which marks this picturesque spot is one of only several “barber pole” lights, painted in alternating red and white horizontal stripes. It provided a key visual navigational aid to ships destined for both U.S. and Canadian ports. West Quoddy also marks the approaches to the Bay of Fundy, where tides of 55 feet and more create moving “bores” of swift water, where small boat handling requires both good timing and great skill. Fundy is also known as the birthplace of record fogs, one more nightmare for mariners.
(At the opposite side of the continental U.S., the lighthouse on Cape Blanco, Oregon is the last point on the mainland to see the sun as it sets, and one year we managed to visit both of these lights within a two-month period.)
Another of our favorite Maine mid-coast haunts is Monhegan Island which lies about fifteen miles out to sea from Port Clyde – a one-hour boat-ride I have made many times. ( I confess to enjoying the trip most when a high sea is running, and waves are breaking green over the mail boat’s bows, a joy not always shared by members of the tour groups I have led.) Monhegan lays claim to a tantalizing history, from Viking visits, Indian battles, and momentary invasions during the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution and the War of 1812, to raging wildfires and a “lobster war”. It is likely the first piece of America visited by English fishermen who came ashore here to salt down their cod, long before the first settlements were even contemplated. Perched at the island’s apex, 180 feet above the sea, is a stocky stone lighthouse whose white pulses can be seen from twenty miles away, and a nearby fog signal of mighty aural authority. This light was constructed in 1824, during the presidency of James Monroe, and was not automated until 1959. Hiking the island’s miles of trails always begins for us with a pause at the pinnacle to admire this historic light whose early lamps were fueled with whale oil, and tended by a long succession of hardy keepers.
Monhegan Island waters are famous for the lobsters harvested there by dedicated fishermen who impose and respect their own short season, and theirs is another story I will save for another day.

The lighthouse at West Quoddy Head looks out on the Bay of Fundy and the border with New Brunswick. The water that sweeps into the Bay each day exceeds the volume of all the world’s rivers combined.

Maine is 300 miles closer to England than any other part of America, and Monhegan Island was for centuries the exact landmass toward which early Mariners set course. The light house is short, since it is already 180 feet above sea level. Keeper Thomas Seavey lit the first whale oil lamps July 2, 1824.

All Photos By Al Cooper

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Al Cooper’s version of fish chowder for this week features fresh steelhead salmon from the Pacific Northwest, fresh garden peas, and tiny whole onions.

My very first experience with the subject about which I write with a deep sense of appreciation took place in the basement of an old stone Episcopal Church in Edgewater, New Jersey. I was probably around five years of age, and the occasion was the annual clam chowder supper which happened to be a long-standing tradition of this particular congregation – one of several for which my uncle was the organist. It was a Manhattan style (tomato-based) chowder, the version favored by folks who lived on the Jersey shore. All these years after, I can still call up a detailed picture of the time, the place, the people and above all, the steaming bowl of wonder passed to me through a kitchen serving window along with a handful of requisite “pilot crackers”.
Here I have to take a few minutes to pay homage to the great American ethic known as “the church supper”, especially in northern New England where I was fortunate enough to do much of my growing up and where, to this day, we try on each year’s pilgrimage to hit at least one or two: from “chicken pot pie”, “baked bean and winter squash”, “turkey and sage dressing”, “venison and wild game”, and of course “clam bakes” and “lobster festivals”. One of our favorites is in the small Vermont village of Shrewsbury, where we can count on being entertained by a group of local Blue Grass musicians as we wait our turn in line. (The local volunteer fire department gets most of its annual funding from this popular event.)
You will notice that the word local is used several times in this soliloquy, underlining what makes these occasions so important to those of us who love to see food, history, geography and tradition blended together in such a delicious setting. Just as I savor corner book stores featuring local writers, I find delight in the culinary wonder hiding from the larger world in America’s small towns and forgotten neighborhoods. And nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of chowders and chowder-makers.
In 1732, a New England diarist named Benjamin Lynde mentions having “dined on a fine chowdered cod”, the first written reference in America to the dish we call chowder (or in Maine chow’dah). It is believed it probably originated some time earlier in the 1700s, probably on board a sailing ship or fishing boat where a freshly-caught fish was layered with other ingredients, including salt pork and ship’s biscuits , and cooked in an iron pot. The name may well come from that cooking vessel, known in the French as a “chaudiere” or cauldron. Some think it started with the Old English term for a fish monger or “jowter”. The first known recipe for chowder to be published appeared in the Boston Evening Post on September 23rd 1751.(I have a copy of that relic which is written as a clever rhyme.)
The most important thing to understand is that chowder is not “soup”. While it is closer to being a stew in consistency, it is distinct even from that designation in that there is nothing “random” when it comes to constituent ingredients and the order in which they come into play. The first chowders featured a principle component from the sea, such as fin fish and/or shell fish, married together with available root vegetables, salt pork and milk or cream. Crackers were often used as a natural thickener. As New Englanders moved west and new immigrants arrived (Portuguese sausage in Rhode Island etc.) they found new ways of varying their old kitchen traditions. In this inaugural “chapter”, we will concentrate on seafood chowders, saving “Farmhouse” chowders for another time.
More often than not, the word chowder is associated with the word clam – that luscious bivalve which graces our shores in great numbers. In northern, New England, the most favored are the little neck or cherry stones while in the Boston area, the larger quahogs predominate in chowder-making kitchens. On the west coast, the even larger and comical-looking geoducks (pronounced gooy-duk) work well, while Bahamians substitute conch meat in their own unique version.
The “war” between red and white chowder aficionados is long and legendary and will never be settled. I like both, but white (New England style) is a clear winner for me. Then there is the ongoing contest between “thick and creamy” versus ”thinner milkier” versions. I come down squarely in the middle on that one. Over the years, we have conducted our own delicious tasting contests as we travel the “chowder corridor” from Boston, down east to Bar Harbor. (We are the quintessential chowder snobs, avoiding some communities altogether if their chowder isn’t up to snuff.) Our favorite remains a Portsmouth, New Hampshire eatery known as The Dinnerhorn, with Shaw’s Wharf in New Harbor, Maine being a perennial hang-out. And of course, Cappy’s Chowder House in Camden, Maine gets an honorable mention. For old-fashioned Haddock Chowder, it’s hard to beat The Anchor Inn at Round Pond Maine. Fresh haddock is, on all counts, the supreme choice for the dedicated fish chowder chef!
Whenever I can obtain a bucket of freshly-dug cherry stones, I prefer to make my own clam chowder, building first a base of clam broth, onions, celery, bay leaves, smoked bacon, and cubed new potatoes, with the chopped clam meat (or fin fish) and heavy cream added at the tail end and allowed to cook for just a few final minutes.
In future chapters of “The Chowder Chronicles”, we will look at “Farmhouse” and other variations of this traditional American “comfort food” along with companion breads to go with them . . . but I have to stop here because a noble cauldron of newly-made fish chow’dah is waiting for the final touch in the kitchen.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


A Pennsylvania sun sets over Little Round Top, where on July 1st, 1863, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment saved the Union line at Gettysburg from being flanked and rolled up.

The American Civil War – or what is still called “The War of Northern Aggression” by my friend from Louisiana, and many other southerners, was arguably the most impactful event in U.S. history; so much so that some historians think of it as our “second revolution”. To this day, it remains one of the most researched, studied and written-about chapters in the whole wide sprawling story of America. More than any other conflict, it defines not just the geography of our land, but the question of who we are and how we got this way. That being so, why do so many today accept so readily the idea that “it was inevitable that the North would win”, and “it wasn’t really about slavery” ? My life-long interest in this part of our unique history has not only led me to the battlefields and burial grounds of that cataclysmic contest, but to the diaries, journals and writings spawned by it, and thereby to some conclusions relative to the topic I write about today. I do not accept as holy writ that the North was “bound” to win, and I believe that in the final analysis, it certainly was about slavery.
It is often stated that war histories are written by the winners, and certainly a number of observers from the North chronicled the Civil War from the victors’ viewpoint. There was a strong motivation in the post-war North however, to work toward rebuilding and reconciliation, and to “get on with life”. In a war which had cost everyone something, there was not a great deal to be celebrating, especially after the assassination of the President within days of Lee’s surrender. Most of the scholarly writings from a Union perspective were yet to be written in the future; certainly Grant’s reminiscences fell short.
In the former Confederacy, on the other hand, there was a mad scramble to put a positive “spin” on what some feared would be said of them by writers and historians of the future. Jubal Early was the most prolific and strong-voiced of a whole battery of chroniclers who would become known as “The Lost Cause School”, a group which included former President Jefferson Davis, with no less a figure than Robert E. Lee himself furnishing constant encouragement (although his own book would never see print). Recognizing the political corner into which the war and the context within which the North had pursued it had painted them, the gist of their writings posited three principal ideas: (1) The Confederacy fought to preserve constitutional liberty, and slavery was never the main reason (Even Gen. Lee, they insisted, was against slavery). (2) Robert E. Lee was a great patriot, the greatest General in America, and a personage in the very flawless image of George Washington. And (3) The North was always destined to win, due to its great technological, industrial, transportation and manpower superiority, (and knowing this inevitability from the start, “wasn’t our cause brave and noble” !)
Many school books over the years, have been influenced by historical accounts based on the numerous and earlier “Lost Cause” quotations. A more careful study of original material would argue that the public support in the North essential to “buying into” a war policy and support for the new Republican Party would not have taken shape without a strong anti-slavery constituency. After all, the Confederacy had existed as a full-fledged and separate nation, with a functioning constitutional government for a full year prior to Fort Sumter without provoking the firing of a single shot, so “preservation of the union” was clearly not a sufficient goad by itself.
Despite the obvious fact that the northern states had the advantage of industrialization and a larger population upon which to base a war economy, it faced the daunting task of blockading thousands of miles of southern shores and hundreds of potential ports; denying use of the Mississippi, the Cumberland, the Ohio, the Tennessee and other river systems; fighting its battles almost entirely in enemy territory at the end of long supply lines and surrounded by a distinctly unfriendly public, and the need to occupy or otherwise manage a civil population spread across the vastness of eleven states. At the same time, Lincoln had to fight off the growing enmity of a U.S. Congress just waiting for a reason to defund his war efforts, while hanging on to the presidency in an 1864 election in which the war itself threatened to unseat him. Only the win at Gettysburg saved his presidency, and only the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after Antietam reinvigorated a war-weary and disillusioned populace.
In the South, a slave-based economy permitted a far greater percentage of draft-age men to serve in uniform, while the Confederate armies enjoyed the advantage of fighting from defensive positions, with internal supply lines much of the time. It can be argued that all the Confederate States had to do to win was not lose, while Lincoln’s Armies must win the big campaigns, in order not to forfeit Congressional support.
Lincoln would never have come to power without the backing of New England’s staunch anti-slavery Republicans, and the support needed to see his military through the first two years of mostly-lost battles came from the hatred of slavery which burned in a key majority in Congress. And as much as I find to admire about Robert E, Lee and as much as I am impressed by the genius of his leadership, I am not persuaded that he held strong anti-slavery views prior to emancipation.
Between battlefield casualties, illness, accident and disease, somewhere around 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, Blue and Gray – more than in all our other wars combined, and from a combined national population of only 31 million.
In the end, the Union was preserved, and a new amendment was added to our Constitution which said that it was not right for one man to own another. America is not where slavery began, but it is where slavery ended, and a great deal of blood was shed to make that true.


One hundred and forty-seven years ago this June 30th, a handful of troopers from Major General John Buford’s Union cavalry ran into a group of Confederate soldiers on the Emmetsburg road just outside the Pennsylvania crossroads town of Gettysburg. What followed from this unplanned and largely unexpected encounter would turn out to be an epic event whose echoes still resound through the halls of time today. No single three-day moment in American history has had so enduring an impact and has so captured the imagination of all the following generations as the clash of arms we call The Battle Of Gettysburg. Whether or not it was the so-called “turning point” many so denominate it in America’s Civil War, what took place there, and the words which were afterward spoken there by our sixteenth President have helped to make it one of our most honored tracts of “hallowed ground”.
Both Union General George Gordon Meade, newly-appointed commander of the Army of The Potomac, and General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia were many miles away when the shooting started and the opposing sides began to establish their respective fighting positions. From the very beginning, this was to be a “soldiers’ fight” rather than a contest between Generals, although there would be enough of those to go around. In all, more than 170,000 men and boys (and an unknown number of women dressed as men) would take part. The North would suffer 28,000 casualties, and Lee’s forces 25,000.
If one were keeping score, July 1st and 2nd would have to be chalked up as wins for Lee, but on July 3rd, the legendary man-in-gray guessed wrong and sent George Pickett’s division on a one mile march against the strongest section of Meade’s line, and into the teeth of withering Union fire. One of the many ironies of Gettysburg is that Pickett, one of the least talented of Confederate generals on the field should be the most-remembered name of the event.
In one of numerous side-bar stories of that day, two former West Point classmates and life-long friends were on course to fulfill a destiny they had both vowed to avoid. Lewis B. Armistead, a North Carolinian and Winfield Scott Hancock, a son of Pennsylvania had been serving together in a U.S. Army post in California as the secession crisis expanded. After Armistead and other officers from the south announced a decision to join the Confederacy, a final party was held, at which the two old friends pledged never to knowingly give harm to the other. Now, it was Brigadier General Lewis Armistead who rode at the head of Pickett’s ill-fated advance toward the copse of trees which would mark the Confederacy’s “high water point” in a war which would go on for two more costly years - but would never be quite the same again – and Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock who waited in command of the defenders. In the final minutes of that violent collision of arms, both men would fall, mortally wounded within feet of each other. Armistead would die of his wounds, while Hancock would survive, to hand-deliver her husband’s silk scarf to his friend’s widow, and to go on himself to a full military career, and a nomination for the presidency of the United States.
Another Pennsylvania boy came home that day. Wesley Culp of Gettysburg had courted and wed a southern girl some years earlier and had chosen to live in her native Virginia. Now, clad in the gray uniform of his Virginia regiment, he was among the many who fell on July 2nd in the fight which would ever after be known as the Battle of Culp’s Hill. He died within a hundred yards of the farm house in which he was born, and which was defended by a Pennsylvania regiment in which his brother Robert was a lieutenant.
George Gordon Meade gave President Lincoln the victory he needed in his battle with a Congress ever-more-reluctant to support the war effort, and to convince European powers that threatening the blockade of southern ports might be unwise after all. Yet Meade disappointed the President by failing to follow up the field victory, and allowing Lee to retreat with his exposed 90-mile long “caravan” back to the safety of Virginia. Lincoln could put up with commanders who were openly hostile to him (i.e. George B. McClellan) but who understood how to fight and win a battle. (He had even chosen as his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, a Democrat who often stubbornly opposed him.) He was very unforgiving though, of Generals who failed to understand that victory meant destroying the enemy, not taking over cities.
In his classic Civil War study “THE FINAL FURY”, Bruce Catton noted that in the final analysis, the man behind the Union victory at Gettysburg – and elsewhere in that epic struggle - did not wear a uniform, but was a civilian who sat in an oval office many miles away.

A foggy September sunrise outlines a Civil War cannon in front of the famous copse of trees where the culmination of Pickett’s Charge marked the South’s high water mark of the Civil War. Along with “Little Round Top” and “Devil’s Den”, it is one of Al Cooper’s most
revered sites of the sprawling Gettysburg National Battlefield.

Not far from this resting place of one of the hundreds of “Unknowns” at Gettysburg
is the site from which President Lincoln delivered the address he thought would be “soon forgotten”.