Thursday, May 26, 2011


As another anniversary – this one the 67th – of the event we call “D-Day” passes by on the unfolding calendar of history, it is worth pausing to consider the profound impact this moment of time continues to register across the nation; and in some places more than others.

Operation “Overlord”, the long-anticipated and extremely chancy Allied invasion of the European continent on June 6, 1944 was given no more than a 50/50 chance of success by its planners, even before stormy weather on France’s channel coast made matters much worse.

In sheer numbers, the base of the sword aimed at the five target beaches of Normandy at 6:30 am that June morning remains mind-bending from any perspective: 5000 ships from 8 Allied navies, carrying 160,000 combat-ready troops and 30,000 vehicles supported by 11,000 aircraft, and an unprecedented year of focused and secret planning, training and preparedness. At the tip of that sword, and aimed at the critical and heavily-defended five-mile-long stretch of beach designated by the code word “Omaha”, was the untested 29th U.S. Infantry Division. Leading the first wave of that force were the men of the 116th Regiment, and at their forefront, the troops of Company A, a “brotherhood” of former National Guardsmen from the small rural Virginia town of Bedford.

Dating back to the days of colonial America’s first militia elements, there has existed in our country and in all our wars a tradition of recruiting fighting units by community; individual companies, entire regiments and even brigades, enabling volunteers to organize, train and eventually fight together. In fact many war historians will point to this phenomenon as an explanation of the high level of fighting efficiency noted in units of the National Guard in times of national emergency. (My own father in WW I served in a company of U.S. Marines who grew up together in a small Washington county, himself wounded coincidentally in France and on the same day – June 6th – but 26 years previously.)

In the 1930s, the mountain town of Bedford, Virginia was struggling to recover from the depths of the Great Depression as was so much of rural America of the time. Training with the National Guard not only gave young men an opportunity to wear a uniform the girls went for and perform useful service, but to earn the very attractive “dollar-per-day” which sweetened the chance to spend time with friends, neighbors and classmates at the nearby Armory, and on summer maneuvers. Brothers Clyde and Jack Powers, Raymond and Bedford Hoback, and the twins Ray and Roy Stevens had always enjoyed doing things together, and training with A Company of the 116th was a natural carry-on. For Pride Wingfield and Paul Schenk, it was a continuation of a close friendship which had followed them through their school and growing-up years, and would help to wile away the days of pre-invasion training in England where they would bicycle together through the countryside.

Taylor Fellers had been one of the first to become a Guardsman back in 1932, and by 1944, he was the Captain who would lead his younger townsmen onto the deadly beach, along with 1st Lt. Ray Nance and now Master Sergeant John Wilkes; serious men who had learned how to soldier; friends and “brothers” all.

When they surged over the edge of the British troopship Javelin and into their landing craft in the early morning dark, they each carried a 60-pound combat pack, and the knowledge that as a part of the first wave, their chances of surviving even the first few minutes would be slim. They would be right.

Twenty-two sons of Bedford Town would lose their lives that day, nineteen of them in a span of a few minutes; a larger percent of one town’s population than at any time or place in the course of WW II; Taylor Fellers, both Hoback brothers, Jack Powers, John Wilkes, John Shenk and Ray Stevens among them. Ray Nance would be the only Company “A” officer to survive Omaha Beach, and only Bob Slaughter would still be fighting when the war in Europe ended.

Only six Bedford boys walked away from Omaha Beach, but it would be stretching things to think they were unscathed. In all, the 116th regiment suffered 797 casualties.

Back in rural, green and beautiful Bedford, Virginia, population 3,000, the whole town mourned and many families treasured up the photos and memories they had wisely stored away. Today, Bedford is home to the official U.S.D-Day Memorial.

NOTE: The experience of the Bedford boys inspired the story and film “Saving Private Ryan".


A Company of U.S. soldiers huddle in their LSP (Landing Ship Personnel) with Omaha Beach and its unrelenting gunfire in sight.

U.S. Navy photo

Caption for Title Photo:

The U.S. Military cemetery at Normandy occupies high ground overlooking Omaha Beach today. 9,387 Americans are buried here on a piece of French soil that is held in title by the U.S.A.. Before the battle for Normandy officially came to a close on July 24th, 1,323,000 Americans had taken part, with casualties exceeding 120,000

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Making a photographic image has been likened to capturing a split second of time and freezing it in that instant forever. Whatever the subject matter, the chances are that exact combination of lighting,
timing and composition has never occurred before, and will never happen again. Not only does this truism apply to action scenes, but to everyday visual phenomena.
As I travel this land I love with notebook, sketch pad and camera close at hand, I am constantly being reminded of the power of the unexpected; the magic of serendipitous moments, and the sheer beauty of nature caught in the act. I have been particularly dazzled by visual fragments of reflected glory; those isolated and elusive moments where something ordinary becomes extraordinary when seen “in duplicate”.
There was a period of time when I lugged a heavy and bulky 4X5 view camera and accessories into the field, often spending many hours just getting set up to make a single image on expensive film, only to be thwarted by a weather change or some other unexpected intrusion. Fortunately, I found sufficient compensation in the adventure of it all. (I enjoy one enlargement hanging on my wall, knowing that I returned to that one location each autumn for four years before achieving my photographic goal!)
Often I would end up discovering something entirely unexpected, like the day I spent hours trying – in vain – to find the desired angle from which to photograph a certain Vermont covered bridge, having traveled many miles to get there in the first place. What I captured instead was the reflection of a 19th century red barn in a setting I could never have planned, with the covered bridge ending up as a mere piece of background; a secondary subject.
With the birth of the digital age and the “point-and-shoot” technology available today, all that is needed for even the casual photographer to bring home such images of “reflected glory” is an eye for the unusual, and a talent for composition.

The northern Vermont village of Montgomery lays claim to five covered bridges, more than any other New England town that I know of. While all are historically interesting and visually appealing, they are not necessarily photogenic. In this case, it is the reflection which makes the moment so memorable.

There are rules of geometry which add interest to the photography of reflections: for instance the reflection is always the exact dimension of the real-time object, and the distance between subjects above and below the “mirror line” will be equal. Often a ripple or two in water will add both interest and context to the photo.

The last glacier to recede from northern New England did so around 15,000 years ago (not long in geologic time), leaving behind the striations and gouges in ancient granite which draw leagues of photographers to the mid-coast’s Pemaquid point. What made this visit different was the unusual combination of pooling rainwater and reflective light catching the image of the nearby lighthouse and buildings.

Cattails, lichen-painted stones and autumn leaves bring beauty to a woodland reflective pool.


If you are a Civil War history buff, you might associate the name Mt. Weather with a strategic mountain top fought over several times as a lookout point by both North and South; if a serious traveler, you might just know it as a place on the map of Virginia in the Blue Ridge mountains about fifty miles west of Washington D.C. right next to the West Virginia line. If you are something of a conspiratorialist, you might recall articles describing the place as “Doomsday City”, or something similar. Actually, you would be right on all counts.
First constructed during the Cold War as an “Alternate National Capital”, it is –among other things – a vast, hardened, underground facility equipped to keep our government working in any kind of calamity or disaster, complete with a subterranean infrastructure. It is, in short, one of the most protected and secret sites in America. I cite these facts to underline the sense of aloneness and isolation I felt during a one-week stay there a few years ago in the course of anti-terrorism and weapons-of-mass-destruction training. Our small handful of emergency planners and responders from “the outside world” were restricted to carefully-marked walkways, corridors and buildings, and our quarters, while adequate, were almost reclusive.
One evening, I had repaired to my second-floor room when I heard the skirling notes of a bagpipe – a sound which has always struck a responsive chord in my inner being. I descended the stairs, and popped my head outdoors, not at all sure whether I might merely be hearing someone’s radio or tape recorder. My heart began to take special notice as I recognized the familiar notes of “Amazing Grace”, a favorite of every piper I had ever known. At last sure of direction, I strolled a ways down one of the few roadways not marked “off limits” to us, and into view came the figure of a fellow student from Utah, standing alone on a patch of lawn, playing his heart out. One by one, a few others from our small cadre joined us, sitting on a piece of nearby curbing or tree stump, surrounded by the emptiness of the secret underground city beneath our feet, mesmerized by the unexpected magic of the music. Not just any music, but one of the most beloved of American hymn songs for more than two centuries. Especially revered by members of the military, and often played as well at the funerals of police and firefighters, it is generally looked upon as “American as apple pie”; part and parcel of our unique cultural heritage.
While the connection with frontier America is certainly true, with the words and music appearing in the hymn books of dozens of denominations dating back to the 18th century, the words are the gift of an English preacher named John Newton, an individual whose story reads like a piece of creative fiction. Born in London in 1725 the son of a ship’s master, he followed his father to sea, serving on the crew of a British man-of-war in the most harsh and brutal of environments. As punishment for an attempt to desert, he was consigned to service on a slave ship, eventually working in the English slave trade in Sierra Leone where he was subjected to humiliating abuse at the hands of the master he served. His personal epiphany came in the midst of a terrible storm at sea in May, 1848. So profound was the depth of the religious conversion which took place within him that night that he forever after counted his life as beginning on that night.
Burdened with an overpowering sense of guilt, he channeled his life into becoming an ordained minister in The Church of England and finding a way to redeem himself from what he saw as a sinful past forever blemished by an association with slavery. Unlike other preachers whose service was marked by an outward piousness, Newton presented himself as a repentant “sinner” seeking his own way back while reaching out to others. His little parish at Olney, Buckinghamshire attracted such a following that the building had to be enlarged. There he authored the words to as many as 280 hymns, and the “Olney Hymn Book” was born and found its way across the Atlantic to the New World.
Students of church music history are unsure of the origins of the music which became intertwined with Newton’s powerful words, but I for one would find a touch of eternal justice in the opinion that it came from a spiritual melody raised by the voices of some of those same black slaves.
Amazing grace! (How sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see.

The vicarage in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England where John Newton often met with such fellow writers of verse as William Cowper, and where he wrote “Amazing Grace” around 1760.

ROOTS OF REBELLION Probing For Answers

If there was one southern state which set the pace in the national melt-down leading to the Civil War, it would have to be the Palmetto State. The South Carolina House of Representatives voted 169-0 for secession, and on December 20, 1860 they notified Washington that their state had officially left the Federal Union. This despite the fact that in the November general election, only 40% of the state’s electorate really appeared to favor this course. James Buchanan, the lame duck (and pro-slavery) President still occupied the White House, while Abraham Lincoln remained waiting in the wings in Illinois and silent on political issues as had been his practice since the election.
Less than three months later, on April 12th, 1861, it would be South Carolina militiamen who would fire on and capture Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor, bringing about the open warfare many on both sides had hoped to avoid. Within another sixty days of that bombardment, the final four states would join South Carolina and her other six deep-south neighbors to form the Confederate States of America.
To begin to understand why this particular state came to be the “cradle of the Confederacy”, we have to go back to the earliest days of this country’s colonization. At a time when America was being settled by The London Company and other English-based enterprises, South Carolina was a colony of Barbadians, that is, a “Company of Adventurers” based in Barbados. The East Indies, by the late 1600s, was where “the action was”, with fortunes being made by Spaniards, Portuguese and some enterprising Englishmen. Sugar, tobacco and other crops filled the holds of ships heading to Europe; ships which would return with cargoes of more slaves for an already-crowded island of Hispaniola. It was a group of these West Indian investors who obtained a charter from King Charles to colonize what would become South Carolina, naming the area’s deep water port “Charles Town” in gratitude. It was their plan to establish a plantation-based colony growing tobacco, sugar, cotton and other lucrative crops based on the surplus of slaves from Haiti and newly-arrived black Africans.
The swampy climate of the lowland region was especially unkind to Europeans, with malaria felling them by the hundreds, at the same time black slaves seemed impervious to the same illness. (Plantation owners would not have known that West Africans possessed a “sickle cell” which gave them a natural immunity.) Once it was discovered that rice would thrive in this wet and humid climate, the whole complexion of tidewater culture underwent a significant transformation. The Spaniards – England’s arch enemies – pretty much controlled the world’s major sources of rice, a grain so esteemed and even precious, that Italians attempting to steal rice seeds from that Mediterranean country’s Po Valley could face the death sentence.
The consequent transition from sugar to rice production required a labor force familiar with the intricacies of a very different form of agriculture, and a new dependency on experienced Africans from Niger and Senegambia. In time, upper class whites largely became “non-resident” plantation owners, and educated and literate members of the slave population rose to be resident managers.
There developed in South Carolina a unique form of highly-localized government based on the plantation system, and a feudal-like relationship between classes of society. At the base of it all was the largest slave population in the New World, with blacks outnumbering whites two- to-one statewide, and as much as nine-to-one in the tidewater regions.
In 1820, an activist free slave with military experience named Denmark Vesey planned an insurrection of black slaves and poor whites in the Charleston area. (Prior to that time, at least seventeen slave uprisings had occurred throughout the south.) Although Vesey and his followers were eventually killed and the plot put down, it left Carolinians with a growing contempt for abolitionists of all stripes and a high state of protectionism when it came to the institution of slavery. In fact, 90% of all slaves to come to America passed through the auction blocks at Charleston.
Although only one great battle and its attendant skirmishes would actually be fought on South Carolina soil, the state would pay a high price in blood for its fierce fight for independence. It is believed that somewhere between 30% and 35% of its fighting age men and boys (18 – 45) died in the four year conflict. No other state paid so dearly or fought more determinedly.
A Parting note: The concept of secession was not something new in South Carolina. The key battle of Secessionville in the Charleston campaign in June, 1862 marked the location of a much earlier secession fight over plantation rights.

The First National Flag of the Confederate States of America shows seven white stars in a field of blue with two broad red bars separated by one of white. At the time of its design, South Carolina had been joined by Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas – the so-called Deep South states. The Second National Flag would follow with eleven stars. This flag is the only CSA banner to be correctly known as “The Stars and Bars”. Photo & flag by Al Cooper

At the First Bull Run battle, soldiers from both sides were confused by the South’s “Stars and Bars” flag, because in the heat of the fighting it looked very like the “Stars and Stripes”. Thereafter, it was not ordinarily carried into combat although it remained the Confederacy’s official banner. In its place, the diagonal Scottish cross of the Battle Flag, in its several forms, was displayed. It became the most recognized – and presently controversial – symbol of the southern cause.