Monday, May 26, 2014


            When former Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and fellow veterans of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment returned to the Gettysburg battlefield 23 years after the day they had saved “Little Round Top” – and perhaps The Union itself - Chamberlain began his dedicatory remarks with these words:
            “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were done and suffered for them. . .”
            Each time I have visited Gettysburg, I have felt myself “heart-drawn” to places such as “Spangler’s Spring” and “Barlow Knoll”;  to “Devil’s Den” and the “Peach Orchard”; to Culp’s Hill” and “The Wheat Field”; and yes, above all to “Little Round Top” from whose high perch I have gone to view a Pennsylvania sunset and to consider what transpired there during the first three days of a hot July in1863. I have never left with dry eyes.
            Even if it were not for my nearly-lifelong admiration for the scholar from Brewer, Maine who studied for the ministry, but became a great self-taught soldier, I would find myself revisiting those spoken words over and over again through the years, enlarged upon and made even more eloquent in the shadow of my own experiences.
            While there is no scientific evidence that “spirits linger”, I devoutly believe that the spiritual imprint of great human endeavors does. I have felt it where autumn foliage cast deep reflections on a small body of woodland water not far from “Shiloh Church” on the Tennessee River which is still known as “Bloody Pond”. I have been touched by it in Antietam’s cornfields and at the sight of the old Dunker church nearby. One day as I explored a patch of woods at the “Wilderness” battle site, I came across the still-discernible outline of old trench works, where men in Gray took cover as the woods around them burned, and I found myself lying down on the weed-encrusted ground, where so much confusion and fear had overwhelmed those who sheltered there so long ago.
            Because I knew the exact spot where “Stonewall” Jackson fell – mortally wounded by friendly fire – I knelt there one summer day, at a place called Chancellorsville, where the “victors” suffered a loss  they would never regain. And one cannot ascend the hill above Fredericksburg’s “sunken road” and walk among the dead buried there and not feel one with those Union troopers who succumbed to the folly of Union General Ambrose Burnside’s suicidal orders. It is a solemn journey.
            As a very young lad, living within a stone’s throw of the New Jersey Palisades, I was a regular visitor to the exact spot where, in November, 1776 General George Washington watched through a telescope as his ragtag Army across the Hudson River was being shredded by Cornwallis’s rampaging invaders. Helpless to save them in the collapse of their New York fortifications, it is said that Washington was so moved by the scene that he turned away so his lieutenants would not see him weeping. That November tableau was painted by the brush of history 238 years ago, yet today I see and feel Washington’s inconsolable grief as if I were there. To realize that I grew up climbing the Palisades (unknown to my parents!) where so much history had been written only adds to the sense of connection which seems to follow my own footsteps wherever I go.
            While it is unlikely I will ever realize a long-time wish to walk the beaches of Normandy, or visit the place near Chateau Thierry in France where my own father fell to enemy fire 96 years ago in another war, I have experienced the heart-pounding thrill of walking through an early morning ground mist in the company of the aluminum-cast and ghostly figures of “brother warriors” at the Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C., where there was no need to apologize to anyone for the tears that filled my eyes.
            In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays.  This I know!

   A Gettysburg sunset as seen from Little Round Top.

Al Cooper Photo


            On this, the 70th anniversary of the greatest military operation in world history, the ranks of grizzled veterans visiting those time-hallowed Normandy beaches and burial grounds will have been thinned by the inexorable cascading of time. Now well into their 90s, their numbers will be few. Among those D-Day veterans who faithfully made that annual pilgrimage for most of a lifetime, one of this year’s absentees will be Heinrich Severloh, who left this world for a better place in 2006 at age 81.
            Virtually everyone who participated in and survived that historic event carried with them deeply-imbedded and often life-changing memories and emotional scar tissue; the “baggage” of brutal and very personal combat. In each individual veteran’s case, the exact imprint of his experience and its impact on all the years following will vary in incalculable ways and degrees, with the largest percentage finding ways to bury the worst of it in the mere living of a life. That being so obvious a truth, one may wonder why I should take the time to single out one soldier’s story today.
            For Heinrich Severloh, a 20-year-old German soldier, assignment to the Wehrmacht’s 716th Infantry Division on the Normandy Coast of France was a breath of fresh air after a tour in the East and the sheer savagery of the Russian Front. A “reluctant” conscript as a farm boy from the village of Metzingen in the Swabian section of Germany’s southwest, “Hein” had escaped the vicious Russian campaign thanks only to a hospitalization for severe frostbite. Duty in the Norman hamlet of Colville, where he and fellow-soldiers of the Reich were treated to the kindness of French villagers who would (to the surprise of some former Allies) become lifelong friends was a pleasant change.
            While the Allies exact plans for “Operation Overlord” remained one of history’s best-kept secrets right up to the morning of June 6th, 1944, the enemy had had years to prepare in depth for a cross-channel assault on the channel coast of occupied France. Overlooking the 3.7 miles of Norman coastline designated by the Allies with the code name “Omaha”, 15 defensive strong points embracing artillery, observation and machine-gun emplacements stretched along the high ground, designated with numbers from WN-59 to WN-73. At what was destined to become the most deadly obstacle to the men of the U.S. 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions that day was WN-62 with its handful of 27 German defenders and a soldier named Hein Severloh with an Infantry weapon known as Maschengwehr 42.
            An upgrade to the Mauser-inspired M-34 machine gun, the M-42 manufactured by Daimler-Puch and others by the hundreds-of-thousands was possibly the deadliest infantry weapon of WWII, with a cyclic rate of fire of up to 1500 7.92X57mm rounds-per minute. An ingenious design feature facilitated continuous barrel-replacement taking as little as seven seconds. The sound of an M-42 was likened to a “buzz saw” or the ripping of a sheet.
            In the hands of Pfc. Severloh, during a period of nine hours of combat, more than twelve thousand rounds poured into the U.S. troops wading ashore and forming unfortunate “clusters” between arriving LSTs and the upper tide line, where a pre-placed red flag (unwisely) designated the target landing point for Easy and Fox Companies. Where individual targets presented themselves, Severloh’s rifle accounted for another 400 carefully-placed rounds. Although there is lots of room for debate, forensic historians believe this one German soldier may have accounted for 3,000 casualties on Omaha Beach on June 6th.
            Having read and re-read Hein Severloh’s book – A German Soldier’s Memories – along with the added insights of several D-Day historians who knew and associated with him over many years, I believe this common but loyal German soldier carried with him throughout his life a heavy sense of responsibility for the unwanted role his duty hung upon him that day on Omaha Beach. I am particularly struck by his reaction to the sight of those thousands of ships, planes and manpower he saw approaching as daylight parted the mists that fateful morning: “I knelt in my foxhole and prayed quietly. . .”.
            Severloh became a U.S. POW shortly after D-Day, and spent more than three years in military prisons in the U.K., Scotland, and hard-labor camps in Belgium and the U.S.A., understandably silent on the subject of the experiences which haunted him until after his repatriation in 1949.  He devoted much of his later life to maintaining the U.S. cemetery, the Normandy museum and meeting with veterans of that event with whom he pursued a lifelong fellowship.

Friday, May 23, 2014


            I can’t recall his proper name, but I can still, over all the softly falling years, see his face before me and hear his high falsetto voice. He was known to us all merely as “Squeaksie”; Squeaksie Dole. And he was my friend.
            It was a time and a place for nicknames and small boys took great delight in hanging colorful cognomens on one another. My small world revolved around the likes of “Henny” Keller, “Chuckles” Price and twins known only as “Brownie” and “Bluey” out of respect for the clothing they invariably affected as the only real distinction between them.
            Squeaksie was one of those thoroughly unobtrusive and self-effacing kids whose presence never stirred much notice. Quiet, modest, almost painfully shy he was just always there. We never had to notify him of our intended activity or destination. We would just turn around to see who was following and he would be there. Perhaps his small stature, always-congenial air and easy-going ways allowed him to ease into an otherwise highly-competitive fraternity of super-active neighborhood “buddies”. He was noticeable mainly because of his round, freckle-spattered cherubic face set off by jug-handle ears and an unkempt thatch of reddish hair.
            To philosophers and students of psychology alike the word innocence would be too imprecise to connote anything of scientific relevance, but for me the word innocence will always call to mind the simple state of existence in which I lived those carefree early boyhood experiences shared with Henny, Chuckles, and  the twins. And with Squeaksie. Together we built and flew rubber-band-powered balsa  models of Wacos and Stearmans and Travelaires, vying for realism in our copies of Jimmy Doolittle’s GeeBee racer and the Army’s shark-nosed Curtis P-40 pursuits. We raced our clattering express wagons down Washington Avenue and talked late into the evening dark about the siege of Leningrad or the fall of Tobruk, and traded baseball cards and shiny agate marbles from the string-tied chamois sacks hung from our belts. Our days were filled with importance and we were surrounded by the sweep of great events.
            It was a safe, secure, unthreatened world through which I roamed. No one loved by me or close to me had yet died; death was remote, vicarious. It happened to “old” people; to those unconnected to me. Life stretched ahead into a future whose very horizons were so hazy and distant as to seem invisible. Mortality was an unvisited concept. Small, laughing barefoot boys who climbed slender trees and played hide-and-seek and crowded together around static-prone radios to listen to Captain Midnight and Jack Armstrong the “All-American Boy” inhabited a world of unlimited possibilities.
            The moment all that “innocence” came tumbling down was when we heard the news about “Squeaksie”. “It happened last night, after dark” a stunned Bobbie Daigle related in halting bursts over a telephone usually reserved for grown-ups.
            His father had been taking him to buy a new pair of shoes. They had been walking hand-in-hand along the shoulder of a busy roadway, and a passing car had struck Squeaksie “killing him instantly”. The word instantly seemed to hang on the air with a special menace.
            I can’t remember what we said to each other as we all gathered in a patch of woods from which we could keep a vigil on the Dole home, but we each – in our own way – recognized that something new had entered our seemingly uncomplicated domain, and some things would never be quite the same again.  Squeaksie - quiet, always- smiling –and-unruffled  Squeaksie - would not be gathering stones for our sling shots with us again.
            My Aunt and Uncle accompanied me to the viewing held in the Dole living room where we stood in tight, quiet formal groups, surrounded by the overpowering smell of lilies. “Why do they have to have lilies” I recall thinking, and I have disliked them ever since that night. I stood there, wanting to say something to my friend; to tell him how much he had been a part of my life; that I would miss him. I wanted to cry, but knew I couldn’t in front of all those people.
            Now I can.  GOOD BYE SQUEAKSIE!                     

Saturday, May 10, 2014


            The short driveway had just the right downhill pitch to lend quick speed to the junior-size balloon-tired bicycle I launched from the neighbor’s yard for the brief but blind journey across the road which separated our adjoining homes. The two pretty girls who watched were bound to be impressed, and there was little to fear since Linwood Avenue did not carry much traffic. By the time I saw the approaching panel truck coming from my left it was too late to do anything but begin a rather pointless turn to the right which only served to delay the impact for a micro-second. All these years afterward, I can see the yellow lettering – SAM THE CLEANER – on the green delivery truck; a 1937 Chevrolet, and the wide-eyed driver certain he had just killed a stupid kid. By some quirk of fate only the red bike was damaged. Along with the tender pride of an eight-year-old show-off.
            The day I was shot I was a high school junior, unaware of a careless 10-year-old farm kid with a rifle next door and unseen through a curtain of trees and undergrowth. I was clad in hip boots while building a spillway on our pond, surrounded by the sound of gushing water and intent on my work. I can still today see what I thought was black “mud” arcing from midway up my left arm into Ayer’s Brook where it turned red. I was a long distance from help when I realized I had a severed artery and can recall today every detail of the leap over a four-strand barbed wire fence (going uphill!), the quickly invented tourniquet fashioned along the way, and the fast seven-mile drive to the hospital emergency room.
            During the final, pre-armistice days in the summer of 1953, fighting was intense and constant as possession of a few hundred yards of territory along Korea’s 38th parallel changed hands daily. I had volunteered to hand-carry a top-secret document outlining the details of an upcoming tactical air strike to a forward command post on the western front. Because our old but dependable WWII jeep with its mounted fifty caliber machine gun had just been replaced by a new, unarmed – and cantankerous – Willys “Wonder”, I was traveling alone and without a “shot-gun” companion. Before retracing my route home along Main Supply Route 33, a well-intentioned soldier drew me a quick sketch of what he described as a “short-cut” which would save me time although admittedly unmarked and rugged. About the same moment I realized I had somehow taken a wrong turn, the “roadway” became a rock-strewn cul-de-sac, and my engine died in the middle of a mountain stream. I became aware of an overpowering realization that I had wandered deep into enemy territory, and the shiver that ran up my helpless spine is still alive and with me today. I can still hear the absence of birdsong and the fate-loaded silence in the moments before my engine thankfully returned to life.
            The twin-engine Beechcraft-designed aircraft the Air Force knew as the C-45 is looked upon today as a “Classic” of the 1930s and many are still flying. In its own way though, it could be a challenge in the hands of a pilot unfamiliar with its little idiosyncrasies. I was the lone passenger along with the crew chief on what should have been a routine flight into McChord AFB on a clear and lovely “blue-sky” day in 1954. We were at 8,000 feet over Washington’s Cascade Range when both engines quit. The crew chief wasted no time in motioning to me to follow as he strapped on his chute and prepared to kick open the rear hatch. I had, as was my custom, been content to use my own chute as a cushion until realizing at that moment it had been adjusted for someone much larger in stature than myself. Fortunately, at the moment of my ill-starred departure, the pilot discovered how to correctly switch to his wing tanks and the engines came back to life. It was the last time I ever made a military flight without checking my chute straps.
            Hidden deep in the mid-brain of every human being is an almond-size area known as the amygdala whose mission it is to sense threats in our environment, and to trigger the fight-or-flight responses which serve as nature’s survival arsenal. It also has the power to encode and record every important lesson from our “autobiographical memory” which might serve to protect us the next time. It seems that mine is alive and working well.