Sunday, May 24, 2015


Historians are fond of selecting moments in history which stand out as pivotal when viewed against the whole of an historic event.  Looking back from the vantage point of the here and now upon the gigantic and sprawling landscape of World War II, there are dozens of such “moments”; strategic decisions, the fortunes of battle or entire campaigns which can be seen as “turning points”; events which – while not alone determining the outcome – signaled a significant change in momentum or  direction.  Some of these moments were not so much of military as political and social importance.  One of the most ignominious Allied defeats of the entire war in fact was to become the rallying point which would galvanize the English people and ultimately, their American cousins.
In May 1940, a year of inaction known as the Phony War in Europe came to an explosive conclusion as Nazi Germany launched its Blitzkrieg (or Lightening War) against the West with the invasion and swift conquest of Belgium and The Netherlands.  It took Hitler’s mechanized armies only 43 days to race across France, dividing and emasculating a superior (on paper) force of French, Belgian, Polish and English defenders.  By the end of May, the whole of the surviving British Expeditionary Force (BEF) together with some of their allies had been driven into a small pocket north of Calais on the French channel coast.
After the surrender on May 24th of most French and Belgian forces outside the “pocket” British General Lord Gort saw an evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk as the only way of saving his men from capture and death. Two German Panzer Divisions were poised to challenge any such hope however, and the picture for embattled England was grim.  To complicate matters even further, British warships already sunk in the harbor approaches to Dunkirk effectively blocked the waiting Destroyers from reaching the beach-bound troops.
For reasons scholars and military historians still can’t agree on, Hitler issued orders holding back for four crucial days the waiting Panzer Divisions from what should have been an easy tactical coups.  He may have succumbed to Reichsmarshal Goering’s claim that the fabled (but over-rated) Stukas of his Luftwaffe could make easy work of victory with their bombing and strafing attacks on the beaches.  More likely, he realized the tanks and armored vehicles of the Panzers were badly in need of repairs and refueling, and were close to exhausting a supply line which they had badly outdistanced in their five-week Blitzkrieg.  What is doubtful, but still believed by some, is that Hitler was still hoping to offer an “olive branch” to Churchill in favor  of a negotiated end of hostilities with England.  What actually took place was Operation Dynamo, the mass evacuation of 338,600 fighting men from Dunkirk’s shallow sandy beaches, and the salvation of Great Britain’s war-making potential.
A large part of what turned a major debacle into Churchill’s proclaimed “Miracle” was an endless convoy of mostly-civilian-owned shallow-draft boats and vessels, from sailing skiffs and private motor yachts, to fishing trawlers and barges ferrying thousands of men either to waiting Destroyers or all the way across the channel.  On May 30-31, a record 121,000 made that one-way trip, despite the constant harassment of strafing aircraft.
Not so much mentioned by England’s enthusiastic media was what had been left behind: 200,000 guns, 60,000 trucks, 76,000 tons of ammunition and 600,000 tons of fuel and supplies.  On the other hand, what had been saved was a cadre of experienced and savvy fighting men who would help to forge a victory which was still five years distant, and the fighting spirit of the English people themselves.

What If.  What if Hitler had not held back those Panzer Divisions?  What if Dunkirk had become an unmitigated disaster?  What if Parliament had thrown out the newly and reluctantly-appointed Prime Minister, and Churchill had been replaced by the negotiation-minded Lord Halifax?
Hitler would have been able to give up the perceived necessity of invading and occupying Great Britain as he did France.  With England – and with it America– removed from the “world chess board” as an immediate threat, he would have been able to invade Russia and the Soviet Republics a full year earlier, with only a one-front war, and with weather conditions more in his favor.  Today’s world would look very different.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


            On one of my first visits to Gettysburg many years ago, as I stood on Little Round Top with my large format camera waiting for the setting sun to outline the bronze of a Civil War cannon, I noted one other visitor still present at that rather late “tourist hour”. As we stood together looking down on “Devil’s Den”, the “Peach Orchard” and “The Wheat Field” where so many Americans – blue and gray – had fallen, I noted the same tears in his eyes as were running down my own cheeks. When explaining that he as a Canadian had been coming here every year at holiday time for 27 years and planned soon to retire here so that he could stand on that historic hilltop more often, he caused me to pose a simple question. “Why?” I asked. “Because” he said, “when I stand here I am filled with a feeling I can’t quite experience anywhere else.”
            Coincidentally – and yet appropriately – It was the Union officer who rallied the handful of Union soldiers who saved this very hill, and with it perhaps the entire battle of Gettysburg itself, who first put into words the theme which this column hopes to underline. Visiting Gettysburg on the 25th anniversary of the nation’s greatest land battle where he dedicated a monument, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain looked around and said: “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger.”
            Just a short way south over the Maryland border I have stood in sight of the old Dunker church and looked out over what was once a cornfield raked by cannon fire, and a country lane known as the sunken road into a pastoral setting near Antietam Creek where in a single day 25,000 of America’s youth were cut down and where the horrified citizens of North and South caught a glimpse of what lay ahead. There by that old German Baptist church I was again visited by a haunting sense of the presence of those hovering “spirits” Chamberlain spoke of. I have felt the same while circling Shiloh’s “Bloody Pond”  and New Market’s “Field of Shoes” where 14, 15 and 16-year-old cadets from VMI saved the day for the South one rainy/muddy Shenandoah Valley day in 1864. And on the top of a sloping green hill known as Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, a military cemetery is the hallowed resting place of 1500 Union Boys in Blue who in five deadly assaults attempting – unsuccessfully - to reach the heights where they now lay in silent honor. It is the kind of place where one walks slowly, hat in hand, and speaks in whispers.
            For 14 years of my “corporate” life, I worked for the world’s most well-known granite quarrying and monument manufacturing firm, and was intimately associated with the art and craft of memorialization from concept and design to final dedication. Our corporate headquarters and quarries were located in Barre, Vermont where in the industry’s heyday more than 75 competitive companies thrived. It followed that nearby Hope Cemetery became “home” to some of America’s most grand and elegant examples of memorial craftsmanship. It was a literal showplace of the sculptors’ art. As I would take visitors on a tour of that magnificent collection and tell them the interesting history behind individual examples of an almost-lost art form, I always concluded with my very favorite which also was the tiniest marker in a forest of giants.
            A local family of very modest means had lost their only child; a little girl they had adopted when unable to produce their own. They approached one of our firm’s designers explaining that with her they had lost the most precious and irreplaceable part of their life and wished to honor her with the very best their meager savings could make possible. The result was a small but carefully designed vertical slab on which the vital information was small compared to the heartfelt message. Written large and cut deep  were just three words:  WE LOVED HER
            I see Memorial Day as a time to bind families and generations together, especially in a land of freedom in which we are surrounded by places made sacred by what happened here.

Major Tom Cooper, who flies the giant C-17 Air Force transport plane pays a visit to the grave of his grandfather, former WWII S/Sgt. Auburn F. Cooper, USMC, a brother of the writer.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


            A survivor of the Nazi “Death Camps” of WWII was one of several being interviewed by a television reporter at the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Museum as I watched the proceedings from the comfort of my living room. After a succession of heart-rending narratives, this one gray-haired lady had no hesitation in answering the question: “What is your most vivid memory of those terrible years?” What she said has rung in my mind ever since hearing it. “I was twice saved from the gas chambers by the intervention of a German soldier; the second one was himself executed for his act of kindness. That is something I remember every day.”
            The question I most often hear Americans ask when discussing the Holocaust is something like this: “How could fellow humans have allowed something like that to take place in the 20th century?” While that is a valid question, it rests heavily on the assumption that “fellow humans” failed to act. I would begin my response by pointing out that it was our own government in 1939 that refused to allow the SS St. Louis with its shipload of  915 escaping Jews to land at any U.S. port, despite the determined efforts of its German Commander Gustav Schrӧder ( a true hero) to save his passengers from consignment to the killing camps. [See HOME COUNTRY 8/4/14]  Shrӧder was even prepared to run his ship aground off the U.S. east coast in order to give his passengers a chance for freedom until two Coast Guard cutters took up monitoring posts on both sides. While the UK and two other European countries did step up to help, more than a third of the passengers were rounded up and failed to survive the war.
            Modern Israel has not forgotten those courageous souls who placed their own lives at risk to aid Europe’s embattled Jews. On one of Jerusalem’s most sacred hillsides – just below the Temple mount – lies the only non-Jew, known-Nazi and one-time spy for the infamous Abwehr to be so honored. This grave site is of course that of Oskar Schindler, (1908 – 1975) perhaps the most well-known of Jewish protectors thanks to the film (partly fictionalized to be truthful about it) Schindler’s List.
            Schindler was a Moravian by birth, a money-motivated industrialist by profession and a faithful and early member of the Nazi Party by convenience. When he purchased an enamel factory in Krakӧw, Poland he inherited a working staff of 2,000 of which half were Jewish. At the time his motivation was profit and he began paying his former Abwehr friends a bribe to protect his Jewish workers from arrest and transfer to the nearby “death camps”.
            As it began to be obvious that Germany was losing the war in 1944 he got permission (by the same means) to move his plant to a safer location in the Sudetenland where his employees would be farther from the gas chambers. The so-called “list” was a document drawn up by the secretary of a cooperating police official naming the 1200 Jewish workers given permission to make the move. Now Schindler found himself having to purchase food and supplies for the growing dependency on the black market with an ever-longer list of bribes which had to be paid in advance. By this time, Schindler no longer thought of his people as employees. He had grown to love them. Even after the end of the war which left him penniless, these people were known as Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews), a label they wore with pride. For some years, it was this alumni who raised money to help their “savior” in hard times.
            The entire Schindler Story is a much larger one than I have space for today. He died at the age of 66 in Germany an admittedly flawed man, but one of those whose basic humanity deserves all the honor history can heap upon him.
            Israel and Holocaust survivors created a Memorial Medal for “people who risked their lives, liberty and position to help Jews during the Holocaust”. Recipients are accorded the title The Righteous Among the Nations. In Poland where the penalty was death, there are 6532 recipients; In Netherlands 5413; France can claim 3760; Ukraine 2472 and Belgium 1665. There are 40 other nations on the list with an aggregate of 25,571 Medal winners; Including 4 Americans.
            So far, more than 10,000 individual “rescue stories” have been documented.
   “All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”.   Edmund Burke

Friday, May 1, 2015


            For the first three decades of our Utah years, our home nestled among old stands of conifer forest at 7,000 feet in the northern Wasatch Mountains east of the Salt Lake Valley. We had selected the area because of its relatively undiscovered nature, and because it resembled in many ways the northern New England landscape we had left behind. It will always be remembered by our adult children as the place where they grew up, and for each of us it is bound up with a host of memories that enrich our ongoing lives yet.
            The home was designed by its builders to fit in with its alpine surroundings, with exposed timbers and covered decks and balconies, its three living levels capped off with and dominated by a roof of wide, hand-split cedar shakes. The upper level, where the bedrooms were located was low-ceilinged, and in a storm the sound of rain drops and hail bouncing off the thick shingles just overhead rang like a lullaby to the sleepers below.
            Some time, during the late summer and autumn of that first year under the pines, we became aware of nighttime visitors somewhere overhead. At first we feared that the narrow attic space had witnessed an outbreak of mice, or something even worse. Investigation though revealed no evidence of a rodent population beneath the canted attic braces. I began staying awake, listening intently, waiting for that first mysterious tread somewhere over my pillowed head. It was always near or just after the hour of midnight that I would catch the first soft, stealthy footfall. It would come as if from out of nowhere, with no hint of a claw-footed approach. It was more like a light cushioned “thump”. Often there was more than one such thump, always to be followed by the unmistakable “scurrying” of animated motion.
            By many nights of careful listening and a process of elimination I came to realize that our visitors were not in the attic but over the attic; something was climbing to or otherwise getting onto the high pitched roof itself. It had to be small, of very light weight, with soft feet, and possessed of great agility. Of course I thought of the tall pine trees, but the nearest of these was a lofty distance from any part of our roof; much too distant I thought for even the most nimble and athletic of “leapers”.
            That was before the night of a full moon on which I lay in wait on the path leading to our front door, a five-cell flashlight beneath the lawn chair which I had set up to make my midnight vigil more comfortable. Then – just before I thought about giving up and returning to the comfort of a warm bed – I was rewarded by a sight few ever get to enjoy, as a kite-like “something”, outlined against a moon-lit sky soared silently from the top of a tall pine tree to our roof-top followed by a second and third “somethings”. My flashlight beam reflected off the large convex eyeballs of a small furry creature staring back at me in almost-comic surprise, tufted ears standing erect and alert from the edge of the roof’s overhang.
            Known by the scientific name of Glaucomys sabrinus, the Northern Flying Squirrel is one of two varieties of this nocturnal member of the rodent family resident to conifer and mixed forests of the north, from Alaska to Nova Scotia. Bearing only a slight resemblance to other squirrels, this creature of the night comes equipped with a flat tail for steering and a webbed membrane connecting front and rear paws which acts as a “wing”, permitting it to sail like a glider over descending distances of 60 or 70 feet at a clip. The largely communal Glaucomys has a remarkable ability to sniff out its favorite food, underground fungi such as the truffle, in the process of which it scatters spores elsewhere in the forest duff contributing to Nature’s ecosystem, in addition to providing prey for the endangered spotted owl.
            Years have gone by since the roof of that mountain home became a “landing strip” for these space travelers, but even today on dark and sleepless nights, I find myself listening for the quiet footfalls of those ghosts that fly at midnight.

  Almost impossible to photograph, Al Cooper has captured the image of this animal in his original pen-and ink sketch.       © Al Cooper