Saturday, September 26, 2015


            Despite revisionist writers who persist in trying to make us think the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 is an over-rated moment in world history, I rise to agree with other historians who call it the most important world-changing event in a thousand-year period of time. The fact that it went far toward changing the European (and other) continents as much as it began waves of change here alone supports my case. Because food history – one of my other special interests – often tells us much about parallel events in the demographic, societal and even political history of entire cultures I will start there.
            When the Plymouth colonists, members of an English religious minority fleeing a temporary refuge in Laden, Holland landed in present-day Massachusetts in 1620, they might be forgiven for their surprise at seeing large birds which they recognized as “turkeys” wandering all around. They had seen   some in Europe, and so wondered at them being here in The New World.  (How did they get here?) The truth is they were strictly a product of The Americas, captured and taken to Europe by Spanish sailors from the Columbus journeys, traded to the Portuguese and eventually finding their way to Egypt where they were propagated for sale along that country’s extensive trade routes. At the time, Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, so the birds were called “turkeys”.
            The most important crop of all among America’s native people was what was first – and more accurately – labeled “Indian corn” ,corne being an ancient word meaning “the grain of the land”, as it did in the Bible. Because corn produces more calories per acre than any other grain, it greatly benefited countries of the Old World – especially China whose population more than doubled; and again when New World potatoes were added to the mix. Native Americans were accustomed to growing corn, beans and squash as “companion plants”, the tall corn stalks providing climbing poles for the beans (which also restored the nitrogen the soil gave up feeding the corn), while the large leaves of the squash provided shade for the seeds and conserved soil moisture. They are still known as the “three sisters”. The three were a further boon to Old World menus.
            The tomato (tomatl in ancient Nahuatl) – another American “native” deserves a discourse just on its’ own, so significant an addition to the world’s culinary arsenal did it become (with a huge shove from the Italians, who bred a red version of the pomme d’oro, or “golden apple”.) Knowing it was a member of the usually-poisonous nightshade family, the English, like many other Europeans, shied away from the tasty globe.
            From the area of old Mexico between Puebla and Oaxaca came many varieties of a vegetable plant Columbus called Peppers, because of their bite and the hope they might be a relative of black pepper which was more valuable than gold around the world.
            The New World also exported to the Old, cranberries tobacco and geese. Also – it should be noted – Syphilis.
            At the other end of the Columbian Exchange, came gifts from the Old World:  Horses, cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Add to that sugar, bananas, citrus fruit and olives and we can see how the agriculture of different parts of America were shaped over time.
            Unfortunately, other “imports” included smallpox, measles, mumps, and whooping cough; “virgin soil” diseases which – it is estimated - killed off between 70 and 90 per cent of original native populations who had no natural resistance. And then there was alcohol, which still takes its toll today.

 Winter squash (C. Maxima) were an ideal vegetable crop for Native Americans; long-keepers, easily-dried for mobility and of almost endless variety.   Al Cooper Photo

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


            Nowadays we often hear references to our “coalition partners” when politicians tell us what is working and what isn’t working in our “War against Terrorism”. I have to deduce that whoever these mysterious “partners” may be, they remain largely a “ghost army”. On the other hand, those of us who served in the Korean War, know who and what real coalition partners look like. There we had 21 nations who had the courage to stand at our side in the fight against the global spread of Godless Communism. Particularly noticeable were the British Commonwealth nations, with Australia and New Zealand sending some of the most talented fighter squadrons I have ever seen in action. Our unit often hosted the 1st Royal Tank Regiment in baseball competition and I served on a temporary undercover mission with two “spooks” from British SAS. Then there were Canadian, French, Cambodian, Thai and Colombian troops holding down neighboring positions, beside the Turks who turned out to be the most aggressive, fierce and dedicated combat troops of the entire war. Although it was kept quiet until long after the war, there is evidence that as many as 1200 volunteers from Japan – our very recent enemy – came to serve beside us.
            Norway decided to contribute non-combat personnel to the Korean War effort, mostly in the form of well-supplied and very professional medical units. It came to be my good fortune that one of those NORWEGIAN MASH units was located not far from my Squadron’s location near the 38th parallel. In the terrible winter of 1952, I was being treated for flu symptoms by U.S. medics and doctors when I broke out with a serious case of hives and swellings all over my body. After several days of worsening complications, it was determined that my throat was swelling shut and I was in danger of losing the ability to breathe. As a last resort I was driven to the Norwegian Mash Hospital near Uijeongbu where an older, highly skilled Doctor identified my expanding problem as a violent reaction to penicillin with which I had received a number of injections. Much was still being learned about the “miracle” life-saving drug and the Norwegians must have been ahead of us. One painful (sickening) injection of a milky-white substance in a syringe whose mere size was intimidating did the trick, and after several hours of observation they sent me back to my unit. Several days on aspirin phenol & codeine (APC), and thanks to buddies who surreptitiously kept my canteen filled with something other than water, I was back to duty.
            In this process I became friends with a number of my Scandinavian benefactors who later visited with me as special “guests” at our NCO club (a rusty Quonset hut with a mobile bar that was pretty well stocked). I quickly learned that in the Norwegian military, a Medical Doctor was not necessarily a commissioned officer as was the case with us; at least not all the time. With a system similar to the Brits’ “artificer” ratings, a “professional specialist” – such as a Doctor – would wear an officer’s rank when on duty in a professional setting such as a clinic or operating room – but would revert to a rate commensurate with his level of military training – at other times. Most of my new friends were non-commissioned officers after hours which took some getting used to. In return for our friendship, they introduced the men of my outfit to Danish Tuborg beer which quickly became a squadron favorite.
            In Korea a sense of brotherhood developed between the Allies of many nations whose volunteers shared every danger and discomfort we did, and there was a mutual respect which I will never forget.
            Especially, I will forever be grateful to the men and women of NORWEGIAN MASH!

NOTE: NORMASH lost two of their people in Korean War service, and won two Presidential Citations.

       Al Cooper being interviewed recently by producers from Arirang Global Television for a Korean War  documentary marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of that War as seen through the eyes of American veterans.

Friday, September 4, 2015


            Like many students of military history, I have long believed that the two most disastrous  decisions made by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime were the initiation of “Operation Barbarossa” – the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 -- and the declaration of war against the United States on December 8, 1941.  Both actions were politically unnecessary or at least poorly timed; but that is another story. At first the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg (lightning war) tactics and the absence of any real resistance on the part of the surprised and poorly-prepared Soviets, still reeling from Stalin’s destructive “officer purges” of the 1930s, seemed to pave the way for the same kind of Nazi victories which saw the conquest of France, Belgium Poland and much of western Europe already.
            To begin with the jump off was too late in the year to beat the advent of a Siberian winter, and it was an ill-advised plan that divided efforts and resources between two objectives – Moscow and Stalingrad. But the biggest error of all was the lack of appreciation for the “tyranny of distance” and what history should have taught the invaders about “imperial over-reach” and the difficulty of occupying huge amounts of space. As if that wasn’t already a “bridge too far”, but obsessed with the vitriol of race hatred, the invading forces needlessly slaughtered and wreaked havoc upon the peasant populations as they went, assuring enmity on the part of an already-oppressed people who might otherwise even have welcomed the Germans as “liberators”.
            Meanwhile, the Western Allies had won the battle of the Atlantic freeing up the shipment of American goods, whittled down the strength of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and the skies over Europe, dispatched thousand-plane raids with tens of thousands of tons of bombs over the Reich at home, invaded Africa and Italy, reclaimed control of the Mediterranean world, and driven the enemy from Egypt. (Not to mention the fact that the U.S. had simultaneously brought the war in the Pacific to Japan’s very doorstep!)
            With the war turning against Germany elsewhere, Stalin had found two Generals he trusted in                                                                                                                                                                                  Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky and was ready to launch Operation Bagration. Always conscious of patriotic history Stalin chose a hero of the Napoleonic war – Piotor Bagration – a fellow Georgian as inspiration for what was to become the greatest battle of World War II; probably the most
titanic battle in world history.
Significantly on June 22, 1944, the third anniversary of the German invasion, five Soviet Armies, totaling  1.7 million well-trained and disciplined troops (with millions more waiting) supported by 24,000 artillery pieces, 4,000 tanks (mostly redesigned and much-improved T-34/85s) and more than 6,300 military aircraft, (including the powerful Stormavik tank-killers) exploded through the battle line and into Hitler’s Army Group Center at a time when the Wehrmacht defended a battle line an astounding 1800 miles long!
            This was not the same ill-equipped, poorly-led army of plodding field workers the front line Wehrmacht soldiers remembered from past encounters, but a sophisticated organization with railway and bridging teams, river-crossing specialists, minefield battalions and Pak (bazooka) units full of a new-found patriotic ardor. What’s more those “slow-witted ignorant sub-human” peasants who survived that earlier abuse were now waiting in their well-armed and highly-motivated partisan cells across those vast distances to the German border and beyond. To make matters much worse the three German Army Groups and their commanders were under Hitler’s “obey or die” personal orders to stand fast and give up no ground. Unable therefore to maneuver, they were sitting ducks for the Soviet encircling tactics which killed or captured entire Divisions in pincer actions. The much faster T-34s were able to encircle the legendary Tigers and Panthers in the same manner. In some local actions the Wehrmacht were outnumbered ten to one as a result of those hamstringing orders. One German commander suffered a nervous breakdown in the field, while another committed suicide.

                      The sloping sides of the Russian T-34-85 WWII tank helped deflect incoming anti-tank rounds.

            With 800,000 German troops in the field and reinforcements committed during the sixty-day battle it can be seen that at least three million participants may have been involved in this monumental struggle at the same time the Western Allies were watching a far smaller number of Americans, fighting their way off of Normandy’s beaches and across the sands of Saipan. Operation Bagration cost Germany 670,000 in total casualties while the Soviets counted 765,000 of their own killed wounded and captured.
            Interestingly a parochial America then and now has paid little historical attention to WWII’s eastern front where 85% of Germany’s total war losses occurred and where more than any other place Hitler’s dreams of a thousand-year Reich died along with so many of his country’s youth.