Thursday, December 22, 2016


            We were born into the worst years of the Great Depression and welcomed pass-me-down clothes, darned socks and shoes repaired multiple times by our Dads. We delivered newspapers in the early morning dark, shoveled snow for a dime and traded baseball cards, shooting marbles and “Dick Tracy” rings from Wheaties box tops. We didn’t ride to school on buses, and when we got there we joined in prayer and saluted the flag in every classroom. School lunch was something from home ( probably P,B n J  or baloney sandwiches and a red apple) we carried in a tin lunch pail like our Dad’s, but smaller. We came home full of “the olde nik”, played in the streets, in the woods or on the sandlots until dark (or until Dad came after us with a switch.) We started with red hot water and “Ivory soap that floats” in the tub for the first guy but by the last one in it was “cold and gray” with broken pieces.
            Our Dads worked hard and for long hours, six days a week while our Moms kept house and home together. We had lots of friends, and neighbors looking out for us, and aunts and uncles and cousins galore. We did not think we were poor! I felt lucky to have been born in America. And I thought about it a lot. My friend Pierre Poirot was from France, Ziggy Klausner whose father drove a locomotive, from Germany and Paul Glen from Ireland. I wouldn’t have changed heritage with anyone – even my own cousins in England, where bombs were already falling.
            The day Pearl Harbor was bombed I was listening on the radio, and from that moment on I lived each day as an active participant. In fact I think of myself as a “child of World War II; it is in my blood, and I am of that generation even though too young to go. I collected scrap, ran obstacle courses, target-fired weekly, drilled with my high school friends, waited faithfully for letters from my Marine Corps brothers; bought Savings stamps and bonds, watched fighting ships come and go from New York’s busy harbor and fighters and bombers take off from Mitchell and Floyd Bennett fields.
            We gladly weathered the inconvenience and dietary limitations of rationing and pinched budgets, getting by on 10 gallons of auto fuel a month, 35 mph speed limits, blown tires that had to be patched or abandoned, and watching the number of gold stars in neighbors’ windows grow in number; getting word that Junior LagGande was missing on a training flight in the Cascades and Jackie Mueller had lost a leg in Africa.
            Then it was all over: VE Day, then VJ Day, and good-looking cars started to flow out of Detroit, and America was ready for good times again. Then, just as I and millions of other young men ready for higher education or jobs in the real world were leaving high school, the unfinished business of WWII began to come home to haunt us. In fact history will eventually agree with my personal belief that The Second World War did not end in 1945, but just took a rest while the Chinese repossessed the hardware of war the Allies conveniently left stacked and ready for them to appropriate, and Communist regimes moved across Europe as we and our docile “friends” signed mindless treaties and “giveaways” in the name of “peace and friendship”.
            Then those of us who thought we had “lost our chance” to fight in the “Big” war got the call to a faraway land called Korea and we went by the tens and then hundreds of thousands, occupying old tar-paper training barracks and left-over uniforms; left-over everything including M-1s and carbines with rusted firing pins. We drove 1942 Ford-built jeeps (which turned out to be superior to the largely-deficient Willys which replaced them.)  We rode to war in “moth-balled” Liberty ships quickly returned to service, and ate “C” and “K” rations of uncertain antiquity in the field. We learned that none of our 6X6s and “weapos” had been winterized, that a “10-second” hand grenade better be thrown before the count of 3, and that .50 cal. ammo. supplies limited us to 10 “test” rounds a day. (In my Air Force outfit we traded a surplus of ammo. for desperately-needed concertina wire to protect ground facilities from infiltrators.)
            The zippers on our sleeping bags froze shut trapping our guys for night bayonet attacks, and the firing rate of cheap communist “burp guns” out-stripped anything we had for two years.  We flew close-up air support with leftover P-51 “Mustangs” and F-4U “Corsairs” – which turned out to be a “blessing” compared to the new F-80 “Shooting Stars” which lacked diving brakes and accuracy (and with whose help my outfit bombed itself; twice.)
            With a lot of experienced leadership from our senior NCOs who were mostly “big war” veterans, our guys fought bravely and well, eventually routing the invaders and saving today’s Republic of Korea  (South) for its 43 million residents, an anchor of democratic capitalism in East Asia, from godless Communism.
            Proud of what our big brothers had done before us, and aware that the folks at home were not exactly rolling in the aisles with applause for us, we became the Quiet Generation. Our casualties per month of warfare were higher than those of any other American conflict since the Civil War, and our war was one we actually WON! What a novel outcome!
            I’m fiercely proud of every living (and gone) Korean veteran, and I for one of them refuse to be quiet when I see high school graduates (and college-age contemporaries) who don’t even know about that bloody struggle for human freedom. And I will have you know that we too are dues-paying members of “the greatest generation!” 

Sunday, December 11, 2016


            Unless you are, like me, an aficionado of regional publications from around the country, and in particular in this case Maine’s outstanding DOWN EAST, magazine you might be excused for not knowing the name of Peter Noddin of Aroostook County. Known unofficially as a “wreck chaser”, Noddin is actually an aviation archeologist who – after many years as a fire-fighter – now spends much of his time researching and hunting down the location of plane crashes long hidden in Maine’s dense forests and lake country. During WWII Maine’s air fields and bases were the departure points for thousands of military planes heading across the Atlantic for the war in Europe. Not only is coastal Maine the place where “fog is born”, but where dense forests cover much of a vast landscape.
            As a young student pilot I occasionally volunteered to co-pilot flights in light planes for the Vermont Fish & Game Dept. to pick up trapped pine martens in Maine to be ferried to my home state to help in battles against an insurgent porcupine outbreak. At those times I would glance outside the cockpit now and then and wonder where in the world I would set down in an emergency. (It was best not to wonder!)
            The exigencies of wartime pressed newly-trained airmen into aircraft just hours off the production line and  then over some of the world’s most challenging and dangerous flying routes at a high cost in human lives and equipment. It is estimated that at least 10,000 such “over-flights” of European-bound military aircraft crisscrossed Maine during the war years. It should be remembered as well that many of these complex airplanes were flown by a handful of courageous and little-acknowledged civilian women ferry pilots who posted an unbelievable success record. (They were not even offered government insurance coverage!)
            Looking at the larger picture, we know that between December 1941 and 1945, the USAAF suffered more than 52,000 aviation accidents over the continental United States resulting in 14,000 aircraft destroyed and the death of 14,903 airmen. During the same period the U.S. Navy suffered another 8,134 deaths in skies over the U.S., and it is likely that as many as 20,000 of the lives lost in the air war overseas resulted from accidents.
            I was 11 years old when my Boy Scout group wandered onto the site of a recent B-17 Bomber crash in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey. The guns and Norden bomb sight had just been removed, but the ten of us would never forget that close-up image of a war that already seemed to dominate our “world”; even close to home, where ten young men could die so easily on a peaceful green American hillside.
            Less than ten years later I lay awake on my cot in a Korean night listening to the frantic voice of a Navy Panther pilot who knew his jet was going down as the voice of our Controller tried to guide him over our lines where it would be safe to bail out. Moments later he was close enough that we could hear the crash. When we reached him after early daylight we discovered that he had cleared his cockpit but was too close to the ground for his chute to complete opening. It lay spread out like a banner across the rice paddy. A small group of very tough men stood around weeping unashamedly; he had been so close!
            It somehow makes me feel better to know that 75 years later, there are still people like Peter Noddin of Maine who care enough to hunt down and pay their respects to those who fell from the sky to die alone long ago.

   A veteran of two wars, an AT-6 “Forward Observation” plane returns from a Korean rice paddy.                                                                                                                                                                                 Al Cooper Photo

Sunday, December 4, 2016


            As far back as 1893 the U. S. Military began planning for a defense against an attack by the forces of the Empire of Japan known as Plan Orange. Ironically it called for a response in the form of an island-hopping campaign eventually crossing the Pacific to the Empire’s home islands. Again in 1923 Army and Navy planners updated Plan Orange. The Japanese military and Foreign Office were keenly aware of what they saw as a “racial bias” against their people as a backdrop to all their dealings with America.
            In World War I Japan sided with the U.S. and Entente nations in fighting Germany and her allies hoping to earn a greater parity in any future international planning. When the Washington Naval Treaty placing a limit on future Naval power among the victorious nations was laid down in an effort to force arms limitation in the 1920s, the ratio of Capital and lesser warships left Japan “playing 3rd fiddle” to the other major powers. The Japanese insult was serious and long-lasting ending in their renunciation of the treaty in 1936 and contributing to the erosion of trust and relationships between the two countries.
            Japan’s counter-plan called for a first blow against the largest part of the Pacific fleet where it was gathered, followed by two great sea battles which would finish off the remaining U.S. battle force. Aircraft carriers were not yet considered capital ships although by war’s breakout they would be key factors for both.
            Among the intelligence not known to the planners in Tokyo was the absence from Pearl Harbor of the three (or four) U.S. Carriers they must destroy, and the ability of diplomatic code-breakers to garner advance information of enemy intentions. Perhaps even more important, the U. S. decision-makers in Washington had failed to grasp the delicate balance of military/political “winds” blowing among the highest level of leaders on the Japanese side. The cooler heads among Japan’s leaders had realized that the invasion of “bottomless” China had been a losing proposition from the beginning and that the pending invasion of Indochina would bring more economic problems than it would solve in addition to angering the United States beyond the breaking point.
            The most respected military mind in Japan, that of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto had long counseled against war with the U.S, as had no greater an authority than Marshal Tojo himself. The much-loved and respected younger brother of Emperor Hirohito urged him not to take his country into a war “that couldn’t be won.” Facing these arguments was the constant worry of a coups by young Army “Hawks” who were committed to victory in China and the always-lingering fear of loss of face. A disengagement from the “China disaster” might even be welcome to Japan if it could have been accomplished over time and without shame. And then – at the suggestion of Ambassador Grew there was the message from President Roosevelt which contained a possible solution to the impasse, but mysteriously got “held up” somewhere in the corridors of power in Tokyo.  Tojo would later remark that if Roosevelt’s peace message had arrived three days earlier, war might have been averted. As it turned out it was an empty observation; December 1st, 1941 had become the commitment date.
            On December 2, 1941 from an anchorage in Japan’s Inland Sea, Admiral Yamamoto sent a radio message to Admiral Chuichi Nagumo whose 1st Air Fleet was just crossing the International date-line along the 180th meridian en route to Pearl Harbor. It read simply “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208.” World War II in the Pacific was about to begin.

NOTE: There were no U.S. aircraft carriers or submarines at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, and Nagumo     failed to bomb the fuel tanks and repair shops. Nearly all the sunk and damaged ships would be
            raised and repaired within six months; The “Sleeping Tiger” would be awakened!

Friday, November 25, 2016


            Across virtually every corner of Native American culture “thanksgiving” festivals are celebrated not only at harvest time, but throughout the year; a manifestation of the idea that all our wants are supplied by the spiritual God of this earth. Nowhere was this more firmly established than among the Algonquian and Iroquoian people of the northeast where harvests from gardens, the forests and the sea were commemorated in days of prayers and rites of renewal – if not by entire villages, by individual families. Nearly every food tradition practiced in today’s Thanksgiving feasts is a reflection of something learned from the coastal people of Samoset in 1621.
            Each year as I lift the first slice from my still-warm-from-the-oven Wampanoag cranberry pie I revisit in my mind the beautiful story of the ice-bound Indian youth saved from death by the lovely white bird dropping strange never-seen-before red berries to him like gifts from the winter sky. When I lift a fillet of Pacific salmon, glazed with wild honey and redolent of alder smoke after six hours in my smoker, I think of my Aleut niece and the generations of sea-bound island traditions which speak to her and her modern-day family – and to me.
            I enlisted in the United States Air Force less than three years after it was created out of what had been the U.S. Army Air Forces (and before that the Army Air Corps.) At that time a (sometimes painful) marriage of cultures was going on. The old timers took pride in clinging to their olive drab, army-style uniforms along with other less-obvious habits of dress and behavior. I was among the first training camp graduates to be issued only the new blue uniforms and a new sense of pride in identity. (I wouldn’t have worn an “old” OD uniform even if invited to do so!) I use this as an introduction to the subject of “Thanksgiving Day mess hall menus”. It took me a while to notice that wherever I happened to be both in the “states” and overseas at holiday times, we would be served sweet potato pie, not pumpkin pie. So I learned to like sweet potato pie – and will be making my own this year. But why? Why was this an old “Air Corps” tradition?
            In the 1930s and all during WWII, Army aviation training activities were centered in the South where flying conditions were favorable. The “sweet potato” was brought to the U.S. with African slaves and became a strong African-American food favorite, and one much preferred over pumpkin in pie-making time. I believe that the “old school” mess sergeants of that era (and NCOs have long been the heart-and-soul of continuity in military customs around the world) passed this one along.
            I also believe that of all our seasonal holidays, Thanksgiving is the most powerful celebration of American traditions and – along with Christmas – the most family-centered. It is a natural “avenue” for the passing-along of family tradition and family history. For those of us who have a sense of our generational responsibilities as parents and grandparents to do something more important than carving a turkey and grating orange rind into grandma’s cranberry relish, this is a time to put our signature on a lesson of love and values.
            As I stand today as the senior living representative of four generations of our united family “tree”, I was gladdened to learn that a 13-year-old great-grand-daughter informed her mother that they just could not leave on a family vacation unless they had Thanksgiving first.
            And one more reminder: For those courageous 103 seekers-of-freedom who dared the waters of a mighty ocean to get here, Thanksgiving was a “thank you” to their God. 

                                                      Wampanoag Cranberry Pie