Monday, January 23, 2017


            Confident that he had neutralized Stalin by signing a non-aggression pact with Russia and offering to share ownership of a large chunk of recently- conquered Poland to boot, Hitler was ready to proceed with the next step in his plan for the conquest of the entire European Continent.
            On June 22, 1941 a Nazi army of 3,200,000 invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa piling up massive casualties in their wake as they sped to the very gates of Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad. Realizing the gravity of his country’s situation and knowing that Britain and her allies were already in retreat almost everywhere, Stalin appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt and the United States for war supplies and food for his people.
            The United States was still a neutral country (Pearl Harbor was still six months in the future,) but Roosevelt had found a way around a strict observance of neutrality with his “Lend Lease” agreement with Britain, and the U.S. had been massively supplying the Defense of Great Britain since 1939. Churchill – an ardent foe of communism and no friend of Stalin – quickly agreed with the need to support Russia, seeing any chance of stopping Hitler slipping away.
            An immediate challenge was the availability of sea-going cargo vessels, and the great distance over the world’s worst shipping lanes to open Russian ports, to say nothing of the ferocious activity of German U-boats which were already exacting a heavy toll in the “Battle of the Atlantic”. Waiting in the wings of history was another American innovation – the Liberty ship – an ugly duckling of a sea-going freighter which would be assembled from pre-produced sections which would be welded together rather than riveted in weeks rather than months. The SS Robert E. Peary would be finished in 4 days, 15 hours and 30 minutes and sail 3 hours later! (The author would cross the Pacific in one of these “moth-balled” veterans in yet another war.)
            The Russian ports chosen for this budding enterprise were in the Soviet Union’s far north including Murmansk, Archangel, and Kola Inlet on the Barents Sea, a world of floating ice floes, gale force winds, high seas and freezing rains capable of covering a ship with tons of ice faster than crews could chop it away. Patrolled by wolf packs of U-boats stationed at strategic target locations and homed in by “mother” subs and aircraft, the track the Allied convoys were forced to transit was a veritable
gauntlet.  The deadly route became known as the Murmansk run, a 14 to17-day voyage of deadly boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror.
            The convoys were usually made up of several dozen fully-loaded cargo vessels accompanied by escort destroyers, corvettes and maybe a tanker for refueling and commanded by an officer known as the Commodore. Except for the Navy and Coast Guard crews on the warships, these crucial supply “sea-trains” were in the hands of the merchant marine, civilian sailors who drew no “combat-pay” or insurance protection, enjoyed little recognition, and were paid about $2,000 a year. Their work was some of the most dangerous of the war – especially on The Murmansk run.
            One of the most noted of these precious supply trains was Convoy PQ          -17 attacked by air and sea in August, 1942 – a voyage Winston Churchill called “one of the most melancholy episodes of the war.” Of the 37 cargo ships that left Iceland, 24 were sent to the bottom along with their crews and $700 million of supplies.
            Somewhere on the sea bottom in Russia’s arctic north there are 5,000 tanks, 7000 aircraft, and 200,000 tons of other war materiel. More tanks were lost on the Murmansk run than in any battle of WWII. In 1942 there could be no more dangerous place to be than aboard an Allied tanker carrying 100 octane aviation fuel between the U.S. and Europe. Respective of how their governments might argue with each other, the everyday people of the United States and Russia should be proud to have been united by so great a cause in our recent past.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


            As I sit here at my writing desk today in the midst of what we call the “digital age,” I am in touch with part of my extended family – my son and daughter-in-law and part of their family – as they travel across Japan together. My grandson Jake served his church as a missionary in that land (as did also his younger sister) in recent years and now he is sharing his memories of that experience with his parents and young wife. I only wish Shirley and I could be with them although much of my Japan is no longer the way it was more than six decades ago when I experienced it. For me it was a life-changing experience in ways I might never have expected and in which it continues to define me and who I am today. I was barely 20 years old at the time, and already familiar with death and war, but otherwise still a “work-in-process”.
            For three young airmen accustomed to tents, cots, sleeping bags and old musty-tasting water from “Lister” bags and canteens, white sheets, dinner napkins, polished silver and tasty meals served by pretty waitresses were like a taste of heaven after eight months of the former. .. . and worse. Rather than follow the more clandestine “week-away” preferred by many of our comrades, Pennington, Smitty and I elected to enroll with the Military-sponsored R&R Service. We were assigned a third-floor room in the former Gaijo-in-Kanko Hotel in the Shinagawa District of Tokyo, formerly known as the capitol city’s “Waldorf Astoria” now operated by the U.S. Army for Korean combat veterans, (or U.S.A.F. pilots and aircrew with family visitors.)
            In addition to interiors finished in “mother-of-pearl” and hand-cut stone artwork, there were outdoor gardens and walkways with waterfalls, caged bears and exquisite topiary.
            One month previous to our Tokyo visit there had been a tragic C-124 transport crash (still historically notable) in which 120 R&R veterans died, leading to a cancellation of such traffic for some weeks. With the help of a collaborating Sergeant-friend in Group Headquarters, we three were “sneaked” onto an “unofficial” Tokyo flight before the ban was lifted. We found ourselves the only G.I. guests in a hotel staffed for 1200, with a dozen waitresses rotating service in order to take turns at out dining room table! (How could they resist!)
            For us, this was like a visit to a candy factory. We made it a habit to learn the name of every staff member, from elevator operator to doorman and to always address them that way; and to bow with respect when appropriate. Our “houseboy” spent more time visiting with us in our room than attending to other duties (quickly learning how to play a winning hand of poker.) The Post Exchange operated by the Army along with a full-time Post Office in the basement was like a magnet for us; it seemed that every young Joson working there must be some kind of a Japanese “beauty queen” and it was easy to spend hours “shopping” there; seems one of us was always running low on shaving cream, tooth paste or chewing gum. You could lay away a world class, hand-made bamboo fishing rod or order a 1952 Ford convertible for stateside delivery. My wife Shirley still displays a set of Noratake china sent to her by a certain Sergeant who had to explain why it was an important part of ambassadorial duty to dance on four nights in a row with a 4.5 foot tall girl named Kazuka Itabashi. (Still not a popular subject.)
            The dance band that played on the hotel’s roof-top “garden” every night was in fact one of our main drawing cards at the Gaijo-in. They played flawless Glen Miller arrangements without a piece of sheet music anywhere in evidence; we had discovered them practicing the day we arrived, and it was love at first note.
            The whole point of this story burst upon us at the time of our departure, just as R&Rs opened up and hundreds of new arrivals swarmed the hotel. We tried to find all of our “new friends” to say THANK YOU and GOOD BYE! We found them all, lined up in the lobby waiting for us; dozens of everyday Japanese menial workers with tears in their eyes, whose homeland had been at war with us just a few years before. At the head of their line was the U.S. Army hotel manager who addressed us: “I have managed this hotel for 24 months, but this is the first time I have seen anything like this happen. Whatever the three of you have done, you have made these people love you. They each want to say their own personal Sayonara.
            And they did: a deep, formal bow from the waist, a touching of hands and an obviously heartfelt, even teary-eyed arigato and farewell. Finally, the manager whispered to us: . .if you can get back over here again, you can have our finest suite, you will not have to sign in, and there will be no record of the service you receive. I only wish our country had more ambassadors like you!
            What had happened back there we asked ourselves. All we had done was treated those kind and delightful people the same as we would have, had they been the friends and loved ones we had been missing for so long?
            Go figure!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Because I am a watcher- of- dates and a keeper- of -scores, I could not miss the fact that today’s column of Home Country is number 400 of a personal love affair that began on May 7th, 2009 with a commentary on the uniqueness of early American architecture titled Backroad Gingerbread. Because I am also one who holds the quality of continuity in high regard I am also proud to point out to my readers (and editors) that in that nearly eight years of weekly columns I have never missed a publication date or been late with a submission.
             I was unsure just how to weave that notion into a theme until my wife arrived from the post office with this morning’s mail. There inside today’s clutch of Christmas cards was a hand-penned note from old friends: “How thankful we are that our paths crossed!” It hit home with me not only because it speaks so sincerely and accurately of our long-standing friendship with this particular family with whom we have shared precious experiences over many years, but because in one short simple sentence it suggests that some of the most significant and even sacred connections of our lives may not be merely earthly coincidence; and this I believe holds true in my own life.
             The circumstances that launched my “love affair” with Talk Radio long ago and those which carried that over to the print “world” years later were born from experiences and connections which took place outside the circumference of my own reach. It was this recognition of the role played by “chance” encounters and unpredictable “players” that led to my column of January 29th, 2016 titled Friends, Connections and Dunbar’s Number in which I explored what Science had to say on the subject. I now believe that the learned Dr. Dunbar was probably right when he noted that most “thinking” individuals have no more than 15 “close” friends at any given time, and an “inner circle” of only 3 – 5. By thinking this through I have a greater appreciation for those rare and wonderful friends who reach out their hands but touch my heart.
            Almost weekly I will receive an email, a letter or a phone call or three from readers who have questions or heartfelt comments. Sometimes – as with my recent column of October 21st The Last Walk -- they will descend by the dozen. (It was apparently a message which registered squarely for many readers.) Whatever the case, I try to honor every contact with a prompt response; every friend is important. There are a number of readers/listeners who over the years have become more than casual or chance acquaintances, but whose friendship has become ongoing and uplifting. They are a treasure apart.
            I have been asked if I ever pen an article for the sheer “fun of it? The answer is YES: Wandering Through the Wonderful World of Words – December 15, 2012 for one instance    . Another that gives me pleasure because in it I reveal deeply personal feelings usually kept private is titled “Smudgie” and the Gold Bead, and was published February 16th,2015. And that forces me to admit that for me, there is very often an emotional price to be paid for my “personal” style of writing; that is my own story told in the first person. Many years ago I asked a friend who was also a “story-teller”, but one who worked with oils and canvas, to read and comment on a Christmas story I had just completed. He started his review with the words “Let me ask you something, Al: Did you cry when you were writing this?” My first unspoken thought was what business is that of yours! Followed closely by, how would you happen to know that!!
            When it comes to columns like The Sad, Sad Road to Trebliuka, Jan., 2010 or Remembering the Lost Children of Lidice, July 10, 2013 or dozens of others like them, tears are part of the rite of passage for he or she who ventures into the words required to complete the journey.
            Of all these “connections”, I appreciate today the trust and confidence which the editors and staff at SPECTRUM have extended to me, and with it all, the loyalty of what has to be one of the country’s warmest and most welcoming family of communities; Utah’s Dixie.