Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Bit of American History

I love to read!

It would be safe to say that I am a bibliophile. I have to have a book in my hands! Regardless of where I’m going, or what appointment I’m keeping, I take a book with me, “just in case . . .”

Earlier in the week I needed to drive into Modesto on business. Normally I do not like driving into a city for any reason; however, I decided that when I was through with my obligations I would treat myself to a visit to a used bookstore, called, “Yesterday’s Books.” Now, I need another book like I need another hole in my head, but, hey! As I said earlier, I love books and I love to read. So I needed little motivation to make my visit.

There is a particular section that I’m always drawn to, and that’s History. To the point, American History, and specifically, the Civil War era. I have a fairly large personal library split between my office at the church and my office at home situated comfortably in the loft. My collection of various tomes has been a lifetime in the making. I’m particularly proud of my Civil War collection. As I sat on the floor in the book store, reading through the various books on the War Between the States, I noticed a series of books I’d not seen before. It’s called the Collector’s Library of the Civil War. Many of the thirty volumes were written within fifteen to twenty years from the end of the conflict.

The first of these books that I have chosen to read is entitled, “Army Life in a Black Regiment.” I have read about many black military units over the years, and the obstacles they have had to overcome. But I had not read a first-hand account of a commander who trained and led black troops during the Civil War. Free men served during the American Revolution, but the Civil War was the first war where blacks were actively enlisted to form separate fighting units. Due to prejudice, ignorance and distrust, many believed that blacks would not make good soldiers. Even after black units acquitted themselves with courage and valor on the field of battle (most notably, “The Massacre at Fort Pillow,” April 12, 1864), it was very difficult for whites (northern or southern) to accept them as the equal of white soldiers.

It has been my distinct privilege to have known some amazing warriors during my thirty-four years in the military. One of those was Dr. Malcolm LaPlace, my professor of African American Studies at the College of Alameda where I attended soon after returning from Vietnam. Dr. LaPlace was commissioned an officer during WWII and took the time to tell me many of the experiences he had fighting the Nazis in France. For instance, after returning home from the war front, wearing the uniform of an American Army officer bedecked with ribbons, he was still called “Boy,” and made to sit in the back of the bus. Segregated units were still used even through WWII. It was the Korean War (1950-53) that introduced integrated fighting units. While stationed at Rough and Ready Island Naval Communication Station, Stockton in the late 80s, I met a civilian employee who had been an Army officer who was placed in command of an all-black unit in 1948. He had a picture on his office wall depicting him and his other white officers with the black soldiers all standing in formation for the ubiquitous standard military unit photograph. When I questioned him about his experiences, he would launch into his many stories, all very positive, referring to his experiences leading these men as the highlight of his military career.

“Army Life in a Black Regiment” is authored by Captain (later brevet colonel) Thomas Wentworth Higginson. What you read is this man’s personal diary entries during the two years he served as the commanding officer. He was seriously wounded during a military engagement in 1863 and was retired from the military in 1864. An ardent abolitionist, Higginson believed blacks were every bit as good, even better, at drill and training than their white counterparts. Once given the chance, he was convinced they would excel beyond all expectation. He proved to be right.

Some of Captain Higginson’s observations are insightful. He says, “Fortunately, I felt perfect confidence that they (the black soldiers in his command) could be so trained (to a high standard of drill and discipline), - having happily known, by experience, the qualities of their race, and knowing also that they had home and household and freedom to fight for, besides that abstraction of ‘the Union.’ There was no trouble to come from the men, I thought, and none ever came. I had been an abolitionist too long, and had known and loved John Brown too well, not to feel a thrill of joy at last on finding myself in the position where he only wished to be.”

“As commander, the neophyte colonel earned his men’s respect: One bit of sage advice he gave them was to obey their officers not because they were white, but because they were officers. And his men earned the respect of friend and enemy. A proud, well-disciplined unit took shape, its self-esteem boosted ironically by a standing Confederate threat to hang all captured white officers of black regiments as well as their troops. Higginson wrote, ‘We all felt that we fought with ropes around our necks.’”

By the end of the Civil War more than 200,000 blacks had fought for the Union. After the War, Higginson felt that the nightmare of slavery had suffered a death blow. So he went on to work in the area of his passion which was the defense of human dignity. In particular, black education, women’s rights, anti-imperialism and socialism. He died in 1911 at the age of eighty-seven.

And that’s your bit of American history

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stories From Afar

As you know from last week’s article, I and the mission team from my church have been in the South American country of Argentina for the past two weeks. The weather has been rather spotty, uncertain as to whether it wants to rain or be sunny. But, since they are leaving summer behind and entering their fall, that’s to be expected.

It has been a true delight to meet so many of the local folks. We are staying in the town or Carmen De Areco, named for a Spanish soldier who was instrumental in defeating the Areco tribe a few hundred years ago. It is here where we are living in the Free Methodist Church grounds, which has become something of an orphanage as well. The pastor, Pastora Maria as she is known here, has taken in so many children over the years that even during our brief time here, I’m aware of at least four more children who have been dropped off. The latest two came last night, being removed from their family because both parents are alcoholics. She takes them in – no questions asked. And no support except for what comes through the church.

Pastora Maria is as outgoing and gregarious an individual as you can imagine. She seems to have boundless energy in doing the Lord’s work. Her husband, Ricardo, is the superintendent of the Free Methodist Churches down here. He’s always on the go!
The men’s group at church invited our men to meet with them last Monday evening, which included a barbeque dinner over a wood fire. This is the only way they barbeque down here – real wood! Tasted great! After consuming copious amounts of food we gathered around and our guys shared our various testimonies, each in turn describing the circumstances of how they personally came to trust Christ as their Savior. The week before we’d met with these men and heard their stories. Let me share several of them with you.

The first man was someone I took an immediate liking to. He’s a retired police chief who has been through more than his share of challenges and difficulties. He served in the police department of the capital, Buenos Aires, most of his career. Only toward the end of his law enforcement service did he come to be the police chief of Carmen De Areco because this is where he wanted to retire. He said that as a young boy he didn’t really have any religious background, but he really wanted to know if there was a God At the age of fourteen he heard how Christ had died for his sins, so he asked Jesus into his heart then and there. Later he married and had several children and even more grandchildren. However, in 1978, he was involved in a police action against insurrectionists. He caught a couple of bullets leaving him partially crippled. He drove a couple of us around town and then to his home where we met his wife and one of his daughters who is working on her PhD. They could not have been more gracious.

The next man I want you to know about was a lawyer in town who had a number of problems. He was an alcoholic which was causing his marriage to spin out of control. Venting his anger toward life and God, he would drunkenly stagger to the park across the street from the church and shout foul things at the Pastora and God. This went on for some time. But he was always treated with kindness and respect by the people at the church. One day he came to the church, a broken man, asking the Pastora’s forgiveness and gave his heart to Jesus. He’s now one of the leaders and is first to greet you with the traditional hug and kiss on each cheek.

The last man I want to tell you about had a far different story. He’s a very large man, only six feet, but an easy 350 pounds. A little more than a year ago, he and his wife moved to Carmen. She began to attend the Free Methodist Church, but he wanted no part of that! He developed an ulcer in his leg which increasingly festered and caused him pain. His wife asked him, even pleaded with him, to come to church. She told him the people would pray for him there, and that God could heal him. He continued to put her off until he got to the point where he could no longer walk due to the abscess. The doctors had given him medicines that did not work, finally telling him they would have to amputate in two weeks if it did not show signs of improvement. With nowhere else to turn, he came to church, telling his wife that he would only come with her if God would heal his leg. The folks prayed for him and the leg began to heal. Now a year later he’s walking as though nothing happened. And except for redness in the area where the abscess had been, you’d never know there had been a problem. He, also, is now one of the leading men in the church. If anything is going on at the church he’s here helping out. He also can run a mean barbeque!

So as our time in Argentina draws to a close tomorrow, we are leaving having been enriched by the lives we have encountered.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

8,000 Miles Away

Here we go again! This time the mission team from church is in the South American country of Argentina. This nation of the South American continent is located south of Brazil and stretches along the eastern seaboard to the very bottom where it connects with the southern most tip of Chile.

Argentina is called the “Land of Silver.” So, in preparation for the trip we always have team shirts made depicting the country we’re visiting. This year we had the large picture of the sun prominently displayed on the tri-colored Argentine flag (pale blue horizontal stripes upper and lower, with a white stripe in the middle displaying the yellow sun in the center.) The logo we chose says, “From the Land of Silver to the Streets of Gold, Jesus is Lord!” Mission Team members usually buy several extra shirts and ball caps to be given away to our hosts.

The Team gathered at the church at 6:30 a.m. Friday, February 27th. All fifteen of us were there on time and ready to roll. However, as such things go on these trips, the devil is in the details. The Team luggage was packed in a camper trailer pulled by a van. Said van was to carry seven of the team members. However, the van decided it did not want to cooperate. Try as we might, we were unsuccessful in coaxing the beast to start. Someone asked me at this point what Plan B was. I said, “Plan B? There is no Plan B.” Prayer was quickly enacted, followed by several of us calling folks who might be available to help. Our flight out of San Francisco was not until 12:15 p.m. so we were still in good shape. Gratefully one of the families from church had a van and was able to come and load up our seven nearly-stranded travelers. The weather was cold, but clear, so we managed to load all the luggage in the back of a pick up truck securing it with a stretchy thing. My wife called AAA and had the van towed to Ripon Auto where it was determined that the temperature sensor (or something like that) had malfunctioned, believing the temperature to be -33 degrees!

The drive to the airport was uneventful. We all checked in for our American Airlines flight to Miami, with following connections to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred during our two flights, except for very tired and sore posteriors, having to endure a combined fifteen hours.

I could not begin to tell you how many flights I’ve been on, both commercial and military during my sixty years. But trust me – it’s a lot! When I know I’m going to be on an airplane and sitting in airports, I always take a book or two to read. No exception this time. Once we boarded the plane to Miami, I settled into my seat, strapped the seat belt on, and opened my book to read. I was seated on the aisle in the center section of the plane. I reached over and pushed the button to turn on the individual reading light for my seat, but no light came on. I asked the Flight Attendant about this. She tried to get it to come on, but no luck. They reset the circuit breakers, still no luck. So I was only able to read using natural light for half the flight. Then when we boarded the plane to Buenos Aires, it was a different model of plane this time. Since this was a longer flight, I was really looking forward to getting a lot of reading done. Aisle seat, center section – no light! I pushed the button to no avail. I asked the Flight Attendant, who, like the previous flight, was unsuccessful in getting my reading light to come on. This was an all-night flight, so every other light in the aircraft is turned off so as to afford people an opportunity to sleep. I couldn’t read! I was snake-bit!

We were met by our Free Methodist Area Coordinator, Ken Myers and the local pastor where we would be staying, Pastor Ricardo. We loaded our bags in a medium-sized bus and began our two hour drive to Carmen De Areco, a town about the same population as Ripon – 15,000. When the bus rolled into the church compound, there were a bunch of children and adults to greet us and welcome us to Argentina. As is typical in Latin American countries, we were greeted with the hug and kiss on each cheek – from men, women and children. We were shown our accommodations right away, followed by a huge BBQ in the park across the street from the church. Several of the men from this church had a side of beef over an open fire, plus other meats, such as chicken, sausage, and other items I never had the opportunity to try because we had so much to eat! The children from the church did a number of national dances in colorful outfits, and then the adults got into the act. A small band of guitar players sang and regaled us with both traditional and Christian songs. Various others who were known for their singing, stepped forward and offered a song or two. Then I was called upon to have our group sing a song. I knew this was coming, having been warned prior to the BBQ, so I had told the Team to be ready to sing. We sang a couple of songs and absolutely had a ball!

Sunday morning we slept in because they have church at night here. The ladies had a children’s program that afternoon prior to the service. In the worship service, we were introduced and again were asked to sing. There were a couple of hundred people there, and we were again received with many hugs and kisses.

For the rest of the week, we’ve been working at building a home for the pastor of a nearby Free Methodist Church, in the town of Salto Argentino. It’s hard work, but we’re enjoying it and have made great strides in completing this project.

More next week!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

All Men's Blood is Red

February 19th was the sixty-fourth anniversary of the invasion of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. It took a little over a month to secure the island. You see, the twenty-two thousand Japanese soldiers were ordered to repel the enemy or die in the effort. A little less than two hundred survived to surrender to American forces and return to their homes in Japan.

The Marine Corps had one of its finer moments, forever immortalized by the raising of the Stars and Stripes on top of Mount Suribachi four days after the invasion began. When the admiral of the fleet could not see the flag from his ship, he ordered that a second, larger flag be raised. This is the one that was captured on film by photographer Joe Rosenthal. It is still the most famous and most recognized photograph in the world. One of my proudest possessions is a personally signed print of this from Mr. Rosenthal when he was eighty-nine. I met him at a Marine Corps Combat Correspondence Association (MCCCA) Joe Rosenthal Chapter luncheon in the spring of 2000. He passed from our midst in August of 2006.

Once the island of Iwo Jima was secured in late March 1945, a cemetery for the more than six thousand Marines and sailors killed was established on the island. Row upon row of white crosses and Jewish Stars of David stood peacefully where only a few weeks before the land was filled with the clash of war, the screams of men mortally wounded, and with their blood mixed in the soil of this otherwise innocuous island. The commemoration of this cemetery was a solemn event befitting the immense struggle required to attain control of this piece of real estate.

One of the many chaplains who helped officiate at this ceremony was Rabbi Lieutenant Roland B. Gittelsohn, United States Navy. This chaplain was the first rabbi to be assigned to the Marines – specifically, the 5th Marine Division. Of the nearly seventy thousand Marines who fought at Iwo Jima, 1,500 were Jewish. Rabbi Gittelsohn moved in amongst these Marines, offering prayers and words of encouragement to all Marines during the entire invasion irrespective of faith or ethnicity. When the fighting was over, the 5th Division Command Chaplain, Warren Cuthriell, a Baptist, was so impressed with the ministry of Rabbi Gittelsohn during the invasion that he asked him to give the sermon at the dedication of the Marine cemetery. It was Chaplain Cuthriell’s intension to have all Marines honored, regardless of race, religion or creed, in the same non-denominational ceremony. Other chaplains raised a ruckus over this, but Cuthriell wouldn’t budge. Rabbi Gittelsohn did not want to cause any difficulties for his boss and friend, so he offered to oversee a separate ceremony for the Jewish Marines being buried. Ironically, the sermon offered by Rabbi Gittelsohn was copied by one of the Protestant chaplains and distributed to thousands of Marines, who in turn mailed it home to their families. It was picked up by news services and radio programs across the United States, giving it a life that no one could have ever imagined.

As I read again the words of his sermon that he offered these many decades ago, I could not help but think of how applicable they are to today. The following are portions of what he said.

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding. And other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves, or their own fathers, escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and Whites, rich men and poor, together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy...

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price...

We here solemnly swear this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

There were that day three Protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues towards Rabbi Gittelsohn’s participation in the ceremony that they boycotted their own service to attend the service conducted by Chaplain Gittelsohn.

How true the words written by the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, lo these four centuries ago: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”