22 October 2009


After the fireworks faded, after Harry K sang “High Hopes” for, we hope, the next to the last time in a season dedicated to his memory, it has settled in. It’s Red October in Philadelphia. The Fightins are going back to the Series. I personally would love to see the Angels add some excitement to the whole affair so that it could be a real red October. But while we respect the Yanks, we are not afraid of them.

Ryan Howard was denied the opportunity to break Lou Gehrig’s post-season consecutive game RBI record (two walks will do that), but he is still traveling in good company. The Flyin’ Hawaiin, J-Roll, Chase, The Three Amigos (Raul, Pedro, and Felix) and this year’s Clark Kent, Jayson Werth, are all going back to the center ring. And here’s to the Skipper, Charlie Manuel, who surveys the field like Wellington and whoops and hollers like a nine year old simply for the love of the game.

Red October, indeed.

17 October 2009


Back to Okinawa in July 1969.....

Tom Kerrigan and I started our trek to the southern end of Okinawa later on the morning of 21 July. In 1969, Okinawa was still under American military government dating from 1945. The greenback was legal tender. The major American presence was in the center of the island.

We hired a cab and told the driver where we wanted to go. He shook his head and off we went. As we drove south, the “modern” Okinawa began to quickly disappear. Small farms reminiscent of the villes in the Arizona took precedence. More rice paddies appeared and there were no towns to be seen.

We finally took a gravel road to a place where the driver let us off. All around us were stone monuments with Japanese writing. I looked at the road and saw that the gravel was crushed coral. Part of a human skull was buried under some of the coral.

We followed a path to the top of the cliff where we entered a veritable forest of monuments. The cliffs were well over 100 feet high, presenting a sheer drop to the ocean below.
In 1945, as the Japanese prepared for the invasion of Okinawa, they indoctrinated the local population to resist us to the death. Some will recall that it was at Okinawa that the kamikaze made its first major appearance. The civilians were being turned into a land-based kamikaze corps. They were told that if they were captured by or surrendered to the Americans, we would kill the men, rape and kille the women and cook and eat the children. It worked.

The Okinawa operation was truly a “Typhoon of Steel.” Casualties were some of the highest of any World War Two operation: the Japanese lost over 100,000 troops, and the Allies (mostly United States) suffered more than 50,000 casualties, including over 12,000 killed in action. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, wounded or attempted suicide. Approximately one-fourth of the civilian population died due to the invasion.

As we closed in on the end of the last battle of WWII, huge numbers of civilians crowded behind the dwindling Japanese line. The Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Isamu Chō committed suicide and the Japanese troops launched final banzai charges. To the horror of American troops, whole families jumped from the cliffs rather than face capture. To this day, many Okinawans hate the Japanese for their callous abuse of the people of Okinawa in 1945. They still claim that they were ordered by the Japanese army to commit suicide.

It was this example that led many US commanders to the conclusion that an invasion of the Home Islands must be avoided if at all possible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed.

In 1969, not many Americans made the trip to the southern end of the island. It did not take Tom and me long to realize that we were not welcome. After walking a couple of miles, we found a cab and headed back to the center of the island.

Still, I am glad that I saw it all.

16 October 2009


I am going to jump ahead a little bit in my Vietnam chronicle because today marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most memorable World Series games of my lifetime—and I never saw it. The laughingstock New York Mets reached the 1969 World Series after only 7 years of existence. And 40 years ago, they won it all.

As a part of life at An Hoa, the officers of the unit responsible for part of the defensive of the perimeter, which stretched approximately 4 miles, were routinely assigned as Officer of the Day for their unit’s sector. 1/5 manned Alfa Sector on the southwest part of the line. There were a number of sand bagged 3-man bunkers on the line, manned by riflemen and machine gunners waiting for the nearly nightly probe of the line by VC and NVA sapper units. They spent the night looking out over barbed wire, a minefield, and other assorted barriers including foogas positions.

Foogas was simply napalm loaded in a 55 gallon drum. The drum was buried in the ground at about a 10 to 15 degree angle. A blasting cap was inserted and when the hell box was clicked, a great gout of jellied gasoline flamed outward, cooking anyone caught in its arc.

The OD’s post was a prefabricated wooden bunker covered with sandbags about 30 meters to the rear of the center of the line. It was about 10 feet square and had room for the OD, the Sergeant of the Guard, and a radio operator. There was another position manned by three Marines a few meters to the rear of the bunker, covering the approach to its door.

On the night of 16 October, I was OD. We had an FM radio in the bunker, tuned to AFVN (Armed Forces Radio Network Vietnam) and—courtesy of the international date line--were listening to the live broadcast of the Mets-Orioles game being played that afternoon in New York. The Mets held a three game to one lead in the Series.

In about the third inning, the world exploded in our adjacent sector. Echo Sector was manned by Battery E, 2/11. Sappers had gotten into their wire and began chucking satchel charges to blow holes in the wire. They wanted to destroy those 105mm cannon and they wanted to do it tonight. I headed out to the line, pulling one of the riflemen from the guard bunker to follow me.

My first job was to make sure that we manned positions that could fire into Echo Sector if necessary, to prevent the enemy from turning our flank. That meant spreading troops out and that took some time. There is a maxim in the Corps: “Every Marine a rifleman.” The troops on the line were not infantrymen. They were supply men and, cooks, truck drivers and clerks. But they were Marines and they were in the line. I spent some time moving from position to position, calming them down and making sure they were alert.

After a couple of hours, the “all clear” was sounded and I headed back for my bunker, anxious to hear how the game was going. As I entered, all I could hear was a terrible “static.”

“Aw, damn, what happened,” I asked? “Did we lose the signal?”

“Nosir, that ain’t static. Lieutenant, you ain’t gonna believe this, but the New York [universal modifier] Mets just won the World [universal modifier] Series.” What I had mistaken for static was 50,000 crazed Mets fans screaming their lungs out!

Now, I am a life-long Cardinals fan, and since that improbable season in 1993 when a group of happy misfits gave us a summer of joy, I have learned to love the Phillies. In both cities, the Mets are the enemy. I confess that I take joy from every Met loss.

But here’s to the Amazing Mets, the boys of summer of 1969. Bless ‘em all.

14 October 2009


When last we revisited my little part of Vietnam in 1969, I had just been pulled out of the bush and sent back to An Hoa to become Executive Officer (XO) of Charlie Company. I settled in to the routine of life on the combat base. To the troops in the field, we were known as REMF’s: “rear echelon…., well, you get the picture. For the first time in months, I could shower daily—if you got to the shower point when it opened at 1900 (7pm) and if had been a sunny day, the water was hot while it came out of the above-ground storage tank.

The worst part of being in An Hoa was that it was a fixed target. We were rocketed or mortared nearly daily. You never left your bunker without a flak jacket, helmet, rifle, and gas mask. There were nights in the monsoon season when we went to the shower point buck naked, except for our flak jackets, helmets, rifles and knee waders. The mud was that deep.

I was assigned a couple of JAG Manual investigations into missing equipment and First Sergeant Lee kept up my reading assignments, including the Marine Corps Correspondence Manual, the Assignment, Classification and Testing Manual (ACTS Manual), and other administrative publications. In later years of my career, this early introduction to administrative procedures stood me in good stead.

After about 10 days, the Battalion XO informed me that I was being sent to Okinawa for 30 days to attend Embarkation School, after which, I would become the S-4 of the Battalion. I was stunned. The S-4 was a Captain’s billet. He is the staff officer responsible for logistics: communications, supply, motor transport, medical, and embarkation. But there it was.

I went to Danang on the 25th of June and caught a C-130 to Okinawa the next morning. As I was running for the chopper to Danang, it off-loaded a couple of Charlie Company troops coming in from the Arizonza.

“Everything OK with the Company,” I asked?

“Yessir, but Bravo 6 was KIA last night.” Damn! Captain Castagnetti. But by now, I had learned to compartmentalize death.

It was as if I had been teleported to a strange world. I had changed. The first shock was being required to turn in my weapon at the battalion armory. I had been armed with a loaded weapon never further than I could reach for over 7 months. I felt naked and exposed.

At Kadena AFB, I caught a shuttle bus to Camp Hansen, the pre-war home of the 9th Marines. We had passed through in December, but now I was not a transient. Schools Battalion checked me in and I was assigned a room in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ). For the next month or so, I would have a real bed, a desk, reading lamp, chair, and I would share a head with one other officer. I was livin’ in tall cotton!

The next morning, I heard someone in the shower. After he left the head, I showered with unlimited hot water (my 5th shower in 18 hours).

As I was dressing, there was a knock at the door. It turned out that my roommate was Tom Kerrigan, a classmate from TBS. We soon learned that Chris Rodatz and Pat Murphy from our class were also in Embark School.

That afternoon, when I returned to my room, I heard the toilet flush in the head. It flushed again…and again…and again…and……

“Hey, Tommy. You OK?”

The door opened. Tom flushed the commode again. “Oh, damn, Mac. Will you look at that?” As I said, a strange new world.

The school was interesting—sort of an accounting course: debit the beach and credit the ship. We learned the storage capacity and characteristics of various classes of amphibious shipping, how to prepare a detailed loading plan, and were introduced to the new computerized loading system with its 80 column pads and punch card decks. For those of you younger than 30, we were using the computer version of a slate board.

Friday nights were special. We usually went to the Iha Castle Hotel out in town for dinner. The Iha Castle was built by Continental and Pa Am airlines as billeting for their crews that were taking troops to and from Vietnam. The restaurant had a great surf and turf dinner on Friday for $2.50. The best part was the 40 foot salad bar. Every vegetable you can imagine--there were nights when I never got to the surf and turf.

We had Saturdays and Sundays off, but Kin Blue Beach was within walking distance and Kerrigan and I spent long hours there sunning. Since May, I had had a festering sore on my left ankle. Doc had prescribed Bacitracin, but the darn thing stayed ugly. There was no way to keep it clean. By July, it was a jellied white.

In Oki, I took a couple of showers a day, and the salt water soaks seemed to help. Finally, a little piece of shrapnel worked its way out of the sore and after that, it started to heal. By September, all I had was a scar.

On Monday morning, 17 July, we started our final exam. We had to prepare a complete loading plan for a ship, using the Operation Order as our guide. The instructors told us that we had until 1630 on Friday to finish, but we could turn our plans in whenever we were done. Kerrigan and I wanted to visit the southern tip of the island to see Suicide Cliffs, so we decided to work so as to have Friday off.

I worked from 0800 to about 2300 each day. By Thursday evening at 2100, I was almost done. Then I realized that I could not account for one 3 cubic foot box. It took me another 4 hours and a revision of my load to fix it. The problem with a two dimensional plan for loading a three dimensional ship is that, on paper, you can stack boxes higher than the overhead in the compartment in which they are stowed. That’s what I had done. At 0100, I went to bed.

At 0500, I got up and headed over to the Officers Club to watch a miracle happen. The Club was jammed. Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon. Then we all went back to bed.

The next week’s classes were pro forma. I was honor grad, the only officer to have a completely workable plan.

A few nights later, we were back at Kadena, anxious to get back to Vietnam before midnight on 31 July.

“Huh,” you say?

One small advantage to being in Vietnam was that Congress saw fit to make our pay exempt from Federal income taxation for any month or part of a month spent within the confines of the “combat zone.” By getting into Country before midnight on the 31st, even if by only 5 minutes, July’s pay was tax free. We made it by three hours.

The next morning, I got a ride to 5th Marines (Rear) at 11th Motor transport Battalion and caught a chopper ride back to An Hoa. From the LZ, I trudged back up to the 1/5 BOQ tent. As I started up the steps, the screen door opened and I damn near fainted. There stood Gino Castagnetti.

“What’s the matter, Mac,” he asked?

“You’re dead, Sir. They told me.”

“Sorry, young lieutenant, but it just ain’t so. C’mon in and take a load off.”

Ah, the fog of war. And I was back in the middle of it.

13 October 2009


Baseball is an intense game. The situation changes with every pitch. Witness the knife fight in a phone booth that took place at Coors Field last night. In the 2009 season, the Colorado Rockies lost only one game in which they led after the 8th inning and their ace reliever, Houston Street, had blown only two saves all season. But those never say die Phils came roaring back after a disastrous 8th to take what we hope will be the first of three post-season blue ribbons.

And what a trip it was. Sunday’s game was called on account of snow, and Monday night’s game started when the temperature was already below freezing. The gods of television must be appeased, and the idea of an afternoon game—a staple of my youth and one of the reasons we all hoped to have gym in the 6th and 7th periods in the Fall—has gone the way of the buggy whip. (Jumper Girl, my 12 year old, sighs and says, “You’re just old!!!!)

Why not equalize the two leagues at 16 teams each? One division in each could be the pre-expansion leagues: Cards, Phils, Cubs, Pirates, Reds, Braves, Dodgers and Giants in the senior circuit and Yanks, Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, Tigers Orioles, A’s, and Twins (successors to the Senators) in the AL. Then go back to a 154 game season with a League Championship and the World Series. But the loss of a low estimate of 1,280,000 in attendance and 128 games that could be televised and the accompanying revenue will trump common sense, so expect to see November baseball for the foreseeable future.

Ah,but I digress: back to last night. The Rockies need not hang their heads. They are a very good team and will continue to be heard from in the National League. But those scrappy, tenacious Fightins just don’t quit, and that bodes well for the Division series.

Harry Kalas began calling the games of the HC 9 this year (trivia buffs????), but we know there is joy in Heaven because his beloved Fightins are once again playing exciting fall ball. (And we all thank our benevolent God that He allowed Harry to call last year's Series before He recruited HK for the ultimate big league.)

Side note: I was spared the ultimate schizophrenic experience when them Bums did in my beloved Cardinals. A St. Louis-Philadelphia three game series in the regular season sends me hiding under the bed. To see them battling each other to go the Series would have necessitated commitment proceedings! I will consider this season penance for 1964.

09 October 2009


As an American, I am proud whenever one of our countrymen is singled out by a prestigious international group for recognition. Barack Obama is the only president we have and we should be proud of him when he acts in a manner worthy of our respect. Thus, I am proud of our president, for whom I did not vote and with whom I disagree on almost every issue, as he is selected to receive the Nobel peace prize.

He is a leader, although he is leading our country along paths I consider to be dangerous to our Republic. I give him credit for admitting that he probably does not deserve this recognition at this time.

My larger concern is that the Nobel Peace Prize is now being prostituted by its stewards into a weapon meant to insult and embarrass America. Consider some of the "world leaders" who have received the prize in the past 25 years: Al Gore (2007), Jimmy Carter (2002), Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin (1994), and Mikhail Gorbachev (1990).

Gore is a no load whose theories on global warning are increasingly being demonstrated to be based on faulty science. He got his award because he was willing to embarrass his Country while refusing to hold the real polluters (China and the Third World) to a similar standard. Carter, the weakest and most ineffective president in my life time, a man who demanded a written guarantee that no Iranians would be hurt in a raid to recover our hostages, got the award because he kowtowed to the anti-Israeli policies of the Third World. Arafat, Peres, and Rabin, three world-class terrorists (think PLO and Irgun), were at least arguably repentant of their violent pasts.

And then there was Gorbachev who was recognized for failing to incinerate the world in a nuclear war when the USSR collapsed. Oh, that’s not what they said. He was a great leader for world peace who led Russia out of the wilderness of communism, but let’s face it, he just got out in front of the tidal wave of history that did in the failed experiment in Marxist Leninism. The real architect of that feat—Ronald Reagan—was ignored.

Had it not been for President Reagan’s decision to stand firm against the hideous excesses of Soviet Communism, we would still be “five minutes from midnight.” But a strong, patriotic American was unacceptable to the weak wristed Scandanavians who administer Nobel’s will. A weak sister like Carter or a no load like Gore are just what they want.

So I congratulate the President on his selection. Thank God for his daughters who keep him humble. I pray that he does not succumb to those who counsel for a weak America, one who places its security second to the desires of nations such as France, the Low Countries, and others whom we have had to rescue thrice in the past Century—in two hot wars and a cold one.

He could start by meeting with his fellow peace prize recipient, the Dalai Lama (1989), despite the demands of the Red Chinese that he not do so. It would be easy: the Dalai Lama is in Washington, DC today.

That would speak volumes about what real world peace means.

02 October 2009


I first visited New Market in 1981 with Camper and Moleson. I had just reported to Marine Corps Base, Quantico, and they were then in the 4th and 2d grades, attending Archibald Henderson Elementary School aboard base.

Now, my late first wife was a product of Catholic Schools in Chicago. Her grasp of history left something to be desired. (“What do you expect,” she asked? “My history book was Holy Days And Holidays.”)

It was on Columbus day, when the Feds had a holiday that the rest of the Nation ignored. She asked “What are you going to do with a day off?”

“I’ll take the boys to New Market.”

“New Market? What’s that?”

Moleson looked up from his dinner. “Mom? New Market?” (Puzzled look from Mom.) “The boys of New Market?” (Not a glimmer!) “Mom—the field of lost shoes?” (Sheer exasperation.)

I stepped in to end the confusion. “It’s a Civil War battlefield.”

“Oh,” she said. “I thought it was a shopping center!” (To Moleson): “Where did you hear about this place?”

In a voice dripping with awe, he said “My teacher is a graduate of ‘the Institute.’ He’s told us all about ‘the boys of New Market.’”

The Battle of New Market, 15 May 1864, was one of the many battles fought in “the [Shenandoah] Valley.” It is remarkable because it was the only time in our nation's history that an entire student body fought as a unit in combat.

The Valley was the breadbasket of the Confederacy. In 1864, Grant ordered Major General Franz Sigel's army of 10,000 to secure the Valley. In response, General (and former Vice President of the United States) John C. Breckinridge, CSA, cobbled together all available forces to throw back the Yankees. The VMI Cadet Corps, over half of whom were first year students, were called to join Breckinridge and his army of 4,500 veterans. The 257 cadets, aged 15 to 21, under the command of Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Scott Ship (VMI ’59), marched 80 miles in four days to join Breckinridge's force. While the first day’s march was completed in good weather, thereafter, spring rains drenched the column as it approached the village of New Market.

As the two armies met on a farm owned by Jacob Bushong, the Union forces held a low ridge perhaps 500 yards north of the house. Massed fire from Federal units and their supporting artillery, crashed into the 51st, 30th, and 62nd Virginia infantry regiments, opening a gap of over 100 meters. Sigel then ordered an attack.

Breckenridge had to quickly restore the line or leave the field to the enemy. One of his staff asked if he should commit the cadets who were Breckenridge’s only reserve.. "I will not do it," he replied.

"General, you have no choice!"

"Put the boys in," Breckinridge ordered, "and may God forgive me for the order ..."

Col. Ship ordered the Corps to “fix bayonets” and then moved his troops into the gap just as the 34th Massachusetts started its attack. Ship was knocked unconscious and feared mortally wounded by an artillery explosion shortly afterward. (One cadet’s rifle, on display in the Visitor’s center, was struck by shrapnel. The top 18 inches of the barrel are bent at a right angle to the rest of the weapon! Although wounded, he survived, as did Col. Ship.)

Captain Henry Wise assumed command and led the cadets as they turned back the Union charge. The entire Confederate line then surged forward over the rain-soaked and recently plowed wheat field. It is known to history as the "Field of Lost Shoes" because many cadets had their shoes sucked from their feet by the mud. The Corps captured an artillery piece and sent the Union forces reeling as Sigel ordered a retreat northward to Strasburg.

The Corps of Cadets suffered 10 KIA and 47 WIA, more than 20% of the unit. One of the KIA, Cadet Private Thomas Garland Jefferson ’67, Company B, was a descendant of President Thomas Jefferson.

Today, as I drove south through the Valley en route to Chattanooga and the 6th Convocation of the New Wineskins Association of Churches, I-81 took me through the center of the battlefield. Of course I had to stop.

The Hall of Valor (Visitors Center) was as impressive as ever. Since last I was there, the original grave markers of the 6 cadets buried on the campus of Virginia Military Institute, heavily weathered, have been moved to New Market. Their graves, at the foot of the statue of “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” on the campus of the Institute, have new markers now.

Everywhere in the visitors center, we are reminded of the response to the roll call conducted on 15 May of each year at the Institute. Because they engaged in combat as a unit, the Corps is entitled to parade with bayonets fixed. As the names of the 10 cadets who were killed in action or later died of wounds are read, a current cadet from the same company steps forth and responds “Sir, First Sergeant (or Corporal or Private) ____ died on the field of honor, Sir.”

I wonder if there are any colleges in America today—other than at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, the Institute, or the Citadel—whose student body would respond as well as did the boys of New Market to “duty’s claim and Country’s call”?