Monthly Archives: September 2012

Large Slow Target

The other day I was sitting at a local eatery reading a WW II book,

Rare World War Two photo of the LST 325 aground on the beach at Salerno, Italy. Note the enormous doors through which heavy equipment was unloaded, often under enemy fire.

one of the Time-Life series that appeared thirty years or so ago, sold on television in thirty five volumes, now out- of -print. The book is entitled RETURN TO THE PHILLIPINES and features on the cover the famous, iconic photo of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at the Leyte beach making good on his “I Shall Return” promise. A man walked by, saw what I was reading and asked: “”Can I see your book for a minute?” An odd request I thought but said “Sure. He took my book, walked over to a group of ladies sitting nearby and spoke to them pointing to the cover photo. Now even more curious I asked why he was giving this impromptu history lecture to a group of ladies who smiled and talked excitedly as he spoke. “The man you see here” he said pointing to the soldier walking beside MacArthur at his left, obviously an enlisted man,  “was a friend of mine. He lived here in Nashville for many years and just died last year.”

Pretty neat tale. But there was something else worthy of mention in the photo, two very large guys behind the famous general on either side of him there on that famous beach: LST 814 & 840, two specially designed landing crafts manufactured in the United States during the war.  Many scholars and WW II enthusiasts over the years have christened the LST as “the ship that won the war.” Others argue that the “Higgins boat” the LCVP, the much smaller, simpler  boat just behind MacArthur in the photo, the boat that actually carried him onto the beach, the craft featured in that famous opening scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” demands that honor.  Regardless of the outcome of this competition, the LST was clearly the bigger, more expensive, more sophisticated brother of the pair. But the two crafts had different purposes. One was designed to carry personnel, for the most part, and the other was designed to carry heavy equipment-for the most part. To seize an enemy held beach both were needed. Because nearly every major operation the US mounted in World War II began with an “amphibious” landing, this was no small matter.

A couple of years ago I visited the WW II museum in New Orleans and saw a real “Higgins Boat.” The museum was located in that city because those boats had been manufactured nearby during the war-about twenty-thousand I’ve heard.  Knowing of the sheer volume and size of an LST, I was quite sure I’d never see one of these in a museum. It is not the sort of thing that can be put indoors unless it was housed in a building the size of a football stadium.  It’s not a boat; it’s a ship.

Now I can say that I’ve not only seen but have actually been on one. A few days ago LST-325 came to Nashville and docked at Riverfront Park. About twelve years ago it was located having just been retired from a thirty-five year stint in the Greek navy, saved from the scrapyard, purchased, repaired, and brought back home to the USA. Of the thousand or so manufactured during WW II, it is now the only functioning LST in existence-a national historic treasure.

“Large Slow Target”. That’s the affectionate nickname the GIs, frequent passengers, applied to this plain-jane, not-so-pretty naval vessel that appeared in the early days of World War II, a craft designed to efficiently deliver men and material onto an enemy-held beach. “LST” simply stood for “Landing Ship, Tank.” No, the proper government name was not an ear-catching, dignified, heroic name, just a simple designation of its’ role with a three-digit identification number. And yet, as the conflict rolled on, this vessel was used time and again by US forces in both the European and Pacific theatres of that great war.  Later, the  remaining LSTs, those that had not been sold or scrapped, were used In the Korean and Vietnam conflicts-an enormous, expensive piece of equipment  that would be used, so it was believed ( at first), only once or maybe twice before being scrapped or sunk. It was an odd thing. In this the LST was similar to the jeep, the M-4 Sherman tank, and the DC-3 airplane.  None of these were very sexy, sleek, or state-of-the-art but they all found post-war uses. All were workhorses practically designed, easily maintained, and versatile-adaptable to different situations. While other seemingly high-tech, state-of-the –art, sexy, tools of war were declared obsolete or unneeded and sent to the scrap-yard at wars’ end, the LST with these others,  became like the cat with nine lives.

Nevertheless, as time passed, time caught up with it and the LST slowly passed into oblivion. Of the thousand or so manufactured in the US during WWII, and none were manufactured after the war, only a handful that had escaped the metal salvage wrecking ball were still in use by the nineteen-seventies. By this time our military had been issued an updated  model and the remaining old WWII era LSTs were sold or scrapped.

There was nothing unexpected about this. Like so many other pieces of heavy equipment manufactured during the war, the LST was not designed for long-term use.   It was designed to win the war and little if any thought was devoted to what would be done with it afterward.  And within the broad context of winning the war, the LST had a very specific “raison d’etre”, or role. It was designed to hit the beach with the “grunts” and quickly unload heavy equipment , principally tanks, to support their tactical objectives. And it worked pretty well in this task.

It was a revolutionary idea at the beginning-a ship that would purposely run aground on a beach. Traditionally ships tried to stay afloat and ran aground only by accident or misfortune. When they needed to unload they would go to a harbor to unload large items  or simply unload men and a limited amount of supplies from small boats. A ship designed to run aground and unload large items directly and quickly onto the beach? A pretty novel idea. Of course it was also important that the ship be able to get OFF that beach & back into the water, that is if the enemy cooperated! Through the creative use of tides coupled with an extended anchor out in the water used to pull the ship backwards, the LSTs could usually get back into the water without too much difficulty. At Normandy the LST 325 made several round trips back and forth to its’ base in England carrying soldiers and equipment forward to the front and wounded and POWs on the return trip to base. It was always loaded either way-a real work horse.

There is no question that without the LSTs and the smaller LCVP or “Higgins” boats, the second front  in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) could never have been established  and the seizure of numerous islands in the Pacific theatre would not have occurred. Necessity is the mother of invention and the demands of the conflict made the development and manufacture of such vessels necessary. Nothing like it existed before World War Two.

This particular ship, LST-325, was manufactured in late 1942 and was later among the first convoy of LST’s to sail for the Mediterranean in early March, 1943. No LST’s were used in “Operation Torch”, the invasion of North Africa in late 1942, but quite a number including the 325 were used in “Husky”, the invasion of Sicily in July, ‘43. Later, in September, the 325 took part in the Salerno operation, the invasion of Italy, making three trips to the beachhead.  Then it sailed to England and from that point in early June 1944 took part in the Normandy invasion delivering men and equipment to Omaha beach-the most famous amphibious assault of the war.

I took the nine stop ten dollar tour. At each point a guide would say a few words and cheerfully answer questions. Most of these guides were older gentlemen who had actually served on an LST in either WW II or the Vietnam conflict. Stop #1 was the “Tank Deck.” Everyone entered  through the bow forward, the business end of the vessel with the enormous double doors that would open to release it’s payload upon touching the enemy beach. The interior/hold or “Tank Deck” is enormous, 230 feet long,30 feet wide and 14 feet high with the capacity to hold 20 Sherman tanks or a mixture of various vehicles.  Various shops, electric, machine, etc.  line the sides. Other tour stops took us to engine rooms and mess deck (crew tables and quarters) In this room is a plaque honoring those who brought LST325 from  Greece in 2001 back to the US. Then we walked through and past the mess deck, galley and up onto the main deck where most of us took a photo op in the seat of a revolving 20mm anti-aircraft gun. Then we passed through the officer’s quarters and dining room to  the forward portion of the upper “main deck” where additional vehicles, artillery, and personnel were carried when headed toward an enemy beach. Pictures of these vessels when in action (headed toward the beach) taken during the war show the main deck packed with vehicles and supplies. This was also the case on return trips back to base when the ships were often loaded with wounded or prisoners-of-war or both. To and fro there was alot to carry.  Before heading back downstairs to the Tank deck we passed through a troop berthing area where up to 300 troops-passengers (usually soldiers) could be quartered. Then there was finally, the inevitable gift shop, with lots of things for sale: books, souvenir caps, shirts, sweaters, etc. and  an opportunity to make a donation for the general operating fund and join the LST Memorial Membership. It is all privately owned and operated and they do need money. After a few days in Nashville, the ship, being fully operational, headed back up the river to its’ home in Evansville, Ind. on September 23.

It one thing to see photos and read about these vessels that played such a key role in liberating the world from tyranny in the nineteen forties. But it’s quite another to really walk inside one and speak to LST vets.  One old fellow I spoke with said that it was very emotional for him.  When he walked aboard the 325 a few years ago, it was the first time since WW II that he had been aboard an LST. And it sure brought back some memories for him. I’ll bet.

History truly comes alive aboard the LST 325, the closest thing to being there. Standing on that main deck looking toward the bow, I tried to imagine how it would have been on June 6, 1944, crowded with men and material, the choppy English channel bouncing us up and down, salt spray in the air, hundreds of boats and vessels of all kinds all around us, and  the deafening roar of the naval guns upon nearby battleships pounding the beach up ahead where the enemy awaits our arrival. Gives you goose bumps and makes you proud once again of the men, our vets who stood aboard this ship and boldly and bravely moved toward the sound of the guns into harm’s way and in doing so made this world a much better place. Did they “make a difference”, not only the vets of WW II, but the vets of Korea and Vietnam?  You bet they did.  I know I’m grateful.

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For more information contact: lstmemorial.org

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THE ENDURING PHOTOGRAPHIC LEGACY OF ANTIETAM

One hundred and fifty years ago today, September 17, 1862, the

Confederate dead piled together a few days after the 9/17/62 battle near Dunker church

armies of General Robert E. Lee and George McClellan clashed near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, a bucolic, lovely setting, a peaceful landscape where the fields were ripe for harvest and any sound of gunfire more than the report of a hunter’s shot was rarely heard. In the following weeks when the casualties were tallied up, Americans would grimly realize that this had been the costliest single day in a war that had already gotten way out of hand. Those who had rattled their sabres and beat their drums for war in early 1861, especially those who had confidently predicted a quick and relatively bloodless war, now felt, if they had any sense at all, like complete fools. Rabble-rousing war-hawks and pompous politicians both North and South had rushed in where the angels feared to trod. And the nation was paying a terrible price for it, a price far beyond anything that anyone had imagined. My God, they muttered quietly to themselves, what in the world have we gotten ourselves into?

Two days after the battle, the battered Southern army was already back in Virginia having left most of its’ dead and wounded behind on the battlefield.  Makeshift field hospitals and nearly every structure in the area with a roof, overflowed with the wounded of both armies.  The badly bruised Northern army, in nearby camps, remained in and around Sharpsburg. But on the battlefield itself, things were now fairly quiet, the principal sounds heard being that of the pick and shovel and the voices of those employing those tools as they worked steadily to get the Northern dead into the ground. At this point, most of the dead still above ground were Southerners and they would have to wait till the gravediggers got around to them. Here and there some brave Southern family or house servant was seen wandering the field in wagon or carriage looking for a loved one to take home to a family plot. Maybe the gravediggers would respectfully pause in their work when they heard a plaintive scream or shout of recognition echo across the shattered landscape when the seekers found who they were looking for.

No doubt other curious locals had somehow slipped past security guards posted at key points to explore the fields and take it all in. Some of the more mercenary among this group may have been seen going through the pockets and haversacks of the dead searching for anything valuable. Occasionally a gun shot would be heard as a gravedigger paused in his work to pick up his rifle and fire a warning shot in their direction to run them off.

The battalions of gravediggers, mostly soldiers, also noticed a different set of visitors, a duo of photographers, Scottish born Alexander Gardner and his assistant, James Gibson, working for the Matthew Brady firm, rumbling past in their specially built “dark-room” wagon, stopping, unloading their cumbersome equipment, and going  through the strange rituals of “wet-plate” photography. For these two men, a visit to a battlefield was a new experience, sobering and sad, but intensely exciting. Prior to this they had done little outside-field photography. Mostly they had worked in indoor studios where subjects had come in clad in their Sunday best, paid a fee, stood or sat rock still, and had their portrait taken. Every now and then they had photographed the dead, usually an infant, carried into the studio by grief stricken parents wanting a likeness of that little person about to be buried. But on this day, they walked amongst the dead, hundreds of them, singles here and there, pairs here and there, and in some cases, such as the area known as the Sunken Road, they lay in heaps, not just men, but dozens of horses. And, I suspect, with the temperatures of early Fall being fairly warm, the smell was rising to a fearful level. In one way these subjects were easier than before, they would not have to be given instructions to stand still.

Gardner and Gibson had to work fast. Most of the Union soldiers were already underground, buried where they fell.  If they were to get photos that could actually be seen by the public, photos not too grisly or gross, they had no time to lose. Most of the corpses were already swelled and bloated. At night, the gravediggers surely warned them, the feral hogs would sneak onto the field and gorge on the corpses making their subjects  even more unacceptable for portraits.  It was hard work. In many cases, they had to move around to try new angles not only to get the composition right, but to get unacceptable subjects out of the picture.  They were artists, and what they were doing was not substantially different from what painters would do. But photography was essentially a new medium, and the rules were being written as they went.  After taking an exposure or two in one place they looked around, scanned the shattered landscape, and moved on to another. It was a long hard day and the next morning, having used all of their wet-plates and chemical solutions, they rolled out of the area, saying little to one another, happy to depart, troubled  by the images that had filled their heads, images that would haunt them the rest of their lives.

A month later their work was featured at an exhibition in New York City. Crowds flocked to see it. This sort of thing was new, terribly new, no one had ever seen anything like it. Photography, known principally as a means of portraiture, had entered a new realm.  Attendants worked hard to keep the dumb-struck crowds moving in and out of the place. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed people would stand and stare at an image, examining every detail as long as they were allowed to do so until being pushed to the next photo or out the door. The war that they had heard about had suddenly entered a new, disturbing, more immediate, more tangible dimension. People left the exhibit speaking in excited, hushed tones.  Until it closed a few weeks later, this exhibit, the first of its’ kind, was a real sensation, the talk of the town.

A NEW YORK TIMES journalist would write: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along our streets, he has done something very like it.”

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Gone with the Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Victory

That’s how Pat Conroy put it last year on the 75thanniversary of the

Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta, author of GONE WITH THE WIND

publication of the famous novel.

Conroy, surely one of our greatest living American (and Southern) writers, a South Carolinian, had a point. GWTW, both the novel and the movie, was a triumph. All these years later, people are still watching the movie and reading the thousand page book. It has never gone out of print.  A few years back I did some work at the home of a Chinese-American couple.  They were watching the movie and hearing the dialogue in  (over-dubbed) Chinese.  I couldn’t help but wonder if: “Frankly my dear…damn,” would lose something in translation! GWTW was a worldwide phenomenon.  And it did, to a large degree, cast Southerners of 1861-1871 in a positive, sympathetic light-a Southern victory of sorts, not on the battlefield, but years later, accomplished in the hearts and minds of people across the world.

Most of us know the what the book/movie is about. It is essentially the tale, and a long one by the way, of  Scarlett O’Hara, a young Southern woman struggling with her own desires and aspirations within the turmoil and upheaval of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Before the war, Mitchell tells us,  the Old South was a land of romantic cavaliers of old, a land of well-meaning kind masters and grateful, happy servants, the land of cotton where the “darkies” gaily sang at the end of the workday and ate watermelon and strummed the banjo in their carefree leisure hours.  In GWTW the old Southern “myth” achieves it finest and most famous expression. The Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, a Confederate veteran who composed in the late nineteenth century, was surely envious. Mitchell, a woman, achieved in a work of fiction what he had never been able to do in his poetry-to successfully present this version of the Old South to the world.  And with the movie, a stunning cinematic achievement, Hollywood stayed pretty true to her vision. Though lengthy to an extreme, it’s still quite watchable.

Then came the “Yankees” and Mitchell’s peaceful ordered world came apart. The Yankees (along with a few “Scalawags-Southern Yankee sympathizers) are the bad guys throughout the tale, the source of most of the misery and suffering.  Southerners are victims of Northern aggression and cruelty during but especially after the war, when Scarlett, the heroine, struggles to keep the Old Home Place, “Tara” from destruction and neglect. Those devils from the North, Mitchell reminds us, came South and pulled the lid off Pandora’s Box leaving Southern white folks to deal with the chaotic result, a disordered world ruled by greedy carpetbaggers, corrupt “scalawags” and footloose-confused “free-issue” negroes-not the kind of tale that would find a cooperative Hollywood film industry these days.

Maybe I’m selling Ms. Mitchell a bit short. Yes, she does present a romanticized view of the “Old South”, one that modern folk have a hard time digesting, but this view is presented alongside another view: that of the Old South as a culture doomed to extinction, a world peopled by rash, foolish hotheads, oblivious to the wider world, rushing to their doom.  Ashley Wilkes is the amiable but doomed romantic, a symbol of the Old South, unable to cope with the modern world. But even Ashley thinks the sabre-rattling of his fellow planters is foolish. Then there is Rhett Butler, a man quite at home in the modern world, who agrees with Ashley and actually tells his fellow Southerners what he thinks. In a famous scene near the beginning of the tale, he informs his fellow guests at the big party that they cannot win a war against the North, that all they have is “cotton, slaves, and arrogance.” As for Scarlett, she has nothing but loathing for any talk of war and hates it even more when it visits Tara and Atlanta. Therefore the South, in Mitchell’s view, blew it. If they had just kept their wits about them and worked with Mr. Lincoln things would have gone a great deal easier. And in this she was surely correct. Her view of the Old South was romanticized but not completely unrealistic.  After the war, Southerners lay in a bed largely of their own making.  Mitchell was quite willing to admit this.

Most problematic is Ms. Mitchell’s portrayal of African-Americans. It is not a flattering portrait. The “darkies” of GWTW are, for the most part, simple, lovable, childlike, and well, pretty happy with their assigned lot in this world.  This book ain’t “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” No slave is unhappy and eager to escape. After the war they all stick around and, for the most part, pick up where they left off.  Any trouble with the “darkies”, and the trouble all occurs AFTER the war, is the fault of the Yankees, the outside agitators who have caused the social upheaval and put “uppity” notions into the heads of the simple-minded freedmen.

But, before we conclude this matter, there is Mammy. Her character, both in the book and movie, is important, complicating an otherwise stereotyped African-American cast. Mammy is strong, smart and sees through every pretense and charade Scarlett brings on. For this Rhett clearly loves and respects Mammy. Indeed, one can make a case that Mammy is the only character in the entire story, white or black, that has any sense! Nevertheless, her destiny is bound up in service to white people, and this is presented as the natural order of things.  Despite their shortcomings and faults, white folks are Mammy’s superiors.  She gets no life of her own. Her dreams are bound up in their dreams. She is noble because she is a loyal servant bound to flawed but well meaning white people. Her nobility would vanish if she tired of and rejected her social superiors.  Rhett can walk out on Scarlett. Mammy can’t-not in this story.

Despite  its’ shortcomings, the racial picture featured in GWTW was stark contrast to that which had appeared in DW Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION  twenty years earlier in 1914.  Yes, GWTW gave us tiresome, troubling stereotypes of African Americans, but Griffith gave us something worse-  vicious, disturbing stereotypes with a fully robed Ku Klux Klan to deal with them,  heroes riding on horseback to rescue a town from black savages in the climactic scene of his two and a half hour silent film.  In another scene he depicts lazy-simple minded  negro politicians eating watermelon in the statehouse chambers.   This film, admittedly an important one representing a milestone in cinematic history for its many innovations and techniques, was based on a book titled “The Klansman.” Both book and movie helped resurrect this disturbing organization so that by the nineteen twenties, hundreds of thousands across the nation were members.  There was a huge Klan rally in Washington DC in 1925, something hard to imagine in our day. Nothing like that can be blamed on GWTW. Surely the simple-minded but good-hearted African-Americans in GWTW, though flawed, was a vast improvement over the even more one-dimensional, predatory, dangerous rascals we find in  Griffith’s film. If GWTW makes us roll our eyes nearly every time an African-American speaks, watching BIRTH OF A NATION, a silent film, will literally make us sick.

Perhaps Mr. Conroy felt that the South, for a time, rose again, in GWTW. The many fans of this book and movie were willing to give the South a final victory-of sorts. Maybe the timing was right. The Civil War  had been over for quite some time in 1936. Sectional passions had cooled. Only a handful of the old veterans were yet alive.  Their final joint reunion had been at Gettysburg in 1933 on the anniversary of the battle. I saw a film years ago of a very old man sitting on the rail fence on Cemetery Ridge wiping the perspiration off his forehead with his left hand, his right arm gone, the sleeve pinned up.

Nothing stays the same. The times they were  a changin’ in the US. In the late nineteen-thirties the civil rights movement was just around the corner.  In GWTW, the old South, or at least a certain sentimental image of the old South, had its’ last hurrah. It’s hard to imagine GWTW being so widely received after World War Two. From the mid-fifties on, a major Hollywood production of this kind would have been out of the question.The “Old South” became quite unfashionable during the civil rights era and has remained so to this day.

There’s another angle to this tale, a undeniable feminist angle. It is the tale of a strong  female taking matters into her own hands.  Except for Rhett, most of the men around her are either foolish or nasty or weak. All in all, the depiction of white men is little better than that of African-Americans! Yes, Scarlett is stymied by her attachment to Ashley and the old ways, but in the end she embraces Rhett, who represents the future. No, she’s not totally liberated in the modern sense, she still has to have a husband.  This book was, after all, written in the first half of the twentieth century, a time when women had only recently secured the right to vote. Still this story centered around a strong female must have rubbed some masculine, chauvinistic nerves at it’s appearance.  Clark Gable, so we’re told, did not, at first, want to do the part of Rhett Butler. Why? It was a “dame’s movie” he said.

Gable wasn’t too far off base in this assessment. In large part it was a “Dame’s movie.”  The book upon which the movie was based was written by a woman. Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed Mammy, was awarded the first Oscar ever presented to an African American. Vivien Leigh, a British actress, received the Oscar for best actress. As for Clark Gable himself, he was unforgettable and mighty good. But no Oscar for him.  And none for Leslie Howard (Ashley). But, this was no great disappointment to him.  He was no nonchalant and uncaring about GWTW that he not only failed to show up for the Atlanta premiere, he never even bothered (so we’re told) to visit a cinema and see the movie after returning to England! He died in World War Two in the service of his country.

And there’s the usual historical consideration. Is GWTW good history? Does Ms. Mitchell give her readers a reliable dose of US history? Does she get her facts straight? Well, yes and no. In short I find her presentation of the war pretty good, but her view of reconstruction problematic. Slavery?  She is an good source for how most white Southerners FELT about slavery and the “Old South” in the post-war years, but not, as before stated, a good source for real historical inquiry on the subject. Take GWTW with several “grains of salt.”

In spite of all it’s shortcomings, Gone with the Wind demands respect. As the old saying goes, you can’t knock success. It is probably the most successful historical novel ever! I still find it utterly charming and compelling, a rousing good yarn, highly readable. The movie? Great entertainment packed with unforgettable performances. I have the deluxe edition on DVD with lots of special features. Don’t challenge me in a GWTW trivia contest, you’re not likely to survive!  Indeed, there’s only one person who can.

Years ago I met a girl in college and took her to see the movie. Afterward I discovered that she had read the book not once, but twice. I was mighty impressed, so impressed by this, and for, admittedly, a few other reasons, that I asked her to marry me and, like Scarlett’s first foolish husband Charles, was surprised when she said “Yes.”

We discussed the book again a few weeks ago. “What was the name of the fellow who stopped for a visit at Tara after the war and wound up staying to look after the place and marrying Sue Ellen, Scarlett’s sister?” she wondered. I was stumped. He was a major character in the book totally left out of the movie, one of the few truly positive, sensible, intelligent white males in the whole story. This got her going. So what did she do? She read the book again. Lordy, I’m still impressed with this wonderful woman. And who was that guy? She reminded me:  Will Benteen.  Ah, yes, now I remember.

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