January 8, 1945 The Sub that Bagged a Train

So ended the only ground combat operation of WW2, on the soil of the Japanese homeland. And so it is, that an American submarine came to count a Medal of Honor and a Japanese locomotive, among its battle honors.

In the early phase of WW2, the traditional role of the American submarine service was to search, identify and report enemy activity to surface ships. Customary tactics emphasized stealth over offense, preferring to submerge and lie in wait over the surface attack.

Small wonder. The Mark XIV torpedo, the primary anti-ship submarine-launched torpedo of WW2, was literally a scandal. Not only was torpedo production woefully inadequate to the needs of the war in the Pacific, but stingy pre-war budgets had precluded live-fire testing of the thing.

mk14torpedoAmong the Mark-XIV’s more pronounced deficiencies was a tendency to run about 10-ft. too deep, causing it to miss with depressing regularity. The magnetic exploder often caused premature firing of the warhead, and the contact exploder frequently failed altogether. There must be no worse sound to a submariner, than the metallic ‘clink’ of a dud torpedo bouncing off an enemy hull.

Worse still, these things tended to ‘run circular’, meaning that they’d return to strike the firing vessel.

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USS Barb (SS-220) underway in May, 1945

On July 24, 1943, Lawrence “Dan” Daspit commanding USS Tinosa (SS-283) attacked the 19,000-ton whale factory ship Tonan Maru III. Tinosa fired fifteen torpedoes with two stopping dead in the water and the other thirteen striking their target. Not one of them exploded. Thinking that he had a bad production run, Daspit kept his last torpedo for later inspection. Nothing out of the ordinary, was found.

Commander Eugene “Lucky” Fluckey didn’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom. WW2 vintage submarines were designed for speed on the surface, and USS Barb (SS-220) was capable of 21 knots.  Equivalent to 24mph on land. Under Commander Fluckey, Barb was for all intents and purposes, a fast-attack surface craft.

BarbperiscopeSam Moses, writing for historynet’s “Hell and High Water,” writes, “In five war patrols between May 1944 and August 1945, the 1,500-ton Barb sank twenty-nine ships and destroyed numerous factories using shore bombardment and rockets launched from the foredeck”.

In January 1945, the Barb, USS Picuda (SS-382), and the USS Queenfish (SS-393) were ordered to the China Sea, blocking the Formosa Strait to Japanese shipping.

On the 8th, the small “wolf pack” encountered eight large Japanese merchant ships, escorted by four patrol boats. In a two-hour running night battle, Barb sank merchant cargo ships Anyo Maru and Tatsuyo Maru in explosions so violent that Barb was forced to go deep, even then suffering light damage to her decks. She also sank merchant tanker Sanyo Maru and damaged the army cargo ship Meiho Maru.

The merchant tanker Hiroshima Maru ran aground in the confusion.  SS-220 returned the following day, to finish the job.

barbfastexitpaintingTwo weeks later, USS Barb spotted a 30-ship convoy, anchored in three parallel lines in Namkwan Harbor, on the China coast. Slipping past the Japanese escort guarding the harbor entrance under cover of darkness, the American submarine crept to within 3,000 yards.

Fluckey gave the order and Barb fired her six bow torpedoes at the tightly packed convoy. Swinging around, she fired her four stern torpedoes, just as the first salvo slammed home. Four ships were mortally wounded and another three heavily damaged, as a Japanese frigate opened fire.

It took a full hour to extract herself from the uncharted, heavily mined and rock-obstructed shallows of Namkwan Harbor. Torpedoes meant for the American sub struck Chinese junks instead. A Japanese aircraft appeared overhead, just as Barb slipped out into deeper water. No wonder they called him “Lucky Fluckey”.

The episode earned Commander Fluckey the Medal of Honor in March, 1945.

BarbOkhoskOn completion of her 11th patrol, USS Barb underwent overhaul and alterations, including the installation of 5″ rocket launchers, setting out on her 12th and final patrol in early June.

For the first time in the history of submarine warfare, rocket attacks were successfully employed against shore targets, including facilities in Shari, Hokkaido; Shikuka, Kashiho; and Shiritoru. Barb also attacked Kaihyo To with her regular armaments, destroying 60% of the town.

By mid July 1945, USS Barb had racked up one of the most successful records in the submarine service, sinking the third-highest gross tonnage of enemy shipping of the entire war, and the highest in Japanese shipping, according to the Japanese’ own records..

In poring over a coastal map of Karafuto, the Japanese end of Sakhalin island, the answer as to what to do next, soon came clear. The American sub was going to take out the supply line to enemy merchant shipping, and use a Japanese train, to do it.

Steel plates were bent and welded into crude tools, and a team of eight volunteers was selected. There was so much excitement among the crew over the idea, that even the Japanese POW on board wanted to go ashore, promising he wouldn’t try to escape.

On the night of July 22-23, Fluckey maneuvered the sub into shallow water within 950 feet of land, and put two rubber rafts ashore.

main-qimg-7d0915017cc1ad3409a1a960f4379e17Working so close to a Japanese guard tower that they could almost hear the snoring of the sentry, the eight-man team dug into the space between two ties and buried the 55-pound scuttling charge. They then dug into the space between the next two ties, and placed the battery.

At one point the team had to dive for the bushes, as a night train came through.

At last the work was done and, for the first time that night, the group disobeyed a direct order.  The other seven had been ordered to back off as Electricians Mate 3rd Class Billy Hatfield wired the switch and activated the bomb. That way only one man would die if things went wrong, but these guys weren’t going anywhere. Seven men looked on as Hatfield made the final connections, each wanting to see that this last step was done right.

Barb had worked her way to within 600′ of shore and the shore party was barely halfway back, when the second train came through. A thunderous explosion tore through the stillness, as night turned to day.  Pieces of the locomotive were thrown 200 feet in the air as twelve freight cars, two passenger cars, and a mail car derailed and piled together.

There was no further need for stealth.  With barely 6′ of water under her keel, Fluckey took up a megaphone, bellowing “Paddle like the devil!”  Five minutes later the shore party was on board.  As “The Galloping Ghost of the China Coast” slipped away, every crew member not absolutely necessary to the operation of the boat was on-deck, to witness the spectacle they had wrought.

So closes a little-known chapter of the war in the Pacific.  The only ground combat of WW2, carried out on the Japanese home islands. So it is, that an American submarine came to count a Medal of Honor and a Japanese locomotive, among its battle honors.

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Members of the USS Barb demolition squad pose with her battle flag at the conclusion of her 12th war patrol, Pearl Harbor, August 1945. Chief Gunners Mate Paul G. Saunders, USN, Electricians Mate 3rd Class Billy R. Hatfield, USNR, Signalman 2nd Class Francis N. Sevei, USNR, Ships Cook 1st Class Lawrence W. Newland, USN, Torpedomans Mate 3rd Class Edward W. Klingesmith, USNR, Motor Machinists Mate 2nd Class James E. Richard, USN, Motor Machinists Mate 1st Class John Markuson, USN; and Lieutenant William M. Walker, USNR.

In addition to Commander Fluckey’s Medal of Honor, the crew of USS Barb earned a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with eight battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal.  Of all those awards, the one of which later-Rear Admiral Fluckey was most proud, was the one he didn’t get.  In five successful combat patrols under Commander Eugene Fluckey, not one crew member of the USS Barb ever received so much as a purple heart.

 

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December 21, 1861 Medal of Honor

Medals of Honor are not awarded casually, reserved only for the bravest of the brave, and for well-documented acts of valor. Permit me to share a few examples, each from his own moment in history.

As Revolution-era General, George Washington once wrote that the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all”.   European armies of the time bestowed honors, only on high-ranking officers who had achieved victory in battle. There was no such honor for the common soldier.

There was precedent for such an award in the Colonial military, but only under limited circumstances.  Congressional medals were awarded to Washington himself on March 25, 1776, following the British evacuation of Boston, to General Horatio Gates in November 1777, in recognition of his victory over British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, and to Major-General “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Civil War-era Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in recognition of his 1779 attack on the British position at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

purpleheartA “Fidelity Medallion” was awarded to three militia men in 1780, for the capture of John André, the British officer and spy whose capture uncovered the treachery of General Benedict Arnold.

The future 1st President’s general orders of August 7, 1782 established a “Badge of Military Merit” to recognize those members of the Continental Army who performed “any singular meritorious action”.

In time, Washington’s Badge of Military Merit morphed into what we now know as the Purple Heart, but the precedent had been set.  This was the first such honor available to any U.S. military service member, who had distinguished himself by act of valor.

Congress created the “Meritorious Service Citation Certificate” around the time of the Mexican-American war, a recognition of “any private soldier who had distinguished himself by gallantry performed in the presence of the enemy”.  The award would come in and out of use in the decades that followed, later becoming the Distinguished Service Medal, an award available to United States and foreign military service personnel and, in limited circumstances, civilians.

In the early days of the Civil War, General-in-chief of the army Winfield Scott was against such an award.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles adopted the idea on behalf of the Navy, following Scott’s retirement in October 1861.  President Abraham Lincoln signed “Public Resolution #82” on December 21, 1861, creating a Navy medal of honor.

DoV1-018_-_Mitchel_RaidAn Army version of the medal was created the following July, first awarded to six Union soldiers for hijacking the Confederate locomotive, “The General”.  Leader of the raid James Andrews was caught and hanged as a Union spy.  He alone was judged ineligible for the medal of honor, as he was a civilian.

Medals of Honor are not awarded casually, reserved only for the bravest of the brave, and for well-documented acts of valor. Permit me to share a few examples, each from his own moment in history.

downloadFew soldiers on the Civil War battlefield had a quicker route to death’s door, than the color bearer.  National and regimental flags were all-important sources of inspiration and communication.

Reverend W. Jamison Thomson of Hartford, CT described the importance of the battle flag: “It represents the cause, is the rallying point, while it is aloft proclaims that victory is still intended, is the center of all eyes, is the means of communication between soldiers, officers, and nation,” he said, “and after the engagement, and after many of them, is their marked memento so long as its identity can be preserved.”

Pvt. Joseph E. Brandle served as regimental color bearer, with the 17th Michigan Infantry.  Private Brandle earned the MOH for his actions of November 16, 1863, near Lenoire, Tennessee…”…[H]aving been twice wounded and the sight of one eye destroyed, [he] still held to the colors until ordered to the rear by his regimental commander.”

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Chaplain’s assistant and regimental musician Calvin Pearl Titus of Vinton, Iowa, volunteered to scale the 30-ft walls of Peking, raising the American flag over the outer walls of the city.  President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Titus the medal of Honor, for “Gallant and daring conduct in the presence of his colonel and other officers…”  He was “the last color bearer”.

800px-Siege_of_Peking,_Boxer_Rebellion

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Sergeant York

On October 8, 1918, Tennessee native Cpl. Alvin Cullum York of the 82nd Division lead a group of seventeen against a numerically superior German force, dug in at Chatel-Chehery, France.

Let his citation tell the story: “…After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring toward a machine gun nest, which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.”

Audie_Murphy
Audie Murphy

Kingston Texas 2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy found himself senior officer of a company of 18, whittled down from 235 by disease, wounds and casualties.  On January 26, 1945, Murphy’s small force found itself under assault by six German tanks and a large infantry force.

A man the Marine Corps had once turned down for being too small, Murphy climbed aboard a burning tank destroyer.  Out in the open and exposed to German fire from three sides, the 19-year old single-handedly fought off the entire assault, killing or wounding fifty and causing the German tanks to withdraw.

The Medal at LastFather Emil Kapaun selflessly sacrificed himself on behalf of his fellow prisoners in 1951, in the frozen hell of a North Korean prison camp.  President Barack Obama awarded Kapaun’s family the Medal of Honor during a ceremony in the east wing of the White House, on April 11, 2013.

Chaplain Kapaun’s body lies in an unmarked mass grave, somewhere in Pyoktong county.

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Sammy Lee Davis

PFC Sammy Lee Davis distinguished himself during the small hours of November 18, 1967, when the 4th Artillery of 9th Infantry Division came under heavy attack west of Cai Lay, Republic of Vietnam.

Repeatedly knocked to the ground by enemy mortar fire and suffering multiple injuries, the Cannoneer from Dayton, Ohio fought back first with a heavily damaged, burning howitzer, and then with recoilless rifle and machine gun.

Two Medals of honor were awarded posthumously, to Delta Force snipers Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart, for their hopeless defense of the crash site of a downed UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, against hundreds of fighters loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

gary-gordon-and-randy-shughart-delta-force

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Corporal Jason Lee Dunham

Corporal Jason Lee Dunham of Scio New York deliberately threw himself on an Iraqi grenade on April 14, 2004, saving the lives of fellow Marines at the sacrifice of his own life.  He was twenty-two.

monti_image
Sergeant Jared Monti

Sergeant 1st class Jared Monti of Abington Massachusetts was killed in the mountains of Nuristan Province in Afghanistan, while attempting to rescue a wounded soldier from a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

Monti was the sixth person from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  The Lee Brice song “I Drive your Truck“, voted Song of the Year at the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, is his story.

The nation’s highest medal for military valor has been awarded 3,517 times since its inception in 1861, to 3,498 distinct recipients.  621 were awarded posthumously.  Possibly without exception, these are people who will tell you that they are not heroes.  They were doing a job and those left behind, are the real heroes.

If that is not the very definition of true heroism, it should be.

November 2, 1950 A Shepherd in Combat Boots

Reporting on Kapaun’s Medal of Honor, the NY Times wrote “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

image (1)Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, Kapaun spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946 and rejoining in 1948.

Chaplain Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

The 8th Cav. entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950.  Father Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions and offering holy communion.  He would celebrate mass from an improvised altar, set up on the hood of a jeep.Kapaun2

Kapaun once lost his mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, running through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

A single regiment was attacked by the entire 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day.  For the US 8th Cavalry, the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he deliberately defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lieutenant Michael Dowe was among the prisoners.  Through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of prisoners.

Kapaun4
Fr. Kapaun holds a pipe, shot out of his mouth by an enemy sniper

Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Chinese Communist guards would taunt Kapaun, during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions, he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Guards carried him off to a “hospital”, a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “death house”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”Kapaun1

Scores of men credit their survival at Pyoktong, to Chaplain Kapaun.

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager meal his guards left him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.  His fellow POWs will tell you that he died on May 23, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.

In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with a posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family“.

KapaunBanner

The naming of a Saint of the Roman Catholic church is not a process taken lightly.  Pope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican.

A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification. On June 21, 2016, the committee unanimously approved the petition. Two days later, the Wichita Eagle newspaper reported that Father Kapaun was one step closer to sainthood.  At the time I write this, Father Emil Joseph Kapaun’s supporters continue working to have him declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, for his lifesaving ministrations at Pyoktong.

Emil Kapaun

October 13, 1926  “We’ll come back for you.”

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside, the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor in the entire Korean Conflict.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born this day in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.  He had all the disadvantages of a black boy growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”, insisting that he stuck with his studies.

Thomas_J_Hudner_1950
Thomas Jerome Hudner, 1950

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, the son of a successful Irish grocer from Fall River, Massachusetts who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, in 1939.

The two could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became United States Navy pilots, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

On June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south.  The 38,000 man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north.  Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were retreating south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula.  In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

Ensign_Jesse_L._Brown
Jesse LeRoy Brown, 1950

By December, nearly 100,000 troops of the People’s Volunteer Army had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir.  Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay.  On December 4, Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner were flying one of those missions.

The two were part of a 6-plane formation of F4U Corsairs, each pilot flying “wing man” for the other.  Brown’s aircraft was hit by small arms fire from the ground, crash landing on a snow covered mountain side.  Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit as he struggled to get out of the burning aircraft.

Hudner deliberately crash landed his own aircraft and, now injured, ran across the snow to the aid of his wing man.  Hudner scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the progress while Brown faded in and out of consciousness.  A Marine Corps helicopter pilot landed, and the two went at the stricken aircraft for 45 minutes with an axe, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The pair was considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with the axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time.  Jesse Brown’s last words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

They had to leave.  “Night was coming on” Hudner would later explain, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark.  We’ll come back for you”, he said.   Jesse Brown could no longer hear him.

Cmoh_armyHudner pleaded with authorities the following day to go back to the crash site, but they were unwilling to risk further loss of life. They would napalm the crash site so that the Chinese couldn’t get to the aircraft or the body, though pilots reported that it looked like the Brown’s body had already been disturbed.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was the first Black Naval Aviator in history.  The first to die in the Korean War.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, posthumously.  Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside.  One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, he was the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

Thomas Hudner visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in July 2013, where he received permission to return to the site.  He was 88 at the time, but weather hampered the effort.  North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

At the time I write this story, Thomas Hudner is 93, living in Concord Massachusetts with his wife, Georgea.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown are still on that North Korean mountainside.

Lieutenant-Thomas-Hudner

May 27, 2017 I Drive your Truck

“Staff Sergeant Monti then realized that one of his soldiers was lying wounded on the open ground between the advancing enemy and the patrol’s position. With complete disregard for his own safety, Staff Sergeant Monti twice attempted to move from behind the cover of the rocks into the face of relentless enemy fire to rescue his fallen comrade”. – Excerpt from Medal of Honor citation, the full text of which appears at the end of this story.

If you’ve ever raised a child, you are well acquainted with the triumphs and the terrors of giving those little tykes the sword with which they will conquer their world.

We all have those special dates that we mark on the calendar. The birthdays, the anniversaries. There are other dates which very few among us are required to remember. Dates which not one of us want to.

Most of us go about our business, knowing but at the same time forgetting, that we are a nation at war. Among us are families which must mark such a date every year. The date when that child passed from among us.

MA National Cemetery

On June 21, 2006, Sergeant Jared Monti’s 16-man patrol was ambushed by a far larger force of insurgents, on a high ridge in Afghanistan. Pfc. Brian J. Bradbury, 22, was mortally wounded early in the fight, and lay in open ground close to the enemy position.

Two times, Sergeant Monti exposed himself to overwhelming fire from three sides, in the attempt to rescue his fallen comrade. A rocket propelled grenade ended the third such attempt.

Flags In,2

Army Sergeant First Class Jared C. Monti was awarded the Medal of Honor for the action which took his life. The first Massachusetts soldier to be so honored, since the war in Vietnam.

In 2012, singer songwriter Lee Brice released “I drive your truck”, a song that went to country music song of the year in 2014.   The “I” in the title, though he didn’t know it at the time, is Paul Monti, a former science teacher at Stoughton High school, who lives in Raynham, Massachusetts.

It’s Jared’s truck.

Truck

Several years ago, Paul was denied permission to place a flag on his son’s grave, at the National Cemetery in Bourne, here on Cape Cod. The authorities don’t like to be left cleaning things up.

Paul took it up the chain of command until he received permission. He could put the flag in, as long as he agreed to take it out a week later.

And that’s what he did. On every grave in the Bourne National Cemetery.

Flags In

Today, ‘Operation Flags for Vets‘ is a semi-annual event, recurring on Memorial Day and again on Veteran’s day.  Later this morning, upwards of a thousand volunteers or more will join with the Monti family to place flags on every one of over 70,000 graves in the Massachusetts National Cemetery. A week later, they’ll be taken out.

Volunteers

It’s refreshing to be in the company of so many Patriots.

The Medal of Honor citation, as read by the President of the United States.

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

Staff Sergeant Jared C. Monti distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a team leader with Headquarters and Headquarters troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, in connection with combat operations against an enemy in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, on June 21st, 2006. While Staff Sergeant Monti was leading a mission aimed at gathering intelligence and directing fire against the enemy, his 16-man patrol was attacked by as many as 50 enemy fighters. On the verge of being overrun, Staff Sergeant Monti quickly directed his men to set up a defensive position behind a rock formation. He then called for indirect fire support, accurately targeting the rounds upon the enemy who had closed to within 50 meters of his position. While still directing fire, Staff Sergeant Monti personally engaged the enemy with his rifle and a grenade, successfully disrupting an attempt to flank his patrol. Staff Sergeant Monti then realized that one of his soldiers was lying wounding on the open ground between the advancing enemy and the patrol’s position. With complete disregard for his own safety, Staff Sergeant Monti twice attempted to move from behind the cover of the rocks into the face of relentless enemy fire to rescue his fallen comrade. Determined not to leave his soldier, Staff Sergeant Monti made a third attempt to cross open terrain through intense enemy fire. On this final attempt, he was mortally wounded, sacrificing his own life in an effort to save his fellow soldier. Staff Sergeant Monti’s selfless acts of heroism inspired his patrol to fight off the larger enemy force. Staff Sergeant Monti’s immeasurable courage and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Calvary Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, and the United States Army”.

January 26, 1945 Audie Murphy

These days, you hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Murphy’s Day, they called it “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”. Murphy would spend a 21-year post-war career in Hollywood and, until his death in a plane crash in 1971, his post-war life was never free of it

Audie Leon Murphy attempted to enlist in the Armed Services after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Marine Corps, Navy and the Army all turned him down for being underweight and under age. After a change in diet to “fatten” up, Murphy appeared at a Dallas recruiting station on June 30, 1942 with a sworn affidavit from his sister, inflating his age by a year. It was 10 days past his 17th birthday when Murphy, all 5’5½” and 112 lbs of him, enlisted in the US Army.

Murphy’s company commander thought he was too small for infantry service, and attempted to transfer him to cook and bakers’ school. Murphy refused.  He wanted to become a combat soldier.

amphibious-landingJoining the 3rd Infantry Division of George S. Patton’s 7th Army, Murphy participated in amphibious landings in Sicily in July, fighting in nearly every aspect of the Italian campaign. From Palermo to Messina and on to Naples, Anzio and Rome, the Germans were driven out of the Italian peninsula in savage and near continuous fighting that killed a member of my own family.  By mid-December, the 3rd ID suffered 683 dead, 170 missing, and 2,412 wounded. Now Sergeant Murphy was there for most of it, excepting two periods when he was down with malaria.

Two months after the “Overlord” landings in the north of France, elements of the 7th Army landed in southern France in an operation called “Dragoon”. By mid-September, only three of Company B’s original roster remained, the rest either killed or removed due to wounds or illness. It was around this time when Murphy received his first Purple Heart.  A mortar blast resulted in a heel wound that wasn’t very serious, but a far more dangerous hip wound followed from a sniper in December. He repaid it with a bullet between the German’s eyes.

Murphy was still in the hospital when his unit moved into the Vosges Mountains. The colmar_pocket“Colmar Pocket” was an 850 square mile area held by German troops: Murphy described it as “a huge and dangerous bridgehead thrusting west of the Rhine like an iron fist. Fed with men and materiel from across the river, it is a constant threat to our right flank; and potentially it is a perfect springboard from which the enemy could start a powerful counterattack.”

Rejoining his unit in January, now Lieutenant Murphy became Company Commander, being the only officer remaining in the Company. Disease, wounds and casualties had reduced company B’s fighting strength by this time from an original 235 to 18.

What remained of the unit was awaiting reinforcements on January 26, 1945, as a combined force of German infantry and armor assembled itself outside of town. “I see the Germans lining up for an attack”, said Murphy. “Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen”.

audie_murphyLet Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation describe what happened next: “Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective”.

These days, you hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In Murphy’s Day, they called it “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”.  Murphy would spend a 21-year post-war career in audie-murphy-gravesiteHollywood and, until his death in a plane crash in 1971, his post-war life was never free of it.

Data from the National Vital Statistics System, a collaboration of the National Center for Health Statistics of the Department of Health and Human Services, reveals a suicide rate among veteran populations approximately twice that in comparable civilian populations.

I wonder about the term, “Disorder”.  That makes it sound like there’s something wrong with these guys.

When a soldier experiences an event, so traumatic that the very memory of it causes pain, I don’t understand how that can be characterized as a “disorder”. To me that seems like the properly functioning conscience of a good man, recoiling in horror at what he’s seen in service to his country.

I don’t know the answer to PTSD-related suicide, I don’t even know the right question.  It seems to me that the only “disorder” belongs to that fraction of a percent who remain unaffected by the horrors of war.