November 24, 1917 Milwaukee Police Station Bombing

The Milwaukee police station bombing accounted for the largest single-incident loss of life in the history of United States law enforcement, a record which would stand until September 11, 2001.

On the morning of November 24, 1917, 10-year-old Josie Spicciatti found a package in a narrow passage next to St. Anne’s Italian Evangelical Church in Milwaukee. She was the daughter of the cleaning lady, and apparently recognized it as a bomb.  She brought it into the church anyway, and went to work.

Only that afternoon did she go looking for Maude Richter, a social worker at the church. At about 4:00, Maude dragged the 20-pound bomb into the church basement, banging it on the steps all the way down. She later told a reporter, “I saw the vial, which contained a brown fluid” (it was sulfuric acid), “and took it out. In the hole, where it had been placed, was a yellow substance like powder.”


She then decided that things should be left as they’d been found, so she carefully reassembled the device and called Sam Mazzone, the janitor, to take the bomb to the police station. Mazzone explained to Desk Sergeant Henry Deckert that the bomb may be linked to a near riot which had erupted several months earlier, killing two parishioners and wounding 5, including two police officers.


Policemen on duty were told there was a bomb in the station, but it seems that few took it seriously. Captain of Detectives John Sullivan remarked “It looked like a big dinner pail and innocent enough.”

Sergeant Deckert took the bomb into the office of Lieutenant Robert Flood, saying, “Look at the new kind of bomb I’ve got.” “Get that thing out of here”, said Flood. “Don’t fool around with anything like that!” Deckert then brought the bomb into the squad assembly room, where a group of detectives gathered to examine the device.

That’s when the thing went off.

Eight officers were killed in a fraction of a second, as was Catherine Walker, who had come to the station to file a complaint against her boyfriend. Operator Edward Spindler was working the switchboard on the second floor. Schrapnel blasted through the floor, entering his body at the waist and exiting through his head, killing him instantly.

One detective’s wedding band was blown from his finger, another’s shoe hung from the ceiling. A hat hung on a shard of glass.  One detective’s watch was found, face up on a windowsill. The hands had stopped at 7:33PM. Sergeant Deckert’s body was never found. He was identified only by the stripe of his uniform trousers leg.

Luigi Galleani

A group led by Italian Anarcho-Communist Luigi Galleani was suspected of placing the bomb, though no one was ever charged with the crime.

Many years later, interviews with surviving members of the anarchist organization indicated that Mario Buda, chief bomb maker for the Galleanists, may have constructed the Milwaukee device. The bomb had been intended for a small Italian church and its outspoken and patriotic pastor, Reverend August Giuliani.

The Milwaukee police station bombing accounted for the largest single-incident loss of life in the history of United States law enforcement, a record which would stand until September 11, 2001.

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October 23, 1983 Beirut

Altogether, those who lost their lives at the Marine barracks included 220 Marines, 18 Sailors, 3 Soldiers and an Elderly Lebanese custodian and vendor who was known to sleep in his concession stand, next to the building. 58 French paratroopers were killed at the Drakkar building, along with the wife and four children of a Lebanese janitor.

Located on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, Beirut is the largest seaport in the country.  It’s one of the oldest cities on earth.  The first reference may be found in the ancient Egyptian Tell el Amarna letters, written in the 15th century BC.

Once called “The Paris of the Middle East”, Beirut was at one time a regional hub of business, banking and tourism.

Lebanon descended into a vicious civil war in 1975, a fifteen-year period which Lebanese ex-patriots have tearfully described to me as a time of “national suicide”.

USMC Barracks in Beirut

In 1982, a Multinational Force of United States Marines, Navy SEALs, French Paratroopers and American, Italian and British soldiers were sent to Lebanon to restore the peace.

Thirty-five years ago, October 23 was a Sunday. Things were quiet in the early morning hours, most of Battalion Landing Team 1/8 still asleep in their barracks.

In 1982, the Islamic Republic of Iran established a base in the Syrian-controlled Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, a base which remains in operation, to this day.  On September 26, 1983, the American National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted a diplomatic message from the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) to its ambassador in Damascus Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, instructing the ambassador to “take spectacular action against the American Marines.” For reasons which remain unclear, the message would not be passed to the Marines in Beirut until October 26, three days after the barracks bombing.

Three hundred American military service personnel were living in the four-story concrete aviation administration building, at Beirut International Airport.  Guards paid scant attention at first, when the 19-ton, yellow stake-bed Mercedes truck entered the airport grounds. Such heavy vehicles were a common sight and besides, a water delivery was expected that morning.


Driven by an Iranian National, the truck carried a massive fuel-air explosive device, capable of an explosive force equivalent to 21,000 pounds of dynamite. The explosive was piled on a marble slab on top of a layer of concrete, to direct the destructive force upward.

Peacetime rules of engagement (ROE) prohibited the use of deadly force without explicit permission, or in times of imminent personal danger.  Weapons were to be kept on safe, with empty chamber.

The suicide bomber picked up speed, smashing through a five-foot concertina wire barrier and in-between two guard shacks.  Lance Corporal Eddie DiFranco on the driver’s side was first to realize something was wrong and managed to chamber a round, but too late. The hijacked truck struck the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regimental Battalion Landing Team barracks at 6:22am local time.

The resulting explosion lifted the four story building, shearing steel-reinforced concrete support columns and dropping floor slabs, like pancakes.  241 American military service personnel were killed in the explosion, or crushed to death in the collapse.  Another 100 were injured.  The BLT building, had ceased to exist.  It was the deadliest single-day attack on United States Marines since the February 1945 battle for Iwo Jima.


Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, assistant chaplain for the U.S. Sixth Fleet was in a neighboring building, and remembered the scene:  “Bodies and pieces of bodies were everywhere. Screams of those injured or trapped were barely audible at first, as our minds struggled to grapple with the reality before us”.

Ten minutes later, a second suicide bomber drove his truck bomb into the French barracks, the nine story Drakkar building housing the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment.  By this time alerted to the attack, guards were able to shoot and kill the driver, but not before he detonated the device.

Altogether, those who lost their lives at the Marine barracks included 220 Marines, 18 Sailors, 3 Soldiers and an Elderly Lebanese custodian and vendor who was known to sleep in his concession stand, next to the building. 58 French paratroopers were killed at the Drakkar building, along with the wife and four children of a Lebanese janitor.

I didn’t include the two “jihadists”.  They’re not worth counting.


For years, radical Islamist tactics were confined mostly, to kidnappings.  The Beirut barracks bombings were the first use of suicide tactics, in order to slaughter as many westerners, as possible.

Six months later, a suicide car bomb killed sixty-three at the United States embassy in Beirut, seventeen of whom, were Americans.   In 2017, Vice-President Mike pence called it “the opening salvo in a war that we have waged ever since—the global war on terror”.

beirut11A Lebanese cedar tree grows in the green expanse of section 59 at Arlington National Cemetery, marking the final resting place of twenty-one honored dead, among the first Americans to die in the global war against Islamist terrorism. A fight which continues, to this day.

Today, thirty-five years later, survivors and first responders to the Beirut Barracks bombing continue to struggle with the sights, sounds and smells of that day.

The properly functioning conscience of a good man, recoiling in horror at what he has seen in service to his country.

The participants in this story, both living and dead, have earned our respect and our gratitude.   They have earned the right to be remembered.

May 26, 2018 I Drive your Truck

They are so young and so few, who pick up the tab on behalf of the rest of us.

Jared-C.-Monti-2If you’ve 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 we mark on the calendar. The birthdays. The anniversaries. For some among us, there are other dates. Moments in time, which very few of us are required to remember. Dates which not one of us wants to recall.

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

On June 21, 2006, Sergeant Jared Monti’s 16-man patrol was ambushed by a 50-member  force of insurgents, on a high mountain ridge in Afghanistan. Pfc. Brian Bradbury, 22, was mortally wounded early in the fight, and lay on open ground close to the enemy position.

Never a man to leave a fallen comrade behind, twice Sergeant Monti exposed himself to overwhelming fire from three sides, in the attempt to rescue Private Bradbury. A rocket-propelled grenade ended the third such attempt.  Jared Monti was 30.


In 2011, Army Sergeant First Class Jared Christopher Monti was awarded the Medal of Honor for the action which took his life. The first Massachusetts soldier so honored, since the war in Vietnam.

The following year, 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, Jared’s father and a retired science teacher at Stoughton High School, in Massachusetts.

It’s Jared’s 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.

Today, ‘Operation Flags for Vets‘ is a semi-annual event, recurring on Memorial Day and again on Veteran’s day weekends.  Later this morning, upwards of two thousand volunteers can be expected to 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 removed.

There is something that restores and recharges my soul, to be in the company of so many Patriots.



Medal of Honor citation

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

Jared Monti’s Medal of Honor presented to members of his family by the President of the United States, 2011

“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”.

March 18, 2011 No Ordinary Donkey

For the family who now owned him, the  neglected, half-starved pack animal out back suddenly became a “beloved pet”.  They couldn’t possible let him go for anything less than $30,000.  (But, of course).

Al Taqaddum Airbase, “TQ” in military parlance, is a military airbase, 45 miles west of Baghdad, on the Habbaniyah Plateau of Iraq. In 2008, Al Taqaddum was home to the 1st Marine Logistics Group, under the command of Colonel John D. Folsom.

wwfs-colonel-folsom-smallEarly one August morning, Colonel Folsom awoke to a new sound. The thwap-thwap-thwap of the helicopters, the endless hum of the generators, those were the sounds of everyday life. This sound was different – the sound of braying donkey.

Folsom emerged from his quarters to find the small, emaciated animal, tied to a eucalyptus tree.  Standing all of 3′ tall, a sergeant had spotted the donkey roaming outside Camp Taqaddum, and thought it would be amusing to catch him.  Folsom thought it might be fun to have one around. Time would tell they were both right.

Smoke visits Sgt Lonnie Forrest
Smoke visits Sgt Lonnie Forrest

The website for a UK donkey sanctuary recommends a diet of highly fibrous plant material, eaten in small quantities throughout the day. I read the list twice and nowhere will you find bagels yet, for this little Iraqi donkey, there was nothing better.  Preferably frozen.  He’d hold them in his mouth and walk along, scraping the bagel in the dirt before eating it.  He liked to play the same game, with a deflated rubber ball.

You won’t find cigarettes on the list either, but he stole one once, and gobbled it down.  It didn’t seem to matter that the thing was lit.  For that reason and because of the color of his coat, the Marines called him “Smoke”.

Smoke-the-donkey-MattShelatoBefore long,  Smoke was a familiar sight around Camp Taqaddum.  After long walks around the wire, Smoke learned to open doors and wander around.  If you ever left that candy dish out on your desk, you were on your own.

SmokeRegulations prohibit the keeping of pets in a war zone.  A Navy Captain helped get Smoke designated as a therapy animal, and he was home to stay.  As it turned out, there was more than a little truth to the label.  For young women and men thousands of miles from home in a war zone, the little animal was a welcome reminder of home.

The humor of the situation was hard to resist, and the “ass jokes” all but told themselves.  (Sorry, but we’re talking about Marines, here).  Dozens of Marines laughed uproariously in that mess hall in 2009, belting out a mangled version of an old Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooovvvvvveeeeee youuuuuuuuu.”

That was the year when Folsom’s unit cycled out of Camp Taqaddum, to be replaced by another contingent of Marines.  These promised to look after the 1st MLG’s mascot, but things didn’t work out that way.  A Major gave the donkey away to a Sheikh who in turn dumped him off on an Iraqi family, and that was the end.  Except, it wasn’t.

Smoke-Home-LowerColonel Folsom couldn’t get the little animal out of his head and, learning of his plight in 2010, determined to get him back.  There were plenty of kids who had survived trauma of all kinds in his home state of Nebraska.  Folsom believed that the animal could do them some good, as well.

There ensued a months-long wrangle with American and Iraqi authorities, who couldn’t understand why all the fuss over a donkey.  For the family who now owned him, the  neglected, half-starved pack animal out back suddenly became a “beloved pet”.  They couldn’t possible let him go for anything less than $30,000.  (But, of course).

900 donors pitched in and, despite seemingly endless obstacles and miles of red tape, Smoke the Donkey slowly made his way from al-Anbar to Kuwait and on to Turkey and finally, to his new home in Nebraska.

Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, at his new home in Omaha broadcast this announcement on May 18, 2011. Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, “mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy”, was now, an American.  Semper Fi.

May 15, 1718 Rapid Fire

The lightly armed merchant vessel of the 18th century was ill equipped to oppose the swarming attack of a hundred or more pirates.  Enter history’s first, machine gun.

A story comes to us from the Revolution, of a battle near Boonesborough, Kentucky. A British officer dared to poke his head out from behind a tree. A split-second later he was dead, a lead ball in his head. It was a near-miraculous shot for the day, nearly 250-yards distant from the shooter. The man with the rifle was Daniel Boone.  The weapon was his famous Kentucky long rife.

It was a good thing that the man could shoot that weapon, because it took about a minute to load, aim and fire.  The smooth-bore weapons of the age were a little quicker. A skilled shooter could could get off 3 rounds per minute, but aimed fire was all but impossible at any kind of distance.

Kentucky Rifle Vignette_6-10-13
Kentucky Long Rifle

Military tactics on land evolved toward massed firepower.  When large groups of men fired at one another, something was going to get hit.  Defending yourself at sea, was another matter.

Long before the revolt in Great Britain’s American colony, European navies abandoned oar-powered vessels in favor of sailing ships carrying tons of powerful cannon.  Not so the corsairs of the North African coast.

Ottoman privateer Murat Reis, the Elder


The “Barbary pirates” of the Ottoman provinces of Algeria, Tunisia & Tripolitania and the independent sultanate of Morocco favored small, fast galleys, powered by combinations of sail and oar and carrying a hundred or more fighting men armed with flintlock, axe and cutlass.

Barbary navies never formed battle fleets, and would flee at the sight of European frigates.  These people were looking for lightly armed merchantmen.  They came to take hostages for the Arab slave markets.

The Arab slave trade was never racialized in the way of trans-Atlantic, chattel slavery.  Black Africans and white Europeans alike, were fair game.  Some historians assert that as many as 17 million entered the Arab slave markets, from Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Africa and Europe.

It was the enslaved mercenary armies of the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt and Syria, the Mamālīk (singular Mamlūk), who expelled the last Christian armies from the Levant in 1302, ending the era of the Crusades. For five-hundred years, elite slave armies called “Janissaries” formed the bulwark of Ottoman power from southeastern Europe to western Asia and north Africa.

Ohio State University history Professor Robert Davis estimates that Barbary corsairs captured as many as 1 – 1¼ million Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries alone, kidnapped from seaside villages along the Mediterranean coast, England, and as far away as the Netherlands, Ireland and Iceland. Some 700 Americans were held in conditions of slavery in North Africa, between the period of the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

The lightly armed merchant vessel of the 18th century was ill equipped to oppose the swarming attack of a hundred or more pirates.  Enter history’s first machine gun.

The “Puckle Gun”, patented this day in 1718

James Puckle (1667–1724) was a British inventor, barrister and author. The Puckle Gun, also called the “defence gun”, was a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock fitted with a revolving cylinder.  At a time when a trained shooter could load and fire no more than three times per minute, James Puckle’s weapon was capable of  nine.

The Puckle gun was intended for naval use, to prevent the boarding of ships at sea.  There were two variations, the first intended for use against Christian adversaries.  This one fired round balls. The second version was considered to be the more lethal of the two and fired square bullets, intended for use against Muslim Turks. According to the patent, square bullets would persuade the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilization”. The weapon could also fire shot, with each discharge containing up to sixteen musket balls.

Among investors, there was little interest in the Puckle Gun, and the weapon never gained wide acceptance. Before the era of mass production,  gunsmiths had trouble reliably producing its small, complicated parts. One newspaper quipped that the gun “only wounded those who hold shares therein”.

In time, humankind would become much more adept at killing itself. Dr. Richard Gatling invented his multi-barrel, crank fired “Gatling Gun” in 1861, writing that his creation would reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease. With a rate of fire of up to 900 rounds per minute in the .30 caliber model, Gatling’s gun was popular from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Anglo-Zulu war of two years later, and the “Rough Riders” assault up San Juan Hill.

American-British inventor Hiram Maxim invented the first true “machine gun” in 1884, by harnessing  the weapon’s recoil.  The Hiram gun was a favorite of colonial wars from 1886–1914, and variants entered the trenches of WW1.

It would take about a hot minute with the search engine of your choice, to realize that the practice of Muslim slavery, primarily (though not exclusively) at the expense of black Africans, continues to this day.

March 1, 2011 The Love of a Dog

The writer and photographer Roger Caras once said “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

Years ago, a segment broadcast on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, told the story of a working shepherd, who worked the hills of 1930s North Dakota. This man, I don’t recall his name, fell ill, and was taken to a local Jesuit hospital.

The man’s business partner and constant companion “Shep”, a sheepdog of unknown breed, befriended a nurse who would feed him a morsel out of the side door.

For 11 days, Shep waited at the hospital, for his master’s return.   On the 11th day the man died, his casket taken to the local train station and placed in the cargo hold, to be returned home for burial.

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“Greyfriar’s Bobby’

Shep was there throughout, and watched the train chug away with the body of his human.   He returned to that hospital door for sustenance, but every time he heard the train whistle, there was a sheepdog waiting at the station.

In those days, there were two trains a day.  For five years, Shep returned to the station, every time he heard that whistle.   He never missed a train. In time, the dog wasn’t quite as fast as he used to be, his hearing not so good. He was killed while waiting on the tracks, for the man who could never return.

“Greyfriar’s Bobby” was a Skye Terrier in 19th-century Edinburgh, who waited 14 years by the grave of his owner, City Police nightwatchman, John Gray. There he died in 1872 and was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, not far from where he had stood watch. all those years.

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Hachikō Statue in Tokyo, Japan

Hachikō, an Akita known to Japanese children as chūken Hachikō (“faithful dog Hachikō”), used to tag along with his owner Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor of agriculture at Tokyo University. Ueno would commute to work and every evening, Hachikō would wait at the Shibuya Station, for the professor’s return.  Hidesaburō stopped coming home in May 1925, when a cerebral hemorrhage took him away while delivering a lecture.  Every day for nine years, nine months and fifteen days, the golden colored Akita appeared at Shibuya Station, precisely in time for that evening train.

Liam Tasker came from the Scottish town of Kirkcaldy, in the historic county of Fife.  Tasker joined the Royal Army in 2001 as a mechanic, but he wanted more.  He was transferred to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps six years later, and assigned as a trainer with the 1st Military Working Dog (MWD) Regiment.  Tasker was a natural, and rose quickly among the ranks of the group.  In 2010, Lance Corporal Tasker was paired with MWD Theo, a twenty-two-month-old English Springer Spaniel serving as a T.E.D.D. (Tactical Explosives Detection Dog) with the British Army.

Liam and Theo

A Military Working Dog is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

The writer and photographer Roger Caras once said “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”  So it was, with Liam and Theo.  The team was posted to Afghanistan, where the two managed to find 14 improvised explosive devices and weapons caches, in five months.  “I love my job and working with Theo,” Tasker would say. “He has a great character and never tires…He can’t wait to get out and do his job and will stop at nothing.”  Fourteen was a record for that time according to BBC, there is no telling how many lives were saved.  The pair proved so successful that their tour was extended, by a month.  It was a month too long.

4de6134f233b601ab634d1078c676380On March 1, 2011, L/Cpl Tasker was killed by a Taliban sniper while on patrol in Helmand Province, and brought back to base by his fellow soldiers.  Theo suffered a seizure after returning to base and never recovered.  He died that afternoon.  It was believed that Theo’s seizure was brought on by the stresses of Tasker’s death, but the autopsy proved inconclusive.  Liam’s mother Jane Duffy later said, “I think Theo died of a broken heart, nobody will convince me any different.”

Major Alexander Turner of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards described the pair, saying “He used to joke that Theo was impossible to restrain but I would say the same about Lance Corporal Tasker.” Liam and Theo were returned to Great Britain, arriving first in RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire.  Rumors have gone around ever since, that the two were buried together.  Tasker’s mother would neither confirm nor deny.  She only said, with a sad smile, that “Liam and Theo are where they should be.”


Nate & ZinoOn a more upbeat note, and this story needs one, our daughter Carolyn and son-in-law Nate transferred to Savannah in 2013, where Nate deployed to the Wardak province of Afghanistan as a TEDD handler and paired with “MWD Zino”, a four-year-old German Shepherd trained to detect up to 64 explosive compounds.
The team was separated at the end of their tour but reunited months later, a story told on National Public Radio’s “Here & Now” program and produced out of their Boston affiliate, WBUR.
The radio program was broadcast the day of their reunion, in 2014.  It’s a great story, if you’re interested in listening to it. 

September 11, 2001 The Farmer and the Pilot

Twelve days a month, John Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform, flying jumbo jets out of Logan Airport.  He’d always return to the land he loved.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a great wave of immigrants came into the United States, 20 million Europeans or more making the long journey to become Americans.

Among them was the Ogonowski family, who emigrated from Poland to make their home in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, along the New Hampshire line.

The earliest members of the family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well acclimated to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate. Four generations later, the Ogonowski family still tilled the soil on their 150 acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.

Ogonowski 2Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force.  During the war in Vietnam, the farmer-turned-pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.

Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There he met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to her friends. The two would later marry, raising three daughters.

Twelve days a month, Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform, flying jumbo jets out of Logan Airport.  He’d always return to the land he loved.

Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into what used to be open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field”, he would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.

Ogonowski 3Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming, as well.  The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.

That was the year when the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Southeast Asian immigrants from Lowell.

mrkimcilantroIt was a natural fit. Ogonowski felt a connection to these people, based on his time in Vietnam. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago, had helped his twice-great grandfather.

Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots, growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. There was taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, and they would sell it into nearby immigrant communities and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.

Ogonowski farmThe program was a success.  Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.”

So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC.  It was September 11.

By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11. He was one of the first to die, murdered in his cockpit by Islamist terrorist Mohammed Atta and his accomplices.

Ogonowski 1

It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and mentor had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.

The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined that John’s dream would not die.  Peg said it best:  “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.”

John Ogonowski had been working with the Land Trust to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34 acre farm in Dracut, previously slated to be developed into a golf course with housing.  Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress.  The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003, a living memorial to Captain John Ogonowski.  The pilot, and the farmer.