Monday, June 21, 2010

Fathers' Day

Being carried into the house from the car is one of the earliest memories I have of my father. I would pretend to be asleep for the sole purpose of getting these rides, my head resting on his shoulder, and his arms wrapped firmly around me, protecting me from the scary darkness between the garage and our house.

As I got older, I was his sidekick. I followed him around our pasture as he released the water from the ditches when it was our turn to irrigate. As he worked, I watched water skippers and picked the tiny wildflowers that grew near the water. When we headed home, I would ask for a piggy-back ride to avoid walking through the now-flooded fields, so he would squat down close to the ground, and I climbed onto his back.

I helped him run the dozen or so cows he milked into the barn, put the hobbles on their legs so they couldn’t kick, and closed the stanchions around their necks as they buried their noses in the hay he tossed down from the hayloft. By the time I was around 10 or 11, I knew all the words to “Yellow Rose of Texas,” because he sang it while he worked. He had been born in Texas in 1908 and left home to work on a ranch in the Texas Panhandle when he was just 14 years old. He moved to Oregon around 1948, but always considered himself a proud Texan.

I never thought of my dad as a sociable kind of guy. He was quiet, and often came off as gruff; my friends would sometimes ask why he didn’t like them. Yet he was always willing to let me and my friends go along when he cooked for events like the opening rodeo at Christmas Valley or the dedication of Pelton Dam. He only quit inviting us when we hit our teens, and he could see we were more interested in flirting with cowboys than playing in the dirt or watching him cook.

Like a lot of fathers and daughters, our closeness frayed during my teen years, and he died before I had a chance to really grow up and mend the tears. I was barely 22 years old when he died in June 1971—39 years ago this month. I have memories from that time, too: the hospital bed by the window in my parents’ living room; spending Christmas of 1970 in the hospital waiting room, so he could watch Gary and Travis open their presents; awkward visits in the spring of 1971, when he could no longer speak, and I had no idea what to say.

I remember the smell of the cancer, but I also remember the smell of his Old Spice and the tobacco he smoked in a pipe when I was only four or five. I can’t remember his voice at all, but when my sons are talking, I catch an occasional tone that seems familiar.

Now I’m just one year younger than my dad was when he died. That’s pretty old to wish he were here to pick me up and hold me in his arms just one more time, making sure I arrive safely wherever it is I’m going. But I wish it anyway.

Happy Fathers Day, Daddy.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010

Left to right: James Paschal King, Ted Welch and James Paschal King, John Giggy before the Battle of Shiloh, and Ted Welch.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is intended to honor those who died in service to their country, but we considered it a day to decorate the graves of all our family members. I didn’t make it to Redmond this year, so this is my tribute: a few words about the ancestors who fought to both establish this country and to stop its independence; to preserve the Union and to destroy it; and who fought for their country in Germany in World Wars I and II and the Pacific in World War II.

My ancestors fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War–Garretts for the Rebels and Welches for the Loyalists–and both sides of the Civil War. In fact, I had a bunch of great-great-grandfathers and great-great-uncles facing off against each other in the Civil War battles at Stones River, Shiloh, and Chickamauga.

The Garretts and Blacks enlisted in the Confederacy at Nashville, Tennessee. William Archer Garrett, my great-great-grandfather, fought with Murray’s Cavalry and Smith’s Cavalry, and his two brothers, James Paschal Garrett and Samuel Woodson Garrett, served with other Tennessee regiments.

Samuel Arnold Black, my Great-Grandmother Permelia’s brother, served in the 23rd Tennessee infantry. He was captured at Hatcher’s Run, Virginia, on April 2. 1865, sent to City Point, Virginia, then to Point Lookout, Maryland, where he spent the rest of the war.

His brothers Hamilton Black and Thomas Jefferson Black also fought for Tennessee. Thomas was captured in Lebanon, Kentucky, and exchanged for Union prisoners on the steamboat Mary Crane. He was once again taken prisoner, this time at Sheperdsville, Kentucky, and forwarded to Louisville Military Prison in Indianapolis. From there he was sent to Camp Morton, Indiana, and ultimately to Camp Douglas, Illinois. There he died on September 12 or 13 of chronic diarrhea as a prisoner of war. He is buried in grave #1349, Chicago City Cemetery.

Fighting for the North were my great-great-grandfathers, James Fletcher Skidgel, Jesse Pearce, and John Giggy. John Giggy enlisted for duty in LaGrange, Indiana, and was wounded at the battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga. At Shiloh, a limb knocked from a tree by artillery fire fell on his shoulder, and at Chickamauga, at bullet pierced his thigh.

James Fletcher’s father and my great-great-great-grandfather, Abraham Skidgel, mustered in on July 20, 1862, in Kendallville, Indiana. He was 58 years old, but gave his age as 44. His 19-year-old son, Abraham Jr., had been drafted, and Abraham Sr. wanted to look after him. Nancy, Abraham’s 59-year-old wife. died just two days after he left to enlist.

My great-uncle Earl Chamberlain served in World War I, as did Ernest Deering, the husband of my Aunt Irene, one of my dad’s sisters. Ernest Deering’s death in that war was just the first such loss to war that Aunt Irene had to endure.

The history of my dad’s service in World War II is told both in my blog and on the website for the 101st Cavalry, but also serving were at least two of Ted Welch's nephews: my cousins Milton Welch and James Paschal King (named, I assume, for the James Paschal Garrett who fought in the Civil War). James, who was the son of my Aunt Irene and her second husband, died on December 18, 1944, when a typhoon sent his ship, the USS Hull, to the bottom of the Pacific. The record of his military service ends with the words "Lost at sea."

I can’t put flowers on their graves this Memorial Day, but I can write out their names and hope they will not be forgotten.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Day

From left to right: Anna Belle Giggy Chamberlain, my great-grandmother; Ethel Maude Skidgel Chamberlain, my grandmother; LaVeita Joy Chamberlain Welch, my mother; and Bonnie Ruth Chamberlain Schamber, my aunt.

In the summer of 1959, when I was ten years old, I took a road trip to Oklahoma and Texas in the company of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my aunt. Mother and Aunt Bonnie sat in the front of our station wagon, Grandma and Little Granny sat in the second seat, and I rode in the back with the luggage.

I had no idea at the time how lucky I was to have those days in their company, and I wish I remembered more about that trip. I recall a lot of laughter and singing, but I have forgotten the family stories and gossip. Worse, I have forgotten their voices. I spent the long drive reading a book or staring mindlessly out the window. I took their presence for granted. They had always been in my life, and I expected they always would be.

For the first 13 years of my life, I was never more than a short walk from my great-grandmother. Born during the Civil War, she told stories that awakened my love of history—stories like how bushwhackers killed her Uncle Alex for his new gun, and how they left her, a frightened five-year-old, alone to drive the wagon home. She outlived two husbands and all three of her sons, and she wanted to live long enough to put a silver dollar—one penny for each of her 100 years—in the collection plate at church. She missed it by just one year.

My grandmother lived until she was 88, and I was 30. In some ways I was closer to her than mother. I went to her with my secrets, and in the battles with my mother, she always took my side. Until I started school, she took care of me while my mother worked, and, after my grandpa died in 1958, she and Little Granny lived in a small trailer in front of our house. It was there I would sit for hours, listening to stories about how Grandma raised seven children while picking cotton in the Rio Grand Valley and fighting the dust bowl in Oklahoma. She was the soft lap and the big arms of my childhood, and when I try to remember the voices of those women in the car, hers is the one I hear, singing hymns loudly and off-key.

My mother died 12 years ago, and Aunt Bonnie has been gone 23 years. It is only now, in their absence, I realize how blessed I was to have so many mother figures in my life. They disciplined me and loved me and helped me sort myself out, and I miss them almost more than I can bear. If I could have just one wish this Mother’s Day, it would be to take another road trip with LaVeita and Bonnie and Ethel and Anna Belle. And this time, I would pay attention.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Who knew there would be comments?

Pictured here: 2nd Lt. Zygmunt Zbrzeski

Once I have posted something on the blog, it never occurrs to me that other people might read it and then post comments. So you can imagine my surprise yesterday when I found four comments to a post I had made two years ago.

That particular post was related to an event that took place 65 years ago, on Sunday, April 29, 1945. The 101st Cavalry came across a prisoner of war camp in Murnau, close to the Austrian border, and is considered one of the liberators of that camp. Most of the prisoners were Polish officers, and I had interviewed some of their children while writing my book. One of them was Stan Majcherkiewicz, who, along with his brother, Przemo Majcherkiewicz, had sent me a story about their father, Seweryn Majcherkiewicz. He had been captured on the outskirts of Poland in 1939. That story was the subject of a post in April 2008. To commemorate the anniversary of OFLAG-VIIA's liberation, here are the comments posted two years ago in response to that story.

Hi there, I just came across your blog and read your entry with interest. My father, George (Jerzy) Dlugopolski was also a prisoner in Murnau through the war years. He is gone now, but I remember him telling me that he was experimented upon by the Nazis doing hypothermia experiments. He said that he was put in a vat of freezing water and then in hot water. This is all he mentioned and very rarely talked about it. I have since read of other such similar experiments in other camps, but could find no information of this going on at Murnau. Would you have any information on this?
Thanks, Inka Glick
I heard from some of the children of survivors that the men were treated better at Murnau than some other POW camps because of the camp’s proximity to the Swiss border. The International Red Cross would sometimes tour this camp, so the Germans used it as a model camp for PR purposes. I also have been told that, under the Nazis, "good treatment" was relative.
My Father, lieutenent Wiktor Socewicz (prisoner no. 15564 - blok G) has spent almost all the WWII war in the Murnau. He was a bandmaster (musican military). Afterwards, he was liberated, he joined to the Polish II Corps in Italy and in England. After his return to Poland in 1948, for many years he has been discriminated by the communist government (has been degradet). He worked in music education.
Thanks,Wiktor Daniel Socewicz, Wroclaw, Poland
For anyone who wants to know more about the prison at Murnau and see an amazing collection of photos, you can visit the website “Les Photos Oubliees.”

My GFather Michał Mędlewski (died in 1996) was a prisoner of Murnau.My mother has a many pictures taken by soldiers. When I was a boy, GFather told me a lot of stories from Murnau about: theatre, picture of S. Marry made of box of cigarettes, history of one and only soviet army officer that commited suicide, story about good first POW camp commandant and the next-real beast etc.


My Grandfather, Wilhelm Zweck from Ceiszen, Poland, was also in Murnau for the duration of the war. He told me a story about another prisoner who made himself a German uniform out of paper?! and actually escaped. But was later caught? Anyone hear this story too? Did the prisoners play piano sometimes there? I seem to remember he
said they could. He passed away in his mid 60's. Too soon.Thank you for having this sight.

T. Nichols

I also received an email from Andy Depczynski, whose grandfather, 2nd Lt. Zygmunt Zbrzeski, was a Polish supply Officer responsible for all the meat procurement for the Polish troops in Warsaw. He was captured in Warsaw near the end of September 1939 and imprisoned at Murnau for several years.

Upon release from Murnau, Zbrzeski joined the 2nd Corps and continued his service in Italy and the Middle East. He was discharged in late '46 and took the Ernie Pyle to New York to meet up with his wife and daughter. They had not seen him in ten years.

Many of the emails I get from the children and grandchildren of these Polish prisoners begin with a thank you to my father and all the men he served with for liberating their fathers and grandfathers. I pass their gratitude on to as many of the members of the 101st as I can.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 28, 1945: Kaufering and Landsberg

The dead at Kaufering IV. A photo taken April 1945 by Robert Klein.

Sixty-five years ago this week, on April 28, 1945, the 101st Cavalry was in the vicinity of Landsberg and Kaufering, two small villages in Bavaria. They were waiting for engineers to rebuild a bridge across the Lech River. When the bridge was completed, Troops A and B of the 116th Squadron were among the first to cross. As they moved through the woods, they encountered wire-enclosed camps with hundreds—by some accounts thousands—of bodies scattered around the grounds.

Sgt. Robert Klein remembers when he first got word of what lay ahead. "We had two radios on our half-track," he said, "one to the platoon, which was primarily a voice radio, and a larger radio that was continuous wave—morse code—and voice. It went to squadron headquarters."

Most of their messages came through coded, but that day they got an uncoded call from the colonel.

"Let me talk to Ulmschneider," the colonel said.

"I asked him for the password," said Klein, "and he just yelled, ‘Klein! I said let me talk to Ulmschneider.’ I recognized his voice—and his tone—so I gave the phone to Ulmschneider."

The colonel gave Klein’s crew directions and told them to hurry. Following the colonel’s directions, they soon pulled up in front of a large fenced area.

“We saw men hanging on the fence in striped suits,” Klein said. “They were starving, so we shared some of our K rations, but it made them sick. Some of the people were eating grass they were so hungry.”

Earl Carmickle remembers a big deer ran through one of the camps, and he shot it. “The people were so hungry they just fell on it,” he said, “and they started skinning it. I thought I might be in trouble, but no one said anything.”

Altogether, at least seven camps were located in the area. The barely living still inhabited Kaufering I and VII, but more than 300 bodies covered the ground in Kaufering IV, the typhus camp. It was here that the fleeing Germans set fire to the huts still filled with prisoners, and where American sol­diers walked into a hell of smoldering wood and humanity.

Henry Dressler was a survivor of the Landsberg camps. I found him through his son, Murray Dressler, who had written a note about his father on a website dedicated to keeping the memory of these camps alive.

Henry Dressler's voice is deep and strong, a serious voice, with no hint of softness. He tells his story as if he has told it a hundred times before.

"The German citizens, the people who lived in Landsberg and Kaufering, they saw us each day," he said. "They watched us go to work and called us bad names. We would see them standing in front of their houses laughing. They knew. They saw it. And they just stood laughing and making jokes. They knew exactly who we were – ‘Juden,’ they called us. Everyone knew. After the war, no one knew anything.

"It wasn’t easy to deal with it all. But we were so hungry, we only thought of food. We were sick and isolated. We had a little watery soup. Everyone ate it and everyone got sick. The Germans were afraid of our sickness, so they would stay away from us. The capos did everything.

"We didn’t know the Americans were coming until the day they came. One day in late April the Germans gave us a piece of bread and lined us up for our ‘last march.’ Then a high officer came and said it was too late, that we couldn’t leave. That night we heard shooting and bombardments, and the next day the Germans were gone.

"When we woke up on the morning of April 27, we went out like we always did to be counted, and the camp was empty and the gates were open. We were free. The Germans had left their tanks, trucks, everything."

The Americans who came as the Germans left were horrified by what they saw, but passed through so quickly that to many it just seemed like a bad dream, something best forgotten.

Lou Gergley, B Troop, said, “We were about the eighth or tenth car in line going by one of the camps. I remem­ber the people were all bald and so thin. Lt. Borkowski put a handkerchief on one of the men there and designated him as a leader. He got the people cleared off the road so we could go through."

“We just went in and out of the camps,” said Buck Fluharty. “It wasn’t our job to do anything. Another unit cleaned it up.”

“We didn’t stay long—maybe about half an hour,” Klein said, “then had to head off on another mission.”

“I don’t want to remember the camps,” said John Gorski. “One of the priests with us came up to me and said, ‘John, I want to show you something. You’re never going to forget this.’ And he took me to one of those camps. What I saw, I did never forget. I’m sorry I went with him.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Silver Star winner poses for Norman Rockwell

Vincent Kelly, Company F, 116th Squadron, 101st Cavalry, posed for this Normal Rockwell illustration. It is used courtesy of the Army Art Collection, US Army Center of Military History.

I interviewed a few veterans who told me that “some guy in the unit” posed for Normal Rockwell. No one knew his name, no one could provide any details, and no one confessed to being that mystery soldier. It was a real dead end, so I didn’t include anything about it in Tracking the 101st Cavalry.

I had, in fact, almost forgotten about it, when I heard from the daughter of Staff Sgt. Vincent A. Kelly, Company F, 116th Squadron. She (regrettably, she didn’t sign the email, so I don’t have her name and recent emails have been returned) wrote that her father, who was originally from Brooklyn, was asked to pose for Rockwell while the troops were still in the U.S. Kelly was seated behind a machine gun for the painting, which was called “Give ‘um Enough and On Time.”

“Norman Rockwell walked over to him and tore his shirt,” she wrote. “He paid him $5.00 in a check that he wished he had never cashed. He was also given some sketches from Norman Rockwell.”

Her father didn’t talk much about the war, she wrote, just a few random comments like many of the men. “He did say that while they were waiting to land in France, he almost passed out from the fumes building up in the tank. He said another time that he was taking a picture of something, and a sniper shot at him. At first, he thought he had been shot in the face, as the bullet tore through the bellows of the camera, and he fell back into the tank yelling, ‘I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!’ Then he realized that he had goop from the camera on his face instead of blood. He laughed about that.”

On April 1, 1945, Sgt. Kelly was under heavy enemy sniper fire in the vicinity of Distelhausen. Although he was wounded and facing continuous sniper fire, Kelly rushed into danger to give first aid to seriously wounded personnel and help evacuate them. For that bravery, he earned the Silver Star.

“He didn’t talk about winning the Silver Star very much,” his daughter wrote. “He did tell me that he felt bad because one of the men he was trying to rescue was shot in the head as my Dad picked him up. The bullet went through Dad’s leg as well. Dad wondered if maybe he had left the man on the ground, maybe he would have been saved. I know my Dad was a hero, and our entire family is proud of him. He passed away in 1998, at the age of 85.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A lot of catching up to do

I thought that once the book was done, I'd have to put the 101st Cavalry behind me. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I continued to hear from the veterans and their families, and I have received many additional stories and photos.

In April last year (yes, I am at least that far behind), I heard from James Davis, who told me about his grandfather, Madison W. Davis, Virginia, who served in Troop B, 101st Squadron. He wrote that he had the cloth map his grandfather had carried, and which he had used to sketch a map for the route the 101st took across Europe.

“Papa never just openly sat down and started talking about the war,” James wrote. “He was usually inspired by something that was related, like a television show, war movie, etc. He would give a short little description of something he went through. I remember one [story] in particular about the rifle he was issued. We were talking about deer hunting one day, and he got off on the subject of caliber. He said he was issued an M1 Carbine and that it lacked stopping power tremendously. He did not want to carry that rifle into any more battles, because he said it would not stop a grown man when he was coming at you. I knew right then he answered the question everybody wants to know: Did you ever have to kill anyone. He didn’t come out and say it, but that’s what it meant. He traded off with an officer who wouldn’t need a high-powered weapon and said the M1 Garand was much better at stopping Germans; one shot would do it. I left it at that. I was 15 when he died and just starting to get interested in the past.”

James said his grandfather also didn’t care much for the jets.

“He recalled the bombing and strafing they dealt with,” wrote James, “which were brought on by the #%*&%# jets as he put it.”

Madison also told his grandson about carrying Ivy Fields out of a mine field that had walked into. The men thought they were being shelled by mortar fire, but the noise was other men setting off mines. Several men fell to the ground for cover, but they, too, fell on mines and were injured. As Madison carried Ivy out, he could tell Ivy was alive because he could see his breath in the cold air.

“Papa still had a dollar bill that he carried in his pocket during the entire tour of Europe that was signed by all the troop B 101st guys.”

Madison Davis died in 2002, and many of the men he served with attended his funeral, some flying to Virginia from New York and Pennsylvania.

“Those guys were a tight bunch,” James wrote.