Memorial Day 2016

Mound City National Cemetery 08-10-2014_7594I’ve been busy of late getting a new edition of my Smelterville book off to the binders and bouncing between Florida and Missouri. I’ve also been working with Curator Jessica and Carla Jordan on several exhibits for later this summer and fall. That’s the excuse I’m going to give for slacking off of late.

On this 2016 Memorial Day weekend, this sign at the Mound City National Cemetery came to mind. It was part of a longer story I did about the curious case of Sgt. Samuel Ginter. If you missed it the first time around, it’s worth visiting.

Previous stories about veterans and memorials

 

Seeing the Elephant

West Palm Beach National Guard unit at Camp Blanding summer campIt was the summer of 1975. Saigon had fallen and the Vietnam War was over. My draft lottery was high enough that I wasn’t called, even though my draft status was 1A for a brief time in 1969.

I talked The Post into sending me to Camp Blanding with a local National Guard unit for a week of summer camp. I wrote about the experience in 2012. On this Memorial Day weekend, my thoughts turn back to that era.

National Guard was a safe haven

West Palm Beach National Guard unit at Camp Blanding summer campThe unit was a mixture of young guys with long hair who wore wigs over their tresses serving alongside men with gray in their hair. One guardsman wore jump wings on his cap and sported tattoos on his arms listing almost every major battle in the Pacific during World War II.

Seeing the elephant

West Palm Beach National Guard unit at Camp Blanding summer campThe phrase “seeing the elephant” popped up in many Civil War letters and diaries, but Curator Jessica said it’s been around longer than that. G.W. Kendall, in Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition in 1844, wrote, “When a man is disappointed in any thing he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has ‘seen the elephant.'”

I didn’t know much about the background men in the unit, but I could see in the eyes of some of the guardsmen they were looking way beyond the pines and palmettos of north central Florida. What was a war game to most was very real to some.

2000-Yard Stare

West Palm Beach National Guard unit at Camp Blanding summer campLife Magazine published a painting by World War II artist and correspondent Tom Lea in 1945. The 1944 panting of a Marine at the Battle of Peleliu – the site of the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacfic –  became known as the 2,000-Yard Stare.

Lea said of his subject, “He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?”

Memorial Day is more than picnics and a day off from work.

 

 

 

 

Memorial Day 2013

Photo in LV Steinhoff's scrapbook c 1934This photograph from Dad’s scrapbook wasn’t what I had planned to post tonight. Dad’s scrapbook has photos in it from when he was a pupil at May Greene School and on through at least 1934 when he graduated high school from the old, old Central on Pacific Street.

I don’t know who his buddy was. The mid-30s would have put it between World Wars I and II.

A flash of the Vietnam War

Plaque honoring Athens County servicemen killed or MIA in Vietnam 02-27-2013

When I visited Athens, Ohio, this winter, there was something on the county courthouse that wasn’t there when I was in the town: a plaque dedicated to the memory of Athens County residents who lost their lives in Vietnam. The fading flowers were what caught my attention. I shot a few obligatory shots and didn’t think anything about it until I got back to the hotel and looked at the photos on the computer screen.

At the bottom of the plaque (not shown here) was the name of Robert N. Smith, MIA. I was rocked back. I remember shooting Smith’s wife and daughter when they were waiting for word about his fate. About a decade or so later, the daughter tracked me down and I think I sent her copies of the pictures. I didn’t think of them again for three decades.

The story has an incredible twist that I’m going to save for when I find the film of the Smith family. I’ve spent two weeks going through negative files day by day and haven’t located them yet.

Thanks to all of you who have served. And, thanks to those like the Smith Family who have waited so long to be able to write the final chapter in a loved one’s life.

Stories appropriate for Memorial Day

National Guard Camp

 

Every Memorial Day, I feel a twinge of guilt. High school and college deferments, plus a high lottery number, kept me out of harm’s way at a time when 648,500 guys my age were drafted and sent to Southeast Asia. Draftees accounted for 25% of the troops in country and 30.4% of the combat deaths in Vietnam.

National Guard Camp

In 1975, I talked my boss at The Palm Beach Post into letting me do a story on the local West Palm Beach National Guard unit’s summer training camping at Camp Blanding, Florida. I wanted 10 days; he said he could only spare me for five, and that I’d have to do it on the cheap. That was hurdle one.

The  company commander said he’d have to clear it with the Higher Ups, but they’d love the coverage. I could ride up in the convoy and catch a ride back with someone who needed to come back to town about the time I did. That was hurdle two.

I explained in an earlier story that two days before we were going to leave, I got a call from the Master Sergeant saying that I could go to the camp, but that I couldn’t ride in the convoy. I’d have to go POV (Privately Owned Vehicle). That was going to nix the story because of expenses. You’ll have to read this story to see me in uniform and hear how I got to ride in the convoy.

Long-haired guardsmen

Several of the men in the unit wore wigs to cover up their long civilian hair.

The Mobile Riverine Force Association has lots of interesting information on the war. The MRFA site says that only 6,140 National Guardsmen saw duty in Vietnam, out of 2,594,000 personnel who served within the borders of the country between 1965 and 1973 (101 died).

Mixture of ages

The unit had a mix of ages, ranging from college boys to men sporting gray hair. One man wore jump wings on his cap and sported tattoos on his arms listing almost every major battle in the Pacific during World War II. All of the guys took the field exercises seriously, but you could look at the way some of the guys moved through the palmetto bushes and be pretty sure this wasn’t their first time in a jungle.

Other Memorial Day and memorial stories

Photo gallery of National Guard portraits

One of these days I’ll publish more general shots of life in the camp. For Memorial Day, though, I decided to concentrate on portraits of the guys. I’m pretty pleased with some of them. Of course, it’s a lot easier to play combat photographer when there’s no danger of getting shot. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.