When History Becomes Hearsay.

On this Veteran’s Day, 95 years after the end of the First World War, I’d like to touch on a slightly different topic. Rather than just joining the ranks of so many others posting “thank you” today, I’d like to post something for the rest of us.

A couple years ago, the last soldier who fought in the World War 1 trenches dies. With that loss, history becomes hearsay.
Several weeks ago, we lost Scott Carpenter, the penultimate survivor of the Mercury Seven astronauts. When our beloved John Glenn passes, history will become hearsay.
The survivors of the famous Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, have met for the last time. When their time comes, all too soon, to go to their final rest, history becomes hearsay.

I hear people saying “So what? We have their stories.” But caution must be exercised, when we read those histories. All too frequently, they are “popular” history, the big stories of big battles and big-name service folk. But wars aren’t won by generals, and truly vital battles often turn on the tiniest details. A single Japanese scout plane. delayed in launch by minor engine trouble, allowed the US Fleet to score its’ huge victory in the Battle of Midway. A handful of US Army engineers turned the Battle of the Bulge from a rout into a hard-fought battle, where the German Army was finally shattered in the West.

And one particular example, which I just learned of on Sunday. A small story, a tale of a single Marine fighter squadron, that lay untold for decades. The result of what happened to
VMF-422 should be well known – a general who should have been reprimanded but ducked responsibility and let an undeservedly good life, a squadron commander who did the best for his men as he could and ended a scapegoat, and an amazing tale of survival by crash-landed pilots in shark-infested seas. To quote directly from Wikipedia: “On January 25, 1944, 23 of the squadron’s 24 aircraft left Tarawa Atoll headed for Funafiti, a flight of 469 miles. A failure of their Commanding General (BGen Lewie G. Merritt) to authorize an escort plane and an outdated weather forecast led them to fly directly into a major storm. Additionally, General Merritt’s staff failed to inform Funafiti and the intermediate Nanumea Atoll that a group of friendly aircraft were on their way. 10 of the aircraft were lost at various times during the flight and the remaining 13 were forced to crash land in the ocean. The survivors spent 3 days at sea in life rafts before being spotted by a Navy PBY Catalina from Patrol Squadron 59. After taking on the survivors, the patrol boat was too heavy to take off and had to radio for help. Later that evening they were met by the destroyer USS Hobby (DD-610) who ushered the men to safety. In all the squadron lost 22 aircraft and had 6 pilots killed.”
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VMF-422) Just like the tale of the USS Indianapolis, a World War Two US cruiser torpedoed while returning from delivering parts of the Hiroshima bomb, only to be forgotten about due to secrecy and resulting in the worst loss of life in the Navy to shark attacks, the tale of “The Lost Squadron” of VMF-422 risked being lost in the mists of time. But for one inspired film-maker who uncovered the truth, the squadron’s history would have been buried under hearsay.

So please, by all means, say “thank you” to a vet today. Regardless of their war, or whether they served at the front or elsewhere, join me in saluting them for their bravery. They went for us, they left their lives for us, and far too often, they gave their all for us. Theirs is a debt we can never repay.

But also, I encourage you to learn all you can right now, while those who actually witnessed these events are still with us. There are still countless stories to be told, details to be examined, and even possible wrongs to be righted. We cannot afford to wait – we’ve lost untold history from the Great War, and as we approach so many milestones in the next months, such as the 100th Anniversary of the start of WW1, the 75th Anniversary of the start of WW2, and the 70th Anniversary of the Ardennes Offensive and Operation Overlord, we risk losingΒ  more history from these and other great conflicts.

So in closing, to all those who have fought for their country in the past and present, thank you. And to the rest of us, gather and treasure the history these people ot only witnessed, but made, so that we can try our best to keep history from becoming hearsay.

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32 Responses to When History Becomes Hearsay.

  1. aFrankAngle says:

    You know more military history than anyone I know …. (I know, that also means I’m hanging around the wrong people πŸ˜‰ ) … but you make a great point. Yep … once the vets are gone, the history becomes so faint, that mistakes will happen again. Meanwhile, enjoy this local article on the Dolittles. http://news.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcs.dll/artikkel?NoCache=1&Dato=20131109&Kategori=NEWS&Lopenr=311090038&Ref=AR

    • Thanks for the link, Frank. Did you see anything unusual in your skies yesterday? I heard a strange droning sound, thought it was some low-flying Army Blackhawk helos or some-such. Finally spotted something to the ENE – a straight-winged, narrow-fuselage twin-engine prop job. I can’t be absolutely sure, but I’d bet a kidney or two that it was an honest-to-God North American B-25 Mitchell, just like the Doolittle Raiders flew. One of the handful flying, coming to pay final honours?

  2. TikkTok says:

    Shoot. Just lost a whole long reply. Meh.

    This made me think of John Anderson, USS Arizona survivor, who lost his twin that day on that same ship.

    History is being rewritten in our school textbooks. Hopefully I can paste in two links….



    Once the living history is lost, we are screwed, imo. Common Core is changing everything. Let’s not kid and delude ourselves into thinking history being taught to our kids isn’t- and hasn’t been- changed and skewed to reflect tge interests of the money behind it.

    Here’s one more:


    • I got two copies of this comment, so I’m approving one and trashing the other. And yes, I fully agree with you. Both examples I gave showed how the unit commander was blamed, and actually resulted in each one’s suicide. Only later did the full facts come out to exonerate them, well after their deaths. We need to gather as much history as we can while we have first-hand accounts – once we lose the veterans, we lose their eyewitness testimony to history, even if it’s nothing more than giving us a window into their world or some mundane detail about military life. Heaven knows we’ve got enough kids out there these days that can’t imagine growing up with only 4 TV stations, AM radio, and vinyl records!
      Thanks for the links, and the great comment.

  3. Profound post dear John. History is too often written by the victors’ generals and are seen through their filters and foibles. There are no minority that has not fallen victim to this reality. I think that technology will go a long way to balancing the tales of current history but you’re right, soon all chance for all levels of the wars to be heard will soon be lost forever. It doesn’t help that those who were in the trenches tend to not want to spend more time in them now. This was the case in my family and now the opportunity is gone forever.

    • Oh, I know that mixed feeling all too well. I’m a nut for history about the Aleutian Islands campaign, and I once met a pair of US vets at one of our re-enactments. One guy was quite talkative, but when I mentioned the Aleutians, he pointed to his friend and stated that his buddy had spent most of the war up there. I started to ask questions, but the Alaska vet stated he didn’t want to talk. I was fit to burst, literally, but had to simply thank both of them for their service and watch them walk away. It’s tough, but we have to remember, those stories are THEIR stories, to share or not as they choose, and we have to honour that, not matter how utterly frustrating it is.
      Any general information about your forebear, like division or nearby towns? I might be able to dig up some info for you.
      Thanks for stopping by, and the wonderful comment!

      • I got nothing, really. My dad was in the Merchant Marines and my grandfather was in the American navy. I have no idea how my maternal grandfather spent either war, I was way to young when he died to even think about asking.
        I cannot begin to grasp the horror these people lived through so I can understand that they would do what they felt they have to survive mentally now. Thats what survivors do.

      • I understand your predicament – due to family troubles, I only know of the service of my one uncle, my father’s brother-in-law. I’d love to learn more, but my dad won’t talk about it. But even if you just remember that the DID serve, you do them some honour just by that. So don’t feel too badly about it.
        And you might want to be a bit thankful that you never heard detailed events. I once spoke to a German vet of the Eastern Front in WW2. Let’s just say, there was one story about a flare pistol being used as a weapon that still makes my skin crawl.

      • Thank you SO much for that link! That is such a truly stunning set of images. The sad part is, on Omaha Beach, those figures would be far too widely spread. That was the one criticism I ever heard of the opening scene from “Saving Private Ryan” – that the bodies were, if anything, not only far closer together, but also (and I shudder writing this) far less intact.
        May God grant mankind the wisdom to never repeat such grotesque slaughter ever again.

  4. Lyle says:

    Amen John!

  5. benzeknees says:

    Great post John. We can always count on you to do servicemen the justice they so richly deserve!

  6. tom says:

    There are more heros than we can possibly have stories so most lead a quiet existance knowing what they did. In some cases they haven’t even shared their experiences with their families. Thanks for the frest take on Veterans Day.

    • I have met several people whose family have never shared, and I’ve met many others whose vet never shared until some seemingly insignificant event triggers their memories. And there are a lot, like my good friend passed, Lee Kimball, who felt their war experiences were minor diversions from their families and their civilian lives. It’s tough on us historians, but like I said above, the memories are theirs to share or not, and we can only thank those who don’t want to share and just walk away. It can be frustrating, but I cannot hold a grudge against their reticence – I can just hope that there is some place where we can all meet one day, and fully know what they went through, just as we can be sure they know how much we appreciate their service.
      And as always, thanks for dropping by, my friend!

      • tom says:

        This is not an original thought as I heard it from historian Doris Kearns goodwin (sp) who said that so much is lost today because nobody writes letters anymore. That was a rich source for historians which a Tweet just doesn’t compare.

      • There was a resurgence in story-telling thanks to film, both in WW2 and Korea, and Vietnam as well. While I don’t think there will be a huge trove of video from Desert Storm, there is a lot of online video from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and many people working to make those far more permanent. Something you might want to check out is http://www.sixwordwar.com – not only is the site a simple Twitter-like posting site, but the powers behind it will record the posts in book form, transitioning from the electronic media to the written page.
        And no, I’m not the originator of “losing the touchstone” thought. I’m sure folk bemoaned the loss of the last of Napoleon’s soldiers, or Washington’s, or King Harold’s, or Caesar’s. There will be a time when someone mourns the passing of the last shuttle astronaut, or the last OEF/OIF soldier, or the last touch-typist (that’s my only hope for immortality! πŸ˜‰ ). But the more folk we can get to collect those stories while these people are still alive, the less likely the chance that some key point in history will fade away unnoticed.
        And by the by, I always enjoy when Jon Stewart has her own – which is pretty frequently. Now all I need is a decent used bookstore nearby! πŸ˜€

  7. Elyse says:

    I’ve been thinking about what to say to this lovely and wise post, John, and couldn’t really think of much to add.

    And then I saw this story and decided to pass it on — if you haven’t already seen it, you’ll love it:

    • I saw the story on the BBC evening American news, and on a couple of the local broadcasts. It’s great that they had such a turnout, but so sad that the poor man had to die alone. I hope to get healthy enough soon, so I can re-obtain a driver’s license, as there is a big VA hospital not that far from my home. I remember singing Christmas carols in Chicago-area ones growing up, and there is absolutely NO greater experience than seeing a bed-ridden vet sit up and join you in a familiar holiday carol. Shoot – I choke up right now, just thinking about it. One of these days, very soon, maybe…..

  8. fasab says:

    Nice original angle on the tribute. Well done.

  9. But then, witness testimony is often the worst kind of testimony, clouded by wishful thinking, a forgetful memory or the wish to please those by whom one is questioned.

    • I will grant you that these events, well over a half-century old in the case of WW2, can be clouded by age and emotion. But I’ve found that, quite different from the legal settings you often encounter, war vets are eager to tell the whole truth, and more importantly, are willing to call “BS” on stories, like the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, where “big brass” are prone to omission or even flat-out falsehoods to keep one of their “old boy network” safe. And the vets rarely have anything to gain – they’ve lived their lives, raised their families, and may even consider their military time as a minor sidelight (in the case of the Allies) or even a point of shame (especially among the Axis). You have to develop the proper “touch” to encourage them, and it is NOT an exact science – I’ve had Germans admit to participating in round-ups of Jews and other “undesirables”, yet been unable to get an American to proudly recount his tales of gallant battle on American territory in Alaska.
      Are “war stories” perfect? Heck, no. But to get the feel of what it was like, to understand how civilised men can stand in 3 feet of freezing water, wracked with dysentery, and still have the will and strength to shoot at a stranger, I’d rather have one slightly addled, boastful veteran than an entire library of “experts”. And in my experience, the vets would rather have a lunatic like me who actually wants to re-enact and experience the hellacious environments they were forced to work and fight in, then a dozen “armchair generals” pontificating their own viewpoints.
      And that was probably THE longest answer to a simple comment I’ve ever typed! But thanks for it – you challenged my viewpoint very well, and while you may not have changed my mindset, you gave me a good workout. Well done!

  10. BrainRants says:

    Thanks for taking up here this year. I just didn’t have it in me after this last go-around. I think your theme/title is awesome.

    • Dang it all, man, you’ve done MORE than enough for the rest of us lazy civilian-types, without having to create some prattling self-indulgent blog post. Enjoy the rest – God knows you’ve earned it. And though I know it embarrasses you a bit, thank you for all your service and sacrifice. As I’ve told other veterans, as long as I’ve got wind in my lungs and an occasional blip on my EEG, I’m gonna keep thanking you folk, and writing about it, at every possible turn. It’s a tiny down payment on a debt we can NEVER repay – I just pray it’s enough, for now.
      Now go have a couple beers on me. And yes – that IS an order, from a wanna-be sergeant to his favourite Light Colonel! πŸ˜‰

  11. Archon's Den says:

    Well done John! You’ve put faces and flesh to names we’ve never even known.

    Thanks also, for flying the Maple Leaf along with Stars and Stripes, and the others.

    • I’m not sure if I ever told you my “Canadian interest” origin story. I worked with a Russian lady (briefly – she was far from the best programmer), whose father was at Nuremberg with the Red Army, witnessing the trials. When I mentioned something about a trip to Hamilton to check out an air museum there, with a side trip to check out an Army museum (the John Foote VC Armoury), she said “Canada had an army in World War Two?” She was dead serious! And after the vets of the Rileys were so impressed that I had come ALL the way up from Chicago (not really that far, but hey), that they took ME out to lunch, well, the love affair was sealed. The Maple Leaf, or on calmer days the Red Ensign, will ALWAYS fly on 11/11, 19/8 (Dieppe), and on other anniversaries as I can remember them.
      Now, if I could just convince the Rileys they need a full-time docent at the museum. ‘Course, for that, I’d need to become an adopted Canadian….. hint, hint ….. πŸ˜‰

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