One Man Can Change the World. The 90th Anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s Epic Solo Flight

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Today – May 20, 2017, marks the 90th anniversary of Lindbergh’s take off from Roosevelt Field in New York and into the history books.

We live in a world today where social media and the court of public opinion determines who is noteworthy in our society.  We are a short-term people.  What is hot today is old news tomorrow.  We are driven by what the media tells us, right and wrong.  Our icons today are reality TV stars, grossly overpaid sports figures, musicians that can’t play an instrument, or people who covet fame from YouTube.com.   Our heroes are defined by pixels, their income, and their momentary popularity, more than by their accomplishments.

We weren’t always like that.  In 1927 we chose our heroes differently – by their actions and deeds rather than TV ratings.  Charles Lindbergh was such a man.  He wasn’t the first person to fly the Atlantic, but he was the first to do it solo.  He helped design the airplane for the journey, on that would take him across an ocean and into the history books.

Making such a flight alone was akin the madness.  Several aviators, some of much greater repute, had already died making such attempts.  In the Spirit of St. Louis, he didn’t have a life raft or radio to call for help.  If he ran into trouble he was going to die.

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Takeoff at Roosevelt Field

Lindbergh was the antithesis of today’s public icons.  He shunned publicity.  The man merely wanted to achieve the goal, not bask in the glory.  That was a big part of his great appeal.  He was a boy from next door – everyman.  In many respects he represented America at its best.  He was a man that challenged nature and fate and won.  Lindbergh harkened back to the American ideal of a pioneer and trailblazer.

One of my favorite movies is The Spirit of St. Louis starring Jimmy Stewart.  Yes, there are some factual errors with the film, but it is the best representation we have of what that flight was like and the challenges that this supreme aviator faced.

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In crossing the Atlantic solo, Charles Lindbergh changed forever the way we viewed aviation.  Suddenly, overnight, the world became much closer, more connected.

Every time I visit the NASM I make a point to pause and look at The Spirit hanging in the main gallery.  For a fleeting moment, I remember Charles Lindbergh and the daring he exhibited.  In that second of time I wonder if we will ever again have such men in our nation, men that we don’t seek to bring down, but instead bring out the very best of us.  In find myself longing for standards of men and women and go beyond the internet.  I know I am a romantic at heart, longing for a sense of something that is intangible yet wondrous.

I wonder where our heroes are…

Centennial of US Entry into WWI

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Bill Thaw – One of the Americans that joined the French Foreign Legion, then the French Air Service, then became a combat commander in the US Air Service.  August 1915 photo.

Today, April 6, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the US declaring war and entering the Great War.  We were latecomers to “the big show,” which had been raging since 1914. Even with the declaration, it took months before US troops began to arrive in France, and even longer before we actually waded into combat in 1918.  We fought in significant battles for a few months until the war ended on November 11, 1918.  As the author of several books on the Great War, I cannot simply let this event pass without a few random and wandering thoughts of my own.

My first exposure to the war came in childhood.  I remember my great grandparents had a farm handyman that was a vet – I think his name was Ernie.  Quiet man, never talked much.  It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime I knew a WWI vet.  All have “gone west” now.

The US doesn’t embrace the Great War the way we do WWII.  The First World War was a quick event for us, unlike the rest of Europe who bore the scars of it to this day.  We lost a lot of men though.  The Meuse Argonne Cemetery is filled with more Americans than the cemetery at Normandy, or so I read.  While the war was horrific – with flamethrowers, gas, tanks, bombs, trench warfare, etc.; our troops were only in it for a few relatively short months.  It failed to scar us enough to be remembered the way we do WWII.

It was a war that changed our country though.  We realized that standing on the sidelines, hiding under neutrality, did not spare you from the war.  It was the first war that brought about terrorism.  The US Capitol was bombed by the Germans.  Munitions plants in New Jersey were blowing up – even damaging the Statue of Liberty.  We were the victim of unrestricted submarine warfare.  In fairness, we were selling tons of munitions to France and England…so our neutrality was at best, a means for us to profit from the war.

While there are bound to be a lot of ceremonies marking this event, I would like to remind folks that we actually had Americans fighting in the war years before the official US entry.  Volunteers, mostly college students, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914, looking for adventure.  Many of them transferred into the French Air Service, joining the Lafayette Flying Corps and the all-American (French led) Lafayette Escadrille.  These men would later become the heart and soul of the fledgling US Air Service when American did finally formally arrive in France in 1917.  Others joined the American Ambulance Service.

That’s right.  American men were flying and fighting and dying in the Great War four years before the rest of the country caught up to them.  They knew in their hearts what was right long before the rest of the nation did and took action – many giving their lives for a cause that the rest of the country ignored.  On this day of commemoration, let us not forget the men who went before.

Nor let us forget the commitment to our allies, still strong today.  As Colonel C. E. Stanton said to our French comrades upon our arrival, “What we have of blood and treasure are yours.  In the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying the war to a successful conclusion…”

“…Lafayette, we are here!”

Review of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager

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I picked up this book hard copy – a rarity for me, in the airport coming home from vacation and had it completed by the time we landed.  Granted, I’m a fast reader, but the message here is that this is not a deep book.  It is one, however, that is a good geopolitical read.

My printed copy clearly had some issues, with two inserts covering up errors or putting in text that was missing in the final copy.  There were a good number of pictures and maps, which were useful.  This was a foreign war against a terrorist state where religion played a part.  Hmm, the parallels to today seem pretty obvious. 

The authors do a fair job of giving you the context – both overseas and in the US at the time.  It was good to know, but what makes this book, as with most history, is the characters.  This had some outstanding heroes and some villains that seemed to have come from central casting.  The war itself was oddly balanced – the fledgling US against a well-established albeit minor state.  It is a strange balance but one that works.

As a military historian, I wanted a little more. I didn’t get the feeling of being there, though I am sure from the footnotes, that there was a wealth of material that could have been brought to bear in this regard. There were plenty of opportunities to provide readers with a wealth of detail that simply were overlooked.  The authors clearly wanted this to be an overview of America’s first foreign conflict…and therein lies the rub.  

If you are looking for the definitive book on the war with the Tripoli pirates, this is not it.  There is not a wealth of new material here on the subject.  In fact, I didn’t learn anything new and that left me wanting.  Again, I’m a history reader and writer – so I always want new data. 

If you only have passing knowledge of these conflict, I recommend this book.  Otherwise this book doesn’t break any new ground – but it is well written.  Personally, I wanted more.  As such, I give it three out of five stars. 

 

 

Book Tour Dates – The Original Battle Creek King of Crime

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People have been asking if we are coming to Michigan to do any speaking or signing events for our latest true crime book…The Original Battle Creek Crime King: Adam “Pump” Arnold’s Vile Reign.  There’s no doubt that Arnold was a devious and despicable character – and a murderer of his own son.  This book provides a Victorian-era glimpse into the nefarious dealings with a kingpin of crime – some humorous, some deadly.

Here’s the one’s we know at this time:

Thursday, Oct. 13, 7pm

Heritage Battle Creek

 

Friday, Oct. 14, 3-5pm

Books & More of Albion

 

Friday, Oct. 14, 8:10am

WBCK Radio (TENTATIVE)

 

Friday, Oct. 14, 6:30-8pm

Willard Library

 

We hope to see you there if you are in the area.

Book Review – The Lafayette Escadrille – by Steven A. Ruffin

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With the centennial of the Great War upon us I expected more books and interest in the Lafayette Escadrille.  This was, after all, a pioneering group of Americans that flew for France years before the US even declared war.  Most of its surviving members went on to be the nucleus of the American Air Service.  Without the Lafayette Escadrille and its larger fraternal organization, the Lafayette Flying Corps, the US Air Force might have begun as a debacle.  Instead it was seeded with these combat veterans.

When I heard Steve Ruffin had a book out on the subject I was excited.  In the last few years Jon Guttman and I both had written books on the Lafayette Escadrille – albeit mine was a biography of one of its more “unique” pilots, the rogue Bert Hall.  I had to wonder…would Ruffin’s book really be able to stand out?  There are a lot of books about this unit out there over the century since the war.

This one does stand out.

First, it is a photo history of the unit.  Ruffin hit some of the same places I did for photos of the unit.  What he brought to the table was context.  Paul Rockwell’s photos are in boxes down at Washington and Lee University.  Ninety-percent are unlabeled.  Steve Ruffin dove into that treasure trove (and others) and not only identified the men, but where they were and when they were there.   This book is chocked full of photographs, many of which we simply haven’t see.

Some of my favorite images Ruffin included were side-by-side shots of the men and machines, then a modern shot to show the same camera angle at the same locale today.  I loved these then-and-now images.  It is a testimony to how he must have buried himself in the research.

On top of that there are a lot of color images of the aircraft.

On the history itself, Mr. Ruffin did his work too.  He did not give us a glossed-over summary of the unit but instead went to archival sources to tell the story.  This is always a favorite of mine.  Let the men speak in their own words – with their own letters.

My only critique of the book, albeit minor, comes purely from a historian’s slant only.  It’s not footnoted.  I would have liked to know where the sources of some of the quotes he had came from.  And yes, that’s me being nitpicky, but I often find footnotes useful (and in some cases even entertaining).  On a personal note:  He dug up material that I missed in my own research when writing The Bad Boy, and I want to see where he found it!

Does Ruffin break new ground with this book?  Yes.  Some of the letters he has here have never seen the light of day in a century.  He gives us some new tid bits that will appeal to WWI aviation historians.

The Lafayette Escadrille – a Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron, is available from Casemate Publishers for $37.95.  It is well worth it if you are an aviation enthusiast of the era.  If you are a buff, make sure you join the League of WWI Aviation Historians as well, www.overthefront.com 

Centennial of the formation of the Lafayette Escadrille

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Lafayette – we have arrived.  The Lafayette Escadrille

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Escadrille Américaine, later known as the Lafayette Escadrille.  Sadly, most Americans know little of this unit today, but at the time, the exploits of these pilots in the Great War were daily newspaper articles.  In 1916, young boys wanted to be these heroes of the air and young men headed off the Europe to join them.  Ladies wrote them, sent packages and gifts, swooning over these young aviators.

America would not declare war for another year and it would be many months later before any American squadrons arrived and joined the fight.  In the meantime the men of the Lafayette Escadrille (and the broader Lafayette Flying Corps) would be the core of the American Air Service, the only combat-experienced American aviators.

While the Lafayette Escadrille was a squadron whose ranks were Americans, they were led by a French commanding officer.  The unit is often confused with the Lafayette Flying Corps (which most men were joint members of.)  The flying corps was much larger and its member were Americans that were seeded into French escadrilles. Both of these volunteer organizations were at war long before America as a nation stepped up to the plate.

Many of the members of the unit began in the American Ambulance Service and the French Foreign Legion.  They came to Europe for many reasons, most believing that the war would be over in a few months.  When they formed the Escadrille Américaine it spurred an international incident because America was officially neutral.  The eloquent solution was to rename the organization to the Lafayette Escadrille.

Most of the original founders came from rich families.  There were a few rogues in the mix – namely men like Raoul Lufberry and Bert Hall; older more seasoned than the high society college boys.  The war they fought was one of bitter stinging cold open cockpits.   Parachutes were not part of their kits.  They flew planes that were spruce and metal covered with doped linen.  Their cockpits were not armored and often the men sat next to or on top of their fuel.  Death could come at any angle at any moment – yet that did not deter these brave men.

There was a romantic air about these men (pun unintended). Their mascots were two pet lions – Whiskey and Soda.  They had a bottle of champagne that was a “Bottle of Death” reserved for the last surviving member to toast his fallen comrades.  In may respects, their exploits were crafted for Hollywood.  Two movies have been made about the unit, but both sadly missed any degree of historical accuracy.

The Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps were to become the heart and soul of the American Air Service.  Without these men, America’s aviation pursuits in WWI would have been a disaster – with countless more casualties.  The formation of the escadrille marked the start of a true US Air Force.

This week, the French honored the Americans at their massive memorial outside of Paris.  I received my invitation to attend but was too late.  That was okay.  I’ve had the honor to write about such men in my books Lost Eagles and The Bad Boy – Bert Hall, Aviator and Mercenary of the Skies.  I have enjoyed the honor to chronicle exploits of such men.  And in this week, marking the centennial of the start of their incredible historical journey, I wanted to take a moment to remember what these volunteers did for the American Air Force.

The 180th Anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo

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No matter how bad-ass you are, you are never going to be Davy Crockett at the Alamo bad-ass.

This week marks the 180th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo (February 23-March 6, 1836.)  I have always held this battle in reverence since my reading of Bill Davis’s outstanding book:  Three Roads to the Alamo.  It’s one of those books I read every two years or so…it’s that good.  As a bagpiper myself, the fact that John McGregor was at the Alamo, playing his pipes in battle, offers a fascinating mental picture for me.  Yes, the defenders had a bagpiper with them, how kick-ass is that?

On paper, the fight was one-sided.  Santa Anna’s 1800 troops against 185-200 Texas volunteers.  The defenders of the old mission were not professional soldiers by any stretch.  When you think of the Alamo, it is hard not to wonder what was going through the minds of the volunteers.  They knew the odds against them.  Surrounded, they knew they were cut off and that reinforcements were not coming.  There’s a special bond formed among men facing such calamity that is impossible to put in words.  We know it, we think we understand it, but how many of us would have remained there in the mission and opted to fight – knowing what the final fate was going to be?

The Alamo brought unlikely men together, as if it was destined to be a crossroads in history.  Travis and Bowie were both struggling with debt and had played land speculation.  These were not heroic figures up until this battle.  Only the last days of their lives forever changed public opinion of these brave men.  Both were drawn through circumstance to be at the mission 180 years ago.

Perhaps the most intriguing character that came to the defense of the impromptu fort was former congressman David Crockett.   A failed politician he was, at the time, more hype than reality.  The Alamo changed that.  Crockett and his party’s arrival at a juncture of history ensconced him as a Texan and American hero.

There is a transformative ability that the siege of the Alamo has.  It took men, and even the efforts to carve out Texas as a nation, and make them a reality.  Last stands are not the property of America, but it became one of the few that the entire nation adopted as its own.

Hollywood further solidified this battle in history.  Be it Fess Parker, John Wayne, or Billy Bob Thorton; the Alamo is destined to be something the entertainment industry will never let us forget.  Gaming wise, SPI put out a fairly good game of the Battle of the Alamo but few boardgames have tried to capture the fight.

Militarily, the battle, like many epic stands, on its own, was not strategic.  The same could be said of Rorke’s Drift.  The Alamo did buy several days for the Texian forces to assemble, but overall, the Alamo did not determine the fate of the war.  Their devastating defeat however served as a rallying point for the Texians to eventually drive to victory.

The men didn’t have to fight to the brutal end but chose to.  That kind of resolve, especially in our modern age, is unheard of.  There are images, scenes of the siege that stick in our minds.  Did Travis draw a line in the sand with his sword, challenging men who wanted to leave to cross the line?  Did Davy Crockett survive the fight only to be slaughtered afterwards?

In the end, those details simply don’t matter.  The Alamo is a symbol in American and Texas history.  And on this 180th anniversary I merely wanted to take a few moments to remember the resolve of brave men everywhere in our armed forces.  The men at the Alamo set a standard for heroic behavior that few of us would have the courage today to set up and embrace.