The Project that Birthed Death and Life

On this date in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a secret project that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and ended World War II. But it also led, in the long term, to the birth of a city and numerous other projects that resulted in countless prolonged and enhanced lives.

On October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt signed off on what became known as the Manhattan Project. It was a military operation the likes of which the United States and the world had never witnessed. It was cloaked in secrecy. It was empowered by the national government to take the farm lands, homes, churches, and grave sites of countless individuals, families, and church congregations in numerous small, tight-knit communities in the hills of East Tennessee for the purpose of building enormous facilities for the manufacture of the world’s first atomic bomb.

Not unlike the situation that occurred to the Cherokee Indians more than 100 years earlier and to the residents of hill communities in the nearby Norris community a decade earlier, the residents of Bear Creek, Scarborough, and numerous other small communities were given mere weeks to vacate their ancestral homes so that the government could erect the facilities of three super-secret “reservations” where the components of the bomb would be built. Those locations were code named X-10, Y-12, and K-25.

Thousands of workers were imported into a thrown-together, prefabricated city that became known as Oak Ridge. And they lived and worked within the confines of guard towers and barbed wire fences as long as the work continued. They could not talk about the work they did, and informants ratted them out if they did. In fact, most of them had no idea of the larger product of which their work was a part. Only after the bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they learn what they were producing. And even then, few really understood it all. (Although I seldom read fiction, I recently read a novel titled The Atomic City Girls by Denise Kiernan, and its descriptions of life within the Secret City and its plants is spot on.)

The products of all those thousands of employees’ labors resulted in the deaths of a conservative estimate of 225,000 people (150,000 at Hiroshima and 75,000 at Nagasaki). But it also saved the lives of inestimable thousands of American servicemen who would have been killed if the United States had been forced to invade the home islands of Japan to end the war. Moreover, perhaps millions of lives have been saved, prolonged, or enhanced since that time through the civilian uses of nuclear energy that resulted from the ongoing studies of nuclear power.

I grew up only a few miles from Oak Ridge. During the Cold War (especially during the Cuban missile crisis), my life and the lives of my school classmates were directly affected by the potential threat to the facilities at Oak Ridge, which were deemed close enough to our community to affect us. Civil defense drills became a part of “normal” life in our school. We were even issued “dog tags” for identification following any enemy attack. I still have my dog tag as a reminder of those perilous times. (I wrote about growing up during this time and working there in “Living in the Shadow of the Atomic City,” Blue Ridge Country, May-June 1998.)

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I, too, would be one of those workers at the Oak Ridge plants, but I was. For seven years, until the end of the Cold War and the defense cut-backs of the Clinton years, I was a senior technical editor there. Many of the restrictions described in Kiernan’s novel were still in place even at that late date.

But my work was not focused on bombs and destruction. Rather, much of my work there dealt with the peace-time uses of nuclear energy and the transfer of the technology developed during the Cold War to civilian industrial uses. Just as many of the gadgets we use today are the result of the space program, many of them are also the result of the nuclear defense program at Oak Ridge.

Although we still have swords, we also have plowshares. As President Reagan termed it, “peace through strength.”

 

 

 

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Thirteen Days Later. . . .

In our finite sense of time and events, we often lose our sense of perspective. We often mentally compress time and events without realizing that much more happened in the intervening time span than we think. Such it is with the invasion of Normandy during World War II.

We recently commemorated the June 6, 1944, Allied landings on Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold, and Juno beaches that began the push that brought down the Third Reich. We then somehow jump mentally from the carnage along the beaches and cliffs of Normandy to the joining of U.S. and Russian forces at the Elbe, forgetting the long struggle that occurred among the hedgerows of the bocage, around the Falaise Gap, and in the fields of Belgium. We pause to recall the German surprise at the Bulge, but otherwise we tend to forget what took place between the initial clash on D-day and the celebrations of V-E Day.

On this date in history, June 19, 1944, my Uncle Dillon Summers had his own landing on Omaha Beach. He, a lowly, unassuming corporal, and the rest of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division assembled in a predesignated marshaling area, fired registration rounds from their 105 and 155 mm mobile gun platforms, and almost immediately engaged enemy targets. As they did so, the beaches were still under fire from German artillery. Thirteen days after the much-celebrated D-day landings.

Thirteen days later. That should tell us something about how hard the fighting was after the initial landings.

To identify the enemy artillery pieces that were raining death and destruction on U.S. troops on Omaha Beach, the 391st AFA had forward observers (FOs) who crept to the front-most edges of the battlefield, noted the location of the enemy guns, and radioed the coordinates back to the U.S. artillerists, who then unleashed their own death blows to the offending German artillery.

Uncle Dillon was one of the few soldiers assigned to get the FOs to that forward edge. Many such tank drivers, and even more FOs, never made it back. Dillon was wounded and won two Bronze Stars for valor while doing his job, and he made it back. He and others like him enabled the Allies, one enemy artillery piece and one enemy troop concentration at a time, to defeat a powerful, diabolical enemy.

That’s usually how it is. Whereas we often hear of the exploits of the generals and commemorate the single-day actions of divisions, we sadly forget that it is the grueling, day-to-day work of thousands of anonymous, unsung individual heroes who just faithfully do their jobs that make those big victories possible.

Who are the unsung heroes in your life? A teacher? A preacher? A parent?

Are you an unsung hero to someone because you are faithfully and consistently doing your job? Are your daily actions making it possible for someone else to gain victory in his or her life?

Someone may be watching and learning from your life. They might look upon you as their hero.

Think about it!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

V-E Day, May 8, 1945

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe with the utter defeat of the Nazi regime.

That military conflict is the one with which I most closely connect, primarily because, as my interest in history developed, most of the books I read tended to be about that war. Although I grew up during the Vietnam War, it was too current for many books to have been written about it when I was developing my love of reading. Besides, I had an uncle who was directly engaged with the earlier war in Europe, and I saw his military souvenirs from that conflict. As an adult, I became interested in tracing his footsteps through that war in an attempt to learn as closely as I could where he had been and what he experienced.

Although the infamous fire in the St. Louis record depository destroyed his (and thousands of other servicemen’s) military records, I have been able to piece together enough through the history of the units he was part of to get a pretty good idea of the path he trod.

Uncle Dillon Summers was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as part of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion (patch shown here), 3rd Armored Division, First Army, under General Omar Bradley. He trained in armored warfare at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and the Desert Training Center in California and then had advanced artillery training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On September 3, 1943, he embarked for England with the 3rd Armored Division aboard the S.S. Shawnee. He got further training in Warminster, England, before landing on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1945, D-day + 19. The 391st AFA began firing on the Germans the next day.

 

 

Dillon was a tank driver for artillery forward observers (FOs) of Combat Command B (CCB). FOs moved out in front of the main lines, identified enemy targets, and called in 155 mm artillery strikes against them. As such, he was in constant danger. He was involved in the Battle for St. Lo; Operation Cobra, the breakout from the bocage, or hedgerow country of Normandy; the closing of the Falaise Gap; the drive into Belgium; the breaching of the Siegfried Line; the crossing of the Rhine near Cologne; and the liberation of the concentration camp at Nordhausen/Dora Mittelbau, where the Nazis used slave labor to make their V-2 rockets.

As best I can ascertain, combat for Uncle Dillon’s unit ended on April 24, 1945, when CCB was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division and went into a period of rest and maintenance in the vicinity of Sangershausen. I assume that he was still there on May 8, 1945, when they received word of V-E Day. (On May 12, the unit moved to occupy Neu-Isenburg, a sector south of Frankfurt. They moved again on August 14 to a sector between Stuttgart and Nuremberg.)

 

Although I can trace (with some frustrating gaps in information) his general steps throughout his active combat duty, I have no idea what his reaction was to the end of hostilities. Was it elation? Was it a heavy sigh of relief? Was it an anticlimactic shrug? I’ll never know. I only know that what he witnessed firsthand changed him, and he never (in my hearing anyway) talked about it.

But the United States clearly won that war, unlike the Vietnam War, from which we merely withdrew to allow the enemy to walk into and seize their original objective virtually unopposed. Maybe that is another reason I feel such an affinity for the history of World War II: it was a clear, decisive victory.

Be that as it may, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, whether in Europe or the Pacific theaters and whether on the front line of battle, as my uncle did, or in the far-off and virtually unknown theaters of relative inactivity, such as the Aleutians (see my article “The Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign” in World at War, June-July 2018, which, I learned this past weekend, is available at Barnes & Noble). That generation is fast passing from us, and we should both learn as much as we can from them and express our gratitude before they are all gone and we lose that opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Publishing Wheels: Slow but Sure?

In two weeks, it will have been two years ago (yep, in 2016), since I submitted a particular article for publication. It had been even farther in the distance since I had initially queried the editor. My idea had been accepted and the go-ahead given to write the article, which I did, submitting it in May 2016. I had almost given up hope of it’s ever being published.

And then it happened! Today’s mail brought my contributor’s copy of World at War magazine, the June-July 2018 issue, with my 13-page article and its 11 photos and 4 maps on pages 22-34. Finally!

I’m not sure when this magazine will hit the bookstore shelves (this is the earliest pre-release copy of a magazine I’ve ever gotten), but if any of my readers are into World War II history, they might enjoy reading “Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign.”

And for all you other writers who are despairing that something you’ve submitted and had accepted will never see print, be patient. Perhaps it will be after all. As the old Candid Camera sign-off slogan said, “Somewhere, someday, someplace when you least expect it, . . . .”

Meditations on a Motto

For quite some time now, I’ve been researching my uncle’s World War II military service experiences. One of the most interesting findings was the motto of his unit, but more about that later. Since his and many other veterans’ records were destroyed in the St. Louis repository fire in the 1970s, I’ve had to piece together fragments of his experiences from other sources, tracing his steps through histories of the units of which he was a part.*

In the process, I’ve run across a lot of interesting details showing how and why those units deserve more credit than they have heretofore garnered. For example, the 3rd Armored Division fired the first shells into Germany, was the first unit to set foot on German soil, and advanced an amazing 102 miles in 24 hours, the longest such advance in history, and that against stiff German resistance. The 3rd AD also was responsible for capturing the largest number of enemy soldiers in two separate pincer movements that closed German escape routes in the Falaise Pocket (1944) and the Ruhr Pocket (1945).

The 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd AD spent a record 239 days in active combat and fired 170,100 rounds, the greatest number of any unit in the 3rd AD. The 391st AFA awarded 28 Silver Stars and 133 Bronze Stars, six of them Oak Leaf Clusters (including one to my uncle).

Despite these achievements, the 3rd AD was (and continues to be) overshadowed by the 1st AD, commanded by the flamboyant, bombastic, and self-promoting General George Patton. Patton’s men did achieve much, and he proudly made sure that people knew of those accomplishments. The soldiers of the 3rd AD, on the other hand, quietly went about their deadly tasks and left grandstanding to others. They surely are the unsung heroes of World War II.

But what about that motto, the detail from my research that most profoundly struck my attention? The motto of the 391st AFA Battalion was “Honor Before Honors.” They achieved much as a fighting force, but, overlooked and overshadowed as they were, the men quietly and humbly returned after the war and “got on with life,” never making a big deal of what they had done or experienced. (As a kid, I never recall my uncle’s talking about any of his war experiences, and that despite all the carnage he witnessed and the two Bronze Stars he had won.)

The motto of the 391st AFA Battalion came to my mind as I was reading my Bible recently and came across Proverbs 15:33: “Before honor is humility.”

A lot of people want the honors, but few have the honor (character) or the humility that is prerequisite to it. They want to receive the accolades of men without having done anything worthy of the honors. They want the bragging rights but not the character required to deserve that right or to handle it appropriately. On the other hand, as commentator Matthew Henry stated, “Where there is humility there is a happy presage of honour and preparative for it.”

The men of the 391st won honors because they had learned and prepared themselves to wage a brave fight that would make a difference to the greater cause, regardless of who got the credit. The 3rd AD was called the Spearhead and led the assault into Nazi Germany but only because they had proven themselves in earlier combat. The 391st AFA Btn. was the point of that spearhead. My uncle (kneeling on his M3 Lee medium tank in the photo), was a driver for a forward observer of that unit. Because he took his forward observer to the very front of the battle, the place of greatest danger, he was surely the tip of that point.

If the motto “Honor before honors” is true for a military combat unit, it is even more applicable to the spiritual condition of individuals today. How honorable and humble are we? Are we deserving of hearing our Lord’s “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”? Food for thought!

* [Sources searched include Spearhead in the West (history of the 3rd Armored Division); Combat History of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Battle History of “A” Battery, 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion; Armored Attack 1944; Armored Victory 1945; volumes 5 and 7 of the “Green Books,” the official government history U.S. Army in World War II; and many lesser-known publications.]

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Two Historic Victories

On this date in history, March 7, 1945, two U.S. armored divisions achieved momentous victories, hastening the end of World War II in Europe.

The 3rd Armored Division captured Cologne on the Rhine River. My uncle was a tank driver for one of the three forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion in that division, which was nicknamed Spearhead. But the assault on that German city, as dangerous and destructive as it was, was a mere sideshow to the big show, so to speak. It kept German forces occupied and unable to send support to other German troops a few miles farther south, where an even greater victory occurred.

The 9th Armored Division achieved that victory: the capture of the Ludendorf Bridge spanning the Rhine River at Remagen.

American troops never expected to find that railroad bridge intact. After all, all other bridges over the Rhine had been destroyed, either by American air power or by the Germans themselves in their attempt to slow the American juggernaut. Seeing the bridge still standing, the Americans worked desperately to get enough troops across it to establish a bridgehead before the Germans could destroy it.

The location of German forces on the heights on the eastern bank of the Rhine above the town of Remagen gave them a clear field of sight for ten miles. The German soldiers there had received orders to fight to the last man and to blow up the bridge to prevent American troops from crossing it. They kept the Americans under intense fire while engineers worked feverishly to set explosives to destroy the bridge.

But many of the Germans were convalescents, soldiers who had been wounded and were still recovering. Their commander had requested reinforcements, but none arrived. As they set about wiring the bridge with explosives, however, they realized that the explosives that they had been sent were industrial rather than military explosives. When they detonated them, the resulting explosions did not have the force necessary to topple the structure. Although damaged, the bridge remained intact, thereby allowing the Americans to send across infantrymen. American engineers, including future baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, worked feverishly to strengthen the bridge to allow the passage of heavy armor to support the troops who were already crossing the bridge.

German troops manning machine guns in twin towers on the eastern end of the bridge were killed or captured by American infantrymen. Other German soldiers took refuge in a tunnel behind the towers, but German civilians, including many women and children, were also hiding in the tunnel. When the civilians began suffering casualties, they demanded that the German officers let them surrender. While the officers debated their request, the civilians surrendered without permission, and many of the German soldiers abandoned their weapons and joined them. The officers had no choice but to surrender as well. American troops established the bridgehead and kept the drive to Berlin alive and active.

Ironically, the bridge collapsed under its own weight (perhaps with the help of vibrations from the heavy armored vehicles that roared across it and numerous attempts by the Luftwaffe to destroy it) ten days later, on March 17.

Photos of the cathedral of Cologne, standing high above the ruins of the rest of the city, and the Ludendorf Bridge’s towers at Remagen are among the most iconic images that exist of World War II in Europe. The men who were involved in the capture of both landmarks deserve our gratitude for their sacrifice and service in helping to hasten the end of the war, which came two months later.

Airborne Reminders of the Greatest Generation

The skies over my house were crowded this past weekend. There was an airshow in nearby Anderson County, and it featured several World War II-era aircraft. I saw examples of them on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and each of them were icons and reminders of the brave airmen of the Greatest Generation who risked–and many gave–their lives for the defense of freedom around the world.

We were sitting at supper with my daughter, son-in-law, and their two children when I suddenly became attuned to the sound of a multi-engine airplane. It obviously was flying low and fast, and I immediately knew that it was not just any old airplane–it was a World War II-era bomber.

I bolted from my chair at the dining table and out the front door just in time to see a B-24 Liberator bomber pass over the house and quickly out of sight. The twin tails on the rear wing were unmistakable. I could have kicked myself for not having grabbed my cell phone to take a photo of it.

I had no sooner resumed my meal and reentered the conversation than I heard another distinctive sound. img_1510I again bolted from my chair, nearly upsetting the serving dishes, and dashed for the door. This time I had my cell phone in hand, and I fumbled to turn it on and bring up the camera feature as I unlatched the door. Turning my gaze upward, I saw a beautiful but fleeting sight–a B-17 Flying Fortress.

The photo is fuzzy, but we’re talking about a cell phone here. And I was snapping the pic on the fly. And the bomber was moving. It’s still a beautiful sight.

I’ve seen many other photos of the Fort from World War II in which the Fortresses are not nearly so beautiful because they’ve been shot all to pieces–and yet they still flew! They were rugged and well-built, possibly the closest any plane of that era got to being well-nigh indestructible. The B-24s, on the other hand, were called “flying coffins” for a reason. You never see that monicker around the neck of the B-17.

The next day, I saw the B-24 Liberator fly over again but at a distance, and again I didn’t have my cell phone handy. But I had seen both the B-24 and the B-17 at an earlier airshow in Knoxville, Tennessee, several years ago and got photos then. I was able to climb into the B-17 and examine it from nose gun to tail gun and all points in between. I saw the B-24 take off and land but was unable to go inside it. (Well, I could have gone inside, actually fly in it–for a price–$500. A bit steep for my wallet.) But that was then, and this was now. I wish I’d gotten that shot.

img_1532But the following day I got the chance to see in the sky a plane that I had never seen in flight. A B-25 Mitchell bomber. I’d seen a B-25 on display on the hanger deck of the U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, S.C. But this one was in flight. And it was low. But it was moving fast. I still got a photo of it, again blurred and grainy, but a photo nonetheless. Like the B-24 Liberator, the B-25 has twin tails, but it has only two engines.

The B-25 was the plane that Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders flew when they made their historic bombing run over Tokyo. My imagination had been thrilled over this particular plane and the event ever since I read Ted Lawson’s first-hand account of flying his B-25 in that raid in his book Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. That was the first time that land-based bombers had taken off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The first chance the United States had to strike back at the enemy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had no idea where they had come from–FDR said Shangri-La. The raid did little damage, but it forced the enemy to keep at home thousands of troops that otherwise would have been unleashed against American Marines, soldiers, and sailors in other battle zones of the Pacific. As a result, the B-25 Mitchell will forever have an honored place in U.S. military history.

I had models of the B-17 and the B-25 when I was a kid. I read numerous accounts of veteran pilots and gunners who flew aboard the aircraft during the war as I grew to adulthood. And I even worked with a man, Frank Hall, who knew those planes and many others (from the World War II era to the modern jet fighter-bombers) inside out–because he had flown or worked on or helped design and build them. It took a lot of people to design, build, fly, and maintain those bombers. And they are all heroes in my mind, especially those who never came back from what would be their final mission.

Every plane I saw this weekend is a constant reminder of the price of freedom and the determination and courage of those who gave themselves for our freedom. May they continue to fly as reminders to us for ages to come.

May They Never Be Forgotten

The other day, I received in the mail a solicitation for a donation to a group dedicated to memorializing the veterans of World War II. Maybe you’ve received a similar solicitation. We are inundated with such appeals, especially at the Christmas-New Years holiday season. We often just toss them; after all, we can’t give to every worthy cause.

But something about this particular solicitation caught my attention. It wasn’t the various premiums that the group offered in appreciation for my expected gift. Rather, it was an old Gasoline Alley cartoon of the strip’s main character, Skeezix, now a grandfather, standing with his grandson, who is pointing at a file of soldiers as they parade past. Revolutionary War soldiers are misty, barely visible figures off the left marginal background. They are followed by faint but progressively more visible outlines of Civil War and World War I soldiers. Right in front of Skeezix and his grandson march the soldiers of World War II.

The boy points to the soldiers and exclaims, “Grandpa Skeezix, those soldiers are disappearing!”

Skeezix salutes the passing soldiers as he replies, “Don’t worry. With Dennis Peterson’s help, we’ll make sure they are never forgotten.”

That message struck me. I’m a writer, and I asked myself, What am I doing through my writing to ensure that our World War II veterans are not forgotten? More importantly, I asked, What am I doing through my writing to ensure that the lessons of World War II–hard learned by the hard fighting of our World War II veterans–are not forgotten but are learned and remembered by the next generation?

My uncle, Corporal Dillon C. Summers, was a tank driver for forward observers of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Armored Division. His unit fired the first artillery rounds into Nazi Germany. Between the first day after it landed on Omaha Beach shortly after D-day until the end of the war, it fired more rounds than any other artillery battalion. Dillon won two Bronze Stars for heroic actions somewhere in France or Belgium and the Purple Heart when his tank was knocked out by German fire. He survived the war to become a quiet but successful well driller and later a letter carrier and post master in the little East Tennessee community where he lived. He has since passed.

My father-in-law, Charles Dietterich, was a seaman aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. St. Paul, helping to man a 5-inch gun. He lied about his age when he enlisted and got in on the last months of the war. The pre-invasion bombardment of Okinawa brought him many close encounters with waves of kamikaze attacks. His ship anchored beside the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay, and he watched the Japanese sign the surrender papers. He later smelled the death of war in Tokyo. Surviving the war, he returned to the States and became a successful architect. He is now approaching ninety.

Neither of these men spoke much of their experiences or service. It was all too real for them, and they would sooner forget. But I must not forget. We must not forget. These men are part of the reason you and I are not now speaking German or Japanese. Their sacrifices made our freedom possible. We must ever remember–and teach the next generation to honor and remember, too.

By God’s grace and enabling, I pledge to use my writing as often as possible to ensure that I and others do not forget, that the next generation will know and continue to honor what those men and women did for us. Will you join me?