Sunday, July 16, 2017

My Unfair(?) Attack on a Struggling Little Guy

Note: As of a couple of nights ago, I have seen the movie, "Revolt at Fort Laramie," but the following was written before I saw it, based on statements made about historical facts. Seeing the film has not persuaded me to change a single word that I wrote below.

In 2009, someone posted a viewer's movie review on Internet Movie Database (IMDb) titled "Historical Fact Checking." It has yet to be changed or removed by the author.

Since he says little about the movie in his review, I should give the title and plot summary: "Revolt at Fort Laramie" is set at a frontier U.S. Army garrison on the eve of the Civil War. Half the soldiers are southerners [hmm, maybe somewhat less than half], which necessarily means that half are not. When news arrives that Fort Sumter has been fired upon, officially beginning the war, the southerners leave the fort and head off to join the Confederacy.

Here is what the reviewer considered fact checking:

"In the run-up to Maj Bradner's fateful announcement, we are led to believe that there is a "tension" between Northern and Southern soldiers at this far west outpost. Also, the announcement that we are expecting is not forthcoming. Great movie but left me scratching my head when Maj Bradner said that Fort Sumpter had just been attacked by Confederate forces and that President Lincoln had called for an "intervention." This error is later repeated by Captain Tenslip. What the major and the captain should have said was that Fort Sumner, located in South Carolina, had been attacked. It was this attack that precipitated the Civil War. Fort Sumpter was fired on by the British during the Revolutionary War!"

Fort Sumter, South Carolina

Fort Sumner, New Mexico

Fort Sumner, Maryland
Now here is the problem. Or rather the several problems. For one thing, it is Fort Sumter, not Fort Sumpter.

For another, Fort Sumner was the name used for two Civil War era forts, one located in Maryland and the other in New Mexico. (More about this below.)

Trying to figure out what the author of the post is thinking requires some guess-work, but I suppose that he reasoned that the Union must have attacked a fort in South Carolina because he could not understand how Confederates in South Carolina could start a war with the Union (the Federal government or North in the Civil War) by attacking a fort in the South. Yet this is precisely what happened, as contradictory as it seems to the poster (whom I presume, without much evidence, to be a he).

The government of the United States held federal property in most of the states and territories including those that seceded to form the Confederate States of America. These federal properties included armories and forts, such as Fort Sumter, which was near the entrance to the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederates repeatedly asked the United States to surrender the fort precisely because they regarded it as a foreign stronghold within the territory of their new nation. Union attempts to send supply and troop ships to reinforce the undermanned and under-gunned fort were repulsed. In the wee hours of April 12, 1861, the Confederates fired on the fort. Both incomplete in its construction and at half-strength in terms of men and guns, the fort surrendered the next day. The North was almost instantly roused to anger, and President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer troops to be raised.

It is interesting to note that, during 1860 to 1862, the Confederates seized one federal facility after another in several states. Armories in several break-away states were plundered by Confederate mobs. In contrast to these successful seizures, an aborted takeover attempt was made by Confederate sympathizers in California although they were in the minority. A group planned to take over a large federal armory at Benicia, California, which is north of San Francisco. The conspirators thought they were in luck because the commander of the U.S. Army in California was a Texan named General Albert Sidney Johnston, but when the conspirators went to Johnston's office in San Francisco, he spoke these words to them:

Gen. Albert S. Johnston

Johnston was clearly honorable, but there were those who doubted the Texan's loyalty to the United States, and Johnston was relieved of his command at the end of April 1861. By this time, news of Fort Sumter's surrender as well as the secession of Texas from the Union had reached Johnston, and he had sent his resignation to Washington, although he served the United States faithfully until he was relieved of his command. BTW, Johnston was relieved by General Edwin Vose Sumner for whom the forts in Maryland and New Mexico were named after he died in early 1863 (from wounds he had received at the Battle of Antietam months earlier). So, the story of General Albert S. Johnston has not entirely been a digression if you accept such a connection as relevant.

The reviewer also calls into question the "tension" between southerners and northerners at the fort in the movie. Does this mean that there is doubt about the historical accuracy of such animosity? As the story of General Johnston illustrates, there was a great deal of suspicion on both sides. Sometimes justifiably. In New Mexico, after the military commander of the territory, who was from Florida, resigned and defected to the Confederacy, his successor, Colonel (later General) E.R.S. Canby, intercepted a letter intended for his predecessor. It came from Major (later General) Henry Hopkins Sibley who hailed from Louisiana. Sibley proposed the takeover not only of forts but the whole of the New Mexico Territory with an army raised in Texas. Canby and Sibley had known each other for years, and Canby took Sibley's betrayal personally.

Subsequently, some Confederate sympathizers captured Fort Fillmore near Mesilla, New Mexico, and, for nearly a year, held the southern tier of New Mexico Territory (the southern parts of both what are now New Mexico and Arizona). Sibley made good on his plan of raising an army (a brigade, really) in Texas and briefly captured several New Mexico cities including the capital, Santa Fe. But his invasion was over by the late spring/early summer of 1862 when Confederate forces permanently evacuated what they had dubbed "Confederate Arizona Territory."

But the movie reviewer has not finished. He goes on to compound his errors. He asserts that "Fort Sumpter" had been "fired on by the British during the Revolutionary War!" [His exclamation.] Not only has he got the fort's name wrong, but construction of Fort Sumter was not begun until fifty years after the Revolutionary War. Indeed, the fort was named after General Thomas Sumter who served during the Revolution. (As you might already have noticed, these forts were named after deceased persons, usually, although not always, generals; even the two forts called Sumner were named months after the death of General Sumner.)

Gen. Thomas Sumter

I could go into a long digression on General Sumter, but I will only touch on it. When Mel Gibson made the movie "The Patriot," many people thought that it was supposed to be a lightly fictionalized account of the career of General Francis Marion, but they then had to wonder why the details of the fictional character, Benjamin Martin, did not jibe with Marion's life. The answer is that Martin was a composite of three or more Revolutionary War leaders, only one of them being Marion. One of the others was Sumter.
Francis Marion 001.jpg

Andrew Pickens.jpg
Gen, Andrew Pickens

(BTW, while the fictional Benjamin Martin was nicknamed the "Ghost," three of the models for Martin had animal nicknames: Sumter was the Carolina Gamecock, Marion was the Swamp Fox, and General Andrew Pickens was the Wizard Owl. Some have pointed out that Gibson's movie character might bear the most resemblance to Pickens, whose home was burned after he had pledged not to fight the British, and whose son was killed. Marion had no son.)

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Leon "Woodie" Spears

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Photo of Captain Leon "Woodie" Spears, USAF, retired
(From the collection of Maureen O'Neil)

Leon "Woodie" Spears was a U.S. Army Air Force officer during World War II, serving with the 301st Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. His P-51 Mustang airplane was nicknamed "Kitten," having been named by its previous pilot, Lt. Charles McGee, because of the way that its engine purred.

Spears would later fly with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. One of the tragedies of his life was that his younger brother, who had not served in World War II but afterward became an Air Force pilot, was killed in air combat over Korea.

Booker T. Washington, founder
of the Tuskegee Institute
Leon Spears was born in Trinidad, Colorado, in 1924, where he developed an early fascination with aviation. In 1944, he graduated from the Tuskegee Institute's pilot training program, which was under the control of the United States Army Air Corps. A unit of earlier graduates, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, had already seen action in North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. They were later stationed in Italy and expanded into several new squadrons, one of which Spears joined.

The Tuskegee program to train African-American combat pilots was part of a series of "experiments" during World War II to find out whether African Americans could meet the same training and combat fitness standards as troops of other ethnicities (mainly white). The pilot training program was established at the traditionally African-American technical school, the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University),  which had been founded on July 4, 1881 near Tuskegee, Alabama, by Booker T. Washington.

The pilot training program was run on a quota system. Quotas have been turned on their head since the 1940s. Nowadays, if someone is said to have gotten into a program on a quota basis, it is generally assumed that either the standards might have been relaxed on behalf of minority applicants or that, out of all the applicants from multiple ethnic groups, if equally qualified, a conscious effort might have been made to admit minorities in greater proportion than their occurrence in the general population. On the contrary, the quota system used in the 1940s was intended to eliminate as many minorities as possible by forcing them to meet higher standards than their white counterparts. It has been said that better pilots were washed out of the Tuskegee program than were graduated by the whites-only pilot training programs.

The notion that African Americans might not be fit for combat seems an astonishingly foolish premise to us in the twenty-first century, but it was believed by enough people in high places that the various World War II-era projects to train African Americans to fight in infantry, armored, and air units were often in danger of being scuttled, none more so than the Tuskegee program, even after the first squadrons were deployed in Africa, and then in Italy. The general ignorance of the significant part played by African Americans in every U.S. conflict persists up to today and was responsible for the prejudice that led war planners during World War II to reinvent the wheel with regard to the training of African Americans for combat.

Members of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group in Italy

Gen. William W. Momyer
One of the toughest chapters in the saga of the Tuskegee airmen came when General William W. Momyer, the commanding officer of the 33rd Fighter Group, recommended that the 99th Squadron was unfit for combat and ought to be disbanded or restricted to non-combat missions. In order to keep the U.S. government from taking Momyer's recommendation to heart, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the highest ranking officer among the Tuskegee Airmen, personally testified on their behalf before a senate committee. A special investigation into the record of the Tuskegee Airmen determined that their record was comparable to that of all-white units. The unit was subsequently expanded rather than abandoned.*

Among the youngest African Americans to become a fighter pilot during World War II, Spears entered the war only in late 1944. But he saw action. He and Lieutenant James Mitchell together shot down a German He-111 bomber and shared credit for the victory.

There is a reason why the 332nd never lost a plane that they escorted over enemy territory, and there is a reason why they never produced an ace pilot (one who has single-handedly shot down at least five enemy aircraft). They are both the same reason: The dictate of the unit's commanding officer, Colonel (later General) Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who was the son of the first African-American general in the United States Army. He was a stickler who insisted that the first African-American fighter group in history was going to do everything by the book. This meant that he forbade members of any bomber escort operation under his command to break away from their protective formation around the bombers and go off to engage in aerial duels with German fighter pilots who were trying to shoot down the Allied bombers. Whether he used the term or not, Davis appears to have regarded this activity as "hot-dogging," the quest for personal glory at the expense of the official mission of guarding the bombers.
Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., leader
of the 332nd Fighter Group

Davis, a West Point graduate, had a good tactical reason for his approach. It was a common enemy ploy to lure glory-seeking American and British pilots away from their charges and then swoop in and destroy the unprotected bombers. Davis would not allow his men to fall for this trick, and, consequently, his group had a low rate of loss among the bombers that they protected, but also a low rate of enemy aircraft shot down in combat. The 99th did have a remarkable success when they became the first air unit to sink an enemy naval vessel by using only their on-board canons and machine guns; however, "ground victories," no matter how successful, did not count toward ace ratings.

In any case, Davis' approach paid off. The 332nd became the most requested escort unit by bomber pilots.

Toward the end of the war, Spears was shot down over German-occupied Poland. Listening to the engine after being hit the first few time, he knew that his plane would not make it home. His preference would have been to land in Soviet-held territory, but he had a little problem.

Even fifty years later, Spears still went over in his mind what he did that day and how he could have saved his plane but ultimately had to wreck her. If he had used his controls differently, when he was at 32,000 feet, he might have been able to glide further into Russian-held territory and land among allies of the United States. Due to inexperience, he kept making moves that lowered his altitude prematurely. His problem then was that the Russians mistook him for a German.

"You see, when the P-51 Mustang is flying directly at you it looks like an Me-109 from certain angles. While I was flying down this river I could feel shells hitting the plane. I said to myself, well, I'm on this side of the river so the shells got to be coming from those Russians. Once they saw that I was an American they stopped firing at me. As I remember, I saw myself coming toward this runway. I said to myself that if I let the wheels down I could probable make a pretty good landing. I decided not to land because I did not want the enemy to use the plane. As I was in the process of putting the wheels up I hit the ground. I did not have enough power to work the hydraulics."**

It was not just any runway but one dotted by planes with obvious German markings. What was worse was that, in turning a wheel landing into a crash landing, Spears damaged his foot. He was bleeding and could barely get out of the plane under his own power.

A restored P-51 with the all-red tail that was the trademark of the 332nd FG

Help of a sort came in the form of a German car full of armed men who trained their guns on Spears. Taken prisoner by them, Spears later recalled that he was treated fairly well. He received adequate medical attention so that his wound eventually healed after he was returned to his own side.

"You're going to lose this war," he said as he taunted one of his guards who spoke good English.

"Perhaps," said the guard. "But I will go back to being an auto mechanic in Stuttgart. You will go back to being a black man in America."

"I couldn't argue with that," said Spears fifty years later.

Spears was not imprisoned for long. The Germans were soon overrun by Soviet troops who liberated Spears. He was awarded a Purple Heart.

After serving in Korea in the 1950s, Spears settled in California, married a U.S. Post Office official and ended up working as a security guard, but he always enjoyed lecturing on aviation, especially to young people.

I visited Woodie in the hospital in about 1996. I gave him a book entitled "Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't
Get a Date" [1992, 1996, 2012] by Robert X. Cringely (the pen name of Mark Stephens). Woodie was fascinated by computers and particularly enjoyed Cringely's conceit that computer enthusiasm was similar to earlier generations' fascination with aviation.

Woodie told me a remarkable story when I visited him. He said that he went into the hospital convinced that, this time, he was going to be carried out. His condition deteriorated. Then one morning, he awoke to find his physician hovering about his hospital room. He looked at the clock, and it was 6 A.M.

"What time did you get up to be here this early?" asked Woodie.

"I woke up at 4 A.M.," said his doctor. "I had this terrific idea for how to treat you, and I couldn't wait to get here and try it."

Woodie asked himself a challenging question:

If my doctor is willing to get up at 4 A.M. to come and try to save my life, what right do I have to give up on myself?

After this incident, Woodie recovered. He would live another dozen years, dying on May 12, 2008.

Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
*In the 1960s, General Charles "Chuck" Yeager also served under William Momyer. Yeager, a white pilot from West Virginia who did not have a college degree, felt that Momyer was blocking his career. After a particularly negative performance reportwhich was ultimately ignored by the PentagonYeager was compelled to seek counselling from the USAF's Human Resources Department. His counselor was none other than General Davis, who had had his own problems with the same commanding officer decades earlier.

**This quotation is from an interview with Dwayne Holt. Woodie said something very similar to me in a conversation in the 1990s.