AUGUST   2020


Thursday, February 05, 2009


I have stood at the rivers edge and heard the horses’ screams and the rifles’ echo. I have gazed across the rolling grass and strained to see the distant figures firing into the dark shapes on the ground. But sometimes it seems that those figures are too distant. Sometimes I fear I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live and die along the icy Little Big Horn River, on June 25th. 1876.America, in her centennial year, was a nation of about 45 million people. And they seem such different people than our 300 million today. The frontier then began where the railroad tracks and the telegraph lines ceased to reach. Robert Marlin tries to explain the lives of the soldiers on the frontier; “…the cavalry became a place to simply disappear. Most cavalry units operated outside the borders of the states and provided a new start in life with few questions asked. Early on, many of those enlisting in the cavalry had arrest warrants outstanding…Some joined the service as an alternative to serving jail time… Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks. Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem….A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. By the time he finished his first hitch and re-enlisted this was raised to $15. By now the trooper was a “50-cent-a-day professional”.“The day usually started at 5:30am,” writes Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00pm with the bugle sounding Taps.” A regiment, like the seventh Cavalry, consisted of 12 troops, labeled A through M (and skipping “J” because in quickly written note, a “J” might be confused with an “I”). Four troops made up each battalion, and each troop consisted of one captain, two Lieutenants, six sergeants, four corporals, two trumpeters, four farriers (to care for the horses) and 78 privates. At any given moment about 20% of the regiment was on detached service, recruiting or on extended leave.The average cavalry recruit was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and 10% had suffered from some form of healed trauma, usually to the head. Twenty-two percent of the privates (311 men) serving in the seventh cavalry on June 25th , 1876, had been in the service for less than a year; 23 in A troop, 43 in B troop, 39 in C troop, 26 in D troop, etc. There was little that would have convinced a man to remain in the service after one hitch, including the food. Each soldier received each day 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread (or 16 ounces of hard bread when in the field) and less than an once of ground coffee. Every ten men were to receive per month; 15 lbs of beans or peas, 10 lbs of rice or hominy, 30 lbs of potatoes, 1 quart of molasses, 15 lbs of sugar, 3 lbs 12 ounces of salt, 4 ounces of pepper and 1 gallon of Vinegar. It was not a diet well supplied with vitamins, and it has been observed that, “…while the men did not suffer true malnourishment, they were not well fed.”As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. (above, tools of the trade.) They were as much in service of the country as the soldiers they served. And it would seem logical that the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress for those soldiers; a roof over your head, food in your belly and a new start in life. Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerbility for such women in “Battle Cries and Lullibies; “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho describing how she had been arrested, charged as a murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed was an axe…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon."
Another example of these official camp followers was the laundress known to history only as Mrs. Nash. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or other skin disease common at the time. Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, she took up residence along “Suds Row” (below) as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called.
She was also a talented seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. The rumor was that she had amassed a tidy little nest egg. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again.Mrs. Nash also built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife and “few births occurred without her expert help”. So it was natural that she would be encouraged to follow the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory. She was a valuable member of the garrison. There is no record that she ever served as a prostitute (above), another option for the laundresses even if one not encouraged should she became notorious.
In 1872 she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker” or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so. During that year Libbie Custer, wife of General Custer, noted “…a company ball at Fort Abraham Lincoln organized by the company first sergeant. Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant partners”. Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Tom Custer was very “put out”. But Mrs Nash was not to remain alone for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan.She kept a bright and tidy home, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds (above), and were a significant part of the larger post’s social life.
Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her conditioned worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and dressing. They agreed, but after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th the women decided they could not show her such disrespect. Two of her closest friends prepared to wash and dress her body, which is when they made a most unexpected discovery. Mrs. Nash was a man.The Bismarck Tribune went so far as to headline a story, “Mrs. Nash has (testicles) as big as a bull!” The eastern papers picked the story up, and commented upon it. So that when poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of innocence and unawareness fell upon deaf ears. Quickly the ridicule and the questions, asked and unasked, became too much to bear and two days after returning from patrol to find his “wife” dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on November 30, 1878, shot himself to death with a rifle. He lies buried now in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone no different than any of the others who died in the service of their country .But there is no headstone for Mrs. Nash; no recognition of her years of service to the unit, of the babies she delivered, of the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" endorsment and without a liberal media encouragment, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of having their secret revealed, in exchanged for the privilage of living as God made them, internally and externally.
And these two lives, Mrs. Nash and Crpl. Noonhan, are poof to me that we can comprehend the lives of long dead souls, seemingly from a different worlds than ours. Because they were clearly just a screwed up and confused as we are, and just as lonely . And clearly with all our technology and insights, we are just as screwed up as they were.
Then and now, we are all human. How could stories about people so much like us not be fascinating?

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


I believe that Bruce Kingsbury gave up his life willingly. But he was caught in a place and a time where the description “willingly” has a different connotation than in “normal” times.
The time was August 29, 1942 and the Japanese Empire was making a grasp for complete control of the world’s largest tropical island, New Guinea. To secure their hold Japanese soldiers would have to capture the tiny village of Port Moresby (above), on the island’s south eastern coast.
And to reach Port Moresby they would have to cross the 14,000 foot high Owen Stanley Mountain Range using only the Kokoda Track, a foot wide trail hemmed in by dense jungle, which clambered up a series of endless precipitous mountain ridges separated by vicious whitewater streams. But for the Japanese the goal was worth the effort. Port Moresby was less than 1,000 miles from Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northwest Territory, and just 1,100 miles from Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast. New Guinea was a place where, explained one soldier, “It rains daily for nine months and then the monsoon starts.” It was a place plagued by mud, mountains, malaria, monotony and “moozies”, as the Aussie diggers described the coastal mosquitoes. Went one popular story, two moozies selected a tasty staff sergeant sleeping with a hole in his mosquito net. Asked the first moozie,“Shall we take him down to the beach and eat him?” “Na”, replied the second, “if we take him down to he beach, the big chaps will get him.” Went another story, an anti-aircraft gunner mistook a moozie for a zero fighter and one shell set his tail on fire. The offended moozie threw a rock at the gunner, beaning him on the noggin. And along with malaria the soldiers of both sides suffered from dengue fever, dysentery, scrub typhus and dozens of other unnamed debilitating illnesses.Bruce Kingsbury had been born in 1918, just after his parents had emigrated from England. And as often happens, the child of immigrants adopted his new country to a degree his parents never could. Bruce rejected his father’s white collar career and instead opted to work on a sheep station like his livelong friend, Allen Avery. In 1940 Bruce and Allen joined the army together. After they finished basic training, Bruce became engaged to marry Miss Leila Bradbury. But they shipped out the Middle East before Bruce could obtain a marriage license.Japanese forces landed at Buna, on the Northeast coast of Papua, New Guinea, on July 21st, and immediately began to push south. And immediately the island became the enemy of both sides. George H. Johnston observed in his book, “The Toughest Fighting in the World”, The Japanese troops "...covered the sixty miles…from Buna (to the Kokoda Pass) in five days. To push ahead another thirty miles took fifty days,…”
At the top trail, on August 9th, in a vicious struggle to win the village and airstrip at Kokoda, the 5,000 strong Japanese Imperial force believed they were opposed by 1,200 Aussie diggers. In fact, there just 77 Australian soldiers blocking the Japanese advance to Port Moresby. The diary of one Japanese soldier explained the obstacles. “The sun is fierce here…Thirst for water, stomach empty. The pack on the back is heavy. My arm is numb like a stick…We reach for the canteens…from force of habit, but they do not contain a drop of water.”The seventh Australia division saw action against Vichy French units in Lebanon. And Bruce Kingsbury’s last assignment before returning to defend his home land, was the burial of Australian and French dead. The 7th division sailed from Alexandria, Egypt on January 30th 1942. They arrived in Melbourne, Australia on March 16th. Bruce was granted a week at home to see his parents and Leila. After further training and re-equipment for jungle fighting, he shipped out of Brisbane on August 5th. This time Bruce was bound for Port Moresby.
There were now some 2,500 Japanese troops descending the Kokoda track toward Port Moresby, and the best the Australians could do was to rush the first 400 soldiers off the transports up the track to the jungle village of Isurava to stop them. Author William Manchester tried to describe that desperate march up the track. He could have just as well been describing the Japanese march down the track as well. “In places the winding trail, a foot wide at most, simply disappeared. It took an hour to cut through a few yards of vegetation. The first man in a file would hack away with a machete until he collapsed of exhaustion…In that climate the life expectancy of the men who lost consciousness and were left behind was often measured in minutes.”The Japanese moved up the trail against continued resistance. Noted a modern travel guide; “Scattered along the trail…are the numerous Australian pits. Each is always sited on a small rise, tucked away from three to twenty feet from that narrow slippery, root ridden life line.” In each of those pits, unseen and unheralded, Australian solders risked their lives to slow the Japanese advance, and the Japanese soldiers risked their lives to overcome them. The diary of Lieutenant Toshiro Kuroki noted that rice supplies were running so low the soldiers in the front lines were obsessed with the endless hunt for “…potatoes! …You do not find smiling faces among the men in the ranks in New Guinea. They are always hungry….every other word has something to do with eating. At the sight of potatoes their eyes gleam and their mouths water.” Between Kokoda and Isurava “the track often climbed up gradients so steep that it was heartbreaking labor for burdened men to climb even a few hundred yards." And yet, on both sides, they climbed.At Isurava (above), using the time so dearly paid for, the Aussies established their headquarters unit on a ridge line, overlooking yet another narrow river valley. But Major General Tomitaro Horii, the Japanese commander, had found a parallel track and at dawn on August 28th threw his men down the parallel trail against the Aussies. The diggers resisted but the Imperial soldiers, reduced by desease and hunger, drove them back. The next morning, suffering under heavy Australian fire, the Japanese climbed the almost vertical slope in a frontal attack and broke through the Australian lines and captured the ridge top. They had now isolated the headquarters unit. General Horii wrote that night, “The annihilation of the Australians is near, but there are still some remnants…and their fighting spirit is extremely high.”The line of communications for the Aussie headquarters unit had to be restored and at once, or the entire 400 man defensive force might be destroyed. A platoon was thrown together from the survivors of several platoons overrun the day before, including Corporal Bruce Kingsbury, and his mate, Allen Avery. They were ordered to drive the Japanese away.Twice the desperate diggers threw themselves against the desperate Japanese. Twice the Japanese gave ground, but refused to retreat. And that was when Bruce Kingsbury grabbed a borrowed machine gun and led yet another charge, reaching a large bolder half way up the slope, from which he could rake the Japanese positions. An exhausted Lt. Colonel Phil Rhoden watched. “You could see his Bren gun held out and his big bottom swaying as he went with the momentum he was getting up, followed by Alan Avery. They were cheerful. They were going out on a picnic, almost.” Another witness wrote, “The fire was so heavy (coming from the Japanese) that the undergrowth was completely destroyed within five minutes.” Private Shegenori Doi, on the other side of that undergrowth, wrote, “I remember that an Australian soldier, wearing just a pair of shorts, came running toward us…this warrior was far braver than any in Japan.” Bruce’s mate, Allen Avery, wrote of Bruce, “He came forward…and he just mowed them down. He was an inspiration to everybody else around him.” Bruce’s citation for the Victoria Cross says that he “…rushed forward firing his Bren Gun from the hip through terrific machine gun fire and succeeded in clearing a path through the enemy…(Then he) was seen to fall to the ground shot dead, by the bullet from a sniper hiding in the wood….Private Kingsbury displayed a complete disregard for his own safety. His initiative and superb courage made possible the recapture of the position which undoubtedly saved the Battalion Headquarters…” Allen Avery charged into the jungle after the sniper, but never found him. Then he hefted Bruce up onto his back and alone Allen carried Bruce to an aid post. But by the time they got there, Bruce was dead.The battle of Isurava lasted for four long days and nights. The fighting was without quarter. In the end, out of ammo and battered with over half their strength down with wounds and malaria, the Aussies were forced to withdraw. The Japanese followed. But General Horii had already been informed that American troops had landed on Guadalcanal Island, 1,500 miles to the west. Horii’s commander told him there would be no reinforcements. The Japanese effort had shifted to retake Guadalcanal. The sacrifice of his soldiers on New Guinea had been judged a wasted effort, while in the view of history the sacrifice of Bruce Kingsbury had been judged worthy. But for the soldiers on both sides the judgments made by historians were meaningless. All that mattered was that at this time and this place their sacrifice had been asked for and had been given, on both sides. And that is always the soldier's duty.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009


I offer you the poster child for why history has regulated noble blood to the dust bin: Richard Plantagenet, the biggest jackass in Europe at a time when Europe was just overflowing with jackasses. To know Richard was to despise Richard. The better you knew him, the better you despised him. He was the kind of violent lunatic thug that only a mother could love. If he had been born in the twenty-first century Richard would have been confined in a mental institution as a child. But he was born in the Middle Ages, so they made him a King. Physically, Richard was gorgeous. He spoke fluent French. He even wrote poetry in French. In fact he didn't speal English at all. He was tall and athletic, with red hair and soft grey eyes. He also had a passion for violence and poetry that was the romantic ideal in the 12th century. And most of the press in the English speaking world remains favorable towards Richard even now; but then he only spent 6 months in England in his entire life, so they never got to know him very well.

Richard was the favorite and eldest son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the smartest, most lovely, most duplicitous women of her age and clearly one of the worst mothers ever born. This woman should never have had children. Doctor Phill would have had a field day with her. Richard was also the second son of Henry II, the smartest of the smart and violent Plantagenet Kings. Richard was like his father in every way, except he was more violent and less smart.

With the help of his mother, Richard finally cornered his sick and elderly father and took him prisoner. Richard then had the satisfaction of hearing his father call him “a bast-rd” from his death bed. And you thought you didn't get along with your old man. But it was the rights of nobility that raised Richard's simple neruoses to the level of a full blown psychosis.

Placing a crown on his head instantly converted Richard Plantagenet into Richard I, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Ireland and Cyprus, Count of Anjou and Nantes and Overlord of Brittany, also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lion Heart.

Richard celebrated his coronation in June of 1189 by having the local Jews, who had showed up bearing gifts for him, whipped and flogged. He followed this by a general massacre of all the Jews in London and in York. Baldwin d’Eu, the Archbishop of Canterbury, summed up Richard's theory of nobility this way, “If the King is not God’s man, he had better be the devil’s”. And Baldwin should know, being the son of a liaison between an Archdeacon and a nun.The first thing the new King did, after cleaning up all those Jewish corpses, was to lay heavy taxes on everybody to pay for a Third Crusade, to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims, and to save Richard's immortal soul from punishment for all the sins he had already committed. “I would have sold London if I could have found a buyer,” said Richard, in a statement his loyal subjects in England never heard.

In May of 1191 Richard’s army of 40,000 knights and 40,000 footmen arrived on the island of Cyprus, where Richard threw the local Christian ruler into a dungeon in chains, pillaged the island for even more money and slaughtered any Christian who objected. Being on Crusade not only cleaned up Richard's past sins, it earned him a pass on any sins he might committ while on crusade; the Pope had said so.

After annexing Cyprus as his personal property, Richard then moved on to the Holy Land, where he joined the King of France and other European nobility in slaughtering Muslims, Christians and Jews without discrimination as to race, religion, age or sex. During the siege of Acre Richard had servants carry him about the fortifications in a sedan chair while he took pot shots at the defenders with a crossbow.When Acre fell, (and while its citizens were being slughtered) Richard’s banner and that of Phillip of France were planted on the cities’ walls. So was the banner of Leopold V, of Austria, who figured he was entitled as the sole representative on this crusade of the Holy Roman Emperor, who had died enroute. But Richard disagreed and had Leopold’s banner torn down. Well, Leopold already had a problem with Richard because Leopold was related through his mother to the ruler of Cyprus, whom Richard had imprisoned. And the instant his banner floated down to the gutters of Acre, Leopold pulled his army out of the Crusade and sailed for home.

Within a month Phillip of France had also gotten fed up with Richard and he sailed for home, leaving the Lion Heart with only about a third of his army left, and burdened with more than 3,000 Muslim prisoners captured at Acre. The Muslum leader, Saladin, wasn't willing to pay the ransom Richard was demanding, So Richard had all the prisoners executed.That little faux paux ensured that Saladin, who had been trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the Christians, would continue the war just to make Richard bleed as much as possible. At the same time Richard’s overbearing personality had produced a rebellion in Cyprus, which eventually forced him to sell his island conquest to a cousin.

Richard's arrogance and ignorance also led to the election of the anti-Richard crusader, Conrad de Montforrat as the new King of Jerusalem. That made Conrad the leader of the Christian army, which made him Richard’s boss. And Richard did not like bosses. Richard's participation in the crusades came to a bloody end on April 28, 1192, when Conrad was stabbed to death on the streets of Tyre by two Muslim assassins. So low had Richard’s reputation fallen that everyone assumed (and still assumes, I must add) that Richard had financed the murder. It was all based on flimsey evidence, but with Richard it was always the wise choice to believe the worst. HIs ego had finally run out his string.In September 1192 Saladin finally decided to provide Richard with enough of a fig leaf to let him escape the hole he had dug for himself. Salidin agreed to allow Christians to visit Jeruselum at anytime of year, something he had secretly negotiated with Conrad de Montforrat, before Conrad had been murdered. Richard could now claim to have secured the religious freedom of the Holy Land, even if nobody outside of Richard's sycophants believed that.

Richard had gone on Crusade with a full war chest, 80,000 men and strong allies in France and the Holy Roman Empire. That money was now gone and most of the army was dead. Richard was leaving the holy land with just a handful of personal bodyguards and with every political power broker in Europe gunning for him. He had to sneak back home. And he didn't make it.

Just before Christmas 1192, at an inn outside of Vienna, his old enemy Leopold V caught up with him. Richard was arrested while dressed as a lowly pilgrim. And it is interesting to note that there was not even a rumor that "the Lion Heart" so much as slapped the men who captured him.

Richard was hustled off to Durnsetin castle, high above the Rhine River. And once he was safely under lock and key Leopold set the price for his release at 65,000 pounds of silver. Who, the nobility of Europe must have wondered, would pay three times the annual income of the English crown to free the most pompous, most arrogant and most violent English King there was?His mommy, that’s who; Eleanor of Aquitaine laid out her personal fortune, and put the squeeze on churches, the nobility, merchants and peasants from the mountains of Aquitaine to the beaches of Normandy, to the misty shores of Ireland. Of course, at the same time Richard’s own younger brother John, together with Phillip the king of France, were offering 80,000 pounds of silver if Leopold would just hold on to Richard for another year. I guess you could say that Eleanor won this contest, in that, in February of 1194, King Phillip sent brother John the following terse note, “Look to yourself. The devil is loose.”

And so he was. Richard might have wanted to pay back the entire continent for his bad treatment, but his ransom and his own boorishness and love of destruction had bankrupted his own lands, so that he could no longer afford to make war on his neighbors. So for the last five years of his life Richard the Lion Heart had to be content with butchering his own subjects, slaughtering them with all the zeal and blood lust he had once displayed on the international stage.

And then in the spring of 1199 Richard heard a rumor that a cache of Roman gold had been discovered in the Limousin region of the Aquitaine, a region so wealthy (before Richard) that luxury autos of a later age would later be named for it. There was no gold, but Richard the Lion Heart, Richard the Dunder-Head, Richard the Rush-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread, immediately laid siege to the walled city of Charlus and demanded payment of the non-existant gold. And it during that siege that a brave young patriot named Bertrand de Gurdon pierced Richard’s shoulder with a crossbow bolt. You know how you say to yourself about violent and dangerous leaders, "I wonder why somebody doesn't just shoot him"? Well, somebody finally shot Richard. Gangrene set in and the arrogant jackass was finally dead on Tuesday April 6, 1199, dying in his mommy's arms. As a final insult they buried Richard at his father's feet, in Rouen Cathedral at Fontefrault.On his deathbed Richard had insisted that the young crossbowman Bertrand was to be pardoned and set free with 100 shillings, but of course that didn’t happen. Instead one of Richard’s captains, named Mercadier, had the boy skinned alive and hanged. It was a fitting legacy for one of the most violent lunatics of the middle ages, made King, as the thinking at the time was, by the grace of God.

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