1st MIBARS In Vietnam!

Memorial Day 2009

31 May 2009

At the Cemetery of a Small Church in a Small American Town

This One Deep In The Mountains of 
Central Pennsylvania's Anthracite Coal Region

Photo Credit: MIV

Above:  A well-tended cemetery in rural Pennsylvania, high on a hill overlooking a town with an ever-shrinking population in an area dotted with piles of coal mine tailings.  Inside an iron gate, the cut-out soldier is shown kneeling before the distinctive Crux Orthodoxa -- or Byzantine Cross -- a three-barred cross which appeared early in Byzantium, was adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church, and was popularized in the Slavic countries.  The Byzantine Cross is visible on the tops of the three domes of the Assumption of the BVM Church in a photograph shown appearing below.  Below:  Monuments at this cemetery, as well as at another located  in nearby Frackville, show pride of military service through decorated gravesites and family plots, the markers of which reflect successive generations who served in America's wars.  One headstone has affixed a handsome bronze memorial plate for a World War II veteran -- a ball turret gunner who completed 35 missions in a B-17G aircraft, service that is a source of pride to this man and to his family.

All Photo Credits: MIV

In these cemeteries, in the heartland of America, the graves of many veterans are honored with flags held on bronze posts with bronze or aluminum medallions.  The medallions commemorate service in our country's major conflicts.  The most well-known and universal image is, perhaps, that of the "ruptured duck," the spread-winged eagle in a circle commemorating service in World War II.  It was made first for use as a patch sewn onto the uniforms of discharged military headed for home so that military police and other authorities would know that they were not deserters.  The image was then made into a lapel pin that veterans would wear with civilian clothes years after the war to show that they had served in the fight.

My father was a captain in the Ordnance Corps of the U.S. Army, commanding a heavy vehicle maintenance and repair company.  He clambered down a cargo net from a transport ship three days after D-Day, June 6, 1941, and disembarked on the Normandy Beachhead.  For the next six months -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- he and his company were in combat, closely following infantry units on the move and keeping trucks, tanks and other heavy motorized vehicles  in service.  His locations included Poulain, Douet, Conde-Sur-Vire, St. Hilare, St. Nicholas DuBois, La Loupe, Courquetaine and Mondrepius, France, as well as Beaufays, Sprimont, Flemalle Haute and Momalle, Belgium.  One of my biggest regrets is that I did not ask more about his wartime service while he was alive.  He spoke of it rarely.  I do recall him saying that he was blown off his feet by a close blast of enemy artillery and that his unit was one of those very much in jeopardy during the Battle of the Bulge.  He also told me once that the smell of death remains with you always.  I remember my mother and grandmother telling me years after the war of the packages from home that they sent to my father in while he was in Europe.  In addition to items of warm underclothing, there were letters, canned goods, cookies and always a big jar of carefully-packed maraschino cherries.  The cherry juice was drained, of course, and replaced with blended whiskey.  They all chuckled as they noted that by the time that the package arrived in the European Theatre of Operations, a single cherry was enough to produce a decided buzz. 

"The Old Man," as I used to call him jokingly, eventually retired from the Army Reserve as a full colonel.  He told me when I was a small boy that veterans who had served extended periods in the combat zone often returned to the United States troubled with a deep fatigue, nagging wounds, chronic and lifelong illnesses, psychological stress, bad teeth and a myriad of other physical and emotional issues.  While the War Department probably wanted to project in its lapel pin the image of veterans feeling like the victorious and majestically soaring American eagle -- in reality -- combat survivors felt somewhat more the opposite, akin to a tired duck waddling on the ground with a limiting and decidedly not manly inguinal hernia.  And that, he said, was the origin of the GI-inspired "ruptured duck" nickname for the WW II service pin.

Suppose 1st MIBARS Had Been At the Normandy Beachhead In 1944

Photo Credit: MIV

 The 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and 1st MIBARS?

"Hardly any thought these days is given to the brave pilots who risked their lives taking aerial photographs so that the bombers could find their targets and later assess the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the bombing [during World War II].  Photo reconnaissance was a vital part of the Allied war effort, and the 30th Squadron, 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group of  . . .  [the] England-based US Ninth Air Force played a key role in aerial photo mapping, target selection, and documenting enemy troop concentrations and fortifications.  The squadron's mission was to take still- and motion-picture films of enemy positions, bomb-damage assessment photos following bombing raids, and  . . . "securing information necessary for planning the employment of a striking force."  The 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for its most storied job of flying missions 'at minimum altitudes along the Normandy invasion beaches immediately preceding Allied landings [on June 6, 1944].' Eventually, the group's converted P-38 (F-5) Lightning and P-51 Mustang (F-6) camera planes flew more than 5,000 missions, took over 2,200,000 photographs, operated over France, Belgium, and Germany, and were the first American planes to operate from bases east of the Rhine River."

Audrey Lemick, "Photo Album," WWII Quarterly: Journal of the Second World War, 2012, Volume 3, Number 4, Soverign Media, McLean, Virginia. 

Above:   A map of the northern half of France, one-half of the two-sheet Europe Road Map Series 1:1,000,000, First Edition -- AMS 1, Army Map Service 6303, Washington, D.C., 1944.  Marked "For use by War and Navy Department Agencies only -- not for sale or distribution," is it possible that maps such as these were used by small unit military commanders early during the Normandy Campaign to navigate in the European Theatre?  Only a road map -- with no elevation and relief, grid lines, magnetic declinations, natural or man made features.  But a battle map? No, of course not!  It's just an artifact of the Second World War.  The Army Map Service, by 1944, produced millions of topographic maps, many with the aid of aerial photographs taken over the war zone.  But it's still not a far-fetched notion that a precursor of 1st MIBARS, camped somewhere on the Normandy Coast, pictured above to the left of the map cover, could have produced usable intelligence information for nearby combat units using photographs taken with Kodaks and Anscos from the back seats of Stinson L-5 Sentinels or Aeronca L-38B Grasshoppers!

The WW II F-5 Photo Aircraft

Photo Credit:  Wikipedia Commons: Public Domain

Above:  A World War II era P-38 Fighter converted to an F-5 photo aircraft with front, side and down looking camera ports built into its nose.


Not all of the veterans buried in these cemeteries perished in the fight -- although judging from the dates of death, some clearly did.  Many passed on decades after their own particular wars, but those who served are commemorated by a service medallion here -- and in thousands of other cemeteries across America.  Veterans of the Vietnam War sometimes lament that no victory parades heralded their return home but, of course, the individual personnel replacement scheme in use meant that units seldom returned home as a group.  And, it is important to remember that  events in human history are contextual -- they take  place in the the social, political, economic, national or global environments of their periods --  significant factors of  time and place that history books do not always convey.  The so-called "domino theory" of small countries falling inexorably to global communism that is often associated with our country's expedition to Vietnam may be discredited now, but memories of World War II and Korea probably remained very much in the minds of military planners responsible for national security in the early 1960's.

1st MIBARS and The Long War

"Some historians like to talk about the "Long War" of the 20th Century, a conflict spanning both world wars and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  They stress that this Long War was a single struggle over what kind of political system would rule the world -- democracy, communism or fascism -- and that what a war is fought over is often more important that the specifics of individual armies and nations."

Tim Hwang, "WikiLeaks and the Internet's Long War," The Washington Post, December 12, 2010.

What If . . .

"America's victories on the battlefield up until 1973 were overwhelmed by later events, and the sad fact is that Communist North Vietnam did later invade and conquer its southern neighbor.  Those who predicted that the surrounding countries would fall like dominoes were proven wrong, but the world will never know if they might have fallen if America had not acted when it did.  In 1994, Singapore's President Lee Kwan Yew noted that America's actions in Vietnam had given his county ten years to strengthen itself against the Communists, ten years without which Singapore might well have fallen.  One can only speculate on how many other then-vulnerable states could be added to this list."

Mark W. Woodruff, Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961-1973, Presidio Press, New York, 1999.

Those memories undoubtedly included images of the successive and violent fall of numerous peaceful countries in Europe -- Poland, Denmark, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France, between September 1939 and June 1940 -- to a fast-moving aggressive army.  The devastation and the suffering of people and also, in all probability, the seemingly inexhaustible hordes of troops drawn from the expansive and far-flung reaches of Russia and Asia -- 1,000,500 alone committed to the epic battle for the City of Stalingrad.  And then there was the Chinese incursion into Korea.  Perhaps, therefore, the Vietnam War was a good-faith effort on the part of our country's leaders to assure  peace and security -- but one that did not work out quite as intended.  Or perhaps it did -- perhaps the continuing passage of time and the continued opening of closed political and military historical archives around the globe will ultimately shed a different light on our service in Asia.

Regardless of that, veterans of the 1st Military Intelligence Battalion (Air Reconnaissance Support), like others before them and others afterwards, entered the fight and served their country with honor.  In the great scheme of things, only the personal reward of doing just that was guaranteed -- fame, fortune and victory parades were not.

World War I

World War II



Persian Gulf





Not Dated

All Photo Credits: MIV

And Why The Ball Turret Gunner Deserved A Medallion

All Photo Credits: MIV

The photographs above show the Experimental Aircraft Association's restored Boeing B-17, Aluminum Overcast, center photo, during a visit at the Leesburg Virginia Municipal Airport in July 2008.  The Collings Foundation also maintains a touring B-17, Nine-O-Nine, painted in Army Air Force brown.  Check these organizations' web sites for tour information and consider meeting their respective national tours at a stop near you for a ride in this, and other, legendary aircraft.

The B-17 is much smaller than I imagined, noisy, drafty and lurching in flight, with cramped passage-ways and work stations.  You'll have to crawl on your hands and knees to reach the bombardier's seat and bend over the famous Norden bomb sight to pretend that it was really possible to drop a 1,000 pound bomb into a pickle barrel below.  Since you'll be well into the aircraft's plexiglass nose cone, try not to let the fact that you're eyeball-to-eyeball with the ground a couple of thousand feet below distract you.  It's tough to imagine men flying eleven-hour missions, much of the time jockeying the aircraft to maintain its position in a protective box formation with other B-17s, over occupied Europe at altitudes over 20,000 feet, with fighters attacking and anti-aircraft fire around you along the way.

The job of the ball turret gunner was to protect the aircraft from fighter attack from below and assist the the pilot by providing visual reports on formation position, battle damage and external engine issues.  The view above at left shows the Sperry ball turret facing forward, although it could be rotated 360 degrees around the aircraft and tilted to face fully downward.  The gunner was seated in somewhat of a crouch within the turret, looking out through the large circular window.  The photo above at right shows the ball turret inside of the air craft, where the only means of entry and exit was the small hatch marked by the "X" design.  The gunner sat in the radio compartment during take-offs and landings, entering the turret when the aircraft was airborne.  The hatch was accessible only when the turret's guns were pointed straight down which made it impossible for the gunner to leave his station easily.  Imagine spending hours in the turret, hanging below the B-17 at 20,000 feet, in sub-freezing temperatures with an electrically-heated flight suit that perhaps wasn't working that day.  Oh, and by the way, the gunner's parachute was generally left behind in the rear compartment due to lack of room in the turret.  This crew member, once at his fighting station, was very dependent upon the waist gunners to help him out of the turret in the event of an emergency -- battle damage or electrical failure that disabled the traversing mechanism or a downward spiral of the aircraft that made crewmember movement difficult due to centrifugal force.  The most unfortunate situation?  Failure of both the traversing mechanism and the aircraft's landing gear.  There was no way out for this gunner.

Like those of all of the ten crewmembers of the B-17, the ball turret gunner's job was a perilous assignment -- but perhaps a bit more perilous than those of the others.  It was certainly one worthy of remembrance.   

And Remembering The Church of This Churchyard Cemetery That Remembers Its Veterans

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church, with its distinctive blue domed roof, is located in the largely-abandoned coal mining town of Centralia, in Columbia County, Pennsylvania.  Centralia is known globally for the underground coal mine fire that has raged uncontrollably for decades  and led to the relocation of its population -- except for a handful of die-hard residents who refused buy-out by the State of Pennsylvania.  The church was built in 1911 and celebrated its centennial in August 2011.  The Assumption of the BVM Church is the only remaining house of worship in Centralia.  It supports a small but loyal congregation of parishioners who reside in nearby areas and travel to the church each Sunday morning for its single weekly Mass, endeavoring to preserve their Ukrainian origins and language, their sense of community and their religion.  It is buildings and communities of people such as these that are the fading repositories of significant parts of the American experience of the 19th and 20th Centuries -- immigration from Eastern Europe to America; coal mining and its support of industrial and commercial development and everyday life; the protective and close community; social life and education before television and the Internet, and the role of a sustaining religious faith in a hardscrabble life and environment.  This church has a website and may be found mentioned elsewhere on the World Wide Web.  Search the Internet for more information -- and consider sending a donation to help in its maintenance and preservation.

All Photo Credits: MIV

Left, Top:  The Assumption BVM Church emerges through the trees on a hillside in Centralia to overlook a small valley, two or three remaining residences and the town hall/fire department.  Right, Above:  Interior of the church showing the unique Eastern Rite iconography and art.   Below, Left: The annual blessing of the graves in the church cemetery on Memorial Day -- this priest himself a military veteran.

On the Tradition of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

. . . it is truly fitting that we acknowledge the pioneers that built this magnificent Church.  These courageous immigrants faced tremendous difficulties in their quest to follow the spiritual heritage of their Eastern Christian Faith in this new land.  When our ancestors founded this Parish, they thought not only of themselves but also about the future generations.  They had a burning love for their Church, their uniquely beautiful Rite, and their cultural traditions.  Our Ukrainian Parish is truly grateful for the countless sacrifices made by its founding members.  We offer them our utmost respect and unending gratitude.  May their memory be eternal!

Joanna Chowka Wolfe, Parish History (1884 - 2010), www.transfigurationchurchshamokin.com/history.htm

All Photo Credits: MIV

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