Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Memorial Day Part II

After we visited Leavenworth National Cemetary, we drove over to Fort Leavenworth where another ceremony was being held at the Fort Leavenworth. This cemetary is the old fort cemetary and contains the graves of many interesting people since the fort's inception in 1827.

When we arrived at the fort, there was a long line of civilian cars waiting to get in. If you don't have a military ID and/or sticker on your car, you have to pass through a different line for the gate. We had to get out of our vehicle, turn off the engine, open the trunk and hood to have the vehicle searched. They also took down our license plate and driver's license. Unfortunately, this put us behind for the ceremony at the fort cemetary. It had started drizzling when we arrived. Once we were on base, I got lost and finally had to turn around and stop at the gas station near the PX to get directions. There was a long line of young people buying cases of beer (none were in uniform) and one older gentleman that was picking up a bottle of scotch.

By the time we got to the cemetary, the ceremony was over and I missed Gen. Petreaus's speech. I saw many officers and veterans walking back to the parking area. We parked and decided to walk around anyway. It was raining steadily, though lightly and we had no umbrella's (I swear the weatherman had not predicted rain). But it was still warm, so we decided to walk in the rain. We walked among the headstones again. This time the boys were even more interested because there were several headstones that you could tell the soldiers had died during war or in combat based on the date of death and the medals listed, particularly the Purple Heart. There were several Vietnam KIA, some Korean War and many WWII. Some of the headstones gave enough information that I could tell a little story by it and the boys were very attentive. One of the headstones was a large grey granite headstone that listed the occupant as a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. He died in 1944, shot down over Germany according to the inscription. He earned an Air Medal for his efforts.

As we looked at the headstone, a reporter from Fox WDAF TV in Kansas City approached us and asked if we were the soldier's family and could she interview us. I had to demure and explained we were simply looking at the headstones (she called it "social history"), but I directed her to a family that I had spoke with briefly shortly before. They had asked me if I knew how to locate certain graves. They had three they had located at the kiosk, but couldn't find in the cemetary. I pointed out the row and section markers and then pointed to the serial numbers on the back of the headstones. They were very near the first marker they were looking for. I saw them a few minutes later holding hands and praying together. The family appeared on the evening news.

Another headstone listed the names of five men in the same grave. The inscription and date indicated they were members of the Army Air Corp and had "crashed" in 1943. The boys wanted to know why there were several names on the headstone instead of one like the others and I explained that it was probably because the crash was so terrible that they could not tell who was who (not having DNA testing back then), so they buried them together.

Even my niece got into it by going from grave to grave and looking at the carvings. Again we were straigtening a few flags and flowers and there were many people walking among the graves. Fiinally, we made it to the administrative building where a kiosk was set up and and obelisk with an interactive map pointed out historically important people buried there. The original ceremony we were going to attend was the wreath laying at the site of Brig. General Henry Leavenworth. We listened to the brief history of the establishment of the fort in 1827 and the re-internment of his body at Leavenworth on Memorial Day 1902, nearly 70 years after his death.

According to this history page, Frontier Forts were often named after the serving officer that established them:

Perhaps the war department at that time felt remiss in permitting another officer's name to be used for the post established in Minnesota and sought to right the situation by giving Leavenworth the temporary task of proceeding up the Missouri River to erect a cantonment somewhere near the mouth of the Little Platte. His instructions were to select a site on the east bank of the Missouri within twenty miles, on either side, of the confluence of the Platte with the larger stream. Four companies of infantry were the troops of the command.

Colonel Leavenworth, after exploring the country, decided the east bank was not suitable, being perhaps unhealthy and subjected to floods, so without waiting for permission he chose a sightly eminence on the west bank and it was there that "Cantonment Leavenworth" was established. The change was approved by the war department. At first, the new post proved to be very unhealthy, despite its location high above the river bank, and it very nearly was abandoned two years later.

Several of the oldest headstones indicated deaths of men, women and children in the early 1830's, all within a short time of each other.

However, the coming of troubles with the plains Indians led to its retention and it was garrisoned again with troops under command of Maj. Bennett Riley (ed...founder of Fort Riley), later brigadier general and close adviser of General Scott in the war with Mexico, and whose fame is commemorated by the other Kansas military post at the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers.

We then saw the grave of the oldest settler at the fort and many young men in their teens and early twenties, just as in any war. We saw the grave of Col. Edward Hatch, leader of the 9th Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers). On his obelesque are engraved the names of the 53 separate engagements he was involved in as well as a brief message from his officers and troops that indicated that he was not only a good leader, but truly loved and respected by his men.


During the winter of 1866-67, every effort was made to bring about an efficient state of drill, discipline and organization. The orders regarding stables and the performance of that duty were especially strict. Few officers had as yet joined, and the number on duty with the regiment was so small, that a scheme of squadron organization was resorted to so that at least one officer might be present with each squadron for every drill or other duty. The entire enlisted strength was woefully ignorant, entirely helpless, and though willing enough to learn, was difficult to teach. By assiduous labor and constant drilling much headway was made, however, and by the end of March, 1867, a change of station was determined upon. The middle of this month found the regiment with nearly its full strength, the return at that time showing a total of 885 enlisted men, or an average of over 70 to a troop.

Reading that and several other comments about establishing the regiment made me think about our current efforts in Iraq. Col. Hatch joined the regiment in 1867.

It is difficult now-a-days fully to appreciate all the work and labor devolving upon the officers in those early days. The men knew nothing, and the non-commissioned officers but little more. From the very circumstances of their preceding life it could not be otherwise. They had no independence, no self-reliance, not a thought except for the present, and were filled with superstition. To make soldiers of, such material was, at that time, considered more of an experiment than as a fixed principle. The Government depended upon the officers of those early days to solve the problem of the colored soldier.

The colonel of the regiment was Edward Hatch, a young man full of energy and enthusiasm. He went right manfully to work, determined to succeed, and in this he was ably seconded by his officers. They were all equally enthusiastic in proving the wisdom of the experiment of colored soldiers, and in forcing the issue to a successful solution were compelled, not only to attend to the duties that naturally attach to the office of a troop commander and his lieutenants, but, in the endeavor to make finished individual soldiers of the negro and to feel that the troop, taken as a unit, was an independent fighting force, well drilled, well clothed, well fed, suitably armed and equipped, and thoroughly able to take care of itself in garrison or campaign, they were forced to enter into the minutest details of military administration, and personally to assume nearly all the duties of the non-commissioned officer. For some years the latter, from lack of education, were such only in name, and the process of moulding them into a responsible and self-reliant class was a slow one. Troop officers were in fact squad commanders, and it took both time and patience to teach the men how to care for themselves.

I bet our men in Iraq and Afghanistan can fully appreciate the difficulties Col. Hatch and the other officers experienced. The 9th Cavalry was also involved in the charge up San Juan Hill (sans horses contrary to the popular painting on the subject).

We went on to view other headstones including Thomas Custer, brother of General George Armstrong Custer, who died with him at Little Big Horn, was buried at the site with his brother and later re-interred at Fort Leavenworth. He received two Medals of Honor for capturing two Confederate Battle flags:

He was one of only four soldiers or sailors to receive the dual honor during the Civil War, and one of just nineteen in history. His second citation includes, "Custer crossed the line of temporary works on the flank of the road, where his unit was confronted by a supporting battle-line. In the second line he wrested the colors from an enemy color bearer. Advancing on another standard he received a shot in the face which knocked him back on his horse. Despite his wounds, he continued his assault on the color bearer who began to fall from wounds he had also received. As he fell, the wounded Lieutenant Custer reached out to grasp this second standard of colors, bearing both off in triumph."

For those who may think that receiving a Medal of Honor for capturing the enemy's flag, it would behoove us to remember what battle lines and fighting during the Civil War was like. The flag was the honor of the regiment. It gave a rallying point during battle before things like squad radios were even invented. It directed them to the line of battle, whether moving forward or retreating, wheeling left or right or, finally, when it was surrendered, battle was over. The flag was typically at the center of the line and well protected. Men gave their lives to save it and keep it from touching the ground. Capturing it during battle was above and beyond the call of duty.

I noted during our walk how often soldiers were buried as "unknown" before the advent of dog tags and DNA testing. By the time we had walked to one end of the cemetary, it was steadily raining and we were soaked. Lightening was striking around the base and the thunder was echoing. It's funny how, at the other cemetary when the cannons were being fired, I likened it to rolling thunder. At the Fort, the thunder sounded like booming cannon. I wondered if the sound was comforting to those lying a rest; like a modern Valhalla where the warriors were reliving their battles and exploits.

We decided to leave because the lightening was striking very near and there were many trees so it seemed smart to egress the area. As we walked back, the kids splashed in the puddles in and around the gutter. Towards the end of the upper section, I noticed two graves that were decorated with many fresh flowers and wreaths. The first was a soldier from World War II who had died in 1971. Several of the wreaths said "Dad" or "Daddy". It was touching to know that 35 years later, this man was not forgotten by his family that must have been many.

The second headstone made me stop for a few moments and contemplate. It was the grave of Captain Christopher B. Johnson, killed in Iraq October 17, 2004 when two Kiowa Helicopters collided during a mission. Of all the things we did and saw that day, that grave with all its flowers touched me the most. Here was our war dead. OUR war dead, my generation. This, above all other things, above the wreaths, the speakers, the taps and the cannon, truly made me realize the importance of Memorial Day. I felt my heart squeeze and a tear touch my eye because I realized that this man's family had come that day and placed flowers upon his grave. It was still new to them and now Memorial Day was new to me.

I went home and searched for information on Captain Johnson. According to the Army Times, the crash was caused due to poor communications. Several messages on his "guest book" that told a little story about Captain Johnson:

My husband Tim was stationed with Chris at Ft. Campbell. Tim came in as the new Lt. taking over as the other platoon leader so Chris showed him the ropes. Their interests in the same things such as working on their big trucks and being from the same home state quickly made them friends. Chris came over a few times for dinner and his friendly, playful manner caught the eye of my daughter, Caitlyn, who was then 5. She still remembered him even though we hadn't seen Chris for years and was very sad to hear that he was no longer with us. Like many other family members of service men, I know how devoted Chris was to his country and the pride that he carried putting on the uniform. I also know how heartwrenching it was knowing he was in harms way. We will mourn Chris and the rest of the men who leave us doing their job honorably, making us proud of their selfless service. Our prayers are with you and Chris will always hold a place in our hearts.

And the other:

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,
I am so very sorry for your loss. I would have posted a note sooner, but I just found out about Chris last night. My heart is heavy with the loss of such a wonderful person. Chris was my escort at the NKCHS Winter Invitational assembly. I'll never forget walking across the field house floor, and Chris laughing at me as I tripped over the cords. Even an embarrassing moment like that one, became a fabulous memory that I have taken out, dusted off, and enjoyed over the years. I will miss Chris dearly, even though we were unable to stay in touch after graduation. My thoughts are with you, and my best wishes to you and your family. May his memory be the lighthouse to our stormy seas. Nicole Frazier[snip]

To the Johnson family,
I consider myself fortunate to have been under the command of Captain Johnson. He was a wonderful, honest man with a sincere devotion to duty and country. I was also fortunate to have been his co-pilot while in Iraq, and I am thankful that I got to know him better as a result of it. His sacrifice for all of us will never be forgotten. Rest in peace Outlaw 6. Michael Spalsbury (Puyallup, WA )

Finally, the one that touched me the most, was so simple and was posted recently, almost two years after his death:


The rest of the story: Chief Warrant Officer William Brennan

From the time William Brennan was a boy, he wanted nothing more than to fly.

He achieved his dream as pilot of an Army helicopter. He died in the cockpit, when his helicopter went down Saturday over Baghdad.

His brothers and sisters Monday remembered Brennan as an outgoing, friendly, somewhat wacky guy who was proud of his Army service.

“He was very adamant that he was doing the right thing,” said his sister-in-law, T.J. Brennan. [snip]

In an Easter letter to his sister, Briana Wall, Brennan spoke more privately of his fears, but he wanted to keep those feelings secret from his wife, so she would not worry, his sister said.

“I say a hell of a lot of prayers before getting into the aircraft, and after getting down,” he wrote. “It is not the fear of death that weighs me down, it is the feeling of not being there for my three girls.”

“There is a very real chance that something bad could happen and they would never know me,” he wrote.

Brennan met his wife at a Super Bowl party, his brother recalled. Kathy Brennan was in the infantry. They were both stationed at Ft. Drum and shipped out together for Bosnia. While overseas, she learned she was pregnant with their first daughter and was discharged.

In addition to his work in Bosnia and Iraq, Brennan also flew surveillance helicopters around New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He brought a camera with him on every flight and took amazing pictures of the Statue of Liberty and other landmarks, T.J. Brennan said.

“I am so glad I keep a journal,” he wrote to his family in September. “I think it might make a good book someday.”

On the day of the crash, the two other pilots involved in the crash were later rescued.

Capt. Ryan Welch, an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter pilot, and his gunner, Chief Warrant Officer Justin Taylor, were on a reconnaissance mission over southern Baghdad for the 1st Cavalry Division when they received a cry for help over the radio.

The second call for help said two other pilots had been killed in action; Beck and Crow were both injured and trying to make their way to a defensible position.

When the Apache flew over the crash site, Welch spotted a fire that turned out to be the OH-58 Kiowa. Welch landed his Apache about 330 feet from the crash site. Armed with his 9 mm pistol and an M4 carbine rifle, he set out to collect the downed pilots.

One of the pilots could no longer walk, and both were cut up. It took about 10 minutes for Welch and the two pilots to make their way back to the Apache. Now there were four personnel to get out and only two seats in the Apache.

Welch decided that the injured Crow would take the seat, while he and Beck attached themselves to the outside of the helicopter. They took nylon straps hanging from their flight vests, attached to a carabiner and secured the straps to handholds on the copter. The aircraft then flew off with the two attached to the outside.

At 90 mph, the helicopter flew 12 miles to Forward Operating Base Falcon, the closest base with a combat support hospital.

Both Brennan and Johnson were awarded Hawaii's first Medal of Honor. He was stationed at Wheeler, HI. Captain Johnson's mother attended last years Troops Rally countering the Sheehan anti-war protest:

Margaret Johnson, 54, came to the District yesterday to remember her 29-year-old son and honor his sacrifice.

Clutching a photograph of Army Capt. Christopher Johnson, the American Gold Star Mother said she couldn't be more proud of him.

"He did make a difference in this world; I don't care what anyone says," said Mrs. Johnson, of Excelsior Springs, Mo. "I am here to speak for my son. I am here to support him. He knew the cost of freedom and that it was not free, and he volunteered to go to Iraq anyway."

A member of the 25th Infantry Division (Light), Capt. Johnson was killed in a midair helicopter collision Oct. 16 in Iraq. He spent 10 months in Iraq and was getting ready to come home, Mrs. Johnson said.

"He was good at what he did, and he loved it," she said as she wiped tears from her face. "This photo is a self-portrait. He was so happy."

I wanted to say that, almost two years later, Captain Johnson was still making a difference.

Thank you.

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