Location: Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Over the Independence Day weekend we visited the little town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, in the heart of Cajun country.  My main reason for taking the trip was to see Avery Island, the home of Tabasco Sauce and get an introduction to the region’s creole music -- Zydeco.

Zydeco is fast tempo music dominated by the squeeze box (accordion), scrub-board and guitar.  Throw in a room full of dancers and you have a Cajun party.

Driving over the 18-mile bridge that spans the Atchafalaya Swamp, we knew we were getting close to our destination.  Breaux Bridge is in south-central Louisiana near Lafayette, the home of the Ragin Cajuns of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  Crossing the namesake Breaux Bridge steel truss draw-bridge, we entered the little town of 8,000 residents.

We woke to a typical Louisiana day – hot and humid, and it was off to Avery Island.  Traveling the 35-miles down LA-31 to the island took us through more sleepy little towns and plenty of sugarcane fields. On the approach to the island we crossed a small causeway with a toll gate.  The admittance charge to Avery Island was a whopping one-dollar per vehicle!  The gate keeper was a cheerful guy and a worthy ambassador for the island.

Following the signs we proceeded to McIlhenny Companies Tabasco factory, a large building with a brick rick-rack façade. A short film followed by a quick plant walk-through was the extent of the tour, then it was over to the general store to sample their assorted flavors and purchase our souvenirs. 

Next we paid a visit to Jungle Gardens, a refuge for alligators, snowy egrets, turtles, giant bamboo stands, and mossy live oak trees.

Leaving the island we drove due north to see the sights of Lafayette.  The two highlights were the drive-thru Daiquiri bars and a visit to St. John’s Cathedral to see the 500 year old Live Oak tree. The impressive tree stands over 125-ft high and spreads more than 138-ft wide and is considered one of the largest in the US.  The cathedral and maze of above ground tombs in the cemetery were also interesting.

The 4th of July was all Zydeco.  We started the day at Café Des
Amis in downtown Breaux Bridge, where Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys had the joint a jumping for the breakfast crowd.  The afternoon took us to a brewery on LA-31 for more Zydeco music, and the evening was capped off at a bar called Route 92 to dance to the Zydeco beat of Geno Delafose and the French Rockin Boogie Band.  By the end of the evening my little brain was worn out trying to remember the simple slow-fast-fast-slow-fast-fast dance pattern, the foundation steps to Zydeco dancing and the bed was a-calling.

All-in-all it was an enjoyable trip to Cajun Country where the sugar cane and bayou backwaters monopolize the landscape and Zydeco music is king.

Monday, April 06, 2015

New Orlean's Nat'l WWII Museum Brings the Past to Life

B-17 Liberator
The World War II Museum was the brain child of author and historian Stephan Ambrose.  He had written about D-day and collected countless oral histories from D-Day veterans, Ambrose proposed the idea of a museum in the 1990s to New Orleans community leaders and the project came to fruition in 2000 when it opened as the D-Day Museum.  In 2003 Congress pushed it a step further by naming it the National WWII Museum.  The museum continues to grow, adding structures and exhibits.

Located at the corner of Magazine and Andrew Higgins boulevard in the Central Business District of New Orleans, just a block from the trolley stop at Lee Park, it is within walking distance from the French Quarter and the Art District.

On our recent trip to New Orleans in late March, it was already starting to get muggy in
30-cal water cooled machine gun
“The Big Easy,” so we were pleased to spend two days in this air conditioned museum.  The museum complex is spread out over several buildings.  We spent day-one primarily at the four-story Louisiana Memorial Pavilion which housed the main ticket area, along with displays of a suspended Douglas C-47, a Higgins boat landing craft, and a German anti-aircraft gun in the central atrium.  The upper decks held exhibits of the efforts on the home front, the arsenal of democracy (war footing manufacturing), amphibious invasions, the Pacific, a kiosk where you could hear from Medal of Honor recipients, a gift shop and much, much more. 

With Gen. Teddy Roosevelt Jr.
We concluded the first day by experiencing “Beyond All Boundaries,” a 4-D event located in a Solomon Victory Theater.  The movie is narrated by Tom Hanks.  This was one of the more impressive things we witnessed in our visit, well worth the extra dollars.

Day-two started at the Campaigns of Courage building, a pavilion that is exceedingly well done, dramatizing the personal stories, strategies and struggles of WWII.  “Road to Berlin” is currently open with Road to Tokyo opening in late 2015.

“Road to Berlin” recreates realistic battle scenes starting with Operation Torch (the battle
Sherman Tank
for North Africa), through the Sicilian campaign, up the boot of Italy, and on to the Normandy invasion and beyond.  It covers both the ground and air campaigns.  I was very impressed with the vignette devoted to the Battle of the Bulge; you might want to have a coat on hand when you walk through the Battle of Bulge exhibit as the museum developers realistically simulate the cold winter.

Next we toured static displays on the grass courtyard (loved the Sherman tank); there were men dressed in WWII vintage combat uniforms demonstrating different pieces of equipment.

Finally we ventured into the US Freedom Pavilion, sponsored by Boeing.  A British Spitfire, German Messerschmitt 109, and American Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber, Corsair and P51 Mustang loom suspended from the multistory rafters.  The centerpiece of the exhibit is a B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber and Douglas B-25 Bomber.  These warbirds can be examined from every angle in this multilevel building.

We did not tour it but the USS TANG Experience “Final Mission,” is also located in the Freedom Pavilion.
Other static displays included, bombers, fighters, transports, gliders, jeeps,
Enigma Machine
motorcycles,  trucks, ambulances,  tanks, anti-aircraft guns, artillery, landing craft, crew served weapons (motors and machineguns), anti-tank weapons, rifles and assorted other small arms, uniforms of allies and axis troops from different theaters, communications gear (handi-talkies, PRCs, etc), Norton bomb sights, German Enigma encryption/decryption machines, and various personal effects. The personal histories of the men and women that gave so much to secure our freedom are a must and brings the exhibit to life.  It's well worth your time to listen to their first-hand accounts of barrack’s life to battle fields, armory parades to aerial combat, beach landings to backroom brawls, some humorous, some poignant, some courageous, --- all entertaining.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hidden Treasure, Observation Hill, Sydney, Australia

Situated just east of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the Rocks section of town is an often overlooked Sydney treasure -- Observation Hill, the location of the Sydney Observatory.  Opened in 1858, the Observatory was originally established to calculate the correct time from the movement of the stars.  Ships in Sydney Harbor needed a way to adjust and calibrate their chronometers.  An Astronomer observed the sun by day and stars at night to calculate the celestial time and convey it to the mariners in port in order to aid them in determining longitude while at sea.  This service is still provided to this day by the traditional dropping of the Time Ball at exactly 1 p.m. everyday.  Up to 1942 the dropping of the Time Ball was accompanied by the firing of a cannon, for an audible signal to complement the visual signal of the ball drop.  Three minutes before 1 p.m. the ball starts to rise up its supporting shaft and is dropped promptly at one o’clock. 

The Time Ball is one of several fascinating features to Observation Hill.  The hill, the highest natural point
overlooking Sydney Harbor, was also the location of the harbor’s signal station.  From the hill messages were sent to ships in the harbor and to the town’s port authority via flags flown from a signal flagstaff.  Signal flags announced the arrival of ships into the harbor as well as informing port authorities of the names, origin and cargo of new arrivals. Ships in the harbor received weather, directives and other information via the signal flags.

Hand-in-hand with the timekeeping function, the Observatory also recorded astronomical data.  It has two domes which house telescopes; the south dome contains Australia’s oldest telescope installed in 1874 to observe the Transit of Venus and the north dome, added in 1878, has a state-of-the-arts reflecting telescope.  Beginning in 1887 the Observatory took part in an international project to photograph and map the entire sky.  It took almost 80 years for the Observatory to document the zone of the southern sky it had been allocated.

Additionally, in the early years of Sydney’s growth Observation Hill was also used as a meteorology center where the weather was recorded and forecast, as well as the point from which all official surveying of the town was conducted.

Today, Observation Hill provides a perfect location to gaze upon both Sydney and Darling Harbor, the views of Sydney Harbor Bridge are outstanding.  The grounds are perfect for a picnic and many people go there to exercise.  The hill is also home to a statue of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and a war memorial to those who served in the Boer War in what is today South Africa.  Above all, the Observatory is home to a museum that displays many artifacts from an earlier era of Sydney's time of tall ships and and says when long frock coats were fashionable. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

ANZAC Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia

On February 15th, the 72nd anniversary of the 1942 surrender of Singapore to the Japanese, I had the honor of visiting the ANZAC (Australian-New Zealand Army Corps) Memorial.  Situated on the southern end of Hyde Park in downtown Sydney, the Memorial is positioned aside a rectangular reflecting pool and is constructed of pink granite.  

Statue of Light Horseman
Approaching the Memorial, I was immediately captivated by the sculptures on the exterior of the building.  Like sentries, the sculptures sit in silence looking down on visitors as they come near the Memorial.  Four figures sit atop pillars on each side of the building.  There is an additional figure standing atop each corner of the Memorial, for a total of twenty statues.  The ANZAC Memorial was originally constructed in 1932 to honor the men and women who served in WWI, so the sculptures depict soldiers from that era.  The statues represent soldiers from every branch of the armed forces to include the medical corps and nurses.  Over each entrance is a impressive 10-meter (33-foot) bronze relief panel depicting scenes from the Eastern (Gallipoli) and Western (France) Fronts.

West Entrance to Memorial

Northwest corner of Memorial

The focal point of the Memorial is a bronze statue titled "Sacrifice" depicting a fallen warrior laying on his shield and sword reminiscent of the Spartan saying, "Come home with your shield or on it."  In Spartan culture, martial honor was the highest virtue, and weakness the ultimate sin, but I do not believe this statue is meant to glorify war for the architect, Bruce Dellit, said of this sculpture, "There is no pomp, no vain glory, no glamour in this group, rather there is stark tragedy, grim reality and bitter truth.  But it is the truth which tells not only of the brutality of war and of the suffering it engenders, but of that noblest of all human qualities - self-sacrifice for duty."  The shield and nude soldier are supported by three women, his mother, his sister and his wife holding their infant child (Courage, Endurance and Sacrifice), symbolizing womanhood who in the war years, with quiet courage and noble resignation, bore her burdens, the loss of sons, husbands and lovers.  The child represents the future generations for which this ultimate sacrifice was made.

Situated above the statue "Sacrifice" is an atrium with a domed ceiling known as the Dome of Stars.  Each of the 120,000 gold stars embedded in the ceiling represents a man or woman from Australia's state of New South Wales that participated in WWI. Following a curved staircase up from the Hall of Silence, which houses "Sacrifice", you arrive at the Hall of Memory which has a balustrade open to view the "Sacrifice" below.  On this level are niches listing all the major battles the soldiers participated in.  There are niches for France and Belgium, Egypt and Palestine, Gallipili, and the fourth, for New Guinea and War at Sea.

The Memorial was rededicated in the 1980's to honor all ANZAC servicemen of all wars and houses a nice museum on the ground floor displaying artifacts from WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the current conflicts in Afghanistan. 

If ever in Sydney, Australia take a moment to visit the Memorial and pay tribute to our allies -- the men and women of Australia and New Zealand.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Pearl Harbor Day

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it “a day which will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941.  In 2012, Seventy-one years later, few of this generation know why December 7th is a special day of remembrance.

It was our parents and grandparents equivalent to the horrors and anger we experienced on September 11, 2001 at the destruction of the World Trade Center twin-towers.  In an early morning raid, thousands of American military servicemen lost their lives in a Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Base and other military installations on Oahu, Hawaii, which served as the catalyst for the United States entry into WWII.

I have a special connection to this event for my father was already a seasoned sailor in the last year of his first Navy enlistment in December 1941.  He was serving aboard the fast destroyer, USS Gridley (DD-380), steaming with Task Force -8, under the command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, escorting the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise which had been tasked with ferrying Marine Corps aircraft to Wake Island.  They had departed their home-base on November 28, off loaded the planes at Wake Island on December 4, and were returning to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese struck on December 7, 1941.

Located approximately 200-miles west of the island of Oahu, the thirteen war ships of TF-8 stoked their boilers to flank speed and went to General Quarters upon notification the attack was in progress, steaming full throttle to Pearl Harbor.  They arrived at Pearl the following day, December 8th, and were greeted by the sights of destruction and carnage which a day earlier had been the US Pacific Fleet.  While the Gridley refueled and took on provisions, my father and other crew members were assigned to a working party task with recovering dead bodies of their fellow sailors floating in the oily waters of the harbor.

These are his most vivid memories of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  They would pull the burned and mangled bodies from the water and wrap them in a mattress cover.  Dole Pineapple had built a narrow track railroad from their warehouse to the docks, and the corpses would be placed on the flat cars and pushed back to the warehouse which had been converted into a makeshift morgue.  The working party labored at this into the night.  The following day they steamed back out of Pearl Harbor to begin patrolling that would keep them at sea for many months to come.

Pearl Harbor Day commemorates these men who gave their all in the service of our country.  Stop a moment and give thanks for the sacrifices made to keep us free in past generations, and take time to educate the coming generation as to the events which make this a special day of remembrance.



Tuesday, February 21, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part IV - Vella Lavella

Unaware of the tactical situation, the sailors arose from their exhaustion-induced sleep on the Japanese occupied island of Vella Lavella, in the Solomon island chain. Glad to be alive and on dry land, the survivors’ momentarily let their guard down and talked opening among themselves. "A native Melanesian boy of about twelve suddenly appeared from the trees," Cockran said. "The boy could not speak English, but he pointed to the northwest and said 'Japs'."

The group of survivors with Lt. Cockran followed the Melanesian native over a trail of pure coral. Most of the men were without shoes and the sharp coral soon lacerated their feet, which freely bled. Many cut up life belts and rubber rafts to fashion makeshift sandals, minimizing further injury from the coral.

Leaving the beach trail, the group headed into the jungle. The trek took the men over rough trails, across streams and through dense vegetation. Late in the afternoon they reached an area where several native huts stood on stilts. Here the natives had gathered other Helena sailors.

This was not the groups’ final destination. After a brief rest they started the final leg of the journey. The Helena survivors were being consolidated at the house of a Chinese trader, Sam Chung, under the supervision of an Australian coastwatcher, Rev. A.W.E. Silvester. This house was located in the mountains, and the exhausted sailors had to preserver a few more hours, climbing steep jungle slopes to reach Chung's house.

The Helena's Lt. Cmdr Jack Chew was the senior officer at Chung's. Here 104 survivors had congregated. Elsewhere on the island Ens. George Bausewine had another 50 survivors and CWO Dupay had another group of eleven. Another coastwatcher, Henry Josselyn, situated on the opposite end of Vella Lavella, had gotten Bausewine and Depay's groups off the beach, and into hiding, before the Japanese garrisoned on the island could locate them.

A room in Chung's house had been converted into a make-shift hospital for the most critically injured men. Corpsmen Vick Walker and Jim Layton helped tend to the wounded and injured. "We had a couple of guys with broken limbs and two or three that had water sores so bad they couldn't walk," Layton said. He would be awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his lifesaving service during their stay on Vella Lavella.

The natives shared what little food was available and built temporary shelters for the men of the Helena. Using coconut halves as bowls, the natives served a type of soup from a large pot. Rev. Silvester, known as 'Bish' for Bishop by the natives, held prayer services for the men and provided periodic updates on the Helena survivors on the other end of the island.

"Everybody loved the guy," Cockran said of Rev. Silvester, "he really took care of us." Layton described Silvester as a very energetic man. "He had a walkie-talkie radio and was always leaving the group to go off into the jungle to use his radio," added Layton.

One day turned into two and before they knew it a week had passed on Vella Lavella. At night the men could hear naval battles taking place in the contested waters off the islands. The monotony of the days was passed with talk of food.

Notification of a rescue plan was given to the officers and men on 13 July. Silvester had been in touch with Guadalcanal via short-wave radio and he and the Navy had concocted a plan to get the sailors off of the island. Chew organized the sailors into small groups, assigning an officer to each group. Meanwhile, Chung gathered other Chinese families on the island to partake in the evacuation.

On 15 July the evacuation plan was put into effect and the column of sailors, Chinese and Melanesian natives started to make their way down the mountain toward the beach. Progress was slow due to the terrain and the large numbers of people attempting to move quietly down the trail. The pace was also held in check by the injured requiring transportation via stretchers. Upon reaching the beach, the group waited in darkness at Lambu Lambu, a tiny trading village that contained a wharf at the mouth of a river. Here waited Rev. Silvester, the 104 officers and sailors of the Helena, 13 Chinese and a captured Japanese pilot brought by the natives. This was to be their rendezvous point with the Navy's rescue party.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

When Duty Calls - Part III - Afloat at Sea

"We ended up with thirteen in our life raft," Cockran said. All thought the destroyers would be back to pick them up the following day, but that did not occur. Due to the rapid currents the American search planes missed the tragic little fleet of rafts floating up the straights.

Through the torturous days that followed, many of the critically wounded died. Several men drown when they could no longer hang on to the rafts, others succumbed to exposure in this tropical climate, and still others to sharks.

"We had no water or provisions," said Layton of this time in the water. "Our raft fell in the water upside-down, and the provisions were underneath the raft. We tried to get to the provisions and just couldn't do it." No food, no water, no help in sight, but the sailors did not despair. "We knew the Navy knew we were out there, and we felt it was just a matter of time before they came for us. We just hoped they made it before the Japs did," survivor Bill Edwards said.

Many of the rafts were donut shaped- canvas covered balsa wood floats, common aboard ships, others were inflatable rafts. Cockran described how they utilized the rafts. "The paddlers would sit on the donut and paddle, most we ever had paddling was four men. Some others sat on a grid in the middle of the raft in waist deep water. Others hung onto the side of the raft."

On Cockran's raft they had tied-off their food and water and had it trailing in the sea behind the raft, in order to make room for more men aboard. "(Our food and water) wasn't there the next morning," he exclaimed. Corckran went on to add, "By the second night we started hallucinating, and fatigue (from rowing) had set in. By the third night it was down to just me and another man paddling."

The men kept their eyes peeled for rescue planes and ships. "Three Jap Zeros came over in a strafing formation, and I thought we were done for," Layton said, "but they never opened up on us. One of the planes just tipped his wings; boy did I feel thankful."

The rafts got separated over the days and nights as they floated, carried by the current. By the third day they had lost sight of each other. Desperation was setting in when the island of Vella Lavella was sighted. The men thought this might be their last chance, so they paddled hard to get out of the current and make landfall. Little groups of survivors were scattered across the island, sepaerated by vast stretches of jungle, when the sun rose the following morning.