Visiting the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial

When we visited the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, I was reminded that tourists are ugly from all over. Not long after 9/11, I noticed people coming to take photos of Ground Zero. I can understand that, I like taking photos as well. What bothered me was how they posed in front of it, smiling. It just seems disrespectful. I saw the same oblivious ugliness as tourists posed in front of the list of those who died at Pearl Harbor.

The viewing platform.

The memorial is hallowed ground; the ship is below you. The platform crosses it just behind the front turret, which remains above water. This was a clever way to mark the grave of nearly 1200 men who died during the sneak attack, an enormous cross that’s not there unless you think about it. The bow and stern are marked with white buoys. Around the harbor you see cement markers memorializing the other ships sunk on that day.

The list of those who died at Pearl Harbor, without a smiling idiot.

It’s eerie, looking down through the crystal blue water and seeing the rusted hulk of the ship just below, occasionally seeping oil. Small colorful fish dart around the structure. A sign asks you to not throw coins, which contribute to the decay.

The remains of the front turret, gun removed.

The immensity of the battleship is not readily apparent below the surface. Even when you see the buoys, it’s hard to imagine. I’ve seen larger boats, like the ore boats of the Great Lakes, but not from above. The sailors who shuttle you to the platform remind you that this is a cemetery at sea, and to be respectful, but it’s quickly forgotten.

The ship stretches into the distance.

The small white dot below the other ship marks the stern. That and the slightly rust-colored tinge to the water gives you an idea of the Arizona’s size. A torpedo pierced the bow, but it sank with the superstructure otherwise intact. It’s a solemn place, or should be. Maybe they need more soldiers there to give a presence of authority; at Arlington National Cemetery, people were well behaved, especially during the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I think people posed in front of the Eternal Flame, which is still pretty lame.

I didn’t see any people doing this at Bergen-Belsen, or in front of Anne Frank’s grave. Soldiers vs. civilians, I guess. Ground Zero is certainly hallowed ground to the families of the dead, yet tourists feel compelled to smile and pose in front of the empty hole. The stereotype of the Ugly tourist isn’t just for Americans anymore.

The anchor of the U.S.S. Arizona

We visited the U.S.S. Bowfin while we waited 2 hours for our shuttle to the platform. It’s parked right nearby and a good way to kill time while you’re waiting, without sweating with the mobs in the museum and souvenir shops.

The U.S.S. Bowfin, aka “Pearl Harbor Avenger”

It’s about the same as the U.S.S. Growler near the Intrepid museum in NYC. If you’ve never been on a sub before, it’s a good look into the life of a submariner. The cramped beds, the hatchways, the claustrophobic spaces; it makes Das Boot seem roomy.

On the old subs everything is make of brass and looks like antique steampunk machinery. It seems out of place next to the large mechanical switches and analog gauges. It’s sort of in-between the brass equipment of old sailing ships and the voting-booth look of switches and knobs on war machinery of the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m not sure if they allow you on the deck of the Growler, but we got to crawl all over the cannons and guns on this one. And take clever photos. And while I would not pose smiling before 1,177 watery graves, or a list of men who died in combat, I believe the stern of the Pearl Harbor Avenger and Old Glory are perfectly fine.

 

Touring a Restored B17 Bomber

My stepfather loves aircraft, so when I learned that a fully restored B17 would be landing at Essex airport, we spent the afternoon visiting and touring this living relic.

b17 wingspan

The Aluminum Overcast is one of a dozen remaining B17 bombers. It never flew in World War 2, it was built in 1945 and scrapped for $750 after the war. It was restored later, and is now toured by the Expeditionary Aircraft Association. A tour is ten bucks. A flight… well, that’s $475. A little steep for the both of us, especially since they want a full plane before taking off. They regaled us with a story of a rich woman who paid for a full flight for strangers just so she could go up, but none of us had five grand to spare.

b17 nose art

The B17 isn’t as enormous as you might think; it’s very tight in there, especially getting through the bomb bays. I made it through twice, to the plane crew’s amusement! I’ve got the beer belly but I am a grappler. I’m used to tight squeezes and flexing into contorted shapes, like crabwalking beneath the fuselage to get photos of the ball turret.

B17 squeeze

My friend Peter joined us later, that’s him in the bomb bay. He’s a 30 waist or something. A human javelin. I was more at home manning the sidemounted M2 .50 caliber machine guns. They only had a minute’s worth of ammo, to reduce weight. I easily weigh twice as much as two of the crew members would. These were small, young guys.

tommy b17 me 50 cal

Here’s the rest of the photos, including the dual .50’s on the tail gun pod, and some closeups of the propellers, and the infamous ball turret where if the hydraulic systems were down, the unlucky gunner was unlikely to be able to get out, and became the landing gear.

b17 ball turret

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RIP, Louis Zamperini. Beyond Unbroken.

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Today I pay respects to Louis Zamperini. Olympian. Member of a WWII bomber crew. A hero who survived a brutal Japanese POW camp, and went back to FORGIVE “the Bird,” the man who beat and starved him for years in an attempt to break his spirit.

I pay him homage in Blade of Dishonor for his unwavering perseverance. Rather than let his hate consume him, he pursued what to many of us would be the unthinkable, and lived a long and prosperous life because of it.
Read the book UNBROKEN before the movie comes out. Who knows what they’ll change. The book was written by Laura Hillenbrand with his assistance.

The full obit on NPR.

In Memoriam

I last visited Arlington National Cemetery right before my friend John Milkewicz shipped off to Iraq. I am very thankful that he came home. Memorial Day is for those soldiers who did not.

It began after the Civil War as Decoration Day, for decorating the graves of soldiers. After World War II it became more commonplace. I know many veterans, family and friends. I am grateful that they came home. The only family member I know who died at war was Nicholas Pucci, who served in the Korean War.

Let us remember the dead today, and the true cost of war, which echoes through the generations. The lost promise, the families left gouged by their absence, and the burden those who made it home must carry.

American Civil War 625,000
World War II 405,399
World War I 116,516
Vietnam 58,151
Korean War 36,516
American Revolutionary War 25,000
War of 1812 15,000
Mexican American War 13,283
War on terror* present 6,717
Philippine–American War 4,196
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Audie Murphy's grave
Audie Murphy’s grave
The Grave of Joe Louis
The Grave of Joe Louis
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Just one small corner.
Just one small corner.

Meet the Blade Brigade: John Milkewicz

This week I introduce you to some of the friends who helped with Blade of Dishonor. Part 2 of the trilogy, Devils and Dragons, is free on Kindle until the 16th. You can get Part 1: The War Comes Home for 99 cents here, and Part 3: The Shadow Shogun for $1.99 here. That’s a dollar savings off the omnibus edition(which collects all all 3 novellas for $3.99). And yes, it is available in Trade Paperback from bookstores and e-tailers. If you buy the trade on Amazon, you can get the Kindle version for 99 cents through the matchbook program.

I met my friend John back in 2001, when we conquered Orctown with bow and axe. We have roved and roamed this great country far and wide on wide hobbit feet, from the Marines memorial in DC just before Johnny shipped to Iraq, to Stairway to Heaven, one of the most brutal hikes in New Jersey, and to Hillbilly Hotdogs and the home of the Mothman deep in the heart of West Virginia. John signed up in the Marine Corps reserves after 9/11 and served in Iraq. He helped me give Blade of Dishonor a sense of military realism and he’s been a great friend for a dozen years. He brought the book on his trip to Rome, where he photographed this memorial to the Devil’s Brigade, who spearheaded the Allied liberation of the Eternal City. I fictionalized this in the novel, because when I read of the accomplishments of the Devils–aka the 1st Special Service Force–I could not resist sharing their heroic exploits.

Here is the memorial:
devils brigade memorial rome

A photo of the book in Rome:
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And here’s me and Johnny, battling for the One ring atop the cracks of Mount Doom in the Sourlands:
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A Surprise at the Book Signing

I had my first book signing this weekend, at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair. If you missed the event, they still have signed copies available at the store and online.

The store was packed, standing room only. I was stunned at the crowd. Friends I hadn’t seen in years, cousins and aunts and uncles, friends from Asylum Fight Gym, fellow writers, friends from Twitter, and two surprise guests:

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My great-uncles Dominic and Jimmy, to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor! I teared up as I told the crowd how they influenced me as a young man, and how their experiences helped shape the story. To give you an idea, we call Uncle Dominic “Butch,” even if he’s as far from the Butch in the novel as can be. The hard-working spirit of the men who lived through the Depression, fought Hitler, and supported their friends and families for decades is what went into the book.

It is an honor to know these men, and it was a greater honor to have them visit me on this very special day. Jimmy’s son told me they started getting together every Friday after Jimmy’s nurse visit. And I’ll be there.

The Two Heroes to Whom I Dedicated Blade of Dishonor

butch and jimmy ww2

They are two of my heroes, but I never knew them. Not really. Pictured above are my uncle Jimmy (left) and my uncle Butch (right) before they shipped off to serve in World War II.

I knew them much later, in their fifties. Sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table while they drank black coffee and tore apart doughnuts and crumb cake, and solved the problems of the world. I dedicated my first novel, Blade of Dishonor, to these men.

“Another week shot in the ass,” Butchie is fond of saying. He’s the joker, with a hundred stories up his sleeve. After a mini-stroke, he forgot them all. “I lost the comedy channel,” he said. But they came back, one by one. Uncle Jimmy plays the straight man, but occasionally comes out with a biting comment that makes us all laugh.

Jimmy served in Bastogne. “Patton’s tanks saved our behinds.” His feet still ache from the frostbite he received. He put his boots in the campfire, but it wasn’t enough. He was 24 when he was drafted, with a wife and son at home. For funerals of soldiers, Uncle Butch wears his medals and uniform. He also served in Europe, and if I recall, was en route to the Pacific when the bombs dropped.  That’s all I know, because they don’t talk about the war.

Uncle Butch once admitted that he regrets combat. He saw it as young men sent to war to fight someone else’s battles, killing each other for nothing. You fought for the guy next to you. Uncle Jimmy was more pragmatic. It was just something he did, trying to get home.

Yet I saw how it affected them. Around Veteran’s Day, VJ Day, VE Day. The tears of otherwise stoic old men rock us to our core.

After the war, Butch worked for a builder of construction equipment and collected old cars. He has a Model A with a rumble seat that was used in a Ford commercial, a Chrysler 300H, and until recently boated around town in a white Town Car three blocks long. Uncle Jimmy was a roofer, then bought a service station. When they retired, they joined up to do plumbing and roofing on the side. Uncle Butch will still stop at the curb if he sees a discarded lawnmower, take it home for Jimmy to repair while he’s watching the football game, and offer it up when yours breaks down. They kept busy into their nineties. They survived both their wives, caring for them when they became sick.

They grew up in the Depression, in a big Italian family. Living on fried potato sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, so you could read the headlines off your hoagie roll. Foraging in the woods when they were hungry. Uncle Jimmy became a hunter, with a cabin festooned with deer antlers. He hunted with a scope (and friends to point him at the deer!) after his eyesight failed, and I had a freezer full of venison–he called it “goat”–every season.

Uncle Butchie still goes out dancing, at 92. Uncle Jimmy’s cancer put him in the VA hospital. But his son takes him around, to check on the house, to visit family, and at 94, the disease moves so slowly that it hasn’t kept him down. They taught me that a sense of humor, a good heart, and a helping hand for your family and friends will keep you living well no matter what life throws at you. Tragedy, artillery, failure or success. They stuck together, and they’ve survived their wives, brothers, sisters, young and old.

And they’re still doing it.

butch and jimmy now