Wednesday, November 11, 2020

At the Eleventh Hour...

 ... of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns in Europe fell silent at last. In three-and-a-half years, the Allies in WW1 suffered deaths amounting to 103 Vietnam walls. That's just over 2.5 Vietnam walls every month. This is my annual Veteran's Day post.

Harry Singley, TOF's grandfather
Today is the 102nd anniversary of the Armistice, an event nearly forgotten today. Harry Singley, 304th Engineers, describes the day in a letter published in the local paper:

"It was on Sept. 26 when the big drive started in the Argonne Forest and I saw all kinds of things that I never witnessed before.  We started out on the night of the 25th.  At 9 o'clock we commenced a tank road and worked our way almost to the German's front line trenches.  At 2:30 one of the greatest of all barrages was opened.  It was said that between 3500 and 4000 guns, some of them of very large calibre, went off at that hour just like clock work.  We worked on this road under shell fire until about 3:45 and then went back until the infantry went over the top at 5 o'clock.  We followed with the tanks.  That is the way the Americans started and kept pounding and pushing ahead until the great day on Nov. 11.  ...

Harry Singley, 304th Engineers,
Rainbow Division

It was some life.  I am proud that I went through it, for nobody on the Hill [i.e., Fountain Hill, PA] will have anything on me...  I was a little with sneezing or tear gas.  It made me sick but I remained with the company for I did not like to leave my detachment at any time for if something would happen, I thought, there would be plenty of help.  I felt much better in a few days.  A small piece of shrapnel splinter hit me below the knee.  Otherwise I was lucky. ..."




TOF in uniform, Artillery ROTC,
Caisson Ball 1965 with Sweet Sharon

TOF himself is not a veteran.  The closest he got was two years of Artillery ROTC in which he achieved the exalted rank of cadet staff sergeant (so he knows how to call down fire on your location.  You have been warned.) But he was later classified 4F by a wise military. This was at the height of the Vietnam War.

The real veterans in his family, and that of the Incomparable Marge, follow. Not everyone is mentioned.

The Vietnam War
Sgt. Tommy Flynn,
CAC team Papa Three, USMC

Sgt. Tommy Flynn
My father's cousin lived with villagers in the mountains near Cam Lo just a few miles south of the DMZ.  He later wrote a book about his experience, A Voice of Hope. In a review of this book, Joni Bour wrote:
"The idea was to somewhat integrate with the Vietnamese people in order to gain their trust and friendship and ultimately military intelligence that would help us find the bad guys. It sounds good, and at times it was probably very good, because the Vietnamese were helped with schools and sanitation and protection from the Viet Cong. But it was also an extremely dangerous assignment. CAC soldiers lived near a village and survived mostly on their own. It was a small compound that was flooded when it rained and was overrun several times by the Viet Cong. On one such occasion, Mr. Flynn was severely wounded in the face, neck and thigh. He spent weeks in several hospitals and then a hospital ship with his jaw wired shut, before being mistakenly sent back to the war. He was given a choice; he could work in the rear or go back to his CAC squad. He was either a little nuts, or little bit more brave than most of us, because he chose to return to his squad."

Joe Flynn was discharged as corporal

World War II
Pfc. Joseph Flynn

5th Eng. Btn., 5th Marine Division, USMC

My father served on Iwo Jima and in the Japanese Occupation.  The photo on the left is the only time he ever wore dress blues. It was actually a false-front "uniform" used only for the picture.

When Pere reported at the draft board, he was determined to sign up for the Marines. However, he was told that the Marines had filled their quota for the day and he would be assigned to the Navy. Pere begged to be allowed into the Marines, and finally the recruiter said, I think the Marine recruiter has left for the day, but if you can catch him you can ask. Pere raced to the back and found a Marine sergeant directing a file of civilians out the back door. He turned and held up a hand and said, "Sorry, all full up." Pere slumped in sorrow and said in pleading terms, "But Sarge, if you don't take me, I'll have to join the Navy!"  Nothing could better appeal to a Marine more than this cri de coeur, and the sergeant re-opened his office and processed him in. Later, in testing, Pere scored so well that he was invited to join the Signals Corps and was promised that this required high intelligence and would often keep him safe from the fighting. However, Pere wanted above all else to blow things up. He had practiced this skill in his home chemistry lab by blowing up his bedroom while electrolysizing water into oxygen and (alas) hydrogen.  

On the way to Iwo Jima, it got so hot in the hold of the troopship that he went out on deck and slept on a tarp over a cargo hold. The tarp was lumpy, so he lifted it to see what he was sleeping on. This proved to be many crates hand grenades. He figured what the hell, and went back to sleep. Later he transferred to an LST, which stands for Large Slow Target. In the landing, he was assigned to battalion liaison, which meant he landed with the first wave and would take word to his company of battalion location.  His buddies all figured he was a dead duck.  The beach was volcanic sand so fine and slippery that it was hard to get traction, and the Japanese had always dealt harshly with the first wave. 

However the defender was clever and held his fire until the second wave landed and the beach was tightly packed, then he let loose. During the bombardment, a Negro Marine ran up to the foxhole where Pere and the battalion commander were sheltering, and he stopped at the edge and said, "Permission to join y'all in that fox hole?" The commander invited him with some profanity. And don't ever stop to ask again. Pere, reflecting on this years later wondered what sort of life it was that taught a man to stop in the middle of an artillery bombardment and ask permission before joining two white men in a shelter. Not a just society, that was for sure.

On the beaches at Iwo Jima
Pere had a couple of close shaves. Once, when returning to his foxhole with some anti-tank grenades he had suggested fetching -- they were expecting a Japanese counter-attack -- a Japanese shell hit right in front of him. The explosion lifted him up and sent him hurtling through the air to land on his back. He was totally numb and deaf and thought he was paralyzed. But gradually feeling and hearing returned and when he checked himself, he had not gotten so much as a scratch. He ought to have gotten a Purple Heart, but this was Iwo Jima, and you had to bleed to get such a medal.

On another occasion, he and another combat engineer were sent to clear mines on the northern beaches. As they dug carefully through the sand, they came across a 500-lb aerial bomb, rigged as a mine. They looked at one another and said, If it blows, we'll never know. And went ahead and finished the job.

A third time, approaching the cave entrance to the underground tunnel complex, he and a buddy peeked up over the top of a ridge only to have a machine gun nest in the cave entrance open up on them. Bullets stitched across the top of the ridge and the two of them slid back down the slope. That was a close call, Pere told his buddy. The buddy didn't answer because he had taken a bullet in the forehead.

He remembers, too, the moment they unfurled that flag atop Suribachi. There had been a smaller flag earlier, but the commanding general ordered a larger one that could be seen from every point on the island. The impact of that flag on morale was incalculable, he said.

During the Occupation, he had the dubious privilege of walking through the middle of Nagasaki not long after it was nuked.

Afterward, Pere was twice offered the opportunity to be brevetted to officer. This was because of the initiative he had shown of several occasions during the battle. However, he was anxious to return home and get on with the urgent business of becoming my father before my mother (a/k/a the Sweetheart of the Seventh Fleet) could be tracked down by the aforesaid admirers of her morale-boosting snapshot.


The Great War
Pfc. Harry Singley,

304th Eng., 72nd "Rainbow" Div., AEF

Harry Singley

My grandfather on my mother's side served in the St. Mihel, Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  His narrative appears at the beginning of this post. He was a combat engineer, which means he had to build things in the middle of battle. The Great War was the first "industrial strength" war and nobody at the time thought it was the first of s series. They thought it was the "War to End All Wars," so there was still a touch of innocence about the whole endeavor. My Milchgeschwester, Mariellen, has a box of his memorabilia from that time, but none of us ever heard him talk about his experiences. Like most of the Silent Generation, he was markedly silent on the whole thing. 

I have the cane he used.

Francis Flynn


Francis T. Flynn. My other grandfather didn't make it into the fight. He was 18 in 1918, and joined the cadet corps. He tells it in his own words:

So while I was working on this piece-work job [making artillery shells for the French Army at Ingersoll-Rand], the principal of the high school, Sr. Felicita, called me on the telephone and told me, she said, "I sent your credits to Catholic University and you can be admitted without a College Board or any sort of examination, provided you are voluntarily inducted.
     So this was in the month of June and away I set sail.  I was down at Catholic University then from June until New Years.  ... [W]e were snowed into taking an ME course, because they were short on officers.  They said, "If you take this ME course, you will get to Camp Meade quicker.  The seniors will go first, then the juniors, then the sophomores, et cetera, y'know.  But if you take the mechanical engineering course, you'll see action quicker than you would if you took any other course.  What I really wanted to take was Philosophy and Letters and there was only one guy who held out for that...  He later became a monsignor. 
Note that "you'll see action sooner" was regarded in those days as an inducement. And also that the Pop-pop of TOF was really into Philosophy and Letters. Then, when the Armistice broke out, his parents begged him to stay in college. "We'll find the money somehow." But he thought he was much smarter than they -- unlike 18/19-year olds today -- and took the train back home. It was, he thought later, the biggest mistake of his life, save only that he married the Girl Next Door (literally) and produced my father, which from TOF's point of view was of considerable importance. No Flynn ever graduated college until TOF managed that feat. In fact, two of TOF's uncles never graduated high school.

Earlier military engagements in TOF's family don't count.  While it might be gratifying to read that Cromwell's Council issued an order to apprehend the person of Fiachra O'Flynn, describing him as armed and dangerous, it isn't covered by US Veterans Days.  Neither is great grandfather, Fernand E. O. Cantrel, who served as a 2nd Cannon Conductor in the 12th Regt. of Artillery, Tonkin Gulf Expedition, which participated in the Bac Ninh campaign in the First Brigade (de l'Isle) and the Lang Son and Tuyen Quang campaigns in the Second Brigade (de Négrier).
The Flynns arrived in the US after the Civil War and while the Singleys and Schwars arrived a decade earlier, none of them were in it, so far as we know. So, at this time we turn to the maternal ancestry of the Incomparable Marge!


US Civil War
Pvt. John H. Hammontree,
Co. H, 5th Tenn. Inf., US Vol.

Evacuation of Cumberland Gap
The great-great grandfather of the Incomparable Marge joined the Union Army when Confederates come into East Tennessee and told the fellas there 'you boys better be a-wearing gray come morning' or y'all be hanged.' Well, them hill people didn't cotton to that at-all, and so they lit out that night and crossed the mountains to sign up with Buell's army of the Ohio.  Nine Hammontree cousins signed up for the same company, as was common in them days. The letters written by some of the Hammontrees have been collected by Lewis A Lawson, “The Hammontrees Fight the Civil War: Letters from the Fifth East Tennessee Infantry.” Lincoln Herald 78 (Fall 1976): 117-124. In these letters are fierce sentiments in favor of Uncle Abe and against the Democrat Copperheads.

John fought in the Campaigns of Cumberland Gap, Stones River, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Atlanta. He was shot in the left leg during the attack on Confederate positions at Resaca. He seems to have been returned to duty in time for the Nashville Campaign. After the war, he died of complications stemming from his wound. His full story is here.


Creek War (War of 1812)
Pvt. James Hammontree,
Capt. Duncan's Co. of Col. Bunch's Regiment (2nd Regt., East Tennessee Militia).

Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Margie's great-great-grandfather's grandfather fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend under Gen. Andrew Jackson in the Creek (Red Stick) War.  This was part of the War of 1812 because the Red Sticks were acting at the behest of British and Spanish officials, as well as on their own.

Andrew Jackson's official report of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (27 March 1814) mentions that "a few companies" of Colonel Bunch were part of the right line of the American forces at this engagement. More than likely, some of those companies included Captains Francis Berry, Nicholas Gibbs (who was killed at the battle), Jones Griffin, and John McNair. In addition, muster rolls show some casualties in this battle in the companies led by Captains Moses Davis, Joseph Duncan, and John Houk. Other men from this regiment remained at Fort Williams to guard the post -- provision returns indicate that there were 283 men from Bunch's regiment at the fort at the time of the battle. James' brother William was also at the battle, and his brother Jacob had been in a previous militia regiment. There were a variety of more distant Hammontrees in other theaters of the war. The full story is here.

Later, when James had died, his widow Nancy had a heck of a time trying to collect the pension that was owed her. Bureaucracy is not new.


The Revolution
Pvt. John Hammontree,
Capt. John Mountjoy's Co. of Foot, 10th Virginia, Continental Line.

James Hammontree's great uncle John enlisted in the 10th Virginia at an unknown date and may have seen action with the regiment at Brandywine and Germantown before entering winter quarters at Valley Forge.  In January 1778, he was reported "sick in camp" and he died there on 24 Feb 1778. 

Pvt. Harris[on] Hammontree,
Capt. Wm. Cunningham's Co. of Foot, 1st Virginia, Continental Line.

The 1st Virginia has a long ancestry, and exists today as the 276th Eng. Battalion of the Virginia National Guard.  John Hammontree's younger brother Harris Hammontree enlisted in the 1st Virginia on Feb. 12, 1778, after the regiment had gone into encampment at Valley Forge.  In April and June he was reported as "sick," but unlike his older brother, he survived.  He likely participated in the battle of Monmouth in June 1778 after Baron von Steuben had trained them.  Most of the regiment was captured by the British at Charlestown, South Carolina, on May 12, 1780, but Harris may not have been with the regiment at that point.  He was killed by Indians on the Virginia frontier, 25 July 1781.

And that  takes us back to as early as any US Veterans Day is likely to cover. Uncover to all concerned!

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