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Retreat, Hell!

I've long been fascinated by military quotes, feeling that there's usually a life lesson in there somewhere. Could there be anything better than a good maxim from George Patton or Chesty Puller? One of my favorites is from Napoleon: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." Another classic comes from General Anthony McAuliffe, as he declined the German offer to surrender at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge: "Nuts."

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Several books have been written on military quotes and someday I may add another. But today marks the 100th anniversary of one of my favorites, one of the most famous of all time. This quote was by a man who was soon killed after his utterance, and never achieved the success that I believe he would otherwise have accomplished.

The German army had launched their spring offensive on the Western Front in March of 1918, in an attempt to break the stalemate of the Great War. This aggressive movement utilized seasoned German soldiers which had previously been fighting against Russia (just surrendered) on the Eastern Front, and was an attempt to settle the war before the Americans could become fully engaged.

Courtesy USMC archives
U.S. Marines were sent to assist the French at the Battle of Belleau Wood, and among those was Captain Lloyd Williams commanding the 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. As the Marines began plugging holes and establishing positions, they met French troops falling back. The French, conditioned over the past four years to the bitter fight, were more accepting of the general rules of warfare. In this environment, a French officer - unsure of his English -  wrote a note that was passed to Captain Williams. Williams read the note, which advised immediate retreat. In typical American fashion, especially in those first days of the U.S. intervention, Williams stood bravely and incredulously stated, "Retreat, Hell! We just got here."
To this day the United States Marines hold the Battle of Belleau Wood as a testament to their fortitude. The exclamation of Captain Williams fell into legend, and "Retreat, Hell!" became the motto of the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. I admire the audacity of Captain Williams; it was pure and genuine, and it cost him his life.

Nine days later, Captain Williams was killed in battle. Realizing that he was dying, he asked the medics and orderlies, "Don't bother with me. Take care of my brave men."

Five months later the war would be over. Captain Williams was posthumously promoted to Major and is generally recognized as the first Virginian to be killed during WWI. Make no mistake, plenty more would die before the armistice. Later in the war the attitudes of the Doughboys had changed, but I will never cease to admire that quote, that audacity, that courage. Retreat, Hell! We just got here.


All that is gold does not glitter - J.R.R. Tolkien

A friend called me a couple weeks ago. Her best friend’s dad had passed away, and that friend was considering selling some things her father had saved, many of them family relics. She asked if I would take a look, to see if there was anything of value. I was glad to do that. There were a few badges and ribbons from the United Confederate Veterans, things I once collected, as well as an 1830s sword that my friend Kirk helped with, and an 1875 Smith and Wesson pistol that my brother-in-law told me a little about.

As to value, I was intrigued to see a Forrest Cavalry Corps badge in near perfect condition, a 1901 UCV celluloid, and a Southern Cross of Honor. Those three pieces, alone, had to be worth at least a thousand bucks, probably more. But among all those things there was something intriguing, something that I knew had little monetary value.














There was a German 20 pfennig stamp from the WWII era with an image of Hitler. It had not been canceled, but even in pristine condition wasn’t worth more than a couple dollars. The envelope it came in was the story. Noted in the veteran’s handwriting was, “Given to me by a German Prisoner of War.” And in that moment I envisioned a scared prisoner, captive but alive, completely defeated. I knew that the American had done something - an act of kindness that will never be known. The stamp was given. It was not traded, it was not taken - it was given. Even on that day, as the German's war ended, the slight bit of paper was worthless, but it held a value to him as perhaps his last true possession. He hoped the American would understand. The GI kept the stamp until his death, proof that he did.


Today we trekked to the Tennessee Military Collectors Association exhibition to sell the UCV badges, and we got a lot of information on how to refurbish the old S&W 32 caliber pistol, from a man who sometimes works with Antiques Roadshow. But the one thing I didn’t want sold, well, that stayed in the family. Remaining with his daughter as part of the old soldier’s personal mementos is that stamp, brought to life only by his death. It is the story of defeat, kindness, redemption, and a memory that stays. It is the lasting relic of a moment that could only truly be understood by the victor and the vanquished on that day 70+ years ago. It is worthless. It is priceless.

High Flight

As the New Year of 2018 rolls in, I'm working late with the television on, reminding me of childhood days when it was a challenge to stay up late—to watch the sign off. Inevitably, if I could make it, and my parents gave permission, I would be watching one of the video versions of High Flight.

High Flight was a poem written by an American, John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Magee had earned a scholarship at Yale in 1941, but instead chose the opportunity to fly with the Royal Canadian Air Force—the United States not yet having entered World War II. Technically illegal, the United States was seemingly indifferent to those who wanted to cross into Canada to help in the Battle of Britain.

Sadly, during training in England, Gillespie suffered a mid-air collision and was killed, just months after having written what would become one of the most famous poems in history. High Flight was composed as he flew in a Spitfire, and today is the official poem of both the Canadian Royal Air Force and the British Royal Air Force. President Ronald Reagan quoted from the poem after the space shuttle Challenger disaster, United States Air Force cadets are required to memorize it, and it is inscribed on countless gravestones from Arlington National Cemetery, to Canada, to England and beyond.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

It is as fine a poem as has been written, and reflects the pure understanding of the 19-year-old pilot, John Magee. RIP


Janice Keck Literary Award

I felt extremely honored tonight as the winner of the Janice Keck Literary award for non-fiction. This has been an exciting process, first writing and editing, then working through design and publication. I'm hopeful the book—"The Battlefield Guide to Life: War Stories and Life Lessons from Julius Caesar to Sergeant York"—will be in print sometime in February.



U.S. Marine - 1917

This is Robert Cecil Williamson of Granville, Tennessee, probably 1917, as he joined the United States Marine Corps. While he hoped to be sent overseas to fight, most of his time was spent in the states, with a short tour of duty in the Dominican Republic. The U.S. was concerned with the Germans using the Dominican Republic as a staging ground for an invasion, and basically took over that island country for quite some time. The U.S. also had other interests in the area, not all of them altruistic. It's a little-told story, but the Dominicans - rightfully tired of American intervention in their government—wanted us out of there. I'm betting this man—my great-uncle—was glad to oblige them. Uncle Cecil came home after the war, a fine man who lived into old age, and one of my favorite relatives.


Battle of Franklin Memorial

(The following is a repost from our Facebook page regarding the memorial observance that took place at the Carter House, Franklin, Tennessee, ten days ago. We had been asked to get the pictures on our blog website, as well, and glad to do so. James)

Hundreds visited the Carter House this evening to memorialize those who fell at the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. The 10,000 luminaries represent the casualties from that day. Especially poignant was the light shining from inside the newly restored Farm Office, the most bullet-riddled building still remaining from the American Civil War. Lest we forget.








I bet you've never heard this story!

The best way to experience a museum is to listen to the stories that the objects are telling, to look beyond the "stuff", to hear the tales the curators want you to know. I've been to a lot of museums, but the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona beats any of them as to sheer size. Covering 80 acres with over 300 aircraft stationed in hangars and on the environs of the desert, you'll find yourself wandering, looking, and loving the aircraft. More importantly, enjoying the stories.

F-105 Thunderchief
Recently, as I wandered through the hangars, suffering through the heat of July in a desert, I stumbled across one of the most bizarre moments from history. Here was a P-51D Mustang designed to replicate one of a WWII pilot, Lt. Colonel Louis Curdes. At the end of 1942 Curdes graduated from flight school, gained the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, and was sent to fly and fight over Italy and North Africa. Within a month he had shot down an Italian fighter and seven German Messerschmitts, making himself an Ace. He was a master piloting his P-38 Lightning, but his luck would not hold; he was shot down by a German pilot and imprisoned in Italy. Escaping, he was able to work himself back to Allied lines, and soon volunteered for the Pacific Theater.

In the Pacific he found himself behind the stick of a P-51D Mustang, and soon found his mark against a Japanese Zero. Curdes was in an elite club: he was one of only three Americans to shoot down Italian, German, and Japanese fighters. The markings on his Mustang sported the flags of those three countries, but he was soon to add another.

Original WWII flight patches
While circling a downed pilot just off the coast of the Philippines, Curdes spotted an American C-47 transport plane, probably lost, headed toward a landing on the Japanese-held island of Batan. If the transport landed in enemy territory, Curdes realized, it would mean certain death for captain, crew, and passengers - he had to stop the plane from landing on Batan. First, he attempted to radio the pilot - no luck. He then crossed to the front in an attempt to wave it off. Still no luck. In an act of desperation, he took the only - the last - option remaining. He flew his Mustang - Bad Angel - to the rear of the C-47, took careful aim, and with a quick burst of his machine gun shot out its starboard engine. Crippled, the transport turned away from its approach, toward the sea. Curdes then took out its port engine, forcing it to ditch into the Pacific near the pilot he had previously been observing. The transport pilot made a controlled landing and Curdes saw that all aboard were able to evacuate to life rafts.

P-51D Mustang, painted as that of Lt. Colonel Curdes
The next morning Curdes guided rescuers to the site, where his fellow fighter pilot and a dozen people from the transport awaited help. Curdes was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, though historians disagree as to whether he earned it for shooting down his own plane or for prior service in the Mediterranean.

But no one would disagree that Curdes had a bizarre sense of humor. Elevating himself above the other men with markings of kills from three countries, Curdes added a fourth to his Mustang: the Stars and Stripes of the United States. Thanks to the Pima Air and Space Museum for telling this great story. One more thing: he later married one of the nurses on board the C-47 he shot down. What a story.


Stuck in a rut? Ask for help!

A few weeks ago I went home to the family farm to help my dad check on cattle. Spring calves had started to arrive and we needed to match cows and calves. Matching is a simple process, determined by seeing which newborn calves are sucking on which cows. It’s important to know, something that couldn’t be put off.

As we started to leave for the farm, we realized that Dad’s truck had a flat tire. We needed to get to the cattle while it was still early, so, contrary to the thoughts of my father who still likes to drive on the farm, we hopped into my Xterra. It’s a good 4WD machine, and since I’ve been four-wheeling for decades my only worry was its worn tires. The farm is a quick five-minute drive from his house, so we arrived quickly.

Dad opened the gate and we drove in, splashing through a water-filled mud hole. It had recently rained and water was standing in places, a slight concern with my old tires. We needed to “salt” the cattle, pouring mineral salt into troughs, but the road to the troughs was through a hayfield. That dirt road, in the same location as it has been for the past 40 years, rises and falls on the gently rolling hills of the farm.

About a hundred yards into the hayfield I found myself trapped in a rut of the road, with a significant amount of water in front of me. I needed to either go forward, try to drive out the sides, or back up. My dad laughed, said he’d noticed my tires, and jubilantly asked me, “What are you going to do now?!” I told him that I figured I’d just drive on through, that I knew what I was doing.

I locked my truck into four-wheel drive, backed up a little so that I could get speed, and started in. Daddy joked and said he’d walk with me to get the tractor if I got stuck. Deal. I laughed, fishtailed a little, and made it through with no problem. He told me I got lucky, with my response that I had learned from the best. That made him happy, no doubt.

We repeated that a couple more times, the worst place being right before we got to the troughs. Daddy opined that he thought the ruts in the road were like life, that it’s important to take them on. Have the guts to drive forward when you should be able to make it, but don’t be embarrassed to stop and back up when that’s the obvious choice. When you get stuck - and we all get stuck - don’t be afraid to ask for help from the fellow that will walk with you to get the proverbial tractor.


My dad has never been a philosopher, but now on the cusp of 80 years old he’s beginning to sound a lot more like the man who gave me advice when I was 16. Back then he wanted to get me on the right track, now he wants to affirm that I am. I think I am. I know when to accelerate, when to back up, and how to rock a truck when I get mired. But if I do get stuck - and I’m certain that I will again - I’m not afraid to ask for help. We all get stuck in the ruts of life, though we’re usually able to work ourselves free. But when the problem’s bigger than you alone can handle, reach out. Don’t be silent and stuck. Ask for help.




Keep those resolutions!

Here we are in the first week of 2017, when the new year is pure and inviting and capable of anything. Our resolutions are fresh and unbroken. My friends have told me their resolutions, and they're the same as you would expect: lose weight, pay off bills, travel some, find that dream job, and so forth. I think most of us should add one more resolution. We need to resolve to keep our resolutions.

Battle of Crecy - 15th century depiction
There are at least three important things that are key to successful resolutions. The first is to set specific goals. Don't say you're going to lose weight, or travel more, or be a better person. Say to yourself: I want to lose 20 pounds, I want to go to a Broadway play in New York, I want to save $3,000 toward a new car, I want to take a photography class, I want to (fill in your own goal). Second, set no more than just a couple of goals - they must be realistic and attainable. Achieve those goals, then feel free to set more in midsummer. Third, approach your resolutions with real resolve. You must say to yourself, "This is something I want, and something I will work and fight for."

It's a lack of time that usually holds me back from my resolutions. At other times it's been as simple as not knowing where to start, a lack of true commitment, or maybe the unwillingness to take a risk.


The Battle of Crecy - the first major battle of the Hundred Years War (1346) - is famous for three things. First, the English used the longbow to tremendous effect; second, it was the first European battle with a practical use of cannon; third, the Black Prince earned his spurs, and his reputation. To me, though, the most intriguing story from the Battle of Crecy is that of King John of Bohemia.

Monument to King John of Bohemia
King John found himself on the battlefield of Crecy as one of the leaders of the French side. Edward III had placed his English army at the top of a slight hill, his archers on the flanks, waiting for the opportunity to unleash their arrows. The French knights and men at arms were exhausted, having marched for many hours to the battlefield; yet they were ordered to advance up the hill, which is never an advantage for cavalry. King John was 50 years old and had been blind for a decade, yet he insisted that he be a part of this battle. He had resolved that he would contribute to the cause, and he would not be denied. He inquired of his compatriots as to the whereabouts of his son, and was told that he - Charles of Bohemia - was fighting elsewhere.

The French were losing the battle, yet King John requested of his men that they help him to the front so that he could strike a blow against the English. In an act that, to me, defines what it meant to be a knight, they lashed their bridles together so that the king could come forward without losing their guidance. He requested, simply, that they ride forward with him to the point where the battle sounded loudest, and that they allow him to strike one blow with his sword against the English invaders.

I love that story, and it's long been an inspiration to me. The key to life isn't blowing out the candles on the cake and waiting for the wishes to come true. The key is to set that goal and tell yourself - if you really want it - that you'll work to get it. Steel yourself with resolve, grit, and the willingness to keep working for what you want. Failure is temporary - a learning experience - and is nothing to fear. Set those goals, make them realistic, and see what happens.

L'eglise Saint-Severin - Crecy
The morning after the Battle of Crecy, Blind King John of Bohemia and his trusted knights were all found dead where the front lines of the English had been. Their horses were still tied together, and evidence showed that King John had struck the blow - and more - that he so wanted to strike. His resolve had been tested, and he had firmly met it. I want to do the same. So do you. No time for excuses, no time to be afraid.




Do you really think you're stronger now?

There's an expression that's floated around a lot these days: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. The quote is the corruption of a line by Fredrich Nietzsche from his book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. The line from the book is actually, "From life's school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger." To an extent that's true - I get the point of the expression.

Fredrich Nietzsche
I think I would have loved the chance to spend a day with Nietzsche, because I'd certainly have learned a lot. I also know I would have disagreed with almost everything he believed, and especially that little maxim. Nietzsche was plagued with poor health most of his life, and certainly wasn't a poster boy for such a thought. At the very least he was not proof of concept. The reality is that while some people may benefit from a little stress and adversity, too much is usually harmful.

There's a military expression called "The Thousand Yard Stare." It describes a soldier who's had too much of that stress and adversity that Nietzsche thinks would have made him stronger. Thousands of soldiers have come home from war and dealt with the unimaginable. They've used a type of compartmentalization to separate themselves from what they've seen and done, so that they can deal with life moving forward. But they're never the same as they were before.

Marines Call it That 2,000 Yard Stare by Thomas Lea
Last week I was talking with a buddy who was dealing with a lot of personal things in his life, and the duties - for lack of a better word - of Christmas had just overwhelmed him. He had that Thousand Yard Stare, but I don't think he realized it. In fact, as I looked around during the week before Christmas, I saw that emotion - or lack of - in checkout lines, in parking lots, and in the little notes friends were writing on Facebook. More than ever I recognized frustration, despair, and loneliness in people who were trying to do everything, and to be everything. I even saw a couple articles suggesting people abandon social media for a few days, because it's easy to come under the impression that all our friends are living perfect lives - judging from their Facebook posts and Instagram pictures.

Don't put too much pressure on yourself, and don't think you can do it all. The perfect Christmas gift for the kids, that morning run with your buddy, the boss's artificial deadlines, the date for New Year's Eve, the perfectly spotless house for your friends, the Christmas card you needed to send, the call to your mom, that blog with no misspellings or improper use of adverbs. It can be too much, and too many of us suffer, striving for some impossible point of perfection. We're usually our own worst critic.

If it doesn't kill you it will make you stronger? Nope, not true at all. Just do your best, and be satisfied in that.