History

SALUTING AN UNCOMMON HERO

Posted by on Nov 11, 2014 in Blog, History, Uncategorized | 6 comments

FlagOn this Veteran’s Day, I want to give homage to Alex, a World War II hero, a United States Navy fighter ace and Medal of Honor nominee. Alex and I worked in the same Wells Fargo Bank office for six years back in the early 70’s. He worked upstairs in the Trust Department and I worked downstairs in the bank. I would see this man’s smiling face every day as he walked through the lobby and up the stairs. We would exchange pleasantries and at times chat in the lunch room. When my parents wanted to open a trust account, I set up the appointment and introduced my father, a retired Navy Captain, to Alex Vraciu, the Trust Officer.

By the mid 70’s I had relocated to the east coast and never saw Alex or most of my former coworkers again. One evening in the 80’s, I happened to be watching a program about World War II on Navy Seal 2television about the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. Since I had visited the Marianas chain of islands, I was particularly intrigued. They were telling the story of the famous Navy fighter pilot, Alex Vraciu, already designated an ace because of his previous kills. But on June 19, 1943 he destroyed six Japanese dive bombers in a period of eight minutes. My eyes were glued to the screen watching the film footage as they detailed Alex’s many victories and illustrious career. I was stunned. Alex knew I came from a Navy family, yet he never mentioned he had served in the Navy.

Alex was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his actions at the First Battle of the Philippine Sea, but it was later downgraded to a Navy Cross. By the time the war ended, Alex was the US Navy’s fourth highest ranking ace. After the war he became a test pilot and played a part in forming the post-war Naval Air Reserve program. He was promoted to Commander and led squadron VF-51 from 1956 to 1958. In 1964 he retired and went into banking.

Commander Alexander Vraciu in front of an FJ-3 "Fury" like the one in which he won top honors at the 1957 Naval Air Weapons Meet in El Centra, California. - U.S. Navy Photo

Commander Alexander Vraciu in front of an FJ-3 “Fury” like the one in which he won top honors at the 1957 Naval Air Weapons Meet in El Centra, California. – U.S. Navy Photo 

Alex Vraciu was a hero, not only for his naval exploits, but also because of his remarkable humility. I suspect he and my father probably shared some Navy stories, but my father was also a man who did not believe in calling attention to one’s success, so he never shared what he knew of Alex with me.

Alex Vraciu is now 96 years old.  

“Fair Winds and Following Seas” Alex.

 

A note on a webpage set up to honor Alex states “ALEX VRACIU HAS NO DIRECT CONNECTION WITH THIS WEBSITE. THIS IS AN EFFORT BY HIS FRIENDS AND ADMIRERS, NOT BY ALEX HIMSELF. HE IS TOO MODEST A MAN TO PETITION FOR REDRESS.”

http://www.alexvraciu.net/Alex-Vraciu-Bio.html

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The United States Navy 239th Birthday

Posted by on Oct 13, 2014 in Blog, History | Comments Off on The United States Navy 239th Birthday

The American War for Independence gave birth to what is now the United States Navy.

In late May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to push back against the British King’s coercive acts. April battles in Massachusetts brought the colonies into open warfare with British troops, so in part the function of this Congress was to establish and manage the war effort.

Until that time each of the thirteen colonies had their own militias made up of part-time citizen soldiers. Now, a unifying army was needed. In June The Continental Army was established to coordinate the military efforts between the thirteen colonies.

Britain not only had the world’s most powerful army, but their navy dominated the seas. The British navy was providing material support to the British forces in the colonies and hindering colonial trade. John Adams, among others, was advocating for an American fleet needed to defend coastal towns from British raiders, and protect the import and export of goods. Many of the Delegates to the Congress were initially reluctant and hoped for reconciliation with the Crown. They viewed the establishment of a navy a step towards independence, and a foolhardy attempt to take on the strongest navy in the world. 

On October 3, 1775, resolutions and arguments were made regarding the establishment of a fleet. By October 5, word had come of more English supply ships en route to Quebec. Delegates from New England were far more vocal advocates for a navy than their mid-Atlantic and Southern counterparts, and fortunately they made up the committee that came up with a plan.

On October 13, the Second Continental Congress voted on legislation authorizing two sailing vessels to be armed and manned by crews of eighty. These ships were to be sent out for a period of three months to block British transports from carrying munitions and re-supplying the British forces in the colonies. Fortuitously, that same day, a letter from George Washington was read in Congress indicating that he had acquired three schooners to cruise off Massachusetts to intercept enemy supply ships. This seemed to provide all the motivation needed to develop the Continental Navy. Congress soon established a Naval Committee charged to establish and equip a fleet.

Maritime ships were recruited and refitted with armaments to serve as war vessels.  During the war, ultimately more than fifty armed ships made up the Continental Navy. They seized enemy supplies, and transported munitions and provisions from Europe. The new Navy captured nearly 200 British ships, some near the British coast, which diverted part of the British navy from protecting their own ships and

The Navy Seal

The Navy Seal

trade routes.

After the Revolutionary War, the Navy ships were sold and the seamen and officers let go. The Constitution of the United States, which was ratified in 1789, empowered Congress “to provide and maintain a Navy” which it has done ever since.

“The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.”

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Remembering September 11, 2001 ~ And Two Passengers on Flight 93

Posted by on Sep 11, 2014 in Blog, Commentary, History | 6 comments

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Some incidents impact a nation so dramatically that people never forget where they were when they learned of the event ― September 11, 2001 was such a day. 

I was living in northern Virginia and working at the Community Bible Study National Service Center located in Reston Virginia. Since it was early September it was at the time of year that many of our CBS classes around the country were just getting underway again.  All the staff members attended one of the local classes, and a number of my co-workers were at class that morning.

I was in the office when we learned of the news, so immediately the television was turned on and many gathered around to watch and learn of the unfolding events ― and to pray.  Our normal office routine allowed for a time every morning when we would gather and pray.

Because of the office’s location in the Washington D C metropolitan area, we were even more impacted because the Pentagon was not far away. Some of our staff either knew people or had family serving in the military. My Navy son was stationed in Florida. My youngest son was a student at the Virginia Military Institute miles away in Lexington, Virginia. He was impacted by the attack on the Pentagon as he was on guard duty at the time and was one of many who had to deliver tragic news to fellow students about their parents. And then our staff heard that Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, PA was probably intended for the White House or the Capitol.

What we would soon learn was that two of the passengers of Flight 93 were two Community Bible Study Leaders, Don and Jean Peterson. Don was a CBS Teaching Director and Jean was a CBS Prayer Chairman. They lived in New Jersey and were on their way to Yosemite National Park in California for a vacation. They were offered the opportunity to take Flight 93 instead of their later scheduled flight, and took it.

The courageous narrative of how the passengers and crew members aboard the plane planned and overtook the hijackers is powerful.  There also were many stories of heroism in New York and Washington. 

In the days following September 11 flags appeared everywhere, churches were filled.

And for a time, the United States of America was just that ― united.

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VIRGINIA IS NOT JUST FOR LOVERS

Posted by on Aug 3, 2014 in Blog, Commentary, History | Comments Off on VIRGINIA IS NOT JUST FOR LOVERS

. . . it is also for historical film lovers.

Those of us who love history, look forward to movies or television programs that feature an era, event, location, or person we find fascinating. It’s even more fun if it is filmed in a location where you live or work. And, there is always the chance that you might get a chance to be a walk on or an extra. Here are some movies filmed in Virginia.

 

REVOLUTIONARY WAR ERA FILMS

 

TURN ~ A Revolutionary War era series shown on AMC about the Culper Ring, America’s first intelligence organization. It was based on the Alexander Rose book Washington’s Spies.   

Shirley Plantation

Shirley Plantation

TURN was filmed in numerous Virginia locations, Doswell, Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown near Ashland, Kittiewan Plantation, Westover Plantation, CentreHillMuseum, Farmer’s Bank, Petersburg Farmer’s Market, Shirley Plantation, Southside Railroad Depot.

 

JOHN ADAMS ~ A miniseries based on the David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize winning biography of John Adams

JOHN ADAMS was filmed in various Colonial Williamsburg locations

The Wren Building at the College of  William & Mary

The Wren Building
at the College of
William & Mary

including The Wren Chapel in the Christopher Wren Building at the College of William & Mary.

There is nothing unusual about seeing folks wandering around in period garb anyplace in the greater Williamsburg, Virginia area. One day, while some scenes of John Adams were being filmed, I happened to be doing some errands downtown. When I glanced across the street at the set, I was taken aback a bit by the snow-covered lawn in the middle of summer.

 

 

CIVIL WAR ERA FILMS

 

GODS AND GENERALS ~ An epic movie, based on Jeff Shaara’s God’s and Generals detailing many of the battles that led up to Gettysburg.

GODS AND GENERALS was filmed in Lexington, Richmond,

 

Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. One of the filming locations was Robert Duvall’s estate in Virginia. He played Robert E. Lee in the film.

 

 

Virginia Military  Institute

Virginia Military
Institute

GODS AND GENERALS  was released in 2003 and is the prequel to the 1993 film Gettysburg. The movie is predominantly about Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson when he experienced numerous successes against the Union from 1861 to 1863. One of the film locations was The Virginia Military Institute (VMI). After Jackson graduated from West Point and served in the Mexican-American War he became a professor at VMI. When the Civil War began, Jackson re-entered the Army and took command of the VMI Corps of Cadets, where the students began training recruits to fight.

My younger son, a student at VMI at the time was one of the many cadet extras in the film. VMI looks much as it did during the Civil War so it did not require many alterations to the façade of the University.

 

LINCOLN ~ Addresses the last few months of Lincoln’s life that focuses his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment. It was based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns-Goodwin.

LINCOLN was filmed in multiple locations in and around Richmond and Petersburg. 

 

COLD MOUNTAIN ~ A Civil War era novel based on the book Cold Mountain written by Charles Frazier.

COLDMOUNTAIN was filmed in location near Petersburg, Carter’s Grove Plantation in Williamsburg, and Belle Isle in the James River near Richmond

 

Back in the early seventies, the filming of a scene from HAROLD AND MAUDE took place in downtown Palo Alto, California next to my office. Many of us who worked in the area would spend our lunch time watching part of the fascinating process of making movies.

 

Have you ever had the opportunity to live or work where you could observe a television program or movie being filmed?

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MEMORIAL DAY ~ Is The Unknown Soldier Truly Unknown?

Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Blog, Commentary, History, Uncategorized | Comments Off on MEMORIAL DAY ~ Is The Unknown Soldier Truly Unknown?

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Have you ever heard a story that was so unforgettable that you even remember where you were when it was told? I can recall such a story our teacher shared with our class in May of 1959, an account that has remained burned in my memory ever since. It goes like this:

There was a little boy, about five years old who was the delight of his mother and father. One day he raced outside and began playing near a tulip bed. His blond curls were almost as yellow as the tulips. When the sun came out from behind a cloud, several yellow butterflies hovered over his head. His mother marveled and said, “They think you’re a flower, Dick. It’s good luck to have a butterfly land on your head. A butterfly is the symbol of immortality.”

Cloudless Sulpher Butterfly

Cloudless Sulpher Butterfly

 

The mother told her husband of the butterfly event and they looked for pictures of yellow butterflies to be able to identify what variety they were. It was determined that they were Cloudless Sulphur butterflies that migrate from north to south and back each spring and autumn. They often hide near the ground and only come out when the sun shines.

The young boy’s father died when he was only eleven which drew themother and son even closer to each other. According to his mother, Dick continued to grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man. He grew into a loving man of upstanding character and he was his mother’s joy.

Even though he completed his education at a university, when war in Europe broke out and America joined in, he decided not to enter service as an officer but as a dough boy.

Like any mother she expressed her concern for him, but Dick replied, “The best thing to do with a life is to give it away, you taught me that and this certainly is the best way to give it, for our America. Nothing can happen that’s unbearable.” After his training, Dick was shipped overseas, and for a long time the mail they shared kept he and his mother as close as possible. But the day came when she received a notice that Dick was missing in action.

The mother never lost hope, even as the war drew to a close and the men began returning home. She thought of her son as a symbol of all that was good in America even if he never returned home.

Congress approved a resolution March 4, 1921, providing for the burial of an unidentified American Soldier at a memorial to the war to be built in Arlington National Cemetery. Dick’s mother felt certain that the Unknown Soldier was her beloved son. She saved money so that she could travel to and attend the dedication of the monument and she asked God for a sign that it was her precious Dick who was to be interred there.

On Memorial Day that same year an Unknown Soldier was exhumed from each of four cemeteries in France. These remains were placed in identical caskets and in October a highly decorated, wounded veteran chose the Unknown by placing white roses on one of the caskets. This would be the Unknown Soldier that would represent all of the unknowns. On a very solemn Armistice Day Nov. 11, 1921, President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment ceremonies in Arlington. Inscribed on the tomb are the words,

“Here Rests in Honored Glory

An American Soldier Known But To God.”

Dick’s mother was at the Navy Yard when the ship carrying the flag draped coffin arrived and she was in attendance at the long ceremony. The next day she was among thousands who attended the internment; still certain it was her son who would represent all the missing. She only needed the sign she believed God would provide. She gave a soldier her own flowers to add to the many already gracing the grave. When the ceremony ended the attendees drifted away, and she was left to wonder, where was God’s sign?

She went home to Kentucky but returned to Arlington Cemetery the next April. She scattered yellow tulips on the grave and pleaded with God for the reassurance she sought. She bent and kissed the yellow tulips and got up to leave. As the noon hour bells rung, she turned to give a last look at the tomb where she saw a mass of Cloudless Sulphur butterflies hovering over the tomb before lighting on the yellow tulips. She believed it was the sign she had asked for, and was convinced God had given her the sign that here rested her son, a proud and patriotic American still serving his nation.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

 

Over the years I’ve wondered about the veracity of this story and, with access that the internet allows, it was easy to research. Yellow Butterflies, by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1922. Whether the author’s story was entirely fiction or based on actual events remains a mystery, much like the American WWI hero entombed at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington.

To learn more about the fascinating history of the Tomb of the Unknowns and the remarkable sentinels who stand guard every day, see:

http://www.army.mil/article/38013/

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THE TRUE POCAHONTAS ~ A STORY YOU MAY NOT KNOW

Posted by on Apr 3, 2014 in Blog, Books, History, Uncategorized | 2 comments

April 5th will be the 400th anniversary of the wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. It is to be commemorated this weekend at the original church site in Historic Jamestowne with a reenactment.

The story of Pocahontas that most of us learned as children is very different than the story I heard a few years ago when we relocated to within eight miles of Jamestowne/Jamestown, VA. I found out from a friend that her husband is the Mattaponi Indian tribe historian, one of the two remaining tribes of the Powhatan nation.  Several years ago, Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and his coauthor Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” published The True Story of Pocahontas a book, based on the sacred oral history of her people. Her story was hidden for four hundred years by her people for fear of potential retribution. Their treatise explains the motives behind the myths as well as a reasoned explanation of their version of her story.

Dr. Custalow explains that the Algonquian tribes of the Virginia Coastal Plain did not have a written language so the oral history was passed down through quiakros (Powhatan priests) within each of the tribes in a “strict and disciplined manner to maintain accuracy”. These Mattaponi elders were venerated and protected leaders to ensure their story would be truthfully told. 

The English version of her story primarily comes from the writings of Captain John Smith. However, there are significant differences in the Powhatan and John Smith/English versions of the Pocahontas story: Here are a few:

Statue of Pocahontas  at Jamestowne

Statue of Pocahontas
at Jamestowne

 

Her birth and family: 

Smith/English Version – Pocahontas was born to one of many alliance wives.

Powhatan Version – Pocahontas, whose original name was Matoaka, was born to Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, the paramount chief of the Powhatan chiefdom, and Pocahontas of the Mataponi, who died in childbirth. Pocahontas’ mother was his first wife, the wife of choice and the one he loved. Other wives were alliance marriages, temporary unions meant to unite the 30 plus tribes under one paramount leader and to increase the Powhatan nation. Matoaka was later called Pocahontas to honor her deceased mother. As the last child of her mother she became particularly favored by her father.

Relationship with John Smith and English:

Smith Version –Pocahontas wandered freely through the Jamestown settlement and risked her own life by to save his when he was in the midst of a four day ceremony making him werowance, a “secular chief” of the English tribe.

Powhatan –Pocahontas was ten years old and did not live near Jamestowne. As the chief’s beloved child, she would not have wandered freely but always been under protective supervision. She was often with her father when he was in the midst of the English so she would be familiar to Smith. The Powhatans accepted the English as another tribe, even making Smith werowance. During these ceremonies, in which quiakros would have been involved, children were not present. In addition to not being present, there was no need to save Smith’s life as his life was not in danger.

Pocahontas kidnapping:

English Version– Pocahontas was kidnapped and held for ransom by Captain Samuel Argall when they learned that she was staying with a northern tribe. She was to be kept as a bargaining tool, to get what food they wanted from the Indian nation and to ensure their well being. The English at Jamestown were trying multiple methods to make their venture profitable to continue to validate their presence and ensure that financing of Jamestowne continued from the Virginia Company and the crown.

Powhatan Version–Pocahontas had come of age, and for her protection and to keep her away from the “English” tribe that had grown greedy in their demands and usurpation of land, she was married to a warrior, Kocoum, brother of the chief of the Patowomac (northernmost tribe). While in his village she and her husband had a son. In order to protect his village from the English threats, the Patowomac chief collaborated with Argall and allowed him to kidnap Pocahontas. Argall gave the chief a copper pot to make it appear that the girl was given up for material goods. Sometime after she was kidnapped, Argall’s men returned to the village and killed her husband. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca paid the ransom for her release, but she was not returned. He was reluctant to mount a rescue attempt for fear of endangering Pocahontas.

Pocahontas conversion and marriage:

English Version – Pocahontas was transferred to a location near present day Richmond where she was instructed in the English language and ways, and taught about Christianity. She was told that her father would not meet her captor’s demands. When Pocahontas grew depressed, a request was sent to her father to send one of her sisters. During Pocahontas captivity she became acquainted with John Rolfe, an English colonist who had learned how to cultivate tobacco from the Powhatans. A pious widower, Rolfe wanted to marry Pocahontas, but required her conversion to Christianity. She was baptized, took the name Rebecca and was married to Rolfe.

Powhatan Version – Her father sent Mattachanna, the sister who raised her, and her husband, Uttamattamakin a priest of the highest order and an advisor to Pocahontas’ father. Nothing is known of what happened during Pocahontas captivity until her sister and brother-in-law arrived.  When they were reunited, Pocahontas informed Mattachanna that she had been raped and was pregnant. Mattaponi history suggests reasons why they believe someone other than John Rolfe was the father. Pocahontas’ feelings were unknown, but as Powhatan royalty, she probably saw the alliance as helpful to her people and that would have been very important to her. Pocahontas gave birth to Thomas Rolfe sometime later.

 Pocahontas-and-Thomas-Rolfe-The-Sedgeford-Portrait


Pocahontas-and-Thomas-Rolfe-The-Sedgeford-Portrait

Pocahontas travel to England and death:

English Version – John Rolfe, Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, and some Powhatans (including her sister and brother-in-law) traveled to England to demonstrate the potential profitability of tobacco, thus assuring continued support for the Virginia colony. Pocahontas was presented to the crown and society, thereby assuring England that relations with Native Americans were positive. In March of 1617, shortly after departing England, Pocahontas suddenly became ill and died. Rolfe requested the Captain make port at the closest church, St. George’sChurch at Gravesend, where she was buried. The English attributed her death to pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Powhatan Version – Samuel Argall, her captor, was the Captain of the ship the Rolfe family traveled to and from England. Not yet on the open seas, Pocahontas and Rolfe dined in the Captain’s quarters. After returning to her room, she immediately began vomiting, and told her sister “that the English must have put something in her food”. Mattachanna tried caring for her but Pocahontas went into convulsions. Rolfe was summoned and she died within minutes. After her funeral, young Thomas Rolfe was given to relatives of John Rolfe in England to raise. The ship, passengers and crew continued their voyage to Virginia. Pocahontas was in good health when they left England. It is believed that she had gotten information of schemes to dethrone her father and take the Powhatan land, and that she would share that knowledge with her people. Mattaponi sacred oral history believes she was poisoned, but they do not know by whom, or how many people were involved. Chief Powhatan grew despondent and had to be relieved of his responsibilities. He died within a year. Some descendants of the Indian son Pocahontas bore are still alive today. Her son, Thomas Rolfe, was raised in England and returned to Virginia as an adult after John Rolfe was deceased. His descendants number among many prominent Virginia families.

 

~         For more information on Dr. Lin Custalow’s book: 

         The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History

http://www.amazon.com/True-Story-Pocahontas-Other-History-ebook/dp/B0028ADK1G/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396482338&sr=1-1&keywords=the+real+pocahontas

~       For more information about the commemorative wedding service:

https://historicjamestowne.org/

 

Most of this post appeared previously in September 2012 in Colonial Quills.

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