Saturday, December 2, 2017

Four Soldiers from the Great War

It was April 6, 2017, one hundred years to the day since President Wilson and the US Congress declared war on Germany.  We had driven from Paris into Northern France to the site of the infamous Hindenburg Line.  On that beautiful early morning we stood on a knoll overlooking the landscape once occupied by soldiers and trenches from opposing armies.  All evidence of the ‘Great War’ had disappeared, as we were surrounded by vast fields of wheat and mustard seed.  We had begun our journey into the past.

Dave Glaser and Pete Conroy with our 'Beautiful French Girl'
We, are Dr. David Glaser who has taught history at many of the US military instillations around the world, including Viet Nam during the war there, for the University of Maryland.  Neal Tallon whose father Daniel Tallon was a WWI veteran.  Pete Conroy and myself for our grandfather Winslow B. Watson and his brother Mark S. Watson who were also WWI veterans.  Our mission was to, as near as possible locate the areas where they had served in this conflict.  There was one more WWI veteran whose path we were tracing, our old family friend Mr. William Shemin who just last year had the Silver Star that he was awarded for bravery under fire during his time in the trenches here, up graded to the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama.  Neal, Pete and myself are Viet Nam War army vets from northern New York State and with the help of David, the historian and US Marine veteran are attempting to walk in the footsteps of these WWI soldiers.

Pete, Neal and myself...the Viet Nam Vets...Paris, 2017.
The Watson boys grew up in Plattsburgh, NY and were educated at Union College; Winslow in engineering and Mark in journalism.  Daniel Tallon grew up on a farm in Beekmantown, a short distance north of Plattsburgh and left for the war when drafted in 1917.  William Shemin enlisted in 1917.  He lived at that time in New York City, however his later years were spent just north of Plattsburgh at Chazy Landings on the shores of Lake Champlain.

Capt. Winslow B. Watson, 106th Inf. American 27th Division
Driving north from Paris through areas of large farm fields we finally arrived in the town of Peronne which having been destroyed by shell fire during the war, had been rebuilt and is the present location of an excellent WWI museum.  The Somme American Cemetery is located outside the nearby town of Bony where Americans who fell in battle over this large area are buried.
Capt. Winslow B. Watson fought with his company in the second Battle of the Somme with the 106th Infantry, American 27th Division.  This battle continued from the fall of 1917 till the end of the war on November 11, 1918.  Our group was standing on the knoll between Guillemont Farm and the former site of Quennemont Farm.  A very striking French farm girl was out this early morning planting potatoes with a large piece of machinery.  She was kind enough to make a call to verify the farm locations.  During that battle, Capt. Winslow Watson led his troops on the attack of the nearly impregnable, Hindenburg Line which had to be breached to defeat the Germans who had been on the run since the Battle of St. Quenten Canal during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  These operations were difficult to envision while looking over these wide open well-kept fields today. 

Neal Tallon on the Sgt. York Trail
A direct order quoted here from the history of the 27th Division shows the seriousness of the operation.“Those were desperate days.  It was truly victory or death.  ‘If a gun team cannot remain here alive it will remain here dead, but in any case, it will remain here’ reads a paragraph of the order.  ‘Should any man, through shell shock or other cause attempt to surrender, he will remain here dead’ reads another paragraph.   Inferentially, he was to die by the hands of his sterner, stronger comrades, rather than be permitted to surrender’.  Machine gun companies were aptly named ‘suicide squads’.
Winslow Watson the grandfather whom I never met drowned in Lake Champlain three years after he returned home.  I never felt closer to him than on the knoll by Guillelmont Farm 100 years after this ferocious battle.
Sgt. William Shemin joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 2, 1917.  His unit, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 4th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces fought here during the Second Battle of the Marne during the Spring & Summer of 1918.  As near as we could determine, the actions that he undertook to be awarded the DSC took place near the spot where we now stood along the Vesle River just outside of the village of Bazoches.
Sgt. Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France during early August of 1918. His citation reads as follows:
"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress ... takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant William Shemin (ASN: 558173), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism ... on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France, 7, 8, and 9 August 1918. 

Sgt. William Shemin's 4th Inf. Div. moument, Varennes, France
"Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space (of) 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. 

"After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on 9 August."

According to Capt. Rupert Purdon, a superior officer who recommended Sgt. Shemin for the Medal of Honor at that time, "he sprang from his position in the trench and dashed out in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire all the while Sgt. Shemin was rescuing the wounded.”

Trench system entry point, Varennes, France
He took over the command of his platoon for the next three days, leading it until shrapnel wounds and a bullet to the back of his head forced him from the field.  After a hospital stay of three months, he was discharged, partially deaf and lame.

It was determined by the US Army in 2016 that Sgt William Shemin had been denied the Medal of Honor because of his Jewish religion.  Through the efforts of his daughter Elsie Shemin Roth President Obama upgraded the Distinguished Service Cross that Sgt. Shemin had been awarded in 1918 to the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Sgt. William Shemin, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces received his award for his actions along the Velse River where today we saw swans swimming peacefully on the placid waters.  During the WWI battle here in 1918, the Germans were on one side of the river and the Americans on the other. 

Pete Conroy and Dave Glaser along the Vesle River, France
On the present modern highway along the river was a monument dedicated to the 4th inf. Div. Sgt. Shemin’s unit, was in Varennes.  The 2nd Battle of the Marne.  The nearby Argonne American Cemetery, very well kept.  The Star of David is on the crosses of the Jewish dead.  There were pics of black soldiers, male and female, in the museum of this cemetery.  Again, as with Mr. Shemin, minority and Jewish soldiers were not afforded the recognition they deserved for acts of bravery because of their ethnicity.

Left to Right...Sgt. William Shemin, in the field w/the boys, WWI
Cpl. Daniel Tallon served in the 82nd Division, 327 Regiment, the unit of Sgt. Alvin York, the most recognized veteran of WWI who received the Medal of Honor and was portrayed in the famous movie by Gary Cooper.  The Sgt. York Trail which traces the location of York’s activity the day he was commended for bravery is well marked by a Boy Scout Troop from the US and is outside the town Chatel- Chehery.  The trail was a couple of miles along the exact location of the actions that won York the Medal of Honor during the Meuse-Arag√≥n Offensive. 

Pete Conroy and Dave Glaser at the Chateau of Chaumont-Bois.
It was on October 8, 1918 that Corporal York and sixteen other soldiers were dispatched to take command of the Deconville Railroad behind Hill 223 in the Chatel-Chehery sector.  These seventeen men mistakenly wound up behind enemy lines and after a brief but confusing firefight took the surrender of a superior German force.  The Germans eventually realized the limitations of the American Force and turned their machine guns on them killing nine Americans.  York was then ordered to silence the machine guns and was successful.  In the end, the nine remaining American soldiers had captured 132 Germans.   Cpl. Tallon was supplying the trenches and the front lines during the push against the Hindenburg Line while the Sgt. York episode was taking place.  He returned to the US and the home farm in Beekmantown in the spring in 1919.

Maj. Mark S. Watson graduated from Plattsburgh High School in 1906, joined the army on the leadup to the American entry in the war in 1917, then trained with the US Calvary at Fr. Riley Kansas. He was stationed at General ‘Blackjack’ Pershing Headquarters in Chaumont France for his WWI Tour of Duty.  The Gen. Pershing headquarters building today is a police academy.  During his time in Chaumont, Mark Watson was billeted in the Couillard family home, the Chateau of Chaumont-le-Bois.  He established a close friendship with that family, especially with the daughter, Marcelle Parde who worked with the French Resistance during World War II, was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in August of 1944 and shipped to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.  On his return to Chaumont on September 30, 1944 as a reporter with the US Army, Maj. Watson indeed found that Marcelle Parde had been arrested by the Gestapo.  It was later determined that she chose to remain with her secretary, also arrested and with the resistance, rather than take an offer to escape alone.  Both disappeared during deportation in 1945 and were presumed dead.

Cpl. Danial Tallon at war's end.
As the war ended Mark Watson was appointed Officer in Charge in the Paris office of the Stars and Stripes, the soldier’s newspaper.  He was with the Baltimore Sun for most of his professional life and became the assistant managing editor in 1920 eventually becoming the Sunday editor. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for reporting from Europe during WWII and President Kennedy made him one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. His first job in journalism was reporting for the Plattsburgh Press.

Maj. Mark S. Watson at Pershing's Headqurters, Chaumont, France, 1918.
We had a sense of completion upon leaving the battlefields of the Somme coming so close to the footsteps of our friend and ancestors.  Perhaps too a sense of sadness as we left that hallowed ground knowing that after one hundred years their sacrifices have led only to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A version of this article appeared in the Press Republican on 12/6/17.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Chuck Feeney's work in Viet Nam

The end of 2016, marked billionaire philanthropist Mr. Chuck Feeney’s lifetime achievement goal of giving away all of his money before his death through Atlantic Philanthropies (AP), an organization he founded in 1982.  A recent $7 million bequest to Cornell University has brought the total to just over $8 billion in grants, “to advance opportunity and promote equity and dignity around the world.”  Mr. Feeney’s philosophy of ‘Giving while Living’ has been realized.  While his generosity towards Ireland and Cornell University is well known, his relationship with the people of Vietnam has flown relatively under the radar.

Mr. Feeney’s philanthropic relationship with that country began with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (1997) concerning the lack of funding for East Meets West Foundation (EMWF), an NGO working for the poor Vietnamese with headquarters in the central city of Da Nang.  Included with the article was a picture of Mark Conroy, EMWF country director who was documenting a few of the foundation’s completed projects and expressing the necessity of project continuation and expansion.  EMWF’s grants were running out with no cash left in the box to keep the operation running.  During a recent trip to San Francisco to meet with Mr. Feeney, Mr. Conroy disclosed, “I was having to use my own savings, which were very limited, to keep busy on some small projects.”
Writer and humanitarian, Le Ly Hayslip, founded East Meets West Foundation in 1987.  Ms. Hayslip grew up in Da Nang during the war with the Americans, which left her country in complete devastation. Mr. Conroy had been hired by Ms. Hayslip to run the EMWF Vietnam headquarters following his Peace Corp tour in Guatemala. Mr. Conroy was already acquainted with Ms. Hayslip, having met previously during past trips to Ho Chi Minh City. In May 1994, Mr. Conroy and then wife, Joanne Ives, began work in Da Nang.
Chuck and Helga at the Village of Hope orphanage in Da Nang/
Mr. Feeney had his office investigate EMWF. Intrigued by AP’s findings, he called the EMWF US office in Oakland, CA. After speaking with Director Mark Stewart, Mr. Feeney offered to send $100,000 to Da Nang headquarters to see what they could do with it.
 “When it’s gone, get back to me and explain how it was spent,” said Mr. Feeney.  EMWF used the money to build and renovate schools and fresh water systems in poor villages.
In early 1998, Bob Matousek, Mr. Feeney’s long-time friend and associate, visited EMWF headquarters in Da Nang.  Alongside Mr. Conroy, Mr. Matousek spent a few days checking out various projects in the Vietnamese countryside and in Da Nang. A number of schools and compassion homes had been built.  The Village of Hope orphanage, which housed 200 kids and was managed by EMWF, was being effectively maintained.  Several other grass root projects in Quan Nam Province had also been completed by the foundation. In light of his trip, Mr. Matousek approved EMWF for a visit from Mr. Feeney.
Mr. Feeney’s first personal contact with EMWF in Vietnam was on Oct. 18 1998, in the original office on Tran Phu Street, Da Nang.  This office was a thinly staffed, ‘nuts and bolts’ operation where the occasional snake or rat that passed through did not interfere.  Mr. Conroy had no idea who Mr. Feeney was at the time and asked him why he was interested in a small organization like EMWF that worked primarily in Vietnam. Mr. Feeney answered that he didn’t like or trust large institutions.  He chose to support the people of Vietnam, believing that the Vietnamese had been dealt a raw deal by the US government.
Vietnam also happened to be on Mr. Feeney’s route from San Francisco to Australia where he was funding medical research and education projects and trying to persuade wealthy Australians to follow suit.  Ordinarily, Mr. Feeney focused on top down development in education and public health to help facilitate a country’s ability to take care of its own.  In Ireland, this approach by Mr. Feeney had been operating successfully for years.  In contrast, his support for EMWF was more from the bottom up due to their sufficiency with small financing.  It appeared that both Chuck and Mark were ‘brick and mortar’ guys, similar to the Irish that to the extent of their capabilities, settled America to lend a helping hand to their people in need.
In those days, Da Nang General Hospital had next to nothing.  Today, that facility has been completely rebuilt by EMWF with funding from AP and treats over 2,000 patients a day. Its capacity has grown from 800 to 1,250 beds. In addition, three more hospitals have been added to the health system in Da Nang: The Eye Hospital with 400 beds, the Woman and Children’s Hospital with 600 beds and the 500 bed Oncology Hospital.
Dr. Tran Ngoc Thanh, the hospital director of the last 14 years, recently remarked, “Da Nang General Hospital’s capacity today is a dream come true for the Vietnamese people.  Without the input of AP and EMWF it would have taken 30 years to be where we are now.  Mr. Chuck Feeney has been the savior of our people and we will never forget that, and we always make a point of expressing our gratitude in meetings with other officials.  Da Nang General is one of the top hospitals in Viet Nam and its presence has stimulated more medical training out of Viet Nam.  I hope Mr. Chuck’s health improves. May God bless him.”
Through EMWF and AP, Da Nang University has built two Learning Resource Centers (LRCs), the modern equivalent of a library that specializes in Internet connections with other worldwide educational facilities.   The LRCs’ textbook supply must be available for thousands of students in a semester and currently serve 10,000 in the Da Nang system.   The Da Nang University facilities massive success has led to the construction of LRC s at Universities in Hue, Can Tho and Thai Nguyen.
The Conroys and  the Feeneys, Hanoi, VN
 In 1999, EMWF began building two Da Nang University of Education dormitories financed by Mr. Feeney.  In large, these dormitories are used by poor students and minorities from the distant, rural mountain regions.  These students would otherwise be homeless while pursuing their education.  Post graduation, they will return home to teach and help with the advancement their people.
Modern dining halls and The Da Nang University Sports center, another joint AP and EMWF project, was completed in 2004. Today, 800 students use this facility daily throughout the school year. Students can train in basketball, volleyball, tennis, table tennis, variations of football and aerobic exercise. 
Mr. ‘Teddy’ Thiet, the Da Nang Sports Center director, traveled with Mr. Feeney to Australia to research building design for the facility’s construction.  Mr. Thiet remembered Mr. Chuck Feeney, “as a man with a great heart, deserving of much respect; one who understands the position of the poor, a man who wouldn’t waste money on a tie for himself.  I am very sad to hear that he is in ill health and hope it improves enough so that he can come back here for a visit sometime.  I thank him from the bottom of my heart and extend those thanks also to the staff of EMWF.”
The University Games and biannual National Sports Championships are hosted by the Da Nang University Sports center with over 1,000 student participants.  The Da Nang Sports Center’s reputation as a premier venue for athletic competition has inspired the development of more sporting event facilities in Vietnam. 
Thai Nguyen is a rapidly developing city northwest of the Hanoi No Bai Airport with historical claims of Ho Chi Minh residing there during the French Indo-China War.  On the city’s outskirts lies the largest Samsung plant in the world, encompassing at least 400 acres.  EMWF projects at Thai Nguyen University (TNU), funded by Chuck Feeney and AP, include several dormitories, an LRC, site development and landscaping. After five years of work, these projects were completed (2007) and in 2013, the dormitory project won the most prestigious architecture award in Vietnam.
Ten years later, an on-site visit and meeting with Mark Conroy, TNU director, Dr. Nguyen Van Tao, and his board was set up to assess the present use and maintenance of projects completed there. Behind the board of directors, three flags were lined up beginning with the Vietnamese, followed by the US, and finally the French. 
In addition to 11 dormitory buildings and required site work, landscaping for the sports facility was prepared for basketball, football, tennis, etc.  The dorms, originally built for the medical school, had expanded their occupancy to the entire university population and now housed predominately poorer students from the countryside and ethnic minorities (50 %).  57 Laotian foreign exchange students lived in the dormitories and couldn’t attend TNU without them. At $6.00 USD per month, student rent is much cheaper than private housing and has enabled TNU to upgrade its standards elsewhere.
University enrollment has increased 20% since the completion of the dormitory project and TNU now offers 17 majors, including medicine, pharmacy, education, information technology, communication, foreign languages and most scientific disciplines. There are students enrolled here from Korea, Germany, The Philippines and China. TNU officials express deep gratitude to Chuck Feeney for his generosity toward their university.
In the central Vietnamese city of Hue, the EMFW Heart Program and Hue Hospital director Dr.Bui Duc Phu also peaked Mr. Feeney’s interests. Dr. Phu happens to be one of the best heart surgeons in the country.  He and his team perform over 1,500 open-heart surgeries and 2,000 interventions or heart cauterizations a year.  
Financed by Mr. Feeney, the EMFW Heart Program was able to provide the medical facilities with equipment to establish a pediatric open-heart surgery unit at Hue Hospital in 2006. These facilities have enabled postgraduate doctors to stay in Vietnam and work in their field by meeting the standards of their education.   Upon Dr. Phu’s recent return from San Francisco, where he attended a brief meeting with Mr. Feeney, he also expressed heartfelt gratitude towards Chuck’s generosity to the Hue health care system.
Children from the country who were helped by Chuck Feeney
Mr. Feeney’s affiliation with Hue Hospital introduced him to Hue University and led to the construction of university dormitories, a food center and LRC, as well as pediatric and cardiovascular hospitals.
In total, the EMWF projects funded by AP and Chuck Feeney amount to $100 Million Dollars. Mr. Feeney and AP funding enabled EMWF to build 10 hospitals and 11 university building projects of varying magnitude, to repair damages from Typhoon Xang, and various other community infrastructure projects.
The present director of Atlantic Philanthropies, Mr. Chris Oechsli, along with Mr. Matousek and Mr. Feeney have made numerous trips to Vietnam to consult with Mark Conroy and EMWF personnel during the course of these projects.  Chuck Feeney’s last visit to Vietnam was for the AP meeting held at the Hanoi Metropole Hotel in 2008.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Media Revolt Kandahar and then Some

This piece compiled from notes on 2012 Kandahar embed. 

.KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN:  Reports from most media sources here regarding coverage of Operaton Dragon Strike in the Arghandab district northwest of Kandahar City, are that even those reporters with long time embed assignments are being denied access to the field of battle.  Reportedly even some that made it to the operational staging area at FOB Nelson ? were promptly shipped back to the Media Center for unexplained reasons.

The feeling is that General  Petraeus has taken the gloves off regarding former rules of engagement applied to the operation in Marjah last February conducted by the US Marines.  According to Ben Plesser of CBS news, Marjah was primarily a battle between M-16s and AK 47s to control civilian casualties.

Right now in Arghandab reports are that Petraeus is using bulldozers to push large roads through villages which entails knocking down houses in the way as well as anything else preventing a right of way for large vehicles.  Artillery and heavy air strikes are also being reported as well the shooting of suspected insurgents.  Civilians have been leaving in droves and according to one reporter have already organized a rather large refugee camp near Kandahar City.

These reports are word of mouth from reporters that have been on the scene and thrown out or refused transport elsewhere or whatever.   These people are all more or less permanent residents in Kabul and seem to know their way around the military and Afghanistan in general.
Famed French war photographer Patrick Chauvel, who
 has covered the wars from Viet Nam to Afghanistan
One reporter’s piece recently in the NY Times baffles many of these regulars.  Carletta Gall the former bureau chief in Kabul recently toured the battle area with a two star general whom I can’t recall.  Her resulting piece declared the war in Afghanistan won….apparently because of a supposed victory in one small river valley NW of Kandahar.  These full time Afghan reporters state also that touring areas in the field with a general, or in the company of celebrity reporters like Katie Couric never present an accurate take on events.  Obviously.  They feel almost unanimously that if you aren’t in a position to get a grunts eye view of the operations you will never have an accurate story.  In fairness to Carletta Gall, she left this media center two days ago with the bulk of those reporters that were held up previously for Arghandab but no word has filtered back with results.

CBS reporter Mandy Clark and producer Ben Plesser had been down there for a week or so early in the month.  Mandy is young and lives in Kabul.  Ben in London but has years here and in Iraq.  After three weeks they’ve given up, returned to Kabul and are organizing a protest in the Pentagon and Congress to have free access to the news here as is required by the law.  They say they haven’t got anywhere near enough footage for the time involved.  The same goes for Paul Wood of the BBC.  He had no usable footage in two weeks of more or less waiting at an FOB for transport nearer the action.

Other media on site:  Regis Le Sommier of Paris Match, Tom Bowman of NPR, Joao Silva NY Times Photographer, Ben Farmer of the Daily Telegraph (England) , Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times (lost her eye in Siri Lanka sp. from RPG shrapnel, wears a patch), Drew Brown of the Stars and Stripes and Gordon Forbes of the National Geographic.

I would add here that the opinion of many media I’ve met is that Petraeus makes his decisions for political, not military reasons.  He has his eye on the Presidency for 2012 or 2016 and will need something that looks like a military victory here to pull that off.

From another source:  Karzai’s brother that is the powerhouse in Kandahar besides whatever dealing he has in the drug business, also controls two security companies that are hired by the us for many millions to guard convoys etc in the south here…also kickbacks for each of these concrete barriers that are every where, in the many thousands at least.  He is from a minority Pashtun tribe of perhaps 10% total population but these people also hold 90% of government jobs in this area.

And another:  Before the English aid worker was killed recently during a rescue attempt by US soldiers, ten tribal leaders in that region offered to meet with the captors and arrange her freedom.  They needed assurance that the US military would guarantee them safe passage to the area where she was held but that guarantee was not given. That’s according to more than one reporter who lives in Kabul.
The new replacement of the old jeep from the VN era that cost
$2K.  This model MRAP goes for nearly a million dollars.
And finally, the cell phone service that the military uses here to communicate locally among themselves, and overseas is provided by an IRANIAN COMPANY.  There is one large mineral deposit nearby (I’ll get the type later) however it is owned by the Chinese who obtained it through a $30M bribe.

And more….some of the recently built barracks here, we all figure for the surge, have rows of Direct TV satellite dishes along the front below the air con units.  I asked if they were for the GIs.  They are for food service people that are already making six figure, tax free money.  The GIs have to buy their own civilian internet service, for $70 per month, which according to a Sgt. Major I was talking with this morning seldom works.

Is this place fucked up…or what?


Addendum:   Joao Silva, the South African Photographer for the NY Times, lost his legs in the Arghandab a day after I wrote the above piece, while on patrol with Calotta Gall.

Marie Colvin was killed a couple of months ago in Syria.

Tim Hetherington, who was up in Kunar in 2007 with me for Operation Rock Avalanche was killed last winter in Lybia.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Disillusioned - Screenplay Synopsis

The North Vietnamese side of this story is adapted partially from the book “Novel Without A Name” by Duong Thu Huong.  She was an entertainer for the Northern soldiers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and one of the few who survived from her troupe.
An old American soldier from the Viet Nam War is flying into Hanoi.  His Vietnamese wife has recently died and he is returning in search of her sister.  As the plane begins its approach, he scans the countryside of endless green from the window.  His mind drifts into memories as the stories begin.
As the war in Vietnam draws down in 1975, the lives of an American GI, CAPT. EDWARD WINSLOW, and a troubled North Vietnamese soldier, QUAN, converge during the evacuation and fall of Da Nang.  The soldier from the North has endured immeasurable hardship during the previous ten years, many described in flashbacks, much of it through a beautiful countryside before the destruction caused by US bombing.  There have been horrendous battles.  His girl back home, HOA, is probably gone. 
The GI is ‘stuck’ in Viet Nam.  It’s become his home, and he’s involved with a girl from the North, LIEN, who works the bars.  At this point he is an adviser to the South Vietnamese military.  They all still fight, but the cause is fading….looking bleak.  Refugees from cities north of Da Nang fill the highways leading into the city.  Chaos reigns, as no one seems to be in charge.  The Americans begin an evacuation to the south of all who can board the last aircraft, ship, or road vehicle.  World Airways flies in for a last flight south to Saigon and barely makes it off the ramp. The last attempts from the air are made from the Marble Mountain airfield.  The overflowing barges from the river in town have left for ships in the South China Sea.   The last stragglers are swimming toward the ships from My Khe Beach.

With Duong Thu Huong in Thai Binh, 1996

Amid the confusion the American soldier tries to arrange transport out for his ‘Vietnamese family.  He is abandoned and captured by the North Vietnamese Army.  A younger officer, his superior MAJOR BARNS, a helicopter pilot, fills in arranging what he can.  Most Vietnamese personnel of the Americans are left to their own devices.  There’s no other choice.   The Major doesn’t leave.  He manages to crank up his old Huey after Da Nang has fallen.  He’ll fly to Saigon, but scours the countryside to the south looking for his friend Winslow, and finds him.
In present day Hanoi, Edward Winslow ties up with a friend from the US State Dept. who now works at the US Embassy.  He eventually finds the sister and they begin to talk of the past, each so differently.   They meet up a few times in the countryside, then in Hanoi.  They strike up a friendship….dig into their pasts in the old Viet Nam.  They discover things unknown.
Hanoi is peaceful.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Paris with the Stars and Stripes-1919

I had an interesting experience while reporting for this newspaper from Iraq in 2007.  Embedded reporters work with and from the Public Affairs office of the military unit that they’re been assigned to.  In this case it was the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division with headquarters in Camp Victory outside of Baghdad; the officer in charge being Maj. Webster Wright III.

Mark S. Watson (on left) on the balcony of the
Stars and Stripes office in Paris, 1919

“So you’re from Plattsburgh” said Maj. Wright “and you’re with the Press Republican.  So how long have you been with them?”

“Oh, I’m a freelancer” I said.  “They credentialed me to come over here and print what I send back.  It’s working out well.”

“So how did you get into war reporting” said the Major.

“Well, when I left Viet Nam after 13 months with the Army in 1967 I intended to go back and give photo journalism a try.  Even bought a couple of Miranda cameras in the PX to work with, but never got around to it till now.  Actually I like being back with the troops”.   Somehow the conversation got around to the Stars and Stripes, the soldiers newspaper.  I mentioned that my Great Uncle Mark S. Watson was the officer in charge of that publication in Paris after WWI.

“Really, let me google that” said Web Wright. Then “J**** C***** !  “Do you want me to print this out for you?”

As I knew of course, Mark Watson had been with the Stars and Stripes after WWI.  He was with the Baltimore Sun for most of his professional life and became the assistant managing editor in 1920.   Later on he was the Sunday editor. He won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting from Europe after WWII. President Kennedy made him one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.
Until his death in 1966 at age 78 Mark S. Watson was the senior defense correspondent working in the Pentagon press office.  In May of that year Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara unveiled a plaque above the desk where Watson had worked for many years.   He said at the time.  “Mark Watson’s sense of personal integrity and very deep understanding of the will and desire and purpose of our people is a standard that will affect actions of all of us, both his colleagues of the press and those of us in the department, for decades and decades to come.”

Mark Skinner Watson graduated from Plattsburgh High School in 1906.  His first job in journalism was reporting for the Plattsburgh Press.  It's worth noting that Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker magazine and Alexander Woollcott of the New York Times were enlisted men working under Watson on the Stars and Stripes in Paris during that period.
Maj. Web Wright, PIO 2nd Brigade Tenth Mountain Division

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mr. Shemin

On June 2nd, the President of the United States Barack Obama* will award the Congressional Medal of Honor to William Shemin posthumously, for his service to this country during World War I.   

Mr. Shemin, who died in 1973, and his family were longtime summer residents of Chazy Landing.  He bought a camp there in the late 1930s, and his wife, Bertha, and daughters, Elsie and Ina, came for the summers from then on.  Mr. and Mrs. Shemin were life-long friends of my mother and father, Tom and Mary Conroy of Beekmantown, where my mother gave riding lessons to their young daughters.  Elsie, now Elsie Shemin-Roth, will accept the medal on her father's behalf. 

Mr. Shemin joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 2, 1917, after graduating from the New York State Ranger School. He was sent to Fort Greene, N.C., for basic training.  Upon graduation, his unit, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 4th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, was sent to the trenches in France.

Sgt. William Shemin (second from left) in France during WWI.

A sergeant, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France during early August of 1918. His citation reads as follows:

"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress ... takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant William Shemin (ASN: 558173), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism ... on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France, 7, 8, and 9 August 1918. 

"Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space (of) 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded. 

"After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on 9 August."

According to Capt. Rupert Purdon, a superior officer who recommended Sgt. Shemin for the Medal of Honor at that time, "he sprang from his position in the trench and dashed out in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire all the while Sgt. Shemin was rescuing the wounded.”

He took over the command of his platoon for the next three days, leading it until shrapnel wounds and a bullet to the back of his head forced him from the field.  After a hospital stay of three months, he was discharged, partially deaf and lame.

Upon returning home, he finished his schooling and established a successful landscaping and greenhouse business in the Bronx.

I knew Mr. Shemin all of my life, until his death in 1973, and he was always horribly lame.  The shrapnel left him vulnerable to a crippling form of arthritis that he endured without complaint.  He could not walk without the use of a cane.  My brothers and I, throughout our youth, were his hands in planting his property along Lake Champlain with every kind of tree, shrub and flower, which he shipped up from his business in the Bronx.

“He was the best man I ever worked for,” said Tom Conroy recently. “Back on the farm, we were making $4 a month, and Mr. Shemin immediately started my brother Will and myself at $2 per hour.  On our first payday, he drove us to the bank and helped us open a bank account so we’d learn how to handle money.  He was a thoughtful, caring, exacting person."

Elsie Shemin-Roth campaigned long and hard to have the government take a second look at her father's war decorations after reading that Jewish soldiers, along with African American, Asian and Native American military members, were sometimes denied full merit in the awarding of service medals.  She was the driving force behind a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of December 2011, called the William Shemin World War 1 Veterans Act, that provides for a Pentagon review of Jewish soldiers and sailors who may have been overlooked for the Medal of Honor simply because of their faith.

Ina and Elsie Shemin with President Obama at the White
House ceremony awarding their father William Shemin
the Medal of Honor posthumously May 26,  2015.

Mr. Shemin had been awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds, along with the Distinguished Service Cross, but his actions in those days under fire in France were in the same league with Sgt. Alvin York, who was the most famous hero of World War I and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.  Mr. Shemin was not portrayed in a movie by Gary Cooper, however, in our family any soldier who survived the trenches of World War I, much less went over the top to rescue the wounded, deserved a medal.  Mr. Shemin did it all.

In the late 1950s, the Shemins retired to their property in Chazy, where they had built a new house on the lake shore.  It was during those later years that we saw the most of Mr. Shemin.  He and his wife spent the remainder of their lives living happily there surrounded by the trees and flowers that he had planted.  

He was always "Mr. Shemin" to the members of my family, old and young.  His presence and dignity commanded that kind of respect.

For a time, the late Clinton County Judge Robert Feinberg and his wife lived in the Shemin house on Lake Shore Road.  It is now owned by Jim Carter.

At the same White House ceremony that posthumously recognizes Mr. Shemin, Pvt. William Henry Johnson will be honored, as well.  An African-American World War I veteran, he will also have the Distinguished Service medal that he received for bravery under fire in France upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

*A version of this article was published by the Press Republican on May 24, 2015.

*I received a White House pass from their press office to attend the ceremony for Mr. Shemin but wasn't notified early enough to obtain a ticket to DC in time for the event.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Phnom Penh: 40 years after the Fall

PHNOM PENH:  The world knows much of the story on the fall of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from the acclaimed movie “The Killing Fields."  On April 17, 1975, five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Cambodia and the installation of the Lon Nol government, Phnom Penh was taken by the ultra-leftist Khmer Rouge.  This secretive organization, which was founded by left-wing Cambodian intellectuals from the Sorbonne in Paris, was known by the population at the time as "The Other."  It soon proved to be one of the bloodiest regimes in history.  The intent of the founders was to return Cambodia to "Year Zero," to remake the country into the ultimate and perfect agrarian society. Their model was to be the Chinese “cultural revolution."

Daniel Hung Meas, a Cambodian by birth and a Frenchmen by education, lived for nearly four years in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime.  He and his mother, father and five siblings survived.  Four of his older brothers were already living in Paris.

“You cannot imagine 2 million people, the population of Phnom Penh at that time, all in the streets trying to leave the city," Daniel recalled of the fall.

"No one could move. The Khmer Rouge told us that the Americans were going to bomb the city, so we had to leave, but that it would only be for a few days. So we brought next to nothing with us.  We were very lucky in that my father worked for the French Embassy and had an inkling of what was to happen under this new government.  He saw that we smashed up our glasses, watches, books - anything that would identify us as the educated class.  He told us to never, never speak a word of French … to anyone.”

Of the group of 300 families that the Meas family lived among, near the town of Neak Luong between Phnom Penh and the Vietnam border, half were to perish.

The highway from the Vietnam border to Phnom Penh today is lined with industrial zones filled with new steel warehouses and manufacturing facilities.  A great deal of the business in Cambodia is Vietnamese controlled, much to the displeasure of many Cambodians, who have mixed feelings about their former liberators - and long-time traditional enemies.  However, though this country has a long way to go before it catches up with Vietnam, it is eons from Year Zero.
Monks along the riverfront in Phnom Penh.

The 30-year prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has been the subject of much criticism because of alleged human-right violations and other anti-democratic actions.  Members of his family hold positions of power in the government and in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.  His son Hun Manet was a 1999 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  Whatever the truth of the accusations against Hun Sen, it must be said that great progress has been made in Cambodia since the Vietnamese-led overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979.

Though the ruins at Angkor Wat outside the town of Seam Reap in northwestern Cambodia remain the country’s most famous tourist attraction, Phnom Penh is a bustling tourist town of its own, and rightly so.  It boasts a strikingly beautiful park along the Tonle Sap River, and that area of the city is loaded with hotels, bars and restaurants catering to the international tourist.  Most of the traditional government buildings and museums can be found in this vicinity.

The Tuol Sleng prison, a former high school, was the site of the infamous Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center in mid Phnom Penh.  This site, along with the Killing Field museum on the outskirts of the city, are must-sees for most tourists who come to Cambodia.  Between 1 million and 2 million Cambodians lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge reign.
Tourists at the Killing Fields where 17,000 victims of S-21 were finished off.

C-Kong, the Tuk-Tuk driver, has had a hard life, as do most of the Cambodian working class.  Too young to remember the liberation of his country by the Vietnamese, he nonetheless carries the traditional resentment of Cambodians toward his neighboring country.

“They control most of the big businesses,” said C-Kong, “and more than a million Vietnamese have moved to this country for the good jobs.  At the same time, more than a million Cambodians have moved to Thailand for employment there."

Ralph Conroy (left) and C-Kong (right) on the streets of Phnom Pehn..

The Hung Meas family made it to France after escaping to Vietnam during the border fighting between the two countries that led to the Vietnamese invasion beginning Christmas Day 1978.  Phnom Penh was liberated from Khmer Rouge control on Jan. 7, 1979.  

Daniel lives in Ho Chi Minh City these days with his wife and daughter.  Two children from an earlier marriage are being educated in Paris.  He recently turned down a part in a French movie playing ‘"Duch," the warden of Tuol Sleng prison.  He feared being recognized as the convicted war criminal and having revenge taken on him by a victim’s family.  

He played the Vietcong agent that killed “The Quiet American” in the 2002 film of that name, which starred Michael Caine.  A former photographer for Agence French-Presse, Daniel still makes his living with a camera.

Daniel Hung Meas as he would look playing Duch in the French movie.

*A version of this article appeared in the Press Republican on May 24, 2015.