Well, after a few pleasant 70-80 degree days, we awakened this morning (August 1) to a hot and muggy one that is advertised as being the beginning of a warm spell that will extend over the next week or ten days. High 90s today and 103 or so tomorrow. Out in the panhandle area, the western part of the state has been especially warm and is now afflicted by a massive wildfire that threatens acres – miles, actually – of some of the country’s best farm and ranch land.
The reports of the fires brought to mind stories that I read growing up about prairie fires (usually caused by lightning strikes) that threatened cattle herds being moved from Texas to Ogallala and Valentine, Nebraska. Stampedes often resulted. To save the herds, or at least keep them from scattering, the response was for cowboys to race in front and attempt to turn the leaders, to make them circle and draw the rest of the herd with them. The idea was that eventually the energy of the stampede would dissipate and the herders could regain control. It always struck me that the job – racing at full speed on horseback in front of 2,000 or so (most herds had 1,500-2,500) rampaging, out of control animals with horns six to eight feet long, all the while waving a blanket or a tarp to get them to turn -- may have been the most hazardous job on the North American Continent. If the horse stumbled or stepped into a prairie dog hole, the cowboy's prospects for a long and comfortable life were considerably diminished.
Travelers on wagon trains moving up the Oregon Trail also spoke of experiences with wild fires. If conditions allowed, wagon masters would of course attempt to move away from the direction of the flames. The default option was to move close to, or into, the Platte River. The Platte was a wide but generally shallow stream, and the wagons could sometimes be placed close to the river bank or perhaps even moved to the opposite side of the river. In the late 1950s, the state had an iconic governor who described the Platte River as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” It really wasn’t that bad, but you get the picture. (Once, after his opponent didn’t show up for a scheduled event, the same guy debated an empty chair.)
Although a few friends have kindly asked, I won’t bore readers with a recap of our Rhine River cruise a few weeks ago. I will ask that you indulge me one mention of a location that as a person interested in military history, I found to be particularly fascinating. Those that aren’t interested can go straight to the next section or to Puns (which is probably the reason you are reading this, anyway). One of our stops was at Colmar, France, in the Alsace Region near the German border. (It is now again officially a part of France after having been annexed by Germany in 1940.) Near the end of World War II, from December 1944 until February 1945, the area around Colmar was the scene of massive combat in a region known as the Colmar Pocket. Readers, perhaps particularly “those of a certain age” will recall the name Audie Murphy. At the very edge of a forested area facing a large, open expanse, there is a memorial marking the spot where Murphy earned the Medal of Honor. The site is marked by a wooden replica of the tank destroyer that Murphy stood on during the fighting. The memorial reads:
On this spot on 26 January 1945, at about 2PM, Lt. Audie Murphy from B Company, 15th Regiment, 3rd U.S. Infantry Division, held off a counterattack of the German Army. The German attack with 6 Jagdpanther tanks and over 100 soldiers was launched from the village of Holtzwihr. The 2 tank destroyers accompanying Murphy’s troops were quickly put out of action. Murphy, who sent his men to the take cover, stayed in order to guide U.S. artillery over the phone. When the German soldiers were only a few meters away he climbed on the tank destroyer which was in flames and fired on the enemy with the machine gun thus forcing them to turn back. The Jagdpanthers who no longer were supported by infantry also turned back, so the German counterattack failed.
The plaque only tells part of the story. Murphy’s troops were without heavy weapons and with wounded among them were in grave danger of being overrun and killed or captured. Murphy directed them to retreat and seek cover and safety in the forest. In the meantime, he stayed to delay the enemy and call in artillery support. As the Germans approached, he found a machine gun and ammunition and climbed on top of a burning tank destroyer. The vehicle still had ammunition on board and was in danger of exploding. Nonetheless, Murphy stood atop it firing the machine gun and though wounded himself, held off the mass of soldiers attacking his position, forcing them to retreat. Soon after, though suffering from a wound in the leg, he led his company in a counterattack that devastated the German units.
Murphy later (1949) co-authored a book titled To Hell and Back. In 1955, the book was made into a movie of the same name which, at the studio’s request, Murphy starred in. Although the story line sticks closely to actual events, the false notes are that the picture was filmed near Yakima, Washington, in the summer. Thus, the landscape and foliage are considerably different than the region around Colmar and the actual battle was fought in the winter in frigid conditions that in the words of a French general were “Siberian” in nature. Temperatures sometimes dropped to as much four degrees below zero.
Writing News: One of my two favorite daughters is a Cold War scholar with a special fascination for Berlin, one of her most-liked cities in the world. Laura recently loaned me a book of hers titled Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World. A section of the military history book I have been working on covers the Cold War. One of the chapters in that section tells the story of an Air Force general named William Tunner, who led the airlift that saved the city when the Russians blockaded it. The book is very good – but in some ways it was a mixed blessing. I thought I had just about wrapped the manuscript up, but some of the material related to Tunner was so good I felt I had to include it.
Likewise, almost, was a book that was recently mentioned on PBS news. This one – Degrade and Destroy: The Inside Story of the War Against the Islamic State, From Barack Obama to Donald Trump – tracks with the section of my book related to the Global War on Terrorism. The book covers the time when, after establishing a reasonably democratic Iraqi government, the U.S. and others withdrew almost all combat troops. Al Qaeda forces (ISIL – Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) regained the initiative and at one time controlled large segments of both Iraq and Syria, establishing a formal government structure with capitals at Fallujah and Raqqa. The title of the book refers to the name given to the strategy that the U.S. and its allies adopted in 2014. The concept involved using small numbers of U.S. combat troops to train and advise friendly Iraqi and Syrian forces while complementing their efforts with massive amounts of U.S. airpower and artillery. Though not much reported in the western press, the strategy led to the defeat of ISIL three and a half years later.
Lastly – this has very little to do with writing – on our trip, my daughters presented me with a book to read titled Never by Ken Follett. Follett is a good writer who some may associate with the book and movie On the Wings of Eagles about the efforts of Ross Perot and his organization – including most particularly a retired Special Forces colonel named “Bull” Simon – to extract two of Perot’s Electronic Data Systems employees from a Tehran prison at the time of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979.
There are several side stories in Never, but the main theme relates to an emerging international crisis involving the U.S., China, and North Korea – all nuclear powers. The book describes the efforts of the American president to avoid nuclear conflict. I won’t disclose the ending except to say that it is not the one normally expected. Follett said he wrote the book after reading about World War I leaders and how the world blundered into a conflict that none of them expected. It is a sobering book considering what is happening in the Ukraine.
And now, TRULY AWFUL PUNS
What sort of cocktail does an attorney drink?
What kind of shoes does a frog wear?
They just keep getting worse.
Best to all,