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Happy Fourth of July to you all!

The American flag is proudly waving in front of my house and hundreds of others in my small community.

Yesterday my husband Bob and I enjoyed a great barbecue and saw some spectacular fireworks. We also nourished the patriotism we feel in our hearts about this great country.

While on the subject of patriotism, I want to give you some news concerning the biography I wrote about my dad, published in 2008. The first paperback edition of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham, has sold out and is no longer available.

Here’s the good news. The second edition, published in May 2011, is now on Amazon.com. Please take a look inside by clicking on the following link. I think you’ll be glad you did.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

Thanks.

Jean

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July is an especially patriotic month for the citizens of two countries–the United States and France.  That’s when both countries celebrate their freedom and independence, each in its own unique and joyful way.

For the French, it all began on July 14, 1789, when a mob of downtrodden French people stormed the Bastille, a fortress-like Paris prison. Soon afterwards, the fearful Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette escaped to Versailles while angry mobs destroyed homes of the nobility in Paris. To the French, Bastille Day signifies the end of an oppressive monarchy and the beginning of a free republic.

Excerpts from Chapter 12, “Meetings in France, Germany, and Italy,” of  A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

        As his days in France were drawing to a close, my father expressed more and more his appreciation to the French for having cooperated well with his command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC). He personally thanked many people who had visited American cemeteries, such as Épinal, to honor our fallen soldiers by reciting prayers in churches near the cemeteries and by placing bouquets of flowers near the gravesites.

The French of course admired their own military heroes, those presently serving in their army and those lost in battle. This pride seemed most evident on Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison by livid French citizens and the start of the French Revolution.

        The biggest Bastille Day celebration since the beginning of World War II was held on July 14, 1949, and it bounded into the city like a jolly traveling circus. On the preceding evening, people already started celebrating. Beginning at around six o’clock, Paris took on the atmosphere of a country festival. Lanterns and flags hung gaily on apartment balconies and from windows. On the outside of nearly all the corner cafés, orchestra stands seemed to jump onto the pavement. At seven o’clock, the city fathers marched—along with columns of Paris police and Republican Guards—to the Arc de Triomphe, where they laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. By nine o’clock, tables at cafés that provided live music were fully occupied.  Street dancing went on until dawn.

I didn’t dance until dawn, but I did watch the parade as it traveled down the Champs Élysées the following day. These are only a few of the words I wrote in my diary: “The parade was really spectacular. I especially liked the Moroccan troops who, dressed in white turbans and capes, rode by on horseback, blowing trumpets.”

        The fountains and edifices were beautifully lighted that night, and the fireworks cascaded magnificently across the summer sky with rainbow-hued streaks of light. I remember skipping and dancing on the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank until two o’clock in the morning with a group of American college students. Hundreds of Parisians were doing the same thing, perhaps for the second night in a row. They wanted to enjoy every minute of this day, the biggest and happiest Bastille Day since the end of the war.

The French joyfully welcomed this long-anticipated celebration partly because their defeat in World War II had been so humiliating. A teacher of mine at the American Community School, Madame Marguerite Dubus, didn’t let her class forget how well trained her country’s soldiers were, in spite of their capitulation. “Our soldiers got good training and fought well. They didn’t have all the good equipment the Americans had,” she reminded us.

         She was basically correct, especially about that last part. France didn’t have the economic advantages of the United States, which placed that country in a defensive rather than offensive position at the beginning of the war. Later, the Germans destroyed much of their best equipment.

Even if they sometimes envied American military might and economic prosperity, the French people my parents met seemed eager to maintain a good relationship with the Americans who lived in France and with American citizens in the United States who had sent them food, clothing, and other gifts after the war.

        Their appreciation was visibly demonstrated in Paris on January 7, 1949, when a train composed of forty-nine small boxcars left the city. The cars were filled with such items as cheeses, fruits, vases, works of art, books, and various items the French people themselves had made. After a band played The Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise, a young girl blew the departure whistle, and the train went on its way. The boxcars were shipped from Le Havre to the United States, where they were greeted happily by the states through which they traveled.

[As reported by The Stars and Stripes on January 8, 1949, my father was one of the officials who gave the train, called the Merci Train, a big send-off.]

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Who among us can forget seeing row after row of marble headstones at Normandy Cemetery, overlooking Omaha Beach? We saw them a few years ago in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, a highly rated movie starring Tom Hanks.Just recently we saw them on TV when President Obama of the United States came to France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day and to give an inspiring speech. We were glad that President Sarkozy of France, Prince Charles of Great Britain, World War II veterans, and many other guests (including Tom Hanks) were also there.

What many people watching the D-Day commemoration on TV don’t know is that the ground on which Normandy Cemetery is situated was once a temporary cemetery, one of the 37 temporary cemeteries that were scattered throughout Europe until 1947. In that year, my father (Howard L. Peckham) was appointed the job of returning the war dead of the European Theater to the United States. The temporary cemetery in Normandy came into existence only a couple of days after D-Day. Its name was St. Laurent, or, to be more precise, St. Laurent Sur Mer.

The following paragraphs describe the difficult work of the American Graves Registration Command in Europe (AGRC-EA) in the grading and construction of St. Laurent, in order  to transform it into one of the ten permanent cemeteries of the European Theater. The paragraphs are excerpts from the biography I wrote about Dad, A Salute to Patriotism, but with the addition of comments in brackets.

Excerpts from Chapter 10, “Life in Postwar Paris,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

        On March 31, 1948, my parents and I stopped briefly at St. Laurent Cemetery after saying goodbye to Colonel Stevenson, the Quartermaster Corps officer in charge of AGRC activities in Normandy.

The colonel had given Mother and me an interesting tour of the Beach. Because of Dad’s work and the need for him to make frequent inspections at the cemeteries, he had already visited that part of Normandy several times.

        My father and Colonel Stevenson had carefully examined the cemetery’s final layout plan, completed in February 1948 by the architectural firm selected by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). Selecting architects for the layout of  the ten permanent cemeteries of the European Theater was one of that agency’s jobs, not the army’s.

There was much discussion between my father and the ABMC, which also had an office in Paris, about this matter and several others. Dad was always grateful for the cooperation that existed between them.

        AGRC engineers also had copies of the layout in their hands so they could make detailed plans for grading and construction. After those plans were completed, a contracting firm was selected from among the French firms that had been invited to present bids. The successful bidder could not begin work until right of entry from the French Government was received, however, and that took longer than expected. Geography also caused a delay. Grading and construction began in June 1948, but because of St. Laurent’s proximity to the English Channel, that work was extremely hard. “AGRC engineers often had to trudge through thick mud, and workmen frequently had to move their heavy equipment along in clay-like soil,” my father explained to Mother and me later.

He sounded sympathetic, probably because he had spent twenty years in the Corps of Engineers, where walking in muddy terrain was a common occurrence on his inspection trips.

Below is a paragraph, plus footnotes, from Final Disposition of World War II Dead: 1945-1951. It provides further details about the information I have written in this post. It also appears in A Salute to Patriotism:

Information from Engneer Files About the Work at St. Laurent Cemetery

        In spite of these delays, my father was pleased that grading and construction of the permanent cemetery (still called St. Laurent at that time) ended early in November 1948. Considering its D-Day significance, the results were well worth the painstaking efforts made by AGRC personnel.

[After the cemetery was transferred from the AGRC to the ABMC in early 1951, the name was changed to Normandy Cemetery. The ABMC also replaced the army’s simple wooden crosses and stars with those of marble and erected additional structures.]

[Note: Clergymen assigned to AGRC-EA performed benediction ceremonies at St. Laurent and other temporary American cemeteries when they were closed. During the construction phases, the deceased soldiers who were to be reinterred were placed in temporary storage facilities.]

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American and French officials march to a speaker’s stand in St. Laurent Sur Mer cemetery of U.S. World War II dead. In the center foreground, carrying hat, is U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery. Behind Caffery are Lt. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, deputy EUCOM commander, and Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, commander of the American Graves Registration Command.
American and French officials march to a speaker’s stand in St. Laurent Sur Mer cemetery of U.S. World War II dead. In the center foreground, carrying hat, is U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery. Behind Caffery are Lt. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, deputy EUCOM commander, and Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, commander of the American Graves Registration Command.

From my collection of old newspaper clippings, this morning I brought out the one you see above. It seems particularly significant today, the 65th anniversary of D-Day.   

Excerpts from Chapter 10, “Life in Postwar Paris,” from my book A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

 

        The officials in the photograph on that windy day were in Normandy to pay homage to soldiers buried at the temporary American St. Laurent Cemetery, who were to be unearthed that fall.“Many will be returned to the United States, per the request of their next of kin,” my father, then-Brig. Gen. Howard L. Peckham, explained to the crowd of spectators (which included several veterans’ groups). Other deceased soldiers would be reinterred at St. Laurent, again in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin.   

He also explained that the cemetery would be reopened as a permanent resting place, one of the ten permanent American cemeteries in Europe to be graded and constructed by his command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC).   

        Five of those ten cemeteries were to be located in France: Draguignan in the south, Épinal in the northeast, St. Avold near the German border, St. James in Brittany, and St. Laurent in Normandy. These five were selected as the resting places of predominantly First, Seventh, and Third Army casualties. All of these sites had an association with a nearby battle or engagement. With the exception of St. Avold, which was to be built on new ground, all would be on the site of a former temporary cemetery.    

St. Laurent, overlooking Omaha Beach, came into existence only twenty-four hours after that first grim D-Day assault on June 6, 1944. (“Omaha” was the code name for the six-thousand-yard beach between Vierville and Colleville, the main landing area for the American forces.)   

        Immediately after they disembarked from the landing craft, many soldiers were mercilessly gunned down by enemy machine-gun fire. They were buried on the beach as quickly as possible and later interred at St. Laurent. Several others laid to rest at St. Laurent had participated in an airborne assault near Sainte-Mère-Église, “where the American flag was first raised over French soil on D-Day” (U.S. News and World Report, September 27, 1993). Many others died in military operations that occurred after D-Day.   

Near the end of March 1948, my father was scheduled to meet with the officer in charge of AGRC activities in Normandy, so my mother and I decided to join him. I was sixteen at the time and living with my parents in Paris, where I attended high school.   

        On this particular journey, we motored north of Paris for several hours, past diminutive thatch-roofed farmhouses and quaint villages. In some areas, the flowers of early spring had already started poking their heads through the softening ground. It was a pretty drive. Eventually, we arrived at a small town in Normandy west of Le Havre, where Colonel Stevenson, an AGRC officer, met us and drove us to his seaside villa, where we would be staying. My diary notes that we lunched with the colonel and his wife on delicious coq au vin, accompanied by welcome glasses of cold Perrier water.   

A bit later the colonel took my mother and me down to see Omaha Beach, where the D-Day landing had taken place fewer than four years earlier. The view was unbelievably sad, especially considering the loss of life that occurred there.   

        Barges and military vehicles, strewn at various angles on the broad beach, now stood in vacant silence. Foxholes on the sandy banks were as empty as air, and machine-gun nests that once rattled with German gunfire now sat quietly.   

 That night, while I was asleep in one of the guest rooms at the villa, the sound of a dog’s plaintive barking suddenly awakened me.   

        It was an eerie bark, and it seemed to come from far away. I wondered whether the dog sensed what had happened in that area of Normandy during World War II, or if he had even been a witness to it. I finally got back to sleep, but that sound stayed with me for a long time.   

 

 

 

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patriotic photo

A Memorial Day Message:

The American flags proudly waving in front of our homes this Memorial Day weekend serve to remind us of the terrible price of war and the ultimate sacrifice made by someone’s beloved spouse, child, or parent. My heart goes out to family members who have suffered such a loss.

In the spring of 1947, when my father (Howard L. Peckham) became in charge of the permanent disposition of more than 145,000 American World War Two dead of the European Theater, the stars and stripes proudly waved above 37 temporary American cemeteries scattered throughout Europe, where the fallen had been laid to rest.  The work of my father’s command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC), would be both enormous and heart-wrenching during the years he was in charge (1947-1950).

Letters were sent out to the next of kin, giving them two options: Do you want your  loved one returned home for reburial or reinterred in one of the ten permanent American cemeteries in Europe? Although the majority of family members chose the first option, thousands did not. In all cases, however, their wishes were granted. All of the ten permanent cemeteries were graded and constructed by the AGRC, and all but one were former temporary cemeteries.

By the middle of 1951, the permanent American cemeteries in Europe had been transferred from the U.S. Army to the  American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which  in the future would replace the army’s simple wooden crosses and stars with those of marble. The ABMC also built additional structures on the properties and continues to maintain them.

On this Memorial Day, let us remember that our flag proudly waves above those beautiful American cemeteries in Europe. And let’s not forget the supreme sacrifice made by our fallen heroes who rest there.

Thanks.

Jean

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Excerpts from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

AGRC Party at the Hotel Celtic: 1948
AGRC Party at the Hotel Celtic: 1948

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My father hosted a party at the Celtic Hôtel Celtic in April. The hotel, located two blocks up from the Champs Élysées near the Étoile, was essentially an AGRC hotel then.  At the party, he officially introduced my mother and me to several AGRC officers and their wives. Many Department of the Army civilians under my father’s command also attended the party. According to Occupation Forces in Europe Series: The Third Year, 1947-1948, the AGRC workforce consisted of approximately 1,500 military personnel, 3,300 civilians, and 2,600 local resident laborers.  

A few weeks later, a reception was held in honor of my parents at Isle St. Germain, the AGRC depot on the Seine River.  

        Isle St. Germain was where Paris-based AGRC soldiers were billeted and had their mess hall. It’s also where our theater (for stage shows), PX, commissary, and dentist were located. My parents and I rode to the occasion in an army car, accompanied by an official military escort. When we and the motorcycle outriders swung through traffic on streets near the Seine, even Parisians who were otherwise blasé turned and looked at us with curious stares. It was as if we were celebrities. The reception at the depot was warm and congenial, and I was beginning to feel that life in Europe was both interesting and fun.
       

We were not in Europe to have fun, however. Reality would be brought to the fore only a few days later, when I was in my father’s office at AGRC headquarters, where I had come to learn more about his work and meet the clerical staff.  

        AGRC offices were in the former Hôtel Astoria, at the corner of Rue de Presbourg and 131 Avenue des Champs Élysées. “This map shows the location of the temporary cemeteries,” my father said as he pointed to a map on the wall. Graves registration activities of the Quartermaster Corps in the European Theater began in December 1941, when the United States asked the British War Office about burial facilities for our military personnel expected to arrive in 1942 in Northern Ireland, where they would aid the British in their defense of that part of Ireland. Sadly, as was expected, American lives were lost after the men arrived. These burials had been in swampy ground in local cemeteries, but the U.S. Army negotiated with the British and secured a plot of land at Lisnabreeny, a suburb of Belfast, where the Americans were reinterred.
       

All through the war, graves registration soldiers diligently picked up our dead and transported them by trucks to temporary cemeteries. Moving them quickly was a big priority. This was especially true when the dead lay on main highways, where they could be seen by troops moving in their direction. The ones who died during the initial landings on D-Day, so graphically depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan, were buried on the beaches and then later brought to temporary cemeteries—primarily St. Laurent-Sur-Mer.  

        In Europe, the command known as the American Graves Registration Command-European Area (AGRC-EA) was created in 1945. In the preface he wrote for L. R. Talbot’s book The Story of American Graves Registration Command in Europe and Africa, published in 1955, then-Major General Robert Littlejohn, Chief Quartermaster of the European Theater, writes how the command’s creation came about.  

These are General Littlejohn’s words: “I came home with General Eisenhower on his private plane in June 1945. On this trip he and I discussed the problem of Graves Registration, cemeteries, etc. . . .We agreed that a separate command should be set up to do the job in the ETO. . . .As a result, I was relieved as Chief Quartermaster, ETO, in the fall of 1945 and assigned as Commanding General, American Graves Registration Command with station in Paris. . . .I organized this new command with an allotment of military personnel given me by General Eisenhower. Civilians were employed to the fullest extent. . . .  

         Before formalizing the organization’s establishment, the two generals discussed the main reasons for creating the AGRC in Europe. Among these were that American troops were quickly being repatriated after the war, leaving many temporary cemeteries understaffed. Also, a need existed to consolidate graves registration functions under one command, instead of leaving them in the hands of the various armies (such as Seventh Army). An official document to establish the AGRC-EA resulted from those discussions. It had the title “Establishment of Command” and became effective October 1, 1945. In regard to the Command’s subsequent performance, Littlejohn indicated he was quite pleased with its work.  

In his preface to Talbot’s aforementioned book, which he composed at his Maryland home in 1955, the general writes: “I think I can truthfully say, without fear of contradiction, that the performance of the American Graves Registration Command in the European Theater was one of the greatest jobs ever performed by the Quartermaster Corps and the Army anywhere at any time in any war. . . .I salute the commanders who followed me for their accomplishments for which I only pointed the way, to wit  Brigadier General John C. Odel, Brigadier General Alfred B. Denniston, Major General Howard L. Peckham”  

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Excerpts from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham

      When our sailing date of February 24 finally arrived, my mother and I went to Staten Island where our U.S. Army transport Harry Taylor was docked. Giving us and the other passengers a royal sendoff as we walked up the gangplank was an army band, which enthusiastically played sentimental and patriotic music down on the dock. A friendly guide directed us to our stateroom.    
      Not long thereafter, the anchor was pulled up and our ship slowly glided away from the pier. The USAT Harry Taylor,I learned after reading a souvenir booklet given to each of us passengers, was built in 1944 and was named after a general who had served as an executive officer of the Engineer Corps during World War I.       
       I read in the booklet that in 1945, the ship left Marseilles and was headed to the Pacific war zone by way of the Panama Canal when the captain was informed of the Japanese surrender. When the news was received, the ship’s bow turned joyfully towards New York, the booklet proclaimed. The ship’s postwar job was to carry military troops and members of military families to Germany as part of the occupation forces. Some of the passengers, such as my mother and I, were bound for other places in Europe.           
 
      Our journey was often rough, due to the frequent storms at that time of the year in North Atlantic waters. In my diary on the morning of February 28 I wrote: “I couldn’t sleep because we were rocking so much. The waves looked like huge snowcapped mountains.”               
       At breakfast a bit later, I was fascinated to see the way our juice glasses frequently wobbled or slid across the table, and to hear the noisy rattle of cereal bowls and other dishes. Fortunately, I didn’t get seasick.  On clear days my favorite pastime was standing near the railing to watch the dark-blue ocean as the ship’s bow cut through it like a huge pie knife, particularly after a storm had recently abated. When the waves turned over, I would see a lovely shade of aqua.                      

 

     For us teenagers, there were several good ways to pass the time.  I never missed watching the movies shown in the auditorium on our deck, which one rainy day included The Red Danube with Walter Pidgeon and Janet Leigh.  I also enjoyed reading books and magazines borrowed from the ship’s library, which I read while relaxing in a deck chair. (I had a crush on the attractive and friendly soldier who worked behind the library counter, which was another reason for frequently visiting the library.) 

        Because this was primarily a troop ship, many fire drills were scheduled in which we family members needed to participate. The ship had seven decks, and the troops—soldiers who were traveling without families—were not on our deck but on a different one.   Mother and I didn’t follow the instructions correctly during our first abandon-ship drill. In our haste to get to our proper station within the time allowed, we ended up standing at attention on the troop deck, lined up with hundreds of soldiers. We should have been with the other hundred or so family members on another deck, but it was too late to get there after we discovered our mistake. 

      She and I laughed about that incident several times in the days that followed. Like Dad, my mother loved jokes and laughter, even when the jokes were on her.

      After nine days at sea, a series of exciting events took place indicating we were approaching Europe. On March 3, I spotted a fleet of graceful Irish fishing boats. At six o’clock the next morning, our ship picked up a  pilot boat at Dover on the English Channel. Not long afterwards, we entered the North Sea, where we could see a few small English vessels.

        On March 6, the port city of Bremerhaven in northwest Germany came into view. We gently entered its bleak harbor and pulled up beside a long wooden pier, where lively music played by a U.S. Army band greeted us. It was the same kind of music we had heard during our sendoff twelve days earlier, only less sentimental. 

It all seemed unreal. An army car with a general’s star on its bumper plate was waiting for us near the area where my father met us, and the driver slowly took the three of us on our way. When military personnel walked by, most snapped at attention while saluting Dad, and he looked very important when he returned their salutes from the car window. He wasn’t the casually dressed father in postwar Washington who had helped me with my math homework in the evenings—he was a senior officer in the European Command (EUCOM), and he belonged to a conquering army with headquarters in a vanquished land. When the car started traveling farther away from the docks, I felt more than ready to be on dry land again; however, I was emotionally not prepared for the ghostly sight of downtown Bremerhaven as our car and driver took us through it.

 The docks looked largely unimpaired, fortunately for the transport ships, but the buildings in the downtown area had been completely shattered by Allied bombs, and nothing had really been done about rebuilding them yet.  In some areas the city looked like a giant concrete pancake, where no buildings stood. 

        I told my father that seeing the piles of rubble was a shock, and he agreed that the damage had been extensive—but necessary. “Strategic targets, such as railroads, oil refineries, bridges, and industrial sites, were intentionally bombed by Allied pilots,” he explained, “but they purposely avoided hitting docks that could be used by our ships after the war, such as those here.”

      The trains seemed to be working fine now, and we boarded one that began carrying us through Germany. I then saw more of the rueful damage done to that nation, destruction the Allies had needed to inflict in order to win the war. Throughout the countryside, which I described in my diary as looking “torn up,” industrial buildings opened up to the late-winter sky, and we saw big dumps of bricks and concrete everywhere. All that remained of many houses was a lone wall or perhaps a gutted frame.

Aside from the devastation, danger still lurked in some parts of the Siegfried Line, a defense system of fortifications built by the Germans along their country’s western frontier. We personally were not in danger, but AGRC recovery teams certainly were, as my father told us: “Minefields exist in dense parts of the Siegfried Line that haven’t been cleared”, he said. “This situation creates time delays for AGRC teams searching those areas for fallen Americans.”  Searches for our soldiers were also difficult in the thick brambles of the Hurtgen Forest, where there were still several mines. Dad described this problem in a status report he wrote for the Occupation Forces in Europe Series: The Third Year, 1947-1948, which was later published by the Army Historical Division (1949).

 While our train clanked through the land of Wagner, I didn’t think further about the difficult work of AGRC recovery teams at the Siegfried Line or in the Hurtgen Forest. 

 I was busily observing people through our compartment’s window, such as the dour-faced men and women who seemed almost lifeless as they shuffled along on the often-broken pavement. The bitter air of winter had undoubtedly intensified their misery. Even the younger ones, perhaps still in their twenties or thirties, appeared withdrawn, as if they carried a heavy burden.

      At one point during that long night, U.S. Army personnel led us off the train at a railroad station and into an army car.

       The car and soldier driver then took us through a part of Germany that was far away from Bremerhaven, but maybe my fatigue only made it seem that way. We were probably going from one station to another, but I don’t remember the exact reason for this dreary, fog-shrouded journey. Someone from my father’s office in Paris had made efficient transportation arrangements for our trip, but nothing could have been done about the weather. We traveled for several scary miles through opaque fog, and the car’s headlights cast long beams of light to guide us as we rolled carefully on our way.

 

A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham  is available at

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/

 

 

 

 

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