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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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LARGE CROWD WATCHING THE CEREMONY IN HONOR OF FIRST SHIPLOAD OF AMERICAN WAR DEAD FROM EUROPE: ANTWERP, 1947 (U. S. Army Photo)

LARGE CROWD WATCHING THE CEREMONY IN HONOR OF FIRST SHIPLOAD OF AMERICAN WAR DEAD FROM EUROPE: ANTWERP, 1947 (U. S. Army Photo)

Excerpts from Chapter 8, “Freedom Is Not Free,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):

The first shipload of American war dead from Europe, more than five thousand caskets, arrived in New York City in October 1947. They had left from the dock-filled city of Antwerp, Belgium, which was the primary port for the deceased of that zone in Europe. General Lucius Clay, United States Military Governor in Germany and Chief of the European Command (EUCOM), paid homage to them before the flower-bedecked USAT Joseph V. Connolly slowly left port on October 5. On that day, wherever the American flag flew over U.S. installations in Europe, it was at half-staff.

Preceding the ship’s departure, my father’s office [the American Graves Registration Command in Paris] sent a list of the deceased by air courier to the Quartermaster General’s Office in Washington.

In a letter to us, my father explained the reason for this expediency:  “The list enables those families to be contacted and also permits arrangements to be made for subsequent transportation of the deceased within the United States.” He added that the same procedure would be followed for later shipments.

Mother received a tentative date right after New Year’s Day for our voyage to Bremerhaven. My father wrote that he had arranged a mid-February departure for us, which meant that we would need to begin preparing right away for our trip.

Preparations included arranging for the furniture to be put in a storage warehouse that Dad had selected and packing those items we thought we would need in Europe.

      Additionally, we had to go to the army medical center at the Pentagon for our inoculations.

     “I think we’re supposed to turn left here,” my mother said hesitantly after we had made a few wrong turns while trying to find our way through the maze of corridors to the Pentagon’s medical office. According to my diary entry for that day, my shots included smallpox and typhoid vaccines. Afterwards we visited the huge cafeteria for lunch.  

     In February, we packed our remaining belongings and left Cathedral Avenue behind us.

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

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

 

 

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Excerpts from Chapter 4, “Old and New Kentucky Homes,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham:

The year 1942 brought significant morale boosters to American armed forces. In April a successful raid on Tokyo, conducted by then-Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, proved that Japan was not immune from American air strikes. It also partly avenged the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 1941.

More morale boosters were yet to come. In early June 1942, American naval and air forces were victorious in the Battle of Midway, an island in the central Pacific. This success proved to be a turning point in the war, since the United States and its allies could now be on the offensive against Japan’s navy rather than on the defensive, as they had been heretofore.

In November, welcome news came to Dad’s office at 12th Armored Division Headquarters concerning North Africa. British and American forces had arrived in Algeria, and the Western Task Force, headed by George S. Patton, had landed safely in Morocco. Also in November, the British, under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, successfully launched an offensive at El Alamein, Egypt, which forced the German troops to travel westward, away from Egypt.

The heavy responsibility for succeeding in the overall Allied North African engagement, called Operation Torch, had fallen on the able shoulders of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded all the sea, air, and land forces involved in the operation.
Camp Campbell, Kentucky, 1942

Brigadier General Howard L. Peckham: Camp Campbell, Kentucky, 1942

The second edition of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham was published in May 2011 and  is available at Amazon. Click the following link to look inside the book:

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

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My father (second from right) and the other Camp Campbell generals (Brewer, second from left and Newton, third from left) turn to greet the visiting General Jacob L. Devers.

My father (second from right) and the other Camp Campbell generals (Brewer, second from left and Newton, third from left) turn to greet the visiting General Jacob L. Devers.


The following are excerpts from Chapter 4, “Old and New Kentucky Homes,” from A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham: 

      I didn’t know anything about the large German Panzer tanks in Europe about which my father had once expressed concern, and I had certainly never seen one.  I did see Sherman tanks, however. One day I stood very close to one that was on display at Fort Knox, and I recall feeling dwarfed by its big treads and complex-looking weaponry.

      As fate would have it, I would never sit in one of those tanks again. Howard Peckham’s stellar performance during an intensive one-month course at the Armored Force School brought about a change in his assignment. One evening in early July 1942 he told us he had received orders to report to Camp Campbell later that month. My mother’s response to the news was unexpectedly dramatic.

      “Oh, no!” she sobbed, while pressing her head firmly against a wall in the stairway. She was still in the process . . ., and we had lived at Fort Knox for only three months. This was one of the few times I ever saw her cry when told we would be moving. “I’m sorry, dear,” Dad said sympathetically, “During wartime, officers are sent where the need for their leadership is the greatest.”  Feeling the determination to behave like a gallant army wife, my mother gradually regained her composure and began to pack. 

      In late July 1942, our furniture was again loaded into a huge van, and I started wondering what my future school might be like.

      We had moved to Fort Knox near the end of the school year, so I didn’t attend classes there. I had enjoyed the vacation, though. For one thing, I always looked forward to the arrival of a bakery truck that came to our cul-de-sac twice a week to deliver newly baked bread and sugary cinnamon rolls. I was unhappy when these treats ended.

Back at Fort Benning, our previous post, other officers’ wives—many of them wives of senior officers—were having to make big adjustments.

For example, in August, General Crittenberger assumed command of III Armored Corps (later called XIX Corps) at Camp Polk, Louisiana.

During the following year, General Crittenberger left for assignments in England and then in Italy, the latter of which had more than its share of danger. Josephine (his wife) undoubtedly felt an enormous strain while her husband was serving there—not only was he leading the IV Corps during its many days of fighting north from Rome and across the River Po, but their son, Townsend, was in combat in the European Theater at the same time.

Tragically, Townsend did not survive the war.  In Italy . . .

Like his job at Fort Knox, Howard Peckham’s assignment at Camp Campbell, a relatively new army installation (now called Fort Campbell), was in Kentucky. We would still be living in a pretty bluegrass state noted for its horse ranches, but the Camp had no available houses for dependents. Therefore, we would have to live in one of the nearby small towns.

No longer would we have quarters on a typical army post.An army post was structured and efficient, a place where straight-backed uniformed men and women, who looked as if they had ramrods attached to their spines, walked at a quick pace on sidewalks located . . .

Nevertheless, the move was quite advantageous as far as my father’s career was concerned. In late August, he received a promotion to brigadier general. He had accumulated an impressive array of complimentary efficiency reports from his superiors over the years, so gaining a star was a well-deserved step up the career ladder.

Other good news was that my parents found an attractive place to live in Hopkinsville, a town sixteen miles north of Camp Campbell. Named for Samuel Hopkins, a Revolutionary War soldier and pioneer, Hopkinsville was caught up in the patriotic spirit of the times. Several of its residents offered to share their homes with army families, and Dad found one prospect especially appealing.

After showing my parents their property, the owners, Robert and Frances Fairleigh, invited us to move in with them. My parents gladly accepted, and soon thereafter we began to unpack the few items we had with us. My bedroom was tiny, as was my brother’s, but my parents at least had a large bedroom-sitting room combination, where we spent much of our time. Our own furniture, which had always traveled with us to our far-flung temporary homes, was placed in storage.

At first, it seemed strange to me that we were “boarding” in someone else’s house, but at least, I reasoned, we were living on an old, charming mini-estate with its own distinctive name: Fairlelond.

The property’s grounds were vast and filled with flower gardens and vegetable patches, and I’ve never forgotten the taste of large ripe tomatoes we picked and ate right off the vine. A favorite four-legged playmate of mine, who stayed in a backyard doghouse much of the time, was the Fairleigh family’s rambunctious setter, Lady, who produced a large litter of puppies during our stay. Also in attendance was the frisky black and white short-haired cat my brother and I acquired, named Willie.  Best of all, Robert and Frances Fairleigh were to become lifelong friends of our family.

For many soldiers assigned to the 12th Armored Division, activated at Camp Campbell in September 1942, training was so rugged that they had little energy for socializing.   Their days consisted of long marches and endless combat exercises. “When the sun shines, dust unmercifully flies into their eyes,” Dad said about their environment, “and when it rains, they have to trek through deep mud.”

The commander of the 12th Armored Division then was Major General Carlos B. Brewer. When General Jacob Devers paid a visit (shown in the photo at the top of the page and in A Salute to Patriotism), Dad and the two other 12th Armored Division generals greeted his plane, gave him a tour, and updated him about the division’s progress. 

Dad’s main task was to ensure that the division received training to prepare it well for its inevitable participation in battle. Learning how to load armored vehicles for sea transport, how to communicate in a tank environment, how to perform armor tactics were necessary components of armored warfare training.

The second edition of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham was published in May 2011. Click on the link below to see the table of contents and other pages.

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

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