Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Unbroken' Humility and Respect

Review by Bill Doughty

Louie Zamperini and Laura Hillenbrand share a moment.
Laura Hillenbrand writes with vivid power about the life of Louis Zamperini: troublemaker kid, redeemed brother, Olympic runner, Army Air Forces lieutenant, POW and veteran.

"Unbroken" is a true story of fearless determination in the face of death, hate and brutality of war. No wonder the story was made into a feature film. 

There are some surprising ties to the Navy, and a big part of story takes place at sea.

In fact, as the preface opens, it's June 23, 1943 in the "endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean." Sharks rub against Zamperini's raft and an enemy bomber flies overhead firing machine guns below. 
Young Louie
Hillenbrand is in the zone in describing conflict, action and people. Here's how she portrays Louie as a boy, son of immigrant parents in Torrance, California who spoke only Italian at home:
"His features, which would later settle into pleasant collaboration, were growing at different rates, giving him a curious face that seemed designed by committee. His ears leaned sidelong off his head like holstered pistols, and above them waved a calamity of black hair that mortified him. He attacked it with his aunt Margie's hot iron, hobbled it in a silk stocking every night, and slathered it with so much olive oil that flies trailed him to school. It did no good."
Louie and Pete Zamperini
Louie's big brother Pete became mentor and coach, encouraging Louie to train as a runner who would set records. Pete believed Louie was capable of running a four-minute mile. He got within 13 seconds of that mark. Louis Zamperini competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he was introduced to Adolf Hitler. 

He was set to run in the 1940 Games in Finland but they were canceled after Nazi Germany invaded. Fascism spread like a stain by the Nazis across Europe and – by Imperial Japan – through Asia.

Pete served in World War II as a Navy Chief Petty Officer training Sailors in San Diego. Louie became a bombardier stationed at Hickam Field and Kahuku, Hawaii. He trained aboard his B-24 named "Super Man" off Barbers Point on Oahu and Barking Sands on Kauai before deploying to Midway and other Pacific islands, including Funafuti and Samoa.

Following a successful raid on Wake Island, Admiral Nimitz presented pilots with the Distinguished Flying Cross and crewmen with Air Medals.

Pete and Louie in WWII
After crashing into the ocean on a search mission, facing hunger, delirium, sharks and enemy attacks, Louie and his close friend, pilot Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips, survived, floating 2,000 miles only to be captured by the enemy. They would spend the rest of the war in Japanese prison camps. Both the days at sea and the months languishing as slave-labor prisoners are portrayed by Hillenbrand with vivid prose, carefully researched details, and insights into the character of not only the protagonists but also some of the key antagonists.

Zamperini faced torture by brutal guards in camps at Kwajalein and Ofuna and especially at Omori and Naoetsu, men corrupted by power.
"Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler's death camps, the laves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man's soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet."
Hillenbrand shows that the guards were not representative of Japanese civilians or pre-militaristic society.  They were the "dregs ... washed out of regular soldierly life, too incompetent to perform basic duties. Quite a few were deranged."

While some of the guards showed compassion and understanding, many were "murderously sadistic" and felt racially and morally superior, driven by a religious fervor, hate and fear, according to Hillenbrand.

Among the POWs were Pappy Boyington, USS Houston survivor Cmdr. Arthur Maher, and Marine officer William Harris. Harris would be invited by Gen. MacArthur to be on the deck of the USS Missouri for the signing of the instruments of surrender Sept. 2, 1945. Five years later he fought in the Korean War where he became missing in action. Harris was the Navy Cross in absentia.

Zamperini and his fellow POWs survived through stealing, sabotage and sheer determination. After the surrender, they rejected hate and revenge. Instead, they showed humanity to their former captors and civilians living near the camps. Back home, Louie lived with PTSD but was helped by family, friends and faith and forgiveness. Louis Zamperini died earlier this year. He was 97.

I'm posting this on the day after Marcus Mariota, quarterback of the University of Oregon Ducks, was awarded the Heisman trophy. In his acceptance remarks, Mariota, a Polynesian American native son of Hawaii, thanked his teammates, coaches, family and home state: "To Hawaii nei [beloved Hawaii], thank you for teaching me humility and respect. Two aspects of my life that I will never change."
I thought of parallels – how fearless and determined Lou Zamperini lived his life with humility and respect, though his brutal prison guards had neither during the war. History is filled with examples of the power of honor, courage and commitment to inalienable human rights.

Mariota's father, Toa, is originally from American Samoa.

In her acknowledgements in "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," Hillenbrand concludes with a dedication:
"Finally, I wish to remember the millions of Allied servicemen and prisoners of war who lived the story of the Second World War. Many of these men never came home; many others returned bearing emotional and physical scars that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. I come away from this book with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity."
Humility and respect.
Samoa 1943.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

What's on Pearl Harbor Survivor's Kindle

by Bill Doughty
Then-Lt. Edward Vezey Jr.
Former Lt.Cmdr. Ed Vezey, a Pearl Harbor survivor who was aboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37) during the attack of December 7, 1941, told me recently his favorite author is James D. Hornfischer. Among the books on Vezey's Kindle are "Neptune's Inferno," "Last of the Tin Can Sailors" and his top pick, "Ship of Ghosts."

"That book had the most impact on me," Vezey said. "The thing I like about it is how it goes from civilian life to what they did despite the inhumanity they witnessed. Hornfischer really knows how to show the brutality of naval combat. [USS] Houston ran right into the buzzsaw."

For Vezey, who is reportedly the last USS Oklahoma Pearl Harbor survivor living in the State of Oklahoma, "The Guadalcanal Campaign was worse than Pearl Harbor. During the war, instead of hour after hour, it was weeks and months, every day and every night."

Vezey recalls "no good torpedoes" against the enemy, waters "teeming with submarines," and the effects of a battleship's ferocious guns targeting smaller ships. "Sixteen-inch guns would go right through a destroyer, and they would try to hit below the water line."

Vezey is expected to speak at the USS Oklahoma Memorial Ceremony on Ford Island next weekend during the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. The memorial is located adjacent to Battleship Row, where USS Oklahoma was berthed in 1941 and where Battleship Missouri Memorial sits today.

Vezey helped make the USS Oklahoma Memorial a reality. The memorial, dedicated Dec. 7, 2007, is in tribute to 429 Marines and Sailors who lost their lives aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack.

In an interview with Brandice J. Armstrong at Tinker Air Force Base in 2010, Vezey, who had reported to USS Oklahoma in April 1941 as an ensign, said, "It's hard to convey to non-Sailors how important this ship is when you're a Sailor. It's your mother, your home and if you spend a lot of time at sea like we did, it's the fundamental island [of] security."

Today, Vezey exercises daily and lives a healthy lifestyle. He has two 'themes' in life.
A USS Oklahoma Sailor uses nap time to read. Courtesy USSOklahoma.com.
"The first is that life is one whale of an adventure, but don't let go when it tries to throw you off," Vezey said. "The second is to keep pedaling, or else the bike will fall over. This is fundamentally true in your health, your job skills, your marriage. If you stop pedaling, all of a sudden you discover life is passing you by."

"Life can be great if you don't quit."

That attitude is reflected in Hornfischer's "Ship of Ghosts" (see the next blog post) and, a generation later, in Craig Venter's autobiography, "A Life Decoded."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Haunting Defiance in 'Ship of Ghosts'

Review by Bill Doughty

In "Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors" by James D. Hornfischer (2006, Bantam Dell) the author takes readers to sea, to POW camps and into the jungle as he examines key chapters of World War II.

FDR aboard USS Houston 1935.
Ultimately, this book is about unspeakable horrors of war but also the triumph of the human spirit.

Hornfischer begins by showing why USS Houston (CA-30) was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's favorite ship and how FDR knew many of the crew by name. The president would go fishing with Houston's Sailors.

Then the author shows how Japan's search for natural resources fueled the start of the war and set the stage for Imperial Japan's ultimate downfall, despite earlier victories against America's ally China: "A failure of foresight and a shortage of materiél sealed their doom."

That need for oil and other resources continued throughout the war, as Hornfischer writes:
"It was all about China. A world war engulfed the Pacific because Japan had struggled to subjugate its mainland neighbor. Franklin Roosevelt's economic sanctions and oil embargo were punishment for Japan's assault on China, Asia's keystone in the economic world order. Japan's earliest offensives in the southwestern Pacific grew from is need for oil to pursue its war on the continent. Now Japan aimed to strangle China by cutting its essential lines of supply from India and Burma, kept open by threadbare British and American armies."
Japan's army, with its "rigidly hierarchical and ruthless system," where "conceit seemed to flow from the highest levels of the Japanese command," guided the government and justified actions based on ancient martial codes (Bushido) and religious dominion under a belief that the emperor was a descendent from heaven. Those who controlled the military believed God was on their side.

Hornfischer writes powerfully about the sinking of HMAS Perth and then USS Houston in the Battle of Sunda Strait off Java just as he did in "Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors." We hear the wrench of metal, smell the smoke, see the destruction, feel the loss of equilibrium and experience the fear as Sailors fight and struggle to survive.

Memorable characters include PFC John WIsecup, Cmdr. Arthur L. Maher, Sgt. James "Pack Rat" McCone, S1C Melfred "Gus" Forsman, S2C Otto Scwarz, Sgt. Frank Fujita, Dr. Henri Hekking, Col. Yoshitada Nagatomo, and Capt. Albert H. Rooks and his extended family, among dozens more.

Hornfischer describes life in the POW camps scattered throughout Asia, where "the trick to being in Japanese captivity was to navigate the divide separating subservience and defiance."

Among the stories of torture, disease and death are tales of survival and sabotage against the guards – from stealing supplies, urinating in the captors' bathwater, tampering with equipment and hiding a radio to more serious acts against the enemy at the Nagasaki shipyard and on the railway in Thailand. Hornfischer tells the true story of the construction of the railway for the bridges over Tamarkan and River Kwai – Kwae Noi Bridge.

"One of the traits the Americans seemed to have in common with the Australians was a boundless sense of the possible," according to Hornfischer. Two survivors, 2nd Lt. Roy E. Stensland and Pack Rat McCone, are described as having "a raging mind, mercury in the blood, and a visible unconcern with the personal consequences of rebellion."

Overall, those who had a positive attitude were more likely to survive the ordeal of captivity and the rigors of slave labor. One trick was to frame the experience as "endure" rather than "suffer." POW Frank Fujita saw an opportunity to study anatomy and contemplate life and death. Ray Parkin experienced "a naturalist's reverie" in the teak forest where he found that non-dogma "faith and hope are a couple of unclassified vitamins."
"Even as it tried to kill him, Ray Parkin was enthralled by the wilderness all around him, by the cool blue-green bamboo, by the slapping wings of Asiatic nightjars and hornbills, by the swarms of brownish butterflies, by 'hooded lilies, several iris-like orchids, wild ginger, and banana (which bears no edible fruit), clumps of orchids in the branches of trees like corsages of yellow jonquils. There are waves of perfume in the bush which we sometimes walk into. Cinnamon, chocolate, and one honey-sweet like clematis. Sometimes the early morning dew on the dry bamboo leaves smells like the Australian bush – or is it just nostalgia.' 
"Parkin's 'unclassified vitamins' were all around him, and his obsession to catalog them was the kind of force that gave a man a reason to stay alive. 'Vines are leaping with bright new green leaves a foot or so across. They are heart-shaped – some are like two hearts alongside each other. Trees are blossoming. One purple like lilac, and growing like a giant ti-tree ... There are more bird calls' monkeys call like Swannee whistles – flutelike on a slurred scale. All nature moves and has its bing, and we seem to sit on it like a scab.'"
Hornfischer's prose and choice of colorful quotes are at times artful imagery or – especially in the latter part of the book – careful chronology and documentation, preserving the memory and history of POWs from the War in the Pacific, where Pearl Harbor looms throughout the book and throughout the war as a beginning beacon for all of the war's ghosts.

During the war, in POW camps in Asia service members, treated like slaves, dealt with malaria, cholera, tropical ulcers, monsoons, snakes and primitive dental care – tree sap fillings!

Frequent beatings, abuse and unreasonable expectations, combined with inadequate food rations, were a way of life – and death. Their captors regularly violated the Geneva Convention by placing prisoners next to military targets or transporting them with materiél in "hell ships" subject to attack by American submarines. As the war neared an end the POWs feared they would be killed en masse by their guards.

In 1945 militarists in Japan tried to continue to fight on, still believing in Japan's divine destiny. But as the empire crumbled and B-29s leveled cities in the homeland, Imperial Japan found itself "choking to death on the fumes of the hemisphere-wide wildfire it had started three and a half years before."

Hornfischer proves why he is a favorite with navy leaders, historians and veterans, including Pearl Harbor survivor Ed Vezey. Filled with historical photos, first-source references and an extensive biography, but punctuated with colorful descriptions and vignettes, "Ship of Ghosts" is a top read for anyone interested in WWII history in the Pacific. Read my other reviews and a contribution by the author to Navy Reads.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

State of the Navy: New Jersey

Review by Bill Doughty

Every state in the Union has some tie to the Navy. New Jersey's connections include people like George Washington, Adm. "Bull" Halsey, Cmdr. Joy Bright Hancock, Ruth Cheney Streeter and Medal of Honor recipient Marine Sergeant John Basilone and places like Asbury Park, Camden, Princeton and Naval Air Station Wildwood.

Henry Schnakenberg's "Indians Trading with Half Moon," Fort Lee Post Office.
"New Jersey: A History of the Garden State," edited by Maxine N. Lurie and Richard Veit (Rutgers University Press, 2012), is a history of the Garden State beginning with a "12,000-year odyssey" of archeology and discussion about the Delaware or "Lenni Lenape" Native Americans of the region.

Populated by the Dutch, Swedes, English and other Europeans, New Jersey has always been in the shadow of its neighbor colonies/states New York and Pennsylvania. Overlooked, according to the authors, is the state's diversity and complexity, even early on as immigrants first arrived. "The 'Dutch' themselves were of many nationalities, including French, Walloon, Scandinavian, Pole, Hungarian, Italian, German, and Finnish."

Emanuel Leutze's depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware, 1851.

A chapter by John Fea, "Revolution and Confederation Period," gives a succinct history of New Jersey during the Revolutionary War, including the pivotal year 1776. The British Navy attacked Gen. George Washington's Army in the northern part of the state. Washington's forces used the littorals – Delaware and Hudson rivers – and fought against British troops at Staten Island and Sandy Hook.

The Revolutionary War sparked support for abolition of slavery, especially in Monmouth County after the Battle of Trenton, according to Fea. 

In the Wake of the Continental Congress, New Jersey feared domination by larger states but eventually signed the Articles of Confederation 236 years ago, November 20, 1778.
"Some of the more thoughtful of New Jersey's citizens wondered how the new Confederation would foster a sense of national unity and common purpose. An unstable economy and an increase in popular participation in government was a recipe for individuals to place self-interest over the public good. Many of these observers knew that in order for a republic to survive, the people needed to be willing to sacrifice their own interests for the success of the republic whenever the two came into conflict. Calls for virtue were quite common in the 1770s and 1780s. In an August 7, 1776 address to the citizens of Cumberland county, Jonathan Elmer told his audience that a 'new era in politics had commenced.' The American Revolution would be successful in the long run only if the people were 'actuated by principles of virtue and genuine patriotism' and would agree to 'make the welfare of our country the sole aim of all our actions.'"
Other authors walk us through American history milestones as experienced in New Jersey, including women's suffrage and other civil rights, Civil War, the Industrial Revolution (and Thomas Edison's role), the Progressive Era and Great Depression and War. Like the rest of the nation, New Jersey was torn between isolationism and the need to prevent Hitler's violent subsumption of Europe.
"Despite America's worsening relations with Germany and Japan, New Jersey residents were stunned when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Fears of sabotage led state and federal authorities to take measures to protect key facilities and transportation centers throughout New Jersey. Army soldiers, members of the recently organized state guard, and state police troopers guarded key bridges, tunnels, and other vital facilities. An elaborate civil defense network staffed by thousands of volunteer air raid wardens prepared for possible attack from enemy bombers. Residents were urged to cover windows and municipalities initiated blackout drills. To prevent the landing of saboteurs, the United States Coast Guard instituted foot patrols of the Jersey coastline."
F4U-1A Corsair of VBF-4 at NAS Wildwood 1945.
German submarines patrolled off the coast, according to G. Kurt Piehler, who reveals the strong connections between the Garden State and the Navy, Marine Corps and other services:  Fort Hancock and Cape May were set up as locations for artillery batteries, Atlantic City and Asbury Park hotels were converted into barracks and later as hospitals for wounded warriors, and Naval Air Station Wildwood and Millville Army Airfield in South Jersey were used to train pilots. 

Camden was a center for industrial support to the military. New York Ship Building in Camden built 29 major capital ships including air craft carriers, battleships and cruisers. [Although built in Philadelphia, the battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) would become the flagship for Adm. Halsey in 1944.] Campbell Soup, headquartered in Camden, produced millions of ready-to-eat meals. In Paterson, Curtiss-Wright Corporation manufactured nearly 140,000 airplane engines. Labor surged, housing was built, and citizens stepped up to support the war effort both indirectly and directly:
GySgt. Basilone by C.C. Beall

"More than 560,500 men and women from New Jersey served in all branches of the armed forces and virtually every corner of the world. Of those who served, 13,000 were killed and an even higher number wounded. Navy Admiral William F. Halsey was perhaps the most prominent senior commander with ties to New Jersey, and he scored an impressive number of victories in the Pacific against Japanese naval forces. Seventeen residents won the Medal of Honor. The most famous was Marine Sergeant John Basilone of Rariton, who earned the award for gallantry while fighting the Japanese at the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Like other war heroes, Basilone was brought home to aid the war effort by touring the country and urging Americans to buy war bonds. More than 30,000 people turned out for one rally at Doris Duke's estate in Somerville. At his own request, Basilone was reassigned to the combat ranks and later killed during costly assaults agains the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima in February 1945. In contrast to earlier wars, women served in the armed services in unprecedented numbers – more than 10,000 enlisted from New Jersey. Ruth Cheney Streeter of Morristown served as head of the U.S. Marine Corps Women Reserves, and Joy Bright Hancock of Wildwood rose to the rank of commander in the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and played an instrumental role in convincing the Navy to train women in aircraft maintenance and other technical positions."
Piehler shows how World War II transformed society in New Jersey thanks to industrialization and the effects of the GI Bill. "Ideologically, the war fostered important shifts in attitudes toward race and ethnicity. Supporters of American intervention prior to Pearl Harbor argued that the United States must enter the conflict in order to preserve human rights."  FDR's "four freedoms" speech in 1941 – universal rights to freedom of/from religion, speech, want and fear – helped ignite protests against discrimination and segregation.
"Pressure on the Roosevelt administration forced the Marine Corps to accept African Americans in its ranks for the first time, pushed the Navy to commission the first group of black officers, and led to the eventual desegregation of officer training in all branches of the armed forces. The latter reform had important implications for Princeton University. During the war years there emerged an intense debate among students, faculty and administrators over the wisdom of continuing to bar African Americans from the undergraduate student body. In 1945 the Navy forced Princeton to admit four black students sent there under the Navy V-12 Program, and one of them became the first African American to earn a B.A. from this Ivy League institution. In 1945 New Jersey was the second state, after New York, to pass a statewide fair employment act barring discrimination by employers on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion."
Readers interested in post-WWII contemporary history of the state may be hungry to learn more about the state in the decades since, though the book does go into some detail about the suburbanization of the state and the ongoing effects of immigration.

Other states can claim more ties to the Navy and naval history, no doubt. California, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida and Hawaii come to mind. But this book shows connections between New Jersey and the Navy from the beginning of the nation's history and during the most pivotal international event for America in the 20th century, World War II.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Excerpts Like a Vegas Buffet

On this "Day of the Dead" reading books is still alive and well. Recent Navy Reads posts about Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Paine and Craig Venter – and on subjects like Jihad-Fatwa, hope vs. fear, the meaning of life, and history in context – led to the discovery of these delectable excerpts from related reads.


from "Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America" by Ranya Tabari Idliby:

"Fear is not the American way, I remind my children. So although feel America's fear, and on some days even share its contempt or disdain, I do not believe that doing so reflects America at its best. As we strive for a better American union, it is knowledge and compassion, rather than fear mongering and ignorance, that must reign supreme. Today more than ever, America's hope, vision, and exceptionalism are needed as an inspiration for those who are aspiring and struggling to gain the freedoms and rights we already have. Banning imagined threats such as Sharia in an America that has had centuries of safeguarded and absolutely secular courts only serves to infringe on the equality and rights of Muslims as Americans, making them feel targeted and persecuted. It reflects a less than honest America, lacking in confidence, insecure in its mission. Let our conviction not be fear but knowledge and power – this has always been the American Way..."


from "The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation" by Matt Ridley:

"The roots of social order are in our heads, where we possess the instinctive capacities for creating not a perfectly harmonious and virtuous society, but a better one than we have at present. We must build our institutions in such a way that they draw out those instincts. Pre-eminently this means the encouragement of exchange between equals. Just as trade between countries is the best recipe for friendship between them, so exchange between enfranchised and empowered individuals is the best recipe for cooperation. We must encourage social and material exchange between equals for that is the raw material of trust, and trust is the foundation of virtue."


from "The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan" by Jenny Nordberg:

"Perhaps someday in our future it will be possible for women everywhere not to be restricted to those roles society deems natural, God-given, or appropriately feminine. A woman will not need to be disguised as a man to go out, to climb a tree, or to make money. She will not even need to make an effort to resemble one, or to think like one. Instead, she can speak a language that men will want to understand. She will be free to wear a suit or a skirt or something entirely different. She will not count as three-quarters of a man, and her testimony will not be worth half of a man's. She will be recognized as someone's sister, mother and daughter. And maybe, someday, her identity will not be confined to how she relates to a brother, son, or father; instead, she will be recognized as an individual, whose life holds value only in itself. It will not be the end of the world, the nation-state, or sexuality. It will not solve all the world's problems. But it is an exciting promise of how we might continue to evolve, through small bursts of individual greatness alongside a slow overhaul of civilization."


from "The Meaning of Human Existence" by Edward O. Wilson:

"The advances of science and technology will bring us to the greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham: how much to retrofit the human genotype  Shall it be a lot, a little bit, or none at all? The choice will be forced on us because our species has begun to cross what is the most important yet sill least examined threshold in the technoscientific era. We are about to abandon natural selection, the process that created us, in order to direct our own evolution by volitional selection – the process of redesigning our biology and human nature as we wish them to be."

"Science and the humanities, it is true, are fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do. But they are complementary to each other in origin, and they arise from the same creative processes in the human brain. If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning."


from "The Origins of Crowd Psychology: Gustave Le Bon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic" by Robert A. Nye:

"The great historian of Victorianism G. M. Young has written 'The real, central theme of history is not what happened, by what people felt about it when it was happening.' No doubt Young does not mean to say that what happened has no bearing in assembling a version of the historical past; but he hopes to stress that contemporaries in any epoch only rarely grasp the nature and significance of the historical forces shaping their lives. Marx, Tocqueville, Weber, and other giants of nineteenth-century social thought notwithstanding, it seems safe to say that most observers of the process and consequences of European industrialization and urbanization suffered from a manifest incongruence between what actually occurred and how they perceived it. And it seems equally safe to say that very often the illusory perception of a generation will refuse to die with it, but will live on, barely transformed, to haunt later generations. It follows that the historian must take these perceptions seriously insofar as they served as truisms that influenced men and women's attempts to make sense of a complex social reality."


from "Conversations with Kennedy" by Benjamin C. Bradlee:

"The helicopter took off in a dark overcast for the jump across the bay. Halfway across, the president spotted the crew of a carrier lined up at attention along the deck, presumably in his honor, and asked the chopper pilot to circle low over the carrier to show that he was aware and appreciative of their respect. The Navy has a special hold on him, irrespective of his rank as commander in chief. We landed on the lawn of Hammersmith Farm, in a scene that was half space-age pomp and half 'Wuthering Heights.' The wind whistled from the helicopter blades, but the light was that dark yellow light of a New England fall evening, and that barn of a house could have been brought over intact from the Bronte moor.  This was the first time we had seen Jackie since the death of little Patrick, and she greeted JFK with by far the most affectionate embrace we had ever seen them give each other. They are not normally demonstrative people, period."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tin Can Sailor Ben Bradlee Remembered

by Bill Doughty

Lt. j.g. Bradlee, courtesy USNI
Long before he became the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee was in his early twenties in World War II, where he served as a Command Information Center officer aboard USS Philip (DD 498) in the Pacific. He deployed from Pearl Harbor in 1942 through 1944, and was involved in landings in the Solomons and Marianas, then as an expert advisor/trainer in CIC sent aboard 19 destroyers in and around the Philippines, Okinawa and near mainland Japan.

Bradlee, who died last week at 93, said in his 1995 autobiography, "A Good Life," that his experience in "the Tin Can Navy" aboard USS Philip were "certainly the most important two years of my life, then and maybe now."

He admits to enjoying his experience in the war in a chapter titled "Navy":
"My regular non-battle job involved communications, the care and feeding of the machines which provided raw information to the ship, and of the men who operated and maintained those machines. This responsibility was more educating than Harvard, more exciting, more meaningful than anything I'd ever done. This is why I had such a wonderful time in the war. I just plain loved it. Loved the excitement, even if it was only getting from Point A to Point B; loved the camaraderie, even if the odd asshole reared his ugly head every so often. For years I was embarrassed to admit all this, given the horrors and sadness visited upon so many during the years I was thriving. But news of those horrors was so removed in time and distance. No newspapers, no radio even, except Tokyo Rose, and of course there were none of television's stimulating jolts. I found that I liked making decisions. I liked sizing up men and picking the ones who could best do the job. Most of all I liked the responsibility, the knowledge that people were counting on me, that I wouldn't let them down."
He describes life on a destroyer as "intimate, noisy, informal, boring, exciting, dangerous, arduous, crowded, scary, and boring again."
"Three hundred and thirty men jammed into a 2,100-ton ship shaped like a steel greyhound. Long (380 feet), or longer than a football field. Narrow (32 feet, about as wide as an 18-wheel truck is long). And fast (36 knots, or 40 miles an hour). In a heavy sea, a destroyer can easily role as much as 90 degrees – 45 degrees to either side. Handles were welded to bulkheads everywhere, to be grabbed during heavy rolls. And the decks bristled with a variety of offensive weapons. Five 5-inch guns, roughly equivalent to 105mm howitzers. Eight torpedoes, in two four-torpedo mounds amidships. A pair of four twin 40mm anti-aircraft guns, plus another eight 20mm AA guns. And a dozen depth charges in racks along either side of the stern."
In "A Good Life" Bradlee considers himself lucky for surviving polio after being temporarily paralyzed after an epidemic hit his high school. He writes about his good fortune to serve and survive in the Pacific during the war and of his later success in business and life.

The Navy empowered and educated him as a leader at a very young age: "Each day of my naval life I had been learning perhaps the most important lesson of my life: You can't do any better than surround yourself with the best people you can find, and then listen to them. And I had done that."

He describes working "under the overall command of the flashy, charismatic Admiral William Halsey, or the brilliant, self-effacing Admiral Raymond Spruance, the admirals who taught our generation the art of 'calculated risk.' (We all preferred Spruance)," Bradlee writes.

He recalls action in The Slot from Rabaul.
"We worried more about the Japanese torpedoes, fired from ships or submarines. Our torpedoes were nowhere near as good. Rabaul is the island that a young congressman, somehow a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, flew over one night as an observer, and flew back to Washington immediately. Got himself a [Silver] Star for that single flight, as the world would learn later. His name was Lyndon Baines Johnson."
He interacted with heroic Australian and U.S. Marine forward area observers and spotters in CIC, often helping direct barrages of the ship's 5-inch guns. A constant threat were Japanese submarines and ships and, later in the war, Kamikaze attacks. 

Bradlee remembers reading books during the war like James Boswell's, "Life of (Samuel) Johnson," Philip Wylie's "A Generation of Vipers," David L. Cohn's "Love in America," and Gladys Schmitt's "The Gates of Aulis." He also read Time, Newsweek and The New Yorker magazines and other Reader's Digest-sized publications. 

And he referred to the Encyclopedia Britannica in the ship's library when he had to help the Captain explain to the crew what had happened after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
"Without knowing a thing, we sensed that this event was going to rival December 7, 1941, in importance to all our immediate futures. Was this the first time I wrote in ignorance? Knowing way too little about my subject? Or the last? I wish."
"A Good LIfe" reads like an honest, fearless, open, self-effacing account of the amazing history Bradlee saw and communicated: Vietnam, Watergate, Cold War, violence, CIA and D.C. politics, and of course JFK, a fellow Navy veteran.

The Bradlees were neighbors, "only a few doors away," of Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy in Georgetown.

In 1963 Kennedy, Niven and Bradlee shoot skeet as a petty officer assists.
After Kennedy became President they remained friends, though their relationship was complicated, thanks to Bradlee's association with the "Fourth Estate." Bradlee recalls yachting, skeet shooting and swimming with JFK and actor David Niven at Camp David in May, 1963, six months before the president was assassinated in Dallas.

Bradlee shares his deep appreciation of JFK and reflects on the "awful grief" that gripped the nation and that Bradlee tried to express in his elegy/eulogy at the time.

This autobiography, subtitled "Newspapering and Other Adventures," takes us into the newsroom with Woodward and Bernstein, among others. We get Bradlee's perspective on journalism, family and friendship as well as leadership formed in naval service.

(Recommended read: an interview by Fred Schultz with Bradlee from 1995 recently reposted by U.S. Naval Institute from Naval History magazine. Bradlee goes into more detail about his perspective on Halsey and Spruance, Vietnam and the post-Watergate era, with new insights about JFK and PT-109, race relations, the women's equality movement and all-volunteer service, among other topics.)


Friday, October 24, 2014

Vietnam, Suicide and Choosing Life

Review by Bill Doughty

My preteen grandkids know who Thomas Edison is. Their grandkids will know, in the same way, about J. Craig Venter.

Venter is a Navy Vietnam Veteran who faced challenges in life, made mistakes in and out of uniform, turned his life around, and eventually became one of the foremost experts in genetics. He mapped the human genome, created synthetic life in this century and is now working on ways to support life on Mars.
I read a passage to my grandsons from a chapter in Venter's autobiography, "A Life Decoded - My Genome: My Life" called "University of Death." The boys were fascinated by his capture of a deadly poisonous snake while Venter swam in the warm waters off China Beach. Two species of poisonous snakes in the South China Sea, Venter says, "travel in large herds measuring miles long and up to a half-mile wide."

Venter, a former Navy Corpsman who spent a lot of his off time swimming in the sea, felt the snake bump into his leg and reached down to grab it, fortunately getting it near the head and not the flattened tail:
"I knew I could not let go. Its jaws were wide open, and it was trying to bite. Sea snakes are strong swimmers, and it was all I could do to hang on. Swimming with one arm while being tumbled by ten to twelve-foot waves and holding on to a writhing snake is not something I would recommend. Finally I was able to stand and started to run but was knocked down by a wave once more. Stumbling breathlessly toward the beach I saw some driftwood and used it to hit the snake on the head until it stopped moving. A friend took a photo of me holding my trophy, recording one of those crossroads in life that, with the wrong luck, could easily have led to death. I did not want to forget what had just happened. I took my knife, skinned my attacker, and back at the hospital, pinned it with hypodermic needles to a board to dry in the sun. I still have the snake skin hanging in my office as a reminder of the encounter."
Venter, who says he always felt a need to race – bicycles, boats, people – and take chances, describes his childhood and early adulthood in "A Life Decoded" through a deep understanding of the mind and effects of the Y chromosome, now that he's literally in touch with his genes.

I didn't read to the grandkids about his suicide attempt (which also involved the sea) or the time his girlfriend's dad held a gun to his head or some of his other risk-taking behaviors.

A turning point came from an English teacher in high school who introduced him to "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, but Venter admits to being a lousy student overall. A major turning point came in the mid-60s when he was drafted.
"I was very conflicted. I was personally against the war but had a long family history of military service. One ancestor was a fifer and medic during the Revolutionary War. My great-great-great-grandfather served in the cavalry during the War of 1812. My great-grandfather was a sharpshooter in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. My grandfather was a private in World War I, serving in France, where he was badly wounded and had to crawl for miles to safety. And, of course, both my parents had been Marines."  (Venter's parents were in the Marine Corps in World War II, serving on "different shores of the Pacific." They met at Camp Pendleton, California.)
Venter, front row, fourth from left, on his high school swim team.
Venter chose the Navy rather than be drafted into the Army. He hoped to be named to the Navy Swim Team, but those hopes were dashed when President Johnson amped up American involvement in Vietnam and Venter got his orders.

As a skilled corpsman he faced war and devastation in Da Nang, caring for injured Marines, civilians, enemy soldiers and other casualties of the war in a Quonset hut intensive ward. He helped at an orphanage, and he provided triage during the TET offensive of 1968.

"Vietnam would teach me more than I ever wanted to know about the fragility of life," he writes. "Death is a powerful teacher." No doubt the snake skin reminds him of overcoming fear, facing death, choosing to live and dealing with snakes along the way.

Venter is lauded by Clinton in 2000.
In "A Life Decoded" Venter lays bare the science, politics, setbacks and glorious achievements in his life and the various human egos he encounters as a scientist. He tracks in detail his race to understand the building blocks of life and his pursuit of the human genome. But the narrative returns to the biggest turning point and moment of insight: Vietnam.

After Venter mapped the human genome, he was invited to the White House June 26, 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Clinton compared the human genome map to the Thomas Jefferson-commissioned map by the Lewis and Clark expedition that "forever expanded the frontiers of our continent and our imagination." Clinton called Venter's and others' work "the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind."

"Decoded" includes Venter's remarks from that day, as well as the deep emotion he felt as his watershed discovery was explained to the world.
"... in Vietnam I learned firsthand how tenuous our hold on life can be. That experience inspired my interest in learning how the trillions of cells in our bodies interact to create and sustain life. When I witnessed firsthand that some men lived through devastating trauma to their bodies, while others died after giving up from seemingly small wounds, I realized that the human spirit was at least as important as our physiology. We're clearly much, much more than the sum total of each of us. Our physiology is based on complex and seemingly infinite interactions among all our genes and the environment, just as our civilization is based on all the interactions among all of us. One of the wonderful discoveries that my colleagues and I have made while decoding the DNA of over two dozen species, from viruses to bacteria to plants to insects, and now human beings, is that we're all connected to the commonality of the genetic code in evolution. When life is reduced to its very essence, we find that we have many genes in common with every species on Earth and that we're not so different from one another."
Venter transcended and redeemed himself after his near-death experiences. "Life was my gift," he writes. He chose to understand life at the most fundamental levels. Today, he chooses to make a profound difference to help others. "We're all connected." A good lesson for everyone's grandkids.

(This is part I of essentially a two-and-a-half-part series of posts related to the life and work of Dr. Venter, the Thomas Edison of our time.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Navy Corpsman Transforms Science ... and Life

Review by Bill Doughty

J. Craig Venter is transforming our understanding of the world and life itself.

The man who mapped the human genome first became fixed on understanding life at the cellular level (and beyond) as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam. In 2013's "Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life," he writes:
"As a young corpsman in Vietnam, I had learned to my amazement that the difference between the animate and inanimate can be subtle: a tiny piece of tissue can distinguish a living, breathing person from a corpse; even with good medical care, survival could depend in part on the patient's positive thinking, on remaining upbeat and optimistic, proving a higher complexity can derive from combinations of living cells."
The book follows "A Life Decoded" and continues to explain how the field of genomics is "blending biology and engineering approaches" in gene-splicing, recombinant DNA and creation of synthetic life. Venter explains how and why he continues his "empowering extraordinary journey," including when he and his team announced the first functioning synthetic genome, May 20, 2010:
"We also discussed our larger vision – namely, that the knowledge gained in doing this work would one day undoubtedly lead to a positive outcome for society through the development of many important applications and products, including biofuels, pharmaceuticals, clean water, and food products. When we made the announcement, we had in fact already started working on ways to produce vaccines and create synthetic algae to turn carbon dioxide into fuel."
Venter says his team's work was built "on earlier work and ideas that had originated from a range of talented teams, stretching back over many decades."

In "Life at the Speed of Light," he carefully maps the history of his science, starting with a seemingly simple question posed by the father of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger: "What is Life?"

He explains the work of James Watson and Francis Crick, Motoo Kimura, Lucy Shapiro, Barbara McClintock, Robin Hook, Frederick Sanger, Arthur Kornberg and dozens of other scientists, all within the context of thinkers and philosophers like Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Descartes, Erasmus and Charles Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein and Isaac Asimov.

Venter reminds us of when the first DNA virus was sequenced and artificially copied and activated by Kornberg, recognized publicly in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who said the work, "unlocked a fundamental secret of life ... It opens a wide door to new dimensions in fighting disease, in building much healthier lives for all human beings."

Venter missed the quote and the news at the time because he was serving in Da Nang, Vietnam. That was nearly 50 years ago.

After Vietnam, Venter "became convinced of the direction my future my life should take," as he writes in "A Life Decoded." He used the G.I. Bill to pursue his education and he has not looked back.

In fact, he has continued to look within – literally examining his own life. And he has looked forward into the future: considering metagenomics, biological teleportation and support for life on Mars.

He promises the future "will be as empowering as it is extraordinary." The dawn of digital life, he says, has the potential for unlocking evolution and creating "a new era of biological design," where vaccines can be sent anywhere in the world at the speed of light during a pandemic and where climate change and other manmade problems can be countered with help from artificial and enhanced intelligence.

(I became interested in reading more by and about Dr. Venter after reading "Abundance" by Diamandis and Kotler.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Reason for Hope in 'Abundance'

Review by Bill Doughty

In the face of Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS), ebola, overpopulation, poverty and global climate change is there reason for optimism? Yes, according to the authors of "Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think."
The first thing to do is determine how far we've come – from the stone age to what Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler call the new "Cooperation Age": from millions of years as hunter-gatherers and nomads – to thousands of years as farmers – to hundreds of years in the industrial age – to decades in the information age – to now, a new age of cooperation.

The book opens with "The Lesson of Aluminum" and the recounting of a story by Pliny the Elder (b. AD 23 – d. AD 79). Pliny was a naval and army commander in the Roman Empire who became a philosopher and author of "Naturalis Historia." He tells about a goldsmith who presented Emperor Tiberius with an unnaturally light and shiny plate that had been extracted from plain clay (bauxite) through a secret technique known only to himself and the gods:
"Tiberius, though, was a little concerned. The emperor was one of the great generals, a warmonger who conquered most of what is now Europe and amassed a fortune of gold and silver along the way. He was also a financial expert who knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly knew the value of his treasure would seriously decline if people suddenly had access to a shiny new metal rarer than gold. 'Therefore,' recounts Pliny, 'instead of giving the goldsmith the regard expected, he ordered him to be beheaded.'"
Of course, aluminum would be rediscovered and, through technology, would become plentiful and cheap, certainly nothing to lose one's head over. 

Times have changed, at least in most parts of the world.  Over time people have become, in general, less superstitious, more accepting of new technology and more willing to cooperate. Can we continue to evolve beyond our reptilian amygdala part of the brain and move away from cognitive biases of the mind?

The authors of "Abundance" think so, despite obvious challenges.

Diamandis and Kotler show in dozens of charts and through examples from Ray Kurzweil, Google and the U.S. Air Force that the rate of change in the world is moving exponentially.

Some examples of future technology or innovation changing the world: artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, 3D printers, genetic engineering, the Cloud and smartphones.
Venter is awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama
Energy: Craig Venter, the scientist who sequenced the human genome, created synthetic DNA and hopes to create a new kind of algae that can make fuel from carbon dioxide and water.  Venter served a tour of duty as a Navy Corpsman in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 before beginning his formal education at the University of California at San Diego.

Water: Self-taught physicist and entrepreneur Dean Kamen developed a distiller capable of recycling its own energy. "The current version [of Slingshot] can purify 1,000 liters (250 gallons) of water a day using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer."

Communication and connectivity: Vint Cerf, a father of the internet, foresees a future of networks and sensors that will be a "central nervous system for the planet."

Food: Former futurist Sir Winston Churchill foresaw synthetically grown food:
"In 1931 Winston Churchill said, 'Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.' As it turns out, it took a few extra decades for biotechnologists to deliver on Churchill's promise, but more and more, it looks like it was worth the wait. Cultured meat (or in-vitro meat, as some prefer) is meat grown from stem cells."
The U.S. military pioneered modern development of hydroponics at the end of World War II on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, later on Iwo Jima and in Chofu, Japan in the western Pacific, and even in Iraq and Bahrain in the Middle East, where troops guarded the oil supply. The idea was to grow food locally regardless of the availability or viability of soil and not to have to rely on transportation logistics.

The future of agriculture lies in rediscovering hydroponics, refining aquaculture, using aeroponics and developing vertical farming, including extensively in cities.

Hackers, do-it-yourselfers, garage biologists and techno-philanthropists – people inspired by the counter-culture movement of the 60s – are sharing ideas for how to tackle problems. They are committed to a world of sustainment, cooperation and hope and away from consumption, destruction and greed.

As always the key to the future lies in education and freedom, which is "both an idea and access to ideas." The authors postulate that freedom and the need to make a difference is at the hierarchy of needs for people. Freedom to educate and be educated is tied to good health:
"Recent research into the relationship between health and education found that better-educated people live longer and healthier lives. they have fewer heart attacks and are less likely to become obese and develop diabetes. We also know that there's a direct correlation between a well-educated population and a stable, free society. The more well educated the population, the more durable its democracy. But these advances pale before what's possible if we start educating the women of tomorrow alongside the men."
Two-thirds of the 130 million children who are not in school are girls. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) concludes that educating these girls is "the key to health and nutrition; to overall improvements in the standard of living; to better agricultural and environmental practices; to higher gross national product; and to greater involvement and gender balance in decision making at all levels of society." 

A quality education empowers women and reduces fear, poverty and birth rates.

Last Friday, Malala Yousafzai, 17, became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala, a muslim from Pakistan, along with children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, a hindi from India, were awarded the prize.  According to Nobel.org: "The Nobel Peace Prize 2014 was awarded jointly to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."

"Abundance" presents the ideas of dozens of thinkers, inventors and philanthropists, including Arthur C. Clarke, Stewart Brand, Margaret Mead, Catherine Mohr, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Salman Khan (Khan Academy), Matt Ridley, Bill McKibben and Ray Kurzweil: "Kurzweil learned that human ideas were all powerful. DaVinci's ideas symbolized the power of invention to transcend human limitations. Hitler's ideas showed the power to destroy."

In WWII, the free world cooperated to defeat Imperial Japan and fascist Germany. Both nations are now globally connected democracies, educated and free. Of note, the nation's Maritime Strategy for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard is called "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower."

The idea of cooperation growing in an interconnected world comes together in a chain equation: new technology creates specialization that increases cooperation that leads to more capability that generates more technology, and the cycle continues – an engine of change and a reason for hope and optimism in "Abundance."