Dark war memories of a fun-loving uncle

Uncle Louie was a rascal and a jokester.

“He was kind of a character, wasn’t he?” his older brother Frank said. “He was a fun person, always out for a good time.”

Uncle Louie works the grill and his hips in this snippet from a June 1969 home movie.

Yes, he was great for laughs, but I saw another side of him.

Louie, Frank and their brothers Sam and Carmine, my dad, all went to war against Germany and Japan. They’re on the Honor Roll of Malvern, Pennsylvania, for their service in World War II. Frank was an Army medic in Panama and at a Long Island psychiatric hospital run by the War Department. Sam was in the Army Coast Artillery in the South Pacific. My dad was a Coast Guard radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic.

Louis Charles Venditti was born in Lewistown, in the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians of central Pennsylvania, and went to school only as far as eighth grade.

Louis Charles Venditti

(When my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Italy, his name was recorded as Venditta instead of Venditti. Louie and an older brother, Tony, reclaimed the original spelling. My dad and the other siblings – there were a dozen children in all — did not.)

In his late teens, Louie worked at chemical company Foote Mineral, operating a furnace. He joined the Army Air Forces early in 1943 and arrived in England that November, a week after turning twenty. He was a private first class, a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force. What kind of unit? “Pursuit!” he told me, and said of the hotshots who flew the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs, “Oh, those guys were sharp.”

Louie was assigned to the 77th Station Complement Squadron at Wattisham in East Anglia. His specialty was running heavy-duty automotive equipment. “Hauled personnel, supplies, and equipment,” his Army separation papers say. “Drove fire truck, answering emergency calls to extinguish fires caused by aircraft accidents. Made minor repairs to vehicles.”

Louie was a ground crewman on a fighter base in England.

Wattisham Station 377, about sixty miles northeast of London, was the base for the 479th Fighter Group, known as “Riddle’s Raiders.” It had three fighter squadrons that used P-38s and P-51s for ground attack and bomber escort.

One day was seared into Louie’s memory. He told me about it in the spring of 1995, as the family gathered after the funeral of his sister Josie.

A crippled P-38 was returning to the base from Nazi-occupied Europe. Its pilot might have been injured. He had to crash-land the twin-engine fighter, and when it hit the ground, it flipped over and caught fire. Louie rushed to the scene in a firetruck, but the plane had turned into a fireball. There was little that Louie and the other responders could do. Through the flames, Louie saw the pilot upside down in the cockpit, banging on the bubble canopy with his fist. He could not be saved.

“That really got me,” Louie told me, and then he looked away and his voice trailed off. “It got me for a long time.”

He left England in February 1946 and was honorably discharged a few weeks later at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, pocketing a Good Conduct Medal for three years of active duty. He and his brothers made it through the war unharmed, except for Sam. A noncombat brain injury on Bora Bora Island in French Polynesia got him a disability discharge in the spring of 1943. Blackouts dogged him for seven more years, until he had one and never came to.

Louie with son Nicky in June 1969, just before Nicky left for Vietnam.

As Uncle Louie and I talked after his sister’s funeral, he nodded toward Ernie Beam, Josie’s husband. Uncle Ernie was a bear-size man who served in North Africa during the war as an Army military policeman. He was chatting with mourners outside his home and making sure there was plenty to eat and drink.

“Look at him,” Louie said. “He’s all right now, surrounded by all these people, keeping busy. But just wait until tonight when he’s alone in the dark and thinking on his pillow. That’s when it’ll really hit him.”

He turned to me, his eyes moistening.

“I know what that’s like. I’ve known that ever since I lost my son.”

Nicky Venditti, twenty years old, was an Army helicopter pilot. He died July 15, 1969, his eleventh day in Vietnam, as a result of a training accident involving a grenade. His dad’s anecdote about the doomed fighter pilot is in my book about Nicky and the accident, Tragedy at Chu Lai.

Louie’s heart failed in 1996. He lies at the foot of Nicky’s grave.

My dad, Carmine, with his older brother Louie, who’s holding their nephew Frankie. The little girl in front is Frankie’s sister Anna. The other girls are Rita (left) and Patty, my dad and Louie’s sisters. Frankie and Anna are my Uncle Tony and Aunt Laura’s children. The photo was taken in the early 1940s in Malvern.

Slip of paper 186 years old reveals error on Alamo defenders list

You might remember my blog about an ancestor of mine, James Hannum, a fighter in the Texas Revolution who’s on the official list of Alamo defenders.

Seven months after the post, I now have solid evidence he didn’t sacrifice his life in the fabled stand against Mexican troops near San Antonio. The truth is that he died almost three months earlier, a hundred miles from the old Spanish fortress.

The proof is an 1835 document recently uncovered in Austin, Texas.

The Battle of the Alamo lasted 13 days, culminating on March 6, 1836, when thousands of Mexican troops overwhelmed about 200 Texan volunteer soldiers at an old Franciscan mission near San Antonio, Texas. My ancestor James Hannum, who joined the fight for Texas’ independence, is incorrectly listed as an Alamo defender.

In my blog last July, I wrote about the findings of a former Army military policeman and criminal investigator, Thomas Ricks Lindley, who spent many years researching the Alamo battle. In his 2003 book Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions, he made the case that some men on the list of Alamo heroes didn’t die there. Hannum was among them.

Lindley cited a record noting Hannum died December 14, 1835, at a frontier fort in Goliad, Texas, commanded by Captain Philip Dimitt, or Dimmitt. The notation appears on a morning report, a daily accounting of personnel.

Where did Lindley find the report? He gave the source as the Philip Dimitt Papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

Eager to see for myself, I emailed the Briscoe Center asking for Dimitt’s morning reports, but it was closed because of COVID-19.

“At this time we are unable to access any of our physical, onsite materials and services, including the Philip Dimitt Papers,” reference intern Marisa Jefferson wrote on June 23. “However, I was able to access a more comprehensive listing of the items in this collection.”

That offered hope, but then she followed up with this: “I do not see any suggestion in this finding aid that the morning reports you are looking for would be in the collection.”

What? Could Lindley, a ferocious fact-hunter, have made a mistake?

Six months passed. Then out of the blue, in mid-December, I got another email from Jefferson. She said the Briscoe Center had reopened to staff on a limited basis. I could put in a request to have materials in the Philip Dimitt collection scanned and emailed. To give her a handle on what to look for, I sent the link to my July 2020 blog.

A breakthrough came in January, when she looked in the designated box of Dimitt papers and, to her surprise, found several morning reports. I wanted to see them all. She arranged it, and a staffer in Duplication Services sent me the scans of two morning reports. Again, no luck. They were from December 24 and 26, 1835, and don’t mention Hannum.

“Nice try, though,” I wrote to Jefferson. “Thank you for that.”

She offered to take another look at the collection. This time, she found the December 14 report mentioning Hannum, just as Lindley had described it in his book. A part of the one-page document labeled “Remarks” says: “DIED – This Morning James Hanum [sic], Private.” The name is underlined.

An image of the barely legible line is below.

This is a detail of a scan from Captain Philip Dimitt’s morning report of December 14, 1835, at Fort Goliad, Texas. It reads: “Remarks DIED — This Morning James Hanum, Private.” (The name, which is underlined on the paper, is misspelled. It’s actually “Hannum.”) The morning report is among documents in the Philip Dimitt Papers at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

This morning report is definitive, a primary source. It confirms that Hannum, twenty or twenty-one years old, was a soldier in Texas’ struggle for independence, but that he didn’t die with William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett at the Alamo on March 6, 1836.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t say how Hannum died.

Also still unanswered is why, eighteen years after Lindley found fault with the list of Alamo defenders, Hannum’s name is still on it.

Since my blog last year, I’ve had email contact with Stephen Harrigan, author of the best-seller The Gates of the Alamo, who wrote the foreword to Lindley’s book.  Harrigan put me in touch with historical consultant Richard B. Winders, former historian at the Alamo.

“The defenders list is an interesting subject,” Winders emailed last September. “The general opinion is it is some certified list kept by some organization or agency, but in reality it is just a list of names that has been printed over and over.”

He said Lindley pressed for a revision of the record, but after his death in 2007, the issue faded away.

Still, while Winders was historian at the Alamo, he assigned a member of the staff to work on the defenders list. “Specifically, I was interested in how many lists there were and what were their origins,” he said. “My hope was that the Alamo and GLO would cooperate in evaluating and establishing the veracity of the list together.”

GLO is the Texas General Land Office, which the Texas Legislature put in charge of the Alamo’s care in 2011.

It’s unclear where the research stands. Winders heard that after he left, the Alamo allowed the staffer to keep working on the list. Winders gave me the email address of the shrine’s curator. I wrote to him but got no response.

War stories: How and why I wrote them

My brother John, director of the Eastern Shore Regional Library in Maryland, invited me to speak to his Salisbury Sunrise Rotary Club. In the Zoom meeting last week, I talked about interviewing war veterans. Here are excerpts:

In 1999, we at The Morning Call in Allentown wanted to do a project on military veterans to mark the end of the century. The idea was to invite Lehigh Valley vets to write about their wartime experiences, and we would publish their accounts in a section called War Stories of the Century. When we didn’t get as many submissions as we hoped, I grabbed a tape recorder and set out to do some interviews.

This is The Morning Call’s special section for Veterans Day 1999, which I wrote for and edited. The veteran on the cover is Olaf Marthinson of Allentown, who served in the Pancho Villa campaign in 1916.

It was a big learning curve. I’m not a veteran, and I didn’t have any particular interest in the military. But I was interested in the personal accounts. These were people who had put on a uniform for the country and had seen and done extraordinary things. Many were lucky to have survived.

One of the first vets I met with was Olaf Marthinson. He was 102 years old. He had helped to defend the country from Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa in 1916. A friend introduced me to Olaf, saying, “Come here and shake hands with history.”

That was the start for me, and I was hooked. Over the next 17 years, I interviewed more than a hundred war veterans, most of them from World War II, but also some from the Cold War and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. These were everyday people who had played a role on the world stage at critical times in our history.

How did I know that the people I was interviewing were the real McCoys, that they did what they say they did? Right off the bat, I insisted that they show me their discharge papers, which give a summary of service. These are absolutely important, but you have to keep in the back of your head that documents don’t always tell the truth.

If the vets had a medal or claimed to have one, I asked to see the citation that says why they got it. I once came across a veteran who wore a medal for valor he hadn’t earned. He was in his late 90s and confused. He had indeed shown bravery in combat and sincerely believed he deserved the medal, so he got it from a military medals dealer he knew.

If I wasn’t sure about something, I asked an expert. A Navy cargo pilot said he flew the Hiroshima bomb’s tail assembly to the Pacific. I contacted a historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He saw no red flag. An Army cryptographic technician said he decoded and delivered an urgent message to Patton. It was from Eisenhower, setting the final date of the Normandy invasion. I spoke with the keeper of Patton’s papers. He said that’s plausible.

A Navy crewman on a landing craft said he saw Eisenhower and the king of England together on a dock in the run-up to D-Day. One of Britain’s top military historians, Antony Beevor, emailed that George VI had gone to the coast before the invasion, so it was plausible.

For fact-checking, there’s a wealth of resources you can tap — many books and a vast amount of information online, on authoritative websites. Things like unit histories. A Marine who lost his legs in the Korean War told me it happened during a mortar attack. I found his unit’s after-action report online and was able to confirm his account and add more detail.

There’s a D-Day order of battle, listing the units that participated in the assault. That helped me with two vets I interviewed who said they landed in France on D-Day, but when I checked, it turned out they hadn’t. They had landed on Normandy beaches, just not on June 6, 1944, but later. They weren’t trying to put one past me. It’s just that over time, they had become confused.

When I did these interviews, usually I had at least three meetings with the veteran, often more than that, and sometimes over several months. Each visit, the story became richer. I think it’s because the interviews got them thinking more. It was in their heads, working on them. So with each visit, more details got layered on. When I was done, I asked the vet to read the story for accuracy, and that would sometimes yield more material.

One of the last steps before publication was having a photographer shoot video of the veteran. I always attended these sessions and ran my own recorder, because magically, when the vet got in front of a camera, he or she remembered even more, or said something in a more meaningful way, and I could add that to the story.

Getting back to the idea of shaking hands with history, Marthinson, the vet in the Pancho Villa campaign, saw “Black Jack” Pershing in the Arizona desert. Bob Carl was a merchant seaman at the start of World War II. When he was a boy, he met Lawrence of Arabia. Carl Schroeter, before he was drafted, worked in the bakery at Princeton. On his way to work early in the morning, he’d exchange hellos with a wild-haired old guy on a bench. It was Einstein.

Through these veterans who were sitting right in front of me, I had a connection with some of the most famous people in history.

Sometimes the interviews did not go smoothly. Joe Poster was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a POW of the Japanese. He got mad at me one day. He said I was making him remember horrible things and it was giving him nightmares.

We met weekly for several months. When the two-part story was about to be published, he got cold feet. He worried that people wouldn’t believe what he had endured. I told him that he had told his story from the heart, and I thought the readers would believe him. The story ran. Here’s how it ended:

I think to myself, my God,  Joe, what you went through! I can’t say how I made it. I lived day to day. I was scared all the time. I thought maybe tomorrow those Japanese will kill me. I never knew whether they were going to murder us or not. That’s the way it was for three-and-a-half years, even till the last day.

Joe was glad it was published. When he went out to dinner, the people in the restaurant recognized him from the newspaper and stood up and applauded him. He was amazed. He told me, “Since that story ran, I can do no wrong!” He would be gone in a year.

Sometimes you learn little things you never heard anywhere else. Bob Hutchings was a clerk for Eisenhower. He said that when Eisenhower was in North Africa, he had his own cow. He had a private who did nothing but take care of this cow.

Most of these generals had stomach problems, because those guys had to be under tension all the time. Eisenhower was not exempt from that. He drank the milk for his stomach.

Part of the wonder of storytelling is that you can paint a picture with words. Here’s Dan Curatola, who was in the first wave at Omaha Beach on D-Day:

When I got to shore, a shell hit and I went down. I tapped a corporal in front of me and said, “Boy, that was close, wasn’t it?” He didn’t answer. I saw he was dead. Thank God, I had seen dead men before, in Africa and Sicily. But some of the younger troops who hadn’t seen action just went out of their minds. You’d see them screaming and running the wrong way.

Sometimes the vet just doesn’t have much to say. That was true of Alton Knappenberger. He lived in a trailer in the woods, where I interviewed him. In 1944, he got the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off a German attack near Anzio with a Browning automatic rifle.

I just did what I had to do. You go in there and just try to get them guys before they get you.

Sometimes I had to do a little prompting to get someone to open up. Charlie Toth was a Marine who fought on Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. The first time I sat down with him, he started rattling off facts and figures. He said his unit went to this island and then to that island and did this and that, and so on. After maybe 10 minutes, I stopped him. “Charlie, I need you to tell me about your experience.”  He just stared at me. What he said next became the beginning of his story.

A collection of 34 of my interviews with veterans from the World War I era, World War II, the Cold War, Korean War and Vietnam War. It was published in 2011 by The Morning Call.

If I started telling you what I have seen, I would never sleep again. Sometimes, the picture comes. You see the flames, you see the explosions. It’s right in front of you, broad daylight, right there. It never goes away, and there’s no medicine for it.

I interviewed a couple of guys who fought in the German army. One was Eddie Sakasitz, who was machine-gunned while riding a motorcycle in Italy and almost died. What he said about going up against the Americans in Italy was almost funny.

We were bombarded day and night. Our artillery would fire 20 to 25 shells at the American positions and get 20,000 shells in return. We wished our artillery wouldn’t fire at all.

Some scenes are horrifying and heartbreaking. Horace Rehrig was aboard the carrier Ticonderoga when kamikazes attacked it. He found his best friend lying on the hangar deck. He was flash-burned, and his right arm was blown off at the shoulder. Tears streamed down Horace’s cheeks when he described what happened.

I quick took some packing and held it on his wound and put his head in my lap and tried to comfort him. He was crying. He kept saying, “I’ll never make it.” Finally we got him down to sick bay. The doctors put him on an operating table. He had his knees up and was waving them back and forth. And then they just stopped. It just plays hell with you when you see stuff like that. I felt so bad about it that I just can’t ever forget it.

One of the women I interviewed was Cecilia Sulkowski, a front-line Army nurse. A week after the Korean War broke out, she arrived in Korea with a MASH unit.

My most traumatic experience was seeing our first patients. It still leaves me teary, still affects me with the most sadness. They were seasoned soldiers, not rookies. Some of them were old enough to be my father. Physically, they weren’t hurt, but they were completely broken down mentally. They’d reach out to you. You’d sit on their cot, or squat by it, and hold their hand, tell them that you understand why they’re feeling the way they are. It was a female presence, a softer voice and gentler touch.

Dick Richards lost his jaw to a German shell. Doctors rebuilt it, but he was forever disfigured. After many months in a hospital, he went home to his wife.

Betty told me once that she hadn’t expected to see me looking the way I did. She said it took her the longest time to accept that that’s the way it was going to be. And she said she knew that I could go on, and she was going to help me however she could.

Don Miller was a B-17 flight engineer. He told me about one of the saddest days of his life. He couldn’t go on the 12th mission with the crew he’d trained with in the States, because he had a bad head cold. His B-17 was shot down over Germany on that mission, and all of his crew mates were killed. After his story ran, a restored B-17 came to Lehigh Valley International Airport, and its crew offered to give World War II fliers a free ride. I asked Don if he’d like to go, and he said yes, but warily.

As we drove to the airport, he said he was afraid that when he got on the plane, he would see his buddies at their positions, the pilot and co-pilot, navigator, gunners. He was afraid he would see their faces, and it would be too much for him.

We went on the plane ride together. Afterward, I asked him if he’d seen his old crew mates. “I did,” he said, “but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

There are many more stories about sacrifice and courage. Most of the veterans I’ve interviewed have since died. But their personal accounts, as I recorded them, are still with us. They’re online and, in the case of World War II veterans, hard copies are at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Everyone who served in a war has a story to tell, even if they never saw a shot fired in anger. It’s unfortunate that many of these stories never emerge or are lost to the ages. I see my own role in preserving some of them as payback, as my way of saying, “Thank you for your service.”

A World War II Seabee remembers Okinawa

When my dad was a teen in the early 1940s on Philadelphia’s Main Line, he ran around with a wiry farm boy named Luther Beam.

Luther had a ’32 Chevy, a two-seater, they occasionally drove to the middle of Pennsylvania, to Mifflin County, where my grandfather once worked in a Bethlehem Steel limestone quarry and Dad was born. They’d go on a Friday, visit Dad’s relatives, and return in the predawn on Monday. The trip was about 140 miles each way.

Luther Beam as a Seabee in World War II. He joined the Navy in October 1944, when he was seventeen, served in the Pacific and was honorably discharged in May 1946 as a machinist’s mate third class.

With a war on, they’d soon travel a lot farther to do their part.

My dad’s family and Luther’s once lived at a country crossroads called Valley Store, in an eastern wedge of Chester County. In 1938, my grandparents moved a few miles to Malvern, renting and later buying a two-story house on the main street. Luther and his older brother Ernie lived with them for a while.

The house goes back to the 1880s. At one time, folks could buy shoes or have them repaired in a front storeroom at sidewalk level. Luther, Ernie, my dad and his older brother Louie slept in the room. It wasn’t the best arrangement for my straitlaced dad and Luther, because Ernie and Louie were rascals, but it worked.

“I can still see Mom Venditta’s pot of spaghetti cooking on a Sunday morning, and the bubbles coming out of it, piece of chicken in there, a pork chop or whatever. Might’ve been a 5-gallon pot,” Luther said recently, a few days after his ninety-fourth birthday, as we sat in the kitchen of his youngest daughter’s Berks County farmhouse near Hawk Mountain.

Dad and Luther signed up for the military in the fall of 1944. Both were seventeen, with Luther older by six months. Dad, now graduated from Tredyffrin-Easttown High School, chose the Coast Guard. Luther had gone to trade school, what was then called shop class, in West Chester. He joined the Navy and became a Seabee.

Carmine Venditta, my dad, with the Coast Guard. He signed up in November 1944 at age seventeen, served in the North Atlantic and was discharged in May 1946 as a radioman second class.

My dad went to radio operator school in Atlantic City – 24 weeks. Finishing in the top third of his class, he had his choice of postings. He wanted to go where it was warm and picked what he thought was Argentina. But it was Argentia, a Navy base in Newfoundland. His duty in 1945 was aboard the patrol frigates Abilene and Sheboygan, on weather and plane-guard duty in the North Atlantic. So instead of South America, he found himself shivering off Greenland and Iceland.

Luther took basic training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and Seabee training at Davisville, Rhode Island. He shipped out with the 139th Naval Construction Battalion, headed for the Japanese island of Okinawa via the Hawaiian Islands.  “We were in a convoy. From what I heard, half of our battalion was on one ship and half on another.”

The transport carrying Luther and about 600 other Seabees was an old Dutch cargo ship, he said. “The Pacific was calm. I didn’t get sick, but some guys did. One got sick and said, ‘Somebody shoot me.’ ”

On April 1, 1945, U.S. soldiers and Marines stormed Okinawa. It would be the last major battle of the war and one of the most horrific.

“When we were a day or two out from landing, they got on the loudspeakers and said, ‘OK, fellas, from now on, there’s no smoking on deck at night, and there’s no lighting matches. We’re getting close to our destination. Anything that happens now is the real thing.’ ”

Luther Beam (second from right) with grandsons (from left) Sam, Matt and Greg Esser and a roasted pig this year at the family’s farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Luther was “pretty sure” his ship reached Okinawa on May 1. “I saw our ships shelling the island. I seen one kamikaze come in – it happened so damn fast. The gunners must’ve caught his wing, and he went down in the drink.”

The Seabees rode landing craft in to Brown Beach, he said. It was the southernmost invasion point. Though the enemy had been driven inland, the fighting on the island would grind on for two more months.

“The Marines and Army had pushed them back,” Luther said. “There were still snipers, but we were 90% safe. We had 30.30 rifles, carried them all the time. We were never alone, always had two or three guys in a group. We just kept our eyes open.”

They built roads and Quonset huts, “a little bit of everything,” he said, working twelve hours a day. “I was a grunt. One-fourth of our outfit was fellas that were operators – bulldozers and stuff like that — and had experience with carpentry and plumbing. Us younger guys just did what we were told.”

Nights on the island were cold, he said, but it was nice in the daytime. “We slept on cots in tents, four in a tent, and ate C rations and K rations at first. We got a little box with cigarettes, a piece of cheese, crackers. That cheese was pretty good. I never smoked, so I gave my cigarettes away. Then we started getting some decent food. We ate in a chow line.”

After getting organized, they came up with a way to sleep more comfortably. “Some of us took a couple of two-by-fours and cut big inner tubes in slats, and put the inner tubes around the two-by-fours and made a bed out of that. It was softer than the cots.”

During storms, they’d move to the safety of higher ground. “We went up in them caves, the tombs, I guess they were, where they buried their dead. Just big enough for three or four guys to get in there.”

They weren’t supposed to have contact with the islanders, but did see them. “Some of the Okinawans would come down to the docks at night and want food. They would say ‘We Okinawa-Americans.’ We didn’t know who they were, really. We stayed clear of them. We weren’t supposed to do anything but what we were doing.”

The 139th was inactivated on Okinawa at the end of 1945, four months after Japan’s surrender. By then, Luther said, the Seabees were teaching the islanders how to drive.

Luther and Dad came home in the spring of 1946. Other Beams and Vendittas had also served in the war. Luther’s brother Ernie was an Army M.P. in North Africa. His brother George was in the Navy, working on a tugboat in Australia. My dad’s older brother Sam was with the Army Coast Artillery in the South Pacific. His brother Frank was an Army medic in Panama and later at a psychiatric hospital on Long Island. Frank’s wife, Florence, was in the Women’s Army Corps. Louie, who would lose a son in the Vietnam War, was a ground crewman with the 8th Air Force in England.

“After I was discharged at Bainbridge, Maryland,” Luther said, “they put us on a bus to Philly. They offered us $20 a week for fifty-two weeks. Fifty-two twenty, they called it, and you know I didn’t take it. I was too proud. It was, ‘They don’t owe me any money. They don’t owe me anything.’ So I come home and started working on the farm a little bit, got my legs underneath me, and went on from there.”

Luther worked at Foote Mineral, which made lithium metal and chemicals for the metals industry, then followed Ernie to Peco, the electric company. He did line work, climbing poles — “Probably why my knees are bad” – and stayed with the company for thirty-eight years.

Norma Slider as an eighth-grader in East Whiteland Township, Chester County. She went on to graduate from Tredyffrin-Easttown High School and married Luther Beam in 1953.

One day, Luther’s sister Ruth had a cooking demonstration and asked her friend Norma Slider to sit at the table. Luther remembered it: “Norma come up with a little pink dress on, just out of high school. I thought, damn, she was the cutest thing! That was the end of my freedom.” (His favorite song, he said, has always been ‘Don’t Fence Me In.”)

Norma was a bookkeeper at Foote Mineral and later at Chester County Hospital. They were married in 1953 and went on to have two boys and three girls. Luther and Dad stayed pals, but more than friendship linked our families. Ernie married one of my dad’s sisters, and Norma’s brother married one of my cousins.

I remember being a kid riding in the bed of Luther’s pickup truck with my brother John and Luther’s sons, Jim and Sam. We were on Route 322 between Downingtown and West Chester, pumping our arms to get truckers behind us to sound their horns. When they did, we laughed and shouted.

My family lived just outside Downingtown on what had once been my grandparents’ dairy farm. Pop-Pop, my mom’s dad, stopped milking cows in the mid-1940s and raised steers instead. There were sixteen acres, a barn, sheds, a corn crib where Pop-Pop’s heart gave out in 1964. Dad got the idea he wanted a steer for meat, and so Luther, a veteran at raising steers, helped him get one.

“Him and I went to a sale, and we got a little black Angus steer and we brought it home and it must’ve got discouraged or somethin’ and it died. I felt so bad about that. A steer can be born out in the field, in the dead of winter in the snow, and it’ll live. But if you pick a calf up at a sale and bring it home, it just seems to have an effect on it.”

The scene sticks in my mind: Dad and I were in the barnyard with the calf. It was in distress, gasping and thrashing about as Dad tried to hold it. He didn’t know what to do. He was flustered that he couldn’t save it.

Luther drove this 1917 Fordson tractor when he helped our family bale hay in the 1960s. My mom’s dad, a dairy farmer, had gotten the tractor as a fixer-upper decades earlier. Mom says her brother and an uncle replaced its iron wheels with rubber tires and fixed the ignition. Still, it was ornery. You had to hand-crank it and be careful the crank wouldn’t fly back and whack your arm hard. My brother Bill had the Fordson restored in the 1990s.

My brother Bill, sister Carol and a cousin had horses on the property, and there were a couple of ponies, too. In the late Sixties, Luther helped us bale hay to feed the animals. He drove the 1917 Fordson tractor that hauled the baler and a wagon. “The Fordson was a bugger to drive,” he remembered.

While Luther was climbing poles for Peco, my dad was crunching numbers. He was an accountant. It was a thing of beauty to see his fingers race over an adding machine, rapid-fire clacking, his eyes glued to a balance sheet. That dexterity served him well as a wartime radioman. A couple of times in the 1980s, he showed me how he’d tapped out Morse code, saying “dit” and “dah” for dot and dash.

Dad couldn’t hold onto his memory and never got to enjoy retirement. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1993 and sailed ever deeper into the fog until his death in 2004 at seventy-six. I have his Coast Guard papers, manuals and even his pea coat.

Luther Beam with his son–in-law David Esser and youngest daughter Joyce on July 7, 2020, at their house near Hawk Mountain.

Luther says he’s fine, other than his balky knees. He’s been staying with his daughter Joyce Esser and her husband, David, on their farm for more than a year. Norma died in 2006. Two of his children have also passed – Sam, in 2012, and Donna, this past September. A few weeks after she died, he lost his brother Ernie.

Of his World War II service, Luther said: “It was just one year of my life. I was young and didn’t think too much about it. That was it.”

For two children of World War II POWs, a heartfelt journey

A story I wrote about two Pennsylvanians whose fathers were prisoners of the Japanese ran in Sunday’s edition of The Morning Call of Allentown, my former employer.

Szczepanski family

The Szczepanskis (from left) Catherine, Rick, Tom and Joe at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado on Easter Sunday 1958. Another son, Michael, was born in 1964.

Dawne Clay and Rick Szczepanski are retirees who belong to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society. They’ve spent many years trying to understand what troubled their fathers, both now deceased.

Dawne’s dad, Wayne Miller, grew up on a Berks County farm. Rick’s dad, Joe Szczepanski, was from coal country, Luzerne County. Both joined the Army Air Corps, which became the Army Air Forces. They were captured in 1942 in the Philippines and held until the end of the war — Wayne in Manchuria, Joe in Japan. Their experiences haunted them.

Last year, Dawne and Rick went to Japan as guests of its government through the Japan POW Friendship Program, which strives for reconciliation and healing.

I’d written about Rick before, in 2009, several years after he got deeply interested in his father’s life. I ended that piece by saying Rick hoped to go to the Far East someday to follow his dad’s path. Ten years later, he called and said, “I’m going to Japan.” I told him that when he came back, I could do a follow-up for the newspaper.

Wayne Miller in wartime.

Wayne Miller in wartime. In 2010, just before he died, he received a Silver Star for gallantry on Corregidor.

After Rick returned, he told me that a woman who lives in the area was also on the trip, and he put me in touch with her. That was Dawne. I decided to interview both for a story that would run around the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Japanese surrender ending World War II. That’s how it played out.

Here’s the link: https://bit.ly/347H7E3

I hope you like the story.

An Alamo misfire: What really happened to James Hannum?

Mom was strolling on the Alamo grounds when a stone bearing a familiar name stopped her cold.

She turned to a friend and exclaimed, “What’s he doing here?”

The name was James Hannum. It’s on the stone for his sacrifice in the battle that became a rallying cry in Texas’ war for independence. He’s one of 189 men hailed for their heroic stand against thousands of Mexican troops.

Alamo in 1912 painting by Percy Moran, 1912

A romanticized image of the Alamo battle of March 6, 1836, in a painting by Percy Moran, 1912. James Hannum is on the official list of Alamo defenders.

My mom is a Hannum. Her ancestors settled in southeastern Pennsylvania way back in the 17th century. She couldn’t imagine how a Hannum had ended up 1,700 miles from home.

“I was surprised that one of us had made it all the way down there,” she told me recently.

Mom and her friend visited the revered site in San Antonio years ago. From time to time, she’s mentioned seeing the name. I thought it was worth looking into and made a note of it. After all, how many folks can claim that an ancestor fought at the Alamo? But I never did anything about it until this year, when the coronavirus lockdown gave me the time.

In my first search online, I saw that James Hannum is on the Alamo shrine’s official list of defenders. He was born August 8, 1815, in Pennsylvania to Washington Lee and Martha Hannum. A member of the Alamo garrison, he was twenty-one years old when he died in the battle on March 6, 1836. (Actually, if his birth date is correct, he would have been twenty.)

Hannum family history, 1911

The Hannum family history suggests James Hannum was executed with several hundred other prisoners in Goliad, Texas, three weeks after the Alamo. The book, “A Record of the Descendants of John Hannum since 1686,” was published in 1911 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Now I needed to know how, or whether, we were related. I turned to Ancestry.com and a century-old Hannum family history my older brother lent me. The oversize book, A Record of the Descendants of John Hannum since 1686, takes up 696 pages. It was compiled by a Curtis H. Hannum, who worked on it for twenty-seven years before having it published in 1911.

The answer is yes, I’m related to James, but indirectly and very, very distantly. My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and James’ great-grandfather were brothers. Their father was the John Hannum in the book’s title. He lived in a part of Chester County, Pennsylvania, that’s now in Delaware County, and ran a tavern.

The against-all-odds fighting spirit that put James in the thick of the Texas Revolution might have come from his grandfather, John Hannum III. He was a Chester County leader and Revolutionary War colonel who served with George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine.

It seemed that everything about James was falling into place, but the book’s entry on him raised a yellow flag.

For starters, there are no specific birth and death dates, only that he was born in 1816 – not the year before, as the Alamo site and Ancestry.com put it – and died in 1836. It doesn’t say exactly where he was born, but points to Tennessee, not Pennsylvania. He was the fifth-born of seven children, and several of his younger and older siblings are listed as having been born in Nashville. That’s where their father, a lawyer, had met and married Martha “Patsey” Robertson.

The book answers Mom’s question of how James got to Texas. His father was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and, soon after being admitted to the Chester County Bar in 1797, moved to Tennessee. According to James’ sister Elizabeth, the family moved from Nashville to Somerville and then to Memphis. Patsey died in 1833, and in 1835 or ’36, the family left for Mexican Texas.

They arrived by boat near Matagorda, on the Gulf Coast, and traveled some sixty miles northwest to Texana, which disintegrated into a ghost town years later and now lies under a reservoir. Washington Lee Hannum left three of his children with a local family and went to New Orleans on business. While he was gone, the family and Texana’s other white settlers fled as a Mexican army bore down on the town. The Hannum kids camped out in a woods. Their father found them when he returned, but only after a long and arduous search.

Elizabeth said her brother Lucian “had no saddle – his father went to the town of Columbus, which was almost entirely abandoned, to get a saddle, and while there he was captured by the Mexicans a few days before the battle of San Jacinto took place [on April 21, 1836]; soon after this he returned to Matagorda and died. His library and family records were burned by the Mexicans.”

A paragraph that starts with “It is also said that …” gives a further account of Washington Lee’s fate. It says a son was captured with him, “that they made their escape, and were several days without food except the fruit of the cactus, when they came upon a pecan tree full of nuts, of which they ate freely; they succeeded in getting within the American lines, but soon died from the exposure and improper diet.”

Washington Lee Hannum was fifty-nine when he died on October 6, 1836, according to Ancestry.com, and was buried in Matagorda. If the escape tale has a ring of truth, it’s unclear which of his sons made the final journey with him. None is listed as dying in 1836 except James, who died well before the Mexicans seized his father.

And not, according to the family history, at the Alamo.

The one sentence the book has on James Lee Hannum casts doubt on whether he was with William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett. It says Hannum “was a soldier in Fannin’s company during the Mexican War, when Texas became an independent State, and died at Goliad, Texas.”

A quick note: Curtis Hannum’s tome confuses two wars a decade apart. In the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, colonists from America and Texas Mexicans, called Tejanos, rebelled against the centralist government of Mexico. In the Mexican-American War, from 1846-48, the United States and Mexico fought over a disputed border after the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas.

That aside, who was Fannin and where was Goliad?

James W. Fannin Jr. was a Texas army commander who led his men to battle against the Mexicans near Coleto Creek in Goliad County, some 100 miles southeast of San Antonio. The clash took place two weeks after the Alamo fell to General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

On an open prairie, Colonel Fannin’s troops formed a square and beat back several charges. But they were low on ammunition, desperate for water and unable to care for their wounded. They surrendered the next day, March 20. A week later, in what’s known as the Goliad Massacre, the Mexicans executed Fannin and about 350 of his men. They had been unaware of what was in store for them.

If the Hannum book is right in saying James was with Fannin and died at Goliad, it could mean he was among the prisoners who were shot, bayoneted or lanced to death.

There’s reason to be skeptical. Family histories tend to be the work of well-meaning amateurs and aren’t always reliable. It’s not clear where Curtis Hannum got his information on James, because he doesn’t list a source. It might have been Elizabeth, but how would she have known what company her brother was with and where he died?

Then again, if the book has it right, it would mean James doesn’t belong on the Alamo’s list of defenders.

I pressed on and found a stunning, third version of what happened to James. This one, from a primary source, has the weight of authority.

Alamo Traces cover

Thomas Ricks Lindley’s 2003 book examines the case of James Hannum, who died “in the service of Texas.”

In 2003, a former Army military policeman and criminal investigator came out with an Alamo book that capped fifteen years of intensive research. His name was Thomas Ricks Lindley, and his book is Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions.

Historians were impressed with his detective work. One of them, Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo, wrote the foreword. He says Alamo Traces “burrows deep into the historical record, shovels away deposits of myth and folklore and faulty assumptions that are generations deep, and never wavers in its search for a bedrock level of fact.”

One of the facts Lindley uncovered is that the official Alamo honor roll is “flawed” as a result of a 1931 doctoral dissertation that became the bible of reference works on the thirteen-day siege. He found that the list of Alamo heroes contains the names of some men who didn’t die there, or whose deaths aren’t backed up by the sources given. He gives the names of ten.

James Hannum is among them.

Lindley blamed Amelia W. Williams, who wrote “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of its Defenders” for her Ph.D. at the University of Texas. Though some historians pecked at her scholarship, the paper became the definitive academic work on the battle. In 1936, when Texas celebrated its 100th birthday, Williams’ research was the basis for determining the Alamo defenders who would be memorialized in bronze and stone.

But her study was rife with errors, probable fabrications and unfounded conclusions, Lindley says. In a section of his book called “Incorrect Alamo Defenders,” he shows how Williams wrongly identified James Hannum as a slain hero of the battle.

Lindley wrote that “the name ‘Hannum’ or a variant is not found on any of the Alamo lists that Williams investigated. Just how Williams came up with this name remains a mystery.”

Still, he says, Williams asserted that Private James Hannum, twenty-one years old, died at the Alamo. Her sources weren’t muster rolls but land-grant certificates in the Texas General Land Office. Land grants were issued to the estates of Alamo defenders and others. The certificates Williams cited for James bear the names of places in Texas and a file number: Milam, 1212; Refugio, 154; I Milam, 53 and 202.

Lindley examined the documents. The Milam 202 grant was issued to Lucian Hannum, not James. Lucian, a single man, is identified as deceased, but the file doesn’t say he was an Alamo defender. The Hannum history lists two Lucians as brothers of James. One died as an infant in Nashville. The other died in 1838 when he was nineteen or twenty years old and was buried in Milam County, Texas.

James’ heirs did receive Milam 1212 and Refugio 154. According to the Milam grant, James died in the service of Texas and was a private in Captain Philip Dimmitt’s company, based in Goliad. The Refugio grant and Milam 53 don’t indicate that James was killed at the Alamo.

Lindley says James’ age isn’t on any of the land-grant certificates. Where did Williams get it?

Finally, hard evidence that James wasn’t at the Alamo – and couldn’t have been there – exists in papers Lindley found at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. These are Captain Dimmitt’s morning reports, which are daily notes on personnel.

Dimmitt’s morning report for December 14, 1835, says: “REMARK – DIED – This Morning James Hanum [sic], Private.”

That was almost three months before the Alamo.

Dimmitt, a trader and merchant, commanded a frontier garrison at Goliad starting in mid-October 1835. According to the Texas State Historical Association, on December 6, Dimmitt led a small force to join a siege against a Mexican army at Presidio de Bexar, a San Antonio fort near the Alamo. He returned to Goliad about December 14, the day James’ death was recorded.

Had James gone to San Antonio with Dimmitt? Was he badly hurt storming the fort, and did he die when the troops returned to Goliad?

That’s unlikely, from what Lindley says. He contends that Dimmitt didn’t go to San Antonio and that he sent a Tejano company to participate in the final, successful assault on Bexar.

I wanted to see Dimmitt’s morning report for myself, so I emailed the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Working remotely because of the coronavirus, a reference intern accessed a list of what’s in the Dimmitt papers and sent it to me with this note: “I do not see any suggestion in this finding aid that the morning reports you are looking for would be in the collection.”

Neither did I. That means there’s more work to do.

I would have liked to speak with Lindley, but he died in 2007 at age sixty-four. He was buried in the town where he was born and lived – Nixon, Texas, about fifty-five miles from San Antonio. You can see him on a C-SPAN video of an Alamo panel discussion held November 9, 2003, in Austin.

How Private James Hannum died remains in question. Unless some long-dusty record rises from obscurity, we won’t ever know whether it was homicide, suicide, illness, injury or battle wounds.

But it’s clear from Dimmitt’s morning report that the Alamo roster of heroes has at least one mistake, and the Hannum family history book is wrong, too. James wasn’t with the volunteers who bravely faced Santa Anna’s men at an old Spanish fortress, and he wasn’t with Fannin’s troops when the Mexicans murdered them at Goliad. He was already gone. He didn’t make it to 1836.

It’s unclear why, seventeen years after publication of Lindley’s book, the Texas nonprofit corporation that runs the Alamo hasn’t corrected its defenders list. I haven’t been able to ask about it, because the shrine has been closed during the pandemic.

Certainly, our record of the past should rest on solid ground. The faulty narrative of James’ fate originated with Amelia Williams’ doctoral dissertation. Ten years later, she admitted she wasn’t sure that all of the names on her list were accurate. It’s an example of how easily mistakes can distort the truth, proliferate and go unchallenged for generations, or even forever.

Some light shed on RAF air gunner W.J.D. Carter

Years ago, I wrote a couple of blogs about a young Pennsylvanian who ran off to join the Royal Canadian Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II. Bob Riedy, a 1938 Allentown High School grad, became a pilot and was killed on a training flight in England.

Bob Riedy with the RCAF in England, 1942 Bob Riedy of Allentown, Pennsylvania, with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England, 1942

Flight Sgt. Robert Harvey Riedy was co-piloting a Wellington medium bomber that crashed moments after taking off from a Royal Air Force base near Oxford. He and the pilot were killed on impact. The only other crewman, a gunner, survived with serious injuries.

This was Sgt. William John Donald Carter of the RAF Volunteer Reserve. His job was to man one of the Wellington’s .303 Browning machine guns.

I always wondered what became of Carter. Now, thanks to a reader in the U.K., I know more about him.

The accident happened at 1:25 p.m. March 18, 1942, at Mount Farm in Oxfordshire, a satellite base for No. 15 Operational Training Unit. Flight Sgt. C.G. Wiley of the RCAF was the captain/pilot of the twin-engine Wellington Mk. 1. During takeoff, the plane hit a stationary Hudson light bomber on the edge of the fire track, climbed 200 feet, stalled and crashed.

Wellington Mk. 1 Wellington Mk. 1 medium bombers

Carter would have been seated close to the wing root, the part of the wing nearest the fuselage. He was pulled from the wreckage and taken to Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, with serious but unspecified injuries. After that, the paper trail falls off. I tried in vain to find him or a relative, and in my blog three years ago, I said his fate was a mystery.

Enter Andrew Radgick, who lives in the town of Bracknell in Berkshire, England. He was trying to identify a Canadian airman killed in a plane crash there during the war. When he saw Riedy was listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, he searched for him on Google and saw my blog about the Carter “mystery.” He took up my case on his own.

Using his U.K. subscription to Ancestry.com, Radgick found Carter. (That’ll teach me. I only have the U.S. subscription.) He was born December 11, 1921, in Southampton, making him 20 years old at the time of the Wellington crash. There were two possible marriages, one in 1943 and the other in 1956, and no children from either. He died in July 1997 in Southampton – a few years before I started looking for him.

Radgick sent me this information via my blog site, and when I got back to him, he offered to look for Carter’s siblings and see if there are any other relatives still alive. He wrote back saying he’d compiled Carter’s family tree. “Fortunately they continue to live in the Southampton area as the name Carter would otherwise be difficult to trace as it is so common.” There are two nephews, one born in 1945 and other in 1950.

With that, I searched Facebook and found two Carters who live in Southampton and seem to be the right ages. I sent Facebook messages to both, but it appears to be a dead-end. Weeks have passed, and neither has gotten back to me.

I knew that Carter survived the war, because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission doesn’t list him as a casualty. I still don’t know whether he got fit again and continued to fly with the RAF, or whether he was permanently grounded because of his injuries.

But thanks to Radgick, at least I know there was a postwar life for Carter, and he lived into his mid-70s.

A snapshot in Time: Robert Capa zings a German general

Photojournalist Robert Capa in July 10, 1944, Pacific Pony Edition of Time magazine

Photojournalist Robert Capa on Page 27 of Time magazine’s Pacific Pony Edition of July 10, 1944, printed in Hawaii

My brother sent me a yellowed, flaking copy of Time magazine’s Pacific Pony Edition from July 10, 1944. He found it while helping his widowed mother-in-law move out of her home in Florida. Her husband had been in the service during World War II and apparently brought it back from Hawaii, where it was printed.

I’d never seen a pony edition and can’t imagine how anyone ever read it without a magnifying glass, which I ended up having to use. The type is miniature and crowds pages a mere 5½ by 7½ inches.

But once your naked eye has help, you can get a snapshot of the day. In its 34 pages, there are stories on Tom Dewey’s getting the presidential nomination at the Republican Convention in Chicago, white antagonism toward black troops training in the South, the Allies’ having the “ragtag” German army on the run in France. In the Milestones section, there’s a blurb about a daughter born to “red-haired, hazel-eyed cinema eyeful” Maureen O’Hara.

Time's Pacific Pony Edition of July 10, 1944

Cover of the Pacific Pony Edition has Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery of the British Army saying: “Nothing has stopped us. … Nothing will.”

A piece that caught my eye is an anecdote about Life photographer Robert Capa, an American who was born in Hungary and had lived in Berlin and Paris. He’s perhaps best known for eleven photos he took at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Capa was among reporters and cameramen at the U.S. 9th Infantry Division headquarters during the German surrender of Cherbourg, France. Among the captured defenders were Lt. Gen. Karl Wilhelm Dietrich von Schlieben and Rear Adm. Walther Hennecke.

As the 9th Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy, walked von Schlieben and Hennecke to the door, camera bulbs flashed. The Germans grumbled. Eddy explained that America has a free press, and he couldn’t and wouldn’t stop the photojournalists from doing their job. Von Schlieben huffed that the idea of a free press bored him.

Capa answered in German, “And I am bored with photographing defeated generals.”

1918: How Bethlehem Steel fought a war and pestilence

It’s a nice jolt when you learn something new about a subject you thought you knew pretty much about.

That happened to me recently when my wife and I watched a fascinating live-streamed presentation on the Facebook page of the National Museum of Industrial History. The speaker was James Higgins, a historian of medicine who’s an expert on the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

Drill press operators at Bethlehem Steel during WWI

Women operating drill presses at Bethlehem Steel during the First World War

He talked about how Bethlehem Steel took a lead in fighting the spread of the virus, which killed more than 67,000 Pennsylvanians and some 50 million people worldwide. At the time, south Bethlehem was packed with 31,000 workers making guns, shells, armor plate, submarine parts and other materiel for the First World War.

The company was the No. 1 munitions maker in America and had been frenetically serving the Allied cause since the war began in 1914. When the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915, the great passenger liner was carrying 1,250 cases of artillery shells headed for the British army. (That piece of info comes from Erik Larson’s book Dead Wake.)

I knew about the steelmaker’s lucrative role in the war effort from my work on Forging America: The Story of Bethlehem Steel, a 117-page special section published by The Morning Call in December 2003 as the once-mighty corporation was passing out of existence. It was published again as a softcover book in 2010.

What I didn’t know was that the company went to great lengths to protect its workers and the people of Bethlehem from the deadly virus, and how that was done with commendable results.

As Higgins told it, the head of Bethlehem Steel’s medical division, Dr. Loyal Shoudy, visited Camp Devens, Massachusetts, the first major military camp to be hit by the second wave of ultra-virulent flu in the fall of 1918. A hundred men were dying there each day. It was clear to Shoudy that people couldn’t take care of themselves during the outbreak; they had to be hospitalized.

At a City Council meeting near the end of September, Bethlehem’s leaders realized that the virus was catastrophic and would come to their town. They would have to prepare. The mayor, Archibald Johnston, also was first vice president of Bethlehem Steel, so he could move the bureaucracy in both the city and at the steel plant. Shoudy would direct the medical efforts.

The company and the military, which had close ties to the plant, asked the state to impose a crowd ban – social distancing — in the Lehigh Valley. Pennsylvania’s acting health commissioner, Benjamin Royer, liked the idea and went even further, imposing a ban all across the state.

Bethlehem closed schools, including Lehigh University and Moravian College, and houses of worship. Police raided cafes and hotels to keep people apart.

In the Northampton Heights neighborhood, Bethlehem Steel did something extraordinary. The first week of October, it opened an emergency hospital — not just for its workers, but for everyone in Bethlehem. Shoudy managed it. The company covered all of the costs, including cots, sheets, medicine, food and pay for the doctors and nurses. Army doctors were brought over from Camp Crane in Allentown, the training site for ambulance drivers headed to France. Homes and boardinghouses were searched for sick people, who were taken to the hospital for professional medical care.

“In my estimation,” Higgins said, “that saved dozens and dozens of lives.”

Where exactly was the emergency hospital? Apparently, Higgins said, the site was paved over about 60 years ago to make room for a basic oxygen furnace.

Bethlehem’s war production never faltered, and Bethlehem had the lowest death rate among cities its size for flu and pneumonia. Its mortality rate was far lower than that of mill towns in western Pennsylvania, such as Braddock and Homestead.

“Bethlehem Steel made little or no effort to ameliorate the plight of its workers and their families during any other epidemic in the late 19th and early 20th century,” Higgins said. “I think more than anything else, what Bethlehem Steel wanted to do was protect production. If you protect production, you protect profits.”

To see Higgins’ hour-long presentation, go to the NMIH Virtual Museum and scroll down to “Bethlehem Steel, Industry, and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic with James Higgins.” Click on the video. The host is Glenn Koehler, who handles marketing and public relations for the museum, which is on the old Bethlehem Steel site.

You’ll learn a lot. How Bethlehem Steel fought the pandemic of 1918-19 is a lesson that resonates today, as we struggle to blunt the contagion of the killer coronavirus.

Scout’s honor: How a WWII hero got recognition

World War II hero Clarence Smoyer with David Venditta

Famed World War II tank gunner Clarence Smoyer with me at October 15, 2019, meeting of the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge outside Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

You might have heard of Clarence Smoyer.

There’s a best-selling book, Spearhead, which says on its cover, “An American tank gunner, his enemy and a collision of lives in World War II.”

Smoyer is the tank gunner the book is about. He played a crucial role in the battle for Cologne, Germany’s “Fortress City.” He happens to live in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as I do.

Over the course of seventeen years, I interviewed more than a hundred war veterans for The Morning Call. Smoyer wasn’t among them. How did I overlook an outstanding ex-soldier who was practically in my backyard?

I never knew about him, that’s why. No one told me there was a guy originally from Lehighton whose duel with a German Panther tank in Cologne was caught on film and made him a hero. What a gripping and remarkable story he had to tell!

And best-selling author Adam Makos told it in Spearhead, published this year.

So, how did Makos know about Smoyer?

A former co-worker of mine, reporter Nicole Radzievich, wrote about Smoyer several times this year for The Call and pointed me to an online story by WNEP-TV near Scranton.

Peter Semanoff met Smoyer almost twenty years ago while doing an Eagle Scout project with World War II veterans in Lehighton, WNEP reported. Semanoff later went to Lycoming College, where he got to know Makos, a fellow student. Makos became a writer of WWII stories, and Semanoff urged him to interview Smoyer. He was persistent about it over the years, and Makos ultimately took him up on it. The result was Spearhead.

A part of Semanoff’s story jogged my memory. Eight years ago, when I was still at The Call, someone called my attention to an Eagle Scout project – a booklet of interviews with Lehigh Valley veterans. The Scout was Keegan Amal Boyle of Troop 306 in Bethlehem.

For reasons I can’t recall, I didn’t do anything with the tip, other than save a digital copy of Boyle’s booklet. It was a missed opportunity. Now I was wondering if he, like Semanoff, had interviewed Smoyer. It was just a hunch.

I looked at the booklet for the first since time since I’d gotten it.

“I wanted to work on an Eagle Scout project that would represent the influences of the Lehigh Valley on the world,” Boyle wrote in his introduction. “I wanted to invoke inspiration in the minds of the citizens of this area by demonstrating the rich history that we have in our own backyards.”

He wrote that World War II veterans “represent the foundation of America and the values that our country protects. … My main objective in publishing these stories is to capture the essence of a time when American loyalty meant more than saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Boyle’s booklet, which he self-published, contains his stories on fifteen veterans, with now-and-then photos of each. Among the interviewees is Charles Gubish, a Marine I wrote about in 2015 for my series, War Stories in Their Own Words.

And yes, Smoyer is in the booklet. Boyle quotes him as being employed as a woodworker in Slatington and working at Bethlehem Steel before he was drafted into the Army. The interview doesn’t touch on Smoyer’s combat experiences. It’s chronological and ends with his arrival in England to train for the invasion of Normandy.

Boyle got his Eagle Scout Award in August 2011. He was eighteen. He planned to attend McDaniel College in Maryland and study law. I’d like to get in touch with him.

In September at the World War II Memorial in Washington, Smoyer was awarded a Bronze Star, which he had been in line to get almost 75 years ago. The medal was pinned on the 96-year-old by Army Maj. Peter Semanoff, who had met Smoyer while doing an Eagle Scout project nearly two decades ago and persuaded Makos to interview him.