A day of great stories about Americans at war

It’s terrific to hear authors talk in person, right in front of you. You experience firsthand the passion behind their work.

I got a quadruple dose of that May 6 during the Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pa.’s daylong conference, Americans at War, at the Holiday Inn in Fogelsville. Four of the five speakers have written books and had them on hand for sale.

Despite the sponsor’s name, the lineup wasn’t limited to Civil War topics. That’s what drew me after I found out about the conference at an April meeting of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. I was there to talk about my Vietnam War book Tragedy at Chu Lai. Sitting beside me, my friends Ed Root and Tony Major of the Civil War Round Table told me about the event, gave me a flier and encouraged me to attend.

Later, when I read about the presentations, I thought wow! The speakers were experts on battles of the Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, and on the search and recovery of POWs and MIAs. I had to go.

I had a particular interest in the talk by Michael C. Harris, author of Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America. As a boy in Downingtown, I played in the East Branch of the Brandywine Creek. In the 1990s, I read Thomas J. McGuire’s Battle of Paoli, about the “Paoli Massacre” that happened nine days after the fighting at nearby Brandywine.

Allentown, where I’ve lived for three decades, is steeped in Revolutionary history. It was the site of several Continental Army hospitals, a prison for enemy soldiers, and the church where the Liberty Bell was hidden. One Christmas week, after reading Richard J. Ketchum’s The Winter Soldiers, I drove to Washington Crossing and stood in the snow and cold on the bank from which Washington’s ragged army pushed off for Trenton. I had to get a sense of the moment.

In his talk, Harris laid out how the Battle of Brandywine happened and in particular the role of the American general John Sullivan. I bought Harris’ book, and while he was signing it for me, he invited me on a carpool tour of the battlefield he’ll be giving May 20. I’m going.

D. Scott Hartwig, author of To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, talked about how the bloodiest single day in American history happened. Army Col. Douglas Mastriano talked about his search for the truth about World War I hero Alvin York through archeology and ballistic forensics analysis, which led to his book Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne. In a sidelight, he entertained us with the amazing story of Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon that saved America’s “Lost Battalion.” Gregory J.W. Urwin told what happened to the U.S. defenders of Wake Island after the Japanese captured them in December 1941, the subject of his book Victory in Defeat: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity.

Retired Army Col. Ward Nickisch, who led teams that recovered the remains of POWs and MIAs, capped the conference with stories of perseverance, dedication and the far reaches of science.

It was a day of eye-opening scholarship into aspects of our military history I knew little about. If another one like it comes along, count me in.

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