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History Stands Beside You – Just Ask

A portrait showing different stages of General Albin Irzyk's life done by Fallen Warrior Memorila Gallery artist Ken Pridgeon. 

Over the years, I have one reoccurring regret. Of course, like any human being it isn’t the only one. Have you ever wished you had asked a family member, friend, or acquaintance about their past experiences…perhaps the ones that shaped them, or someone near to them, as human beings? As I enter the Autumn of my years, I am more alert to these opportunities and invite them as often as I can, while avoiding being too intrusive. History doesn’t always lie concealed in the past. More often than you may think, it’s right there in front of you. And, with just a few questions it comes back to life.

Several of my family served in WWII, on land, sea, and air. I honored them in the Dedication of Churchill and Roosevelt: The Big Sleepover at the White House, Gate Keeper Press, 2015. They are long gone now. In hindsight, there are so many more questions I wished I had thought to ask them. Perhaps I was too busy getting on with my own life, took their history for granted, didn’t know how to frame the questions, or they were loath to volunteer their history. Looking back, those just amounted to excuses.

Please allow me to share six examples that have recently occurred demonstrating that history is just a breath and step away.

In mid-December, on a Sunday evening, we attended a Christmas gathering in Spring, TX at our good friends Jane and Tom White’s home. We enjoyed their warm hospitality and mingled with their flock of interesting and vibrant guests. The home-made eggnog was sooo rich and flavorful that it’s worth committing larceny to obtain the secret recipe. And then there’s the Greenberg Smoked Turkey from Tyler, TX. I could go on and on.

During the course of the evening, the host said he had another guest he would like us to meet who shares with me a common interest in American History. As we worked our way around a crowded and jolly household, my host introduced me to former neighbors, retired Colonel Dwight Beach and his wife Carolyn. Although almost 82, Dwight, is blessed with a full head of distinguished silver hair, stands ramrod straight, and remains trim and fit. He still possesses a commanding, military presence. In his hand he clinched an empty plate. Just as he approached the buffet line, I intercepted him.

Thirty minutes later and after many questions, I learned that Dwight…empty plate still in hand…had a distinguished military career as well as a private one as president of a Houston energy related company manufacturing patented drilling tools. Dwight is a Son of the American Revolution and one of four generations in his family to graduate from West Point. His father, Four Star General Dwight Beach, served with distinction in the Pacific theater during WWII, as well as in the Korean War. He rose to Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army Pacific and also Commander in Chief of the United Nations.

To put General Beach’s rank in perspective, the last person to achieve five stars in the army was Omar Bradley in 1950. And only two in our nation’s history have achieved six stars, General George Washington and General John Pershing.

Curious, the next morning I did a little research on the Beach family history. I came across a Major John Beach, also a West Point Graduate who influenced history closer to home. During the Blackhawk war of the early 1830’s, the Major served at Fort Armstrong. The Fort was built on what is known today as the Rock Island Arsenal. It lies in the center of the Mississippi River between the communities where I and my wife grew up, Moline, IL and Davenport, IA. Major Beach also served as the last U.S. Indian Agent to the Sac and Fox Tribes. He attempted to introduce farming and education to the native inhabits. They scorned the endeavor. In their culture, squaws grew crops and braves hunted. In October 1842 Beach presided over the signing of a treaty which allowed the federal government to purchase much of Iowa from the Sac and Fox Tribes.

So, history proved just one introduction away. My new-found friend’s possible ancestor played a role in acquiring the land on which four generations of my family tree were born. The Beach name is not that common.

Earlier in the same weekend that I had met Colonel Beach, I attended a Son of the American Revolution breakfast in Post Oak. I found history seated right next to me. A father and son, both with the first name Ross, were descendants of “The Betsy Ross,” designer of the American Flag!

And, history wasn’t just sitting there, it stood in front of me. The guest speaker Dr. James Martin, a professor of history at West Point and the University of Houston, spoke about the Temple of Virtue near Newburgh and New Winsor N.Y. on the Upper Hudson River Valley. I must admit that I had never heard of the Temple of Virtue and initially some off-color thoughts crept into my head. It was at the Temple in March 1783 that General George Washington persuaded a group of influential Continental Army Offices to drop plans to seize the Continental Congress over a dispute involving back pay. His intervention assured that everything they had fought for over seven long years would not be stained by a military coup.

A couple of months ago, history walked right up to our front door in the form of two books that separate friends loaned me. Prior to receiving those books, I had no idea that these friends had such interesting ties to the past. Shame on me for not asking just a few more questions.

Chappie World War II Diary of a Combat Chaplain, Alton E. Carpenter and Anne Eiland, Mead Publishing, 2007 showed up in the mail from Fort Worth, TX. I knew that our friend Jean Barger’s father had served as an army dentist in WWII, including the Battle of the Bulge. What I didn’t know was that Jean has a close friend whose father, Captain Alton Carpenter, from Louisiana, served three years in North Africa, Sicily, and Northern Europe as a WWII Army Chaplain. The mortality rate of an Army Chaplain then was very high. They were constantly present on the front lines attending to the spiritual needs of the wounded and dying. Chappie is a remarkable account of faith, humanity, and day by day military engagements. The book mentions a young dentist who dug a fox hole near the Chaplain, trusting that God would provide a protective veil. That dentist was Jean’s father!

Following Chappie walking into my life, another friend, Jean Puig in Cypress, TX handed me a book titled Rescue At Los Banos, Bruce Henderson, William Morrow Publishing, 2015. This is a spellbinding story about the daring rescue in 1945 of 2000 prisoners held by the Japanese in Los Banos, the Philippines, about 45 miles away from Manilla. As they were losing the war, the Japanese, perhaps bitter and craving revenge, began starving their prisoners even though food was plentiful. The camp commander had ordered that a long trench be dug. Local guerilla fighters feared that that trench suggested the Japanese were about to annihilate their captives, as they had done elsewhere. Through a heroic effort involving both guerilla and American forces, all two thousand were liberated. My friend’s father, John Oppenheimer, happened to be one of those prisoners. After the war, he became head of Pan American’s operations in the Pacific.

Sadly, Colonel Dwight Beach’s uncle was also taken prisoner in the Philippines. Having survived the Bataan Death March, he died in captivity. The family continues to work to recover his remains and bring him home.

Last night, we enjoyed a small Christmas gathering of friends at a local restaurant. Again, history sat right there at the table. One couple, who divide their time between Texas and Oklahoma, mentioned that they were going to visit the Alamo over the holidays. Sensing that there was more to it, I asked if either of them had an ancestor who might have fought there. Sharyl Davis answered yes, a young physician from Pennsylvania answered the call to come to Texas. He died defending the Alamo while caring for the wounded.

This coming weekend, the one right before Christmas, my son’s mother in law from NYC will be staying with us for several days. And yes, so will history. As a young teenager, Elsa (Fleites) Wilkis was one of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors who fled the Castro’s communist regime between 1960 and 1962. They were labeled Peter Pan children…you can figure that out. To give their children political and economic freedom, the parents put these youngsters on boats and planes, trusting in the care of churches. My son’s mother-in-law came here with nothing and her family lost all family possessions accumulated over several generations in Cuba. Like many others, she made the most of her opportunities. She earned a scholarship to Harvard, and both of her children, following her ambition, also graduated from Harvard.

 

The photo is of General Albin Irzyk. As a young tank battalion commander in WW2, he rescued the 101st Airborne Division at the Battle of Bastone and afterwards liberated the first Nazi concentration camp. He wrote his last book at age 100! We exchanged books and I visited him in West Palm Beach in 2017 before he passed away. The inrroduction came through  man sitting next to me at a Sons of the American Revoltuion breakfast two years ago.!

So, if you’re looking for it, history is just a step away. And, you might just be surprised who’s sharing it. If you ask, they might just breath some life back into it and amaze you with some incredible stories. These stories shaped our nation’s heritage and serve as reminder that much is owed to those who came before us.

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