Travel Log

My Latin is a bit rusty, but I believe this was erected by Pope Pius IX

The Roman Colosseum was interesting. It was a shame that it was such a tourist trap, but the opportunity to walk through a structure that’s older than America was unique. I was surprised to see  just how many memorials to Christians who died there that had been erected.

A Helluva Birthday

I know that posting has been light as of late, but work has gotten in the way. I am currently halfway around  the world showing the flag for the United States. As you might imagine, internet connections are not the greatest at sea, nor is my free time as bountiful. But, I have not forgotten about you, dear readers.

About a three days before my twenty-fourth birthday, I received travel orders from Big Navy for to go meet USS FIRST SHIP out on the wild Atlantic. So, in keeping with one of the longest standing Naval traditions, I dropped everything I was doing and hopped on a plane on the eve of my birthday and flew thousands of miles to points untrodden. I actually turned twenty-four somewhere over the Atlantic.

I am now working hard, trying to get up to speed on the steep learning curve that are daily operations aboard a warship. I will update the blog as I am able, and will hopefully be able to return to three posts a week. But, fret not, Kipling Friday will continue unabated.

Of Tecumseh and Navy SEALs

A couple of months ago, I went to see Act of Valor with a few friends of mine in Newport, RI. In the film, the platoon leader, a Lieutenant and damn fine Naval Officer, is said to be a good study of history and a lover of poetry. These are not traits that usually first come to mind when you begin talking about hardened warriors like the SEALs, but below the surface of that thousand-yard stare lie the minds of thinkers. If you look hard enough, you’ll find that this trends across the entirety of the military. Sun Tzu’s admonishment to understand your enemy is a lesson well-taught within the ranks of the United States armed forces, and those who fail to heed it are usually instructed through fire and blood on the battlefield. As such, many members of the officer corps, and even the NCO corps, are well-learned, well-read, and very intelligent folks that are constantly bettering themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually. Which is why I present to you the following from the Shawnee Chieftain Tecumseh:

Live your life that the fear of death
can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about his religion.
Respect others in their views
and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life,
beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long
and of service to your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day
when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or sign of salute when meeting
or passing a friend, or even a stranger, if in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people, but grovel to none.
When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light,
for your life, for your strength.
Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason to give thanks,
the fault lies in yourself.
Abuse no one and nothing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When your time comes to die, be not like those
whose hearts are filled with fear of death,
so that when their time comes they weep and pray
for a little more time to live their lives over again
in a different way.
Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

~ Tecumseh

The above passage also illustrates another common trait amongst members of the military: The knowledge that tomorrow is never a given. Being a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, or Guardian is an inherently dangerous profession and death waits just over the horizon, as many in the blogosphere recently found out. Because of this, many military men and women live everyday as if it could be their last, taking nothing for granted.

It is all part of the same warrior ethos; living life to its fullest, constantly improving oneself, and striving for the betterment of those around you, loving tenderly those whom you care about, and then sallying forth to answer the call of duty in order to keep the gnashing teeth of the wolf at bay.

The Marine Who Played Bambi

This week on Warrior Wednesday (The idea shamlessly taken from CDR Phibian) I want to discuss one of the traits of our military that makes us such an awesome and effective fighting force: Diversity. No, not the diversity you may be thinking of. When I talk diversity, it’s of backgrounds, walks of life, ideas, and opinions. This cornucopia of points of view on a myriad of topics provides the United States military with supreme adaptability. One of those warriors is Major Donnie Dunagan, USMC.

Before joining the Marine Corps in1952, Dunagan  was a child actor from San Antonio, Texas. While living in Memphis, Tennessee, he was discovered at winning a talent competition with a tap dance routine that had been forced to learn by his mother. From tap dancing came movie roles with silver screen greats like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. But his biggest role didn’t come until 1942 when he provided the voice of Bambi in the iconic animated film of the same name. Bambi would be his last film as he left show business soon afterwards. After his parents divorced, Dunagan worked in a myriad of odd jobs around the Los Angeles area until he received a draft notice shortly after turning eighteen. Then Private Dunagan would find a home in the Marines, making it a career that would span a quarter of a century.

Dunagan served three tours in Vietnam, where he was wounded several times. He was promoted quickly, eventually becoming an officer of Marines. He retired in 1977 as a Major in an infantry unit. He holds the distinction of being one of the youngest Drill Instructors in Marine Corps history.

While in the Corps, Dunagan did not speak of his previous experiences as a child actor. He especially did not mention his role as the voice of the beloved Disney deer. He believed that it would make him appear soft and leave him open for ridicule. It was not until a few years ago that he began speaking of his acting career again, after an accidental discovery by his local news station. In an interview about his time in the Corps and  his childhood acting career, Major Dunagan makes an interesting comment that I believe speaks volumes about the character of those men who serve in the combat arms:

“Is there any incongruity in being a tough old Marine and loving Bambi? No, no,” Dunagan said.

“I’m a sensitive man. When I had my first casualties as a lieutenant, I had a hard time controlling my emotions, but I had a strong sergeant with me who kept me from doing something stupid.

“I’ve been around some real tough guys, and I promise you on my honor: The strongest guys I’ve known in life would pick up a wounded baby kitty on the side of the road. Yet you wouldn’t want to go against them in combat. That is not inconsistent. It is part of the same ethos.”

To read the entire interview, follow the link.

The Navy and Bio-Fuel

For the last few years, the Navy has been pouring a lot of valuable money into bio-fuel research. The way that the project has been sold has been as a way to make the fleet more environmentally friendly, reducing emissions and the like. Now anyone who knows much about the engineering of ships knows that for the majority of our fleet, we use gas turbines in our main propulsion plants, and gas turbines burn through an exorbitant amount of gas in under the most “economical” of conditions. Because of this, the bio-fuel campaign has come under great scrutiny as a waste of money, including just recently from the Honorable Randy Forbes (R-VA).

The Navy used 20,000 gallons of algae-derived fuel for a November test in San Diego. Here, Lt. Cmdr. Frank Kim compares sample bottles of traditional diesel fuel and the alternative blend. Photo Courtesy of Dept of the Navy.

But the idea of “greening” the fleet isn’t all bad, it’s just being sold the wrong way. Having the ability to power our ships using bio-fuel as well as regular marine diesel provides us flexibility in the event that standard oil supplies are cut-off. Flexibility is crucial in warfare, as our adeptness at being able to roll with the punches can mean the difference between being victorious or having our rear-ends handed to us. And that being the case, we need to sell to Congress that we need to pursue bio-fuel alternatives in order to maintain superiority on the sea.

The only caveat is that bio-fuel isn’t the most economical way of providing independence from the vagaries of the oil market. The best way to do this is to convert as much of the fleet as possible to nuclear power. The joy about nuclear plants is that they don’t produce carbon emissions, they don’t need to be fueled up for decades, and they can run nearly indefinitely, meaning that a ship’s range is only limited by the amount of food and fresh water it can carry.

The only downside to a nuclear fleet is the amount of money required on the front end to install the reactor and propulsion plant. In the end, both initiatives are necessary, as well as increasing our domestic oil production as much as possible.

Misadventure on the Pedlar, Part Uno

This is a story of the best beer I’ve ever had. Like most of my stories, it involves me thinking I was invincible and can withstand anything life throws at me. As is the usual case, I was reminded exactly where the limits of my mortality actually exist.

This particular story takes place on the Pedlar River nestled within George Washington National Forest. GW National Forest is itself settled in amongst the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western Virginia, about an hour or so from Lexington. Every Spring, the Corps of Cadets runs an exercise designed to test the 4th Classmen on their fieldcraft, namely skills such as land navigation, shelter building, and wilderness survival. The exercise covers a roughly twenty mile course of arduous terrain in some of the most beautiful country Virginia has to offer.

I participated in the aptly-named 4th Class FTX (Field Training Exercise) each year of my cadetship. It was a wonderful way to break up the monotony of the Institute Experience and also recharge my batteries by getting away from the hustling weariness of modern life. Unfortunately, George Washington National Forest tried to kill me every single year.

Continue reading “Misadventure on the Pedlar, Part Uno”

Counter Piracy Done Right

This video was making the rounds on the internets over the weekend. It depicts a skirmish between private security contractors aboard a merchant vessel and would-be pirates attacking said vessel. The contractors repel the pirates with force, saving the merchant vessel, its crew, and the contents of its hold from ransom.

This is the only way to deal with pirates. The mercurial political situation and rampant poverty affecting most countries that sponsor or are home to pirates are complicated issues that leave the citizens of said countries with few other options than to engage in illegal trafficking or piracy. Also, many of the governments of those countries realize that they can make tremendous profits by charging said pirates and smugglers for safe harbor.

In short, the only real true way to easily ensure the safe passage of a ship bearing the flag of the United States is to show the pirates that to trifle with a US flagged ship is lunacy and will end with their sure demise. And the only way to do that is have American warships sailing with consistent presence in said pirate-infested waters, providing forward presence and deterrence.

It worked for Stephen Decatur, it’ll work now.

Michael vs Zulu Warriors

Yesterday I wrote about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and I mentioned Michael Caine and the film based upon the battle. In said film, there are two great scenes. First, is the scene prior to the actual battle. The Undi Corps of Zulus approaches the grizzled British embattlements and begins a war chant. The British respond by singing “The Men of Harlech,” an old Welsh march. The battle then commences. When the battle is over and the Zulu return, they once again form to begin a war chant, this time saluting the noble, dogged enemy that had repelled their attacks.

The final scene made a very big impression upon when I first watched it as a young Rat sitting in World History at the Mother I. My professor, had regaled us the day before with a spirited and nuanced retelling of the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. To then watch it on the silver screen only fueled the already grandiose notions of venturing out on great campaigns that were already swirling in my head.

But when the Zulus saluted the British I was awed. There, on the screen, was a dramatic representation of honor and respect, even amongst your enemies, that was being drilled into our heads back in the Barracks. It still stands as one of my most favorite scenes from the cinema.

I have embedded it below for your viewing pleasure, dear reader. The big battle doesn’t begin until about the middle of the video, but it follows directly into the final scene.

Battle of Rorke’s Drift

One of my favorite actors is Sir Michael Caine, Englishman and all-around cool guy. In his first major film role, he plays Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead in the movie Zulu (MGM, 1964). Zulu tells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu Wars in South Africa. Rorke’s Drift stands out as one of the most prominent battles of the South African campaign for the British Army; the victory restoring the prestige of the British forces in Africa after their surprise defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana.

Rorke’s Drift also stands out as the one battle with the most Victoria Crosses awarded for a single engagement. It’s also a prime example of what a well-trained, well-drilled, and disciplined unit can do against a much larger force.

Though the British were armed with modern Martini Henry repeating rifles they were still heavily outnumbered with only 150 some odd British versus the over 3000 Zulu tribesmen lusting for battle. Also, the Zulus were armed with more than just spears and shields. Shaka Zulu understood the need for firearms and had been stockpiling muskets and antiquated rifles in case of hostilities with the British. There were so many rifles that most of the British casualties had been shot vice stabbed.

The fortifications of Rorke's Drift, 22 JAN 1879

But with the setting established, let us delve into the battle. In the morning of 22 January 1879, the British 24th Regiment of Foot clashed with warriors of the Zulu nation at Isandlwana. The Zulus routed the Brits in a bloody fight, their rear guard chasing down survivors as they ran to the British outpost at Rorke’s Drift in Natal. At 1530 hours, survivors of the earlier battle arrived and informed the commanding officers Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead that the Zulu Undi Corps was approaching. Understanding that there was no hope for reinforcements before the Zulu vanguard arrived, Chard ordered the creation of a wall built from leftover ration crates. He then fortified the outpost with his own meager force of engineers, Bromhead’s B Company, 24th Foot, and the few survivors from Isandlwana.

At 1630 hours, the Undi Corps arrived and began attacking the southern portion of the wall that Chard’s men had built from supply crates and ration boxes. They would spend the five-and-a-half hours trying to hold the cattle corral, hospital, and store that made up the former trading post. As night fell, the Zulus became more determined. Their continued assault against the hospital on the western end of the post caused the heaviest casualties. At 1800 hours, Chard made the decision to withdraw his men from the hospital.

At 2200 hours, Chard brought his men defending the cattle corral back into the fortified yard. With ammunition reserves running low, Chard and Bromhead dug with the men they had left. They continued is pitched battle for the next four hours, the Zulu offensive finally slacking-off around 0200 hours. The British suffered a steady stream of harassing fire for the rest of the night.

As dawn broke on 23 January 1879, the weary soldiers were greeted with a sea of bodies, the Zulu forces having retreated in the night. At 0700 hours, a new corps of Zulu warriors was spotted approaching and the British took up arms once again. The fatigued Zulus could see the approaching British reinforcements, and soon departed. At 0800 hours, reinforcements arrived, relieving Chard and Bromhead and their men.

In the aftermath of the attack, it was discovered that the British had only lost seventeen men while killing 350 Zulus. Both Bromhead and Chard were awarded the Victoria Cross along with nine other British troopers, their heroism having won the day.

For a full account of the battle (with pictures), follow the link here: The Battle of Rorke’s Drift

The VMI Legacy

On the 15th of February, the VMI Family lost one of its most distinguished Alumni, Colonel William Dabney ’61, USMC (The announcement can be found on The Institute’s website). Colonel Dabney served with distinction in Vietnam, commanding two rifle companies of Marines in defense of Hill 881 South (Hat Tip to CDR Salamander). For his actions, during the Siege of Khe Sanh, Colonel Dabney received the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second-highest award for valor. Colonel Dabney eventually returned to The Mother I to serve as Commandant of Cadets, influencing a great many Cadets during their most formative years.

But the passing of Colonel Dabney is quite what makes him so special; he’s simply another warrior embarking on the great journey to Valhalla. No, it is what the Colonel’s story can teach us about leadership and personal courage. If you follow the two preceding links, you can read the story in full, including his citation for the Navy Cross. You can also read his remarks upon his receipt of the award.

Will the VMI Corps of Cadets please rise. (All seats remaining vacant after  invited guests were seated had been occupied by cadets.)

Our generation – these men who just stood before you – came home from war to a nation not much disposed to honor the nobility of their service.  Today, as Pete said a few years late, you gave us our parade.  Thank you!(Audience and Warriors applauded the cadets)
Many of you will soon shoulder the responsibility of command leading the citizen soldiers of your generation.  Eight of your number have already given their lives in the cause of freedom in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Should you be called upon to take America’s patriots in harm’s way, you will find awesome, as I did in my time, their courage and determination.  The experience will become the signal moment in your lives.  We wish you God speed, and we salute you. (Another round of applause with the loudest and most robust coming from those 40 men in the front rows of Jackson Memorial Hall.)
His speech is a wonderful example in the old guard showing the newly initiated the way things should be done. True leadership requires that you teach those whom will replace you everything you know in order to be successful and to accomplish the mission. You must also inspire them by your example. If you expect your subordinates to be courageous, you yourself must be courageous in the face of hardship and criticism. You must also be well-grounded in the history of your organization, using examples to inspire those who you lead. A thorough knowledge of history also better arms you against making the same mistakes as your forebears.
This is a concept that was always well-drilled at The Mother I. From day one, every Cadet was taught that he or she has a long, illustrious legacy which they must uphold. It is these teaching moments that build the “Never Say Die!” attitude and shows the Cadets that it is now their solemn responsibility to carry on the proud tradition. It is this knowledge that has lead so many Institute Men to win the day even when facing insurmountable odds, much like Colonel Dabney did during those seventy-seven fateful days on top of Hill 881S.