Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Growing Up in a Lumber Yard

Me, about 10,  with my bicycle in front of our porch
In an earlier blog post (Our Home-Life at the End of the Depression), I wrote about my earliest memories of my family and the circumstances of our daily life before World War II. In this post, I am writing about the years just afterward.

The death of my grandfather, George Luther Bell, brought significant change to our family dynamic. My grandmother, Clyde Bell, then had nowhere to live except with us.

Grandma Bell was totally blind, the result of a non-malignant brain tumor pressing on her optic nerves. This left her close to helpless. Had she lived in the present age instead of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, an early operation might have restored her sight. My grandfather spent everything he had or could earn trying to find a cure, but the most the doctors of the time could recommend was to try to keep her comfortable. So the tumor grew year by year, horribly distorting the shape of her skull. Grandma required a great deal of attention, and most of this responsibility fell on mother. Being a good Christian woman (think Olivia on The Waltons), she just added the work to her already heavy burdens, never neglecting either her husband or her children. The old saying, “Man’s work is measured by the sun, but a woman’s work is never done,” was never truer than in the case of my mother.

Mother sitting on our front porch in 1950
The immediate problem occasioned by “Pappy’s” death was living space. There was no way that room could be found in our little “shotgun” house to accommodate Grandma. The Reynolds and Gambles Lumber Company, for whom Dad was planing mill foreman, assigned us another company-owned house. Our new home was a typical frame structure of the period. It stood on numerous timber piers to level the floor. This helped keep it cool in summer but made for cold floors in winter. Wide, vertical pine boards with narrow battens sheathed the exterior. Like the other half dozen or so houses in the “camp,” no paint graced the exterior surfaces. A covered porch ran along the front of the structure.

Our “street” was nothing but a bare strip worn in the white sandy soil by car tires. It ran in a fairly straight line out to the South Field Road (named for the rich oil field that petered out in the 1920s), which was covered with red clay and gravel. The nearest hard pavement was a mile or more away at the south edge of El Dorado.

The house interior was divided into four rooms of approximately equal size by walls faced with “shiplap” boards. The room at the main front entrance became our parents’ bedroom/parlor. Mom claimed the room behind it as her new kitchen. My brother, Tom (who is four years my senior), and I were housed in the second front room, which also had an outside entrance. The room behind that was Grandma’s room.

The “camp” had no source of central heat or cooking, no electricity, or running water. Mom cooked on a wood-fired cast iron “range.” We had one sheet metal wood heater in the parlor. A well in the backyard provided water. We took “sponge baths” with washbasins or, on Saturday, bathed in a galvanized washtub behind the kitchen stove.

The soil behind the house was tillable, so Mom soon had a large vegetable garden going. Beyond the garden stood a “two-holer” “necessity,” as they are called here in Virginia.

Tom and I were in charge of keeping Mom supplied with fuel for her cook-stove. Dad would bring home loads of “cut-offs” from the mill. These were usually about a foot or so long. The soft Southern Pine boards split easily into narrow billets for Mom to burn. I became adept at using a hatchet at an early age.

Surrounding our home to the north and east were hundreds of stacks of drying lumber. A level grid of wooden platforms called “trams” spread from the sawmill over a large area. These were about twelve feet wide and anywhere from a few inches to several feet above the ground according to the terrain. Dense stacks of lumber bordered the trams on both sides. At the sawmill, yard hands placed the freshly sawn boards on carts and rolled them out on the trams to the first open area. The men then layered the green boards in stacks to air dry. The layers were separated by 2-inch by 2-inch oak stacking sticks, allowing free circulation of air between the boards.

The proximity of the trams and stacks provided numerous temptations for growing boys to have fun or get into trouble. Stacking sticks became vaulting poles or, with 2x4 footholds nailed on, stilts to walk on. The tall trams also created large shaded areas in which to play in the hot summer months.

We had our own secret place beneath the trams where we kept forbidden treasures. Tobacco and cigarette papers were easy to come by. Dad smoked roll-your-own cigarettes made with Prince Albert Tobacco. He purchased it in packages of about a dozen cans. A waxed paper insert inside each can kept the tobacco moist and fresh. Dad discarded a can when he could no longer easily rake out the desired amount. His finger left small fillets of untouched tobacco in the bottom corners. Tom and I would sneak into the trash and remove the paper inserts from the cans, then pour all the leftover tobacco together. Dad also liked to use a thick book of cigarette papers and discarded the thin packets of papers that came with the cans. We kept these treasures buried in a coffee can under the tram and often sneaked there to roll our own and fire up. We thought we were acting grownup. I don’t think I actually knew any men who did not smoke in those years.

Sometimes, we would also get our hands on some plug or leaf chewing tobacco. I gave that up after Mom almost caught us chewing and I had to swallow my “chaw.”

When Tom wasn’t around to get stuck with minding me, I played alone near or under the house. I frequently built clay dams in the drainage ditches beside the house. Sometimes, I would blow them up with firecrackers like those I has seen dynamited in movies. Otherwise, Dad would tear them out to prevent flooding.

On hot summer days, Mom would get up before daylight and have all her housework done by the time Dad came home for the noon meal, which we called dinner. After policing up after the meal, several other wives from the camp would come over to our house. Grandma had two large oscillating fans that her sister had given her. The ladies would sit in her room to keep cool and talk during the heat of the afternoon. They must have thought I was too young to understand, because they would talk about anything in front of me. I remember that a lot of their conversations concerned their husbands’ faults and who had the worst husband.

Another interesting terrain feature near our home was a tall oil tank berm. During the earlier oil boom, a series of large oil tanks lined the west side of the South Field Road. After the oil played out, the oil companies removed and salvaged the tanks but left the circular containment berms in place. Most were breached to let water out, but a few intact ones became shallow ponds. The one beside out house was dry. The slopes provided places to play “cowboys and Indians,” “cops and robbers,” and other boy games. We would “fort up” atop the cliffs and pretend to be under siege.

Pretending to be cowboys was our predominant game. Before World War II, all the boys had metal cap guns. We also had little lead soldiers painted with WWI uniforms. The war put an end to that. The best toys available during the conflict were guns and dolls made of glued together sawdust. Any of these left out in the rain quickly dissolved. As the war went on, Tom and I made many of our own toys out of lumber cutoffs.

Our mode of transportation was mostly “shank’s mare,” i.e. walking around on foot. As we grew older, we graduated to bicycles. When I first started to school, Tom and I walked from our home to Southside Elementary School, a distance of about two miles. Later, we rode our bikes.

Saturdays were always a treat for us boys. Mom and Dad would go to town to shop for the week. On the way in, they would drop us off at the Majestic Theater. On Saturdays, the theater showed a double feature of “B” westerns with short serials in between. The movies showed constantly. One could stay in the theater as long as it was open. The management let parents come into the auditorium to pick up children they had left there. I remember being given two dimes when we were dropped off. One got us into the movie, and the other was for snacks. Sacks of popcorn and full-sized candy bars cost five cents. I always bought two Mars Bars, one to eat at once and the other to eat between shows. After our parents picked us up, we usually went to a hamburger joint for supper before going home. Those were really great burgers. As soon as we got home, our battery-powered radio was turned on to WSM in Nashville for the Grand Old Opry.

I suspect that modern youth would consider the way we lived to be abject poverty. We never felt poverty stricken. We had a roof over our heads and three nutritious meals a day. We always had clean clothes to wear. But most of all, we had parents and other family who loved us and taught good Christian values that have guided us through our long lives. What more could one ask for?

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor brought significant changes to our lives. For more on those times, see my July 13, 2013 blog post, "World War II Through the Eyes of a Child.”

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Reprise: Thanksgiving in the 1940s

As my 82nd Thanksgiving approaches, I cannot help but look back over the years at the changing role my wife, Annette, and I have played in this important family event. For many years, we enjoyed gathering the clan in our home and providing the feast, but our days of hosting Thanksgiving have faded into the past. We have reached the point in life where we go to our children’s homes for the celebration. Annette, however, still cooks her pecan and apple pies, which are a favorite with our grandkids. In the distant past, we went to our parent’s homes when circumstances allowed. But my Navy career offered few such opportunities, so we were used to decades of having everyone within reach come to our home. As I keep looking back, I am reminded of the blog post I wrote a few years ago about celebrating the holiday in the years right after World War II, when I was a young child. I am repeating it here.

In my childhood, Thanksgiving was truly a family affair. I grew up in a large extended family whose spiritual anchor was my Grandmother Tatum. A physically a small woman, to us Edna Tatum was an awesome presence. She raised five daughters (Brenda, Olive, Evelyn, Lorene, and Sadie) essentially alone on an isolated farm outside El Dorado in South Central Arkansas. Her husband, Miller, worked for the railroad and was away from home five days a week. This left Grandma to run everything, including supervising and feeding the hired hands who worked the farm. Miller didn’t move his family into town because El Dorado was a rough oil boom-town in those days. He felt his daughters were far safer out in the country.

After Miller’s death, Grandma sold the farm to Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Earl Molsbee, with the condition that she would always have a home there. So on Thanksgiving, the whole family less Lorene, who lived in far-away Batesville, gathered at “Aunt Evelyn’s.”
Ours was a strictly a blue-collar family. My Dad, Jewell Bell, worked as a planing mill foreman in a lumber plant. Besides running the farm, Uncle Earl worked in the oil fields. Leonard Goodnight (Brenda’s husband) worked at the local oil refinery. Ross Martin (Sadie’s spouse) served as a policeman. These men, all survivors of the Great Depression, were grateful to have jobs that let them put roofs over their families’ heads and food on the table. To them, Thanksgiving was not just a holiday. It was a celebration of the blessings they had enjoyed during the year.

In those days before television, the men usually sat around the wood stove in the living room and enjoyed each other's conversation. The hardest thing for the children was waiting for the meal. I was one of four sons who were always called, “the boys.” Gerald Goodnight was a few months older than my brother, Tom. Johnny Molsbee was a year younger. I was “tail-end-Charlie.” The one granddaughter, Darlene Molsbee, was about a year younger than me. She usually hung out with the women and helped with the meal. If weather allowed, the boys were banished to the outdoors. There was always lots to do and look at around the farm. I usually just trailed behind the big boys and tried to do whatever they did.

My mother and her sisters prepared dinner as a communal activity. Aunt Evelyn usually furnished the main dish, and the others brought their contributions, some already prepared, some to be finished just before eating. The menu was about the same each year. Turkeys were a luxury in those years just after World War II. Instead, the sisters baked or boiled chickens ahead of time. Making large pans of cornbread dressing with the broth, they would tear up the chickens into bite-sized pieces and embed them atop the breading, then bake the whole thing in the oven. Sometimes, we would have fresh pork roast and dressing as well. Cream gravy with the cooked chicken “giblets” chopped up in it went along with these dishes.

The rest of the menu was pretty traditional: mashed potatoes, home-canned Kentucky Wonder beans, candied sweet potatoes, fruit salad made by augmenting canned fruit cocktail with apples, oranges, and bananas, and jellied cranberry sauce. Desserts were all sorts of pies and cakes. My mother usually took a cake, since my dad preferred them to pies (except chocolate). My favorite was always the mincemeat pie. All this bounty would be spread on the big table in Evelyn’s dining room.

We always had a big turnout. Besides the sisters’ husbands, several other relatives usually came. One constant was Grandma’s younger brother, Johnny Ford. His son, Wilmot, frequently came also. Uncle Johnny, a widower who raised his son alone from infancy, was considered saintly in our family. He always offered the blessing before the meal. A Methodist, he never failed to enumerate the good things that had occurred in the previous year. Sometimes, this made the children impatient.

The dining room and table were too small to accommodate everything at once. As was customary in those days, the men ate first. According to how many were present, we children sometimes got to eat with the men. If there were too many, we were relegated to the “children’s table” in the kitchen. Either way, the women didn’t eat until everyone else was through. If they resented it, they never let on. I suppose they just took it as a matter of course. Things would change in later years.

The way we lived in the 1940s would probably be considered “poverty” by most of today’s young people, my grandchildren included. We had no computers, no television, not even electricity. Batteries powered our radios and listening time had to be rationed. Our homes were heated by wood stoves and lighted by kerosene lamps. Only those who lived in cities had running water and indoor plumbing. But that was how almost all people who lived in the country existed in those days. We did not consider ourselves poor. We were thankful for dry beds and full stomachs and loving families to care for us. Physical things didn’t seem to matter so much. The world has changed a great deal since the 1940s. Some of it is actually progress.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Haunting Melodies From The Past

A couple of weeks ago, I received a pleasant surprise from my older brother, Tom.  While reading the online version of our hometown newspaper, he had come across a "blast from the past" photograph of the boy's gospel quartet in which I sang over sixty years ago. As I viewed those youthful faces, memories of the time we four fledgling musicians spent together flooded my mind. We had quite a ride for a group of early teenagers.

We were still in the eighth grade at Southside Elementary School in El Dorado, Arkansas, when my friend, Johnny McCleskey, approached me about joining the quartet he and Glenn Daniels were putting together. My voice had changed early, and I had been singing bass in our church choir for over a year. The quartet sounded like fun, so I signed up. That would be my only gig in the entertainment business until I became an indie author decades later.

I soon learned that the quartet had been Glenn's idea. His grandmother was a lover of gospel music, and she had passed that love on to him. He became our lead (melody) singer. Johnny, who was a piano prodigy, would be our first tenor. His voice had not yet changed, so he could soar to high notes the rest of us could not even imagine. Our friend, Bill Bruton, was our second tenor. I sang bass. Being able to belt out notes below the bass cleft surprised many listeners. All four of us had music training. Not much rehearsal was needed before we really clicked and started blending well. At first, Johnny both played the piano and sang, but Virginia Adams, a talented pianist a little older, soon joined us as our accompanist. Johnny's and Virginia's fathers became our transportation and informal managers.

Our El Dorado Boy's Quartet cut its teeth at country singings. The "all day singing with dinner on the grounds," sometimes called conventions, were a cultural icon among the southern evangelical churches of the time. Hundreds of people would gather in churches or outdoor settings to participate in group singing from Stamps-Baxter Music Company songbooks. Amateur directors took turns leading the music. Quartets sang between sessions of crowd songs. The participating women would serve a sumptuous "pot luck" meal, spreading the food on picnic tables beneath shade trees and covering it with dishcloths to keep away the flies. Larger conventions were sometimes held in available auditoriums.

Our "big break" came late in the summer of 1950 when we entered a quartet contest held on the stage of the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, LA. The winning quartet from each of the tri-state area—Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas--selected based on an applause meter reading. All the other quartets from Arkansas were adults, some long established. After our introductory song, Johnny's dad jumped us for being too stiff in our posture. He told us to, " Get into the music."  Our competition number was a song called, "I've Got That Old-Time Religion In My Heart," which had a high tenor solo at the end. As Johnny's voice soared up to the high climax, he did a little dip and spread his arms widely. The audience went crazy, bursting into thunderous applause. The applause meter went to the highest reading of the night. That won us an all expenses paid trip to Nashville, TN to sing in the Ryman Auditorium on Wally Fowler's All-Night Singing, broadcast on WSM every Friday night. The Grand Old Opry occupied the same stage on Saturday nights. We were to sing there long before either Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley.

The long road trip to Nashville was quite an adventure for small town kids. I rode with Johnny's dad. We took some picnic food and sometimes ate in restaurants. I can't recall the name of the hotel at which we stayed, but it seemed palatial to us. We were excited to see some of the stars of the Grand Old Opry staying there with us.

The Ryman Auditorium proved a disappointment. I believe that it was an old revival preaching venue. Old church pews made up most of the seating. The entire building had a neglected, dusty air about it. After several hours of listening to others sing, we became a little disappointed. We finally got to perform at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Our families and friends back home stayed up late to hear us.

Winning the contest also won us a 30-minute radio show on Sunday mornings in El Dorado. We had pretty good ratings for a while. We sang together for another year or two, performing at events around the area. But when we got to high school, forces began to pull us apart. I went to work for Safeway, intent on saving money for college. Glenn became a regular DJ on a local radio station. Johnny and Billy pursued their own interests. Virginia married right after she completed high school. I don't think we ever officially dissolved.

All the guys except me pursued careers in the field of music. Johnny paid his way through Loyola University in New Orleans playing jazz piano on Bourbon Street. He later owned nightclubs in several cities under the nickname of "Johnny Mack." Under the sobriquet of "Big Daddy" Daniels, Glenn became a famous DJ and producer in Dallas, TX. He founded the cable network, Country Music Television. Billy studied music in college and became a teacher. Although I studied engineering in college, I sang in church and college choirs, gravitating toward more classical music. After receiving my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Civil Engineering at the University of Arkansas, I had the Draft breathing down my neck. I joined the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps, intending to stay for my three-year obligation. I had so much fun that I stayed twenty-nine years.

Johnny and Billy and I got together in 2004 at our 50th High School Reunion. Glenn had died young at age 56. We enjoyed reminiscing about our quartet years. Johnny died soon afterwards of a stroke. Only Billy and I are still around, and I have lost touch with him. Someday, perhaps we'll get to perform "I've Got That Old Time Religion In My Heart" in an angel choir.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Our Home-Life at the End of the Depression

My family with me in Mother's arms
My earliest memories are from a time when our family lived in a little three-room shotgun house. I must have been about three at the time. There were four of us in the family.

My Dad, Jewell Bell, was in his late thirties at the time. He worked for the Reynolds and Gamble Lumber Company as Foreman of their planing mill. Besides supervising operations of the mill, he was responsible for upkeep of all the machinery in the plant. Just under six feet tall, Dad was wiry of build and had black wavy hair and black eyes. Working often in the sun, he had deeply tanned skin. I remember him wearing a chambray shirt and bib overalls and smelling of pine resin and the Prince Albert Tobacco he rolled into cigarettes.

Olive Bell, my Mom, was ten years younger than Dad and looked even younger. She had brown hair and eyes and was a little over five feet tall. Always slender, she had a pixie quality about her.  She always wore a neatly pressed housedress. Mother was what they call a "stay-at-home-mom" nowadays. Besides raising two boys, she had plenty to keep her busy. In those days before labor saving appliances, she did our laundry by hand, dried it in the sun, and pressed everything with flatirons heated on the cook stove. Mom cooked three meals a day from scratch on that wood-fired iron range, summer or winter. She had to split the wood to fit the firebox and keep the fire ablaze all day. Just keeping the house clean so close to a sawmill with its slab pit for burning excess wood was a challenge.

My older brother, Tom, was in the second or third grade at the time. He often got stuck with looking out for me when there were myriad other things that he would rather be doing. Wiry like Dad, Tom was smart and good looking. He made friends easily. A few years later, he would be very popular with the girls. I realize now later that he had to put up with a lot because of me.

Our home was located on the grounds of the lumber plant and was owned by the company. Living in the house was part of Dad's compensation. The front room of the house was my parents' bedroom as well as the parlor. The middle room was where Tom and I slept. The back room was the kitchen and dining area. I don't remember much about what furniture we had. The bedsteads were spindly iron frames with bare springs under the mattresses. Mom kept all the beds made up neatly when we weren't sleeping in them. I recall an oilcloth cover over the kitchen table but not much more.

We had a fenced yard that I remember as shady behind the house. There was a well about fifteen feet from the house. It had a wood casing and a frame supporting a pulley. The well "bucket" was a galvanized sheet metal cylinder with a flap and a trigger at the bottom. It was suspended by a rope from the pulley. We lowered the bucket under the water, then raised it up above the casing. A sloped wooden chute with a notch at the bottom ran down from the casing. We hung a water bucket from the notches. Then the well bucket was lowered against the chute, the trigger opened the flap, and the water rushed down the chute into the bucket. We always had a dipper handy to get a fresh drink of the cold well water. Farther back in the yard was the ubiquitous privy. No one in our community had indoor plumbing. Lacking electricity, we depended on kerosene lamps after dark. Our lifestyle was that of most people who didn't live in cities in those days.

Not far south of our house were the lumber company offices and company store. Employees could buy supplies at the store on credit. I suppose the prices were somewhat inflated, as was common in those last days of the Great Depression. The saw mill was directly behind the offices. Dad's planing mill lay behind the sawmill. Several acres of trams and lumber stacked to dry in the air before finishing lay to the south. A few other company houses were located on a small bluff on the other side of the South Field Road. My paternal grandparents lived in one of these. George Luther Bell, whom we called "Pappy," worked at the sawmill. My Grandma Clyde was blind from an injury as a child. Tom and I would often stay with her for a while after he got out of school, especially in the winter when we kept the fire going in her wood-burning heat stove. Pappy had a knife to split board ends. He had made it by casting a lead handle around a wide planing machine blade. We loved to use it to split cutoffs from the mills into kindling.

Even at that young age, I realized that Mom was a really good cook. Having been raised on a farm, she learned about growing and cooking food from an early age. She always planted a large garden, and we had many vegetable meals in the summer—green and butter beans, English and field peas, greens, squash, Boiled new potatoes, and fresh salads. She always cooked cornbread, sometimes twice a day. At this age, I sometimes sneaked into the kitchen and cut the crust off to eat it as a snack. That always got me in trouble with Dad, who also loved the crust. Of course, what Tom and I liked best was the desserts. Dad had a sweet tooth. He didn't care much for pies except chocolate, but he loved cakes. Mom almost always had a cake of some sort on hand. Tom especially liked those chocolate pies. In the summer when we could pick berries, blackberry cobbler was my favorite.

Me in the driveway with Dad's car
We kids didn't have many toys that I recall. I'm sure we had a cap gun or two, and I must have had little cars. I remember playing in the sandy soil of our driveway. Dad had a small garage to keep the car safe. I remember having a little tin cowboy with a lasso. It was a wind-up toy, and the lasso would spin round and round. Alas, I left it in the driveway one night, and dad ran over it the next morning. We boys always went barefoot in the summer, and our play clothes were often just a pair of short pants.

My sense is that our small nuclear family was happy in that little shotgun house. Our days alone as a family were all too few. Pappy died of a stroke during the winter. I still recall the red glowing wood stove in the little country church where we had his funeral and how cold and wet it was at his graveside. Grandma Bell moved in with us after that, completely changing the family dynamic. The company did move us into a larger house so that she could have her own room. I shall always have fond memories of our days in that tiny house.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Hell in the Coral Sea

Seventy-five years ago, in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean northeast of Australia, a new type of naval warfare entered the arena of history. For the first time, two naval forces did battle without ever coming within visual sight of each other. Although neither side could claim a clear-cut victory, the Battle of the Coral Sea changed the course of World War 2 in the Pacific. Many in Australia believe that it prevented the invasion of their homeland by the Japanese Empire.

Historians continue to debate whether or not the Japanese planned an actual invasion of Australia. However, there is no question that the Japanese High Command intended to isolate the island continent and force its government out of the war.

May 1942 came at the end of a long string of spectacular Japanese victories. Having smashed the American Battle Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese armed forces ran rampant through Southeast Asia, seizing Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. Allied naval and military efforts to slow the Japanese juggernaut had been brushed aside with seeming ease. As the remnants of American, British, Dutch, and Australian forces tried to regroup in Australia under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, prospects for survival of the Commonwealth appeared dicey.

IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) Vice Admiral Inoue Shigemi, Commander of Japan’s Fourth Fleet, had worked out an intricate plan with his Army counterparts for further expansion in the Southwest Pacific.  The same land and naval forces would be used over and over. First, the Navy would move down the Solomons Chain to the southeast, securing the big islands of Bougainville and Guadalcanal, on which airfields could be built. Tulagi, with its large lagoon suitable for operating the big Kawanishi flying boats, would be occupied at the same time. Once the eastern flank had been secured, a combined force invasion of the Australian base at Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast would follow.

With Port Moresby at his disposal, Inoue’s bombers would be in a position to attack northeast Australia. Meanwhile, he would regroup his ships and Army forces to advance across the Coral Sea to seize New Caledonia, Fiji, and Samoa. With his bombers based on those islands, Australia would be completely isolated. Cut off from help from her Allies, the island continent would have no choice but to sue for peace.

Admiral Ernest King, Commander in chief, U.S. Fleet, was gravely concerned about the possible isolation of Australia. To prevent such a circumstance, he had ordered Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor to keep at least one aircraft carrier task force in the Coral Sea. Aircraft from these vessels had decimated the enemy bomber forces based at Rabaul and struck invasion shipping off the north coast of New Guinea. As the Japanese began to set their new plan in motion, a task force of two U.S. aircraft carriers and their supporting ships moved into the Coral Sea.

American and Japanese forces northeast of Australia began to converge. Rear Admiral Kōsō Abe’s Port Moresby Invasion Force was central to the situation. The Japanese admirals’ job was to protect it and support its landing. The American admirals’ objective was to prevent the landing from taking place.

Abe’s force sortied from Rabaul on 4 May and proceeded southward across the Solomon Sea, heading for the eastern tip of New Guinea. Admiral Sadanichi Kajioka’s light cruiser and six destroyers joined up during the day. After supporting the landings at Tulagi, The light carrier Shōhō and the heavy cruisers and destroyers of Rear Admiral Aritomo Gotō’s Covering Force put in at Bougainville to refuel. Meanwhile, Vice Admiral (VADM) Takeo Takagi’s Carrier Strike Group was steaming south on the east side of the Solomons, turning left to thread between Guadalcanal and Rennell Islands to enter the Coral Sea. 

The Japanese and American carrier forces were closely balanced. VADM Takagi had sister ships Shōkaku and Zuikaku, both first line fleet vessels. Rear Admiral (RADM) Frank Jack Fletcher had Lexington and Yorktown. The air groups were similarly balanced. Fletcher had 44 Wildcat fighters, 74 Dauntless dive-bombers, and 25 Devastator torpedo bombers, a total of 143. Takagi had 36 Zero fighters, 54 Aichi dive-bombers, and 54 Kate torpedo planes, a total of 144 aircraft. Both admirals were surface warfare officers. Both delegated control of actual air operations to their senior aviator subordinates: RADM Chūichi in the case of Takagi, RADM Aubrey Fitch in the case of Fletcher.

Fletcher had the advantage in intelligence. Allied codebreakers were just beginning to read JN25, The IJN’s main fleet code. Regular reports from both Australia and Hawaii fed him the composition, targets, and movements of the Japanese forces. The enemy planned to land troops at Port Moresby on 10 May. Their Carrier Strike Force would probably operate close to the invasion site.

Early on the morning of 5 May, the American task forces rendezvoused about 400 miles south of Guadalcanal. Admiral Fletcher consolidated his forces into a single Task Force 17. Task Force 44 now became Task Group 17.3 and remained so for the rest of the battle. In preparation, the task force spent much of May 6 refueling from the Neosho. The tanker then sailed to a rally point to the south, hopefully out of range of the Japanese carrier planes. With full fuel tanks, TF 17 headed toward the Jomard Passage between the western tip of New Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago, through which Abe’s invasion force must proceed.

During 6 May, the opposing forces played a game of “blind-man’s-bluff.” Both carrier forces kept reconnaissance planes aloft, searching the seas where they believed their enemy to be. Neither commander was limited to his shipboard resources. American B-17s staging through Port Moresby sighted and attacked Abe’s convoys several times during the day. No hits were scored, but the Army reported the location of the enemy units to Fletcher. Takagi could count on Kawanishi flying boats from both Tulagi and the Shortland Islands near Bougainville, ground-based bombers from Rabaul, and the cruiser floatplanes of the other Japanese groupings.

Admiral Fletcher ordered Australian RADM John Gregory Crace’s cruiser Task Force 17.3 to break off from the carrier force and race ahead to block the Jomard Passage at the earliest possible moment. Heavy cruiser U.S.S. Chicago joined that force, along with three modern destroyers.

While Admiral Crace’s ships raced westward, both carrier commanders were reacting to faulty scouting reports. Just after 0700, one of Shōkaku’s reconnaissance planes reported a carrier, a cruiser, and three destroyers. A few minutes later, a second Shōkaku aircraft confirmed the sighting. Excitement permeated the Japanese aviators. They were eager to get aloft and sink the American carriers. Admirals Takagi and Hara concurred. By 0815, thirty-six Aichi dive-bombers and twenty-four torpedo planes with an escort of eighteen Zeros were on the way to the reported sighting.
But what the scout planes had actually found was the oiler Neosho and destroyer Sims.

Meanwhile, at 0815, a Dauntless dive-bomber from Yorktown discovered heavy cruisers screening the Port Moresby invasion force. The pilot mistakenly reported the sighting as two carriers and four heavy cruisers. Believing that his scout had found the Japanese carrier force, Admiral Fletcher ordered every available plane into the air. Ninety-three aircraft sped off the decks of Yorktown and Lexington: 18 Wildcat fighters, twenty-two Devastator torpedo planes, and 53 SBD Dauntless dive-bombers. Both the Japanese and American air fleets were pursuing the wrong targets.

While the American carriers were launching aircraft, a cruiser floatplane from Fururaka found the actual American carrier force. A few minutes later, another floatplane confirmed the report. The Japanese admirals faced a quandary. Were the Americans operating in two carrier groups? Confused, they decided to go ahead with the attack in progress but turned to close the distance to the second sighting.

The Japanese air armada found Neosho and Sims at about 0930. Soon realizing that these were the only ships in the area, the pilots radioed back for instructions. Their admirals realized at once that the American carriers must be between them and the invasion convoy. They ordered their planes to sink the oiler and destroyer and return to their ships as quickly as possible. Without air cover, the two American ships stood no chance. The torpedo bombers and fighters headed home at once. The dive-bombers attacked the American ships. Hit by three bombs, Sims broke in half and went down. Seven bombs hit Neosho. The Japanese left her drifting and sinking.

Just after 1000, American Army B-17s reported an aircraft carrier, ten transports, and sixteen warships a little south of the earlier Dauntless sighting. Now convinced that he had found the main enemy carrier force, Admiral Fletcher diverted his air fleet to the new targets.

At 1040, the American strike group found the Shōhō. Lexington’s dive-bombers began the attack.  The SBDs of Bombing Squadron Two peeled off and screamed down at the enemy aircraft carrier. In the midst of their dive, fighters from the Japanese Combat Air Patrol (CAP) jumped the dive-bombers. One staggered in the air and then went spiraling down in flames. Below, the carrier was zigging and zagging in violent maneuvers. Amazingly, not a single bomb hit the target. LCDR Robert E. Dixon’s SBDs of Scouting Squadron Two then had their turn. Two 1000-pound bombs struck the carrier. Flames began to pour out of the sides of her hangar deck.

[Explanation of Dive-Bombing]

Yorktown’s planes went after the stricken ship. Five torpedoes plowed into the crippled ship. The carrier went dead in the water just as the SBDs of Yorktown’s air group began their first dives. The Yorktown pilots hit the almost stationary carrier with another ten or twelve bombs and two more torpedoes.

Just after 1130, the ravaged carrier slid beneath the waves, becoming the first carrier sinking of the Pacific War. Not knowing that their prey was the light carrier, Shōhō, the Americans thought that they had sunk a first-line fleet carrier. LCDR Dixon got the honor of reporting the results of the battle to Admiral Fletcher.

“Scratch one flattop,” Dixon radioed, coining the term by which carriers would be known for the rest of the war.

Just before 1300, a Japanese floatplane sighted RADM Crace’s cruiser force steaming westward. The pilot reported that the force contained a battleship and two carriers. Still waiting for his strike force to return from sinking Neosho, VADM Takagi diverted two groups of land-based bombers from Rabaul toward Crace’s position. One flight contained twelve G4M Betty twin-engine torpedo bombers. The second was nineteen Mitsubishi G3M Nell horizontal bombers.  Admiral Inoue also ordered Admiral Abe to turn his invasion convoy around and remain in the Solomons Sea until the forthcoming carrier battle was decided.

At around 1430, U.S.S. Chicago’s air search radar picked up two large formations of aircraft approaching from the north. Admiral Crace ordered his ships into a diamond formation to give each vessel maneuvering room to dodge torpedoes and bombs. All the Allied ships were at General Quarters with every gun manned and ready.

A storm of anti-aircraft fire shot out toward the attackers, some of whom were actually lower than the gun positions. Every five-inch, four-inch, and smaller caliber gun within range poured out fire at its maximum rate. Shells burst all around the sea- skimming aircraft. First one, then another took hits and plowed into the sea. Yet the remaining enemy pilots pressed home their attacks, dropping their fish at what would have been maximum range for American torpedoes.

Both Australia and Chicago turned into the attacks, going bow first in the direction of the incoming torpedoes. With consummate skill, both captains “combed” the oncoming wakes, allowing the weapons to pass harmlessly on either side of the cruisers. The flanking destroyers likewise maneuvered to avoid the deadly fish.

The Bettys came on at low altitude, machine-gunning the targets as they passed over. The light anti-aircraft guns on the ships scored numerous hits, sending two more of the enemy planes into the drink.

Chicago’s radar reported another formation approaching from astern at 18,000 feet. Lookouts throughout the Allied force scanned the sky, but they were staring directly into the sun. The Japanese air commander was obviously a wily veteran. Allied captains had learned early in the war to watch for bomb release from attacking aircraft.

The captains of Australia and Chicago began to corkscrew their ships about the sea. Every pair of binoculars in the task group locked onto the falling bombs. The volley aimed at the American cruiser missed by a narrow margin. But Australia disappeared in a typhoon of towering bomb splashes. Miraculously, the Australian cruiser emerged from the huge waterspouts without any visible sign of damage.

Five-inch and four-inch shells began to burst among the Japanese formations. First one, then another of the bombers burst into flames and spiraled downward. A few minutes later, two more of the Nells were hit. The entire gaggle of aircraft turned and sped off to the north.

The Japanese aircraft commander reported to Rabaul that he had sunk a California-Class battleship and damaged another battleship and a cruiser. In fact, the only casualties on the Allied fleet were from shrapnel.

Admiral Crace ordered the Task Group to turn south and increase the range from Rabaul. Since the enemy obviously knew where he was, Crace was not constrained by the need for radio silence. He reported to Admiral Fletcher that he could not complete his mission without air cover. Still hoping to hide his carriers, Fletcher did not respond.

Shortly after Admiral Crace turned away from Rabaul, Admiral Takagi received a report from another floatplane from Kamikawa Maru that Task Group 17.3 was steaming southeast. Both Japanese admirals assumed that the reported force was Fletcher’s aircraft carriers. A few calculations established that the American ships would be within aircraft range later in the day.

Excitement energized the Japanese air staffs. A late afternoon strike against the Americans seemed possible. Admiral Hara ordered that eight torpedo bombers fly scout missions in the direction he believed the American ships to be.

After his air group returned from crippling Neosho, Hara selected the most experienced crews to hit the Americans. Commanded by Pearl Harbor hero LCDR Kakuichi Takahashi, twelve dive-bombers and fifteen torpedo planes were soon headed to the west on a course of 277°. Scout planes ranged ahead searching for the American fleet. The Japanese formation flew above solid cloud cover as they searched for the American ships. At one point, they flew within forty miles of TF17. Meanwhile, the big radars on the American carriers picked up and tracked the Japanese force. Every available fighter was scrambled to protect the carriers. The Yorktown vectored four Wildcats to intercept the enemy attack planes. Flying below the overcast, the Wildcats would be invisible until the last moment.

Just before intercepting, the Wildcats popped up through the clouds right behind the enemy formation. Lacking their own fighter support, the Japanese pilots were at a great disadvantage. They immediately dumped their ordnance to gain maneuverability. When the ensuing melee was finished, over half the Japanese torpedo planes had gone down, along with one of the dive-bombers. The remaining planes were scattered. One of the Wildcats had succumbed to defensive fire from the bombers.

A little after sunset, several enemy dive-bombers flew over the American carriers. Apparently believing them to be their own ships, the Japanese pilots began circling as if to land. Antiaircraft gunners on the American destroyers opened up and drove the dive-bombers away.

Ignoring the threat of submarines, gutsy Admiral Takagi ordered his ships to turn on their searchlights to guide his surviving planes back to his carriers. Nevertheless, another eleven aircraft ran out of fuel and had to ditch. Twenty-one of the twenty-seven aircraft sent out never made it back to their ships.

After being informed of the results of battle on May 7th, Admiral Inoue postponed the invasion of Port Moresby by two days.

Dawn on May 8th found both American and Japanese commanders eager to pinpoint the location of their enemies. Takagi got search planes aloft first, launching seven torpedo bombers at 0615. Exercising tactical command, RADM Fitch sent out eighteen SBDs twenty minutes later to conduct a full 360-degree search.

The weather situation had changed radically overnight. The warm frontal zone that had shielded Fletcher’s forces the day before was now over the Japanese ships. Lexington and Yorktown cruised beneath clear skies with seventeen nautical miles visibility.

A Lexington SBD sighted the Japanese carriers through a hole in the clouds at 0820. Just two minutes later, one of Shōkaku’s torpedo planes sighted TF17.

The two fleets launched their strike forces almost simultaneously. At 0915, the Japanese sent out a combined force of 33 dive-bombers, 18 torpedo planes, and 18 Zero fighters. The American carriers launched individual strike forces. By 0915, Yorktown put up six fighters, 24 dive-bombers, and 9 torpedo planes.  Lexington sent nine fighters, 15 dive-bombers, and 12 torpedo planes out by 0925.

Yorktown’s strike group found the Japanese at 1032. With Zuikaku hidden beneath a rain squall, the dive-bombers concentrated on Shōkaku. Fiercely harried all the way through their dives by the 24 Zeros of the Combat Air Patrol (CAP), the SBDs planted two 1000-pound bombs near the bow of the ship, peeling back the flight deck and starting raging fires in the hangar below. Fortunately for the Japanese, none of the torpedo planes was able to hit the carrier.

Four of Lexington’s dive-bombers arrived at around 1125. Two attacked each carrier, scoring only one more bomb strike on Shōkaku, further damaging her flight deck. The other Lexington SBDs failed to find the enemy ships in the heavy cloud cover. Lexington’s torpedo bombers launched 11 fish, none of which hit their targets.

With Shōkaku now unable to launch or land aircraft, Takagi released her to return to the Japanese base at Truk. The air group now aloft would all have to land on Zuikaku when they returned.

Fletcher’s force had the powerful advantage of radar. The powerful set on Lexington picked up the incoming Japanese strike force. Air controllers vectored nine Wildcat fighters out to intercept the enemy planes. Expecting the Japanese torpedo planes to fly at low altitudes, six of the Wildcats flew too close to the sea to make contact.

Deprived of the aircraft lost the night before, the Japanese torpedo group commander had too few planes to mount a full attack on both American carriers. He decided to concentrate on Lexington, the larger target with a bigger turning radius. Fourteen aircraft went after the big ship, while only four went after Yorktown. Defending Wildcats and SBDs shot down four of the attackers. Antiaircraft fire destroyed four more. But the remaining bombers attacked Lexington in a pincer movement, coming in from both port and starboard bows. Despite radical maneuvering by the ship’s captain, two deadly 24-inch torpedoes plowed into the big carrier. The first fish ruptured the aviation gasoline tanks, allowing deadly fumes to escape and spread throughout the ship. The second torpedo cut the water main on the port side of the ship, requiring the shutdown of some boilers.

About four minutes after the torpedo attacks, 19 dive-bombers from Shōkaku nosed over and went after Lexington. Four CAP Wildcats tried to disrupt the attack, but escorting Zeros cleared the way. Only two 550-pound bombs hit the carrier, starting additional fires. However, damage control parties soon had all fires under control, and the ship regained a speed of 24 knots. Aircraft operations continued unabated.

Yorktown seemed to have a charmed life that morning. All four torpedoes launched at the ship missed. CAP Wildcats then disrupted the attack by fourteen Zuikaku dive-bombers, and only one bomb struck the ship. However, near misses buckled some fuel tanks, leaving an oil slick trailing behind the ship.

By noon, all Japanese aircraft had withdrawn. CAP fighters and SBDs shot down an additional Zero, 3 torpedo bombers, and a dive-bomber. The opposing strike groups ran into each other on their return flights. The senior Japanese air commanders were killed in these dogfights.

Back on Zuikaku, Admirals Takagi and Nara were jubilant. Incoming reports indicated that both American carriers had been sunk. But when their aircraft began to land, the severity of their losses became apparent. Of the 69 aircraft sent out, only 46 made it back to Zuikaku. Twelve of these were so badly damaged that they had to be pushed over the side. Only four torpedo planes, eight dive-bombers, and 24 Zeros remained operational.

The initial damage assessment on the American ships found both carriers damaged but able to continue air operations. This rosy conclusion changed radically at 1247, when a tremendous explosion racked Lexington. Fumes from the ruptured gasoline tanks had spread throughout the ship, and electric sparks had triggered an ignition. In the next hour, a series of violent explosions continued to ravage the ship. By 1600, the fires were uncontrollable. Abandon Ship was ordered at 1707. Admiral Fitch and Captain Frederick C. Sherman, the CO, were the last to leave the ship alive. Of the 2951-man crew, 216 went down with the vessel.

The opposing commanders now took stock of the situation. Both found their ships alarmingly low on fuel. Takagi had the fleet oiler, Tōhō Maru, waiting in the Solomons. But Fletcher had lost Neosho. With no fuel supply available short of either Australia or New Caledonia, his operational options were severely limited. With only thirteen fighters left to defend his force, he decided to withdraw from the Coral Sea. Although he had won no decisive victory, he had heavily damaged one first-line carrier and so savaged the air group on another to the point that she would be out of the war for months. And he had achieved his strategic objective.

After consulting with Admiral Inoue. Takagi also decided to withdraw. In his view, he had won a great victory. With no carriers available to support his landing forces, Inoue felt compelled to call off the Port Moresby invasion and return his units to Rabaul. For the first time since the war began, a Japanese invasion force had been forced to abandon its mission.

Although he had won no decisive victory, Fletcher had heavily damaged one first-line carrier and so savaged the air group of another that she would be out of the war for months. And he had achieved his strategic objective. Port Moresby remained in Allied hands and would for the rest of the war. Japan’s plans to isolate Australia and force her out of the war were now in shambles.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Seabees - Can Do! Happy 75th Birthday to the Navy's Seabees.

March 5th is the 75th birthday of the U.S. Navy's Fighting Seabees. Born of the need for uniformed construction experts to build essential naval and air bases in the far-flung Pacific War, the new builder/warriors quickly made themselves indispensable to military commanders in all theaters of war. Seabees laid the floating causeways that made the invasion of Sicily possible. They built artificial ports and operated "Rhino Ferries" at the beaches of Normandy. They even ferried troops across the Rhine into Germany.

But it was in the Pacific where the Seabees made their biggest contributions. Beginning with Guadalcanal, every amphibious operation of that vicious war saw vital work by the Seabees: hundreds of airfields and ports, thousands of miles of roads, thousands of prefabricated "Quonset huts," hospitals, mess halls, and berthing facilities. Seabees built the runways from which B-29s pounded Japan and from which the Enola Gay brought ultimate destruction to the enemy.

Most people don’t realize it, but many of the characters in the famous musical, South Pacific, are Seabees. The author, James Michener, featured Seabees prominently in his breakthrough novel, Tales of the South Pacific. One of his nineteen tales deals exclusively with a Seabee battalion planning and constructing an airfield on a tropical island. It may well be the finest piece of fiction ever written about the Seabees in their long history.

Recruited from the civilian construction trades, many World War II Seabees were much older than their official records indicated. Marines were known to quip, "Never hit a Seabee. He may be some Marine's father." The Marines' ultimate compliment may have been the sign they posted on Iwo Jima:

"And when we reach the isles of Japan,
With our hats at a jaunty tilt,
We'll enter the City of Tokyo,
On roads that the Seabees built."

Seabees have enhanced their reputation in every conflict since their birth. Their floating causeways made the daring invasion at Inchon in Korea possible. Thousands of Seabees built bases, airfields, fire bases, roads, and hospitals all over Vietnam. The wars in the Middle East again demonstrated how vital these builder/fighters have become to American Military operations.

So Happy Birthday, Seabees! May your endeavors continue to inspire.

My third novel, Asphalt and Blood, tells the tale of Seabees in the 1968 Battle of Hue City. Although fictional, many of the characters are composites of real individuals and most of the seemingly-outrageous incidents in the novel did occur.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Why Must We Demonize Those Who Disagree With Us?

While I was writing my Vietnam Seabee novel, Asphalt and Blood, I read a number of memoirs by former soldiers in the conflict. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the U.S. Army purposefully trained its troops to consider the Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers as lesser forms of humans. I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised. The depiction of the Japanese enemy during World War II had been even more racist. In fact, the depiction of Germans in World War I as rapacious “Huns” was part of the same process.

The psychological purpose of such demonization is to make it easier for the trainee to kill the enemy in combat. If one is taught to hate the other side, killing becomes a reasonable reaction. Many of the electronic warfare games of today originated in military training programs designed to condition the user to “zapping” another human being.

While the military usefulness of such approaches may be understandable in times of war, why have we seemingly extended “demonization” to include just about anyone with whom we disagree? The practice has been particularly virulent during the recent U.S. election cycle. The practice was not exclusive to either party but extended across the spectrum of politics. As an amateur historian, I am well aware that American elections have been plagued with demonization since the beginning of the republic, but the advent of social media has allowed intensification beyond imagination a few decades ago. I have voted in the last 15 presidential elections, and I have never seen it so bad.

Demonization leads to hate. I have written before about how hatred does nothing but poison society. I have also written about “thought police” and their hateful results. Driving wedges between various segments of society will never result in a peaceful civilization. Breeding hatred is a sure path to the disintegration of any culture.

We as a society need to start listening to one another. We need to listen not to frame a counter-argument but to actually understand what the other is thinking. When negotiating engineering and construction contracts, I learned early on to first search for the items upon which both parties agree. To bind our nation together, we need to start looking for those points upon which we agree, both in our legislative bodies and in society as a whole.

Branding those who do not share our beliefs as inferior human beings is the product of intolerance and unwarranted arrogance. Looking down your nose at other segments of society does not prove the correctness of your vision. It just assures that you will be shortsighted.

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: wbellauthor.com or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.