Saturday, May 30, 2015

Fifty-Seven Years and Counting

Friday is my usual day for blogging, but I had more important matters to attend to this week. Fifty-seven years ago yesterday, I did the smartest thing I ever did. I married Annette Hudgens, the love of my life. We have traveled an exciting journey through the years, facing many challenges and blessings, but we always faced them together as a team.  We are truly life partners.

The early years were not easy financially. At first, we struggled to get by on a small research fellowship and a secretary’s salary while I completed my Masters degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Arkansas. But the tough times were smoothed by an abundance of love. As soon as I graduated, the Selective Service was breathing down my neck. To keep from being drafted as a private in the Army, I enrolled in Navy Officer Candidate School. Annette stayed with her parents during that four-month separation, again working to keep our finances afloat. She flew up to Rhode Island for my commissioning in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. She charmed the whole class with her Southern accent and grace.

We ended up spending twenty-nine years in the U.S. Navy. We both enjoyed those years immensely. Finances were again tight, as a Navy Ensign made a paltry salary in those days. Annette continued to work until our children were born. Our son, Stephen, was born in 1961. Our daughter, Karen, came along in 1963. We had many adventures. We moved from coast to coast several times, experiencing both California and Virginia Lifestyles. We were stationed at Kodiak, Alaska in 1964 during the Great Alaska earthquake. Annette capably shouldered our family responsibilities during my two Seabee tours in Vietnam totaling seventeen months. Raising two small children alone and keeping the family organized were daunting tasks, yet she never complained.

When the Navy sent me to the George Washington University to get a Masters of Business Administration degree, we again found expenses outstripping my Navy salary. Annette went to work at the Center for Naval Analysis. She found her groove there and moved through several positions while we remained in Washington.  I was stationed in the Pentagon after getting my MBA, and then did a tour at the Headquarters of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

I learned that doing well in Washington can be a mixed blessing. In helps with getting promoted, but once recognized as tolerating the bureaucracy well, it is hard to get stationed elsewhere. I spent 11 of my last 14 years in the Navy in Washington. During this time, we got our kids through college. Stephen became a Civil Engineer at the University of Virginia. Karen earned her accounting degree at Old Dominion University. Both are married, and we have four treasured grandchildren.

After completing my Navy career, I spent nine years as the City Engineer for Alexandria, Virginia. After our children had graduated and gained employment, Annette decided to go back to school and complete the accounting degree she abandoned to get married. She graduated with honors from George Mason University, then took and passed the Certified Public Accountant exam. She worked in accounting for the remainder of her career.

After I retired from Alexandria, we designed and built Annette’s dream house in Williamsburg, Virginia. By pure luck, we employed the best custom builder in the area. Our new home has been a joy for over ten years. Annette has become an expert and respected Master Gardener. She works in a number of their programs and works and leads tours of the gardens at Colonial Williamsburg. After spending several years making small boards out of large boards in my woodworking shop, I took up writing novels to keep my mind active. My three books are available on, and a fourth is in the works.

One of the activities Annette and I have enjoyed together over the years is performing choral music. We met and fell in love in our college choir. We have performed together in Methodist or military chapel choirs for our entire marriage. Music is part of the glue that inseparably binds us together. We’ll keep singing for as long as we have the capability.

Like many parents, we consider our children to be our greatest accomplishments. After a distinguished career in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, Stephen is working for an engineering firm in Texas. Karen became a computer expert and had a successful career in the consulting industry. She became an author’s publicist and media expert to help her father. She enjoyed it so much that she now has a number of other clients.

We’re often asked what is the secret to a long and happy marriage.  First, I advise to keep love alive. My cardinal rule is to NEVER do anything on purpose to hurt Annette. Try to always be supportive and to remember, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Note: Warren Bell is an award-winning author of historical and military fiction.  His first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II, while his third novel, Asphalt and Blood, is set during the Vietnam War.

Friday, May 22, 2015

In Memorium

On Monday, Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. To many, Memorial Day represents the real beginning of summer. To others, the Indianapolis 500 auto race will claim most importance. The three-day holiday overall will be a festive time, with parties, parades, and cookouts. But for those of us who remember the original purpose of the holiday, Memorial Day will be a time to honor the members of the armed forces who sacrificed their lives in battle for the United States.

Memorial Day, which was originally called Decoration Day, was established in 1868 to honor the Union dead in the recently completed Civil War. Graves of the dead soldiers were decorated with flags and flowers. May 30 was chosen as the time for this event. After a few years, the celebration was broadened to include the dead of both sides in that fratricidal war. The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries brought further expansion with the heavy casualties of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the wars in the Middle East.

In 1968, Congress established Memorial Day as a three-day Federal Holiday and set the date as the last Monday in May.

The first U.S. Navy Seabees to be honored on Memorial Day were the 272 enlisted men and 18 officers killed in WW2. The 500 Seabees killed in accidents during that war added to this total. The number of Seabees who died in the Korean War is hard to find. Amphibious Seabees served with their pontoon causeways at the invasion of Inchon and the evacuation of Wonson, the Korean War Dunkirk. No whole Seabee battalions were employed in Korea. Only detachments of Seabees operated there. But during the same time frame, a number of battalions carved an enormous airbase from the Philippines jungle at Cubi Point. This project has been called, “The largest military construction job since the Panama Canal.”

Seabees served all over the country in the Vietnam War. We built port facilities, airfields, aircraft support facilities, highways, logistics bases, firebases, hospitals, utility plants, and pipelines. Without our work, the combat forces would have had trouble operating in that undeveloped country.  My recent novel, ASPHALT AND BLOOD, is dedicated to the 168 Seabees and 1 attached Marine who gave their all in the Vietnam War.

Seabees have been an essential element in the wars fought around the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan. As in previous wars, Seabees have died there also. The latest figures I found on the Internet are 19 Seabees killed in the Gulf wars and at least 34 in Afghanistan. The war with ISIS may yet claim others.

Before firing up the grill and icing the beer for next Monday’s festivities, we should all pause for a while and reflect on the sacrifices made by our war dead. Most of them were young men who should have had many years left ahead of them. They put aside their hopes and dreams for the future to go and serve where their country needed them. The Bible says that, “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Can less be said for those who laid down their lives for their fellow citizens?

Friday, May 15, 2015

That Isn’t The Way It Was

I have been an admirer of Ken Follett’s novels for years. I believe that he is one of the very best novelists of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries. Beginning with his first big hit, The Eye of the Needle, I have awaited each of his books with anticipation and enjoyed them all. His recent project has been a three-volume saga covering the Twentieth Century through the eyes of several families in a variety of countries. Follett has shown a firm grasp of history in all of his works. I began reading his third Twentieth Century volume, Edge of Eternity, expecting the reading pleasure I had experienced in all of his earlier works, and I was not disappointed until about two-thirds through the book when I came to the section on the Vietnam War.

I know something about the Vietnam War. I served “in country” as operations officer of a Seabee battalion for a total of seventeen months. I was there during the 1968 Tet Offensive and its aftermath. I worked closely with the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, the famous “Screaming Eagles” for a good part of my last tour. What I write about them is based on my personal experiences and observations. Most of the characters in my Vietnam Seabee book, Asphalt and Blood, are based on real people.

As I read the section on Vietnam in Edge of Eternity, I felt like salt was being rubbed into raw wounds on my body. Those of us who served in that war were not welcomed home as honorable men who had done their duty to their country. We were vilified as “baby killers” and war criminals at New Left rallies, in some of the press, and in a number of Hollywood Movies. It took us decades to convince most of our nation that any problems with Vietnam were, in the words of current Secretary of State John Kerry, “with the war, not the warriors.” Ken Follett’s Vietnam War sequence undermines all our hard work.

Follett’s story portrays the “experiences” of a British journalist who was drafted into the Army. The story has his platoon of the 101st Airborne Division occupying a mostly deserted South Vietnamese village. Upon entering the town, one of the soldiers beats an unarmed Buddhist monk to death to stop him from playing a religious drum. When a Vietnamese man, his wife, and young daughter are found hiding, the soldiers first beat the man and woman to try to get them to tell where Vietcong are hiding. When they plead ignorance, he orders his soldiers to gang rape the daughter in front of her parents. They end up killing all three. The writing creates the distinct impression that such actions were common conduct by U.S. troops throughout the war and that “everybody did it.” Follett is a masterful writer, and at the end of this sequence, I would have been enraged if it were not for my personal experiences. The sequence is great fiction. It is horrible Vietnam War history.

I am not saying that incidences such as Follett portrayed did not happen during the war.  No one can deny the crimes of My Lai. I am challenging the assertion such actions were common among U.S. troops, especially the “Screaming Eagles.” The officers and men with whom I worked for months in the Hue/Phu Bai area were professional and principled warriors, not war criminals.  Even if Follett actually interviewed soldiers who had committed such actions before writing his book, it is wrong to attribute them to the whole U.S. Expeditionary Force.

An underlying assumption in Follett’s book appears to be that war inevitably turns men into unprincipled beasts. This is an especially damaging doctrine at a time when the U.S. is reintegrating thousands of veterans of the Middle East wars back into society. Fortunately, these men are currently being welcomed home as the heroes they are. Those of us who returned from Vietnam were shunned, insulted, and even spat upon. Seldom did we see any appreciation for the sacrifices we had made for our country. We were further vilified by a string of anti-war movies from Hollywood that perpetuated the impression that we all became unprincipled barbarians.  But the truth is, that just isn’t the way it was!

Thousands of Vietnam Veterans were mentally crippled by their horrid experiences in the war. Few received any sympathy from the public at large. They came to believe that the general public thought they were just getting their just rewards. To deal with their mental horrors, many turned to drugs, became homeless, and died alone in their misery. As I said earlier, it has taken us years to get recognition that Vietnam Veterans were generally patriots who just did what our country asked of us. I’m disappointed that one of my favorite authors doesn’t seem to agree.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Are We Incrementally Giving Up Our Right to Free Speech?

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; (my italics) or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Court decisions have extended this prohibition to all levels of government.

One might think that, with these two bulwarks of human rights so clear on the matter, freedom of speech is an unassailable concept. Instead, freedom of speech is under attack throughout the world, especially on U.S. college campuses.

Nowhere in either the Declaration of Human Rights or the Constitution is there any mention of a freedom from being offended. Freedom from offense is a “right” of recent manufacture. It derives from the recovery movement of the last century. This movement promoted the idea that we are all victims of abuse of some kind. People were encouraged to view the world through the eyes of a victim. They preached that all humans are fragile and easily damaged by any speech they deemed hurtful. Censorship was postulated as a moral necessity.

In the February 22, 2015 issue of the Washington Post, writer Wendy Kaminer criticizes university administrations for adopting the recovery philosophy in their cultures. They sought to protect minority groups on campus from being exposed to speech they considered racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory. Kaminer wrote that, “Popular therapeutic culture defined verbal ‘assaults’ and other forms of discrimination by subjective, emotional responses of self-proclaimed victims.” She further points out that, “The tendency to take subjective allegations of victimization at face value—instrumental in contemporary censorship campaigns—also leads to a presumption of guilt and disregard to due process.” She concludes, “This is a dangerously misguided approach to justice…Instead of advancing equality, it’s teaching future generations of leaders the ‘virtues’ of autocracy.”

Unfortunately, the media world seems to be collaborating in this assault on free speech. When gunmen attacked a recent cartoon contest in Texas because the subject was images of the Prophet Mohammed, one of the frequently asked questions by reporters was, “Should such a contest have been allowed to take place?” Where was the outrage at the attempted massacre?

I wrote in a previous blog post about my belief that “political correctness” is a totalitarian concept beloved by absolute dictators like Stalin, Hitler, and the Kim Dynasty of North Korea. Criminalizing an individual’s thoughts, no matter how much we may disagree with them, is anathema to a free society. What happened to the “marketplace of ideas” that educators and politicians of both parties used to praise? Who gave progressives or conservatives the authority to decide what the rest of us may think and say? It is time they realized that millions of Americans believe that “political correctness” is being taken to the absurd.

In the April 29, 2014 issue of The Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker decried the death of straightforward speech in an article entitled, “When sensitivity triumphs over truth.”  Her unifying theme is that, “We are slowly becoming a nation that pays greater heed to sensitivity than truth, and that prefers the comfort of committee-crafted thoughts that neither offend nor enlighten.”

I, for one, refuse to see the world through the eyes of a victim. I admire straightforward communication. I hate racism, despise any form of government that oppresses individual initiative, and have been called a feminist because of my views on full equality for women. Based on my study of science, I believe that sexual orientation and gender identification are hard-wired into the brain, and governments should let the subject alone. But I’ll be damned if I’ll cede to any other human the right to tell me what to think or say. I’ll leave that to God.

The accompanying cartoon from the Miami Herald, which was reprinted in The Washington Post, inspired this blog post.

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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: or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Illegitimis non Carborundum

Loosely translated, the title Latin phrase means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It is one of the many mottos of the U.S. Navy’s legendary Seabees. “Can do!” is the most common Seabee motto because of their ability to always get the job done quickly. Another is, “We have done so much for so long with so little that now we can do anything with nothing.”

In the long history of the Navy, Seabees are of fairly new origin. In late December 1941, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, was gravely concerned about the loss of life among civilian construction workers on the Pacific islands that the Japanese had conquered. Realizing that a uniformed Naval Construction Force would be required for the island-hopping campaigns that lay ahead, Moreell proposed the formation of Naval Construction Battalions made up of skilled construction workers. The concept was approved early in 1942. Part of the approval was the authority to grant naval rank based on years of experience in the construction industry.  The initials C.B. spawned the nickname, “Seabees.”

Admiral Moreell approached the Construction Trades Council of the labor unions for help in recruiting construction experts. As a quid pro quo, the admiral promised that Seabees would never be used in the continental U.S. in competition with the civilian construction industry. Thousands of skilled construction men were soon flooding recruiting offices. Many were the men who had built the prodigious public works of the New Deal era.

After a short boot camp in Virginia, the new Seabees were sent to Davisville, Rhode Island, or Port Hueneme, California, and formed into battalions officered by members of the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. One of the Davisville Seabees designed the iconic fighting bee emblem for which the units became famous. Construction battalions were soon deploying to the far-flung battlefronts.

Seabees went ashore at Guadalcanal a couple of weeks after the Marines first landed. They finished the new airfield (Henderson Field) begun by Marine engineers and started building the piers, housing, roads and other facilities necessary to a modern fighting force. With the Japanese Navy bombing and shelling the airfield on a regular basis, Seabees camped in bunkers alongside the runway. As soon as the “all clear” was sounded, they rushed out with their equipment and pre-positioned materials and filled in the holes and installed new steel plank pavement. The Marines were full of praise for how the Seabees kept Henderson Field operating in those crucial months of 1942.

The teenaged Marines were also astounded by how old some Seabees looked. The official average age of the World War II Seabee was 37.  The actual average was much higher. Men in their sixties lied about their age in order to serve. The young Marines developed the saying, “Never hit a Seabee. He may be some Marine’s father!” The Seabees adopted the Marine slogan, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” into “Once a Seabee, always a Seabee.”  There are no such things as “former Marines” or “former Seabees.”

Over 325,000 Seabees served in World War II.  Besides constructing sprawling based and airfields throughout the Pacific, the Seabees also built and fought on six continents. The amphibious landings at Sicily and Normandy would have been impossible without the Seabees and their pontoon causeways and Rhino ferries. A Marine on Iwo Jima paid the Seabees perhaps the ultimate compliment when he posted the following poem on a roadside sign:

            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 played pivotal roles in all of America’s conflicts since WWII.  Seabee- placed pontoon causeways allowed the Marines to cross the seawall at Inchon in Korea, reversing the course of the war. Twenty-two active duty and reserve Seabee battalions built the critical ports, bases, roads, and airfields the U.S. forces used in Vietnam. Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the military operations in Afghanistan would not have been possible without widespread Seabee support.

Last month, I spent a weekend at a reunion of Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Forty. I was Operations Officer of this battalion in 1968 and 1969. My experiences there formed the basis of my Vietnam War novel, Asphalt and Blood. We old Seabees swapped sea stories and generally enjoyed each other’s company.  We also dedicated an NMCB 40 plaque at the Navy Memorial and visited the Vietnam Wall and Korean War Memorial. Although few of us retained the slender bodies of our youth, we still have Seabee fire in our bellies. All retain a fierce espirit de corps and pride in being a Seabee. I felt honored to be in the presence of these valiant Americans and their families.