On Top of McKinley

Flying in Alaska was always amazing.  The scenery was spectacular, but also challenging.

View of Homer Spit, down the coast of Alaska

View of Homer Spit, down the coast of Alaska

Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage was located off the end of the Turnagin Arm, one of the two branches of the Cook Inlet.  The other branch, the Knik Arm, went down to the Kenai Peninsula.  South from Anchorage the Cook Inlet went to  the  Kachemak Bay and Homer Alaska.  On the other side of the base was the Chugach mountains, which also provided challenges.   It was common for aircrews to wear exposure suits when flying over the water,  and in the winter, heavy flight suits and boots were added.  We looked a lot like the Pillsbury Dough Boy as we waddled out to the flight line and climbed slowly up the ladder to the cockpit.   With all this on, it was a very snug fit in a cockpit that was more like wearing a fighter rather than sitting in one.

Flying into the remote bases was challenging as well.  Galena Air Station was surrounded by the Yukon River, which routinely flooded in the spring, causing the base to be evacuated.   Eielson Air Force Base was deep in the interior near Fairbanks experiencing wide temperature swings from the -40s in the winter to 80 or 90 in the summer.  And King Salmon Air Station was down on the Aleutian chain which was dotted with active volcanoes.

Anchorage from the air showing the Chugach Mountains and Turnagin Arm.

Anchorage from the air showing the Chugach Mountains and Turnagin Arm.

In January 1976,  the Mount Augustine volcano, located 180 miles south of Anchorage,  erupted spewing clouds of dust and gas into the atmosphere.   These clouds rose as high as 70,000 feet.  It was a weekend and on Sunday morning  the sky was a peculiar red-brown color, shortly afterwards, red-brown ash began falling covering the snow.  Two of the 43rd TFS F-4s  flew through a cloud of volcanic ash  which sandblasted the paint off the leading edges of the wings, tanks, and tail; making it also impossible to see out of the front windscreen.  One pilot reported  that they went from a normal cloud into a very nasty cloud.  The fighters were able to recover at Galena, and returned to Elmendorf the next day.

These crews were lucky as other aircraft operating in the Alaskan air space had crashed in the past and in some cases had never been found.     One of the most famous cases was the disappearance of Congressman Hale Boggs, who vanished in 1972 when the plane he was in simply vanished over the Alaskan wilderness and was never located.  And in 1973, an F4 from Elmendorf  vanished during an air combat training mission and again was never found.    Given the challenging terrain and demanding flying schedule, it was amazing that not more of these events occurred.   In 1974, the 43rd flew 4,315 sorties totaling 8,121 flying hours, and while no military accidents  happened,  in  December a pilot assigned to the 43 was killed in a private aircraft crash during a takeoff from a frozen lake at Elmendorf.

Yet,  there was no denying that the flying in Alaska was amazing.   Much of our operations were conducted in the interior near Denali National Park.  One summer we were flying a four-ship formation near Mt. McKinley, when we flew over the summit there was a climbing party on the peak. They were very excited to see us and waved, probably thinking the Air Force had scrambled our flights to honor their arrival on the summit. It was a nice thought but we were running air intercept training to prepare for the Russians who tested our defenses off the Alaskan coasts.

F4s near Mt McKinley

F4s near Mt McKinley








Posted in 43 TFS, Air Force, Alaska, Alaskan Air Command, Alaskan glaciers, American History, Anchorage, Anchorage Alaska, F-4 Phantom II | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Lincoln on my Mind


April 14, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

As a military historian I have over the years come to respect Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War.  As an American historian I admire his astitute political skills.   When I lived in Washington, I often took visitors to  the great marble temple that honors Lincoln with the huge seated sculpture by Daniel Chester French, a leading American sculptor of the day.   For many it is a moving experience.   Lincoln Seated

Indeed the place that Lincoln holds in the hearts of Americans is simply stated on the wall behind him:


But that is not that Lincoln that touches me,  that Lincoln is–and was–found elsewhere.

I first encountered that Lincoln in a one-room school in 1952. On the wall was a framed black and white photograph. In it, Lincoln sat in a chair and looked calmly out at the room. In second grade, I knew very little about him other than he had been a president of the United States and that we got his birthday off. What he did or why he did it would later be revealed to me.

I encountered him again in 1962. Then, as a high school student, I found him on a great battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This was a place where more than 50,000 men lay dead, dying, or wounded. In this place, Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, recast the war not just as a crusade to save the Union, but instead as “a new birth of freedom.” The war for him had become a Second American Revolution to fill the promises of equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

In 1970 I next found him in a tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. There Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were finally put to rest.   When he was first buried there was an attempt to steal the body and in 1902 it was buried under several feet of concrete.  There was something about the tomb. It was not the great marble Washington temple, but the burial-place of an ordinary man. It was where people had come for 105 years to pay their respects. It was where a crowd that had been noisy upon entering, suddenly fell silent as if people had come to mourn a family member.

Later about 1985, I found him again at Ford’s Theater in Washington. On April 14, 1865, nearly 150 years ago, five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the actor John Wilkes Booth, hoping to avenge the South, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He escaped, later to be killed himself while fleeing federal troops. After being dark for more than 100 years, the theater was renovated and reopened for public performances. When we lived in Washington, we attended several plays there. Some times they were musical, some times they were serious. But it didn’t matter as no matter what was on the stage, my eyes were inevitably drawn to the flag-draped box above the stage.   It was a truly eerie experience to be in that theater where one of the great tragedies of American history had occurred.  It was and is hard to explain. It was as if Lincoln were there.

Then he was gone, back to the hallowed battlefield, to the marble temple in Washington, to the tomb in Springfield, and in the end back to the photo on that wall in a one room school so long ago.

Dusk at the Lincoln Memorial

Dusk at the Lincoln Memorial

Posted in American History, Civil War, Gettysburg, Lincoln, Washington DC | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Old Detroit


John Norvell (1789-1850) Editor, politician, co-founder of Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Senator

John Norvell (1789-1850) Editor, politician, co-founder of Philadelphia Inquirer, U.S. Senator

Detroit in 1833 was only a small village of about 1,800 residents; indeed, the census of 1830 showed only 30,000 in the entire territory of Michigan, but John Norvell quickly became involved in the political life of the area and territory. Norvell was already very astute when it came to political issues.

Norvell was described as a handsome, virile man in his middle thirties who was said to be married to “the prettiest woman who ever set foot in the Michigan Territory.” The Norvells quickly became friends with the Stevens Thompson Mason family. Mason’s sister wrote in her autobiography: “Mrs. Norvell … [was a] great addition to our circle. Mrs. Norvell was my best friend and confidant in my mother’s absences. She was as good as she was beautiful, and her husband was a senator of whom the country might well be proud.”

In a letter dated October 13, 1833, Mason wrote somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Mr. Norvell is improving rapidly in his Christianity he has purchased a pew and goes to Church once every Sunday.” Norvell took this kidding quite good-naturedly and the regard that he felt for Mason evidenced itself fully in the names of his sons: Stevens Thompson Norvell and John Mason Norvell. The special relationship between the two men evolved into a deep friendship throughout this early period. They would go almost every night to a certain Uncle Ben’s taproom to talk with other friends about law, politics, and community life. This group became a sounding board discussing many points of frontier law.

Norvell actively involved himself frequently in the political life of the community. The May 15, 1833 Detroit Free Press noted that he had attended the annual examination of West Point along with Governor Yates, General Root, and Washington Irving. In June 1833, he became an officer of the Farmers and Mechanic’s Bank and also served as a trustee of the “English Classical School,” taught by George Wilson. Moreover by 1834 he had begun to dabble in real estate, purchasing several building lots around the city. He had clearly begun to build his political alliances.

Now in Detroit, on April 11, 1833, John Norvell assumed the duties of postmaster. On his arrival, Judge James Abbott, the outgoing postmaster, supposedly remarked: “I have heard of you, and I wish you were on the Grampian Hills, feeding your father’s flock.” To which Norvell replied: “I have read in the school books of Scott’s lessons of the Grampian Hills.” The old Postmaster replied: “you can take the office any day at your pleasure.”

Isabella Freeman Norvell portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to  the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

Isabella Freeman Norvell portrait attributed first to artist Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a leading portrait artist of the time. Later,to the artist Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842).

After becoming Postmaster, Norvell moved the office to a small brick building that had belonged to Mr. Hunt.  There the operations came frequently under the supervision of Isabella and son Joe Norvell. When Sheldon McKnight succeeded Norvell as postmaster the post office moved again. But for those few years, “when the . . . post office was moved into its new quarters, Mrs. Norvell and Joe were the captains. It is needless to say that the public were admirably served by this charming lady and the son Joe.”

Joseph Norvell would later join the U.S. Army and die of a young age of diptheria in 1850.

Posted in American History, American Newpapers, Detroit, Detroit Free Press, Detroit History, Michigan History, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Mason Norvell’s Civil War Memoir 8

Lt John Mason Norvell

Lt John Mason Norvell

John Mason Norvell, the son of Michigan U.S. Senator John Norvell (1789-1850) and his third wife, Isabella H. Norvell (1804-1873), was a career soldier. He prepared this memoir in 1866

His story continues to the climax of the war at Appomattox.

May 10-12, 1864

Spotsylvania Court House, the Second Corps, General W.S. Hancock, commanding, took the whole of Johnston’s Division (Confederate Army) prisoners. Two General Officers (Johnston and Stewart), about 5,000 Officers and E.M., and 8 (eight) guns, pieces of artillery. It was a hard fight, after we had broken through the enemy’s lines and taken these prisoners and guns, “Gen R. E. Lee arrived on the ground with the the corps of Longstreet and part of A.P. Hill’s corps of the Confederate army, made some six (6) different assaults to try to recapture the great part of the line “salient.” We had broken through in the morning but were repulsed each time. Our loss about four hundred (400) officers and E.M. killed and wounded.

May 24, 1864

Took part in the fight at North Anna, Va. Carroll’s Brigade [Gen Samuel S. Carroll] , supported by the other two Brigades “Massed” in columns of Regiments and made the assault, but was repulsed. The attack was made at 6 p.m., losses about three hundred officers and E.M. killed and wounded.

[After disengaging from Spotsylvania Court House, Grant moved to the southeast, hoping to lure Lee into battle on open ground. The Amy of the Potomac pursued the Army of Northern Virginia to the banks of the North Anna River. After two days of skirmishing, this inconclusive battle ended when Grant ordered another wide movement in the direction of the crossroads at Cold Harbor.]

June 2-4, 1864

Very hard fight at Cold Harbor, Va. Our loss very heavy in officers in the attack made on the 4th of June 1864. Col James P. McMahan, commanding 3rd Brigade killed and every other field officer killed or wounded. The Brigade was the one formerly commanded by General Corcoran (Irish) and it only joined the Division after the Spotsylvania fight.

July 30, 1864

We were at “Burnside’s Mine Explosion.” 

Burnside's Mine Explosion Library of Congress

Burnside’s Mine Explosion
Library of Congress

[The Battle of the Crater, part of the Siege of Petersburg, July 30, 1864. After weeks of preparation, on July 30 the Federal forces exploded a mine in Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps sector, blowing a gap in the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Virginia. Everything deteriorated rapidly for the Union attackers, who rushed into the crater, where Confederates counter-attacked leading to a Union debacle and surrender.]

August 29, 1864

I was very seriously wounded in the morning (about 4 a.m.) by being knocked out of my saddle by the explosion of a shell near me and being dragged by one foot being fastened in the stirrup of the saddle for one hundred yards when the horse fell dead. I was picked up and sent to hospital where I remained for 20 days – the first four being senseless (out of my mind) is a perfect blank to me.

Winter of 1864- 1865 – In several small affairs.

April 2-4 1865

Were engaged in front of Petersburg Va., (loss small); were heavily engaged on the night of the evacuation of Gen Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army, also more or less engaged every day while following General Lee and his army after he evacuated Petersburg, Va. until he surrendered his army on the 9th day of April at Appomattox C.H. [Court House].

A few days after Gen Lee surrendered, the Division marched back to Richmond and went into camp to unwind a few days at Mechanicsville, opposite Richmond across the James River, after which marched back to Washington, where we were mustered out.


Posted in American History, Battlefields, C.S.A., Civil War, Civil War Battles, Combat, Michigan History, Military history, Norvell Family History, Veterans | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Mason Norvell’s Civil War Memoir 7

Lt John Mason Norvell

Lt John Mason Norvell

John Mason Norvell, the son of Michigan U.S. Senator John Norvell (1789-1850) and his third wife, Isabella H. Norvell (1804-1873), was a career soldier. He prepared this memoir in 1866

His story continues:

August 2, 1863

Assigned to duty, Third Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, Maj Gen W. H. French commanding. Took part in fight at Nelly’s Ford and Brandy Station, Va., (loss small) In this movement, Gen French in command of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac.

Went into camp near Brandy Station, made headquarters on the Plantation belonging to John Minor Botts.

[John Minor Botts (1802-1869), Whig Congressman, and lawyer from Virginia, tried to prevent secession, and later refused to fight, declaring himself a neutral in the war.]

[November 1863]

Took part in the action at Mine Run, Va.

[The Battle of Mine Run was conducted in Orange County, Virginia from November 27 – December 2, 1863. An unsuccessful Union attempt to defeat the C.S.A., it ended hostilities in the East for the year.]

Third Division, General Carr commanding was heavily engaged. Loss 800 in officers and E.M. killed and wounded.

[ Joseph Bradford Carr, Commander, 3rd Division of III Corps, in the autumn campaigns of 1863].

Immediately after our return to the old camp from Mine Run, Va. I was very ill from an attack of sciatica brought on from exposure while across the Rapidan River. The whole seven days we were making this movement (Mine Run), I was very much exposed sleeping out in the rain every night – very sick indeed.

February 1864

The Third Army Corps was disbanded as a corps and the different divisions assigned to duty with other army corps of the Army of the Potomac. This was done immediately after General Grant made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.

March 29, 1864

Assigned to Second Division, Second Army Corps, General John Gibbon commanding.

[ John Gibbon (1827-1896) West Point Class of 1847, served in Mexico and Texas]

May 5-7, 1864

Took part in the Seven Days Fighting in the Wilderness, Va. Very hard fighting the day we crossed the Rapidan we had Six Thousand and Six Hundred (6,600) for Line of Battle in the Division. The day we left the Wilderness we had Twenty Eight Hundred (2,800 ) then in the Line of Battle.

[The Wilderness battle, fought May 5-6, 1864, was the bloodiest campaign in American history and the turning point in the war in the East. In this, the first encounter of Grant and Lee, both armies suffered heavy casualties. The battle was inconclusive, and Grant disengaged to continue his offensive.]

May 7-8, 1864

Took part in the Battle of Todd’s Tavern

[ Leaving the Wilderness, Grant issued orders on May 7 for a night march to Spotsylvania Court House. The Union, under Major General Phillip H. Sheridan had occupied Todd’s Tavern during the Battle of the Wilderness, but had withdrawn on the night of May 6th , allowing Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederates to reoccupy it. Grant’s plans to march the army to Spotsylvania required Sheridan to retake Todd’s Tavern from Fitzhugh Lee. This led to some of the most intense and important cavalry fighting of war. ]


To be continued:

Posted in American History, Battlefields, C.S.A., Civil War, Civil War Battles, Detroit History, Michigan History, Military history, Norvell Family History, Union Army, US Army | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

John Mason Norvell’s Civil War Memoir 6

Lt John Mason Norvell

Lt John Mason Norvell

John Mason Norvell, the son of Michigan U.S. Senator John Norvell (1789-1850) and his third wife, Isabella H. Norvell (1804-1873), was a career soldier. He prepared this memoir in 1866

His story continues with  the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, considered to be the turning point in the Civil War.

July 1, 1863

We arrived in front of Gettysburg “Cemetery Hill” at six (6) o’clock [and] met the remains of Gen Reynolds who had been killed that morning about five (5) miles from Gettysburg and went into position.” 

[General John F. Reynolds served in several major battles including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. On the morning of July 1, 1863, Reynolds was commanding the left wing of the Army of the Potomac. Early on July 1, Reynolds ordered his I Corps to Gettysburg to support  Gen. John  Buford’s cavalry, in case the Confederates should return. Reynolds rode to Gettysburg where he met Buford. Reynolds told Buford to hold on as long as he could, and rode back to hurry the infantry along. As he rode along the east edge of the woods a bullet struck him in the head and killed him.]

“General W.S. Hancock was in command of the part of the army that had remained upon the “field.”  General Meade having ordered him (Hancock) up thus to assume command upon his [Gen. Meade] hearing of the death of Genl. Reynolds.”

[Winfield Scott Hancock’s most famous service was at the Battle of Gettysburg. After Reynolds, was killed, Meade ordered Hancock to take command. Meade had high confidence in Hancock, who was not the most senior Union officer at Gettysburg, being junior to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. Hancock organized the Union defenses on Cemetery Hill as the Confederates drove the Union forces back through the town.]

“July 2, 1863

On the afternoon, I was ordered by General Hays to conduct one brigade (3rd), Colonel Willard commanding, and put it in action in support of Birney’s Division (3rd Amy Corps). The division was heavily engaged near the front of “Round Top” (the left of our army) and was being driven by the enemy.”

[Major General David B. Birney’s Division’s left was near Little Round Top, the right joined Humphrey’s on Cemetery Ridge. After 2 p.m. they wheeled to the left occupying high ground from Plum Run to Peach Orchard. Confederate artillery opened at 3 o’clock. Soon after, three brigades of Hood’s Division attacked Ward on Birney’s left. At 5:30 p.m. two brigades of McLaw’s Division attacked Birney’s right and center. There, then occurred the first break in Birney’s line. The Confederates renewed their attack on Birney’s center. About 6:30 p.m. Birney’s right at the Peach Orchard was attacked on both fronts and broken. Through this gap the Confederates swept forward crushing Birney’s right. ]

“Colonel Willard was killed before his brigade became engaged by having half his head “knocked off” by a “shell” while going into position.”

[Col. George Lamb Willard commanded the 125th New York, which had surrendered at Harpers Ferry, earning them the nickname “Harpers Ferry Cowards.” On July 2nd Willard led the brigade in a counterattack against Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, which had punched a half mile deep hole in the Union lines. Shouting “Remember Harpers Ferry!” the Willard’s brigade threwback the Mississippians, recaptured several Union cannon, and mortally wounded General Barksdale. Willard was also killed, struck in the head by an artillery shell as the brigade was pulling back to Union lines.]

“The brigade fought splendidly for “new troops” – loss of about five hundred (500) officers and E.M. [enlisted men] killed and wounded and units [were] engaged over five hours. It saved Birney’s Division from a “rout” in my opinion.”

[The comment about new troops may refer to the fact that these units had been reconstituted after the Harper’s Ferry campaign in 1862, when the 125th and 126th New York Regiments had surrendered.]

“July 3, 1863

Was heavily engaged – the whole division. [This engagement was part of Pickett’s Charge – he was still with Hay’s Division in the thick of it all.]

We captured over 1,000 prisoners and thirteen (13) out of the 30 standards of color captured by the whole army.”

[The regiment’s battle standard or flag was as a symbol of honor. Enemy forces took great pride in capturing or killing the color bearer and capturing the flag. Thus, Norvell’s statement about the capture of 13 of the 30 standards in the battle was considered a great point of pride.]

“Lt Woodruff commanding a battery light artillery was killed. He was one of the class of 1861 (West Point) was as efficient a soldier whoever lived.”


To be continued

Posted in American History, C.S.A., Genealogy, Gettysburg, Michigan History, Norvell Family History, Union Army, US Army | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

John Mason Norvell’s Civil War Memoir 5

Brig Gen Israel Richardson and John Mason Norvell

Brig Gen Israel Richardson and John Mason Norvell

John Mason Norvell, the son of Michigan U.S. Senator John Norvell (1789-1850) and his third wife, Isabella H. Norvell (1804-1873), was a career soldier. He prepared this memoir in 1866, his story continues  in the summer of 1862.


Sept 16-17, 1862

Took part in the Battle of Antietam. Mostly artillery dueling on the 16th. Very hard battle on the 17th. The loss of the Division at Antietam was about 1,100 killed and wounded – officers and E.M.

[ The Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest of the War. The carnage on both sides totaled about 23,000.]

Maj Gen Israel B. Richardson, Commanding Division 1st Divsions, 2nd A.C. (Army Corps) mortally wounded about 12:30 p.m. Was on my horse beside him, he being dismounted at the time receiving an order from him to deliver to General McClellan a message, when he was struck by a piece of shell, a piece of same shell struck my horse, which knocked me about 10 feet.

[Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson was 46 years old when he led his division at Antietam. His division attacked the infamous “ Sunken Road.” After stubborn fighting, they had gained control of the high ground in front of the road, later nicknamed “Bloody Lane. ” Richardson pushed forward beyond the road and was directing the fire of his artillery and organizing another attack when he was struck by a shell fragment. This is where Norvell was at the time, in the worst of the battle seated high on a horse. ]

Maj Gen. Israel B. Richardson --  USA Cannon Marker- Antietam Battle Field marks spot where he was wounded.

Maj Gen. Israel B. Richardson — USA Cannon Marker- Antietam Battle Field
marks spot where he was wounded.

Gen R died Sept 25 and was buried in Pontiac Michigan. He was a great loss to the Army. Was ordered by General McClellan to accompany Gen. Richardson’s remains to his home in Pontiac, Michigan– which I did. Returned to Washington October 10, 1862 en route to join Division.

[Norvell wrote his account about four years after these events and was wrong about the date of Richardson’s death, it was November 3, 1862, so most likely he returned to Washington in November 1862.]

And upon my arrival there, relieved from duty with the first division, Second Army Corps by direction of the Secretary of War at the request of General Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General U.S.A. Assigned to duty with the Commissary General of Prisoners, General Hoffman.

Remained on duty with the Commissary-General of Prisoners until December 28, 1862 when General William H. French, Commanding Third (3rd) Division, Second Army Corps, A of P [Army of Potomac] applied for and had me assigned to his division as “Chief of Staff’ and A.A. Gen. [Asst.. Adjutant General].

January 1863

Took part in Gen. Burnside’s “Mud March”

[The Mud March, Jan 20-23, 1863, was a disastrous attempt at a winter offensive against Lee by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside.]

– Gen B [Burnside] had relieved General McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac by order of the President after Gen McC had won the Antietam fight. General Joseph Hooker had in the meantime relieved General Burnside of Command of the Army of the Potomac by order of the President.

Accompanied General French to General Hooker’s headquarters for a council of war, the night before we re-capt. [recaptured] the Rappahannock River and went into our old camps

[This appears to refer to the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., April 30- May 6 ,1863, where Lee gained a stunning victory over the forces under the command of Joseph Hooker. ]

Posted in American History, Antietam, Battlefields, C.S.A., Civil War, Civil War Battles, Detroit History, Michigan History, Military history, Norvell Family History, Union Army, US Army | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment