News from Afar: With Gilligan and Spiro Agnew in China

In the fall of 1973, as a member of the 13th TFS,  I had the opportunity to ferry an F4 from Udorn RTAFB in Thailand to Tainan, Taiwan, China.   The Air Force used a system of central depots to perform upgrades that couldn’t be performed at our base. F4 Phantom II  We were at the time beginning the era of laser guided munitions and several of our F4s were being outfitted to drop laser guided bombs.

Flying there required a stop over at Korat RTAFB, in Central Thailand, where we spent the night and then picked up the birds to go to Tainan, which was located in southern Taiwan on the Strait of Taiwan.

View from the back seat of tanker

View from the back seat of tanker

From Korat we flew north, refueling several times and constantly monitoring any air activity from Mainland China, in case we were being tracked (of course we were) by Chinese radar.  I could tensely see the coast of China on the radar, but nothing happened and we landed safely.  From Tainan, we took a helicopter north to the capital Taipei where we had a boondoggle good deal – a Chinese national celebration  would keep us there  three days .  Then we would catch a C-130 back to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, pick up F4s there and return to Thailand.

My pilot was a real fighter pilot if there ever were one.  He didn’t come to Taipei to visit the museums, and  on the first day he went off in pursuit of  the “special pleasures” the orient had to offer.  I was more straight arrow; I had heard too many stories about VD that couldn’t be cured and other bad things that happened to GIs on the loose in a strange city.  Taipei , however, was a safe city to tour and I went off on my own with no problems.   I simply held up a card with a destination printed in English and Chinese to the taxi driver, we called it a Pointee Talkee, and off I went.  I think now that it was a very trusting thing to do, but the country was under martial law at the time.  I guess the red light districts where my pilot chose to go were not a problem either, and if he contracted something he never let on.

I was sitting in my hotel room  on October 10, 1973, the second day of our layover, watching Gilligan’s Island with ch6Chinese subtitles on a small black and white tv, when a news bulletin interrupted the program and there was Spiro Agnew.

The announcers explained the story in Chinese, but I had no clue what was up.  For all I knew he might have become President of the United States, although there were no pictures of Nixon, so that thought quickly faded.     Many, many questions swirled through my mind.

Was Agnew dead?   Would the Professor finally develop a way to Gilligan and the crew off the Island?  Where did the sexy Ginger get all those amazing dresses?  Why did Thurston Howell III sound like Mr. Magoo?  Why would they interrupt Gilligan’s Island to talk about Spiro Agnew?   Was nothing sacred to these people?

Several days later, back in Thailand I would finally get the news of Agnew’s resignation.

When you are overseas, you are “Out of the World,”   no way around it.  You are not in your own world and not part of the world you are in.  Yes “Out of the World,” clearly captures it, and I guess that’s how Gilligan felt as well.

Posted in American History, Vietnam War, Air Force, Fighter Aircraft, F-4 Phantom II, Combat, Thailand, U Dorn RTAFB, 13 TFS, Military history, SEA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


niagaraPanWhen I was a kid, I heard the story of my grandfather’s aunt Isabella Norvell Miller Keith, who in a bout of postpartum depression, of course they didn’t call it that then, supposedly had committed suicide at Niagara Falls. That was all my dad knew.   Later I would discover the full story of Isabella and her suicide.

(For her story see

Current figures place the number of suicides there at more than 2,700 since the 1850s.  I assume that doesn’t include those who went over the falls in a barrel, or similar contraption.

One year, about 1989, we actually saw a pickup truck on the way to the falls with a large ball container in the back, we later heard that the State Police had intercepted a potential attempt to go over the falls in the ball and taken it away.   It is now illegal to go over the falls in any manner for a stunt.

The torrents of the Niagara River above the falls.

The torrents of the Niagara River above the falls.

My grandparents and aunts and uncles lived in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo,  and  about a one-hour drive from the falls.  Consequently, every time we went there, we also went to Niagara.

The sheer raw power of the falls always amazed me.  The Niagara River (actually not really a river, but a straight between the two Great Lakes) lazily flows by Buffalo, then  as it approaches Niagara at Goat Island it begins to pick up speed.

If the winter had been snowy the amount of water racing toward the falls is truly awesome,  in a manner that boggles the mind.   The water races and churns below the Niagara2Goat Island bridge, a great place to view it as it approaches the falls.   Then plunges over the brink.

Current figures place the flow at 3,160 tons of water going over Niagara Falls every second.   (And that is a reduced flow as some of the water is siphoned off to feed the power plants nearby.)   Down it goes as the mist flys into the sky and obscures the sun.

In the course of my life, I have probably visited the falls 50 or more times.  Since we live in the Finger Lakes area of New York, it is a nice day trip and we go nearly every summer.

We have also gone in the winter, but the American side is hard to reach in deep snow.   We have not gone into Canada  that time of year, although I would suspect there wouldn’t be many tourists to compete with then.  Niagara 038 There is something exhilarating about the Falls.   Some say it’s because there are a great many positive Ions in the air generated when the water plunges over the brink.  These cause a type of euphoria.  I don’t know if this is true, but I will say that watching the water fall and breathing the most, misty air does make one feel good.

Several years ago, I read a great novel about the Falls, East Aurora, and Buffalo: “City of Light.”  It was a murder mystery set at the turn of the 20th century about the battle over the falls and attempts to divert all the water for the production of electricity.  As far-fetched as this seems to us now, there were many industrialists who would have been happy to have seen  this happen.

Aug2014 014

A movement rose up to block this and restore the falls, stripping away the ever-increasing industries that had sprung up along the river.  The result was the creation of the Niagara State Park on the American side of the falls, which restored the area to a more pristine setting.   Even today, a visit to the American side is more park like, whereas the Canadian side has many more tourist attractions along the river.


So we will soon be off to Niagara again, a place that continues to amaze and be part of our ongoing family story.

Posted in American History, Niagara Falls, NY History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Forgotten Gettysburg

There is a somewhat forlorn battlefield to the east of Gettysburg that few visit. It is located near a shopping area off the route 30 corridor. It is the East Cavalry battlefield.

The East Cavalry Field fighting was an attempt by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry to get into the Federal rear which was viewed as the soft underside of the Union lines. Lee ordered Stuart to protect the Confederate left flank and attempt to move around the Union right flank and into the enemy’s rear. There Stuart could launch devastating and demoralizing attacks against the Union, and capitalize on the confusion from the assault (Pickett’s Charge) that Lee planned for the Union center. Stuart’s plan had been to pin down Union forces and swing around them, but the Federal skirmish line pushed back tenaciously. Custer counterattacked yelling, “Come on, you Wolverines!” Waves of horsemen collided; 700 men fought at point-blank range. Custer’s horse was shot out from under him. Custer’s actions caused the Virginians to retreat, protecting the Union rear, and saving the day on that front of the Battle.

To find this area takes a bit of effort. It is not well marked and you seem to drive for a long time before you arrive there. The only clue that you are on the right track in the end is a National Parks battle sign at the edge of the property. You drive through a small entry East Battlefield point and on the right is a large battle monument. Unlike the main battlefield, there is little else there.  This is the memorial to the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. Mich

Unlike the main battlefield, it is a place of quiet contemplation.  There are no tour buses, large groups of tourists, or ongoing traffic.  It is one place at Gettysburg that is clearly a place where the people who are there have chosen to be there.  Perhaps they are devotees of General George A. Custer, or perhaps as we were they had relatives who fought there, as we did.

Two of my great uncles  were there.

Major Edwin Forrest Norvell had joined the Michigan 1st Cavalry, along with his brother Freeman, in July 1862, later moving to Custer’s staff as one of his aides de camp.  Lt Dallas Norvell, who had entered the service as a sergeant, was also a member of the 5th Michigan .They had been with the Michigan Cavalry Brigade almost from the start of their service.  Dallas who suffered from epilepsy who resign from the service in the fall of 1863, Edwin would continue with Custer until he was court martialed, as were many who served under the mecurial general, after the war.  Perhaps that saved him from being at Little Big Horn. Still for the time being as Custer’s star rose, Norvell remained as one of his aides.

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

On Hallowed Ground

For the past few days I walked the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg.   I have studied these battles for many years.  I have seen movies about them. I have read novels about them.  But these battles cannot fully understood until one walks these sites.

East to the Union lines

East to the Union lines

Visiting the battle sites today, one sees only  pleasant vistas.  The names seem quaint– Antietam:  The Dunker Church, the Sunken Road, Burnside’s Bridge.   Gettysburg:  The Peach Orchard, the Round Tops, the Copse of Trees, the Devil’s Den.   Yet, only the last name seems to reveal the horrors that happened so long ago.

These two sites are especially poignant; they represent General Robert E. Lee’s two attempts, in  September 1862 and July 1863,  to invade the northern states and thereby force a military or political solution to the war.  They also represent two of Lee greatest failures.  For the North,  Antietam  would allow Lincoln to issue The Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg would ensure the ultimate victory of the Union,  but the costs were high.

The two battles raised high the bar for carnage. At Antietam more than 22,000 died or were wounded in one day; at Gettysburg about 51,000 were casualties and more than 5,000 horses died in the three-day battle. These are staggering numbers.

At the foot of the Round Tops, the Devils Den was the site of brutal fighting.

At the foot of the Round Tops, the Devils Den was the site of brutal fighting.

To me they are very special for my great grandfather and five of his brothers fought in the war and survived. Four of them were at Gettysburg and one who was at Gettysburg was also at Antietam.

At Antietam one of the bloodiest episodes of the battle occurred at the Burnside Bridge. To read of the battle is to not fully grasp how it played out. Most accounts talk of the Confederate forces on the heights above the bridge where the Union attempted to cross in wave after wave.  It was like “Shooting fish in a barrel.” From high on the heights above Confederate soldiers held off the advancing Union forces and turned the water of Antietam creek to blood red.

Looking down from the heights of the Confederate lines at the Union lines on the far bank.

Looking down from the heights of the Confederate lines at the Union lines on the far bank.

At Gettysburg, an open field stretches across to the distant “copse” of trees where the men of Pickett’s Charge moved –17,000 strong — to their death.

Looking east across the battlefield from the Confederate line to the Union position.

Looking east across the battlefield from the Confederate line to the Union position.

On those long ago days the fields and streams of Antietam and Gettysburg ran red with blood. Yet to see them now you would not know that this had happened except in your mind’s eye.


In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln wrote so eloquently “… we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

So I walked the battlefields and thought about it all, and the price they paid that we should never forget.

Posted in American History, Antietam, Civil War, Civil War Battles, Detroit History, Gettysburg, Michigan History, Military history, Norvell Family History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lipscomb Norvell and the Seige of Charleston

The Siege of Charleston  in 1780, during the American Revolution,  marked a British shift of focus towards southern colonies.

American Army Re-enactors in 2005

American Army Re-enactors in 2005

After failing to achieve any advantage in the north, in 1779 the British government sent a combined military and naval expedition of 7,600 strong under General Henry Clinton by sea to South Carolina.

Charleston was the first objective of the attack. This worried the Continental Congress which was concerned that the British could establish another strong base, similar to Savannah, in  the South. In response to the pending threat to the city, Continental forces were moved south.

From Virginia, 700 men were reassigned to defend Charleston. It was in this group, that Lipscomb Norvell now found himself. Congress put the local commander, Major-General Benjamin Lincoln, under severe pressure to retain the city.

But the British crossed the Ashley River at Drayton’s Landing, twelve miles above Charleston, without any opposition. This gave them control of the land routes to Charleston. April1780 marked the beginning of the siege-proper when the British forces outside Charleston began to dig siege trenches. As the siege tightened, American morale plummeted.

On April 21, General Lincoln made his first surrender offer – he would abandon Charleston if the army could leave intact. The siege was again tightened. On April 29, Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island guarding the northern entrance to the Harbor fell to a British assault. Lincoln made another offer – surrender with full honors of war for the army, with the militia allowed to leave. This too was rejected.

Lincoln, now under constant pressure from the civilian population of Charleston to end the siege, surrendered on 12 May 1780. British General Clinton took 5,500 prisoners. Lipscomb Norvell was taken prisoner at Charleston on May 12, 1780 and remained there until the end of the War. The immediate aftermath of the capture of Charleston confirmed the most optimistic British expectations.

But this was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Much of South Carolina rushed to return to British allegiance, with a loyal address from Georgetown and a number of senior local politicians rushing to declare their loyalty. However, Clinton was soon to alienate many who would have been happy with a restoration of British authority by requiring active rather than passive support and the campaign in the Carolinas was eventually to bog down as partisan warfare erupted in the back country.

The defeat at Charleston was a disaster for American forces in the South.  It ranked as the Army’s third largest surrender behind the Fall of Bataan in 1942 and Harper’s Ferry in 1862 during the Civil War.

Lipscomb Norvell would survive his time as a POW and return to Virginia, where he would be an early settler on the Virginia and Kentucky frontier, father 12 children, and later die in Nashville, Tennessee in 1843.

Epitaph on Lt. Lipscomb Norvell's Grave, Old City Cemetery Nashville.

Epitaph on Lt. Lipscomb Norvell’s Grave, Old City Cemetery Nashville.

Posted in American History, Colonial History, Combat, Military history, Norvell Family History, Revolutionary War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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