Memorial Days

‘Group of soldiers sitting on truck with boy,’ African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection.

There is something I love about this picture. Something about pride and camaraderie and self-awareness, maybe, in what must have been a hell of a difficult situation. And then there’s the kid posing with this group of GIs.

But before I get into that, where did this picture come from? Someone posted it on Facebook, in the Oakland history group, as a Memorial Day tribute, I think. The picture was captioned there “A 1945 picture of Soldiers in Oakland, CA.” As commenters quickly pointed out, the background in the shot suggests someplace in Europe — France, or Italy maybe — but not Oakland. And then there’s the kid posing with the group. Maybe these troops were among those who had just liberated his town from the Germans.

Is there some way of nailing down who and where these men are? I’d love to see whether anything is written on the back of the photo. It’s a holiday, though, and I have no idea whether the library that holds this photograph has been open at all during our lockdown the last couple of months. Maybe I’ll find that out tomorrow.

There is one potentially helpful detail in the picture: The numbers on the right side (left side in the picture) of the truck’s bumper: 3A-444Q.

My guess was that “3A” stands for “3rd Army,” the force that Gen. George Patton commanded and which is renowned for, among other things, its rapid push across France in the summer and early fall of 1944, after D-Day. Then maybe the 444Q stood for — what? A regimental unit?

I found a post — because you can find a post about just about anything when you go looking — that helped sort out the truck number. It includes a picture of vehicles attached to the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, originally part of the 3rd Army. The markings on those vehicles read “3A-442-I.” From there, I just looked for names of units numbered “444.” I came across a mention of a 444th Quartermaster Truck Company, described as a segregated, all-black unit.

Where were they deployed during the war? It appears they were attached to the 3rd Army’s 4th Armored Division in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. They’re cited as having played a role in several major actions: Arracourt, the Battle of the Bulge and the final Allied offensive into Germany in March and April 1945. They were likely part of the legendary “Red Ball Express,” responsible for supplying the 3rd Army during its race toward Germany.

The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Inc., mentioned the 444th in its May 2005 edition:

“… Many an unsung deed of heroism, endurance and devotion to duty were quietly chalked up by the Third’s QM truckers. They rolled on unceasingly through German strafing, bullets, artillery fire, ice and snow, fatigue, hunger, blackouts and every other imaginable obstacle.

Trucks of the 444th QM Truck Company moved the 4th Armored Division from the Saar to Belgium in 17 hours. In their usual fashion the 4th Armored Division fought their way through to relieve the heroic bastion of Bastogne and the tide began to turn in our favor. …”

I can’t find a lot more on the 444th. A couple of records concern company members who died during their service and are buried in cemeteries in France and England. One document concerns a soldier who was convicted of murdering a German civilian during the last month of the war. Somewhere out there, there’s an Army publication called “How the 444 Rolled,” but I can’t find any evidence of it online or in libraries.

Looking at that picture, though, makes me want to know about the men there: what they had come through to get to that street, wherever it was; what they went on to; what was waiting for them in the United States when they got back from a brutal tour of duty. On the off chance anyone who knows more about the 444th comes across this, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can track down the original of the picture to see if there’s anything on the back.

Hamburg and Paradise

The other day, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — Cal Fire, for short — caused a little bit of a ripple when it issued a report that likened the conflagration that recently consumed most of the town of Paradise with the World War II Allied bombing of the German city of Hamburg.

The comparison was included in a Cal Fire green sheet — a preliminary report the agency does to review the circumstances surrounding firefighter deaths and injuries. I’ve become a regular reader of the reports mostly because I’ve been editing stories by a colleague in the KQED newsroom who started getting them several years ago.

The green sheet on the Camp Fire — the blaze that killed 86 people, by the current count, and destroyed 14,000 residences in Paradise and two nearby communities in Butte County — came out late last week. The bulk of the report recounted how five firefighters suffered burns during the first 24 hours of the blaze. But in setting the scene for how the injuries, sustained in two separate incidents, occurred, the report also sets the scene: the drought, the high winds, the low humidity that helped the fire become so monstrously destructive so rapidly.

The green sheet drops this remark about the fire’s character:

“When the fire reached the town of Paradise, an urban firestorm began to spread from building to building, independent of the vegetation, similar to the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943. … It is evident in many areas occupied by high densities of residential and commercial structures that the heat from the fire was transferred horizontally to other structures and ground vegetation by strong winds. “

I like a striking historical reference as much as the next human. But the Cal Fire offers no further context or detail about “the firestorm that consumed Hamburg, Germany, in 1943.” Maybe it was a super-bad wildfire.

Of course, the year “1943” suggests a connection to a major historical event that’s known even to most ahistorically minded Americans: World War II. Even if you’re not a historian, you may be familiar with the heavy bombing that took place throughout the war and several noted incendiary bombing attacks, mostly by U.S. and British air forces against targets in Germany and Japan.

Thanks to Google, a couple of pretty good accounts of what happened in Hamburg pop up when you search the name of the city along with the word “firestorm.” One of them comes from the BBC, which describes the relentless British and American bombing that touched off the inferno, the winds that accompanied it, the appalling casualty count, and the harrowing stories of survivors.

“I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street. … We couldn’t go on across [the road] because the asphalt had melted,” one witness is quoted as saying. “There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking.”

Several months after Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the U.S. War Department published an exhaustive review of the air war in Europe. “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Over-all Report.”

The survey’s purpose was, in part, to measure the effectiveness of the Allied bombing strategy, which had aimed to achieve “the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

In a passage cited in “The Oxford English Dictionary” as an early use of the word “firestorm” to describe the effects of aerial bombing, the survey mentions in brief, clinical detail what happened in Hamburg and the tactics behind such attacks.

For residential areas … fire was the chief cause of the damage that resulted from bombing. … The principal weapon for setting fires was the incendiary bomb. This weapon was most effective in causing destruction in city residence areas. …

Many German cities presented partial areas of vast devastation. Perhaps the outstanding example was Hamburg, where a series of attacks in July and August of 1943 destroyed 55 to 60 percent of the city, did damage in an area of 30 square miles, completely burned out 12.5 square miles, wiped out 300,000 dwelling units, and made 750,000 people homeless. German estimates range from 60,000 to 100,000 persons killed, many of them in shelters where they were reached by carbon-monoxide poisoning. The attacks used both high explosive and incendiary bombs as it was thought by the Air Forces and later confirmed that the former created road blocks, broke water mains, disrupted communications, opened buildings, broke windows, and displaced roofing. Most important, they kept the fire fighters in shelters until the incendiaries became effective. But, of the total destruction, 75 to 80 percent was due to fires, particularly to those in which the so-called fire-storm phenomenon was observed.

Fire-storms occurred in Hamburg, Kassel, Darmstadt, and Dresden. Differing from an ordinary peacetime conflagration which begins at a center and then spreads, these storms occurred when incendiaries started many fires within a relatively short time over an extensively built-up area. It was estimated that, in Hamburg, within 20 minutes, two out of three buildings were afire within a 4.5-square-mile area as the result of incendiary bomb strikes. The intensity of the bomb fall was so great that fire-fighting efforts were fruitless. As the many fires broke through the roofs of buildings, there rose a column of heated air more than 2 1/2 miles high and 1 1/2 miles in diameter, as measured by aircraft flying over Hamburg. This column was turbulent and was fed at its base by inrushing cooler ground-surface air. One and one-half miles from the fire this draft increased the wind velocity from 11 to 33 miles per hour. At the edge of the area the velocities must have been appreciably greater, as trees 3 feet in diameter were uprooted. In a short time the temperature reached the ignition point for all combustibles and the entire area was ablaze. In such fires complete burn-out occurred; that is, no trace of combustible materials remained and only after 2 days were the areas cool enough to approach.

The evidence is that the bombing served not only to destroy much of Germany’s second-largest city, but also, as intended, to shock and demoralize the population.

In one sense — the scale and meaning of the events — the parallel between Paradise and Hamburg is all wrong. But in others — the physical characteristics of the fires, the way they consumed whole communities and left survivors with little or nothing of their prior lives — maybe the comparison is fitting.

Another Country

I’m reading “No Ordinary Time,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of how the Roosevelt administration managed the home front during World War II. It’s a good-enough read and well researched, but there’s sort of a rushed feeling to it that makes me wonder how long she had to work on the thing. In any case, I was struck by a brief passage on the nation’s economic situation in the spring of 1940, when Germany’s attack on Western Europe prompted FDR to push for a rapid mobilization of industry and resources in the United States. Goodwin’s point is one often made: how on the eve of war, the American economy was still in the throes of the Depression. What strikes me is the stark difference between the country she describes and the one I grew up in — having been born less than a decade after the end of the war.

“…The economy had not yet recovered; business was still not producing well enough on its own to silence the growing doubts about capitalism and democracy. Almost ten million Americans, 17 percent of the work force, were without jobs; about two and a half million found their only source of income in government programs. Of those who worked, one-half of the men and two-thirds of the women earned less than $1,000 a year. Only forty-eight thousand taxpayers in a population of 132 million earned more than $2,500 a year.

“In his second inaugural [in January 1937], Roosevelt had proclaimed that he saw “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. On this spring day three years later, he could still see abundant evidence of serious deprivation. Thirty-one percent of thirty-five million dwelling units did not have running water; 32 percent had no indoor toilet; 39 percent lacked a bathtub or shower; 58 percent had no central heating. Of seventy-four million Americans twenty-five years old or older, only two of five had gone beyond eighth grade; one of four had graduated from high school; one of twenty had completed college.”

On the Homefront


Just noodling around, looking for historical pictures of California for a possible project, I came across the Library of Congress stream on Flickr. Soon, I came across a series of slick, posed images of women at work during World War II in Los Angeles-area aircraft plants. I’m captivated by how much is going on here: high (for its time) technology, the serious industrial setting, the artful setup and shot, the costume, the war-on-the-homefront theme, the intensity of the worker as she does her job (not to mention the conceit that the man in the shot is instructing the little lady on what to do).

The caption: “Women are trained to do precise and vital engine installation detail in Douglas Aircraft Company plants, Long Beach, Calif.” It was shot in October 1942 for the Office of War Information, our domestic propaganda agency, and credited to Alfred T. Palmer, the agency’s chief photographer. Click for larger image.

Kassel After

Theater After

Originally uploaded by Dan Brekke

Here’s the same scene taken some time after the bombing. My dad bought three cameras at an Army post exchange–including a Leica and a twin-lens reflex camera–and took many scenes of Kassel in 1946.

At first seeing this picture in a stack of old photos, we supposed that my dad took it. But looking again now, the picture and others that almost exactly reproduce the perspectives seen in a series of prewar postcards seem to have been done commercially. At least that’s my guess, since they appear to printed on postcard stock (though without credits). In short then, the photographer or photographers who documented prewar Kassel returned to the scenes they had shot earlier for the “after” view.

This scene speaks for itself. I’ve put up a (still unorganized) colllection of similar views on Flickr.

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Kassel Before

Theater Before

Originally uploaded by Dan Brekke

Part of a project I’m working on during my family trip. My dad was drafted late in World War II and sent to Germany as part of the occupation army. He was assigned to Kassel, a city on the River Fulda that had a prewar population of about a quarter-million and was the site of an important locomotive works and some other industries. The city was heavily bombed, with the deadliest and most damaging attack coming in the fall of 1943.

This is a “before” view of Kassel’s opera house (officially called the Prussian State Theatre, I think). According to one account, a program was being presented the night of October 22, 1943, when the air raid sirens went off, signaling the start of the 569-plane British fire bombing that devastated the city. (It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, a nation putting on an opera for the home front while engaged not only in a calamitous war but also in a side project of systematic extermination of millions. All part of maintaining an illusion of normalcy, or humanity, I guess.)

This image is from a postcard that is an obvious duplication of an original by Echte Photography and published by the firm Bruno Hansmann–apparently taken in the mid-1930s.



One blogger I read faithfully posted a picture and invited guesses as to what it is. I and others surmise it’s a picture of three Japanese soldiers during World War II, but anything more precise about the circumstances is just a guess.

That first picture intrigued me, and I went looking for other pictures of Japanese soldiers during the war. I eventually lit on this–a collection of Flickr photos. The photographs–and that’s one of them above (click for larger version)–were posted by a guy who is in possession of a photo album his grandfather picked up on Guadalcanal during the war. Most of the pictures depict a sailor (or perhaps marine), some alone, most with compatriots, in a variety of settings: on shipboard, some apparently in China. There are a few family shots, and a couple pages depicting the Japanese royal family. Nearly all the pictures have handwritten captions.

The guy who posted the pictures also started a blog–WWII Japanese Photo Album–which says he intends to “get this long lost treasure back to its family.” It’s a long shot–but a great project.

Meantime, you look at the pictures of the young men in sailor’s and soldier’s gear and you think, “These were just kids.” Odds are, most of the ones you see here didn’t survive the war.

‘Inimical Forces’

A while back, I mentioned a book I’d like to read: “The Greatest Battle,” by Andrew Nagorski. It’s an account of the battle for Moscow in World War II. Although several of the blurbs on the back cover describe the book as gripping, I’d say it’s deliberate and workmanlike, almost plodding. But Nagorski does a thorough job relating the story of the German invasion, the Soviet defense, and Hitler’s and Stalin’s roles in the disasters that befell both armies and the calamity that was visited on the Soviet Union first through Stalin’s policies of purge and terror and second through Hitler’s determination to destroy the nation and its political system. I’d say go find it used or borrow it from your library if you like military epics.

Nagorski does talk a lot about the scale of the killing in the German-Soviet fighting. Of course, the entire war involved killing on a fearsome scale. You can read through the numbers, but I don’t think there’s any way to comprehend them. I always find myself thinking about the events that led to the catastrophe, and my thoughts always settle on Hitler and how he was able to move an entire nation to start in on such an enterprise.

Earlier today, Kate was reading a book of short pieces E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker. She read several of them, all from the 1930s, aloud. Here’s one — The New Yorker holds the copyright — published two months or so after Hitler came to power in 1933. It was titled “Inimical Forces”:

“Einstein is loved because he is gentle, respected because he is wise. Relativity being not for most of us, we elevate its author to a position somewhere between Edison, who gave us a tangible gleam, and God, who gave us the difficult dark and the hope of penetrating it. Not long ago Einstein was here and made a speech, not about relativity but about nationalism. ‘Behind it,’ he said, ‘are the forces inimical to life.’ Since he made that speech we have been reading more about those forces: Bruno Walter forbidden by the Leipzig police to conduct a symphony; shops of the Jews posted with labels showing a yellow spot on a black field. Thus in a single day’s developments in Germany we go back a thousand years into the dark, while a great thinker, speaking not as a Jew but as a philosopher, warns us: these are the forces inimical to life.”

[The book: “Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976.” At Amazon and many other fine retailers.]

The Conscientious Objector

Blackfive, one of the military blogs I follow to try to understand that perspective on the war in Iraq, mentions today the passing of Desmond Doss, 87, who won theMedal of Honor for his World War II service in the Pacific. What was unique about Desmond Doss and his recognition for bravery: He was a noncombatant, having enlisted in the Army as what he called a “conscientious cooperator” because of his pacifist beliefs. He served as a medic.

Before Doss ever saw a battlefield, he had to overcome the hostility of his officers and fellow recruits. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist, and refused to train on Saturdays. He declined to carry weapons. He was a vegetarian. Accounts of his service note that he was ridiculed and harassed by other soldiers; the brass, meantime, tried to throw him out of the Army as unfit for service, a move he resisted.

Eventually, Doss’s unit shipped out to the Pacific and wound up fighting on Guam, in the Philippines, and finally, in April and May 1945, on Okinawa. His Medal of Honor citation tells the story:


“Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April-21 May 1945. Entered service at: Lynchburg, Va. Birth: Lynchburg, Va. G.O. No.: 97, 1 November 1945. Citation: He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. …”

There’s more, actually, about his own wounding. Doss’s tale is told in a book (“Unlikeliest Hero,” 1967) and a documentary (“The Conscientious Objector,” 2004). The Seventh-Day Adventists have reported a theatrical film based on his story is in production.

The religious component to the tale is not to be downplayed. This guy had a lifelong conviction that taking life, of any kind, was wrong; it was a belief intertwinted with his view of the Ten Commandments and his living relationship with his god. One of the stories about Doss on Okinawa has him calling his unit together and praying before the assault on a cliff; his unit was said to have suffered no casualties in the ensuing attack — and the believers hold that fact out as proof of a god extending a hand of protection over those devoutly seeking aid. Of course, I’ve got no problem believing Doss was devout, that his faith was sincere and suffused his whole being; on the other hand I have a little problem conceiving of a god who extends a hand of protection in the midst of a rain of violence, chaos, cruelty and death in which many, many other prayers go unanswered; unless, of course, the god is Zeus, Poseidson, Apollo, or Athena.

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