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December 2013

Book Review - Exclusive Interview with W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV

First, I had the honor of receiving an advance copy of Hazardous Duty and thought it was the most different but interesting W.E.B. Griffin book that I've read...and I have read them all...yes, all of them (the first one, The LTs, I bought at the Airborne School shopette at Benning in the mid 80s).  I think two whole shelves of my small library 

While reading Hazardous Duty, I kept thinking this book was written like an Elmore Leonard or Joseph Heller. Turns out, Griffin wrote the M*A*S*H books in the 70s, and knowing this will help you enjoy his work even more. Fan of Griffin books or not, I believe that you will find the latest note from Elise Cooper very interesting.

9780399160677_p0_v1_s260x420Hazardous Duty by W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV is the latest book in the Presidential Agent Series.  Unfortunately for those who enjoyed these adventures this will be the last installment.  The plot is a satirical look on how the US President handles national security from the Mexican Drug Cartels to Somali pirates holding three tankers for ransom.  The President calls upon members of his cabinet, and Lieutenant Colonel Carlos “Charley” G. Castillo to resolve these problems.  The rest of the story is how Castillo and the Secretary of State, Natalie Cohen, deals with a President gone crazy that leaves readers with an amusing storyline. 

Elise Cooper had the privilege of interviewing Griffin and his son Butterworth IV for Blackfive.net. You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category on the far right sidebar.

EC:  Why did you write a satire about US politicians?

Griffin:  I felt I had to write it as a satire.  I am really outraged how people have changed.  What ever happened to duty and country?  I turned this book into a sort of M*A*S*H type story involving the White House and Langley so readers could possibly forget for a minute or so the mess we have in Washington D.C. I had a lot of fun in writing it and hope that people will see some parts are very funny, especially the parts with the porn queen.  I wrote it because I was at a low point and was disgusted at what was happening here in the US. 

Butterworth IV:  The reason dad could not write this as a serious book is because of the moral indignation coming out of Washington D.C.  Just look at the outrageous decision to reduce the military retirement as part of the budget.  It is one more thing being jammed down our throat.  Many of the politicians today have never served so they don’t understand what someone in the military has to go through. 

EC:  So what will you replace this series with?

Griffin:  A new series about the Cold War and the formation of the OSS, the prelude to the CIA. The first book in the Clandestine Operations series, published next year, will be called Top Secret and the main character will be Second Lieutenant James D. Cronley JR. It is already written and I am currently writing the second novel.  The initial book is about how those in the clandestine service had to fight the FBI, the Russians, and a lot of others.  I think it is interesting because of the details of the people involved like Reinhard Gehlen, who wound up as chief of the West German intelligence in the 1950s. Of course I had to change the names but kept some similarities so people will know what I am talking about. I made sure to put all those “nice charming Russians” in it like Stalin.

EC:  In Hazardous Duty and in the new book Top Secret you do not hide your feelings about the Russians.  For example in this latest book a character throws darts at Putin’s face.  Please comment.

Griffin:  I wanted to show how Putin is a very dangerous man.  He is a merciless, tough guy who, in my opinion, is smarter than our President.  He will do whatever is necessary for Russia, which is not in our interests.  In the new book I hope to show how Russia has always been an imperialistic power that wanted to control the world. 

EC:  You also continue to write about the drug cartels.  What do you want the readers to get out of this type of subject?

Butterworth IV:  This money is driving corruption to all levels of politicians.  It’s an ongoing job to fight the Cartels.  As in Laredo and El Paso, which we describe in this book, there is a spill over of drug violence from Mexico.  All the major crossroads have it.  For example, I-35 in Dallas is a major stepping off point for the drugs to travel across the country from Miami to Houston.  It’s being distributed like regular commerce and is not a pleasant picture. 

EC:  At the beginning of the book there was a very nice dedication, “Our nation owes these Patriots a debt beyond payment.”  Please comment

Griffin:  I did it because I admire these guys and gals.  They are the heavy hitters who have done a lot for our country.  Today I am afraid that those serving in the military and CIA are being taken for granted.  They are not in it for the glory, but for G-d, country, and family.

EC:  Did you base the characters on anyone in particular?

Griffin: Not the President whose character was designed to entertain.  Regarding the Secretary of State Natalie Cohen I liked her and made sure she is a good person and an interesting character.  She is very honorable, soft spoken, the voice of reason, and could see into a problem.  I am a great admirer of Condoleezza Rice who I possibly based Natalie on.  Rice is bright as a button and a very delicate lady.

EC:  What is it like working together?

Griffin:  We are two strong willed people.  (Jokingly) William never pays the proper respect to me as his father and an old man.  Seriously, Billie is a great editor and a writer. 

Butterworth IV: Since dad is the master if he says this is a good way to do it I do it.  We know how the other thinks and we attempt to write stuff knowing that the other will not object to it.  There is always a positive to our questioning each other.  We write by Skyping, emailing, and talking to each other. We are able to do it because we can easily go back and forth with emails. 

EC:  Can you give a heads up about your next book?

Butterworth IV:  It will be a Matt Payne novel. The plot has Matt being haunted by some of what he did in the past.  He has the bad guys after him and some unfounded accusations from the good guys.  He has to survive both.  It was grounded in that all the various good guys, whether spooks, the military, or cops have to deal with the revenge factor.  Some of the guys who do their job very quietly get thrown under the bus and get burned with no one ever hearing about it.  They are all from the same breed and are the same kind of guy who protects all of us. There is a great cross over between all these groups. 


Enlisted - The new comedy on Fox...

Many have heard about a new sitcom on Fox premiring on Jan 10th called "Enlisted".

If you've seen the trailer, you're likely upset, angry, maybe even outraged.  And you'd be right to. There are a ton of errors and it's a bit of a travesty.  And the show's creators heard the complaints loud and clear.  

Kevin Biegel was recently interviewed in a chat set up by "DoctrineMan" on Facebook.  The chat is pretty freewheeling (as Facebook discussions are wont to be).  I extracted some questions from it to share here:

So how do you hope to win over the cynical who see this (another) brazen attempt to profit off of the military meme?

KB: All I can do is hope people see the show, give it a chance, and realize where it's coming from and see it's very personal, very heartfelt and not ever, every trying to "mock" anything. I didn't want to do a satire, we just wanted to write something about a place we love and characters we loved... so that's the show. I think shows that you're referring to you can kinda tell when it's not coming from a heartfelt place, you know?

What is the military background of the writers of the show? (and, if not, did//will THEY get some military hands-on like the key cast members did?)

KB:  Aside from myself a lot of the writers have military in their families. A writer in the room at almost all times was a Lt in the Navy. We didn't send the writers to the mini Boot Camp the actors went to - we just couldn't make it b/c we were writing the show - but we want to go if there's a season 2. I did give the writers more research to read than any show I've ever been on. A mountain of books, blogs, and also transcripts of interviews I did with my military friends. No one walked into this with zero education. That said, we have a LOT to learn and the more hands on we can be, the better the show will be.

What serious issue(s) would you'd like to tackle through the medium of the show?

KB:  We deal with PTS as a main thing for the main character on the show, survivor guilt, and also deal with the fear of having a loved one overseas / of losing that loved one (the brothers’ father died in combat).  My biggest hope for the show is we connect with a big audience in that area. I care more about that than jokes, really.

Is (the show written) in the vein of Stripes or Sgt. Bilko? Or would you say you are closer to MASH?

KB:  It's definitely more in the vein of Stripes. For a little bit when I was writing the pilot, I had Stripes on loop on a TV in the background. I'd say even more, though, it's something like Stripes but with some Scrubs thrown in - i didn't want it to be all jokey wacky stuff, I felt it had to have real emotion and deal with some tougher things if it was going to be a show set in the military in 2014.   If we are 1/100th the show MASH was, we'd be lucky. That's all time great. What I want to do that's like that show, though (and honestly like Scrubs where I worked for years) is combine comedy with real emotional moments. The main character on this show came close to biting it a few times, and I wanted that to be reflected in a real way - not a "this guy wasn't affected by war" way. So there will be quieter moments here hopefully have honest emotional content that means something to the military community and, honestly and hopefully, to the non-military community

Please: no female Goldie Hawn character. But it does beg the question; will the show touch on SHARP? Give thought to reinforcing stereotypes? The bumbling GO etc.?

KB:  I promise no Goldie Hawn character. The main female character is squared away and confident - not neurotic or bumbling. As for SHARP, that's an area I want to explore but only after the audience knows these characters. I want to build to it, so when we do those stories it means more b/c you know the characters.

The trailer makes it look like most of the NCO's besides the brother are unable or unfit to handle the unit the brother is handling. Is this on purpose or incidental?

KB:  That's just the trailer... it's made really clear a lot that these guys are the anomaly. Most everyone else on this post is super squared away. But our guys always try to get better, and a lot do.

Some episodes will mean more to you than others. Which episode should we be most looking forward to?

KB:  I think in this first group of episodes, the one about Sgt. Hill and his Airstream is what I'm most looking forward to people seeing. I love all the episodes and we worked really hard on them, but that one is the first that (hopefully) shows that we're gonna be a little deeper sometimes and try to deal with some heavier issues. I don't ever, ever want to be preachy - I just want to be honest to what we feel these characters would go through. And that episode is the first that just slows down and shows (again, hopefully) that we're not some wacky silly non-stop goofball of a show.


In acknowledging the errors from the initial couple of episodes, the show is doing something interesting and refreshing - they are owning up to it up front.  I applaud that.  

The primary cast even spent a few days working with the Army to get their minds right for their roles and it was some significant discovery learning.  There's videos here that document their time at Fort Bliss.  

I think this show is worth your time, as long as you realize the first couple of episodes were shot before they realized that veterans and Soldiers were watching and not pleased with the initial effort.  I think Kevin is serious about finding that balance between entertainment and honoring our Nation's enlisted Soldiers.

Voices of the Pacific


I just finished reading "Voices of the Pacific: Untold Stories from the Marine Heroes of World War II," by Adam Makos and Marcus Brotherton and what a fabulous read it was. The authors tracked down Marine veterans of the Pacific war, ie Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and recorded them telling their tale. It's all oral history, their stories in their own words. It's like ten years of sitting on the front porch on Saturday nights and listening to your Grandpa tell his story of the great war he fought.

Continue reading "Voices of the Pacific" »

Book Review: "Innocent Blood" by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

The following book review is provided to BlackFive readers as a special from Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category link on the far right side bar.

9780061991066_p0_v2_s260x420The sequel to The Blood Gospel, Innocent Blood, by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell has all the elements of an exciting novel: adventure, intrigue, suspense, and history, with a little of the supernatural.  This mystery/thriller reunites the main characters from the previous story:  Dr. Erin Granger, the archeologist, Army Sergeant Jordan Stone, and Father Rhun Korza, the Sanguinist Knight of Christ.  They must continue their quest this time battling Judas and preventing the Apocalypse. 

What enhanced the storyline are the interesting and powerful characters that are neither all good nor all evil.  Some of the characters decisions fall into the grey area where they do not always make the correct choice.  Erin Granger has become a disillusioned archeologist who also questions her faith due to an incident from her childhood.  She is intellectual, analytical, and a woman of knowledge.  Jordan Stone is a soldier who is physically strong, appears to take everything at face value, and is very practical.  Rhun, is a preacher of faith and belief whose sole sense of being is imbedded in the Church.  He is a Sanguinist, a vampire-like figure, who has taken a vow to stop drinking human blood and to sustain himself only on Christ’s blood, wine consecrated by the Holy Sacrament into HIS blood. Rollins told blackfive.net, “In the next book we break everyone’s banner and the reader sees how the characters must repair themselves.  Basically the three pieces are:  Jordan, the muscle; Erin, the brains; and Rhun the heart.”

 The supporting cast also is very well developed.  The Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory, a five hundred year old vampire, a Strigoi, has just been awakened and tries to adjust to living in the 21st Century.  She is strong, independent, and ruthless.  Tommy Bolar is a teenage boy, a very sympathetic character who, in saving a dove, turns into an Angel.   Rollins is hoping readers will see “Elizabeth as a figure who does horrible things; yet, after losing her family now tries to reforge it with Tommy. The boy was written to be of the Jewish faith since these stories involve a lot of the Judeo-Christian history, and after all Christ was a Jew.  There will be more of Tommy’s storyline in the third book.”

The theme can explained with the powerful quote in the book, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Rollins believes that this quote along with the one from World War II, which he paraphrased, “First they came for my neighbors, and then they came for me,” emphasize that being silent allows evil to exist.  “I was influenced by the sacrifice of the soldiers and their families.  We need to continually not forget that they are our defenders who still put themselves at risk.  Those fighting today volunteered because they did not want to remain on the sidelines. They are the ones who make sure evil does not triumph.  Just as with the War on Terror I wanted to show in this book that we have the freedom to decide our own fate, but we must act on it.” 

Innocent Blood includes a lot of action, romance, and conflict.  As in all Rollins’ books the storyline explores the divide between religion and science.  What makes this book a great mystery is that readers will forget some of the characters are vampires which makes the story believable. 

A Hallelujah Christmas

As Linus told Charlie Brown and all of us so long ago:

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

I got a chance to help welcome Jesus on Christmas Eve at a wonderful church along with some beautiful people who have changed my life. Merry Christmas to all.

Hey Taliban! Happy Christmas from 40 Commando...

[From 40 Commando in Afghanistan in 2008...]

For those that have ever met and/or partied with these guys know that this is what what you can usually expect...


Christmas for the Commandos in Afghanistan was always going to be different - but no one could have predicted just how different.

One minute they were singing carols at dusk beneath a mellow sun in the baked bare wasteland of Helmand province while wearing festive Santa hats, the next they were firing mortars after their Christmas Day service came under attack from the Taliban.

So rapid was the reaction of Royal Marines of 40 Commando that within less than a minute of the first "contact" from the Taliban's machine guns, they had sprinted the 200 metres to their mortar lines and had begun to return fire. And as these remarkable pictures show, such was the urgency there was no time to change their festive head gear into helmets and for 45 minutes they mortared Taliban positions with their ear defenders over their floppy bright red hats - and in one case a Christmas tree hat complete with coloured baubles.  A helmet with reindeer antlers and bells was left on the ground in the rush.

Once the skirmish was over - and with no British casualties - the men and women calmly resumed their carol service in virtual darkness around the simple war memorial at Forward Operating Base Inkerman in northern Helmand.

God Bless her Majesty's Royal Marine Commandos and Merry Christmas from the (former) Colonies...

Band of Brothers Nurse Augusta Chiwy - Someone You Should Know - The Night Before XMas in Bastogne

"A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target. Those Germans must be terrible marksmen." - Augusta Chiwy on her surviving German shells and bullets while rescuing wounded Americans during the Battle of the Bulge

You probably don't know Augusta Chiwy.  She just didn't patch up paratroopers...she went out to the battlefield and got shot at picking up wounded troops on litters and shelled and bombed in her own hospital...but you may remember this image from the Band of Brothers series (episode 6)...

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.ushttp://imageshack.us/photo/my-images/42/chiwy.jpg/

"Anna" - the character name - is the the nurse on the right. Her real name is Augusta Chiwy.  And her story is pretty damn amazing as told by Martin King - a British author who has spent 20 years in the Ardennes researching the Battle of the Bulge. He provided this article to Army News Service and is working on a book about Augusta Chiwy.

African Nurse Saved GIs at Battle of Bulge
By Martin King
Courtesy of Army News Service

BASTOGNE, Belgium, Feb. 22, 2011 – It was a bitterly cold winter morning when Augusta Chiwy's tram pulled into Brussels Central train station, Dec. 16, 1944.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
The aid station where Augusta Chiwy volunteered on the Rue Neaufchateau in Bastogne, Belgium, was destroyed by German bombs on Christmas Eve 1944, killing 30 American soldiers. U.S. Army photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

On that very same day at 5:30 a.m., green troops of the 106th Golden Lion Division were rudely awakened from their winter sojourn by a hellish barrage of incoming artillery shells, "screaming meemies," accompanied by the menacing rumble of Tiger and Panther tanks on the move. Just over the German/Belgian border, out in an area known as the Schnee Eifel, three German armies had assembled almost under the noses of the allies.

Brussels was still alive with commuters going about their daily routines when Chiwy arrived at the train station. She had been working at St. Elizabeth General Hospital in the Flemish town of Louvain and was on her way to visit relatives in Bastogne.

Above the din of collective voices at the station, the public address system droned out monotone information about trains, platforms and destinations, adding that, "There will be no departures for Luxembourg or Bastogne. Passengers wishing to reach these destinations should take the 7:50 to Namur."

Chiwy noticed an inexplicable sense of urgency in many of the assembled passenger's demeanors as she boarded the train for Namur about 30 miles south of Brussels. The train stopped there, and passengers wishing to go to the next destination were herded into open cattle trucks and taken as far as Marche. From there, Chiwy hitched a ride from a GI who took her to the center of Bastogne.

She arrived in Bastogne around 5 p.m. and noticed that it was a hive of activity as news was beginning to filter through of an all-out German attack to the north and east of the city. In anticipation of the approaching storm, Bastogne civilians were leaving in droves and all roads west quickly became gridlocked with a seemingly endless trail of human traffic.

Bastogne was an old market town and natural junction where seven roads converged. The German army's high command had decided many months previous to the actual attack that it was going to be a prime strategic objective, but no one there had expected what was about to occur during the coldest winter in living memory.

Chiwy had already decided that it was best to go to her uncle's house first to see if she could gather some more information on the situation. Her uncle, Dr. Chiwy, had a practice close to the main square and the young nurse wanted to know if she could help out. By that time of night the civilians and military personnel still there could audibly make out the booming sounds of distant artillery shells exploding a few miles away.

Within a few days of her arrival in Bastogne, the U.S. Army had sent reinforcements to the city. The first to arrive were 2,800 men and 75 tanks of the 10th Armored Division. The following day on Dec. 18, the 101st Airborne Division arrived around midnight and almost immediately began taking up positions at the allocated roadblocks around Bastogne in support of the existing teams. These groups proved to be a stubborn barrier that would allow the necessary time to build Bastogne's defenses and prepare for the German army's main assault.

Chiwy set to work as a nurse by assisting both civilian and military wounded wherever she found them. These efforts didn't go unnoticed. GIs from the 10th Armored Division were on the lookout for medical supplies and personnel to assist with their Aid Station on the Rue Neufchateau.

On Dec. 20, Bastogne became a city under siege. The ever-decreasing perimeter had reduced a once-beautiful city to a blood-soaked and battle-ravaged collection of skeletal smoldering ruins. The only safe places were the dank freezing cellars of ruined houses where remaining civilians and soldiers huddled together for safety and warmth. They survived on basic rations and shared whatever supplies they could find. Chiwy hadn't had a warm meal since she left Louvain and had also been reduced to this grim subterranean existence.

On the morning of the Dec. 21, Chiwy left the safety of her uncle's cellar and along with Nurse Renee Lemaire, she volunteered to work for the 20th AIB, 10th Armored Division at the aid station on Rue Neufchateau where Dr. John Prior was in charge. The situation there was desperate. There were hardly any medical supplies, save for a few bags of sulpha powder and a couple of vials of morphine.

While Lemaire helped make the wounded soldiers as comfortable as possible, Chiwy dressed their wounds and never once shied away from the gory trauma of battlefield injuries.

On at least one occasion, Dr. Prior asked Chiwy if she would accompany him to a battle site east of the Mardasson hill. She was wearing a U.S. Army uniform at the time because her own clothes had become so dilapidated and blood stained. She was well aware that if she would have been captured by German forces it would have meant instant death for collaborating with the "Amies," the German name for the American soldiers.

During a raging blizzard Chiwy calmly loaded up onto a deuce-and-a-half and went to the outskirts of Bastogne. When they arrived there, she actually went out onto the battlefield with Dr. Prior and the two litter-bearers to retrieve wounded soldiers.

Mortar shells were falling close by and German heavy machine guns were raking the ground around Chiwy's small frame as she tended the wounded, but despite this she focused on her duties undaunted. Dr. Prior said the bullets missed Augusta because she was so small, to which Chiwy retorted, "A black face in all that white snow was a pretty easy target. Those Germans must be terrible marksmen."

The skies above Bastogne had cleared on Dec. 23, and C-47s had dropped desperately needed supplies, but the very next day on Christmas Eve, those clear skies gave the German Luftwaffe a chance to send out a few of their remaining bomber squadrons over the city to cause even further death and destruction.

A 500-pound bomb fell directly on the 20th AIB Aid Station, instantly killing 30 wounded U.S. soldiers, along with nurse Renee Lemaire. Chiwy was in the adjacent house with Dr. Prior and a lieutenant when the bomb hit. She was blown clean through a wall, but miraculously survived unscathed.

On the following day, the remaining wounded were taken to the 101st headquarters at the Heintz Barracks where Chiwy worked until they were all evacuated when Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army arrived Dec. 26.

Surviving members of the 10th Armored Division recently signed a letter of appreciation for her service to them during the battle. Her efforts had never been officially recognized until then.

This month, a letter was also received from King Albert II of Belgium stating that he acknowledges Augusta Chiwy's service and will officially recognize her courage and sacrifice during the Battle of the Bulge.

Which brings us to King Albert II's awarding Augusta a knighthood...Alexander O sent me this photo from Friday, June 24th, 2011, of Augusta Chiwy becoming a Knight (Lady) of the Order of the Crown from King Albert II of Belgium.  Here is a photo of Lady Chiwy:

Here is a video that Martin King put together. 


More about the doctors and nurses at the Bulge after the jump...

Continue reading "Band of Brothers Nurse Augusta Chiwy - Someone You Should Know - The Night Before XMas in Bastogne" »

Home for Christmas - A POW in 1969

This annual re-post is via the late and great "Corporal Seamus" Garrahy.  The following story comes from the book NOT AS LEAN, NOT AS MEAN, STILL A MARINE: Even More Sea Stories:


Nothing crushes your spirit more effectively than solitary confinement. Having no one else to rely on, to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your judgment and your courage. The loneliness robs you of everything - everything but time. When you are in solitary confinement you have nothing to think about other than time and just making it through another day. So needless to say, keeping track of the date is not difficult for a man held at length in solitary confinement.

In the five and a half years I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Christmas was always the most difficult time of year for me. I distinctly remember Christmas Eve 1969. I had been a POW for more than two years already, most of which was spent alone in my cell. Like many other cells in the Hanoi Hilton, mine was a small, empty room, roughly seven feet by ten feet with a concrete slab on the floor, which served as my bed. The walls were eighteen inched thick and the windows of each cell were boarded up so that the POWs could not communicate with each other. I remember there being a single, naked lightbulb dangling on a cord in the center of the ceiling and a small loudspeaker in the corner on which the Vietnamese would play various propaganda pieces.

It was about eight o'clock on Christmas Eve 1969. I was in pretty bad shape, having received some severe beatings from the North Vietnamese. On top of that, I had still not recovered from the injuries I received when I was shot down two years earlier. I was cold. I was injured. And as I lay there in my cell listening to Hanoi Hanna report on "the latest heroic victory over the American imperialists," I had some real serious doubts about my chances for survival.

Then the prison guards began to play a series of Christmas songs over the camp's public address system, the last of which was Dinah Shore singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas." As I lay there listening to that particular song, my spirits dropped to the lowest possible point. I was not sure if I would survive another night, let alone ever return home for another Christmas with my family.

It was then that I heard the tapping on my wall.

Despite the strict rule against it, the POWs communicated to each other by rapping on the walls of our cells. The secretive tap code was a simple system. We divided the alphabet into five columns of five letters each. The letter K was dropped. A, F, L, Q and V were the key letters. Simply tap once for the five letters in the A column, twice for F, three times for L, and so on. After indicating the column, pause for a beat, then tap one to five times to indicate the right letter. For example, the letter C is sent as: tap.tap tap tap.

We became so proficient at the tap code that in time the whole prison system became a complex information network. With each new addition to our population, word quickly passed from cell to cell about every POW's circumstances and information from home. The tap code was my sanity's saving grace. That daily personal contact through the drumming on my wall made my isolation more bearable. It affirmed my humanity and kept me alive.

The cell on one side of me was empty, but in the other adjacent room was a guy named Ernie Brace. Ernie was a decorated former Marine who had flown more than one hundred combat mission in the Korean War. He had volunteered as a civilian pilot to fly missions to secretly supply CIA -supported military units in the Laotian jungle. During one such operation in 1965 he was captured and handed over to the North Vietnamese. He was brutally tortured and kept in solitary confinement for three years at a remote outpost near Dien Bien Phu before he was even brought to the Hanoi Hilton in 1968.

As soon as I heard the tapping on Christmas Eve, I knew it was Ernie. I got up and pressed my ear against the cold stone wall of my cell. At first it was difficult to make out the faint tapping of my neighbor. But it soon became very clear.

"We'll all be home for Christmas," Ernie tapped. "God bless America ."

With that I began to cry.

When you are imprisoned, the enemy can take almost everything from you but they cannot take your spirit. Those unspoken words coming from Ernie - who, due to his work with the CIA , had the least chance of getting out of the camp alive - were a poignant affirmation that as Americans, we possessed a divine spark that our enemies could not extinguish - hope.

"We'll all be home for Christmas. God bless America ."

That simple message, in my darkest hour, strengthened my will to live. Ernie helped me realize that we would get home when we got home. Until then, we had to manage our hardships as best we could. Without his strength, I doubt I would have survived solitary confinement with my mind and self-respect intact.

It was long ago and far away. But around the holidays, when I hear "I'll Be Home for Christmas," I am always reminded of that time, that place, and the words of my friend Ernie Brace. He kept me going and lifted my spirits when they were in their greatest need of lifting. When I hear that song I think about Ernie. I think about my friends that never made it home for another Christmas. And I think of what a blessing it is to be an American.

Ernie Brace spent his first three years in captivity without any contact with another American until he was moved to Hanoi.  The first person he communicated with (but didn't meet until after the war) was a guy who organized the prisoners and created their tap code...a guy by the name of John McCain...who authored "Home for Christmas."  The day after, McCain and the prisoners were brought together for a Christmas service...used for PR with cameras taking pictures...McCain took the oportunity during the service to ignore the service, the guards, and the cameras and he briefed the prisoners on the tap code and how to keep hope alive.  At one point, a guard asked him politely to be quiet.  McCain swore at the guard and gave the finger to one photographer snapping a photo.

He was beaten severely for it the next day - cracked ribs, an arm re-broken, sick and despairing - guys like Ernie Brace took care of McCain as much as he took care of them.

You can read more about Ernie Brace here.  He is an amazing guy.

Merry Christmas My Friend

Note:  This is an annual post to share one of the most powerful military Christmas poems that is also usually attributed incorrectly or changed from the original.  Enjoy.  Merry Christmas, my friends!

Most of you proably have read "Merry Christmas, My Friend" before, but have you heard it with the backdrop of Silent Night?

Below is the credit from WLIT:

Written by former Marine Corporal James M. Schmidt, in 1987 when stationed in Washington D.C., it was pounded out on a typewriter while awaiting the commading officer's Christmas holiday decoration inspection.  It was originally title "Merry Christmas, My Friend", and was an instant success that reportedly brought tears to the eyes of the barrracks Commander who ordered it distributed to everyone he knew. It appeared in the barracks publication Pass in Review in December 1987 and Leatherneck Magazine in December 1991.

The poem was recorded as a tribute by Father Ted Berndt, a former Marine and Purple Heart recipient during World War II, currently residing in Dousman, Wisconsin for his daughter Ellen Stout, a Clear Channel radio personality.

Here is the poem as read by Father Berndt:

Here's the original poem:


‘Twas the night before Christmas, he lived all alone,
In a one-bedroom house made of plaster and stone.
I had come down the chimney, with presents to give
and to see just who in this home did live.

As I looked all about, a strange sight I did see,
no tinsel, no presents, not even a tree.
No stocking by the fire, just boots filled with sand.
On the wall hung pictures of a far distant land.

With medals and badges, awards of all kind,
a sobering thought soon came to my mind.
For this house was different, unlike any I’d seen.
This was the home of a U.S. Marine.

I’d heard stories about them, I had to see more,
so I walked down the hall and pushed open the door.
And there he lay sleeping, silent, alone,
Curled up on the floor in his one-bedroom home.

He seemed so gentle, his face so serene,
Not how I pictured a U.S. Marine.
Was this the hero, of whom I’d just read?
Curled up in his poncho, a floor for his bed?

His head was clean-shaven, his weathered face tan.
I soon understood, this was more than a man.
For I realized the families that I saw that night,
owed their lives to these men, who were willing to fight.

Soon around the Nation, the children would play,
And grown-ups would celebrate on a bright Christmas day.
They all enjoyed freedom, each month and all year,
because of Marines like this one lying here.

I couldn’t help wonder how many lay alone,
on a cold Christmas Eve, in a land far from home.
Just the very thought brought a tear to my eye.
I dropped to my knees and I started to cry.

He must have awoken, for I heard a rough voice,
“Santa, don’t cry, this life is my choice
I fight for freedom, I don’t ask for more.
My life is my God, my country, my Corps.”

With that he rolled over, drifted off into sleep,
I couldn’t control it, I continued to weep.

I watched him for hours, so silent and still.
I noticed he shivered from the cold night’s chill.
So I took off my jacket, the one made of red,
and covered this Marine from his toes to his head.
Then I put on his T-shirt of scarlet and gold,
with an eagle, globe and anchor emblazoned so bold.
And although it barely fit me, I began to swell with pride,
and for one shining moment, I was Marine Corps deep inside.

I didn’t want to leave him so quiet in the night,
this guardian of honor so willing to fight.
But half asleep he rolled over, and in a voice clean and pure,
said “Carry on, Santa, it’s Christmas Day, all secure.”
One look at my watch and I knew he was right,
Merry Christmas my friend, Semper Fi and goodnight.

©Copyright circa 1991 by James M. Schmidt
(As printers in the December 1991 issue of the USMC magazine, Leatherneck)

Thanks to (the late) Bill Faith of Small Town Veteran for the poem link and correct attribution/origin of the poem!

Merry Christmas!

[Note: As the poem was written by a Marine about a Marine and the recording was made by a Marine, I'm not sure why the recording was titled "Soldier's Silent Night".  It might be because "soldier" can be used to describe anyone in the Armed Forces (capital S "Soldier" means Army).  Or it just might be a mistake.]