Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

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The Battle of the Bulge

Masthead - Battle of the Bulge

Mapping the Ardennes offensive proved much arduous than my earlier work on Normandy and D-Day.

Admittedly, I knew little about the Ardennes, cloaked as it was, under a tangle of oak, willow, conifers, poplar and beech. What I did know about this great campaign came from scattered readings and for having seen the great 1965 turkey The Battle of Bulge, the significantly better Battleground (1949), and the two-odd episodes of Band of Brothers which portrayed US airborne at the besieged market town of Bastogne.

Part of the challenges is that the landscape of the Ardennes is a difficult place to wrap the mind around, populated as it is with places with impossible names like Houffalize, Foy, Soy, Wiltz, Champs, Saint-Vith, La Gleize, the vaguely wookie-sounding Neiderwampach, Sibret, Butgenbach and a rather pleasant-sounding village named Bra.

The battles here were monstrous; the brainchild of a despot grasping at straws for a last victory which he believed would reverse the course of the war. However, the finer details of the battle contain an almost supernatural quality: of phantom, snowsuit-clad Germans passing in an out of US lines, of American paratroopers holding frozen ground against titanic German tanks appearing of the mist, of foxlike English-speaking Germans sowing discord behind the lines, of diehard SS commandos wielding captured US Army equipment and uniforms to punch through Allied lines and a fog which hung like a pall for the first nine days of the battle.

Yet, the alien, hard edges of the Battle of the Bulge are softened somewhat by the pop-culture icons who found themselves in the midst of this struggle — men like the late, affable actor Charles Durning, who possibly survived an SS war crime outside the town of Malmedy, and the author, Kurt Vonnegut of Indianapolis, who, as a member of the green US 106th Infantry Division, fell into the German bag after his regiment was overrun by swarms of Teutonic armor and infantry.

This, I suspect comes to down to our human need to identify something familiar out of the monochromatic visions which emerge from literature and photography. Arguably, cartography is one way to cut through this hermetic barrier. Words may have the ability to evoke powerful scenes, but maps have the power to crystallize text onto a landscape we can visualize in our mind’s eye.

However, there is also the possibility that my mind may just be wired differently.

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The initial set of three maps took over 30 days to create, with my working nights after my day job. Several contemporary books were consulted to figure out how events transpired, including Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944, which proved to be singularly useless. In the end, I went back to the sources: US Army historical documents, manuscripts, dispatches and books including Hugh Cole’s excellent The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (US Army, 1965).

On a side-note, I usually run music while I work on art. But in this case, season 4 of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle happened to be up, and the series ran in the background as I worked. A fantastical contrast developed as I mapped the real-life, historical events of the “Bulge” amid the show’s narrative depicting an alternate future dominated by the Nazis and Imperial Japan.

For the show to be plausible, American troops had to have lost the battle of the Bulge; there would no airborne triumph at Bastogne, no pincers by columns of Sherman tanks and grizzled infantry punching into the heart of the Reich in the aftermath.

One question was constant: Could an alternate reality (let’s assume there such a thing) ever exist in which the allies lost the war? On the face of things: unlikely. Not because of a general unwillingness to accept that our world could be any different, but because of how forlorn the Axis were in the 1940s.

The Third Reich might have been a military superpower, but at its core, it was a banana republic in which the bribery and nepotism ran the wheels of commerce. Then, there was Imperial Japan with its lack of industrial might and lack of innovation, coupled with absurdly wasteful military tactics. But then I remember the premise of writer Philip K Dick’s original story behind the series — of Roosevelt’s hypothetical assassination in 1933, giving the Republican Party the opportunity to nullify the New Deal, miring the United States longer in the Great Depression, and granting the Axis enough time to achieve a strategic global advantage.

Could fascists have taken over the world? Considering the can of worms that the world is currently embroiled in, nothing is implausible.

The Front Explodes

The Battle of the Bulge - 16-19 Dec 44

Brodie - WinterAllied optimism that the war would be over by the Christmas of 1945 was nearly quashed as Christmas approached and the war in Europe looked as though it had no immediate end in sight. The US First Army settled to rest and regroup in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, an area considered as being a relatively quiet sector of the front. Many of its units were in strung-out shape after enduring relentless combat since the Normandy campaign. But in what was probably the greatest intelligence lapse by the Allies in the war, the Germans were able to assemble, in secret, three entire armies (or over 275,000 men) along the 60-mile long Ardennes front.

Color - Ardennes(Top Left) A group of US soldiers huddle in a frigid wind in this wartime drawing by Sergeant Howard Brodie, an artist for “Yank” magazine. (Above) A US patrol in the Ardennes. Going by the clear skies, this image was likely taken after December 26, 1944.

The Life and Death of Kampfgruppe Peiper

The Battle of the Bulge - Kampfgruppe Peiper

Events of the 1965 film The Battle of the Bulge largely depicted the movement west of the 1st SS Panzer Division, which had orders to reach to the Meuse River. In real life, the SS was badly delayed by the inability of other units to clear the way – a problem compounded by poor roads which were in no state to support an armored advance. On several occasions, commanders reported mud coming up the decking of tanks.

As the pressure mounted, the SS began to act on an order supposedly handed down from high command, instructing units not to take prisoners, lest they slow down the momentum of the advance. A series of atrocities by SS troops ensued, particularly by Kampfgruppe Peiper, led by an ambitious young veteran of the Russian front, 29-year-old Joachim Peiper.

82d Airborne Trooper - Bra (AP)Captured SS Trooper (Bra, belgium)

Among the evocative photographs to come out of the Battle of the Bulge were these two images. Here, two paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne Division bring a young SS captive in at the point of a Tommy gun. These pictures were taken at Bra, Belgium on December 24, 1944. (Both photographs taken by the Associated Press)

Brodie - Malmedy MassacreSgt. Howard Brodie’s depiction of how the “Malmedy Massacre” went down.

The Bastion

The Battle of the Bulge - Bastogne

As the Germans swept deeper into the Ardennes, the Belgian town of Bastogne, occupying a key position on the rail and network in the region, came under threat. Bastogne was nearly undefended until the 48th hour of the German offensive. In desperation, the Americans rushed a tank unit (Combat Command R from the 9th Armored Division) to stall the incoming Germans until reinforcements could be pushed into Bastogne. The only other units available were paratrooper divisions recovering from an abortive campaign in Holland that September. The US 101st Airborne Division was alerted to advance into the sector, but being a parachute division, it had no attached armor and a grave shortage of bazookas.

A second tank force (this time from the 10th Armored Division) also raced to defend Bastogne. By dusk on the 19th, the area around Bastogne was embroiled in combat. By December 22, American troops within the Bastogne perimeter realized that they were surrounded. Meantime, the Germans, torn between their desire to stay on course towards the Meuse River and their inclination to nullify Bastogne, mounted a series of penny packet attacks against the perimeter which achieved little and wasted valuable time.

Bastigne Chow (Corbis WW20077)A group of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division get some hot chow near the frontline. The discovery of a large Red Cross warehouse within the Bastogne perimeter early in the siege, allowed the besieged paratroopers the luxury of hot pancakes on most mornings. (Corbis)

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Tumult over Fortress Europa

Airwar Mast3-01

Unable to mount a cross-channel invasion of France early in the Second World War, the Anglo-American alliance believed that their bombers could open a veritable “second front” against the Third Reich which the Soviet Union had been clamoring for since 1942. The British believed that their bombers could win the war single-handedly. American enthusiasm was more tempered in that they believed that their daylight strikes would shorten the war. Both sides had bitter lessons to learn.

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Once touted as a technology masterwork capable of bringing wars to an end with a minimal cost in lives, the heavy bombers of the Second World War occupied a hallowed position in wartime societies which saw them as an essential tool.

The great quest of the human race in the years of austerity from the 1920s to the 1940s was not to cure poverty, hunger or disease, but how to push aloft multi-engined behemoths with a bomb-load and how to dump that deadly cargo onto an enemy state with the utmost of accuracy and a minimal of effort. Such an achievement, it was thought, would save lives — through the obviation of another static, land slog such as World War I.

The Americans favored the use of rugged, heavily armed day bombers equipped with the top-secret Norden bombsight to carry out pinpoint accuracy of bombing against Germany’s most vital military targets, while the British, who having tried daylight bombing only to be badly bloodied, preferred to bomb German cities at night in an effort to break Axis morale. The American view was that indiscriminate night bombing (indiscriminate because accuracy in night bombing was impossible despite advances in technology), was not only wasteful but that the bombing of civilian areas would do little to cripple the German war industry. The British, in turn, warned the Americans that daylight operations were impracticable because of the vulnerability of four-engined heavy bombers to enemy fighters. Yet, the British had no leg to stand on when on a single night in 1944, they lost 96 bombers in combat.[1]

Lancaster Poster

This horrific casualty figure was a direct result of the unwavering confidence of Allied bomber barons that the relentless bombardment of Nazi Germany would force Adolf Hitler out of power and bring about the economic collapse of the Third Reich. In reality, just as American drone strikes in Afghanistan and western Pakistan have served to increase suicide and terror attacks on American and western forces in the modern era, German resistance congealed into an overwhelming hatred of the Allies, driven by the need to kill as many of “them” before Germany herself collapsed. To this end, the Germans developed fantastic tactics involving heavily armored fighter aircraft to ram bombers, a bat-shaped, rocket-powered craft designed to bolt into the midst of a heavy bomber formation and engage them using a large-bore cannon, a jet fighter made partly out of wood intended to be flown by teenagers of the Hitler Youth and a range of technical breakthroughs which not only made the business of finding the enemy easier, but blowing him out of the sky as well.

Yet, a sense of vulgarity permeates discussions about bombs, bombers and aerial bombardment, with their inseparable echoes of the secret human lust for corruption. It is a thing of uncouthness, unsophisticated, like conversations about pornography. The late writer, David Foster Wallace, once described how a pornographic actress looked as she excitedly told a fellow writer (Evan Wright, the author of Generation Kill) about her rescue and adoption of a stray dog. She looked for “a moment” like a 14-year-old, Wallace wrote, only to have the impression last for only a “heartbreaking” second or two.[2] Aerial bombardment, with its metaphorical  manifestation of debasement is no less of a loss of innocence of the species. Where the unsavoriness arguably ends, however, is at the legions of ordinary airmen of all sides whose wartime experiences constitute some of the most extraordinary tales of duty, loss and heroism in the annals of military history. From a sociological point of view, it is nothing if not remarkable that an entire generation of humans, hewn out of the hardships of the depression-era and thus being largely unused to technology, were able to adapt to the role of “modern” aviators.

B-17 aircrews 1B-17 doomedB-17 Memphis Belle

But why talk about events which are now over 70 years old? Because then as now, bombing continues to be touted as a solution to external problems and because then as now, we are witness to pronouncements by those promising panacea through technology. If the last one hundred years of human history and culture have told us anything it is that while technology has the means to perhaps improve our lives, it is incapable of solving our more fundamental problems because human nature, in general, is intractable.

By 1944, at the apex of the Second World War, it had begun to sink in to the Allies that the war would not be won by the bombers despite their formidable technology. As hundreds of airmen continued to die on a daily basis for futile war aims, the military boffins and the inventors continued their dogged progress into uncharted scientific territory, developing one wondrous gadget after the next, until, in the end it became not so much as winning the war in the air, but giving the fighting men the means to stay alive in the face of escalating odds until the juggernaut of the land armies could roll into Germany to crush the last vestiges of the Reich. Perhaps the air campaign against the Nazis is less an indictment against the effectiveness of bombing than a statement of fact that bombing is perhaps not the ideal solution to the world’s problems.

47,268 members of the Royal Air Forces (including 9,887 Canadians, plus thousands of other “colonials”) and 26,000 American airmen of the US 8th Air Force lost their lives over Europe during the war in order for strategists to learn that indiscriminate or wholesale bombing is ineffective. How well that lesson has been absorbed by successive generations is debatable.

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Night and Day - Lancaster + B-17

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8th AF Aura of Death

Print

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While nose art was classified by American psychiatrists as a projection of the violent male ego, aircrews likely saw them as a means to soften and feminize the brutal nature of warfare. By assigning a motif to aircraft, the airmen hoped to turn their machine into a living thing capable of graciousness and mercy. Aircraft became a “she,” a female entity which shared in their life and death struggles. Air Force headquarters, however, was appalled by the pornographic nature of these artworks.  Yet, their fears for the inner souls of their airmen and potential of their wholesale transformation into ribald, roughened warriors so far gone into the realm of immorality that they would be incapable of returning to the fold in civilian life, was in many ways, as ludicrous as sending them out to drop bombs on populations in the first place. As actor Marlon Brando’s character, “Colonel Walter E. Kurtz,” succinctly points out in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (1979): “We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write “Fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

Perhaps, in demanding that aircrews tone down the explicit nature of their artwork, 8th Air Force headquarters was also trying to protect the innocence of the English youth, who were bombarded daily with images of nude women soaring over their rural villages and homes on canvases of airborne aluminum.

Divider-11ABomber Crew Casualties

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The high stresses of air combat prompted men to adopt a variety of animals for emotional support. Every combat group had an animal mascot, and nearly every hut in every squadron had at least one pet, usually a dog, although there were exceptions as the following photographs show:

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Experiments and Art

Experiments&Art

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FLAMENCA DANCERS
Watercolors, July 2016

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Frame-NZ-TreeNEW ZEALAND
Watercolors, July 2016

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RIVER TOWN, BRAZIL
Watercolors, July 2016

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BRISTOL BEAUFIGHTER, MEDITERRANEAN, 1942 (Left)
Ballpoint pen & pastels, 2015

BIGHI NAVAL HOSPITAL ELEVATOR, MALTA, 2010 (Right)
Ballpoint pen & pastels, 2015

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MOTHER & DAUGHTER: TWO GENERATIONS OF THE PEREZ FAMILY,
NORTH TEXAS

Ballpoint pen over photo matte paper, 2011

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A Novel Idea

NovelIdea

Concepts and characters for a planned trilogy of dystopian science-fiction/adventure novels.

 

 

Book1

Characters
Several are deliberate homages. The rest are constructs.

T1

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A Paper Trail: My Work in Newspapers

Newspaper-Mast

Talk about newspapers these days and people’s eyes seem to glaze over. Papers belong to the era of one’s grandfather, a bygone age when trees were felled, wood smashed into paper pulp and printed to carry day-old news. They are quaint, and their total extinction forestalled only through the bewildering, continued existence of the likes of the New York Times, the WSJ, The Guardian, Le Monde and all those venerable broadsheets which still shape national policies the world over.

In my incarnation as a journalist, I mostly describe myself as a newspaperman (new media man/person doesn’t sound right). But why would I attribute myself as being part of an archaic order that is being gradually hacked to oblivion by television and the internet? Back in 2007, when I was graduating from college in Texas, the national consensus of journalism was that it was dead as we knew it — in the form of newspapers and magazines anyway. Pundits proclaimed the rise of the citizen journalist, the neighborhood scribe who stalked the streets, taking to online forums to report on what he or she saw, replacing traditional reporting, and triggering the demise of the old order. These scribes, the pundits said, would give rise to Social Journalism — a transparent and community driven form of news gathering whose results would be bared online. And here I was with my newly minted BA in English Lit and Mass Comm facing a potential hostile population of one billion “citizen” journalists – the odds and economics of which sounded untenable and outright insane.

But what the pundits, with their prognostications failed to understand was that journalism is a trained profession, much like how lawyers are trained, albeit without the longevity of law school. Imagine if suddenly one day, the populace declared lawyers were obsolete, and proclaimed the rise of the citizen-lawyer? Well, we’ve all heard the one about the man who acted as his own counsel…

Print journalism is inherently a white collar profession, with an intricate, mental tool-set, but which over the last 25 years has been arguably eroded through the interference of media barons, incompetent publishers, corporate advertising, and quisling, piss-poor editorialists and pressure to “sex up” the news. At its core, print journalism seeks only to illuminate, explain and inform, at the cost of near anonymity. Nobody every really became famous merely working in papers, except for maybe Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and others whose names escape me… I rest my case. But mostly the work is intended to help create a more informed public and an electorate. The same can be achieved in new media, but newspapers possess an undeniable legitimacy. When Edward Snowden decided to leak the NSA files to the world, for example, there is a reason why he chose newspapers to leak to and not to TV news or online outlets.

We convince ourselves that free news is good even if it happens to be inferior because all we need are the basic facts. A case in the point is the BBC which partly uses a “robot,” an advanced algorithm to edit and format some of its stories. Which seems to explain many of the articles have incomplete or replicated facts. Although the system has improved, there was a time when stories fail to ask and answer the most basic of questions. And if we can’t get our news for free, we fall back on online news outlets with grandiose titles and strange urls, and social media, that great echo chamber. The end result is an entire generation of people who cannot tell the difference between reporting and propaganda, op-ed and news pieces, fact and hyperbole, press and prostitution.

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