Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day

Return to Cheppy, Armistice Day
By James H. Johnston

            Looking up from his cell phone, Jean Lamorlette, mayor of Cheppy, France, said, in French:  “Your email mentioned a German kitchen.  I can show it to you.”  My translating- partner and I were in Cheppy to trace my father’s path in the Meuse-Argonne campaign in World War I.  That happened 100 years ago.  Dad had wanted to return to Cheppy, but never did, so I was making the journey in his memory.
            Lamorlette was referring to an email I sent with this entry from Dad’s diary:  “Stayed in ravine south of Cheppy all night of [September] 26th and went into Cheppy next morning which had been taken day before and there cooked our breakfast in Dutch kitchen.”  The word “Dutch” was soldier-slang for German.  Remarkably, the kitchen was still there after 100 years.  But as I would learn, although the French are still grateful for what the United States did in World Wars I and II, they don’t hold the same views with respect to out current policy toward Europe..
            Caught up by patriotism and a sense of adventure, my father, Harold Johnston, enlisted in the Kansas National Guard soon after President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917.  Dad was a nineteen-year-old high school senior and a farm boy.  He had not traveled more than a few dozen miles from the family farm near Salina, Kansas
            The Kansas Guard was called to active duty that summer, merged with the Missouri Guard into the 35th U.S. Infantry Division, and sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for training.  Captain Harry S. Truman, the future president from Independence, Missouri, was in the same division.  The troops slept in Civil War era tents, practiced with dummy weapons, and drilled in formations from Napoleon’s time.  Measles killed 46 men.  After seven months of such out-of-date training, they were shipped to France to fight veteran German troops.
            President Wilson instructed the commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France, General John Pershing, not to let American troops be fed piecemeal into the maw of a war that had dragged on since 1914 at a terrible cost in lives.  Therefore, Pershing held off committing Americans to combat in great numbers until he had enough to turn the tide.  That proved to be September 26, 1918, when he launched the Meuse-Argonne offensive.  By this time, he had 1.2 million Americans in France. The result proved worth the wait: The Meuse-Argonne campaign was decisive; the Armistice that ended the war came forty-seven days later.
            I had researched my father’s experience before going to France.  In addition to his diary, I read books about the 35th Division and pored over files at the National Archives.  I wrote an 80-page book about my father’s experiences for my family.  Thus, I often knew exactly when and where Dad was in 1918.  For example, he wrote that he passed through Clermont-en-Argonne on the night of September 24 to within one kilometer of the front line and moved into final position at 11:00 the next night. 
            The Division’s mimeographed  battle order indicated Dad’s machine-gun company was on “Luzemont” to fire in support of the attack the next morning.  The spelling was wrong; the hill is Buzemont.  A heavy Allied artillery barrage on the German positions began at 2:30 a.m. September 26.  Dad probably couldn’t sleep with shells roaring overhead.   He wrote in his diary: “At 5:30 the machine-gun barrage started and lasted 28 mins.  Then 2 min pause then ‘dough boys’ went over there,” meaning the infantry left the trenches to cross the no man’s land between the lines.  The battlefield was shrouded in fog that morning, adding to the other confusions of war.
            It was a bright, warm afternoon when I stood on Buzemont on September 25, 2018.  It is not marked on maps or by signs.  I found it only because a secretary in the office of the mayor of the village of Vauquois recognized it as the name of a nearby farm.  Looming ominously over the area is the hill Butte Vauquois.  In 1918, it was riddled with tunnels and heavily fortified by the Germans.  Fortunately, the 100 or so Germans dug in there surrendered once they saw they were under attack by 28,000 Americans.  The wave of dough boys lapped up the hill and flowed around the sides and then started across open fields towards Cheppy, the day’s objective. 
            Before they could reach the village, however, they encountered Buanthe Creek, where the Germans had eight machine-gun positions.  An army doctor’s report after the battle lamented that the poorly-trained Americans advanced into machine-gun fire with their heads down, like “cattle facing a hail storm,” as though their helmets would deflect bullets.   The American attack stalled.  Captain Alexander Skinker of St. Louis, Missouri, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for leading a failed attack on the guns. 
            Lieutenant Colonel George C. Patton, who rose to fame in World War II, was in charge of a battalion of tanks that were supposed to rescue the infantry if it bogged down, and so he ordered his tanks to move forward.  But Patton, who was on foot, became so incensed at the sight of American troops falling back that he ran to stop them and was shot by the machine-guns.  Mayor Lamorlette said that a few years ago Patton’s grandson contacted him, just as I had, and he and Patton’s grandson visited the field where it happened.  Today, between where Patton fell and Buanthe Creek stands the Missouri Memorial.  The state erected it in 1922 to honor its sons who fought there. 
            Dad wrote that his unit moved out from its initial position, on Buzemont, around 10:00 on the morning of the attack.  Pulling their heavy machine-guns in carts, they made the three or four miles to the Buanthe Creek ravine where they spent the night.  Harry Truman wrote that his artillery battery spent its first night around Butte Vauquois but stopped at the ravine the next morning.  Truman remembered seeing a line of thirty American dead, cut down by the machine-guns.
            A short distance beyond the creek is the German kitchen.  Mme. Saunier owns the property today, but her parents owned it during the war.   They evacuated to Belgium, and the house was destroyed in the fighting.  The Germans took over the property and built a reinforced concrete building in an “L” shape in the backyard.  One leg was an army mess; the other was a hospital.  Her parents returned home after the war and lived in the structure while they rebuilt the house.  The Germans came again in World War II, Mayor Lamorlette said, pointing to handwritten markings in German on the stone over the door of the old commandant’s office with the date “1940” clearly visible. 
            The mayor then took us to the German army cemetery outside of Cheppy.  He said 6,165 bodies, or body parts, are buried there.  We noted the unexpected irony of markers with Stars of David and Jewish names. 
            Dad continued on through Cheppy after breakfast of the second day and turned north towards the next objective, the village of Charpentry.  Dad wrote that his unit “lay on the road between Cheppy and Charpentry under heavy art. [artillery] fire.”  We drove the same road, a road laid out 2,000 years ago for a Roman army.  Dad’s unit followed the first wave of infantry into Charpenty around 5:00 the afternoon of the second day. At this point in his diary, his chronicle stops with “We wandered around all nite trying.” The abrupt ending puzzled me for a while. 
            The village of Varennes is a mile west of Cheppy.  The day I visited, it was filled with Americans.  Like me, they were in France for the 100th anniversary.  I joked that there were more Americans in town in 2018 than there had been in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.  My partner and I bought chicken sandwiches from the boulangerie on the town square and lunched outside the nearby church with a group of American Army chaplains.  They had come to tour the battlefield from a base in Germany.  When I told the group hat my father had been in the 35th Division, a colonel grimaced:  “Those boys got roughed up pretty bad.  The Germans counterattacked with a whole division.” 
            The German division had been fighting for four years, the 35th for two days.  Many senior officers of the 35th were killed or wounded in the initial fighting.  One colonel was found cowering in a shell crater.  The division was disorganized and spread over fifteen or twenty square miles.  The few roads were destroyed or clogged.   Food, ammunition, and medical supplies could not be brought forward.  Artillery support failed.
            The entire division of 28,000 men had collapsed as a fighting unit.  It was pulled off the line after four days.  On the last night of combat, only 300 men could be organized into a defensive line to protect the rest.  When relieved on the morning of October 1, just 4,700 answered muster.  The casualty rate ran as high as 40% in the combat units.  The division never fought again. Although it had been in France since June, almost all of its 1,057 battle deaths occurred in the four days of fighting.  Little wonder Dad’s narrative stopped so abruptly.  The Division history book has a picture of men milling around that last morning with the caption “Surely you remember that day.”
            Dad had wanted to return to Cheppy in 1963.  My brother was in the Army in Germany and invited him to do just that.  But our mother was not in good health, and Dad wouldn’t go without her.  If he had gone, I thought, he would have seen that the “Dutch kitchen” was still there. The idea of how amazed he would have been and of the kindness of the mayor and Mme. Saunier brought tears to my eyes when I thanked them.
            I would explain my pilgrimage to the French I met and would always get a warm reception.  One man contrasted the relationship between the United States and France during World War I with the relationship today:  “We were defeated then.  America saved us.  But now, we are alone.”  He did not like the idea the United States’ threatened retreat from NATO.  At a rental car counter, I told two Frenchman that my father had fought in World War I in the Meuse-Argonne campaign.  Although both World War I and World War II were things they had only read about, they shook my hand and thanked me for what my father had done for France.  The attendant who drove up with my car did the same. I was a minor celebrity.
            I hadn’t expected this spontaneous outpouring of emotion for something that happened 100 years.  I visited the Argonne American Cemetery where 14,000 of the 50,000 men who died in combat in World War I are buried.  It is the largest American military cemetery in Europe.  Each grave was marked for the anniversary with an American and a French flag to remember that these men made the ultimate sacrifice for the two countries.
            What motivated these soldiers?  Like Dad, patriotism and a sense of adventure may have been at work.  Then too, this was the war to end all wars.  They were brave and self-sacrificing and valued honor.  But what of the United States today?  The comment that France stands alone was comparatively mild.  The French also respected what the United States did in World War II.  At the Normandy beaches, we met two women who actually saw the landings and talked about the smiles on the men’s faces.  These generations are what made America great in the minds of the French.  It is sad to see how that respect has been squandered lately.  If you want to know what made America great, you need to return to Cheppy.
La Maire in Cheppy

Cemetery at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where my father is buried.  The 35th Division is headquartered at the fort.

Sunday, October 14, 2018


    My trip had several purposes.  I wanted to see Europe for myself, having never been there.  I
wanted to see France through my father’s eyes. I wanted to do what he had wanted to do but had
not been able: to return to Cheppy.
    Eastern France is the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen.  It is a landscape of low, uneven,
lazy-rolling hills, waves on a gentle ocean, bounded by tree-filled ravines.  When I was there, the
harvest was over and the fields plowed. The bare soil was black, gray, brown, and light tan.  It is like
central Kansas where my father grew up but not as flat nor as treeless. There are notable differences.
Most are man-made.  The roads in all of rural Kansas are laid out in mile-square grids, called
“sections,” as stipulated when the state was settled in the latter part of the 19th century.  The roads in
France display no such mathematical precision but instead wind across the countryside along
seemingly natural footpaths. The only long, straight road I traveled was the old Roman road between
Varennes and Charpentry.  It is tree-lined and arrow-straight on a ridge between the two villages.

Farm on the road to Cheppy

    This part of France is characterized by a complete absence of signage whereas even the most
remote parts of Kansas have, to this day, rusted Burma Shave signs and sometimes in the distance the
Golden Arches of a MacDonald’s.  The farms in Kansas are usually large, one-crop affairs whereas
those in France are smaller and grain shares the land with pasture for the ubiquitous “les vaches,” the
typically-white, dairy cows. Rural Kansas looks like the agricultural factory it is whereas rural France is
pastoral in every sense of that word.
Les vaches

Restaurant at inn near Cheppy

Small towns dot the scene in both places, but again there is a difference.  Those in Kansas have been abandoned, their buildings vacant and falling apart.  The small farms they served have been consolidated into larger holdings, and their farm supply businesses have gone out of business.  In France though, the small towns, like Cheppy and Varennes, are still alive. What supports them is less clear. When I was there, tourism was one source of income since it was the 100th anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.  Truckers are another source of income. Unlike Kansas, large trailer-trucks regularly rumble through the small towns, a horror on the narrow streets of the tiny towns of Normandy. To my father, Cheppy would not have looked too different from the town of Kipp, which is just two miles from the family farm outside Salina, but Kipp today is practically a ghost town.  You can spot the villages in France from a distance by the church steeple rising skyward from the ravine they are in. Each village has its own, built long ago when people walked to church on Sunday. The same was once true in rural America, but the old neighborhood church has largely been replaced by mega-churches collecting congregations from many miles away.


My memory of my father’s talk of France is that he found it backward by early-twentieth-century
Kansas standards.  That is not true today. Except for the old buildings and bucolic feel, rural France is
as up-to-date as Kansas City, indeed more so.  It is a case in point that modernization doesn’t need to
come at the cost of charm.
    When my mind’s eye goes back to September 26, 1918, it sees fog, smoke and the flash
of explosions.  It hears whistling and exploding shells, the rattle of machine guns, and the cries of
thousands of wounded and dying men.  It sees destroyed farm houses and burning fields pock-marked
with shell craters. And it feels almost uncontrollable fear.  It is not a place to which I would necessarily
want to return, yet my father did.
    The most surprising thing to me about Europe was how violent its history is.  I knew of course that
I was visiting a World War I area in the Meuse-Argonne region and a World War II area at Normandy.  
But war stalked me on the whole trip. I went to Reims expecting to see a beautiful cathedral, but the
first thing I noticed upon getting there were obvious shell holes in the exterior walls.  I thought the
arms missing from the statues were caused by time and weather, but they were shot off. The Roman
forum seemed peaceful enough but the “Field of Mars” obviously wan’t. In Trier, the ominous black
gate is a vestige of a 6 km wall the Romans built to protect the city from marauding Germans.  In
Verdun, I wanted to visit the same WWI fortifications my father did, and so when I saw a huge wall in
the city, I assumed that was the one my father visited. However, men there told me the in-town
fortifications dated from the 17th or 18th century. The 20th century ones were several miles out of
town.  The dramatic Rodin victory statue in Verdun commemorates Parisian resistance to the
German invasion in 1870. Throughout Europe, statues, even in and around churches, such as Joan
of Arc, have weapons in their hands. Richard-the-Lion-Hearted outside Parliament in London carries
a sword. While tourists gawk at the various monuments in Paris, the fact is a great many of them
commemorate victory in war or, like the Champs Elysees, the Elysian fields of dead. The Bayeux
tapestry celebrates the Normans conquest of England. True enough Washington D.C. has war
memorials, and I've written about them, but I know of no statue in the city of a military leader with
weapon in hand.  The major memorials, such as the Washington Monument and the Lincoln,
Jefferson, and MLK Memorials, are for political not military accomplishments. Europe today is
peaceable, but its history wasn’t.
Rodin in Verdun
Richard the Lion-Hearted outside Parliament

     My trip also brought thoughts I had not expected.  Rather than simply remembering my father, I
was awakened to what he and the WWI generation of Americans stood for.  Decency, honor,
principle, idealism, and pragmatism. Visiting Normandy brought home to me that this was repeated
in WWII.  Tom Brokaw entitled his book on WWII “The Greatest Generation.” They were Ronald
Reagan’s “Boys of Point du Hoc,” the men who selflessly fought and died to free Europe from the
evils of Nazism.  
    And I reflect on the men who shook my hand in Reims and thanked me for what my father had
done.  They said the United States had saved them when France was defeated then, but now they
stand alone.  The people of Cheppy remembered what the United States did for them in both wars
just like the women from Caen remembered June 6, 1944, when the Allies came to Normandy.  To an
American visiting Europe, the slogan Make America Great Again rings hollow. America was made
great by our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and by their parents, not by
retreating from the world or by asking for a quid pro quo for each element of our foreign policy, but
rather by the realization that decency, honor, principles, idealism, and pragmatism are what made
America great.  It is why this country is respected around the world. Returning to Cheppy made me
see how far the current administration strays from what really made America great.
    My father was a boy from a Kansas farm who never had traveled more than a few dozen miles
from home before joining the army and seeing the world.  The world would never be the same.
I learned the same lesson in Cheppy.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Cemeteries and memorials

     Vintage motion pictures online show an American army cemetery outside Cheppy and burials there.  The bodies were later exhumed and moved to what is now Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.  It is the largest American military cemetery in Europe with some 14,000 graves from WWI.  A 100-year commemoration ceremony was scheduled for Sunday, September 22.  Mayor Lamorlette of Cheppy said he planned to attend.  An American we met in Reims was going to lay candles for a luminaria and read names of 39 of the dead.  However, violent thunderstorms hit the region that day with 70 mph winds.  A hundred miles away in Trier, Germany, where I was, the same storm put Kansas thunderstorms to shame and lasted for hours.  Much of the ceremony was cancelled.  A few days later, I visited the cemetery. The flags were still there, and I left a copy of my book on Dad with the superintendent, Bruce C. Malone, Jr.  I signed it, but postdated it by a day so it read September 26, 2018.
American Argonne Cemetery
     German dead are interred in a cemetery outside Cheppy that is shown in an earlier post in which I noted some of the dead were Jewish.  I saw one cross with the name Acker on it.  Dad's maternal grandmother was named Acker.  It is a common German surname, but it raises the remote possibility that Dad might have shot, or shot at, a distant cousin.  I once asked him if he had killed anyone in the war.  He answered, "I don't know.  I never saw the people we were firing at."
     I saw no memorials to Americans in WWI in Paris.  There was this memorial to the
sons of France in WWI under the Arch de Triumphe.
      A Frenchman from Brest, France, that I met in Reims, said his port city has a large monument to the Americans.  About 700,000 American soldiers went through there in WWI.
       Washington D.C. has not had a WWI memorial although one is planned.  On one visit to Washington, I took Dad to the Second Division monument on the ellipse.  It honors that division's service in WWI.  Dad liked it and said it was enough.  We didn't know that the First Division, the Big Red One that took over from Dad's 35th, has a larger monument just a block away.
Second Division Monument
       In Kansas City, Missouri, where Dad worked when I was growing up, there is the Liberty Memorial for WWI.  The city claims that it is home to the only legitimate memorial to WWI.  It is a good claim since Kansas City started raising funds in 1919.  And, as motion pictures on the memorial's website show, commanders from the United States, France, Britain, and Belgium came to the dedication a few years later.  In more recent times, the memorial acquired and installed a large commemorative mural in its museum.  The painting depicts a celebratory parade in Paris at the end of the war and shows the same four commanders.  But the mural isn't original to the Liberty Memorial.  Instead, it was painted for the walls of a restaurant in New Jersey (as I recall) and was only moved to Kansas City when the restaurant closed.  After it was installed in the museum, city-pride took over and the face of Captain Harry Truman was added by painting his face into the crowd behind the commanders.  The memorial itself consists of a large museum building and a tall column with a perpetual flame (steam lit by a red light at night) and flanked by two large "Assyrian sphinxes"  The sphinxes perplexed me when I visited several years ago, but visiting the British Museum in London on my recent trip, I saw what I believe to be their model.  I don't know if, or why, a WWI memorial in Kansas City was inspired by an exhibit in London.  Maybe someday I'll find an answer.
Assyrian sphinx in the British Museum

Friday, October 12, 2018

Return From Cheppy

     Returning to the United States from Cheppy today was easy for me.  Cheppy is about a three-hour drive to Paris at the posted 130 Kmph (80 mph) speed although I detoured to Normandy first.  From there to London on the 200 mph Eurostar train was a two-hour trip.  And the flight from London to Dulles Airport in Washington took about 7 1/2 hours.  There isn't much fatigue in flying on a Boeing 787 with two passable meals served enroute.
     My father's experiences were quite different.  The 35th Division remained in France from the November 11, 1918 Armistice until March 1919.  During this time, they were trained and made tough for European combat, training that probably would have prevented the collapse in the Meuse-Argonne.  Dad took leave to see eastern France including Fort de Vaux at Verdon.  He recorded that human bones were still on the surface of the land.  Then his unit had a stint at a rifle range near Champagne before being moved to Montoir in southwestern France.  According to his diary, it was "best town I have been in in France.  Beaucou[p] mademoiselle of every kind."  He shipped out on board the USS Matsonia at Saint-Nazaire. The ocean voyage was rough.  A wave took off two ventilators and some railing.  Dad got seasick.  Years later, he told my brother that he was advised to eat lemon drops to prevent seasickness. The remedy didn't work and left Dad with a distaste for lemon drops for the rest of his life.  They landed at Newport News, Virginia.  The Army erected a makeshift triumphal arch at dockside, and returning soldiers marched through it.  It has since been replaced by a permanent, commemorative arch.  Dad's unit went by train on a kind of victory tour, stopping to march through cities along the route, before arriving in Kansas City where they were mustered out.  I still have a photograph of a jaunty Harold Johnston in uniform in front of the Revolutionary War monument in Yorktown.  Two years ago, after I had researched and written a book about my father's experiences, I posed before the same monument.
Dad's ship home
Dad at Yorktown

Me at Yorktown

Thursday, October 11, 2018

My father's equipment

     I still have some of the equipment Dad saved from World War I.  My guess is that he had this with him in Cheppy.  First is his helmet.  The 35th Division patch is stenciled on the side. I also have his mess kit and first aid kit.   I saw similar items in museums in France. Note the close up of the mess kit stamped with "1918 France."

     When I was a boy, I often asked my dad about his experiences in the war.  He told of a time when his machine gun company was moving through woods and came under artillery fire.  The men all ran to the side of the road and fell to the ground.  Dad was carrying the heavy tripod of the machine gun on his shoulders and, after hitting the ground, felt something warm trickling down the back of his neck and shouted "I'm hit."  His buddy, who was next to him, leaned over and said, "The tripod hit you on the head." Dad would always point to a slight dent in the skin of his bald head.
Hotchkiss Machine gun in museum in Reims, France

     Of course the most valuable item that I have is Dad's diary.  He had begun it in training at Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma.  But apparently, after he got to France, he had to turn it in for security reasons.  There are no contemporaneous entries from then until after the war.  But in a section for "Battles I was in" appears this page in his handwriting about having breakfast in the "Dutch kitchen" in Cheppy. Below it are pictures of the inside of the kitchen part of the building and of the electrical wiring that the Germans installed in 1916.
Dad's diary
Inside of German kitchen

1916 electrical wiring

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The 35th Division's collapse

     Now that this blog nears its end,  I want to tell the sad story of what happened to Dad's 35th Division composed of the Missouri and Kansas National Guards.  After five days of fighting, it was counterattacked by a veteran German division.  Inexperienced, poorly led, and poorly trained, the 35th collapsed and was taken out of combat for the rest of the war. On its final night of battle, September 30, only 300 men, out of 28,000, formed an organized resistance along the Balny-Charpentry line a few miles north of Cheppy and Varennes.  Their stand was a 20th century Thermopylae except this time the Spartans, the 35th, won.  They were replaced by the First Infantry Division.

The 300 holding the line

     After the war, a memorial to the Meuse-Argonne campaign was erected on the top of Montfaucon, a hill an estimated ten miles north of where the campaign started on September 26.  The circular staircase inside the memorial appears in an earlier post.   A plaque in the building has the map below of the Meuse-Argonne campaign.  At the bottom of the map, you can see where the 35th stopped and the 1st took over.
     When relieved on the morning of October 1, only 4,700 men of the 28,000 in the 35th Division answered muster.  A picture in the Division's history book of the demoralized troops that morning is captioned, "Surely you remember that day."
Surely you remember that day

Memorial on Montfaucon
Meuse-Argonne campaign
     This is how the ridge line between Balny and Charpentry looks today.  It is roughly where the 300 men made a stand to protect the rest of the Division, which was strung out to the south to below where they had started on September 26.  And I should add that the 1st Division, also known as the Big Red One, was in the Normandy landing at Omaha Beach in World War II.  It is now stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, near where my father grew up.
From Balny looked east toward Charpentry in that depression

Monday, October 8, 2018

National Portrait Galleries

     At the National Portrait Gallery in London, I first saw the room with these portraits of Richard III, Henry VII,  and Elizabeth I.  But I'm not a royaltist, so having asked for directions at the front desk, I went to see Ayuba Suleiman Diallo.  My request raised eyebrows for a second, but someone knew the portrait was in Room 11.

Richard III
Henry VIII

Elizabeth I

     Diallo was a Fulani Muslim who was brought as a slave to Maryland in 1731.  I write about him in my book From Slave Ship to Harvard.  Indeed, I have a black and white image of him in the book.  When I wrote the book in 2012, his portrait was at the NPG but owned by the Qatar Museum, which had recently purchased it but agreed to leave it with the NPG in England.  I know this because I had to obtain the image and permission from the Qatar Museum.  After arriving as a slave in Maryland at age 16, Diallo was put to work on a tobacco plantation on the Eastern Shore.  Literate and terribly unhappy, he did a surprising thing.  He wrote a letter to his father in Africa, saying essentially "get me out of here."  Of course, the letter didn't reach his father, but men in England read it and arranged for his passage to London where he was feted and painted by William Hoare, a student of the great portrait painter Thomas Gainsborough.
       As I was looking at Diallo's portrait, two different school groups came by, one composed mainly of descendants from India or Pakistan and the other of descendants from Africa.  I am not shy about sharing stories from my book, so I gave each a short talk on African Muslims in America, showing a photo of Peale’s portrait of Yarrow on my cell phone.  Both groups as well as their teachers seemed quite appreciative.  One of the people with me said, “That is one of the few faces in the National Portrait Gallery that is the same color as theirs,” as you can see from the photograph below.
        This brings me to the difference between the NPG in London and the NPG in Washington DC with respect to racial sensitivity.  At the Washington gallery, former curator Asma Naeem arranged to borrow the James Alexander Simpson portrait of Yarrow from the Georgetown Library and placed it prominently among those of Yarrow’s white contemporaries to make the point that white males weren't the only founders of the country.  Diallo isn't given such treatment in England.
Jim and Diallo

Diallo in Room 11

Impromptu lecture

Saturday, October 6, 2018


     Astronomy was a passion of mine as a boy.  I built my own reflecting telescope from scratch, grinding the mirror in the cold basement of our house, and spent mosquito-ridden hours outside at night looking at the stars.  So naturally, while in London,I took the short boat ride to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory.  When Britannia ruled the waves, her sailing ships needed a precise way of determining longitude.  Doing so requires accurate clocks on a ship and tables showing when certain stars should be directly overhead at various longitudes.  The Royal Observatory was established to service this need.  Its location became the zero meridian, and time all around the world, or at least all around the British empire upon which the sun never set, was measured from Greenwich Mean Time.  Tourists visiting the Observatory today pay 16 pounds for the privilege of entering the gates and standing with feet on each side of the zero meridian.  The importance of bestriding an invisible, artificial line escapes me.  So I asked an attendant about this.  He dismissed me at first by saying that if I wanted to see the meridian, I could bloody well pay the 16 pounds.  But when I pointed out that the zero meridian runs from the South Pole, through the Observatory in Greenwich, to the North Pole and that there are infinite points along the line where one can bestride it, he allowed as how the weather vane on top of the Observatory also had an arrow pointing north and so I could indeed stand astride the meridian outside the gates without charge.
The town of Greenwich and the Old Royal Naval College from the Observatory
     William Herschel constructed a very large reflecting telescope with a mirror that was 48 inches in diameter.  (Mine was six inches).  So when I saw a remaining fragment of the tube on the grounds of the Observatory, I naturally had to have my picture taken with it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Video of my return to Cheppy

     Now that I'm back in the United States, I have access to a computer and plan to add a few more details.  I will begin with this video of the drive into Cheppy on September 26.  I uploaded to YouTube.  The video is taken from the same direction as Dad would have gone from Buzemont, from west to east.  It begins at the Missouri Memorial outside Cheppy.  The fact that the memorial was put in this spot in 1922 by men who fought there tends to confirm that this division's route into Cheppy.  My guess is that this road was there in 1918 although the mayor told me that the Germans had built a small railroad track here to supply munitions to the fortifications on Butte Vauquois.  About 10 seconds into the video, you will see a bridge on the road.  The mayor said this is the ravine that Dad and Truman referred to.  Again, my guess is that elements of the 35th Division, not just Dad's machine gun company, must have camped along the ravine where they might get water to bathe (not drink) from the small stream.  As the video continues, you see the sign "Cheppy" at the outskirts of the village.  Next is the German kitchen, and the camera pans to it behind the house of the woman who showed it to us. Then left into the village and another left to "downtown" Cheppy and la mairie, the mayor's office.
Returning to Cheppy on September 26

Sunday, September 30, 2018


     We walked through most of central Paris Friday. We estimated we covered at least ten
miles. Afternoon found us on the Champs Elysees, and we decided to stop for coffee. By
random chance, we picked the chic Fourquet, where two glasses of champagne, two patisseries,
and a bottle of mineral water ran to 64 Euros. Seated next to us was a distinguished man--imagine Charles De Gaulle, wonderfully dressed in a tweedy sports coat, red sweater, starched
white shirt, and red, striped tie. I asked him what the thin red thread on this lapel signified. It
was the Legion of Honor, awarded since the time of Napoleon to military and civil service for
distinguished service. In his case it was his years as ambassador to a former French colony in
Africa. Ever so slowly, I elicited his story. He lives near Metz in eastern France and is in Paris
visiting his adult children. Since retiring, he stays busy overseeing the family’s castle and a
thousand acres of land. He doesn’t live in the castle because, although an historic site, it’s run
down with a leaking roof. During WWII, it was a headquarters for both German and American
armies, at different times of course. There was much more to his story, but those parts were too
personal for telling on the Internet. We tarried, talking to him, before setting off for another two
hours of walking and dinner.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


    I have skipped a day, giving both the reader and myself a rest. I thought we had finished with war with the visit to the Normandy beaches, but that proved not to be the case because we went to Bayeux Thursday morning to see the tapestry. It is not truly a tapestry, I learned, but rather an embroidered cloth scroll. Frankly that was a disappointment because I was expecting to see a wall covered with a beautiful wool tapestry. It tells the story of the Norman conquest of England in pictures over perhaps a hundred feet or more of a two-foot high scroll protected by glass. Viewing it is an exasperating experience for someone like me who wants to tour at my own pace. The visitor is handed a cell phone-size listening device which narrates the story at a fixed pace, designed to keep the visitor moving along the scroll. But we were behind a large group of grade school students who moved at a slower pace, so the narrative that I listened to generally talked about a section of the scroll that was two or three feet ahead of where I was. So about all I got out of it was that because Harold broke his oath to William (spelled Willelm on the scroll), William conquered England. Adding to my frustration was the fact that the visitor does not see the explanatory exhibits until after he sees the scroll.
     From Bayeux, we drove to Paris where I had the dubious pleasure of driving through Paris traffic. Remembering the scene from European family vacation, I successfully avoided getting stuck in the traffic circles before getting to the hotel near the Place de Concorde and then to the rental car drop-off which oddly did not have a sign and which required the driver to take the car to a parking lot nearby.
     Friday, I gave Yarrow book talks at two university preparatory schools. Although these were explained to me, I am not sure I am correctly explaining the system, but my understanding is that these students are in a two-year program designed to prepare them for testing and admission to the elite universities. No matter, I gave my talks in English. The students were attentive and asked great questions at the end. Getting questions required some prodding on my part since, I was warned, French students tend to be shy about doing that. But once the ice was broken, the questions flowed. These talks were sponsored and arranged by the U.S. embassy in French as part of long-established State Department programs to provide cultural programs in foreign countries. I may have learned as much about French culture as the students learned from me about Yarrow Mamout’s experiences in America. Traveling to and from the two schools by taxi also gave me a chance to see most of Paris, obviating the need to do that today. Of course, it was an “oh there is the Eiffel Tower” experience. Still, it means the next two days can be spent exploring the sites we want to see.