Military history has always been an interest of mine.
Twice I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, which was the place where Custer and the US Army Seventh Cavalry fought against the Lakota (Sioux) and their allies the Cheyenne. Custer and five companies of cavalry with him were wiped out; though some of the Seventh survived, there were extensive losses on both sides.
The first time I was there, I was traveling from Las Vegas, Nevada, to northern Illinois. I had just graduated what was then known as the US Air Force Fighter Weapons School. It was a day in early May, 1991. It was a beautiful spring day; it was warm and comfortable, sunny, with fluffy white cumulus clouds floating by, so close to the ground I felt I could reach up and touch them.
The Little Bighorn Battlefield was an eerie place. There were few other people there, and a road allowed visitors to drive along the low hill line that served as a defensive position for the Seventh Cavalry troopers. The first stop along that road from the highway was a small, fenced-in place where Custer himself had been found, dead, surrounded by dead cavalrymen.
I could feel their presence, 115 years after the battle.
For me, every man there was a hero, even if all he did was look up at the sky and cry during the battle.
I went back there again several years ago. The place had changed; they had improved the facilities. Along the way, I talked with some of the Lakota people who live in the area.
For me, they were all Americans; it is sad that we all had to fight each other, but I honor the Lakota and Cheyenne every bit as much as the US soldiers.
Since that time, I have begun to try to learn some Lakota. We need to preserve these Native American cultures and languages, because if they die out, it will be a loss for all humanity, and especially for us Americans.
These past few years, it is similar for me traveling around the Deep South. I come across old graveyards where Confederate soldiers are buried. At times, I find the graves of men who served in the Revolutionary War.
I was raised in the North, and grew up thinking that the Confederacy, like the Indians, were an enemy. As I got older, I learned. The Confederate soldiers, too, were Americans. The war had to be fought to keep the Republic together, and to end slavery. But, it is sad: how much more could we have accomplished if there had been no rebellion, and if we could have agreed to end slavery peacefully, years sooner?
In the fall of 1991, a few months after my first visit to Little Bighorn, I went to Germany to visit an old friend from high school.
While there, I of course had to take a trip to Bastogne.
You may remember that tiny town in Belgium. In late 1944, Hitler tried one last gamble to change his fortunes: he collected over twenty divisions of troops and on December 16th launched them against the American lines in the Ardennnes Forest. As all attacks do, this attack caused a bulge in the defending lines; noticing this, war correspondents dubbed it “the Battle of the Bulge”, and that is how it is known to history. The US Army fell back to Bastogne, and rushed in elements of the elite 101st Airborne Division; the Germans couldn’t take the town, and their offensive failed.
I rode a train into the Ardennes Forest that fall. It was a self-propelled passenger car – a one-car train. I got off in Bastogne, found a hotel, and got a room. I walked around a little that rainy autumn night, then bought a bottle of wine and some bread, and went back to my room for the evening.
The next day, I got up and walked around. Exploring, I noticed a place called the “Cafe Le Patton” – the Patton Cafe. Later, I discovered a small museum; it was closed, but there was a phone number to call to make an appointment to have it opened up. I called the number and in my broken-but-not-too-bad French made an appointment for a tour. The curator met me at 2:00 PM. It was strange, because the museum had been broken into, so there was a police officer there with us filling out a report as I got my tour. Occasionally, the curator would explain something in French, but I wouldn’t get it; the policeman would help translate, speaking English that was almost as bad as my French. They were really great people.
As it ended, I thanked the curator for taking the time to give me a personal tour, and he answered “For an American, it’s a pleasure.”
I was touched, but didn’t really understand the gravity of his statement.
That night, I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant… got a little drunk (what the heck, I was on vacation and walking)… went back to my room. You had to be inside the hotel by 10:00 PM, or you were locked out until the next morning.
The next day I got up, had the free continental breakfast in the dining room, carrying on a nice conversation in French with some people – I forget where they were from, but French was a foreign language for them, too – and then went out to explore again.
It was overcast, chilly, rainy…. There was another museum farther out, and I toured it. It was big, and had a lot of stuff dealing with the battle. (The other museum had been small, and had historical information going back to when humans first inhabited the region.)
Walking back late in the afternoon, I stopped in at the Cafe Le Patton.
Understand, this was a neighborhood place. The locals (men) went there in the evening to have a few drinks and catch up on the day’s events. (I didn’t notice what was going on there in the daytime; presumably lunch.) When I walked in, everybody looked at me.
They were quite friendly, and were pleased to find out I could speak passable French.
And then I explained I was an active duty officer in the US Air Force, on vacation. I showed them my green ID card.
At that point, I was ushered to a seat, and an older gentleman came and sat down with me. He spoke fairly good English; he had learned it from the downed US and British aviators that he had helped during the war.
We talked a LOT. There was a younger man named Guy who stood nearby: Guy had studied English in school, and spoke it reasonably well; whenever the man and I had trouble, Guy helped us out with a translation.
We talked and talked.
Finally, toward the end of the evening, as I was getting ready to leave (it was after 9 PM, and I didn’t want to be locked out), the man told me a story.
In a reference to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and the beginning of World War II in 1940, he said that three times before, the Germans had attacked through the Ardennes Forest, and each time, they occupied the region for years. The fourth time, though (in 1944, at the Battle of the Bulge), it was different: this time, the Americans were here, and the Germans were stopped cold.
There was, of course, more to the story than that: in 1870, 1914 and 1940, Germany was an ascendant power; in 1944, Germany was war-weary, scraping the bottom of the barrel for troops and resources, and low on fuel for their panzer divisions. On top of that, in the previous three attacks, the German forces were moving along the roads through the woods in a southwesterly direction toward Paris; this time, they were curving northwest, toward the coast, and the roads didn’t really run in that direction.
That didn’t really matter, though.
What mattered to these people was that the Americans were there, and the Germans got stopped.
It was late, and I had to leave. I asked the bartender how much I owed, as he was keeping a ticket behind the bar. He pulled my tab out, looked it up and down a couple of times, and then looked at me and said “Nothing!”
The free drinks (and they kept my glass full!) and good will were bought and paid for by American soldiers back in December, 1944: those men fought, and died, in the snow stopping the Nazi offensive, and here I was cashing in on free beer.
As I left, my friend from the Resistance asked me if I needed anything… food, wine… a girl, perhaps?
Oh my gosh, I thanked him very profusely, but said no, I’m okay, I just need to get back to my hotel room.
(A girl?! Oh my gosh!!)
God blessed America with great men, wise men, who gained our independence and established a new form of government, an enduring government where people are sovereign, people’s rights are the rule, and government is limited, ruling by consent of the governed.
God blessed America again and again with great people to build and defend not just our country, but other countries as well!
But the forces of evil do not rest; tyrants forever seek to oppress and enslave their fellow humans.
I swore at Little Bighorn, and time and again in the remote cemeteries here in the South over the graves of American soldiers from past centuries, that if America is destroyed, it will be over my dead body. And I asked God to help, and to send me the courage and wisdom of these brave warriors as we fight a new kind of war, a war in cyberspace and in the hearts and minds of people all around the world.
As future histories are being written about tyranny and where it tries to spread, wherever those histories mention Americans, let it be said that the forces of oppression advanced this far, and no farther, because this time the Americans were here.