Posts Tagged ‘Virginia’

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Grace Murray Hopper Park

I rode over to Virginia during this daily bike ride, and during my ride I happened upon a small park tucked in among the massive apartment and office buildings of Crystal City.  It is located on South Joyce Street in Arlington (MAP), and named Grace Murray Hopper Park, who was a rear admiral in the United States Navy.  Finding a park named after a female rear admiral piqued my curiosity.  So I did some research to find out what I could about her when I got home.  And I found out that she was a very accomplished and interesting person.

Grace Brewster Murray was on December 9, 1906.  That same year, Xerox, a digital office machine brand, was founded in Rochester, New York. Albert Einstein had just published his “Theory of Relativity.”  And the Women’s Suffrage movement was soon to receive major-party support and worldwide attention. An era of scientific and social innovation and eruption was about to begin. Change was on the horizon. And Grace would eventually contribute greatly to that change.  

Grace was born in New York City, the eldest of three children born to Walter Fletcher Murray and Mary Campbell Van Horne. She attended private school at the Hartridge School in Plainfield, New Jersey. At the age of 16, Grace applied for early admission to Vassar College, but was initially rejected because her test scores in Latin were too low.  She reapplied the following year and was admitted.  She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree with a double major in mathematics and physics. She then went on to earn a master’s degree in 1930, and a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1934, both from Yale University. Hopper began teaching mathematics at Vassar in 1931 and was promoted to associate professor ten years later.

She was married to New York University professor Vincent Foster Hopper from 1930 until their divorce in 1945. They did not have any children.  And she did not marry again, but chose to retain the surname of Hopper.  

The Navy had always played an important role in Grace’s family because her great-grandfather served in the Civil War as a Navy admiral.  And when World War II broke out while Grace was still teaching at Vassar, she attempted to enlist in the Navy.  But she was rejected because of her age of 34, her low weight, and the importance of her work as a mathematics professor.  Therefore, she continued to teach at Vassar and was promoted to the position of Associate Professor in 1941 – the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Two years later Grace left Vassar to join the U.S. Naval Reserve, also known as WAVES.  But even for that she would need to get an exemption because she was 15 lbs. under the Navy’s minimum of 120 lbs.  But she received a waiver, and went on to graduate first in her class at the Naval Reserve school in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

Grace was commissioned a lieutenant and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance’s Computation Project at Harvard University, where she worked on Mark I, the first large-scale automatic calculator and a precursor of electronic computers. After the war, she remained at the Harvard Computation Lab for four years as a civilian research fellow. In 1949, she joined the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, where she helped to develop the UNIVAC I, the first general-purpose electronic computer. Throughout her postwar career in academia and private industry, Hopper retained her naval commission.

Grace initially retired from the Navy in 1966. However, one year later, she was recalled to active duty for a six-month period that turned into an indefinite assignment directing the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy’s Office of Information System Planning, standardizing computing languages.  She retired again in 1971, but was once again asked to return to active duty in 1972.  She was promoted to Captain in 1973, and finally Commodore (later renamed Rear Admiral), the highest peacetime military rank possible, by Presidential appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1983.  She remained on active duty for several years beyond mandatory retirement by special approval of Congress.  In 1986, when Rear Adm. Hopper retired for the third and final time from the Navy at the age of 79, she was the oldest officer on active U.S. naval duty.  

Following her retirement from the Navy, she was hired by Digital Equipment Corporation.  She proposed in jest that she would be willing to accept a position which made her available on alternating Thursdays to be exhibited at their museum of computing as a pioneer, in exchange for a generous salary and unlimited expense account. Instead, she was hired as a full-time senior consultant. In this position, Grace represented the company at industry forums, serving on various industry committees, along with other obligations.  She retained that position until her death.  She died at home in her sleep of natural causes at at age 85 in 1992.  At the time of her death she was a resident of River House Apartments, which is adjacent to the park named in her honor.  

Throughout her career she was a computer pioneer, and she came to be known as “Amazing Grace” for her groundbreaking achievements. Some of her achievements and other interesting facts about this amazing woman include:

  • Grace was an especially curious child. At the age of seven, her mother discovered she had been dismantling alarm clocks to figure out their inner workings. She had taken apart seven clocks before her mother intervened and limited her to a single clock to tinker with.
  • The clock in Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper’s office ran counterclockwise.
  • After a moth infiltrated the circuits of Mark I, she coined the term bug to refer to unexplained computer failures.
  • The famous quotation “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission” is often attributed to her. 
  • A minor planet discovered by Eleanor Helin is named “5773 Hopper” in her honor. 
  • Women at Microsoft Corporation formed an employee group called Hoppers and established a scholarship in her honor.
  • During her lifetime, Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities across the world.
  • Hopper College, one of the residential colleges of Yale University, was named after her.  
  • She was awarded The Data Processing Management Association’s Inaugural “Man-of-the-Year” Award.  
  • She was awarded The National Medal of Technology.
  • The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper was named for her. 
  • Also named after her is he Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.  
  • The U.S. Naval Academy also owns a Cray XC-30 supercomputer named “Grace,” hosted at the University of Maryland-College Park. 
  • Hopper was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat decoration awarded by the Department of Defense.
  • She was interred with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery
  • On November 22, 2016, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

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The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns

Since 1937 the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery (MAP) has been guarded every minute of every day, 365 days a year, even when the cemetery is closed and in any kind of weather. It is guarded by Tomb Guard sentinels, who are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia, which is adjacent to the cemetery. Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military.

Because it is considered such a high honor, the process to become a sentinel is incredibly difficult. Members of the Old Guard must volunteer for the position. Volunteers who are accepted are then assigned to Company E of The Old Guard. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for males or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for females with a proportionate weight and build. An interview and a two-week trial to determine a volunteer’s capability to be trained as a sentinel then is required.

During the trial phase, would-be sentinels memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim in order to earn a “walk.” A walk occurs between guard changes. A daytime walk is one-half hour in the summer and one hour in the winter. All night walks are one hour.

And each walk performed by a tomb sentinel is identical, with the steps the sentinels perform having specific meaning. Everything the sentinels do is a series of 21, which symbolizes the 21-gun salute, the highest military honor that can be bestowed, and is reserved for the President and foreign heads of state, but also for the Unknowns.

The sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change Ceremony begins with the appearance of a relief commander, who will approach and salute the Tomb. The commander then turns to the crowd and asks everyone to rise and remain silent during the ceremony. As the Commander is speaking, the relief sentinel will report. The commander will walk over to the relief sentinel and conduct a full inspection of the new sentinel, inspecting the weapon and the sentinel himself. This is a real inspection and the relief sentinel can be sent away, leaving the current sentinel in place till the next scheduled Changing of the Guard. If approved, both the commander and relief sentinel will walk to the middle to meet with the posted sentinel, all the while keeping in step with each other. At this point, the ceremony concludes when the posted sentinel step off of the mat and faces the relief sentinel. Both sentinels will acknowledge each other with orders. All three will salute the Tomb, then the relief sentinel will step onto the mat and take over where the now relieved sentinel left off. Both the commander and the relieved sentinel will then walk off in step with each other and exit to the right, concluding the ceremony.

Duty time when not “walking” is spent in the Tomb Guard Quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater where they study cemetery “knowledge,” clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the Changing of the Guard. The guards also train on their days off.

If a soldier successfully passes the training during the trial phase, “new-soldier” training begins. New sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans. They learn the guard-change ceremony and the manual of arms that takes place during the inspection portion of the Changing of the Guard. Sentinels also learn to keep their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition, a meticulous process that by itself can take up to eight hours each day.

After several months of walking and serving, sentinels are then tested to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. First, they are tested on their manual of arms, uniform preparation and their walks. Then, the Badge Test is given. The test is 100 randomly selected questions of the 300 items memorized during training on the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct to succeed.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Sentinels are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over.

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

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NOTE:  Due to the coronavirus pandemic Arlington National Cemetery is closed to visitors until further notice.  Funerals, however, are proceeding as scheduled albeit with certain limitations.  Please check their website for specific and updated information.

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The FBI Academy

On this weekend bike outing I went to the Marine Corps Base Quantico, on the grounds of which the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Training Academy is located.  Situated on 385 acres of woodlands approximately 36 miles south of D.C. near the town of Quantico in Stafford County, Virginia (MAP), the FBI Academy is a full-service national training facility, with: classrooms and conference rooms; dormitories; indoor and outdoor firing ranges; a gym and aquatic pool; a library; a dining hall; the Tactical and Emergency Vehicle Operations Center, which teaches safe, efficient driving techniques to FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) personnel and other government and military personnel, and; Hogan’s Alley, a training complex simulating a small town for carrying out practical exercises and training.

The FBI Academy was first opened in 1972, the year in which J. Edgar Hoover, the man who was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935, became its first Director, and then lead the organization for the next 37 years.  The Academy is operated by the Bureau’s Training Division, and was initially where new FBI Special Agents received their first training after being hired. One of the many changes after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 was the development of additional and specialized training for Intelligence Analysts.  Over time the training of FBI Special Agents and Intelligence Analysts became integrated into an expansive integrated curriculum currently known as the Basic Field Training Course (BFTC).

The BFTC was developed by the Training Division to meet the Bureau’s ambitious goal of training new Agent and Intelligence Analyst candidates in a way that prepares them for their collaborative work in the field.  Previously, Agents and Analysts had completely separate training.  The BFTC replaced these two distinctly separate programs with an integrated, collaborative course that uses a dedicated field office team approach mirroring the environment that they will experience in their field assignments.

And although new Agents are still typically synonymous with the FBI Academy, the Training Division also instructs many other diverse groups of people.  In addition to Intelligence Analysts, those who currently receive training at the Academy include: people in a wide variety of professional staff positions at the FBI; law enforcement officers from other Federal agencies as well as state, local and tribal police and law enforcement entities, and; appropriate individuals from the private sector.  Elite units such as the Hostage Rescue Team, Evidence Response Teams, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), and law enforcement leaders from across the world also attend the Academy and utilize its training facilities to improve on skills.

In addition to the Training Division, the Academy grounds are also host to a number of other divisions and entities.  They include the Hostage Rescue Team Complex, the Operational Technology Division and its engineering research facility, the FBI Laboratory, the Forensic Science Research and Training Center, and the DEA’s Justice Training Center.

This ride was longer and different, but just as interesting as the shorter rides I used to take during my daily lunch break at work in D.C.  And it’s this kind of ride that I hope to take often now that I’m retired.

 

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1.  Hoover Road, named after the FBI’s founding and long-time Director, J. Edgar Hoover.
2.  A sign at the East Gate Security Entrance, which is the main entrance to the FBI Academy.
3.  The Academy’s Jefferson Building,which houses administrative offices and the student check-in and visitors center.
4.  A view from a distance of the Madison Dormitory building.
5. The intersection of route MCB-4 and J. Edgar Hoover Road, near the west gate entrance to the FBI Academy
6.  The sign at the West Gate Security Entrance to the FBI Academy
7.  Welcome sign at the entrance to the mock town named Hogan’s Alley
8.  Mock businesses, including a laundromat and pool hall, in Hogan’s Alley.  Interestingly, the outsides of the buildings in Hogan’s Alley simulate a small town for carrying out practical exercises and training. But the insides contain offices for Training Division personnel.
9.  A mock movie theater in Hogan’s Alley named The Biograph, named and modelled  after the theater in Chicago where FBI Agents attempted to arrest but ended up
killing gangster John Dillinger on July 22, 1934
10.  The Firearms Training Support Facility building that houses the Training Division’s Firearms Training Unit
11.  One of several outdoor firing ranges
12.  The indoor firing range

NOTE:  Due to security concerns there is currently very limited public access to Marine Corps Base Quantico and no public access to the FBI Academy grounds or facilities.

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Barcroft Park

On this bike ride I went back to Virginia and rode on the Four-Mile Run Trail, which can be accessed from the Mount Vernon Trail just south of Reagan National Airport.  Instead of the north section that meets up with the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail, I stayed on the south end of the trail.  That portion of the trail goes through Barcroft Park, which is located at 4200 South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington (MAP), and is adjacent to the Barcroft Sports & Fitness Center.  I’ve lived in Arlington in the past, and even been to the area where the park is located – but I unfortunately didn’t know about it back then.

Barcroft Park is a 65-acre public park featuring a baseball field, a softball field, batting cages, basketball courts, a sheltered picnic area, charcoal grills and playgrounds, a stream for fishing, and excellent bike and walking trails with ample shade for warm sunny days.

The park’s baseball venue, known officially as Tucker Field at Barcroft Park Field #6, is home to the George Washington University Colonials baseball team of the NCAA Division I Atlantic 10 Conference. The field holds a capacity of 500 spectators, and includes a new turf field laid in 2019 by FieldTurf, bullpens, enclosed dugouts, stadium seating, concessions, lights, a scoreboard, and a pressbox.

Also located within Barcroft Park is the Phoenix Bike Shop.  In March 2007, Phoenix Bikes opened its doors in Barcroft Park as a nonprofit organization. Phoenix Bike’s mission is to empower youth to become social entrepreneurs through direct participation in a financially and environmentally sustainable nonprofit bike shop that serves the community. Their vision is to provide a fun, safe, and challenging environment for local youth through building & running a great community bike shop. They believe this is a unique way for young leaders to learn teamwork, explore social entrepreneurship, develop business and leadership skills, and serve others.

It’s a great park with an excellent trail, and is easily accessible from D.C. by bike  And there are so many things to do there that you won’t become bored even if you have the luxury of being able to spend the entire day there like you would if you’re a recent retiree like me.  The park is open daily from sunrise until 11:00 p.m., and if you’re not going there via bike there is ample parking available as well.

[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

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Colonel Justice Marion Chambers

In 1990, the United States Congress designated March 25th of each year as National Medal of Honor Day, which is dedicated to all Medal of Honor recipients.  And during today’s lunchtime bike ride to Arlington National Cemetery (MAP), and in observance of today’s designation, I chose to stop and pay my respects at the grave of a Medal of Honor recipient named Justice M. Chambers.

Justice Marion “Jumping Joe” Chambers was born at Huntington, West Virginia, February 2, 1908.  He grew up and went to school there, completing three years at Marshall College before leaving Huntington for D.C.   He then attended George Washington University and National University, where he obtained his law degree.

In 1930, following the completion of two years enlistment in the Naval Reserve, Chambers joined the Marine Corps Reserve as a private.  He was commissioned two years later, and continued his studies toward promotion.  He was a major, attending summer camp, when Washington’s 5th Battalion was called up in 1940 to aid in the war effort.

He served with honor and distinction until a fateful day almost five years later when, on February 19, 1945, Chambers commanded the 3rd Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, in the Iwo Jima landing.  His sector was beneath high ground from which heavy enemy fire raked the whole landing beach. Capture of the high ground was considered essential to the success of the operations. It is an established fact that had it not been done, it would have constituted a most serious threat to subsequent operations.

The 3rd Battalion lost more than half its officers and nearly one-half its enlisted strength on D-Day.  But, according to the citation that would accompany his medal, it was by “fearless disregard for his own life” and leading his depleted battalion “by example rather than command” that Chambers won the key heights and anchored the right flank of the Marines’ position.

On the fourth day, directing the Marines’ first rocket barrage and exposed to the enemy’s main line of resistance, Chambers and his men fell under enemy machine-gun fire.  Chambers was hit, and his wounds were so serious that he was medically retired.  And because he had been specially commended for performance of duty in combat, he was promoted to the rank of colonel.

Chambers had been recommended for the award on April 7, 1945, following his evacuation, seriously wounded, from Iwo Jima.  However, he initially received the Navy Cross for his actions.  But upon re-examination of the original recommendation with additional evidence, his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor a few years later.  Presentation of the Medal of Honor was made at the White House by President Harry S. Truman on November 1, 1950.  (Later that same day, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Truman across the street at Blair House. )

Chambers retired from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve January 1, 1946. After his retirement, he served as staff advisor for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Chambers was appointed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to the post of deputy director of the Office of Emergency Planning, where he served with distinction until his retirement. He died on July 29, 1982.

The citation accompanying Chambers’ Medal of Honor reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the 3d Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, from 19 to 22 February 1945. Under a furious barrage of enemy machinegun and small-arms fire from the commanding cliffs on the right, Colonedl Chambers (then Lt. Col.) landed immediately after the initial assault waves of his battalion on D-day to find the momentum of the assault threatened by heavy casualties from withering Japanese artillery, mortar rocket, machinegun, and rifle fire. Exposed to relentless hostile fire, he coolly reorganized his battle-weary men, inspiring them to heroic efforts by his own valor and leading them in an attack on the critical, impregnable high ground from which the enemy was pouring an increasing volume of fire directly onto troops ashore as well as amphibious craft in succeeding waves. Constantly in the front lines encouraging his men to push forward against the enemy’s savage resistance, Colonel Chambers led the 8-hour battle to carry the flanking ridge top and reduce the enemy’s fields of aimed fire, thus protecting the vital foothold gained. In constant defiance of hostile fire while reconnoitering the entire regimental combat team zone of action, he maintained contact with adjacent units and forwarded vital information to the regimental commander. His zealous fighting spirit undiminished despite terrific casualties and the loss of most of his key officers, he again reorganized his troops for renewed attack against the enemy’s main line of resistance and was directing the fire of the rocket platoon when he fell, critically wounded. Evacuated under heavy Japanese fire, Colonel Chambers, by forceful leadership, courage, and fortitude in the face of staggering odds, was directly instrumental in insuring the success of subsequent operations of the 5th Amphibious Corps on Iwo Jima, thereby sustaining and enhancing the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”

Note:  In addition to the Medal of Honor, Silver Star Medal and Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” Col Chambers’ decorations and medals include the Purple Heart Medal with two gold stars, Presidential Unit Citation with three bronze stars, Organized Marine Corps Reserve Medal with two stars, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one silver star (denoting five campaigns), and the World War II Victory Medal.

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Operation Eagle Claw Memorial

I remember the fall of 1979.  I was a senior in high school.  And it was an eventful time.  Some of the events seemed more significant at the time than they would be in the long run, such as when the Pittsburgh Pirates  defeated the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.  It was before the Washington Nationals existed.  So the Orioles were as close to a local team as we had. 

Other events from that time became ingrained in my memory because of how they affected me on a personal level, such as when several fans of The Who were killed at a concert at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio.  A combination of “festival” (unassigned) seating and too few entrances being opened resulted in eleven kids being trampled to death when the crowd surged forward trying to enter the concert.  Those kids were all approximately my age, and I remember thinking that it could have been me.

Still other events were even more significant in nature and would have rippling effects on history.  One of those events would come to be known as the “Iran hostage crisis.”  It started on November 4th, 40 years ago today, when hundreds of Iranian Islamic fundamentalists who supported the Iranian Revolution under the Ayatollah Khomeini, mostly students, took over the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage, demanding that the U.S. send the former Shah of Iran back to stand trial.  or days nothing was known of the hostages’ condition until their captors finally released all female and black hostages. Later, one other man was released for medical reasons, leaving 53 Americans captives.

By spring of the following year the situation had reached a standstill.  All diplomatic attempts to secure their release had failed.  So President Jimmy Carter authorized a secret joint-services military operation on April 25, 1980, to rescue the hostages.  The plan, known as Operation Eagle Claw (Operation Tabas in Iran), called for a rendezvous of helicopters and cargo planes at a remote desert site in Iran, known as Desert One, before attempting the actually rescue of the hostages. However, the mission was aborted when two of the aircraft collided.  The ensuing explosion and fire claimed the lives of eight American service personnel.  They included three Marines:  Sergeant John D. Harvey, Corporal George N. Holmes Jr., Staff Sergeant Dewey Johnson; and five Air Force personnel:  Major Richard L. Bakke, Major Harold L. Lewis Jr., Technical Sergeant Joel C. Mayo, Captain Lyn D. McIntosh, and Captain Charles T. McMillan.  Their bodies could not be recovered before the surviving aircraft had to abandon the desert staging area. Shortly thereafter the eight bodies were returned to the United States. 

The failed rescue operation resulted in some rather undesirable consequences. Firstly, the hostages were scattered across Iran, to make another rescue mission impossible. Also, the US government received heavy criticism from governments around the world for making such blunders in a very critical situation. As a matter of fact, experts and President Carter himself believe that the failure of Operation Eagle Claw was a major reason he lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan.

Only 20 minutes before Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President on January 20, 1981, Iran finally released the hostages.  They were held for 444 days, making it the longest hostage crisis in recorded history.  

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited a monument dedicated to the memory of the gallant servicemen, who died in the valiant effort to rescue the American hostages.  It is located in Arlington National Cemetery, near the Memorial Amphitheater.  The monument consists of a white stone marker that bears a bronze plaque listing the names and ranks of the three Marines and the five airmen killed in Operation Eagle Claw.

NOTE:  Although it was a failed mission and its widespread failure would be a moment of profound humiliation for the United States, the operation has since become known as the “most successful failed mission in history.”  Many tactics and procedures were first used and developed by the military personnel of Operation Eagle Claw, including blacked out landings, landing on unprepared runways, multi-aircraft air field seizure, clandestine insertion of small helicopters and many other procedures, some of which are still classified to this day.

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USS Serpens Monument

During this lunch break I rode to and spent some time in Arlington National Cemetery (MAP). Because bike riding is not permitted in the cemetery, I parked my bike at one of the bike racks provided at the visitors center, and then went for a long walk in the cemetery.  During my walk, I happened upon a stone marker that stood out because of its size and shape. Upon examination, I found out that it is a memorial to the men of a U.S. Coast Guard ship named the USS Serpens (AK-97).

As I would later learn, the USS Serpens was a 14,250-ton cargo ship that was laid down in March of 1943, before being transferred to the U.S. Navy the following month for service during World War II.  She was responsible for delivering troops, goods and equipment to locations in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater, and served for almost three years, until the night of January 29, 1945, when disaster struck.

Late on that fateful January evening, Serpens was anchored off Lunga Beach, a promontory on the northern coast of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands. The ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Perry L. Stinson, and seven others, one officer and six enlisted men, were ashore. The remaining crewmen were loading depth charges into her holds when Serpens exploded. After the explosion, only the bow of the ship was visible. The rest had disintegrated, and the bow sank soon afterward.  One hundred ninety-six Coast Guard crewmen, 57 Army stevedores, and a Public Health Service physician named Dr. Harry M. Levin, were killed in the explosion, and a soldier ashore was killed by shrapnel. Only two of those on board, Seamen First Class Kelsie K. Kemp and George S. Kennedy, who had been in the boatswain’s locker, survived.  The catastrophe was the single greatest disaster suffered by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.

In July 1947, the Coast Guard still thought an enemy attack had caused the blast. However, by June 10, 1949, it was determined not to have been the result of enemy action.

At first report the incident in July 1947, attributed to explosion to enemy action.  But a court of inquiry later determined that the cause of the explosion could not be established from the remaining evidence.  By 1949 the Navy noted that the loss was not due to enemy action but due to an “accident intrinsic to the loading process.”

The available remains of those killed were originally buried at the Army, Navy and Marine Cemetery in Guadalcanal with full military honors and religious services. They were later repatriated under the program for the return of World War II dead,  in 1949.  The mass recommittal of the unidentified dead took place in section 34 at MacArthur Circle. The remains were placed in 52 caskets and buried in 28 graves near the intersection of Jesup and Grant Drives. It is the largest group burial to at Arlington National Cemetery.  An additional two grave sites were reserved for the octagonal monument inscribed with all of their names, which I saw on this ride.

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For this long holiday weekend I decided to get away for a little while.  And there is such a diversity of things to see and do in the local area that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to experience something new and different.  So this morning I went for a bike ride at the newly-built Neabsco Creek Boardwalk, located about 30 miles south of D.C. on the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail at 15125 Blackburn Road in Woodbridge (MAP), Virginia. 

The three-quarters of a mile long, 10-feet wide boardwalk, which includes a two-story observation deck, opened just last month.  It traverses Neabsco Creek, and allows bikers and hikers access to wetlands where the tall grasses and marsh filter pollution from the river and provide a rich habitat for great blue herons, wood ducks, mallards, sparrow and red-winged blackbirds, just to name a few of the winged wildlife known to populate the area.

The 3.8 million dollar boardwalk is designed to showcase Woodbridge’s most valuable natural asset — the Potomac Waterfront.  The boardwalk is compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and encompasses educational sites that highlight information on native wildlife and plants.  Guided tours are also occasionally offered.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors recently voted to combine the Neabsco Creek Boardwalk with the Julie J. Metz Wetlands Park, the Rippon Lodge Historic Property, Kings Highway, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and Rippon Landing Neighborhood Park, and designated the combined recreation and historic sites as the Neabsco Regional Park.

 

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Aerial view of the boardwalk, courtesy of Prince William County.

                                                                                                           civilwarunknowns01

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, also known as the Tomb of the Unknowns, is not the only local memorial dedicated to soldiers who had died in battle but later could not be identified.  There is The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution, located in the churchyard Burial Ground of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria.  And during this lunchtime bike ride, I rode to another of these memorials.  I visited The Civil War Unknowns Memorial.  It is also located in Arlington National Cemetery, on the grounds of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.  And the memorial I saw today actually predates the other two, making it the earliest such memorial in the local area.

In 1865, U.S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs decided to build a memorial to Civil War dead.  The following year, in September of 1866, The Civil War Unknowns Memorial, was dedicated.  It stands atop a masonry vault containing the remains of 2,111 soldiers gathered from the battlefields of first and second battles of Bull Run as well as the route of the Union army’s retreat along the Rappahannock River.  The remains were found scattered across the battlefields or in trenches and brought to the cemetery.  None were identifiable.  And because in some instances only a few bones or a skull was recovered, it is presumed the vault contains the remains of both Confederate and Union Soldiers.

In constructing the memorial a circular pit, measuring approximately 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep, was dug.  The walls and floor were lined with brick, and it was segmented it into compartments with mortared brick walls.  Into each compartment were placed a different body part: skulls, legs, arms, ribs, etc.  The vault was then  sealed with concrete and soil.  Atop the burial vault was placed a 6-foot tall, 12-foot long, and 4-foot wide grey granite and concrete cenotaph, which was personally designed by General Meigs.  On the west face is an inscription that reads:

BENEATH THIS STONE
REPOSE THE BONES OF TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN UNKNOWN SOLDIERS
GATHERED AFTER THE WAR
FROM THE FIELDS OF BULL RUN, AND THE ROUTE TO THE RAPPAHANOCK,
THEIR REMAINS COULD NOT BE IDENTIFIED. BUT THEIR NAMES AND DEATHS ARE
RECORDED IN THE ARCHIVES OF THEIR COUNTRY, AND ITS GRATEFUL CITIZENS
HONOR THEM AS OF THEIR NOBLE ARMY OF MARTYRS. MAY THEY REST IN PEACE.
SEPTEMBER. A. D. 1866.

The original memorial has undergone a number of aesthetic changes over the years.  But it’s original purpose, to honor our country’s unidentified dead from the Civil War, remains unchanged.

Types of Cherry Blossom People

While I was spending time at the Tidal Basin again this afternoon I couldn’t help but notice there were almost as many people there today as cherry blossoms. And while some people were there to truly appreciate the beauty of the annual diva-ish spectacle, others in the crowd seemed to be there for other reasons. Some of these people probably saw it as the “in” thing to do, and they didn’t want to feel left out. Some were students on school field trips, and were simply glad to be outside of the confines of their classrooms. Some were members of out-of-town tour groups who seemed to be there so they could check it off their bucket lists.  And many seemed to be there just for a quick photo-op, so that they could then post a photo of the blossoms or, better yet, themselves with the blossoms, on social media.  They seemed like they were in such a hurry.  And instead of being present in the moment, these people mostly looked at the blossoms through camera lenses and cell phone screens, like they probably do with most events in theirs and their children’s lives.

But as I said, some people who were there seemed to truly appreciate the beauty. There were artists with their easels set up just off the beaten path, using paint and their imaginations to put their interpretations on canvasses. There were writers and poets lazily jotting down their impressions in leather-bound journals. There were musicians performing for others, or for just themselves, enjoying the setting in which they performed. There were also older couples on benches holding hands, and younger couples on the grass under the trees, sitting quietly with each other and simply gazing at the blossoms. Still others were leisurely strolling around and taking in the beauty that surrounded them before slowly moving on to take in even more. These are the kind of people who I saw there previously, witnessing the future promise of the emerging green buds, or the gnarly beauty of the trunks of the aged trees before they got all dressed up in their white and pink early-spring attire. They are the people who also enjoy the lesser-known but equally beautiful local sites like the colorful azaleas at the U.S. National Arboretum, the bright tulips near the Netherlands Carillon, the seasonal offerings available at The National Park Service’s Floral Library, and the flowering dogwood trees on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building. These people added to the atmosphere rather than just adding to the crowd. They were there to contemplate and be captivated by the beauty, and not just there to attend an event.

While every person had their own story and reason for being there, the people seemed to fall into two general categories. And these two types of people usually go through their entire lives in the same way they spent their time today at The Tidal Basin. One type will have temporary memories that fade into obscurity as quickly as the cherry blossoms and crowds disappear. At best they will end up with just photographs that capture the opportunity they missed to actually experience in real time the true beauty that was right in front of them.  The other type of person takes with them the memories of the moments they spent today, moments that they experienced rather than moments they chased. And it is these moments that added together make for a beautiful and appreciated life well lived.  What type of person are you?  And is it the type you want to be?