North Carolina National Guard on the Border

30th Division logoIn a previous post I covered the 30th Division, 119th Infantry of World War I but there were some images that were left out and I couldn’t resist posting them.

Many of men of the 30th came from the great state of North Carolina and I profiled a few of those men from my home in Wayne County. The common thread for many was their National Guard service leading up to the war.

Birth of the US National Guard

The US regular army in the 18th and 19th centuries was a small force numbering only in the tens of thousands. In 1914 that number was just 98,000 men. From the Revolutionary War through the 19th century the United States relied heavily on local, volunteer militia forces under the authority of each state. This system was flawed to say the least.

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Cromulent Book of the Week: Red Famine

The victims of Russian communism under Joseph Stalin numbers in the tens of millions. In an age where seemingly even the Easter Bunny is Hitler, the crimes of the “man of steel” sadly go largely unnoticed by the general public. Anne Applebaum once again does a magnificent job revealing these atrocities, this time focusing on the Holdomor, the Ukrainian genocide, in her latest work Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

The Holdomor (from the Ukrainian phrase “to kill by starvation”) was a two year period, 1932-1933, of mass starvation in Ukraine, leading to the deaths of millions, possibly as many as twelve million. What sets Red Famine apart from previous works on the starvation is Applebaum’s conclusive evidence proving the Holdomor was a deliberate extermination effort to suppress a burgeoning Ukrainian independence movement and destroy the very idea of Ukrainian national identity.

Stalin hated the peasantry and viewed them as an obstacle to his goal of mass collectivization. Grain quotas increased to unsustainable levels and unlike shortages in 1921 and 1947, the Soviets did not seek assistance from the international community nor halt grain exports. In Stalin’s estimation the people of Ukraine were idlers and saboteurs deserving of suffering and death.

What makes the Holodomor, as well as the innumerable other atrocities of the Soviets, so terrifying is the personal nature of Stalin with regard to the pain and suffering he wrought. He took personal pleasure in meting out punishment, often spending his evenings in his office thumbing through files of political prisoners, handwriting directives on punishment. From a murderous armed robber to leader of a nuclear power, Joseph Stalin rose to be history’s greatest organized crime boss.

Red Famine is available in hardback and digital from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


World War I & North Carolina: 30th Division, 119th Infantry

One hundred years ago, the First World War entered its final, bloody year. Four years of conflict left 8.5 million soldiers and 7.5 million civilians dead.

For almost three years the US stayed out of the conflict but unrestricted warfare by German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean drew America into the fight on April 6, 1917. Before the declaration of war, the United States had just 200,000 troops, including the National Guard. By the end, over one million men had been sent to Europe and several million more mobilized for service.

North Carolina National Guardsmen, just back from deployment to the Mexican border, were sent to South Carolina in preparation for action in Europe. They, along with former guard units from South Carolina and Tennessee, were folded into the Regular Army as the 30th Division. Their nickname, “Old Hickory”, honored President Andrew Jackson, who had close ties to all three states. There were four infantry regiments within the division. One of those, the 119th, had a large number of volunteers, draftees, and former guardsmen from Wayne County, my birthplace in eastern North Carolina.

Camp Sevier, S.C., March 8th, 1918

After a few months of instruction at Camp Sevier, near Greenville, SC, the 30th shipped out and arrived in Calais, France on May 28, 1918. They were assigned to the British 2nd Army to replenish their ranks, decimated by nearly four years of fighting. After a month of further training, the men were sent to the front-line trenches on July 2 at Ypres, Belgium, near the French border. Control of the area had been contested for almost four years. For Joe Thompson, the death and destruction he witnessed was overwhelming. Thompson was born in Wayne County in 1900 and had just turned eighteen when he was made a wagoner for the 119th Infantry. His unenviable task was to drive supply mules to the front at night. He recalled that the area was,

…a graveyard as big as Raleigh…The English
had lost a million soldiers. There was a smoke
haze in the air from the gunpowder…and
that’s what it was, the jaws of hell, to tell you
the truth. That was Ypres, Belgium.


Officer training at Ft. Bragg, NC 1917. Zeno Hollowell of Goldsboro, NC at far right.

The terrible conditions were not confined to combat. Food was not always available, especially when artillery bombardments prevented resupplies, and what nourishment troops did get was limited mostly to watered-down stews, with horse meat if they were lucky. Every man was infested with lice and the rats outnumbered men in the trenches. They grew to enormous sizes feasting on the bodies of dead soldiers. On top of all of this misery was the constant threat of diseases, primarily dysentery and the flu. Over 2 million troops on both sides succumbed to disease during the conflict.

Despite the difficulties, the men of the 119th spent the next two months slowly pushing back the German lines and on September 1 were rewarded with a break. The rest was short-lived however and they were back in the fight near Bellicourt, France on September 23. The battle of the following week would prove to be the beginning of the end for Germany and her allies. Their last defensive position, the Hindenburg Line, was a roughly 75 mile long system of large trenches about 6,000 yards deep and reinforced with barbed wire, machine gun nests and artillery. If breached, German forces would have nowhere to regroup and be forced to pull back to Germany.

Just before 6:00am on the 29th, the order was given to begin the assault on the German line. With smoke from artillery and machine gun fire limiting visibility to five yards, groups broke apart leaving many men to wander by themselves through the battlefield. Many Germans, demoralized and beaten down, happily surrendered, but not all were ready to give up. Wayne County native Brodie West learned this the hard way. In the smoke and confusion he was separated from his squad and wound up directly in front of a machine gun nest. Under heavy fire he assaulted the position by himself, silenced the gun, and returned with 37 prisoners. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism.

The 119th was pulled off the front-lines on October 2 and given a short rest before being sent out again to pursue retreating German forces. The 17th-19th were especially intense; enemy artillery fire, including mustard gas, rained down on the troops. On the 18th, Lt. Gaston Dortch of Goldsboro was killed by an enemy shell as his company assaulted the town of Ribeauville. Unfortunately for Dortch, the 119th was pulled from the front the following day; it was their last action of the war.

At 5:00am on November 11, 1918, Germany accepted an armistice that ended hostilities in Europe. The 119th, and the entire 30th Division, was detached from British service and returned to American command. It was not until March of the following year though that they would return to the United States. Between the 6th and 10th of April, the men of the 119th were finally mustered out of service at Camp Jackson, near Columbia, SC.

The war haunted many of the men of the 30th Division for the rest of their lives. Although fiercely proud of their accomplishments, they expected their sacrifice to usher in a new age of peace across not only Europe but the entire world. The reality was that the same nations would fight yet another terrible war on many of the same battlefields just two decades later. The pain was even more acute for veterans whose children served in WWII, including Company K commander Captain Zeno Hollowell of Goldsboro; his oldest son William served in the Army Air Corps. Luther Hall, a veteran of Company A, summed the sentiment of many, saying in a 1984 interview, “…you can’t make peace by fighting.”

For all soldiers serving during WWI, there was a better than 50% chance of becoming a casualty (killed, wounded, or taken prisoner). Over 4 million US troops served and of those, 7.1% became casualties. North Carolina lost 2,375 men, with a further 3,859 wounded. An incredible 90% of Austria-Hungary’s 7.8 million troops became casualties. While every nation in the war suffered, no one suffered quite like the French. An area larger than North Carolina was destroyed by four years of constant fighting and a generation of young French men was nearly wiped out; six out of every ten between the ages of 18 and 28 were killed or permanently maimed.

Wayne County, NC Men of the 119th Infantry, 30th Division

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For a history of the 119th Infantry compiled by veterans shortly after the war check out this file from the University of North Carolina.

There is also a great compilation of interviews of North Carolina WWI veterans published by the NC Office of Archives and History and available in paperback from Amazon.

Cromulent Book of the Week: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

It is simply astounding that the atom was not proven by science until the late 1800’s and yet within a half a century atomic weapons were built and used successfully. The Manhattan Project began in 1939 and detonated a bomb by July 1945, an undertaking costing $2 billion, equaling over $25 billion today.

Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for his exhaustive history of those sixty years in The Making of the Atomic Bomb. There is no better one volume chronicle of this period. At just under 800 pages, it is a dense, but satisfying read, and goes into detail not just on the engineering of the bomb but also the science behind nuclear fission, including the men and women toiling away across the globe, many working independent of one another.

With a near daily stream of stories about the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran, Rhodes’ book has never been more critical for those that want to understand the early history of these terrible weapons. Be it nuclear war or nuclear accident, the end of the Cold War did not signal the demise of atomic devastation hanging over all our heads.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Better than the Rest: North Carolina Barbecue

North Carolina is known for many things- beaches, mountains, Michael Jordan, the Wright Brothers- but nothing is more “North Carolina” than barbecue. Pig cooked slowly over a wood fire has been a fixture of our heritage for centuries and still today is a source of pride for natives and newcomers alike.

Pork has been a staple meat of humans for thousands of years. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis historia, testified that no “animal supply a larger number of materials for an eating-house: they have almost fifty flavours, whereas all other meats have one each.”

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Cromulent Book of the Week: The Impossible State

Sometime next month President Trump will sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a summit on NK’s nuclear weapons program. There have been numerous op-eds decrying that any such meetings are a “dangerous gamble and a bad idea” and “will all end in diplomatic disaster“. Negotiations, no matter how slim the chance of meaningful success may be, are always preferable to antagonism and aggression, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. Frenzied warnings of another Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement moment are tired clichés: North Korea is not Nazi Germany and treating it as such is a dangerous game to play.

The warhawks in the White House (looking at you John Bolton) are intent on starting a conflict that will see the deaths of potentially hundreds of thousands of civilians and economic damages in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The counter-argument has been made by numerous pundits and politicians but the best is that of Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor and former Director for Asian Affairs for National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

Cha’s insistence that a bloody nose strike on North Korea would be disastrous cost him the position of Ambassador to South Korea.

[T]here is a point at which hope must give in to logic. If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind? And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?

Professor Cha knows far more about North Korea than anyone in the White House, or anywhere else for that matter. His 2012 book The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future is the best single volume on the North Korean regime, not just its structure but also more crucially the mindset of the Kim family dynasty.

The book lays out a picture of the regime by exploring several topics all rooted in how North Koreans view their own history. Topics include:

  • The “good old days” before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
  • The Kim family history and the dynamics of their inter-familial relationships.
  • Relations with neighbors, particularly China.
  • Unification.
  • “The Logic of Deterrence”.

If you want to understand North Korea in a context other than Team America: World Police, pick up a copy of The Impossible State.

Available in paperback from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


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