A Great Fourth of July Celebration

It’s a Grand Old Flag!

The most patriotic thing we can do is be the church. Pastor Lyle Coblentz

Traveling to Oregon on the 4th of July weekend, we stopped Sunday morning at Hank’s former church near Vancouver, Washington. We were in plenty of time for the service, but the doors were locked, the parking lot empty. Had services been cancelled?

No, out back on the green acres the church calls “Barefoot Park”, we saw cars and people, and a big white tent. A double row of American flags lined a winding drive, with safety-vested young people directing the cars filling the grassy “parking lot.”

We joined people streaming along a path lined with small American flags to a big tent filled with men, women, and children sporting the red, white and blue.There were 4th of July shirts, vests, ties, even hats. Ushers wore saucer-sized buttons striped in those colors. Old friends greeted us with enthusiasm.

The singing began, patriotic music we’ve sung and loved since grade school: America, My Country Tis of Thee, an acapella rendition of It’s a Grand Old Flag belted out with perfect timing by the ten-year-old granddaughter of our friends the Thompsons. Two elderly gentlemen in flag print shirts posted the flags. As they proceeded down the aisle, people spontaneously stood and placed their hands over their hearts. We repeated the salute together, then a soloist sang the national anthem in a clear, strong voice. Goose bumps!

A dramatic reading honored the branches of military service. As the choir sang the songs associated with each branch, audience members stood in honor of people serving or who did serve in army, navy, coast guard, marines, or air force.

After a heartfelt prayer for America, the pastor spoke about what the Christian’s response to government, whether government is good or less-than-ideal, should be.

According to I Timothy 2:1, 2, we should:
    1. Recognize government as a divine institution
    2. Give everyone what you owe them
    3. Pray for government officials at least as much as we complain about them.

Afterward, the men set up tables, the women set out the food, and all the people stayed for a good old-fashioned 4th of July picnic. It made me think of the truth of the pastor’s introductory words that morning: “The most patriotic thing we can do is be the church.”

John Aaron Rawlins, a Man for His Time

Brigadier General John A. Rawlins, Chief of Staff,
at City Point, VA, with wife and child at door of their quarters

Before the American Revolution, three brothers named Rawlins came to settle in the colonies from England. At Sun Breaks, http//rainsongpress.blogspot.com,  the entry for August 28, 2011 begins a three-part story about one of them, ancestor James Mason Rawlins, who was willing to give up his family and perhaps his life for what he thought was right.

James Mason Rawlins was born around 1737. Soon after, in 1742, another Rawlins boy named James entered the world. He was James Rawlins III, born to Sarah and James Rawlins II. James Rawlins III became the great-grandfather of John Aaron Rawlins, the subject of this story. By 1826, both John’s family and descendants of James Mason Rawlins were living in Illinois.

Despite a crash course in beginning genealogy, I haven’t yet discovered how or if John Aaron Rawlins is related to our branch of the Rawlins family. But since one purpose in telling these tales is to show how our family (and all American families) help make up the larger history of these United States, here is the story of Major General John Aaron Rawlins. 

    John Aaron Rawlins was born in Galena, Illinois on February 13, 1831, one of eight siblings in a family of very modest means. He helped to support the family by hauling the charcoal made by his father to nearby towns and selling it. When his father left to join the 1849 California gold rush, John looked after his mother and siblings. He loved his father deeply but hated his bad habits. Because of his father’s drinking, John vowed never to touch strong drink. One writer thinks it was this aversion, as much as anything else, that became the basis for his place in history.

    John was an intelligent, darkly handsome young man with an unusual gift for oratory. His early education was spotty, but at the age of twenty he entered secondary school with the goal of becoming an attorney. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1855 and practiced law in his hometown. By 1858 he’d become interested in politics. Though a staunch Democrat, according to writer Lee Bonnet, he made speeches on behalf of fellow Illinois resident, Republican Abraham Lincoln, in the 1860 presidential campaign.¹

    Then the Civil War broke out. After the first Battle of Bull Run as the fighting moved closer to home, Rawlins organized a band of civilians into the 45th Illinois Volunteers, inspiring the new soldiers with his rousing speeches.

    The town of Galena was intensely loyal to the Northern cause. More generals called Galena home than any other Union city. The town probably contributed more privates, as well. One night local Republicans staged a big political meeting. Rawlins was advised that they would not welcome him as a Democrat, but he insisted he was going, and if asked to speak, he would not remain silent. Wherever he went, he was usually asked to speak, and it happened again that night.

    One of those attending the meeting was a modest, rather inarticulate colonel named Ulysses S. Grant. He had been a clerk in his father’s leather-goods store and knew Rawlins slightly because Rawlins had done legal work for the company.

    When the audience called “Rawlins! Rawlins!” John responded. He made what one author called “one of the great speeches of the Civil War period: a speech which rallied everyone, regardless of party, regardless of previous views about slavery and about sectionalism, regardless of anything and everything. He appealed to the God of battles to aid the great cause of the North; he appealed to everyone to give his utmost.”²

    Grant was among those who wanted to give his utmost. He asked Rawlins to join him as assistant in his military ventures, and as Grant advanced up the ranks to general, so did Rawlins. Eventually Grant made him his chief of staff.
    One of John Aaron Rawlins’ outstanding characteristics was his loyalty. He’d been fiercely faithful to his wife, Emily, with whom he had three children, and remained at her side, comforting her until her death in August 1861 of tuberculosis, a major killer of that day. Though in deep sorrow, he joined Grant to become one of his most trusted confidantes, deeply involved in every decision and every battle. He organized Grant’s military camp and also worked to protect Grant from the demon of strong drink.
    According to historian Elmer Gortz, Rawlins did have an interesting flaw or ability, depending upon one’s perspective. When the occasion warranted, he could erupt into the most passionate, evocative, eloquent surge of swearing imaginable. One of the people who witnessed his colorful language was a northern girl named Emma Hurlbut.

     Emma was working in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a governess during the siege of the city. Rawlins was assigned to protect her from the unwanted attentions of soldiers and officers. Not only did he do his job well, he also courted and married her. Emma was able to curb his profanity.

    John Rawlins had become a Major General by the time the war ended in 1865. He returned to his law practice in Galena. By then, he’d also contracted tuberculosis.

    In the summer of 1867, General Grant urged his chief of staff to go out West, hoping that the climate might help him recover. Accompanied by an aide and several friends, Rawlins traveled to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There he met General Grenville M. Dodge and a party of civil engineers who were surveying a railroad route westward from Omaha.
    As the company rode west on their horses, approaching the hills near the present city of Rawlins, Wyoming, the ailing general expressed a desire for a drink of good, cold water. Scouts set out to explore. They discovered a fine spring of water near the base of the hills and brought some back to the sick man. General Rawlins declared he’d never tasted a drink more refreshing. “If anything is ever named after me, I hope it will be a spring of water,” he said. General Dodge heard what he said and immediately named it “Rawlins Spring.”

    The town that grew up near the spring, a division point of the railroad, was at first called “Rawlins Spring.” Later, the name was shortened to “Rawlins.”

    Unfortunately, the expedition did not improve Rawlins’ health. He returned to the East, and a short time later Ulysses S. Grant became President Grant. The president summoned his old friend Rawlins to Washington, D.C., and in March 1869, made him secretary of war.

    John Aaron Rawlins died five months later at the age of thirty eight, on September 6, 1869. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

¹ http://www.imrubicon.com/general.htm (Lee Bonnet)

² from Three Galena Generals, by Elmer Gortz, 1955 (Speech to Illinois Historical Society)

Memorial Day…A Vet Remembers Buchenwald

           On August 13, 1944, Joseph F. Moser, a 20-year-old farm boy from the little town of Lynden, Washington, found himself far from home. The battle for Europe was raging in the skies over occupied France. Joe was the new flight leader for his squadron of four P-38 Lightning fighter planes, each of which carried two 500-pound containers of high explosives beneath their wings. He had already flown nearly 40 missions, but this day Joe’s fight for survival would really begin. His story, as told by Gerald R. Baron, is found in his book, A Fighter Pilot in Buchenwald.

The Allies were working hard to cut the Nazi supply lines across France, so when Joe saw German trucks stopped on the road below, he led his squadron in a dive to wipe them out. As flak erupted all around them, he realized they’d been lured into a trap. His twin boom fighter shuddered as the left engine took a direct hit and burst into flames just 200 feet above the ground. 
Joe pulled the plane into a sharp climb, released his load of bombs where they’d not hurt any French citizens on the ground, and headed for his base in England. Fire crept up the wing as his crippled plane limped for home. When the cockpit glass exploded and he felt himself burning, he flipped the plane over and dropped out. But mysteriously, he didn’t seem to be falling away from the plane. He realized the toe of his boot was caught in the cockpit and the ground was coming up fast. At the last minute, the leather tore, releasing him to fall free. At 400 miles per hour, he pulled the rip cord and his parachute billowed, jerking him to a sudden stop moments before he hit the ground. His plane plunged into the ground next to a house nearby and exploded.

He found himself surrounded by French farmers who’d seen what happened. They cut off his parachute and hid it, his helmet, and other pilot’s equipment under shocks of grain and motioned for him to join them in picking up the harvested grain. Within minutes the field swarmed with German soldiers looking for the pilot of the crashed plane. When the soldiers left, two young French men motioned him to follow them across the fields toward some trees. They were running as fast as they could when they heard the German motorcycles coming back. Joe was captured, along with the young men, and tossed into a windowless stone building. After a while, the men were taken out and Joe heard shots.

Shortly thereafter, he was thrown into a prison in Fresnes, France.  Within days, the French resistance forces (considered terrorists by the Germans) had begun to openly fight against the occupiers. On August 25, the Allies entered Paris, and the Germans were frantic to get their prisoners deep into German territory. They crammed them into cattle cars, 95 people in a space meant for eight cattle. For five nightmarish days and nights they rode, starving, sick, with only a bucket for a toilet, until they reached a German prison camp. It wasn’t a Prisoner of War camp, where, according to conventions of war they should have been held, but Buchenwald, one of Germany’s dread concentration camps where prisoners were worked and starved to death. Until he landed there, Joe didn’t know about these places and the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the world’s Jews and all others they hated. Neither did the rest of the world until Buchenwald and other camps were liberated eight months later.

    Joe spent two months in Buchenwald, one of 168 captured Allied airmen among some 80,000 other prisoners. These 168 were marked for execution by the German SS, who considered them terrorists because the French resistance had helped them. Just days before their scheduled execution, they received a visit by high-ranking Luftwaffe officers, who made no secret of their disgust at the treatment their fellow pilots had received at the hands of the SS. Again the Allied pilots were loaded onto cattle cars, less crowded this time, and taken to the first of several POW camps. Although conditions were still miserable, they were given enough food to ward off starvation and their families finally received word of their whereabouts.

When the men at last were liberated, Joe couldn’t stop eating. He put on 60 pounds in a month, and when he got home, people couldn’t believe he’d been in Buchenwald. In fact, two weeks after returning home, he was asked to speak to a local Lion’s club and did his best to tell about his experiences. Walking out of the room afterward, he overheard one man tell another, “I didn’t believe a word of it.” That was the last time Joe spoke about his experiences, except for his debriefing by a young officer when his 60-day leave was up. This officer flatly denied there’d been any Americans held at Buchenwald, and Joe says that to this day, no American flag flies among those of the other nations whose citizens were held prisoner there.

Not only was Joe unable to share about his experiences with anyone, for over forty years, he had nightmares about what he thought had happened to the Frenchmen who tried to help him and also to the family he imagined had burned to death in the house where his plane had crashed. Then one day in 1988 he learned the truth. Everyone had miraculously escaped. 

Joe says he’s proud to have served his country. “If there is one thing to leave you with, it is that common ordinary people just like you and just like me can once in a while be called upon to show extraordinary courage and strength…Never, ever forget the price that many have paid to protect our precious freedom.”

This Memorial Day as always we’ll take flowers to where my parents rest in our home town cemetery. We’ll note, as always, the small flags fluttering on the numerous graves of those who fought for America. Some of those veterans laid down their lives as far back as World War I, some only recently. I will lift up my heart in thanksgiving for Joe Moser and each military person, dead or still alive, who gave or is giving so much for my freedom.

May God make us, and our nation, worthy of their sacrifices.