Driving to Fort Leavenworth, KS

Intro

Thank you all for the well wishes and congratulations on my wedding day. There were too many to try and answer one-by-one.

I am Fort Leavenworth, KS this week. I am a part of a teaching curriculum update. It’s neat to see how the sausage is made and why we teach certain things.

BATTLE GROUND, IN- July 25, 2016

Downtown Battle Ground looks like a postcard of a small Midwest town. There is a General Store, a single diner filled with old men drinking coffee, and a railroad track that cuts the town in half.

As far as my eyes can see is a vista of corn, the leaves dark green, almost five feet high. Dawn paints the tops of the stalks a vivid red-gold. A gentle breeze ripples through it, and my sleep blurred vision it seems I am looking at a vast sea of corn, stretching off to the horizon.

Just out of town is an abandoned farmhouse, half falling down with white chipped paint. Outside the house is rusted, old farm equipment.

People wave as you drive by. Everybody knows everyone else but they mind their business.

The town is where folks leave their doors unlocked and neighbors help take care of the youngsters. Battle Ground is a place people collect on their porches at nightfall to talk in the summer time.

Graying elders where look out for each other and watch out for the kids next door.

Driving West

I drove west from Indiana. Along the way I hit a good part of the Midwest.

South of the Great Lakes is the Plains. The Plains cover a wide swath stretching through the central part of Indiana, into Illinois, Missouri and finally into Kansas. This highly fertile earth is perfect for growing crops and raising kids.

This is the great Corn Belt of the Midwest. Despite the name, corn isn’t the only corps that grows here. The rich soil and warm summer climate support soybeans and grains.

Business parks and strip malls give way to lush stretches of farmland dotted with old farmhouses and rusted silos. I see churches, pickup trucks and Confederate flags fluttering in the wind. I hear the crunch of gravel with tractors driving on one lane farm roads and I smell the wet sharp smell of fresh cut grass.

 

The timeless brown, ugly winter seems far away today on this sunny, summer day. Winter is that awful time when the leaves fall off the trees and the snow comes. Today is sunny and full of hope.

The sun is shining. There are black, rain clouds on the horizon. Rivers snake their way across the landscape.

I pass from Illinois to Missouri. Missouri is where the Midwest meets the South. The state’s two main rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi, makes it an important hub for travelers and explorers.

As I head west the flat, open land gives way to gradual hills and valleys. Tall power lines crisscross swaths of farmlands growing corn and soy. Commercial trucking plazas and business parks, break up the scenery as you get closer to towns.

I start to see big box stores, plus mainstay restaurants: Wendy’s, Bob Evans and Pizza Hut. Further west, well into Missouri, the commercial centers become less and less.

Family-owned smaller farms and mom-and-pop gas stations and stores take over. There seem to be no zoning laws. Big, multilevel homes with nice trucks sit next to old trailers and junkyards.

Poverty and wealth sit side-by-side. This is a land of family farms and blue-collar workers. I pass through small towns where local restaurants are next door to deserted gas stations.

Finally, I get to Leavenworth. Fort Leavenworth is just outside Kansas City. It’s located in the heart of America. I feel blessed to be here in the middle of the summertime.

 

Dom Gets Married

TIPPECANOE BATTLEFIELD PARK, BATTLE GROUND, IN- Friday- July 15, 2016

Muna and I got married on Friday. It was a small ceremony. Just her kids, my parents and a few local friends.

I wore a dark blue suit, light blue shirt and a pink tie Muna loves. Muna is lovely in a pink and white floral wedding dress. She’s worried about wearing heels because she is several inches taller than me. I laugh and say, “Everyone who is coming already knows that. Wear them.”

We both laugh because we realize this is the smallest thing in a long list of things that could have gone wrong.

Before the wedding we are rushing around at home getting ready. We are having a small reception afterwards. We want to make sure everything is just right.

I feel like I’m impersonating a game show host in my monkey suit. I am a little nervous but excited too. We step outside the car. I take a deep breath, look at Muna and smile.

I joke and say, “It’s not too late to back out.” She smiles and punches me in the arm, “Why would I do that?”

“Promise me you won’t say something stupid like that again,” she says. “I promise,” I’m happy I’m here with her in this moment.

“As your husband, I can’t promise not to make stupid jokes,” I say. She smirks and says, “Well, technically speaking, I’m not your wife yet. I suppose we will have to fix that.”

I laugh again and say, “Well, good thing. Look like we will have just the opportunity to remedy that.”

So it goes. Back and forth in an easy flow. Things with Muna have always been fun and easy.

Even in the times when things get hard we are always laughing. It is the reason I asked her to be my wife- she always make me laugh.

Pastor Ron shows up to do the honors.

We picked the Tippecanoe Battlefield Park to get married in. In the middle of the park is an 85’ tall marble obelisk monument to the Battle of Tippecanoe.

We’re all standing on the steps of the obelisk. We have a picture perfect day. The sun is shining, the sky is a light blue and not a cloud in the sky. There is a light breeze on the air. It moves Muna’s hair slightly as we exchange our vows.

Just like that it’s over. We kiss and hug our way out of the park.

We arrive home a few minutes before our guests for our reception.

I look at Muna and say, “Well, Mrs.Oto, it’s official.” Her face is pink with pleasure. We hold hands as we open the front door. In the doorway she gives me a hug and kiss.

She smells like lavender. She says, “Welcome home, Mr. Oto.”

It has been one the best days of my life.

Beyond Band of Brothers Tour- Europe

Intro

I just finished the Procom Beyond of Brothers of Tour. It was one of the best vacations and experiences I’ve ever had!

This tour was action packed. We saw five or six sites a day. It was a breakneck pace and non-stop fun. It was an epic adventure with a capital EPIC!

I had unabashed fun and meet some exceptional folks who will be life-long friends. Let me tell you about my front row seat to the history of World War II in Europe. I was riding shotgun!

World War II

World War II was the bloodiest conflict in the history of the world. Bombers destroyed cities, millions of people were murdered in concentration camps.

World War II started in Europe, but it soon spread around the world. Fifty-seven nations went to war. More than 50 million soldiers and civilians died, half of them in the Soviet Union.

For six long years Europe was torn apart by fighting. Life would never be the same again. After this tour I feel I have a better understanding of World War II.

“Band of Brothers”

Almost everyone has seen the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It focuses on the actions of one outstanding light infantry company during World War II.

The war was so big, with so many characters and outstanding heroes that you can get lost in strategy and personalities.

Easy Company’s story is about individual soldiers. During World War II, it fought in Western Europe.

What brings Easy Company’s actions to light is the individual stories of the men of the unit, and one extraordinary man in particular- Major Dick Winters.

Paratroopers

Paratroopers are not ordinary soldiers. Their battlefields are behind enemy lines. They drop silently from the sky. They are messengers of death and destruction.

Lightly armed, unsupported by tanks and heavy artillery, they fight time after time against overwhelming odds and win.

This is the story of Arnhem, the Ardennes, Bastogne, Normandy and crossing the Rhine into Germany. It is the story of Easy Company, a heroic band of daredevils in America’s biggest war.

Procom Tours- Beyond Band of Brothers Tours

Excellent customer service has almost become a thing of the past. We consumers have grown accustomed to things being outsourced. This tour was everything it promised to be and more. Especially in telling the story of “Easy Company.”

Nikki Montgomery- Procom

First, I would like to thank Nikki Montgomery for all her hard work, organization and communication. I had all the information I needed to for my travel.

She not only managed to arrange EVERYTHING I asked for, but also provided the BEST staff to help us drive us around and much more.

CHARLIE KOVES and JANOS MEGYERI

We couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Charlie! He took special care to make sure we saw everything there was to see. He was incredibly knowledgeable about every detail. Most importantly, he made us laugh and feel comfortable on our tour. Procom has a real treasure there!

Janos is the best driver I’ve ever seen. He made sure the bus was always ready and we were always safe. He went out of his way to help, Ric, our oldest traveling companion. He put that bus into cramped spaces I would be afraid to drive my Toyota Pick-Up Truck. Great guy.

THE EXPERIENCE

The tour follows the path of Easy Company. The tour is based on the first-hand and personal recollections of the paratroopers. It includes the extensive research of Stephen Ambrose, and the hard work of our local tour guides.

The tour is an experience unparalleled in anything I have read or experienced. We stood in the very foxholes and locations where Easy Company fought. We got firsthand experiences of some of the most climactic battles of World War II.

In the evenings there was free time to relax, shop and explore some of Europe’s most charming villages and cities. Each meal was delicious event where we recounted the day’s events with your fellow travelers.

We got a chance to sample local food and see some of the same sites that the men of Easy Company more than 70 years before.

CHARLES DE GAULLE AIRPORT, PARIS, FRANCE- July 2, 2016

The tour started in Paris. Our group had ten people in it. After a long trans-Atlantic flight everyone was tired. Charlie made sure everyone was good-to-go and we had our luggage.

Everyone was jet lagged and tired. It was a four-hour trip to our hotel. Charlie set the tone right away.

During the tour he had a two jobs- he was our full-time tour historian and full-time tour guide. He let us know that we had access him to him 24/7. Our wellbeing was his priority. He put everyone at ease and got us ready for an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.

He begin our by explaining Paris and France. He shared knowledge that only a native European and world travel knows.

Within an hour everyone was asleep.

HOTEL MECURE, OMAHA BEACH AT PORT-EN BESSIN, NORMANDY, FRANCE- July 2-5, 2016

The hotel is at the root of the Omaha Beach Golf course. The natural beauty of this area has stunning views and a great location.

The hotel was a knockout. It had a heated pool, the high speed internet connection was free and covered everywhere you went in the building. The breakfast first-rate and the hotel dinners were delicious. With its calm surroundings, with the sea close-by you could almost forget an epic battle was fought here for six weeks in June 1944.

It was hard to resist the charm of the touristic town Port-En-Bessin, a 15 minute walk from the hotel. Over the next couple of days we visited Bayeux and Arromanches-les-bains, and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

The Tour de France started in Normandy and the German cycle team-Team Sky was staying at the hotel.

RUDY PASSERA

We met Rudy on Sunday morning. It’s hard to say enough great things about him. He loves history. He was born and raised in the Normandy area. He lived in Minnesota for a couple of years so his English and French are equally impressive.

First and foremost he is a true expert on the American Normandy campaign. He worked at the Normandy American Cemetery and at the Utah Beach D-Day Museum. He was the Master of Ceremony for a few International D-Day Commemorations.

He took us to Omaha and Utah beaches. He explained the battles through the stories of individual American soldiers and made you feel like you were there. He answered the most obscure questions and cited the sources from where his info came from.

Rudy went above and beyond on the last day. Corey and Sam Franklin, a father and son, traveled from Chicago for a special reason.

Corey’s dad was a Battalion Surgeon with the 90th Infantry Division. He landed on Utah Beach the first day. He died a few months ago. He wanted his ashes spread at Utah Beach.

This was a deeply emotional event for Corey, his dad inspired him to become a doctor. For Sam, it was the last good-bye for a beloved grandfather. For the father and son it was the trip of a lifetime.

Rudy arranged through the Utah Beach D-Day Museum for Corey and Sam to be given a certificate and medal. It honored the liberation of France from Nazi tyranny.

10 minutes later we down at the beach in a moving ceremony. Rudy provided flowers and helped to make a very moving emotional event very personal. It was the one thing Sam and Corey talked about for the rest of the trip.

Rudy made our trip to Normandy a memorable event. He was the perfect bridge from the past to the present. His kindness and enthusiasm made us cherish the memory for the rest of our lives.

BEST WESTERN HOTEL MELBA, BASTOGNE, BELGIUM- July 6-8 2016

In December 1944, Easy Company was in the defense of Bastogne, Belgium. The town was a crucial road junction that blocked the Germans from breaking through Allied lines.

In a week of non-stop fighting in freezing cold weather, the 101st Airborne Division, badly outnumbered and outgunned, stopped an attack of 15 German SS Divisions from taking the town.

Easy Company was at the tip of the spear in the middle of the action.

Our hotel had first class accommodations. It was right in the middle of downtown, it was easy to get around. It was a few miles from where Easy Company froze in snow filled foxholes.

HENRI MIGNON

“I didn’t choose involvement in World War II. I was an eyewitness to it,” This is how Henri Mignon begins his exciting tale of what it was like to endure the German occupation of his country.

As a nine-year-old boy, he witnessed the war’s effects in Bastogne, his hometown. He told us of the perils of combat, bombings, and his family’s evacuation from their rural home. His father was killed the day before the battle ended.

After the war, he was an artillery officer in the Belgian Army. He visited the battle fields of Bastogne often. After he retired from the army Henri’s interest in the Battle of the Bulge really started. He’s personally mapped out every trench and foxhole in the area.

He’s collected war artifacts and personal recollections from local survivors. After decades of research, he is an award-winning authority on what happened in Bastogne.

Henri treated the tour group like devoted friends. He was an excellent host of his amazing country. Henri’s eyewitness account of the Battle of the Bulge and his experience as a soldier helped to tell the stories of the soldiers – on both sides – who fought there.

THE RILANO HOTEL MÜNCHEN, MUNICH, GERMANY, July 9-11, 2016

We stopped at the Luxemburg American Cemetery and visited Patton’s grave. Next we arrived in Munich. We stayed at the beautiful four star Rilano Hotel in downtown Munich.

STEPHEN WHITEHORN

Our next guide was Stephen Whitethorn. There are tours and there are amazing tours- Stephen gave one of the best tours I’ve ever been on.

Stephen is an English gentleman who speaks German. He showed us Hitler’s Eagle Nest and Dachau Concentration Camp.

His attention to detail and incredible encyclopedic knowledge of the Third Reich and the Holocaust are fun to listen to. Steve infuses the long, ambitious tale of the rise and fall of the Third Reich with intellect by casting the Nazi leaders in social, religious and cultural contexts.

He has given more English-speaking tours of Dachau than any other tour guide- a few thousand, at his best guest.

Steve’s real gift is his powerful voice as a Speaker for the Dead of Dachau. He tells the true story of how at least 42,000 people were systematically murdered by a ruthless regime.

He has the courage to face the horror every day and tell the truth. In the aftermath of a terrible war everyone wanted to move on and forget. Steve reminds us why it’s important to remember.

In Munich, Steve took us to the tucked away places off the beaten track. We saw the old town hall where “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass” started- a period of concerted violence by the Nazis in Germany and Austria against Jews. It was the prelude to the annihilation of Europe’s Jews.

His wife’s grandfather fought in the same regiment as Hitler in the First World War. Stephen has his firsthand account of the Beer Hall Putsch- Hitler’s failed attempt of taking over the German government in 1923. I stood where he made the historical speech.

Stephen is one of the leading historians on the Battle of Britain but his real historical love is Nazi Germany. It shows when he explained the war. Steve explained in layman’s terms how World War II happened.

After World War I, Germany was defeated. It was bitter and divided over the war. People were poor, many were unemployed and the local money lost all its value.

Many Germans were afraid and angry. Their fears were played upon by Hitler, a ruthless politician who promised to make Germany strong again. He bullied, lied and cheated his way to power.

He was a violent racist who made the Jews the scapegoats for Germany losing World War One. He despised the people of Eastern Europe. When Hitler attacked his neighbors in 1939, Britain and France couldn’t stand by.

The world was plunged into war.

We had some extra guides were deserve special mention.

SCOTT DESJARDINS

Scott Desjardins is the Superintendent at the Luxembourg American Cemetery. He gave us an amazing summary of the D-Day landing, the Allied push through France & the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge & into the Rhineland.

His concise history that tracked the movements of the American Army through Western Europe. His description contained tactical and strategic actions from Normandy to the German border.

A retired Special Forces Command Sergeant Major, he sees his duties at the cemetery as a continuation of his military service. It shows through in all that he did that day in the cemetery.

KATIE BEAUDETTE

Katie is a tour guide at the Canadian Juno Beach Centre. She is making the most of a wonderful opportunity for young Canadians to experience life in Normandy, France and be tour guides at the Centre.

She is an expert on Canada’s rich military history. Katie is a graduate student in War Studies at Royal Military College of Canada. Her specialty is the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, the Primary Reserve infantry regiment of the Canadian Army.

Katie gave an excellent account of the Canadian soldiers’ valuable contribution to the war effort.

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, SD&G Highlanders were part of the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. They were part of the 176,000 Allied troops that crossed the English Channel to attack the beaches of Normandy, in Nazi occupied France.

ASSESSMENT

I loved this tour. if I had the money and time I would spend a year doing these tours back-to-back. We toured spots were some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience.

Highlights include:

  • Private Rooms with private bath or shower, hotel taxes, and service charges.
  • Touring by first class air-conditioned motor coach.
  • Delicious meals showcasing local cuisine.
  • All entrance fees to museums and attractions.
  • Educational road books full of maps and historical information.

I can’t say enough about the warmth and genuine hospitality of the people on this tour. We ate in outstanding restaurants and received excellent service. It was a fun way to study history and learn about the monumental events of World War II.

Easy Company and Major Dick Winters

Intro

I am headed to Europe today for the “Beyond Band of Brothers” tour. Four countries in 12 days- wow!. I wanted to do an email about this awesome adventure!

This post was a fun one to write. To historians World War II is a fun war. It’s not complicated. We are not fighting for murky reasons and hidden agendas like Vietnam or Iraq.

In World War II the Americans were the good guys. We were attacked by the Japanese. The Nazis invaded other countries and killed millions of innocent people. The bad guys wore uniforms.

We fought them until they surrendered unconditionally. Then we rebuilt the economy of our enemies. Americans are smart, kind and tough. You see our country at its best in World War II.

Studs Terkel called World War II “The Good War.”

World War II

Almost everyone has seen the “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It focuses on the actions of one outstanding light infantry company during World War II.

The war was so big, with so many characters and outstanding heroes that you can get lost in strategy and personalities.

Easy Company’s story is about individual soldiers. During World War II, it fought in Western Europe.

What brings Easy Company’s actions to light is the individual stories of the men of the unit, and one extraordinary man in particular- Major Dick Winters.

Paratroopers

Paratroopers are not ordinary soldiers. Their battlefields are behind enemy lines. They drop silently from the sky. They are messengers of death and destruction.

Lightly armed, unsupported by tanks and heavy artillery, they fight time after time against overwhelming odds and win.

This is the story of Arnhem, the Ardennes, Bastogne, Normandy and crossing the Rhine into Germany. It is the story of Easy Company, a heroic band of daredevils in America’s biggest war.

CAMP TOCCA, GA- Spring, 1942

The men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, United States Army, came from all over America. They came from different backgrounds and social classes.

The company had farmers from the Deep South, coal miners from Middle America, and fishermen from New England. They were citizen-soldiers who joined the army after America was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Franklin Roosevelt was President for most of their young lives. The men grew up in the Great Depression. For some of them, the army was the first time they had enough to eat. Only a handful of them had college degrees.

As a group they were self-starters and used to hard work. Some enlisted because they figured they were going to be drafted anyway. Some men knew that a man who enlisted got to go to the best units.

The best units give a man the best chance to stay in alive in combat. The best units don’t take draftees, only men who enlist and volunteer.

They all volunteered to be paratroopers. Some did it for the thrill of jumping out of airplanes. Others did it for the extra pay- $50 for enlisted men or $100 for officers.

They trained non-stop. Five to ten mile runs up mountains. Thirty pushups for every mistake plus one more “For the Airborne.”

Endless road marches with heavy packs in the middle of the night. Classes in weapons, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.

The point was to become paratroopers. They could take anything.

Out of 500 officers who volunteered for training, only 148 completed the course. For the enlisted men, only 1,800 made it out of 5,300 volunteers.

They came together in the summer of 1942. By the late spring of 1944, they were as good a rifle company as any other in the world, maybe a little better.

Major Dick Winters

Major Dick Winters commanded Easy Company for most of the war. He started the war as a 2nd Lieutenant and rifle platoon leader. At 26, before the war ended, he got promoted to major and commanded the 2nd Battalion.

Winters was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He graduated from college before he joined the army in August 1041, so he wouldn’t be drafted later.

After basic training, he attended Officer Candidate School. After OCS he volunteered for the parachute infantry.

In August 1942, he was assigned to Easy Company. He first served as the platoon leader of 2nd Platoon, later he was the company’s executive officer.

Winters as a Leader

Captain Herbert Sobel was a tough company commander. He and Winters did not get along. Sobel was a petty tyrant who treated his men badly. His harsh training methods played a part in the company’s later success in combat.

Winters did his best to shield the Easy Company men from Sobel’s tirades. Many of the enlisted men of the company respected Winters for his competence and compassion.

Winters was a natural leader and Sobel was not.

NORMANDY, FRANCE- D-DAY June 6, 1944

In May 1944, right before Normandy, Winters replaced Sobel as the company commander of Easy. In Normandy, Winters and 13 men knocked out four Nazi artillery guns. The artillery pieces had 50 Germans in entrenched positions.

Winters personally led the attack. He destroyed all four guns and he lost only one man in the raid. The mission is still taught at West Point as the perfect example of how to assault fixed point defenses.

For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second award for valor.

HOLLAND-September, 1944

In September 1944, Easy Company jumped into to Holland as part of Operation Market Garden. One day on a routine recon Winters came across a series of German machine gun nests.

With only 35 men he ambushed over 300 SS infantry, the most elite unit in the German army. He led a charge on foot, across an open field and got behind the Germans. He called in artillery while his men mowed down the surprised Germans.

He destroyed two companies of German infantry.

BASTOGNE, BELGIUM- December, 1944

In December 1944, he was the battalion’s executive officer. During the Battle of the Bulge, he led the defense of Bastogne. The town was a crucial road junction that blocked the Germans from breaking through Allied lines.

In a week of non-stop fighting in freezing cold weather, the 101st Airborne Division, badly outnumbered and outgunned, stopped a coordinated attack of 15 German SS Divisions from taking the town.

Dick Winters and Easy Company were at the tip of the spear in the middle of the action.

BERCHTESGADEN, GERMANY- May, 1944

In May 1944, he was the battalion commander. He and Easy Company captured Hitler’s summer home- The Eagle’s Nest. The war in Europe ended a few days later.

Conclusion

During a year of almost non-stop fighting, Easy Company sustained 150% casualties, Forty-eight members of Easy Company gave their lives to their country. More than 100 men were wounded. Some men were wounded several times.

Dick Winters led them through it all.

As brass knuckle paratroopers, they hit hard targets. They came in fast. They came in at night because night time is killing time.

The book and mini-series created the myth. The reality was violent and ruthless.

They were trained killers.  They got used to carnage and destruction. They lived in a harsh world that required quick, violent reactions. They used muscle, courage and initiative to defeat a resolute and experienced enemy.

The brutal training broke down the barriers of the men. Where you came from and who you were didn’t matter.

Everyone double-timed around the camp. Every day they ran the three miles up the mountain and the three miles down the mountain.

They were loaded like bullets into airplanes. They jumped behind enemy lines to take back Europe from the Nazis. It was an age of guts and glory.

Tough men need a tough leader. They got one in Dick Winters. Winters led from the front. He led by personal and physical example in everything he did. He never asked a man to do something he wouldn’t do.

Here are Dick Winters’ Ten Principles for Success:

  1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.
  2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.
  3. Stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.
  4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.
  5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.
  6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.
  7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.
  8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.
  9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect – not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.
  10. Hang Tough! – Never, ever, give up.

Hope you guys enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed typing. Write to you in two weeks about my trip- Hang Tough!