Fugger the Insanely Rich: A Review of ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ by Greg Steinmetz

Do you ever daydream about what you’d accomplish with endless funds? Would you buy that new car you always wanted? Embark on a month long vacation to the tropics? Eat a hamburger at every establishment listed on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives’? All of these are admirable, but consider this: all that wealth wasn’t enough and it was your gift bestowed by God to make money. Your sole purpose was generating profit for you, your company, and family. If you thought this, then you share a kindred soul with one of the richest men in history: Jakob Fugger.

Greg Steinmetz’s book, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger’ recounts the founding and influence of the powerful Fugger merchant family. At a time when large capitalist enterprises and industrial monopolies were the norm in European economies, Fugger singlehandedly cornered the copper and silver market. His business network reached into several royal households and the Vatican. Merchants, bankers, and businessmen followed his advice and bowed to his financial acumen, believing that he really did turn anything into gold. Steinmetz’s research pulls from a vast archive and the Fugger family papers that have survived for nearly six hundred years. That’s right; Jakob Fugger isn’t your 20th century mogul or Elon Musk style tech entrepreneur. He was 2% of Europe’s GDP in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Portrait of Jakob Fugger by Albrecht Dürer, 1518

Steinmetz unveils the humble origins of the Fugger family and the ascent into the wealthy echelons of society. His grandfather, Hans, was a lowly peasant who moved to Augsburg and entered the textile trade. Textiles was a powerful industry in Europe and its proximity to Italy which produced many of the necessary dyes for colors created a rich market in Germany. The Fugger children and grandchildren worked in various capacities in the merchant business, but others were encouraged to pursue studying theology and become priests. Jakob was one of them, but by the age of fourteen, he was pursuing business interests on the family’s behalf in Venice. The formative Venice years were invaluable to Jakob as he learned the value of building networks, investments, new enterprises, accounting, and honoring contracts. After returning from Venice, Fugger sought out new ventures in Central Europe and his greatest windfall occurred with mining. Through a series of deals with Hapsburg nobility, he secured rights to silver and copper mines throughout Austria. The mines made the Fuggers rich beyond comprehension. When Jakob died in 1525, the vast majority of copper and silver used for minting coins and commercial use came from his vast mines.

Material wealth was only part of the Fugger fortune. The family was closely allied with the Hapsburg royal household and were early supporters of their claims to titles of nobility. They provided many of the contracts and rights for the Fuggers to operate in their territories and given Jakob’s ability to raise funds, the Hapsburgs came to rely on him for loans and credit. Whenever the Hapsburgs needed funds to raise armies or influence elections, they went to Jakob. Border disputes or problems with the Catholic Church? The Fugger network had agents strategically placed in key positions that allowed them to resolve disagreements. Nothing was without its cost and Fugger routinely made a profit from different ventures. Steinmetz took no shortcuts in emphasizing the relationship between the Fuggers and Hapsburgs. Banking and nobility were tailor made for each other during the Renaissance and Jakob certainly capitalized on this political network.

Augsburg in the 15th century. This prosperous German city was the center of much of the wool and textile trade in Central Europe making many families enormously wealthy. Augsburg would be Jakob’s home for most of his life and many in the city were impacted by his financial and political influence

Steinmetz makes another salient point in his analysis of Jakob Fugger and the merchant family. Fugger was traditionally seen as the poorest family member who made his fortune from nothing, but that’s far from the truth. His father and grandfather made important in-roads with the textile industry and built valuable relationships with German and Italian markets. His mother, Barbara Basinger, managed the Fugger bank following the death of his father Jakob the Elder. She was just as shrewd and enterprising as her husband and sons. She exponentially increased the size of the family fortunes and by her death, she left vast inheritances and dowries for her children. Steinmetz’s study of the family relations sheds light on the centrality that the business had with the Fuggers. Outside members worked as agents or informants throughout Europe, but the Fuggers alone were the only ones who managed the money and allowed to learn the art of accounting. Traditional historians emphasized the importance of Jakob, but he wasn’t a one man operation; the extended family made it all happen with him.

Fugger’s profit-generating skills weren’t entirely for selfish reasons though. Steinmetz recounts the Fuggers’ generosity with local churches and impoverished citizens, all of which was motivated by his devout Roman Catholic faith. Originally destined for the life of a priest, Fugger donated large sums of money to St. Anna’s Church and paid the salaries of many parish priests. In 1512, a chapel designed by Renaissance artists Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair, Jörg Breu the Elder and Hans Daucher was dedicated to the Fuggers and later a mausoleum for Fugger brothers Ulrich and Georg. The most iconic fixture of Fugger’s legacy was the Fuggerei. In 1518, Jakob established a trust funding the building and maintenance of a large social housing complex for struggling laborers. These apartments had modern features for the time, complete with private kitchens and bedrooms, all within an enclosed community where residents lived under a specific set of rules. Rent was set at one guilder and residents were to pray for the Fugger family several times a day. The Fuggerei exists today with the same rent of one guilder (equal to 0.88 euro) and houses around 150 people.

The Fuggerei, Augsburg, Germany

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ is a perfect book for those who enjoy reading about larger-than-life personalities and biographies of influential people. Medievalists would appreciate the historical research and contextual evidence Steinmetz uses throughout the text. In conclusion, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived‘ is a fitting testament to a man who if he went bankrupt, could have singlehandedly sent Europe back to the Dark Ages just as they were entering the enlightening Renaissance.

American Baronetcy: A Review of ‘The House of Morgan’ by Ron Chernow

The Gilded Age is a staple of middle and high school social studies classes in the United States. Students learn about the great robber barons who commanded American industry. The rapid transformation of the economy from a rural agrarian landscape to factories, foundries, and railroads signaled the shift in American life. The captains of industry who instigated this transformation amassed financial and political fortunes that could give Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires a run for their equity. We hear of men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt when thinking of that Gilded Age, but one personality evolved with the economy and was a critical component of the U.S. economic engine. From humble roots in England, the House of Morgan grew into a global financial institution that bankrolled industries and foreign governments. One name was synonymous with banking in the Gilded Age; he was John Pierpont Morgan.

Ron Chernow’s book ‘The House of Morgan‘ explores far beyond the biography of J.P. Morgan and his legacy. Rather, in true Chernow fashion, the book runs a fine comb over the rise, dominance, splintering, and restructuring of the most influential corporate financial company in the 19th and 20th centuries. Examining the role of the House of Morgan in American finance is akin to researching the role of Jonas Salk and the development of the polio vaccine; it’s impossible to discuss it without them. What Chernow illustrates is how pivotal the House of Morgan became in the banking world and how that power transferred between generation. Coupled with the family history, Chernow examines the company, J.P Morgan & Co., and how throughout various times in history was at the center of economic growth, government crisis intervention, controversy and scandal, and the diversification of high finance.

The office of J.P Morgan & Co. at 23 Wall Street. This corner was both powerful and mysterious in the world of high finance with J.P. Morgan and the numerous partners consolidating industries and giving banking security to the most influential companies and men in the U.S. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Chernow’s narrative follows a round-robin pattern focusing on the multiple offices and personalities connected to the House of Morgan over period of 120 years. Imbedded in this structure is the rise and fall of what he called the ‘Gentleman Banker’s Code’. Throughout the 19th century, banks were private institutions and we do mean PRIVATE. The House of Morgan never advertised its services, publicly listed client names, or dealt with the rabble of early Wall Street. A bank like that wouldn’t likely survive in today’s fast finance world powered by vast digital databases. But the House of Morgan was a product of its time; the bank served institutions and business and not the public at large. Chernow’s in-depth research reveals how the Morgan enterprise amassed its fortune through acquisition, controlling interest, and issuing bonds and loans to corporations and governments. Each branch in North America, England, and France conducted business in slightly different fashions, but the all followed the Banker’s Code.

Obviously J.P. Morgan dominates the early narrative–his face is on the book cover. The Morgan name began with his father Junius Spencer Morgan who started J.S Morgan & Co. with George Peabody, his business partner. Through intensive training, J.P. rises as a powerful figure who takes the company beyond what his father could have dreamt. Renamed J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1895, the bank quickly became the focal point for corporate finance. Captains of industry came to respect Morgan’s financial acumen because it produced results. His method of consolidating fractured businesses and controlling interest was trademarked as ‘Morganization’. It became a synonym for the House of Morgan’s novel future practice of mergers and acquisitions.

The story of Morgan isn’t only limited to Wall Street. Morgan branches in England such as Morgan Grenfell illustrate the dichotomy between the American and European methods of banking. While the Bank of England and Morgan Grenfell formed an integral component of the state economy, J.P. Morgan & Co. maintained an independent streak, occasionally interceding on behalf of the U.S. federal government. The relationship is not always a happy one as Chernow recites. The Progressive period aimed to reduce poverty and controlled the unrestrained capitalism of the robber barons. Morgan was a prominent target which became a trend that followed the company for years. They appeared in court cases, Congressional hearings, and were the subject of numerous federal investigations ranging from illegal price fixing to underwriting loans to belligerent foreign nations. The Glass-Steagall Act forced the bank to re-evaluate its business model now that they were prevented from intermingling commercial and investment banking. The result was the spin-off of multiple Morgan entities that later evolved into the modern offices we know today: Morgan Guaranty, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley.

The House of Morgan didn’t survive by the Morgans alone. An army of junior and senior partners came and went through the 23 Wall Street office bringing with them their education and prejudices. Figures like Tom Lamont, Russell Leffingwell, and George Whitney, were instrumental in expanding Morgan’s reach into new territory according to Chernow. The stresses of such a job however were evident in Chernow’s writing: they all died young from heart attacks, strokes, overexertion, and alcoholism. Racial and ethnic prejudices were not absent either as an unspoken code prevented Jewish, black, Hispanic, and other non-white hires, unless they served lunch in the private dining halls. Chernow wastes no paper in examining the darker side of the dominant banking business.

The immensity of Chernow’s work speaks as a testament to the changes that impacted the House of Morgan. Chernow’s analysis illustrates the remarkable shift in policy and public connection that discarded the old Gentleman Banker’s Code and was replaced with younger proteges working harder and faster. Gone was the smoked filled, leather armchair partners room where deals were finished over brandy and cigars. In the 1970s and 1980s when information technology altered Wall Street, the various Morgan entities adapted to the times, but its historical provenance never faded. ‘The House of Morgan‘ is a bold history that highlights the best and worst of American finance, but doesn’t deny or revise its legacy. Chernow’s trademark intensive research doesn’t ignore scandal or the trivial and is truly an enthralling read for those who know the name of Morgan.

Nubian Neighbors: The Long Overshadowed African Kingdom

To preface this article, I knew practically nothing about ancient Nubian civilization. Vague childhood memories from my Egypt-o-mania phase recalls a passing reference to Nubia as a subservient client kingdom. My bookshelf had plenty of Ancient Egypt books for kids and most neighboring kingdoms were glossed over. The Egyptians exerted authority over the Nubians through military and economic oppressions, rendering them impoverished vassals. A recent trip to the St. Louis Art Museum fundamentally changed those notions. Nubian Treasures, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston, displayed an astonishing array of artwork and artifacts from various Nubian kingdoms that existed over two-thousand years. The exhibit left such an impression it compelled me to write this post. As time passes we discover more details and nuances about ancient civilizations that we didn’t know existed. We either don’t have the knowledge or it is explained by another source (No, ancient aliens do not count. Kill that thought right now). Who were the Nubians and why don’t we know more about them?

Faience lion that adorned a Nubian temple. Many of the raw materials and artistic design patterns were heavily influenced by Egypt, which presented difficulties for early archaeologists to separate Nubian from Egyptian (St. Louis Art Museum)

Like many who study ancient civilizations, there is a tendency to attribute cultural traits from an established societies to newly discovered adjacent ones. What does this mean? Essentially, when there’s a powerful kingdom that has large cultural exports such as art, language, religion, and government, bordering kingdoms can heavily rely on their neighbors leading to appropriation. Famed Egyptologist George Reisner believed this theory when excavating Nubia in the early 20th century. Archaeological evidence collected at the time led Reisner to believe that the many of the Egyptian-like artwork and artifacts were remnants of a Egyptian occupied land of a subservient people. Hieroglyphs and artwork reinforced this notion as Westerners interpreted the darker depiction of Nubian characters as servants or slaves. This theory took hold in the academic world and remained unchanged for decades.

The Nubians were definitely not pushovers who allowed the Egyptians to dictate their civilization. The first recorded cultural group, Kerma, lived in Nubia from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE until it was conquered by Thutmose I during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period. During that one thousand years, Nubians peacefully co-existed with Egypt and other African kingdoms. Trade flourished between them and subgroups of kingdoms developed throughout the region. Nubia is first mentioned in Egyptian accounts in the 24th century BCE during the Old Kingdom. This didn’t mean that the Nubians weren’t of any importance; in fact, they were Egypt’s largest trading partner. Substantial amounts of imported wealth such as gold, ebony, incense, ivory, and copper made the Nubian kingdoms incredibly valuable to Egypt. The Nubians also had great notoriety with their archery skills. They boasted some of the best archers in Northern Africa and on several occasions participated in Egyptian military campaigns. Nubian and Egyptian intermarriages were commonplace and many archaeologists speculate that a handful of Egyptians pharaohs might have had Nubian ancestry. There is no doubting the mutual and reciprocal influence that the two civilizations had on each other for nearly a thousand years.

Nubian ushabtis were small figurines that were placed in the burial chamber of a tomb. They served a spiritual purpose by serving their master in the afterlife. This is one of the many cultural and religious practices that Nubians and Egyptians shared over generations (St. Louis Art Museum)

The dynamic changed drastically around 1500 BCE when the pharaoh Thutmose I expanded Egypt’s borders into the Levant and Nubia. The occupation lasted nearly 400 years, but during that time, competing Nubian factions challenged Egyptian authority creating a near constant state of civil conflict in the region. By 1000 BCE, the Kushites began emerging as the dominant power in Nubia and Egyptian control was relinquished. By the 8th century BCE, the tables were turned as a massive Kushite army led by Piye began a systemic conquest of Egypt. He founded the 25th Dynasty and its pharaohs ruled the two lands for a little over 100 years. In 525 BC, an invading Assyrian army removed the Kushites and forcibly keeping them in the south for the next thousand years. Its at this time that the ancient city of Meroe came to prominence as the cultural and power center for Nubia following the collapse of the 25th Dynasty. The Kushite Kingdom preserved many Egyptian traditions, customs, and religious practices and developed their own language, Meroitic. Today it remains as one of the few undeciphered ancient languages.

The bottom script is Meroitic; one of the last ancient languages never to be translated (St. Louis Art Museum)

The extent of my knowledge on African civilizations is slim, but the point of this blog is to broaden my own history knowledge boundaries. If the Nubian Treasures exhibit taught me anything, it was that civilizations constantly borrow from one another. Whether its religious beliefs, economic practices, cultural customs, or government bureaucracy, the Nubian peoples and Egyptians certainly had a strong and complex relationship. Nubian archaeology has received increased attention in the past two decades and as that interest continues, it’s likely we’ll uncover more about this long overshadowed civilization and its people.

For more information about the St. Louis Art Museum and its exhibits, visit their website: SLAM.org

Harsh Waters, Hard Sailors: The Story of the Shetland Bus

The North Sea is a tumultuous landscape. Filled with rolling waves, violent storms, and high winds that only the most experienced seamen can withstand. Those who work on the sea can recount the harsh conditions. Life in the North Sea was immeasurably worse during World War II as it became a no-man’s land of German U-boats and patrol planes. They waited patiently for enemy ships to enter their vector and launch their attack. For the duration of the war, the North Sea became a precious corridor, a lifeline to the people of Norway and Great Britain. A small cadre of Norwegians and British sailors ran a covert shipping operation delivering weapons, supplies, and saboteurs to aid the beleaguered Norwegians as they resisted German occupation. Refugees were spirited across the sea as well to protect them from Nazi atrocities. Throughout the operation, ships had to travel at night to avoid detection from spotter planes and U-boats, but the sea is harshest at night and some never made it to their destination. This is the story of the ‘Shetland Bus’.

Shetland bus sailors endured harsh conditions and risked their lives ferrying agents and materials to Norway and returning with high risk refugees (Image courtesy of Scalloway Museum)

Fans of the BBC crime drama Shetland would know a trivia night amount of the Shetland Bus. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez researches its operational history searching for a link between a murder victim and a Norwegian sailor. He hears of the dangers they endured; fierce storms, aerial attacks, torpedoed by U-boats, and if discovered in Norway by the Germans, arrested and executed. This isn’t artistic license. The operators lived like this for over four years. To fully understand the bus’s criticality, we look back to Europe in 1941.

Heinrich Himmler visiting Norway in 1941. Seated (from left to right) are Vidkun Quisling, Himmler, Josef Terboven (Reichskommisar of occupied Norway) and General Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the commander of the German forces in Norway (Image courtesy of the German Federal Archives)

Norway capitulated to Nazi Germany in June 1940 and a pro-German puppet government under Vidkun Quisling was established with the Reich Commissariat of Norway. The country remained under German control until the end of war. This presented a precarious, but unique situation to the British Navy. The North Sea would be an intense battle ground for supplying Allied forces and blockading Axis ports. Additionally, British and Norwegian agents could be ferried and supplied across the sea and help subvert the Nazis in Norway. In early 1940, the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6; yes, the James Bond MI6) and the Special Operations Executive (SOE) met with Norwegian special agents to formulate an espionage and supply operations between the two nations. A brief series of runs demonstrated the effectiveness and necessities of supplying agents in Norway and rescuing at-risk civilians. In late 1941, the SOE created the Norwegian Naval Independent Unit becoming informally known as the ‘Shetland Bus’ by its officers and sailors.

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant David Howarth spotted a perfect location in Shetland at Lunna Ness. The small harbor and nearby houses would provide a fitting cover for clandestine operations. Many would not look twice at some fishing boats, thinking that they were ferrying saboteurs between nations. While central command was located at the Lunna House in 1941, boats would be brought in at any available harbor that had proper facilities for upkeep. Scalloway was used as the main port with its engineering capabilities and additional space for boats. The Shetland Bus operated from Lunna and Scalloway for the next four years. During its first winter, six boats and thirty sailors were lost at sea, either from harsh storms or enemy fire. In 1943, three sub-chasers from the U.S. Navy were transferred to the Norwegian navy who used it for the Shetland Bus. These were a godsend for the sailors and officers as it afforded them increased protection and faster speeds to outrun U-boats.

Sub-chaser VIGRA patrolling the North Sea corridor just outside of Scalloway. This ship, plus the HITRA and HESSA, were gifted from the U.S. Navy to help augment the Shetland Bus (Image courtesy of the Scalloway Museum)

Two critical exchanges on the Shetland bus were vital to Norway’s survival. The country had several resistance groups, but were disorganized and scattered throughout. Specially trained SOE agents were ordered to slip into Norway and lead sabotage operations to undermine the German war effort and the Quisling puppet government. They took radios, explosives, and other needed supplies with them to contact British handlers and Norse resistors. SOE operatives also required a reliable transport network to ferry them back to Shetland at any point. The SOe proved incredibly effective in helping the Norse resistance. One famous act of SOE clandestine work during WWII were the raids on heavy water production facilities supporting the German nuclear weapons program.

A SOE radio used by the Norwegian resistance. These were designed to be so compact and rudimentary that they could be disassembled and shipped without being intercepted by the enemy

The second exchange were spiriting away high risk Norse citizens considered enemies of the state. Nearly three thousands Jews lived in Norway in 1940 and approximately two-thirds escaped by fleeing to Sweden or taking passage on the Shetland Bus. Sailors routinely arranged with local Jewish and SOE leaders to make exchanges when making deliveries to transport Jewish families to Shetland. A handful of such exchanges were sometimes discovered by the local Gestapo, but they were never fully able to halt the Shetland Bus. The sheer length of the Norwegian coastline and number of fjords and harbors made it impossible for the Germans to police every incoming ship.

By late 1944 as the war turned against Germany and U-boat patrols in the North Sea diminished, the Shetland Bus lost less men, materials, and ships to the enemy. The addition of the three sub-chasers cut down on the loss of life and afforded them the ability to run shipments during the day rather than only at night. By the war’s end, the Bus completed 210 missions, carried over 400 tonnes of equipment, rescued over 300 refugees, and assisted with some clandestine operations that arguably held down thousands of German troops stationed in Norway that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere. The last mission was completed on May 9, 1945, the day after V-E Day when the VIGRA entered free Norse waters.

Today a memorial cairn honors the memory and sacrifice of Norse and British sailors who worked tirelessly, risking their lives to keep hope alive during WWII. What many thought was a motley crew of hard scrabble seamen in fishing boats was in reality a life-line to the oppressed Norwegians resisting the German occupation. Had it not been for the brave men running the Shetland Bus, who knows what might have happened to Norway and possibly Western Europe during the early dark days of the Second World War.

The Flight Stuff: The Wright Brothers Ingenuity

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina is positively dead in the winter. Tourists have departed, taking the warm weather and sunshine with them. What remains are local residents and cold Atlantic air racing across the beaches. Business owners look forward to spring and summer returning with visitors who enjoy the sea air, fishing, and sailing. The remoteness and wind patterns were ideal for a different pair of tourists though. They scoured weather patterns finding the right conditions for their scientific experiments. After a lengthy search, the Wright Brothers selected Kill Devil Hills. Since the area was unincorporated, the brothers relied on the nearby town of Kitty Hawk for transportation and commercial needs. History would soon make its mark on this remote stretch of North Carolina coastline.

Beaches at Kill Devil Hills. The North Carolina coast features numerous small island chains, lagoons, and reefs creating the ‘Outer Banks’, a popular tourist spot. The wind patterns from the Atlantic Ocean provided excellent conditions for the Wright Brothers flight experiments.

Rather than delve into the brothers’ history and their aerial achievement, it’s important to understand the ingenuity they showed throughout their venture. Scientists and engineers before them were classically trained students with years of mechanical experience. Neither Wilbur or Orville graduated from high school; they dropped out to pursue business interests and support their family. They taught themselves in advanced mathematics and engineering concepts, a majority of which came from their work with bicycles. They relied heavily on the work of predecessors and applying their innovations. Orville and Wilbur were well known in Dayton, Ohio with their bicycle business and made a comfortable living. This wasn’t enough for either of them though. They were obsessed with powered flight since childhood after receiving a crude model helicopter (a bamboo shaft with a cork top, paper wings, and a twisted rubber band) inspiring an aeronautical career.

Research was needed to see what contemporary aeronautical engineers were accomplishing. The brothers followed men like Otto Lilienthal, Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, and Sir George Cayley. Gliders was the preferred method in calculating heavier-than-air flight and the brothers debated ideas on control and resistance. Fixed wing aircraft would provide the necessary lift power, but the brothers puzzled over how to maintain control and account for airborne stability. While working in their bike shop one day, Wilbur was twisting an inner tube and they had a sudden realization; wings required warping and therefore a flexible frame design was needed. They studied the flights of birds, closely observing wing contours, banking different directions, and using airflow for lift. Testing this theory proved difficult as the brothers consistently tried to find the correct combination of control and lift, all while accounting for the addition of weight. The Wright brothers are prime example of trial and error and consistent testing when it comes to scientific research. Aeronautics was a novel scientific endeavor in the late 19th century as engineers tested new gliders, airships, and dirigibles. Humanity’s quest to fly presented infinite engineering possibilities, but created a slew of failed attempts, poor data results, and accidental deaths. The Wright brothers were no exception in this respect; they faced their own string of failures.

Rear view of Wilbur Wright making a right turn with the Wright Glider (“in glide from No. 2 Hill, right wing tipped close to the ground”) (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wilbur and Orville refined their glider designs throughout most of the 1890s and by 1900 they were ready for field tests. U.S. Weather Bureau data and recommendations by other aviators pointed the brothers to Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills with the soft sandy beaches and ample gale winds providing ideal environmental conditions. The brothers worked first on gliders because they would be critical in proving the brother’s theory of airflow lift and three dimensional axis. Between 1900 and 1902, the Wrights redesigned, rebuilt, and retested their glider in dozens of trials, but they never achieved the necessary lift. What was wrong with their glider?

Sometimes you need to go back to the beginning to see where things are going wrong. Wilbur and Orville thought what if the Lilienthal data they relied on so heavily was incorrect? The lift co-efficient, which relates the lift generated by a lifting body to the fluid density around the body, needed to be double checked. How did the Wrights test this concept? They built their own wind tunnel. The apparatus was attached to a bike and as air passed by the airfoil, the lift it generated, if unopposed, would cause the wheel to rotate. The flat plate was oriented so its drag would push the wheel in the opposite direction of the airfoil. The brothers used different sizes of airfoils made of various materials based on existing data. This experiment confirmed their suspicions; Lilienthal’s data and lift co-efficient were all erroneous. Not to be deterred from their work, the brothers now had their own testing method for achieving lift with their glider. In a conversation with a colleague George Spratt, Orville said:

“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.”

Reconstruction of the Wright Brothers’ air lift apparatus, i.e. wind tunnel at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

The wind tunnel tests were a pivotal moment in the pursuit for powered flight. Contemporaries described them as ‘the most crucial and fruitful aeronautical experiments ever conducted.’ What the brothers may have realized is that gliders and powered aircraft required different degrees of lift and incorporating a control system would maintain said lift. The structural design of the brothers’ glider changed as a result of their wind tunnel tests and they began to see major improvements in their test flights. They installed a rudder and recorded observations on lift, pitch, and yaw. From this, the brothers made a final critical breakthrough on their flight experiments: three-axis control. The three axes: 1) Wing-warping for roll 2) Forward elevator for pitch 3) Rear rudder for yaw.

Aviation historians claim that this development was far more significant than adding engine power to the glider. Simultaneously, how astounding is it that these two who never completed high school calculated an equation that became the basis for achieving flight? Their innovative mathematics did not end there. Before building an engine, they devised another equation that produced the necessary power to weight ratio and propeller efficiency. In 1903, the brothers were ready to test their new flyer, the Wright Flyer. They built a small-purpose engine in their bike shop, hand carved the propellers, and tested the rudders in their wind tunnel. Throughout these experiment years, the brothers also delivered lectures to the Western Society of Engineers detailing their process. Newspapers did not initially cover the brothers heavily, waiting until they produced something genuine.

Four flights changed the world on December 17, 1903. The brothers alternated turns flying the machine, with the last flight recorded as the longest and furthest launch. Years of research, experimentation, glider construction, and test flights boiled down to 59 seconds. From that moment on, the brothers refined their flyers and took the world by storm with their paradigm shifting accomplishments. Their persistence and ingenuity paid off immensely. The Wrights brothers spent their remaining years involved in patent battles with other manufacturers and other business disputes. While they were not as successful in their business pursuits, they demonstrated how a person could make strides in scientific experimentation through repeated processes, observation, and accurately recording data. They were an ingenious duo, without a doubt.

The original Wright Flyer now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. where a plaque perfectly summarizes the Wright brothers achievements and ingenuity.

“The world’s first power-driven heavier-than-air machine in which man made free, controlled, and sustained flight, Invented and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, Flown by them at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina December 17, 1903, By original scientific research the Wright brothers discovered the principles of human flight, As inventors, builders, and flyers they further developed the aeroplane, taught man to fly, and opened the era of aviation”

In the Government Know: The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

The right to understand what transpires in our government is essential to democratic principles. Voting citizens recognize that their elected representatives, government appointees, and various programs produce an enormous quantity of records and other information. All of said information is categorized under strict laws affording it protection for national security or commercial reasons. However, releasable information can still provide insight on how public servants work to make the government transparent. Inherent with the right to vote is the right to know what happens inside an agency or department and the documents therein. This is the basis for one of the most significant pieces of legislation created in the last sixty years: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Freedom of Information Act allows people to request specific information regarding agency operations, records, and government transparency. The act also establishes specific criteria for determining a record’s eligibility for public release pending a review process. The lifespan and accessibility of records change between agencies and each have their own additional criteria in addition to basic FOIA requirements. This is done to guard against the release of any sensitive, personal, or national security information. The act is also used to describe ‘opening up the government’ by letting the public see how it operates. In a famous court case, Fielding F. McGehee vs. CIA, the Washington DC Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in its closing statement that having an informed voter is essential to a functioning democracy:

“It has often been observed that the central purpose of the FOIA is to “open … up the workings of government to public scrutiny.” One of the premises of that objective is the belief that “an informed electorate is vital to the proper operation of a democracy.” A more specific goal implicit in the foregoing principles is to give citizens access to the information on the basis of which government agencies make their decisions, thereby equipping the populace to evaluate and criticize those decisions.”

McGehee v. CIA, US Court of Appeals, Washington DC Circuit, January 4, 1983
U.S. Representative John E. Moss (D-California) led the charge for implementing FOIA and the restructuring of information security levels (Image courtesy of U.S. Congress)

California Representative John E. Moss made it his congressional career to passing FOIA and signing it into law. He would ultimately spend twelve years garnering support and shepherding it through various committees. In the late 1950s, government classification of documents was being mishandled and accidental leaks were problematic. Representative Moss chaired the Government Information Subcommittee and took it upon himself to upgrade security classifications and draft rules on accessibility. On July 4, 1966 a hesitant President Lyndon Johnson signed bill S1160 into law. Johnson recognized the need for the law, but gave additional measure to protecting military interests and allowing government officials to discuss things frankly without having to mince their words and actions with the overarching specter of public investigation constantly overheard. [Statement by the President upon signing the ‘Freedom of Information Act, July 4, 1966] The law was initially repealed following a revision of Title 5 of the US Code, but a new version was eventually drafted and signed with the effective date of July 4, 1967, just one year later.

Since 1967, FOIA underwent numerous revisions and amendments strengthening, limiting, and reclassifying information security. The most impactful occurred with the increasing scrutiny on national security and the War on Terror. Today there are nine exemptions when a person files a FOIA request:

  1. National security and foreign policy classified by executive order
  2. Internal personnel rules of an agency
  3. Specifically exempted from disclosure
  4. Trade secrets, commercial, and financial information
  5. Interagency memorandums not subject to litigation
  6. Personnel and medical files of government employees
  7. Records relating to ongoing law enforcement and federal investigations
  8. Supervising agencies on financial institutions
  9. Geological information relating to wells and water tables

Agency employees still have to be conscious of what is in a document that’s being requested under FOIA rules. Redactions still take place to ensure no personal information is being leaked. This can sometimes cause confusion as the general public sometimes assumes that a FOIA requests means they can ask for anything unredacted. This is incorrect. FOIA requests generally take around twenty to thirty days to process depending on the agency and even then, FOIA officials or subject matter experts still review the packet before it goes to the requester. They are sometimes classified as ‘Government Information Specialists.’ This screening process can cause frustration as the included information becomes more complex. Rarely do federal agencies meet this twenty to thirty day deadline because of the steps involved to release public and redact private information.

While the FOIA request process is not a perfect one, the legislation itself is remarkably important to maintaining a transparent government that allows people to ask questions about its function and policies. An informed electorate is powerful in a representative and democratic government and FOIA is the best legislative tool to be in the know.

Directing War from the Executive Branch: A Review of ‘White House Warriors’ by John Gans

Let’s be blunt: warfare changes constantly. Weapons alone don’t change, but so do the intangible aspects; political pressure, foreign policy, and public opinion. The head of state or government has a body of advisors debating the merits of military intervention and national security. Over time, these advisors have evolved to reflect the social mores and political climate both nationally and internationally. The world became increasingly complex following the Second World War with the rise of Communism as a world power, European colonies achieving independence, and the dawn of nuclear power. Previous conventions on isolationism were no longer applicable. Under the Truman Administration, a council made up of foreign policy and military experts congregated to form the first version of what would become the U.S. National Security Council. The 1947 National Security Act formalized its existence and for the past 70 years, the NSC has guided the White House on making monumental decisions on handling foreign threats and maintaining U.S. hegemony during the Cold War and beyond.

John Gans’ book, White House Warriors, analyzes the history and political impact of the NSC, plus the central characters who have dominated the council. In tandem with this work, Gans draws comparisons between the nature of the NSC and global affairs that have necessitated military intervention. The progression of the Cold War and accompanying proxy wars within have shaped the NSC’s people and policies. White House Warriors delivers a stark picture of how the Executive Branch extends its power on foreign affairs through the State Department and military position with the backing of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense. The reader could interpret Gans’ work in multiple ways as a result. Has the NSC exponentially increased the President’s power to use military force without Congress? Does the National Security Advisor have too much power? Should the NSC be dismantled? These questions and more can be asked by you and have been by policy experts, Congress, Chief-of-Staffs, and the President themselves.

President Truman meeting with his National Security Council (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

The American-Soviet alliance collapsed in the aftermath of WWII and executive policy on Communism couldn’t be controlled by the State Department. The late President Franklin Roosevelt exhibited a hands-on, yet discombobulated approach for directing the war effort which predictably was a source of consternation for the War Department. In an effort to consolidate national security matters in line with foreign policy, the NSC was formed under the National Security Act of 1947, along with the Department of Defense. Gans writes that in the beginning, personality clashes and vague jurisdiction lines between the military and state were a bane of daily function. Advisors and detailed military staff officers came and went so quickly, some didn’t even bother to learn names unless they sat in meetings with the President. Both Truman and Eisenhower only partially consulted the NSC during the Korean War, but they were largely treated as a secondary appendage because final decisions were made by the President or the Joint Chiefs.

To say that the Cold War molded NSC practice is a massive understatement. Political and diplomatic landscapes were in severe flux. What that meant was flexible responses by the Executive branch needed to be considered. John F. Kennedy’s NSC instigated the leap from haphazard consulting to critical infrastructure. The ‘bright young men’ were indicative of Kennedy’s plan to combat Communism by all necessary means, including military action. Without going to Congress for funding or having debates with his Cabinet, Kennedy molded the NSC to reflect the best minds who could give the best argument supporting the President’s views. Early U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a crucial test for the NSC since it challenged conventional military thinking and required a combined approach of diplomatic, political, and military action. Its during the Vietnam period, Gans notes the rising influence of the singular National Security Adviser. The head of the NSC was an executive secretary, but that role morphed into the advisor we see today. As the war effort and increasing government bureaucracy strained organization and communication efforts, the Advisor’s duty was to be the principal aide to the President on national security matters and direct the NSC on policy meetings. Under Henry Kissinger’s six year tenure, the role of advisor was augmented into a fixed position that sought to bring bureaucracy under control and handle principle matters solely by one person. The council had transformed from a collaborative body to an advisor with an army of staffers.

President Nixon’s first meeting with his National Security Council, Principle advisor, Henry Kissinger, is seated at the foot of the table on the left (National Archives and Records Administration, Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974)

Between the Ford and Reagan Administrations, the NSC underwent more organizational shuffling and reprioritized focus from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. Terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on US embassies were prevalent. However, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the NSC and the Department of Defense dealt with what was coined ‘Vietnam syndrome’. There was great reluctance from many in the military, State Department, and the Joint Chiefs to commit ground troops in another international incident following the debacle of the Vietnam War. Instead, emphasis was placed on shuttle diplomacy and finding ways to subvert enemy activity, but not directly engage them in conventional combat. This was an eye-opening section in Gans’ book as it illustrates how many of the policies we implemented in the Middle East today stem from many of the NSC’s decisions in the 1980s. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the NSC and forced them into another organizational restructuring. Gans’ final section focuses on the ongoing War on Terror and how the NSC still faces many of the same challenges that existed since the Vietnam War. In many ways both conflicts were categorized as insurgencies, but U.S. military establishments wanted to reject that label in Iraq and Afghanistan, for fear of conjuring up old Vietnam wounds. Gans examines the deployment and transition of US forces in the Middle East and the implications for national security when the insurgency escalated.

President Ronald Reagan Holds a National Security Council Meeting on The Twa Hijacking in The White House Situation Room, 6/16/1985 (National Archives and Records Administration, Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989

In the end, White House Warriors is provocative and enlightening by showing how the council fluctuates nearly as much as the presidency itself. High stakes decisions on national security are made nearly every day, but decisions are not made by the President alone. The body of advisors to the President is massive and they take time to deliberate on the best possible course of action. The NSC has the power to change the course of conflicts, but they navigate through public opinion as much as the President does. Not every military intervention is cut and dry like the Gulf War or Bosnian War and NSC staffers incorporate countless facets of a scenario that can seem unending. Despite these obstacles, the NSC still serves a vital function to the U.S. and the world in assessing threats to peace and global stability.

Oklahoma Bat: The Military History of Fred Laverne Richardson

For as long as I can remember, hearing stories about my grandpa’s World War II service was part of my childhood. They were my first history lessons outside of school. I spent many weekends and holidays with my grandparents and often heard older relatives bring up his time in the Philippines, Japan, or just talk casually about the war. Hidden at the top of one of grandma’s bookshelves was a thickly bound brown book with large white lettering; ‘WARPATH’, showing a Native American wearing a war chief’s headdress. It was a chronicle of the 345th Bombardment Group and its achievements in the South Pacific. On many occasions, I grabbed it off the shelf and thumbed through the pages looking for grandpa’s face. I knew which unit was his and when I found the respective section, no headshot or group photo. Family lore did say that in one photo taken from behind showing two men rushing out to check on a damaged plane, he was one of them (recognized by his flipped up hat bill, before Gomer Pyle made it fashionable). He very rarely shared some personal war stories and for a long time, all I told others at school or work was he served in the Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-25 bomber over the Philippines.

He passed away in 2006 and that was when I began to learning more. He received medals he never mentioned before and soon there was a cache of old photos and documents filling in the gaps. Since working for the National Archives stirred my history passions and learning about military records, I spent last year and all two months of this year putting together a narrative of his military service. An unexpected miracle happened yesterday when in a vain attempt to find his discharge documents (see the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire) finally paid off. I randomly placed a call to the Garfield County records office in Oklahoma asking if they had any copies. To my surprise they did! Returning WWII veterans normally filed a copy of their discharge documents with the county they returned to in order to receive VA or other government benefits. Thankfully his was still intact and that completed the narrative. My grandpa’s war record here is the best that I have researched with all the available materials. While some information will be lost forever because of the 1973 fire, this is an obstacle facing all military history and genealogy researchers.

Technical Sergeant Fred Laverne Richardson (Service Number 38563209) served in the U.S. Army Air Force from July 20, 1943 to January 14, 1946. Throughout his World War II service, Fred served with the 499th Bombardment Squadron under the 345th Bombardment Group in the V Bomber Command with the 5th Air Force. While overseas, Fred was stationed in Biak, the Philippines, and Ie Shima, participating in aerial combat operations throughout the South Pacific and Sea of Japan. At the end, Fred took part in a handful of major battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II and in the American occupation of Japan. He was twice decorated with the Air Medal for heroic achievements in aerial flight and was later awarded multiple medals for his part in the liberation of the Philippine islands. 

Researching World War II-era service records presents a unique challenge because a significant number of records were destroyed in a massive fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center. Approximately 80% of Army records from 1912 to 1960 were affected with varying degrees of damage. Fred’s record was substantially affected by the fire and only a handful of documents survive attesting to his military service. The information given here is extracted from surviving records in Ancestry, Fold3, FamilySearch, Army unit records, local county records, and WWII reference materials. 

Fred Laverne Richardson was born on April 26, 1925 in Enid Oklahoma to Fred Richardson and Millie Pearl LeGrand. They lived at 508 N. 9th Street and Fred was a senior at Enid High School when he registered for the draft. Local Board #1 in Garfield County recorded his entry the day after his eighteenth birthday on April 26, 1943. Sometime in June 1943, he received a draft notice and was ordered to report to Oklahoma City, where he was formally inducted into the U.S. Army on July 20, 1943. During World War II, inductees were required to serve for the duration of the conflict, plus six months after. This meant that for as long as the war went on, Fred remained in the Army unless he was dishonorably discharged, critically wounded, or killed. Following induction he was transferred to the Enlisted Reserve Corps and was placed on active duty on August 3, 1943. According to family history, he completed basic training at Amarillo Army Airfield in Amarillo, Texas. Aerial defense, air artillery, and forward observing courses were taught at Amarillo AAF and if Fred was later assigned to an Army Air Force unit, he would have received physical and aerial warfare training there. The airfield trained recruits on B-17 Flying Fortresses; four engine long range bombers capable of flying hundreds of miles and dropping thousands of pounds of bombs individually. 

Aerial combat training was tremendously harsh and a small percentage completed the physical battery. Those who passed went onto flight education and armament training. Fred’s recently discovered Notice of Separation (discharge summary) shows he attended two service schools: Aircraft Armament Training School at Lowry Field, Colorado, and Aerial Gunnery Training School at Fort Meyer, Florida. One family story is that his aerial gunner training consisted of shooting skeets with shotguns out the back of a moving truck. Service schools offered specialized training for enlisted personnel. Enlisted men did not serve as pilots, navigators, or bombardiers. Commissioned officers served these roles. 

Fred completed all training by approximately July 1944. From family photographs taken before shipping out, he received his assignment to the U.S Army Air Force and was promoted to the rank of Corporal. This is shown by the chevrons on the sleeve and shoulder patch. The separation document lists his military occupational speciality as Airplane Armorer Gunner. The job duties included inspecting, repairing, and maintaining all aircraft armament, including bomb release mechanisms, airplane cannons, machine guns, and auxiliary equipment. He made daily inspections and repaired equipment such as bomb racks, bomb release mechanisms, aerial gun sights, flare racks, and chemical carrying release mechanisms. He also installed armament equipment on airplanes, and placed bombs in bomb racks. The last portion was to man a machine gun position if combat occurs during flight. 

Family history states that Fred was originally ordered to report to the European theater and while in New York, his orders changed and was transferred to the 345th Bomb Group. Fred traveled to Camp Stoneman near San Francisco, California. This was a staging area for servicemen joining their units in the Pacific. On October 17, 1944, Cpl. Fred Richardson departed the United States.  By the autumn of 1944, the U.S. had pushed the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy out of the southern Pacific and began prepping for the liberation of the Philippines. The country had been under Japanese occupation since May 1942 after the Battle of Bataan. Invasion plans had been in the works since 1943, but the outlying territories needed to be retaken first. 

(Fred while on furlough. He left shortly thereafter to join the 345th BG)

History of the 345th Bombardment Group

Air warfare changed drastically since the First World War. Technological innovations created larger and faster planes with increased carrying capacity. Long and medium range bombers were capable of dealing out tremendous damage. The new B-25 Mitchell debuted in 1941 and the Army Air Force was eager to use it in combat. It was a medium range bomber equipped with twelve .50 caliber machine guns, a 75mm cannon, and could carry up to 3,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries. Each plane carries five crew members; pilot, navigator / bombardier, gunner / engineer, radio operator / waist gunner, and tail gunner. On November 11, 1942 the 345th Bombardment Group was activated under the 3rd Air Force and trained until April 1943 when they moved to Camp Stoneman and entered combat in New Guinea in June 1943 where it became part of the 5th Air Force. The group comprised of four squadrons:

From Left to Right: 498th Bomb Squadron ‘Falcons’, 499th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats Outta Hell’, 500th Bomb Squadron ‘Rough Raiders’, 501st Bomb Squadron ‘Black Panthers’

The unit was intended for service in the European Theater of Operations, but U.S. Army General George Kenney specifically requested them to redeploy to the south Pacific following successful bombing campaigns near Australia. New Guinea and the Bismarck Islands were the first stage of the 345th’s campaign. Their actions performing reconnaissance missions, dropping supplies, and attacking Japanese ships through the Bismarck Sea arguably prevented a serious threat to Australia. Between April 1943 and July 1944, the 345th relentlessly attacked the Japanese garrisons and ships running through the sea. The triple approach of high level bombing, heavy machine gun strafing, and skip-bombing (bouncing the bomb off the water similar to skipping a stone across a pond) was effective in breaking Japanese control and opening the way for the liberation of the Philippines. 

(Fred and his squad mates; he is on the far right with the cigarette in hand)

They took to the skies again from July to November of 1944 hitting targets in the southern Philippines. Biak was the next step in the unit’s path and after taking the island, could run missions over the Celebes Sea. The Japanese knew that the United States would reclaim the country and the 345th made it a point to cut a path to Luzon and clear the war for the American recapture. Mission after mission, the 345th lost hundreds of crews and bombers as they were shot down by Japanese fighter planes or hit by flak from enemy ships. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a kamikaze hit a group of 345th personnel stationed on the ground before they could get airborne. By the beginning of 1945, the 345th began bombing missions as far north as the Sea of Japan, hitting shipping and communication lines down through China and southeast Asia. Destroying such targets were necessary for military planners as operations were drawn up for the long anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands (Operation Downfall). Both the United States and Japan knew that the cost in human lives would be astronomical. Intelligence analysts at the time estimated that casualty figures would easily reach into the millions as the Japanese military and civil defense organizations prepared for invasion. 

(American pilots and aircrews were issued chits like these wearing them on their jackets. If they bailed out or were shot down, this would message any friendly persons that they were an American pilot and needed to return to their outfit. Fred had this one and was pinned in his WWII photo album.)

By July 1945, the 345th was positioned on Ie Shima in the Okinawa island chain ready to receive new combat orders. On August 6th and 9th when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with the first atomic bombs. Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender six days later on August 15th and now the 345th had a different set of orders: to escort the Japanese emissaries for the formal surrender before General MacArthur. Three B-25s and fighter planes were ordered to escort the Japanese detachment to the Philippines where they began discussing the terms of surrender and allied occupation of Japan. The escort was not without some hiccups though; hard-line nationalists in the Japanese military wanted the escort shot down because tradition held that surrender was worse than death. These fears were assuaged as the 345th escort mission formed a bracket around the Japanese planes and chaperoned them safely to Manila. Surviving airmen of the 345th remained stationed on Ie Shima until they received orders to rotate back to the United States and on December 29, 1945, the unit was deactivated.

Throughout the Pacific campaign, the 499th squadron carried out its own specific missions. Fred left the U.S. on October 17, 1944 and arrived in the Pacific theater on November 23, 1944. The 499th conducted operations between Biak and the Philippines attacking Japanese shipping convoys and battleships. Between December 1944 and July 1945, Fred and his squadron flew from San Marcelino and Clark Air Fields hitting targets all over the Philippines. The longest range mission that they ever carried out was an attack on Saigon in southern Vietnam in April 1945. It was by far the most dangerous mission they ever undertook, but it earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation. 

(Billboard of the 499th Squadron. These were common at the airfields to show each unit’s war record and list of battles)

While in Ie Shima, Fred became part of the occupation force following Japan’s surrender. An old family photo album containing pictures from WWII includes some unique ones; photos of the Japanese surrender delegation. The images are quite small, but when seen through a magnifying glass, one can see the Japanese wearing traditional garments and presenting instruments of surrender. Unfortunately there are no captions on the reverse side of the pictures making it hard to determine when or where the photo was taken, but from judging the content, many pictures were taken in the Philippines and Ie Shima. Cultural landmarks and buildings place some early pictures in Manila. Fred took a lot of pictures of local people and he even collected a large amount of foreign currency and Army scrip. 

Between Fred Richardson’s personal achievements and assignment with the 499th Bombardment Squadron and 345th Bomb Group, he received a substantial number of awards, both U.S. and foreign awards. The following are the most complete listing of awards he is entitled to from World War II.

Aerial Gunner Badge: this military aeronautical badge was given to those who qualified and endured hazardous conditions as an aerial gunner. A winged bullet fixed on the standard observers badge, Fred received this badge for his military occupational specialty as an Airplane Armorer Gunner a B-25 bomber. 

Air Medal: Established in Executive Order 9158, the Air Medal recognizes acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Flight conditions, combat missions, and the number of sorties were taken into account when determining who received the Air Medal. Between October 1944 and December 1945, Fred received the Air Medal twice, giving him an Oak Leaf Cluster. Both awards were issued by a General Order from 5th Air Force HQ for meritorious service with the 345th Bomb Group. 

Good Conduct Medal: The Good Conduct Medal recognizes servicemen who served honorably for a specific amount of time. Criteria for the Army Good Conduct Medal has changed via executive orders in subsequent presidencies. The medal was also established during World War II and each service branch has its own version. The medal can also be awarded to any servicemen who completes at least one year of honorable service while the United States is at war. Fred met this criteria and received the Good Conduct Medal. 

American Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265, the American Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who were stationed in the American Theater of Operations (ATO). This includes the continental American territory and the surrounding waters of both North and South America. Servicemembers must have served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S., 30 days outside the continental U.S. within the ATO, or 60 days onboard a vessel in American waters. Having served at least one year within the continental limits of the U.S. while stationed at Fort Sill, Fred received the American Campaign Medal. 

Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal: Established in Executive Order 9265 along with the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal is awarded to all service members who performed military duties in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater (APT). This includes air, naval, and ground operations. Service stars denote participation in a campaign. Because air operations were ongoing from the beginning to the end of the war (with the exception of some isolated campaigns) Fred received service stars for the following campaigns:

Air Offensive, Japan (5 June 1943 – 2 September 1945)

China Defensive (5 June 1943 – 4 May 1945)

New Guinea (5 June 1943 – 31 December 1944)

Bismarck Archipelago (15 December 1943 – 27 November 1944)

Leyte (17 October 1944 – 1 July 1945)

Luzon (15 December 1944 – 4 July 1945)

Western Pacific (17 April 1945 – 2 September 1945)

China Offensive (5 May 1945 – 2 September 1945) 

World War II Victory Medal: Created by an Act of Congress on July 6 1945, this service medal recognizes all personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces from December 7 1941 to December 31 1946. No minimum time in service is needed to award the World War II Victory Medal. Over 12 million service members are eligible for the award, making it the second-most awarded medal in the U.S.; the most being the National Defense Service Medal created in 1953. Having served in World War II, Fred automatically received the subsequent victory medal. 

Army of Occupation Medal: Established by the War Department in 1946, the AOM recognizes personnel who participated in any duties in occupied countries following the cessation of hostilities in both Germany and Japan. At first the medal was only for ground forces, but it was later amended in 1948 to include any Army Air Force units. The medal has an accompanying clasp for where the service member was stationed. The 345th Bomb Group served for six months on the island of Ie Shima, technically considered occupied enemy territory. This entitles Fred the Army of Occupation Medal with the ‘Japan’ clasp. 

Philippine Liberation Medal: The liberation of the Philippines was a major moment during the war in the Pacific. They were the first major U.S. possession to fall to the Japanese and thousands suffered as POWs. In commemoration of those who took part in the campaign, the Philippine government created the Philippine Liberation Medal. Initially only a ribbon, a medal was created later in July 1945. The PLM also included service stars similar to the APCM. Stars were awarded for the following criteria:

  1. Participation in the initial landing operation of Leyte and adjoining islands from 17 October to 20 October 1944. 
  2. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on Leyte and adjoining islands during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  3. Participation in any engagement against hostile Japanese forces on islands other than those mentioned above during the Philippine Liberation Campaign of 17 October 1944, to 2 September 1945.
  4. Served in the Philippine Islands or on ships in Philippine waters for not less than 30 days during the period.

The 345th did not participate in the initial landing operation on Leyte on October 17-20 (Fred was also en route to Biak from Camp Stoneman). Fred does meet the other three criteria so he received three service stars on the PLM. 

Philippine Independence Medal: After the Japanese surrender, the Philippine government wanted to recognize all those who served in both the initial defense of the nation and the subsequent liberation. The Philippine Independence Medal was created to recognize those who took part in either one of the conflict stages. Because Fred took part in the liberation campaign, he received the PIM. 

Presidential Unit Citation: President Franklin Roosevelt created this unit citation, (originally entitled the Distinguished Unit Citation) via Executive Order 9075. A unit citation was a new type of award for the U.S. military; it was meant to recognize the gallantry and heroism of a unit that endured dangerous conditions. The 499th received three PUCs for its entire wartime service; Fred served with the squadron when it received its third citation and his only one for actions over Indochina. 

Philippine Presidential Unit Citation: Similar to the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation, the PPUC was awarded by the Philippine government to recognize the meritorious service and heroic achievements to those who participated in any Philippine operations. Because Fred served with the 499th which operated in the Philippines, he received the PPUC. 

All U.S. Army, Army Air Force, Navy, and Marine personnel who were honorably discharged also receive the Honorable Service Lapel Button, nicknamed the ‘Ruptured Duck’. This was given to all those that were honorably discharged during World War II. The award had a twofold purpose: to show proof of military service while wearing civilian clothing [the lapel button was not worn with military uniform] and to receive recognition from agencies and private companies that the wearer was a veteran and could receive benefits such as reduced fares or free services. Since Fred completed his service honorably, he received the Ruptured Duck. A diamond shaped cloth patch was also issued for a veteran that could be worn on their Class A uniform for a subsequent 30 days.

Fred’s separation document (discovered February 18, 2021) shows that he also received a weapons marksmanship badge. Recruits are tested on their weapons proficiency during basic training and are scored on accuracy, technical skills, and speed. There are three categories of badges; Marksman, Sharpshooter, and Expert. Individual weapons bars are attached on each badge denoting the level of proficiency with that weapon. Fred was awarded the Sharpshooter badge with the Carbine bar on October 7, 1943. 

Fred returned to the U.S on January 3, 1946 and was sent to Fort Leavenworth for separation. The Army was demobilizing thousands of troops a week, sending them to various locations across the country to expedite the process. On January 14, 1946, Fred was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Air Force. His wartime service was over. He served for two years, five months, and twenty-five days; a year and two months of which was overseas. 

According to family oral history, he completed forty-two missions with the 499th and made it out physically unscathed. The path he traveled took him across the United States, the entire width of the Pacific Ocean, and to foreign countries that a regular kid from Oklahoma might never have seen in his lifetime. Seven months after his discharge, he married Roberta Davis on August 18, 1946 and began a career with the Frisco Railroad. On 25 June 2006, Fred Laverne Richardson died from natural causes at the age of eighty-one. Four years later, Roberta joined him; together they both completed ‘well-finished lives.’

Jim Crow Followed us to England: The Battle of Bamber Bridge

Nearly every World War II history buff knows the story of the racial segregation faced by black soldiers and sailors. The U.S. Armed Forces were not racially integrated, resulting in many all black units and regiments. Integration wouldn’t happen until Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948. Their work responsibilities were also limited to support roles in logistics, janitorial, and food services. Many did not see combat action with the exception of a few armored units such as ‘Patton’s Panthers’. As Black History Month continues, many historians have re-investigated covered-up stories of racial violence and intolerance in the WWII era. Even as the nation fought to preserve democratic nations, the denial of civil and equal rights in the black community became a sticking point in the ‘Double V Campaign.’ Volunteer service by blacks skyrocketed during WWII; they had served in nearly every U.S. conflict since the American Revolution and did so to prove their worthiness of citizenship and freedom. Resistance from some senior white officers and institutional racism within service branches led to unequal access to facilities in military posts, bases, and airfields in the United States. The story was different in Europe. The British and French welcomed them with open arms and couldn’t reconcile with the segregationist policies placed on black servicemen. They were all there to defeat the Axis powers; that alone should make them all equals.

In the 1980s, maintenance workers in Bamber Bridge, England carrying out remodeling work found what appeared to be bullet holes. They weren’t recent and stories emerged from some of the locals who lived in the area during the war. It was the Battle of Bamber Bridge. The Axis never invaded the main British Isles, but what transpired in the small village over forty years ago?

“Negro soldiers draw rations at the camp cook house at their station in Northern Ireland. Detachments of Negro troops were among the latest arrivals with the American forces in Northern Ireland.”, ca. 8/1942 (Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951, NAID 535544)

In 1943, the tide of war was beginning to change for the Allies. German forces were expelled from North Africa and Italy was the next target. U.S. troops arrived in England and began establishing bases of operation and prepared for the coming invasion of France. During this preparatory phase, soldiers, sailors, and airmen conducted training drills, firearms proficiency, and classroom instruction. Not all took part in this endeavor though. Black servicemen were primarily assigned to logistical roles in quartermaster companies, food service, and mechanical work. Coinciding with these was the unequal treatment and denial of access to specific facilities in base and when servicemen were on leave. Local villagers and townspeople in England welcomed black servicemen and were befuddled by the ‘Jim Crow’ atmosphere practiced by their white comrades. Black servicemen, who were routinely discriminated against in the U.S. enjoyed a new degree of freedom in Europe where no racial codes or institutional racism against blacks were practiced by locals. Despite that, their white counterparts and superior officers brought many of the Jim Crow attitudes with them. Military police designated certain businesses and services for blacks only and did not allow them to integrate with white servicemen in town. Differing opinions on race between soldiers and civilians though produced deadly results.

On the evening of June 24, 1943, black servicemen from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Company arrived at Ye Olde Hob Inn, a pub near the edge of town. The 1511th was assigned to the 8th Air Force that operated multiple airfields in England and their primary duties consisted of making deliveries between posts. That evening, a small group of truck drivers on leave went to the pub for drinks and socializing. As the evening progressed, two white military policemen from the 234th Military Policy Company passed by the pub and spotted the group. They immediately barged in and pointed at Private Eugene Nunn. They noted he was wearing the M1941 field jacket and not his Class A uniform. Army regulation at the time stated that a soldier has to wear their Class A’s while on leave in a public place. They also charged him with going AWOL (absent without leave), but they all had their passes with them. Many of the pub tenants defended the them saying they weren’t causing any trouble and were in fact behaving civilly towards everyone. A black staff sergeant diffused the situation, but while the MPs departed, beer bottles were thrown at them (they did not see the suspect who threw the bottles). They called back to their superior officers who ordered them to bring in those who were ‘resisting arrest’. Shots were fired between the 1511th and the MPs which turned the incident deadly; Private William Crossland was shot in the back and died shortly thereafter.

“Pvt. Jonathan Hoag of a chemical battalion, is awarded the Croix de Guerre by General Alphonse Juin, Commanding General of the F.E.C., for courage shown in treating wounded, even though he, himself, was wounded. Pozzuoli area, Italy.” 3/21/1944 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1985, NAID 531182)

Local villagers were left in shock. A racially charged incident like this leaving one person dead was frightening to them and they did not know what to expect next. Some black servicemen safely returned to the nearby airfield and when news spread of what happened at Ye Old Hob Inn, others began arming themselves with pistols and rifles. Their commanding officer, Major George Heris and Lieutenant Edwin Jones (the regiment’s only black officer) persuaded the men that they would seek justice from the white MPs for Crossland’s death. Around midnight, a small group of MPs arrived in jeeps and an armored vehicle with the intent to ‘put down a mutiny’ as described by a British police constable. A four hour firefight broke out between the 1511th and the MPs, leaving seven injured, but no additional fatalities.

A court-martial convicted thirty-two black servicemen guilty of mutiny and were dishonorably discharged. Some white officers wanted to cover up the violence quickly to prevent any drop in morale before the invasion of Europe, but others were not so quick to cast off this racist event. General Ira Eaker, commander of the 8th Air Force, squarely put the blame on the racist behavior of white MPs and their inexperienced, racist superiors. General Eaker conducted a thorough purge of 8th Air Force units, expelling any documented offenders of racist acts and integrated MP patrols. Despite his best efforts, news of the Bamber Bridge Riot was heavily censored both in England and the United States. Just a few days before, race riots in Detroit left dozens dead and wounded following months of socio-economic tension between whites and blacks. News of race riots in the U.S. overshadowed an incident like Bamber Bridge and memory of the fiery exchange faded with time.

Popular historical interest in the Bamber Bridge riot resurfaced when that maintenance worker found those bullet holes. Since then, scholars and historians have researched the history of racial antagonisms in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. While President Truman’s executive order integrated the military, racist behavior by whites towards blacks was and still remains a unresolved problem between all the service branches.

“Volunteer combat soldiers prepare for a day’s training in preparation for shipment to veteran units at front lines in Germany.”, 2/28/1945 (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, NAID 531357)

Persons of Exceptional Prominence: Celebrities in the Military

How would you react after discovering someone you served alongside with in the armed forces became a famous celebrity? Maybe a senator, writer, astronaut, or actor? That would be quite a story to say, ‘I served with John Glenn in the Marines’ or ‘I knew Isaac Asimov when he was in the Army.’ How amazing would it be to make that claim?

World Heavyweight champ Joe Louis (Barrow) sews on the stripes of a technical sergeant—to which he has been promoted (Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951) View Joe Louis’ OMPF in the NARA Catalog.

The U.S. Armed Forces attracts people from all walks of life. Many took career direction during their service. Some even put aside their professional careers to enlist in the armed forces. When a veteran achieves some type of public notoriety, their service record becomes the subject of special interest. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) retains the Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF) for individuals labeled ‘Persons of Exceptional Prominence’ (PEP). This simply means that well-known public figures, i.e. politicians, scientists, celebrities, etc., have their records open to the public. Anyone can view these documents after following specific guidelines. You won’t see the original record due to preservation and security reasons, but the archival staff does reproduce the record.

Records for Persons of Exceptional Prominence are classified are Specially Protected Holdings (SPH). This constitutes an additional layer of security due to either the nature of work they did or the notoriety the attained in private life. Their military record becomes valuable and in order to prevent theft or vandalism, PEPs and SPHs receive distinguished protection.

Persons of Exceptional Prominence can also be exempt from some of the archival rules with the NPRC. When a service member has been separated from the military for 62 year from the date of final discharge, their record is categorized as archival. This means that now their service is public record and anyone can view it. This rule applies to all personnel records, not just PEPs. For example, you can request a complete copy of George S. Patton’s WWII service record, but not David Petraeus’ record; he was fully discharged in 2011. You could request a complete copy of Desi Arnaz’s service record (Ricky Ricardo of ‘I Love Lucy‘) but not MC Hammer’s service record since he was discharged in 1983 (Yes, the rapper and pioneer of hammer pants is a U.S. Navy veteran).

Identification photo of Bea Arthur. Before she was a ‘Golden Girl’ she was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. View Bea Arthur’s OMPF in the NARA Catalog

Some records are more accessible than others. The National Archives manages a number of digitization projects. Scanning all types of records and documents are a priority for the agency. OMPFs for a select few personalities are fully digital and available for online viewing. A full listing is posted on the NARA website, but here is a snapshot of PEP service records that are fully digitized:

  • Charles Addams (Cartoonist, creator of ‘The Addams Family‘)
  • Spiro Agnew (U.S. Vice President and Governor of Maryland)
  • Alvin York (World War I Medal of Honor Recipient)
  • Maxwell Taylor (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Ambassador to South Vietnam)
  • Ruth Streeter (U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Director)
  • John Philip Sousa (Musician and composer of American military marches)
  • Margaret Chase Smith (U.S. Representative and Senator from Maine; joined service while serving in Congress)
  • Francis Scobee (U.S. Air Force colonel and astronaut; died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster)
  • Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, son of President Theodore Roosevelt)
  • Lafayette Ron Hubbard (Science fiction writer and founder of Scientology)
  • Jackie Robinson (Professional athlete, first black baseball player to play for Major League Baseball)
  • Ernie Pyle (Journalist and war correspondent; killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa)
  • Josephine Bowman (Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps)
  • Robert Peary (Artic explorer who reached the North Pole)
  • John Dillinger (infamous bank robber and Public Enemy No. 1 during the Great Depression)

OMPFs for PEPs contain all the same information as any other personnel records. Enlistment contracts, training documents, transfers, disciplinary actions, citations, and more are held in said files. For more information on how to view PEPs, visit the National Archives website; Persons of Exceptional Prominence.

Brigadier General James Stewart. After going to Washington as Mr. Smith, Jimmy Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Force, served with distinction in Europe during World War II, and retired at the rank of brigadier general in 1968 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)