George D. Libby: “Stop Them Where You Find Them”

•March 15, 2011 • 1 Comment

Medal of Honor Recipient George D. Libby

On June 25, 1950, after the North Koreans attacked South Korea, elements of the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry Division were the first to arrive. Known as “Task Force Smith”, it consisted of the 1st Battalion, an infantry regiment, anti-tank teams, and members of Bravo, Charlie and Delta companies.  According to the U.S. Army, the orders were simple: “When reaching Taejon, move north…stop them where you find them.”  Included in this task force was a sergeant who had already survived combat in World War II, but felt honored to re-enlist for Korea.  Within a month, his heroic actions would resemble something out of a movie and would also make him the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipient during the Korean War.

George D. Libby was born on December 4, 1919 in Bridgton, Maine.  After honorable service during World War II, he re-entered the army in Waterbury, Connecticut, as a member of Charlie Company in the 3rd Engineering Combat Battalion of the 24th Infantry Division.  For the first 18 months of the war, the division was heavily engaged on the front lines against both North Korean and Chinese forces.  By the war’s end, its casualties exceeded 10,000.

U.S. Troops Retreat from Taejon

One of the early battles in the Korean War was the Battle of Taejon (a major city and transportation center) that occurred from July 14 to 21, 1950.  Army forces attempted to defend the headquarters of the 24th Infantry Division which were under attack by North Korean forces.  The 24th Infantry, already exhausted from the previous two weeks of fighting, tried to make a final stand near Taejon by holding a line along the Kum River, east of the city. Hampered by a lack of communications and heavy weapons, the American forces were outnumbered and pushed back from the river bank.  Although they could not hold the city, the 24th Infantry Division achieved a strategic victory by delaying the North Koreans, thus providing time for other American divisions to establish a defensive perimeter around Pusan further south.

On July 20, 1950, Sergeant Libby was riding in a truck in the Pusan Perimeter.  As his vehicle approached an enemy roadblock, it encountered tremendous enemy fire which disabled the truck and killed or wounded each of the passengers except for Libby.  After exiting the truck, he took cover in a ditch.  As the enemy continued to fire its weapons at the truck and road, he crossed the same road twice to administer first aid to his wounded fellow soldiers.  Afterwards, he hailed a passing M-5 artillery tractor and one-by-one helped the wounded aboard.  As they pulled away, the enemy directed small-arms fire at the driver.  At that point, Libby (realizing that no one else could operate the vehicle), used his body as a shield to protect the driver.  During this action he received several bullet wounds in his arms and torso.  As the tractor continued through the town, it made frequent stops as Libby helped more wounded aboard.  Finally, at the last roadblock, he continued to shield the driver with his wounded body, as it received more bullet wounds.  Refusing first aid, he held that position until he lost consciousness and died.  According to the U.S. Army’s citation, “Sgt. Libby’s sustained, heroic actions enabled his comrades to reach friendly lines. His dauntless courage and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself and uphold the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army.” His body was returned to the United States and buried in Section 34, Lot 1317, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The George D. Libby Bridge in Korea

Today, several monuments in his name are located in the United States such as an elementary school in California and a monument in Waterbury, Connecticut.  But perhaps it is the 1000-foot Libby Bridge over the Imjin River in Korea that is the most poetic.  The bridge forms a connection between the village of Chang Pa-ri (in the south), the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and North Korea.  It is perhaps a symbolic reminder of the sacrifice of not only Libby but of many soldiers on both sides that gave their lives for these lines on a map.  As General Douglas MacArthur simply said, “It is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

Lewis Lee Millett: “I’ve Fought When Others Feared to Serve.”

•March 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Medal of Honor Recipient Lewis Millett

On Feb. 7, 1951, North Korean troops had taken hold of a hill near the village of Soam-Ni. Similar in terrain to other strategic hills during the Korean War, this one was named Hill 180 and it was a position that the United States military forces had to reclaim. Entrenched at the base of the hill was Company E of the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry led by a 31-year-old captain from Mechanic Falls, Maine. By the end of the day, the hill was re-taken and the captain’s actions would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Harry Truman presented the award to him later that summer. It was noted that he was one of only a handful of recipients who actually accepted the honor in person, since most were usually killed performing the type of action that Millett had completed.

Lewis Lee Millett was born on Dec. 15, 1920 in Mechanic Falls, Maine. Throughout his childhood, his admiration for military service was strong and he was proud to share the fact that both an uncle had fought in World War I (with the 101st Field Artillery Regiment of the Massachusetts Army National Guard) and a great-grandfather had served in the American Civil War. While still in high school, he enlisted in the Massachusetts National Guard (the same regiment that his uncle had served in) but dreamed of traveling abroad to fight for the country that he was so proud of. By the time he was 20 years old, the war in Europe had escalated and with much anticipation, he had joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and entered gunnery school with hopes of fulfilling his dream. By 1940, the U.S. had still not officially entered the war and according to his brother in a 2009 “Boston Globe” interview, “He was mad because it didn’t look like the United States was going to go…he wanted to fight against Hitler.” Sensing that it would not change; he deserted and made a run for the Canadian border.

After hitchhiking to Canada, Millett enlisted in the Canadian Army and was assigned to the Royal Canadian Artillery Regiment. After training, his wishes were answered and he was deployed to London, England, where he manned an anti-aircraft gun during the Blitz. But by the time he had arrived in England, the U.S. had officially entered the war. Not one to sit on the sidelines of battle, Millett transferred to the U.S Army in 1942 for ground action on the European front as an anti-tank gunner. With the growing use of German tanks in North Africa and the need for strong anti-tank gunners, he was assigned to the 27th Armored Field Artillery Regiment of the 1st Armored Division in Tunisia.

His service during World War II would be exemplary and his actions were ones that began to resemble scenes from a movie. During one engagement, Millett drove a burning half-track vehicle filled with ammunition away from a group of Allied soldiers and jumped to safety just seconds before it exploded. That brave action earned him a Silver Star, one of the U.S. Army’s highest decorations.

A Me-109 (Courtesy of Kogo)

In another engagement, he fired machine guns mounted on a half-track and shot down a Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter plane who had been strafing Allied soldiers. Subsequently, he joined the battles on the Italian front at Salerno as well as Anzio. It was during the Italian campaign when the U.S. Army discovered information about Millett’s past and 1941 desertion. He was immediately court-martialed, fined $52 and stripped of his privileges. As his brother remembered, “He didn’t give a hoot about the leave privileges because he wasn’t going anywhere anyway, but he was a little annoyed about the 52 bucks.” A few weeks later, in a reversal of fortune, former sergeant Millett was awarded a battlefield commission with a rank of second lieutenant.

After World War II, Millett returned home to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, but only completed three years before the Korean War called him back into service. In 1951, Millett (a U.S. Army Captain) was assigned to command Company E of the 27th Infantry Regiment. On February 7, his company was entrenched at the base of an enemy-controlled hill known as Hill 180. As one platoon became pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire, Millett recalled in a 2006 interview with the Journal of Military History, “I saw Chinese propaganda flyers saying that Americans were afraid of hand-to-hand combat.  When I read that, I thought, I’ll show you.”  He immediately ordered his men to fix bayonets and despite being wounded in the leg, he led another platoon in a direct bayonet-assault up the intimidating hill. With a bayoneted rifle in one hand and hand grenades in the other, Millett screamed encouragement at his soldiers as they valiantly pushed toward the summit.

The U.S. Army's Medal of Honor

As his Medal of Honor citation states, “Despite vicious opposing fire…His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder.” Even though his actions at Hill 180 had earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, he actually participated in yet another bayonet charge during the same month that earned him a Distinguished Service Cross (the military’s second-highest decoration).

At that point, when other highly decorated soldiers might have retired and moved into civilian life, Millett did the opposite. He attended Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was subsequently assigned to the 101st Airborne Division as an intelligence officer. During the 1960s, he commanded the Army Security Agency training center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. The position would eventually lead to his role as a military “advisor” in the Vietnam War where he also established a Reconnaissance-Commando training program that would train small units for covert operations. By 1973, Millett finally retired from the U.S. Army at the rank of full colonel (although he later stated that he retired because he felt that the U.S. had “quit” in Vietnam).

During retirement, according to a “Washington Post” article about Millett, “He championed the return of U.S. prisoners of war from Vietnam and then worked as a deputy sheriff in Trenton, Tennessee, before settling in the San Jacinto Mountains resort village of Idyllwild, California, across the street from an American Legion post.” Things seemed relatively quiet in his retirement years. But that changed in 1985, when his son (Army Staff Sergeant John Millett) was one of 240 soldiers killed in an airplane crash in Newfoundland. The plane was returning home from a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East. The tragedy inspired the retired Millett to compose a poem entitled, “A Soldier’s Prayer.” Throughout the rest of his life he proudly appeared at events honoring veterans and often recited the poem that began with the opening: “I’ve fought when others feared to serve.”

On Nov. 14, 2009, Lewis Millett died of heart failure at the Jerry L Pettis Memorial V.A. Medical Center in Loma Linda, California. He was buried at the Riverside National Cemetery in California and his grave is located in Section 2, No. 1910. It was the end of an illustrious career and life that can be best summed up in using one of his quotes, “I believe in freedom, I believe deeply in it. I’ve fought in three wars, and volunteered for all of them, because I believed as a free man, that it was my duty to help those under the attack of tyranny. Just as simple as that.”

A Day Tour of Las Isletas in Nicaragua

•February 27, 2011 • 2 Comments


One of Many Isletas on Lake Nicaragua Near Granada

Las Isletas are located just southeast of the beautiful colonial city of Granada in Nicaragua. Many guidebooks differ in their numbers of the islands that range anywhere between 300 and 365. No matter what the actual number really is, there are a large number of them and one fact is true: they were created more than 10,000 years ago from a huge explosion by the Mombacho Volcano that still dominates the skyline.

Today, many of the isletas are privately owned and its residents range from families of local fishermen who live in makeshift homes to lavish mansions primarily used as a temporary escape for the wealthy. Several even include small hotels, cute restaurants and small nature reserves. Although there are a number of reputable tour companies that provide groups a general boat tour of the area, one of the best ways is to explore the islands is to go with a group of friends and hire a private boat that can break away from the usual and rather boring circuit.

The Puerto Asese Near Granada, Nicaragua, with the Mombacho Volcano in the Distance

While in Granada, my suggestion is to  take a taxi to Puerto Asese (the small wharf just outside of the city of Granada) and find one of the smaller boats sitting at the docks. Several docked boats post hand-painted signs offering private tours but most of the time the eager owners who are hungry for business will approach visitors anyway. The wooden boats are easily recognizable: they each seat approximately eight passengers, have a single outboard engine and have some type of roof or canopy to block out the sun.

The fees range between $15US and $20US but make sure to question the rate if it is much more than that. Once the deal is settled, sit back and relax on the wooden bench and enjoy the views. One of my favorite moments after leaving the wharf is when the boat first enters the open waters of Lake Nicaragua and the Mombacho Volcano looms on the horizon.

After catching your breath and hopefully snapping a few pictures, ask to stop at a few of the islands to do a little exploration. Try to avoid the private ones, especially the ones where an attractive home is located. My suggestion is to travel to the ones that are covered in plant life that actually look uninhabited. Those usually include plenty of wildlife and perfect locations on the shores where you can see a variety of birds and monkeys living in its trees. On my last tour, out boat stopped at five different islands where we saw everything from herons and cranes to communities of monkeys oblivious to our cameras.

For those who wish to spend a whole day on one of the isletas, a great recommendation is the Hotel Isleta La Ceiba. It is located on two small islands (connected by a footbridge) and it is well worth the visit even for the afternoon. My immediate impression was that it was once a thriving location that welcomed day-trippers and celebrities who wanted to get away for the night. For example, there are photos of Don Francisco (a well-known celebrity from the Univisión television network) smiling and shaking hands with the owners at its grand opening.

One of My Favorite Spots at the Hotel La Ceiba in Nicaragua

The hotel includes 10 private and comfortable cabins with plenty of outdoor sitting areas as well as a swimming pool with views of the Mombacho Volcano. Best of all, it offers lunch and dinner with specials such as fresh fish (direct from the lake)  and a reasonably priced bottle of Flor de Caña Rum, which is one of the best in the world.

I stayed overnight and found it to be a beautiful oasis where the friendly staff offered me good food, clean guest rooms and fun water activities such as kayaking. One of my favorite places on the island was in a hammock on the edge of the water where I could see the palm trees swaying in the breeze as the fishing boats quietly glided by the shore.

Overall, my private boat tour made the trip to Granada that much more exciting and interesting. Not being one for the large group tours, this was definitely the way to do it.

Jay Zeamer: Pilot of the “Old 666” Who Flew Straight

•February 18, 2011 • 1 Comment

Captain Zeamer of the "Old 666"

After being asked in an interview about how he flew his B-17 on a suicidal mission in the Pacific, Jay Zeamer recalled the situation:

The dumbest thing you can do with a B-17, when you’re under attack against fighters, is to hold it straight and level. Everyone I know who did that (against two fighters) got shot down. But here are five coming in five different directions. I thought, ‘My gosh, if I maneuver against one, I’ll make myself better game to the  others.’  That, coupled with the fact that the mapping was important, I kept going straight.

That is what Captain Jay Zeamer did as he piloted his unescorted but heavily armed bomber over Buka, New Guinea, in June 1943. Although the mission was a success, the bomber was attacked by five Japanese fighters, which severely wounded Zeamer and killed his bombardier, Joseph Sarnoski. When the bullet-riddled bomber landed, Zeamer was so badly wounded that the co-pilot told the ground crew, “Get the pilot last, he’s dead!” The mission would earn him and his bombardier a Congressional Medal of Honor and every other member of the flight crew a Distinguished Service Cross.

Jay Zeamer wasborn in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on July 25, 1918. Although he grew up in Orange, New Jersey, he was very fond of Boothbay Harbor in Maine. According to an article in the “Boston Globe”, “He spent many summers in Boothbay Harbor, where he enjoyed rowing his homemade boat in the harbor.” To the detriment of his school grades, he treasured the outdoors and became an Eagle Scout at the age of 13.

To improve his education, his father enrolled Zeamer in the Culver Military Academy in Indiana, which fueled his desire to serve his country. He turned things around and eventually attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as an officer candidate in the ROTC program. He graduated in 1940 and was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. But his interest in aviation continued to be strong, so he enlisted in the Regular Army and completed primary and advanced flight training by March 1941.

That summer, Zeamer flew as a co-pilot in the B-26 Marauders of the 19th Bombardment Squadron based at Langley Field in Virginia. A fellow pilot Lieutenant Walt Krell recalled his memories of Zeamer: “Jay as a pilot had the kind of very relaxed attitude that I liked. When you got right down to it he was the most relaxed main in an airplane I ever knew. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. No emergency could shake him.” Unfortunately, his complacency had created problems when it came to the possibility of promotion out of the co-pilot’s seat and into his own command. According to Krell:

You just had to do your best to get him into the left seat, where everyone felt he belonged. Well, the way he’d come into the (runway) would turn your hair white. We’d go outand slow the airplane down to about 130 and you’d feel it get washy, soft and mushy on the controls…you’d turn back to Zeamer and say: ‘Jay, you know what you did wrong that time?

After being constantly turned down for promotion, Zeamer’s motivation also decreased dramatically. Even after he was sent to New Guinea for combat missions, his role as a co-pilot had turned to boredom. Krell stated, “When enemy flak and Japanese fighters turned on the incoming bombers over Lei, Zeamer had awakened long enough to put on his Mae West and World War I helmet, and then went back to sleep. I belted him on the chest to wake him up…but he was sound asleep.” Predictably, he was transferred out of the squadron and into the 43rd Bombardment Group. This move turned out to be a blessing in disguise for it had a fleet of B-17s.

Unfortunately, his reputation followed him and his welcome into the 43rd was not a happy one. He became the “catch-all”, which was the man who took the random assignments and filled in only when a spot opened. He persisted and filled in, but never as a pilot. In November of 1942, Zeamer had filled in as an Intelligence Officer during a busy time for the Allied offensive. After receiving information about a Japanese buildup at Rabaul, New Guinea, reconnaissance photographs were needed to access the buildup. According to Home of Heroes, “For three consecutive days reconnaissance missions were flown unsuccessfully due to heavy cloud cover. On the fourth day, the pilot was grounded…so Zeamer volunteered to fly the mission (despite the fact that he was not an official pilot on a B-17). By that time, no one seemed to care…and soon Zeamer was flying in the left seat of a “Flying Fortress.” By May of 1943, Zeamer seemed better suited as a pilot as he was awarded two Silver Stars on two different missions in addition to an Air Medal for sinking an 8,000-ton ship.

The Old 666 was a Modified B-17E

After Zeamer was finally promoted to captain, he was urged to form a crew even though an aircraft was not promised to him. He searched through the 43rd’s rosters for men who were not wanted. Krell recalled, “Zeamer went through the outfit and recruited a crew from a bunch of renegades. They were the worst of the 43rd…but they made a hell of a crew.” Then they waited for an aircraft.

Then a badly damaged B-17E with the tail number 41-2666 was flown in. Not for Zeamer but for the sole purpose of salvaging its parts.  Zeamer immediately claimed it as his “new” aircraft. According to Home of Heroes:

Zeamer’s crew went to work on what would normally have been an impossible task. They cleaned it up, patched the holes, fixed its engines, and modified it to their liking. Jay had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted in the nose so he could fire from the cockpit like a fighter pilot. 30-caliber flexible guns normally manned by the bombardier and navigator were replaced with swivel-mounted 50-caliber machine guns. The crew put guns where they didn’t even need guns.

Naturally, the other flight crews who had ridiculed the crew had become envious of the aircraft’s firepower. Krell recalled, “They loaded their 50 calibers and they told everyone to stay the hell away, and Zeamer and his crew even slept in that damn airplane for fear someone would try to take it away from them!” Without time to officially name the plane, the bomber lacked the traditional nose art but instead, it was called “Old 666” for its tail number. The crew was also nicknamed “The Eager Beavers” because they had volunteered for every unwanted assignment.

On June 16, 1943, Zeamer and his crew volunteered to fly an unescorted reconnaissance mission to photograph and map Japanese installations at Buka. The photo portion went without a problem, but as Zeamer’s crew reported 20 fighters taking off from Buka airfield, they knew they were in trouble. Despite the threat, Zeamer held steady at an altitude of 25,000 feet. Within minutes, the aircraft was surrounded by five Japanese planes coming in five directions. After Zeamer shot down one plane with his nose-mounted gun, a 20-mm cannon shell exploded in the nose of the B-17 wounding the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski. As recalled by Home of Heroes, “The enemy cannon had ripped huge holes in the floor of the cockpit. Air screamed in through the holes in the floor and Zeamer watched as blood flowed from the bombardier’s neck. ‘I’m all right, don’t worry about me,’ Sarnoski announced. Slowly, Sarnoski dragged his body across a torn catwalk that was now slick with his own blood.” He forced himself up long enough to shoot down a twin-engine aircraft before he slumped over his machine gun and died.

Then another attack shattered Zeamer’s feet and paralyzed his legs. Zeamer recalled, “I never felt so much pain in my life…It ripped off my rudder pedals, tore gobs of flesh from my legs, and shattered my left knee. Blood from my ruptured wrist was spurting across my lap every time my heart pumped.”

For 45 minutes more, 17 more fighters attacked the damaged B-17 with two more shot down. Despite the terrible pain, Zeamer refused first aid for his wounds and flew until the fighters broke off their attack. Without a hydraulic system, brakes or flaps, the B-17 made an emergency landing at an Allied fighter landing strip at Dobodura, New Guinea. The rescue crews were surprised by what they saw: 187 bullet holes, five gaping holes made by 20mm cannons, six crew members wounded with two presumed dead.

Zeamer was unconscious and prematurely pronounced dead on arrival due to the massive amount of blood loss. He had actually survived the ordeal despite a 15-month recovery and was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony on Jan. 16, 1944. Sarnoski received a posthumous award.

Zeamer eventually returned to active duty but retired in 1945. As a civilian, he earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from MIT and had a second career as an aerospace engineer until he retired in 1968. After retirement, he returned to what made him happy: rowing in the handmade boat in Boothbay Harbor and spent his years there as well as Albuquerque, New Mexico. He died on March 21, 2007 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The day of the funeral, John Baldacci, the Governor of Maine, ordered that all flags throughout the state would be flown at half-mast. Rightfully so.

Traveling to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua

•February 7, 2011 • 7 Comments

As our Boeing 737 began the final descent toward the runway, the customary “Thank you for flying with us, we will be landing in Nicaragua shortly” routine had concluded. But what they should have said was “The runway will be too short to handle any normal landing of this large aircraft.” Forewarned about this important fact before the trip, I naturally re-tightened my seat belt. After the rear wheels hit the runway, I waited anxiously for touchdown of the front landing gear. As the front wheels made contact with the ground, I was thrust forward with such a force that I wondered if we had just landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier instead of Managua. Amidst the noise from the screaming turbines, I quickly said a thankful prayer. Following the appreciative applause for the pilot, I caught my breath and looked out the window at a recovering world that was still steeped in its past. Scattered along the runway were reminders of its former turbulent times: Russian Sikorsky military helicopters and boxy-looking Lada automobiles. In the distance, a steaming volcano beckoned me and I realized that the country’s title of  “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” did live up to its name. This was the land of many and much more.

It was the first time I headed to San Juan del Sur with my wife and it felt like we took the wrong road.  Well, it was the right road, but at the time it seemed completely wrong. Taking our rental car through the waning afternoon sunlight, we headed south and passed the city of Rivas with its countless papaya stands and turned right at a sign marked SAN JUAN DEL SUR. Almost immediately, the decent asphalt gave way to a formerly decent asphalt road. Taking this road would test all of our driving abilities due to the fact that the number of potholes began to outnumber the Starbucks cafés in New York City. As one pothole was successfully avoided, the unavoidable reward was to slam into another one with such a force that it felt like it could swallow the car. At some point, our aged Hyundai started sounding like a souped-up hot rod (just without the torque). After pulling over next to a cattle farm, we noticed that a chunk of our muffler was gone; an apparent sacrifice to the Asphalt Gods miles back. Having no choice, we continued on this slalom run polluting the air with our unnecessary noise. Believing that we were lost, we slowed down next to someone walking along the shoulder and asked, “San Juan del Sur?” “Si, directo!” he shouted back over the roar of our partial muffler. We trudged on.

After 45 minutes of bouncing around, we emerged onto the final turn that rewarded us with a hilltop view of the deep blue Pacific Ocean, salty air and a small bay of scattered fishing boats. The potholes had become a memory (except for our aching backs) and were replaced by signs that welcomed visitors to the quaint town. Noticeably, the pace was slower. Compared to our near-death aircraft landing and cross-country slalom run, it was like we had stepped into a time portal where everything moved in slow motion. The refreshing and aptly named Avenida del Mar was exactly what it was: two miles of avenue on the beach where a few dozen people were out for a late afternoon stroll sharing the beach with a single horse and thirty sea gulls.

Following the rusted signs marked Piedras y Olas, we smiled knowing that we were close to our final hilltop destination. But we were left with one more obstacle: a thirty-degree uphill drive toward the entrance. After a good minute of discussion about the pros and cons of the ascent, we agreed to go forward and managed to pull our dilapidated, noisy car into the welcoming arms of a smiling valet. Calmed by the trickling fountain in the foyer, I was no longer worried about the car’s rental deposit and happily recounted our slalom run to the nicely dressed and smiling receptionist.

She stated, “Oh THAT road. We stopped waiting for the government to fix it long ago. Now we just smile and tell everyone that it will be fixed next year! Unfortunately it is our only road to get here.” She was right, because other than using a helicopter, the inland highway was the most direct way into San Juan del Sur. But smarter visitors, presumably with no mufflers to lose, probably use fast-moving SUVs that easily cross the car-gulping crevasses at full speed. This gives you an idea of what kind of place San Juan del Sur is, and what sort of people end up here.

“San Juan is where rich people from California and Managua go to pretend they’re poor,” jokes Julio Cansino, a local musician. He’s right: in the past few years this isolated village had become a retreat for the wealthy expats who found the town’s simplicity to be a bizarre opposite of their fast-paced and stressful lives. But that’s not why you should go. You should go to San Juan del Sur because it is one of the most beautiful places in Nicaragua and an impossible place to forget once you leave.

Standing vigil over the whole town is the luxury, hillside development and hotel of Piedras y Olas (Pelican Eyes to the tourists), one of Nicaragua’s finest resorts. This establishment has a pledge of hiring locals, using locally grown food and donating portions of the profits to the local schools. The rooms are individually designed with large beds that seem to swallow you up. Each private balcony has breathtaking views of the whole bay and if it becomes too hot for you in the afternoon sun, you can simply recline in your Nicaraguan rocking chair under your remote-controlled air conditioning unit.

After a dip in the Infinity pool that seemed to blend into the Pacific horizon, we dined on freshly prepared ceviche and sipped on a wide selection of perfectly chilled local wines. To wrap up our long day, we watched a performance of the band Phoenix that consisted of one of Nicaragua’s most well known musicians, Julio Cansino, and his lead guitarist Tony Ferrari (yes, he IS related to the famous car maker).

Despite the luxury resort and the private cliff-side haciendas, San Juan del Sur has always stood apart from the rest of the area. From its founding by the Spanish in the 16th century to its embrace as a hippie and surfing Eden, the village itself has remained somewhat primitive. Down at the market, there is still a sense that barter, not cash, could be a means of exchange to receive a basket of locally grown vegetables. The town is also remarkable for what it lacks, stoplights and well-functioning ATM’s to name a few.

At the far end stands the chalk-white Iglesia San Juan Bautista, one of the oldest churches in southern Nicaragua. It’s plain facade, wooden door and dusty windows is a fitting image for this place of uncomplicated pleasures. In front of the church, there is a shady park with a cultural sampling of the area that range from street musicians and local art work to tasty Nicaraguan food. We were lucky enough to sample a delicious item known as Nacatamales, which are made of cornmeal, potato, pork, tomato, onion and sweet chilies wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed to greasy perfection. To the right is the  Calle Central, with rows of small houses painted in brilliant hues that range from papaya-pink to lime-green. You can still hear locals refer to them as “the pink one” or “the green one.”

For three weeks in late December, San Juan del Sur is jumping. It begins with La Purísima on Dec. 8 for the Immaculate Conception and continues until Semana Santa: Holy Week. The beaches get packed, the hotel rates skyrocket and all celebrations seem to end with fanfare and fireworks. These pyrotechnics are some of the most dangerous you could ever imagine. Without any safety measures or regulations, you can purchase anything from hand-held rockets that look like they could reach orbit to blasting boxes that are humorously named Osama Bin Laden. The celebrations are strong because the faith is strong and if you are lucky enough to be there on Christmas Eve, the whole town erupts into explosions and song. After the noise dies down, the smoke from the pyrotechnics covers the town, your ears are ringing and the remaining sounds are only barking dogs and car alarms. A truly memorable moment.

Then as the holidays end, San Juan del Sur becomes all but deserted. Weekenders pass through during the long off-season, but not many. In the curious ebb and flow of San Juan del Sur, one month it’s salsa or reggaeton at the packed beach bars, and the next it’s the gentle chirrup of green lizards crawling on the ceiling above you as you swing on a hammock. At quieter times like those, you have to wonder what it must have been like a generation ago.

Many original hippies and newer classes of young bohemians still remain and are mostly known by their first names: Dude, Hey and Yo. These men in untrimmed beards and large dreadlocks walk barefoot around the square selling everything from bracelets to on-the-spot drawings. With the right timing, you can see some impressive sidewalk art being created to the strains of Bob Marley. Not surprisingly, you can always make out the scent of ganja in the breezes around these locations.

From the evening of that first visit, we fell into an easy routine taking us back and forth between the beach and the hotel. The Pacific’s rhythms nudge travelers to adjust their goals accordingly. Our typical daily itinerary included:  1- Wake up and step onto the balcony to smell the fresh air; 2- Count the clouds in the sky; 3- Frolic in the ocean and work up an appetite for deep-fried whole fish while drinking an ice cold cerveza at a beach-side café;  4- Walk down the street and buy another coconut from Marco the coconut vendor;  5- See what the hippie artist drew on the sidewalk today;  6- Find an open hammock;  7- Take a siesta from the strenuous day;  8- Look at those stars; 9- Get hypnotized by the lights of the rocking boats in the bay; 10- Guess the style of music echoing down the beach.

And so when I returned to San Juan del Sur the following year, it was with some trepidation: Would it be the same? Did they add a Club Med or a Sandals resort? Has the slalom highway become a super-smooth expressway?

Yet the road was as awful as ever and perhaps even worse. As I drove through some of the largest potholes and bounced down the pitted road toward the coast (this time in a SUV), it was clear that nothing had changed except my mode of transportation and I smiled. I kept this smile as the wind rocked me to sleep in my hammock later that afternoon.

Master Sergeant Gary Gordon: Valor and Sacrifice

•February 5, 2011 • 2 Comments

Master Sergeant Gary Gordon

On the sunny and cool morning of July 4, 1996, there was a small crowd gathered at the naval base in Newport News, Virginia. At the podium, Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania had just finished a speech which drew polite applause. As he walked back to his seat, he smiled and acknowledged the proud widow. According to the Newport News Daily Press, “Moments after Carmen Gordon shattered the champagne bottle on the Navy’s newest Sealift ship-officially giving her husband’s name to the vessel-the morning sky over the James River filled with smoke and sparks. It capped a ceremony filled with flags, patriotic music, words of praise and tears.” The U.S.N.S. Gordon was the second ship to be transformed from a commercial vessel to a LMSR or Large Medium Speed Roll On/Roll Off ship. After hearing the stories of sacrifice, it is difficult to imagine a similar act of courage than this Master Sergeant’s determination to save his fellow soldiers only three years earlier.

Gary Gordon was born in Lincoln, Maine in 1960 and graduated from Mattanawcook Academy in 1978. He joined the U.S. Army that same year and was eventually chosen to join the Army’s Special Forces Operational Detachment known as the “Delta Force”, which was the branch’s top special operations unit. Global Security states that “Delta’s soldiers are carefully selected and specially trained. Delta conducts worldwide recruitment twice a year prior to its fall and spring assessment-and-selection courses. Assignment to 1st SFOD-D involves an extensive pre-screening process, successful completion of a three to four week mentally and physically demanding Assessment and Selection Course, and a six month operator Training Course. Upon successful completion of these courses officers are assigned to an operational position within the unit.” In this case, Gordon was assigned as a sniper.

Delta missions always require rapid and surgical responses while maintaining the lowest possible profile of U.S. involvement. On October 3, 1993, Delta’s mission, called “Operation Gothic Serpent”, was to capture top advisers to Mohamed Aidid, the Somali warlord. Gordon was Sniper Team Leader hovering in one of the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters during the assault. After one of the helicopters was shot down in the city, a search and rescue team was dispatched to the first crash site to secure it. But suddenly, another helicopter was shot down as well.

Since other supporting Army ground forces were not able to help the crew of the second helicopter, Gordon and his fellow snipers, Randall Shughart and Brad Hallings could only provide sniper fire from the air. Frustrated by their limited help, they requested to be dropped at the second crash site to protect the four crew members who were critically wounded. Since there were large numbers of armed Somalis moving into the area, the commanders denied Gordon’s request stating that the situation was far too dangerous and too risky for the three snipers to effectively protect the Blackhawk crew from the ground. Gordon, however, knew that there was no logical way the Black Hawk crew could survive alone, and repeated his request two more times until he finally received permission.

As Hallings remained behind to replace an injured crew gunner,Gordon and Shughart were dropped near the site armed with only their personal weapons. They battled their way to the location amidst heavy gunfire and pulled the pilot, Mike Durant, as well the other crew members out of the mangled Blackhawk. In an interview with Mike Durant, he stated, “So I had picked up my weapon and was preparing to defend the crash site when Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon showed up on my side of the aircraft.” But as Shughart and Gordon defended the wreckage, they were quickly outnumbered. Their ammunition was also being rapidly depleted.  Durant recalled, “So they got me out of the aircraft, laid me on the ground, put my weapon across my chest, and the way I described their actions were professional and deliberate to the point that they looked like they were planning a parking lot. I mean they didn’t seem alarmed. It was just focus on the task, doing what they needed to do to improve our situation, and get through it, get us rescued.  Just moments after this, Gary Gordon is shot. I hear Gary say, damn, I’m hit. And what always struck me was the way he said it. I mean it was almost like he nicked himself with a knife.  And apparently it was a mortal wound, and evidence of that was the fact that Randy Shughart came around and gave me Gary’s weapon.  Now obviously I’m increasingly concerned about our chances of survival. The only two soldiers I’ve seen, one’s down, I’m out of ammunition, the Somalis appear to be getting more aggressive. Randy comes back around the aircraft, and he makes a radio call and then he just makes his way back around the nose of the helicopter to the other side, and I never see him again.” Gordon and Shughart were both killed by Somali gunfire. Shortly after, Durant was taken alive.

The Blackhawk Helicopter Similar to Gary Gordon's.

On May 23, 1994, both Gordon and Shughart posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions and the sacrifices they had made to help protect the life of Durant and the crew. They were the only soldiers to receive the honor in the operation as well as the first Medal of Honor recipients since the Vietnam War. President Clinton presented the medals to their wives Stephanie Shugart and Carmen Gordon at the White House.

Today, along with the naval vessel, an elementary school in North Carolina named Gordon Elementary opened in 2009. His actions were also recalled in the book and film, “Black Hawk Down”, as well as several websites. He is buried at the Lincoln Cemetery in Maine surrounded by flags and flowers.

Finally, Durant recalled, “When Randy and Gary came into my crash site they knew the chances were pretty good they wouldn’t make it out alive, but they did it because they knew that if they didn’t take action, we were gonna die. And that’s why they did it.”