Saturday, September 15, 2018

A STRONG MAN ARMED



Jim Dekle at 17 years of age


About 30 or more years ago, my car broke down on West Duval Street in Lake City. I was able to get it to one of the garages on a side street off Duval, and I took a seat waiting for my wife Lane to come get me while the mechanic worked on my car. A gentleman who was sitting on a bench near me asked me if I was a Dekle. I admitted it. He then asked me if I was Sonny Dekle’s boy. I immediately knew from the question that he was an old-time citizen of Union County. Nobody in Lake City called my father Sonny. He hated that nickname, and when we moved to Lake City, he became Jim Dekle. I emulated his name change. When we lived in Union County I was Bobby—a name which I also hated. When we moved to Lake City in 1960, I became Bob.

Anyhow, I said yes, I was Sonny Dekle’s boy. He told me I looked just like my father, which was not really news to me. Then a sort of a nostalgic expression came on his face and he told me that one time shortly after World War II, he saw my father lay out six sailors in a ditch in front of the Women’s Club in Lake Butler. He said he was upstairs at the dance, and he could hear the licks Dad was giving them over the music. When he got downstairs, the fight was over, and Dad was victorious. Of course, I had to ask Dad about the incident the next time I saw him.

Dad got angry and said that no Lake Butlerite came to his aid and he had to handle the six men all by himself. He thought that being a hometown boy and being jumped by soldiers from Camp Blanding, he deserved some help from his fellow citizens. Were they soldiers or sailors? He remembered them being soldiers. What happened?

Dad had just got back to Lake Butler after being mustered out of the Marine Corps, and he had come home with a fellow Marine from the area. There was a dance being held at the Women’s Club the very night he got home, but his mother was sick and his father (who was the Sheriff) was on patrol. Dad and his friend agreed that they would take turns going to the dance. Dad went first, and his friend stayed at the house with his mother. All they had to wear was their Marine uniforms, so Dad went in a neatly pressed uniform. Dad was a very good dancer in his time, and he put in to dance with all the girls at the dance. Everyone knew him, and they were all glad to see him. Except there were some soldiers there from Camp Blanding who decided he was a stranger and was horning in on their territory and dancing with their girls. It soon became apparent that the soldiers were looking for trouble, so Dad decided to leave.  As he approached the front door to leave, two soldiers blocked his way and wouldn’t let him out. He hit them both under the chin with a double uppercut, and four more soldiers piled on him. After the fight was over, his uniform was shredded, but he was the last man standing. He went back home and told his friend, “Now it’s your turn to go to the dance.” His friend declined.

I asked Dad how he was able to single-handedly defeat six soldiers. He again became angry, “They had been playing soldier, and I had been fighting a war.”

Over the years I have had a number of men volunteer to me that they thought Dad was utterly fearless. I think one of the best compliments I ever got was from a deputy sheriff who told me, “You’re just like your Dad; you’ve got b@lls the size of watermelons.” He was, of course, wrong about me, but I can’t argue with his assessment of my father.

When Dad came back from the war, he had a full-blown case of PTSD. Of course, PTSD hadn’t been “invented” yet. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned of PTSD, and that explained a lot about some of Dad’s personality quirks. I recall watching a documentary about the 50th anniversary of D-Day with Dad, and I had never seen him get so upset. As they were talking about the planning of the invasion, he said they were going to get men needlessly killed. The assault was timed for just after low tide. When the tide is low, Dad explained, there is more beach to cross. Soldiers running from a landing boat across an open beach are sitting ducks for enemy fire. The less beach you must cover, the fewer casualties you suffer. The assault should have been made at high tide. In the leadup to Desert Storm, there was a good deal of talk about the Marines making an amphibious assault on Kuwait as a part of the attack. Again Dad became extremely agitated. “If there’s any way they can invade without making an amphibious assault,” he said, “they need to do it that way.” I didn’t really understand why he was so upset until I read Joseph H. Alexander’s Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific.

My father seldom talked about his experiences in the Pacific during World War II, and when he did he it was almost never about combat. I decided to find out about what he experienced by reading histories of the war in the Pacific, and that is how I came to read Storm Landings. I have read two very good first-person accounts of the war in the Pacific—Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, and E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. The best overview of the Marine experience in the Pacific is, in my opinion, Robert Leckie’s Strong Men Armed: The United States Marines Against Japan. The title, of course, is an allusion to Luke 11:21 (KJV): “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace.”

Dad’s last campaign was Iwo Jima, the only battle of World War II where the Marines took more casualties than they inflicted. Dad was in the Third Marine Division, which was supposed to be floating reserves. He would talk about the great fireworks display of the shelling and the young Marines from the Fourth and Fifth Divisions going over the side into the landing boats. And he would talk about getting the word that the Third was also going into action. All he would say about what happened after he hit the beach was that he really wasn't needed. He had a specialty as a telephone man. He ran wire for communications, but they owned so little of the island when he got there that they didn't need to run telephone wires--they could shout orders to the front lines. He did tell Mom what he did, and she later shared his experience with us. He was assigned to bag the bodies of fallen Marines--to match severed limbs to torsos and put the pieces in body bags, which were stacked like firewood. 
An Advertisement from Life Magazine Featuring 
a Photo of Dad Stringing Wire
Dad considered Iwo Jima a worthless piece of rock that the United States wasted thousands of lives on to no purpose. After having done enough reading about the Pacific war, I was able to explain to him the strategic value of Iwo Jima. I think it was some comfort to him.
Dad did tell one story about being point man on a patrol. He loved bananas, and when they came up on a banana tree, he just had to climb it to "harvest" some bananas. As he made his way to the tree, he came up on a Japanese Imperial Marine sleeping on the ground. He reached down to take the safety off of his M-1 carbine when disaster struck. The magazine release on an M-1 carbine is very close to the safety. He hit the magazine release by accident and dumped his magazine onto the ground. The noise woke the Japanese soldier, and Dad was almost immediately looking down the barrel of the soldier's Arisaka. He began to call out "Whup, whup, whup!" Somehow this frightened the soldier, and he jumped up and fled without shooting Dad. Dad didn't climb the banana tree, having lost his appetite for bananas.
Jim Dekle Climbing a Palm Tree in the Pacific 
(He's the One on Top)
Dad came home from the Pacific with three bronze campaign stars, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star for what his discharge papers described as "Duty beyond call." I tried to get him to tell what he did to earn the Bronze Star, but he would only say it had something to do with his squad being pinned down by machine gun fire.

William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said that “War is Hell,” and Dad (who was 17 when he enlisted) suffered his share of Hell. Apparently, he dished out some Hell also. In conversations with his pastor, Bo Hammock, he said he didn’t think that he deserved to go to Heaven and didn’t see how he could ever do enough good to get there. Bo was able to comfort him with the explanation that nobody deserves to go to heaven, and nobody can do enough good to get there—that’s where God’s grace comes in.

What got me to thinking about all this again was a project my son John is working on. He’s a musician, and he’s writing a song about Dad’s experiences in the war. It’s sketchy on details because we don’t know many details, but I think it evokes the trauma of combat and the lasting emotional scars of PTSD quite well.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S ALMANAC TRIAL: A LECTURE ABOUT THE TRIAL



Last week I went to Illinois to give a lecture to the Second Annual Abraham Lincoln's Legacy--Lessons for Today's Lawyers Seminar, which was put on by the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA). What was really neat about the seminar was that it was held in the very courtroom where Abraham Lincoln tried his famous Almanac Trial. And the topic that I was going to speak on? The Almanac Trial, of course.


The less said about the airplane trip the better. The cheapest ticket I could find was a flight out of Orlando with a change of planes in Chicago. I got up at 6:00 AM, drove 2 1/2 hours to Orlando, got on the plane, flew for 2 1/2 hours to Chicago, and discovered that my connecting flight had been cancelled. I wound up sitting in O'Hare Airport for over 9 hours waiting on another connecting flight which kept being changed and postponed. I didn't get into the hotel in Springfield until 2:00 AM. It would have taken less time to get to the hotel if I had driven straight through from home. The only bright side of the flight was that I was able to polish off a 300 page book while sitting in O'Hare.


The next day I gave a lecture on Lincoln as a lawyer at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Christian McWhirter, the Research Historian at the library was a gracious host and made me feel very much at home.


One thing that struck me was that they had on display a replica of a statue of Lincoln which is located in Beijing, China. Instead of trying to describe it, I'll just show a picture I took of it and also a picture of the plaque describing it:








 


After the presentation I went down to Books on the Square and renewed acquaintances there. They had just gotten in a huge shipment of books on Lincoln and were in the process of uncrating the books and sorting them out. I managed to get out of there without buying too many books. I only bought four books--"Lincoln's Generals," "Lincoln and his Generals," "American Iliad," and "Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant." If I had more room in my suitcase, I probably would have gotten more. I slept like a log at the hotel that night.


The next day Judge Ron Spears, who acted as my unofficial host during my stay in Illinois, gave me a ride to Beardstown for the lecture to the ISBA. I was disappointed to find that my old friend, Corky Kinstle, was no longer manning the gift shop on the first floor of the old courthouse. He had recently fallen ill and was still recuperating. This did not prevent him, however, from coming to the courthouse for a brief visit, and I got the opportunity to thank him again for all the help he had given me when I was researching my first book on Lincoln the lawyer.


The old courthouse is mostly a museum of Illinois history, but they still hold court in the courtroom on the second floor. I actually got to meet the judge who holds proceedings in the old courtroom--Judge Bobby G. Hardwick, who was the program coordinator for the seminar.


I thoroughly examined the museum's collection of antique firearms, both long guns and handguns, and sorely regretted that they were locked behind glass where I couldn't get the feel of some of the weapons. One weapon in particular intrigued me. It was a wagon gun--a huge long gun with a massive bore designed to fire scrap metal. The gun would be placed on the tail gate of a Conestoga wagon and used as artillery for the protection of wagon trains.




Wagon Gun


The pictures hung on the walls of the courtroom had almost all been changed, and there was a photograph of Duff Armstrong that I had never seen before.





Duff Armstrong



He certainly looked more presentable in the picture than he does in the more common picture of him in his uniform as a Union soldier.




Armstrong in Uniform


I was the first speaker of the morning, and I gave them my interpretation of the conflicting eyewitness reports of the course of the Almanac Trial. I think the presentation was well-received. At least nobody threw rotten fruit at me.


The second hour I gave a lecture which surveyed all of Lincoln's murder trials--at least all of those murder trials for which we have enough information to say something about. After delivering that lecture I joined the audience and spent the rest of the day listening to the other presentations.


The gift shop downstairs had stocked up on my books on Lincoln. When I got there that morning, I saw a table which was "chock-a-block" full of the books. When I went downstairs at the end of the day, I saw that the table was almost empty. I spent some time signing books that some of the attendees had bought, and then it was time to go back to Springfield. 


Judge Spears drove me back and treated me to supper at Smokey Bones Barbecue, and then he took me back to the hotel. I fell into bed and slept like a log until it was time to get up and go back to the airport. There were more delays at the airport, but I got home in time to see the second half of the Gator game. I might as well have been delayed a little longer.


All-in-all, it was an enjoyable trip despite the troubles at the airports. I met a lot of nice people, and I learned a lot about Lincoln's law practice from the other presenters.




Thursday, August 30, 2018

ATTORNEY-GENERALS OF THE CIVIL WAR: BORING WITH TOO BIG AN AUGER

It's been a while since I posted to this blog, so I thought I'd update. It seems like the last century when I decided to write a book about the lawyer-generals of the Civil War, and I actually began by writing some mini-biographies of a few generals, but I soon found that I had two huge problems. First, I didn't know enough about the Civil War. Second, there were too many lawyer-generals. Four things have happened since I made these twin discoveries.

First, I have boned up on the Civil War, and I am continuing to study it as much as possible. It is a depressing study.

Second, my study has destroyed my working hypothesis that lawyers had unique skills which made them good generals. I still think that trial lawyers have skills which could translate to military leadership, but I see now that they also have major defects (arrogance is one) which make it difficult to overcome a lack of military education. As a result most lawyer-generals were miserable failures as generals, and the successful lawyer-generals had military educations (e.g. Henry Halleck, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Patrick Cleburne).

Third, I have scaled back my ambition. As we say in the North Florida Piney Woods, I'm boring with too big an auger. I need to put it down and get a smaller one. I can't write about all the lawyer-generals without the book becoming a multi-volume encyclopedia. I have lowered my aim to write only about the lawyers who were colleagues of Lincoln. The working title will be "Lincoln's Attorney Generals: The Eighth Circuit Goes to War."

Fourth, I have embarked upon another project which is consuming my time--a professional biography of Francis L. Wellman, the author of "The Art of Cross-Examination." I've got to finish with Wellman before I get back to "Lincoln's Attorney Generals." It may be a while. Several of Wellman's cases merit treatment as stand-alone books.

Wish me luck with my literary endeavors. I'm going to need it.


ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S ALMANAC TRIAL: WHEN WAS THE FAKE ALMANAC ALLEGATION FIRST MADE?

There's an old saying that a lie can go around the world before the truth gets its boots on, and that is certainly true about the charge that Lincoln used a forged almanac in his cross-examination of the prosecution's star witness against Duff Armstrong. The witness said he saw the murder by the light of the moon high overhead, and the almanac showed the moon was on the horizon at the time of the murder. The false charge has been rebutted and refuted numerous times over the years, but it never seems to die.

Beginning of the 1860 Campaign Article on the Almanac Trial

I wrote in "Lincoln's Most Famous Case" and again in "Prairie Defender" that the charge was first made in the 1860 presidential campaign after an account of the Almanac Trial was published as campaign literature under the title "Thrilling Episode in the Life of Abe Lincoln." This account was soon rebutted with the fake almanac allegation. As I was preparing for my visit to Illinois next week, I discovered that there was a tradition which held that the fake almanac allegation was made against Lincoln in his 1858 senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas. I doubt that the allegation was made this early, and here is why:

The story of the trial hit the papers immediately after Lincoln was nominated. It played as a heartwarming human interest story but it was exaggerated to make the almanac show no moon at all when actually the moon was on the horizon. It’s hard to see why Lincoln’s handlers would have gone with the story if they knew of the fake almanac allegation. Second, the story was immediately answered by a sneering rebuttal entitled "Sensation Story Spoilt." It was supposedly written by someone who had intimate knowledge of the case, but he made no mention of the fake almanac. Third, there would be no suspicion of a fake almanac until someone fact-checked the no-moon detail of the pro-Lincoln propaganda against an almanac, which likely happened after the publication of "Sensation Story Spoilt." If the fake almanac allegation had already been made in 1858, it would have been featured in "Sensation Story Spoilt." None of the references I have seen which say the allegation was made in 1858 have footnotes or endnotes, so we don't know where they got their information.
Until I can see contemporary evidence of faked almanac allegations being made in the 1858 campaign, I’m going to believe that fading memories of long-ago events retrojected the 1860.

If anyone knows of a contemporary reference which supports the allegation being made in 1858, please bring it to my attention. I'd like to see it.


The Rebuttal to the 1860 Campaign Article

RON DeSANTIS'S CASE OF FOOT-IN-MOUTH DISEASE

A while back I was making a point that nobody is indispensable, and I used an old North Florida aphorism: "Don't one monkey make a show." One of my listeners chimed in and said that she was going to be using the saying in the future. I cautioned her that she should make sure that she added "You need some giraffes and elephants, too," to make it clear that she was referring to the circus and not making a racist comment. You can never be too careful about word choice. 

Too bad Ron DeSantis wasn't a party to my conversation. If he had been, I'm certain he would never have said Andrew Gillum would "monkey up" the state's recent economic success with his socialist agenda. An obviously innocent remark aimed at the economic system championed by Gillum has been twisted to make evidence of racism, and the news media is having a field day over a poor choice of words.

Why don't we talk about the real issue: whether socialism is preferable to free-labor capitalism?