Memorial Day: Remembering three men from three wars

George Koon 2 cropped

It’s difficult to walk through any older Southern cemetery and not find gravestones identifying individuals who gave their lives for their country.

Even if one doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead that dot cemeteries from Virginia to Florida, the Carolinas to Texas, there are many, many thousands who died in the line of duty, whether it was during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars of the 1830s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or the other conflicts the US has been involved in over the past 240 years.

In a small church cemetery in the South Carolina Midlands rest the remains of three men who died during three major conflicts that the United States participated in during roughly the first half of the 20th century,

Each died in very different times under very different circumstances, yet all are buried in Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery within about 15 feet of each other.

Milton Wilkins Shirey was a private in Company B, 31st US Infantry Regiment who perished of pneumonia on Dec. 12, 1919, in Siberia, at age 19.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

US involvement in Siberia is a little-known aspect of the Great War. President Woodrow Wilson sent several thousand troops to Vladivostok in 1918 following the October Revolution for a number of reasons, including aiding in the rescue 40,000 members of the Czechoslovak Legions, who were being held up by Bolshevik forces as they attempted to make their way along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific, where they hoped they could eventually make their way back around the world to the Western Front.

Also, Wilson wanted to protect large quantities of military supplies and railroad rolling stock that the US had sent to the Russian Far East in support of the prior Russian government’s war efforts on the Eastern Front.

Weather conditions made the Siberian experience a miserable one. There were problems with fuel, ammo, supplies and food, and horses suffered terribly in the sub-zero Russian winter.

Troops struggled, as well. During the American Expeditionary Force’s 19 months in Siberia, 189 soldiers, including Shirey, died.

It took four months for the US government to get Shirey’s body back home to South Carolina, where hundreds attended his funeral in April 1920.

Pvt. Ulysess S.G. Shealy, 23, was killed in action Sept. 27, 1944, in Italy. Details of his service, unit, and where he was killed are sketchy, but online records do show that Shealy’s remains weren’t returned to the US for burial until March 1949.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Given that 73,000 American dead from World War II are still missing in action, though, of course, presumed deceased, just the fact that Shealy’s body was returned to his home state was no small feat.

Finally there is the grave of Sgt. First Class George Walter Koon. Koon, 36, enlisted in the US Army in 1936 and served for nearly 15 years.

He was taken captive by Chinese forces on Dec. 1, 1950, after the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, a fierce conflict between Chinese and American troops.

Evidence shows he died of neglect, specifically malnutrition, gangrene and dysentery, while being marched from Kunu-ri to a POW camp along the Yalu River, military records show.

Sgt. Koon was one of 11 individuals whose bodies were found in a mass grave by US authorities, assisted by North Korean officials, in 2002. In 2005, Koon’s brother Carl gave a blood sample and the military was eventually able to match it with the remains.

A funeral service for Koon was held in May 2008 at Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery, 57 years after his death.

Three men, ranging from a 19-year old just out of high school to a career soldier nearly twice his age. Men whose causes of death ranged from illness, to wounds and neglect, to being killed in action. Men who died thousands of miles from their homes in the rural South. It was scene played out, of course, all across the United States.

Each, sadly, is a story that was repeated tens of thousands of times in the 20th century alone. It continues today.

There are those who believe war is wrong under all circumstances; it certainly is a terribly unfortunate occurrence.

This Memorial Day many in the US will give little more than a glancing thought – if that – to the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their nation. There are many in other parts of the world, including South Korea and Italy, though, who still remember.

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New Caravaggio said to have been uncovered in France

Judith Beheading Holofernes

While its authenticity has yet to be fully determined, a painting discovered in a French attic is being attributed by some to the Italian master Caravaggio.

At least one expert said the 400-plus-year-old work, called “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” could be worth as much as $135 million.

However, experts aren’t in agreement as yet regarding the work’s authenticity, with some attributing the painting to Louis Finson, a Flemish painter and art dealer. Finson possessed a number of works from the Italian master and made copies of his pictures, according to the Associated Press.

The painting was discovered two years ago in Toulouse, in southern France, when the owners of the house went into the attic to repair a leak.

The picture was kept out of the public eye while it was cleaned and submitted to a deep examination that included infra-red reflectography and X-rays, the wire service added.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, said to be by Caravaggio, on display in Paris.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, said to be by Caravaggio, on display in Paris.

Eric Turquin, the French expert who retrieved the painting two years ago, said it is in an exceptional state of conservation.

The work depicts the biblical heroine Judith beheading an Assyrian general and is thought to have been painted in Rome around 1600.

The work is believed to have gone missing about 100 years after it was painted. Another version of it, which was also thought to be lost before its rediscovery in 1950, hangs in Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art, according to the BBC.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was among the most innovative of the Renaissance painters, and his works are often spectacular for their realism and dramatic lighting. Only about 80 of Caravaggio’s paintings survive.

Turquin told a news conference Tuesday that there “will never be a consensus” about the artist.

Turquin believes the work “must be considered the most important painting, by far, to have emerged in the last 20 years by one of the great masters.”

The picture has been awarded “National Treasure” status by French authorities, meaning that it can’t be exported for 30 months, leaving the national museums enough time for its acquisition.

While the work has yet to be authenticated, France’s Culture Ministry justified its decision to ban the export of the painting because it “deserves to be kept on (French) territory as a very important landmark of Caravaggism.”

Bruno Arciprete, the Naples-based expert who restored Caravaggio’s “Flagellation of the Christ” and “Seven Works of Mercy,” said the painting could well be a Caravaggio but that further studies are needed.

“It has interesting characteristics that can be attributed to Caravaggio,” he told the Associated Press.

Arciprete said he saw the work a few months ago in Paris and came away with a “very good impression.”

“What is required is more scientific research, and then studies by art historians,” to specifically look at the technique, pigments, the type of canvas and its preparation to see if they correspond to those used by Caravaggio, he said.

On the other hand, Richard E. Spear, a scholar of Italian Baroque art who is an expert on Caravaggio, said he was “highly dubious” that the Italian master actually painted the art work.

Spear, who has only seen photos of the painting, told the AP that he wasn’t convinced by the handling of the brushwork and that some anatomical details of the characters raised questions.

“Altogether, the picture looks rather coarse and heavy to me,” he said.

(Top: “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” a different version of the work discovered in the attic of a house in southern France recently and purported to be the work of Renaissance master Caravaggio. The above is part of the collection of the National Gallery of Ancient Art in Rome.)

 

Gerard of Cremona’s role in reinvigorating medieval Europe

Toledo-Spain

Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.

My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.

I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).

Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.

Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.

Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.

Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.

Toledo, the former provincial capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, had been conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 but had remained a seat of learning, with protected Jewish and Muslim areas.

The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.

What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.

Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.

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Pecans truffles growing in status with Southern gourmets

pecan-truffles-700

They may not have the allure of white truffles found in northern Italy, but pecan truffles are growing in popularity among Southern US gastronomes.

Pecan truffles, first discovered in the 1980s, are a growing commodity in Georgia, and they’re catching on with gourmets, who are increasingly experimenting with them.

Dr. Tim Brenneman, a University of Georgia plant pathologist, has researched pecan truffles since he discovered them in the mid 1980s. His research involves inoculating trees with the fungus responsible for truffles, according to Southeast Farm Press.

“Right now, the main limitation for truffles is lack of consistent availability,” Brenneman said. “They’re underground; they’re hard to find. We’re doing research on producing truffles more consistently by inoculating trees with the fungus, and then, when you plant the trees, it may take a while, but they will eventually start growing truffles on their roots.”

While white truffles sell for as much as $1,200 a pound wholesale, pecan truffles are a little more affordable, going for between $200 and $300 a pound, according to Southeast Farm Press.

As an ectomycorrhizal fungi, truffles are often found near tree roots.

Pecan truffles vary in color from light to dark brown, and range in size from a small ball bearing up to a golf ball, with some occasionally larger. Most will have lobes and irregularities, and have a conspicuously “marbled” appearance with alternating streaks of brown and white.

The hard part, as with more expensive varieties, is locating the esteemed fungi. Now, just as in Europe, individuals are turning to truffle dogs.

“In the past, nearly all of the truffles we had in Georgia were just found by people going out with rakes during late summer at pecan harvest, when the truffles were being exposed, and picking them up,” Brenneman said. “Having dogs that are specifically trained for these truffles really helps find the truffles. It also improves the quality of truffles found because they’re locating the mature truffles. The dogs just go to the ones that have the strongest odor, and those are the most mature truffles and most desired by the chefs using them.”

There is high demand for truffles, especially from chefs, but there are only a few people marketing truffles and not a large supply.

Brenneman first discovered pecan truffles in the soil around pecan trees in commercial orchards in south Georgia. It also has been found in Texas and Florida.

It thrives in some pecan orchards and, in favorable years, can be found readily. Some growers report sweeping them up with the pecans at harvest, only to separate them out with sticks, rocks and other debris, and disposing of them.

Brenneman noted that it is very different from renowned white and black truffles, found primarily in Europe. The pecan truffles is a unique fungus with a flavor and texture all its own.

(Top: Pecan truffles shown amid pecans in a south Georgia orchard. Photo credit: Dr. Tim Brenneman.)

Mother, daughter reunited after being split up during WWII

 margot bachmann

After more than 70 years, Margot Bachmann, born in the midst of World War II, finally got to meet her mother, ending a lifetime of questions and uncertainty.

Bachmann’s mother had been recruited to work in Nazi Germany during World War II while Italy and Germany were still allied. When Italy switched sides following its capitulation to the Allies, her status became that of forced laborer.

She fell in love with a German soldier, became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter Margot in October 1944. In late 1944, the Nazi “Welfare and Juvenile Office” denied the 20-year-old mother her right as guardian, and Margot was taken to a children’s home, according to the International Tracing Service. The ITS’s mission includes tracing the fate of family members persecuted by the Nazis and their allies.

At war’s end in 1945 the mother returned to Italy under the assumption that her daughter and the father had died in the conflict’s waning months.

What Bachmann’s mother didn’t know is that the German soldier was already married. He not only survived the war but his family took Margot out of the children’s home.

Margot would grow up with seven half-brothers and sisters. Questions about Bachmann’s biological mother were strictly forbidden by her father, who wanted her to believe that her mother had died.

Although Bachmann suspected that the facts didn’t add up, it was only after her father died two years ago that she gathered the courage to try to find out what happened to her mother.

With the help of her own daughter, Bachmann found her baptismal certificate, which included the name of her mother. They then inquired at the German Red Cross, which passed her inquiry on to the International Tracing Service, where staff members were able to find information in its archives that made it possible to locate her mother, now 91 and living in Novellara, a small town in northern Italy.

Bachmann then wrote a letter to her mother:

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Mussolini’s bid to recreate empire had fateful results for Italy

March_on_Rome

Of the three most infamous dictators from World War II, Benito Mussolini definitely takes a backseat to his more merciless fellow despots, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Mussolini, in fact, comes across like a bit of a buffoon, given his fateful decision to side with the Nazis, his nation’s performance during the conflict and his ultimate fate (captured trying to escape to Switzerland, executed by firing squad and then hung upside down in a town square where his body was pelted with stones by his fellow Italians).

Il Duce dreamed of recreating a Roman empire reminiscent of the great Caesars, to the point of enacting ancient laws totally out of step with the 20th century.

He went so far as to revive the Code of Diocletian, writes Rebecca West in her masterful 1941 work Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which recounts her travels through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s.

“(Mussolini) retrieved, whether from the half-comprehended talk of a clever comrade or by skimming a volume in the threepenny box outside the bookshop, the Code of Diocletian; and being either unaware or careless that Diocletian had perished of despair in his palace at Split, because he had failed to check the descent of ruin on the Roman earth, he enforced that Code on his country,” West writes. “This was a comical venture.”

She adds that Diocletian had “some excuse for seeking to stabilize by edict the institutions of an empire that had lasted for over a thousand years,” but it was idiotic for Mussolini “to attempt to fix the forms of a country that had been unified for less than a century and was deeply involved in a world economic system which was no older than the industrial revolution.”

Ultimately, Mussolini’s reign would be an even greater failure than Diocletian’s (284-305 AD).

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17th century sculpture turns up after more than a century

Bernini_Paul V

As supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Paul V was a run-of-the-mill pope. But as a posthumous subject for Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Paul was sublime.

Born Camillo Borghese of the noted Borghese family of Siena, Paul V reigned from 1605-1621. He is noted for canonizing Charles Borromeo, financing the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica and for pushing for ecclesiastical jurisdiction in foreign nations that led to numerous squabbles between the Church and secular governments.

After his death, Paul’s nephew, the powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese, commissioned a sculpture of his uncle by Bernini, a multifaceted artisan who is credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture.

The work remained in the family for approximately 275 years until 1893, when, after the family was forced to auction it off, it disappeared from the art world’s radar.

Now, 122 years later, the work is on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The Getty recently bought the sculpture privately through Sotheby’s, according to The Economist.

While it’s not entire clear what happened to the sculpture after its sale in 1893, in 1916 art historian Antonio Muñoz claimed it was in a private collection in Vienna. Still, no one knew for certain where it was until 2014, and many art historians believed the marble bust no longer existed.

According to The Economist, the work ultimately ended up in the home of a Slovakian artist, Ernest Zemtak, Bratislava, approximately an hour from Vienna.

In 2014, a decade after Zemtak’s death, his heirs sold it at auction in Bratislava, although they were unaware that it was a Bernini. It was then bought by a private collector who had a connection to Sotheby’s. With a short time, a deal between Sotheby’s and the Getty had been negotiated, though no details have been released.

“Bernini was the master of the ‘speaking likeness’,” said Timothy Potts, the director of the Getty. “He found a way of breathing life into marble, of capturing the essence of a person. Not just the physical likeness of the pope, but his personality and stature, his benevolent seriousness and living presence. It makes you go weak at the knees when you see it, even if you know nothing of the artist.”

(Top: Sculpture of Pope Paul V, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.)