Native American Heritage Month

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of the month, fittingly, November is Native American Heritage Month, with the theme ‘Gifts of Our Ancestors: Celebrating Indigenous Knowledge and Cultures.’ Indigenous people are believed to have inhabited the North American continent since at least 15,000 years ago, and were stewards of the vast natural resources, from sea to shining sea, that European explorers found when they landed in 1492.

As President Joseph Biden said in his Proclamation of National Native American Heritage Month:

Despite a painful history marked by unjust Federal policies of assimilation and termination, American Indian and Alaska Native peoples have persevered.  During National Native American Heritage Month, we celebrate the countless contributions of Native peoples past and present, honor the influence they have had on the advancement of our Nation, and recommit ourselves to upholding trust and treaty responsibilities, strengthening Tribal sovereignty, and advancing Tribal self-determination. 

One notable fact stood out for me:  Native Americans, resident in America before anyone else, were not granted citizenship until 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, motivated in part by their high rates of enlistment in WWI. However, it took until 1962 for all 50 states to guarantee Native Americans the right to vote.

On a lighter note, hockey fans may be interested to know that Native Americans are credited with inventing the sport, which they called ‘shinny ball’.

Nacoista drawing of man and woman playing shinny ball game, ca. 1881-1891
National Museum of Natural History https://www.si.edu/object/archives/sova-naa-ms166931

The Library of Congress kicked off the month with an event featuring Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, and Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary. Libraries around the United States have been celebrating by holding readings and making book recommendations.

Here at the  American Library, former Scholar and staff member Linda Sheppard did a deep dive into our collection to highlight titles exploring Native American history, culture, art, literature, culinary traditions, wartime contributions and more.

Here are a few:

We’d love to see you at the American Library where you can browse the full display and take books home to learn more about the rich and diverse heritage of Native Americans and their many individual tribes.

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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Retracing My Father’s Footsteps: Part 1, A Visit to Grafton Underwood

Flight Officer Eugene Leonard Solomon

It was a warm, dry autumn day on September 18, 2021, when I made the pilgrimage to Grafton Underwood to see the airbase where my father, Flight Officer Eugene Leonard Solomon, was stationed during the Second World War. I’d intended to visit the previous year, but my plans were scuttled by another global emergency: the Covid-19 pandemic. In England for the duration, I shared the uncertainty of its course until a vaccine was developed, the enforced isolation, the restrictions on movement and ordinary routines, the threats to health and well-being and the collective grief over mass deaths, while admiring the bravery and dedication of National Health Service and other frontline workers. I couldn’t have known it then, but that experience would put me in the perfect frame of mind to retrace the footsteps of the twenty-year-old pilot who arrived on British shores on April 1, 1945. 

My father was a B-17 pilot with the 1st Air Division, 384th Bomb Group. He entered active duty on November 20, 1944, after more than a year of flight training and qualification to pilot the Flying Fortress. He was assigned to the 547th Bomb Squadron, whose patch (second image, below) says it all.

The 384th Bomb Group: ‘Keep the Show on the Road’
547th Bombardment Squadron Patch, image courtesy of the American Air Museum in Britain

My guide for the visit was Matt Smith, a personable and knowledgeable volunteer who coordinates local activities for the 384th Bomb Group, Inc. (the post-war association formed by 384th Veterans in the late 1960s). While my journey there was just a short train ride from Norwich to the East Midlands, Matt immediately made me feel welcome by collecting me from the station. We made our way to the picturesque village of Grafton Underwood to see the stained glass memorial window at St. James the Apostle Church. I’d seen pictures of it, but nothing could compare to the experience of viewing this stunning tribute in person, with the poignant words at bottom: ‘Coming Home’. Our family is Jewish, so for me, it was especially moving to see the Star of David included there. 

Matt Smith
At Grafton Underwood
‘This window is dedicated before God in remembrance of those who gave their lives for freedom during World War II while serving at Grafton Underwood 1942-1945, especially those members of the 384th Bomb Group (H) of the United States 8th Air Force.’

The base, built in 1941, was nicknamed ‘Grafton Undermud’. The land was requisitioned from the Boughton Estate, reverting to the estate after the war. According to the 384th Bomb Group website, it comprised some 500 acres and could accommodate up to 3,000 personnel, with ‘all the facilities needed, including a hospital, cinema, and chapel.’ The living quarters were mainly of Quonset hut construction, with more permanent structures like mess halls and clubs built from brick. Here I should emphasize the importance of having Matt Smith as my guide. He made it his mission to help me see the base as my father would have, which is no small feat, considering it has mostly been reclaimed by woods and the activities of a working estate. 

8th Air Force deployment at peak strength marking USAAF and RAF airfields in the east of England, July 1944-August 1944, image courtesy of the 2d Air Division Digital Archive
Aerial view of airbase, image courtesy of 384th Bomb Group

Next, we visited the 384th Bomb Group Memorial, a granite structure on the main runway which informs visitors of this notable fact: ‘The first and last bombs dropped by the 8th Air Force were from airplanes flying from Grafton Underwood.’

Author at 384th Bomb Group Memorial
384th BG Memorial with 1st AD triangle tail marking

The 384th lost 1,581 men, about third of its combat crewmen. Among those were 425 killed in action, 880 prisoners of war and 62 who remain missing in action; another 214 fatalities were from other causes. The 384th website reports that ‘combat aircrews considered themselves very lucky if they survived their missions, becoming members of the “Happy Warriors Club” as a result.’ Reflecting on these losses impressed on me how lucky we were to have my father return safely when so many families did not get to see their loved ones ‘come home’.

We walked around the airfield, with its clearly visible runway and taxi strips and the road to the base sentry gate. Matt pointed out where the planes would have been parked, camouflaged by trees.

We walked the foundations of the 547th Squadron’s barracks, the site of the movie theater and officers’ club and, in the distance, the operations block where the air crews had their briefings.

547th Squadron barracks
Parking
‘Now showing’ … the movie theatre
Operations block in distance

My father and his navigator, Ted Gore, were the youngest in his crew. In between bombing raids, they flew submarine patrols, food drops and weather missions. It’s easy to imagine the periods of waiting, when they occupied themselves with routine chores, movies, visits to the local pub and constant pranks. It’s a bit harder to put myself in the cockpit of a B-17, although I feel a rush of adrenaline thinking about how it must’ve been.

The crew: Pilot Lawrence E. Thurston, Co-Pilot Eugene Leonard Solomon, Navigator Theodore T. Gore, Togglier (bombardier) Robert Lee Wilkinson, Radio Operator/Gunner William O. King, Engineer/Top Turret Gunner Oliver T. Larson, Ball Turret Gunner Elias S. Huron, Waist (Flexible) Gunner James Lindsay, Tail Gunner Ralph Cauthen. My father is pictured top row, second from left. The other crew members are not pictured in order. If any readers can match names to faces, please get in touch in the comments.

Flight Officer Solomon was credited with two combat missions as co-pilot: Mission #315, on April 20, 1945, targeting the Railroad Marshalling Yards in Seddin, Germany, and Mission #316, on April 25, 1945, targeting the Skoda Armament Works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. On the latter mission, he co-piloted Hell’s Messenger with the 384th Bombardment Group (H), in the last strategic bombing mission of the war in Europe. The Sortie Report replicated on the 384th Bomb Group’s website states that ‘the 384th had the honor of dropping the final bombs of the war on Axis Targets’.

Veteran readers of this blog will be familiar with the friendly rivalry between B-17 and B-24 crews. I hope my 2d Air Division friends will forgive me for repeating the old quip told to me: that B-24s were the crate B-17s were delivered in. On a more sobering note, my father’s account of his final bombing raid is a vivid testament to the B-17’s legendary capability.

My father described his experience of that last air raid in an interview I did with him before he passed away:

The Germans knew they were coming and the ack-ack [anti-aircraft guns] was very, very heavy. The weather was very bad. The first time they tried to bomb, they couldn’t get a sight. They went in again but couldn’t see a thing. The squadron leader took them around a third time, and they came in at a different angle (in the meantime getting shot up like hell). There were enough breaks in the clouds for the bombardiers to get a sighting of the plant and “bombs away”—except in his airplane. The flak was so fierce that it cut the wires and their bombardier couldn’t release the bombs. You can never land with bombs; they’ll blow you up. They were flying “hot camera”, taking pictures of the bomb hits, so they didn’t have a ball turret gunner. Ted [their navigator] figured out where they were—over a train marshalling yard—and his engineer and bombardier went back to the open bomb bays at 25,000 feet, without parachutes, and kicked all the bombs out of the plane. The bombs had already been armed—there was no way of disarming them. As they left the target they were flying on another guy’s wing, and he got shot up and lost control of his plane. He recovered but slid into them. My father yelled over to Red [his co-pilot] “Let me have it!” and he grabbed the wheel and sucked the airplane up and the other plane slid under them. The tail gunner was screaming. If it had hit, they would’ve both gone down. The flight was about 10 hours and 40 minutes—the longest flight a B-17 had ever made. When they got back to England, as they were landing, one of the engines cut out, no gas. You can “slow fly” a B-17 at 75 or 80 mph and slowly lose altitude. They were glad to get back home.

Dad stayed in close touch with his navigator, Ted Gore, all their lives. He never forgot his crew, along with the nearly 2,100 men and women it took to keep the Flying Fortresses and crews in the air: the nurses, doctors, mechanics, armorers, ground crews and other support units. While we owe more than we can repay to the bravery of these young men who risked and often lost their lives, it’s also right to reflect on the death and destruction caused by such powerful bombs. The air crews were part of a concerted and successful effort to halt the murderous spread of Nazism, at great cost. At a young age, they faced a painful moral calculus (conscious or not) that no doubt took its toll on them.

After VE Day on May 8, 1945, Flight Officer Solomon would be assigned to occupation duty in Germany and other missions, which I’ll cover in a later post.

The 384th Bomb Group has been an invaluable resource, from connecting me with the gracious Matt Smith to providing a wealth of information and access to digitized archival materials: https://384thbombgroup.com. Many thanks to all involved, especially Matt and Memorial Site Supervisor Kevin Flecknor.

The American Library and the Second Air Division Memorial Trust have also been a wonderful resource, both in my family research as well as in supporting my PhD in creative and critical writing with the UEA American Library Scholarship. I’m grateful to the Governors, Trust Librarian Orla Kennelly, and my library colleagues for their collegiality and support.

My father passed away in 2009 and never knew that I had moved to England or visited his airbase, but I felt very near to him as I walked in his footsteps. I’m certain he wouldn’t at all have been surprised to find me there. 

—post by Suzanne Solomon

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The Death Recorder

Twenty years later, I can still smell the charged electrical burn of the pile as I walked by it, weeks after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The last standing piece of the twin towers, the braided steel facade known as the shroud, rose from the wreckage. NYPD officers were corralling tourists on Lower Broadway, urging them away from what was now a mass grave. As a New Yorker, I understood the pull—the incomprehension at a vast absence where there was once a living, vibrant presence, at one moment a teeming plaza, busy offices stacked up to the sky, the next, a pile of still smoking rubble, a void.

I was on my way to a training for the legal first responders of 9/11: a group of volunteer attorneys mobilized to help the victims’ families negotiate the grim bureaucratic gauntlet such a mass disaster presents. New York had initiated an emergency procedure for recording these unprecedented deaths, since ordinarily the family of a missing person (for that’s what their loved ones were, in the absence of a body) would have to wait three years before asking a court to issue a death certificate. The next of kin would still have to complete the paperwork to prove that their relative—spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent or sibling—had been at the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, but they now had the option of requesting what was known as an expedited death certificate. 

My colleagues and I would be working with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office to provide the legal documentation the families needed to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives: to apply for emergency cash grants, file for social security and insurance benefits, initiate probate proceedings, plan funerals. (There were other sources of assistance available to those without legal next of kin status, such as domestic partners.) The staff of the Medical Examiner’s office would concurrently be working—as they still are, to this day—to identify victims through DNA analysis of remains recovered at the scene. The City of New York set up a Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on the Hudson River to process these thousands of deaths and assist the families of first responders, office, restaurant and building workers, air crews and passengers. There were booths with representatives from federal, state and local agencies, companies that had employed people killed in the attacks, nonprofit and charitable organizations, trauma counselors, childcare facilities, a canteen, National Guard and New York City police and fire department personnel and, at our booths equipped with computer stations for the legal forms and resources we needed, the lawyers.

Our job was to interview family members so that we could record in affidavit form the information needed to issue an expedited death certificate. Names and birth dates and addresses. Biographical, family and employment details. We had to see the next of kin’s photo ID and proof of their relationship with the missing person, such as a marriage certificate or a child’s birth certificate. All of that paled next to the question that was crucial for stating the basis of their belief that their loved one was in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse: their last contact with the missing person and the details of that contact. The hurried goodbye as she rushed off to work. The phone call from his office on the 101st floor. It must have felt horribly insensitive, but more often than not the family members displayed grace, fortitude and patience.

One thing was not at issue: the manner of death. All the reported deaths of the 9/11 victims would be classified as homicides.

Working in disaster relief settings like this can be stressful and emotional, if also gratifying. My role was a small one, but such experiences tend to leave vivid impressions. Here are some of mine: 

The community liaison officers of the NYPD, who escorted the family members to our workstations. I ran into one of these cops years later, a compact woman with curly brown hair, a freckled nose and kind eyes. We recognized each other immediately, with the connection of people who have shared the aftermath of conflict. One evening, the officer saw me get up from my chair to trail after one of the family members, a new widow pregnant with her first child, as she made her way down the corridor to the next station. It was the end of my shift, but I felt helpless, wanting to do more for her, for all of them. But there wasn’t any more I could do. ‘Go home,’ the officer would say to me. ‘Get some rest.’ She knew the feeling. We’d be back again the next day, and the day after that.

The American Red Cross mental health counselor who was my partner, on hand to assist family members during the interview if needed. She gave me her Albany chapter Red Cross pin to remember her by. I would later honor that partnership by volunteering with the New York City chapter’s disaster response unit, doing emergency relief work after Superstorm Sandy and the Miracle on the Hudson, the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549. As a Red Cross volunteer, I would also attend memorial ceremonies for the families at Ground Zero when it was a construction site for the rising towers of the new World Trade Center.

What I recall as a surreal bus stop at Pier 94, a waiting area for families who would be ferried to the pile to see the spot where their loved ones drew their last breath. I still wonder if I imagined it.

The mounds of comfort donations. I was given a teddy bear by my Red Cross partner. Someone else was handing out moisturizer and lip balm, surprisingly useful for hours spent reciting legal requirements, eliciting information, apologizing for intruding on precious and private last moments to record the details needed for the death record. For years I kept these items, the smell and tactility of them evoking what memory had elided. 

But most of all, the gentle gratitude of these families faced with unimaginable loss, who only wanted their loved ones’ deaths to mean something so that in the future such tragedies could be prevented, sparing others their bottomless pit of grief.

—post by Suzanne Solomon

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This Golden Land

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Perhaps nowhere is the dream and myth of immigration so potent as in America, the Golden Land, Di Goldene Medine, as it was called by the Eastern European Jews who migrated there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the beginning, America declared itself a country of immigrants, our national motto E pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one.’ In New York Harbor, those who entered by way of Ellis Island (which would process over twelve million immigrants in its history) were greeted at the end of their arduous journey by the Statue of Liberty:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’[1]

But as David Schearl experiences in Henry Roth’s 1934 semi-autobiographical novel, Call It Sleep, about a Jewish immigrant family arriving in New York City in 1907, the difficulty of the journey doesn’t end there. Lady Liberty may be welcoming, but she is also forbidding:

And before them, rising on her high pedestal from the scaling swarmy brilliance of sunlit water to the west, Liberty. The spinning disk of the late afternoon sun slanted behind her, and to those on board who gazed, her features were charred with shadow, her depths exhausted, her masses ironed to one single plane. Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword.

There may be opportunity in this Golden Land, but there is also the crucible of assimilating in America’s melting pot, of honoring the old customs while adjusting to the new. In the young protagonist’s case, there is the additional trial of forming an identity separate from his beloved mother and violent father, of negotiating the rough, poor environs of New York’s Lower East Side. As a New York Times reviewer put it: ‘Quarrelsome grown‐ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat‐infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David’s father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail.’

It’s the child’s eye view that is so consuming and alive in this book, a tour de force narration from the perspective of eight-year-old David. The author uses a striking multi-lingual technique which replicates (in English) the different languages that signify the boy’s divided world. At home, his parents speak an eloquent and expressive Yiddish; on the street, with its clash of cultures, Roth employs a pungent immigrant patois. His characters and the Schearl’s New York City environs are vividly drawn. This impressionistic journey of a boy trying to make sense of an adult world, of the safety and restraints of tradition, of what happens when the ‘huddled masses’ are pressed together in dire conditions yet manage, somehow, to thrive in a tarnished Golden Land, is unforgettable. As David’s mother says to the rabbi: ‘[A]s for learning what it means to be a Jew, I think he knows how hard that is already.’ 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Where Call It Sleep creates a world from two years of an immigrant family’s life on a New York City block, Annie Proulx’s sweeping epic Barkskins, published in 2016, spans three centuries and the North American continent, with stops in Europe, Asia and Australia, beginning in New France in 1693. Proulx writes of a different kind of immigrant encounter: that of the natural world with the European settlers who would explore, extract, exploit and ultimately destroy it. These first encounters were not auspicious for the indigenous tribes living and hunting in the vast forests, attuned to and stewards of the trees’ interconnected web of life, nor for the forests themselves, which were uprooted, cut, burned and cleared to satisfy the new inhabitants’ bottomless thirst for land and lumber. 

René Sel and Charles Duquet (later Anglicized as Duke) came to the forests of what is now Canada as indentured laborers (habitants) meant to clear and populate New France. Their new seigneur lays down the settler’s manifesto early on: ‘Men must change this land in order to live in it.’ Sel will marry an indigenous Mi’kmaq woman and raise a métis (mixed blood) family on his land grant. Charles Duquet will become a lumber baron, his descendants the owners and extractors of forests that René Sel’s descendants will log.

The rising and sinking fortunes of each family will mirror the rise of the French and English colonies and the new United States as they consume what they believe to be limitless forests, displacing the indigenous tribes who have no cultural conception of ownership. The tribes will be forced to adapt to the white man’s ways in order to survive. Like Roth, Proulx uses a multilingual technique to convey her characters’ divided worlds, adding liberal spatters of French, Dutch and Mi’kmaq to flavor the narrative. Their lives are often cut short by disease, violence, drowning, fire, and logging accidents. But it’s the forests whose ebbing life is chronicled here that are the living heart of Barkskins. Proulx’s book is a cri de cœur for a dying ecosystem.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] From The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883).

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