Monday, July 30, 2012

The Marines got it right!

Return of the Model 1911

The US Marine Corps has not always led the way on new weapons procurement.  In the past they have often been slow to adopt newer systems long after their comrades in the US Army have done so. 

 Recently, the Marines have broken that trend and abandoned the 9mm Berretta M9 pistol that was adopted in the mid 1980s.  Instead of a newer 9mm, they have wisely brought back the venerable old .45 cal Colt Model 1911. 

The Colt has already had a sterling career that spanned eight decades.  Some background first:  During the Philippine Insurrection the US military became dissatisfied with their Colt Model 1892 .38 caliber revolvers.  They just did not have the knock down power needed against the drugged up Moro Islamic guerillas that they faced in the Philippines.  In 1904 the Army began a search for a new service pistol.  Seven different designs were submitted, each chambered for a new .45 ACP (Automatic Cartridge Pistol) cartridge that was to provide the punch needed to quickly put down any adversary.

Three of the designs had promise, but by 1910 the pistol designed by famed firearms designer John Browning won out.  His pistol survived a grueling two-day, 6,000 round test without a single malfunction.  When the gun grew hot, it was immersed in a bucket of water to cool it down!  The Model 1911 .45 began full production in early 1912.

The Author's Colt Model 1911, made in 1913

The Model 1911 went on to be the finest semi-automatic pistol of World War I.  A few minor improvements were introduced in 1924 and the Model 1911A1 was born.   Five different makers built almost 2 million 1911A1s during World War II.  Production stopped in 1945, but the design was so practical and so robust, the same guns remained in service until the late 1980s.  (I carried many different .45s during my Army career, but the Union Switch and Signal version I was issued while in the 1st Infantry Division was my favorite.)

The 1911A1s were phased out in the 1980s for a new high capacity 9mm Berretta.  An Italian design but built in America; it never achieved any popularity with the soldiers and Marines who carried them.  Malfunctions, cracked frames and scant stopping power added to the disfavor.  Lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan gun battles prompted some Special Ops units to ditch their Berettas and buy commercial .45s to take into combat.  It seems the 9mm (same diameter bullet as the old .38) did not always have the knock down power to stop a doped up al-Qaeda or Taliban Islamic terrorist. (Is this sounding familiar?)

On July 20, 2012 the US Marine Corps contracted with Colt Industries to produce as many as 12,000 new M45 pistols.  The M45 has a few improvements over the old M1911A1 (tan finish, accessory rail, night sights, extended safety lever etc.)  However the base design remains the same as those that came out of the Colt factory 100 years ago.

The New Marine Corps M45 Pistol

The contract is worth 22.5 million dollars and includes spare parts and a maintenance package.  $1,875 per pistol for the life of the contract!  That is over 100 times more expensive than those produced during World War I ($16 average price back then.) 

Now, lets see if the Army can play catch up and go back to the .45 like their Marine brothers.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou" will be published in March 2013

Huzzah! I finally signed my book contract Saturday July 28th Blue Water Publications for "The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou."   My thanks go to Scott Lyndon.  He introduced me to Angela Broyles of  Blue Water Publications.   And, an equally big thank you to Angela for her confidence in me, and the story of Ephraim Wright.

Angela would like a sequel as soon as possible, so I'll be parking the novel I have been working on ( The Archer's Son ) and moving from 15th Century England back to 19th Century Arkansas to finish "Poison Springs." "Poison Springs" will hopefully be the second of a three part series.

Stay tuned for news on the release of the print version next spring.

Now, where did I put that first chapter of Poison Springs that I wrote over a year ago?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Death Trap: American Pre-fab Pill Box

I'm posting this on my Iphone from Honolulu, so please excuse any unusual formatting!

I took these shots at the Fort deRussey Museum in Waikiki. This is a little known American item from early WWII. The intent was to mass produce an easy to place machine gun pill box for defense positions on Pacific islands. They were installed on American held Islands where there was a threat of Japanese landings. The cast steel turret rotated like a tank turret and provided 360 degree .30 caliber machine gun fire. They were buried up to the bottom the turret in expected enemy avenues of approach. The two man crew entered by way of a buried steel culvert several yards to the rear of the pill box. The culvert was the only means of escape should things go bad for the good guys.

I've seen these in place on Midway Island. They are still there, guarding against enemy invasions that never came. There were hundreds of others installed on American held islands.

To my knowledge, none of these ill-concieved death traps ever saw combat.

As an old Infantrman, I can say that manning one of these would have been considered a suicide mission. The turret will stop rifle, machine gun fire and grenade fragments. However, bazookas, shaped charges, and tanks would have opened this like tin can. A squirt of fuel from a flame thrower would drive the gunner out of the turret.

There was no way for the crew to defend itself from the rear or flanks. A grenade into the culvert would have collapsed the only way to safety.

The pill box in the picture was recovered from a defensive site on Oahu.

American Pre-Fabricated Pill Box on Display at the Fort DeRussy Museum in Waikiki

Diagram of How the Pill Box Was Installed

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Medieval Packhorses and Packhorse Bridges

Horses and oxen have been used to draw wheeled vehicles for thousands of years.  But even horses and oxen can't pull their loads unless they have relatively smooth dry roads to do so.  The Romans built wonderful roads, but when they left the British Isles in the 5th century, those roads fell into disrepair.  All through the dark ages and the medieval period most of the population of Britain relied on a patchwork of meandering trails and lanes across the country side to send and receive goods.  Only the new turnpikes of the 18th century brought the widespread use of wagons to transport goods to the hinterlands. 

By far the most practical way to transport goods during the medieval era was by packhorses.  The sure footed animals could carry immense loads balanced on their backs.  Grain, fodder, fleeces, cloth and other agricultural products streamed from the country side to English market towns.  Pots, tools, wine, weapons and other manufactured goods were packed back to to waiting buyers.   These ancient trade routes were often called "packhorse routes."

Where the horses could not ford the streams, the locals built bridges to allow easy access to their communities.  Most were wooden, but some were solidly built of local stone.

 Scores of those ancient packhorse bridges have survived.   Packhorse bridges consists of one or more narrow lanes (one horse wide) over masonry arches.  They have low parapets so as not to interfere with the horse's panniers or side bags. 

 I was fascinated by these little (some not so little) bridges during my trips to Great Britain.  The little packhorse bridge in Altarnon, Cornwall is my favorite.  It is just wide enough to allow one horse to go over.  This bridge is mentioned several times in my novel The Archer's Son which is set in Altarnon in 1415. (I'm nearing completion of the first draft of this book.)

The Packhorse Bridge in Altarnon spans the little stream of Penpont Water.

One lane wide over the Altarnon Packhorse Bridge
St. Nonna's Church in the background

Clun Packhorse Bridge was built over the River Clun in the 14th century.  Most of its stone came from nearby Clun Castle, built by the Normans.  The castle was intended to guard the English frontier from the marauding Welsh.  But when the castle fell into disrepair in the 14th century, most of its stone was carried away.  A modern road now crosses this bridge.  One car at a time please!

Packhorse Bridge over the River Clun.  The stone was taken from nearby Clun Castle

The River Tamar separates the counties of Devonshire and Cornwall.  My company of archers in The Archer's Son, fords the river at this spot during their march to Plymouth Town to take shipping for France.   Local monks built the bridge here in 1437.  It is larger than most.  Horses can pass each other with ease (The monastery derived income from the bridge by charging a toll.).  It is still used today, but is a one-lane bridge for motor traffic.  We had to drive some of the original packhorse lanes to get to this isolated spot.  The lanes are now paved, but just wide enough for one vehicle.   No shoulders and the lanes usually had 3 - 5 feet tall hedge rows on each side.  We had to back up several times to let other traffic pass!  The bridge is built with "refuges" on the side where pedestrians can move out of the way of oncoming traffic. 

This packhorse bridge is still known as "Horsebridge" as is the little community around it.  It was built in 1437 over the River Tamar

This is a two lane horsebridge (single lane for modern traffic)
Notice the "refuge" that Miss Phyllis is standing in.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Medieval Underwear! 

Who'd a thunk it?

Very often we assume that certain material goods were not available in past times, simply because nothing has survived to suggest or prove existence.  This is especially true at pre-historic archaeological sites as very few organic artifacts ("organics" as we call them in the trade) survive centuries in the soil.  But, something has come to light from the floor boards of an Austrian castle that has turned medieval fashion experts on their collective ears!  UNDERWEAR! 

Even ladies of wealth and station were thought to have their nether regions well ventilated, just because no real examples of underwear from this era were thought to have survived, until now.  See the link below:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Goosebumps and Gravestones

In addition to some great family stories, an inspiration for my book, "The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou," are The Slave Narratives.  These are transcribed interviews with ex-slaves that were done by the Federal Government in the early 1930s.  2,194 such interviews were conducted.  My home state of Arkansas had the largest number of interviews at 677.  I read many of the interviews before I realized that there was a search engine for the entire collection.  I had already developed characters for my book, including a young slave man who was a lay preacher.  This character was important because of his spiritual influence on my protagonist. 

I searched the collection and, to my surprise and delight, found the names of three slaves who were actually owned by Dr. William Cogswell Hazen, a historical character in the story.  It was almost like finding a needle in a haystack, and I had found three of them!  One of these was Israel Thomas, and my young lay-preacher was soon christened "Israel" in the pages of the book.

Grave of Rev Israel G. Thomas
Fast forward several months and my first opportunity to visit the old Hazen farm near Wattensaw Bayou (and now inside the town of Hazen, Arkansas.)  With Geological Survey maps of the area, I was looking for cemeteries, specifically those on the old Hazen property.  The first that I located on the ground was small, maybe 2 acres.  The front held recent burials, but older plots dotted the back of it.  There were many unmarked graves, and it was not long before I realized it was an African American cemetery.  You can imagine my surprise when I found the marker in this photo.  It took me a moment to realize that this was "my" Israel.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I got the proverbial goose bumps up my arms!

Israel was a preacher, just as I had fictionalized him in my novel.  Later research told me that he founded the first Freedman's church in the new town of Hazen, Arkansas soon after the end of the War.  I am still moved by this discovery.

Both of the other "Hazen" slaves that I found in the slave narratives are buried in the same poorly maintained cemetery.  Their stories will come another time.  It is almost like they have been waiting there all these years for someone to come and find them, in the narratives and in their graves.

"A writer must have a blog!"  I've heard this many times over the last few years, from many different people.  I tried my best to ignore the advice.  I've seen too many blogs where the author has abandoned the effort, posts infrequently or just rambles about day-to-day personal things that do not interest me.  How could I find time or inspiration to post meaningful content with any regularity? 

Besides, am I a writer?  Do I have any right to pretend that I can hold such an auspicious title?  In the end, others will have to answer that question.

I can call myself other things.  I was a soldier for many years, and still consider myself a "grunt" in my heart.

I am a historian, but my BA in history does not give me the right to claim the title.  Years of research and writing articles for various magazines and publications, and several years as an Army historian grants that nomenclature.  Notice I mentioned writing.  To be a historian, one must be able to take the data that one has mined from the archives and impart it effectively to others.  It doesn't count if you keep it to yourself.  The historian's vehicle for interpreting his research is by writing.  But I don't think a historian is necessarily a "writer."
Toton Island Archaeological Survey, 2000

I am an archaeologist.  Again my MA in archaeology gives scant credence to the title.  But, my time in field (albeit limited) gives me leave to call myself an archaeologist.  I don't think I embraced the title myself until I brushed the sand from the empty eye sockets of a Japanese skull in the first burial I helped to recover.  The writing I may do that is associated with archaeology, does not make me a writer. It makes me a better archaeologist.

Now I've embarked on a new course where someday I may feel comfortable calling myself a "writer."  I've started writing historical fiction.  That is the only genre of fiction in which I will ever have an interest.   Vampires, wizards, dragons or zombies will never live on any of my pages.  The best stories are based on reality - ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.   History will never run out of stories to fire my imagination.

I finished my first novel, The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou in 2010.  Events have occurred that give me hope that it may be in print soon.    You can read more about The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou here:

I'm nearing completion of The Archer's Son.  This is the story of a young boy who accompanies a company of archers on Henry Vs famous march into France during the Hundred Years War.  It culminates is the bloody battle of Agincourt.

Some writers I know say that they must write.  It is in their blood and they cannot help but write.  I've never thought that.  In fact I did not think I could ever produce enough to fill a blog such as this.  Angela Broyles of Blue Water Publications finally convinced me that I could do so.  I realized after we talked, that I write all the time.  I share history, travel, artifact, historic site and archaeological information almost daily.  I do it through private email, work emails, Facebook and other social media.  Why couldn't I focus that writing energy on a blog instead? 

So this is the first installment.  Lets see if I can do it and where it will take us.  This blog will have spots on many past eras (hence the name,) and may include stories, places, historical sites, artifacts from many places and times.  I will also share tidbits of information that I uncover when researching and writing (there's that word again) my books and articles.  I hope you enjoy it and visit often. 

M.E. Hubbs
July 14, 2012
Huntsville Alabama