Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Human Rights Up Close

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was drafted to serve as a standard for human rights  throughout the world, those being things like the right to life, the right to education, the right to work, and the right to peaceful assembly. The document also sets out freedom of expression, freedom of religion, injunctions against torture and inhumane punishment, the recognition that all humans are born with dignity, and right of humans to live in a peaceful environment.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was borne out of a response to some of most blatant human rights violations that took place during World War II. The most obvious atrocities were committed as part of the Holocaust, the Nazis' plan to eliminate and enslave millions of people because of their nationality and create a new Europe. The Nazis killed over six million people during the war, the majority of them Jews. I was able to get an idea of the horrors of the Holocaust while visiting Auschwitz, the infamous death camp, in Poland. That trip had a profound effect on me and has opened my eyes to why we need to advocate for human rights everywhere.

I took a tour of Auschwitz in 2004 while visiting Krakow, Poland. The tour started with Auschwitz I, which was used to hold Polish POWs but today the camp is now a museum about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. What I remember most vividly about that place is the piles of stuff from Auschwitz victims: shoes, luggage, plates and cups, prosthetic limbs, glasses, and human hair. The next stop on the tour was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the death camp where Jews were sent to be gassed to death and then cremated.

This part was the hardest for me to take in. I remember seeing the toilets, where people slept, and, of course, the gas chambers. There is not much of the gas chambers because the Nazis tried to blow them up before the Russian advance into the area. However, what got me is that there are still thousands of little pieces of bones on the ground that came out of the ashes from the crematoria. There was so many that I couldn't keep myself from stepping on them.

My experience at Auschwitz ignited a desire in me to see that people never have to go through that again. That is why human rights are so important. If every person and every country recognized the dignity, worth, and value of human beings everywhere, the world would be a much different place.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Military Rations 101

This last month I got invited to participate in a workshop on the history of military rations. The class was divided into two parts essentially: the first part was a standard day of lecture and the second part was more of an experiential learning about military rations at the Idaho Military History Museum. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss the importance of getting troops fed and how logistics can make or break an armed force. The best part of the workshop was actually sampling different kinds of rations and being able to see how military rations have changed throughout the past.

The lecture part of the workshop focused on many different aspects of rations including what kinds there are, the importance of logistics, and how supply problems can hamper an army. As examples of that, our class took a deeper look at two military disasters that happened as a result of supply problems. These were Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, and the encirclement of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. We learned the difference between A, B, C, D, and K rations and discussed the significance of logistics and what it takes to get soldiers fed and equipped.

The second part of the workshop was more experiential. As one of the participants, I got to sample different types of military rations. This part of the workshop went through American military rations from the time of the Civil War up to the present. We started by being issued mess kits and sampled a reproduction of hard track along with beef jerky (instead of raw meat). We then looked at a variety of rations and canteens up through World War II and the present day. At our break, three museum volunteers cooked us up World War II-type rations which included spam and beans, corned beef hash, and canned peaches, all of which was actually pretty good.

After discussing rations up to the present time, we then broke open modern day MREs (meals ready to eat) and sampled the food. We used our heating element to warm up the main meal and then I tried to eat as much of the other foods included with it. All I can say about MREs is that they contain a lot of food and calories! The food is not bad at all and is actually pretty good. The entire class seemed to enjoy discovering what was in their MREs and trading all sorts of items with the people around them. To top it off, our professor broke open a 20-year old MRE and dared people to try it.

All in all it was a great time being introduced to military rations, sampling what soldiers in the field would have eaten, and learning about the importance of logistics and supplies in modern warfare!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Golden Spike Historic Site

On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad met at Promontory Point in Utah Territory to celebrate a remarkable engineering achievement: the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The government had named these two companies to build the railroad in 1862, and the race was on for the next seven years to see who could lay more track. Of course, the project was grueling and financial incentives lead to corruption and greed. Hastily build settlements, called boomtowns, sprang up along the way, and thousands of workers risked their lives to build it. However, the transcontinental railroad remains one of the most incredible feats of the nineteenth century.

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I stopped at Promontory Point in Utah at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. This site is located north of Salt Lake City, although it is not easily accessible from the main interstate and takes a bit of driving to get there. However, we discovered that is worth the effort to stop and see what there is to do. While visiting, we were able to see a special ranger program that brought together the two restored engines from the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific at the place they met back in 1869 and drove the golden spike in.

Besides these Steam Demonstrations, the Golden Spike National Historic Site puts on a special reenactment of the driving of the last spike every May 10th and on a weekly basis during the summer season. The visitor's center offers videos and exhibits, and there are a couple of auto tours. My dad and I enjoyed getting out to see rail beds from both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific where the two companies had done the grading in preparation for the tracks. This hike, known as the Big Fill Loop Trail, is easy and offers an interpretative brochure to learn more about how the railroad was built.

The transcontinental railroad changed the country and the American West in particular. It fostered an unprecedented amount of growth as towns sprang up all along the tracks and the amount of goods and people flowing back and forth increased dramatically. The railroad connected the East and the West like never before and spurred a new found sense of unity. If traveling in the area, be sure to stop and see this historic spot!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Celebrating Memorial Day

Memorial Day is one of my favorite holidays throughout the year, and it isn't just because of the multitude of cookouts and BBQs happening around me. Memorial Day is a time where we honor the veterans who have fought for the United States and those who have died in military service. The holiday actually began as a tradition after the American Civil War and it was called Decoration Day. Both Union and Confederate organizations began commemorating those who had died in the war. It was a time of placing flowers on graves, hearing speeches, and parades. Memorial Day was first celebrated in 1868 but it did not become an official holiday until after World War II.

Since many people get Memorial Day off of work and a three-day weekend, it is a time for weekend getaways, camping trips, and cookouts. However, it is always good to remind ourselves why we celebrate certain holidays throughout the year. To observe Memorial Day this year, I headed to the Idaho State Veteran's Cemetery. Ceremonies are held there on Memorial Day every year, and they are always attended by several hundreds of people. Because of the crowds this year, I missed the first part of the ceremony but enjoyed it nonetheless.

The ceremony was made up of several speeches in honor of our troops. It recognized the sacrifices made by our military and military families and recognized the veterans in attendance as well. Here are some pictures and videos from the ceremony:

One of the speeches honor the veterans and the fallen

The Flag flying at half mast over the Treasure Valley
The graves of Idaho veterans decorated for Memorial Day

The playing of taps
Twenty-one gun salute

P-51 Flyover

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

World War II Guns and Stuff

Not too long ago, I was invited to be part of a World War II weapons demonstration at the Idaho Military History Museum. This museum houses a great collection of artifacts from all the wars that the U.S. has participated in and highlights Idaho's contribution to those conflicts. For this particular evening, a class on U.S. military was getting a World War II weapons demonstration, and I got to tag along.

The first part of the evening was a talk about the weapons of World War II from three reenactors. The reenactors dressed up in period uniforms and discussed how weapons progressed between World War I and World War II. They included both German weapons, like the MG-42 and Luger, and Allied weapons like the M1 Garand, the M1 Carbine, the Thompson Sub-machine gun, and the B.A.R. The reenactors went through each weapon discussing what it was used for, what kind of ammunition it took, and it was fired.

The next part of the evening was getting a live demonstration of the weapons where the guns were taken outside and the reenactors fired off blank rounds.
Firing the M1 Garand

Loading the M1 Carbine
Loading the B.A.R.
Firing the German Maschinepistole
Overall, the evening was thoroughly enjoyable! It was great to see these vintage weapons in action and even get up close and personal with them!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Civil War Demonstration

A couple of weeks ago, I got a rare treat! I sat in on a military history class, and on that particular day, we got a Civil War demonstration. A Civil War reenactor came in and showed the class all sorts of equipment and clothing that soldiers used. The reenactor was dressed much the same as a typical soldier and gave a lot of information about the war and the typical life of a solider. Then, afterwards, the class was invited to come up to look at the gear and ask the reenactor more questions. Presentations like that really make history come alive, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The reenactor brought of lot of gear that a Civil War solider would have used. He brought in two muzzle-loading muskets, one a smooth bore and the other a rifled musket. He explained how the soldiers would have loaded their rifles using cartridges, percussion caps, and ramrods. Of course, there weren’t any live firing in the classroom! The reenactor also brought and passed around Minie balls and rounded bullets for smooth bore rifles.  He also showed us a cavalry saber, a side arm that a cavalry soldier would have carried, and an example of a timed shell that an artillery piece would have fired.

Moreover, the reenactor brought much of the gear that a Civil War soldier would have carried, including a bayonet, a cartridge belt, a canteen, a blanket roll, and a pack.  The reenactor also brought various clothes including jackets and hats that a soldier would wear. He also spent a lot of time answering questions but the class. It was much different than a normal lecture about the Civil War would be. The best part of the presentation was at the end where the class was invited to come up and check out the gear and ask more questions. I got to pick up the rifled musket and it came up to my chin!

Overall, I really enjoyed the presentation! I’m glad the professor of the class brought in the reenactor to give us a whole new perspective on the Civil War. It was much better than a standard lecture with a bunch of facts. I think that more history courses need to incorporate reenactors because they really make history more fascinating. I believe that more people would enjoy history if classes were that awesome!