Saturday, December 6, 2014

Dixie Peaches and Cotton

National Infantry Museum, Fort Benning, GA
Late last summer as we were headed to our winter volunteer positions at Lake Woodruff NWR, we hugged the southeastern edge of Georgia beginning with Savannah. Now, on our way back to Wisconsin, we clipped the southwestern corner of the state with a singular mission in mind. We found parking at Florence Marina SP, GA to be most convenient for our short stay.

our site at Florence Marina State Park
In 1967, Tom was assigned to the Army’s Scout Dog School at Fort Benning. Following his training and tour in Vietnam, he was re-assigned (actually volunteered for) to the Scout Dog School. The school was looking for experienced combat dog handlers to serve as instructors and given Tom’s experiences in Vietnam, he fit the bill to a "T".
The last time Tom saw Fort Benning was on April 9, 1970, in the rear view mirror of his MGB. Fast forward to 2014 and time for a return visit.

training group at Fort Benning early '70; Tom and Royal, RVN '68
Since leaving Fort Benning in 1970, Tom has managed to stay in touch with some of his fellow veterans and dog handlers. At first through the early days of email and a listserv (VWAR-L), then via the world wide web when he constructed a web site dedicated to his old scout dog unit in Vietnam, the 48th IPSD. As a founding member of the Vietnam Dog Handler Association he was able to get in touch with handlers from other units. But suddenly, in just a few years, Tom will be celebrating his 50th anniversary of having served in Vietnam. Being so close, it seemed like an opportune time to revisit Benning.
Adjacent to the city of Columbus in southwest Georgia, the fort was established in 1918. Named after Brigadier General Henry L. Benning, Camp Benning initially provided basic training for World War I units. Declared a permanent military post in 1920, the post was renamed Fort Benning in 1922. It has served as the home of Army Infantry since its inception and it’s been going strong ever since.

the Americal Division and its three brigades (Tom was in the 196th)
Today, Fort Benning is home to the United States Armor School, United States Infantry School, the 75th Ranger Regiment (3rd Brigade - 3rd Infantry Division), Officers Candidate School, Non-commissioned Officers Academy, the Airborne School, and other tenant units. It’s been used in movies like the The Green Berets (a completely laughable depiction of special forces, IMHO) and We Were Soldiers, a very well done depiction of when the Eleventh Air Assault Division was formed at Fort Benning (1963) to test the concept of "air assault." Those tests resulted in the creation of the airmobile concept adopted by the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam, first tested at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. 
A bit of trivia: the VC village set used in filming The Green Berets was left standing and used during scout dog training (about the only useful result that came out of that film).

parade ground behind the National Infantry Museum
A lot had changed since April 1970. Most striking was the new National Infantry Museum and grounds which houses thousands of unique artifacts relating to the U.S. Infantry's role in shaping the nation's history by way of several immersive experiences. It also serves as the venue for graduating classes of basic trainees (a graduation nearly every Thursday and Friday).
As we arrived, a freshly minted class had just finished up its graduation ceremony. Lots of young, eager faces with beaming proud relatives. But Tom couldn't shake an eerie feeling of Déjà vu. Seeing these bright faces came not without some trepidation and concern on our part about a possible fate that awaits some of these young graduates given the violence in today’s world.
On a cheerier note, a light lunch at the Fife and Drum Restaurant turned out to be quite tasty. Not at all what Tom remembered being served up in the scout dog school mess hall from the late 60’s (although once a month he had steaks and beer - pretty radical for an Army mess hall at that time).
Driving onto the base was easy. We simply showed a valid ID (drivers license) for each of us, then we were off and running, trying to relocate some familiar landmarks from the past.

former headquarters and billet for the scout dog school
Sacrifice Field military dog memorial - Royal's (KIA) notation
The post is large, encompassing 287 square miles of Chattahoochee and Muscogee counties. There are four large sections of the base positioned fairly close together: Main Post, Kelley Hill, Harmony Church, and Sand Hill. While much of the field training took place away from Main Post, it was here that the barracks, scout dog school headquarters and the main kennels were located. Main Post is also where Tom lectured at Infantry Hall, instructing both officers and non-commissioned officers on the proper use and deployment of scout dog teams. There was the occasional lecture given to classes of Army Rangers. Although Rangers didn’t typically use dog teams in Vietnam, a commanding officer of a scout dog unit was always required to be Ranger qualified.
Sacrifice Field contained several monuments dedicated to various military units to honor those who sacrificed all. One such monument honored all KIA dogs regardless of their branch of service.

While it was hard to find the memorial at first (lots of new roads going every which way), it was gratifying to finally see it in person after seeing photos online. It consists of several small pedestals noting various dog units surrounding a central bronze statue of a handler and dog. That it exists at all is due mainly to the tireless efforts of senior retired NCO, Jesse Mendez. It was Sergeant First Class Mendez, who in 1969 with a 58-pound German Shepard named "Pal", made the first ever free-fall parachute drop.
Of interest to some might be this thesis "The Contribution of the American Military Working Dog in Vietnam" outlining the effective contributions made by military working dogs and their handlers. While Tom was a Scout Dog Handler, at the time of the Vietnam War, there were also Combat Tracker Units as well as Sentry Dogs. Ever since the end of World War II, the military has typically disbanded dog units as conflicts cease (with the exception of Sentry Dogs which are used by Military Police). However, with both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of military working dogs has expanded once again...
Tom hardly recognized the old Infantry School building, now expanded to three times its original size and renamed “Maneuver Center of Excellence” (a nod to the inclusion of the armor school some say).
We can highly recommend a visit to the museum if you’re ever in the area…but for Tom, this was a nostalgic trip down memory lane which he need not repeat (although we should have spent more time at the museum).

one small section of Fort Mitchell National Cemetery
Crossing over into Alabama we found Fort Mitchell National Cemetery near Fort Mitchell, AL which was originally a garrisoned fort intended to provide defense for the area during the Creek War (1813-1814). The cemetery was established in 1987 for the interment of all U.S. veterans. Of more historical significance to us was that Fort Mitchell was used as central to the protection of Native Americans whenever settlers consistently invaded the Creek territory (protected Native American land under the terms of the 1814 Treaty of Fort Jackson). However, in spite of government protection, white trespassers continued to aggressively assert themselves. Desperation reached a crisis point when in the spring of 1836, under the leadership of Chief Eneah-Mathla, an estimated 1,500 warriors attacked and attempted to expel the illegal white settlements. General Winfield Scott was ordered to intervene and succeeded in overcoming the attack. By July 1836, an estimated 1,600 Creek people were concentrated at Fort Mitchell in preparation for a forced expulsion West. Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 were eventually marched from Fort Mitchell to Montgomery, AL, “shedding tears and making the most bitter wailings.” (the Trail of Tears).

our site at DeSoto State Park
three of the four kit foxes
While we were in Carrebelle, Florida having breakfast at the “2 Als” restaurant, one of the Als suggested that we check out DeSoto State Park near Fort Payne in Alabama’s northeast corner which was also near the Little River National Preserve.
DeSoto State Park was established in 1934 (and expanded in 1939) primarily through work done by the CCC. Little River NP was designated part of the National Parks System in 1992, so it was a fairly recent acquisition.
DeSoto SP had expansive campsites with ample room to spread out. Full hookups, cable TV, and fire pits. The park has rustic cabins, chalets, motel-like rooms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool, none of which appealed to us. Instead we were drawn to exploring some of the 15 miles of trails and boardwalks that wound through dense woodland peppered with streams and water falls. Hike highlights included finding lots of wildflowers and shrubs in bloom, plus a family of red fox that didn’t seem to mind our presence as they romped and tussled (under the watchful eye of their mom).

Little River Canyon
As much as we enjoyed the state park, it was the Little River Canyon that took up a lot of our time. We began with the Little River Canyon Center, a Jacksonville State University property with a portion of its land leased to the National Park Service and partially staffed by Little River Canyon National Preserve personnel. The facility features a Grand Hall, HD movie theater, gift shop, natural history library, exhibits, classrooms, back deck, outdoor amphitheater and trails for both education and adventure. Open to the public since 2009, it features a regular schedule of programs that include concerts, workshops, hikes, lectures, and other activities for students of all ages. The building itself is educational as it is a LEED (Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Certified structure that utilizes geothermal heating and cooling, recycled materials, added insulation and many other innovative and sustainable design elements.

The Little River is the only river in the United States that begins and ends on a mountain top (Lookout Mountain) as it flows through the most extensive canyon and gorge system in the eastern United States which extends from northwest Georgia to northeast Alabama.

The preserve protects 14,000 acres of the 199-mile Little River watershed which includes DeSoto State Park. This makes for an interesting three-way partnership between Federal, state and university entities.
The main attraction for most visitors, aside from the many hiking and kayaking opportunities, is an 11-mile long scenic drive starting near the park’s headquarters to the north and winding along the west side of the canyon with several places to park and overlook the river.

Historically speaking, the area was home to the Chickamauga Cheyenne prior to the  tragic Trail of Tears (a series of forced relocations of Native American nations in the United States following the Indian Removal Act of 1830) and later the scene of a few epic Civil War battles.
The preserve serves to protect a handful of endangered plants and animals. Green Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia oreophila), Harperella (Ptilimnium nodsoum), a rare perennial herb also known as Bishops Weed, Kral’s Water Plantain (Sagittaria secundifolia), Gray Bat (Myotis grisecens) and Blue Shiner (Cyprinella caerulea), a ray-finned fish found in Little River.
Fort Payne, we learned is the birthplace of the southern rock band, Alabama. The band was formed by guitarists Randy Owen and Jeff Cook, and bassist Teddy Gentry, three cousins born and raised near Fort Payne. Beginning in 1982 and continuing until 1997, the band sponsored the June Jam, a music festival in Fort Payne, which at its peak drew 60,000 fans and raised millions for local charities. The group also held "Fan Appreciation Days," weekend events that included a golf tournament and a songwriters concert that raised money for charities in Fort Payne. Owen spearheaded "Country Cares for Kids," an annual country radiothon that has raised over $70 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. There’s a huge Alabama fan club museum in town (although we never found the time to visit).
Sunday the 27th we again closed up the RV and continued our northward travel. Heading into Mississippi we had a short and uneventful overnight at Corinth RV Park, Corinth, MS with an eye to reach southern Illinois by the following afternoon where we hoped to catch up with what seems to have become an annual get together with the Smiths at the Hill Top RV park outside Goreville, IL.

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