Battlefield Shrugged

Military History

I had a heated discussion with a good friend the other day. I asked her to watch a video I shot in Shiloh, Tennessee about the Sesquicentennial ceremony of that epic Civil War battle. The response that I got caught me by surprise: “you know, one of my best friends is black, and all this talk about the Civil War is making me uncomfortable”. I began to feel angry, determining that she assumed, because I am a native Nashvillian, my perspective would be of a neo-Confederate in regards to my interest in that war. Having lived outside of the region for many years, I am well aware of stereotypes many people have about Southerners, especially if they have never spent much time in the region – or at least in Nashville. But I thought she knew me better than that. Originally from Michigan, this transplant has lived in Nashville since high school.

It wasn’t until 1993 (in my mid 30’s) that I had ever read anything about the American Civil War for pleasure. In hindsight, it occurred to me that I had never been taught anything about the Battle of Nashville in school, and this has been confirmed by many people who grew up in this city.


In December of 93′ I volunteered for one last deployment with the Tennessee Air National Guard. With the down-sizing of the United States active duty military following the collapse of the Soviet Union, National Guard units were getting squeezed harder to do more of the “real world” military operations. My brother Britt was very ill, and I had spent too much time away from my young family over the last few years. I decided 14 years was enough and I would leave the service after one final mission. It would be a 30 day operation based out of Germany to air-lift aid to Bosnia and Herzegovina: Operation Provide Promise under the command of the United Nations (UNHCR).

Hearing of my plans, my brother Blake suggested I should read ‘The Decisive Battle of Nashville’ by Stanley Horn which he gifted me for Christmas of that year. I did could hardly put the book down. It came alive to me, clearly visualizing the geographical description and typography of every single troop movement. Growing up on top of most of the vast expanse of the battlefield, I would never look at west and south Nashville the same way again. It also occurred to me that the battle tactics used by the US Army in 1864 were identical to the strategy that we used in Operation Desert Storm only three years prior. But what stuck me as most ironic, was that I was getting ready to deploy to assist with humanitarian relief operations in another civil war that also involved issues of race and ethnicity. At the time, I knew little about either of those two events.

I was reminded of a discussion I had with a British Naval Officer from Scotland a few years before this. He knew more about the American Civil War than I did, to my embarrassment. I also recalled him almost falling off his bar stool when I told him I was “Scotch-Irish”. He responded: “Damn it man, scotch is what you drink…and forget about the Irish part of it!” He latter shared a very emotional story about his first taste of war aboard the HMS Sheffield in the Faulkin Islands War in 1982. For the first time in my life, I began to consider the study of history might have some practical use in the present.

After my experience in Bosnia, I began to research my own country’s Civil War. One rainy Saturday, I decided to take my two young sons to the Carter House Museum in Franklin, Tennessee. Following the tour, I asked the curator, Thomas Cartwright, how I would go about researching my own family connection. All I knew was that I had a Confederate soldier by the name of Walter Scott Bearden; my maternal Grandfather’s paternal Grandfather. Thomas pulled out a reference book and determined that he was an officer in the 41st Tennessee out of Bedford County. He also knew that they had been part of Brig. General Strahl’s Brigade during the Battle of Franklin, which was almost completely wiped out, including the death of General Strahl.

This peaked my interest in running Lt. Bearden’s biography down leading me from battle to battle, through almost every major conflict in the Western Theater of the American Civil War. I found that my ancestor had been wounded twice in The Battle of Atlanta, the second wound in the upper-thigh (usually fatal),  leading a rear-guard action out of Atlanta near Jonesboro, Georgia. He would have been presumed to have been beyond help, but a particular nurse from Shelbyville, Tennessee took a special interest in the young Lieutenant. He survived, and they married after the war. Walter S. Bearden practiced law and was a Circuit Judge in Middle Tennessee for many years. He also was very involved with his former Sargent Sumner Archibald Cunningham in the publishing and circulation of The Confederate Veteran Magazine, a collection of Confederate stories of the war. He also was one of the keynote speakers at the dedication of the Confederate monument in the Franklin City Square around the turn of the 20th Century.

Jet Training

VT-10 Squadron , Pensacola Field 1982

Basic & Intermediate Naval Flight Officer (NFO) Training 

I was commissioned a US Navy Ensign October 15, 1982. My mother, father, brother Britt and fiancé came down for the graduation. One of my inspirations for this journey was Lt. (j.g.) Richard M. Kinney, Jr. who came over from NAS Jacksonville to attend the event. Rick had recently received his “wings of gold”, and was training on the P-3C Orion in Jacksonville, Florida. Rick had always told me: “If I can do it, you can do it”, and I believed him. It’s what I needed, and what kept me going.


At this point in our flight training syllabus, we were merged with flight students of the United States Military Academy at Annapolis, Maryland and NROTC students from various colleges all over the country. We also had our first female classmates, some of the first in the history of the country. The academics were fast and furious, but at least we didn’t have the drill instructors tripping us up, more than four hours of sleep, and a nice apartment off base to go home to. As typical, my academics were marginal at first in this phase of training, but I begin to get into a rhythm, I joined a study group, learned to move past hard questions, coming back to them later, and most importantly not changing answers, unless I was sure of it!

Classes included the obvious courses in navigation, but essentially all the academics required for pilot ground school: meteorology, communications, air traffic control, et. al. After each written exam all test scores were posted in the passage way for anyone to see. Finally my class ranking was improving from to the next to last, to very near the top of approximately 30 junior officers.

As our education continued, we began to be introduced to the application of this knowledge-base to applied flight training, like how a G-force drains blood from the brain in a centrifuge, demonstrating the affects of how flickers of light can disorient the inner ear canals leading to disorientation, demonstrations of peripheral vision in low light. Fascinating! An education for once in applied science. This was beginning to be some fun after all.

Then came the day we were all yearning for: a ride in the back seat of a jet trainer capable of over 550 MPH at 25,000 feet.

B-4 Check-flight

Letter to Parents after B-4 Check-flight – 23 March 83

screen-shot-2014-12-24-at-10-21-57-am“I flew my B – 4 flight yesterday afternoon and did pretty well. I got an above average grade in my navigation hitting most all my turn points right on course. The only significant problem I had in the whole flight were my time estimates which were off due to a math error on my part (go figure). My pilot told me that the “hop” was above average and that I had good potential. I think this was the first flight so far that I really felt in control of everything and got a chance to call all the shots.

It was really something to bring that plane down. We started a decent from a cruising altitude of 25,000 feet, which was well above the cloud layer obscuring most of the Gulf Coast. That was really beautiful. It was just about sunset and the cloud layer looked like a huge amber quilt. Penetrating into the clouds was kind of creepy however. It seemed that instantly the clouds engulfed us and it got very dark immediately. I groped for the reo-stat control to my side and adjusted the instrument lights. It got bumpy and I felt my insides groan, but I kept my instrument scan checking airspeed, altitude, course, airspeed, altitude, course. Keying my helmet mic: “Approach Control Zero Foxtrot 27 leaving one-six thousand”. To instructor pilot: “Sir descend to 1200 feet…passing one 5000 feet… “Sir mark right heading zero niner zero… passing ten thousand…Sir mark right heading zero five zero” Approach: “Foxtrot 27 contact Sherman tower at the final approach fix with the gear” “Zero Fox 27 Roger, switching to the tower” “Sir slow to gear speed, standby for the landing checklist: fuel transfer-off, speed breaks-out, wheels-three down and locked, etc. “Tower Zero Foxtrot 27 final approach fix with the gear”. Tower: “Zero Foxtrot 27 is cleared to land on seven right, winds one two zero at twenty, altimeter 29.96”. “Zero Foxtrot 27 cleared on the right 29.96”.

Just about that time, we descended from 1200 feet and broke through the clouds, and there it was right on course – the beautiful blue approach lights of Sherman Field! “On glideslope… above glideslope… on speed… slightly fast… on glideslope… on speed… on glideslope… on speed etc. – touchdown”.

I never would have thought it possible. I’ll never forget thinking as we approached Denver International last May, how anyone could break through a layer of clouds just 1000 feet above the ground and land. We were also “crabbing” about 20 degrees to the right of the runway, due to the high wind speed. We’re on short-final looking over our left shoulder to look down the runway approach. It just didn’t seem possible – but it happened and it was great! 

Well, let’s hope I can pull it off again tomorrow when I am sure I will probably fly might B-5 check flight.

Love, Bob”

Navy Officer Training

AOCS 1982

June 1982 – Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) NAS Pensacola, Floridaaocs
AOCS was grueling. If the movie ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (O&G) had not premiered when I was in my second week of training, I’m sure I would have probably quit and gone home. Actually, I did quit (DOR – dropped on request) after my first ever boxing event. Traditional big glove sparring was all the hand-to-hand combat we were trained in, as much as I wanted to wheel a 360 round-house reverse back kick I had just perfected in Tae kwon do on the Belmont College team months before. The boxing coach sent me back in the ring after I had injured my thumb (thumbs in, when your on  the offensive), and the second round had the same result (thumbs weren’t in) and I broke my right thumb, which still today makes it difficult to write.

After the trip to the infirmary to get my thumb reset and casted, I had had-it. I seriously questioned the leadership of Aviation Schools Command, and the military in general. Staff Sargent Wehnt USMC (not present at the boxing event) told me I was making a big mistake, but I insisted on quitting and he sent me off to another building to proceed out-processing. In this status, I was afforded immediate liberty. I had heard about O&G from someone, and headed to the Pensacola Mall Theater that night to see it. Halfway into the movie, I knew had made a hasty decision that I regretted. the wall

The next day, I asked the chief drill instructor, Gunnery Sargent Goforth USMC, if I could request a meeting with the Commanding Officer of the US Navy’s Aviation Schools Command: Navy Captain Rasmussen, USN. I forgot the indignities the Chief Drill Instructor blasted at me, but if was something like “so you think you can sneak of to the movies and just drop back in?!”

gradCaptain Robert L. (Bob) Rasmussen was a former Blue Angel and he had served the nation as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War flying the F-8 Crusader. I crossed the street to Naval Aviation Schools Command and proceeded down the corridor to the C.O.’s chamber. After entering the “hatch” and performing the proper Navy entry protocol, the Captain asked me why I had quit, and why he should give me a second chance? His calm demur and low tone of voice, caught me off guard. He spoke to me like a concerned teacher or counselor. I forgot how long I spoke with him, or what I said exactly, but he permitted me to return to the program under the next class (30-82), behind the one I had started with (29-82). This normally does not happen, and I don’t know of any other AOC that pulled this off that summer. Was it the fact that a candidate had just drowned in water survival training a few weeks before? Was I that persuasive? Or maybe the Captain was just sympathetic to another Bob? 😉 I’ll never know.

dilbertA month later, I was almost washed-out again after I failed my jet engines class written exam. Any academic test score less than around 90% was a failure at the time. When a candidate fails a module of training, or flight check, if lucky, they will go before a review board consisting of several flight instructors. The panel of three, five, or seven officers asks a variety of oral questions on any subject that you are tasked with (military protocol, dining etiquette, chain of command, orders of a sentry, engines, meteorology, you name it). I had changed 3 or 4  answers out of around 50 from the correct answer, to what we called a “distractor” answer. A distractor answer was one that seemed to make sense, but was incorrect.

I rolled into class 31-82, my second demotion.

camposEnding the final phase of my now 15 weeks of training (a 12 week program), I gained new confidence actually thinking I might make it. My confidence soared as I, for the first time in training, did something better than anyone in the class: shoot a gun. I was the only one out of 30 something classmates that earned, the Navy expert firearms medal. Marine D.I.’s like sailors that can shoot! And that achievement probably saved my bacon – again. I proudly led the class back to the Battalion II building, and down to the drill instructors passageway to report in with Gunnery Sargent Campos USMC (pictured above). We shuffled into the “hatch” trashedsingle-file, and approached the D.I.’s office.

“ATTENTION ON DECK!” sent each of us, backs-to-the-wall, at full attention, on both sides of the passageway (hall). Campos was ready for us. Unbeknown to me, I had left the combination lock of my personnel locker unsecured. I had closed the two doors and had the lock thru the hinge, but had forgotten to  push the U-joint through. This was a favorite item for the D.I.’s to find. It always resulted in the complete desecration of anything not nailed down or locked up. Sometimes it was limited to the offending candidates equipment, usually it was the entire room of four, and frequently it precipitated an assault on the entire class residence hall. Typically the entire class paid for one individuals mistake.

This was not a good thing. As we stood their frozen at attention wondering what we had done wrong, Campos Screen Shot 2014-12-24 at 10.21.38 AMstepped thru the “hatch” (door) and burst into singing:

“Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?

You been out ridin’ fences for so long now

Oh, you’re a hard one

I know that you got your reasons

These things that are pleasin’ you

Can hurt you SOMEHOW”

Turning to me!…and he was wearing a walkman that looked just like…“O my God that’s mine”, I said to myself! O———SHIT!!!! My locker, I FORGOT!…

Trying not to eyeball the drill instructor, “Henderson, you really pulled a CLOSE ONE TODAY” he blasted in the typical ballistic thundering USMC Drill Instructor speak. If it was not the fact that YOU, where only NUMB-NUT that could pull a trigger and hit the side of a barn today, I would be packing it in RIGHT NOW for your unsecured GEAR”.

And I swear this is true, he then said: “I think we FINALLY found something you know HOW TO DO RIGHT”! …you can have your girl friends picture back after I get done with it…Now… GET OUT OF MY SIGHT YOU FLOCK OF TURDS”!

Years later when I watched Lee Ermey utter the same phrase at “Private Pile” in ‘Full Metal Jacket’ on the rifle range, I almost fell out of my theater seat laughing.

The last week before graduation was survival training at Eglin Air Force Base near Panama City. This three day event convinced me that going hungry was not something I ever wanted to experience again. While we were away, some administrative error was made regarding my training record. I don’t recall the paper work SNAFU, but it rolled me to my fourth class 32-82, which I graduated with. My third demotion and fourth class.walker