The subject of this profile, Donovan Ketzler, is like one of those romantic adventurer figures from a Jack London or Rudyard Kipling yarn. I believe you will find his adventures as a cavalryman and recreational horseman will enchant you as much as they did me. The Omaha, Neb.-based boot manufacturing company he headed for years, Dehner, earned a national and international reputation for the superior craftsmanship of its fine boots. Its customers have included heads of state and celebrities of all kinds. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons.
Last of the Rough Riders
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Sitting astride his pale gelding, Snowdrift, Donovan Ketzler is the very embodiment of the gallant, weatherworn horse soldier of frontiers past. He looks the part too with his leathery skin, cropped mustache, squinting eyes, gnarled hands, erect posture and stern but jaunty deportment. Then there’s the way he uses a nudge of the boot, a tug of the reins and a brush of the riding crop to expertly guide his mount.
The rough rider image he projects is no facade, either. The 74-year-old retired president of the Dehner Co., Omaha’s renowned manufacturer of hand-made custom boots, is, in fact, an ex-cavalryman. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, instructing troops in the 1st Cavalry Division and participating in combined horse and mechanized maneuvers on the Great Plains. He later mule-packed with Chiang Kai-sheck’s Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in Burma and mainland China.
This consummate horseman and inveterate adventurer is the last of a dying breed of men with any link to the rugged cavalry troopers who roamed the American West. Although his own cavalry days are long behind him, riding is still a large part of his life.
He rides for sport and pleasure today in the hills and river valleys north of Omaha. He boards his horse at a stable just inside Washington County, near Neale Woods. “I know Ponca Hills like the back of my hand,” he says. “We ride from there clear down to the river.” For him, there’s nothing grander than being atop a fine animal with the sun at his back, a jump looming ahead and a fox on the run.
“I tell you, when you’re on horseback and you get behind a pack of hounds that’s in full cry, you’re just hell bent for leather,” he says in his rough-hewn voice. “The old adrenalin’s going, you’re flying fences, going cross-country, down ditches, up hills, and there ain’t nothin’ nicer.”
As much as he likes the thrill of the chase, he enjoys watching animals at work amid nature’s splendor.
“It’s fun working with a horse and seeing success. And I love to watch that pack of hounds circling and trying to pick up a scent. One will pick it up and the rest of ‘em will come over to honor it and when two or three of ‘em honor it, why they’ll take off and follow the scent, then they’ll lose it and have to find it again. To watch those animals working is tremendous,” he says.
Son Jeff Ketzler, who succeeded him as Dehner president in 1991, says his father likes his outdoor recreation wild and woolly. “That’s his favorite thing. He likes to tread where no man has tread before. He always likes it a little bit rougher than I do.”
A frequent riding companion of Ketzler’s is Vicki Krecek, vice president of communications with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. She admires his desire to make riding a lively group affair.
“One Saturday he went down by the Missouri River and spent all day making this one trail with all these little jumps, so that it became a real fun, challenging course to ride,” she says. “He’d really thought it out and done it beautifully. He got such a kick out of doing that. I thought it was so neat that somebody would take the time just so we could have some more fun.”
Equestrians feel you can tell a lot about a person by how he/she handles a horse. While Ketzler insists he’s nothing special — “I get on the horse, I look like hell, and at the end of the day I get off the horse” — others disagree. Krecek says: “He’s an excellent rider. He rides with a real assurance. And he’s also really compassionate about the horse, even though he’s very much in control. He won’t tolerate bad behavior on the part of the horse, but he has a very gentle hand. He’s very conscientious of the land too. We never set foot on anybody’s planted field.”
Krecek also echoes others in describing his bold, macho side. “He’s definitely a hard charger and he’s definitely very fearless,” she says. “I can’t believe some of the things he’s done. Once, we were in a hunter’s pace and his horse refused a fence and kind of reared around, and Van fell off and hit his head. I said, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well, hurry up, get on,’ I said, because we had another half-hour to ride at a pretty fast pace. Later on, he said he thought he was having a heart attack because he couldn’t breathe very well.
“I couldn’t believe he would think he was having a heart attack and wouldn’t tell me to stop. It turned out he had a couple broken ribs, yet he rode that extra half hour. When he says he’s hurting…he’s really hurting.”
In a lifetime with horses Ketzler’s taken his share of spills and suffered a medical dictionary full of sprains, strains, tears and broken bones.
“He gets himself hurt in the most spectacular ways,” Jeff says. “When I was a kid he was brought home in an ambulance after a horse he was trying to shoe kicked him in the head, and to this day he has a horseshoe scar on his forehead. Another time Dad tried to drag my horse Gizmo into a trailer. He had wrapped the lead shank around his hand, and when Gizmo took off, Dad took off with him. He always tells the story how he was in a helluva foot race for about 75 feet, but then that lead shank came undone and he fell behind very quickly. He tore his hamstring and rotator cuff, and busted this and that.”
Ask what’s the most outlandish thing his father’s done, and Jeff pauses, laughs and says, “He’s done so many spectacular things it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. He’s trained in the cavalry way…you’ve got to be up front, doing it all…and no type of terrain or obstacle will keep you from getting to your objective, and that’s always the way he has been. Always forward, always going, always full blast.”
Then there are the times, entirely apart from horses, Ketzler’s heeded his fanciful, slightly mischievous nature. Like his penchant for dropping everything in the middle of the day to go gallivanting half-way around the world. He’s been known to drag his wife Bette along on military hops out of Offutt — with little or no advance notice — to destinations like Hawaii.
The ever-spontaneous Ketzler once surprised her with the news that in two hours they were leaving that afternoon for Great Britain. “I called her from the office at 2 and said, ‘I’m picking you up at 3 and at 4 we’re going to be gone,” Ketzler recalls. “Pack what you think you need. If it’s too much, we’ll throw it away. If it’s not enough, we’ll buy it. And it was the best trip we ever had.”
Jeff says his mother, who’s gotten used to such unpredictability, sometimes endures more than she bargains for. Like the time his father swept her away to Australia. Sounds romantic and exotic, right? Except they traveled in the tail section of a C-5 Hercules military transport. “Mom, of course, didn’t like it very much, but Dad had an absolute blast. He loved every minute of it.”
Ketzler is a restless sort whose rash sense of adventure and wanderlust causes him to fidget if he’s forced to sit very long. He’s always itching for action. “If there’s something happening, you can be sure he’s always right in it,” Jeff says. “He cannot sit down. He never stands still. He’s always the first one out during a tornado warning, looking around.”
Donovan Ketzler himself likes telling the story of how as a brash teen smitten with Bette, he took her riding in the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. While already an accomplished rider used to the steep terrain, she was quite green. “We ran these horses to the edge of the cliff and dropped about 40 feet,” he says. “She was just hangin’ on by the horse’s neck. She hasn’t been riding since.”
Her swearing off riding the last 60 years didn’t get in the way of their love for each other, as the couple recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Neither did she stand in the way of their four children riding.
“She’s as knowledgeable about horses as any woman I know,” Ketzler says, “even if it’s mostly from the ground.”
One thing Bette did disapprove of was her husband’s habit of taking the kids riding on the Sabbath. “We never got to church because we were always out fox hunting on Sunday mornings,” Jeff says. “Dad has always been a spiritual man, but never much of a churchgoing man. He always felt going over a snowy field early on a Sunday morning put him a lot closer to God than he could ever get in any church pew.”
Indeed, whether camping at Custer State Park, riding in Ponca Hills or watching cranes in the Sand Hills, the great outdoors is Donovan Ketzler’s sanctuary and temple. “I tell you, you get out in the woods and it’s like going to church,” he says. “You’re really pretty close to your god out there. You’ve got a good horse under you that you trust and really you just get back down to the basics and forget all about your frustrations.”
Even to this day he searches for new riding epiphanies. Recently returned from a week-long horseback tour of County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, he was still beaming with childlike glee over the experience. “There were three of us that went. They gave us two saddlebags, a horse and a map apiece and we took off, stopping at bed and breakfasts about 20 kilometers apart. We were in the saddle about 6 1/2 hours a day,” he says. “We started in a little village called Grange on the Atlantic Ocean. Then we rode down the coast along Sligo Bay. Then we went inland and up to the mountainous areas, then into a wooded area and around a lake called Gill. We came out on the other side of Sligo Bay.”
The demanding horseman found the trek up to his rigid standards.
“The horses were good, the equipment was fantastic, and the trails and the maps were just exceptional. We lived out of those saddlebags. I liken it to reliving my youth in the cavalry — going out with the horses in the field. I was in seventh heaven. We had a helluva good time. Absolutely spectacular.”
Upon reaching the last stop, Ketzler and his riding partners were met by their spouses and together they toured, by more conventional means, western Ireland, staying on the Shannon side.
The party took several side trips, including a visit to the site of the Dehner factory Ketzler built and operated briefly in the mid-’70s in the village of Knocklong. The plant now houses a packaging company. During Dehner’s brief foray in Ireland, which was foiled by steep labor costs, Ketzler, wife Bette and their sons Jeff and Jon lived there at various times.
Donovan and Bette were most enchanted by the Irish huntsman’s apartment they resided in, located in the stables of a centuries-old manor house belonging to a local dairy farmer. Ketzler felt at home because the farmer was also the area master of hounds and kept horses on either side of the couple’s apartment. Never one to skip a hunt, Ketzler rode with the hounds over there and has the black thorn shredded boots to prove it.
The failure of the Irish factory is one of the few missteps Ketzler made during his 20 year-reign as Dehner president. The more than 120-year-old company, which bears the name of his maternal grandfather, C.C. Dehner, has always been a family-run concern. Ketzler’s father, Harold, headed the firm until Ketzler, who started working there at age 12, took over in 1971.
Ketzler streamlined the operation dramatically increasing the output, sales and profits, and consolidating its hold in the English riding, law enforcement and military markets. Dehner’s reach has even extended to NASA, making astronaut boots from Mercury to Apollo to the Shuttle.
Among its prominent customers over the years has been former President Ronald Reagan, a longtime rider who began wearing the Dehner brand in 1946 while still a contract motion picture actor. Dehner boots have been worn by generations of West Point graduates, including Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. The always image-conscious Patton collaborated with Ketzler’s grandfather in designing a striking strap model that came to be called “the Patton boot.” It was worn by the general’s tank troops, and later by U.S. Air Force personnel, including U-2, Thunderbird and test pilots, who came to know it as “the SAC boot.”
While stepping down from the firm’s day to day operations seven years ago, Ketzler retains chairman of the board status and holds veto power. He keeps an office in the plant, nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood at 3614 Martha Street. Customers trailing horses cross-country often let their animals graze on the Dehner lawn while getting a fitting or a tour of the plant. A peek inside Ketzler’s office reveals his old McClellan cavalry saddle on display, walls laden with photos of him riding, inscribed photos from Reagan and Patton and a plaque thanking Ketzler for his efforts in supporting the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol.
Ketzler shows up to work every day because, he says, “I still want to know what’s going on. I still want to get in the swing of it. But by and large I bite my lip a lot and let ‘em run it.”
Jeff Ketzler says his father applied the same organizational skills and disciplined approach learned in the military to running the business, and the ramrod style paid off. “When Dad took over I think our production was about 2,500 pair a year, and by the time he retired it was about 12,000 pair a year. He took a very, very small company and turned into the largest handmade custom boot manufacturer in the world. Everything was very, very organized. Everybody knew what they had to do…and it was always kind of his way or the highway. My dad is definitely a hard act to follow.”
According to Jeff, his father employed a strict hand at home too. “He’s always been a military-type guy. This is his life, and this is the way he’s chosen to live it. He reveres those people and, I mean, he was one of ‘em.”
Living a Jack Armstrong adventure as a boy, Donovan Ketzler became exposed to the cavalry way of life accompanying his grandfather on sales trips to army outposts, where the troops adopted the eager lad. Not long after the firm’s 1930 move from Kansas (where it originated) to Omaha, Ketzler and his late sister Janne learned to ride at Fort Omaha and the 113th Cavalry Stables in Council Bluffs.
“Although my family were not military people, I was practically raised in the military,” he says. “I was thrown in with a group of 7th Service Command officers’ children in a riding class. I became very proficient at it. I pretty much had carte blanche with the use of their horses.”
So proficient that by his mid-teens he was riding with the National Guard cavalry troops in Council Bluffs. “I got in with the officers, and they allowed me to come along on an officers’ ride every Sunday morning. We’d ride off into the bluffs and just do some hellish things. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” By the outbreak of the war the unit was federalized and Ketzler, still a kid, was told to “get lost.”
At 18 he was determined to serve in the cavalry, but after enlisting in 1943 found himself assigned instead to the infantry. That is until he informed the brass he was already cavalry-trained, whereupon he promptly got his wish at Fort Riley. He soon became a cavalry instructor. Although cavalry units in the field had been dismounted, drilling with horses continued, he says, “because it was said a horse-trained soldier was more responsible than straight-legged infantry. With a horse, you have to take care of it and you accept a certain responsibility.”
Later he went overseas, training “rag-tag” Chinese resistance forces in infantry weaponry (mortars and anti-tank devices) as a replacement to the 124th Cavalry. While serving with the Chinese Combat Command he largely remained behind the front-lines, but occasionally got caught “in counter barrages.” He explains, “When I was in Burma the planes would fly over and parachute everything in — all the supplies — because they had no place to land. And of course the Japanese would see these parachutes coming in. Well, we’d wait about 10 minutes before going out there with our mules to pick up the supplies, and the Japanese would throw mortars in on us. I lost a mule to shrapnel.”
His Far East duty spurred an appreciation for the region and its people, who endured appallingly poor living conditions and cruelties enforced by warlords. He says it was a nation ripe for revolution.
Back home Ketzler briefly attended theUniversityof Nebraska-Lincoln before rejoining the family business, marrying Bette and starting his family. He remained in the army reserves until retiring, as a major, in 1967. He’s sure he would have stayed in the military if not for the family business.
In his post-war life he ached to see China again but the political situation made it impossible. He finally got his chance in the ‘70s when the country was opened to foreign visitors. He and Bette have traveled there several times since, trekking across the Silk Road, floating down the Yangtze River and visiting the back country where Ketzler served in the war.
Other favorite destinations have included his ancestral homeland of Germany and a bird watching haven in a remote Mexican coastal village.
His travels often intersect with his interest in frontier soldiering, an interest he cultivates by reading, collecting vintage weapons, visiting such historic sites as the Battle of the Little Big Horn and wearing reproductions of cavalry uniforms (complete with his own leathermade goods) on River City Roundup rides from Ogallala to Omaha. While he does not romanticize the “hard, hard life” endured by the troopers, he does feel a strong kinship with them. “Yeah, I really do. Very much so. They were cavalry too.”
The intrepid spirit of the cavalry is what keeps him active today. “We’re survivors. You gotta have a reason for gettin’ out of bed,” he says. Just as the horse cavalry’s days were numbered, Dehner will likely close whenever Ketzler’s son Jeff retires. “This is the last of the line,” Ketzler confirms. Does that sadden him? “No, we had a helluva run…a good time.” And like an old soldier, he’ll just fade away, riding to the setting sun.
- Hold your horses: Western or English riding for the absolute beginner? (news.nationalpost.com)
- Travel challenge: A horse-riding holiday in the US (independent.co.uk)
- Horseriding Club (discho44.wordpress.com)
- Giddyap! (boston.com)
- Rough Riders Saddle Club (skeeter747.wordpress.com)
One of the nice things about a blog like mine is that I can revive or resurrect stories long ago published and forgotten. Here’s a story I did about a man who had a remarkable military service record. His name was Chuck Powell. He passed away recently, and I post his story here as a kind of tribute or memorial. I did the story around an anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, which he participated in as a pilot. He also flew in World War II and in the Korean War. He nearly flew in Vietnam. Powell was a great big old Texican who had a way with words. He was an example to me of never judging a book by its cover. By that I mean he appeared to be one thing from the outside looking in but he was that and so much more. For example, by the time I met him he was pushing 80 and a tenured academic at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but none of that suggested the many adventures he had experienced far removed from academia, adventures in and out of wartime, that added up to a wild and woolly life.
A Berlin Airlift Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Somehow it’s fitting one-time aviator turned political scientist, gerontology professor, history buff and pundit Chuck Powell holds court from a third-floor office perch on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus. There, far removed from the din of the crowd, he analyzes trends affecting older Americans, which, at 78, he knows a thing or two about.
On any given week his office, tucked high away in a corner of an old brick mansion, is visited by elected officials from across the political spectrum seeking advice on public policy and legislative matters.
“Most of the so-called issues are perennial. They don’t change. Most of the time people are searching for some magic silver bullet, but there isn’t any. My advice is usually pretty simple,” he says.
Don’t mistake Powell for some ivory tower dweller though. Whether offering sage counsel or merely shooting the bull in his down-home Texas drawl, this high flier and straight shooter draws as much on rich life experience as broad academic study with students and politicos alike.
And, oh, what a life he’s led thus far. During a 30-year military career he saw duty as a Navy combat pilot in the Pacific during World War II, a photo reconnaissance pilot in China and a C-54 jockey in the Berlin Airlift. Later, he flew combat cargo missions in Korea. By the time he retired a Naval officer in 1971 he’d seen action in two wars, plus the largest air transport operation in history, been stationed in nearly every corner of the globe and risen through the ranks from seaman to pilot to commander.
He’s gone on to earn three college degrees, teach in post-secondary education and travel widely for pleasure. Yet, for all his adventures and opinions, he’s rather taciturn talking about himself. Chalk it up to his self-effacing generation and stern east Texas roots. Nothing in his home or office betrays his military career. His wife, Betty Foster, said even friends were surprised to learn he’s a veteran of the 1948-49 airlift, a fact made public last spring when he and fellow veterans were honored in Berlin at a 50th anniversary event. Participating in “Operation Vittles” changed his life.
“There’s a strong feeling of public service among those of us who served in the airlift because it left us with the idea we could do great things without bombing the bejesus out of somebody,” he says.
While he has, until now, been reluctant to discuss his military service, his impressions, especially of the airlift, reveal much about the man and his take on the world and help explain why his advice is so eagerly sought out.
Born along the Texas-Louisiana border, he was reared in Tyler and a series of other small east Texas towns during the Depression. He hardly knew his father and was often separated from his mother. Shuttled back and forth among relatives in a kind of “kid of the month club,” as he jokingly refers to it, he spent much time living with an uncle and aunt — Claiborne Kelsey Powell III, an attorney and Texas political wheel, and his wife Ilsa, a University of Chicago-educated sociologist and Juilliard-trained musician.
One of Powell’s clearest childhood memories is Claiborne taking him to see the inimitable populist Huey Long stumping for a gubernatorial bid in nearby Vernon Parish, La. He recalls it “just like it was yesterday. The guy was so impressive. He was a big man. He had a large head and a full head of hair and wore a white linen suit with a string tie. He’d go, ‘My friends, and I say, you are my friends…’ Yeah, Huey man, he was a hoot.”
Surrounded by Claiborne’s political cronies and exposed to his and Ilsa’s keen wit and elevated tastes in music and books Powell was, without knowing it then, groomed to be a political animal and scholar. He credits his uncle with being “probably the most influential person in my life” and sparking an insatiable inquisitiveness. “I’m a curious person. I’m someone who likes to turn over every rock in sight,” Powell concedes. Betty, a gerontological educator and consultant, adds, “He doesn’t look at the surface of most things. He looks far deeper than most people do. Chuck is always looking at why we do things. He’s very, very bright.”
Searching for some direction early in life, Powell found it in the Navy at the outbreak of World War II. Besides serving his country, the military gave him a proving ground and a passport to new horizons.
“It provided a way out. I could hardly wait to get on the road.”
The sea first took him away. In a series of twists and turns he doesn’t elaborate on, his early wartime Naval service began as a sailor in the Atlantic and ended, improbably, as a fighter pilot in the Pacific. The only thing he shares about his combat flying experience then is: “I heard some gunshots, let’s put it that way, but by the time the war ended the overpowering might of the United States in the Pacific was such that you rarely got an opportunity to even see, let alone shoot at, the enemy.”
After a year’s duty in China he returned home and was assigned to the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). “I was in a Navy four-engine transport squadron that flew out of Washington National. We had nightly, non-stop routes that went from Washington to San Francisco.”
Then, in June 1948, the Soviets blockaded all ground and water routes in and out of West Berlin and Powell and his mates were redeployed to Germany to support the, at first, ragtag airlift of vital supplies into the isolated and beleaguered city. The first supplies were flown in June 25.
Powell’s first missions supported the airlift itself: “We started flying equipment and personnel to Rhein-Main,” a major air base and staging area near Frankfurt. Attached to Air Transport Squadron 8, he found himself thrown in with other airmen originally trained for combat duty. Its skipper, “Jumpin” Joe Clifton of Paducah, Ky., was a decorated fighter pilot.
The start of “Operation Vittles” was inauspicious. Men and material were scarce. The few supplies lifted-in fell woefully short of needs. The whole thing ran on a wing and a prayer. Allied commanders and German officials knew Berliners required a daily minimum 3,720 tons, including coal and food, to ensure their survival, yet Powell says,“there was no evidence they could lift this much tonnage daily. The first day they cobbled together a group of old C-47s and lifted 80 tons. That was 3,620 tons short.
The task, as it began, was very high on optimism and low on reality because Berlin’s huge, about 400 square miles, and we’re talking about supplying a city the size of Philadelphia by air.” All sorts of alternate supply schemes — from armored transport convoys to mass parachute drops — were rejected.
Hindering the early operation was a lack of infrastructure supporting so mammoth an effort.
To meet the supply goals hundreds of C-47s and C-54s had to be brought in from around the world and pipelines laid down from Bremerhaven to Frankfurt to carry fuel. All this — plus devising a schedule that could safely and efficiently load and unload planes, maintain them, get them in the air and keep them flying around-the-clock, in all weather — took months ironing out. Yet, even during this learning curve, the airlift went on, growing larger, more proficient each week. Still, it fell far short of targets as winter closed in, leaving the terrible but quite real prospect of women and children starving or freezing to death.
“The first six months of the airlift were nothing to write home about,” Powell recalls. “The stocks in Berlin were drawn down. All the trees were cut to be used for fuel. We watched that tonnage movement day by day and, intuitively, everybody on the line knew how bad things were headed.”
Historians agree the turning point was the appointment of Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner as commander of the combined American-British airlift task force. He arrived with a proven air transport record, having supplied forces over “The Hump” in India and China during the war. He and his staff brought much needed organization, streamlining things from top to bottom.
The number of flights completed and quantity of tons delivered increased, but when Tunner, “a bird dog” who observed operations first-hand, was on a transport during a gridlock that stacked planes up for hours, he insisted staff devise improved air traffic routes and rules that kept planes in a rhythmic flow The result, a loop dubbed “the bicycle chain,” smoothly fed planes through air corridors in strict three-minute intervals.
“Gen. Tunner was a tremendous leader. He knew you couldn’t turn a bunch of cowboys loose with these airplanes and expect precision. Under him, the airlift became a rigidly controlled operation. You had to fly just precisely, otherwise you were gonna be on the guy ahead of you or the guy behind you,” Powell says.
With so little spacing between planes, there was scarce margin for error, especially at night or in the foul weather that often hampered flying.
“With a guy coming in three minutes behind you, if you missed your first approach you didn’t have enough time to take another shot. You either made it the first time or you went home,” says Powell, who after a few weeks ferrying essentials to support the airlift’s launch, began carrying coal into Berlin’s Tempelhof airport from Rhein-Main (the base in the southern corridor reserved for C-54s). “If everything was going right you could do a turnaround (roundtrip) in four hours. If it wasn’t going right it could take you 24 hours. There were any number of things that could go wrong.”
Rules were one thing, says Powell, but they were often ignored in the face of the dire task at hand. “I can’t speak for anybody but myself but I never carried a load of coal back. There were times in the airplane when you set the glide path and the descent and the first you knew you’d landed is when you hit something.” To work, he explains, the airlift depended on men and machines going beyond the norm in “a max effort.”
“We were flying over manufacturers’ specified weights. Engines were a constant problem. We were wearing these things out. The airplane was actually being asked to do things it wasn’t even built to do, and everybody knew that. In wars and crises things are set aside. You take chances because you don’t have time to sit around and procrastinate. The Soviets were trying to starve the people of Berlin into submission. You got swept up in all this and pretty soon you were doing all you could. The only time I know of when it (the airlift) was shut down was one night when there were some violent thunderstorms. I was in the corridor and man, it was grim that night up there. Just before we were ready to take off at Tempelhof to come back home they shut the thing down for six or seven hours until that storm dissipated.”
Considering the scale of operations, blessedly few planes and lives were lost. During the entire 15-month duration, covering some 277,000 sorties, 24 Allied planes were lost and 48 Allied fliers killed. Another 31 people died on the ground. “I think it’s remarkable that with all the things that were required, we lost so few,” Powell says.
All the more remarkable because aside from the dangers presented by night flying, storms, fog, overtaxed planes and fatigued fliers, there were other risks as well. Take the Tempelhof approach for example.
“Tempelhof was the toughest of all the fields,” he notes, “because you were coming in over a nine-story bombed-out apartment building. You had a tremendous angle on your glide slope.”
Then there was the danger of transporting coal. A plane might blow if enough static electricity built-up and ignited the dust that settled over every nook and cranny. To ventilate planes crews flew with emergency exits off.
“It was noisy,” Powell says, “but you couldn’t argue with it because then you’d be arguing you want to get killed.”
Coal dust posed an added problem by fouling planes’ hydraulics and irritating fliers’ eyes. Powell was legally blind six months and grounded for two due to excess coal dust in his eyes. He says even the most benign loads, if not properly lashed down, could shift in mid-air and compromise flight stability.
“You didn’t want anything rockin’ around loose in the airplane.”
He reserves his highest praise for the Army Quartermaster and flight maintenance crews that kept things running like clockwork. German citizens made up part of the brigade of workers loading and unloading supplies and servicing planes.
“The crews were exceptional. They were absolutely incredible in their ability to perform this work and to perform quickly.”
The operation got so precise that a C-54 could be loaded with 22,000 to 25,000 pounds of supplies, refueled and lift-off — all within 20 minutes.
“It wasn’t going to run unless everybody did their job, and if one part broke down the whole thing broke down.”
He says many civil aviation advances taken for granted now were pioneered then, such as strobe lights lining runways and glowing wands used by grounds crew to steer planes to gates. All this happened in a pressure-cooker environment and the menacing presence of nearby Soviet forces. The Soviets used harassment tactics, including sending fighters to buzz transport planes and ordering ground-based anti-aircraft batteries to fire rounds at the corridors’ edges.
Powell says if the tactics were meant as intimidation, they failed.
“C’mon, we’d all been shot at before, give me a break. The ammunition made for a good fireworks display, but it made no impact. Probably the worst thing they did from my point of view was shine some very high-powered searchlights on the aircraft at night and jam the final control or frequency. You just had to keep driving and hope you made it all right.”
Make no mistake, it was a tense time. The blockade and airlift had put the world on the brink. One false move by either side could have triggered WWIII. Despite the threat, U.S. and British resolve held firm and the Cold War didn’t turn hot. By 1949 it was clear the airlift was succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Tunner’s bicycle chain was humming along and with the weather improving that spring he chose Easter Sunday to kick the operation into overdrive. In what became known as The Easter Parade, the airlift’s spacing was dropped to one-minute intervals and in a single 24-hour stretch in April a record 1,390 flights delivered 12,940 tons into Berlin.
“A one-minute separation — that’s pretty close for big overloaded airplanes,” Powell says. “I don’t think we could have cut it any closer. But it was a beautiful day. The weather was ideal. You could see everybody. That made it easier. The Soviets of course were betting the next day would be a huge fall-off but we did something like 8,000 tons. By then we’d hit our stride and we were routinely lifting 8,000 to -9,000 tons a day. It sent a message to Joe Stalin. The next month the Soviets lifted the blockade.”
However, the airlift continued months afterward as a buffer against any further Soviet ploy. By operation’s end — September 30, 1949 — more than 2.3 million tons of supplies had been lifted-in and a world crisis averted.
For Powell, its success, along with rebuilding Europe, were America at its best. “We’re an amazing country. Sometimes we have a veritable uncanny propensity to do the right thing. It brought into rather sharp relief just what could be done. In my humble opinion the United States, between 1945 and 1950, could be compared to ancient Greece under Pericles. It as a golden era. We did virtually everything right and you can’t do that without leadership. We were deep in leadership after the war.”
He says the feeling in America then — “that everybody was in this together” — is hard for young people to understand. “Now, we’re so disparate. Everybody’s off doing their own thing. But I still put my faith in the willingness of the American people to do the right thing…given the right leadership.” The airlift’s legacy, he says, is the goodwill it generated. “Civic-minded Germans formed the Berlin Airlift Foundation to take care of the wives and children of the airmen killed in the lift.
When he joined other vets in Berlin last May he spoke with Germans who vividly recalled the airlift. “They all mentioned the omnipresent noise. One lady told us, ‘It didn’t bother us because we knew if the noise continued we would eat.’ He adds the warm outpouring of gratitude got him “a little choked up. We made generations of friends there.” He says if there’s any heroes in all this, it’s “the people of Berlin, because they could have very easily gone to the Soviet sector and been fed and clothed. No question. They were down to 1,200 calories a day but chose to stay and stick it out. These people sought self-determination.”
After the airlift Powell was set to study law when the Korean War erupted. He spent 21 more years in the service, moving from place to place “like a locust.” Posted in France during the ‘60s, he became a certified Francophile – enamored with the nation’s history, culture, people. He’s often returned there.
Along the way he married, raised a family (he has three grown children) and indulged a lifelong search for knowledge by reading and studying. He describes himself then as “a kind of journeyman” scholar. That all changed in 1964 when plans to join an F4 Phantom squadron off the coast of Vietnam were scuttled and he was assigned instead to Offutt Air Force Base.
Here, he finally stayed one place long enough to earn a degree (in business administration from Bellevue University). And here he’s remained. His post-military career saw him remake himself as an authority on public policy and aging issues, earning a master’s in public administration and a Ph.D. in political science. UNO hired him in 1973 to implement training programs under the Older Americans Act.
As a full professor today he teaches courses, advises students and collaborates with colleagues on
articles, surveys and studies. He’s applied the public service mission he took from the airlift to serve political campaigns, advise local and state government and participate in White House conferences on aging. Both his life and work dispel many myths about aging.
“We feel it’s wonderfully appropriate to have a 78-year-old teaching younger people all older people are not alike,” says James Thorson, UNO Department of Gerontology Chairman. “Dr. Powell is an excellent instructor and accomplished researcher. He’s wildly popular with students. He works long hours. He wants to wear out, not rust out, and I respect him for it.”
It was at UNO Powell met Betty. Both were recently divorced. He was teaching, she was doing grad work. They married in 1982. Everyone agrees they make a good match. They travel together and enjoy entertaining at their sprawling Keystone neighborhood home, where he often holes up in a study whose impressive library is stocked with volumes on American history (the presidents, the Civil War) and France. Travel is no idle pursuit for him. He researches destinations and prepares itineraries detailing sites and themes, from architecture to art to vineyards. He got in the habit in the service.
“It permits you to observe how other people do things and to see Americans don’t have a corner on how things are done.”
The couple prove growing older doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down. In typical fashion he and Betty plan ushering in the new millennium under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he says. In his office hangs an enlarged photo of the French landmark with an inscription that sums up his ageless sense of wanderlust: “Paris is like a lover. You may leave her, but you will never forget her.” It’s the same way with Chuck Powell: Once you meet him, you never forget him.
- Causes, Reasons and Results of the Berlin Airlift (brighthub.com)
- Trail of the unexpected: Tempelhof Park, Berlin (independent.co.uk)
- James Rodney Ferrell, 90 (kitsapsun.com)
- History: The Berlin Airlift (americanthings.wordpress.com)
- How much supplies did Berlin Airlift receive (wiki.answers.com)
- Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s Candy Bomber: The Story of the Berlin Airlift’s “Chocolate Pilot” by Michael O. Tunnell (alleganylibrarycollections.wordpress.com)
Journalists look for hooks to hang their stories on, and anniversaries of major events are always convenient pegs to use. On the 50th anniversary of the Korean War I profiled the combat experience of Bill Ramsey, an amiable man who made a rich life for himself after the conflict as a husband, father, PR professional, and community volunteer. He has devoted much of his life to veterans affairs, particularly memorializing fallen veterans. He’s also authored a handful of books. He’s still quite active today at age 80. Anyone who survives combat has a story worth repeating, and it was my privilege telling his story in the New Horizons. Now, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, I offer the story again as a tribute to Ramsey and his fellow servicemen who fought this often forgotten conflict.
A Korean War Story
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Fifty years ago, Americans were piecing their lives back together in the aftermath of World War II when the best and brightest of the nation’s youth were once more sent-off to fight in a distant land. This time the call to arms came in defense of a small Asian nation few Americans were even aware of then — Korea. In June of 1950, Communist North Korean forces (with backing from the Soviet Union and Red China) launched an unprovoked attack on the fledgling democratic republic of South Korea, whose poorly prepared army was soon overrun. With North Korea on the verge of conquering their neighbors to the south, the United States and its Western allies drew a line in the sand against Communist expansionism in the strategically vital Far East and led a United Nations force to check the aggression.
Among those answering the call to service was a tall, strapping 20-year-old Marine reservist from Council Bluffs named Bill Ramsey. His wartime experience there became a crucible that indelibly marked him. “The war will always be the most defining experience in my life,” said Ramsey, 70, whose full postwar years have included careers as a newsman, advertising executive and public relations consultant. He and his wife of 46 years, Pat, raised five children and are grandparents to 14 and great-grandparents to one. This is his Korean War story.
In the fall of 1950, Ramsey was preparing to study journalism at then Omaha University. His plans were put on hold, however, with the outbreak of hostilities overseas. He followed the unfolding drama in newsreel and newspaper accounts, including the U.S. rushing-in army divisions grown soft from occupation duty in defeated Japan. The invaders pushed South Korean and American forces down the Korean peninsula. Ramsey sensed reserves might be recalled to active duty. He was right.
He was assigned a front line unit in the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Reinforced. He was excited at the prospect of seeing action in a real shooting war, even one misleadingly termed “a police action.” His anticipation was fed not by bravery, but rather heady youthful zeal to be part of the Corps’ glorious tradition. The conflict offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to test himself under fire. After all, he was too young to have fought in his older brother Jack’s war the previous decade. This would be his war. His proving ground. His adventure.
“I wanted to be in the front lines. I didn’t want to go all that way to end up sorting letters in Pusan,” he said. “I was curious to know how I would hold up in action.”
No stirring salute or fanfare saw the Marines off as their Navy attack transport ship, Thomas Jefferson, pulled out of San Diego harbor in March 1951. Ramsey was one of hundreds of young men crammed in the hull. They had been plucked away from factories, offices, schools, homes and families. Ramsey left behind his mother, brother and an aunt (his father died when he was 12). The GIs were going to defend a land they did not know and a people they never met. Their mission lacked the patriotic fervor of WWII. There was no Pearl Harbor to avenge this time. No, this was a freedom fight in a growing global struggle for people’s hearts and minds.
Before ever setting foot on Korean soil, Ramsey smelled it from aboard ship in the Sea of Japan. Nearing Pusan harbor in the far southeastern tip of Korea, the heavy acrid odor of the war-ravaged countryside permeated the air. It was the stink of sulfur (the discharge from spent armaments), excrement (peasant farmers used it as fertilizer in their fields), fire and death. “That all mixed together made for quite a pungent odor,” he said. “It’s a stench that you never forget.”
Ramsey and his Able Company comrades were flown into a staging area near Chunchon in east-central Korea to await transport to the front. The city had sustained heavy damage. “It was pretty well leveled at that point,” he recalls. Standing on a wind-swept tarmac, he saw snaking down a road from the north a convoy of trucks carrying combat-weary GIs being rotated out of the line. These were veterans of the famous Chosin Reservoir Battle who defied all odds, including numerically superior enemy forces, to complete a withdrawal action that featured hand-to-hand combat. Ramsey and his green mates were their replacements.
“I remember when they got off the trucks they looked like zombies. Their faces were covered with a fine white powdery dust and their hands were blackened from the soot of the fires burning everywhere in the country,” Ramsey said. “I thought, ‘God, I’d give anything to have gone through what they’ve gone through and to be going home.” Among the dog-faced vets was a friend, Phil O’Neill, from Council Bluffs. “He tried to tell me what it was like. He didn’t exaggerate or try to make it any scarier than it was. He didn’t fool around or joke. He just gave me some good advice, like keep a low profile and keep your weapon dry.” After seeing and hearing what awaited him, Ramsey felt an overpowering desire to join the departing GIs. “They were going home. That really hurt. I was so envious.”
Ramsey’s unit headed for a position along the central front. Every village and field they passed was scarred and charred. “We drove all night. We could see fires burning. Again, we could smell the countryside,” he said.
Movement was the order of the day in a war of quickly shifting positions along the long and narrow Korean peninsula. “It was a very fluid war. We were moving constantly, sometimes by truck and sometimes marching 20 or 30 miles in a day to the next spot,” he said. Rough mountainous terrain, bad roads and inclement weather — marked by extreme temperatures, torrential rains, floods, snow and ice — made the going tough. “The farther north you go the more mountainous it becomes. You always had to go up a hill or some rocky face. No flat open fields. This was trees and rocks and cliffs. A really difficult place.” While he never had to endure the brutal winter, he described conditions “as miserably cold. And when it rained, which it did a lot, you were soaking wet, cold and knee-deep in mud. You thought you could never get through it, but you kept going.”
When his company first arrived, U.N. forces were striking out in a series of bold counteroffensives. By the summer, the war was bogged down in a stalemate. A single position (invariably a hill) would be taken, lost, and retaken several times. “It was pretty much hill by hill,” Ramsey said. Platoons were like firefighters rushing from one hot zone to another. A hundred yards or less might separate opposing forces. The basic objective was usually capturing or holding a perimeter on one of the endless sharp-edged ridge lines. Upon reaching a position, the Marines set-up machine gun posts and prepared cover by digging fox holes. Not only did the metal shards from incoming mortar and artillery pose threats, but splintered rock made deadly projectiles too. “
You always had to get some protection for yourself from shrapnel,” he said. Sleeping accommodations were standard-issue pup tents or makeshift bunkers (for extended stays). “Most of the time you stayed one night or two nights and then walked to another position, where you’d dig another hole.” The premium was on moving — no matter what. “You have aching feet. A sore back. You’re tired, discouraged. You’re cold, dirty. You’re sick (dysentery, encephalitis, etc.). But you can’t stop. You’re there, you’re on the move and there’s no way out unless a doctor says you just can’t go on and sends you to the rear.”
On rare occasions when his platoon remained in one spot, barbed wire was strung across the perimeter. The men had to be on constant alert for all-out charges or smaller probing raids looking for weaknesses in the line. “A lot of times they were through the position or in the position. They weren’t always stopped at the wire,” Ramsey said. Nightfall was the worst. The enemy preferred attacking then by frontal assault or flanking maneuvers. To keep a sharp defensive perimeter, men took turns sleeping and watching — two hours on and two hours off — through the night. “You never let your guard down. We were always ready,” he said, adding that the last two years of the conflict it got to be “almost like trench warfare.”
His first taste of combat came early in his hitch. His platoon was dug in for the night on some anonymous ridge line, the men extra wary because reconnaissance had spotted enemy massed nearby. “We were told the Chinese were going to be coming in some force. It was pretty hard to sleep anyway, and anticipating my first night under fire made it that much harder. Sure enough, they came that night. I remember a lot of noise. Mortars. Shots. All that firepower. I remember thinking, “I would love to be able to cram myself inside my helmet.” I somehow got through that night. The next morning they brought in some of our killed. They were in ponchos — their feet sticking out. They were carried down the hill.”
Sometimes, a noise from somewhere out in the pitch black warned of encroaching danger. Other times, a fire fight broke loose with no warning at all. “You would hear something or you would sense something. You laid down fire if you heard anything at all out there. Their movements might trigger a flare, which made it easier for you to see them moving but also made it easier for them to see you,” he said. “On occasion, they would purposely make some noise to try and shake you up. They would produce some tinny sound or blare a bugle or just shout out. It was a psychological ploy.” A dreaded eerie sound was the “zzziiippp” made by the infamous Chinese burp gun, an incredibly fast-firing tommy gun-like weapon.
Perhaps the most terrifying action he saw came the night his outfit’s position was nearly overrun. What began as a cold damp day worsened after sunset.
“We got to our positions pretty late that night. It was raining. We dug in as fast as we could. We’d been in quite a few fire fights in the days preceding that. We thought with the weather this might be one of those nights when the enemy didn’t do anything. We were wrong,” he said. “Our machine guns started firing, and when you heard those you knew they were coming. A few of the enemy broke through our position and came right in the camp. I was quite shocked. We’d never had that before. I saw them through flashes of fire. It was very confusing. A real nightmare. We finally pushed them back.”
There were casualties on both sides. Ramsey said the enemy took advantage of the night, the rain and his unit’s complacency. “They knew Americans were not that big on night fighting and that with the bad weather we might be more inclined to worry about staying dry than steeling for attack. I think what happened is somebody in our ranks did let down. That was the only time they got in our camp that way.” He said an enemy breaching the wire could “demoralize” the troops and, if not repelled, result in a much larger breakthrough.
He described “plenty of close calls” on Able Company’s grueling march north across the 38th Parallel to engage the Chinese in the Iron Triangle stronghold. There was the omnipresent threat of mortar and artillery fire. If you stayed in the field long enough, he said, “you could hear the difference in the sound” and distinguish mortars from artillery and what size they were. Where a mortar round or artillery shell whistling high overhead gave men time to find cover, the report of the Chinese mountain gun, which fired shells in a low trajectory, allowed little or no time to hit the dirt. “You heard the report and, BOOM, it was right there. It fired in on like a straight line.” And there was occasionally the danger of friendly fire, especially errant air strikes, raining hell down on you.
Fording the streams that flowed abundantly from the mountains in Korea presented still more hazards. As heavily weighed down as the men were with their poncho, pack, boots, rifle, helmet, and ammunition, one slip in crossing the clear, fast-rushing streams (more like surging rivers) could be fatal. “A few times I felt like I was going under for sure,” Ramsey said. “I wouldn’t have had a chance.” Carrying their rifles overhead to keep them dry, the men were sitting ducks for snipers. “We were exposed,” he said.
Once, he recalls his platoon just making it to the far bank when shots began splaying the shore from the hill above. “We couldn’t see too much because it was fairly steep. We finally did draw fire on this hill.” But when Ramsey got ready to fire his M1 rifle, he got a rude surprise. “I pulled the trigger and nothing happened. That was a terrible feeling. In all that sloshing through the water my weapon must have got wet. I used a wounded buddy’s carbine instead.”
A fire fight Ramsey will never forget erupted when his 1st squad was returning to the lines after completing a mission and saw the point squad ahead of them “get hit” in an ambush of machine gun fire. Several men were cut down in the ensuing action, including 1st’s squad leader and Ramsey’s good friend — Don Hanes. “He was shot in the chest. Another fellow and I went back up this hill to get him. The fire was really intense. I was amazed we weren’t all killed on the spot. We started taking him down and Don looked at us and said, ‘No, no, no, no, no…Just leave me. You’ve got to get out of here. I’m not going to make it.’ He was a brave fellow. He was hurt so badly. Well, we did get him out of there — across an open rice paddy. He was evacuated to a hospital, but it turned out he was mortally wounded. He died later. We had a number of other casualties we carried too. It was a grim day.”
At 20, Ramsey was named temporary squad leader. He already led a four-man fire team. In addition to M1s, the team carried a single Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR. Their mission: flushing out the enemy or scouting enemy lines. Sometimes, they ran sniper patrols. If the enemy was sighted (with the aid of a sniper scope), the team’s job was to “throw some fire in” and try to pick-off or pin down targets. “We wouldn’t necessarily hit them all the time,” he said. Days or weeks might pass without enemy contact. Once, Ramsey came face-to-face with his foe. It happened when taking a hill. He and another Marine surprised a North Korean soldier. “We both fired at him, and he fell dead. We went over to where he was lying on his back. There was a pouch. We opened it and found a photo of a woman and a child. I thought, ‘He’s just like me.’ We had been thinking of the enemy as a bunch of faceless fanatics, and here was a man with a wife and child. It made an impact.”
By November 1951, Ramsey had been in-country eight months. Despite steady combat, he’d escaped unscathed. He hoped his luck held out just a few months more — then his hitch would be up and he’d be back stateside. “You see people dropping everyday. You see friends maimed and killed. You see guys going out of their head. You wonder when your number’s going to come up next. You ask yourself, ‘How can I ever get out of here?’ It’s a sinking feeling,” he said. He feels what keeps men going in such awful conditions “is your intense desire to survive and to see your loved ones again. That kept me driving.”
On the morning of November 17, his fire team “headed out on a routine sniper patrol” down Hill 834. “It was one of our more permanent lines. The hill was a muddy mess. We weren’t out long when one of us tripped a land mine, and a piece of shrapnel caught my right arm.” The impact sent Ramsey skidding face down the hill. “I was in shock, but I knew it was pretty bad because my dungaree jacket was shredded and blood was all over the place.” Metal fragments had severed his ulnar nerve and fractured bones. His mates brought a Navy corpsman to his side. The corpsman applied a bandage and administered a shot of morphine. Ramsey’s buddies then carried him up the hill and down the reverse slope to a small, level clearing. There, a second casualty from down the line was stretchered in — missing a foot. Ramsey recalls an officer giving him a cigarette to drag on and saying, “You got a million dollar wound there, Bill…you’ll probably be going home.” Still, Ramsey worried he might lose his shattered arm, which burned with pain. A helicopter evacuated he and the other casualty to a nearby MASH unit.
Rushed into surgery, Ramsey awoke the next day to the news doctors had saved the arm. Wearing a cast, he was taken (by ambulance) to an Army hospital in the devastated capital of Seoul. “There was nothing standing,” he said. From there, he was flown (on a transport plane stacked with wounded) to an Army hospital in Osaka, Japan, spending days in agony (receiving no treatment as a non-Army patient) before transferred (via train) to a Navy hospital in Yukosuka, where he finally found some relief for the pain and slept for the first time in nine days.
In early December he hopped a four-engine prop bound for the states. He landed at Travis Air Force Base in southern California. His first impulse was to call home. He next reported to Oak Knoll Navy Hospital near Oakland, where he underwent skin grafts and three months of physical therapy. During his rehab, the Purple Heart recipient recalls being torn by two emotions: “I felt sick about leaving and letting my buddies down. But the other side of it was I was really thankful to get out. Eight months there was enough.” His long voyage back ended almost a year to the day his Korean odyssey began. A relieved Ramsey arrived to “the quiet of my wonderful home.” He downed a beer and thanked God the journey was over at last.
Upon his return (he graduated from Creighton University) he was dismayed by the indifference civilians expressed toward the raging conflict. From its start in June 1950 to its conclusion three years later, it never captured the public’s imagination. Many observers feel it came too quickly on the heels of World War II for Americans — then preoccupied with living the good life — to care. Cloaked under the murky misnomer “police action,” it became a shadow war.
President Harry S. Truman summed up the national mood when he called it “that dirty little war.” Its status as “the forgotten war” was sealed when it ended not with victory but an armistice leaving Korea still divided at the 38th Parallel (with a permanent American military presence there to keep the peace.) Lost on many was the fact the true objective – preserving a democratic South Korea — was accomplished. In the larger scheme of things, a free South Korea has emerged as a thriving economic juggernaut while a closed North Korea has withered in poverty. Ramsey saw for himself the economic miracle wrought in South Korea on a 1979 trip there. He met a people grateful for his and his comrades’ sacrifices. Monuments abound in recognition of the U.N. “freedom fighters.”
It is only recently, however, these veterans got their due in America. In 1995 the Korean War Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. (Ramsey was there). In the late ‘70s Ramsey, whose post-war life has been devoted to causes, spearheaded the erection of a joint Korean-Vietnam War monument in Omaha’s Memorial Park. The monument has received a recent refurbishing and the addition of a flower garden. This year, he started a Nebraska chapter of the National Korean War Veterans Association.
For vets who went to hell and back, the war is never far from their thoughts. “I’m proud to have served. We stood fast. We saved the south. I can think of no higher compliment than to be called a freedom fighter,” said Ramsey, who, in 1997, faced a new enemy — prostate cancer. Aggressive treatments have left him cancer free. In August, he attended a reunion of his 1st Marine Division mates. “My admiration continues to grow for the Marines with whom I served,” he said. For their heroic actions there, the division received the rarely bestowed Presidential Unit Citation.
- Korean War veterans reunite to share memories (knoxnews.com)
- Legacy of the Korean War (theworld.org)
- The Korean War 60 years on: Images from the conflict (independent.co.uk)
I am drawn to stories with multiple layers and textures, and the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is a good example, as it resonates on social, cultural, historical, and artistic levels, among others. The piece uses the production of the August Wilson play Jitney to look at the gypsy cab phenomenon that is the context for the drama and to look at the theater company that put on this production and its founder-director, John Beasley. When I found out that Beasley himself had driven a jitney in his hometown of Omaha, the symmetrey was complete. Beasley has a distinguished track record acting in Wilson plays in regional theater and he is personally responsible for introducing Wilson’s work to Omaha. His company, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, has performed virtually the entire cycle of Wilson plays and is considered a fine interpreter of the late playwright’s work. Beasley knew Wilson and for the production of Jitney I wrote about here he brought to Omaha two more veterans of Wilson plays in the actors Anthony Chisolm and Willis Burks.
Get Your Jitney On: August Wilson Play ‘Jitney’ at the John Beasley Theater
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gypsy cabbies are at the heart of a milestone event in Omaha theatrical history unfolding this month at the John Beasley Theatre & Workshop, located in the South Omaha YMCA at 3010 Q Street.
For its current production of celebrated American playwright August Wilson’s drama Jitney, the JBT’s assembled some of the leading interpreters of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s work. Its director, Claude Purdy, is perhaps the dramatist’s foremost collaborator outside famed director Lloyd Richards. Adding luster and weight to the ensemble cast are award-winning regional theatre and Broadway actors Anthony Chisholm and Willis Burks, members of Wilson’s stock company. The actors are joined on-stage by the theatre’s namesake, John Beasley, a Wilson regular who’s worked with Chisholm. In a first, Beasley appears in Jitney with each of his sons, Tyrone and Michael, both of whom he shares intense scenes with.
Boasting four artists closely associated with his signature plays, there’s even talk Wilson may visit Omaha to catch Jitney during its JBT run. Like his Broadway-produced Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer-winner for best drama), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences (Pulitzer and Tony Award-winner for best drama) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney’s set in Pittsburgh, Pa.’s black Hill District. The Wilson “canon,” as Chisholm calls it, is richly evocative of the monumental struggles and triumphs of the African-American experience, from slavery till today, as filtered through the rise and fall of one neighborhood Wilson knew as a child and rediscovered as an adult. It’s the place that nurtured him as an artist and that he’s chosen as a prism for telling The Black American Story.
Wilson has said his Hill plays are about “the unique particulars of black culture…I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us…through profound moments in our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves.”
In telling the story, the JBT’s gathered an unusual confluence of talent that president/artistic director John Beasley sees as a step towards his vision of making the two-year-old facility a regional theatre. It’s his hope the JBT continues being a magnet attracting top talent from around the country as well as a training ground and launching pad for local actors, directors, playwrights in pursuing their craft.
Nothing quite like this has happened on the Omaha theatre scene. Touring troupes from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Guthrie Theatre have done residencies. An occasional New York director or actor has come through. But Omaha hasn’t had this many artists of this caliber work in a locally produced play, unless you count opera, since 1955. That’s when two Hollywood-Broadway icons at the peak of their powers, native Nebraskans Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, returned to perform in an Omaha Community Playhouse benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s ingenue daughter, Jane, made her debut in that same show.
Now, half-a-century later, the JBT is stamping itself as an important regional presenter of a living master playwright’s work. The New Yorker’s John Lahr has said of Wilson, “No one except perhaps Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams has aimed so high and achieved so much in the American theater.”
Although set in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the action reverberates with the wider black experience. For example, John Beasley drove a jitney out of two Omaha stands — Chappie’s Corner and Speedy Delivery — in the late 1960s. “Yeah, those were the days, man,” he said. “We’d go into the jitney stand in the morning and give the owner something like a $6 fee. It’d say ‘Pickup and Delivery’ on the window of the store, but everybody knew what it was. And then when the calls came in you took ‘em in order. Some of us had regular customers. They’d call in and ask for certain guys. ‘You got a car? Yeah, where you going?’ A dollar would carry you most places. You used your own car. Unmarked. I had a little raggedy Ford at the time. I think the farthest west we went was the Crossroads.”
Unregulated cabs have long been a fixture on Omaha’s Near Northside, where they serve a gap left by city sanctioned and state licensed cab companies reluctant to serve residents there. Since the displacement of homes and businesses by the riots and North Freeway construction of the late ‘60s, north Omaha’s high crime rep has made regular cabbies even more leery of taking calls or cruising for fares there. “There’s still jitneys today. Cabs don’t want to come to the north side. It provides a service to people who maybe don’t have cars or don’t have licenses. And as high as gas is going, a lot of poor people can’t afford to drive,” Beasley said.
Jitneys are officially banned, but authorities look the other way because they do fill a need. As Beasley put it, “What are they going to do? Nobody else is serving the neighborhood.” Anyone in north Omaha can tell you where to find one. Postings for their services adorn public bulletin boards. Former University of Nebraska at Omaha public administration professor Peter Suzuki drove a jitney in Omaha in the early ‘70s to research a series of published papers he wrote on the subject. He said drivers of that era were typically young men — as Beasley was then — or retirees looking to make ends meet. Jitney stands, bookie joints and after-hours spots were vital parts of the black community. “That’s why the story resonates with me so much,” Beasley said. “It’s a black experience. A personal experience.”
Partly based on the denizens of a Pittsburgh jitney operation, the play gives voice to a working-class segment of black American culture. Anthony Chisholm said, “It shows how this cab station contributed to the service of the community. It was a lifeblood of the Hill. It gives you a peak into a certain category of lives there that made up the mosaic of the whole. It shows black men in the throes of survival.”
A building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District
Amid their patter, invective and humor is revealed an authentic, vital vignette of inner city street life rarely glimpsed by non-black audiences. But the real power of the words and ideas is they are culturally specific yet universal. Chisholm suggests that with only minor changes the play would work equally well with “white working class” characters. Their lives are similar. “The soul and humanity in these words are in every human being on this planet,” he said. “There’s a lot of humanity in Jitney.”
Guest director Claude Purdy said that above all, he loves “the language” of Wilson. “He’s a poet.” Purdy’s strong ties with Wilson put him on intimate terms with the icon. Their friendship goes back to when they were emerging artists in their shared hometown of Pittsburgh, whose Hill District is the inspiration for the writer’s projected ten-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. It was Purdy who suggested Wilson turn his Black Bart poems into a play and leave Pittsburgh for St. Paul, Minn.’s lively theater scene. Purdy preceded him there to direct at the Penumbra Theatre Company, a black regional theater. It was, indeed, in St. Paul where the largely self-educated Wilson turned playwright. He only found his voice, however, after returning to Pittsburgh and steeping himself in its culture.
Among the venues where Purdy’s mounted Wilson’s work is the American Conservatory Theatre, the L.A. Theatre Center, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Penumbra and the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. He’s also directed regional-national tours of various Wilson works. Guest actors Anthony Chisholm (Burr Redding on HBO’s Oz, the film Beloved) and Willis Burks (CBS’ Law & Order, the film Sunday) have worked extensively in Wilson plays. They workshopped Jitney with him. They and castmates of the original 2000 New York production won Drama Desk/Obie Awards for best ensemble performance. Jitney won the Drama Critics Circle Award as best play of the year, one of seven Wilson works so honored. Chisholm appears in Wilson’s new play, Gem of the Ocean, opening on Broadway in the fall. Each man considers it “a privilege” to speak Wilson’s words.
“He’s a philosopher and a poet along with being a great storyteller,” Chisholm said. “He writes really deep stuff. His passages are food for thought for everyone. I always recommend anyone take the time to read his plays. If you read O’Neill or Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare or Chekhov, or you’re just in the habit of reading, then his work is a must.”
According to Burks, “Saying the words of such a powerful writer as August Wilson is like speaking the words of my own Shakespeare because his work is about my people and what we do and what we are as a community. I can relate with that. Not that I can’t with Shakespeare. But I have more ties with these types of characters that we play. In my neighborhood where I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, I saw these same people. I knew these same people.”
John Beasley claims his own Wilson connection. The owner of major props in film (Rudy, The Apostle) and TV (Everwood), the Omahan first came to prominence in Wilson plays on Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta regional theatre stages.
Under Beasley’s guidance, the JBT is fast becoming an August Wilson showcase. Housed in the site of the defunct Center Stage Theatre, where Beasley honed his own acting chops, the JBT grew out of a kind of rescue mission. In 2002, he reopened the abandoned Center Stage by mounting Wilson’s Tony Award-winning drama Fences, which he directed and starred in. Its success led the Omaha Housing Authority, which oversees the La Fern Williams Center the theatre is part of, to rename the Center Stage in Beasley’s honor. That’s when he and son Tyrone, himself a regional theatre veteran, began taking ownership of the JBT.
Since Fences, the JBT’s presented Ain’t Misbehavin and the Wilson plays Joe Turner’s and Two Trains and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. It’s no accident Jitney is the fourth Wilson play among the JBT’s six offerings to date. “August Wilson is arguably America’s greatest living playwright,” Beasley said. “His work is always well-received. But I still don’t see theaters around here taking on his plays. I think it’s essential, especially in Omaha where we really don’t have a minority media voice, to have this arena,”.
In Beasley’s eyes, Wilson reveals a story often withheld or obscured. “Basically, he deals with every decade of the 20th century…with blacks migrating from the south to Pittsburgh and what they faced once they got there,” he said. “His characters talk about what happened back down south and touch on some of the reasons they came north. It’s always their stories. The plays deal with the era of urban renewal, when a lot of black businesses and neighborhoods were being boarded-up and blight set in and how, once redevelopment came in, blacks were being forced out. You can see the same pattern here in Omaha. He’s really telling the black American story, but the thing about August’s work is it’s not just the black experience, it’s the human experience, and that’s why I love August.”
Beasley’s elicited the same strong identification from white audiences playing Troy Maxson in Fences as he has playing Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. “Both are tragic figures who had a dream dashed,” he said. Each craves recognition, affirmation. As Loman says, “attention must be paid.”
The men in Jitney share similar regrets and rants. They comprise an independent, disparate breed of urban entrepreneurs threatened by encroaching “progress.” Representing a variety of ages and life experiences, they must all hustle to get by. There’s Becker, the weary cab stand owner whose heart has grown cold over the terrible mistake his son Booster made. In his stage debut, KETV photojournalist and Kaleidoscope host/producer Ben Gray plays Becker. Tyrone Beasley essays the estranged Booster. As Turnbo, the resident gossip always messing in other people’s business, John Beasley assumes a role he’s performed many times before. In the part of Youngblood, the upwardly mobile Vietnam vet desperate to escape The Life, is Michael Beasley. The former pro basketball player made his JBT debut last year in Two Trains under the direction of his brother Tyrone.
As Fielding, a former tailor who drinks too much pining for his ex-wife, Anthony Chisholm recreates one of the roles he’s become identified with. Playing Doub, the sardonic Korean War vet, is Omaha actor Vince Alston. Shealy, the good-natured numbers runner, is recreated by Willis Burks. Familiar Omaha actor Kevin Williams appears as Philmore, a frequent customer and the stand’s drunk comic relief. The only female character, Rena, is the distressed wife of Youngblood. She’s played by Iris Perez, a Hot 107.7 FM on-air personality and just one of many talented local actresses the JBT’s developed in its ongoing acting workshops.
Tensions and jokes abound among the men of Jitney. Personal baggage weighs them down. Their lively exchanges and monologues ring with the authentic African-American vernacular, idiom, patios and sensibility that Wilson could only get from careful observation and listening, something he did haunting the Hill District’s juke joints, bars, diners, clubs, hotels, whore houses, jitney stands and bookie parlors.
Chisholm and Burks have walked with Wilson through those same streets, going to some of those very places and meeting the colorful figures he’s based characters on. They’ve heard the laughter and despair. Wilson is known to write listening to the strains of Bessie Smith and other great black music stylists and his spoken words do echo the plaintive tone, lyrical jive and lift-up-thy-voice testimony of gospel, soul, jazz and the blues. “All of his work has that really nice rhythm about it,” said Beasley. “It’s jazz. That’s how his plays sound to me. I compare him to Shakespeare. It wasn’t until I learned the music of his writing that it really flowed for me. Every word is well chosen for a certain rhythm…for a certain effect.”
The words are often quite funny, too. Burks said he and Chisholm were part of an early tour of Jitney on “the chitlin circuit,” where they played to audiences in broad comic strokes. “It can go in that direction,” he said. “The laughs are there.” It was later brought back to its dramatic roots. The actors also witnessed Wilson expand the play by more than an hour. “It was a different play then from what it is now,” Burks said, adding that whole characters were dropped and others made over. Burks character Shealy became “less fly” and more “respectable.” Chisholm’s Fielding was “rounded out” and given a “back story” drawn from the actor’s tailor-father. Booster was made less “gangsta” and more “educated.”
When the Jitney men learn the surrounding neighborhood is slated for demolition, their cab stand becomes a kind of metaphorical last stand for all they hold dear. In the end, each stands alone, yet together. “What is it about is a tough question to answer because it’s such an ensemble piece. Every character has his own story,” said JBT associate artistic director Tyrone Beasley. “It’s like a slice of life that comes into focus at this critical moment in their lives.”
“That’s what Jitney is, it’s a slice of life,” John Beasley said. “The interesting thing to me is the relationships between each of these individuals and how they eventually pull together for a common goal. Even Turnbo, who’s a pain in the ass. They’ve got a business to save. Like one of ‘em says, ‘Where else can you make $40 a day?’ That was pretty good money in the black community in those days. It was a decent enough way to make a living. It was a necessary business, too.”
What Beasley’s doing with Jitney is part of a stated mission to move his theatre to the next level. “I want to do things not being done by other theatres in town, which is basically plays by and about minorities. I want this to be a regional theatre where established artists can come and work with local artists. What I’m finding is, it’s taking on a life of its own,” he said.
Jitney’s guest artists say they’re down for return engagements and support the JBT’s aim of joining America’s handful of black regional theatres. “In regional theater it’s all about putting it together and making a good ensemble piece. It’s working with people who respect the writer and respect the process. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the same thing here,” said Burks. Chisholm added, “It’s a great opportunity to work your chops.”
- Stephen McKinley Henderson, an August Wilson Stalwart (nytimes.com)
- A Private Jitney for Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog? (observer.com)
- Millburn Jitney Stop to Stay (maplewood.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Jitney minibuses offer a cheaper option for N.J. passengers, but ride can be risky (nj.com)
- Award-Winning Playwright Lanford Wilson Dies (foxnews.com)
- Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crowns: Black Women and Their Hats (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)