Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Little Plane Table Work

A week ago I picked up some old photographs that are claimed to be of Army surveyors doing some plane table survey work on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The notations on the back of each photo gives each Soldier's name and the date - November 1959.  While the location is supposed to be Fort Belvoir there's no written indication that is the actual location. However, having been assigned to Fort Belvoir a number of times I'll say that the vegetation certainly has that 'northern Virginia in the fall' look about it, so I'll accept the fact that we are looking at a location on or near Fort Belvoir.

Another clue is the Soldiers, and more specifically their uniforms.  There's no sleeve rank on any of their field jackets or shirts, indicating to me they are trainees attending advanced individual training at either the Engineer School or the Army Map Service school on Fort Belvoir.  These are most likely young men - probably draftees - who are learning the trade of surveying after graduating from Army basic training.  They simply haven't been in the Army long enough to earn rank beyond that of Private.

Plane table surveying was once the primary method of developing detailed sketches and surveys of small areas.  The geodetic and topographic surveys would establish he broad framework of survey control and elevation for large areas or regions.  The plane table surveyors would follow behind filling in the details - roads, buildings, fence lines, monuments, prominent topology and geology, etc.  Plane table work was a close meld of surveying and cartography, and plane table sketches done by talented surveyors are true works of art.

Alas, plane table surveying is also a lost art.  It died off back in the 1980s with the introduction of electronic surveying systems - total stations - that can collect data much faster and much more accurately than a surveyor standing at a plane table.  While the output of a total station lacks any sense of artistic composition, the data tends to be more accurate and precise.

But back to our young men.  They had to have scored fairly high on their Army entrance tests to qualify for training as a surveyor, so this was a smart group of guys.  Odds are they all had very good math skills.

My guess is these young fellows all did their two year military obligations, left the service and went on to enjoy life in the civilian world.  A few probably went to college using the generous VA education benefits still in place in the 1950s, a few probably moved on to employment in blue collar jobs.  Odds are none of them stuck with surveying in the civilian world - that's just the way things went.  However, I'm hoping that their exposure to surveying and mapping enticed at least one of them to pursue a civil engineering-related field once they left the service.

So let's introduce our hale and hearty young surveyors!

Jim Heichel

Gustafson (no first name given)

McNeely & Robinson (again, no first names)

Robinson (sitting, recording), Gustafson (left)
and McNeeley (right)

These fine fellows are all in their 70s now and hopefully are looking back on long, successful and happy lives. I hope they view their time in the Army with great fondness and the memories of the this beautiful fall day spent in the field learning plane table work brings a smile to their faces.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Patton's Prayer

In early December 1944 General George S. Patton's 3rd Army was stalled in front of the Siegfried Line along the French - German border.  Patton was a master of combined arms operations and he knew he needed tactical air support from the Army Air Forces before he could breach the Siegfried Line and push on towards the Rhine River.

But the weather was not cooperating.  The winter of 1944 was one of the worst on record for central Europe.  Thick cloud decks and heavy fog were keeping Allied aircraft grounded all across France and the Low Countries.  Patton was frustrated, impatient and angry.  He saw German resistance crumbling before him yet he knew he couldn't push forward into the German homeland without adequate air cover.  The 3rd Army and its supporting Air Force ground attack squadrons were a deadly team.  Ground-based artillery often had trouble keeping up with the 3rd Army's advanced forces, but the Air Force's growing fleet of attack aircraft like the rugged and deadly P-47 Thurderbolt could range ahead of the forward ground forces, striking military strong points, attacking enemy convoys and in general wreaking havoc and helping to open lines of advance for Pattons armored formations.

In the second week of December Patton's frustration hit a boiling point.  Patton was a man of deep religious faith and he absolutely believed that God was on the side of the Allies.  The General decided it was time to remind the Good Lord just who's side he was supporting.  On December 8th Patton put out an order directing all 3rd Army chaplains to pray for good weather.  At the same time he called for his staff chaplain, Colonel James O'Neill.

I quote from Patton's published diary of WWII, 'War As I Knew It':

General Patton: "Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather.  I'm tired of these soldiers having to fight mud and floods as well as the Germans.  See if we can't get God to work on our side."

Chaplain O'Neill:  "Sir, it's going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying."

General Patton:  "I don't care if it takes the flying carpet, I want the praying done."

Chaplain O'Neill:  "Yes, sir.  May I say, General, that it usually isn't a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men."

General Patton:  "Chaplain, are you teaching me theology or are you the Chaplain of the Third Army?  I want a prayer."

Chaplain O'Neill:  "Yes, sir."

What Chaplain O'Neill came up with is one of the classic military prayers:

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend.  Grand us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen".

After the war the chaplain, Monsignor James O'Neill (by that time a retired Brigadier General) wrote down his version of the story.  It helps clarify some of the dates surrounding the event.  In the classic movie 'Patton' starring George C. Scott we are led to believe that Patton orders the prayer in reaction to 3rd Army's difficulty reaching the Ardennes as they advanced to relieve American forces trapped during the Battle of the Bulge.  The truth is that Patton ordered this prayer at least a week before the Germans launched their offensive into the Ardennes.

Patton directed that the prayer, along with his Christmas greeting to the Soldiers of the 3rd Army, be printed and distributed just before Christmas.  The printing job was immense.  Virtually every Soldier in the 3rd Army was to receive a copy so hundreds of thousands of copies needed to be printed, and printed fast.  The job was beyond the capability of the printing services available within the 3rd Army Adjutant General's office.  Chaplain O'Neill discussed the requirement with the 3rd Army Engineer and the decision was made to have the 664th Engineer Topographic Battalion, with its multiple large format offset presses, execute the print mission.

Patton's prayer, printed on the back side of his Christmas
greeting to the Soldiers of 3rd Army

Patton's Christmas greeting (front side)

By December 14th 1944 the prayer was distributed throughout 3rd Army.  On December 16th the German Army launched operation 'Wacht am Rhein' ('Watch on the Rhine') or as we refer to it today, the Battle of the Bulge.  Hitler's plan was to attack west through the Ardennes region in Belgium, capture the port of Antwerp, split the Allied armies in two and force the Americans and British to accept a separate peace. Within 24 hours of being notified of the German offensive Patton turned the entire 3rd Army 90 degrees and raced north to relieve the trapped forces.  Patton smelled blood; the Germans had stuck their neck out and he intended to cut it off.  But he still had to contend with the weather.

For seven days the American forces trapped in the Ardennes pocket struggled to hold back the German onslaught, but were denied close air support due to the foul weather. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, on December 23rd the weather cleared.  Allied aircraft could range freely over the Ardennes and they extracted a fearsome toll on the Germans.  At the same time 3rd Army forces smashed into the southern flank of the German pocket, shattering and all but destroying the enemy forces before it.  The German Army never recovered from the Battle of the Bulge and 'Wacht am Rhein' was the last offensive ever mounted by Hitler's military.

Patton was convinced that the prayer, as applied by all the 3rd Army Soldiers who received a copy, was instrumental in changing the weather in the Allies favor.  In Patton's mind it was confirmation that God was on his side and on the side of the 3rd US Army.  For his part in composing the prayer Chaplain O'Neill was personally awarded the Bronze Star medal by Patton.

The story of Patton's prayer is important to me for two reasons.  First, the images of the card you see above are those of an original card issued to my uncle, Captain Andy Harbison.  Andy was a battery commander in the 176th Field Artillery Battalion which was operating in General Support of 3rd Army.  He signed the card and sent it home to my aunt, Dorothy (Dottie) Harbison in Buffalo, NY.

This extract from the 176th's field log highlights the battalion's involvement in the Battle of the Bulge.

The second reason is the 664th Engineer Topographic Battalion's involvement in the printing of Patton's 1944 Christmas greeting and prayer.  While not a 'mapping' mission, it still represents a fascinating piece of US Army WWII topographic history.  Almost 39 years to the day after General Patton ordered these cards printed I reported for duty with the indirect successor of the 644th Engineer Topographic Battalion.  As a young Engineer captain I found myself assigned to the 649th Engineer Battalion (Topographic) in Schwetzingen, Germany.  The 649th provided topographic support - mapping, survey, terrain analysis and map distribution - to all US Army forces in the European theater. A tenuous connection perhaps, but I like to think that I am part of the legacy of units that helped the US Army achieve victory in WWII.

So, like General Patton, let me wish you all a holiday greeting in the firm belief that the Good Lord is on our side.

Merry Christmas!


Friday, December 6, 2013

GPS Proves Einstein!

Well, it verifies Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.

Here's a very interesting video of the 2012 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate on whether neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light.  One of my favorite scientists, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson (the fellow whom Sheldon Cooper blamed for having Pluto downgraded from a planet to a mere ball of ice) does a great job of moderating and keeps the discussion both lively and understandable for public school graduates like me.

Part of the discussion focuses on Einstein's Theories of Relativity, both Special and General.  The General Theory of Relativity states that time moves faster in low gravitational fields.  This is known as gravitational time dilation.  Starting about the 30 minute mark the discussion turns to how the atomic clocks on board the US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are intentionally 'slowed' to compensate for the changes in the progression of time in lowered gravitational fields. One of the panel members, Dr. Christopher Hegarty of the MITRE corporation, comments on how tests have shown that if the clocks on the GPS satellites are not intentionally slowed then the signal accuracy based on the uncompensated clock will drop from a few dozen feet to about 11 kilometers in just one day!

Dr. Hegarty also comments about how some of the time compensation computations are actually handled by the GPS receiver software.

So remember folks, every time you fire up your GPS (or even just use your smartphone to find the nearest Starbucks) you are helping to verify the Theory of General Relativity.  Go Einstein!