Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering a Forgotten Hero from Grand Rapids

A common slogan around Memorial Day or during a heartbreaking funeral for a recent war casualty is, "We'll Never Forget!" Well, I'm fairly certain that most of the citizens of the Greater Grand Rapids community do not remember Alfred Medendorp.

Young Alfred Medendorp in Grand Rapids
Born in 1907 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, young Alfred had moved to Grand Rapids with his parents several years later where his brother and two sisters were born. Like many in the area at the time, his father had been born in the Netherlands marrying his mother upon arrival in the United States.

Alfred attended South High School and then at just nineteen years of age, married Dorothy Schutt from Dayton, Ohio during the summer of 1927. He set up a chiropractor business while they lived on Division Avenue near Burton Heights and shortly after, they moved to Griggs Street.  Alfred and Dorothy parented three children. He was a graduate of the National College of Chiropractic in Chicago.

Sometime toward the end of the 1930s, Alfred joined the local 126th Infantry National Guard unit at the old Michigan Street Armory near Ionia and Division. When the Guard nationwide was activated in the fall of 1940 for a year of training, then Lieutenant Medendorp left with the 126th for Camp Beauregard, Louisiana where they trained for "modern" warfare on potentially a European battlefield. But December 7, 1941 changed all of that.

U.S. Soldiers on the beach at Buna
Federalized after just completing a year away from home, the 126th, which included National Guard companies from Grand Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Grand Haven, Big Rapids, Ionia, Adrian and Kalamazoo, was first entrained and sent to Fort Devins, Massachusetts for deployment to Northern Ireland as part of the planned invasion of Europe in the war against Nazi Germany. But General MacArthur was screaming for more troops in the Southwest Pacific to stave off the Japanese Imperial Army's juggernaut and eventually regain the Philippines. He specifically asked for the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division, a combined Michigan-Wisconsin National Guard unit that earned fame during World War I and included the 126th Infantry from West Michigan. His public rants and tendency to pressure President Roosevelt worked and the 126th along with the rest of the division turned around and headed cross-country to San Francisco. Now a captain, Medendorp was in charge of a section of the vehicle convoy that made the 2,200-mile trek sans any decent transcontinental road network. The balance of the 126th travelled by train.

Medendorp and the regiment were shipped that summer to Australia where they continued to train and for what they thought would be the defense of that continent. But MacArthur had different plans and instead threw the unprepared Red Arrows -- with the 126th in the lead -- into jungle warfare in an grueling effort to defeat the Japanese on New Guinea. Medendorp was put in command of two companies that would attempt to traverse the Owen-Stanley Mountain range that split the island in two. The purpose was to beat back the Japanese forces and eventually drive them into the sea.

In his unpublished memoirs, written aboard a troop ship returning home following three years in the South Pacific, Medendorp reminisced that, "Words cannot describe the hardships of that march over the mountains. Besides the steep climbs and descents, there was the daily rain, rivers to ford, wet cold nights, and lack of proper and sufficient rations (the 126th's commander had been killed in a plane crash trying to resupply Medendorp's men and the rest of the 2nd battalion during this trek). The men straggled and lay exhausted all along the trail, but most of them managed to get through, although it sometimes took them until late at night.... With the rest of the men, I went through the pass over the dreaded GHOST MOUNTAIN. One man died on that part of the march."

The Red Arrow Division went on to route the stubborn Japanese at Buna at the cost of hundreds of dead or missing soldiers and thousands of wounded. After rebuilding with new replacements during a rest-and-recovery period in Australia, the 126th continued the fight through Leyte, Luzon and eventually the Philippines. The regiment's last duty of World War II was the occupation of Japan. Along with the rest of the 32nd Division, it had seen a record 654 days of combat.

Posing with his sister-in-law
Medendorp returned home and resumed life with his family and continued as an officer in the local National Guard. In 1954, he volunteered to serve as an advisor to the Nationalist Chinese on the tiny but strategically important island of Quemoy who were staving off an invasion by the mainland Communist Chinese.  On September 3, artillery shelling of the island had been underway for nearly five hours when now Lieutenant Colonel Medendorp and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Lynn of Illinois were both hit by the shelling and killed during what was supposed to be a routine visit to the island for training and inspections.

Back in Grand Rapids, his father said he had written the previous June that "Chinese Reds" were then firing on the island. Colonel Medendorp told him the Reds had offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of any American officer and that the situation was such that he and other U.S. Army men did not dare step outside their quarters unarmed.

A simple military headstone marks the grave of Medendorp
Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Medendorp was laid to rest in Rest Lawn Memorial Cemetery on Eastern Avenue near 32nd Street.  On May 30, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson mentioned Medendorp along with eight others in a special honor roll during traditional Memorial Day ceremonies, although he got the year he was killed wrong. The President remarked that, "These men represent all those Americans who have risked their lives -- and lost them -- in the peace-building efforts that America has made since 1945. They were sent on their missions because this Nation believes that peace is not something that just happens. Peace does not come just because we wish for it. Peace must be fought for. It must be built stone by stone."

Nearly forty years after his death, a memorial was erected on the spot where Medendorp had been killed by the shelling.

A Chinese epitaph states:

US military Lt. Col. Alfred Medendorp, a former member of the U. S. Army Military Assistance Group was killed in combat at the Kinmen Shuitou Wharf during the Artillery Bombardment of September 3rd (September 1954). He died in action under the fire of the Communist China’s artillery. He was 47 years old (1907-1954).

In the fall of 1954, on the eve of the Southeast Asia Convention, Communist China attempt to exert pressure over the nations attending the convention to influence the agenda of the convention. Driven by a desire to pound the Kinmen area in a surprise offensive, China bombarded a navy vessel docked at Shuitou Wharf to strengthen its international clout, thus bringing to reality its political blackmail scheme. Since Communist China dared not launch a direct offensive, it resorted to the violent bombardment of Kinmen.

September 3, 3:00 p.m. Communist Chinese artillery began pounding the islands of Kinmen (Greater Quemoy and Lesser Quemoy), and sending surprise attacks on Shuitou Wharf. Kinmen Defense Commander Gen. Liu Yu-Chang immediately ordered the artillery troops to launch counter strikes to suppress the Chinese attacks. Communist China pounded Kinmen for two straight hours that day, and continued to launch fragment cannon attacks until 8 in the evening. None of the villages along the coasts of the Kinmen Islands had been spared. The military accounted over 5,000 rounds had been fired to Kinmen. The offensive was a prologue of the cross-strait artillery battles between Communist China and Taiwan.

(Artillery Bombardment of September 3rd) In the fifteen-day period that followed September 3rd, Communist Chinese fired 8,767 cannon rounds towards the Kinmen area. The attacks damaged the Shuitou Wharf and several civilian housings, as well as killed over 10 military personnel; Lt. Col. Alfred Medendorp of the United States Military was among those killed in action. The heroic fighting spirit of the front defense line awed the Communist Chinese troops and earned the respect and admiration of the ROC and foreign nationals.

In memory of the unselfish and heroic sacrifice of Lt. Col. Medendorp, the R.O.C. Government issued a “Cloud and Banner Medal” of honor award to him. In 1992, upon the request of the National Guard Association of the United States, the government erected a monument at the spot where Lt. Col. Medendorp was killed. The monument was designed and constructed under the supervision of the contemporary Lieh-Yu Division Commander - Army Major General Kao Hua-Chu and the incumbent Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Commission. Following the completion of the stone, the Chief of the General Staff, General First Class Liu Ho-Chien inscribed the memorial epitaph. The stone (Lt. Col. Alfred Medendorp monument) was erected on August 7, 1992.

The monument inscription:

In Commemoration

Lieutenant Colonel, Army of the United States 
U. S. Army Military Assistance Group
first U. S. soldier killed in action 
at this location during hostile artillery bombardment
3 September 1954

Colonel Medendorp, a National Guard officer from the
State of Michigan, volunteered to help defend freedom
After distinguished combat service in WWII.

Awarded the Republic of China 
Order of the Cloud and Banner 
November, 1954

Dedicated. 1992 Republic of China
in coordination with 
National Guard Association of the United States

Sunday, April 12, 2015

President Thomas Jefferson's Birthday

Few American presidents are as complex as Jefferson nor do they invoke as much debate over their respective places in history. While arguments abound over his morals, particularly in regards to slavery, there is little doubt about his intellectual superiority for the time, and his gift of writing for the ages.

April 13 marks the birthdate of President Jefferson, a date that is encoded in federal law:

36 U.S. Code § 141 - The President shall issue each year a proclamation—
(1) calling on officials of the United States Government to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on April 13; and
(2) inviting the people of the United States to observe April 13 in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies in commemoration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.
While best known for drafting the Declaration of Independence, he was a prolific writer on many topics, including education:
Jefferson understood that freedom depends on self-government: the cultivation of self-reliance, courage, responsibility, and moderation. Education contributes to both the knowledge and virtues that form a self-governing citizen. By proposing a bill in Virginia that would have established free schools every five to six square miles, Jefferson sought to teach “all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic.” With these skills, a child would become a citizen able to “calculate for himself,” “express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts,” and “improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.” 
Jefferson viewed this basic education as instrumental to securing “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” for Americans because it helps an individual “understand his duties” and “know his rights.”
In one of his writings, a "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," Jefferson noted that education in general is important to guarding against tyranny:
...experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes ... whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance...
At the very least, folks should take time to better understand one of our greatest presidents and a good place to start is right here: After all, debate is only purposeful when it comes from learned minds.

Friday, April 10, 2015

On the Road with the Class of 2015 - Part 4

As I’m writing, we’re somewhere in Georgia winding our way home at the end of a whirl-wind, eight-day senior trip to Orlando, Florida. We just completed a driver switch and we’re back on the road. We bid farewell to Lew and his wife Carol who not only provided our transportation this past week, but also became our friends and a deeper part of our famiLEE. This is not the first time Lew has driven for the senior trip and we hope not the last. The couple is from the Grand Rapids area and their familiarity with our district served to deepen the bond. It was heartening to see the number of students that gave Carol a hug and Lew a handshake goodbye.

I have some mixed emotions from my experience this week. Earlier as we embarked on our journey home, the kids gave me a Disney coffee mug for coming along and helping out. It was a considerate gesture and if there’s something I learned about Godfrey-Lee kids over the past thirteen years, they love to express their thanks in often small but meaningful ways. I saw that early on when I came to Lee Middle School as principal during the summer of 2002, when I drove past a car wash on Burton Street where high school kids were raising money to help out a family that had just lost a child in a tragic mishap. I’ve witnessed it time and time again since.

In truth however, my reward was far greater than a symbolic gesture of a coffee mug, which I happily place on my desk on Monday morning as a reminder of this unique experience. I can’t begin to quantify what I learned over the course of our adventure from these young men and women, who in just twenty-eight school days will each pass from student to graduate of Lee High School. If the past is prologue, after that eventful day it is unlikely that I’ll see or hear from most of them again. They’ll move on. Others will take their place. But having lived with them in close quarters these last eight days, I’m confident that despite some blemishes (we all have them), their teachers and parents have done a good job and each will be ready to move on to new challenges and adventures. To witness this firsthand and have the opportunity to know each of them just a little more is all the reward I could ever want.  It was also a joy to watch them
interact with their two teacher chaperones; not only the fun the students were able to have with or at their expense, but the genuine respect they have for Mr. Cahoon and Mr. Snyder.

Despite all the fun we had this week, I see in their eyes and hear in their voices that they’re ready to be home, to see their family and friends and get on with their lives. As is often typical, a few got on each others nerves, likely as much from the exhausting agenda as it was from not being used to sleeping four in a room. After only a short time some behaviors became predictable: the little conflicts, the minor struggles to meet curfew, the difficulty of waking them up in the morning, and consistent tardiness of one group in particular wherever we went. It was all part of the extended learning experience this trip provided for each senior along with responsibility of managing themselves 1,200 miles away from home.

With the exception of a few years, the tradition of a senior class trip is well embedded at Lee High School dating back over many decades. Some of the earliest trips were short, over-night excursions to Chicago by rail and steamer for a day in the Windy City. During Congressman Jerry Ford’s time, the senior class would venture first by rail and later by bus to Washington, DC. Many of these classes were able to pose with the eventual president in a photograph on the Capitol steps. In the latter half of the seventies, the trip was changed to a week in Florida. A lot of work goes into planning and preparing for each trip, and ultimately in supervising the trip itself. The dedication of teachers like Mr. Brian Cahoon, Mr. Pete Foote and others before them are just another part of what makes Lee High School that much more special. All week long as I was able to post photographs of our adventure to Facebook, many alumni commented on their respective class trips and the memories that came flooding back.

I know now first-hand how they feel.

On the Road with the Class of 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

On the Road with the Class of 2015 - Part 3

It’s been non-stop action since we left Lee High School early last Thursday morning. Thus far, we’ve journeyed over 1,200 miles by bus, toured the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky; enjoyed a few hours of sun, sand and sea at Daytona Beach; spent our first evening in Florida at Downtown Disney; enjoyed two full days at all four Disney theme parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom); spent a day at Universal Studios; and, just got back from the Tampa area and a full day at Busch Gardens. We’ve accomplished all of this in just six days.

Of the three chaperones (two teachers and myself), I probably have had the least contact with these students and so I’m less likely to know all of them as well as their teachers do. However, I have known a handful of them since they first entered middle school but this trip has given me pause
to think about what I really do know about them outside of school. In other words, while I know them as students and in some cases athletes, I know very little about them as whole persons on the precipice of becoming adults. While that might be expected of a superintendent who is most often removed from the lives of students, I find myself wondering how much our teachers and school administrators really do know about our kids, K-12? Beyond books and computers and classrooms and desks, how aware are we of our students’ dreams, hurts, cares, concerns, and everyday lives away from school?

While the focus of this trip is to provide a final bonding experience centered on having fun and seeing a part of the U.S. where most have never been, I think there’s a lot more gained by those members of the senior class who chose to join us. Just the process of earning and saving their money,
making the deadlines for payments, and then determining how much to bring along with them for meals, souvenirs, and whatever they want to spend it on is a tremendous accomplishment itself. Couple that with the growing anticipation over the trip, you have a great recipe for teaching kids about delayed satisfaction and the power of budgeting wisely. That’s not to say that all of them had to struggle to earn and save their own money to get here, but those that did are definitely being rewarded this week for their labors.

Today, we head first to Sea World and later on return to Universal Studios (more butter beer from Diagon Alley!). Tonight’s our last evening in Florida. Tomorrow, we check out of your motel before heading to Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon for the morning followed by one last swing through Hollywood Studios or other parts of Disney. We’ll be on the long road back home after that.

More pics from Busch Garden:


Sunday, April 5, 2015

On the Road with the Class of 2015 - Part 2

Easter Sunday

Three days of keeping up with members of the Lee High School senior class has caught up with me as I write, read, re-read and then fix the many mistakes in this post that keep me laughing this morning. I’ve run ultra-marathons but nothing prepared me for the mental and physical challenge of three sleepless nights complimented by non-stop days with thirty-one teenagers.

This is Easter morning and in a couple hours we’ll be loading up our bus and heading to a full day at Universal Studios. The kids are tired for sure but that doesn’t seem to reduce their appetite any. I got a Facebook message sometime around 1:15 this morning that read:

Can we have a pizza delivered to our room??? Were really hungry. Pleaseeee
Or they can deliver to ur room and u bring it to us. We dont really care we just want food lol

That about sums it up – they’re hungry. All the time, it seems!

Not unexpectedly, some of the kids are dragging a little and showing the fatigue (they have the luxury of doing so, while chaperones do not). It manifested itself in a bit of grouchiness yesterday but that’s to be expected. Most have never experienced Disney’s Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center so this was their first time to literally “drown” in all of the sights, sounds and smells that overwhelm your senses while acres of walking and waiting in lines in hot Florida weather saps your strength.

We put in a thirteen-hour day at the two Disney parks capped off by an amazing light late evening light show that seemed to continuously transform the magic castle right before or eyes, and colorful fireworks complete with a real-life fairy escaping the top window while “flying” off over our heads. After a little wait that allowed mostly families with young children to depart from the park ahead of the masses, our day ended with Disney’s now-famous electric parade.

Getting a little time to reflect on the way back motel and while waiting for the kids to settle in for the night, I thought back over the day and some of the reactions voiced by a handful of the seniors. Remembering my first time at Disney as a young adult in the pre-computer and video game days (well, Pong was around but that’s about it), I recall the wonder of some of the simplest technologies that undergirded most of the Magic Kingdom attractions. Life was definitely simpler at the time, so it was rather fascinating to listen to our kids concerns yesterday that there were no “big
roller coasters” and that most of the riding attractions were “lame.” They added a few more colorful words to their descriptions but you get the point.

It made me wonder how the explosion in technology and expansion of thrill-ride amusements over the past decades may be raising the bar for these parks. Today’s kids seem to want faster, higher, scarier thrills that do things to you rather than require you to participate in the creative simulations. Take EPCOT’s Space Mission shuttle simulator for example. While the “ride” can be intense, it is primarily a simulation of what it might feel like to blast off into space, journey to Mars, and (crash) land on the surface. While it does strange things to your body, you know you are in little danger. That was fine for me but didn’t seem to do much for the kids. I got the impression they would have preferred the “real thing” to a simulation.

This morning we headed to Universal Studios under overcast skies and threat of rain. It’s a shorter day as the park closes at 7 and I detected a bit of relief on the part of the kids (and chaperones). An early night, reasonably-priced dinner, and perhaps a relaxing swim will help prepare us for a couple of very long days coming up next.

Well, guess I'll catch up with the group and hit the thrill rides.

Happy Easter!