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Australia is often thought of as a laid-back nation whose relaxed citizens seem to be on permanent vacation. Perhaps this carefree attitude is due to more than 90% of the population living within the siren call of the beach. While much of their culture has been formed by an outlook based on surf and sand, the country has also experienced dark days and challenges throughout its history.

Victoria Barracks

victoria barracks sydney
There are several sights in Sydney that highlight the country’s military legacy.  A good place to start is at the Victoria Barracks, located on twenty-nine acres in the neighborhood of Paddington. Built in the 1840s by mostly convict labor, the colonnaded sandstone buildings are one of the finest historic barracks in the world.

Free tours are offered on Thursdays by the Victoria Barracks Corps of Guides, retired veterans wearing khaki Army slouch hats and blue blazers. Our guide, David, started our tour in the Guard House with a visit to the four cells that held “drunken and outrageous persons.” This being an Army base with young soldiers away from home, the cells were eventually expanded into another building.

victoria barracks sydney

David pointed out a metal badge on his cap and explained the significance of the crown in the center of the Australian Army symbol. The current logo has a female crown (yes, male and female crowns are different) representing the reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II. He pointed out that after “Lizzie goes” the logo will be updated to show a male crown for King Charles, or perhaps King William. Loyalty to the monarchy lives on in the Australian Army.

ANZAC  Memorial Sydney

The ANZAC Memorial is located in Hyde Park in central Sydney.  The term ANZAC is a revered one. It refers to the Australia New Zealand Army Corps that fought on the shifting sands of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey in World War I. It turned out to be a disaster; the soldiers were pinned to the beach and under constant enemy fire for eight months, only to be evacuated with tremendous losses.

ANZAC Memorial Sydney

Australians, being the positive creatures they are, view the battle as a supreme example of their soldiers’ gallantry and fortitude. One Korean War veteran explained that even though Gallipoli was a major defeat, “The nation was forged by that battle, it made Australia the nation that it is today. You can’t overestimate its significance.”

The square, 98-foot tall Art Deco memorial is clad in pink granite quarried from nearby Bathurst.  The interior’s main focus is a poignant statue of a soldier, whose lifeless body lies on a sword and shield, being held aloft by three women and an infant representing mother, wife, sister and child; those who were left behind by the brutality of war.

ANZAC memorial sydney sacrifice statue

The cruciform base of the Memorial houses a museum dedicated to Australia’s military history right up to the Gulf War. In the World War II section we were drawn to the display of Warrant Officer GN Milne’s diary; he was stationed at a hospital in Darwin, Australia when it was damaged by Japanese bombing raids.

The Australian National Maritime Museum

The last stop on our personal military campaign of Sydney was the Australian National Maritime Museum; perfect for a nation that is defined by the sea. The exhibition combines the finest aspects of a traditional museum—glass cases chock full of memorabilia—with the hands-on features of a “Please Touch” display.

The interactive displays include one where the visitor plays the role of a submarine sonar technician trying to decipher garbled underwater sounds. The player guesses what each sound represents and is promoted (or demoted) based on their response. We kept at it for some time until we could finally tell the difference between a group of porpoises and a damaged piston rod.

australian mational maritime museum lord nelson figurehead

At this point we had been to enough sobering military displays for one day. Fortunately the Maritime Museum also has an exhibit devoted to the nation’s surfing heritage. This is the Australia that lives on in foreign perceptions of the country. While the typical Australian’s outlook on life is pretty sunny, it is a nation that has witnessed dark clouds as well.

In one day we were able to witness both sides of Australia. A nation that was forged on the sands of Gallipoli was later nurtured on the sands of its beaches to create the vibrant country that it is today.

Visitor information:

Victoria Barracks/Army Museum of New South Wales

Location: Oxford Street in Paddington, a ten-minute bus ride from the center of Sydney. Buses 378, 380 and 382 stop right in front.

Web: Victoria Barracks and Army Museum of New South Wales

ANZAC Memorial

Location: Hyde Park South in the center of Sydney. Pretty much every city bus stops here. The nearest train station is Museum Station

Web: http://www.anzacmemorial.nsw.gov.au/

Australian National Maritime Museum

Location: Darling Harbour in Sydney. Easy access from the city center by foot, bus, light rail, ferry or monorail.

Web: http://www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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The city-state of Singapore is an intriguing place. An island perched at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, it’s a major trading port where goods have been exchanged among China, India and Arabia for centuries. Eventually a wide array of cultures emerged. In the early 1800s Great Britain colonized Singapore, providing this Asian melting pot with a dash of European flair.

We were only there for a few days, so to see as much as possible we decided to split up for a day in Singapore. Fortunately we knew some native Singaporeans who would be our guides. Constance volunteers at local museums while Russell is a student of history and an endless purveyor of trivia. If you have more time to spend in the city, you can find budget Singapore hotels to stay in.

A day in Singapore Rocky

Our fact-filled guides, Russell and Constance.

We planned to divide and conquer. Michael and Russell would have a typical guy day and tour sites related to Singapore’s pivotal role in World War II. Larissa and Constance designed a more refined tour, learning about both local culture and horticulture.

A day in Singapore

He Saw: The Fall of Fortress Singapore by Michael

Russell and I watched a Singapore Air Force F-16 fighter plane roar overhead as the pilot maneuvered into ever tightening circles. The high-pitched screams of its engines provided a thundering counterpoint to our quiet stroll through the manicured lawns of the Kranji War Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of military personnel killed in the World War II battle for Singapore. The British lost this battle to the Japanese, leading to the largest surrender of British forces in their long history.

The names on the headstones revealed the extensive reach of the British Commonwealth at that point. Alongside typically English names like Kirby, Lyon, and Roberts are Ibrahim, Abdul and Muhammad. Most of the world’s major religions are represented, at one time all fighting for a common cause. This ignominious defeat was the first step in the dismantling of the British Empire; the one on which the sun never set.

A day in Singapore Changi Cemetery

Earlier we had visited Fort Canning, site of the Battle Box, a series of bomb-proof underground bunkers where British commanders led the doomed defense of Fortress Singapore in February, 1942. These impregnable concrete structures lay buried and undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1988. The doors were still locked, just as the Japanese left them when they eventually surrendered to Allied forces. When reopened they were unchanged; in some rooms Japanese handwriting still covered the walls.

A guide handed us headsets before leading us into a damp, fetid bunker. Without warning the lights flickered and the sounds of bombs dropping reverberated in the headsets. The special effects gave us a small sample of what it was like for the British soldiers as they withstood the Japanese attack.

In a concrete meeting room life-like figures reenact the mounting tension of the British officers as the island’s supplies dwindled. Visitors are drawn into the painful conflict of commanding officer Lt. Gen. A.E. Percival as he wrestled with the dreadful decision to hoist the white flag.

A day in Singapore Battle Box

Touring the Battle Box with Russell was particularly poignant. The war took place before he was born, but his father, mother and older brother were among the last to leave Singapore before its fall. Their ship was captured and they remained prisoners of the Japanese for the remainder of the war.

After watching the intense debate about the decision to capitulate, we drove to the Old Ford Factory, to see where the actual surrender took place on Feb. 15th. The factory was commandeered by the Japanese as their Army headquarters during the battle. It sits on a hill so visitors trudge up the same driveway as Percival and his small entourage on their dreadful mission to hand over the British flag.

For such a dramatic event, the actual surrender took place in a rather prosaic place, the main conference room used by Ford executives. It’s set up just as it was when the Japanese and Commonwealth officers squared off on opposite sides of the table. A tape recording replays the agonizing moment when the British general reluctantly gave in. Additional exhibits tell the story of the harsh conditions imposed on civilians who were not able to escape Singapore before the onslaught.

Back at the Kranji War Cemetery I thought about the awful consequences of the war. My gaze rose from the lines of headstones up to that fighter plane circling overhead and wondered, over 60 years later, what lessons have been learned?

She Saw:  The People of Singapore, Four Hundred Years of Blended Culture by Larissa

I wanted to see some of what makes Singapore a unique blend of cultures. Our first stop was Little India; a neighborhood burgeoning with shops selling all things Indian, from spices to saris. We browsed in the food and fabric halls. Of special interest were the tofu stalls, selling the multiple varieties of soybean product so essential in vegetarian Indian cooking.

It was late morning, so Constance suggested a snack. We walked over to the food hall, known in Singapore as a hawker stall. Briyani kiosks vied with those selling chapatti, curries and anything else I’ve ever seen in an Indian restaurant. The sound of papadams sizzling vied with the hawkers calling out their daily specials. The aromas wafting over my head included chilies, coriander and a hint of cinnamon. Wanting to try something I hadn’t seen before, I chose a mutton curry. It was served on a banana leaf, a signature of Singapore.

Singapore day mutton curry

Thus fortified, we made our way across town to visit the Peranakan Museum. Housed in a former school, the museum presents the story of the combined Chinese and Malay culture that emerged in the 15th century. Singapore was a major trading port along the Malacca strait. Situated in a protected spot where Asia meets the Indian Ocean, the port was ideally situated for the exchange of European and Asian goods.

Wealthy Chinese merchants spent half the year living along the Malacca Strait, eventually marrying local Malay women. These blended Chinese/Malay families became known as “Straits Chinese” or Peranakans, a derivation of the Malay word anak, which means “to give birth to.”

Peranakans, didn’t fit into Chinese or Malay societies, so they quickly established their own. The wives became excellent businesswomen, maintaining the family shipping concerns while their husbands returned to China for part of the year. An entire matriarchic culture evolved with unique foods, dress and furnishings.

A day in Singapore day Peranakan architecture

Constance is a docent at this museum, so today she acted as my private tour guide. She led me through exhibits featuring various aspects of Peranakan daily life over the past 400 years. A series of interactive displays, especially the section on clothing, made it a fun tour. Even grown women (including us) could play “dress up,” trying on the sarongs and kabayas; the skirt and blouse combo unique to Peranakan women.

We left the museum and drove to the Blair Plain Historic District, the last remaining example of a Peranakan neighborhood in modern Singapore. Row houses in vivid shades of periwinkle, turquoise and tangerine cluster together on narrow streets, each displaying decorative tiles and ornate plaster ornamentation.

Inspired by the colors displayed in Blair Plain, we moved on to see color in nature in the form of orchids. Singapore boasts the largest outdoor orchid display in the world at the National Orchid Garden.  Orchids are finicky but the moist equatorial climate is perfect for them so they grow in abundance.

Over 600 varieties are shown at any given time, drawn from more than 2,000 species in the Garden’s collection. Orchids of every shape, color and size jostle for space and spill over onto walkways, drape from arbors and peek out from under trees. Petals of crimson and jade vie for attention with more traditional purples and whites, a wildflower meadow on tropical overdrive. Fortunately there are numerous winding paths that allow the visitor to absorb this splendor at their own pace, often with no one else around.

This natural beauty made it easy to understand why so many diverse cultures wanted to be a part of Singapore. The result is a blend of sights, aromas and tastes that are hard to resist.

Singapore also has one of the most entertaining airports in the world. Travelers even try to have a multi-hour layover there. Click the link to read about the Singapore Airport.

Despite all the globe-hopping and monument seeking, the best aspect of travel is the people we meet along the way. They’re the ones who provide us the stories that make travel a more enriching experience.

This came into sharp focus at a recent Airbnb stay outside El Paso, Texas. Our host Carey casually mentioned that his father is a D-Day veteran who happened to live up the street. Not only was his father a D-Day veteran, he was one of the Pathfinders, the paratroopers who were dropped behind enemy lines the night before D-Day and later made famous in Band of Brothers. They were the sharp end of the spear and the precursor to today’s Special Forces.

As a student of military history who absorbs anything about World War II I couldn’t resist. Meeting a D-Day veteran has been a dream of mine but many veterans are reluctant to relive their wartime experiences so I nervously asked, “Would it be okay to meet him?”

“Oh sure,” Carey replied, “he loves talking to people.”

The next day we met former First Sergeant Maynard “Beamy” Beamesderfer, a veteran of not only D-Day, but also Operation Market Garden (depicted in A Bridge Too Far) and the Battle of the Bulge. Beamy was a sort of Zelig of World War II European battles.

d-day veteran military medals

He’s 89 years old now, but still retains the upright posture and quick-wittedness that enabled him to survive a war where most of his unit was wiped out. Along the way he earned several Purple Hearts and was a POW for a week before escaping.

He grew up with his lovely wife Mimi in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I asked if they were childhood sweethearts to which Mimi quickly replied, “Oh no. He was four years older than me and kind of bossy. I was scared of him.” Well she finally tamed him.

In true heroic veteran style, Beamy was matter-of-fact about the rigors of war that he and his fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne, the famous Screaming Eagles, endured. When his unit, the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, took off for the D-Day mission (after two false starts because of bad weather) each of the paratroopers was burdened with 90 pounds of equipment including: explosives wrapped around their legs, extra ammunition and food supplies, in case the seaborne invasion failed and they became stuck behind enemy lines.

“We were hoping that wouldn’t happen,” Beamy said.

d-day clicker

If you’ve seen classic D-Day film “The Longest Day” you’ll recognize the object in the center of this photo. It’s the clicker the Pathfinders used to identify themselves after they landed.

During Operation Market Garden Beamy and a group of fellow soldiers were captured by the Germans.

“They were tired and never searched us,” Beamy said. “We carried banjo wire with wooden handles on the end, one night when they were sleeping we were able to overcome them and escape.” For their efforts, on the way back to the frontlines they were mistaken for German troops and shot at by U. S. troops.

During a much-deserved rest in Paris the German counter-offensive that became the Battle of the Bulge began, it was Germany’s last gasp at victory. Enduring frigid conditions the 501st went back into the maw of battle.

“It was the coldest winter ever recorded in Europe,” Beamy recalls. “We couldn’t wear our overcoats because they were too bulky to fight in.”

The unit held its position but lost so many soldiers that it was disbanded. Beamy himself was severely injured several times, his whereabouts unknown to the point that his mother was notified that he was missing in action.

Beamy leafed through his well-read scrapbooks where he maintains a history of his unit, noting photos of his fellow soldiers. He also pulled out a military map of the D-Day invasion and pointed out in exquisite detail where he landed and how his unit achieved their objective of capturing a canal lock. It was hard not to marvel at the courage it took to land behind enemy lines to support an invasion that may, or may not, have succeeded.

Beamy says, “We were just teenagers. We thought we could do anything.”

airborne patches d-day

Part of Beamy’s impressive collection of military unit patches.

Today former First Sergeant Beamesderfer is an active member of the 82nd Airborne Division Association in El Paso, Texas. Their business card is the only one I’ve ever seen that included “Bar Open” hours on it. Although as Mimi told us, “He doesn’t even drink or smoke. During the war he did pretty well trading his cigarettes.”

It’s said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day, a cadre of oral historians that are irreplaceable. Tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, if you can, seek out these last living monuments to the Greatest Generation. For me it was an unforgettable experience.

My heartfelt thanks to Mimi and Beamy Beamesderfer for sharing so much of their life experiences with us.

meeting a d-day veteran

As you know, we practically live in Airbnb world. Here’s how to get $20 off your first stay at Airbnb.

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On a gray, overcast day I was driving by endless miles of verdant green rice paddies to the central Vietnamese hamlet of Son My. In 1968 this was the site of the notorious incident known as the My Lai Massacre; when American soldiers killed over five-hundred civilians, mostly old men, women and children and then torched the buildings. The hamlet has since been reconstructed to look as it did after the carnage.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The village today displays rice paddies and the burned out foundations of homes.

I was only seven years old when the My Lai massacre occurred, but I still remember seeing disturbing photos of it in Life magazine. Now I was standing at the irrigation ditch where over one hundred of the bodies were found. My Lai is an emotionally tough place for anyone to visit, let alone an American.

Standing there I tried to contemplate the madness that occurred on this peaceful spot. Roosters crowed in the distance and the pungent smell of burning brush wafted over the village. It was an ordinary day, just like the one when the massacre occurred. Then I looked down and noticed hundreds of bare footprints along the path, many of them the tiny footprints of young children. They were interspersed randomly with imprints of army boots.

When the memorial was built the muddy pathways among the rice paddies were recreated out of brown concrete. Before it hardened they placed random imprints of army boots and bare feet to represent the killing frenzy that took place here. Boot prints lead up to individual houses and then build to a crescendo at the ditch.

My Lai massacre memorial site

A toddler at My Lai today.

The effect is that of the Guernica painting come to life on the ground. The imprints reflect the slaughter that took place that day; barefoot civilians being led to their death by booted soldiers. It’s a thought-provoking touch that effectively takes a visitor back to what happened here.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Uncle Do alongside the irrigation ditch.

A small Vietnamese man tugged at my elbow as I was trying to absorb it all. He started pantomiming what happened on that fateful day, making shooting and stabbing motions. Then he pointed to the ditch and demonstrated how all the bodies were laying there. He stood behind the trunk of a palm tree, as if demonstrating hiding behind it. It occurred to me that he was about my age, was he demonstrating something that happened to him?

The man’s extended family of about twelve people walked over to us. I had been speaking to Uncle Do, the head of the clan. The family ranged in age from about six to seventy-six: children, parents, grandparents.  Their age range approximated those of the victims.

His fifteen-year-old niece Mong spoke some English and asked where I was from. I hesitated. Considering where I was standing it was the first time I was tempted to say I was Canadian, but I said “US.” What happened next surprised me. The family surrounded me, shaking my hand and asking to take photos together. We were standing at the site of the worst American massacre of the war and they were greeting me like a long-lost friend.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Meeting Uncle Do's family.

Uncle Do took my arm and we spent the next half hour wandering about the preserved remains of the destroyed hamlet, somber Pied Pipers for the rest of the family tailing along behind us. He pointed out various points of significance along the way, even leading me inside one of the homemade bomb shelters where many of the villagers had been hiding before they were forced out by the troops. When our trek was finished each of the family members shook my hand and, through our ad hoc interpreter Mong, wished me well on the rest of my journey.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Standing astride the footprints are a proud father and grandmother.

It was an experience that would be repeated throughout Vietnam. A few days later Larissa and I were deep in the jungle climbing around the ruins of My Son, a 10th-century temple complex. Parts of the temple are still standing but one area is a pile of flattened rubble due to an errant US Air Force bombing run. In halting English a local visitor asked where we were from. Upon hearing my response he stopped and said, “US-Vietnam friends” before going on his way.

My Son temple Vietnam

Amid the rubble of the 10th-century My Son temple these men welcomed us.

Vietnam is a country that is poised between a violent history and a potentially bright future. While they remember the past they don’t dwell on it and, if our experience is any indication, they certainly don’t hold a grudge. We left Vietnam with warm feelings for all the people we met. They have replaced the pain of the past with hope for the future. In a sense they are forging new footprints.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The statue at My Lai represents the unbending will of the Vietnamese people.

Click the link to read more about our travel to Vietnam.

While redeeming the souls of over 13,000 of his fellow soldiers at the Civil War prison in Andersonville, a Connecticut man became one of the biggest whistle-blowers of his era. For his efforts he was hounded by the Army, court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor for allegedly stealing a government document. Read more

We sought a break from the bustle of London at a remote cottage perched on the edge of Dartmoor; the legendary, perhaps haunted, bog in southwest England that achieved fame in novels such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Our visions of long walks across the sun-dappled moor were washed out by two weeks of rain following the wettest spring on record; which, for England, is saying something. (It wasn’t until the end of our stay that we learned at a local tavern that Dartmoor is one of the soggiest places in the entire country.)

Determined to “keep calm and carry on” in the finest British tradition, we donned our raincoats and stiff upper lips, and explored the soggy countryside. The visitor’s center at Dartmoor National Park optimistically posted the weather forecast as “brightening;” which basically means “less clouds,” as good as it gets around here.

Dartmoor clouds black and white lomo (700x522) (575x429)

Perhaps the forecast was really more of a wish, as we hiked along a narrow country path the fog enveloped us like a damp cotton comforter and reduced visibility to arm’s length. Forget pea soup, this fog was more opaque than the can it came in. In the murky atmosphere we tried to erase from our minds the legend of the hairy beast that haunts the moors, carrying off wandering travelers.

After a mile or so a Gothic moss-covered stone building loomed out of the mist. We could just make out the letters “Dartmoor Prison” and, somewhat incongruously, a “Welcome visitors” sign. We had stumbled upon the only prison museum in England that is still attached to a working prison. We didn’t realize that it also contained a little known fact related to American military history.

Dartmoor prison entrance (549x625) copy

As we entered the museum, curator Brian Dingle recognized our accents and said, “I bet you didn’t know American prisoners of war were held here.” We immediately thought back to World War II, and wondered why American soldiers would be imprisoned by the British; but we were thinking of the wrong century, and the wrong war.

Built in 1806, Dartmoor Prison housed prisoners of war who had formerly been held on disease-ridden prison ships just off the coast. Among them were captured American soldiers and sailors from the War of 1812, alongside French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Though there was one stark difference between the two groups; since the former colonists were considered traitors to the British Crown, they were treated worse than the French.

dartmoor prison

The Americans started arriving in 1813, leading to severe overcrowding; the cold, damp conditions became breeding grounds for disease. One American prisoner of war described the setting as, “An incredibly bleak place. It is either rainy, snowy or foggy the entire year round.”

The exhibits convey the history of the prison, alongside a gallery devoted to prisoner’s works of art. A section in the darker recesses displays contraband confiscated from the prisoners; including an escape rope assembled from bed sheets tied together to a grappling hook that was found quite recently. Given the dreary climate, it’s understandable why a prisoner’s thoughts would turn to escape.

On our way out of the museum the obliging Mr. Dingle popped up again and declared, “You must see the church up the road, after all, your people helped build it.” Another secret of the fog-shrouded moor was about to be revealed.

st michaels church dartmoor

If “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” the prisoners were put to use in a somewhat more pious endeavor. The Americans and French worked side-by-side building the Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Built from locally quarried granite, it sits atop one of the highest elevations of any church in the country; and bears the weatherworn marks of its windswept setting to prove it.

When we approached the churchyard it was so encased in fog that only the barest outlines of the chapel and surrounding cemetery were visible. We felt as if we had stumbled into a horror movie set. The appearance of each row of crumbling headstones, rising out of the haze like ranks of soldiers on parade, acted as spectral signposts pointing the way to the narthex. The chills set off as we walked through the cemetery were alleviated a bit inside.

st michaels church dartmoor war of 1812

At the only church in England built by American prisoners, amends have been made in the shape of the stained-glass East Window, a tribute to the American prisoners of war who died in captivity at Dartmoor Prison. Depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ, it was donated a century ago by the “National Society of United States Daughters of 1812,” a group dedicated to preserving the memory of those who fought in the war. In the chilly sanctuary, we lit votive candles and prayed for the 271 American soldiers who are buried nearby, some in the church cemetery and others behind the prison.

We walked out of the church and, as if on cue, the fog had lifted and the sun made a glorious appearance.  After a few days of doom and gloom, it took our eyes some time to adjust to the blinding bright sunshine. The church basked in the warm glow, grateful for a chance to dry out and put on a better appearance. Although its origins were grim, it has risen above its past to provide a place of solace and respite for those in need of it; and a refuge from the storm for travelers. Today it stands as a fitting memorial to the captured soldiers, many never to return home, who built it.

Dartmoor St Michaels Church (575x427)

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 26th as a Memorial Day tribute.

Further information for visitors:

Dartmoor Prison Museum: www.dartmoor-prison.co.uk

Church of St. Michael and All Angels: www.visitchurches.org.uk