Sunday, February 27, 2011

Phantom Hill Blues

(Photo Coutesy of The Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Off a remote stretch of FM 600 near Abilene lie the ruins of Fort Phantom Hill; one of a line of U.S. Army forts built across the West Texas frontier.  These forts were built in the 1850’s to protect settlers and California “Gold Rush” migrants from hostile Comanches.  According to the orders of the North Texas frontier commander, General William G. Belknap, the fort was supposed to have been built on the Pecan Bayou in Coleman County.  Belknap died from illness before construction began and was replaced with General Persifor Smith, who changed Belknap’s orders and built the fort at the Clear Fork of the Brazos instead.  Smith knew little about the area and placed Phantom Hill too far from a reliable water source, a vital necessity for any West Texas fort.  In fact, so little thought was put into the new fort that it wasn’t even given a name, which was usually that of a high ranking army officer.  It was just simply referred to as the “Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos.”  The Phantom Hill moniker came later when someone noticed the land the fort was built on appeared as a hill in the distance, but mysteriously leveled off upon closer view, hence the name Phantom Hill.
Construction began on November 14, 1851 under the command of Lt. Colonel J.J. Abercrombie.  The buildings were made of stones from nearby Elm Creek and logs hauled in by oxen from forty miles away.  Most of the roofs were thatched with prairie grass.  Only the magazine, guardhouse, and commissary storehouse were built entirely of stone.  Scattered among the fort’s 22 acres were officers’ quarters, barracks, a guardhouse, a commissary storehouse, and a powder magazine.  A cistern was built, but it provided little water for the thirsty garrison.
Five companies of infantry were stationed there to guard the West Texas prairie, a laughable tactic considering the Comanches were the best horsemen in the Western Hemisphere and could ride spirals around a body of foot soldiers.  As a result, there would be no encounters with the Indians unless they wanted to be encountered.   Groups of Lipan Apaches, Kiowas, Kickapoos, and Penateka Comanches did drop by occasionally to visit, trade or check out the fort’s armaments.
Boredom, lousy water, and disease were the real enemies.  The nearby Elm Creek had dried up and the waters of the Clear Fork were too brackish.  Water would have to be hauled in by wagon from a spring 4 to 5 miles away.  Vegetable gardens couldn’t be raised because of the water shortage.  This led to outbreaks of scurvy and dysentery.  If that wasn’t enough, the sheer loneliness of the place led to a sizeable number of desertions. One lieutenant wrote, “Like the Dove after the Deluge, not one green sprig can we find to indicate this was ever intended by man to inhabit.  Indeed I cannot imagine that God ever intended for a white man to occupy such a barren waste.”  
After only four years, the fort was abandoned.  Shortly after the army’s departure, the fort was set on fire, possibly by one or several of the fort’s disgruntled garrison.  Only the magazine, guardhouse, the walls of the commissary, and a multitude of chimneys remained.
In 1858, the fort’s remaining structures became a way station for the Butterfield Overland Stage Trail.  During the Civil War, the Confederate Frontier Battalion used Phantom Hill as a base of operations when tracking down Comanches.  In the 1870’s, a town sprang up near the fort to accommodate the buffalo hunting trade.  The town didn't last long after it lost on its bid to become the county seat.
Today the fort’s ruins are maintained by the nonprofit Fort Phantom Hill Foundation.  There are signs indicating where each building was located and its function.  If you stop by, be sure to grab a brochure from a mailbox affixed to the door of the old guardhouse.  It features a map that will guide you through the fort.  There is plenty of parking but no restrooms or water fountains; you have to use The Big Country Bait Shop and Cafe about a mile down the road.  A recent grant holds promise for upgrades. Restrooms, a new parking area, and a visitor’s kiosk with educational information are to be installed. 
As with any ruins, there are going to be ghost stories, mostly sightings of the fort’s former inhabitants and restless Indian spirits.  Like ancient columns on a Greek Island, Fort Phantom Hill’s chimneys provide a unique Texan sense of romance and mystery.  As the sun sets on the prairie and the orange light reflects off the chimneys, what could be more romantic?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

D-Guards and Toothpicks

D-Guard Bowie Knife

Arkansas Toothpick

Among Confederate troops, the most popular knife was a version of the Bowie knife; a knife with a 10 to 18 inch blade and a D-shaped knuckle guard affixed to the handle.  Because of its elongated blade, the D-Guard Bowie knife was more like a short sword than a knife.  Countless photos or carte de visites show young “Johnny Rebs” posing with their drawn D-Guard Bowie knives, held upright and close to the chest. 
The Bowie knife evolved from a series of designs.  Its actual inventor has never been fully established.  The original knife is widely believed to have been designed by Rezin Bowie, the brother of Texas legend Colonel James Bowie.  Rezin’s design closely resembled that of the standard butcher knife.  Jim Bowie used his brother’s design in the famous Sandbar Fight of 1827; a wild free-for-all where Bowie was stabbed, shot and beaten to within an inch of his life.  During the fight’s ten minute duration, he managed to kill one of his assailants with his knife.  Across the U.S., newspapers carried accounts of the fight and Bowie’s new knife.
The most popular design featured the distinctive clipped point and was manufactured by James Black, a blacksmith in Washington, Arkansas.  Bowie carried Black’s design with him to Texas and eternal glory at the Alamo.  Business boomed for Black until he was savagely attacked by his father in law; a former business partner who didn’t approve of his daughter’s marriage to Black.  While lying ill in bed, Black was clubbed on the noggin and left partially blinded.
British craftsmen, known as “Little Mesters,”began producing quality Bowie knives from their workshops in Sheffield.  The word "mester" is a Sheffield variant of the word "master," which indicates a master craftsman.  Hundreds of these Sheffield knives were exported to the United States as the knife gained international fame.  Irish, Victorian author Bram Stoker included the knife in his popular horror novel, “Dracula.”  In the book, Texan Quincy Morris deals Count Dracula a mortal blow with his Bowie knife.
Another James Black creation, the Arkansas Toothpick, was also popular in the South.   The Arkansas Toothpick was an immense 15” double edged dagger as opposed to the Bowie’s single sharpened edge.  “As fighting knives, both the D-Guard and Toothpick are comparable,” said knife maker and authority, Carl Simms.

Confederate knives were well sharpened compared to Union artillery swords which were dull to prevent sticking after a thrust to the ribs or collarbone.  The Union Army did not have government issued knives, but had bayonets and swords which were more for thrusting rather than slashing.  Confederate knives were produced by local blacksmiths in various shapes and sizes.  Old files and saw blades were often used.
Like all Civil War knives, the Bowie knife and Arkansas Toothpick were rarely used in an actual fight.  Instead they were used as tools to cut tree limbs, prepare food, dig entrenchments, or cut fabric for uniforms.  Many found them a hindrance and simply discarded them.  Whether used in hunting, fishing, home defense, or slaying vampires, the venerable Bowie knife will always have its place among native Texans.
Civil War Knife Display (Texas Civil War Museum)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Final Stand of Britt Johnson

Henry 16 Shot Rifle

It was a sight all too familiar on the West Texas frontier; the scalped and mutilated victims of an Indian attack.  Discovered by a passing wagon train, the three teamsters were strewn about the ground near their wagons.   Even their dog was slain in the attack.  One victim in particular raised eyebrows; it was the famed former slave, ranch foreman, and teamster Britt Johnson.  His dead horse had served as a makeshift barricade.  Beside him were an astounding 173 spent copper shells from his Henry rifle.  Since the Kiowas didn’t bury their dead nearby or leave behind their wounded, it’s not known how many casualties Johnson inflicted.  Judging by the cartridge shells, one would have to believe it was considerable.  Johnson and his companions were buried by the road.  In time, their grave markers disappeared and their burial sites were forgotten.  History, however, hasn't forgotten Britt Johnson.
Prior to his death, Johnson had conducted a well-publicized search for his family that had been kidnapped by Comanches.  On October 18, 1864, six hundred Kiowa and Comanche warriors attacked the Elm Creek settlement in Young County. Five were killed or wounded and seven were kidnapped, including Johnson’s wife, Mary, and his two daughters.  His son was among those killed.  Johnson’s master, Moses Johnson, gave Britt his freedom and half of his savings to assist him in his search.  Johnson visited reservations in the Indian Territory and army forts along the frontier.  Some accounts had him living among the Comanches during the spring of 1865.  Comanche Chief Asa Harvey or “Milky Way” ransomed the release of Johnson’s family during peace talks.  After the Civil War, Johnson opened his own freight business, hauling goods between Weatherford and Ft. Griffith.
On January 24, 1871, Johnson and two fellow teamsters were attacked by 25 Kiowas near Salt Creek in Young County.  The war party, under the leadership of “Owl Prophet” or Maman-ti (Man who Walks above the Ground) came from reservations in the Indian Territory, just north of the Red River.   Maman-ti was later imprisoned at Ft. Sill then shipped off in shackles to Ft. Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.  He died there on July 28, 1875.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tall Texan...Tall Courage

On September 1, 1950, Texas native Corporal Leon Flake wrote a single letter to both his young wife and mother.  Tomorrow’s assault would be no cakewalk.  The North Koreans held a crucial hill northwest of Pohang Dong, a port city on South Korea’s east coast.  Flake’s unit, K Company, 21st Infantry Regiment, was assigned to retake it.  “I doubt I’ll survive the attack,” he wrote.  “This letter maybe my last.
 During the summer of 1950, the People’s Army of North Korea had pushed the U.S. 8th Army and its South Korean allies back to the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula.  The city of Pusan was the only accessible port left to supply a desperate stand against a North Korean juggernaut.  A 150 mile jagged defense perimeter, dubbed the Pusan Perimeter, separated North Korea from final victory.  On the perimeter’s northeast corner, the South Koreans held off their Communist neighbors near Pohang Dong.  Their line was like a concrete dam riddled with cracks.  Any of which could burst at the slightest pressure.  On August 27th, a sudden attack by the North Korean 12th Division forced the 17th ROK (Republic of Korea) Division back on its heels.  The nearby 18th Division also fell back because its left flank was exposed by the 17th’s sudden withdrawal.  The entire ROK I Corps was in danger of collapse.  If the South Koreans kept falling back, Pohang Dong would fall and leave the backdoor open for an attack on the U.S. 8th Army headquarters at Taegu, just southwest of the South Korean positions. General Walton Walker, Commander of the U.S. 8th Army, recognized their dilemma.  The South Koreans were low on moral and resolve.  An American task force was needed to shore up their crumbling front.  Walker turned to an aged World War II officer, Major General John B. Coulter.  “I can’t get reliable reports,” Walker told Coulter. “I want you to go to the eastern front and represent me. I am sending a regiment from the 24th Division to help.”
At the time of his enlistment, Leon Flake was the tallest recruit in the U.S. Army.  The six foot nine Texan endured basic training at Ft. Riley, Kansas before being shipped off to Japan.  Because of the shortage of available ships, World War II vintage troopships, once used by the Japanese, ferried U.S. troops to South Korea. “The weirdest thing I remember was a Japanese band playing the Star Spangled Banner as we left port,” recalled Flake.  Like most of his fellow infantrymen, he was not fully prepared for what awaited him.
  South Korea was a rustic backwater of a country where peasant farmers used sewage for fertilizer and dogs were part of their diet.  The climate was extremely harsh with artic winters and triple digit summers.  The terrain was dotted with steep hills and narrow valleys, making it difficult to travel by foot.  Pusan itself was a crowded mass of ships, military equipment, troops, and frightened refugees all looking for an exit. Upon landing, U.S. troops were marched directly to the fighting on the perimeter.
The 21st regiment marched to Taegu on foot and entrenched along the Naktong River.  Two series of foxholes were dug.  One series was placed up front to listen for and repel any North Korean attacks during the night.  The second was placed further back, away from enemy gun sights during the day.  “Every once in a while they would make a run at us,” recalled Flake. “They’d get crazy blowing whistles and horns.”  Shouting “Manzai !,” the North Koreans assaulted in suicidal waves only to be slaughtered in heaps.  Sometimes they dressed as farmers to infiltrate the rear areas and attack from behind. 
On August 27, the 21st regiment’s commander, Colonel Richard Stephens, was ordered to march east to the ancient city of Kyongju.  Stephen’s regiment was now part of Task Force Jackson, a scratch force assembled to help shore up the Pusan Perimeter’s northeast corner.   Under the command of General Coulter, the 21st assembled for an attack on the North Korea’s 5th Division near Pohang Dong.  The South Koreans were less than enthused about attacking.  “Too many enemy, too many casualties, troops tired,” explained the commander of the ROK I Corps.  Airpower and naval gunfire tried to drive back the North Koreans.  The results were minimal as reinforcements beefed up the North Korean 5th Division in the hills north of Pohang Dong.  One hill in particular was crucial in the defense of the city.  On the morning of Sept. 2, 1950, the 265 men of Company K assembled at the base of Hill 99. 
The South Koreans had attacked Hill 99 but were bloodily repulsed.  It was the Americans’ turn now.  Company K ascended the hill under a hail of machine gun fire, mortar shells and grenades.  Flake charged a machine gun nest.  While the North Koreans attention was focused on him, three of his comrades got further up the hill.  They never made it to the top. 
Only 35 men survived.  Even fewer walked down on two legs.  Corporal Flake was seriously wounded by gunfire in both thighs and forced to crawl down the hill into a creek bed.  He feigned death to prevent being bayonetted by any roving North Koreans.  One of them was not quite convinced.  “I think he just didn’t want to get his shoes wet,” recalled Flake. “That’s what kept from walking into the creek and finishing me off.”  The following day, he was placed on a stretcher by South Korean laborers and carried to a MASH unit.  Miraculously, neither leg was amputated, but years of rehab awaited.  “I remember hearing a speech by General Douglas MacArthur,” recalled Flake.  “He said we were fighting a just cause and he expected us to be home by Christmas.  Looks like I made it.”  That letter to his wife and mother came home at the same time he did.  Corporal Leon Flake was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Hill 99.
After getting his legs back, Leon Flake settled down in Wichita Falls, Texas.  He went on to become highly successful in the linen business.  Today he enjoys spending time at his home at Possum Kingdom Lake.

Suggested Reading:

South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu by Roy E. Appleman

Photos Courtesy of Leon Flake