Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Two Flights, Two Fathers


By Mike Moffett

Sport is usually a safe discussion topic at holiday gatherings. So it seemed safe when basketball came up during a conversation with a Michelle Walters---a friend of my co-author, Fahim Fazli---at a California social event last month. Then I mentioned that I’d once coached college hoop and Michelle responded that her dad had also been a college basketball coach—at Evansville University in Indiana.
Our eyes locked and I knew we were both thinking of one of the most tragic sports stories ever.


I was seated with a dozen other Marines in the back of a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter flying over rugged Korean mountains when the engine started screaming and the aircraft started shaking. Terrified, I looked to the crew chief for reassurance, but he too, looked concerned as he spoke on his headset to the pilot. Then he yelled to us:

“Tighten your seatbelts!  We’re going down!”



It was on Dec. 13, 1977, that a Douglas DC-3 crashed on take-off in Indiana—killing all 29 aboard, including every member of the University of Evansville Purple Ace men's basketball team, except for one who was not traveling with the team. Was Michelle’s father among the victims?


Our CH-53 came down in one piece in a dry stream bed near a small Korean school. Youngsters swarmed out to see the spectacle. Repairs were made and we flew back to base to further prepare for a special training mission for Lima Company 3/5—a long distance night raid over the Korean mountains. We’d utilize six CH-53s in a reprise of the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue mission of 1980—four years earlier. One of the pilots from that Iranian mission would lead our operation.


Two weeks after the Indiana plane crash, the only member of the Evansville team who was not on the plane was killed by a drunk driver.

Michelle’s dad, Dick Walters, was NOT on the plane. The head coach was a Watson, not a Walters. Bobby Watson was named Evansville head coach in 1977, beating out Walters and distinguished Evansville grad Jerry Sloan for the job. (Sloan would go on to become one of the NBA’s winningest coaches.) The charismatic Watson was fired up about his program advancing to the Division I ranks. A standout player at Virginia Military Institute, Watson was a highly decorated Viet Nam vet, earning, among other awards, FIVE Purple Hearts. Walters took over the program after Watson’s death. Had Walters been named head coach in 1977 instead of 1978, Michelle would have lost her dad in the plane crash.


American and South Korean Marines loaded into the six CH-53s after nightfall on March 24, 1984, for our raid mission. We flew over jagged Korean mountains en route to our objective, near the DMZ, far to the north. We ran into bad weather and the Sea Stallions were buffeted about in the dark, terrifying many Marines—including me. We eventually turned around and returned to base. But when we landed, there were only five CH-53s, not six.


Walters sought to honor the Purple Aces by not only reviving but elevating the Evansville program. His 1978-79 team went 13-16 and steadily improved thereafter. In 1982 the Purple Aces went 23-6 to earn an NCAA bid—losing a close first round game to Marquette University, led by Doc Rivers. Michelle, aged 10 at the time, remembers the joy that team generated, and how their success helped honor the memories of the fallen Purple Aces.


Our missing CH-53 had crashed into a mountain, killing all aboard. I accompanied a detail that quickly flew to the crash site to retrieve the bodies—accomplished with great difficulty, given the steep, rugged terrain.


The day after my conversation with Michelle, I received a Facebook invitation to join a special group of Lima Company survivors, for whom a 2019 reunion is being planned. I happily accepted the invite and quickly made my first post. I soon received a message from a woman named Jessica Liddle. She asked if I knew her dad, Staff Sergeant John Liddle—a Viet Nam veteran and a Lima Company platoon sergeant—and if so, did I have any memories of him? Liddle’s was one of the bodies we’d retrieved from that 1984 crash site. Jessica was five at the time. I replied to her that I indeed knew her dad. I shared some recollections, to include that he’d become a big San Diego Charger fan—despite his earlier K.C. Chief inclinations—and that we’d often talked football. She seemed happy to learn more about her father.


At yet another California social event on New Year’s Day I received a surprise. Michelle’s dad showed up late in the afternoon. We subsequently spoke at length about basketball, life, and death. Coach Walters shared much about his basketball journey, including wondrous anecdotes about the likes of Bobby Knight. But clearly the Evansville plane crash was something that’s never far from his mind. That his Evansville predecessor had survived the horrors of Viet Nam only to perish with his basketball team will always be a tragic irony.


Through the wonders of social media, communication continues with the extended basketball and Marine networks associated with Michelle and Jessica. The holiday recollections about fallen Marines and deceased basketball players revived their spirits while reminding us of our mortality and how precious life is.

Semper fi … And go Purple Aces!

(Immediately below are Michelle and Dick Walters, on New Year's Day 2019 and at a basketball camp, circa 1978. Below that, me and Coach Walters. Further below: Jessica and John Liddle.)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Here's a copy of a 1996 letter sent to me by the late President George H. W. Bush (41). R.I.P.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Time to Retire, Mr. President


By Michael Moffett

Dear President Trump:

Granite State Greetings from the site of your first election win.

With the 2020 New Hampshire Presidential Primary less than 15 months away, voters and pundits are already pondering political possibilities. And whereas spirited GOP challenges to your reelection once seemed likely, your rising poll numbers changed the calculus.

Lower taxes, less regulation, fairer trade policies, enhanced border security, solid judicial appointments, low unemployment and a booming economy have all combined to strengthen a case for your reelection. Our country has done well during your tenure. Thank you!

So why does this open letter implore you not to run for reelection?

Because we want to see your sound policies continue to bear fruit. Any successful Democrat nominee will reverse those policies while raising taxes, adding regulations, loosening border security, demeaning the constitution, and promoting poisonous identity politics. Creeping socialism is not good for America.

You like blunt straight talk, right Mr. President?

As craven and corrupt as your 2016 opponent was, she still outpolled you by almost 3 million votes. Razor thin margins in Midwestern battleground states gave you the necessary electoral votes, but the mid-term elections just showed that you shouldn’t expect a reprise of 2016 in 2020.

Beyond the daunting demographic and electoral challenges you face, you’ll also have to deal with a relentlessly unfair media establishment—not to mention contrary academia, hostile Hollywood, and the long list of usual leftist suspects.

While you could certainly count on folks like myself, would we be enough, given Republican Establishment realities? Don’t expect Low Energy Jeb to help much. Or Little Marco. Or Lying Ted. Or Carly. Or Kasich. Or the McCain people. On and on.

And we’ll need all hands on deck in 2020 to keep the White House.

Another reality is that you’re the oldest man ever elected president. Fair questions will be asked about prospects for your continued good health. Many other fair questions will be asked on other topics—questions that the electorate is weary of hearing.

Maybe you can pull it off. But do you really want—or need—to put yourself and the country through another exhausting campaign marked by the emotional excesses that your brawling approach invites? (And I write this as one who appreciates your brawling approach!)

Ironically, the best way to preserve your administration’s accomplishments may be to let younger, fresher faces emerge who can unite our party and win in 2020.

Consider just one of numerous possible scenarios—a Nikki Haley/Marco Rubio ticket that would strike fear into the hearts of the Dems. Space doesn’t allow me to describe why that combination would be so appealing to so many. There are other exciting possible tickets as well—tickets which would remove the Dems’ biggest issue: You.

Straight talk.

You have a wonderful opportunity, with things on the upswing, to step away on your own terms. George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and others left their presidencies on their own terms—and history has been kind to them.

History has been less kind to rejected one-term presidents. Think Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter.

Freed from having to put all that time, energy, emotion and wherewithal into a reelection campaign, you could focus on consolidating and expanding upon achievements that, ironically, would more likely be preserved under a president other than yourself. You could be an extraordinary President Emeritus.   

And you could remain the brawler who’ll fight back when needed—in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Let your final decision reflect courage and wisdom—not ego and hubris.

Straight talk indeed.

Live Free or Die!


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

White House Visit


by Mike Moffett

The e-mail from the White House naturally caught my eye when I reviewed the numerous messages that congregate daily in my electronic in-box. It was an invite to a May 21 Washington, D.C. event where President Trump would recognize 2017 NASCAR champion driver Martin Truex, as well as a NASCAR Nation that overwhelmingly voted for Trump to be president.

This was in contrast to the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors and their fans who overwhelmingly voted against Trump and who eschewed a White House visit.

Having never met the president, I pondered why I’d received the invitation. Perhaps he or his staff read the Weirs Times on-line. Or, more likely, it was related to the fact that I’m a sports columnist and a New Hampshire State Representative who lives about a mile from our wonderful NASCAR track—the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

I checked my calendar and then RSVP’d my appreciation for the invitation and replied that of course I’d come to the White House.

I shared the news with my spouse Beth—who is much smarter than me. She did not feel compelled to make the D.C. trip, but encouraged me to attend if I wanted to. Then she asked to see the invite, and noted that my name was misspelled.

“You didn’t send them any personal information did you?” she asked.

I stood slack-jawed.

“Please tell me you didn’t respond!”

I had to admit that I’d sent them all my personal contact information, date of birth, social security number, etc.

“That’s how identities are stolen! You’d better check with the White House or you’ll need to change all your credit cards and bank account numbers.”

Trusting soul that I am, I realized that I’d likely been snookered and would have to deal with the awful consequences of identity theft.

But then I got an acknowledgement and more information from the White House Social Office.

“If the Russians or whoever already have my identity, then why would they keep writing?”

“Are they still misspelling your name? Do they want more personal information?”

“No. They just told me about dress code, White House security measures, and which gate to go to.”



When the invitation proved to be real, I made travel plans. Greater D.C. is my old stomping ground from my days as a Marine in Quantico, Va. And as a former social studies teacher, I love the area’s history. I’d been by the White House many times, but never inside its grounds.

So on May 21 I found a great parking spot on Constitution Avenue in time to do some sight-seeing before the White House event. Washington can be deadly hot from May through September, and the 85 degree temps made traipsing around in my suitcoat a bit taxing, but I was happy to be there.

To some, Washington, D.C. personifies politics and power and many of our lesser angels. Indeed, many think of it as a corrupt swamp needing drainage. That those lesser angels are busy and active throughout the District of Columbia is oft-apparent. But a walk-about also reminds one of what Abraham Lincoln referred to as our “better angels.” Our national capital, with all its monuments, edifices, history, and spirit represents unparalleled achievement.

While many of the District’s permanent denizens may be oblivious to Washington’s mystique, its wide-eyed visitors always inspire me with their excitement and awe. Some Dutch tourists chatted me up while we walked along the ellipse. They were clearly delighted to be visiting our American capital and I hoped that our country, with all its imperfections, might always inspire the wonder that was so evident on their faces.

I briefly stopped by the White House Visitors Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue to absorb some history and charge my cell phone. As a shameless Facebook devotee, I anticipating doing texts, photos, e-mails, tweets and live-streaming from the White House and wanted my Droid to be fully juiced!


Finally, I headed to the designated gate, along with other NASCAR invitees. I naturally expected tight security, but the measures surpassed my expectations. There were four check-points and search areas, with attendant metal detectors and the like. But my name was on every list and in I went.

I walked through part of the East Wing to a door that led out to the South Lawn for the NASCAR event. I thrilled to the sounds of the Marine Band, the “President’s Own,” the best band in the world. I mingled briefly with guests and then moved to the shade of a giant tree, beneath which the band played a medley of fabulous tunes. I live-streamed the awesome music while literally standing in the midst of the uniformed musicians, allowing my Facebook friends a chance to not only hear great music, but actually see the players—up close and personal.

The South Lawn grass was lush and extra-long, though not as long as the grass on the ellipse south of the South Lawn, which was almost a hayfield. (Mr. President, when you read this, please address the situation. In fact, I’d recommend you getting on a lawn tractor yourself and doing the mowing. Great optics!)


Finally the band played “Hail to the Chief” and the president emerged from the White House with Truex and the driver’s family members and race team.

President Trump is clearly an “alpha male” who draws energy from crowds and who relishes his job. Love him or hate him, he projects exuberance. He used notes but largely spoke extemporaneously. He praised NASCAR and the Truex team and also noted that NASCAR fans don’t take a knee during the national anthem—a thinly-veiled dig against last year’s NFL protesters.

Truex then offered a few gracious comments, and everyone got in line for photos with the Commander-in-Chief.

Given the heat and the length of the line, I demurred. I took a few more photos and headed out while the band played “Semper Fidelis.” I wanted to experience more of that wonderful D.C. history. Getting out was easy compared to getting in.

After flying back to New Hampshire I told Beth I was glad I went. My spouse—who is much smarter than me—said she was happy for me.

But she added that if I ended up a victim of identity theft, then at least she’d know who did it!


Thursday, December 14, 2017

12 Strong

12 STRONG - The Movie

The current THOR movie features Chris Hemsworth as the title character, capable of using a magic hammer to bring down destruction upon the forces of darkness. A fun fantasy, the film provides escapism for viewers.

At least for a couple hours.

Next, premiering on January 19, the movie 12 STRONG also features Hemsworth wreaking havoc upon the forces of darkness. Portraying a U.S. Army captain, Hemsworth calls down destruction not from Norse Gods, but from the even more potent United States Air Force. His enemies are al Qaeda and Taliban fanatics who provided safe haven in Afghanistan for the plotters of the 9/11 attacks.

Unlike Thor, the army captain is real—Hemsworth’s Mitch Nelson is based on Green Beret Mark Nutsch—and 12 STRONG will capture the imagination of countless viewers. Nelson/Nutsch was one of a dozen soldiers who infiltrated into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan soon after the wanton Sept. 11, 2001 murder of thousands of innocents.

I was one of the few aware of this mission during that tumultuous autumn of 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks, I’d returned to active duty as a Marine Corps infantry officer to work at the ground operations desk in the top-secret Central Command war room at MacDill AFB in Tampa. CENTCOM tracked the perilous journey of these brave soldiers as they flew a terrifying night insertion mission through towering mountains—from Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan. They hoped to link up with anti-Taliban elements and eventually attack and liberate the key city of Mazar-E Sharif, thus paving the way to topple the Taliban regime.

Some feared it to be a suicide mission but all were relieved to learn that the operatives landed safely to link up with anti-Taliban Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Soon the Americans were riding with Dostom’s men towards their objective.

Like 21st Century Arthurian knights, the Americans rode into battle on horseback, wielding not Excalibur swords but small arms—and radios capable of calling in that awesome U.S. air power.
The area of operations featured the 12 Americans and their new Uzbek allies against around 50,000 Taliban fighters. But in one of the truly stunning military operations of all time, Mazar-E Sharif fell to the unlikely coalition. Northern Alliance forces then moved south towards Kabul and by Christmas the Taliban regime collapsed.

The exploits of these horse soldiers were top secret, but eventually Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t resist sharing the story at a news conference. The remarkable saga was later chronicled in a book by Doug Stanton, which inspired the coming film.

The movie trailer/previews of 12 STRONG bring tears to my eyes, as I hearken back to those poignant weeks late in 2001. But my anticipation of this film is also heightened because one of its actors is Fahim Fazli, an Afghan-American Marine Corps interpreter that I met in Afghanistan when I later deployed there.

A refugee from the Soviet Union’s Afghan invasion, Fahim waited for years in Pakistan to come to America legally. He learned English and studied American history and became a citizen. After years of perseverance he earned a Hollywood Screen Actors Guild membership and later worked with many of Hollywood’s top stars.

Fahim was perhaps the only SAG actor to leave Hollywood and put on a uniform to go into harm’s way during the War on Terror. He asked to serve in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, with the Marines in Helmand Province. The charismatic actor was so effective at bringing together Americans and Afghans that the Taliban put a price on his head. But he survived to return to Hollywood. We stayed in touch and co-authored an award-winning book, “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back.” Tom Hanks wrote a cover blurb for us.

Fahim went on to numerous film and television projects, to include ARGO and AMERICAN SNIPER. Now comes 12 STRONG. I can’t wait for January 19. Time will tell as to whether the film will succeed. I sense it will be a blockbuster.

The War on Terror continued after the fall of the Taliban and the unity we experienced that autumn later dissipated amidst debate about whether President Bush should have gone into Iraq, or whether President Obama should have dramatically escalated our Afghan commitment. But for several weeks in late 2001 Americans came together in a way we had not since Pearl Harbor in 1941. Hopefully this true story about brave knights on horseback will be a vehicle to transport us back to that special time of national unity.

At least for a couple hours.

Friday, October 20, 2017

An Italy Adventure


Many of us have “bucket lists” of things to do or places to go to before we shed our mortal coil—i.e. kick the bucket. With Ireland already checked off my bucket list, my attention—and Beth’s—turned to Italy. Yes, that Mediterranean nation that was once the center of the universe when “all roads led to Rome.”

Interestingly, our Roman holiday commenced via Aer Lingus, the Irish airline which brought us from Boston to Dublin to Rome. The delightful ginger-haired flight attendants with their Irish brogues made us quite comfortable on both legs.

As we approached Rome’s International Airport, I looked out the window, anticipating metropolitan structures and ancient ruins. But while descending, all I saw were green fields, a few trees and some cows. The airport was well outside Rome-proper, necessitating a 30-minute train ride, through graffiti-covered residential neighborhoods. But finally we pulled into the Eternal City’s train-station. And on time!


Rather than a hotel, Beth (our tour planner) opted for a “Bed and Breakfast.” The BnB was in south Rome, near the Apian Way, and the location allowed us to experience a real Roman neighborhood, with its little cafes, pizzerias, stores, and wine shops, as well as real Italians—and their dogs.

A nearby bus-stop was our launching point for numerous forays into the great metropolis, starting with a visit to Vatican City, where we actually saw—and were blessed by—Pope Francis, along with many other thousands of visitors to St. Peter’s square. It was magnifico!

Subsequent trips brought us to such “must see” attractions as the Coliseum, the Forum, the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and so much more, including a visit to our American embassy.

For a history person, Rome represents an overwhelming challenge. Consider that “historic” Boston has a 300 year time-line. Rome’s narrative is over 3000 years. The layers of history are mind-boggling. We never made it to the Pantheon. One could spend weeks seeing all there is to see. We had to pick our spots and they were all memorable.


Finally it was time to check out of our BnB and take a bus to the train station to head to Florence. We were to leave the keys on the table. But we needed one of the keys to open the gate to leave the very secure apartment complex. A quandary. But one easily solved by me taking the keys to unlock the gate, then propping it open, and throwing the keys back up to Beth on the third floor balcony. Good idea?

“Bad idea,” said Beth.

“Trust me,” said Mike.

I went below and unlocked and held open the gate. I looked up at Beth—who is much smarter than me—nervously peeking over the third floor balcony.

“Stand by for incoming!” I yelled. I then tossed the keys skyward—but didn’t get quite enough on my throw. Beth leaned and reached but couldn’t quite grab the keys, which fell onto the second balcony, arousing a huge dog which commenced to bark viciously.

“I TOLD you!” said Beth.

“You just needed to reach a couple more inches!” replied Mike.

“#$@%&!!!” yelled Beth.

We were about to miss our bus and then our train. We were screwed.

I stood slack-jawed.

“Just stay there and don’t move,” yelled Beth. My quick-thinking spouse had a translation app on her smart-phone and she created the following message on her screen.

“Mio marito ha lanciato le nostre chiavi sul tuo terrazzo!” (My husband threw our keys on your deck!)

Fortunately, the woman who owned the big dog on the second floor was home and Beth retrieved our keys and we made our bus and train connections.

“Grazie Dio!”


A 90-minute train ride through the beautiful Italian countryside brought us to Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance and home to the likes of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Machiavelli, Galileo, Dante, and so many more. The Uffizi Museum contained an astonishing number of priceless works of art—and it was but one of many museums. Imagine being a passionate baseball fan and dreaming of one day visiting Cooperstown, and upon arriving there finding not one Hall-of-Fame/Museum, but a dozen! 

Such it is for lovers of history and the arts when visiting Italy.

Once again we opted for a BnB and our location put us across the street from the Accademia, which always had long lines outside it.

“Why are there always so many people out there?” I asked Dr. Beth—who is much smarter than me.

“That’s where Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is,” she replied. “The world’s most famous statue.” (We visited, of course.)

Florence is also home to the massive Il Duomo, a gigantic church that took many decades to build.

That such a structure was created many centuries ago without modern construction equipment also boggled my mind. Less imposing but also remarkable were such landmarks as the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, the Santa Croce Cathedral, and the Baptistery.

A day trip to an ancient winery allowed us to learn much about the craft of wine-making while also allowing us numerous samples of vino. Along with the other tourists in our group we learned how to make pasta from scratch, which was fun, educational, and delectable.


Another day-trip, via bus and train, brought us to the northwest coastline, where we hiked the Cinque Terre Trail, just south of Genoa—home of Christopher Columbus. The tiny, historic seacoast villages we visited are protected under a UNESCO fiat, and owners are not allowed to modify their properties. (So much for local control!)

We saw where there was bomb damage from World War II, speaking of recent Italian history. It was a torturous time for Italy when its Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini (Il Duce) unfortunately cast his lot with Adolf Hitler’s Nazis—with dreadful consequences.


We regretfully left our Florentine delights and took a train to Venice. En route I did some homework, via the www, and learned that Venice was ranked as the most beautiful city in the world ( I imagined gondolas, music, wine, and great food. The reality would surpass my imagination!

Originally founded as a refuge from invading hordes, Venice grew into a center of trade between the east and west.

A visit to the Venetian Palace that once housed the Doge—the Venetian ruler—further demonstrated the incredible wealth accumulated in Italy over the many centuries. Six hundred years ago Venice was the world’s greatest city, and Venetian fleets brought back riches beyond imagination, booty that that resulted in the City State creating edifices and infrastructure beyond belief. Just the artwork in Rome, Florence, and Venice is worth billions of dollars. While Venice now shows much decay, that there were glory days remains obvious.

When Mark Twain visited Italy in the 19th century, he was stunned by the riches accumulated by the city-states. Much of the wealth accrued to the Catholic Church, and in his book “Innocents Abroad,” Twain’s narrator seemed to urge Italian locals to rob the rich Catholic clergy. (Twain, of course, was a Protestant!) But those works of art—paintings, sculptures, and architecture—are what brought the likes of us to Italy to spend lots of dollars/Euros that clearly help sustain the Italian economy. A rising tide lifts all gondolas!

The packed plazas resounded with English voices and the many Yankee caps indicated a strong American tourist presence. Although, I suppose Italians may opt for the Yankee attire to honor “the great DiMaggio,” as Ernest Hemingway might put it.

We got boat passes—instead of bus passes—and traveled all over greater Venice, to include the island of Murano with its glass-blowing wonders. Then Torcello, where Atilla the Hun once holed up between sacking expeditions—a year before he died on his wedding night!

Our local travels exposed us to countless shops, pizzarias, osterias, trattorias, farmicias, thousands of pigeons, and water rats. Venetian rats are amphibious, as one would expect. And there were lots of beggars and street musicians.

It was an adjustment to continually have to fork over a euro or two to use the rest-rooms. Considering all the vino we bought and consumed, free water closets should have been a fringe benefit.

Our return home meant boarding a water bus bound for Venice’s Marco Polo Airport and Aer Lingus, where we were reunited with the delightful, ginger-haired flight attendants with their Irish brogues. I pondered the next place to visit to cross off my bucket list.

Or should we just return to Italy?

I decided to just return to Italy. Heaven can wait.

Italia es Magnifico!


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Bennington, Beth, and John Stark


Once upon a time, on a wintry Valentine’s Day Eve, Beth and I traveled across southern Vermont en route to a charity fund-raiser in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Caught in a major blizzard, we took refuge at the Four Chimneys Inn in Bennington, on the New York border. It was there I decided to offer Beth a diamond engagement ring, which she accepted—to my great joy.

As Bennington thus became a special place in our life journeys, we decided to return there for a private wedding ceremony 15 months later. Somehow, Bennington seemed to call to us.

As a former history teacher, perhaps part of the appeal for me was that greater Bennington was the site of an important Revolutionary War battle in 1777, where New Hampshire’s General John Stark led American forces to an improbable victory over the British that changed the course of history.

Beth and I were married in front of the old First Congregational Church in Bennington. The adjacent cemetery included the final resting place for New Hampshire’s famous poet Robert Frost. As Beth was also a published poet, we paid a visit to Frost’s grave for a special photo.


Years later, as a New Hampshire legislator, I was informed by Secretary of State Bill Gardner—a renowned Granite State historian—that that cemetery also included a mass grave that held the remains of scores of British, Hessian and Tory soldiers who were killed by Stark’s New Hampshire men on August 16, 1777.

This sobering information only increased my fascination with Bennington. Concurrently, a friend and amateur genealogist informed me that I was a direct descendant of Nathaniel Balch Sr., who was First Deputy of the New Hampshire Provincial Congress in 1775—a forerunner to the N.H. legislature in which I now serve. I asked Gardner if he knew of Balch and the Secretary of State said he’d have his staff look into him.

True to his word, Gardner brought me into his office on June 22, the legislature’s last session day for 2017, and handed me a folder with intriguing information on Nathaniel Balch Sr. Not only was Balch a senior member of the revolutionary legislature, but was a contemporary of patriots such as William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, and Josiah Bartlett (signers of the Declaration of Independence) as well as the likes of General Enoch Poor, John Langdon and others.

(Included in the information Gardner shared with me was the fact that Balch also served on a committee tasked with finding ways to collect taxes from out-of-staters. Clearly he was a man ahead of his time in New Hampshire!)

These Granite State revolutionaries collaborated on a state constitution which was proclaimed in January of 1776, six months before the Declaration of Independence.

Inspired by Gardner’s research—and perhaps by certain spirits—I took it upon myself to better understand the monumental significance of Bennington.


The United States of America celebrated its first birthday on July 4, 1777. But it seemed likely that the young country would never celebrate another one.

The fledgling nation was in dire straits. Most “Americans” either remained loyal to the British Crown or were uncommitted in the ongoing revolutionary struggle. The southern states in particular avoided armed conflict.

Patriotic fervor remained strongest in New England, so the British devised a plan to isolate the region from the rest of the country, crush the rebellion, and reestablish the King’s authority throughout the “colonies.”

A gigantic British fleet landed a mighty army in New York, chasing away George Washington’s outgunned American forces. With autumn approaching, Washington’s demoralized army withered away on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border—barefoot and unpaid. The British soon occupied the revolutionary capital of Philadelphia, which Washington was unable to defend.

America’s hopes traveled with Ben Franklin, who went to Paris to plead for French assistance and an alliance. But as much as the French wanted to counter their British rivals, they were reluctant to support a lost cause.

The British were utterly confident that the rebellion was in its death throes and sought to deliver a coup-de-grace to end the revolution and then hang its leaders.

A huge pincer movement would feature the large Redcoat army under General Clinton moving north from New York City to link up around Albany with an even larger British force moving south from Canada under General Burgoyne. This would effectively sever New England from the rest of the colonies, to be then punished and ravaged. With no significant army in New England and with Washington helpless to assist, the rebellion would be crushed.

King George III and his ministers were utterly confident of their plan. The war was all but over.

And then New Hampshire changed everything.


Bad news travels fast—even in 1777. New Englanders were in a panic. When the giant British armies joined forces and turned east towards Boston, there’d be no hope of stopping them.

Terrified settlers in what is now Vermont desperately pleaded with New Hampshire authorities for help. The Granite State’s revolutionary legislature convened and spirited debate ensued. Defeatists argued that here was no hope of stopping the British and urged accommodation and appeasement. There was no time, money, or leadership to do otherwise.

But some legislators—like Nathaniel Balch Sr.—refused to give up. They turned their eyes to the Granite State’s top military man—John Stark, a hero of Bunker Hill. An officer with the legendary Rogers Rangers during the French and Indian War, Stark had also excelled with George Washington’s army in the months after the Declaration of Independence. But in March of 1777 Stark resigned his commission in disgust when lesser men were promoted ahead of him due to political connections.

But Stark was a true patriot who could not ignore his state’s plea for help. He agreed to return to uniform as a Brigadier General under the condition that he answer only to New Hampshire—not to any political generals in the Continental Army.

News of General Stark’s return to duty thrilled local patriots who’d not yet given up. Within six days over 1200 men from all over New Hampshire gathered—ready to fight. Langdon provided personal funds to support Stark’s force.

Among those who fell in behind Stark was Nathaniel Balch Jr.—my fourth great grandfather, and son of the revolutionary legislator. Balch Jr. signed up with Stickney’s Militia on July 20, 1777, and was soon marching westward, musket in hand.

As Stark and his troops trudged on, they picked up more and more volunteers. The poignancy of the time can scarcely be imagined today, as wives and family members—tears streaming down their cheeks—pleaded with their men to stay home. But hundreds more fell in behind Stark—ill-clad, ill-equipped, and ill-trained, yet eager to take on the most powerful army in the world.

True patriots, these men believed in America, but equally important, they believed in John Stark. When the bedraggled column reached Fort #4 in Charleston, N.H., Stark had over 1500 men. They then ferried across the Connecticut River into what is now Vermont.

By the second week in August, Stark’s force had reached Manchester, Vermont, where they met General Benjamin Lincoln of the Continental Army. Lincoln ordered Stark to move his men to the Hudson River Valley to reinforce General Philip Schuyler, who was desperately trying to organize a force to slow down Burgoyne.

Lincoln was one of the political generals for whom Stark had such contempt. Stark refused Lincoln’s order, explaining that he answered only to the New Hampshire legislature.

Stark instead headed towards Bennington to link up with three hundred Green Mountain Boys, led by Colonel Seth Warner. Stark had intelligence that Burgoyne’s big army had slowed in its march, and needed supplies that could be commandeered in Bennington. Stark got there first and prepared to engage a large force sent by Burgoyne, who did not anticipate that Bennington would be well-defended.

Leading the British force was LtCol Freidreich Baum, a Hessian mercenary who commanded hundreds of brave, well-trained regulars, along with many more Canadians, Tory/Loyalists, and Indians.

Stark’s Granite Staters were untrained and undisciplined, but comfortable in the woods, and confident in their leader. Knowing his men’s limitations, Stark ingeniously split his forces to outflank Baum.

Harassed by Granite Staters on both sides, Baum’s troops were channeled toward a battle area favorable to the Americans. Stark then took personal charge of his remaining men—including Nathaniel Balch, Jr.—on August 16 and famously cried "There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!"

The subsequent battle resulted in Baum’s death along with 200 of his men—ten times as many casualties as the Americans suffered. Around a thousand prisoners were taken. A relief force sent by Burgoyne was routed by Colonel Warner’s men, further enhancing a marvelous victory.

That you’re reading this narrative is living proof that Nathaniel Balch Jr. survived the battle.


Burgoyne was stunned by the defeat at Bennington. The needed supplies didn’t materialize and the loss of 1000 men was a huge blow. His movement southward slowed to a crawl. The myth of Redcoat invincibility was shattered, and Burgoyne’s Indian allies abandoned him.

On August 28 Burgoyne learned that major British reinforcements coming east through the Mohawk Valley under Colonel Barry St. Leger had turned back towards Canada. News of the American victory at Bennington similarly unnerved General Clinton in New York, who dithered and delayed his move north to link-up with Burgoyne.

Washington replaced Schuyler with General Horatio Gates and ordered troops commanded by Israel Putnam to reinforce Gates’ forces. Stark also marched troops into New York to augment the growing American army, whose numbers were further swelled by other militiamen, who—inspired by Bennington—rallied to the cause. Numerous sharpshooters soon picked away at the increasingly demoralized British.

By October, Gates’ force finally outnumbered Burgoyne’s, and the Americans closed in and surrounded the British at Saratoga. Burgoyne surrendered an army of 7000 men on Oct. 17.

Historians rate the Battle of Saratoga as one of the most significant battles ever—anywhere. The American triumph breathed life into a moribund cause. New England was safe. Washington and his men took heart and the revolution would continue. When news of the Americans’ stunning triumphs reached Paris, Franklin convinced the French to recognize the United States and form an alliance. With French help the Americans eventually prevailed at Yorktown in 1781, guaranteeing total victory and independence.

Many factors influenced the outcome at Saratoga—but none more than Stark’s victory at Bennington. If Stark and his New Hampshire men had not responded as they did, history would have unfolded very differently. Without French help the Revolution would have likely failed and without the victories at Bennington and Saratoga a French alliance would have been quite improbable.


Nathaniel Balch Jr. and most of the Granite Staters mustered out right after Saratoga and marched back to New Hampshire, hailed as heroes all along the way. Stark stayed with the Continental Army and helped see the American cause through to victory. He then retired to New Hampshire and died in 1822 at the age of 94. The last surviving American Revolutionary War general, Stark arguably saved the young country with his actions during the summer of 1777.

Invited to a reunion of Bennington survivors, Stark demurred due to the infirmities of age. He did send a famous message to the commemoration which included the immortal phrase “Live free or die,” which became New Hampshire’s motto.

August 16 marks the 240th anniversary of Stark’s heroics at Bennington and hopefully people throughout New Hampshire and beyond will reflect on how the Granite State’s citizen legislature and its citizen soldiers came through to save the country when America’s prospects were never bleaker.

As a state representative, I'm especially proud that my fifth great-grandfather was a leader in that revolutionary legislature. And as a United States Marine, I’m equally proud that my fourth great-grandfather picked up a musket and was in the middle of the fight at Bennington.

Maybe it was more than a blizzard that stopped us in Bennington on that snowy February night, once upon a time.