Opinion

Jourgensen: Tapping into history

History is everywhere. It’s right around the corner or right in our faces, reminding us that the past constantly informs and contradicts our assumptions.

History’s immediacy was lost or diabolically twisted by vandals who desecrated monuments and graves around the state this week. The damage they did to names etched in stone can’t corrode the fact that each name belongs to a person who felt fear, pride, loneliness, despair and triumph throughout the course of his or her life.

Some of the names belong to veterans who set aside fear and loneliness to commit themselves to being part of something much bigger than one person. They journeyed around the world and straight into the face of battle. My neighbor’s father left Lynn to become a landing craft driver who was prepared to steer his boat to the fortified Japanese coastline if that was what it took to end World War II.

My wife’s father served in the coastal artillery defending Nahant before embarking overseas with a medical detachment. World War II was as immediate to him in 2003 when I was privileged to read history to him at night as it was in 1943.

His service took him to Fort Ruckman in Nahant where the remains of tunnels and fortifications can still be found.

Historian Gerald W. Butler brought to life in amazing detail the history of the military in Nahant in his book, “Military Annals of Nahant” (1996). Supplemented by a 1941 pictorial history of the Boston island defenses, Butler’s book sheds light on the decades Nahant spent as a fortified encampment.

The only skirmish waged on the island occurred in the summer of 1907 when town resident T.J. Deveney resisted the military’s order to cut 9½ inches off a corner of his house so that a fence could be erected around the fortifications. The standoff continued for a month before Deveney finally knuckled under to Uncle Sam.

Commanded by Brigadier General Kenneth Blood, Ruckman and the 241st Coastal Artillery were prepared to repel air and submarine attacks. Scientists working on techniques for detecting submarines set up shop in Nahant during World War I and anti aircraft defense during World War II included giant “sound locators” that looked like oversized thimbles.

Vigilance against German attacks still left Ruckman’s military occupants time to have fun with Nahant residents. A formal ball proved so popular that townspeople organized dance lessons for any soldiers interested in learning a few steps. A blizzard failed to cancel another dance: Soldiers loaded visiting women into heavy trucks and transported them to and from the ball.

Fort Ruckman was just one pearl in a string of forts guarding Boston Harbor. Fort Heath in Winthrop was garrisoned, according to the 1941 history, by former automobile factory workers from Michigan, who joined the military en masse and were dispatched to Massachusetts.

Several forts were bigger than Ruckman but the Nahant defense was prepared to duke it out with the heaviest seaborne artillery the kaiser and, later, Hitler, could send across the Atlantic.

“Guarding the northern approaches to the city, Fort Ruckman’s powerful 12-inch guns have a clean sweep of the sea almost as far as Newburyport,” states the 1941 account.

The Cold War saw missiles based in Nahant and Butler dramatically recounts how the missile sites ramped up to full alert in 1956 before air traffic controllers identified an Air France flight as the mysterious object streaking toward Boston.

“Nahant missiles were within seconds of being fired,” wrote Butler.

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Thanks to everyone who sent in their Dickie Covert recollections after reading my interview with him. One amused reader recalled buying a stereo from Richard Covert TV & Stereo and Janine Len Pipitone recollected how her father, R.G. Len, owned one of the nearly dozen other independent appliance stores doing business in Lynn during Covert’s heyday.

Mr. Len ran the business bearing his name at 270 Lynnway.

 

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