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may/june 2008

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Originally the bucolic hunting grounds of the Cherokee, South Carolina’s Upcountry was dominated in the early twentieth century by the cotton mills that emerged as engines of a revitalized South. And Greenville—midway between Atlanta and Charlotte—became a mill capital surrounded by mill towns.

Life in the mill towns was tough and the work hard. The towns were usually built by and for the owners, who provided factory churches and factory stores, often with factory scrip. But in the cool of the evening families gathered to watch the men play baseball: The Textile Leagues were born.

At Brandon Mills, 13-year-old factory worker Joe Jackson had already earned a reputation. The eldest of eight children, he worked by day at his father’s side. In the evening, he was on the baseball field.

He was a phenomenon. He first played in the Textile League and then in the minor leagues for the Greenville Spinners. More and more people came out to see him. He was a natural—beautiful and graceful on the diamond. His home runs were known as “Saturday specials”; his line drives, “blue darters”; his glove, “the place where triples go to die.”

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Adapted from In The Ruins of Empire By Ronald Spector Copyright ©2007 by Ronald Spector
Published by arrangement with Random House,
An imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

On September 2, 1945, ten days after Gen. MacArthur received the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, thereby ending World War II, a squadron of Royal Air Force transport planes landed at Tan Son Nhut airport outside Saigon carrying the first of the British occupation forces: a battalion of the 20th Indian Division under Maj. Gen. Douglas Gracey. Crowds of French and Vietnamese cheered the arrival of each plane. Still others lined the road waving Union Jacks as the troops were driven into the city in Japanese trucks.

Meanwhile, another occupation army moved into Hanoi: Chinese troops from Yunnan under the command of Lt. Gen. Lu Han. “All day and all night the troops kept pouring into the city,” one Vietnamese recalled. “They shocked everyone, including the local Chinese community which had organized a formal welcoming ceremony.... The troops wore shoes of woven straw, cloth, or rubber cut out from tires or even went barefoot. They had tattered uniforms and looked tired and thin. Each unit was accompanied by cooks laden with pots and pans, making a racket.”

Striking as they were, the differences between the two armies paled beside the far-reaching results of their very different occupations.

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Sons of Brooklyn in Vietnam

“I feel like Lady Macbeth.  I’m never going to get the blood of Vietnam off my hands.”
–Joan Furey, U.S. Army Nurse, Vietnam, 1969 “What do yous think they’ll axe me?”

Ernie Diorio was a little nervous. There was no mistaking where he’d been born and bred. His Brooklynese was a dead giveaway. Although he’d moved to Jersey many years ago, he retained the uniqueness that identified him as a son of Bushwick, then Fort Greene.

Diorio, accompanied by Paul Bausch and myself, was driving to the Brooklyn Historical Society on a crisp late February morning to look at—and in Diorio’s case, participate in—In Our Own Words: Portraits of Brooklyn’s Vietnam Veterans, the premiere exhibit of the new Oral History Gallery.

The project is a collaboration between Phil Napoli, an assistant professor of U.S. social and public history at Brooklyn College, and the Brooklyn Historical Society. A meeting in 2006 between Napoli and Deborah Schwartz, the president of the Society, led to brainstorming sessions that culminated in the exhibit.

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