Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Leave Them? Or Bring Them Home?


Should soldiers lie where they fell? That’s the way it used to be. Bringing the dead home from foreign battlefields was expensive and cumbersome.
After World War I, the United States gave families the choice on their loved ones’ disposition. Former President Teddy Roosevelt was adamant. His son Quentin should “continue to lie on the spot where he fell in battle.”
New York Times writer Owen Wister opined, “Out of these holes were being dragged—what? Boys whom their mothers would recognize? No! Thing without shape, at which mothers would collapse.”
Grieving mothers didn’t agree. One wrote to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, “You took my son from me and sent him to war…Now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me.”

Families of 46,000 WWI dead—nearly 60%—opted for their boys to come home. After World War II, only one quarter of the families brought the dead home. With American-owned cemeteries that are works of art, many prefer to leave their loved ones among comrades-in-arms.







Where would you want a loved one to be buried?


Luxembourg American Cemetery
Burying the dead where they fell—be it a ditch, someone’s yard, a burned-out tank, the middle of a street—is impractical. Quentin Roosevelt was originally buried in the French village where his plane crashed. Now he lies beside his brother Ted Jr. in Normandy American Cemetery. Surely his father would approve.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rocket Men

I’ve been fascinated by space since studying the solar system in second grade. If there’s an astronaut book out there, I’ve read it. The latest is Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon, by Robert Kurson.
Apollos 11 and 13 are famous as the first moon landing and the successful failure of a moon landing. Less well-known is Apollo 8, which, in the words of the late Neil Armstrong, was “an enormously bold decision.”
The Saturn 5 moon rocket had flown twice, and the second time was a failure. The lunar module was behind schedule. The Soviets were suspected of attempting a manned lunar flight by December.
The American space program was in trouble. A crew had perished in a spacecraft fire on the pad in 1967. And not only the space program, but all of America was convulsing with anti-war fervor, racial unrest, and assassinations in 1968.
Apollo 7, the first manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft, had yet to fly when George Low proposed a lunar flight in December, four scant months away. Precise navigation and trajectories had to be calculated, the moon rocket fixed, essential systems and software developed.
It was dangerous, but it would keep the space program moving forward toward the goal of landing men on the moon before the end of the decade, and maybe even beat the Soviets.
The optimal launch window would be December 20 or 21, which meant Apollo 8 would be orbiting the moon on Christmas. If the flight was a disaster, Christmas would be forever linked with it.


The crew selected for the daring flight had been training for Apollo 9. Frank Borman had little interest in space exploration. He joined NASA to fight the Soviet Union on the new battlefield of space. His teachers had labeled him as bossy and hardheaded. His peers found him arrogant. His own assessment was, he was among the best of the astronaut corps.
His opposite had been his crewmate on Gemini 7. Jim Lovell had a lifelong dream of exploring space and flying rockets. Folks most remembered his warmth and friendliness.
Rookie Bill Anders rounded out the crew. He was dismayed by their assignment to Apollo 8. He’d been training to be a lunar module pilot. With no LM, he’d be switched to command module pilot, and his future chances of walking on the moon disappeared.
The flight of Apollo 8 was a resounding success. And 1968 ended on a bright, shining note.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Who’s On Your Guest List?

I’ve been reading Lady in Red: An Intimate Portrait of Nancy Reagan by Sheila Tate. Nancy was often portrayed as a shrew, but her former press secretary does a great job of refuting that reputation.
The State Dinners of the Reagan years are covered, and that got me to thinking. If I could invite people to a State Dinner, who would I invite?


It’s no secret; astronauts fascinate me. I’ll start there. Jim Lovell of Apollos 8 and 13, the first manned flight around the moon and the successful failure. Moon walker Charlie Duke, who has said, “Walking on the moon was three days, but walking with Jesus is forever.” Shuttle astronaut Tamara Jernigan, veteran of five flights, doctorate in astronomy, my age.
An author, Robin Jones Gunn. I’ve enjoyed her books and I’ve was privileged to hear her speak. She’s the only conference keynote speaker whose words I still remember.
As a World War II writer, I need to have a WWII veteran, George H. W. Bush, a naval pilot whose presidential legacy should improve on historical assessment.
And his daughter-in-law, librarian Laura Bush. (Her husband, of course, is included.)
Sports figures are always popular. Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr would probably have to decline due to poor health, but he’s been a towering figure, on the field and off. Figure skaters Paul Wylie and Scott Hamilton are inspiring.
Actors were very popular during the Reagan years naturally, with both of them coming from that line of work. I doubt if Doris Day would want to travel across country, but she’d get an invitation. So would Tom Hanks.
Marine artist Christian Riese Lassen is a possibility. I love his seascapes.
And Max Lucado.

Who would be on your guest list?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

End of the War Incredulities



Nicholas Best wrote Seven Days of Infamy, that I featured last week. He also wrote Five Days That Shocked the World. He’s a great storyteller, and this book is filled with accounts from the end of the war in Europe. For instance…
The British picketed a London cinema that showed the first film of the concentration camps. During World War I, British propagandists had spread the report that Germans were melting down corpses for fat. Now with rumors of shrunken heads and lampshades made from human skin, they were outraged that their own government was lying to them again.
When Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci were captured by partisans, one of the guards spied on Clara as she washed up that night. He reported to his fellow guard that she had a magnificent physique; no wonder Il Duce kept her as his mistress.
Clara wouldn’t have been killed with Mussolini. She was told to get away from him when he was stood against a wall. Instead, she clung to him, and died.
At the end, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop discovered he had no friends, pompous and insufferably overbearing as he was. No important party members wanted anything to do with him. He’d heard the British spoke of hanging Nazi leaders, but Ribbentrop couldn’t believe they were serious. Hanging was for criminals and murderers, not for people like him, not the leaders of a nation.
Like Ribbentrop, Heinrich Himmler had failed to make plans for himself. Rather than fleeing, he was paralyzed with grief, begging an astrologer to tell him what to do. He thought of going to Czechoslovakia where the army was still in control. The astrologer, who had been imprisoned and persecuted by the Nazis, told him the stars didn’t look good for Czechoslovakia. Himmler still wanted to become the new leader of Germany, the man the Allies would have to deal with if they wanted peace. Both he and Ribbentrop believed they would be treated with respect and consideration by the western allies. Many Nazis were convinced the allies would appreciated their services in the continuing struggle with the Russians.
A large consignment of lipstick arrived at Belsen concentration camp. It went far is raising the morale among the women prisoners. They remembered they’d once been feminine and might be so again someday.
The Belsen commandant dumbfounded British officers. He was totally blind to the realities of what happened in the camp. It never occurred to him that the Allies would not like what they found there. He’d just done what he’d been told to do. Many sadistic guards found talk of the death penalty for them hard to believe. They’d broken no German laws, and the Allies were civilized people.
Among those working at Belsen were Georg Will, who managed the camp cinema, and his wife Liesel, who ran the canteen, supplying comforts to the SS and keeping them entertained. They lived well amongst the dying. Now they wondered if they would have a price to pay, even though they’d committed no atrocities. They relied on a trump card. Liesel’s younger sister had renounced her German citizenship and become an American and sang for the troops. Surely Captain Marlene Dietrich wouldn’t let her kin suffer.
Nazi wives were often fatter than other German women, because they’d eaten better during the war. This was a disadvantage when Berlin fell. The Russians preferred women with flesh on them, and raped them first.
The Russians and the Americans thought the Germany countryside they traveled through was some of the prettiest they’d ever seen. They found it hard to understand why the Germans wanted to invade so many other countries when their own was so rich and beautiful.
I’m reminded of a line from Hogan’s Heroes spoken by Corporal Louis LeBeau, played by Robert Clary, who spent time in a real concentration camp because he’s Jewish. “It’s a crazy war.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Pearl Harbor Promptings


A new book, Seven Days of Infamy: Pearl Harbor Across the World, is described as a collection of remembrances of mostly famous characters not usually associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor. It offers anecdotes I’d never heard before.


Actress Greer Garson didn’t want the role of Mrs. Miniver. Portraying a mom of a grown-up son was professional suicide. Louis Mayer strong-armed her into signing on. It proved to be her greatest film.
Mary Astor didn’t like kissing Humphrey Bogart. A botched lip surgery made him a very slobbery kisser.
The Japanese knew their China “adventure” was a mistake and very unpopular at home, but they couldn’t pull out without losing face. Certainly they wouldn’t because the United States told them to.
If Honolulu radio station KGMB played music all night long, military aircraft were expected to arrive early the next morning. The air force paid for this service so planes could home in on their signal. Of course, so could the Japanese attack force.
At Schofield air field, a medical officer stood ready to spray an incoming flight of B-17s with insecticide to kill any bugs as soon as they touched down.
Author John Steinbeck wrote a play about a European town occupied by Germans for the Foreign Information Service to combat German propaganda. He dictated the play to a secretary who made significant changes of her own to the script, leaving out portions about the Germans she didn’t like. Turns out she was a Nazi sympathizer actively supporting Hitler.
The British were ecstatic over the attack on Pearl. They felt no outrage at the Japanese, no sympathy for the American dead, only pleasure that America was now in the war. The British ambassador, Lord Halifax, was sent to America to persuade Americans to join the war, which proved to be very much an uphill task. He was amazed at the virulence of anti-British feeling across the country. America Firsters in Detroit, convinced the British wanted America to fight to defend their empire, pelted him with eggs and tomatoes.
Many Americans were pleased the attack brought them into the war. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease envoy to Britain, Averell Harriman, was bitter toward isolationists. He hoped American cities would be blitzed to wake people up.
Britain had no diplomatic relations with Hungary, so the American ambassador in Budapest handled their affairs. That included delivering their declaration of war. The British had no quarrel with Hungary, but their Russian allies, bitter over Hungarian soldiers on the Russian front, pressured them into the declaration.
A week later, the Hungarian prime minister/foreign minister returned the favor to the American ambassador. At Germany’s insistence, Hungary declared war on the US.
Spain was pleased with the attack, another success of the German-Italian-Japanese Axis that Spain had all but joined. Franco sent a congratulatory telegram to Tokyo. He presumed the American entry into the war would be confined to the Pacific.
The Japanese high command entertained far-fetched ideas in their euphoria after their success, such as an amalgamation of Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, and Washington State in a new Japanese-controlled country after they won the war.
How much of this did you know?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wartime Internment of Germans

The internment of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II is well known. Barely known is the internment of Germans and Italians.
Residents of an alien internment camp in WWI built an authentic German village in Hot Springs, North Carolina. 

It happened first during World War I. Any German who hadn’t completed the naturalization process was suspect. They could be detained for association with ethnic organizations, or for statements that sounded disloyal or opposed US involvement in the war. Many were rounded up because someone with a grudge complained about them.
During WWII, more than 10,000 Germans and German Americans were interned. Many were taken away and their families had no idea of their whereabouts. Parents were taken and their young children left alone. Sometimes they were released within days; others were held for much longer.
They were given hearings, but not informed of the charges against them or who had made the charges. A United States Attorney tried to get a young mother to admit she’d named her son Horst after the Nazi martyr, Horst Wessel.
Besides detaining Germans in the United States, the government strong-armed Latin American countries to deport their German citizens to the U.S. The reason? They feared the Nazis would gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere. Of the 4,000 internees, 81 were Jewish refugees who had experienced the concentration camps in Europe. A Catholic priest was detained because he was supposed to be a Nazi. The camp commander considered him to be “no more of a Nazi than I am.”
Larger countries like Mexico and Argentina resisted the American demand, but smaller ones like Costa Rica gave in when the US threatened to boycott all products from German-owned companies. Coffee, for instance, was dominated by German firms, and with the war on, Costa Rica wouldn’t have been able to ship it anywhere else.
Besides keeping these supposedly dangerous enemies from impeding the war effort, the internees could be traded for American citizens held in Germany. Some deported families included an American spouse and American-born children.
During wartime, we may be fighting for freedom, but freedom is the first casualty.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Hello Girls

In my fourth book, Wheresoever They May Be, Susan Talbot is a switchboard operator in the Women’s Army Corps. World War II was not the first time women served in that role. During World War I, the “Hello Girls” filled that urgent need in France.
These American women were part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. They were fluent in English and French. A total of 223 were trained by AT&T before sailing for Europe.
Men disdained the “women’s work” job, and they weren’t as good at it. They took as long as sixty second to connect calls. The women could accomplish the task in ten seconds.
According to author Elizabeth Cobbs, “every command to advance or retreat or hold fire was delivered by telephone and it took an operator to connect that call.”
The American women connected calls for French officers needing to communicate with American officers, and they stayed on the line to translate for the men. They served near the front, in danger of bombardment, and knew military secrets.

General Pershing inspects the Hello Girls

After the war, the women tried to join service organizations, which required their Army discharge papers. The army told them they were civilian contractors, and were ineligible for the bonuses paid to all members of the armed forces. Not until 1977 was legislation signed recognizing them as veterans. By then, most had passed on.