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.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Who Wrote "It Is Well With My Soul"

Many Titanic victims are buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A tour guide at the cemetery told us one of the survivors who lost his family wrote the words to “It Is Well With My Soul.” I knew he was wrong, but I didn’t care to challenge him.

            A glance in a hymnal will tell you the words were penned by Horatio Spafford, born in 1828. He was a successful attorney and real estate investor who lost a fortune in the great Chicago fire of 1871.

            Two years later Horatio decided the family would travel to England for a vacation and to attend one of their friend Dwight L. Moody’s evangelistic crusades. His wife and four young daughters journeyed to England, but he was detained on business and planned to join them as soon as possible. On November 22, 1873, the ship was involved in a collision and sank. More than 200 people lost their lives, including all four Spafford daughters. His wife, Anna, survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in England, she sent a telegram to her husband that began: “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

                  Horatio immediately left for England. During his voyage, the ship’s captain pointed out the spot where the shipwreck occurred. The grieving father wrote these words:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll—
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well with my soul.
            Horatio and Anna had a son Horatio, born in 1875 or 1876, and another daughter, Bertha, in 1879.  More tragedy in 1880 was theirs when their son died of scarlet fever.  The church they attended believed the family tragedies were the result of divine punishment. The Spaffords withdrew their membership and moved to Jerusalem, where they established the “American Colony,” offering aid to those in need, regardless of race or religion.  Another daughter, Grace, had been born in early 1881, and in August of that year, they began their journey.

Horatio Spafford died of malaria on October 16, 1888, and is  buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Freckleton Air Disaster

As the airliner swooped down to Milwaukee’s airport last week, the folks in the homes below couldn’t miss the roar of the plane’s engines. I know. I lived one summer across the street from the end of a runway at Green Bay’s airport. At least it is rare for a plane to miss the runway.
Imagine living in England’s East Anglia district during World War II. The open terrain of farmland was ideal for airfields, and the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Forces built dozens, all close together. The Americans occupied 67 airfields.
The planes often took off in the wee hours, rousing the entire countryside. Often the weather was foggy. Collisions were too common, with fully fueled and heavily armed airplanes dropping on whatever had the misfortune of being under them. Damaged planes returning from bombing missions didn’t always make it to their airfields.
            A refurbished American B-24 Liberator bomber on a test flight crashed into an English village of Freckleton and killed 61 people, including 38 school children at Holy Trinity School, on August 23, 1944. It was likely the worst air disaster in England during WWII.

At 10:30, two B-24s took off, but a storm kicked up, and they were instructed to immediately return to the base. By 10:40, conditions had seriously deteriorated, with heavy rain and wind gusts hitting 60 to 70 miles per hour, uprooting trees in the area.
At 10:41, the Classy Chassis II began its approach to the airfield. As the planes dropped down to 500 feet and lowered their landing gear, they encountered heavy rain and zero visibility. The second pilot aborted his landing and headed northward out of the storm. The pilot of Classy Chassis II tried to abort his landing as well.
It didn’t happen. As the pilot tried to retract the landing gear and pull the aircraft out of its approach to the runway, the violent turbulence and wind gusts threw the 25-ton aircraft with 2,793 gallons of aviation fuel into Freckleton at 10:47 am. The Classy Chassis II first clipped some trees, then cartwheeled. The impact killed the three crewmen. Three homes were partially damaged and the Sad Sack CafĂ© was demolished, killing killed 18 of the 20 people inside.
The bomber slid across a road and slammed into the infants’ wing of the school. Inside were 41 four- to six-year-old children and two teachers. Seven children and the two teachers were pulled from the burning classroom; only three children survived their injuries. They endured years of surgeries.
Five-year-old Ruby Currell was one of the survivors. “It’s something you don’t forget. It doesn’t diminish. Not for me.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

John Wayne, American Hero?

John Wayne was an iconic American actor. I never knew why. Actually, I’d never watched more than fragments of a John Wayne movie. He seemed so blustery. When I had the opportunity to read a new book on the actor, I did. The Young Duke: The Early Life of John Wayne was an eye-opener into the life of this larger-than-life man.
Marion Morrison’s mother Molly was a shrew who complained incessantly about her husband Clyde’s lack of ambition. She felt entitled to an aristocratic lifestyle they couldn’t afford. She wanted Marion to be an attorney, successful in business and finance. She resented that he favored his father.
The family moved from Iowa to California for Clyde’s health. Marion had a dog he called Duke, which became his nickname, and he preferred it over his sissy name.
Duke attended USC on a football scholarship. Movie celebrities liked to watch the winning Trojans, and cowboy star Tom Mix exchanged summer jobs for players at Fox Films Corporation for box seats. Duke Morrison got one of the jobs, and Mix suggested Duke work as an extra in his next Western.
Director John Ford got him to appear in Salute. In Ford’s next film, Men Without Women, Duke appeared again and did stuntwork. He didn’t actively seek out roles, but didn’t turn them down.
Raoul Walsh cast him in The Big Trail. Studio executives objected to his name; Duke Morrison didn’t sound American enough. He became John Wayne in 1930.

After he started acting, Wayne studied the craft. Paul Fix taught him what to do with his hands while talking and other basic movement skills. Fix also changed Wayne’s gait, pointing his toes into the ground as he walked, causing a distinctive sway to his shoulders and hips.
Ford got mad at Duke for starring in The Big Trail, even though he had suggested him, and refused to speak to him for seven years. Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn got mad at him because he thought Wayne had an affair with his co-star, Lara La Plante, whom Cohn liked, and retaliated by casting him in demeaning roles for three years. Cecil B. DeMille asked him to his office in 1937 to discuss Duke possibly appeared in a Western DeMille was producing. DeMille kept him waiting over an hour, and then spent their time together critiquing Wayne’s work and explaining why he would not cast him in the lead.
Ford got over his pique and cast Wayne in Stagecoach, the film that took him out of B Westerns and made him an A star.
Wayne’s marriages don’t cast him in a good light. He didn’t approach marriage wisely and wasn’t a faithful husband.
John Wayne met Josephine Saenz in 1926. Her parents forbade her to see him, an unemployed teenager with no social standing, money, or prospects, a part-time actor who didn’t regularly attend church. After a six-year engagement, they finally married in 1933  in a lavish ceremony at Loretta Young’s Bel Air estate.
Josie organized posh affairs which John was not comfortable with. She was not enamored with the Hollywood scene. They distanced themselves from each other’s lives. Four children were born between 1934 and 1940, but his torrid love affair with Latin actress Chatta Bauer led to a divorce in 1944. Friends and Ford had tried to curb the affair, but Wayne resented their interference. He then wed Chatta in a volatile marriage doomed to fail.
He was a patriotic American, yes, and Congress awarded him a Congressional Gold Medal inscribed to John Wayne, American. (Not the Medal of Honor as reported in The Young Duke.) His personal life wasn’t noteworthy.
I decided the next time a Wayne film was on TV, I’d watch it in its entirety. Maybe a full movie would enlighten me. The Flying Leathernecks aired several days ago. It was okay, but I still don’t know what all the fuss is about. Are you a John Wayne fan?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ice is Slick

The Olympics take place next month. What’s your favorite sport to watch? Mine is figure skating.
My own skating skills are laughable. I don’t even know how to stop. I haven’t skated in many years, with good reason.
When I was five, a depression in our front yard made a lovely ice rink. One Saturday after Christmas, my older sister and I were skating when our dad came home. “Come skate with us,” we cried.

Before he had a chance to put on his skates, my sister ran into the house. “Terri fell!”
I don’t remember the fall or the immediate aftermath. I do remember sitting on the bench seat inside the back door, my parents looking in my mouth, my mom trying to reach our dentist. He was at a wedding.
Leaving my sister and younger brother with our next-door neighbor, my parents took me to St. Vincent Hospital. X-rays revealed my jaw was not broken. Another dentist, Dr. Krause, performed oral surgery, wiring my teeth and stitching my gum.
Before learning I would not have to stay overnight, my dad went home to take my siblings to our grandparents’ house. He brought back to the hospital a much-loved Christmas gift, my Chatty Cathy.
I remember a nun coming into the room where I sat, clutching my talkative doll. Her eyes opened wide in wonder. “Who do we have here?” I’m sure her expression was exaggerated to amuse and distract a frightened child.
I did go home that night. And when school reopened after the holiday, I went off to kindergarten with a note for my teacher, requesting special consideration for my battered mouth. I remember the teacher inspecting the dentist’s handiwork. And then the principal. They phoned my mom to come and get me. The school didn’t want responsibility for me.
For years afterward, driving past Dr. Krause’s office haunted me. I still remember sitting in his dental chair while he removed bits of wire and thread and dropping them on the paper bib fastened around my neck.
Figure skaters take innumerable tumbles. They suffer injuries worse than mine. When they stand on the podium with their shiny medals, what price did they pay in blood and tears? Their dedication and perseverance is admirable.

But skating is not for me. That ice is too hard and slippery.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Holding West Berlin

Stalin launched the blockade of Berlin to stop the Allies’ introduction of the deutschmark in the city’s western zones, to stop the progress toward the creation of West Germany, and to prevent NATO.
Days before the blockade began, Stalin had expelled Tito’s Yugoslavia from the Communist bloc, Cominform. As a result, the possibility of defection from Moscow was no longer unthinkable. Stalin could not now show any weakness over Germany.
By keeping the western currency out of Berlin, the Soviets would have complete control of the city’s finances. By impeding the progress toward separate Germanys, he could help himself to western German goods.
When Russia banned traffic to Berlin, the Allies counter-blockaded, halting shipments and traffic from western Germany into the eastern zone. To Stalin’s surprise, the East was dependent on coal, steel, machine tools, and industrial commodities from the west. The Soviets also suffered because they had been siphoning food and industrial shipments from western Germany as hidden reparations.

The Berlin Airlift wasn’t seen as a permanent solution. Many in the west believed withdrawing from Berlin would be necessary. They raised humanitarian concerns, saying Moscow would bring in supplies for the city’s western zones.
The United States could not withdraw their occupation troops, however. The Russians could not be trusted. Western Germany’s leaders wanted the troops to stay; they had long experience with totalitarian methods and would never accept Russia’s terms for unification.
The Russians claimed they would not remove their troops because the Germans hated them; as a matter of national security, the must maintain forces in Germany.
The only policy toward the Soviet Union must be firm, vigilant containment of Russian expansion tendencies. The U.S. refused to turn 2,400,000 West Berlins over to the terror of communist rule. And Stalin backed down on the blockade.

Coming in February  The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Marshall Plan

President George Washington bid his countrymen to steer clear of foreign entanglements, especially with Europe, whose interests were remote from the United States. Europe was always engaged in controversies irrelevant to American concerns.
After World War II, President Harry Truman took seriously Washington’s warning against foreign alliances, but he was convinced the realities of the late 1940s dictated the necessity of involvement.
Aid to war-torn Europe was the only way to get the shattered countries back on their feet and away from the new enemy, the Soviet Union. The Marshall Plan came to be.

During five years of war, the occupied countries had learned to cheat, lie, and run black markets. Rather than lend them reconstruction funds and wish them well, the United States controlled the purse strings with its blueprints, cash, and security guarantees.
Who would receive the American aid? The British and French believed Russia should be consulted, and held a conference with Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Molotov. Including him carried a high risk. The Russians could have killed the Marshall Plan with their demands and grievances over terms.
Goaded into rejecting the plan, Molotov walked out, making the U.S. the good guys and the Russians the bad guys. The Soviet Union wanted chaos in Europe, not reconstruction.
The recipient countries needed to devise a collective plan for recovery. Twenty-two nations were invited to participate. The Soviets instructed their satellite countries to attend to disparage the plan and prevent its unanimous adoption.
Poland and Czechoslovakia were especially eager to take part in the plan. Realizing they couldn’t be counted on the cooperate, Russia rescinded their order and forbid their attendance.
The western countries presented a plan that would have required continued assistance long after the U.S. wanted. The aim of the Marshall Plan was a self-supporting western Europe. Terms were spelled out: a workable economy independent of outside aid within four years, with demonstrable progress during that period in achieving production targets on essential items, especially food and coal. Greater austerity, not greater demands on America.
Selling the plan to Americans was equally difficult. Congressmen toured Europe and became believers. After a hard-won war, they couldn’t afford to lose the peace.

Coming in February  The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War by Benn Steil