Review: The Storm on Our Shores

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The Storm on Our ShoresMark Obmascik. New York: Atria Books, 2019.

Summary: The story of a forgotten battle in 1943 on Attu in the Aleutians, and two soldiers, “enemies” to each other, one who died, one who survived, and the after story.

You are living quietly as a Japanese-American on the west coast, caring for an aging widow, whose husband died in the Japanese war effort. An elderly man visits your home who was in the battle in which your father died. As he leaves, he finally blurts out the reason the real reason for his visit: “I’m the one who killed your father.”

Mark Obmascik tells the story of the battle that the devoted pacifist Japanese husband and father, Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, died in, and the story of Dick Laird, the scrappy, courageous soldier at whose hand he died. He fleshes out the life story of each that brought them to this moment, the moments that followed, and the healing Laird finally found as he and Laura Tatsuguchi Davis eventually talked.

Paul Tatsuguchi had emigrated from Hiroshima to California in the 1920’s, was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist home, and eventually enrolled in medical school, where he excelled as a surgeon. While there he met, and married Taeko Miyake, who he had known from childhood in Japan. Family needs brought them back to Japan where Paul served as a doctor in an Adventist tuberculosis sanitarium. As the clouds of war gathered, their first daughter Joy was born. Then Paul, who was a pacifist, was drafted into the Japanese war effort. Fortunately the need for doctors meant he would not be called on to kill the enemy. But he could still encounter those who once had been his American friends.

Dick Laird grew up in a southeast Ohio coal town. Enlisting in the army seemed the one thing that promised a better life. He met Rose in Columbus while going through training. They had a tumultuous relationship until the army finally grew him up. Laird was the guy you wanted on your side in a fight and he became a leader among men, rising to sergeant. He could have risen further except for his doubts about his education, offered the opportunity to go to Officers Candidate School.

In June of 1942, Japan invaded a lonely island at the western end of the Aleutians named Attu, about as far west as the U.S. goes. They thought they were getting a stepping stone, but the storms, the spongy soil, the cold and the fogs made it more or less useless as a base. They eventually took Kiska to the east. None of this afforded them much strategic advantage but they did not relinquish it.

American pride could not let this invasion of even these insignificant islands go unchallenged and so in May of 1943, Dick Laird was part of an invasion force sent to retake Attu. Much of the book chronicles this effort and the horrors to which this led. There was the Japanese no-surrender policy of fighting to the death, either in battle or in bushido (ritual suicide). There was the fog in war, in this case the literal fog that led to Laird accidentally killing one of his own runners, mistaking him for the enemy, and nearly taking innocent lives at another point. There were the gruesome deaths all around him of friends and others he fought alongside.

Meanwhile, there was the diary kept by Paul Tatsuguchi chronicling the deteriorating conditions that led to the giving of grenades to his patients so they could take their lives rather than be captured. There is also his faith, and his love for his daughters, including Laura, born during the war. The end came when the remaining Japanese defenders mounted a banzai attack. Tatsuguchi was among a group of soldiers charging Laird and his men. Laird had no choice but to throw a hand grenade, followed by his and his men’s rifle fire that wiped out the group.

When they searched the dead, Laird found Tatsuguchi’s diary, later widely copied and circulated by others. Someone else found his Bible. Laird struggled after the war with what we now know as PTSD, the memories of gruesome deaths, the runner, the innocent he almost killed, and the death of Tatsuguchi, a pacifist doctor mixed up in a fatal charge. He had nightmares for years, even as he tried to leave the war behind in the daylight.

The most moving part of the book is the encounters he has with Laura, including the incredible letter she wrote him that finally enabled him to sleep at night. The book also raises the questions war so often raises about soldiers each doing their duties honorably, mixed up in what was a needless battle because of the decisions of others and bearing the consequences in their deaths, or their lives. Laird is the embodiment of the tension of doing what he must do, deeply regretting what he had done and yet seeing no way out of this tragic dilemma. All the decorations he received could not unravel this. Only the aggrieved mother and daughter could do so. The wonder of this book is how they did.

Review: Indianapolis

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Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent ManLynn Vincent and Sara Vladic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A narrative of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine at the end of World War Two, the five day struggle for survival that took the lives of nearly two-thirds of those who made it into the water, and the fifty-year effort to exonerate her court-martialed captain.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis was a storied ship. For a time, it was the ship of state for Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently, it was the flagship of the naval fleet in the Pacific theater, winning ten battle stars. After refitting due to a kamikaze strike, it is sent on a super-secret mission to deliver the components of one of the atomic bombs that ended the war. Then, just after midnight on July 30, 1945, a Japanese submarine surfaced within striking distance as Indianapolis, under command of decorated Captain Charles McVay III, was steaming unescorted to the Philippine Island for crew training. Two torpedos sink the ship in twelve minutes. Nine hundred of the twelve hundred men, including McVay make it off the ship due to his abandon ship orders. SOS messages had been sent, although whether the radio equipment was working at that point was in doubt.

Days and nights elapse in the oil-slicked waters where survivors board rafts, nets, or simply hold onto each other, staying afloat with their slowly water-logging life jackets. Somehow, no one realizes the ship is missing and no search is mounted. Men succumb to injuries, or the consequences of drinking salt water when desperately thirsty, or to sharks. After five nights and four days, only a little over 300 are still alive. Only then are they spotted by a patrol plane and a rescue operation mounted, some dying even as they attempt to swim to rescue. Only 316 survive.

While the men’s physical ordeal has come to an end, that of Captain McVay is only beginning. Before leaving for the Philippines, he was assured there was no enemy activity along his route, despite intelligence to the contrary never communicated him. Because of overcast conditions, he had secured the ship from zig-zagging, a defensive measure, which was normal practice given what he knew. Nevertheless, he faced a rushed court martial for negligence that resulted in the ship’s sinking, on which he was found guilty, even while exculpatory evidence was either being covered up or developed. The failures of others were covered up, only he was held to account.

The last part of the story is about the efforts of a group of the survivors, the captain of the modern namesake submarine, William J. Toti, and a precocious eighth grade boy. Hunter Scott’s history project turns into a crusade that takes him to the halls of Congress and an appearance as witness in a Senate hearing, and is the most inspiring and heartening part of the book. Sadly, Captain McVay did not live to see this, only one of his sons.

This is a wonderfully told story that manages to fuse human and technical elements into a page-turning narrative. We experience the moments of fear, panic, and the shipboard disciplines of those last twelve minutes of Indianapolis. We sense the growing despair and struggles to sustain hope and sanity as hours stretch into days, and good friends succumb to injuries or sharks. We share the growing awareness of all who look into the court martial of McVay that a cover up has taken place, and an injustice done. All of this propels us to keep reading to see how this will resolve, and whether there will be survivors to celebrate. Whether you are a naval history buff, or simply enjoy a good story, this one has all the elements to be your next great read.

Review: The Cloudbuster Nine

Cloudbuster 9

The Cloudbuster Nine, Anne R. Keene. New York: Sports Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The story of the 1943 Navy training school team on which Ted Williams, Johnny Sain, Johnny Pesky and others played, and the baseball hopes and disappointments of the team’s batboy, the author’s father.

In baseball circles, many consider Ted Williams to have been the greatest hitter to have ever played the game. Williams made a science out of hitting. Many wonder what his records would have been like had he not served in the military during World War II and been called up during the Korean conflict, while admiring his service.

What is not widely known is that Williams played on a Navy team during his pre-flight training in 1943 In Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The team was known as the Cloudbuster Nine, and perhaps reached the pinnacle of its fame in a game at Yankee Stadium to raise funds for the war effort. The game was the second half of a doubleheader between the Indians and the Yankees. The second game featured a combined Cleveland-Yankees team known as the “Yanklands” against the Cloudbuster Nine, whose roster included major leaguers Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Johnny Sain, Buddy Hassett, and others. Babe Ruth managed, and took an at-bat with the Yanklands while Donald Kepler managed the Cloudbusters, who handily won the game 11-5.

Anne Keene became interested in the Cloudbuster story after her father’s death, as she rummaged through an old chest in the process of composing his eulogy. She discovered an old scrapbook with photos of the Cloudbuster greats along with their batboy, her father, James Raugh, Jr. His father, Lt. Commander James Raugh, Sr., was second in command at the pre-flight school. This sparked a research and writing project to tell the story of this team, as well as to understand more of her father’s own failed baseball career.

Focusing on Williams, who stands out among the players she researched, she tells the story of the team, how its formation was part of pre-flight training, their travels in old buses, and victorious season. She traces the development of the pre-flight training school, and the demanding regimen of classes, physical work and training, including survival training that was the first part of these men’s preparation to be fliers. She recounts her interview with 96 year old Ivan Fleser, a pitcher who was the last survivor of the team and his recollections of Williams and the others. She reveals the fights to save the team from those who thought it a luxury, and the role Eleanor Roosevelt played. She talks about other pre-flight graduates, notably John Glenn and George H.W. Bush, and how many of the men who went through it counted it as the most formative experience of their lives.

The other part of this story is how this experience inspired a dream in Johnny Raugh, Jr. to play professional baseball. He played in the minor leagues until 1961 with flashes of brilliance, but never enough to make it to the parent team, the Detroit Tigers. By 1961, his arm was finished as he tried for the “extra something” that it took for a major league fastball that was not in him. As she researched his boyhood with the Cloudbusters, and his minor league career, she came to understand both his love of the game, and the sadness that hung over his life of not having “made it” to the majors.

Keene gives us a previously unknown glimpse into the Cloudbusters, Ted Williams’ military years, and the influence pre-flight training had on this “greatest generation” of baseball players. The narrative moves between the Cloudbusters, the training and her father’s story, all interesting, but perhaps a bit disjointed. Yet her account gives us a personal glimpse into the character of Ted Williams, his passion for the game, even played on fields before crowds of a few thousand. She helps us see how these are both fields of dreams and disappointments–and how baseball played a role in the winning of World War II.

Review: The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk, Walter Lord. New York: Open Road Media, 2017.

Summary: A historical account of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops as the German blitzkrieg shattered Allied defenses and occupied France.

A new generation learned about the “miracle” of Dunkirk this summer through the Christopher Nolan film. In conjunction with this release, Open Road released a digital version of Walter Lord’s classic The Miracle of Dunkirk. Lord is most famous for his highly readable account of A Night to Remember about the sinking of the Titanic, but also published a number of histories of various aspects of World War II, including the truly miraculous evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk and its nearby beaches between May 26 and June 4.

The Allied line had collapsed in front of the German blitzkrieg, and nearly 400,000 were isolated and driven toward the French coast. It would be a huge debacle and demoralizing blow, especially for the British, if these forces were surrounded and captured. At this point, no amphibious craft existed to evacuate them from the beaches and no plan existed to do so.

Lord’s account covers the various facets of the unfolding “miracle.” There is the decision to evacuate and launch Operation Dynamo and the resultant misunderstandings that occurred with the French. We watch the scramble of Admiral Ramsey to mobilize anything that floated from destroyers to tugboats and pleasure yachts to evacuate soldiers. Initially, they expected to evacuate only 45,000 before the Germans completed their conquest.

Several factors contributed then to this miracle. One was Hitler’s puzzling order for the advancing German forces to halt for a couple of critical days between May 24 and 27, allowing more Allied forces to retreat. Then there was reliance on Goering’s Luftwaffe, which was devastating at points but could not fly during overcast weather, which prevailed during several days of the evacuation.

“Miracle” might give a sense of a smooth running operation. It was anything but and Lord describes the mishaps that resulted from a wrecked port, efforts to ferry men off the beaches around Dunkirk and the eventual use of the mole, or breakwater, that allowed boats to berth, load and depart with the greatest efficiency. Likewise, there was bad blood between the British and the French, and at first evacuations were primarily of British troops until they agreed that it would be “arm in arm.” Eventually about 100,000 French were evacuated along with over 230,000 British.

Part of the story was the resistance of British and French troops (Belgium had surrendered, leaving a hole in the lines to be plugged, stretching the defenders further), a number of whom spent the rest of the war as prisoners, especially among the French. The resistance they put up, along with the unwillingness of the Germans to risk their tanks in the marshy lands around Dunkirk, bought precious extra time for the evacuation to mobilize, which succeeded in evacuating a peak of 68,000 on May 31. The other part of the story was the heroism of not only the naval forces but the many civilians who faced German fighters, bombers, mines, and torpedoes. Lord tells stories of men who had to evacuate more than one ship enroute to England.

The RAF’s Spitfires also bought some respite for the shipping when they engaged the Luftwaffe. At the same time, Lord describes the balancing act that they had to play between providing critical air cover, and maintaining sufficient forces for the anticipated defense of England.

Lord portrays the different ways the evacuation was seen by Germany, France, and England. Germany didn’t think England would return. France felt betrayed. But for England, and their new prime minister, Winston Churchill, the “miracle” represent a resolve to fight on, and a signal achievement in recovering such a significant part of their fighting core, later to be joined by their American allies. While France was lost, and with it, vast amounts of arms and equipment, all was not lost. And that was enough to fight on.

Lord’s account covers all sides of the battle, British, French and German, and the land, air and sea elements. He captures both the overall development, and the stories of the fighting men and civilians who all were part of the miracle. His notes and bibliography detail the mountains of research that he distilled into a manageable and riveting narrative. If you haven’t seen the movie, get the book, and it will make more sense of the movie when you do. And it will help you understand the first of the series of turning points that culminated in D-Day.

Review: A World to Win (Lanny Budd #7)

A World to Win

A World to WinUpton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1946).

Summary: Presidential Agent 103, in the guise of an art dealer, embarks on a series of journeys, planned and unplanned, in which he gathers significant intelligence for the Allied cause in its fight against Nazism.

Most of us know Upton Sinclair as the author of The Jungle, an expose’ of conditions in Chicago meat packing plants at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was unaware that he was author of the Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, named after the primary character, the son of an American arms dealer, a gentleman of tact and insight who moves among the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and eventually becomes Presidential Agent 103, using the cover of a fine art dealer to travel into occupied France and Germany to gather intelligence against the Nazis critical to the allied threat. The third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Novel. The series went out of print for years only to recently be resurrected by Open Road Media.

Some of you may remember The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. The main character of that book “Pug” Henry was also an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and met with a number of world leaders. Reading A World to Win, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wouk had drawn his inspiration, consciously or not, from this work, published 25 years earlier. In the course of this novel, Budd meets with Marshal Petain, Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler, alludes to meetings with Churchill, hobnobs with William Randolph Hearst, is entertained by the widow of Sun Yat-sen, meets Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), and finally, at the end of the novel, Joseph Stalin.

After each of his forays, including a kidnapping by underground forces who suspected him of Nazi ties when he was actually on their side, escapes from Luftwaffe bombings, and other perils including a near fatal plane crash, he has late evening meetings in the bedroom of Franklin Roosevelt where P. A. 103 is debriefed. During one of these, he even gives Roosevelt the words, “the arsenal of democracy,” that Roosevelt used in one of his famous speeches! This incident underscores Budd’s singular ability to endear himself to whoever he is with, even those he inwardly despises, like Hitler, and keep them persuaded that he is nothing other than a disinterested art dealer.

At the same time, Budd’s endearing qualities draw him into affairs of the heart with two women. Lizbeth is the young daughter of a Baltimore industrialist, beautiful but incapable of anything beyond conventional conversation on conventional subjects. Laurel Creston, her cousin is a socialist-leaning anti-Nazi journalist who Lanny helped escape from the Gestapo, and easily his intellectual equal. While on his “missions” for the president, he refuses to consider either, given his dangerous lifestyle. But when “furloughed” after the plane crash, which also destroyed his “cover,” he finds himself in a different place.

Things get even more interesting when Lanny gets invited on a cruise to Hong Kong (where a psychic had predicted Lanny would die) by Lizbeth’s father. Laurel also manages an invitation, leading to an interesting predicament. Who he ends up with, how they escape the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and how they end up meeting Mao and Stalin, I will leave you to discover.

One detects in the book Sinclair’s life and interests–Baltimore where he grew up, interests in psychics and spiritualism, and socialist leanings, which characterize Laurel, and in a more chastened form, Lanny himself, despite his loyalty to Roosevelt and to his arms manufacturer father.

While the idea stretches credulity that Budd could somehow manage to meet all these great personages in one novel, and end up traveling around the world, the journey is rip-roaring good fun. The closest this seemed to me to get to a plot was the recurring allusions to Budd’s death in Hong Kong, fantastic at best, until Hong Kong becomes a cruise destination and we realize that his arrival date coincides with the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s invasion. At the same time, there are seasons of reading when one does not particularly care as long as the book keeps your attention.

I should say that I started this series with this book which is number seven, which happened to be available at a discount in e-book form. It was definitely good enough that I want to go back and read the series from the beginning. If that sounds interesting to you, Open Road has a page showing all eleven novels in their proper sequence, and other Sinclair works, with links to purchase them in different e-formats.

Review: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965

the last lion

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965William Manchester and Paul Reid. New York: Bantam Publishing, 2013 (first published 2012).

Summary: The third volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, covering his leadership of England during World War II, and his political and personal life until his death in 1965.

During the 1980’s I read and relished the first two volume’s of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, and looked forward eagerly, as did many to the next installment covering the critical years of his Prime Ministership during the Second World War. I heard Manchester was struggling to complete the work though in poor health, and then that he had died. But before he did so, he passed along his notes, approximately 100 pages of text, and his blessing on the enterprise, to Paul Reid. In 2012, the long-awaited final volume was published.

Most of this volume (approximately 800 pages) covers the war years. What I noticed was that there was as much war here as there was Churchill, perhaps because it was impossible to understand the character and specific actions of Churchill’s leadership except against the canvas of the war. And so we see the miraculous escape from Dunkirk as the British army is routed from the continent, and Churchill’s galvanizing speeches as the island girds itself for the invasion that never came. Then there was the Blitz, and Churchill’s presence among the ruins, inspiring people by the fact that he was there and he knew. This volume also chronicles the desperate U-boat war in the Atlantic that nearly brought the country to its knees while it struggled alone.

Manchester and Reid show us the development of the complicated relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, from Churchill’s desperation to gain whatever help he could from a neutral U.S., the first flush of the alliance following Pearl Harbor, and the increasingly tense relationship as strategic disagreements develop between the two countries, and different visions for the post-war world based on differing national interests, even as Roosevelt was loosing his slender hold on life. Part of this had to do with their interesting tripartite alliance with Stalinist Russia, which bore the major part of the European struggle, and in turn expected to reap the benefit of its conquests.

Part of the tension had to do with Churchill’s complex vision of strategic opportunities as opposed to the pressures placed by both Russia, and the Americans for the main effort of an invasion in France. First there was North Africa, then Sicily, and Italy, and the ever present temptation of the Balkans. Part came from the great fear of a repulse on the beaches, delaying invasions from 1942 to 1943, and finally 1944. On the other hand, it was Churchill who understood the Russian ambitions correctly and that they would hold onto the land that their armies took, in Poland, and throughout Eastern Europe. (Yet one wonders if the outcome in Eastern Europe would have been different with an invasion a year earlier, if it had been successful.)

While the Americans hoped for a warm relationship with Russia following the war, Churchill, now out of office, spoke of “the iron curtain” descending across Eastern Europe. Along with George Kennan’s famous telegram, he helped shape the beginnings of the Cold War policies that lasted nearly 50 years and averted a major, and possibly cataclysmic, confrontation. Back in office in 1951, he led his country to research resulting in the H-bomb, and was perhaps the first to enunciate the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The last 250 pages recount not only this history but the public honors, the extensive travels, the personal pursuits of painting and writing and caring for Chartwell and the gradually declining health resulting in his death at 90. Like many great men, we see how his children struggled in his shadow, including son Randolph, and daughters Sarah, who died from the effects of alcoholism, and Diana, who pre-deceased Churchill, dying of a barbituate overdose, ruled as suicide. The authors also refute Lord Moran, who characterized Churchill’s final years as a struggle with the “Black Dog” of depression. Only in the final couple years, when his health began to seriously fail was there any hint of this.

This is a portrait of a demanding leader, and yet one who most who served him considered it the high point of their lives. He drove others hard, even as he drove himself harder, sometimes to near death with several bouts of pneumonia as he approached age 70 at the end of the war. He was on the wrong side of history on some things, particularly colonialism, although he also foresaw some of the problems these countries would face in a post-colonial world. He was a man of prodigious intellectual ability and prodigious appetite, who could probably drink anyone under the table. It is also the story of a man of clear vision and resolve, who stood up alone, and led his country to stand alone against the might of the Axis powers, which seemed unstoppable. He helped a country understand that knocked down was not the same as knocked out, and helped them survive long enough for the U.S. to join them.

This is a big book on the life of one who arguably was the greatest leader of the twentieth century. It follows two others of similar size. It might take several months to read all three (this one took me a month), but I think you will be a better person for it. It makes one wonder about the Providence that gave such a man for such a time, and long for such leaders in our own time.

 

Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Summary: The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end.

“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.”

There are some books that keep you up at night because you can’t put them down. This was different. This story kept me up at night after I had laid the book down, drawn into the choices faced by the characters, the brutality they suffered, and the profound grief that comes of love and loss. I’ve read other books with “heavy” content, but rarely have I been touched as I was in reading this book.

The book opens in 1995 in the voice of the aged narrator, having lost her husband and been diagnosed with terminal cancer and attended by Julien, her surgeon son. She opens a trunk, comes across an identity card for Juliette Gervaise. We subsequently learn that the narrator has been invited back to a reunion of passeurs in Paris, those who had smuggled people out of Nazi-occupied France. And this leads to a narrative of the lives of two sisters, estranged from each other, and from a father, Julien Rossignol, who had faced the Germans in an earlier war, and whose life was broken because of it.

The two sisters are Vianne and Isabelle. Vianne, the older, had fallen in love, conceived a child out of wedlock, and married her lover, Antoine, making a home and an idyllic life in rural France. Isabelle, the younger and seemingly more-headstrong, moved from finishing school to finishing school, consigned to them by a widower father, living as a bookseller in Paris, who did not want to be involved in bringing up either of his daughters. Yet Isabelle ends up in Paris with her father, expelled from yet another school, and distant from a sister who seems to want nothing to do with her.

Into all their lives comes the Nazi threat to France. Antoine is called up to military service along with the husband of Vianne’s best friend Rachel de Champlain, a Jewish emigre’ to France. The confidence in their fighting men and the defenses of the Maginot Line are shattered as the Nazis invade and approach Paris. Isabelle flees, trying to get to Vianne’s home, survives the brutal strafing of fleeing civilians, and falls into the company of a radical, Gaetan, one of those dedicated to the French resistance. He wins her heart, then leaves her after they arrive at her sister’s.

For a time, Isabelle stays, in a relationship made more tense by the presence of a German officer, Captain Beck, billeted in Vianne’s home. Secretly, Isabelle is already enlisted in the resistance cause, while Vianne is faced with the quandary of living with an enemy, who yet seems a decent man. She errs in reluctantly giving the names of those who are Jews and communists in the school in which she teaches, including, her friend Rachel’s.

From here, the plot unfolds in a series of heroic, and sometimes tragic, choices against the backdrop of increasing German brutality. Isabelle becomes the Nightingale (her last name is Rossignol, the French for “nightingale”), and with the aid of her father, working for the Germans but secretly aiding the resistance, becomes Juliette Gervaise, smuggling downed pilots over the Pyrenees to freedom until finally captured by the Germans in the last months of the war. Meanwhile, Vianne, under the nose of SS officer Von Richter who has taken the place of deceased Captain Beck, is able to rescue 19 Jewish orphans, including Rachel’s son, paying for her work in the end by the violation of her own body.

The succession of tragic events these women and their father face are the history of the Holocaust, and the terrible banality of evil and brutality of act that characterized Nazism. Sometimes we become inured to so much evil, but this story brought that evil to life in the experiences of Isabelle, and Vianne, and their friends and, particularly, the children, that brought it up close and personal once more, a powerful use of fiction to document the fact of the Nazi horror.

The loves of each, including Julien Rossignol, the father, and the terrible exigencies of war do indeed shape and define their characters, and in ways I cannot reveal without giving away the end, result in the healing of estrangements among them. The narrator’s closing words speak of the triumph of love and goodness in the end:

“Wounds heal.
Love lasts.
We remain.”

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Veterans

In_Service_Flag

A service flag denoting a family member who had died in service and two others in the Armed Forces

My dad was a World War II veteran. He served in a medical evac unit in France and Germany during the last year of the war. He often talked about how hard it was shipping out to Europe, shortly after my brother had been born in 1944. I’m reminded of him this weekend as we remember all the men and women who served in our armed forces, and particularly those who gave their lives for our country. This weekend, flags will be placed at the graves of veterans in many cemeteries.

Many of the men from Youngstown who served in World War II and survived came back and started families and went to work, or back to work in the mills. Most never said much about the horrors of the war–the mind doesn’t want to go back there. Certainly, some experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before there was a name for it. Some took advantage of the G.I. Bill and went to college, the first in families that may have been peasant farmers in Eastern Europe a generation or two before. Those were boom years in Youngstown–growing families, growing schools, new houses, and the valley aglow. I was born in the midst of all that nine years after the war ended.

By then, the Korean War had added to the ranks of veterans. I never heard much about this war. For many of us, the Vietnam War was what was etched in our memories. As a paper boy, I noticed the blue star banners in the windows of some homes denoting a family with someone in the service. Such banners were replaced with gold star banners for those who had died. No one wanted one of these, and we became more uncertain about the cause represented by the blue ones as the war wore on. Unfortunately, we did not do a good job welcoming home those who answered the call to serve. They should never have been made to bear the blame for what our politicians had gotten us into. It seems, at least we have learned since then as these veterans have spoken out and the beautiful Vietnam war memorial was erected in Washington, D.C.

Many of those vets also came home and went to work at places like Lordstown, like my friend Bob. Most of them didn’t say much about what they experienced, until they discovered that this was part of the process of healing from the nightmares that persisted. Since then we’ve sent others to the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots.

That’s what’s unsettling about war and about what those who have fought have had to experience. Even those who did not make the “ultimate sacrifice” bear the marks of what they have seen, and had to do. I’m grateful for so many who did this, like my dad, and then made Youngstown what it was during my growing up years. I’m grateful for all those like him, ordinary guys, who simply have done what has to be done. And that sobers me as well and makes me ask more and more questions the older I get of our politicians, and why this war, this fight is necessary. Because it will be men and women like my dad, like my friend Bob, who will bear the burden.

We remember.

All my posts on Youngstown are available by clicking “On Youngstown” either here or on the menu bar.

 

 

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribners, 2014.

Summary: Two teenagers, a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and a German orphan, Werner Pfennig, with a gift for radio electronics, are brought together at the end of World War 2 through underground radio broadcasts by her great-uncle of recordings by her grandfather while a dying German Sergeant Major seeks a treasure in the girl’s possession.

I don’t think I’ve been gripped by the “voice” of a writer as I was from the first pages of this book since reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. It is a voice that quietly and deliberately creates an atmosphere that evokes the mixture of wonder of two children coming of age and discovering the world and their own loves, the pall of sadness and terror surrounding the German invasion of France, and  mounting tension, as a sinister and dying Sergeant Major confiscating treasures for the Fuhrer closes in on Marie-Laure, all alone in one of the few standing houses in St. Malo, days before it fell to the allies in August 1944.

The book opens with the opening of the invasion. Marie-Laure is blind and alone in the house at 4 Rue Vauborel, her great-uncle Etienne having been interned and her father lost or dead in a German prison camp. Werner is five blocks away attempting to find the source of underground broadcasts, which are being made by Marie-Laure’s uncle, shelters and is trapped in the basement of a collapsed hotel.

The story shifts back and forth between the invasion of St. Malo, and a telling of the story of the childhood of these two and the events that brought them together in St. Malo in August of 1944. We learn of a blind girl whose father is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum of Paris and how she learns to find her way around the city from a scale model her father makes. We see her growing love for the creatures of the sea as she reads a Braille version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. We learn of an orphan boy, Werner, who finds and old radio and makes it work, revealing a growing gift for radio electronics. He and his sister tune into wondrous broadcasts (that we learn were made by great-uncle Etienne and Marie-Laure’s grandfather). This is an example of the luminescence of Doerr’s writing:

The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?

Werner’s talents come to the attention of the Reich and he is sent to a school that exists to develop the Aryan super race. He learns triangulation which leads to eventual deployment hunting down underground transmitters. Meanwhile, he witnesses the brutal destruction of his one friend Frederick, who loved birds more than war. During this time Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, the father being entrusted with a precious diamond, the Sea of Flames, and end up with her great uncle Etienne in St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. The remainder of the story traces how the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure come together in St. Malo while tension builds as the sinister and dying Sergeant Major von Rumpel closes in and then occupies the house where Marie-Laure is staying while she hides in the attic accessed by a secret door in the back of a wardrobe.

Doerr gives us a story of beauty, pathos and mounting tension. He explores through the sightless Marie-Laure and the orphan Werner the incredible wonder of discovery, whether of the world of snails and sea creatures, or the fascinations of electronic circuitry and the wonders of science. Doerr portrays the beauty of the love between daughter and father, between brother and sister, and the growing friendship between Werner and Frederick. We see that the most terrible thing about war is the brutality that is oblivious of such beauty and which seeks to obliterate the better angels of our nature. [In this context, it should be noted that there are descriptions of violence and one scene of sexual assault, none of which is gratuitous.]

Doerr’s work won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction and I would contend that it was utterly deserving of such recognition. Doerr is a master painter with words, with all the strokes falling just as they should. I’m glad for the light it shed in my life.

Review: The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle

The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle
The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle by C. Vann Woodward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The battle for Leyte Gulf could very easily have turned out differently. The Japanese had designed a strategy that succeeded in pulling the bulk of U.S. naval forces away from the critical San Bernadino Strait that gave Japanese Central Force under Admiral Kurita the opportunity to thwart our landings in the Philippines.

C. Vann Woodward gives us a moment-by-moment and battle-by-battle account of what was in fact our largest naval engagement in World War II, one which finished off the Japanese Navy as an effective force. The strategy itself was a desperation move that consisted of a three-pronged approach designed to draw off the bulk of the 3rd and 7th Fleets covering the landings at Leyte Gulf. The northern and southern prongs basically sacrificed a significant portion of Japan’s naval power to buy time for Kurita to strike at Leyte Gulf.

It nearly succeeded. First, aerial attacks on Kurita’s Central Force while it was steaming through the Sibuyan sea over-estimated the damage wrought against Kurita’s force, deceiving Admiral Halsey of the Third Fleet into thinking he could take his forces north to wipe out Ozawa’s decoy force of carriers coming from the north. Ozawa’s decoy was successful at the cost of his carriers and other shipping in the Battle of Engano. Halsey compounded his error of judgment by vague communication that suggested he was leaving “Task Group 34” to cover the San Bernadino Strait when he in fact took this force with him.

This vague communication led Admiral Kinkaid to conclude that he could take his Seventh Fleet to confront the southern prong of the attack in the Surigao Strait. Because of communication and other problems Admirals Nishimura and Shima failed to coordinate and American forces were for the last time able to “cross the T” with devastating effect on Nishimura’s force. While victorious, Kinkaid has used up most of his firepower and was not in position or adequately prepared to respond to the threat that emerged from the San Bernadino Strait as Kurita’s force emerged. The only force there were poorly armed escort carriers and a screening destroyer force, seemingly no match for Kurita.

Only heroic action by the American destroyers and covering aircraft prevented the rapid destruction of the fleet. Yet all appeared lost when suddenly Kurita stopped and turned around and went back to the Sibuyan Sea. It was clear that had he pressed on, he could have won the engagement, having removed the destroyer screen and begun attacks on the carriers. From post-war interviews which Woodward includes, it appears that Kurita rationalized his decision based on the delay he had with the attacks in the Sibuyan sea, thinking he was encountering a greater force, losses to his own shipping, and the opportunity for engagement with Halsey’s returning force. In actuality, after a brief reconnaissance of the area, he turned back, having sacrificed the Japanese Navy without achieving his aim of repelling the American landings in the Philippines.

Woodward explores this mix of strategy, communications and miscommunications, and the relative strengths of each force. In the end, the outcome came down to the perception and resolution of a key leader, Admiral Kurita and the heroism of the escort carrier forces. A different outcome would still have meant catastrophic losses to the Japanese Navy and only delayed the inevitable.

Perhaps that was what was on Kurita’s mind…

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