RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE by Rebecca Erbelding

Image result for photo of fdr and henry morgenthau jr holocaust(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of the American government in general. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and according to historian, Richard Breitman he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Historians stress the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

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(John Pehle, Head of the War Refugee Board)

The signature effort of the United States in dealing with the Holocaust and trying to mitigate Nazi deportations and saving Jews was the War Refugee Board which was created on January 16, 1944 which according to Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s eye opening recent book,  RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE finally created an official government policy to rescue Jews.  Erbelding covers a great deal of material that has been mined previously by David Wyman, Richard Breitman, Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur and many others.  What separates her effort is her focus on American refugee policy from 1944 onward.  She mines over 19,000 documents dealing with the War Rescue Board as she displays the bureaucratic infighting, the ideological shifts, the out and out racism and anti-Semitism that existed in the State Department under the aegis of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions like Breckenridge Long.  A number of heroes emerge from Erbelding’s narrative, the most important of which is John Pehle, the Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Roswell MacLelland who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

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(John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, refused to consider bombing Nazi concentration camps)

The underlying theme of the monograph that has been portrayed by others was the bureaucratic war between the State and Treasury Departments over American immigration policy beginning in the 1930s.  By the summer of 1942 news of the ongoing massacre of European Jewry was known in Washington.  However, helping Jews escape Europe was never a priority for the American government nor its people.  Bigger problems loomed; the Great Depression, war in Europe, war in Asia, all stole the focus of most Americans.  Erbelding provides a nice synthesis dealing with the immigration battles throughout the 1920s and 30s that limited immigration under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.  She provides the link between anti-immigration sentiment that emerged during World War I, due in part as Daniel Okrent argues in his new book, THE GUARDED STATE to the role of eugenics, economic fears, and national security among other concerns.  By 1941 public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclivity to measure which way the political winds were blowing, anti-immigration sentiment in Congress, and out and out anti-Semitism in the State Department had already taken hold.

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(Secretary of State Cordell Hull)

By August 1942, Pehle concluded that it should be the role of the American government to try and save the Jews of Europe, and it was his responsibility as Director of Foreign Funds Control to do his best to achieve this momentous goal.  He was able to gain the cooperation of Morgenthau to liberalize the Treasury Department’s foreign funds policies to implement his strategy.  Erbelding spends a great deal of time narrating and analyzing how Pehle and his allies went about their task.  Pehle’s strategy focused on transferring funds to relief organizations that the State Department had blocked for two years; Gerhardt Riegner’s plan to save Jewish children, funding for the International Red Cross, assistance to the World Jewish Congress, assist underground movements, among many more.  Further, he created the protection of “paper,” issuing as many visas and passports with as much neutral power support as possible.  He instituted a licensing policy to satisfy the Nazis and their allies to consider releasing their captives.  He played a game of “charades” as a strategic approach to negotiations employing bluffs, lies or anything that might bring about the rescue of Hungarian Jews.  In addition, he was responsible for the creation of an Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate New York, planting articles in newspaper and other publicity about the plight of refugees, and even went so far as trying to get the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to launder money through its Swedish headquarters.

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(Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Refugee Affairs, Breckenridge Long)

Pehle and his allies’ work did not stop with these strategies.  He worked assiduously to purchase and/or lease shipping for Jews, locating safe havens, and considered the most outrageous possibilities to save lives.  Erbelding delves into the Brand Mission which involved a Nazi attempt to ransom the Jews of Hungary.  Brand was a member of the Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest who was seen as a spy by the British who actually imprisoned him during negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.   The offer of Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy to release Jews under his auspices, as well as the work of Raoul Wallenberg, Ira Hirschman and others was under Pehle’s purview.  As Erbelding correctly points out, the time and effort in most cases proved fruitless, but the War Rescue Board members at least tried.

Erbelding points to the British as a major roadblock because of its refusal to accept refugees in Palestine.  But London had company in creating obstacles or just plain refusal like Turkey, Spain, Portugal and others in trying to gain passage for Jews to safe havens.  They could all point to Roosevelt’s policies which after constant pressure from Jewish leaders and the State Department finally produced a declaration on March 24, 1944 warning Holocaust perpetrators and their axis allies of the punishment that awaited them once the war ended.  Pehle would employ that warning throughout Europe, but in most cases to no avail.

(Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, War Refugee Board Head, John Pehle)

Erbelding goes along with numerous others in arguing no matter how many Jews the War Rescue Board might have saved had it been created two years earlier the end of the war was the only solution to the Nazi terror.  Despite its late creation the Board did save lives, how many is open to conjecture.  But the work of people like Daly Mayer, Iver Olsen, Peter Bergson, Florence Hodel and many others cannot be discounted as the United States for the first and only time in its history worked to save lives and endeavor to employ humanitarian approach to a worldwide refugee problem.    If there is a lesson to garnered from Erbelding’s work it is that even in the midst of war, governments can achieve humanitarian successes. Perhaps the current administration should shelve its political agenda and consider what the War Refugee Board accomplished at the end of World War II and create a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis it now confronts at its southern border.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

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THE UNWANTED: AMERICA, AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN by Michael Dobbs

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“A piece of paper with a stamp on it meant the difference between life and death for thousands and thousands of people,” wrote American journalist Dorothy Thompson after Kristallnacht in late 1938.  Truer words were never written.  For Jews trying to escape the Nazi terror as the Final Solution approached the only avenue of escape seemed to be emigration from Germany to the United States.  But as Michael Dobbs describes in his remarkable new book, THE UNWANTED: AMERICA AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN victims of Nazi deportation policies ran into a stone wall in trying to gain entrance into the United States.  Whether it was the stonewalling of the State Department, the leadership, or lack of thereof of Franklin Roosevelt, or plain apathy or anti-Semitism, Washington could have done a great deal more. As Dobbs points out, “the wheels of the U.S. bureaucracy continued to turn, disconnected from the tragic events that had set them in motion.”  It seemed obstacle after obstacle was increasingly instituted to make it more and more difficult for Jewish refugees to gain entrance into America and avoid “transport to the east.”

Dobbs’ focus is on the small village of Kippenheim in Baden in western Germany with a population of 144 Jews out of a total population of 1800.  The author follows the plight of a number of families who lived through the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938 and realized that they must try and leave Germany.  The families, the Valfers, Wertheimers, and Wachenheimers, among a number that Dobbs concentrates had varied experiences.  All are subject to Nazi violence and torture in some measure.  All are torn from their homes and deported to camps in France, all make valiant attempts to leave Germany by dealing with the US immigration system, first with the consulate in Stuttgart, and the result is many will escape through Marseilles or other avenues and cross the Atlantic, go to Palestine, while others will perish in Auschwitz.  The book focuses on the period of late 1938 to the fall of 1942 when the Final Solution is in full motion.  The narrative is poignant and elicits a great deal of anger on the part of this reader as the story of the US State Department’s immigration policy under the aegis of Breckenridge Long the Assistant Secretary of State for immigration becomes crystal clear, and the lack of action and empathy on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose excuses for not acting in any meaningful way is fully described.

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(Wachenheimer family photo, circa 1938)

One of the most important questions remaining pertaining to the Holocaust is whether the United States could have done more to save lives be it bombing Auschwitz or allowing increased immigration.  In the recent past historian Richard Breitman focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impact and David Wyman zeroed in on the US Department of State.  In both instances the president and the bureaucracy were found wanting.  In the case of Roosevelt political concerns about Neutrality legislation, fears of anti-Semitic backlash, enforcement of immigration law and isolationist elements in Congress along with his own inherent biases made it difficult for the President to come out in public and act.  As far as the State Department is concerned, they would enforce the restrictionist 1924 Johnson Act quotas that legally called for 27,370 Germans to immigrate to the US each year.  It is clear that in 1940-41 only 62.1% of the quota was filled, and the 1941-42 only 7.2% was filled – the period of greatest need for victims of the Baden deportations from 1938.  According to the historical record, officials in the State Department purposely created roadblocks to deny Jewish refugees admission to the United States, even women and children.

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(Breckenridge Long)

Dobbs empathetically describes in detail the damage, arrests, and fear in Kippenheim during Kristallnacht and uses the residents of the village as a microcosm of the overall crisis that Jews faced as the true intention of the Nazi regime came to the fore.  Dobbs explores the violence against the residents of Kippenheim and the attempts by families to try and emigrate to the US and the roadblocks they faced.  He delves into the State Department bureaucracy and how certain people created roadblocks to entry into America.  At times it seemed that some of these impediments could be overcome, but officials following orders from Washington created even more hoops to go through in order to obtain the necessary visas, or “more stamps” on further documentation which may not have been called for months before.  The consulate interview begins the process, but so many Jews wanted to emigrate there was a three year wait to begin the process.  The tragedy for many, like the Laflers is that when their numbers finally came up and the process for approval was gain, Freya and Hugo were already victims of the crematoria in Auschwitz.

Dobbs takes the reader through the transport of refugees from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs, through Marseilles and its poor living conditions, the bureaucratic run-a-around, and their final fate.  Vichy governmental collaboration with the Nazis led by Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police is ever present.  The trauma of family members is plain as day as they deal with the daily attempts at survival and the highs and lows of believing they have the necessary paperwork to leave, and then have their hopes dashed by bureaucratic stalling, events like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Russia.  Dobbs follows the families in detail based on assiduous research and interviews with survivors like Hedy Wachenheimer who at the age of fourteen became part of the Kindertransport program and left her parents to live with families in London, while eventually her parents would perish.

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(Kippenheim, Germany synagoge)

Perhaps the most poignant narrative describes Hedy’s visit to Germany and Kippenheim in particular after the war working for the US military and wearing a uniform, she must face people who harassed and demeaned her as a child.  Dobbs goes on to relate how people, both Jewish and non-Jewish worked to rebuild the synagogue in the village as a memorial to what occurred.  The process was long and difficult, but because of survivors like Kurt Maier and Mayor Willi Mathis the building was restored to its role as a true house of worship in 2003.

Dodd is to be commended for his effort in bringing to life the fate of the Kippenheim Jews, but more so at a time when immigration is such a hot controversial issue, perhaps politicians should review US immigration policy during WWII and contemplate whether at times history should force us as a people to open up our hearts, and let political partisanship recede into the background, at least for a short time.   At the outset of Dobbs ’narrative Hedy Wachenheimer rode from her home on her bicycle to school.  Upon arrival and seated in class for her lessons the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew.”  This sounds like current political rallies and comments that tell “brown” people who are hear on legal visas and those legally seeking asylum to “get out and go home,” or ”send her home.”  Is this who we are as a people?

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(Boycott of Jewish Shops, Germany 1930s)

THE VOLUNTEER: ONE MAN, AN UNDERGROUND ARMY, AND THE SECRET MISSION TO DESTROY AUSCHWITZ by Jack Fairweather

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(Witold Pilecki, inmate at Auschwitz)

In 2003 my wife and I visited Krakow, Poland as part of a trip to locate where my father’s family lived before immigrating to the United States in the 1930s to escape the dark clouds that were descending upon Europe.  During our visit I hired a driver and spent hours visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau the resting place for many relatives that I never was fortunate enough to meet.  Seventy-five years after the conclusion of World War II, numerous questions abound concerning the then then “crown jewel” of Hitler’s extermination machine.  Books continue to proliferate, but what sets Jack Fairweather’s new book, THE VOLUNTEER: ONE MAN, AN UNDERGROUND ARMY, AND THE SECRET MISSION TO DESTROY AUSCHWITZ apart is his discovery of the role of Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz in order to organize  an underground resistance that would be part of a major revolt against the Germans.

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(Pilecki and his wife, Maria, and their son)

Pilecki has become a national hero in Poland and his story remained unknown in the west until it was uncovered by historians in the 1960s and 70s.  Much of his writings were sealed by the Soviet Union after the war because as a Polish nationalist, Pilecki was deemed a threat to the state, placed on trial and executed by the Stalinist regime.  It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the opening of the state archives in Warsaw that the academic Adam Cyra and Pilecki’s 60 year old son, Andrzej had access to his father’s writings and reports smuggled out of Auschwitz in order to alert the allies as to what was occurring in the crematoria and gas chambers, and argue for the west to bomb the camps.

Fairweather asks a number of important questions from the outset that impinge upon the role of England and the United States as it learned of the extermination camps.  He carefully develops a number of important themes that reverberate throughout the narrative.  First, despite Pilecki’s earnest efforts, that included being tortured, beaten, starved, suffering from typhus, he was able to employ the Polish underground network to smuggle out the truth as to what was occurring in Auschwitz to underground leaders in Warsaw who were able to convey part of his reports to the Polish government in exile, and hence to the Churchill government in 1942.  Much of this information was also communicated to the Roosevelt administration in Washington who was much more of a political animal in deferring any decisions to assist the Jews be it immigration by confronting State Department policies that was openly anti-Semitic under the auspices of Breckinridge Long, or approving bombing of the camp.

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(Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hoss)

Second, was the mind set of British politicians in high circles who suffered from an “in-bred” anti-Semitism and saw Pilecki’s information as a distraction from the main war effort.  They would allow the dissemination of some information but would not endorse it.  As Richard Breitman and David Wyman have pointed out the British were obsessed by the Palestinian issue and they feared an Arab reaction if they approved further immigration because of their dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the Suez Canal.

Lastly, Fairweather’s narrative focuses on Pilecki’s attempt to educate the allies and get them to acknowledge the importance of what was occurring at Auschwitz.  On another level he concentrates on the allied response and the reasons for their “deafness” when it came to the extermination of European Jewry.   As he concludes, “the allied failure to Understand Auschwitz’s role as the epicenter of the Holocaust allowing officials to continue to characterize the German assault on the Jews ASA a diffuse phenomenon that could only be stopped by defeating Germany.”  Downplaying genocide could only inhibit further investigation.  Much of what Fairweather argues has been put forth by numerous historians, but the key is the personal story of Witold Pilecki that unfolds.

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(The gate as you enter Auschwitz)

Fairweather has written a deeply personal portrait of a man whose moral and ethical principles stood out in a deeply troubled period.  The narrative is based on assiduous research that included interviews with fellow inmates who the author had access, that provide insights into his character, his decision making, and the impact of his actions.  Fairweather traces Pilecki’s journey from his quiet family life who survived the Nazi onslaught on his country in September, 1939, experiences in Auschwitz, his methodology in organizing his underground network, strategies for smuggling out information, and how he tried to convince his superiors of the importance of destroying Auschwitz as it was a vehicle to exterminate millions of Jews as well as thousands of Polish Catholics.

Many of Pilecki’s compatriots like Dr. Wladyslaw Dering, a Warsaw gynecologist who faced the dilemma of how much he should cooperate with the Nazis as he tried to save as many inmates as possible, a Polish spy known as Napoleon, and Stefan Rowecki, the leader of the Polish underground in Warsaw are introduced as are the kapos, like Alois Staller who tortured the inmates, the SS Commander, Rudolf Hoss, who ran the camp, among many, and of course the victims who suffered unbearably.  Fairweather presents the unfathomable and grisly details that go along with any discussion of the Holocaust that have appeared in historical accounts since the end of World War II, but he delivers them in a concise manner, with much sensitivity and at the same time is able to convey to the reader the importance of Pilecki’s mission to expose what the Nazis were doing in Auschwitz, particularly once the decision for the Final Solution is made in January, 1942 at the Wannsee Conference.

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If there is a criticism that can be offered is that at times Fairweather is somewhat cavalier about his information, i.e. his description the Battle of the Bulge as a minor hinderance to the allied drive to end the war.  Further, he should be careful with his statistics stating that there were 2,000,000 Jews under Nazi control in Poland, the 3,300,000 would be more accurate.

Overall, Fairweather has written an important book because he uncovers the role of an important figure who did his best to alarm the world as to what was the end goal of Hitler’s racial war.  The fact that Witold Pilecki was kept hidden for so long is the result of another type of extermination, Stalin’s effort to eradicate any Pole who might have been given any credit for liberating their country.  Kudos to Fairweather for bringing Pilecki’s story to the fore.

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Bucket List Met! Normandy 1944-2019

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Last week my wife and I were part of a crowd of over 10,000 people that assembled at the American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944 that began the slow arduous process of defeating Hitler’s fortress Europa.  Our presence was part of a long sought after “bucket list goal” of visiting the Normandy beaches that I had hoped to achieve during an over forty-year career as a historian.  Our visit to France, which also included Belgium and Luxemburg encompassed the battlefields of World War I and II, but the highlight for us was speaking with and watching the countless D- Day survivors (about 35) who were on the stage during the June 6th ceremonies.

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(The spot where the Battle of the Bulge was launched by the Germans)

We spent over two weeks on our journey which began in Paris and Giverny visiting the home of French Impressionist, Claude Monet’s garden and numerous paintings.  From that point on we transversed the battlefields of World War I with our historical guides Rich Yoder and Dave Wall of Military Historical Tours out of Woodbridge, Va.  Though I was familiar with much of the history, our guides excellent commentary made what I had studied and taught come alive.  We visited sites that included the Oie-Aise American Cemetery and Memorial where 6,012 Americans are buried who lost their lives in the vicinity in 1918, and Chateau-Thierry, scene of two critical battles in 1914 and 1918.  The First, the Battle of the Marne was one of the opening campaigns of the war that blunted the German drive on Paris,  and the second marked the turning point of the war as the American Expeditionary Force with 250,000 troops played key roles resulting in the death of 30,000 American soldiers.  Next, was the June-July 1918 battlefield at Belleau Wood a “mecca” for US Marines whose victory possibly saved Paris and proved to the Germans America’s tenacity on the battlefield.

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(Cliffs scaled by Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc)

World War II was next on our agenda as we traveled through the beautiful French countryside that once was a shell-scarred wasteland crisscrossed with French and German trench lines.  After the Great War the French constructed a fortification known as the Maginot Line to provide a defense against any future German invasion.  The problem was that it only ran up to the Belgium border and the Germans had no difficulty marching around it.  One of the highlights of our visit was spending a few hours inside the Maginot Line at the Hackenberg Barracks and seeing how the 1000-man French garrison lived and prepared to offset any German penetration.  From there we moved on to Batstone, Belgium which served as our focal point for our study of the Battle of the Bulge which was Hitler’s last attempt to defeat the allies as the Nazis engaged in a last-ditch effort pouring through the Ardennes Forest in December 1945.  If you have watched the HBO film, The Band of Brothers you witnessed the tenaciousness and brutality of the fighting that finally resulted in the American victory led by General George S. Patton.

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(Omaha Beach)

The highlight into our foray into World War II was the visit to Normandy.  We were exposed to all the beaches that comprised the allied invasion that included over 23 million acres of material transported across the Atlantic Ocean, 6939 vessels, including over 4000 landing craft, over 200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft.  The tour focused on Omaha Beach which suffered the greatest number of casualties on D-Day as compared to Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches that included our British and Canadian allies.  For the men who took part, it seemed to be a “suicide mission” that included gliders, C-47 transports for paratroopers, and the armada that filled the English Channel.

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We arrived at Omaha Beach and our first reaction was awe and emotion as we could not fathom how men landed on the beaches knowing full well that the odds of survival from German artillery and fields of fire were almost nil.  Their bravery and fortitude can only be imagined until you see the cliffs.   Pointe du Hoc was key as the 2nd Army Ranger battalion scaled the 100-foot cliffs to eliminate the guns that threatened Utah and Omaha Beach.  Ste Mere Eglise was amazing as it was portrayed in the film “The Longest Day,” and is the site of the American paratrooper who hung from the church spire.  The many museums were a history buff’s dream including the Airborne Forces Museum, the Batstone Barracks Museum among many.  The historical reenactors were everywhere providing a realism that was hard to imagine.  There was no aspect of the trip that could be improved, except perhaps more time at certain locations.  As a historian, the lessons are clear, allies and a shared belief to fight tyranny are the key to success, and a sense of history that must be conveyed to succeeding generations are of the utmost importance.

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(American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach, June 6, 2019)

 

SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D-DAY by Giles Milton

(US troops waiting to leave southern England)

Next month will be the 75th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.  As with most major historical commemorations people will flock to the beaches off the French coast.  In addition, the anniversary has produced a plethora of new books to go with the classic works that have been written in the past, including;  Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  John Keegan’s SIX ARMIES IN NORMANDY, Carlo D’Este’s DECISION IN NORMANDY, Anthony Beevor’s D DAY and Stephen Ambrose’s D DAY:JUNE 6TH 1944.  New books published in the last two months include COUNTDOWN TO D DAY: THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE by Peter Margaratis, NORMANDY ’44: D DAY AND THE EPIC 77 DAY BATTLE FOR FRANCE by James Holland, SAND AND STEEL: D DAY AND THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE by Peter Caddick-Adams, THE FIRST WAVE:THE D DAY WARRIORS WHO LED THE WAY TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II by Alex Kershaw, and SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY by Giles Milton.  For this review I will focus on Milton’s new narrative.  What sets the book apart from the others is that he approaches events from a different perspective by focusing on the stories of survivors from all sides including; a teenage Allied conscript, the crack German defender, and the French resistance fighter among many others.  It is important to remember that each book mentioned has made an important contribution to the growing historiography related to the allied landing in June 1944.

(US troops bound for Omaha Beach)

Milton’s approach is very anecdotal as he introduces numerous characters.  Some are important historical figures like General Dwight David Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Omar T. Bradley, the most senior American commander at D-Day, and Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel who Hitler placed in charge of preparing and thwarting any allied invasion across the English Channel.  The strength of Milton’s book is how he conveys the experiences of allied soldiers who bore the brunt of the carnage and eventual success of the invasion, but also French civilians who were caught in the crossfire between allied bombing and German artillery.  In addition, Milton gives voice to many individuals who have not been heard before; the Panzer Commander’s wife, the chauffeur to the General Staff, women who worked in in Southwick, the nerve center for Operation Overlord, and those teenagers forced into service as nurses at Portsmouth caring for German prisoners of war.

(German plane, Omaha Beach)

The narrative explores the difficulties in organizing such a massive undertaking that involved transporting 23 million acres of material across the Atlantic, 6939 vessels including 4000 landing craft,  200,000 service personnel, and close to 10,000 aircraft.  Milton has an excellent eye for detail be it weather forecasting, the personalities involved, the strategies employed by both sides, and in particular those stories that we do not necessarily think of when examining the insanity of war.  In this case Milton describes the experiences of paratroopers behind German lines who wound up caught in trees serving as a shooting gallery for German snipers, the mission of Howard Vander Beek who commanded an LCC 60, a small boat designed to lead American safely toward the beaches, or Wally Blanchard, an eighteen year old frogman whose job was to defuse the minefield that Rommel’s forces laid in front of Gold beach.

(The British landing at Juno Beach)

Milton’s work is chocked full of stories of heroes, individual acts of courage, and remarkable examples of bravery on the part of allied soldiers as they confronted Rommel’s Atlantic Wall as they hit the beaches and were subject to German artillery and mortars.  It was of immense importance that the German guns be knocked out so the landing zones could be built up to support the invasion.  Men like James Rudder, and his unit would be successful in knocking out the big German guns situated on top of Pointe du Hoc where six 155mm cannon could lob huge shells a distance of 25,000 meters covering Omaha and Utah beaches.  Others include  General Norman “Dutch” Cota and Colonel Charles Canham would help break the deadlock that existed on Omaha Beach, or Simon Fraser, a Highland Chief and the 15th Lord Lovat, “the mad bastard” would lead his men to link up with John Howard, an Oxford shire policeman’s unit to save the Benouville Bridge that was a key to allied advance after the landings.  The stories that Milton conveys are chilling as events unfolded on June 6th, as death became a game of chance.  The author points out that “for most the landings were petrifying, for a few it was intoxicating.”  The vivid description of death is difficult to deal with at times and in the end 37,000 allied soldiers died with 209,000 casualties and roughly 17,000 deaths in the air.

(Canadian troops on Juno Beach)

The German side of the invasion is also covered in detail as Milton introduces the reader to German soldiers like Franz Gockel and Josef Shroder whose weapons would meet the allied invaders.  They could not believe the bloodshed they were causing as they were picking off allied soldiers as they hit the beaches.  The arrogant and exceptional Panzer Commander Colonel Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski is introduced as he tries to drive a wedge with his tanks as he saw an opening between British troops on Sword Beach and Canadians on Juno. Rommel’s headquarters is also explored in addition to his surprise when the invasion took place – he was visiting his wife in Germany.  The disagreements between Nazi higherups, Hitler, and commanders on the ground is related and if they would have been in better sync with each other, the task for allied soldiers would have been much more difficult and the resulting casualty figures much higher.

(American troops on Omaha Beach after the landing)

Milton has skillfully woven a very complex narrative that allows the general audience to understand the violence and utter devastation that occurred on June 6th.  He has written a remarkable account through the eyes of the participants providing the reader with insights and an experience that is not always conveyed as well by historians.  After reading Milton’s account one but one cannot escape the fact of the willingness of so many on both sides to fight to the death. In the end despite the the difficulties involved, the importance of the allied success resulted in ultimate victory against the Nazi war machine.

(June 6, 1944, D-Day)

D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY by Anthony Beevor

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(June 6, 1944, D-Day Landing)

Anthony Beevor is a prolific historian.  His works include; STALINGRAD, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM, ARDENNES 1944, THE FALL OF BERLIN, 1945, THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN, and CRETE, 1941.  His works have achieved critical acclaim by military historians and the general public and one of his earlier books, D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY written in 2009 is very timely today.   On June 6th the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the invasion will be held on the northern French coast and after reading Beevor’s account of the allied crossing of the English Channel one has to marvel at the logistical achievement and the courage of allied soldiers as they would land on the Normandy beaches and face the brunt of the Nazi military machine.  Beevor, a former commissioned officer in the British Army’s account encompasses more than just the invasion of Normandy which is covered in half the narrative, but the author continues with the breakout from Normandy, the opposition to Hitler and the July 1944 attempt on his life, the closing of the Falaise Gap through the liberation of Paris.  There are many books on D-Day from Cornelius Ryan’s classic, THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  the works of John Keegan, Carlo D’Este, and Stephen Ambrose, and the latest book on the topic, Giles Milton’s SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY all of which Beevor’s effort compares quite nicely.

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(Allies unloading at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944)

Beevor’s approach is quite simple; provide the reader with the experience of being a witness to the daily decision making by allied strategists, and to a lesser extent what the Germans were planning.  He takes the reader inside the thoughts of SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Generals Omar T. Bradley, George S. Patton, Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke, among many others.  We are exposed to their opinions of each other as well as their approach to warfare.  There are many candid comments be it President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s low opinion of French General Charles de Gaulle, or the views of American generals concerning the lack of progress due to Montgomery’s poor leadership.  Beevor’s comments are very insightful particularly labeling Montgomery as suffering from an Adlerian inferiority complex and his description of General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. is priceless.

Beevor begins his narrative with a careful analysis of the allied approach to launching D Day.  Weather evaluation became the key to success and when it was not cooperative it caused a one-day postponement.  Later, Eisenhower would be extremely thankful when 110-mile winds buffeted parts of the French coast on June 19, lasting to the 22nd which caused massive destruction and incalculable damage to the beaches which had been transitioned to a supply base and center for further action.  The resulting delay hampered the evacuation of casualties, hindered air operations, but the allies would recover and take the key port of Cherbourg by June 26th.

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The author is at his best when describing the preparation and resulting battlefield action.  His description of the preparation of the 82nd and 101st Airborne as they trained and were about to land behind German lines before the invasion commenced is fascinating.  Beevor focuses on the experience of soldiers in combat from facing German Panzer Tiger Tanks and 88 mm. artillery, actual paratroop jumps, the need to dig fox holes quickly, the “black humor” soldiers resorted to as a coping method, and the terrain they had to navigate, i.e.; the bocage or hedgerows that dominated the French landscape as allied troops broke out into the French countryside.  He concentrates on the obstacles that allied troops would face preparing for the landing as well as the fighting that resulted i.e., the weight of their packs and the amount of equipment that they carried.  For some over 100 pounds which made it difficult to wade in the Channel without drowning, jump out of airplanes, or marching to the next engagement with the Germans.

Beevor provides maps of the battlefield and statistics that make the reader in awe when thinking about what took place in June 1944.  Beevor’s intimate knowledge of daily occurrences reflects an inordinate amount of research from interviewing allied survivors of the war, immersing himself in the work of unit historians as battles took place, traveling to 12 countries and examining 30 archives, as well as consulting many primary and secondary materials.

Perhaps Beevor’s best chapters come early as he deals with what appear to be scenes from the film, “Saving Private Ryan” as he describes what occurred on Utah and Omaha Beaches.  Beevor provides numerous stories of bravery and fortitude as chaos reigned on Omaha Beach in particular; “a mass of junk, men, and materials,” as well as the damage inflicted by the proliferation of German land mines on the beaches.  His evaluations are extremely accurate as he states the British army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations, and the poor preparation of the Germans which allowed the allies to remain on the beaches.  Beevor also spends a great deal of time dissecting the attempts to take the city of Caen and the final success in doing so.  He accurately points out that the initial failure to take the city created a rift between American and British commanders as it seemed they both had their own agendas.   Beevor’s evaluation of battlefield tactics are exceptional as well as the commanders involved.  He describes numerous lost opportunities on both sides pointing to the German ambush of British Cromwell tanks on June 14 at Hill 213 outside the village of Villars-Bocage.  In the end the RAF would flatten the village after earlier being greeted as liberators.

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The key to success was American organization as within a week after D Day, Omaha Beach “resembled Coney Island on a hot Sunday.”  The Omaha Beach command was made up of 20,000 soldiers, the bulk of which were from the 5th and 6th Engineer Brigades.  But there were many problems that arose as the battles proceeded.  What to do with German POWS, shoot them or send them back to England?  How to transport casualties at the same time transporting POWS on the same LSTs.  What approach should be taken to thwart Hitler’s savior, the V-1 rockets as they began to reign on London and the English shore line?  How should commanders deal with combat exhaustion, more commonly known today as shock or PTSD?  What allowances should be made because of troop shortages and the lack of training of replacements?

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(SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and General Omar Bradley)

Beevor is very concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the war.  The death of French civilians due to allied bombing is well covered as is the French resentment against the British who they blamed for most of the Allied bombing errors.  As Beevor points out the French villagers paid a hefty price for their liberation.  Speaking of bombing errors, Beevor recounts more incidents than I was aware of pertaining to allied friendly fire.  Be it American, British, Canadian, Polish or French soldiers they all paid a hefty price for pilot or intelligence errors throughout Beevor’s narrative.

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(Over 425,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed)

The German high command receives a thrashing from Beevor as he points out that they did not have a central command in France at the time of D Day.  They relied on a ridiculous system of sharing command between General Field Marshall Edwin Rommel and General Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt.  Hitler’s over reliance on his “Atlantic Wall” is covered in detail and his micro managing that only impeded the German war effort.  The frustration would boil over after Rundstedt is relieved of his command and a group of officers realize they are losing the war resulting in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt of the Fuhrer.  Amazingly 20% of German forces in France in 1944 were made up of non-Germans, mostly Poles and Russians.

Beevor should be commended for showing his readers the heroism of the Soviet Army.  What the Russian people and soldiers experienced on the eastern front was horrendous, but Beevor is correct in arguing that Soviet propaganda put out by Stalin that Normandy was a side show to events in the east was wrong.  The battle for Normandy was comparable in its intensity to the fighting on the eastern front.  The Germans would suffer over 250,000 casualties during the 90 days of summer in 1944 and lost another 200,000 as POWS captured at a rate higher than on the eastern front.

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The last third of the book is spent on the rush to liberate Paris, which was not part of the original D Day plan.  Bevor takes the reader through a series of operations and what stands out is German doggedness, particularly the Waffen-SS’s refusal to make life for allied soldiers any easier and the vengeance they meted out to French civilians, Resistance fighters, and Jews.  Another aspect that dominates is Montgomery’s constant attempts to assuage his own ego by launching and/or suggesting certain operations which would be counterproductive.  Another final component deals with internal French issues be it how collaborators were treated, De Gaulle’s battle with the Communists and the role of the Resistance.  Beevor joins Max Hastings as producing one of the most thorough accounts of D-Day and it should be read by anyone seeking the experience of what occurred, the personalities involved, and its effect on civilians caught in the cauldron of total war.

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RAMPAGE: MacARTHUR, YAMASHITA, AND THE BATTLE OF MANILA by James M. Scott

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(Massacre at the Battle of Manila, February, 1945)

One of the most iconic statements in American military history was uttered by General Douglas MacArthur as he fled the Philippine Island of Corregidor on March 11, 1942 and reached Australia.  Upon his arrival, MacArthur remarked that “I came through and I shall return,” a promise he would keep in February 1945, a promise that was kept because of MacArthur’s enormous ego and refusal to accept existing American intelligence estimates concerning Japanese capabilities, particularly as it effected Manila.  The result was the brutal slaughter; rape, and murderous behavior reigned upon civilian and POWs by Japanese marines, while MacArthur was planning his victory parade.   What the Japanese engaged in was a rampage against anything or person that opposed them.  Japanese behavior, policies, their rationale, and results of their barbarity are the subject of James M. Scott’s new book, MacARTHUR, YAMASHITA AND THE BATTLE OF MANILA.

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Scott’s approach to his topic is a careful and insightful presentation of events that rely on numerous interviews of survivors of the Japanese rampage, immersion into trial transcripts, official military reports, individual diaries, to create and an exacting reportage of what transpired.  Two decades ago I read THE RAPE OF NANKING by Iris Chang, and I thought I had been exposed to the depths of humanity in her description of Japanese behavior, but Scott reinforces Chang’s descriptions and takes them to a new level of inhumanity and disgust.

Scott begins his narrative by focusing on the role the Philippines played in MacArthur’s family from 1898 onward as his father became military governor and oversaw “stitching the nation back together again” after years of bloody guerilla warfare.  MacArthur himself would experience four assignments in the Philippines and would develop many important relationships, and to his credit he was unaffected by the racial bias of the day and considered the Philippines as his home.

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(Manila, February, 1945)

Scott does a nice job developing MacArthur’s relationship with his mother, Pinky who smothered her son with attention and her opinions throughout her life, and his oversized ego stems from his socialization at the feet of his mother.  By 1935 he became the father of the Filipino army and helped to westernize the area.  This would be shattered on December 7, 1941 as he had a front row seat as 43,000 Japanese troops came ashore forcing MacArthur to flee under the cover of darkness.  Scott does a similar job conveying the upbringing and education of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the victor over the British at the Battle of Singapore, in addition to the challenges he faced in dealing with the internal politics that existed within the Japanese military hierarchy.  In comparing the two Scott points out that both men had similar difficulties.  MacArthur was destined to fight in a Pacific backwater, while others earned glory in Europe, while Yamashita had been exiled to military oblivion in Manchuria because of the hatred and jealousy of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

In part, RAMPAGE concentrates on the background and clash between MacArthur and Yamashita, a battle over the last major roadblock that stood between American forces and the Japanese homeland.  Yamashita’s goal was to devastate the Philippines, and bog down MacArthur’s forces to allow Japan to dig shelters and prepare for the eventual American invasion. Yamashita was a realist and was cognizant of the fact that his task was somewhat hopeless, but he would do his best, and accepted that the result would be his own death.

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(M4 Sherman Tank at the gate of Ft. Santiago)

Aside from MacArthur and Yamashita, Scott develops the role of Japanese Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi whose job was to do everything in his power to stop MacArthur’s forces, including the destruction of Manila.  Eventually Yamashita would withdraw his forces from the city, but Iwabuschi had no plans to leave, and instructed his troops to fortify the city and fight to the last man.  Scott presents an accurate description of the fighting in the Philippines as he leads up to what transpired in Manila.

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(Tomoyuki Yamashita)

Scott’s focus is on the suffering of the men, women, and children that were occupied and imprisoned by the Japanese.  The emotions of people run the gamut from joy upon being liberated by US soldiers at Santo Tomas, to other sites were the inmates were not as lucky.  Scott bases his narrative on interviews of survivors who were victimized by the brutality heaped on them by Japanese soldiers and how they suffered.  Hague and Geneva Conventions meant little to the Japanese military hierarchy and their soldiers carried out the most outrageous behavior that can be imagined.  Scott devotes what seems like more than half the narrative to descriptions of Japanese behavior which was mind boggling; severing of heads, slicing off body parts, dousing individuals with gasoline and setting them on fire, direct shootings, rape, and other forms of torture that are described in detail.  Family histories are presented in addition to their plight at the hands of the Japanese that numbered in the thousands.  At times the descriptions become overwhelming for the reader, particularly the minutia presented in the chapters dealing with the rape of women and teenagers by Japanese marines; and what survivors found once they were liberated from Japanese imprisonment.

The question must be raised whether some of what the Japanese perpetrated could have been offset, at least, in part with a different strategy.  President Roosevelt and his advisers wanted to focus on Formosa as a stepping stone to Japan, but MacArthur insisted on a Filipino centric approach.  MacArthur badgered Roosevelt until he gave in, allowing MacArthur to assuage his ego by returning to the site of his greatest defeat.  Once plans were made for the retaking of the Philippines, MacArthur refused to believe his own intelligence concerning the level of Japanese forces and their plans to level Manila, and the lies that were told to the press, i.e.; that Manila was liberated at a time it was being destroyed by the Japanese, and civilians were being slaughtered.  At times plans were made for parades to make MacArthur look like the conquering hero in American newsreels, at a time when death and destruction reigned on Manila and other areas. When the general finally sloshed ashore at Lingayen Gulf, he was convinced that the battle for the Philippines had already been won on Leyte, one of many errors in judgement that had grave consequences. As Scott correctly points out, liberating Manila was an obsession and “would serve as the redemptive final chapter to his earlier story of defeat.”

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(General Douglas MacArthur)

In his description of the 29 days of Japanese rape, pillage, and mutilation, Scott relies on the commentary of reporters like Frank Hewlett and Life magazine reporter Carl Mydans to describe the agony of liberation and recapture.  The diaries of people like Tressa Roka, an army nurse, poet and teacher; Robert Kentner, Robert Wygle, and CBS reporter Bill Dunn, among others presents a window into what prisoners experienced.  Further, the reaction of American soldiers to the condition of prisoners who had been unmercifully starved to half their body weight, suffered from unescapable malnutrition, along with other medical conditions is heart rendering.  The descriptions are appalling as Japanese shelling and shrapnel tore apart people’s bodies and as they conducted a block to block destruction of the city it would erase four centuries of history almost in one afternoon!

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(Liberation of Santo Thomas Prison, February, 1945)

For US forces the recapture of Manila was a street by street affair.  MacArthur had forbidden the use of aerial bombing to retake the city and would reluctantly allow the use of artillery as he sought to preserve as much of the city and save as many inhabitants as possible.  Despite MacArthur’s desires US forces would resort to massive artillery and bombing of parts of the city where Japanese forces refused to surrender resulting in civilian casualties and contributing to the destruction of the city.  By March 3, 1945, the last of the Japanese forces in Manila were killed or surrendered. The Battle of Manila was over. U.S. forces suffered 1,010 killed and 5,565 wounded retaking the capital. Japan lost 16,665 soldiers killed. More than 100,000 civilians lost their lives to Japanese butchery and the inevitable collateral damage of war. (422)

Following the war General Yamashita was tried and convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging, even though he had not directly ordered the atrocities that the troops under his command committed. Scott describes Yamashita’s trial and fairly presents the evidence and arguments of both the prosecution and the defense.  The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and let the sentence stand.  Yamashita’s claim that he was unaware of what was transpiring in Manila is belied by the fact that his headquarters was in wireless contact with Admiral Iwabuchi throughout the period of atrocities. What transpired in Manila was part of a pattern of Japanese atrocities begun in Manchuria against the Chinese in the 1930s, that continued in all areas that they occupied or engaged with civilian areas, POWs, or in general battlefield behavior throughout the war in the Pacific.

The author reminds us once again that man’s depravity takes exception to the idea of human progress. Scott’s description of Japanese behavior in the Philippines, and Manila in particular reflects a warlike society that committed, along with the Nazi Holocaust crimes against humanity, actions that could hardly have been imagined before the 1930s.  We know of other examples of atrocities throughout history, but never on the scale of WWII, especially with the application of advanced technology integrated into the war machine to reduce the civilian population of one’s enemies.

Scott’s narrative description of the 29 days that brought about the destruction of Manila and the death of over 100,000 people is gripping and scary as the reader is carried off into a world where death and sadism seems to be the norm.  War leads to this type of behavior, and one can only wish mankind never experiences this again-but I doubt it.

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(Japanese murder of civilians)

THE LONGEST DAY by Cornelius Ryan

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(June 6, 1944….D-Day landing at Normandy)

On June 6, 2019 thousands will descend onto the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the allied landing that would eventually bring an end to Nazi domination of Europe during World War II.  Since my wife and I plan on traveling to Normandy at that time I felt it was important to read the latest works on the topic.  It made sense to me to reread Cornelius Ryan’s THE LONGEST DAY, first published in 1959, a book that has not lost its resonance to this day. As I began to familiarize myself with the history of the events that led up to the invasion, the invasion itself, and its historical ramifications I felt that Ryan’s work was a good place to begin.

Ryan’s work, along with A BRIDGE TO FAR and THE LAST BATTLE are well written accounts of the war that in most cases have stood the test of time.  In THE LONGEST DAY, Ryan recounts the horrors of war that took place the night of the invasion, and what followed the day after.  His research consisted of hundreds of interviews of the participants including Americans, Canadians, British, French, and German soldiers and civilian, along with primary documents that were available.  In his account we can discern the difficulties in planning the invasion, carrying it out, and its emotional and physical impact on those who approached the Normandy beaches, and what transpired once they landed.  In the end roughly 12,000 allied soldiers perished in the attack, with the Americans bearing half the number of casualties.

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(German obstacles on the beaches)

Ryan possesses an almost intimate knowledge of what transpired, particularly the thoughts of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who believed an allied invasion would coincide with a Russian move in the east.  Since a Russian attack was delayed because of a late thaw in Poland, Rommel decided to travel home on June 5th.  Rommel firmly believed that he had left the beaches protected with the numerous underwater obstacles he created as well as the 60 million mines that were buried on the beaches.  For Rommel, the key was to destroy invasion forces in the water before they could reach land.

At times, Ryan’s account reads like a novel as he describes the various aspects of the invasion.  Whether he is describing the actions of allied midget submarines X20 and X23 off the shore of Normandy, the inability of the German command to obtain permission to release the 12th SS and Panzer Lehr divisions to combat the invasion, the experiences of individuals as they tried to cope with what was occurring around them, Ryan places the reader in the middle of the action, and one can visualize what is happening very clearly from his descriptions.

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(Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Ryan is correct in his account of how the German High Command reacted to reports of the allied landings.  They could not accept the magnitude of the assault and those who were witnessing it, like Major Werner Pluskot could not seem to convey to higher ups that “a ghostly armada somehow appeared from nowhere.”  Ryan presents a realistic portrayal as the allied landing forces begin to approach the beaches as he describes the many accidents, drownings, explosions, and deaths that occurred before the fighting even commenced.  Ryan’s reporting of certain incidents is chilling; for example, when soldiers saw their compatriots drowning or injured, they were ordered not to assist them and stick to the tight schedule that planners wanted implemented.

Ryan’s descriptive approach is on full display as he describes the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne units and their plight as they parachuted behind German lines as the first component of the invasion.  Ryan provides individual stories of the participants ranging from Lt. Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort who fought for 40 days on a broken ankle, General Dwight Eisenhower’s agonizing decision making in dealing with weather issues as he tries to determine whether to unleash allied forces, to members of the French underground and their work, to civilians in England, Germany, and France and how they dealt with loss and anxiety about their loved ones.

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There are several interesting aspects dealing with the technological ingenuity of the allies, particularly the creation of two floating harbors that were towed across the channel, each harbor amazingly replicating the size of Dover, England.  The invasion was a logistical nightmare and Ryan does a wonderful job providing insights into how certain problems were dealt with.

Ryan’s work was published in 1959 after years of research and the final product was exemplary when written and remains a classic account of D-Day seventy-five years later.

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A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY by Ken Cuthbertson

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(Shirer reports from Nazi Germany)

Today we are exposed to the repetitive 24 hour news cycle on cable television.  It seems that each hour the same information is reprogrammed creating a staleness for the viewer.  Further exacerbating this reporting is the concept of “fake news” and the new reality that it has created in lieu of real journalism.  This being the case it would be useful to think back seventy to eighty years to the type of reportage that existed in the 1930s and 40s.  Instead of dealing with talking heads sitting around a table supposedly providing analysis and context, the public would gather around the family radio listening to reporters from the capitols of Europe and the battlefields of World War II.  At that time a group of reporters worked for CBS news and were known as the “Murrow’s Boys,” men hired by Edward R. Murrow reporting war related events on site.  One of those reporters, William L. Shirer, along with Murrow created the prototype of broadcast news that dominated the airwaves before cable television.  It is through his biography of Shirer, A COMPLEX FATE: WILLIAM L. SHIRER AND THE AMERICAN CENTURY that Ken Cuthbertson traces the development of broadcast journalism through most of the twentieth century.  Cuthbertson, also the author of the remarkable book, THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION: CANADA’S WORST EXPLOSION has written a remarkable study that encompasses Shirer’s life by integrating the main events of the pre- and post-World War II period and the dominant currents of print and non-print journalism at that time.

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(Edward R. Murrow and Shirer)

Shirer originally made a name for himself reporting from Vienna and Berlin throughout the 1930s and through his publication of his BERLIN DIARY in 1936, perhaps providing the most informative insights into Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement up until that time.  He would return to the United States in 1940 as a broadcast journalist for CBS until 1947 as he was fired for his supposed liberal views.  Shirer would be blacklisted from radio and television until 1960 because of the paranoia of the time period, particularly on the part of media executives.  Shirer would climb out of the poverty that his banning had caused and restore his reputation with the publication of THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, then a bestseller, and today remains one of the most important examples of narrative history ever written.

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According to the author, Shirer was a very complex individual who lost his father and grandfather at a young age and went through life searching for a meaningful existence which always seemed to be beyond reach.  Shirer’s complexity was in part due to his own self-perceived shortcomings as he often seemed to be at loss in trying to make sense of his own life.  Shirer would grow up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and would possess a certain Midwest naiveté that would be dashed later covering unimaginable events in Europe.  Cuthbertson has written a detailed narrative that does a nice job placing Shirer’s life story in the context of the events occurring around him.  Shirer is drawn to Europe and achieves his first break by hooking up with the conservative Chicago Tribune in 1925 and through his life we experience the “lost generation” that had migrated to Paris in the 1920s meeting Hemingway, Fitzgerald, along with the likes of James Thurber.  His first major story covered Lindbergh’s crossing the Atlantic providing him with the opportunity for making a name for himself.

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For much of Shirer’s career he seems to have been in the shadow of Edwin R. Murrow who hired him in 1934 as CBS was expanding its overseas news outlets in response to events.  The two would become friends, only to suffer a disastrous falling out after World War II.  The biographer must always be careful to avoid placing their subject on a pedestal, but it seems that Cuthbertson is bent on rewriting history with Shirer emerging from Murrow’s shadow.  In his approach Cuthbertson has an engaging writing style and seems to cover all aspects of their friendship, competition, and falling out, integrating the history of radio journalism and the role of CBS, and other participants in the story.  Analysis is clear and concise as it is with other aspects of the book and very thorough.  My only question is sourcing employed.  Cuthbertson relies too much on certain secondary sources, particularly THE MURROW BOYS by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson.  The author does a fine job culling Shirer’s diaries and notes and should try and cite more primary materials as he makes his way through Shirer’s life story.

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Cuthbertson has not written a hagiography of his subject and his description of Shirer’s private life and thoughts are dealt with in full.  His pride which knew no bounds, his inability to know went to “hold his cards” and fight another day, the inability after self-reflection to rectify errors that he admitted he had made, his tenaciousness, his obsessiveness, and his belief in himself to a fault are all on display.  Further, the author delves into Shirer’s private life; his marriages, affairs, socializing, years of travel and the effect on his family, and living beyond his means after his income was drastically reduced to the point he could not repair the furnace in his Connecticut farmhouse are explored in full.

Cuthbertson does an excellent job providing a feel for each city in which Shirer lives, and reports.  Whether it is Paris in the 1920s, Vienna and Berlin in the 1930s, or London or New York, the reader will feel the vibe and seriousness of the events being covered.  Shirer’s views, intellectual and emotional are clear be, it his distaste for England and France as they respond to the Anschluss with Austria, the Munich Crisis, or other events.  Perhaps one of the most interesting sections of the book describes the relationships that Shirer developed with historical figures, especially Mahatmas Gandhi.  In 1931 Shirer is dispatched to India by Colonel Robert McCormack, the owner of the Chicago Tribune and soon will meet and develop a friendship with Gandhi.  The Indian revolutionary would assume the role of teacher and spiritual counselor to Shirer as they read and studied the holy books of the world’s great religions.  This relationship softened Shirer as he learned about Asian culture and the developing world, witnessing the effects of English colonization first hand.

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(David Moyers interviewing Shirer in his later years)

The history of radio journalism permeates the narrative throughout, even as it is threatened by the new medium of television.  Numerous characters emerge, many of which were household names well into the twenty first century.  Shirer’s interaction with the likes of William Paley, Eric Sevareid, Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Frank Stanton and others are fully explored.  For Cuthbertson, in covering the history of radio journalism, Shirer stands out as a dedicated, incisive newsman who strove to relay as much of the truth as he saw it, be it coverage of the Nuremburg Trials, travels to New Delhi and Kabul, or commentary comparing life in Europe and America.  To Cuthbertson’s credit, he pulled no punches when he points out the errors in Shirer’s opinions.

Shirer was a firm believer in the strength of America and its values.  He felt the United States was strong so engagement and dialogue with America’s foes after World War II was preferable to confrontation when countering Soviet expansionism.  Shirer spoke against aid to Greece in 1947 and was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek, opinions that would eventually would bring about his termination at CBS.  Shirer’s firing led to a crisis in his relationship with Murrow and Cuthbertson interestingly conjectures that Murrow’s guilt in not supporting his friend finally pushed him to confront Senator Joseph McCarthy and help bring him down in 1954.

There is so much material and detail that in certain areas Cuthbertson could have been a little more concise, a little less repetitious, but overall his work is important because it is the only full length biography of one of the most significant journalists of the twentieth century.  Shirer, for all of his faults is a shining example of what freedom of the press means to a democracy, an example that the current occupant of the White House should consider as he rambles on with his seemingly daily diatribes about the press being the enemy of the American people.

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(Shirer gaining approval for broadcast from Nazi censor)

ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS by Karen Bartlett

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Karen Bartlett’s new Holocaust work, ARCHITECTS OF DEATH: THE FAMILY WHO ENGINEERED THE DEATH CAMPS possesses a powerful narrative as it examines the German manufacturing firm J. A. Topf and Sons and its role during World War II.  The problem for the firm is that a few of its manufacturing products centered on ovens, crematoria, and the parts necessary to build them.  These products made up only 1.85% of Topf and Sons actual products, but these items were linked to Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau, and Mauthausen concentration/extermination camps.

The monograph begins with Hartmut Topf, the great grandson of the firm’s founder trying to come to grips with his family’s past.  After the war, Hartmut wanted nothing to do with the family business as his true loves were theater, puppetry, and journalism.  When he was a boy during the war his best friend Hans Laessing, was Jewish and he would disappear into the Nazi abyss.  With questions about his family and his friend, Hartmut set out to learn the truth leading him to learn things he could not believe.  Bartlett’s approach rests on interviews with former workers, American and Russian investigators, and Topf family members.  She also relies on the works of historian Annegret Schule, the author of two books that encompass her topic.  The first, BETWEEN PERSECUTION AND PARTICIPATION: BIOGRAPHY OF A BOOKEEPER AT J.A. TOPF AND SOHNE; the second, INDUSTRIE UND HOLOCAUST.

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(Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf)

What is clear is that “company directors Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf, along with their managers, engineers, oven fitters, and ventilation experts, were not ignorant paper pushers or frightened collaborators – instead they willingly engaged with the Nazis, reaping the benefits, taking advantage they could, and pushing their designs for mass murder and body disposal further and further until they could truly be described as the engineers of the Holocaust.”   By the end of the war men like Kurt Prufer, an engineer who pushed his designs and came up with plans that were so outlandish that even the SS had to turn them down.

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Bartlett provides a history of the firm, but the core of the book rests on the growth of Topf and Sons as a manufacturer of numerous products that would enhance the Nazi war effort.  There are numerous character portraits reflected the internecine conflict within the Topf family over control and which products should be made available to the Nazis.  Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang would take over the company in July, 1933, coinciding with Hitler’s rise to power and they immediately went down the road that would result in a loss of any moral decency or humanity they might have possessed.

In addition to building the ovens the firm employed thousands of slave laborers during the war.  Roughly 40% of their labor force was made up of POWs which contributed to their deal with the devil.  Perhaps the most important person in this process was Kurt Prufer who would distinguish himself as “the true pioneer of annihilation.”  His own experiences during W.W.I. allowed him to develop a low level of concern for human life.  He would take his engineering talents to become an expert on cremation sales and fixtures.  Beginning with manufacturing crematoria for civil use in Erfurt and other towns it was feasible to change nomenclature and develop new incinerators and ventilation to fit the needs of the Final Solution.  They would go so far as changing the name from crematoria in their catalogue to “incineration chamber.” The key innovation was the development in October, 1939 was the three single muffin ovens that would be used to build permanent crematoria at Buchenwald under the sadistic SS Gruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl as opposed to temporary ovens that were mobile.  As the war progressed after 1942 and the Russians moved west, these ovens could not accommodate the number of bodies the Nazis wanted to cremate leading to mechanical breakdowns and rancid smells surrounding the countryside where the camps were located.

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(Museum and Memorial for those who perished because of the work of J.A. Hopf and Sons)

The author provides a brief history of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but her most important contribution is going through the documentation that the Russians and Americans uncovered as they liberated the camps and seized the Topf and Sons facilities.  Bartlett takes the reader through interrogations of workers and others, most importantly Prufer and three other important engineers.  There excuse was that they delivered the same products to the Nazis as they had to municipalities in the form of civil crematoria, and if they hadn’t sold the products, the SS had other firms that would provide them.  Ludwig Topf would commit suicide at the end of the war, but his brother Ernst Wolfgang continued to make his case and eventually was able to avoid any punishment for his actions.

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(Kurt Prufer)

The only suggestions I have for the author is that there seems to be too much replication of war crimes documentation in the text.  Perhaps they could have been placed as an appendix at the end of the book.  Secondly, there seems to be an overreliance on certain sources.  Otherwise, Bartlett has done Harmut justice in that she has produced the entire story of his family, a family that he admittedly feels ashamed of.  To his credit, Harmut has spent a great deal of his time and resources on restitution and remembrance that have culminated in the Topf and Sons Memorial in Erfurt for those who have perished.   Hopefully by educating visitors and publicizing its work the Memorial Museum will make another genocidal tragedy less likely to occur in the future.

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