In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler laid out his claim that the German Aryan race was superior to any other race in Europe. His resulting goals included the elimination of the populations and cultures of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, and the other Eastern European nations, and replacing them with members of the Aryan race and the culture of Germany. A certain level of the population, the dumbest and most compliant, might be retained to be the servants of the ruling Aryan class.
In October of 1939, Hitler created the office of the Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of German Folkdom, with Heinrich Himmler as its head. Its aim was to help resettle the newly occupied territories with a German population. After the invasion of Poland, however, there seemed to be an abundance of children who resembled the ideal German—blond hair, blue eyes, a similar length of the nose, the thickness of the lips, and an erect posture.
To reconcile this problem, the Nazis propagated the idea that these children were actually descended from German blood. Therefore, it was decided that these children should be taken away from their Polish parents and repatriated to German families, that the children were being “returned to the Fatherland.” This was not only true of Polish children, but Aryan-looking children from Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Belorussia, and the Ukraine.
Between 1939 and 1944, approximately 200,000 Polish children were stolen by the Nazis and sent away to be “Germanized”. Using a list of 62 physical characteristics, children were identified, photographed, and analyzed, and if the children were found to be suitably Aryan, then those between two and six were sent to maternity, or Lebensborn, homes in Germany. After their adoption by a proper SS family, the children were provided false birth certificates with new German names and birthplaces.
The goal of the new parents was to erase any trace of their native heritage and reshape them as loyal Nazis. They were taught to speak German (if they spoke their mother tongue they were deprived of food or whipped with a strap), forced to wear uniforms with swastikas, sing military songs, and were taught Nazi beliefs. They were also forced to endure countless hours of drills and marches to destroy any sense of individuality.
Polish girls with Aryan characteristics were sent to SS maternity homes where they became “breeding material” for SS officers.
Those children who were examined but failed the characteristic tests were deemed not to be Aryan enough and were sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps, where many were murdered. The children were never returned to their original families.
There was no consideration given to parents when their children were being abducted. Children were taken out of the home under the pretext that their health was at risk. Or, parents would receive a notice to bring their children to the local train station at a certain time to go on a holiday to “improve their health”. The Nazis also targeted blond-haired and blue-eyed children at Polish orphanages and foster homes, and confiscated the children of Poles who had been sent to concentration camps. In some cases, the Nazis took children from schools with no warning, even rounding up of pupils in large groups and loading them onto trucks or trains.
Can you imagine taking your child to school and never having them come home? That they just vanished? And then to have no recourse or appeal? To have no local authority that could even question what was happening?
After the war, the Polish government created the Operation for the Revindication of Children for the purpose of reuniting stolen children with their rightful parents. However, it is estimated that only 40,000, or 20 percent, have ever been identified or reunited. Thousands of others and their descendants still live in Germany today unaware of their true identity and heritage.
The information in this post was taken from an article by Brent Douglas Dyck, published in Warfare History at warfarehistorynetwork.com/2016.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization (Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt), referred to as the NSV. It was the official welfare organization of the Third Reich, authorized when Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. The NSV was responsible for providing the social and charitable services to the German Aryan population.
In writing about the NSV, I used a quote from a book written by renown German historian Gotz Aly, titled HITLER’S BENEFICIARIES Plunder, Racial War, and The Nazi Welfare State, translated by Jefferson Chase. I also found that Aly had been awarded a prize by the German Holocaust Remembrance Foundation in 2003.
The Remembrance Foundation is dedicated to researching the crimes of the Nazi era and commemorating its victims. The Marion Samuel Prize is an annual award given for significant contributions to the Holocaust cause, and is named after a randomly chosen eleven-year-old girl killed at Auschwitz, about whom nothing was known except her name, her age, and the date of her deportation.
Aly was pleased to receive the Foundation’s award, but had no idea who Marion Samuel was.
In preparing for the ceremony at which he would receive the Prize, Gotz Aly decided to use his acceptance speech to provide a biographical sketch of Marion. Afterwards, he wrote a small book titled INTO THE TUNNEL The Brief Life of Marion Samuel, 1931-1943.
I’ve read the story and it is fascinating. She, like thousands of others was an ordinary and unremarkable child, but Aly’s meticulous research revealed details that made her and the others into tangible people; it increased the appreciation for all the Jewish children who died at the hands of Hitler. I also found it remarkable how much information the Nazi government kept and how much of it still exists.
In the book, Aly recounts his patient and painstaking search through the relevant archives, describes how he took out newspaper advertisements seeking relatives in Germany and America, and how he investigated the Samuel family’s financial circumstances as well as their systematic impoverishment by the Nazi state.
Here are some highlights:
Here’s what Marion Samuel’s last day, March 4, 1943, was like:
“The statistics kept by the Auschwitz camp commander show that Transport 33 from Berlin arrived [at 10:48 am] with 1,886 people on board…..Those deportees who were not needed for work—usually the majority—were immediately and without any unnecessary effort sent straight to the gas chambers to be murdered. Those who were selected for work had their heads shaved, were tattooed with a number, and were clad in prisoner uniforms.”
“Marion Samuel, however, was only a child and a female child at that. The SS would not have considered her in any way fit for labor. On the morning of March 4, 1943, Marion Samuel was taken from her father and led to one of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s two older gas chambers [and murdered]….The first test of Auschwitz’s new large crematoria, during which the corpses of forty-five men were incinerated in the presence of engineers from the Erfurt firm of Topf & Sohne, was carried out the day after Marion Samuel was murdered. Therefore, the bodies of the more than two thousand Jews murdered on March 4, 1943, were burned instead in broad, somewhat secluded pits by the members of a special commando. Later, the graves were covered with soil. To this day, that area of Auschwitz-Birkenau remains, as a rule, free of bone fragments.”
I took my manuscript of The Biggest Cowboy in the World back from the publisher, meaning that it is no longer scheduled to be published.
Have you ever been working on something and have gotten a feeling that it wasn’t going well? That it had gotten too hard, or too complicated, or had somehow lost its way and you were struggling to get it back on track? I finally admitted that my novel didn’t feel right. Taking out 30,000 words was the first hint – I still haven’t understood how I wrote that much unneeded material without seeing how it obscured my basic story rather than enlightened it. Add to that another 6,000 words that I took out in the next pass and the hint was stronger that things weren’t right.
The novel is better for all that removal: cleaner, neater, more straight-to-the-point, and a simpler storyline. I even thought that the novel might have become suitable as a Young Adult book, which would have given it a definite genre and avoided labeling it as a Western.
That’s another hint of impending wrongness – I had suddenly changed who my target audience was, as well as avoiding my usual dislike for genre classifications.
I was begging the novel to do something that I hadn’t originally designed it for and the feeling of “begging” was the last hint needed for the story to be put into the proverbial drawer. I intent to return to it in the future; I like the extended saga of adventure and self-discovery, the character arc, the emotions, the setting, the movement, the characters, and the readability. There’s a lot of originality to it, good surprises and twists, and it makes for a good read. I believe that readers will like the tale once it’s told.
But it’s not ready. I need to step away.
I will tidy things up. I went to Texas last week and had a great time visiting the Goodnight Ranch outside of Amarillo, the Armstrong County Historical Museum in Claude, Fort Concho in San Angelo, the Caprock Canyonlands State Park outside of Turkey, and a great scenic drive through the Palo Duro Canyon country. All of these locations are pertinent to my story. From all that exposure, I found new information and expressions that will modify the manuscript, so I will make those changes before I put it away.
I also have a history consultant reviewing the manuscript for errors. I’m sure he’ll find something, and I will make those changes as well.
I will complete my file folder of printed excerpts from various books and articles concerning the Red River War, the Comanches, the school at Fort Sill, the timeline of the JA and Goodnight ranches, the history of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Nellie Bly’s trip around the world, and other historical facts. I did not write a historical novel, but my descriptions need to be either accurate or reasonably authentic. When I return to rewriting, I don’t want to find myself puzzled by anything I’ve written.
My publisher, meanwhile, has dropped the book from the edit/cover/format/publish cycle. We hadn’t yet signed a contract, so canceling anything and/or paying a penalty is not a problem. I will pay for the efforts of my editor in reviewing the manuscript and making suggestions. The publishing house is happy with my decision; if I think my book is fatally flawed, they don’t want to be responsible for doing CPR.
After I do my housecleaning, I have two ideas that have been percolating for a year or so. I want to write a Mogi Franklin mystery that involves witchcraft in New Mexico from the 1700s to now; and I am very interested in the time period right after the end of World War II in Europe (Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia). I think there’s a story there, similar to the background in Teddy’s War.
Am I disappointed that my year-long effort is being put in the drawer? Yes. Am I discouraged? No. Am I hopeful? Yes. I think my plot, characters, settings, and drama are good. Letting everything sit for a while will make the story stronger when I do return to pick it up again.
Last month, Sebastian Yurtseven was helping his aunt clean out her house in Hagen, Germany. The town had been severely flooded and the plasterboard on the walls in her home had been soaked. As Sebastian tore out a wall section, he found a foot-wide space behind the wall containing a newspaper from 1945. Looking further, he discovered a trove of WWII artifacts, including a portrait of Hitler, a revolver, a box of gas masks, brass knuckles, Nazi badges, letters, and a number of documents. Archivists would eventually fill 12 boxes with the materials.
The cache revealed that the building had housed the local headquarters of the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization (Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt), referred to as the NSV. During the war, it became the second-largest organization in the Nazi party.
When Hitler was building his presence in Germany, he did not like charity or welfare groups, mainly because he felt that broad charity efforts helped sustain people in Germany who could not contribute to its success; he preferred natural selection that would allow capable Aryans to live, while the others died off.
However, by the time Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Great Depression had caused mass unemployment in Germany, and it had become politically untenable for the Nazis to write off the destitute as not worth helping. In reaction, he directed that any socialist, Protestant, or Catholic association be disbanded and their assets seized, the Jewish agency be restricted to helping ethnic Jews, and any other charitable agencies be controlled by the NSV or have direct Nazi leadership. All charities had to adhere to the principles of eugenics (the selective breeding of people for superior qualities) and refrain from helping those deemed biologically unfit. Within a short timeframe, he made the NSV the official organization and made any other charitable or welfare organization illegal.
The NSV restricted its assistance to those of Aryan descent who were deemed worthy of support. Those excluded from NSV benefits included “alcoholics, tramps, homosexuals, prostitutes, the ‘work-shy’, the ‘asocial’, habitual criminals, the hereditary ill (a widely defined category) and members of any races other than Aryan.” Given those constraints, by 1939, 17 million Germans received assistance, the agency operated 8,000 day-nurseries, funded holiday homes for mothers, distributed additional food for large families, and were involved with a wide variety of other facilities.
Under the NSV, the charity and welfare business was restructured to make sure that it followed the racial and ideological goals of the Nazi state. Eventually, the criteria for denial of assistance included anyone who wasn’t of the Aryan race, Communists, Social Democrats, and political opponents; travelers who requested aid; ex-convicts, re-migrants from abroad, the physically disabled, hard-of-hearing, deaf, mute, blind, the elderly, and homeless; and those involved in illicit drugs and epidemics.
The NSV, by the way, handled the “asocial”, “work-shy”, and other underperforming workers by sending them to Gestapo-operated “labor education camps”, a new category that by 1940 encompassed two hundred camps that held 40,000 inmates.
During the war, the NSV took over more and more governmental responsibilities, especially in the fields of child and youth labor. The budget, however, routinely ran a deficit and had to be subsidized with funds from the central government. The Nazi government did not wish to increase taxes, so an alternative solution was found: they would steal the money from forced laborers and the populations of conquered territories. The confiscation of Jewish, Polish, Czech, Russian, French, Belgian, etc, assets, which included furniture, appliances, rugs, silverware, cars, and farm equipment were used to provide the necessary money. It did not, I guess, include the art works, gold, and cash pillaged by the SS.
Here’s an interesting summary made of research done by Gotz Aly, a highly respected, present-day German historian: “while Jews and citizens of occupied lands suffered crippling taxation, mass looting, enslavement, and destruction, most Germans enjoyed an improved standard of living. Buoyed by millions of packages sent home by German soldiers at the front, Germans directly benefited from an almost unimaginable scale of systematic plunder of non-German possessions.” Throw in the monies distributed by the NSV and there is an argument to be made that this is why Hitler was given so much allegiance by ordinary Germans—he literally “bought” their consent.
A reviewer of one of Gotz Aly’s books made this statement:
“Why did the German people increasingly support Hitler’s rule even after it unleashed a world war that ultimately led to its own destruction? The answer, based on massive evidence and convincingly argued [by Aly], is that the Nazi regime won the support of the middle and working class Germans by creating greater social and economic equality at home and ensuring that its own “racial comrades” would be well fed and clothed, all with the proceeds of mass murder and unprecedented continent-wide robbery.”
The italics are mine.
I changed the story.
I’m rewriting The Biggest Cowboy In The World in response to comments by my editor. I’ve blogged before about the standards for the number of words in different books and her first comment that my manuscript was too long. I wasn’t sure that I could delete 30,000 words without making fundamental changes to the story and I now know that I was correct.
My first attempt at making the novel shorter had me cutting 24,000 words, and I didn’t find that it affected the storyline too much. I am now at just over 31,000 words deleted, and I chose to change several significant aspects of my story so I could shorten it further—my lead character doesn’t become a Comanche shaman, doesn’t bring the house to life, doesn’t send a telegram to his sister, returns to the house only once, the house doesn’t talk, the house doesn’t have a secret passageway to a secret room, doesn’t have a body in that room, the magic comes not from my lead character but from his uncle, a Comanche shaman, and other things.
Divorcing my new novel from the old one--Smoke Dreams—was a very good decision. Preserving the plot from the first book made the second book overly complicated, and removing it made the new story considerably cleaner, simpler, and more readable. I still have the two major characters between the two, but there are new actions that are not in the first book.
However, I’m embarrassed by having written a story that had 24,000 words that weren’t needed in the first place. What in the world did those words say that wasn’t needed? That’s a fair question. When I write my next novel, I’ll just leave those words out to begin with.
I found this:
For a verbally challenged guy, I am amazingly wordy in print. I guess I was just having too much fun to be leave things out.
Some of the deletions of what I’ve listed are elementary and I should know better (which is true), while some of the deletions did cause the story to lose context, color, pace, and smoothness; I had to work hard afterwards to eliminate choppiness. I like to read stories that help me visual the surroundings, the characters, and the actions; I appreciate knowing the backgrounds to characters, believing that it makes them more credible and believable; I like a good pace and I like smoothness; I personally like to know the weather—it helps build the backdrop of the story; I like hearing history, but I probably get carried away.
On the other hand, having a lot of unnecessary words obscures the words that are necessary. I didn’t change much with the characters, but, reading my most recent draft, I find them much easier to see, hear, follow, and identify with. My new text is much more specific in every way. I also found many mistakes and blame the clutter for not having found them before.
I remembered what Ursula Le Guin said about the ability of readers to “fill in” a lot, so I looked for opportunities to remove descriptions that readers could provide on their own. As well, I discussed the manuscript with a Hollywood script writer and he encouraged me “to make every word count”. I have tried to apply that to every sentence I review and deleted many words solely based on that rule of thumb.
I may have been premature in submitting my original draft to my editor. However, without her input, I would not have been provoked to make the drastic changes that I have. I wish I was more of a natural writer but it’s not going to happen and I have to rely on iterations to get me through.
I’m almost done with the new draft. I’m hoping that it will finish with about 112k words, compared to my first submission of over 147k words. I estimate that I will have spent about 50 total hours on the rewrite over four weeks, going through it three or so times. I’ll send it back to my editor by the end of this week and I’ll probably hear back from her in September. If it's still too long, I’ll find some way to make it shorter.
She didn’t like my book.
I submitted the manuscript for The Biggest Cowboy In The World to my publisher in May. I asked the editor to read it through before editing the words because I was not confident that I had a story people would enjoy. It would be wasted effort to make the words better if they weren’t the correct words to begin with.
I’ve spent eight or nine months writing the novel in a vacuum. I did not write a preliminary treatment of what the book would be about (because I really didn’t know) and I did not ask anyone to read the drafts along the way. I’ve blogged before that I set out to write somewhat of a sequel to Smoke Dreams, my first adult novel, published in 2013. I found that it was harder to do and less satisfying than what I expected, but I still maintained the new storyline to be complimentary to the first novel or, at least, not to contradict the first novel. My editor has not read Smoke Dreams.
It took her a month or so to finish the book (she had other commitments and was travelling in July) and we talked last week on the phone (she was in Virginia). Her feedback included these points:
She had a double-handful more of specific recommendations, but the big items needed to be fixed first. Overall, it was not a book she’d choose to read, nor would she recommend it to a general reader.
We talked about whether it was a good story badly written, or just a bad story. Finding new words is relatively easy, but curing a bad story is fundamentally hard and may sometimes require just throwing it away as a bad idea. I’ve heard of many writers who have chunked new works in the trash. I could do that, but I would hate to. It’s the equivalent effort of writing three new Mogi stories.
We decided that it was a story that could become a good story, but needed major changes.
I am happy with her feedback. In fact, it was a relief to finally hear serious comments. I’m probably a better fixer of something than I am a creator of something, anyway, so rewriting a manuscript gets me excited. We decided that changing the story a little would make it less confusing and could use fewer words and develop better characters. She is not clear how to go about it, which is good, because it’s not clear to me, either.
She’s been the editor for nine of the ten Mogi Franklin stories and I surprised her by writing something completely different. Of course, I view it as innovative writing, whereas she sees it as a failure to communicate. I suspect that she is more correct.
I am now rewriting the manuscript, but I did four global things before I started:
My assessment (especially after having deleted 24,000 words) is that my novel had way too much clutter – telling too much history, giving too much description, giving too much background to situations, making actions too slow and ponderous, building too much backstory to characters and locations, and, in general, obscuring both the storyline and the characters with too many words about other things.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t have to put some of the deleted words back. Transitions between scenes, informational content valuable to the story, some flavor and color to the language, items that made for a richer understanding of what was going on, and other aspects. As I’m rewriting, I’ll need to stay aware of what’s missing.
I’ve also ordered some “western” books from Amazon. I’ve read several books by Louis L’Amour in the past, but the bulk of my experience with westerns have come from Larry McMurtry, who is probably too literary to be a model for a traditional “western writer”. I want to read westerns to see the words, sentences, and paragraphs that western writers use, as well as how they use plots, timing, action scenes, transitions, color, and pace. I’m not sure that John Wayne movies reflect a typical cowboy anymore.
Having already made it through thirty of about two hundred pages, I’m feeling good about my momentum. I’ve deleted more words, changed some sentences to be tighter and clearer, and have corrected some small errors. I like what’s happening. I estimate that it will take all of August to produce another draft, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my editor likes my new version.
When I submitted the final manuscript of my new novel to my publisher, the response from the Senior Editor was that my manuscript had been accepted, but that its length (approximately 147,000 words) might be problematic.
My novel, if published at the length that I submitted, is longer than normal for the type of fiction novel that the publishing house typically produces and is probably longer than the “standard” length recommended by the publishing industry for a novel of its type. Novels that are longer than the standard risk not being read by readers because they won’t buy a book that’s either over a certain length or is greater than a certain thickness.
I didn’t know that the publishing industry had “standards” for length, but after reading a few articles, I have found, for example, that adult fiction novels have typical lengths of 80k to 90k words, with 110k being considered as the upper limit; science fiction and fantasy run longer, at about 90k to 100k words, and maybe up to 125k.
Middle grade novels are normally from 20k to 55k words, and maybe between 40k to 55k for older middle graders; 55k to 80k words is a great range for Young Adult Fiction.
These “standards” do not confine any particular book to any particular length (the publisher can do what they want) but are indicators that certain readers may not buy the book because it appears “too long” for their tastes or for what they are accustomed to reading.
I found “standard” lengths for every book genre, including Picture Books, Westerns, Mysteries, and Memoirs. I do not know if there are standards for non-fiction books, and I also do not know if standards are different for electronic books.
My Mogi Franklin Mystery books are 38k for the smallest and about 47k for the longest, so they are within the standard range. The King of Trash is about 80k, and Teddy’s War is close to 90k (it was submitted at 105k words), so they are also within the given range for adult fiction novels.
However, my new novel is out of the norm by about 50%, which is a lot. I want to think that I wrote the story that I was compelled to write, so I have the usual authorly reply that the story needs all the words that I used in writing it. I cover a lot of ground with the action (from St. Louis to Las Vegas, NM, to Ft. Sill, OK, to Goodnight, TX, and then up to Nebraska), while setting the story in at least a couple of timeframes (1870 to 1884, and 1904), so I attribute the longer-than-normal length of the book to its being more of an “epic” than the usual fiction novel.
We’ll see what my story editor has to say after she finishes her first read-through.
It was interesting to find the lengths of some major novels that are considered huge:
The Harry Potter books range from The Philosopher’s Stone at 77,325 words to the Deathly Hallows at 198,227, totaling more than a million words for the whole story.
The Lord of the Rings has a total of 455,125 words across the three books.
The first five Game of Thrones books run from 298,000 to 424,000 words, totaling close to 2 million words. And that’s without the next two books.
Examples of well-known books with fewer words include:
The Great Gatsby has 47,094.
Black Beauty has 59,635.
The Sun Also Rises has 67,707.
Anne of Green Gables has 97,364.
To Kill a Mockingbird has 100,388.
Sense and Sensibility has 119,394.
A Tale of Two Cities has 135,087.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has 145,092.
The Grapes of Wrath has 169,481.
Moby Dick has 206,052.
Lonesome Dove has 365,712.
Gone With the Wind has 418,053.
War and Peace has 587,287.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve never known the number of words in a book before I read it. If I have a “size” criteria, it’s more the thickness of the book, which is connected to how much time I think it will take to read it. There are several books that I haven’t bought because they looked “too long”, and I’ve gotten to where I always look at the number of pages for any particular book on Amazon. The older I get, the less inclined I am to suffer through a great number of pages, regardless of the story.
In spite of that, my current reading book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, has over 500 pages, while another reading book I’ve started, The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, has a little more than 300 pages. In each case, the number of pages tell little about the number of words in each book since the font size can be adjusted, as can the space between lines. I would bet that the book by Mark Sullivan has more words than the “standard” adult fiction novel, and I would also bet that its length is not unusual compared to other adult fiction novels on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.
Every business should have rules-of-thumb that define how their products should be configured to sell best, and publishers are no different. I’m not sure that I can shorten my story by a third without ruining the story, but I’m open to recognizing that I might have written a story that is too long for an average reader to be interested in reading in the first place.
Experienced publishers and editors live their lives trying to balance words, pages, and covers with readability, marketability, and practicality, so it’s their job to judge my future book for the readers that I’ve targeted. If it’s a long story, it may take a long book to tell it. On the other hand, it may be a great story but if people are naturally inclined to not even buy it, then no one will read the book, anyway.
When it comes down to it, my publisher doesn’t want to publish a book that people won’t read, and, when it comes down to it, I’m supposed to trust them to help me make the book more likely to be read.
In 1927, the United States Department of War was granted permission to use a bridge over the Pee Dee River in North Carolina for aerial target practice. It was soon to be covered by a lake created by a new dam and was no longer needed. After five days, flying 20 missions a day, in perfect weather, at altitudes from 6,000 to 8,000 feet, the middle section of the bridge finally fell.
In any practical sense, needing 100 attempts to destroy a single undefended bridge demonstrated that an aerial bombing offensive capability for use in wartime combat would require new equipment.
What was needed was an aiming device that could be mounted inside an airplane, was easy to use, and would accurately deliver much bigger bombs on a target from an altitude between 20,000 and 35,000 feet above the ground, while the plane was going more than 200 miles an hour, in all types of weather, in strong turbulence, while the plane was slipping up, down, and sideways, was being surrounded by bullets and flak from attacking planes and ground artillery, all within the few seconds of timeframe when the target was achievable.
Carl Norden, a Dutch engineer educated in Switzerland who emigrated to the U.S. in 1904 and working as a consultant to the Navy, responded with an innovative device. However, even after several versions and as famous as his final product would become, he produced what ultimately had WWII American flyers in Europe estimating that only 16% of all their bombs fell within 1000 feet of their aiming point.
Delivering a bomb on target in combat conditions was, and is, a very, very difficult problem, and would someday only be answered by putting a real-time video camera on-board a remotely-piloted guided missile, but that’s a whole different story.
Last weekend, I rode in the front gunner’s seat of a B-25 bomber. Anchored into the floor, within a few inches of the front window, was a Norden bombsight. Looking at my photo, it has two basic pieces – a rectangular box that is a gyroscopic stabilization platform, and a curvy mechanical calculator and sighting head attached on top.
There’s a rubber eye bumper in the center of the head used by the bombardier to manipulate two crosshairs set into a telescope. In the Norden Mark XV bombsight, one crosshair represented the aim point, while the other represented the sighting point. Given control of the plane in the last few seconds, the bombardier adjusted his knobs until the two crosshairs met. When they did, the bombs were automatically released.
I didn’t think to look into the bombsight, but I’m pretty sure that I would have hit my head on the front glass and would have taken one of my arms just to keep myself in place; I would have been on my knees.
One of the early problems with the bombsight was the creation of the crosshairs. The Army Air Corps (the early Air Force) required that any bombsight be useable in the African desert and Pacific jungles, as well as Arctic regions. For example, the temperatures inside a B-17 flying at 25,000 feet above Germany in the winter was in the range of twenty-to-forty-degrees below zero; there was no heat inside the plane, initially forcing everyone to wear thick sheep-skin-and-leather clothing. They would later have electrically heated pants.
This variation in temperature and humidity played havoc with the delicate crosshairs of the bombsight, which were obviously essential to its accuracy. Different man-made wire configurations were attempted, as was the web of black widow spiders. None of them proved reliable.
The one substance that was found reliable at high altitudes and maintained its consistency in a variety of conditions was human hair. Fine blonde hair that had not been subjected to chemical treatments or hot curling irons was remarkably akin to black widow spider webbing but was more suitable for the bombsight application.
In 1942, Mary Babnik Brown of Pueblo, Colorado, saw a War Department advertisement requesting “hair for the war effort.” The ad stipulated that the desired hair must be at least 22 inches long and had never been treated or heated. Mary’s hair was 32 inches long, and, in 36 years (since she was a toddler), had only been trimmed, not cut, nor had it been “permed” or excessively heated. She washed it with “pure soap” twice weekly, and combed it twice a day; it stretched to her knees when she combed it out. She normally wore it wrapped around her head in a braid.
It was her pride and joy, and she sent in a sample.
Mary was born in Pueblo to immigrants from Slovenia. Her father worked for the railroad and her mother was a domestic servant. When the father abandoned the family around 1920, Mary left elementary school to help support her family, eventually going to work for the National Broom Factory, where she lied about her age to be hired and then would work for the next 42 years. She began dancing as a hobby in her early teens and would go on to become a well-known dancer around town. She especially liked teaching GI service men how to dance.
The War Department responded that her hair was perfect, and Mary agreed to donate it; she took no payment, wanting to support the war effort. She was told that her hair would be used in the making of scientific equipment to make precise measurement of humidity, key to the production of aircraft and other war equipment.
It was not until 1987 that she learned that her hair had been used for virtually every Norden bombsight produced.
On November 9, 1987, on her eightieth birthday, President Ronald Reagan sent a letter of congratulations and recognized her contribution. In 1990, she was honored at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for her contribution with a plaque displayed in the Academy’s Air Force Museum. On November 19, 1990, Paul Harvey featured her in one of his The Rest of the Story episodes.
Unfortunately, the company who built the Norden bombsight maintains that the crosshairs of the Norden bombsight were etched into a glass reticle; no human hair was used.
Fortunately, once America hears a good story, it lasts forever.
When I was growing up, I believed in John Wayne. In particular, anything about the US cavalry troops stationed in the various frontier forts in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I took as truth from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande. I grew up believing that all the Southwest resembled Monument Valley, that beautiful women were fabulously desirable out in barren wilderness, and that most of the cavalry rode around all day, looking for Indians to fight.
Later movies would present more authentic stories, but reading the real history of the frontier army, who was in it, their leadership, their mission, their military campaigns, and their daily life is more interesting and provocative than what you’ll find on the silver screen.
As I’ve been reading for information to bolster my next fiction novel, I find myself returning to Fort Bascom, by James Bailey Blackshear. Once again, it’s the data of the situation that characterize what life was really like in a frontier fort.
“Over its history, Fort Bascom soldiers represented a variety of nationalities and ethnicities. In addition to African Americans, Hispanos, Germans, and Irishmen, Americans from all regions of the country were posted to the garrison. First- and second-generation Irishmen had a particularly strong presence in New Mexico both during and after the [Civil] war.… David M. Emmons notes that by 1870, Irish immigrants made up about a fourth of the entire frontier army, so it is not surprising to find them scattered throughout the documents concerning Bascom.”
“As did African Americans, immigrants joined the army because less desirable options restricted them to low-paying, menial jobs that no one else wanted. Enlisting gave both groups a means of escaping overcrowded slums and majority populations that were unwilling to accept them as anything more than subservient classes.”
“The army guaranteed meals and board and offered an escape from urban decay and the cotton economy. There was also the possibility that once their military obligations were fulfilled, former soldiers might put down roots in a region more accepting of different nationalities and ethnicities. Yet as Captain Dubois indicated, not everyone who joined the army fulfilled those obligations. Some deserted.”
“Soldiers deserted for a variety of reasons. Fighting Indians and Comancheros along the Canadian River was not why many of the early enlistees had signed up. They had joined to shoot Confederates. They also had been enticed by cash bounties paid for enlisting. Once mustered into the service, most soon realized that a soldier’s life was 98 percent boring and 2 percent dangerous.
“….the food was bad and the work was hard. Privates spent a lot of time stacking adobes, chopping wood, shoveling horse manure, and hauling water—all within an area most considered an isolated wasteland. Even the water, when it was available, often had to be purged of organic material before it could be consumed. Enlistees found themselves at the beck and call of frustrated, alcoholic officers who felt as trapped as they did. Poor nutrition and bad water often led to sickness and misery. Soldiers feared cholera more than Comanches, for the medical personnel and their facilities were often subpar. For these reasons, 33 percent of enlisted men deserted their posts.”
“Women also lived at Fort Bascom. Officers’ wives often traveled west with their husbands, lending an outsiders’ perspective to military life on the southern plains. Perhaps Martha Summerhayes, stationed in Arizona with her husband, characterized a soldier’s life best when she called it a ‘glittering misery.’”
“Finding single women on the base was unusual, but it did occur. Marian Sloan worked as a cook with her mother at Fort Union. But the great majority of women at the frontier forts were married. Once hired, they were provided a food ration, a stipulation that helped feed families, for many times women brought their children with them. At Fort Bascom in the early 1860s, these positions were filled by Hispanic women since their husbands manned the fort. Wives followed their men out of the mountain villages of San Miguel and Mora Counties, about a week’s journey away. The significance of laundresses to military operations is highlighted by the construction of quarters for them at most frontier posts. Laundress quarters at Fort Bascom were positioned directly behind the soldiers’ barracks.”
“The 1870 census notes the fourteen adult women [there was commonly around two hundred soldiers at Fort Bascom] were either living within the post or on the military grounds, which encompassed two square miles. Twenty children of various ages also lived there. Seven of these women and one sixteen-year-old female were New Mexicans, but Teresa Nown was not the only local that was married to an immigrant soldier. Felicita Kelly’s husband, Private Thomas Kelly, originated from Newfoundland. Conversely, not all of the post’s laundresses and washerwomen hailed from New Mexico. They came from as far as New York, Pennsylvania, and Ireland.”
“Longer stretches of off-duty time allowed soldiers to participate in events organized for larger groups or everyone at the post…..On weekends or special occasions like the Fourth of July or Christmas, horse racing, shooting competitions, and footraces were held on the parade grounds, as were picnics and musical presentations. Baseball had taken the nation by storm by the 1870s and Fort Bascom was not an exception. The Eighth Cavalry brought the game to the Canadian River Valley. Matthews noted that along with additional rations and ammunition, Company L brought along their bats and balls on one particular scout.”
I don’t remember John Wayne ever playing baseball in his cavalry uniform, and I don’t remember him ever becoming involved with a woman who was responsible for washing his shorts, but it might have happened. Reality can sometimes be a lot of fun.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.