At three o’clock on the morning of the 15th of February, 1942, sixty French police inspectors set out across occupied Paris to make pre-planned arrests. Over the next forty-eight hours, they banged on doors, forced their way into houses, shops, offices and storerooms, searched cellars and attics, pigsties and garden sheds, larders and cupboards.
They found notebooks, addresses, false IDs, explosives, revolvers, propaganda tracts, expertly forged ration books and birth certificates, as well as blueprints for attacks on trains. There were dozens of torn postcards, train timetables and tickets that would serve as passwords when matched with those held by others working in the Resistance. Their haul included three million anti-German and anti-Vichy tracts, three tons of paper, two typewriters, eight duplicating machines, 1,000 stencils, 100 kilos of ink and 300,000 francs.
One hundred and thirteen people, of whom thirty-five were women, were arrested and imprisoned in a fort outside of Paris. Nine months later on the snowy morning of January 24th, 1943, thirty of those women joined two hundred others like themselves, arrested from all parts of occupied France, on the only train, during the entire four years of German occupation, to take women of the French Resistance to their final destination—Auschwitz. Only forty-nine would return.
Among the women were teachers and secretaries, students, chemists, farm workers, housekeepers, writers and housewives; a singer at the Paris Opera, a mid-wife, a dental surgeon. They had distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons, and conveyed clandestine messages. Strangers to each other, hailing from villages and cities, these brave women were united in hatred and defiance of their Nazi occupiers.
In 2008, Carolyn Moorehead, renown writer and biographer whose works include biographies of Martha Gellhorn and Bertrand Russell, went on a search for the women who had huddled together on that train. She found seven of the women still alive, but only four who could sit and talk; three were too frail to welcome visitors. Beginning in 2009, Moorehead began looking for those who did not return from the Nazi camp or who had died since. Covering the length and breadth of France, the descendants, some now in their seventies, produced letters, photographs, and diaries that gave intimate pictures of the women’s lives and their captivity.
Moorehead published A Train in Winter in 2011, drawing on interviews with the women and their families, as well as the families of others; German, French, and Polish archives; and documents held by World War II resistance organizations. It uncovers a dark chapter of history that offers an inspiring portrait of ordinary people, of bravery and survival, and the remarkable, enduring power of female friendship. I found A Train in Winter in a public library for-sale shop and could not keep from buying it. I have already found the story compelling.
Moorehead has a paragraph in the preface about the story she tells:
“This is a book about friendship between women, and the importance that they attach to intimacy and to looking after each other, and about how, under conditions of acute hardship and danger such mutual dependency can make the difference between living and dying. It is about courage, facing and surviving the worst that life can offer, with dignity and an unassailable determination not to be destroyed. Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance, but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every direction of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education. They did not all, of course, like each other equally: some were far closer friends than others. But each watched out for the others with the same degree of attention and concern and minded every death with anguish. And what they all went through, month after month, lay at the very outer limits of human endurance.”
I would have made a terrible soldier during the American Revolution. I can imagine staring in disbelief when my infantry commander told me to stand upright, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other soldiers, march out into an open field in a straight line, the British doing the same, and then, when within 30 to 50 yards of each other, shoot a muzzleloader at the soldier across from me, after which I was to reload while the other side fired back. I just wouldn’t have done it. I’m no coward but I can recognize a low percentage of survival. I would have suggested hiding behind a tree or something.
It would have been the same at Gettysburg, when General Lee lined his soldiers up and told them to march a mile across open fields to attack Union troops crouched behind a stone wall, all the while under cannon fire. It looked noble and impressive in the movie Gettysburg, but I ain’t agonna do it.
Or maybe I would have; it would take being there to know the truth. Either way, to die needlessly is a travesty hard to accept.
In reading about the First World War, I found a story of when a great number of soldiers were told to attack and then refused.
The Battle of Verdun, in 1916, was a battle of the French Army versus the German Army in a relatively small area of land northeast of Paris. The Army was first commanded by Marshall Philippe Petain, then by General Robert Nivelle. Fought from February 21st to the 18th of December, it was the longest battle of World War I (302 days) and one of the most costly in human history. There were about 377,000 (163,000 dead) French casualties, while the Germans had about 337,000 (143,000 dead) casualties. It was eventually a French victory because the Germans gave up first, and the battle came to symbolize the determination of the French Army.
There were, however, lasting consequences. Fighting in such a small area devastated the land, resulting in miserable conditions for troops on both sides. Rain and constant artillery bombardments turned the clay soil into a wasteland of mud full of debris and human remains; shell craters filled with water and soldiers risked drowning in them, not to mention the sodden trenches in which they lived. Forests were reduced to tangled piles of wood by artillery fire and eventually obliterated. The effect of the battle on many soldiers was profound and accounts of men breaking down with insanity and shell shock were common. There were many desertions.
As much as Verdun has to tell, my story happens a few months later, in April of 1917. It was the memories of Verdun that brought about the disobedience in the battlefield.
The situation was again northeast of Paris and was again the Germans versus the French, with the French now on the offensive. In briefing his troops before the battle, General Nivelle promised a war-winning decisive victory that would be accomplished in 48 hours and cost no more than 15,000 casualties.
At the start, morale among the French troops was high and the initial fighting brought substantial gains. They were soon brought to a halt by the newly built and extremely strong defenses of the Hindenburg Line. Nivelle persisted with frontal assaults and by April 25th, the French had suffered nearly 135,000 casualties, including 30,000 dead. Nivelle continued the offensive, but on May 3rd, the 21st Division, which had been involved in some of the heaviest fighting at Verdun, refused orders to go into battle.
They began what is called the French Army Mutinies. Within days, acts of “collective indiscipline” had spread to 54 army divisions (out of 113 total), while a record 27,000 French soldiers deserted. The vast majority of the mutineers were willing to defend their own lines, but refused to participate in offensive actions, indicating the level of distrust in the army leadership.
The French offensive was suspended on May 9th. General Nivelle was removed and Marshall Petain again took over. Petain was more concerned with the improvement of the soldiers than in punishment for the mutinous actions. He set about addressing their needs and improving the morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, providing rest and leave for exhausted units, and moderating discipline. Other demands by the troops included better economic support for families at home, more regular periods of leave, and more liberty when away from combat. The soldiers basically felt that their lives were being disregarded by army leaders.
Because of the low morale in more than half of the French Army, it took until the early months of 1918 for the French infantry to fully recover. Petain's strategy was to keep the line by using artillery units and wait for the arrival and deployment of the soldiers from the United States Army. He also waited for the coming of new and improved versions of the French tank, produced by Renault.
Did the German Army take advantage of the situation and drive hard against the discouraged French troops? In one of the greatest lapses of military intelligence gathering of the war, the Germans didn’t even know about the internal strife. The mutinies were not reported in the press and were not publicly mentioned by the French military. The Germans did not learn of the French Army’s situation until after the war.
In 1769, on a hilltop in colonial Virginia, a young man began building a house. It was his dream and his passion, and he delighted in its construction to the extent that he became much more interested in “putting up and pulling down” than he was in actually completing the house. In fact, he became so caught up in the design and redesign of the various parts of the structure, reworking and reimagining the materials and functionality, as well as learning the ins and outs of the various crafts, skills, and technologies required, that he would die before it was completed, fifty-four years after he had begun.
His building obsession was complicated by the colonies’ dependency on Mother England for supplies and furnishings. It took months from the ordering of various materials to the delivery of the materials to the building site. It wasn’t helped by England’s enjoyment of a captive market and relentless trade requirements. By the eve of the revolution, America had effectively become Britain’s export market. The colonies took 80 percent of British linen exports, 76 percent of exported nails, 60 percent of wrought iron, and nearly half of all the glass England sold abroad, not to mention the 30,000 pounds of silk, 11,000 pounds of salt, and over 130,000 beaver hats that were imported for everyday living. Many of the goods were made from raw materials that had originated in America in the first place and could easily have manufactured at home, if it had had the internal markets and the distribution capabilities.
Additionally, the young man had to fire his own bricks -- 650,000 of them -- but it was a difficult business and he routinely could use only half of what he produced because his home-made kilns heated unevenly. When the Continental Congress passed a nonimportation agreement, he began manufacturing his own nails.
Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson persevered, incorporating into Monticello such innovations as its well-known dome, thirteen skylights, a dumbwaiter built into a chimney, indoor toilets, and a pair of doors that would both open when only one door was pushed, charming and mystifying experts for a century and a half. It wasn’t until remodeling efforts in the 1950s exposed a rod-and-pully mechanism hidden in the floor.
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he had debts of more than $100,000 and Monticello still stood unfinished. His daughter put it on the market for $70,000 but, in the end, sold it for $7,000 to a man who tried to make the plantation into a silk farm. It didn’t work out and the house and property were sold in 1836 to Uriah Phillips Levy, the sole Jewish naval officer in the U. S. Navy. At the outbreak of the Civil War, it was seized by the Confederate government, but returned afterwards. In 1923, the Levy family sold the property to a newly formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation and Monticello went through a long program of restoration and renovation until it was finished in 1954.
I would not have learned of Jefferson and Monticello if it hadn’t been for a far more modest country home located in the easternmost part of England. A former Church of England rectory in a village in Norfolk, it was designed and built in 1851 by one Edward Tull of Aylsham for a young clergyman named Thomas John Gordon Marsham. Thomas was twenty-nine years old and unmarried, and remained that way for life. His housekeeper, Elizabeth Worm, stayed with him for some fifty years until her death in 1899.
Some one hundred and fifty years after the date of its construction, an accomplished and world-renown writer named Bill Bryson and his wife bought the Old Rectory and made it their home. Being blessed with an outsized curiosity, Bill Bryson continued a pattern set in his other books and began to research, characterize, and write about the history of the rectory, in particular, and personal houses, in general.
For your reading pleasure, I recommend Bill Bryson’s At Home, A Short History of Private Life, published by Anchor Books in 2011. It’s fascinating and engrossing, and consists of an uncountable number of stories, anecdotes, biographies, observations, and narratives concerning the structures that people live in today and why they look the way they do. It took a vibrant evolution of people and society to come up with kitchens, sculleries, larders, drawing rooms, dining rooms, cellars, studies, stairways, bedrooms, dressing rooms, nurseries, porches, and attics, not to mention our modern entryways, mud rooms, walk-in closets, exercise areas, and sun rooms.
Bryson seeks out answers for such ponderous questions as: why salt and pepper shakers are commonplace on eating tables, but not other spices; what houses looked like before hallways were invented; why the most beautiful room in Monticello was the attic; why bone ashes were added to bread; how conventions around burials came to be; why well-to-do women in the late 1700s were often forced to sit on the floors of enclosed carriages; and why the cost of sugar caused people to artificially blacken their teeth.
It is a fun read and the extent of his knowledge is staggering. Bryson endeavors to show that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly, and he does it with humor, compassion, and genuine interest. It is a delight to see his unpretentious, wide-ranging curiosity in action.
I rarely make New Year resolutions because I’m pretty good with managing my expectations and goals throughout the year. I am mostly tactical and timely about my activities – what I want or need on a daily or weekly basis – but I do find the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve a good time to review the bigger picture: did I do what was important? did I help others in both physical and emotional ways? did I reflect a life well lived?
I also take time to sketch out my major expectations for the year to come. For 2022, I included an eleventh Mogi mystery, plus another adult book; one or more visits to my distant sons and their families; active support of family projects; a research trip or two to help me visualize my new stories; a major rafting adventure, if I get a permit; and the regular reading of a variety of books.
I also set a goal of investing more effort in writing my more-or-less-weekly website blogs. I began writing blogs in 2017 because my editor told me that it would help sell my books and allow the multitude of my readers to view me more personably. Regardless of what actually happened, I grew to enjoy writing short essays on a regular basis, passing on interesting stories, historical anecdotes, book recommendations, as well as commenting on the various aspects of my learning the craft of writing novels. If nothing else, my efforts helped keep me centered and authentic.
However, I now have a dilemma. After Teddy’s War was finished, I read a non-fiction book that dealt with the post-war activities in Eastern Europe, in 1945-46, when all of Europe was reeling from its devastation. In particular, how 40 million refugees were moving every direction throughout every countryside, trying to restart whatever pieces of their former lives they could find. I found the situation engrossing, relatively unknown, dramatic, and incredibly revealing about nation-states, which prompted me to think that somewhere in that time period had to be the material for a novel.
That prompted me to learn more about WWII and specifically about the Nazi regime. I’m currently reading a thick, scholarly, garage-sale book about Hitler, the growth of the Nazi Party, and the entrenched goals of the Third Reich. For about 700 pages (no pictures), the book covers the development of Nazism in Europe from the end of WWI to after the Nuremberg Trials, especially showing the political intrigue and manipulation in regards to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and other nations of Eastern Europe.
The book is very interesting, has an amazing amount of historical facts, and presents a great overview of the time period, but it puts me in a quandary about writing about it. So far, the characterization of the whole era and its people has been incredibly depressing. I’ve had to go slowly to avoid a build-up of weariness and disbelief.
The detailed history has been depressing enough that it makes me wonder if I want to spend the next year writing a novel set against Europe before, during, and after the Third Reich. So far, every major player in the Reich leadership seems to be a psychopath, as well as self-serving, amoral, brutal, and downright vicious. I’m feeling stuck inside an asylum for the criminally insane, watching the inmates take over the building.
That makes it difficult to imagine writing blogs about what would undoubtably be my focus for the next several months. It might be interesting, but who wants to read depressing stuff on a regular basis?
I intend to finish the current book, read an in-depth book about Czechoslovakia, and then a history of Poland. I’m even considering signing up with a tour company for a two-week, WWII-focused trip through Poland and Germany. I’ll enjoy seeing the country and learning the history firsthand, but I’ll also be seeking a resolution to my dilemma. I need to be confident of not only my capability and dedication for pursuing this new writing adventure, but of being able to enjoy it without being compromised by its misery.
The story begins in 1837 when forty-one-year-old Maria Anna Schickelgruber finds herself pregnant and unmarried. Shunned by the locals in her village of Strones, Austria, she gives birth to a boy, who she names Alois. Since Strones is too small to be a parish, the child is baptized in nearby Dollersheim as Alois Schickelgruber. The entry for “father” is left blank and Alois is listed as “illegitimate”.
An investigation in 1930 identifies three strong candidates for the father of Alois: a nineteen-year-old Jewish teenager whose last name is Frankenberger; a man named Johann Georg Hiedler; and the brother of Georg, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler.
The teenaged Frankenberger was a strong candidate because Maria Anna Schickelgruber had been employed as a maid and cook in the Frankenberger household, and from the day of Alois’ birth and continuing until his fourteenth year, Frankenberger’s wealthy father paid Maria Anna “maintenance” for Alois on behalf of his son. There is no explicit declaration of fatherhood, but the Frankenbergers’ correspondence with Maria reflected a tacit understanding that the circumstances made it a duty of the Frankenbergers to pay for the boy’s maintenance.
Johann Georg Heidler is a strong candidate because he marries Maria Anna Schickelgruber five years after Alois’ birth. Georg seems to have been a journeyman-miller who never had a full-time job. According to one source, Georg and Maria were so impoverished that they did not even possess a bed and had to sleep in a feeding trough for cattle. Because of this desperate poverty, Maria asked Georg’s brother to take Alois and raise him as his son.
Johann Nepomuk Hiedler accepts Alois and raises him on a farm in Spital, Austria. Maria dies in 1847, when Alois is ten, and he never sees his stepfather again; Georg dies in 1857. A case is made that Nepomuk did this willingly because he was actually Alois’ father to begin with, so he becomes the third strong candidate for the missing father.
In spite of all the research done over the years, none of the three men were proven to be Alois’ real father and the situation was never resolved. The truth will probably never be known.
Several years after living with Nepomuk, Alois is first apprenticed to a shoemaker in Vienna, and then takes a position with the Imperial Board of Revenue. By hard work and dedication, he rises to the highest position available to him according to his background and education. Nepomuk is proud of his foster son and urges Alois to change his name to Hiedler. Alois thinks this is a good idea, since it would help erase his illegitimacy. In 1877, with a few family members, they journey to the town of Wietra and swear before a local notary that Johann Georg Heidler is Alois’s true father. The paperwork is completed and the new name becomes official. No one notices that the name on the paperwork has been misspelled or had been misheard by the notary. It states that Johann Georg’s last name is “Hitler” instead of “Heidler.”
The next day the same group travels to Dollersheim and persuades the elderly parish priest to alter Alois’ birth certificate. He fills in the father’s name, changes “illegitimate” to “legitimate”, crosses out Alois’ name as “Schickelgruder” and writes in “Hitler” as the official paperwork states. The priest then adds this note in the margin:
“The undersigned confirm that Georg Hitler, registered as the father, who is well-known to the undersigned witnesses, admits to being the father of the child Alois as stated by the child’s mother Maria Anna Schickelgruber, and has requested the entry of his name in the present baptismal register.”
It should be noted that both Georg and Maria were long dead by then.
The new Alois Hitler will marry at least three women and produce several children. The most significant will be a son born to his third wife, a domestic servant from Spital, whose maiden name is Klara Polzl. Klara has three children die in infancy, and then gives birth to a fourth, a son, on April 20, 1889, in the Austro-German border town of Braunau on the River Inn. He is named Adolf.
Alois dies in 1903, at the age of sixty-five, when Adolf is fourteen. Klara dies in 1907 from the use of iodoform to treat breast cancer. Adolf is eighteen and is reportedly devastated by her death.
To sum up the situation, Adolf Hitler is the son of Alois and Klara Hitler, while Alois is the son of Maria Anna Schickelgruber and an unknown father. In Mein Kampf, Adolf merely states that his father was an imperial customs official, the grandfather “a poor cottager,” while idealizing his mother as a loving and devoted housewife.
This all makes possible some severe complications.
Klara Polzl was also the granddaughter of Johann Nepomuk Hiedler, Alois’ foster father. If Nepomuk was Alois’ real father, as was suggested, that makes Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandfather and his maternal great-grandfather one and the same. It would also mean, as one historian points out, that Klara is the niece of Alois Hitler and the daughter of his half-sister. The marriage of the two becomes a case of family inbreeding (which was not uncommon at the time) and furnishes ample reason why Adolf Hitler, eager to portray himself as a pure German, did not want too much certainty about his ancestors.
Worse, yet, if the nineteen-year-old Frankenberger, the son of a wealthy Jew, was the real father of Alois, Adolf has a career-ending problem. A basic premise in Nazi philosophy, for which Hitler was majorly responsible, is that Jews are the enemies of the Aryan race, and any hint of Jewish blood in a German is indicative of a degraded heritage. That is, they not a true Aryan. Adolf certainly would never have qualified to be the German Chancellor or even the leader of the Nazi Party.
It was Adolf Hitler himself who had privately ordered his ancestry investigation in 1930. The findings about the Frankenbergers were probably uncorroborated and based on hearsay, but Hitler rejected the whole investigation as blatant lies, making sure that his ancestry remained obscure while he continued to see himself as the full and true embodiment of the German Nation.
It is interesting that his later rule of Germany would sometimes include requiring citizens to prove their Aryan decent or disprove Jewish descent, something he could not even do himself. The private 1930 investigation, by the way, did not come to light until the period of the Nuremberg Trials, after the war. It was reported by the investigator in his autobiography.
In July of 1938, two months after Hitler annexes Austria, the Austrian Land Registries received an order to conduct a land survey of Dollersheim and surrounding areas. The enquiry is to determine whether the terrain was suitable for army maneuvers. Apparently, it was, so in 1939 the citizens of Dollersheim were forcibly evacuated and the village, along with its heavily wooded countryside, was blasted beyond recognition by mortar shells and thoroughly plowed over by army tanks. The birthplace of Hitler’s father, Alois, the site of his grandmother’s grave, and the official center of the parish were rendered unrecognizable. I wouldn’t be surprised if any hints of the Frankenbergers were also erased, but I’m just guessing.
I found this to be an interesting sidelight to German history, although even the summary above leaves several questions hanging. My information comes from Nazi Germany, A New History, by Klaus P. Fischer, published by The Continuum Publishing Company, 1995.
Reading the footnotes to the text, almost every step of the history cited above has differing opinions. Researching Hitler’s childhood is a fascinating topic to a number of historians and subsequent theories are wide-ranging and sometimes too remarkable to believe.
They needed a railroad between two towns. Most experts agreed that it could not be built, but it was needed and, therefore, it would be built, beginning in August of 1941.
Slightly less than 50 miles in length, the expected Claiborne & Polk Railroad traversed an unforgiving landscape. It was low-lying country with soil made of uneven distributions of sand, muck, and gumbo, with interspersed layers of quicksand. At many points, the natural ground was so soft that in order to sustain the fill, it was necessary to support it on layers of logs instead of building on the ground surface. At other points, large logs laid end to end along the toes of the embankment were used to confine deep embankment footings of coarse sand brought in for that purpose. At still other points, timber cribbing was the only practical recourse to get across the low-lying soft spots. Rattlesnakes bothered the workers all along the route as they laid 250 to 300 rails a day.
The only rails available were second-hand 75- and 80-pound-per-foot rails. The ties placed underneath were of a wide variety of woods, generally 6 by 8 inches by 8 or 9 feet. About 60 percent were treated with creosote and about 75 percent were equipped with second-hand tie plates. In the interest of speed, the ties were laid as received, without regard to segregation of treated and untreated varieties. Ballast throughout the line was of pit-run gravel, including about 40 percent sand, with the ultimate goal of placing 6 to 8 inches of the material beneath the ties.
To make things worse, the work was started without spikes, bolts, tie plates, spring washers, or turnouts. More important, the workers had no earth-moving equipment; they had to rent two tractor bulldozers from a local contractor. Eventually, they were loaned some grading equipment, more bulldozers, and a number of trucks. A longer-than-normal rainy season, which at one point saw a downpour of over 9 inches in 30 hours, added to their difficulties.
Day after day, the workers pushed ahead, working from both ends of the line toward the middle. At one time, more than 25 different sections were being worked on simultaneously. The men worked without power tools such a pneumatic spike-drivers and pneumatic wrenches, all in high humidity and in temperatures in excess of 110 degrees.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement was the construction of 25 bridges. It wasn’t only the number of bridges, but the quality of work that was accomplished. High standards of both workmanship and materials had to be employed in spite of the fact that the majority of the workers had little or no experience in bridge construction or heavy timber work. The longest bridge on the line was built over the Calcosieu River and was 2,126 feet long, with a maximum height of 15 feet.
It did not help morale that, as the workers were completing one section of the railway, someone used explosives to blow up different sections of the railway, including a few bridges. The damage was repaired, bridges rebuilt, and the work continued.
Looking forward to finishing the track, the workers would then be trained to manage the railway using donated equipment – keeping track of locomotives coming and going, loading and unloading freight cars, obeying the tight protocols of train traffic, operating switching stations, depots, passengers, schedules, and emergencies. Additionally, they would learn to handle parts, rebuild locomotives, operate switching equipment, and become familiar with box cars, flat cars, gondola cars, tank cars, cabooses, refrigerated cars, and other equipment.
Finally, on July 11, 1942, a golden spike was driven into the final tie, marking the completion of the first Army-built, strictly military railroad in the history of the nation. It was built between Camp Claiborne and Camp Polk, Louisiana, by the members of the 711th Engineer Railway Operating Battalion, the first of its kind, formed and activated only one year before.
The Claiborne & Polk Railroad was the first of several railroad training facilities designed to imitate the conditions of railroads left behind by advancing combat troops fighting in foreign countries. By the end of WWII, there would be fifty Railway Operating Battalions and ten Railway Shop Battalions, all serving under the organizational banner of the Military Railway Services (MRS), which was part of the Army Transportation Corps. Each Battalion was sponsored by a civilian railroad company, which provided training and professional railroading personnel.
For example, the 713th Operating Battalion was under the guidance of the Santa Fe Railroad and trained in Clovis. Their first assignment was building the Alaskan railroad through Whitehorse Pass.
In December of 1942, shortly after they had finished the C&P, the 711th Battalion was sent to help rebuild, improve, and operate the State Railroad of Iran. They were joined by the 730th Railway Operating Battalion, and the 754th and 762nd Railway Shop Battalions. The State Railway would eventually handle more than four million long tons of freight, 16,000 Iranian military personnel, 14,000 Polish war refugees, 40,000 British troops, and 15,000 Russian ex-prisoners of war. The last American soldier railroaders left Iran in July, 1945.
Before the invasion of North Africa, American and British planners estimated that the Allied army would require thirty-four trains a day to move 5,000 tons a month from the ports at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. The 701st, the 715th, 719th, and 759th battalions handled it.
Three days after the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943, the 727th Railway Operating Battalion was working on the Sicilian railway, repairing and running the operations. The battalion would operate 1,371 miles of railway using 300 locomotives and 3,500 freight cars to carry an average of 3,400 tons of materials a day to supply the Seventh Army.
Three days after the Allies invaded Italy in 1943, the 703rd Railway Grand Division (which included several Operating Battalions and other units) landed in Naples to find the main railyard a total disaster, with burned ties, twisted cars, lengths of rail uprooted and twisted, and facilities bombed to the foundations. A week later, six trains were moving an average of 450 tons each. The MRS redeployed the units from North Africa to Italy, and was soon operating 2,478 miles of railway with an average of 250 military trains a day, not counting the civilian passenger and freight service. The railway also managed 3,154 troop trains and 812 hospital trains.
On July 2, 1944, 25 days after D-Day, the 729th Railway Operating Battalion arrived in Normandy and took over operations at the Cherbourg terminals. Assisted by French engine crews and volunteers, the American railroaders repaired roundhouses, shop buildings, engines, and rolling stock. Within three months, as the MRS advanced with the combat troops across Western Europe, trains were up and running all the way to Paris. The railroads transported an estimated 20,000 tons of material a day to support the European campaign.
When the war ended in 1945, the MRS in Europe had loaded and moved more than eighteen million tons of military freight, using 1,937 locomotives, 34,588 freight cars, and 25,150 miles of track.
Because of the MRS, U. S. troops operated railways in Alaska, the Yukon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Italy, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Iran, India, Burma, and Luzon. Their total strength on June 30, 1945, was 44,084 officers and men. The Army Transportation Corps had shipped overseas some 4,000 locomotives and 60,000 freight cars from the United States to support them.
If your business is in Kansas City, Missouri, and you would like to market your goods in Japan or Singapore, what’s the closest port on the Pacific Ocean you should use: Seattle? Portland? San Francisco? Los Angeles?
In 1900, Arthur E. Stilwell had the answer: Topolobampo, Mexico. According to Stilwell, the little town on the Sea of Cortez was closer to Kansas City than any western seaboard port by about 400 miles. If you could connect Kansas City to Topolobampo, not quite as far south as the tip of the California Baja Peninsula, you would have the shortest way to get your goods to the Pacific Ocean. From there, you could have shipping access to the vast markets in the Orient.
All that was needed was a railroad connecting the two towns. Stilwell, who was a railroad developer and entrepreneur, was looking for investors to establish a railroad route that went across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico. On May 1, 1900, he formed the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad to oversee its creation. When it was completed, the route would cover 1600 miles.
There were existing tracks in some portions of the route, like from Kansas City to Wichita, as well as parts from Wichita, across Oklahoma, to the Red River. Stilwell believed that if he could join those parts with new tracks laid between the Red River and Sweetwater, from Sweetwater to Fort Stockton and Alpine, and then connect to railroads going north of the Big Bend to the Texas border, he could get Mexico to build the tracks from the Topolobampo to the Texas/Mexico border.
In fact, he had already received a concession and subsidy in April, 1900, from President Porfirio Diaz of Mexico for the Ferrocarril Kansas City, Mexico y Oriente railroad to be built across Mexico. Again, there were existing segments of track that only needed to be connected.
The line between Sweetwater and San Angelo was completed in 1909, and then extended to Girvin in 1912. Added to the segments above the Red River, it gave the system 630 miles of the 1600 miles he needed. When sections were finished, local communities began using them and helped generate the revenue needed to continue. Unfortunately, the usage never produced enough revenue to cover the costs. Between 1914 and 1917, various parts of the KCM&O passed through a few owners, but the parent company did not show a profit until 1923, when an oil boom in the western counties of Texas brought a flood of train traffic. The profit was used to make the railroad attractive to another buyer and in 1928, the parent company was sold to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company.
The Santa Fe quickly sold the ownership in the Mexican segments, leased other segments, and then blended their tracks with other railways, including the Texas and New Orleans Railroad in 1930.
In the end, there was a lot of track laid, lots of branches added to the route, and lots of goods and people shipped around the Southwest, but Arthur Stilwell’s efforts never made it to Topolobampo.
If you want to see a graphic of the route, type Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway into your browser.
I was working on my novel when I discovered the KCM&O. My hero needed to get to the Palo Duro Canyon from the east, instead of coming west out of Amarillo, and I found that the KCM&O had a depot at the town of Arapahoe, about a hundred miles away in the Oklahoma Territory. That solved my problem.
Speaking of the novel, here’s an update.
In review, I submitted a new adult fiction novel manuscript to my publisher in mid-August. The editor finished reading it by the end of September and reported back with several severe comments about the story; basically, she didn’t like it and it was too long. I took out everything that wasn’t directly connected to the characters or the plot, which amounted to 30,000 words. I became disillusioned with everything left and retracted the submission in September. I tried again, took out another 5,000 words, was still not happy, so I put it in a drawer, expecting that I might return to it sometime in the future.
The future was about two days later. I couldn’t resist working on it, and ultimately rewrote it with a radical change—I changed it from a third-person-narrator to first-person-storyteller. It took me six weeks to make the rewrite, but I am encouraged at how much better it fit the story and the characters, and how much more fun it is to read. Beginning in November, I read the story out loud to myself, looking for flow, rhythm, and pace. That resulted in throwing out another 5,000 words, but the manuscript finally took on a polished form.
I resubmitted the manuscript to my publisher last week. It’s 40,000 words less than the first submission, while the story is simpler, more direct, and has a nice flow to it. I should hear before Christmas if it will be accepted.
There was a military secret that gave the Allies a significant advantage in winning World War II.
To give it a sense of scale, let me talk a little about the chemistry of crude oil. My simplistic explanation comes mainly from an article at AmericanHeritage.com.
When “up from the ground comes a bubbling crude” (go ahead, hum the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies), it isn’t good for much. Crude oil is a mixture of thousands of differently sized hydrocarbons and has significant impurities. There are straight-chain hydrocarbon combinations, with carbon atoms attached in a row; branched combinations, with carbons splitting off at one or more junction points, like tree branches; and others are cyclic, repeating various combinations of carbon atoms.
Summarizing, crude oil contains a series of progressively heavier compounds, ranging from light gasses (like natural gas) to heavy viscous tarry asphalts (like the oil used in asphalt and roofing tar), all related to the number of carbon atoms in the compound. A common way of describing the compounds is how they react when heat is applied, called their boiling point. That is, at what temperature does a particular hydrocarbon go from a liquid to a vapor?
For example, gasoline vaporizes at from 86 to 428 degrees Fahrenheit, while kerosene needs from 356 to 752 degrees, lubricants above 662 degrees, while waxes and asphalts vaporize at even higher temperatures.
This is all good if you want to separate crude oil into more refined products. Simplistically, you heat up crude oil to the gasoline temperature range, the gasoline hydrocarbons “boil off”, you collect them, cool them back to a liquid, and you have gasoline. From the same batch, you increase the temperature for kerosene, boil it off, collect and cool it, then increase the temperature of the batch again for lubricants, and then heat it even more for asphalts.
However, you can only get out whatever is already there, so, around 1900, a barrel of crude oil was typically about 60% kerosene, which was naturally abundant, with the remainder split evenly between fuel oil, gasoline, and other products. Any natural gas was considered a nuisance and was burned off, while gasoline, which was viewed as being too volatile to be much good, was often dumped in a nearby river.
That was the early days, when kerosene was used as a fuel for lamps. However, Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, and by 1910, there were 500,000 automobiles on the road burning gasoline. Between 1911 and 1912 alone, the sales of gasoline went up 80%. All the oil refiners were desperate for ways to get more gasoline from a barrel of crude.
Okay, hold that thought.
Another descriptor used for gasoline is its “octane” level. In a gasoline engine’s cylinder, a piston compresses a mixture of fuel vapors and air, which is then ignited by a spark from a spark plug. The resulting explosion pushes the piston back out again, sending power through a drive train that eventually turns the wheels. If there’s not enough octane in the gasoline, the compression alone is enough to ignite the vapor prematurely, before the piston has gotten to its greatest height in the piston, and there are then two explosions, one by compression and one by the spark plug.
This is a big problem for a gasoline engine and will eventually, as you might imagine, cause it to break itself. This double explosion is called “knocking”. I remember listening to a car engine that had a “knocking” sound. Adjusting the timing belt usually solved the problem.
It was decided to give any particular combination of gasoline an octane number that varied from 0 (which described straight-chain n-heptane, which produced knocking in virtually any engine) and 100, which described a combination that was the least knock-prone). So, when you fill up next time and notice that the gas pump offers you gasoline with different octane numbers (84, 87, 91, for example), you should use the one recommended for your vehicle because the engine has been designed and tuned for that particular fuel mix to maximize the height of the piston in the cylinder before the vapor is ignited.
For all of you who own diesel pickups or RVs, the octane rating for diesel is 20 to 40, which explodes under compression easy enough that you don’t even need a spark plug for ignition. Diesel is also much less likely to catch fire, which is why diesel is used on ships and trains.
Okay, back to history.
By the end of the 1920s, after a series of advances in the refinement of crude oil, typical gasoline yields were higher than 40 percent and with a base octane rating of 60. The major advance was the development of “cracking”, which broke up higher combinations of carbon atoms into simpler combinations. They then added stuff to it to bring the octane rating up into the 70 range. One of the additives they used was lead.
In 1922, a young Frenchman named Eugene Houdry was a mechanical engineer in France. While visiting the United States, he became fascinated with race car driving. Returning home, he bought his own Bugatti and drove it around in his free time. France, at that time, had no oil reserves; they got their crude from Iraq. Houdry saw a demonstration of a sample of local coal that had been passed through a catalyst to produce a high-octane gasoline. When he put it in his Bugatti, it ran like a bat out of hell. Houdry smelled not only a high-grade gasoline from the process, but also high-grade money: France had a lot of coal, so Houdry formed a company to industrialize the process that produced the gasoline.
To make a long story short, the gasoline-from-coal business floundered, but Houdry transformed his company from being a producer of gasoline to that of being a developer of the catalyst used in the process, as well as owner of the process itself. After considerable effort, he found itself a partner, Sun Oil Company, in America to help test out the process that used his catalyst.
It took Houdry several iterations over the next decade to find the perfect catalyst, but by 1937, received a patent number 2,078,945 for an aluminasulfate catalyst that had the color of well-chewed chewing gum and was extruded in the shape of macaroni. With more development, he and his partners built a processing unit for Sun Oil that took the leftover sludge at the bottom of a distillation tower and produced an 81-octane gasoline, and that was without any additives, at all. Using a catalyst in combination with “cracking” revolutionized the petroleum industry.
Why is all this important?
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and then went to war with Britain, the most common fuel used in fighter planes and bombers was 87-octane gasoline. When America started the lend-lease program, and then joined the war, it was already using 100-octane aviation fuel in its aircraft. It had gotten there by repeatedly using the Houdry process. By the time America introduced the P-51 fighter, it was using 130-octane gasoline. Both the process and the fuel itself had been declared military secrets.
When the British used 100-octane aviation fuel in their Spitfires and Halifaxes, it made the planes 34 miles per hour faster at 10,000 feet. They were now faster than the Luftwaffe, surprising the Germans to no end. Additionally, the improvement in the quality of fuel produced by the Houdry process made the need to replace engines decrease from every 500 hours of operation to 1000 hours of operation, and reduced the cost of British aircraft by 300 Pounds Sterling. For a four-engine bomber, that was a significant cost reduction.
The Germans, the Japanese, and the Russians, never discovered that America and Eugene Houdry had re-invented gasoline to help win the war. Houdry was satisfied with his contribution to the war effort and in 1950, formed a company to reduce automobile emissions that he believed were causing an increase in lung cancer. He invented the first catalytic converter, but was too far ahead of his time to make a profit from it.
He died in 1962.
I’m a fan of Tom Hanks. I’ve seen most of his films and I just love the actor. His ability to make his characters believable and authentic is unsurpassed. Lately, I’ve been watching the movie, News of the World. It’s the story of Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the owner of a newspaper printing business in San Antonio. He left to fight in the Civil War, and while he was gone, his beloved wife died of cholera. Set adrift by losing both his wife and his printing business, as well as the atrocities he witnessed in the war, he now rides town to town reading selections from local and national newspapers to audiences who don’t have the time to read or cannot read for themselves.
Traveling after a reading in Wichita Falls, Texas, Kidd finds a young German girl who was kidnapped several years before by the Kiowa, speaks no English, and is being returned to her extended family in Castroville, a town near San Antonio. The man taking her was hung by vigilantes, so it falls to Kidd to take her on to her family. The situation forces him to confront his losses, as well as the emptiness in his life that he has refused to fill.
I’ve watched the film several times, absorbed with how life in 1870 is authentically and brutally portrayed. It’s also fun to recognize the background in the various scenes because the film was shot on a movie ranch south of Santa Fe. It was filmed, in fact, where the recent accidental shooting of a cinematographer occurred.
There is an incident in the film that takes place in “Erath County” and concerns the deplorable conditions of an encampment of buffalo hunters who kill buffalo, skin off the hides, bundle them, and then ship them back east to the hide markets. Erath County exists, roughly between Ft. Worth and San Antonio, while the encampment is similar to a historical encampment that was located farther northwest from Erath County, a hundred miles or so east of Lubbock, near the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River.
There were nominally three great regions of buffalo: the northern herds north of the Platte River in Nebraska, the central herds in Kansas, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado, and the great southern herds in eastern New Mexico, Texas, and western Oklahoma. They ranged outside those areas, from Mexico to Canada, but the majority were found on the Great Plains. They numbered between 70 and 80 million at the beginning of the 19th century, but by the beginning of the 20th century, only a few hundred remained.
Why were so many animals killed in such a short time?
I thought it was linked to the increased access that railroads gave to the Great Plains. There’s an iconic painting showing gunmen on top of train cars, shooting buffalo at their leisure, and I remember the boast of one shooter who had killed a thousand in a single day. There was also the desire of railroad owners to keep the herds away from the tracks. The dividing of the buffalo habitat by the railroads and the towns that followed them, caused considerable losses from the disruption of migration routes, as did the prevalent use of barbed wire to section off property. And it’s probably true that the Army decimated the buffalo at every turn so that the Plains Indians would lose their primary source of living.
I’m not sure what the numbers are in each of those cases, but I found another reason that has some frightening numbers when it comes to the disappearance of the buffalo.
In 1871, an English firm using buffalo hides to produce winter coats, robes, and rugs wanted to develop new processes for handling hides. They ordered 500 hides from Kansas for experimentation. More economical ways to tan hides were developed, and one firm in Philadelphia ordered 2000 hides, paying $3.50 each. Other tanneries, including some in England and Germany, began regular orders.
Money was a big motivator and the big hunt was on. It consumed Kansas first and then spilled over into southern Nebraska and eastern Colorado. Within three years, aided by new railroad lines, hunters and shooters had destroyed the central herds for their hides. In 1873, with some of the Indian tribes being sent to reservations, buffalo hunters seized the opportunity to enter the Texas Panhandle. By the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874, there may have been as many as fifty buffalo hunting outfits working in the Panhandle.
Two years later, in 1876, a man named Charles Rath joined with a succession of different traders to increase his mercantile operation based in Dodge City, Kansas. He had, by the way, provided the Adobe Walls trading post with equipment and supplies in 1874, eight weeks before the attack. He established other trading centers in Texas, then, following the burgeoning hide business, he moved from Dodge City to a small town that he himself had established, named Rath City, a few miles below the Brazos River. This sounds like the encampment in the Tom Hanks movie.
At its height in the winter of 1877-78, Rath City “consisted of some half a dozen adobe and cedar buildings…[that included] the main store, a magazine house, [Jim] Hopkins restaurant and hotel, George Aiken’s saloon and dance hall, Smokey Thompson’s wagon-yard, Charlie Sing’s laundry,…a barber shop and a blacksmith shop.”
It became well known that next to owning a cattle ranch, buffalo hunting was the most profitable enterprise on the frontier. Perhaps as many as 4,000 men (hunters, skinners, buyers, teamsters) sought hides across the West Texas country, many of them trading at Rath City when they came in to buy supplies. Charles Rath and his partners worked to keep prices low ($2.00 per bull hide, less for female hides) and in the two-month period from December 1877 through January 1878, bought and sold perhaps 20,000 hides. Before the place shut down in 1879, some 1.1 million hides had passed through the town, most handled by Rath’s store. Considering the number of other “hide towns” that had been created, included Buffalo Gap south of Abilene, Deep Creek at modern Snyder, and even Fort Concho, in present day San Angelo, buffalo hunting was no incidental occupation by a few hunters—it was an aggressive industry managed for profit that was responsible for the slaughter of millions of buffalo.
By 1877, Dodge City was on its way to becoming a major shipping point for moving cattle to northern markets, and the buffalo-hide business was becoming less important. Different markets were developed and centralized distribution centers were changed, but it was mainly the decrease in the number of buffalo available to be killed that put the industry on the decline.
In early February of 1877, an increasing number of Comanche Indians escaped the reservations in Oklahoma and returned to the Palo Duro canyonlands and the Llano Estacado of Texas. Several attacks took place, destroying camp equipment, stealing horses and mules, and killing the hated hunters, and then escalated into raids in the Rolling Plains area around the Wichita, Pease, Brazos, and Concho rivers. By 1878, it was not safe for hunters on the prairie, or even in Rath City. For most hide men, the big hunt was over.
With the aggressive settlement of the Texas Panhandle and the creation of large cattle ranches, the decade after 1870 decreased the herds to the point that they could never recover.
This information was mostly sourced from The Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877, by Paul H. Carlson, 2003.
A friend and I planned on playing a WWII board game about the Battle of the Bulge. After the golf course closed for the winter, we’d used our regular golfing time to switch over and play a game that covered December 16 to January 15, 1944-45.
My personal reason for playing the game is that my dad was in Bastogne in 1944 when the Offensive began. He didn’t leave Bastogne until December 19 when the Allies realized they were seeing a full-blown attack by the German Army to take control of Belgium. My dad’s unit was a Signal Aircraft Warning squadron with a truck-based radar unit and since the radar was considered classified, he was ordered to keep it from being captured by the Germans. He and his unit moved ten miles away on the 19th, then twenty more miles away on the 22nd, and twenty more miles on the 23rd, settling in Philippeville, Belgium, until mid-January, after the Allies had successfully pushed the Germans backwards.
However, after watching YouTube videos of others playing the game, my friend figured out that our particular board game was based on a book by an eminent WWII historian, uses a play-board that is about five feet by six feet, uses a few hundred game pieces, has a twenty-page introduction manual, a twenty-page players’ manual, a huge guide to player strategies, and some pretty complex rules.
The time period for each “move” by a player covers six hours of historical time during the battle, but one “move” takes about two hours of clock time to complete. That is, if we (the Allies) made a strategic move using our game pieces, then the rules require updating the German pieces on the board (according to history) takes as long as two hours per move. We would then make another move.
If you consider that the game has 4 mutual moves per 24-hour historical cycle, for 30 historical days, taking about two clock hours per move, we could spend 240 hours to play one game. Playing only a couple of hours every week, it would take us a couple of years to finish. That didn’t seem reasonable, so my friend ordered another Battle of the Bulge game that takes a total of 2 hours to play. That’s more like what we wanted and is much more at my level.
Before realizing this, I had ordered the history book on which the game was based, planning on reading the book before playing the game. I found it to be about two inches thick, with 712 pages. I am sure that it has a great deal of information that I would like to know, but it might take the winter just to read it.
I decided not to read it, even with it being well-written and having information I wanted to know. I hate not reading books after having spent the money to buy them, and, in this instance, would certainly have learned many good details about the Battle of the Bulge. I’d like to visit Bastogne someday and reading the book would have given me an insider’s knowledge for my trip. However, playing the game was supposed to be fun and spending a significant part of my remaining life doing so wouldn’t be any fun at all.
Giving myself permission to not read the one book, I admitted to myself that I had a number of books in my office that I would never read, books that I’ve read once that I wouldn’t read again, and other books whose next use would be for selling at a garage sale after my death. Meanwhile, I had five stacks of to-be-read books, from five to twelve books each, sitting in various places throughout my house.
In a burst of honesty, I now have a table with more than 120 books that I am taking to my local library. They have a volunteer-led bookstore that sells donated used books. By consolidating the empty shelf space, I was able to fit in my other books.
I do feel bad. Writers are supposed to have immense libraries. Those bastions of literary words are meant to lead to inspiration, I think. In this regard, I’m rather weak. I have a lot of interests and reading is only one of them. Being surrounded by unread books makes me feel guilty, not inspired.
One benefit from my soul cleansing is that I now have a better idea of the books I have and what seems to be relevant to me. I have three shelves of books about New Mexico and the Southwest; one half-shelf about cowboys and frontier explorers; one shelf that holds large format books, pertaining mostly to history (and lighthouses; I like lighthouses); three shelves about World War II; one half-shelf about witchcraft in the Southwest, while the other half holds travel books. I have two shelves of writing books, four of novels, and one dedicated to a collection of books by Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Larry McMurtry. Lastly, I have one shelf that holds books about woodcraft, guitar making, and furniture making.
I’m sure that I’m giving away important books that would benefit me. On the other hand, they would only benefit me if I read them, so honesty is sometimes best used to improve the situation, even at the cost of giving away good books. I hope other people will enjoy them.
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.