Ever listen to a discussion about how long we’ll be wearing masks in public, doing social distancing, or obeying periods of quarantine? We are certainly a pitiful people to have to suffer such trials and tribulations.
In July of 1942, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and launched his invasion of Russia with a three-prong attack. The top line of offense went north toward Leningrad, the middle line was pointed east towards Moscow, and the bottom line of offense headed for Stalingrad and the Crimea.
Hitler’s armies had previously stormed across the border with Poland, crashing through Slovakia, Romania, and the Ukraine. With a policy of focused racial hatred, Jews all over Eastern Europe were divested of their property, stripped of their rights, and driven into exile from towns where their families had lived for hundreds of years.
Now, with the goal of invading and occupying Russia, the rush of the Germany Army was accompanied by even more brutal persecution of Jews and other nationalities by the Gestapo. Jewish settlements were devastated, whole populations of towns were captured and carried off to concentration camps or extermination camps, and many people were slaughtered where they lived.
A town near the Ukraine/Romania border, named Korolowka, was in the path of Hitler’s war machine and the Jews living there fled into larger cities or into hiding places scattered around the countryside. In the fall of 1942, a number of families committed to remain together and sought out a nearby underground cave system, a well-known location named Verteba, where they would crawl deep into the caves and hide for the winter when Verteba was closed to the public. In the spring, they would search for another hiding place.
With members of the families periodically stealing out to bring back sacks of potatoes, grain, flour, kerosene, matches, candles, water, and whatever else they could pilfer or buy on the black market, it was a constant state of survival for the thirty or so Jews.
They hid in the darkness of the cave system for about 150 days.
In the spring of 1943, a few members were discovered and captured by the Gestapo. Those remaining in the cave escaped by way of a secret outlet they had dug during their confinement. Temporarily hiding in the attic of their old houses, in barns, or in other refuges in town, they were eventually led by a hunter to a sinkhole that formed the entrance to another cave system, locally called The Priest’s Grotto because it lay in the field of a local priest. It was not a publicly known or used cave system; later it would be determined to be the ninth largest cave system in the world.
But it was not spacious and roomy like a Carlsbad Caverns. It was a labyrinth of narrow passageways wandering throughout a hollowed-out layer of limestone. However, the Jews discovered small sinks of water formed by internal springs, as well as circulating air currents that allowed small fires to be lit for cooking. It was quite an improvement over Verteba.
Again expecting members of the families to periodically sneak out to find food, firewood, blankets, and other necessities, Esther and Zeida Stermer, their six children, four relatives, and twenty-six other Jews, on May 5, 1943, fled to the Priest’s Grotto to escape the certainty of the horrors of the Gestapo, the Russians, and the Ukranian police.
Feeling their way down in the darkness, the families lowered themselves through the narrow opening to the chambers below. It would be the last time for many of them to see the sky for nearly a year.
In fact, the majority of that community would live in hiding for 344 days.
Seventy feet below the surface, in total darkness, at a constant temperature of fifty degrees, these thirty-eight individuals lived in a state of near hibernation. They could not tell day from night and their bodies adjusted until they slept eighteen to twenty-two hours at a time, lying on wooden planks scavenged from above, and stayed awake only to perform the very basic needs of survival – cooking, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, and trying to make their situation more tolerable.
The youngest girl was three; several women were elderly.
Close to a year after they had descended, a message dropped in a bottle down the entrance shaft by a friend, the thirty-eight survivors learned that the Germans had left for good, and, on April 12, 1944, each of them made the arduous climb out the entrance – jaundiced, weak, their skin covered in mud, about two-thirds of their entry weight, blinded by the sun.
They were no longer interested in returning to their town. They made their way through temporary refugee camps in Germany, then fled to the United States. Some of them and their children now live in New York City, Florida, and Canada. To hear more of the details of their story and to read the reasons that they gave for their ability to have survived such a remarkable situation, read The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola.
Perhaps instead of talking about our extraordinary troubles, we should talk about our opportunities to show extraordinary courage.
My question is not “what” we remember of historical events and people, but “how” we remember them.
There is a sculpture made by Marie Uchytilova that overlooks where a small village in Czechoslovakia used to be. The sculpture is comprised of 82 bronze statues of children (42 girls and 40 boys) aged 1 to 16 who were gassed to death in the Chelmo extermination camp in 1942. The sculpture was created so people would remember.
The village of Lidice was exterminated in reprisal for the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi General who was the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (the area known as Czechoslovakia before Hitler invaded in 1939). Heydrich later died of wounds suffered in the attempt (he might have survived, but he refused to be operated on by non-Germans). The two men involved in the assassination attempt escaped. They had been trained in England and had parachuted into the area as part of an Allied undercover operation.
In retaliation for the act, the village of Lidice was chosen as an example of Nazi ferocity and as a demonstration of the loyalty that the Third Reich required, as well as the punishment for disobedience. The whole population of the village (192 men, 60 women, and 88 children) were killed: the men by being stood up against a wall of mattresses (to prevent ricochets) and shooting them; the women by dying in concentration camps where they were forced to work in leather processing, road building, textile and ammunition factories; and the children by a few being given to German families to be “Germanized” while the rest were gassed inside poison gas vans.
The village was set on fire and the remains of buildings destroyed by explosives. All the animals in the village – pets and farm animals – were slaughtered. Even people buried in the cemetery were dug up, looted for gold fillings and jewelry, and destroyed. A 100-strong German work party removed all visible remains of the village, re-routed the stream running through it, and blocked the roads in and out. The area was then covered with topsoil and planted with crops.
You can read more of the appalling details of the massacre on-line, but my focus is that the extermination of Lidice was used as propaganda by the Third Reich. In short, they bragged about it. They had demonstrated that not only did they have the power to punish a specific group of people, but that they could, in fact, erase the memory of those people – who they were, how they had lived, where they had lived, and even the children who were to inherit those memories.
They could “cancel” their existence.
I’d like to visit the sculpture. I would like to look into the faces of those children and imagine what happened when someone with power decided to remove a village from history. The Nazis wanted to show dominance and jurisdiction and purpose and irrefutable control. They wanted to show that they, as divinely ordained rulers, could choose to erase people.
I’d like to think that Americans have instituted multiple ways (the “how”) of remembering our history. Books, mainly, but with those in hand, our public education system. That is, we have a funded system to tell our children stories about America, formally and informally, and thus convey the values of our nation. We have films and documentaries and pictures and all sorts of media. We have libraries, museums, battlefields, national parks, and other commemorative places where we keep and retell stories of ourselves as a people and as a nation. We have people who are sanctioned to pass our history on: it should be parents but there’s a lack of opportunity, lack of ability, lack of knowledge, lack of tools, and lack of breadth; we make up for it by having teachers at the various levels of our education, but there is little control of the context of how and what history is presented; we have docents and lecturers and guides and other people that give time and effort to repeat our stories; and then there are people who assume more casual roles of passers-of-history, like family.
But somebody has to be interested in passing on our history and that’s probably where we are the most vulnerable. We have to be interested in history to make history interesting so that people will remember it, and we have to be informed enough about our history to get it right.
In our current political and cultural climate, our society is paying the price for letting go our history lessons. Too many people are out of balance because they don’t know the facts of our nation’s history and certainly not the context of that history in the rest of the world. Readily searching for pieces of history that can be judged as irrelevant or non-applicable, they seek to redesign our history to suit their own needs. They want to create a context that makes themselves seem right and righteous at the same time.
Americans need to be strong and confident enough to confront ourselves with honesty, to understand who we are and who we were, good and bad and usually both, and to stop looking for facts that we don’t want. If we can see who we were, we can work at becoming who we need to be.
I learned a lot of history in the writing of Teddy’s War, and I was continually surprised by real facts. I’m trying harder to learn more and shout less.
If you want to see some of what I learned, go to DonaldWillerton.com and order the book.
I bought a copy of my new book, Teddy’s War, from an on-line bookstore! The book exists, it looks good, and anybody can buy it with a credit card. I’ve been working towards this a long time and feel the victory of the moment.
Getting to this point was a little bumpy. The first printing of the book had a publisher’s error in it: a spurious blank page showed up two-thirds of the way through the book. All the words were there so the story was not affected, but following a paragraph at the bottom of one page, the next page had nothing but the header at the top and the page number at the bottom. The text continued on the following page as if nothing had happened.
I won’t offer a book for sale with an error like that.
It took another couple of weeks, but a second printing corrected the error. The publisher was very kind, never questioned that it was his mistake, and immediately ordered a new printing. Woohoo!
I negotiated several copies to be offered through the Los Alamos Historical Museum Book Shop, which is a few minutes from my house, and they placed it with their other books on display and then added it to their on-line store. The Amazon price will be a typical $21.95, but the Museum, as it is a small operation, bumped it to $25.00. After adding tax and mailing it Priority Mail through the Post Office, it costs a little more than $40. That’s more than I expected or wanted, but it is not inappropriate. Using Priority Mail is the big increase, but it is the only option the Shop currently offers.
I am not one to gripe; I am a fortunate author. The Museum Shop is offering my new book right now and that’s a big thing in the age of COVID-19. National distributors, booksellers and publishers are all having a terrible time adjusting to the current book business climate and it has resulted in bookstores suffering greatly. I’m extremely thankful to have a local outlet with an on-line operation. If the cost is too high for an individual, maybe people can buy one together and share the cost. For people who can walk into the museum, the cost is cheaper, but, as one might guess, the museum and book shop are closed because of the virus. It may open by the end of August, but don’t hold your breath, even if you have a mask on.
I see that the date of Amazon offering my book has changed to December 1, so I’m feeling even better.
Meanwhile, I have a number of people reading my author copies and I’ll report back on any reviews or comments that I receive. If anyone wants a preview of Teddy’s War, go to DonaldWillerton.com and go to the book section. You’ll find the first two chapters.
In the past, I’ve asked readers to consider writing a review on the Amazon page. I’m changing my strategy and am now asking people who like the book to show it, reference it, or talk about it on any social media, like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and then mention my website, DonaldWillerton.com. Book reviews are good and I use them all the time, but it means that the shopper is already looking at the book site. I need to get people to the book site first, then have them read the reviews. If told to go to my website, they’ll find a button to order the book from the Museum Shop, as well as a button for Amazon, if they want to pre-order. I’ll make sure that the website always has the latest information.
To help with that strategy, I created bookmarks with all of my website offerings, plus the web address, and included it with each book.
My website also offers the first two chapters of my other published books. I want to introduce readers to the other books I have written. By the way, the book that has created the most notice from readers and buyers is Smoke Dreams, my first novel. If you’re interested in Comanches, Charlie Goodnight, Texas history, or restoring old houses, this is an extraordinary way of reading about them.
That’s my status for the moment. It’s taken four months to go from the final edit to having a publicly-bought copy of Teddy’s War in my hands. I missed the anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, but I’m now up and running for the anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific.
I once told my editor that “I could not not write.” The implication was that I was a driven contributor of words to society, a dedicated writer of truth, and that churning out words was an inseparable part of my life.
I probably said that to him because I had heard someone else say it and saying it sounded noble: a true writer is one who writes to live and lives to write! Constantly at their craft, never straying from trying to achieve the ultimate novel or short story or poem, always with the nose to grindstone. I’ve read several stories about writers and the standard by which all writers are compared is the writer who is at the mercy of their pen, their typewriter, their keyboard, or their muse. They spend their lives constantly scribbling tiny words on scraps of paper throughout the day. They rise early to pour out their thoughts while others still sleep. They have words bursting from their inner spirits, they see visions that must be written down, they hear voices that must be obeyed.
Uh-oh. For the last several months, in the era of COVID-19, all I’ve heard was my Lazy-Boy recliner calling me.
I’m not lazy, nor undisciplined. I usually produce a book a year and I’m about to receive a box of the first 50 copies of my twelfth novel, which took a year of focus to write. My writing has always been prompted more by creativity than by goals, routine, or guilt, and if my creativity is not in production mode, neither are my fingers.
I thought it would be different with the forced isolation associated with the pandemic. I thought that having more than my usual amount of uninterrupted time would be an opportunity that would cause my diligence to come forth, my passion to rise, a clarion call to be heard, and I would sit for hours as my fingers flew across the keys.
It didn’t happen. In fact, it’s been the opposite, and I don’t quite understand why.
The first month was okay. I dredged up an ill-written novel from my virtual desk drawer, rewrote it, made it better, and was happy in my achievement. The second month was good: I identified a possible sequel to my new novel, found some good history books describing the time period I was interested in, and spend hours thinking of possible plots and characters. It was time well-spent.
The third month was a gentle slide into a lot of sitting and thinking of all that I wasn’t doing, and by the fourth month I had settled into watching old movies (You’ve Got Mail – best movie ever). Now I’m spending my time working on the plumbing under my house and making sure the birdfeeder is full. I don’t have the faintest urge to write.
For having a record of enjoying my writing, I don’t understand why I’m suddenly literarily inert. Maybe I’m experiencing depression, or that I’ve finally had too much time alone, or that I’m feeling fat because of irresistible snacks. Maybe I’m suffering from mask fatigue. I may be feeling adrift because of the lack of socialization (I truly hated surrendering my routine of having lunch with friends), or maybe the cause is a general lack of goals, measures, structures, communities, and other things that I usually manage on a day-to-day basis.
It could be that isolation took away all the people that I usually blame for being unproductive and I’ve been left standing naked in the snow. Maybe I’m just tired of waiting, waiting, waiting.
I’ve also considered that I’m experiencing latent anger that’s keeping me distracted and uneasy. I haven’t ruled that one out, yet. There’s a lot to be angry about these days and a lot of it concerns my “values”, which really ticks me off. There’s nothing like anger to squash creativity.
I’m working to understand my feelings and am finding myself getting more interested in using words to express my situation. Our culture assumes that each of us (at least at my age) understand what we feel and why we feel it. That’s baloney. I think we’re surprised all the time by our feelings.
Not understanding my innards and being surprised, as well, has given my situation a tinge of intrigue, and that’s kicking my creativity back into play. My fingers may not be typing away, but my ears are listening, my eyes are watching, my heart is looking for resonance, and my brain is slowly accumulating patterns of behavior that reveal me to be different from who I think I am. I’m also listening and watching the people around me and they’re getting more interesting, too. Being solitary is not easy, even for introverts, so people developing coping skills is fun to watch.
I know of at least two writers’ groups that have responded to the isolation and no-meetings restrictions by moving to electronic formats. Groups sign onto ZOOM and talk about their writing, making it look like everybody is excited and productive; electronic newsletters are substituting for face-to-face conversations; someone else is hosting online writing challenges to prompt people to keep typing. It seems like people are afraid that if they stop writing, they’ll never go back. It may be more the fear that if they stop contact with others, they’ll be forgotten.
I think I’ll wait for real meetings to begin again. It seems like listening, watching, and storing up is my role for the moment.
I am announcing that my website, DonaldWillerton.com, now has a feature that allows reading the first two chapters of each book that I’ve written and published, including Teddy’s War, which won’t be available for some weeks.
I developed this feature to encourage people to read my books. Think of it as a test drive. For the Mogi Franklin mysteries, you can see the historical drama created in the first chapter, then typically see how it impacts the modern-day situation of young Mogi and his sister, Jennifer, in the second chapter. For the adult books, Teddy’s War, Smoke Dreams, and The King of Trash, you can be swept up in the horrors and heroism of WWII, experience the thoughts of an ancient spirit-infused Victorian mansion, and discover a plausible way to clean up the plastic in the oceans. Each will introduce you to a story line that I believe you’ll want to continue.
With the feature of previewing the books, you can direct members of the middle-grade crowd to the mystery books to judge their interest without having to risk buying a book they won’t read. For readers who have already read one or more, they can see the story lines of the other tales.
Let me also recommend that you direct older people to the Mogi books. Being sixty-nine next month, I’m in a perfect position to say that the middle grade mysteries can be vastly entertaining to the sixty and older crowd, especially if they have lived in the Southwest or have traveled in the Southwest. Each book’s mystery takes place in a real location in the Southwest, and the descriptions of the history, geography, and cultures are authentic. When a lot of your time is spent in memories, a little adventure in the past is a good thing.
For transparency, I have to mention that The Captain’s Chest is not located in the Southwest. It takes place on the island of St. John’s in the Caribbean, with Mogi and Jennifer on a semi-vacation. This story was the result of my talking to a group of third graders in Houston who wanted nothing to do with an author who had not written about pirates. The Southwest has a lot of interesting characters, but there aren’t a lot of pirates. Thus this book was created, dealing with Blackbeard, himself, as he plunders a Dutch sailing ship that leads to the Dutch Captain hiding his chest, which, of course, becomes a central theme for my enthusiastic teenagers.
My website is still undergoing changes, but developing the feature to preview the first two chapters of every book is a good thing. Check it out. You might be surprised how wide ranging the topics are and how interesting I’ve made them. Also, if you have comments or suggestions about how the website can be improved, send me a response through this blog.
And, as always, if you like what you see, if you like what you read, tell other people to check out the website, as well.
I was going through the collection of paper money that my dad brought back from Europe after World War II. Most of the bills are dated between 1917 and 1924, and includes currency from France, England, Belgium, Germany, and Poland. Only a few are from the war years, and I found only one that includes a swastika.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed to end World War I, and it was brutal in what it expected from Germany. It divided up land, reset boundaries, gave away industries, set the maximum size of any future Germany army, and had a lengthy list of other demands, most of which were aimed at making sure that Germany could never again have the military, industrial, or economic strength to wage another war.
The Allies also demanded that Germany pay for the war. In April, 1921, the reparations bill was assessed at $33 billion, which was a staggering sum at the time. Walther Rathenau had become Minister of Reconstruction and it was his unlucky job to find a way for Germany to make the payments.
Unfortunately, in June 1922, Rathenau was assassinated. The day he died, the Mark fell to 300 per U.S. dollar. A month later, when the first reparation payments were due, it had fallen to 500 per dollar. By late October, 1922, when the second payments were due, it had collapsed to 4500 per dollar.
By April, 1923, inflation had become hyperinflation and by November, it took twelve trillion German Marks to buy a U.S. dollar. In 1921 there were 120 billion Marks in circulation; Two years later, there were nearly five hundred million trillion Marks in circulation.
The cost of an egg was five hundred thousand million times more that it had been in 1918. A five hundred million Mark note (pictured above, along with a million Mark note, a 50 Mark note, and 10 pfennige note) might buy a loaf of bread. People were known to carry their money in wheelbarrows, looking to exchange their notes for higher denominations, and it was not unusual to find people burning their bills in furnaces to heat their houses.
Another feature of the era was that since most of the centralized government of German had been dis-empowered significantly, major cities printed their own currency. In the bills in the picture (there are two pictures on the website that show 4 bills), two were printed in Berlin in 1923, one in Munich in 1920, and I can’t make out where the 10 pfennige (that’s a penny; the note is the equivalent of a dime) was printed in 1917.
The point is, Germany after World War I felt that the only recourse to increasing the economy was to print more money. It wasn’t until the Weimar government appointed a Commissioner of Currency in 1923 that things got better. He introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, with an exchange rate of one trillion old Marks to one new Rentenmark, declared it the national currency, and then had it guaranteed by the government. The hyperinflation disappeared very rapidly, within months, and Germany was brought into a workable system.
Most of this information comes from Germany, Memories of a Nation, by Neil McGregor, printed in 2014.
Early last week, I received the “proof “of my book from my publisher, but it came in pdf format rather than the usual printed copy. A pdf is an electronic version of my book that, when viewed on an electronic screen, appears exactly like the printed book will look; think reading something on a Kindle, a Nook, or a tablet. It’s a standard format and most electronic devices will read it with no problem. A “proof” is the first version of a book produced by a professional book printing business that is meant to be reviewed by the author for the purpose of making sure everything is correct before more copies are printed.
In the past, I’ve received printed copies of the proofs my books that came directly from the printer. I went through each one, word by word, marking the changes or corrections needed and then typing them into a Word file. It was cumbersome because I have to record the page number and paragraph number, and then have to write “change such and such to read like this:”, followed by the different words that I wanted. When finished, I emailed the corrections file to my publisher and he makes the changes to the printer’s file.
No matter the format, the proof typically will have several errors introduced by converting the text from a Word format into a ready-to-print format. My publisher will insert the text file (provided by my editor) into his book composition software (there are several packages; I don’t know which one he uses). He then sets the different font styles, adds the chapter headings, page alignment, page numbers, headers, footers, page breaks, different margins for the spine side of the page versus the outside of the page, etc.; adds the beginning pages (the title page, the copyright page, the dedication page, blank pages); adds the end pages, if any (the author’s biographical note, for example); and then prepares the cover in a different file. Those two files – the text and the cover – will be sent to the professional printer who is producing the book.
My proof had about thirty or so errors – lack of paragraph indents, missed spaces, too many spaces, incorrect chapter headings, italics used in the wrong places, incorrect punctuation marks, and others. Overwhelmingly, the errors are related to transcription and formatting.
Only two or three concerned words or sentences that I chose to replace or rewrite. I’ve written before about giving up my liberties to do wordsmithing before this point in the process, but sometimes I don’t see problems until I’m reading my words in a book format. I want to make the book to be absolutely the best book that I can, so I make the changes, anyway. My publisher and editor understand and have learned to expect a certain small number of changes that I cannot resist making.
I went through the file twice (which took a lot of effort; the finished book has 305 pages), indicated the corrections using a “notes” feature of the pdf reader (which allowed me to append a text message with the changes to a specific location in the pdf file itself. It’s like an electronic Post-It note.), and then returned the file to the publisher. I’m hoping to see the corrected pdf, and maybe even a printed copy of the book, sometime this week.
At which time, I will celebrate.
Unfortunately, I then get to sit around being irritated. I will have a physical book in my hands but even I won’t be able to buy a copy from Amazon until November. I wrote about this in a blog a few weeks ago; it’s no surprise, but it’s no less irritating.
I’m looking into buying several of my books from my publisher at a discounted price and offering them through my website. I don’t want to do it. I would have to put in a lot of money up front, hold a certain level of physical books at my house, take orders over the phone or through email, accept credit cards over the phone, provide receipts, package the books, mail them, and then pay county and state Gross Receipts taxes. I’d probably have to also get a town business license.
It would be better to find a business that already sells things and get them to sell my book, giving them a cut of the revenue. Regular bookstores (my town doesn’t have one anyway) don’t do that sort of business for the same reasons they don’t sell self-published books. I don’t currently know a local business that would do it, but I’m looking; I’ve got one good lead that I will follow as soon as I have a printed copy to show them. It may also be that my publisher would sell individual copies, but they haven’t done so in the past.
I’m going to find a way to do it. It’s a shame to hold an incredibly timely book in my hands that no one can buy for six months.
Today is the 75th Anniversary of the discovery and liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp a few miles outside of Munich, Germany. Begun in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, it would terrorize over 200,000 Jews, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Gypsies, Slavs, disabled men, women, and children, political leaders, and more than 3,000 Catholic Priests during its twelve-year existence. More than 40,000 would die from outright murder, starvation, sickness, beatings, or other brutalities. When it was found, the German SS had abandoned the facility and left more than 32,000 sick and starving prisoners behind. The US Seventh Army assumed responsibility for the camp, treating the sick and starving prisoners until they were able to leave.
We should never forget.
I read a book this week about the German submarines (called U-boats, short for Unterseeboot) in the North Atlantic that were disrupting the shipping of food, fuel, and supplies from the United States to Britain. The war between Britain and Germany had begun with the invasion of Poland in September of 1939, but it was with the fall of France in the summer of 1940 that Britain had been forced to rely on transatlantic shipments for all of her oil, most of her raw materials and much of her food and supplies. In total, a 3,000-strong merchant shipping fleet had brought 68 million tons of imports to the country each year, of which 22 million tons was food.
In the fall of 1940, hoping to starve England into submission, German naval high command authorized a total blockade of Britain, giving U-boat commanders the mandate to attack ships without warning or prior approval from superiors. Five years earlier, Germany had signed an agreement barring this kind of unrestricted use of submarines as weapons of war, but that agreement had been quickly forgotten.
The U-boats became very good at achieving their goal, mostly due to one man: Karl Doenitz, the Commander of the U-boat fleet. Doenitz had been a U-boat Captain and believed fervently that defeating the ability of Britain to receive goods from America would win the war for the Third Reich. To that end, he helped develop and mandate attack strategies for U-boat commanders to use against the large convoys that Britain and the Allies deployed for crossing the Atlantic. It was Doenitz who created and implemented the infamous “wolfpacks” that hunted the northern sea.
A Game of Birds and Wolves, written by Simon Parkin, is the story of the development of the German submarine fleet and its strategies, the terrible toll they extracted on Britain, and the development of Allied tactics to counter those strategies. It is a fascinating story about Gilbert Roberts, a retired British naval officer who had tuberculosis, and his team of two dozen or so women (called Wrens, the British naval equivalent of American WACs) who designed, implemented, and taught game-based battle strategies to the ship captains and navy escort commanders responsible for getting convoys back and forth across the North Atlantic.
The ‘game’ that Roberts and his team created is very much like Milton-Bradley’s game Battleship. They used the linoleum floor of a large building in Liverpool to create a basketball-court-sized scale map of the North Atlantic. Using captured intelligence from Germany, assembling radio messages between submarines, and the experiences of actual Allied encounters with the wolfpacks, the strategies used by Doenitz were finally realized. The team then replicated actual submarine attacks, designed counter-strategies, and played out ‘games’ on the floor, using little carved figurines of ships, submarines, and even clumps of steel-wool to represent fog and smoke, all moved by the Wrens according to player instructions and all moved according to a timer that replicated durations of real time. Even the most hardened naval commanders came to appreciate the value of using the game.
The climax of this back-and-forth struggle of strategies culminated in May of 1943. Over sixty U-boats and a hundred surface vessels and aircraft from the United States and Britain clashed for seven days near the coast of Greenland. The wolfpack used its time-honored strategies and the convoy and its escorts used the strategies developed by the gaming team. It was the costliest submarine battle that Germany would fight and the U-boats would never again dominate the North Sea.
In the book’s epilogue, Parkin relates the story of his grandfather being the captain of a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic during the last week of June, 1943, one month after the sea battle. For the first time in three years, he saw no German submarines during the crossing.
If he had been watching during that last week of June, he may have seen the Queen Mary and her convoy passing in the other direction. The luxury liner had been refitted as a troop carrier and was carrying several thousand soldiers on their way to join the war in Europe. My dad was one of them.
I am especially grateful to Gilbert Roberts and his remarkable Wrens for making my dad’s war experiences much more than they might have been.
I want to recommend a fine book for anyone to read, but an especially important book for people who are or who want to be writers.
Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields, is a portrait of Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is an engrossing description of one of America’s most famous authors, including her grandparents, her parents (her father was the model for Atticus; her mother was emotionally unbalanced), her family (two sisters, and a brother who served as the model for Jem), her growing-up environment in Monroeville, Alabama, and her neighbors (including the very young Truman Capote, who became Dill; an elderly woman who became Mrs. DuBose; and a persecuted man in a dysfunctional family three doors down from her house who became Boo Radley), and her later life.
Shields does an excellent job of describing Nelle’s schooling, up to and including an almost finished law degree, and then her years of working jobs in New York City as she spends her free time as a writer. Under the tutelage and grace of a good editor and good friends, she worked full-time on To Kill a Mockingbird for a year, submitted it, was accepted, and while the proof was being created, took a month to serve as a “research assistant” to Truman Capote as he began his five-year stint in writing In Cold Blood. Shields takes the reader on the full journey of her friendship with Capote and its eventual demise.
After Nelle wins the Pulitzer Prize, and after the movie comes out, there are a few years when she accommodates being famous, and then resolves to shun public life. She lives either in Monroeville with her sister (who remained a practicing lawyer into her nineties) or in a modest brownstone in New York City, and even though she completes the manuscript of a second novel, it is stolen and she never finds the desire to start over. To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only book until an earlier book manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, is discovered and printed after her death.
It's fascinating to read about someone who is very gifted and yet so internally ordinary. She never relinquished who she was to fame and stayed faithful to being a small-town Alabama girl.
The most interesting part to me was how she was able to create such a powerful story out of the circle of her young life (which was, more or less, only an area around her house that was not much more than two blocks long and a block wide), and to turn her authentic childhood acquaintances into famous literary characters – Atticus, Scout, Dill, and, of course, Boo Radley. These were real people that she grew up with and she rendered them with few embellishments.
Her work is an example to us all in both writing her book and in boldly living her extraordinary life. I encourage you to find the book and spend some time with it.
Is everybody tired of being at home? I take my hat off to parents who have school-aged children at home. Even though school systems are making huge efforts to accommodate remote education, I can imagine that teenagers are feeling confined both physically and intellectually, and have considerably more time on their hands that they didn’t normally have.
Fortunately, I’m hearing that reading books is making a comeback, and on-line sales of books are booming.
If you have mid-school kids (ages 10 to 14, plus some older ones) who need good books to either read on their own or to be read to, consider the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series. There are currently nine books featuring a fourteen-year-old boy and his seventeen-year-old sister, both of whom live with their parents in Bluff, Utah.
Each mystery book begins with the first chapter being set in the past. Something happens and the reader is left with a mystery. The subsequent chapters are in the present, where my two heroes find themselves in a separate mystery or social crisis that is somehow linked to the mystery in the past. Solving one requires solving the other.
Each mystery takes place in a real, find-it-on-the-map location, all (except one) within a day’s drive of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Each story is relatively true to the geography, the history, and the culture of the location. Each story is also independent; you can read the books in any order. They are all exciting books, and are family-oriented with family values.
The one book that isn’t local to the Santa Fe area is the result of a visit that I made to an elementary school in Houston. The class wanted nothing to do with me because I had no story that featured pirates. Well, New Mexico has a lot of interesting characters, but no pirates. So, to answer their needs, I wrote a story that occurs on the island of St. John in the Caribbean and features Blackbeard. It turned out to be one my more clever mysteries.
You can find descriptions of each book, book reviews, and photos of the locations on my website: DonaldWillerton.com. Each book is available from Amazon.com and can be ordered through my website.
The Ghosts of the San Juan (#1) won First Place in the Southwest Writers 2001 Contest, and a Finalist Award in the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
The Lost Children (#2) won the Juvenile Book category in the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
Outlaw (#6) and The Lady in White (#7) received Finalist Awards in the 2019 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
The Lake of Fire (#5) won Honorable Mention in The 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award contest.
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.