Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm

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Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton

In the times of European colonization, the Spice Islands were a hot spot of trade.  The small archipelago is found surrounded by the Philippines to the North, Indonesia to the West, Papua-New Guinea to the East, and Australia to the South.  The islands are protected by reefs and steep, rocky coastlines, but their soils produced a wealth of spices, mainly nutmeg.  In the Sixteenth Century, European nations were pointed in the direction of these islands by traders near India.  Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Britain were the major countries pushing to find the source of the spices, which would reduce their cost and increase their profits, if the ships could survive the journey in between monsoons, hurricanes, and a murderous reef protecting the shoreline.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg took a strong focus in the English accounts of the period, but also provided a lot of Dutch perspective as well. These were the two main forces battling for control of the small islands.  Stories in letters from the time and company records were used to research and piece together the perilous adventures the seamen made.  While both sides were apt to brutality, this account puts the brunt of accusation on the Dutch, who even forced false confessions of an English uprising through relentless torture in Amboyna.

The book’s namesake, Nathaniel Courthope, a British subject, held control of the island, Run. For over four years, his forces starved as the nearby islands were controlled by the enemy Dutch forces.  With three ships left in the harbor, guns unloaded to fortify the island, two sailed away to secure provisions and were captured by the Dutch.  Nathaniel was trapped.  He attempted to sneak over to a nearby island to rally some troops and he was ambushed in the middle of the night in his small boat, never to be seen again.  The handful of British men left on Run gave up the island to the Dutch unopposed.

Much of the world’s history has been involved in the tale of these small islands. The book delved into the stories of adventures to find the fabled shortcuts to the islands, the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage.  It told the story of the creation of the East India Trading Company, and the Dutch East India Trading Company, better known as the Seventeen.  It also told of how the Dutch and British came to a final agreement to settle ownership of the spice laden island of Run.  British forces captured New Amsterdam in the late Seventeenth Century, and both sides agreed to hold the respective colonies they acquired and to give up claim for the lost land in the Treaty of Breda.  This gave the English full sovereignty of New Amsterdam, which they quickly renamed New York and the rest is history.

The book was well researched and told of many aspects of the adventures seeking fortune in the spice trade.  With over two hundred years of stories, it was at times difficult to follow all of the names of the merchants and captains, along with the names of the distant islands, some now so small and insignificant they are hardly mentioned on maps. Even so, I really enjoyed learning about this subject and the book was a good source for that.

*******7/10

Twitter: @blookworm

The Great Train Robbery – Michael Chrichton

Author of the world famous ‘Jurassic Park,’ Michael Chrichton penned the novel ‘The Great Train Robbery’ about the 1855 heist.  This was a major event in England for several reasons. First, the trains were a new technology in Victorian England, nobody had thought to make such a daring robbery on a train line.  Second, the plan was well thought out and spanned a period of over a year in preparations. Third, it took nearly a year of detective work to track down the mastermind of the event.

Chrichton did his research well on this event and presented a narrative of the event from the perspective of the criminals, not unlike Capote had done for the Kansas crime novel, ‘In Cold Blood.’ The leader, Edward Pierce, was continually described as ‘the red bearded man.’ He had the appearance of a gentleman and was little suspected to be a criminal, as most believed Victorian criminals were of the lower class.  Pierce created a master plan to rob the London train heading to the coast with a load of gold intended to pay troops in the Crimean War.  While he collected information, he also rounded up necessary men and women to aid the heist.  As he hired the men he needed, he told no one of the impending robbery details, just what their particular job would be.  He hired Robert Agar as a lock picker early in the the preparations and left him in the dark as they worked together to bring the plan together.

The robbery entailed robbing the trains on the go, in a special guarded and locked car, sat two state-of-the-art Stubb’s safes which had two locks apiece, requiring four keys to get in.  The four keys seemed the most difficult part of the preparations.  Two were locked in a cupboard in a guarded office, two others were each held by managers of the bank employed to supply the gold shipments.  One man was seduced by a young prostitute to obtain the key, the other was burglarized at home during the night, the key being in his wine cellar.  The other two keys in the guarded office took an elaborate scheme.  Pierce hired a boy to act as a thief, who ran into the office and broke a ceiling window in a failed attempt to escape.  Pierce’s cab driver  was a large brute with a noticeable white scar on his forehead, acted as a policeman to chase the boy and take him away safely without real repercussions.  Later that night, a man Pierce had hired for his climbing ability and agility climbed through the roof into the room to unlock the door.  Agar then waited until the guard went to the bathroom and ran into the unlocked room and made wax copies of the keys, returning to his hiding place on the platform before the guard returned. Several months later, after careful planning, Agar and Pierce were ready for the big day.  Agar was disguised as a corpse in a coffin to be loaded into the guarded car.  Agar had met the guard a few months before as he practiced unlocking the safes, the guard had been payed off, and was believed to be no threat to the operation.  Pierce boarded the train in the second class cars and had one all to himself.  During the route, he climbed onto the roofs of the speeding train and walked to the guarded car, where he unlocked the door from the outside.  The gold was bagged and thrown off the train to Pierce’s awaiting cab driver. Bags of lead shot replaced the weight of the gold and the safes were locked up again, every one returning to their original places as well.  The train delivered the safes to a ferry crossing the English Channel, then were transported to Paris to pay the troops.  It was in Paris it was discovered that something was amiss.  The train blamed the Parisian government, the ferry blamed the train, and the British and French governments blamed each other. After such careful planning, nearly everything went according to plan.

Over a year later, a lady-friend of Agar’s was caught robbing a drunk man and when begging and bribing didn’t get her out of police possession, she gave up information on Agar’s involvement in the robbery. Agar was apprehended, which led police to the train guard, and to Pierce.  The trial was a national event, however, overshadowed by the Indian uprising against British troops on the Indian peninsula. Pierce was cool, calm, and collected the entire trial, explaining in detail his plan and the execution of the robbery.  Upon sentencing, Pierce was taken into a police cab, to be taken to jail.   The guards woke up and reported that they don’t remember anything but a large man with a white scar on his forehead beating them.  Pierce, his mistress (who was involved in the robbery) and the cab driver made a clean escape and were never heard from again.