Of Box Alarms and Phrases: The Historical Origins of Some Fire Service Terms

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Friends,

With my previous post about a historically significant fire in Houston, Texas, I thought I’d revisit the subject of fire service history. Fire departments are big on tradition, and a lot of the terms in use in some areas today have very old origins and harken back to the days of wooden ladders and leather lungs. Helmets, for example, are usually a firefighter’s most iconic piece of equipment, especially the traditional style (as opposed to the salad bowl type). When I was a humble fireman, my department issued us the “modern” style helmets but allowed us to purchase our own, so long as we stuck to the department color requirements. (Yellow for firefighter, red for captain, white for chiefs). Most of us purchased our own. Mine was a Morning Pride traditional helmet called the Ben Franklin. Why? Because Franklin was once the chief of a volunteer fire company! I went through a couple of different helmets, all the same style. When I was an arson investigator, I wore a leather Cairns New Yorker which has, other than a few modifications, been the same helmet for 168 years. Cairns began to make helmets in the 1850s and prior to that, made leather helmet shields going back to the 1830s. Ah yes……tradition! Thankfully I still have my arson helmet and one of my firefighter helmets. They make for nice conversation pieces.

Keep in mind that what I discuss below may vary from department to department. Some use all of the terms, others may use none of them. Not only that, but the meaning of the terms may vary as well. The meanings and origins I give are the originals, rather than how they’ve morphed over time. Though the fire service is strong on tradition, things do change no matter how resistant some may be. Change comes slowly, but it does come. So without further ado here are some historical terms still in use.

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Box Alarm/Assignment: This is a holdover term from the days of telegraph fire alarm systems which existed in most major cities. Alarm boxes like the above stood on street corners. Should a citizen witness a fire emergency, they could hurry to the nearest box and pull the lever. This transmitted a coded series of numbers by telegraph to the central alarm system. The dispatcher reviewed the box number (which corresponded to an intersection), and then selected a punch card which had the apparatus assignments for that intersection. The punch card was fed into a second telegraph which sent the box number to the stations assigned to that intersection. Meanwhile, at the station, the alarm bell would ring to notify the station where to go. Let’s say it was box 427. The bell rang four times, pause, two times, pause, followed by seven times. It may sound complicated, but alarms could be transmitted from alarm box to station in seconds and, believe it or not, horse drawn apparatus often cleared the floor in less than 30 seconds! Though the FDNY doesn’t use fire alarm boxes (thanks to things like cell phones), they do use box numbers. Boston, however, maintains their fire alarm boxes as a redundancy should their 911 system fail. In my hose dragger days, I typically heard the term Box Alarm to denote a working residential fire with a Heavy Box used for commercial buildings or multifamily dwellings.

(Note also, however, that ambulances are commonly referred to as “the box”, not to be confused with “box alarm”.)

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Still Alarm: As telephones became more commonplace, fire departments began to receive calls by phone, along with calls from alarm boxes. If a call came in by phone, it was called a “still alarm” because it didn’t ring the bells at the station. In other words, the bells were still. Though not as commonly used today as “box” is, it is sometimes and by some departments used to refer to fire alarms, medical calls, etc, in other words, anything not a box alarm.

Ready to be confused? You can still a box and you can box a still. If a still alarm turns out to be a working fire, then an officer may box a still, in other words, convert it to a box alarm assignment. Conversely, if a box alarm turns out to be a fire alarm, an officer can still the box, ie: downgrade it to a still alarm assignment.

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Tap this location out: This one is still very common in my area. When an assignment is complete, or nearly complete, the ranking officer will radio the communications center and say “Tap this location our holding units on scene (or a specific unit).” Again, this harkens back to the good old days of the aforementioned fire alarm boxes. Fire department officers carried keys to the boxes and when an assignment ended, they would open the fire alarm box and use the telegraph inside to tap out a message to Central Dispatch, hence the “tap this location out”. I cannot state this as a fact, but apparently the keys were shaped like a “J” and might be the origin of the nickname “jakes” for firefighters. Part of me wonders how many officers, especially the younger ones, know the origin of this phrase since they have mostly likely used, or at least heard it, before. I guess I can say the same for all these phrases.

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I’m sure that there are some other terms or phrases that I’m forgetting or that even I don’t know the origins of, though I try to stay up on my fire service history. When I was in graduate school, my favorite paper to write was the one about firefighting in Colonial America. I learned a lot of interesting things, though when I shared them at the fire station, the guys were underwhelmed by it all. Their loss, not mine. When it comes to firefighting, I think you can truly say that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same. Assuming that the world is still here in 100 years, I imagine some fire service historian will write an article on all the quaint terms from today that will still be in use.

Hutch

Houston’s Forgotten Tragedy

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Friends,
Houston and indeed all of the Texas coast and part of Louisiana has seen a great tragedy this week. I do not have the words to adequately describe it. I just can’t. I live in the affected area and though I was spared by the flooding, so many friends and family were not. So I took pen in hand today to talk about another tragedy which struck Houston in the midst of World War Two. A tragedy which has been sadly forgotten by all but a few who live in the area. I was a firefighter and then a fire marshal, the law enforcement arm of the fire service. In that capacity, I enforced fire code regulations and investigated fires. If we ruled a fire arson, we pursued those responsible. (In Texas, arson investigators are fully sworn peace officers with the same authority as any other peace officer, though that may differ in different states.) When I was a young fireman in the late 90s, a grizzled old 35 year veteran of battling the flames mentioned that Houston had experienced one of the deadliest hotel fires in US History. I’d never heard that before and it peaked my curiosity which is how I came to learn about the Gulf Hotel Fire, the subject of today’s sad tale.
Houston during World War Two was a happening place. It was nowhere near as large a city as it is today, with a population of just under 400,000. The city added 100,000 people between 1930 and 1940 and would add another 200,000 by the end of the 40s, partially due to the growth brought about by the War. Americans were lucky in the sense that here in the Continental United States, we did not face bombing raids as did our allies and our enemies. Houston, with its port and oil, played an integral role in the allied war effort. The downtown area was booming with restaurants, movie theaters, and dancing at the Rice Hotel. But there was an underside too. Cheap hotels and boarding houses dotted the landscape filled to the brim with transient workers who traveled to Houston seeking employment. The war gutted the Houston Fire Department with many members enlisting right after Pearl Harbor. The City of Houston created an Auxiliary Fire Department to supplement their missing manpower. This created the perfect storm which broke over the downtown skyline on the night of September 7, 1943.
The Gulf Hotel was located at 615 Preston which was the corner of Preston and Louisiana in the Downtown District. As you can see from the photo, it was probably a nice looking building when not on fire. As was often the case in downtown buildings at the time, the hotel only occupied the second and third floors. The Gulf Hotel would be happy to rent you a bed for forty cents a night. Or if you were down on your luck, you could get a cot for 20 cents! Though the hotel register listed 133 guests that night (all male), in reality there were probably many more than that. The 87 beds were often divided by thin wooden partitions and two men often shared a bed and split the price. Fifty cots were also crammed into the building. Every bed was occupied by at least one person and so were all of the cots. The hotel was located one block from the city’s major bus depot which meant that many of the guests arrived and booked a “room” with little familiarity with the layout of the building or the surrounding area.
While making his rounds in the middle of the night, a clerk noticed a smoldering mattress on the second floor, most likely due to a carelessly discarded cigarette. This was the 1940s and non-smokers were a rarity and you could smoke just about anywhere. The clerk and some guests dumped water on the mattress and thought that the fire was out. Rather than tossing the mattress outside, they stuck it in a closet. Bad idea. A few minutes later, other guests noticed heavy smoke pouring out of the closet and you began to hear shouts of “Fire!” There were only two exits from the building, an interior stairwell which led to the street and another which was a rickety fire escape. The fire quickly moved to cut off most of the guests from the interior stairwell, fueled by the wooden partitions used to separate the rooms. This left the fire escape as the only option, but just days earlier a Fire Department Inspector cited the Gulf Hotel for not installing a red safety light to point the way to the fire escape.
Around 12:50 am, the officers and men at Houston’s Central Fire Station received the alarm. The station was only six blocks away. After the fire, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams (what a name!) said “As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky.” That always signifies a big job. As they pulled up, the sole fire escape was already crowded with men. Some of them were on crutches and making slow progress which backed up the rest of the men trying desperately to get out. Then people started jumping out of the third story windows as that was the only means of escape left. With bodies thudding on the sidewalk, the fire department tried to rescue as many men as possible while the flames continued to light the downtown sky. The body of one victim, unable to escape from the third floor, hung limply out the window for the duration of the fire as a gruesome reminder of a fire’s deadly power.
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Victims were transported to the two nearby hospitals, Saint Joseph and the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, many of them by private auto or police car. Doctors arrived and provided what first aid their could on the scene. Two victims died at the scene and another fifteen died after arrival at the hospital. The city was already dealing with a major tragedy. It took two hours for the fire department to battle their way inside and extinguish the fire. What they found was far worse. Thirty-eight bodies were inside the hotel, overcome by smoke and flames as they tried in vain to reach safety. The fifty-five men who died that night were victims of the deadliest fire in Houston history. Indeed, it is one of the five deadliest hotel fires in 20th Century American History. The 40s saw many deadly hotel fires, unfortunately, and this was just one.
Given that this happened during the midst of World War Two, it did not receive much coverage. Fire disasters like this were not unheard of at the time. Indeed, not even a year earlier, the City of Boston experienced the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire which killed 492 people, the second deadliest fire in American History. The post war brought era brought two other mass fatality fires when the Winecoff (Atlanta) and the La Salle (Chicago) hotels burned. Today, few Houstonians know anything about the Gulf Hotel tragedy. Part of this is because so many of the people who live in Houston today are part of the boom in population that happened after the War. Also, the City of Houston is partially to blame. They gleefully bulldoze any building more than thirty years old. The city has totally lost touch with its past, both good and bad. That is a tragedy of a different sort.
Twenty-three of the victims from this fire were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Houston’s South Park Cemetery, where they remain just as forgotten today as they were in 1943. The Houston Chronicle summed it up best at the time when it said the following:
“Who were these men? What strange, pathetic, colorful,
or drab histories led to a fate that sent them unrecognized
to this tragic grave?
Histories that shall be forever unwritten, unknown.
Some of them had good jobs, as shipyard workers,
defense plant workers. Some perhaps were newspaper vendors
peddlers, or clerks in hideaway stores.
Or they were beggars and crippled derelicts wandering
in the city streets with nothing to do, no place to go but
their cots in the crowded hotel.
What kind of homes did they come from? Where?
No one will ever know?”
Perhaps the finest words ever written by the Houston Chronicle. Sadly, we still do not know.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.
Source Notes: In my college years I wrote a paper about this tragedy and had the opportunity to speak with a few people who witnessed the fire. (None of them were inside the hotel at the time.) I also collected newspaper articles, etc, and had a pretty nice file on it. I also consulted a publication available at the Houston Fire Museum called Houston Fire Department: 2000 Traditions & Innovations. There is some debate as to the number of remains buried in the mass grave with some sources saying 23, 31, or even 38. Most of the sources say 23 and so that is what I am going with.

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 6)

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Date: Monday, November 22, 1943

Time: 2230

Picture yourself in the dark interior of a brick lined basement. The stench of unwashed bodies and fear overcomes the odor of mildew. A thin sheet used as a curtain in a corner hides a large bucket, the only toilet available for the two dozen people packed into the small room. Everyone sits on wooden benches. Their ages range from elderly to infants. There are no able bodies men present, as they are all at the front. A few buckets of sand line the floor and everyone wears a helmet, even the children. A radio in the corner keeps up a running commentary on what is taking place above ground. Enemy bomber formations have passed east of Braunschweig. Anticipated target is Berlin. Outside, the sirens howl. Then, antiaircraft batteries open fire, sending sheets of flame shooting into the night sky. And then you hear it, the shriek of falling bombs. Each one explodes with a loud CRUMP which causes your building to shake. Dust drifts down from the ceiling. The bombs march closer and closer. Some of the children start to cry. A few of the adults begin to pray. Will the next bomb have your name on it? Or will it hit the next block?

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Now picture yourself in the sky overhead. Searchlights stab at the sky around you. To be caught in one means death, unless you can escape the cone. This is your 30th mission. If you make it back, you’ll be the first in your squadron to complete a tour in several months. Before takeoff, you learn that some of the other crews have placed bets on your odds of survival. The odds aren’t good. In the past five months, you’ve seen crews come and go. New crews get shot down so fast you don’t have time to learn their names. Two of your own crew died a few nights ago over the same city where you find yourself now. A burning Lancaster drifts across your line of sight. It rolls onto its side and plummets towards the ground, the seven men inside trapped in a fiery coffin. Your bomb aimer, in the nose of your plane, calls out corrections as you reach the target indicators. Left, left. Steady. Right. Right. Steady. Steady. Almost there. A sudden noise makes you jump as your rear gunner opens up on a night fighter. Shrapnel from the flak batteries ping against the side of your plane, like a child throwing pebbles against it. And then the searchlights catch you.

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Now transport yourself 600 miles away. Several months ago, you met a young pilot while he was on leave. Six weeks ago, he proposed and you said yes. When he completes his tour tonight, he’ll be off operations for a while and receive a much safer assignment as an instructor pilot. You know he is flying tonight, and you’ll be married in three days time. As the searchlights catch his aircraft, you are traveling to the small village near his airbase so you can greet him when he gets back. There’s something you need to tell him before the wedding. You meant to do it when you saw him a couple of days ago, but you couldn’t bring yourself to do it. Will he care? Will he cancel the wedding? He seemed withdrawn last time you saw him. And with good reason, he’d just come back from a mission in which two of his crew were killed and one seriously injured. That’s why he got a weekend pass to begin with. His last words when you parted at the train station were “I’m glad I met you.” Hardly the words of a man planning on having a future.

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Let us now return to the city under the bombs. You wait out the raid in a reinforced room on the ground floor of your fire station. In the midst of war, your job is still to save lives. You are a veteran fireman with over ten years on the job. The war interrupted your career and you spent several years on the front lines in Poland, France, and Russia before an injury led to your discharge, aided by the fact that cities needed experienced fire service personnel. You saw the firestorm in Hamburg and its images flash through you mind every time you close your eyes. And now? Now your city is being pounded. As soon as the heaviest bombing passes, you and your crew, one other experienced man and four young women who belong to the Luftschutz leave the station and drive towards the fires burning in the distance. A few bombs are still falling, and as you pull up in front of a blazing apartment building, a bomb explodes just up the block. Shrapnel leaves pockmarks on your truck, but it cuts down four firemen in the street ahead. You can hear the screams over the roar of the flame as you exit the fire engine and go to work. A quick glance up. You see a bomber caught in the searchlights. Black objects tumble from the center of the plane and start their way towards the ground. Towards you.

This gives you a bit of insight into the four main characters in the novel. They all have their own backstories and personal conflicts not necessarily detailed above. I hope that when I am finished, they will become as real to you as they are to me.

Hutch

 

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 5)

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Friends,

This post continues a series on my novel in progress. If you are new to the blog, you can catch up on the previous posts here: OneTwoThree, and Four. The novel is now almost halfway complete, though to be honest I have dealt with writer’s block and accompanying challenges over the past couple of months which brought things to a full stop. The second half of any semester is the most difficult for me, teaching wise, since I am snowed under with grading and then end of the semester paperwork. The pain from my injuries is a daily thing which ranges from moderate to murderous. The past six weeks or so, it has been murderous. When you can’t sit for more than 15 or 20 minutes, stand for more than an hour or two, or lie down for more than an hour, it is difficult to focus on anything else. Athletes play with pain. Writers write with pain. I guess I’ll have to just suck it up and soldier on. Something else has been gnawing at me too. Something which I don’t quite know how to handle.

I am a perfectionist in some things. Teaching is one of them. Writing is another. I agonize over every word I say in the classroom. I feel such a solemn obligation to the past that I worry that I’m not doing justice to the experiences of those who lived through the events I teach about. At the end of every class, I engage in self destructive criticism of the day’s lecture where I think of all the better ways I could have said something. Needless to say, I do the same with my writing. Given the current work is an historical one, and of a subject that does not get much attention in the way of fiction, I feel the same sacred obligation. I will type, delete, type, delete, and then type and delete the same line five or six times until I think it sounds right, only to do it all over again when I read over the completed chapter. Once upon a time, I could dash out 6 or 7K words a day in a matter or three or four hours. Now it takes closer to 7 or 8 hours to write 3K words, which is my daily goal. On one hand, being a perfectionist is a good thing when it comes to writing, but on the other and much larger hand, it definitely slows me down.

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Like all writers, I struggle with self doubt. Writing is such a solitary endeavor that forces you to spend hours inside your own head where your personal demons sally forth to assail your confidence. Is anyone going to pay money to read this? It isn’t good enough! The side of a cereal box is more interesting than this garbage! You aren’t going to finish it anyway! I put tremendous pressure on myself. Without getting into too much detail, I teach history part time at a community college. For over ten years, I’ve slaved away at the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Despite two Master’s Degrees, a career outside academia, and a decade of direct experience, it has become blatantly obvious that I will never get a full time faculty position. Given the extent of my injuries, I can’t really do much else and to be fair, I’m not sure I could even handle one of those positions anyway. I’ve been a finalist many times, but these days I can’t even get a first interview. As much as I love being in the classroom, the writing is on the wall. If education, experience, excellent evaluations, and stellar student reviews are not enough to land you a position, then I need to get over my stubborn streak and accept defeat. What does that have to do with my writing? Well, to be blunt, the time has come for my writing to pay. In order for it to pay, I have to beat the writer’s block. And what I write has to be, you know, good. Writing is a struggle. I doubt it comes easy for even the best among us, I do not number among that group.

When you write a period piece, you really have to get inside the period as best you can. My novel is set in 1943 and takes place in two primary locations. Berlin and the inside of a Lancaster bomber. I’ve been out of the right mindset for a long time, so this week I’ve been doing nothing but listening to music from 1939-43 (both British and German) and watching movies and newsreels from the same years. It takes a few days for me to get my mind right to write (see what I did there). I’ve been going through my research files as well as reading the first 11 chapters over again. There is stuff I need to change, but I’m not allowing myself to do that until I’m done with the entire thing. Poring over photos of bomb ruins and bombing victims, reading interview notes, and examining documents and reports is a difficult task, but one you have to do if you want to get it right. Or as right as you possibly can without having been there yourself.

So excuse me now as I gallop off into the sunset on my trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl behind me in the saddle. (Hmmm…….maybe I should write a western next.)

Alas, I have no horse but I am married to redhead.

Hutch

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 4)

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Dear Readers,

I’ve reached the 1/3rd point of my work in progress. It’s been a mixture of slow and fast going. I write much slower now than I ever have before. When in college, I could dash off 10 pages in a matter of an hour or two. Now, my 3,000 word a day limit sometimes takes me the better part of 6 hours to finish. Of those words, maybe half of them are actually any good. But books a rewritten more than they are written. That’s what editing is for. The important thing is to get the first draft finished. I’ve identified several issues with the overall plot and layout which will require extensive revision. I may end up cutting the four characters down to two so that I can get more in depth into them and their world. We’ll see. There is much left to write.

As I slave away in front of the computer, I have been pondering great works of World War 2 fiction that I’ve read in my life. If you are a writer, you have your favorites that influence your style and even the type of fiction you write. I’m a HUGE fan of the Dave Robicheaux series by the great James Lee Burke. Indeed, my completed novel is a mystery set in a fictitious Texas town on the Gulf Coast. It’s pretty good, actually. I haven’t take the time to revise and edit it though. I might once I finish with my current project. So please allow me a few moments to discuss my favorite World War 2 novels. For those who tough it out to the end, you’ll get to read the opening of my own novel So Others May Live. 

Bomber by Len Deighton. This is an incredibly written novel which takes place over a 24 hour time span. It details everything that went into planning and carrying out a bombing raid on the fictitious German town of Altgarten. At the same time, it also details the town itself with all its secrets and intrigue. Deighton is a master storyteller. As an added bonus, the BBC did a radio dramatization of the novel in the early 90s too, so you can both read it and then listen to a radio version of it. Both are excellent. I would tell people that if they read any novel about the Second World War, make it this one.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque. Wait, I hear you saying, isn’t he the guy that wrote All Quiet on the Western Front? Yes, Dear Readers, he is. This novel is, in my opinion, perhaps better even than his best known work. It takes place over a short span of time and involves a German soldier on leave from the Eastern Front. Particularly evocative of the paranoia and claustrophobia of wartime Germany, Remarque does an excellent job showing the behavior of people in wartime. It is worth noting that Remarque’s books were banned in Nazi Germany and he fled to Switzerland. In retaliation, the Nazis arrested his sister who remained behind. At her trial for undermining morale, the judge said “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach but you, however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded in 1943. Remarque eventually immigrated to the United States and became and American citizen. He married actress Paulette Goddard who was both incredibly hot and a redhead. But I digress.

The Burning Blue by James Holland. A friendship. A forbidden love affair with a best friend’s twin sister. Spitfires. The Battle of Britain. They blend together in this wonderful novel to create a perfect tale of wartime England. Told through a series of flashbacks whilst the main character lies recovering in a hospital bed in North Africa, the book starts a few years before the war and builds towards an exciting climax. You feel for the main character as he lives on a razor’s edge during the Battle of Britain. You want him to get the girl and you genuinely grieve when he doesn’t. Or does he? The aerial combat scenes are magnificent as are the personal interactions between the characters. Holland is a master of aviation fiction. (See his other work A Pair of Silver Wings as well.) For fans of British period dramas (Foyle’s War, etc) or The Battle of Britain, I highly recommend this novel. If you want to find yourself behind the controls of a Spit, read this book at once.

Berlin by Pierre Frei. This is technically not a World War 2 novel as it is set in Berlin, but it is at least in the immediate post-war period. A serial killer stalks the streets and a Kripo detective is partnered up with the Americans to track him down. What is really neat about this novel is that you have a chapter about each victim that tracks their lives up until the instant they are murdered. Then you’ll have a chapter about the investigation of their death. Getting deep into the lives of the characters makes their deaths all the more tragic. The novel does an incredible job of describing post-war Berlin; the hunger, the black market, the fraternizing between GIs and German girls that wasn’t supposed to be taking place, the secrets people tried to keep about the lives during the Nazi era. The author was born in Berlin in 1930 and grew up there. First published in German in 2003, it was translated to English in 2005. Definitely read this, especially if you like murder mysteries.

Payback by Gert Ledig. “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” Holy F–k! What an opening! This book is rare and difficult to get a copy of, though used copies do exist. First published in German in 1956, it was not translated into English until 1999. The author served on the Eastern Front and was sent home after he was wounded near Leningrad. Whilst at home, he experienced Allied air raids which are the subject of this novel. The book isn’t long. The whole thing takes place over the course of an hour or so in a nameless town as it is pummeled by bombs. Each short chapter tells about one person in the town. Before each chapter is short piece where the character introduces themselves to the reader. You see the raid unfold with all its macabre horror. From a 16 year old girl raped in a cellar as bombs fall to the dead unburied by explosions and hurled into the trees, Payback provides a stomach churning glance into life under the bombs. The book is controversial because British and American audiences do not generally like to read about what their bombs did. Still, this book is an anti-war classic and a must read.

Now, Dear Readers, as promised, here is the opening to So Others May Live. Keep in mind this is an unedited first draft and I cannot state with certainty that this will be the opening scene in the finished product and even if it is, it’ll probably be a bit different.

Fire. A tornado of fire. Flames shot upwards, a thousand feet or more, and turned the night sky to daylight. Wind swirled around the base of the inferno. Over the roar of the conflagration, a new sound emerged like the scream of wounded animals. People staggered over the rubble choked streets as the heat seared their bodies. Clothing burst into flame. The human torches ran in circles until they dropped to the street and lay still. The wind grew in intensity until it lifted, first children and then adults, and hurled them into the seat of the fire. They screamed and flailed in the air until the flames devoured them. Hair burned. Clothes burned. Even the streets burned. The odor roasted flesh overpowered that of the phosphorus driven firestorm. Somewhere, a bell rang.  

There you have it, friends.

Hutch

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 3)

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Dear Readers,

As I share my journey in writing my book, I thought I’d take the time to share a little about the research process. You can read the other parts of this series here: Part One & Part Two.  My previous completed novel is a mystery, and since I was an investigator, I know something about solving crimes. As my latest work is historical fiction, I thought it worthwhile to say a few words about how the research process works for me.

The past is like a foreign country. It has its own language, culture, and living conditions. I find it best to approach it in that way. Now, I have always had a healthy interest in the past. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve been reading about the past since I was five years old. That’s when I checked out my first book from the library and it just so happened to be a history book. I’ve been held captive ever since. I have a personal library of 2,000 books and the largest single subject is World War Two. Both of my grandfathers were veterans of this war. My grandmothers’ brothers all served as well (one was killed). All of my grandparents’ friends either served in the war or went through it on the home front, so in a way I was surrounded by it as a child. I studied history in college not because I planned on actual doing anything with it (I was happily a fireman in those days) but because I enjoyed the subject. The same goes for my graduate degree in History. Then I changed teams and became a police officer, still with no plans to use my degree, though I started teaching part time as an second job way back in 2004. I never would’ve guess I’d get hurt. I’m still teaching, and it is still part time because I’ve been told I’m not “full time material”. But I digress.

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My book deals with two interconnected pieces of the war. First, is the bomber offensive against Germany, particularly that waged by the British. Thankfully there are some excellent books and documentaries on the topic. I start at the time and read general World War Two histories, then general books about RAF Bomber Command, and finish off with specific books written by people who flew Lancaster bombers over Germany. I have also consulted books on the British Home Front. Start broad and finish specific. The second piece of the book deals with the German Civil Defense system, particularly the fire brigades and how they coped with devastating fire bombing raids. This proves a little more difficult to research as there is not a large amount of material in English. For this aspect, I use interview notes I’ve complied while speaking with those who experienced the war in Germany as civilians, including some who served in the Luftschutz and/or the fire brigades. These interviews were conducted long ago, and long before I decided to write a book. I also read general history books about Nazi Germany, then books specifically about Berlin during the War (and there are some great ones), and finally the published recollections of German civilians. I’ve also uncovered some excellent training videos done by the German government to instruct civilians how to respond to incendiary bombs. For the sake of comparison, the study of the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz and of the British ARP and Civil Defense system has been important too.

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Bomber Boys. 45% of all RAF Bomber Command aircrew were killed in action.

In some ways, I feel as though my entire life has been one big study session and this novel is my final exam. In that case, I hope I pass. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. Writing is a difficult enough undertaking, but with historical fiction I feel a solemn obligation to get it as “right” as I can. I feel I’d be doing a great disservice to the men and women who lived through this tumultuous period in our past if I fudge the truth. Maybe that’s asking too much of myself. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction where the author is so knowledgeable that they can’t help but dump massive amounts of information in a single paragraph to the detriment of the story. To help resist that urge, my motto is : “Storytelling first”. Tell the story and weave the history around it, do not weave the story around the history. But get it right, nonetheless.

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My book is divided into four parts. It takes place over the space of 36 hours and there are four main characters, one male and one female in England and the same in Germany. (There are, of course, a host of secondary characters who dance across the pages. Some for longer than others.) Each chapter is from the point of view of one character and each part has eight chapters. This is how part one is structured:

Part One: Afternoon, Sunday, November 21, 1943

Chapter One begins with Flying Officer Michael O’Hanlon, 22, as he finishes up his weekend pass with his fiance Grace. He has one more mission to reach his 30th which will give him a spell off of operations and an assignment to a training unit. They have plans to marry then. His reason for a weekend pass? The previous Wednesday he brought his plane back from a night mission over Germany with a dead top turret gunner, a dead wireless operator, and a seriously wounded navigator. His Lancaster received heavy damage and his crew got the time off to allow for repairs and to allow for replacement crewmen to be found. Now he will fly his last mission with half his crew inexperienced.

Chapter Two begins in Germany where Oberwachtmeister Karl Weber is teaching a class to a new draft of recruits. These aren’t military recruits, however. Karl is a veteran member of the Berlin Fire Brigade. One of the few men with experience still around owing to the constant drain on German manpower in Russia. Even Karl served during the early days of the war before a wound allowed him to resume his civilian occupation where he’s served since 1929. His recruits? Four young Hitler Youth boys 15-6 years old. Full of love for their Fuhrer and a belief in their own invincibility. The other four recruits are four young women who range in age from 17-20. It will be with these kids that Karl and the three older men at the station must wage a very different war than that waged by Michael O’Hanlon. While one drops bombs, the other tries to save lives amidst the rubble. Both are scared, yet they do their jobs anyway.

Chapter Three follows Grace Robinson,21, the daughter of a doctor and the only surviving child now that her brother, a Commando, was killed at Dieppe, as she leaves Michael at the train station. She can tell something is wrong with him, but she doesn’t know what. They haven’t known each other for long, just a few months, really, but she desperately wants him to return after his next mission so they can get married. Grace has not told her father of her plans to marry, much less her plans to marry an Irish Catholic from Belfast. She also harbors a deep secret, one which is alluded to, but that she won’t speak openly about. Should she tell Michael before they marry? Grace wanted to tell him while he was on leave but decided not to burden him with it before his next and hopefully last flight. Grace understands as much about Michael’s war as any civilian could. She was in London during The Blitz and knows firsthand the power of bombs. To that end, she and Ursula might get along if their countries weren’t at war.

Chapter Four introduces us to Ursula whom we briefly met at the end of Chapter Two. She’s a serious, redheaded German girl who lives on the edge of Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin. Her parents are dead. Frau Muller died in an accident in 1937. Herr Muller, a Social Democrat who referred to the Nazis as ‘Hitler and His Circus Clowns’ died of a heart attack on the day Germany invaded Poland. This was perhaps for the best as he was spared the deaths of his two sons, both killed on the Eastern Front. Ursula got those telegrams instead. She works as a telephone operator and shares a small apartment with two other young women, also phone operators. But she nurses her own deadly secret. We follow Ursula as she delivers forged identity papers to a group hidden in a warehouse. They have another assignment for her tomorrow night. Pick up a pistol and deliver it. She leaves the warehouse, in the middle of the blackout, and reaches her apartment building as the air raid sirens begin to howl in the distance.

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Each of these chapters are taking place simultaneously. The next block of four chapters which finish up Part One pick up where each of these chapters leave off. My working title is So Others May Live though I am also strongly considering A Terrible Symphony which was how reporter Edward R. Murrow described a night trip over Berlin in a Lancaster ten days after this story takes place. Which one do you like best? Since I’m not finished with the book, I’d not wedded to any particular title.

Many thanks to you all for sharing this journey with me. I do not know everything there is to know about World War 2, but I do know a lot. I’d be more than happy to help anyone with their war related questions and I place my library at your disposal. If you’d like to know specific titles I’ve found useful whilst researching my novel, please ask and I’ll forward you a list.

Hutch

 

 

Reap the Whirlwind (Pt 2)

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Dear Readers,

Typically I’m not a big fan of doing too much talking about a writing project as I feel it saps the creativity that one needs to actually finish said project. I’ll make an exception here, mainly since I’ve alluded to it in another post which you can find here. In fact, you might want to read that one first as it will give you some historical background. So….here is the plot in a nutshell:

Two men. Two women. One night. Michael, a bomber pilot, proposed to Grace, but now fears leaving her a widow. Grace has a secret past that could change their relationship forever, but she can’t tell him. At least not yet. A thousand miles away in Berlin, Karl, a grizzled veteran of war both war and the fire service, takes responsibility for managing a crew of teenagers, the last line of defense against British bombers. On a routine call, he meets Ursula and falls in love, unaware she holds a deadly secret of her own.  In the space of an hour, four lives clash while a city burns. Secrets are exposed and lives change forever.

That’s it, more or less. I’m not very good at writing “blurbs” like this. I’m better at the story itself or at describing it verbally. Research wise, I draw on interviews I conducted in graduate school, a whole host of books (my personal World War 2 collection numbers several hundred volumes), some excellent documentaries, and even some of my own experiences as a firefighter. Obviously when writing any historical piece, be it fiction or non, you owe it to those who lived through the events to get it as “right” as you can. Certain pieces can be dramatized, if you will, but big events have to happen as they really did. You can’t, for example, have Pearl Harbor being bombed on Dec. 12, 1945 unless you are writing an alternate history novel (and there are some great books it that genre out there).

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The single night I mention in the blurb above is the night of November 22-23, 1943. This was the heaviest and most damaging raid Berlin had seen up to that point in the war. Bombs fell mostly in the western area of Berlin, in residential areas. Bombs also hit the zoo. The raid left over 175,000 people homeless. In the skies above the city, flak and night fighters claimed 26 British bombers who made the nine hour round trip to Berlin and back. Some flew home badly shot up. Others flew home with dead or seriously wounded crewmen on board. By the end of the war, 45% of all British Bomber Command crews died. Few in 1943 made it to the end of a thirty mission tour.

I’m still teasing out some of the plot elements and will naturally make some changes as I go along, but I do have the bare bones of a halfway decent story. I’ve completed two novels already, neither all that great in my opinion, but I get better with each one I write. Maybe the third time will be the charm. Below is an excerpt:

A young girl sat on a pile of rubble, a teddy bear clutched under one arm and a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under the other. Two teenage Luftshutz boys in blue-gray coveralls stood over two charred bodies, on a baby. Cigarettes dangled from the corners of their mouths as eyes far too old for their young faces stared from under the brim of helmets too big for their heads. A truck arrived, driven by a young woman in a similar uniform. The boys scrape the bodies off the pavement and toss them in the back. A block away, firefighters sprayed a limp stream of water on an enormous pile of brick and concrete. Smoke curled out from amidst the debris, as did the screams of those trapped inside. A small Hitler Youth boy stands in front of the hose stream to wet his clothes before he wormed his way into the collapsed building. He emerged a few minutes later with a child in his arms. Dead. No one took notice of the zebra, freed from his cage by a bomb, as it galloped down the street.

Hutch

London’s Burning: A Night With the London Fire Brigade During The Blitz

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I few days ago I discussed the civil defense system in Germany during World War 2, so I thought it appropriate to revisit my ode to the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz. First published on my old site.

Friends,

Just like the warning labels on firefighter’s bunker gear and helmets say, firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation. An average of 77 firefighters died in the line of duty each year since 2010. This is down from an average of 151 per year in the 1970s. Still, the job puts incredible demands on the men and women who answer the calls. Given the fact that 9/11 and Pearl Harbor aside, the firefighters in the United States have not regularly been called upon to put out fires in the midst of bombing raids. It has happened on two days here, and one of those days, 9/11, saw over 300 of FDNY’s bravest killed in action. This hit home to me because I was a firefighter then. And having started out in life as a firefighter before I went over to the dark side of the force (law enforcement), I feel a certain kinship with the men and women who struggled to save lives and property during the darkest days the world had ever seen.

During the 1930s, architects of air power worldwide demonstrated the vulnerability of cities to aerial bombardment. The German Condor Legion, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, brought this point home to Europe when they pummeled the town of Guernica. Thanks to Pablo Picasso, who from what I understand was a pretty screwed up dude, the world knows of this because of his painting of the same name. As Europe marched closer and closer to war, the British government tried to plan ahead. The London Fire Brigade was an entirely full time department but many of the other parts of England relied on a mixture of full time and on call firefighters, similar to our volunteer firefighters in the United States. In 1937, Parliament authorized the establishment of an Auxiliary Fire Service to be made up of men and women to supplement the ranks of the paid fire crews in the event of a national emergency.  This proved to be a wise decision as two years later, war did come. By the time it ended, over 270,000 men and 70,000 women served in either the National Fire Service or the Auxiliary Fire Service.

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Let us first consider the difficulties faced by the men and women of Britain’s Fire Service and the people of London, Manchester, Liverpool, etc, when the bombing began. First of all, fire stations are above ground, of course, and that is where all of the fire apparatus (or appliances as they call them across the pond) are stored. This means that they are just as vulnerable as a civilian’s house or an industrial target. Second, hospitals are also above ground. Imagine being injured and taken to a hospital only to be killed by a second bomb while waiting in an emergency room. Sounds terrible and it happened. Putting out fires is tough work, but imagine doing it while bombs are falling all around you. The men and women of the Fire Service did it routinely. They did not seek shelter from the shrapnel of exploding high explosive rounds or the burning goo of an incendiary bomb. Rather they went out into the fire lit night and did their jobs. And they died in scores.

For eight months, one week, and two days the German Luftwaffe rained bombs on the people of London and also other cities in England. It began on a Saturday afternoon, September 7th, around 5pm. Today it is sometimes called Black Saturday. This would start a period of sustained bombings that would see London bombed for 57 consecutive nights at its height. Over 400 civilians died that evening and over a thousand others were wounded. Two firefighters and a female air raid warden were among those killed and over a dozen firefighters injured. If you want to see a minute by minute and bomb by bomb account, check out this link. The London docks were hit causing a massive fire. The reporting Station Office is reported to have said “Send all the pumps you’ve got! The whole bloody world’s on fire!” It is amazing that the London Fire Brigade was able to keep such records in the midst of such an attack. And they say that the Germans are good record keepers!

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“Keep calm and carry on” was the slogan of the day. (And you thought all the posters and t-shirts you see today are a new creation!) The British people went about their jobs as best they could during the day, as there was a war on, after all, and spent their nights huddled in private bomb shelters or in the “tubes” of the city’s underground subway system. By the end of October 13,000 civilians were dead. And there were more to come. Perhaps the biggest raid of the war, with the most potential for destruction, took place on the night of December 29th, 1940, a night called the Second Great Fire of London. If the London Fire Brigade and the Auxiliary Fire Service could not rise to the occasion, the city might be lost. Given the fact that I am not a real historian, but rather a Half A$$ Historian, I will now depart from the usual narrative and take a bit of dramatic license. You will now enter a time machine and be inserted into the role of a member of the London Fire Brigade.

You are 36 hours into a 48 hour shift. The wartime demands have caused a different shift schedule. You now work 48 hours on followed by 24 hours off. Then rinse and repeat. Even your off time isn’t really off. After all, it isn’t like the Jerries won’t come over whilst you are on a brief holiday. Bombs still fall on your off period and sometimes you have no choice but to report back to work, snatching what sleep you can in between alarms. Your station, in the East End of London has escaped damage thus far, but manning the station in the midst of an air raid is terrifying. You can hear bombs falling all around you and hear the clang of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells bouncing off the roof. Outside a helmet is a must. You risk death otherwise. When the alarm comes in, you jump on the engine, just like in peacetime, and head out the door. But this time your driver has to dodge shell craters and debris. All hope for a quiet night is shattered when the air raid sirens begin to wail around 6pm. A quick check of the equipment, and then it is time to wait for the Central Office to call with an assignment. Women man a control board in the candlelight waiting to receive reports of fires and send you out towards an uncertain fate.

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Tonight the East End gets a pasting, as does the center of the city. You race from one burning block to another trying desperately to stem the tide of the bombs which just don’t seem to stop. Around 2am, you respond to a report of a direct hit on an air raid shelter. These calls are the worst. Bombs can kill people in many different ways. One of the most unusual is “blast lung” where the victim’s lungs are destroyed by the pressure caused by high explosives. You think of them as the lucky ones. They look as though they are asleep. You want to shake them and tell them to wake up and move along. Normally, high explosives blow people apart. You don’t deal with bodies so much as pieces of bodies. Arms, legs, heads, brains, stomachs, hopes, and dreams, all shattered by an unseen enemy. And then there is the constant smell of roasted flesh which never seems to leave your nose. Even on your off days, you wake up and smell it. There are a few victims trapped. Despite the roar of nearby flames, the drone of German aircraft, and the constant bark of anti-aircraft guns, you press your ear into the rubble hoping to hear a sound. You tap on a piece of pipe and listen again. Someone faintly taps back. A fury of digging ensues and soon you uncover a young woman. Her leg is pinned beneath a heavy beam. You and several of your mates lift in while another pulls her out. Part of her shattered leg remains behind. The ambulance crew frantically searches for a tourniquet but when they manage to produce one, she is already dead. And the screams. Dear God, the screams. The screams of the trapped, the screams of the dying, the screams of those who have survived but lost their entire family. You’ll never get them out of your head. No matter how long you live.

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The crew fighting a blaze one street over is caught in the open when a bomb explodes. Three of them are killed and five more seriously injured. They are whisked away to hospital where another will die a few hours later. And the fires keep coming. The city is facing a fire storm with fires merging together and creating a tornado of fire that threatens to destroy the center of the city. As you spray water on a burning building, a wall collapses nearby, adding another firefighter to the list of the fourteen who will die tonight. Another 250 will be injured, some severely. But you and your mates hold on. Against all odds, you manage to gain the upper hand. As the sun rises, partially obscured by the smoke which still wafts over the city, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is still standing. Despite Jerry’s best efforts, it is still there as a symbol of the city’s determination in the face of everything that can be thrown at it.

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That, Dear Readers, is a glimpse into one night faced by the men and women of the London Fire Brigade and Auxiliary Fire Service. And that is just one night, one out of many. During the course of the Blitz, two fire stations would receive direct hits. Two firemen died in the first and six in the second. The deadliest raid during the Blitz took place near its conclusion, on May 10th, 1941, when over 1300 Londoners died in a single night. And again, the members of the Fire Brigade answered the call. By the war’s end, over 1,000 men of the Britain’s Fire Service died in the line of duty, with 1/3rd of them being from London. In addition, 24 women of the Auxiliary Fire Service also gave their lives. 6,000 were seriously injured and many more slightly injured. Their sacrifices are commemorated with the National Fire Memorial near Hyde Park, pictured below. I will close with a quote from a member of the LFB who penned these words.

And many learned the nastier ways of dying

Or limped back maimed and shattered from the strife

While all endured unpleasantness and danger

Continually—and learned to love life

And in an era here in the United States, when paid and volunteer firefighters get into heated internet exchanges about what makes a “real” firefighter, allow me to share this anecdote. The paid firefighters were issued one type of boots and the auxiliary another. One Station Officer during the Blitz walked past the tarp covered bodies of 14 firefighters. All he could see of them was the boots sticking out. 6 wore the boots of the London Fire Brigade. 8 wore the boots of the Auxiliary Fire Service. “Well,” he said “they are all equal now.”

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May we never forget those who fought to save lives during the worst war the world has ever seen.

Hutch