What We Forget


Warning: This post contains graphic black and white photos from the Civil War.

Dear Readers,

Since the summer of 2015, we’ve seen an increase in Civil War related news items. Most of them focus on monument removals or flag debates. Obviously such a national discussion is both relevant and important and I would not seek to take anything away from that. However, for those historians who simply want to focus on issues of race and slavery, I would remind them that those issues were decided on the battlefield. Context matters. The cause of the war matters. But it was decided by young men on bloody fields. Quite a few of those young men were immigrants. To try and separate out the military aspect of the war does a huge injustice to those who suffered and died. Part of this is due to the war the country seems to remember the war. The Civil War has an almost romantic air about it. And by that, I don’t just mean the Lost Cause. Civil War movies have tended to be bloodless (and bad). Where is a movie like Saving Private Ryan to graphically depict the realities of a Civil War battlefield? Maybe we need that reminder. But when we focus only on causes and context, we are in danger of forgetting this, the truth about what the soldiers experienced.


We forget that when canister rounds struck a line of advancing infantry, body parts flew as high as the tree tops. We forget that Civil War battlefields echoed with the screams of wounded animals which sounded almost human, and the screams of wounded humans which sounded like animals. We forget the sheer carnage wrought on the human body from a Minie Ball as it smashed bone and tissue. We forget the spray of blood from a wounded comrade’s shattered body that drenched your clothes as you fought on with bits of his skin and tissue stuck to your uniform. We forget the odor of the battlefield; palpable fear mixed with the coppery smell of blood, the sulfuric stench of gunpowder, of sweat, shit, and wool. We forget the courage of the Irish Brigade as they charged Marye’s Heights only to be slaughtered and the courage of the Army of Tennessee in their ill advised charge at Franklin.


We forget the fear and pain of having a limb amputated with a dull, dirty saw as surgeons probed with bloody hands and ungloved fingers. We forget the generation of morphine addicts, made so by their Civil War wounds. We forget the physical pain so many soldiers lived with in their advanced years as they battled arthritis and a back pain. We forget those wounded in mind rather than body who spent their post war years locked in a lunatic asylum, more like a prison than a hospital. We forget the pain of abdominal cramps brought on my dysentery or cholera, more deadly than combat. There is no glory in dying a long, slow death as your life’s fluids leak from every orifice. We forget that for so many young men, this was the reality of their last days on earth.


We forget the fear of loved ones as they waited for news of casualties following a major battle. We forget the relief they felt to find out their husband or son’s name wasn’t on the list only to feel guilty that they felt such relieve when so many in their community, their friends and neighbors, lost someone dear to them. We forget about the generation of war widows and war orphans. of women struggling to survive on a small pension as they struggled to feed their children. We forget the anguish of communities as their young men marched off to war never to return. We forget the men and women who labored long hours in dangerous conditions to fuel the war machine. We forget the slaves who waited for their day of liberation and hoped they survived long enough to see it. We forget those who opted to free themselves and escaped to Union lines only to be used as a laborer. We forget the immigrants enlisted straight off the boat to fight in a conflict they understood little about.

ewell Gettysburg field

When we reduce history to statistics, we ignore the personal stories. When we talk about the Civil War but we don’t mention the horrors of a Civil War battlefield, we are doing ourselves and our country a great disservice. Two percent of our 1860 population died during the war. It touched every family in the country. For better or worse, the war made us what we are today as a country. We must not, we cannot, forget what transpired during those four long, bloody years. Our national battlefield parks are a treasure that must be preserved for future generations. Just as they talk about the causes of the war, they must also continue to tell the stories of the men who fought and died there.



The Big Fellow


Throughout the long history of the British Empire, her most troublesome colony was the one closest to it.

Dear Readers,

I must confess a great crime. I am, indeed, guilty of conduct unbecoming an Irishman. Despite 9 years of marriage, I have failed to require my wife to watch Michael Collins. As she is not Irish, but rather German, this should have been a condition of our engagement. I have but two heroes of the historical variety; General Sam Houston and Michael Collins, Minister for Finance and Mayhem, among other things. Both have quite a bit in common, believe it or not. The Redhead did read a Sam Houston biography whilst we were dating and surprised me on our wedding day by having the inside of my ring inscribed with the word “Honor” so that I could have a ring just like the one wore by Big Sam Himself. Naturally, she knows that I revere Collins as I speak of him often, but I never got around to showing her the movie which, for all its historical faults, and there are many, still manages to be quite good.

To me, the most remarkable thing about The Big Fellah is what all he managed to achieve in such a short period of time. He was 25 when he fought in the GPO during The Rising and died in an ambush, killed by a fellow Irishman, at the age of 31. Journalist and perhaps Ireland’s greatest historian Tim Pat Coogan called him “The Man Who Made Ireland”. This is a fair assessment. From his vast intelligence network to his direction of “The Squad”, Collins helped achieve something that Ireland wanted for centuries. Did he get the Republic he longed for? No, but as he said, the Anglo-Irish treaty gave Ireland the freedom to achieve freedom. Did he sell out the North? Not really. He tried to ensure fair treatment of Catholics in Ulster and, in fact, towards the end of his life sought to ensure the IRA in Ulster could continue to operate if need be.

Was he a terrorist? I guess that depends on your perspective. A stronger country who occupies a weaker nation always refers to those who fight back as terrorists. Consider, however, the conduct of the British Army and the Black and Tans in Ireland. From gunning down innocents in the streets to massacring spectators at a GAA contest at Croke Park, they behaved in much the same way as Collins’ boys, yet somehow they only consider Collins to be the terrorist. The conduct of the British in Ireland from Cromwell through the early 1920s should illuminate who the real terrorists were. Collins understood what doomed all previous Irish attempts to free themselves to abject and bloody failure; traitors and informers within their midst. For this reason, he used his squad to decapitate Dublin Castle’s ability to gather intelligence. It’s a nasty business, war. Especially wars for liberation. In a relatively short period of time, Collins and his boys brought the world’s mightiest empire to its knees and invented modern urban guerilla warfare in the process. “There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.” His tactics were severe, but effective. It’s all the British government would understand at the time. It is sad that it had to come to this, but the British were never going to leave unless they were forced to.

Collins probably knew Dev was setting him up as a scapegoat by sending him to negotiate the treaty. The British could not fathom why the Irish did not want to be “British” and there was no way in hell they were going to grant them a Republic. They did, however, give Ireland a remarkable amount of self-determination as a Free State, more so than Canada had at the time. Make no mistake about it. Collins knew the treaty would not be popular at home. He is reported as having said “Think what have I got for Ireland … Something which she has wanted these past 700 years, will anyone be satisfied with this bargain, will anyone? I tell you this, early this morning  I have signed my death warrant.” His words turned out to be prophetic. De Valera opposed the treaty and thus Ireland fell into a terrible Civil War where former comrades fought against each other. Mick lost his trusted friend Harry Boland and then his own life.

 The Big Fellah’s shadow still looms large over Ireland. He is, perhaps, Ireland’s greatest figure and one of the important figures of the entire 20th Century. Incidentally, whilst his squad popped G-Men on the streets of Dublin, his brother Paddy served as a police officer in Chicago! On his deathbed, Collins’ fathers told the family to take care of 6 year old Michael as he’d be a great man for Ireland one day. Indeed he was. And still is. I shall leave you with one more quote which sums up his feelings for his country:

 “Give us the future. We’ve had enough of your past. Give us our country to live in. To grow in. To Love.”

 If any of you are interested, I made a Twitter account for him as he lacked one. So you can see his comments on himself and on current events. You can find him here: @thebigfella1916



Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 4)


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.


The Flying Lingerie Adds That Helped Win the War: How Lewd!


“To the German pilots honing in on our American bombers, it must have looked as though they were being attacked by a wave of flying underwear catalogs.”

            Capt. Robert Morgan, as quoted by Donald Miller in Masters of the Air, pg. 117-8.


When you think of the aircraft that won the war, one of the first things that come to mind is the pictures of cartoons, names, or more often, scantily clad women painted on them. The Air War over Europe was fought by young men. This is something the movies always seem to get wrong. Actors playing the roles are often in their late 20s or 30s. The men who flew the B-17s, B-24s, P-47s, P-51s, etc, were more often in their early twenties or late teens. As such, they tended to be interested in girls of the same age. Given the fact that we were engaged in a brutal worldwide war and for the men of the Army Air Corps (no Air Force during WW2) in Europe, life was the moment. There was no guaranteed future for them and for many, there was no future. Given the losses they suffered, who can blame them for living in the moment and grabbing whatever pleasure they could from their short time on earth.


Theirs was a different war than that faced by the ground forces. They fought and died in a cold, inhospitable climate where to remove a glove meant frostbite and to lose your oxygen connection meant death. Men, little more than kids, really, died in bouncing aircraft as they own blood froze on their clothing. They died, trapped by centrifugal force in bombers spinning towards earth. They died in crashes, crushed to death or burned, when landing gear failed. They died on the ground, sometimes killed by enraged civilians they had just bombed. They died when their chutes failed to open. They died when flak or 20mm cannon rounds shredded their planes and their bodies. Their life expectancy in combat hardly inspired confidence. In 1943, squadrons were losing over 100 percent of their available crews in the space of a few months.


Some named their aircraft after their mothers or a cartoon character or movie quote. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Others named their plane after a wife or girlfriend (as in the case of the Memphis Belle). More still came up with a name that may be lewd or a double entendre. Here are just a few names from the 100th Bomb Group: Pasadena Nena, Angel’s Tit, Jersey Lilly, Sweater Girl, Mismalovin’, Miss Chief, Miss Behavin’, and Liberty Belle. My wife’s grandfather was the waist gunner on a B-17 named Luscious Lucy. It seems that they were split between blondes and redheads as the hair color of choice on their planes. Given the paint schemes on the aircraft, black or brunette would not have show up as well I think.


Luscious Lucy over England on a training flight over England, Feb. 1944 351st Squadron, 100th Bomb Group

Growing up, I had a strange fascination with World War Two aircraft. I could give you all sorts of details, armaments, turning radius, rate of climb, etc that was unusual for a child my age. What makes it even stranger is that I have a deep fear of flying. It was a strange juxtaposition that I cannot explain. I was lucky enough to know some of the men who flew these planes. My grandparents had a friend that we went to church with (his wife taught my Sunday School class) who was a co-pilot on a B-17. He was shot down and spent a year in a German POW camp. I’ve met a few others along the way too. Brave men, all. I wish I had known my wife’s grandfather as I am sure that he had stories to tell, though, like many of his generation, he was tight lipped about it. He flew seven missions as a waist gunner, including the first daylight raid over Berlin. On one mission, one of his fellow crewmembers was struck in the chest and eviscerated by a 20mm cannon round fired by a German fighter. His blood froze on the clothing of his crew.Her grandfather flew and fought at his position for several hours with frozen entrails clinging to his flight clothes.


Now I know that by our standards today, such images as those that decorated the planes of World War Two are seen as sexist, degrading, and/or objectifying of women. But I humbly state that they lived in a different era. They were young, and many died terrible deaths. If such images brought them comfort, well, who can really blame them? We should not judge unless we too flew those brutal missions over Germany. Only those who have been there can fully understand. I will now leave you with a quote from a poem by Randall Jarrell entitled Losses. It is, in my opinion, some of the best words written in the English language about warfare:

In our bombers named for girls we burned

The cities we had read about in school  



My sexy pinup girl.



The “Good” Old Days Weren’t


Dear Readers,

There is a false impression of the past shared by many who long for the “good old days”. In the eyes of some, in the past people did nothing but go to church, pray, and do good deeds every day. It’s bulls!t, of course, but the mythic view of the American past survives and is still alive and well today. The truth is, however, that from child prostitution to murder most foul, the 19th Century had it all. The same issues we face now were, for the most part, around back then too. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

In the 1860s, an Englishman visited New York City after the end of the Civil War. He left a wonderful account called Sunshine and Shadow in New York. Though naturally you have to take some of his words with a dose of salt, much of it rings true. Smith, the author, reported that the NYPD in 1866 listed 615 Houses of Prostitution, 99 Houses of Assignation, 75 Concert Saloons of vile repute, 2,690 Prostitutes, 629 waiter girls, and 127 vile bar maids. He goes on to say that waiter girls “are not of the highest moral order”. Now I’m not entirely sure what the difference between a house of prostitution and a house of assignation is, but I assume there must have been one as they were listed separately. Smith also observed “cheap hotels are used for the purposes of infamy.” In other words, they had no tell motels back then too! 30 years earlier, another visitor when speaking of the Five Points said “Every house was a brothel, and every brothel a hell.”

Inside these establishments, women engaged in the oldest profession. Some by choice, but more often by necessity. Girls coming from the countryside to look for work in the city often found themselves drugged and shanghied into a life of prostitution. I also use the word “women” but in reality, many of them were either barely into adulthood or not adults at all. Rumors persisted in the 1860s that Bridget McCarthy who owned a brothel on the corner of Mott and Bayard specialized in providing young virgins for men from the upper classes. When I say young, I mean in the 11-13 age range. Technically it was sort of frowned on, but perfectly legal.

And it wasn’t just New York City. Descriptions of other large cities from the era, including London, are similar to what Smith described in his book. Did you have such goings on in rural areas too? Not to this extent, of course, but yes, violence, child sex abuse, and murder existed in small towns as well. And speaking of murder, everyone has at least heard of Jack the Ripper. But did you know that three years before his reign of terror in London’s East End, another killer stalked the streets of Austin, Texas? Austin was not a big city at all in 1884-5, though it was the state capital. This killer became known as The Servant Girl Annihilator which, in my opinion, is the greatest serial killer name of all time.

Most of your big city newspapers from the period are available on microfilm. If there is a university near you, they probably have enough of them that you can get a good look at life from 1865-1900. Just as now, they talk about crime, corruption, scandal, etc. Spend time reading them and you’ll find that life back then was not all that different than today. In other words, there is no such thing as “the good old days”. Especially if you were a minority.

Where it Began


When I was a kid in the 80s, I remember watching a made for TV movie about the well known Anastasia imposter Anna Anderson. This sparked an interest in the fall of the Romanov Dynasty. In junior high, I read Massie’s masterpiece Nicholas and Alexandra. In 10th grade, my World History teacher showed us the movie in class.This was shortly after the Russian’s announced the discovery of the first grave with 9 bodies. Over time, I branched out and studied other areas of Russian History as well, particularly their role in the Great Patriotic War. I even began to study the language. I remember waiting with much excitement the results of the DNA testing done on the first set of remains and on the second set found in 2007. At last, we had a final ending to the story and I’m glad it happened in my lifetime.

I am not a monarchist by any means. I abhor the idea of a nobility where one man is better than me by virtue of his birth. However, I cannot help but feel pity for the children of the Tsar given the horrible manner in which they died. No matter the alleged “crimes” of their father, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei did not deserve their fate. But one of the daughters has held a special place in my heart from when I first saw the above photo many years ago.


Maria Nikolaevna Romanova. My wife (aka The Redhead) says I have a history crush on Maria, perhaps because I keep a photo of her on my desk. Given the fact that The Redhead has not one but two photos of Manfred von Richthofen on her desk (she’s German, so…..), she has no room to criticize. And who knows? Maybe she’s right. Maybe I do have a bit of a history crush. But it isn’t just that. For some reason, in the photos Maria looks as though she’s looking straight into my eyes, and perhaps my soul. All of Nicholas’ daughters were beautiful young ladies, though each in their own way, but Maria speaks to me the most.

I’m not Russian Orthodox. I’m Irish Catholic. As such, things such as icons are frowned on officially (though we are allowed our candles…..I guess that is “different”). However, I have an icon of the Romanov Family (Holy Martyrs/Passion Bearers) on my wall. As a former police officer, Saint Michael is my homeboy. I wear a medal with his likeness on a chain and I speak to him daily. Before I leave the house each morning, I repeat “Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle….etc”. But I also speak to Maria Nikolaevna. I tell her of my hopes and fears, and of my battles with disease and injury. I ask her to intercede on my behalf, and I like to think she does.

One day I’ll get to meet her, after my body final gives up the fight. Perhaps my spirit will travel back in time so I can dance just one waltz with her at a ball in Saint Petersburg. After that, I have other places to go and people to visit, but she’s the one I’d like to meet first. So maybe it is a history crush. Or maybe it is just a profound respect.