The Wrong Way to Tickle Mary: Music and Memory



I’ve always been a fan of music. I’ve also always been a student of history, thus studying music from bygone eras has great appeal for me. As a lad, I remember watching a World War Two movie at my grandfather’s house. He was a veteran of that war, having seen North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium, though not as a tourist. I think the movie was Action in the North Atlantic but I am not sure. There was a scene where the men were singing the (at the time) well known “Bless Em All”. It just so happened that granddaddy was passing through the den at that exact moment. He paused there by the television and then began to laugh. I asked him what was so funny and he said “Son, I know that song well. But that’s not how I remember singing it.” Granddaddy, a man whom I had never heard raise his voice, let alone utter a profanity, then launched into a rousing rendition of “F–k Em All.”

Over time, he also taught me some of the racier versions of other songs along with some soldier songs that were never recorded. His father was a World War One veteran and so granddaddy also knew the more, shall we say, risqué verses from Mademoiselle From Armentieres along the Tipperary parody which gives today’s post its name. Naturally such songs were amended when they were recorded, or in the case of World War Two music, played on the radio. But I fear that we might be in danger of losing some of the actual lyrics sang by soldiers.

Here in the United States, history is heavily sanitized. No one had sex or drank alcohol (other than Prohibition). Profanity was invented by rap artists. Soldiers during World War One and Two did nothing but attend church when not at the front. I think this is in part because some feel that to discuss things like venereal disease and illegitimate wartime children is to attack the soldiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understand that our combat troops during both world wars were young men far away from home (often for the first time) who faced the rather imminent prospect of death. Thus the songs they sang had little to do with glory and honor, they left that to the civilians, and more to do with military bureaucracy and the time honored alcohol and sex. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.

To understand why men might sing “Hurrah for the next man who dies” is to understand how those men viewed the war. To consider the racy lyrics of some of these songs is to understand that wars are still fought by young men (and now young women). Soldiers in the Great War, when they had the time, wanted to snatch what little happiness they could in the short time they might have left on the earth. If they sought comfort in a bottle or the arms of a prostitute, who among you could blame them?

One of the biggest problems I face in teaching my US History survey courses is that students don’t consider figures from the past to be flesh and blood people. The idea that they had the same emotions as we do is difficult to get across to them. Once upon a time our grandparents fell in love and (GASP) had sex! And your grandpa while serving in France (be it in either World War) might have sang a song about getting drunk and doing creative things with a prostitute. So these bawdy songs from the past must be remembered (thought not necessarily played on the radio) because they give us a glimpse into a world that we will never see. And they might just give us an appreciation of how human our elderly family members once were.

And for the record, my wife does not permit me to sing “Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine” at home or in public. Here are a couple of links to some popular WW1 songs as they were probably sung in the trenches.

Mademoiselle From Armentieres

Wrong Way to Tickle Mary

Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine

(Do NOT listen to Three German Officers is you are easily offended. It gave the more famous Mademoiselle from Armentieres its melody.)

Stand To Your Glasses Steady

(AKA: Hurrah For the Next Man Who Dies)



All Hell Exploded In Our Faces: A “Firsthand” Account of the Battle of Franklin


Through the travail of the ages

Midst the pomp and toil of war

Have I fought and strove and perished

Countless times upon this star

George Patton


The following comes from a dream I first had many years ago. I woke up drenched in sweat. I could taste the gunpowder in my mouth and I could smell the sulfur based black powder on my fingers. I was in a cold sweat but at the same time I felt strangely calm. Over the twenty years since I first had this dream, it still occurs a few times a year. Always the same. I feel a strange kinship with the author of the above verse, General George Patton.  I think maybe he and I would have much to talk about.

I stand in a line of battle, gazing out across the valley. It is a beautiful Indian summer day. The temperature is cool, but not cold. The sun is beginning its descent in the west, leaving a crimson streaked sky behind. A sign of things to come perhaps. I, along with the other men in my regiment, am angry. Schofield and his Yankees gave us the slip down at Spring Hill. I don’t know which of our officers made a mess of that. We were close, so close, to bagging the lot of them. But now the bird has flown. Word has trickled down the line that the Yankees are dug in and waiting for us. Now more good men will die because of some general’s mistake. Unfortunately this is not the first time in this d—n war that this has happened. General Bragg had a particular talent for that sort of thing. Hood has proven himself equal to the task too. Folks say he is a Texan, but I also heard he was from Kentucky. I’m not sure which is true or why that even matters. I saw him a few days back, perched in his saddle with his wooden leg sticking out at an odd angle and his useless arm limp at his side. Hardly an inspiring sight. Now here we stand.

If I crane my neck, I can see the whole Army of Tennessee stretched across the valley, one brigade behind another. I think there’s something like 20,000 of us now. Far fewer than just a few months back. I marched off to war in 1861 in a company of 100 men and a regiment of over 1,000. Now there’s just about 20 of us left in the company, and a few of them are replacements. Our regiment numbers around 350. The sickness has carried off a good number of us, though that number has grown fewer over time. Yankee bullets and artillery have done in the rest. But through it all, we’ve given a good account of ourselves. I’ve already lost a brother and two cousins. And I’ve marched through more states than I can count. We’ve shed and spilt blood in places with names that no one had ever heard of until we died there; Shiloh, Perryville, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, and more that I can’t remember myself. I’ve come close to meeting my maker a few times. A spent musket ball gave me one hell of a headache at Missionary Ridge. Another Yankee put a round through my calf outside Atlanta. Another inch and it would have taken out my shin bone. I count myself fortunate to be among the living. But as I look across the valley, I don’t know for how much longer.

Two places down in the ranks, Charles O’Neill, an Irishmen, is performing his usual pre-battle ritual of entertaining those around him with a ribald tale of lewd conduct in a New Orleans brothel. He does this before every fight. I guess it calms his nerves. Behind me, our resident expert on tactics, Haywood Galloway is prattling on about our chances for success. When he boasts that we will drive the heathen Yankee into the Harpeth River in a half hour’s time, I turn and remind him that he also said that we would never lose Atlanta. He admits that he was mistaken as to that point but reminds me that we met the Yanks at Kennesaw Mountain and “smote them hip and thigh.” Henry Ferguson, the man on my right, hands me his rifle. He steps out of the ranks, bends over, and vomits the contents of his stomach onto the grass. Then he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, takes his rifle back, and resumes his place. No one says a word to him as this is his usual pre-battle routine. I wish Charles would do more vomiting and less talking.

I can no longer remember why I enlisted. They tell us we are fighting for “The Cause” but no one seems clear on what that cause is anymore. My family never had no money. We scratched out a living but we ain’t exactly in high cotton. The d—n planters look down on us just as they do their slaves. You ask me, I’d trade most plantation owners for a Yankee any day of the week, even if they do talk kind of funny. I’ve met a few of them while on picket duty. They don’t seem like bad fellows. I can’t consider them the enemy since we speak the same language and pray to the same God. I do know one thing, they can put up one hell of a fight if they have to. All that talk about one Southerner licking ten Yankees that the newspapers were full of when the war started has proven to be a lie. No, I can’t remember why I signed up. But I know why I’m still here. I fight for the boys on either side of me and behind me in the ranks. We’ve been through hell on many fields together and I’ll stay with them no matter what. If that means I have to die today then so be it. I can’t give up on my friends. Our battle scarred regimental flag floats proudly above us. I’d die to protect that too, as it is a symbol of the only thing that matters to me anymore, the regiment and my comrades.

Some of the boys are reading versus from little Bibles they carry with them. Others are absently staring into space, lost in their own thoughts, as I am. Down the line, one officer is reading the Bible aloud to his men. His passage is from the book of Psalms. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall nigh come near thee.” I think maybe he could have picked a better verse. And since I am to the right of them, I can’t help but feel a little nervous. But death in war is random. It is all by chance. One step sooner and you’d have missed the round that hit you. One place to the right of where you stood in line and the cannonball would have missed. I’ve seen the man to my right take a musket ball in the face mid sentence. It could have been me, but I don’t like to dwell on that. So far, I’m grateful for the fact that when it comes to me the Yankees have poor aim.

I hear another regiment singing softly, in unison, with their chaplain leading them. I recognize the hymn but as I was never much on church attendance before the war, I can’t say I know the words.

Oh land of rest for thee I sigh

When will the moment come

When I shall lay my armor by

And dwell in peace at home

Henry nudges my ribs and says “I think that moment has come.” I chuckle and earn a glare from the Lieutenant who commands our company as he paces back and forth in front of us like a caged animal. He is young and wholly incompetent. Part of me hopes that he catches a bullet soon before he gets more of us killed than necessary, though I suppose that goes against my upbringing. And then I hear it, a single cannon shot from behind us atop Winstead Hill. The orders echo down the line. “Shoulder arms.” “Forward march!” Here we go. Behind me, Charles begins to recite a Hail Mary. He does this every time as I am sure he wants to ensure he goes to heaven after telling his lurid stories. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve memorized the prayer after fighting in plenty of battles with him. I join in, silently, just for good measure.

The valley shakes with our footsteps. Each shrunken regiment moves behind their flags and it gives the impression that we march behind an ocean of red. Up ahead of us, I catch a glimpse of what looks like a small unit of Yankees out in advance of their main line. We are going to overlap their lines with ease. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought. “At the quick step!” We pick up our pace. And then it starts. Whooooooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Whooooo-eeee! Our yell. I’ve heard the Yanks cheer moving forward, but nothing like our Rebel Yell. Prisoners say it scares the daylights out of the Yankees. With good reason too. As I join in, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. If we can’t drive them out with force, then maybe we can yell them out.

We get so close that I can see the individual faces of the Yankees in the advanced line. They stare at us with eyes wide with a mixture of fear and awe. I hear their officers urging them to open fire. Then all hell explodes in our faces. I feel sudden space to my left but I don’t turn and look. Someone else slides into the place. We quickly fire one volley into their ranks though I don’t think I heard the order to do it. The Yanks turn and bolt for the safety of their main lines. Our officers are yelling at us to follow them and we do, matching them step for step. We even pass a few of them. I imagine someone will be along to gather them up and direct them to the rear.

There is a road that runs through the Yankee lines and they didn’t bother to block it though they erected pretty extensive breastworks everywhere else. The Yanks hold their fire, not wanting to shoot their own men who are running between us and the Yankee positions. We smash into them like an ocean wave. It is mass confusion. Soldiers are running in every direction. The powder smoke is thick and I have a hard time seeing much of anything in the gathering twilight. Suddenly, a phantom group of Yanks looks like they appear from the very ground itself. Screaming like demons from hell they run towards us. For the first time, I feel fear.

My hands shake as I try to load my musket. I manage to get one shot off and hit a young private in the chest. There’s no time to reload. Jesus Christ it’s going to be hand to hand. I hate this. Killing at a distance is one thing, but killing up close is something quite different. A Federal soldier lunges at me with his bayonet. I parry his strike and smash him across the jar with the butt of my musket. The air is filled with the sounds of desperate men. I can hear the screams of enraged men, the shrieks of the wounded which always turn my stomach, and the roar of gunfire. I turn and see a Federal battery preparing to fire into another advancing regiment behind us. First I hear the roar of the cannon. Then I can hear the crushing sound of bones shattering under the impact of double canister rounds. Body parts fly dozens of feet into the air. My ears bleed from the concussion of the blasts.

There is a tug at my elbow. I look down and see Henry kneeling by my side. He pulls at my sleeve with his left hand while he tries to stuff his intestines back into the gaping hole in his stomach with his right hand. I drop my rifle and grab him under the arms. I try to pull him away to the safety of the other side of the breastworks, but as I pull him his intestines snake out of his stomach forming a trail. I set him down. His eyes are glazing over and I know that he won’t be much longer for this earth. I grab the nearest rifle and locate a large Federal sergeant who is kneeling atop our hapless Lieutenant, hands locked around his throat. Oh the temptation to turn away. But it isn’t the Lieutenant’s fault that he is an imbecile. I plunge my bayonet into the Sergeants back and give it a quarter turn to the right. He stiffens and screams as I withdraw it. The Lieutenant scrambles out from under him, picks up his sword, and stabs the sergeant through the neck. He is covered in spurting blood. As the Lieutenant turns to move away, he drops to the ground without a sound. He doesn’t get back up.

As I try to load my rifle again, I see soldiers weeping hysterically as they try to do the same. Some are wandering around in circles laughing, their minds broken by what we are doing to each other. Two officers in the middle of the road are fighting with their swords as if they are medieval knights. But that is officers for you. They always have to be the center of attention. I look to my left and right and notice a few of my company and regiment still in the area. We move to seek refuge on the other side of the Federal positions, facing the spot where we started our attack. The Yanks dug deep ditches there and I think we’ll be much safer.

We keep up as steady a rate of fire as we can over and through the wooden logs at the Yankees just on the other side. But our losses are mounting. Blood is starting to fill the bottom of the ditch. The air is thick with the acrid, sulfuric stench of the gunpowder that smells, I imagine, like hell itself. The coppery scent of blood makes me want to vomit. I gag involuntarily as I try to load my rifle with shaking hands. Some of the men are praying aloud as they go through the motions of firing their rifles. Others are screaming curses at the Yanks, at the Confederacy, at General Hood, or at all three. “God have mercy on us!” I hear from down the line. As I turn, I see the Yanks preparing to fire a cannon down the length of the ditch. Then I feel nothing.

So as through a glass, and darkly

The age long strife I see

Where I fought in many guises

Many names but always me

So forever in the future

Shall I battle as of yore

Dying to be born a fighter

But to die again, once more

Through a Glass, and Darkly by General George S. Patton


P.S. I cannot logically explain why I have this reoccurring dream. Or at least not in a manner satisfactory to most people. I do have a decent hunch though……



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.