The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s Hogan’s Heroes, only it’s set in WWI and it’s real.

Quick synopsis: Story of various POWs in WWI German prisons and their attempts to break out.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One of the escapees immediately sent a telegram after making it to neutral territory. It was addressed to the prison commandant. He threatened to break his neck if he ever saw him again.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The class system in a POW camp is pretty ridiculous to contemporary reading. The thought that officers would have fellow prisoners waiting on them like servants is hilarious. However, not nearly as hilarious as the hijinks perpetrated by the prisoners against their captors.

My Take: If this were historical fiction, Bascomb would be lambasted for not taking his subject matter seriously. The farcical events within the book defy belief even though some had some serious consequences including death.

But all of it is true. Bascomb pulled from various primary sources to pull together a story which covers literally dozens of escapees and escapes at various POW camps. This book could have easily gone off the rails with the number of subjects and locations even without accounting for the multiple escapes by almost all the protagonists. However, Bascomb never ventures too far from the through line of the massive break out at the end. The previous attempts, which seemed like tangents early in the book, end up ratcheting up the narrative. We know how easily someone can get out but making it to the border is far from a certainty.

It’s a cliché, but a cliché for a reason. I didn’t want to put this one down.

Verdict: Great book for anyone. Fast paced, entertaining and utterly hilarious even while recognizing the danger the protagonists are in.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress
  • Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Michael Zuckoff, Lost In Shangri-La

Random Musing: Why are Magazines Still a Thing?

What’s this musing about: Why do people publish magazines anymore?

I intended to do a review of Smithsonian Magazine. I would give it the insightful and serious review I do the books I read. While reading my third month of the magazine, it dawned on me. What’s the point here?

The first thing I did was go to the Smithsonian Magazine website. I cross checked to see if I could find the articles in the magazine online. Yes, I could.

Well then, what’s the point here? Technology has taken a hit out of a lot of things: the home telephone, CDs, the phone book. So why haven’t magazines become completely extinct?

They are starting to, but it seems like some are still slipping through the cracks. Smithsonian is a bit of a head scratcher for me though. I love history enough to make a website about it, but I have no illusions about how many more of me are out there. I even thought about where do magazines still make sense. I could only thing of one very specific situation.

At the doctor’s office, while waiting for an appointment, and your 4-year-old needs to watch YouTube on your phone, or she will tear everything down. Then it’s time for a magazine!

Granted, you could call me a hypocrite for writing this while still owning 600 physical books. I would then point you to my musing about why and tell you to pay attention!

In conclusion, Smithsonian Magazine is really good! But you only need to go to the website. So, I guess Smithsonian Magazine online is really good and free!

In the Enemy’s House by Howard Blum

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Spying sounds exhausting.

Quick synopsis: An espionage story about breaking Russian code after WWII in an attempt to stop the leaking of nuclear secrets.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Military recruiters lying their asses off! Who knew? Not a bunch of women during World War II who thought they were going somewhere glamorous then ended up locked in dark rooms deciphering things.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Chapter 6 is how codes work. I read it three times. I still have no idea how you can even devise something like that let alone decode it.

My Take: On paper, this story is a home run. You have a sweet-talking FBI agent (Lamphere) looking to make his mark and an anti-social code breaker (Gardner) who is the best at what he does.

However, the story of the book is not nearly as engrossing as the snippet makes it out to be. The book on a whole is a good read. It is interesting and the entire science of code breaking makes my brain hurt a lot.

The thing is, I wanted to hear more about Lamphere and Gardner and how they worked together. The book is much more interested in Lamphere and Gardner becomes a very secondary character in the whole story.

Also, the book jumps between the various spies and their code names a bit too much. While spy books can often be a little difficult to follow when you suck at names (like me), it should not make me go back pages and pages to remember who we are even talking about. I found myself doing that a lot.

It may sound like I didn’t like the book. I did, but I planned on liking it a lot more.

Verdict: An enjoyable read if espionage is your thing, but not as great as it could have been.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor

Chernobyl (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: In Soviet Russia, miniseries make you look incompetent and corrupt.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The miniseries shows what happens when you look into an open nuclear core even for a few seconds. Spoiler alert: You die.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The final episode drastically swerves from actual history but does highlight the most ironic aspect of the entire disaster. It’s not good when your failsafe makes things worse.

My Take: This is a real good one.

Chernobyl does what a lot of TV does not do; it takes something you read about and adds to it. I just recently finished Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl and was very interested to see how much the show would deviate from the actual history. Turns out, very little.

More importantly, the show adds massive visuals to the catastrophe. As good as Higginbotham’s book is (and it is excellent), it is very hard to understand the scale of the disaster. It is too big for words. Chernobyl shows you what it looked like back then and makes you feel how massive the destruction was. Additionally, the show makes radioactivity a pervasive threat which leads to some really tense moments.

Of course, some liberties are taken. For the most part, I don’t take issue with the vast majority of the things they altered. The one annoyance I had was Emily Watson’s character. She is supposed to be an amalgamation of scientists who actually did exist. You get the feeling she is inserted because otherwise the show would be one big boys club. I wouldn’t argue with that except that there is an immensely important woman who was left out of the show. Maria Protsenko was in charge of the massive evacuation of Pripyat and stayed behind after. Her role was not a small one and deserved to be in here somehow.

All that being said, Chernobyl gets it right a heck of a lot more than it gets wrong.

Verdict: A must watch. Scary, darkly funny, and adheres to the history with a couple of exceptions.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl (book)
  • Saints & Strangers (TV miniseries)

Dannemora by Charles Gardner

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This was a hell of a lot more like Shawshank than I expected.

Quick synopsis: The prison escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Seriously, it’s just like Shawshank! The two guys dug out of their rooms, covered the holes, and then got out through the prison. There was more digging involved. Also, neither of these scumbags was innocent like poor Andy.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I didn’t realize how many prisons were in northern New York. There is a lot and they are not far from each other. I always picture prisons as off in the middle of a forest, not clustered together.

My Take: Charles Gardner is a former correctional officer and he has an ax to grind. And boy, does he!

Luckily, he is given the perfect opportunity to air his grievances with the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat. Both of them are terrible human beings. One murdered a state trooper, the other an old man (who went out of this life like a BOSS). You will not like either of these guys, but you will have to admit they have some ingenuity.

Add into this story an overworked and underfunded prison system, a civilian woman with few morals, and a governor who the author really hates.

Gardner doesn’t look down on all his subjects though. As a local who lived through the manhunt, he takes the time to explain the lay of the land and compliment the great people and law enforcement during the manhunt.

The book is very informative, flows well, and let’s just say the end is satisfying.

Verdict: Good book and a fun read.

If You Liked This Try (prison break edition):

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers

History Detective: Charles Dawson Part III

The final installment of my search into Charles Dawson through his World War I photo. For Part I, go here. For Part II, go here.

Once Charles and his unit landed in France, it didn’t take long for them to get into the thick of it. And by thick of it, I mean the deadliest military campaign in American history: the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This campaign was part of the larger final push in eastern France which continued right up until the armistice in November 1918.

American losses were staggering with over 26,000 killed and 95,000 wounded. These numbers are too large to even fathom, but in the absence or words, take a look at this picture:

The “hollow eyes” certainly give you an idea of the hell on Earth they were enduring. Germans weren’t the only danger. Just as deadly and harder to combat was the Spanish Flu. When all is said and done, attrition of the 314th was 50% of their combat readiness. This meant for every 2 men, 1 was a casualty in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. But at the end of the offensive, the war was won.

Which brings me to the best the best part of our original picture. I had deciphered everything else within the picture, but one date was elusive. At the bottom, I can make out “Yves-Polin,” “Ma,” and “1919.” Putting that all together, I found out Yves-Polin was a very small place in Western France and I’ll never know whether it is May or March 1919. What I do know is that the fighting was over by this time and the unit was clear on the other side of France from where the battle ended.

Putting all of my information together and I realized this is a picture of D Company, 314th Infantry on the eve of their return home. These are the survivors of one of the worst wars ever fought. And Charles Dawson was one of them.

The Shipwreck Hunter by David Mearns

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It is really hard to find old shipwrecks. Who knew?!

Quick synopsis: Selected shipwreck findings of celebrated explorer/shipwreck hunter David Mearns.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Shipwrecks are sometimes so easy to find it’s kind of embarrassing. The Esmeralda, a 500-year-old ship was found in about 5 meters of water.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Did you know numbers nerds combined with nature nerds can figure out where ships sank? I sure as hell didn’t. Mearns talks about how he and his team would target places to look by figuring out the currents, winds, and other math/science nerd stuff. And it would work!

My Take: I was very skeptical of this book when I purchased it. I heard great things, but also worried I was about to read about some blowhard explaining how smart he was and how he found these ships. I was half right.

Mearns has two things going for him in his book. First, he is a smarty pants but isn’t a jerk about it. He explains his methods and why they work, gives credit to his team, and never oversells or undersells his abilities. It is a vital part of this book because if he came off as arrogant it would have turned me off quickly. Conversely, you can’t try and tell me you are just lucky when you are finding ships on the ocean floor. It is a tough tone to keep throughout a book, but Mearns does it.

The second thing he has going for him is that he can tell a story. He recounts how all the ships were lost in vivid detail without overburdening the reader with extraneous narrative. You understand the importance of these ships without falling asleep. Also, and I am not sure how, he makes the science interesting. Again, I think this is Mearns knowing when enough information is enough and to move on to the next part of the story.

Verdict: This is a hell of a book and a great read. So go ahead and read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons
  • Spike Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Michael Tougias, The Finest Hours
  • Michael Schumacher, Wreck of the Carl D.

History Detective: Charles Dawson Part II

My continued search into Charles Dawson through his World War I photo. For Part I, go here.

The hardest part by far is figuring out the bottom middle of the photo. I knew it contained Charles’ unit number because I could clearly make out “D Company.” The unit number was much fainter.

After a whole lot of staring, it looked like it might say “31st Inf.” If so, this was another strange coincidence since I just completed a book about the 31st Infantry during World War I. However, common sense told me it could not be them. The 31st were called the “Polar Bears” because they actually invaded Russia during World War I. They were sent ostensibly to protect some supply lines but ultimately fought the Bolsheviks more than anything else. If Wanda’s grandfather fought in Russia during World War I then that would definitely come up in conversation at some point. Also, the Polar Bears came from the northern Midwest and Wanda’s family is from Virginia.

I decided to backwards search a bit. I knew the inscription started with 3 and ended with infantry. How many units could there be, right?! Turns out a lot. Luckily for me, the 314th Infantry was out of Virginia and wouldn’t you know it, that inscription looks a lot clearer when you know what it actually says. A quick google search and the mother lode of historical documents on the 314th was a click away: http://www.314th.org/314th-historical-documents.html.

As any history nerd will attest, whenever you can yell (probably audibly), “I’ve read about this before!” then it’s a fun moment. The 314th gave me that gift. The ship they took to France in World War I, the SS Leviathan which I had read about in The Great Rescue by Peter Hernon. You may ask, “who cares about a ship?” Well, when the ship starts its life as a German ship and ends up transporting over 100,000 American troops then it is a pretty cool story.

The Leviathan began its life as the Vaterland. It was a cruise ship for Germany and for a short while was the largest ship in the world. It headed out and came to port in New York City right when World War I exploded. The ship’s crew knew it would have a hell of a time getting back to Germany with the British navy on the prowl and decided to take a sojourn in New York until it was safe to leave. After all, the Americans weren’t involved. What could go wrong?

Three years later, wouldn’t you know it, the Americans joined the war and confiscated the Vaterland. Before long, it became the U.S.S. Leviathan and began transporting troops. Needless to say, it became a dream target for Germany. No one likes having their property confiscated and used against them.

One of those troops transported by the Leviathan was Charles Dawson. And when he got to the other side of the Atlantic, he and his unit would take part in the deadliest campaign in American history: the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

(The third and final part coming soon!)

Brendan by Morgan Llywelyn

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I hate this book so much.

Quick synopsis: A biography of Brendan of Clonfert and his legendary voyage. I guess. Not sure I can really tell for reasons outlined below.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: St. Brendan discovered America. No, I will not entertain arguments and facts to the contrary. My boy did it!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Uh. St. Brendan discovered America!

My Take: Morgan Llywelyn is a famous author who is well respected and is obviously very talented. She is a published author while I am merely a snarky blogger. I know my place in the world. However, I still hate this book with every fiber of my being.

The true villain here is the Amazon “you might like” recommendations. You are supposed to really KNOW me, Amazon. This is not the history I like. This is fiction with a little history mixed in. At least, I think. Either way, you need a time out, Amazon. You’re drunk.

The book has, as far as I can tell, multiple narrators. Some of it is third person, some of it is Brendan in the first person. All of it is infuriating. For me, if you are going to write fiction then you are free of the shackles of sticking to the script. Fiction should be constantly interesting because you don’t need to take the time to line up the facts of your story. 300 pages felt like 800. The narrative just keeps jumping and you end up caring about none of it. I think there’s some historical truth in here, but hell if I am going to try and discern where it is.

Bear in mind, I am named after St. Brendan. Do you realize how much I wanted to love this book?

Verdict: Probably faster to just drop acid. Probably more enjoyable and will take less time. (Disclaimer: No, don’t actually do drugs.)

I also hated these:

  • Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel
  • William McFeely, Grant
  • Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortes

History Detective: Charles C. Dawson (Part I)

I’m a detective! Not really, but I play one on this blog.

Marc and Wanda live next door. They are great neighbors to have in a pinch. Marc knows how to fix almost anything, which is very convenient since I can’t fix a thing. Wanda is the neighbor type who is always willing to help, especially when your dog is at home too long and you are at work.

Unfortunately, Marc and Wanda are selfishly deciding to get their retirement on and move to their lake house. I do not agree with their decision as there are still many things which need to be fixed, but now we can at least take advantage of the lake house a lot more. And we will.

The one (and only!) positive is that Wanda started clearing out some items for the downsize. She came across something and thought I’d might want to have a look. When I showed up, she had the photo for my history nerd eyes to see. I may have squealed a little.

Somewhere in this picture is Wanda’s grandfather and his unit from World War I. I am sure your heart is palpitating now like mine did.

(Quick tangent: It’s hard to see, but the badass in the front row, second from left is wearing his trench whistle. Yes, the whistle which he’d blow and then thousands of soldiers would charge from their trenches into the teeth of German fire. I needed to sit down.)

Wanda didn’t have much more to go on. Her mom had some information but not a lot of specifics at the time. All I had was this picture and the name Charles C. Dawson, Wanda’s grandfather. It was time to get to work.

It took a little while, but it turns out my eyes are still pretty strong. As I kept looking at the picture, I noticed some very faint writing in the bottom center and right.

I needed to get in good light, squint a bit, and then had to start guessing. The bottom right letters were much easier to see. “Ewing, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA.”

I began my search into Ewing Inc. The first bit of evidence was in some archives which list Jasper G. Ewing as a photographer who worked in Baton Rouge from 1913 to 1945 (https://researchworks.oclc.org/archivegrid/collection/data/900610470). Seems straight forward enough. The time, name, and occupation check out.

Then things got weird. Here’s a random sampling of what people said when I told them what I found:

Me – “You gotta be ——- kidding me.”

“Stop. No way, really?”

“Well, that’s just creepy.”

One of my search results was an obituary. This seems to be for Jasper’s son, since he is a junior (https://obits.theadvocate.com/obituaries/theadvocate/obituary.aspx?n=jasper-g-ewing&pid=17946859). The weird part? His daughter married a man. That’s certainly not newsworthy. She did marry a man named Tom Dowd, though. Why is this significant?

My last name is Dowd.

A quick search using http://howmanyofme.com/search/, which is an actual website I did not know existed until ten minutes ago, estimates there are about 16,000 Dowds in the U.S. I suck at math, but this seems pretty crazy.

Once I got over my shock and decided to stop being so self-centered, it was time to figure out what it said in the bottom middle of the photo.

My search went from weird to very cool.

(For Part II, go here.)