Happy Birthday Odd Nansen

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen was born 121 years ago today, making this (at least in Hobbit-speak) his twevlety-first birthday.  Whatever the year, it is always an occasion to remember and commemorate.

In remarks given by then U.S. President John F. Kennedy at a fundraiser held on November 29, 1962 for the benefit of a yet-to-be-built National Cultural Center, he observed:

“Art knows no national boundaries.  Genius can speak in any tongue, and the entire world will hear it and listen.  Aeschylus and Plato are remembered today long after the triumphs of imperial Athens are gone.  Dante outlived the ambitions of 13th Century Florence.  Goethe stands serenely above the politics of Germany, and I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for the victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”*

I am equally certain that after World War II has become as a relevant as the Peloponnesian War, Odd Nansen’s contribution to the human spirit will still be remembered and commemorated.

*Following Kennedy’s assassination, almost exactly one year after these remarks were delivered, Congress passed legislation to rename the cultural center the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  The Kennedy Center officially opened September 8, 1971.

Anti-Semitism in America

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On this day in 1951 Thomas Buergenthal first set foot on American soil.  He was 17 years-old.  During a good part of those 17 years Tom had successfully defeated the Nazis’ best efforts to murder him, whether through the liquidation of the Kielce Ghetto, internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau, or participation in the Auschwitz Death March.

But all that was now behind Tom, and he was eager to start a new life in America, his new home, a country that had been so instrumental in vanquishing the scourge of Nazism, and thus ending the suffering of so many.

One thing Tom most likely never imagined in his wildest dreams back in 1951 was that seventy-one years later anti-Semitism would be alive and well in America, and that a former president of the United States, who is also a current candidate for a future presidency, would be entertaining virulent anti-Semites in his home.

My purpose here is not to dwell on the manifold moral failings of The Former Guy, but to ask each of us to look in the mirror.  In doing so I would ask each of us to reflect on part of a blog I originally wrote five years ago:

In a fascinating, insightful and highly readable new book, Why: Explaining the Holocaust, author Peter Hayes concludes his inquiry with three “broad implications for all citizens.”  Second among these is that “the Holocaust illustrates the fundamental importance and difficulty of individual courage and imagination.”  Certainly, Odd Nansen possessed the requisite courage and imagination.  But Hayes goes on to remark that bravery alone is not enough: “wit, wiliness, shrewd judgment, persistence, and creativity in challenging evil are also indispensable.”  Again, Nansen’s diary is replete with examples of these traits as well.

Hayes’ book is broken into a series of chapters, each of which addresses one question central to the Holocaust: Why the Jews?  Why the Germans? Why murder? Etc.  One question Hayes does not tackle (probably because it would require its own book) is why some people became villains, and yet others, like Nansen, became heroes.

When we pontificate today that “we must never forget the Holocaust” or “we must never let it happen again,” implicit in our statement is the firm belief that we would never participate in such evil; we would never support a program like the Nazis.  And yet millions of Germans, Austrians, and Sudeten Czechs joined the Nazi Party, and millions more collaborated with them in occupied and allied countries.

Perhaps—perhaps—one can understand the allure which the Nazi ideology (and jobs) held for the down-and-out mechanic or the failed farmer (which is what Heinrich Himmler, the greatest mass murderer of all time, was before the war).

But how could educated German doctors, subject to the Hippocratic Oath (“do no harm”), willingly engage in the so-called T4, or Euthanasia Action, killing the disabled (71,000–80,000 murdered by August 1941, and many more after that as well)?  How could “many eager lawyers,” dedicated to the rule of law, willingly act “as middleman in the sale of Jews’ assets, and the numerous willing graspers for their medical and legal practices, their artwork, their houses and apartments, their furniture and carpets”? How could German professors, leading some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, permit the Nazi minister of education to order them: “From now on, it is not up to you to decide whether something is true, but whether it is in the interests of the National Socialist Revolution”?

So, how could we have withstood the subtle coercion exercised by, and the enticing blandishments offered by, the Nazis had we lived in that time and place?

Hayes does provide a significant clue, when he writes, “Resistance is never easy and seldom comfortable, and compassion has to be practiced in order to hold up when challenged.” (emphasis mine).  The Odd Nansen depicted in his diary (1942–1945) is the same Odd Nansen who voluntarily put his career on hold in 1936 to form a relief organization for stateless Jewish refugees.  He undertook the task knowing it would be difficult, frustrating and often daunting, especially in the face of indifference and official governmental anti-Semitism.  Is it surprising, then, that Nansen managed to survive the crucible of World War II with his humanity intact?

If today we flatter ourselves that we can be indifferent to suffering in our midst, if we can ignore the plight of those less fortunate, or of powerless minorities (like the Jews of the 1930s), if we can turn our backs on the lessons of the beatitudes, will we really be ready, if and when we are ever tested in a conflict as horrible as the Holocaust? The lessons of history suggest otherwise.

 

 

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part I)

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“Today I attended a concert by Vera Gran. . . .  She sings classical songs and modern songs by the young composer Kuba Kohn, a product of the ghetto.  His music expresses all the sadness and resistance of the ghetto.  It has a new and original note that could only be born in this atmosphere of suffering, torture, and dogged endurance.” (Diary of Mary Berg, December 14, 1941)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis during World War II.  Over 400,000 Jews (equal to approximately 30% of the total prewar population of Warsaw) were confined to an area of roughly 1.3 sq.mi., representing about 2.4% of the total prewar area of metropolitan Warsaw.

Warsaw Ghetto

Before it was all over, and the Ghetto finally destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising (April—May, 1943), virtually all of the Ghetto’s inhabitants—noncombatants all—would be dead.

To put the scale of this tragedy into some perspective, the Jewish death toll in the Warsaw Ghetto alone is equivalent to:

  • 100 times the number of Allied troops killed on D-Day;
  • Over 20 times the number of Americans killed during the entire Battle of the Bulge, America’s deadliest battle in World War II;
  • All American soldiers killed during World War II.

One of the reasons so little has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto is that so few survived the experience—less than 1% of the initial inhabitants.  As one historian observes: “The heroic struggle and suffering of the Jews in the Polish ghettos constitute one of the most tragic and least known chapters of the war.”

Fortunately, a diary written by 15 year-old Mary Berg (born Miriam Wattenberg), spanning the period October 10, 1939 to March 5, 1944, offers a detailed and poignant, picture of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Mary’s family had been living comfortably in Lodz, Poland (her father was a successful art and antique dealer) when the war began on September 1, 1939.  When Lodz came under attack the family fled to Warsaw, which soon also came under German bombardment.  After 27 days of increasing punishment, Warsaw surrendered, and Poland became an occupied country.  By the following July, Mary writes that a de-facto Jewish Quarter has developed in part of Warsaw, beyond which one dares not go, on pain of being “hunted by the Germans or attacked by Polish hooligans.”

Five months later, in November 1940, rumors began to circulate that the Jewish Quarter would soon be isolated and its residents locked in.  Even then—more than a year of living under Nazi rule, many Jews did not fully realize the extent of their predicament:

“Some people say that this will be better for us, because the Germans will not dare to commit their crimes so openly and because we will be protected from attacks by Polish hooligans. But others, especially those among us who escaped from the Lodz Ghetto, are aghast: they have already tasted life in a secluded Jewish quarter under German domination.” (November 2, 1940)

At the time the Warsaw Ghetto was established, the Wannsee Conference—which would coordinate and implement the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”—was still more than a year in the future.  Moreover, the major killing centers, such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, had not yet been built.  Nevertheless, life in the Ghetto became a constant struggle for survival, and the Nazis seemed more than willing to let starvation and disease take its toll.

The official per capita food ration was set below subsistence levels.  Those with some financial resources—like Mary’s family—could resort to the black market.  A well-established smuggling operation began almost as soon as the nine-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped, brick walls enclosing the Ghetto went up.

On the other hand, those without such resources simply starved:

“On Leszno Street in front of the court building, many mothers often sit with children wrapped in rags from which protrude red frost-bitten little feet.  Sometimes a mother cuddles a child frozen to death, and tries to warm the inanimate little body.  Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.  The number of these homeless mothers and children is growing from day to day.” (November 22, 1941)

Even those with some resources found the ever-increasing price of smuggled goods put most food items beyond their reach:

“Only a few people in the ghetto are still eating normally: the managers of public kitchens, the very wealthy, and the food smugglers.” (February 2, 1942)

In such a weakened state, in such crowded conditions, and without all but the most rudimentary medical supplies, disease festered in the Ghetto.  As Mary observes on the first anniversary of the enclosure:

“Of the former one hundred students in our class,* only about twenty-five remain.  Many are unable to pay the tuition fees and a great number have perished of typhus.” (November 15, 1941)

By mid-1942, 83,000 Jews would be dead, victims of disease and starvation.

Apparently, even this murder rate was not sufficient for the Nazis—things needed to be speeded up.  But as bad as conditions were, even Mary, despite all she had witnessed, could not conceive that the ultimate aim of the Nazis was to wipe out the Ghetto entirely:

“[M]ost people think that a pogrom like the one in Lublin cannot happen in Warsaw, because there are too many people here.**  According to official figures, there are 450,000 inhabitants in the ghetto, but actually there are many more, because this number does not include the unregistered fugitives from provincial towns and the loads of Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria.  It is estimated that the total is really more like 500,000.  To exterminate such a number of people seems impossible, inconceivable.” (May 8, 1942)

Inconceivable, so Mary thought.  But then again, Mary had not—could not—conceive of a Vernichtungslager—an extermination camp.  A place like Treblinka.

On July 22, 1942, the Grossaktion Warschau (Great Action Warsaw) began.

Umschlagplatz

Each day, Ghetto inhabitants were rounded up, marched through the Ghetto, assembled at the Umschlagplatz station square, and crammed into boxcars—5-6,000 victims per day, for 60 days (July 23—September 21), all ostensibly for “resettlement in the East.”  In reality, the victims were transported 50 miles to Treblinka, recently completed and equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers, and capable of murdering entire transports at a time.  Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council charged with operating the Ghetto, chose to die by suicide at the inception of the Grossaktion rather than be party to such deportations.

In the space of 60 days, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 men, women, and children were sent to Treblinka and gassed.

Fortunately, Mary possessed one advantage that few others in the Ghetto had.  Her mother, Lena, had been born in the United States, and thus was an American citizen, a status which gave the entire Wattenberg family protection and privileges.

Accordingly, on July 19, 1942, Mary, along with other American citizens and foreign nationals, was moved to the Pawiak prison, also located within the Ghetto.  Conditions there were rough—overcrowding, poor food, etc., but at least the inhabitants of Pawiak were excluded from the Grossaktion. Nevertheless, from her vantage point Mary could witness the daily scenes of terror as the deportations continued, involving many of her closest friends.

The deportations ceased after September 21, leaving approximately 63,000 Jewish inhabitants remaining in the Ghetto. The respite was short-lived, however, for on January 18, 1943, the Aktion commenced once again.  On that same date Mary, her family and other foreign internees were transported from Pawiak to an internment camp in Vittel, France. More than a year later, she and her group were finally exchanged for German prisoners being held in the United States.  She arrived safely in New York City on March 16, 1944, where her diary ends.

And yet, much like Tom Buergenthal, Mary Berg remained haunted by the past:

“After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first.  I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawiki Street to their deaths.” (March 5, 1944).

Mary Berg

TO BE CONTINUED.

*A number of informal—and illegal—schools were established in the Ghetto, where “every subject is included in the curriculum.”

** Approximately 30,000 of the 34,000 Polish Jews in the Lublin Ghetto were sent to their deaths at the Belzec extermination camp between March 17, 1942 and April 11, 1942.  A few individuals managed to escape the liquidation, and made their way to the Warsaw Ghetto.  This undoubtedly explains why Mary mentions the issue in her diary one month later.

Marit Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21

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Today is Marit (Nansen) Greve’s birthday.  Were she still alive she would be 94 years-old.

I have written extensively about my very special relationship with Marit (here, here, here and here), which I need not repeat again.

Let me simply say that I take comfort in the following words which I once happened upon:

To live in the hearts of those who loved you is not to die.

R.I.P kjæreste (dearest) Marit.

My last image of Marit, holding a US Senate Commendation for Odd Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees, received January, 2021.

Delusions: Popular and Otherwise

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At 8 o’clock on the evening of October 30, 1938, millions of Americans were settling in by their radios.  It was the golden age of radio, and they were looking forward to hearing one of the most popular programs, NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour.  Among the highlights of the variety show was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick dummy, Charlie McCarthy.  (Charlie had been carved in the image of a Chicago newsboy Bergen knew.)

Meanwhile, over at CBS, a low-budget upstart program featuring the 23-year-old prodigy Orson Welles (not to be confused with Sumner Welles) was still trying to make a name for itself.  Welles had first appeared in show business a few years earlier as the voice of Lamont Cranston, otherwise known as The Shadow. Thereafter he quickly became involved in acting, directing and producing.

A Young Orson Welles

Welles’s four-month-old “Mercury Theatre on the Air” staged dramatic presentations of popular literature for its Sunday evening broadcasts, including such works as Treasure Island and Jane Eyre.  With the approach of Halloween, and with the world still jittery from the threat—narrowly averted—of war over Czechoslovakia weeks earlier, Welles decided that a presentation of H.G. Wells’s 1898 science fiction fantasy, The War of the Worlds, would be just the ticket.

But how to dramatize a work about a Martian invasion of Great Britain?  And accomplish this in less than one week?  On October 27, with only three days to go, Welles’s theatre troupe was still struggling with their adaptation, which, everyone agreed, had the makings of a terribly dull show.

Finally, someone had a brainstorm.  Why not make the show sound like a simulated news broadcast of a current event, complete with “news bulletins” breaking in on the “regular programming.”  The Martian invasion would also be moved from Victorian England to nearby New Jersey—Grovers Mill to be exact.

Despite subject matter that was so far-fetched that it would seemingly need no further disclaimers, Welles’s program duly began with an explanation that the events depicted in the forthcoming show were purely fictional.  And this disclaimer might have been sufficient were it not for one idiosyncrasy of the listening public.

As noted, the Mercury Theatre couldn’t hold a candle to the Chase and Sanborn Hour.  NBC’s variety show boasted a listening audience estimated at almost 10 million, compared to a paltry 1 million who tuned into the Mercury Theatre.  As William Manchester writes in The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932—1972, “when it came to a choice between great theater and listening to [Edgar] Bergen talk to himself, most Americans preferred Bergen.”

So, at precisely 8:00pm Bergen and Charlie McCarthy opened the show for NBC, while Welles opened his show—complete with disclaimer—to a much smaller audience.

Then, something unexpected happened.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air at work

At precisely 8:12pm McCarthy and Bergen finished their opening skit.  What followed was either a musical act or a commercial for Chase and Sanborn coffee (accounts vary).  According to Manchester, millions of listeners in response spun their dials to CBS to hear what was playing there, and broke in on what appeared to be live reporting of some strange goings-on in New Jersey.  The “reports” became ever more dire until an anguished announcer blurted out:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make.  Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable conclusion that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

Two-thirds of the way through the program there was a break (instead of the more typical break at 30 minutes), where the disclaimer was once again repeated to the audience.  But, according to Manchester, “that didn’t matter anymore.”

“Before the break hundreds of thousands of screaming Americans had taken to the streets, governors were begging their constituents to believe that martial law had not been declared, and the churches were jammed with weeping families asking for absolution of their sins before the Martians came to their town.  ‘For a few horrible hours,’ [a later Princeton University study] concluded, ‘people from Maine to California thought that hideous monsters armed with death rays were destroying all armed resistance sent against them; that there was simply no escape from disaster, and that the end of the world was near.’”

Grovers Mill–Still Standing

Of course, all this panic seems rather preposterous in retrospect; we can all enjoy a chuckle at the gullibility of Orson Welles’s listeners 84 years ago today.  As critic Alexander Woollcott later wrote to Welles, “This only goes to prove . . .  that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you.”  But on a more serious side, American sociology professor Theodore Abel, writing in his journal only three days after the event (November 2, 1938) concluded:

“[I]t is amazing that thousands have apparently not reflected at all as they listened in. . . .  Thousands saw flames, heard firing, and smelled gas. . . .

It was demonstrated that:

1. Theatrical demagoguery has appalling dangers and is enormously effective.

2. Popular education is a failure in the life of individuals.

3. Thousands are incredibly stupid, and lack nerve.

4. It is easy to start a mass delusion.

5. Primeval fears lie under the thinnest surface of the so-called civilized man.”

Are we any less susceptible to popular delusions today?  Millions of Americans proudly boast of their belief in QAnon.  As I write this, the husband of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had his skull fractured from someone steeped in conspiracy theories. A man is in prison for firing an assault rifle in a Washington, DC pizza parlor in the misguided belief that it was the site of a child abuse ring.  A former correspondent for the CBS news show 60 Minutes has alleged that the current administration is participating in the trafficking of children, and has compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele.  And haven’t we all heard preposterous claims regarding the efficacy of COVID vaccines?

It’s hard not to conclude that many Americans today are as deluded, if not more deluded, than any of those gullible radio listeners 84 years ago.

If that is not truly scary to contemplate this Halloween, then I don’t know what is.

PS: Despite a firestorm of criticism from government officials and embarrassed listeners, neither the New York Police Department nor the FCC could find where Welles had broken any law.  In fact, his prank catapulted Welles overnight to fame—and a Hollywood contract.  Less than three years later Welles would write, produce, and star in Citizen Kane, considered one of the most famous movies of all time.

Profiles in Courage: Tom Hudner

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Thomas J. Hudner

Never heard of Thomas Hudner?  You’re about to learn a lot more about him and his exploits very soon (more on that later).

The story of Tom Hudner is really the story of two men: Thomas Hudner and Jesse Brown.

In many ways the two men followed similar career paths.

Tom was born in 1924; Jesse in 1926. Tom graduated from high school in 1943, where he was a standout athlete, captaining the track team while also playing football and lacrosse. Jesse, graduating in 1944, was also a three-sport athlete: track, basketball and football.  Tom served as a high school class officer and in the student council; Jesse was the salutatorian of his class. Tom attended college (the U.S. Naval Academy); Jesse studied at Ohio State.  Tom earned his wings as a naval aviator in 1949; Jesse in 1948.

That’s where the similarities end.

Tom was white; Jesse black.

Jesse’s father was a sharecropper. Tom’s father owned a series of grocery stores, and helped found a country club.

Jesse’s family of eight lived in a tin-roofed shack in Lux, Mississippi, near Hattiesburg.  The home, located near train tracks, lacked a phone, plumbing, electricity, and central heat. The family had no car. Tom’s family of seven lived in a three-story Victorian, complete with Irish maid, in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Tom’s family dressed for dinner; Jesse and his siblings wore shoes only for Sunday church services.  Tom attended the prestigious Phillips Academy prep school, as had his father and uncle before him; Jesse moved in with an aunt in Hattiesburg in order to attend a better, but still segregated, public high school.

Tom reluctantly applied for flight school after some urging from his friends; Jesse dreamed of being a pilot ever since his father brought him to an air show as a child.*

And yet, in 1949, Tom and Jesse ended up in the same Fighter Squadron, VF-32, based on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Leyte, flying F4U Corsairs.  And despite their very different backgrounds, Tom and Jesse, the first African American carrier pilot in the U.S. Navy, bonded, professionally and personally.

Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner

When Jesse and Tom reported to their squadron aboard the Leyte the world was technically at peace but the Cold War was becoming increasingly warm.  The Berlin Airlift had just recently ended; China was in the throes of a civil war; and Stalin and the USSR were becoming increasingly belligerent.  But it was in faraway Korea that things quickly heated up in June 1950.

Without warning, North Korean forces overran the unprepared and undermanned armed forces of South Korea.  Things looked bleak until a hastily assembled United Nations force, led by the United States, not only stopped the onslaught, but went on the offensive, driving North Korean forces north of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. Then China entered the war, and a stalemate ensued.  Meanwhile, the Leyte’s training cruise in the Mediterranean was cut short and the carrier dispatched to the Korean peninsula for air support.

By December 1950, 30,000 US Marines (and some Army units) found themselves surrounded during the coldest winter in memory by approximately 130,000 Chinese troops near the Chosin Reservoir.  All available UN planes were tasked with protecting the beleaguered Marines, a process hampered by the wintry weather and often poor visibility.

On December 4, Jesse, Tom, and eight others took off from the Leyte on their 20th combat mission.  Although Tom outranked Jesse, Jesse had more flight time, and so Tom served as his wingman. Their mission was to fly low behind enemy lines in the mountainous area north of the Chosin Reservoir, looking for targets of opportunity and scouting enemy strength.

The raid was uneventful until Jesse’s Corsair was hit by small arms fire, causing an oil leak.  As his plane’s engine began to seize up, Jesse, too low to bail out, spotted an open patch of snow-covered ground high atop a nearby mountain.  Without power, he crash-landed his plane there.  Tom, fully aware of Jesse’s predicament, witnessed the landing, and while circling over the crash site, saw that Jesse had survived the landing, but appeared unable to exit his plane.  With smoke beginning to rise from Jesse’s engine, Tom feared the worst for Jesse: burning to death in his plane; or freezing to death in the subzero weather; or dying at the hands of the Chinese.

Ignoring standing orders not to risk another plane when attempting to assist a downed pilot, Tom elected to crash land his own plane on the same plateau.  Despite incurring a back injury on landing that would take years to fully heal, Tom exited his plane and made his way through the snow to Jesse in the fading afternoon light.  Jesse was conscious, but his right leg was crushed between his instrument panel and the damaged fuselage, and even with Tom’s help he could not be pulled from the cockpit.  Tom radioed for helicopter help, requesting a fire extinguisher and an ax to help cut Jesse free.

Chinese troops were known to be in the area, and undoubtedly were aware of the crash; only the circling US fighters provided any deterrence. While waiting for the helicopter Tom had time to contemplate whether, if attacked, he would save his last two bullets for Jesse and himself rather than risk capture and torture at the hands of the enemy.**

It was late in the afternoon when the rescue helicopter finally arrived, and even the ax proved useless; Jesse could not be extricated, nor could his leg be amputated.  By now, in shock and exposed to freezing temperatures, Jesse was slipping in and out of consciousness.  But his last words were for his wife: “Tell Daisy how much I love her.”  Inasmuch as the helicopter was not equipped for night flying, Tom and the helicopter pilot were reluctantly forced by approaching nightfall to abandon their rescue efforts and leave Jesse behind.  It is believed he perished soon thereafter.

Jesse Leroy Brown was 24 years-old when he became the first African-American naval officer killed in the Korean War.  He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart.  Having successfully overcome so many challenges in his young life, who knows what Jesse Brown could have accomplished had he survived.***

Jesse L. Brown

Tom returned to the Leyte grief-stricken and convinced he faced a court-martial for his actions.  Instead, he was nominated for a Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award, for conduct above and beyond the call of duty. The captain of the Leyte later wrote: “There has been no finer act of unselfish heroism in military history.” Jesse was given a warrior’s funeral when, three days later, napalm was dropped over his crash-site to prevent any desecration of his body by the Chinese.

On April 13, 1951, President Harry S. Truman presented Tom with the Medal of Honor, the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Korean War.  Jesse’s widow, Daisy, had been invited by the White House to attend the award ceremony as well.  Amazingly, when she travelled to Washington, DC she was unable to find a hotel room, as DC hotels still refused to serve Black guests.  Despite losing a husband in the service of his country, despite a personal invitation from the President of the United States, despite the passage of 174 years since the Declaration of Independence declared all men to be equal, Black citizens of this country were treated—in our nation’s capital no less—as if they still lived in the antebellum South.

Daisy Brown, President Harry S. Truman, and Thomas Hudner (wearing the Medal of Honor)

Both Jesse and Tom would eventually have Navy ships named after them.   On March 18, 1972 a Knox-class frigate, the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown, was launched, the third US ship to be named after an African American.  Jesse’s widow Daisy was the sponsor, his daughter Pamela the maid of honor, and Tom gave the christening address.   On April 1, 2017 an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the U.S.S. Thomas Hudner, was christened in Boston harbor; Jesse’s family attended the ceremony along with Tom.

In July 2013 Tom, one month shy of his 89th birthday, returned to North Korea in an attempt—ultimately unsuccessful—to locate and return Jesse’s remains.

Tom and Daisy remained close friends until her death in July 2014.

A feature length movie version of Tom and Jesse’s story, entitled “Devotion,” is set for general release on November 23, 2022.  It is based on a book of the same name, written by Adam Makos.  Makos’ writing could have been better, but the story is so powerful that the overall work still packs a punch.  I was in tears several times while reading final 75 pages.

Several years ago I attended a history conference, and as I waited in a long line to register at the hotel’s front desk, I realized that I was standing directly behind Thomas Hudner, one of the event’s featured speakers.  I introduced myself; we chatted for a bit, and he signed the book I had with me, about Medal of Honor recipients.  I’ve never forgotten his graciousness.

Tom Hudner’s signature and card

Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. passed away on November 13, 2017, age 93.  Among the high points of my life, one that I will always cherish was the chance to shake Tom Hudner’s hand.

_______________________________________

* Jesse also avidly read about the exploits of black pilots as a paperboy delivering the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the leading African American newspapers of its day.

** 38% of American POWs died in captivity during the Korean War.  This compares to 34% in Japanese POW camps during World War II, 14% in North Vietnamese camps, and 4% in German internment camps.

*** Just as Jesse chose to attend Ohio State because his childhood hero, Jesse Owens, had, his life and example inspired Seaman Apprentice Frank E. Petersen to become the first African American Marine Corps aviator, flying over 350 combat missions, and, in 1979, the first African American Marine Corps general. In 2010 Petersen was appointed to the Board of Visitors to the U.S. Naval Academy, Tom Hudner’s alma mater.

Ukraine and the Blitz

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As we watch with horror the events unfolding in Ukraine, it is clear that when and how it will all end remains unknown.  It is equally clear that no one, including perhaps even the Ukrainians themselves, ever thought they could resist the armed might of Russia for so long and so effectively.

Perhaps the Blitz, which began 82 years ago today, offers some insights.

Less than five months after the precipitous fall of France (June 25, 1940), and the debacle at Dunkirk (May 5—June 4, 1940), Great Britain faced the German juggernaut, alone, and practically defenseless.  Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War, admitted that only one division was up to strength and fully equipped in the entire British Isles.  Of the Royal Navy’s fleet of 200 hundred destroyers, only 74 were fit for duty (due in part to Dunkirk).  Most frightening of all, the entire coast was defended by only 500 cannons, some borrowed from museums.

Since Britain nevertheless refused to see reason and capitulate, Hitler ordered planning to begin for an invasion of the British Isles (Operation Sea Lion), conditioned, importantly, on achieving air superiority over the Channel and the British mainland.  Thus began the Battle of Britain.  While the British possessed certain advantages (radar, effective ground control, fighting over their own land, etc.), and its pilots generally outfought their German counterparts, in the ensuing war of attrition, Britain was headed for ultimate defeat against the numerically superior German air force.

The third phase of the Battle of Britain (which began on August 24, 1940), focused German attacks on the British airfields themselves and, with one thousand sorties being launched each day, seemed certain to finally destroy what was left of the RAF.  In just those two weeks Britain lost a quarter of its pilots.  According to William L. Shirer, “A few more weeks of this and Britain would have had no organized defense of its skies.  The invasion would almost certainly succeed.”

Then Hitler and Herman Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, miscalculated.

Impatient with Great Britain’s refusal to concede, mindful of worse weather approaching in the fall, and most importantly, in retaliation for a British bombing raid on Berlin, Göring on September 7, 1940, switched tactics and ordered massive bombing raids against British cities, primarily London.  Göring hoped this would draw the RAF out in defense, leading to a final, conclusive battle for air supremacy.  Failing that, such raids were aimed at breaking Britain’s civilian morale.  On September 15, 1940, the Luftwaffe launched one of its largest raids against London yet, and suffered crippling losses.  Accordingly, the Luftwaffe made its second miscalculation: it switched to nighttime raids instead.

These two errors spared the RAF.  Its pilots could catch some sorely needed rest; its airfields could be restored; its battered planes repaired.

The Blitz would continue for another eight months, until May 16, 1941, wreaking devastation, killing 43,000 civilians and injuring another 51,000.  But Hitler never achieved his goal of air superiority.  On September 17, 1940, he indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion.

This in turn led to Hitler’s third miscalculation.  As historian Gerhard Weinberg notes:

“Far from discouraging Hitler [recognition that Britain would not withdraw from the war] had the opposite effect of making [Hitler] all the more determined to attack the Soviet Union.  In his eyes, the British were staying in the war in expectation of the Soviet Union and United States replacing France as Britain’s continental ally. . . .  The quick destruction of the Soviet Union would . . .  remove . . . these hopes.”

And we know how that decision turned out.

In summary, in the words of my favorite CBS reporter, Eric Sevareid:

“The Germans gave up their mass daylight raiding when, in the middle of September, they lost around two hundred planes on one day.  They did not know that on that day which broke their courage, the back of the Royal Air Force was also broken and that hardly a complete squadron remained in reserve in all the British Isles.  Had they been able to continue mass raiding a few more days, it is quite possible that they would have torn an irreparable breach in the barricade of the sky which would have laid England open for successful invasion, altering, perhaps fatally, the outcome of the war.  But the Germans lost their nerve; the British did not, and so they won out.”

Keep up your nerve, Ukraine.

September 4: Read All About It!

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Today, September 4, is a special day on the calendar: It’s National Newspaper Carrier Day.

Several months ago, I posted a blog which related my own experience as a paperboy (The Cinnamon Cruller).  That blog generated more feedback from my readers than any other blog I’ve written over the years.  Who knew there were so many paperboys (and girls) out there in my reading audience?

My many blog respondents weighed in with their own personal tales of woe and strife—and occasional enjoyment.  Many related—like me—that paper carrying was not a voluntary career choice, but rather a mandate from on high (parents).  Many remembered brutal weather and miscreant dogs too.  And without exception, everyone described collections as the worst aspect of the paper carrier experience.

Benjamin Day

How did paper carriers get their own day of recognition? Apparently, almost 200 years ago, Benjamin Day, the publisher of The New York Sun, placed an advertisement in his own newspaper as follows: “A number of steady men can find employment by vending this newspaper.”  On September 4, 1833, Barney Flaherty, who was not a “steady man” at all, but rather a 10-year-old Irish immigrant, answered the ad, impressed Day, and was hired.  And so history was made.  Soon, young boys (and a few girls) were hawking newspapers from every street corner in New York City. [Flaherty later became a famous actor, stage name Barney Williams, and died in 1876 “one of the wealthiest actors in America.”]

Barney Flaherty

In 1960 The Newspaper Carrier Hall of Fame was established “to recognize former newspaper carriers who have achieved national prominence.”  Its ranks include: Warren Buffet, Martin Luther King, Jr., Walt Disney, John Glenn, Jackie Robinson, Carl Sandburg and Harry Truman among many other luminaries.

Although I would most likely have chucked the whole newspaper enterprise at the time if I could have (miraculously) exercised my own free will, I now realize in retrospect that newspapering did begin, however fitfully, to instill the rudiments of responsibility, time management, finance, and diplomacy (sweet-talking those dogs, as well as the neighborhood bully).

My “earnings” never seemed to trickle down to my possession, but my tips were all mine.  Those tips enabled my book addiction, an addiction which still shows no signs of abating.

It was that addiction which impelled me to purchase Tom Buergenthal’s A Lucky Child in 2010, and which in turn led me to purchase Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day the same year. Even my parents couldn’t have foreseen that outcome when they issued their edict back in 1967.

So, if you still have a paperboy or papergirl (a dying breed), or run into any other youngster trying to earn an honest dollar, please remember to be generous, on September 4, and always.

After all, you may be launching the career path of a future Buffet, or Disney, or Truman, or MLK.  Or, at the very least, a budding book addiction.  And who knows where that might lead?

Steinbeck Article Published

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MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History has just recently published an article I wrote about John Steinbeck and his World War II novel, The Moon Is Down.  I have previously written (here) about the number of parallels between Steinbeck and Odd Nansen.

The article, entitled “Piéce De Résistance,” describes Steinbeck’s transition from successful novelist to successful propagandist.  How successful?  One critic called The Moon Is Down “easily the most popular piece of propaganda in occupied Western Europe.”  It was translated and secretly circulated (at great personal risk) by underground resistance movements in virtually all the occupied countries of Europe (as well as China).  Winston Churchill found time at the height of the war to read it, and found it “a well-written story.”  (Perhaps it takes one to know one: both Churchill and Steinbeck would in later years receive the Nobel Prize for Literature).  Moreover, Steinbeck was treated like a hero wherever he traveled in Europe after the war.  It’s truly a fascinating story.

Here’s the link to the full article.

Enjoy!

The Norwegian WWII version of The Moon Is Down  (translation: Moonless Night)

In Memoriam: Odd Nansen (12/6/01–6/27/73)

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Odd Nansen’s grave marker

Odd Nansen died forty-nine years ago today, age 71.

The anniversary of his death always seems like an appropriate time for remembrance and reflection. (See my previous observations on this date in 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016).

Recently I finished reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  In it, Goodwin describes the difficult, often painful, and yet highly productive, marriage between Franklin and Eleanor, and how bereft she felt at Franklin’s sudden death in Hot Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.

In her nationally syndicated newspaper column “My Day”* written just two weeks later, on April 26, 1945, Eleanor quoted a little verse sent to her by a friend she had not seen in a long while: “They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind: In those whom they have blessed they live a life again.”  According to Goodwin, those simple lines inspired Eleanor to make the rest of her life worthy of her husband’s memory.  “As long as she continued to fight for his ideals, he would continue to live.”

Eleanor, an awkward and often lonely child, certainly proved herself worthy of her husband’s memory.  In December 1945, she accepted President Truman’s invitation to join the American delegation to the new United Nations.  In doing so, she was “setting forth on a new journey into the field of universal human rights that would make her ‘the most admired person in the world’—and an important figure in American public life for nearly two more decades.”

What better way, on the anniversary of Odd Nansen’s death, to honor his memory, than to continue the fight for his ideals, and thus prove ourselves worthy of his legacy as well.

Odd Nansen with Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN. Roosevelt was accepting the first UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award (1954)

*Eleanor wrote about Fridtjof Nansen several times in her My Day column, but that is a matter for a future blog.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • May 15, 2023: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway
  • * = Virtual

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"Thank you for the fantastic program. It was a great pleasure to have you at the museum."

- Eric Nelson Executive Director/CEO Nordic Museum Seattle, WA

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