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First to Fall: the American Volunteers who Gave their Lives for France

An excellent report on the Americans who fought in the Great War before the US entered the war in 1917 (and what happened to some f them after we did).

History & Lore of the Old World War


One hundred years ago, by the Spring of 1915, a full two years before America’s declaration of war against Germany, hundreds of young American men were already serving in or near the front lines— as infantrymen in the French Foreign Legion, as aviators in the Lafayette Flying Corps or Lafayette Escadrille, or as ambulance drivers with the American Field Service. These young men, many of them Ivy Leaguers from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and other top universities, joined up of their own accord and at their own expense, putting their lives on hold for several years, for the privilege of defending someone else’s country. Their motives were both idealistic and personal, involving a love of French culture and the French generally, a hatred for what they saw as Teutonic militarism and aggression, and a degree of shame and impatience toward their own country, for failing to rise to what they…

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WW2 War Ads_ Veedol Motor Oil

My July 26. 1943 issue of Life Magazine has yielded a harvest of great color advertisements and color illustrations that add to the stories in Life.

I found this ad from Veedol Motor Oil to be interesting given the subject matter.

As you can see it’s titled, “When Lighting Strikes a Messerschmitt.”

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The “Lighting” is a P-38, the US’s WW2 twin tailed fighter aircraft. The P-38 was manufactured by Lockheed and while it was used in both theaters of war it is more famous for its service in the Pacific War. Richard Bong from my area in Wisconsin flew one and had 40 victories against the Japanese. The P-38 was our primary long-range fighter until the P-51 Mustang became operational.


P-38H of the AAF Tactical Center, Orlando Army Air Base, Florida, carrying two 1,000 lb bombs during capability tests in March 1944[1]P-38H of the AAF Tactical Center, Orlando Army Air Base, Florida, carrying two 1,000 lb bombs during capability tests in March 1944[1] Photo-Wikipedia

The Lighting in the art work is shooting down the most common German fighter of WW2-the ME-109 manufactured by Messerschmitt.

The ad is from the Tide Water Oil Company-a refiner of Pennsylvania oil according to the small print. Veedol is around today but appears to be a Canadian company that works outside of the US.

So, what is so interesting about the ad?

I think the answer to that question lies in the line that didn’t scan because it’s toward the bottom of the page. The line reads, “Oil is Ammunition-Use it Wisely.”

WW2 was a mechanized war and oil was the life blood of all the machines used to wage war whether it was ships, tanks, trucks, jeeps or airplanes. Even countries that had an abundance of oil sought to conserve it for the prosecution of the war. The ad reminds people of the civilian rationing of oil and at the same time points to the fact that our fighter aircraft used oil to shoot down enemies planes-hence, oil is ammunition.

One of the more interesting tidbits in the text is the line in the third paragraph that reads, “No Allied pilot will ever lose his battle because an “ersatz” oil failed him.” Ersatz is a German word that means “substitute” usually of an inferior quality.

The Germans suffered from oil shortages in the later part of the war. Part of the reason Hitler invaded Russia was to gain access to the Russian oil fields that were in the Caucasus Mountain regions. That campaign ended with the disaster that was Stalingrad.

Germany relied on its ally Romania for access to oil. The Romanian oil refinery was  around Ploesti, Romania. Ploesti would become a prime target in the allies’ effort to disrupt Germany’s oil resources.

A major raid on Ploesti was called Operation Tidal Wave and was carried out by US B-24 Liberator bombers. The raid was a disaster because the oil fields were defended by at least three fighter groups manned by German, Romanian and even Bulgarian pilots. Heavy anti-aircraft fire added to the damage done by the fighters. Fifty-three B-24s were lost and over 650 US crewmen. It is notable that the B-24s took off from Libya in North Africa and were unescorted by any fighters like the P-38 most likely because Ploesti was still out of range from the P-38.

Although Operation Tidal Wave was a disaster it didn’t stop the Allies from attacking the oil facilities. The July 26th, 1943 issue of Life has a focused feature on the Invasion of Sicily that took place on July 10, 1943. The invasion of Sicily was the start of the Italian Campaign that would knock Italy out of the war and gain for the allies Italian airfields from which to launch further raids on Ploesti-this time from a much closer range  and with fighter escort.

By mid 1944 the oil shortage in the German war machine would become severe as they worked feverishly to produce synthetic oil of which there was never enough. “Ersatz” then  perhaps has two meanings in the ad, one being we won’t have to substitute and two, our enemies will and it will have consequences!

The themes in most war ads are patriotism, sacrifice (everyone is part of the war effort), support for the military and “our boys.” Almost all ads carry a line somewhere that encourages Americans to “Buy War Bonds and Stamps.” American’s responded to the appeal by buying millions of bonds and that is how the war was financed.

War time Life Magazines are snap shots of what us called “The Greatest Generation.” Studying them are clues as to why that is.





Brutal Valor Review

Brutal Valour: The Tragedy of Isandlwana (The Anglo-Zulu War Book 1)Brutal Valour: The Tragedy of Isandlwana by James Mace

I just finished the Kindle Edition and have to say I enjoyed the book immensely. The Zulu War has been an interest of mine since the movies Zulu and Zulu Dawn came out many moons ago. I’ve read The Washing of the Spears by Morris twice and Ian Knight’s work with Ian Castle more than once because I war-game the period. I’m about to delve into Knight’s epic Zulu Rising. Mace gives credit at the end of the book to those who helped him with research including Knight.

I mention all that because it’s clear that Mace has done his homework. Time after time I was reminded of my previous research as Mace’s character’s personalize the happenings and incidents leading up and including the disaster at Isandlwana.

Obviously much of the dialogue is made up but I found quite believable and logical given whatever circumstance Mace was describing.

The book was a fun read but also a sobering read as he pitted Zulu Warrior against British Redcoat and one realizes that although the Zulu’s won at Isandlwana they took horrendous casualties that meant doom for the Zulu nation.

I’ve read a couple of Mace’s earlier works about the Roman soldier and enjoyed those as well. I think Mace continues to get better and better and I look forward to his sequel on Rorke’s Drift.


WW2 Ads_Willard Battery

During WW2 Americans received their war news from short movie clips when they went to the theater, from radio and from print media such as Life Magazine.

Life Magazine not only brought the war home to civilians via news stories but also encouraged public support for the war effort through the advertisers.

The below ad appeared in the November 1, 1943 issue of Life. The advertiser is the Willard Battery Company, a subsidiary of The Electric Storage Battery Company.


The issue featured a pilot and a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter and the reason I purchased it at a rummage sale!

Willard is still in business today, owned by a South African Company.

During WW2 Willard switched production from automobile batteries to war production. In this particular ad Willard advertises the fact their batteries are used in American tanks.

The advertisement features the most common American tank of all-the M4 Sherman of which about 50,000 were built for use in the American Army, Canadian Army, British Army and even the Soviet Army due to Lend-Lease aid.

The ad is typical as it refers to the sacrifices our boys are making in fighting the war. The ad appeals to that sacrifice by encouraging the reader to buy more war stamps and war bonds so that our boys have the equipment they need to keep on fighting.

WW2 was the last of our wars that involved everyone. The nation was mobilized with one goal-to win the war as soon as possible. Since the Korean War the nation as a whole has not been involved. To be sure, if your family had\has a member in the military who are involved so are you, but for many Americans conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are remote and as a result none of the sacrifice so prevalent in WW2 is made upon most of us.



WW2 War Ads_Electric Boat

Recently I came across a cache of WW2 era Life Magazines and purchased three for three dollars each.

The magazines are snapshots filled with historical and cultural tidbits of life in the US during World War Two.

Not surprising are the number of articles related to WW2 and the advertisements that make reference to the war. Most are in black and white but quite a few are in color. Below is an ad from the Electric Boat Company. (Today EB is owned by General Dynamics.)

The Electric Boat Company was located and is located in Groton Connecticut. “EB” as it’s known builds submarines and during WW2 “EB” built quite a few.

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It got cut off in my scan but in the lower right hand corner of the top picture there is free offer that reads: Fine 18″ X 13″ enlargement of this painting will be sent on request while supply lasts. Write to our New York address for Lithograph E, enclosing 10c to cover postage and handling.

I’m thinking that anyone who saw the ad and had someone in the Navy’s Submarine Service probably took advantage of this offer.

The artist signed the painting and his name is Gerald Leake. Gerald Leake was an American artist (1885-1975). During WW2 a number of American artists were commissioned to do patriotic\war effort work and Mr. Leake appears to have been employed by the New London Ship and Engine Works in the department of Electric Boat that was devoted to the building of submarines.

The artwork is interesting on a number of levels including the details.

First, the picture shows the sub surfaced engaging a target with the deck gun. This was a common practice when a merchant ship or transport was not escorted by a destroyer and could picked off alone. There was limited space for torpedoes on a sub so they used them sparingly.

Second, there are seven Japanese flags on the side if the conning tower. The four plain flags (with the red circle only) represent merchant type ships while the three other flags represent warships. This sub has had seven “kills” total.

Third, the caption reads it is Mt. Fujiyama on the Japanese mainland in the background. American submarines did patrol the Japanese home waters although it is unlikely they would surface given the proximity of Japanese aircraft.

Fourth, the sailors manning the deck gun would have less than 30 seconds to get below if the sub suddenly had to dive! I’ve read accounts where men have dived head first into the open hatch to make certain they would make it.

In the lower left of the bottom picture there is a small insert picture of a US sailor with a quote underneath that reads; “You get at the Japs faster in a sub…says Fong On Git to New York’s Chinatown.”

Fong apparently was the first Chinese-American accepted by the Submarine Service. The paragraph tells us that Fong was anxious to avenge the land of his ancestors. That is a reference to the fact that Japan invaded China in 1937.

The remainder of the paragraph describes the benefits of enlisting in the Navy and the Submarine Service in particular. The benefits of service on a submarine include 50% higher pay, better food, comfortable air conditioned quarters, the opportunity to study technical subjects and “get quicker into action against the Japs.”

This past summer I toured the USS Cobia, a WW2 submarine built by EB on permanent display in Manitowoc, Wisconsin where subs of that type were also built. (Wisconsin Maritime Website. During the excellent tour I learned the following about serving on a US submarine.

US sailors had it better on our subs than any of our allies or enemies had on theirs. Apparently, Russian submarines were the absolute worst and an approximation of of what hell might be like.

However, the 50% higher pay was because of the much higher risk. Survivors from a depth charge attack were few and far between.

The food was better and often included ice cream-a luxury not enjoyed by anyone else. The better food was a morale boost as you can imagine. Being confined to under water most of the time with 60-70 other men had to be depressing which is why so many men could not survive the intense training and profiling they underwent.

They did have the opportunity to learn technical subjects. In fact they not only learned their speciality but everyone else’s speciality so that in case of an emergency anyone could do anyone else’s job!

As to the air-conditioning—that is a bit of a stretch although technically true. During WW2 submarines were powered by diesel engines that charged a battery bank. The battery was used when the sub was submerged. The diesel engines ran very hot and very smelly and the engine room was no doubt the worst place to do your duty. The diesel smell, heat and humidity, combined with the sweat of 60+ men produced a rather unpleasant environment which the air conditioning could not and did not cope with. Submariners earned their extra pay in more ways than one.

The Up and At’Em portion of the second picture explains submarine warfare against the Japanese who were often referred to as the “Jap” or “Japs.” World War 2 was not a time of political correctness and many ads and articles sought to stir the emotions particularly against the Japanese who launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor that drew the US into the war. No doubt racial prejudices fueled the fire.

The Life Magazine in which this ad appeared is dated November 1, 1943. It is claimed by the ad that up to that date 300 Japanese merchant ships had been sunk; a number that rings true with history. Japan was slowly being strangled as US forces took island after island and successfully reduced the numbers and effectiveness of the Japanese Navy. US submarines built by Electric Boat (and the Manitowoc shipyard) played a significant role in the victory that would come in 1945.




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Dare-Devil Aces, Dec. 1940


Awesome artwork is it not?

My wife and I go to flea markets, rummage sales and antique stores as one of our shared interests.

We do not buy much given that we live in a condo with limited space and our interests are narrow.

This past Saturday we went to a flea market and I found a gentlemen with a box full of WW2 Life Magazines and a smaller box full of pulp fiction that dealt with war aviation themes from the 1930s to 40s. It was a bonanza for a history geek like me especially because the WW2 Life Magazines were only $3.00 each!

Dare-Devil Aces (pictured above) cost a bit more and is an example of the pulp fiction magazines that were popular during the Depression and WW2 years.

Dare-Devil Aces was part of a publishing empire called Popular Publications founded by Henry (Harry) Seeger. Seeger’s motive was escapist literature to the masses-a niche that TV, movies and video games now fill more than the printed page.

Dare-Devil Aces was a type of pulp fiction that was based in the realities of WW1 and WW2 aviation and the issue I found (cover above) is from December, 1940. That is one full year before the US entered WW2 and at a time when England was under daily attack from the German Luftwaffe.

The cover of the Dare-Devil Aces never had anything to do with one of the particular stories in the magazine so it’s helpful to say something about the historical part (the airplanes in the artwork) and the pulp fiction part (the stories in the magazine).

The Historical Part

The cover was meant to convey a general theme and for most of the 1940 issues the general theme would have been the Royal Air Force versus the German Luftwaffe given the fact that 1940 was the year of the famous Battle of Britian.

The Battle of Britain was fought after France fell in May of 1940. The British were forced to evacuate France and did so in the epic of Dunkirk.

The Germans made plans invade England (Operation Sea Lion) but first had to attain air superiority in order to protect the troop conveys and prevent the Royal Navy from intervening.

Herman Goering promised Hitler that his Luftwaffe was up to the task but do to some strategic errors and the incredible pluck of the RAF the Luftwaffe failed. Great Britain would remain free from German occupation and eventually serve as the launching pad for the Normandy Invasion in June of 1944.

Despite some isolationist elements in the US many Americans were unabashedly pro-British and took an interest in how England was faring and what the US was doing to help them. Dare-Devil Aces was therefore quite popular with Americans who wanted to destroy Nazism and who saw it as the threat it was.

The Dare-Devil Aces cover  shows three Stuka dive-bombers, one of which is getting shot down. The British planes engaging the Stuka’s appear to be Bolton Paul Defiants, a two-seat aircraft sporting four .303 machine guns in the rear turret.

The ground scene seems to illustrate the British evacuation of Dunkirk earlier in 1940.

That’s about it for the history and the fact is both types of aircraft were obsolete by 1940 and in the case of the two-seat Defiant was quickly withdrawn or used in secondary theaters of war.

The Stuka too was withdrawn from the Battle of Britain because it was slow and vulnerable to the RAF’s Spitfires and Hurricane fighters. It would serve on effectively in other theaters as long as the Germans could maintain fighter air superiority to protect them.

The Pulp Fiction Part

Pulp fiction was never meant to convey historical fact. The stories in this particular issue are either part of a series or stand alone stories that have a fictionalized hero or heroes that triumph over great odds or significant obstacles to get the upper hand.

In the story I read the culprit is a Nazi bomber commander named Von Benz. In 1940 all Germans were considered Nazis in pulp fiction and Von Benz is typical of what you might expect of a Nazi-a cold blooded killer of women and children and a pilot that machine guns British pilots who have bailed out. Nasty guy for sure.

The story revolved around an American named Gary in the RAF (there was an Eagle Squadron of Americans who did fly in the RAF prior to the US entry but the story has nothing to do with the historical Eagle Squadron) and his closest British pilot friend, Bob.

Gary and Bob are both Spitfire pilots. (In 1940 there were way more Hurricanes than Spitfires but even in 1940 the glamor of the “Spit” was already evident.)

Von Benz is either directly responsible or indirectly responsible for a number of atrocities; one of which kills Bob’s mother and sister-the gal Gary is falling in love with (of course).

Gary and Bob vow vengeance with their Spitfires and both get shot down over France where the Luftwaffe base is located. Gary the American is shot down after Bob had been shot down some days earlier in the same place (of course).

Gary the hero (good to have an American hero for American readers) manages  in James Bond fashion to kill a German soldier and steal his uniform (and Luger) and fake his way into Von Benz’s HQ at the Luftwaffe base (of course).

There he encounters an earlier nemesis-a British Captain named Stanton who as it turns out is collaborating with the Nazis, something Stanton has accused “the American” of doing earlier and had resulted in a fist fight with Stanton losing (of course).

Needless to say Gary triumphs over Stanton, the Nazi guards and then the evil Von Benz himself (of course).

The story is pure propaganda designed to get Americans fired up about supporting Great Britain while we were officially neutral.

In fact the magazine editor in his preface to the issue calls American neutrality “pseudo-neutrality” since by that time we were all in for the British supplying WW1 destroyers for conveys and supplies of every kind.

Most Dare-Devil Aces magazines sell for $25.00 or more depending on condition and availability. My issue cost $10.00 (note the cover prince of 10 cents) which is more than I’d like but truth be known you hardly ever find them at flea markets or antique stores.

The cover pictured above is from the iNet as the one I purchased is not so clean.


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The Cumberland Clerk of Clark Field

Amazing story!

The American Warrior

Confession: Part of the perils of conducting archival research far from home is that I get easily distracted. I’ll be plowing through piles of government documents looking for nuggets relevant to my next book, then I’ll stumble across an insanely cool story that I can’t help but to track down. This was the case this week while working at the MacArthur Memorial archives in search of material related to Paul “Pappy” Gunn. There I was, digging around in the collection when I came across a debriefing document related to a clerk named Corporal Joseph Boyland. So I love stories about unlikely folks who step up in moments of great turmoil and crisis to become bigger characters than their rank and role might lead you to believe. In Afghanistan in 2010, I met a quartermaster named Captain Andrew Alvord–who happened to be out commanding an air assault platoon composed of support troops like…

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