Watership Down by Richard Adams. Scribners, paper, reprint 2005. Adams’s story follows the flight of a warren of Berkshire rabbits from the devastation caused by a land developer. Published in 1972, it is still a standard back stock title in good children’s departments. Adams died recently at the age of 96. He was Writer in Residence, University of Florida’s English Department during the 1975-1976 academic year.
Shaken; Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms by Tim Tebow & A.J. Gregory. WaterBrook, 2016. University of Florida’s Heisman trophy winner, Tebow joined the SEC network and contributes to their programming. He has a foundation which seeks to bring, faith, hope, and love to those needing a brighter day. Gregory is a collaborationist, hired to co-author books by people who have something to say but are not writers. I just learned that President Elect Donald Trump paid Tim $12,000 for an autographed helmet. Book authoring can’t compete with a good branding.
Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram Kendi. Nation Books, 2016. Kendi has done the seemingly impossible, written an intellectual history of prejudice in America that has something unique to say about the subject. National Book Award, 2016. Kendi is an Assistant Professor of African-American history at the University of Florida.
Camp Blanding; Florida Star in Peace and War by W. Stanford Smith. Research Triangle Publishing. 1998, paper.
Camp Blanding was one of the largest World War II training bases in the country. Its construction began in November 1939. It received its first division of the Florida National Guard in the spring of 1941, while the construction crews from the Civilian Conservation Corp were still working on the vast camp. The U.S. had not yet entered the war. But military preparedness was now an essential part of our national defense. German U-boats were menacing the east coast of Florida, and the Japanese navy would soon strike Pearl Harbor.
The earlier Florida National Guard’s Camp Foster, near Jacksonville, had been closed and land for Camp Blanding purchased near the town of Starke. Kingsley Lake was part of the terrain and proved to be useful in training for the amphibious warfare in both theaters. Stanford Smith tells us that one of the boasts of those promoting the Starke location for Camp Blanding was that it was “free of mosquitoes.”
The first two infantry divisions to be assembled and trained at Blanding – the 31st and the 43rd – arrived in the spring of 1941. The 31st was largely made up of National Guard units from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the 43rd from the New England States. This was the first time that most of these northerners had come up against the South’s Jim Crow and it took some adjusting. The two divisions were divided by a parade ground which they called “the Mason-Dixon Line.”
The army was still segregated in World War II. There were detachments of “coloreds” on the base but they were mostly support staff. African-Americans also became “engineers,” that is they built military roads and bridges in Africa, India, and Burma (Myanmar). Their officers were all white. All facilities at Blanding were segregated except for the hospital.
There were bad feelings between draftees and those regulars drawn mostly from the various state National Guards. The latter had had some basic training and were already introduced to the trials of camp life. Later, by the fall of 1943, Camp Blanding was mostly training “replacements,” men who would undergo basic training similar to any enlistee but then be sent abroad as replacements to fill the ranks of depleted infantry divisions. Their training lacked the camaraderie that developed when whole divisions were trained together.
As the base grew so did the surrounding towns, particularly Starke. Smith suggests a good measure of the changes in the town: the Coca-Cola bottling plant upped its capacity from 24,000 bottles a day to 112,000. There was bus service available to several towns with United Service Organizations (USO) Clubs that held dances and provided free meals for the trainees. Gainesville’s USO is still around, now functioning as a senior citizen’s center (Thelma Boltin Center). Movie theaters in surrounding towns were packed on the weekends. Movies were also shown on the base. Many entertainers gave live performances at Camp Blanding.
After some exhausting days of training, the soldiers wanted to “relax.” A “honky-tonk community” (Smith’s term), sprang up just outside the Camp’s gates on the road to Starke.
At its height as a training camp, Blanding employed 4,000 civilians. It is difficult to ascertain the number of soldiers who received all or part of their training at Camp Blanding, but perhaps as many as 800,000 if you include all of the replacements and others who received the specialist training that went on at Blanding. Some trained for as long as two years; others for a week or two. We fielded a well-trained army.
Blanding also served as a War Department Personnel Center for soldiers returning from the European theater after the German surrender in May 1945 to be processed before they were shipped off to the Southeast Asia Theater. Fortunately for these weary warriors that mostly didn’t happen. Instead they were sent to bases closer to their homes and demobilized from those locations.
In the last years of the War, Blanding served as a Prisoner of War Camp; nearly 4,700 POWs passed through its gates. The earliest to arrive were German naval prisoners, from U-boat crews. They were an elite amongst the millions of Germans that served in Adolf Hitler’s military and generally fervent Nazis. Later came more ordinary Germans, many in their teens, conscripted into the army in the nation’s final months of agony. These two groups of German POWs did not get along. After beatings and death threats, the diehard Nazis were moved on to another camp.
Perhaps most interesting of the informative Appendices in Smith’s Camp Blanding are the “campaign credits” listed for each of the nine divisions that were trained there. Soldiers that trained at Camp Blanding saw military service around the globe, participants in a world at war.
After the War many of the 10,000 structures at Camp Blanding were torn down or moved to nearby towns including Gainesville. Once again these barracks housed G.I.s, now taking advantage of a free education. A number of the structures still survive tucked away in a small community just north of the Campus.
Blood, Bone and Marrow; A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner. University of Georgia Press, 2016.
A fine biographer of Gainesville’s Harry Crews, Ted Geltner has also described the trials and tribulations of those who make their living “from their pen.” It is not an easy life, and Crews, given the other life choices he made, found parts of it very difficult.
Crews was born in rural Bacon County, Georgia, the son of a couple that scrambled to keep food on the table during the 1930s Depression. His was a ‘dysfunctional’ family. Harry, his mother, and brother moved to Jacksonville for work during World War II. Crews had polio as a child and an almost fatal accident. While playing a favorite children’s game “Crack the Whip,” he fell into a large caldron of boiling water and was severely burned. Geltner describes this difficult childhood, though Crews’ version in his autobiography is fonder of both Bacon County and Jacksonville.
The Crews household was not an environment that valued education, but Geltner contends that Harry did. Upon graduation from high school, he joined the marines, served during the Korean War, and took advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act renewed during the War to give veterans an opportunity to go to college. He entered the University of Florida, eventually coming across its creative writing program. However, because he never liked mentorship or criticism, Crews did not take to its methodologies.
Geltner has given a detailed description of Harry’s writing life: how he wove his observations of the world of Georgia and north Florida into his novels, the pile of rejection letters that he received in the early days of his professional writing career, and the tenuous relationship that Crews had with his various agents and editors.
It may have seemed to Crews that success was long in coming. But, most authors wait much longer before they have the success that Crews had from his earliest novels, Cool Hand Luke and The Gospel Singer.
Crews had the good fortune to receive strong support from perhaps the most formidable quarter of the writing and publishing world, literary critics. These “gate keepers” were never as critical of his work as Harry often was of his own writing.
This biographer gives credit to Harry’s several wives and women friends who guided him through a life with his best friend, the bottle. Though Geltner makes it clear that Harry normally had to “dry out” before he could get any serious writing done and there were long “droughts” when writing wasn’t possible.
Moreover even though his “life style” consumed his income, Crews was fortunate to have had advances from his various publishers and then moderately good royalties. He was also fortunate in have a ‘real job’ that complemented his writing career, first at a community college in Broward County, Florida and then on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at his alma mater, the University of Florida.
Crews took his teaching seriously; his class was popular and there was always a waiting list to get in. But he was often absent. Geltner gives Melvin New credit for creating an environment that Harry respected. As head of the English Department, New was aware of the gap between the academics and the writers. He also appreciated the fact that as Harry’s fame grew, so did Florida’s ability to attract well-known writers to join the English faculty. However, Crews was a difficult colleague. Keeping peace amongst that faculty and finding continued support within the English Department for the program wasn’t easy.
There was a more accommodating environment for Harry – the local bars. Gainesvillians will recognize Harry’s favorites: the Rathskeller, Orange & Brew, the Windjammer, and Lillian’s. When he was in these settings, he was the ‘king of the hill,’ sure-footed, though not so sure-footed by the end of the evening.
In addition to being a novelist, Crews also tried out journalism, writing a regular column, “Grits,” in Playboy Magazine and then guest columns in Esquire. Hunter S. Thompson had fashioned a writing style, “gonzo journalism” for Harry and other writers to follow. In addition to magazine journalism Harry also dabbled with script-writing for Hollywood, the playwright’s art, and a short-lived acting career.
One of the best stories that Geltner tells is Harry’s trying out for the role of the American celebrity. It turns out that Madonna and Sean Penn had added our Harry Crews to Donald Trump’s guest list for the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks boxing match staged in July 1988 in Atlantic City, New Jersey near Trump’s hotel and casinos. Madonna had recently finished The Knockout Artist and been “blown away.” Trump showed his displeasure at her including this “unknown writer.” From Geltner’s account it was clear that the life of celebrity was not for Harry nor Harry for that celebrity world.
Most of Harry Crews’ titles are still in print. His continued reputation will, however, likely rest with his autobiographical A Childhood; The Biography of a Place, published to much acclaim in 1978. A second volume was on the way when Crews died in March 2012.
An Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Vintage, 2015, paper.
Having read Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge, our familiarity with the American Revolution seems remarkably shallow. The Boston Tea Party, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, and John Hancock’s overly large signature on that parchment is about all most of us know, and we learned that in our grade-school history.
Nick Bunker’s story of how Britain came to the fight with its American colonies is much more complicated. The author describes the political protests in the colonies from 1775 to 1782 as seen from Britain and in the eyes of its ruling elite. He has given us a full account of a parallel political and economic crisis in Britain combined with the considerable ineptitude of the Administration of Lord North (Frederick North), prime minister, and Lord Dartmouth (William Legge Dartmouth), colonial secretary, in dealing with the thirteen colonies. While the separation of the colonies now seems to have been an inevitable consequence of an American coming of age, it also involved considerable mismanagement of colonial affairs.
Tea, yes, the crisis did involve tea. The tea, then largely from China, was transported to England by the ships of the East India Company, a public/private company chartered to bring tea to the home market and to the North American colonies. Tea imports were taxed as part of the more general tax on a triangular commodity trade between the colonial ports stretching from Halifax to Charleston, the West Indies, and London. That commodity trade also included wheat and tobacco from the Chesapeake region; cotton from India; sugar, indigo, and rum from the West Indies. The tax on this commodity trade was an important source of imperial revenue.
Britain in turn exported mostly the products of its booming iron and steel industry. An ‘industrial revolution’ was transforming the English economy and creating an entrepreneurial class out of its landed elite. This elite dominated political life, largely because of the unreformed parliament. Its interests were framing the North Administration’s views about colonial taxation.
The Lord North government generally neglected to take seriously warnings from its administrators in the colonies, Thomas Hutchinson and later Thomas Gage. It tended to view the unrest largely as a problem in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ignoring the growing discontent from the southern and Chesapeake colonies as well. That colonial administrative apparatus was also compromised by the time it took to send and receive reports and orders by sailing ships – thirty to forty days. The North administration could not respond quickly to fast-moving events in the colonies.
The British thought that the North American colonists ought to pay for more of the cost of its administration. Bunker points out that there is some truth to the contention that they were not paying their share. The average tax per annum paid in Britain was 25 shillings per head; North American 6 pence (12 pence to a shilling).
On the other hand the Americans worried about the colonial administration in London paying the salaries of judges and customs officials serving in the colonies. This resulted, they believed, in undue influence of London over the decisions of these officials. Taxation without Representation.
All might have been different if the North Government had not been reeling from bad economic news, if there had not been the continued Russian and Austrian threat to the British position on the European continent, and if there had not been a looming war with France and Spain. Without European allies, that war would require a naval presence in the North Sea and a greater military presence on the Continent, all that costing money when government coffers were emptying. Thus even greater dependence on taxing trade.
Perhaps the “last straw” was the Quebec Act enacted by the British parliament in May 1774. The French in Canada would be free to worship as they chose. This seemed to be an act of toleration but not through American eyes. It would, they felt, create a catholic presence in the Ohio Valley, in other words handing American settlers over to “popery”.
Nick Bunker compares the various parliamentary debates over the enforcement of British colonial taxation in the 1770s to the debate over the Munich Agreement in 1938. In both cases the likelihood of war weighed heavily on Britain. Perhaps some who hesitated to enter World War II against Nazi Germany sensed the irony of the different role that those American colonists, now the United States of America, played in that decision almost two centuries later.
The Conquering Tide; War in the Pacific Islands, 1942 to 1944. By Ian Toll, W.W. Norton, 2015.
Ian Toll’s The Conquering Tide is the second volume in a trilogy covering the Pacific War from 1942 to 1944. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the declaration of war that followed, the Roosevelt Administration and the War Department under George Marshall determined that the major effort would be the defeat of the Axis Powers in Europe. With that accomplished, the U.S. would then turn its attention to regaining the former territories of the Dutch and British Empires lost to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.
It was necessary, however, to pay immediate attention to the safety of the sea routes to Australia and India. And that would involve recapturing crucial islands that the Japanese had occupied and fortified. Also, by 1942 the Allies had determined that they would demand unconditional surrender from the Japanese. The aerial bombardment of Tokyo and other cities would be necessary to bring them to the negotiating table. That in turn would require occupying island bases and landing fields sufficiently close to the Japanese homeland to make bombardment by land-based planes possible.
An intensive bombardment by battleships and cruisers but also carrier-based aircraft must precede any amphibious assaults on these islands. Hence battles in the Pacific would involve huge naval operations. Initially both sides used submarines as scouts for the battleships and cruisers. Later the U.S. altered its submarine warfare, allowing its submarines to search and destroy supply ships, particularly oil tankers, and troop ships.
The best strategy to use against the Japanese in the Pacific was the subject of much debate among the navy and army leadership. Should the our amphibious forces proceed systematically from island to island? Or should our landing forces leapfrog over most islands, liberating crucial ones thus saving time and lives.
Amphibious landings would involve enormous casualties; the Japanese forces were determined to hold out at any cost. Much has been made about the Japanese notion of bushido, a Samurai code that exalted an honorable death in battle. Faced with that fanaticism, the U.S. wisely adopted the policy of island skipping. But that involved less secure rear supply lines.
As this volume stops in mid-1944, the two most remembered battles, the capture of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, await Toll’s last volume. What makes The Conquering Tide interesting are his accounts of sea and land battles that turn out to be decisive, but have been given little attention in most of the narratives about the Pacific War.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto understood, Toll contends, that ultimately the U.S. would win a war of attrition. So the purpose of the Pearl Harbor attack was to delay our entrance into the Pacific War, and encourage the U.S. to come to terms with Japan. More than anything else Yamamoto’s goal was to gain recognition for Japan’s future role in Southeast Asia, replacing British and Dutch imperial powers with the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
It is commonly argued that the Battle of Midway, a sea battle that took place near the island of that name in early June 1942, was one of the decisive battles of the Pacific war. The Japanese fleet sent to occupy the island was dispersed with heavy losses, and the Japanese drive toward the North American continent was halted.
In the years covered by Toll in this second volume, the Battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands was fought over the longest period of time, from August 1942 to February 1943. It was both a sea battle and a land war to capture the island and particularly its important airstrip, later called Henderson Field. There were heavy casualties on both sides.
The Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 was perhaps the most deadly. Others would argue for Saipan earning that dubious distinction. The big Japanese base at Rabaul was bypassed. It was decided that the better strategy would be to limit the base’s usefulness by almost continuous bombardment using both land-based and carrier-based airplanes.
Ian Toll’s account raises issues about our conduct of the war. Although it wasn’t common, there were instances of U.S. submarine crews surfacing and shooting Japanese troops floundering at sea when their ship was torpedoed. Also we had broken the Japanese naval code, and we used our knowledge of Japanese air traffic to shoot down a plane in which Yamamoto was flying in April 1943, thus his assassination. Toll, however, reminds us of the atrocities that troops under Yamamoto’s command had committed in China.
Ultimately the strategy of delaying our concentration on the Pacific struggle and our decision not to systematically recapture the islands occupied by the Japanese seems to have been correct. Saving American lives was an objective of the leadership in liberation of these Pacific islands. Perhaps it ultimately saved Japanese lives as well.