Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning.

Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission That Changed the Course of WWII by John Bruning. Hachette, 2017 paper.

This is a tale from the South Pacific during World War II. Pappy (P.I. or Paul Irving) Gunn was a pilot for the Philippines Air Lines when war broke out in December 1940. Prior to that he had served in the US Navy for twenty-one years. In 1941 he was commissioned into the US Army Air Services where he became a legend for his skill and determination to be part of the fight to liberate the Philippines. Having said this, John Bruning’s claim that he single-handedly changed the course of the war is an exaggeration.

It had been decided that the Allies’ first priority would be the defeat of Germany and its allies; supplying the Far Eastern Theater would be a lower priority. That angered Gunn and other American military serving in the South Pacific intent upon defeating the Japanese.

Stationed in Manila, Gunn had wanted to move his family to a less dangerous place than Luzon. He felt guilty for not having done so before the War began. Meanwhile unbeknownst to Gunn, his family (wife Polly, two sons, and two daughters) had been forced into an internment camp when the Japanese occupied Manila. Gunn hoped that he would receive an assignment which would allow him to find and rescue them, and fly them to Australia. That, also, never worked out.  For the rest of the War, neither the family nor Gunn knew that the other was alive. They were only reunited after the Philippines was liberated in 1944.

While the title of Bruning’s book is hyperbole, he, Gunn did devise alterations in the B-17 and B-25 medium bombers that allowed them to fly low enough to drop bombs with devastating effect on Japanese aircraft carriers and troop transport. He was also given small but important assignments. For example, he was assigned the task of flying some of General MacArthur’s headquarter’s staff out of Manila. He also delivered quinine to treat besieged American troops suffering from malaria in Bataan.

It is amazing how unscripted the Pacific Theater seems. According to Bruning’s Indestructible; One Man’s Rescue Mission…, the War was fought from one day to the next. Gunn would propose a mission, and his commanding officer would generally approve it. Or if he, Gunn, thought a mission would accomplish the purpose of defeating the Japanese – and ultimately finding his family, he would, get permission, grab an idle plane, and take off for the target.

The reader soon begins to appreciate the quandaries that arose, given this informal front. Could a target be reached with the amount of aviation fuel that the plane could stow on board and still get off the ground? There was always the trade-off between additional cannons built into the nose of the plane to add fighting power and room for those fuel tanks needed for the greater distances. The Japanese Zeros were a formidable opponent and Japanese pilots skilled. Could Pappy Gunn’s skills off-set these formidable fighter escorts and their pilots?

Perhaps Gunn’s most important contribution to the air war in Southeast Asia was to instruct pilots under his command to fly low, barely above the ocean waves to achieve greater accuracy in their bombing runs. The B-25 had been designed to support ground troops in the European theater and had to be adapted to the precision bombing of Japanese shipping. According to the author, Gunn kept the B-25 alive in those years of aviation innovation.

Gunn was a gifted mechanic as were many of the ground crews on whom he depended to keep the bombers going. But they needed spare parts to do their job. Gunn found the American military warehouse system established in Australia to be as frustrating as the enemy was formidable. Shelves containing spare parts in Brisbane and Darwin were carefully guarded by their staffs. If the supply manual did not specify that they should stock a spare part, nothing would get them to do so. Some of the planes were shipped in crates to be assembled by Australians. There were no instructions and often missing parts, and the Australians were reluctant to improvise.

The author tells stories that encourage the reader to commiserate with the Japanese. He describes Japanese seamen being eaten by sharks after their ship was sunk in the Bismarck Sea with no one to rescue them. And the story of the Japanese teenaged soldier who had the task of going from door to door in Manila to order American civilians to proceed to a detention camp. His rifle and fixed bayonet were taller than he. Bruning describes him as being as frightened as the Gunn family. What would have been his fate in this ghastly war?


The Rise of Athens; The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt.

The Rise of Athens; The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt. Random House, 2017.

Anthony Everitt has traced the history of Athens from its origins as one of the many small Greek city states of the sixth century B.C. Part of that history is the complicated endeavor of the Greeks to establish some mechanism for creating both a working consensus within the individual polis and amongst the Greek cities.

The evolution of Athenian leadership, “the rise of Athens,” went through several stages. It began in 478 B.C. with the league or alliance of Ionian Greek city states whose treasury was on the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. The league’s objective was to support the liberation of the Greek cities located in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the eastern Mediterranean from Persian domination. This alliance had various titles:  the Delian League, then the Athenian League, then the Athenian Empire – each reflected stages in the growing domination of Athens.

Mostly a naval alliance, the Athenian-led confederation could construct and support a substantial number of trireme (warships) available to challenge the Persian Empire. Each trireme had three banks of slaves as rowers. It took a considerable population of slaves to man the ships of the Athenian navy.

The city’s trade in vases and other art objects and imports of grain from the Black Sea and Egypt went through the port city of Piraeus. Most of the triremes in the Athenian fleet were built in the Piraeus’s shipyards. A wall was built between Athens and Piraeus to secure that commerce.

“The world’s greatest civilization” may be hyperbole. The Athenian constitution did have a democratic character – if that is how you measure civilization. Its office holders were generally elected. The electors, however, were small in number relative to the total population of the city. Women were not eligible, neither were foreigners and slaves.

Greek cities also fielded a substantial land force, mostly drawn from the class of helots – free men – who had the vote. They were also a vital part of the Athenian war machine; these citizen-soldiers formed into a phalanx. They were farmers and artisans who could afford the bronze armor and iron weaponry. Western democracy can be traced to many origins. Greece is one of them, and particularly this relationship between citizenry, infantry, and a lower class.

Did Greek military tactics shape the Athenian social structure? Or, was it the other way around, a preexisting social structure determined the military system? Everitt makes no call.

Sparta succeeded Athens in the leadership role of the Greek confederation. With Sparta, there is less to be admired. It consisted of small settlements scattered on the muddy Peloponnesian Plain. No great architecture. But the Spartans were heroic in their defense of the collective Greek cities in the 5th Century B.C. Everitt has less to say about their enemy, the Persians, except that their continuing presence and military strength was the primary reason for the “rise of Athens” and Sparta.

Most of Anthony Everitt’s interesting account of classical Greece comes from its own historians and philosophers. Athens functioned in much the same way that university cities do in our day.  That put a premium on conversation which, in the case of Athens, centered on the symposium. The Greek version departed from the symposium as we know it today. There are, however, similarities; for example, the presence of a symposiarch. He was chosen by the throw of the die and functioned as a “Lord of Rule.”

But he was also the “Lord of Misrule” – there was a lot of drinking – unlike our sober symposia. Before participants got too soused, there would be a discussion of the affairs of the city. As things got more out of hand, songs would be sung, there might be entertainment – professional dancers and singers.  And games. The participants reclined on couches, inviting a snooze after the food and wine.

The symposium could be considered anti-democratic since the guest list was short and the participants, no doubt, homogenous, shaped by the socio-economic structure of the city.

Then and now Athens inspired world architecture. The Acropolis was severely damaged when the Persians sacked the city in 480 B.C. It was rebuilt during the leadership of Pericles 495 to 429 B.C.  Athens could afford good architects, good stone, and a generous use of bronze statuary. (It is to be pointed out however, that both the fine marble and bronze were painted over in bright colors.) It was a good investment for the city. Athens was almost immediately a tourist city and remained so over the next two millennia.

Those gods and goddesses on the Athenian acropolis were worshipped. While they introduce rational thought into their religion, Greeks were worshipful. And at the same time tolerant of other religious traditions. They made room for foreigners’ gods and goddesses within their pantheon.

Everitt pays no attention to the centuries of civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, except to point out that Persia represented a threat to the “world’s greatest civilization.”  And perhaps that threat was one cause of its rise.


Blitzed; Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler & Shaum Whiteside, trans.  

Blitzed; Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler & Shaum Whiteside, trans.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

The National Socialists preached an ideology of physical, mental, and moral purity. The Party was intent upon separating itself from the excesses of the preceding Weimar decade. But there was an extensive use of drugs in the Third Reich and Norman Ohler has documented this in his study of drug use in Germany during the war years. Various addictive drugs were consumed by the German public: cocaine, opiates, and most commonly methamphetamines – “uppers.” They were supplied by a growing German pharmaceutical industry. Two companies are familiar to us – Merck and Bayer. There were others as well.

A distinction was made between drug addictions and, on the other hand, prescription drugs that helped maintain one’s stamina and focus – socially useful objectives – even though they often involved the same generic drug. Drug addicts were considered criminals and sent to prison.

The Nazi regime required detailed record keeping of both populations. Hence Norman Ohler had access to the drug regime of “Patient A” – Adolf Hitler – as prescribed by his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell.

Those Germans who used these addictive drugs regularly did so because it improved their energy level and made them more confident of themselves. The author speculates on how drugs might have affected Adolf Hitler’s decision-making. What persuaded Hitler that he was a better commander of the German Wehrmacht than its generals? Was it an overly-stimulated self-confidence that convinced Hitler to order a halt in the German offensive in France in May 1940, allowing 338,000 British soldiers to escape at Dunkirk? Confused, Hitler had decided that he was losing control of the German military command, that his generals were overshadowing him.  Might it have been a variance in how the drug cocktails that he was taking and the confidence they generated? Perhaps a bad drug day?

Norman Ohler believes that some of the stamina that the German troops showed in their drive through the Low Countries and northern France was because they had been issued drugs to prevent battle fatigue and even hunger. Those motorcyclists and tank crews that you see racing across France and Belgium had been issued a drug, Pervitin, which was the trade name for methamphetamine.

Army doctors, however, were already beginning to see some adverse side effects of drug use by German soldiers; particularly speeding up the heartbeat. Pervitin was made subject to the Reich opium regulations in June 1942. Under pressure the administrative ruling was reversed; the drug was declared ‘crucial to the war effort.’

Hitler was given the full pill regime regularly. Morell prescribed as many as 28 pills a day, plus several prophylactic injections. Ohler counted 90 different pills over the months when Hitler spent most of his time in a bunker in eastern Poland from whence he oversaw the invasion of Russia and then the retreat after Stalingrad. His drugs were telling him one thing; the Russian armies another. Would the war on the Eastern Front have been conducted differently had Hitler been in his ‘right mind?’ Would Hitler have declared war on the US in December 1941, following Pearl Harbor?

Hitler decided that he could not face the reality of meeting with Benito Mussolini in Salzburg in 1943 without swallowing Eukodal pills, an opiate (Oxycodone). The result was that Mussolini had to listen to a three-hour long speech by the “peppered up” Führer. Though likely Hitler, without narcotics, was more difficult to deal with than his fueled and often unrealistic optimism.

On 20 July 1944, a group of German army officers attempted to assassinate Hitler. Patient A’s file card indicated that he was ‘full of beans’ that day from an injection. Hitler survived, but his hearing was damaged by the bomb blast. A specialist called in to examine his ears was appalled to learn that Hitler was being maintained by his personal physician on drugs and injections. Thus began what the author calls the Doctors’ War.

Was Hitler’s growing megalomania and physical decline due to his drug-taking? Once revealed by the Doctors’ War, his Nazi colleagues became concerned about the hold which Dr. Morell’s pills had on Hitler.  The drowsiness. The shuffle. The trembling. What was Morell doing to their Hitler?

Morell could stage-manage Hitler for shorter and shorter periods of time. Moreover, the supply line for these pills had been cut. Morell was running out of pills, and Hitler was showing symptoms of withdrawal.

Some authors have suggested that these were symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Norman Ohler thinks it far more likely that those symptoms were the result of the cocktail of drugs that he was taking. Doctor’s orders!


Chasing the Last Laugh; How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks.

Chasing the Last Laugh; How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks. Anchor, 2017 paper.

In 1894 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) took on an around-the-world-tour. A successful writer and publisher, he was, however, not a successful investor. A publishing company that he owned was failing, as was a company that had developed a new typesetting machine in which he owned now worthless stock. The publishing company, however, had had its successes. It had been the publisher of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the highly successful The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Twain had lined up several other Civil War generals, only to have the reading public turn away from the subject.

Richard Zacks has provided a revealing description of the life of a writer over a century ago that would seem familiar to many writers these days. The profession has its ups and downs.

Twain was also working on several writing projects; the most ambitious was a “complete works”, which included his short stories and two travel accounts already published. Each volume would have the same fancy binding. The set would then be marketed directly to Twain’s public by traveling salesmen.

It was decided by his managers, editors, and family that his best hope for a financial recovery was to undertake an around the world tour – first venues in the American west by train and then Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and South Africa, mostly sea voyages, which Twain much preferred over train travel. His manager would make arrangements, rent halls, etc. and schedule several lectures in each venue.  His wife, Olivia (Livy), and one of his three daughters, Clara, would accompany Livy. Zacks has succeeded in bringing together the trials and tribulations of travel in the late nineteenth century, the ignominy and exuberance of public entertainment, but also the perils to family life of this touring.

The touring circuit was well established, and Twain’s reception was gratifying. But the performance of a standup comedian was not to Twain’s liking. He would only accept the best in hotel accommodations and expected a lot from their staffs. He was a big enough star to expect the royal treatment from public officials in the towns where he performed. He was a grouch by nature.

Most of his tour entertained the English-speaking diaspora settled around the British Empire.  Surprisingly, his favorite part of the tour was the time he spent in India. He arrived in Bombay and was taken by India’s exotic opportunities. He says this of the Bombay train station in 1896.  “It was a very large station, yet when we arrived, it seemed as if the whole world was present – half of it inside, the other half outside, and both halves bearing mountainous head-loads of bedding…” His description is remarkably like my experience in the train station in Calcutta some seventy years later.

Twain loved being courted by the various “native princes” that the British had left in place – though under supervision. He liked rolling their titles off his tongue. He liked the fact that cows had the right-of-way on city streets. He liked the noisy crows that awakened him every morning.

The Twains decided that, upon completing their tour in Europe, they would find a place to live that was cheaper than their returning to the States. Vienna filled the bill. They liked hobnobbing with the Viennese elite. Clara took piano and voice lessons in anticipation of returning to a career in the US.

Livy was an important part of the tour. First it was partly her money that had been badly invested and lost. Hence to be recovered. Also she was his editor and routinely cut out some of his off-color jokes and stories. And particularly she censored his maxims, some of his best writing. For example. “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

There were tragedies involving the two other daughters during their stay abroad. Susy died while the Twains were in Europe. Jean was increasingly subject to epileptic seizures. Twain felt guilty about his daughters. Had he not made choices that brought on financial difficulties, he might have been in a better position to help his family. On the other hand his ‘chasing the last laugh’ had allowed him to get out of debt.

This is not a biography. Zacks has given us an account of Twain’s tour but we are left somewhere in the 1890s.