Joe's Take: On the lookout for German submarines

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There is an interval every year, between Memorial Day and the anniversary on June 6 of the great D-Day invasion with which the Allies began the relentless destruction of Adolph Hitler’s troops, when every TV station and channel fills their schedule with war movies and documentaries. This year is no exception.

Having spent hours of my early boyhood summers hiding in the church tower of St. Thomas church in Brigantine, eagerly looking out over the dunes for signs of German submarines, I am easily and irresistibly drawn into the greatest drama of our age and relive it through the genius of great authors and Hollywood retelling the tale of the years between 1939 and 1945. Between the networks, cable TV, and the ever-rising tide of streaming shows like Netflix and the internet, you can watch it all in glorious color, from the day the Nazis invaded Poland to those magic days when our uncles came home to flag-draped back yard parties in their honor.

Hundreds of films and newsclips show us what happened, but it took the writing of great books by the best authors to explain the why of it. John Wayne showed us how we won, throwing deadly hand grenades while dodging machine gun fire or firing torpedoes with steely-eyed resolve from submarines, but if you want to understand how it all came about, and who did what that got us into so terrible a conflict, you should reach for the books.

Every year or two I top off my movie-watching binge by re-reading some of my favorite war histories, a habit that carries me through to the Fourth of July. Here are my personal preferences if you want to cover the field. The best by far, is Winston Churchill’s “The Second World War,” a six-volume history rich with facts and told in an elegant style by the one man who knew more about that war and its causes than any other. The work’s only limits were those imposed by wartime secrecy kept alive long after, such as the work of the code breakers of Bletchley Park or the development of the atomic bomb.

Next only after Churchill comes Upton Sinclair’s 11 volume “Lanny Budd” series. Sinclair burst onto the world scene as a muckraking author of “The Jungle” in 1905 which led directly to the passage in 1906 of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act. In 1940 he published the first of the Lanny Budd series, and published another thick volume each year until 1949. Lanny Budd, his main character, is born Lanning Prescott Budd, the illegitimate but acknowledged son of a wealthy American arms manufacturer and an American beauty queen living on the French Riviera and socializing with the smart set from all over Europe.

Beauty raises Lanny in a super-cosmopolitan place and he grows up with an unexpected but strong social conscience, which he learns to conceal from his wide circle of contacts among the rich and powerful. After a stint as an aide at the Peace Conference closing World War I he becomes a successful art dealer. In the years leading up to Word War II he privately sells old masters to the rich and powerful of Europe and America, ranging from Adolf Hitler and Herman Goering to Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst. His contacts include an FDR brain-truster, who recruits him as a secret agent reporting directly to President Roosevelt. Working his contacts with Hitler and Europe’s politicians, Budd watches the rise of Nazism and militarism in Europe right through to the end of the War, at the end of which his art background takes him into membership of “The Monuments Men” charged with tracking down and salvaging the great masterpieces stolen by the Nazis.

What is stunning about Sinclair’s work is that he wrote it as the war was coming and all through it, and he doesn’t miss anything, including Bletchley Park and the Atomic Bomb. Albert Einstein gave him a blurb for the book, as did George Bernard Shaw who said : “When people ask me what has happened in my long lifetime, I do not send them to the newspapers and to the authorities, but to your novels.”

My third favorite is the 15 Volume “History of the US Navy in World War II,” by Samuel Eliot Morison or, if time runs out on you, his abridged single volume “The Two Ocean War.” Morison, a distinguished Harvard historian, was summoned to the White House shortly after Pearl Harbor by his former student, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who commissioned him a reserve office and assigned him the job of writing the history of the Navy’s war while it was happening. He was given a small staff, access to all Navy records and personnel, including interviews with the very top Navy brass as they fought the war.

Good reading, all of it, and it will fill your summer with high drama.

Joe Wilkins Joe Wilkins

Joe Wilkins is an author, semiretired lawyer and former municipal judge who lives in Smithville. You can email him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , see his website at www.josephtwilkins.com , or follow him on Twitter @jtwilkins001.


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