Tag Archive | World War II history

Book Review: In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers

In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers: A Return to Easy Company’s Battlefields with Sergeant Forrest Guth, by Larry Alexander

I found this audio book in my perusal of the library’s collection, and it sounded interesting.  Having more than a passing interest in World War II, and having watched the Band of Brothers miniseries, I wanted to learn more.

In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers: A Return to Easy Company's Battlefields with Sgt. Forrest Guth

Larry Alexander confesses that he developed his fascination with World War II as a young boy, and has gone on to write three books on World War II.  After meeting some of the veterans of Easy Company, he pitched an intriguing idea to his editor.  He would accompany a member of Easy Company, the Band of Brothers, on a return to the battlefields of the company’s campaigns in Europe.

Alexander travels with Sergeant Forrest Guth, and documents Guth’s observations and reactions to the battlefields and villages they visit. They try, whenever possible, to find homes and buildings where their troops were billeted or places they fought.  Alexander also offers his own observations, from the perspective of someone who wasn’t there during the war.   He details what the battlefield looked like then versus now, along with details of each battle Easy Company fought.

Alexander even describes the warm welcome they received from the people living in the villages they visited, who 70 years later still wanted to express their gratitude to the men who saved them from tyranny.

This book is an interesting look into the war from a different perspective, although it will be easier to follow if you have some knowledge of Easy Company and the campaigns they fought in during World War II.

3 stars

Book Review: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman.  She was middle-aged and unmarried, living with her father and sister Betsie and running a clock and watch shop when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during World War II.

The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

Of course, the Nazis soon began arresting and deporting the Jews to the concentration camps.  Ten Boom and her family couldn’t stand by and watch their neighbors be rounded up and taken away family by family, so they began sheltering Jews in the home.  Gradually, as things became more desperate and more dangerous, the ten Boom family connected with the Dutch Resistance, participating in acquiring counterfeit food ration cards and having a false wall built in their home to hide the Jews staying there.

Eventually, they were ratted out and ten Boom, her father and her older sister were arrested, detained and sent first to a prison, where her father died.  Corrie and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  You already know how conditions were in a concentration camp, and it was no different for Corrie and her sister. They leaned heavily on their faith, setting up evening prayer services and Bible readings in order to make it through.  As Corrie allowed herself to hate the Nazi guards, her sister taught her forgiveness, even of the monsters who imprisoned them.

I was surprised that I had never heard of this book, even though it was published in 1971, before I was born.  It tells an important story of the regular people throughout Europe who did what they could to fight the Nazis.  The story is timeless now, but still needs to be heard.  People need to understand what happened, or history will repeat.

4 stars.

London 2018: Churchill War Rooms

Day 2, Monday, June 25, 2018

After our visit to Westminster Abbey, we headed to see the Churchill War Rooms close by.  We were met with another line of about half an hour.

Taryn and me waiting at the War Rooms

History of the War Rooms

The Churchill War Rooms is the underground bunker that was used by the British Government during World War II.  They planned war strategy, ran the government, sent and received critical communications, and even stayed overnight during the bombings of London.

In 1936, the British government realized that the potential of war would be devastating for both the government and the civilian population.  They began looking for an suitable emergency location for the government and settled on a basement under what is now the Treasury Building; renovations were completed in 1938 to make the site livable, usable, and relatively safe – with a 5 foot thick concrete layer of protection.

The basement consisted of communications rooms, map rooms, typing pool rooms for the secretaries, and living quarters for Churchill, his staff and officers of the Navy, Army and Air Force.  The underground rooms were completely self-contained, with a kitchen, bathrooms, sleeping quarters and a full communications system.  The staff could stay underground indefinitely, if they needed to.

The War Rooms were in continuous use throughout the war, especially during the Blitz in 1940.  In 1945 when the war ended, the government recognized the historical significance of the rooms and preserved them as they looked during the war.  They were only open to the public on a very limited basis until the 1980s, when the government transferred the administration of the rooms to the Imperial War Museum.

The Museum

The museum explores the life of Winston Churchill, and goes through his birth to his death, focusing on the World War II period.  The exhibits are wide-ranging, with pieces from his childhood, one of his infamous siren suits, his paintings (did you know Churchill was an accomplished amateur artist?), and more somber exhibits on the war.  The museum explores Churchill’s work habits and personality, discussing how his staff felt about him.

The Rooms

The war rooms are a self-guided tour with an audio-guide (see, I told you London loves audio-guides!); the guide was quite thorough with about 30 stations.  Even I, being the museum nerd that I am, stopped listening to it towards the end.  I was most fascinated with the map room, the cabinet war room, and the living quarters.  Churchill even had a bed here; although it was explained that he never really spent the night here – he did take naps here.  The staff in the map rooms clearly got frustrated and needed an outlet at times, so they drew a caricature of Hitler that survives today.

It was fascinating to be there; at the site where critical decisions of the war were made.

Costs: Churchill War Rooms –  16.35 pounds (included in London Pass).  According to their website, photos are permitted in the war rooms but not in the museum; they didn’t seem to mind that I took photos in the museum too.

MI Road Trip: Landing Crafts and Pantyhose!

Have you ever seen an LST?  In particular – USS LST-393?  What the heck is USS LST-393, you ask?  Well, it is in Muskegon, Michigan, and we had the opportunity to see it after our visit to the Hackley and Hume Historic Site.

This is an LST-1 class landing ship, built during World War II to transport troops, vehicles and equipment. There were 1051 built during the War; this is one of only two to survive in its original configuration. USS LST-393 was critical to the following operations: the Sicilian occupation in July 1943, the Salerno landings in September 1943, and the one she is most famous for – the Normandy invasion in June 1944. She landed on Omaha Beach on the night of June 6, 1944 and offloaded several Sherman tanks and other materials, before spending another two days stuck on the beach due to the tides.

The back of USS LST-393.

The back of USS LST-393.

In all, she made over 30 trips back and forth between Normandy Beach and England, supplying equipment and bringing back wounded soldiers and German POWs. After the European theater wound down, she was retrofitted for service in the Pacific Theater, she was on her way to the Panama Canal for a trip to Japan when the Japanese surrendered.

USS LST-393 in Muskegon, Michigan. Sorry about the quality of the photo; there was a fence so I couldn’t get a better angle.  These are the doors where the equipment was unloaded onto the beach.

USS LST-393 in Muskegon, Michigan. Sorry about the quality of the photo; there was a fence so I couldn’t get a better angle. These are the doors where the equipment was unloaded onto the beach.

After her wartime service, she was purchased by the Sand Products Corporation and began life as a merchant ship, transporting new cars from Muskegon to Milwaukee. Since 2000, a couple of volunteer groups have been trying to restore her; she has been cleaned and painted and is open for tours during the summer. As she was closed for the season when we visited, we took some pictures and marveled at her enormous size – 328 feet in length and 50 feet wide, carrying a crew of about 140 men.

While driving around Muskegon, we also saw a gigantic, empty building that piqued our interest; it had a giant sign that said Amazon on top. I was sure it wasn’t the current Amazon retailer, but what was it?

As it turns out, the Amazon Hosiery Company moved from Indiana to Muskegon in 1895. Amazon produced cotton underwear, gloves, hosiery, hooked rugs and army shirts. At its peak, it employed over 1,000 people – mostly women. Unfortunately, materials rationing during World War II spelled the end for the Amazon Hosiery Company.

The Amazon Hosiery Company Building – Now an apartment complex

The Amazon Hosiery Company Building – Now an apartment complex

After the war, several businesses occupied the space, and then it sat vacant for about a decade, until it was converted to apartments beginning in the 1990s. The project was completed in 2001. It is a beautiful building from the outside; it would be neat to see what they did with the apartments!

Life is Precious

It had been a long week – several long weeks all running together actually.  So it was timely that Noémi Ban was speaking at the university this week – a coworker and I went to see the presentation.

Noémi Ban is a Hungarian born Jew – she became a United States citizen after she immigrated here.  She was born in 1922, and she was 21 years old when the Nazis invaded Hungary.  When you hear her speak, a palpable silence comes over the room.  The only sound comes from her voice, thickly accented and still strong.  She speaks simply, not going into too much detail about the emotions she must still feel vividly, even after all this time.

She tells the audience about how her family was deported to Auschwitz; told to bring only a small parcel with food, and a change of underwear.  No valuables, not even wedding rings.  She tells of the stench of the cattle cars they rode in for 8 days.  With one bucket for water, and one bucket for a toilet.  For 85 people.  She explains how, on their arrival, they are told not to bring their parcel with them.

She doesn’t break when she explains how her family lined up at the entrance of Auschwitz, how she was the only one in her family who was sent to the doctor’s left side.  How she didn’t know then what it meant to be sent to the right.  It was only later that she found out the doctor’s name.  Josef Mengele.

She speaks candidly about having her menstrual period on the day that she arrived in the camp.  How she refused to drink from the bowl of soup that was sent down the line of women prisoners, because so many mouths had already been on it by the time it reached her.  The guards told her that next time the soup was passed to her, she would drink.  Or else.  She understood what “or else” meant.  The soup made her period stop within an hour.  She didn’t know it at the time, but the soup contained toxic chemicals that permanently sterilized many of the survivors.

She speaks of how, after 4 months at Auschwitz, she was sent to Buchenwald and began working in a factory building bombs for the Germans.  She explains how the Nazi guards didn’t seem too concerned with watching the women much, choosing to spend much of their time in an adjoining room.  This gave her and the other women an opportunity to deliberately wire the bombs incorrectly, so they wouldn’t explode on impact.  She laughs lightheartedly when she explains their sabotage, as if she were explaining a childhood prank.  She tells us that she did this forced labor for seven months.

She maintains her composure when she explains that when the Americans were getting close, the Nazis forced the inmates at Buchenwald to march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  Noémi and several other women managed to escape from the march and run into the forest.  She tells of hearing a man, and the profound relief she felt to discover it was an American soldier.  She laughs when she tells of how she and the other women kissed and clung to the soldier, only letting go when he told them they might strangle him.  She was liberated in April, 1945.

Her voice gets soft when she tells us that her father was the only other family member who survived the war.  Her mother, sister, brother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, nephew, cousins – 21 family members in all, were all sent to the gas chamber.  She cracks a little when she recounts how she had to tell her father about their fate – how she wanted to tell him because she didn’t want him to hear it from somebody else.  She was 22 years old.

You would think the sad part of the story ends there, but it doesn’t.  She tells the audience that after getting married and having two sons, she was living in Hungary during the Soviet occupation after the war.  She became a teacher.  And in 1956, she and her family escaped from Communist rule by hiding themselves in giant balls of yarn that were being shipped across the border to Austria.  They came to the United States in 1957.

She gets angry as she talks about the people who say the Holocaust never happened.  How she wishes she could sit with them and ask them to explain what was done to her.  She ends her presentation by telling her audience that she learned to love life in Auschwitz.  Everything else she has endured must pale in comparison to Auschwitz.  Where she learned to love life.  She ends with a statement that must seem obvious by now.

Life is precious.