S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the category “20th Century Topics”

Book Review- Killing the Rising Sun

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Rating – Five Stars

Bill O’Reilly hits a home run with his compendium of the 1940s Pacific War. He writes in an easy, sparse, and empathetic style. He paints the big pictures of the major land and sea battles and tells the stories of the “grunts” that did the fighting and dying. We know these grunts. We identify with them, we are appalled at the horrendous casualties, we share the agony with the wounded, and we attend their burials at sea, in unmarked graves, and at Arlington.

O’Reilly sets the stage for the war in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan. We learn of the building animosity in the 1930s between America and the Empire of Japan. The animus began when Japan invaded the Chinese province Manchuria in September 1931. Japan was eager to implement its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere to conqueror East Asia for its natural resources. The animus increased when Japan invaded China in July 1937. The Kwantung Army captured Peking, Shanghai, and other coastal cities in a few days. French Indo-China fell to Japan in July 1941.

Responding, President Roosevelt (with Great Britain and the Netherlands) imposed an embargo on petroleum products, steel, and other natural resources for Japan. At the time, the Imperial Japanese Navy had only three months of bunker oil. General Hideki Tojo ordered the implementation of Command Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan for a surprise attack on our fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—Tora! Tora! Tora!

In the early morning on Sunday December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese aircraft, from three aircraft carriers, bombed and torpedoed our fleet in Pearl Harbor with devastating results: sunk were the battleships, USS Arizona, USS Utah, USS Oklahoma, USS West Virginia, and USS California. Five other battleships were heavily damaged. President Roosevelt declared war on the Empire of Japan with the phrase, “a date which will live in infamy.”

O’Reilly guides us our journey through the bloody campaigns throughout the South and Central Pacific, and to the Japan’s home island Okinawa—where Kamikaze pilots drove their aircraft directly into our ships—causing devastating casualties in sailors and ships.

He details the great sea battles with cogency, Java Sea, Bismarck Sea, Coral Sea, Midway, Espírito Santo (“The Slot”), Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf, and the Okinawa Campaign. We crawl through the islands with the grunts: Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Buna, New Georgia, Mankin, Tarawa, Leyte, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, and Okinawa.

Almost seventy percent of this book discusses the atomic bomb. We follow President Roosevelt’s approval, General Groves management of this titanic project, Doctor Oppenheimer assembling his team at Los Alamos, work, innovation, breakthrough, and testing. The bomb on board the B-29 dubbed Enola Gay, Hiroshima in flames; another bomb on the B-29 dubbed Box Car, Nagasaki in flames. We see General MacArthur on board the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay signing the instrument of surrender. The greatest, most deadly, and costly war has concluded.

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Book Review- Prof: Alan Turing Decoded

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Rating – Two Stars

I’m sorely disappointed with this biography of Alan Turing, one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians. He was the lead cryptographer at Bletchley Park and helped break the German’s Enigma codes, significantly hastening the end of the War in Europe. To this end, his intellect led to the development of the digital computer.

Within this manuscript is a plethora of eminent persons, important places, and critical events. The failure to include an index is unforgivable. Accordingly, this dereliction negates this work as a reference book.

The author jumps about chronically, fails to complete scenes—leaving us hanging, wanders off on tangents, and stuffs the text with copies of notes, scribblings, letters, memos, and telegrams, documents (official and other). Except for a few, he could have summarized those of major import and placed others of significance in Addenda.

So much of Turing’s life could have been brought forth with this biography to make it soar and do honor to this extraordinary man. Rather, the book is unremarkable in all measures and minimizes the memory of Alan Turning to a faretheewell. There is a surfeit of information available about Turning that the author should have explored.

To this day, we do not know definitively why Alan Turing committed suicide at the young age of forty-two in 1954. Some suggest that his felo-de-se resulted from his conviction in an English court of homosexual behavior. Others postured that he was murdered—for reasons unknown.

Unfortunately, the author bogged the text in incoherence and squandered far too much of the manuscript on irrelevance. For example, the first seventy pages discuss Turing’s early life in agonizing detail. Three pages would do. Alternately, he gives little mention of Turing’s accomplishments at Bletchley Park. Here was a golden opportunity to highlight the details of Alan’s endeavor and discoveries in this super-secret, code-breaking operation.

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Book Review: Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes

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Rating – Three Stars

Rhodes writes an easy read, semi-informative book about the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) that pitted the Fascists forces of General Francisco Franco against Spain’s “Republican” government. The Spanish government was far from a democracy—it was a pseudo-communist government that was suffused with Comintern agents of the Soviet Union. In May 1937, Spanish Communists took over the government.

Fighting with Franco were German and Italian air, artillery, and ground forces. Supporting the government were the military forces of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republic. About two million soldiers were involved in the war—200,000 killed and many thousands more wounded and missing.

Unfortunately, this book has no central theme—it has minimal coherence. Occasionally, Rhodes offers a snippet of the war about and who is doing what to whom, but mostly he focuses his narrative on the volunteer British medical personnel tending to wounded Republican soldiers: their heroism, dedication, and professionalism. Mostly, I reckon he discusses the Western expatriates that pontificated about the horrors of the war and the awful Fascists. Actually, this book is not about the Civil War in Spain, it’s about the expatriates in Spain during the Civil War. Here are a few of these people:

  • Ernest Hemingway. An American novelist. Whilst drinking, womanizing, and sending dispatches to the North American Alliance, he worked with Joris Ivens (Dutch artist and Communist) producing the agitprop film titled, The Spanish Earth.
  • Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife. American novelist, poet, political activist, and war correspondent. Worked trying to get Basque children evacuated to safety.
  • George Orwell, British leftist, novelist, and journalist. Volunteered to fight with the people’s militias “The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification.” Wounded in the throat, he was medically discharged and returned to England. In the following years he wrote the satirical novels Animal Farm and 1984.
  • Muriel Rukeyser, American poet, war correspondent for the Daily Worker, and other far-left publications.
  • J.B.S. Haldane, British scientist and war correspondent.
  • Norman Bethune, thoracic surgeon and firebrand Communist, performed hundreds of operations, some in dire conditions. He was nonchalant about danger and would work in the front lines.
  • Man Ray, American Dada and surrealist artist, photographer, and filmmaker, documented the War.
  • Patience Darton, British nurse with keen initiative, gritty survival, and mental fortitude in tending to the wounded. Fell in love with an ardent Communist soldier—killed in action.
  • The International Brigades composed of Western volunteers.

Rhodes dedicates many pages to Pablo Picasso and his painting “Guernica.” Picasso was horrified by the German Condor Legion’s bombing and utter destruction of this Basque city on 26 April 1937. The commanding officer of the Condor Legion, Lieutenant Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, said, “Guernica must be destroyed if we are to strike a blow against the enemy personnel and material.” Joan Mirό, the Catalan surrealist, painted a large mural titled “Catalan Peasant in Revolt.”

Rhodes does not include pictures of these artworks, and his only overall map of Spain is inadequate. Nonetheless, Hell and Good Company would have an appeal for the literati.

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Book Review: Stonehenge Decoded by Gerald S. Hawkins

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Rating – Five Stars

 

Hawkins weaves a compelling narrative as he decodes the mysteries of the monument dubbed Stonehenge—an astronomical observatory lying on the Salisbury Plain in southwestern England. It’s a monumental temple with intricate celestial alignments concealed in apparent simplicity and symmetry of design. He posits that Stonehenge is the eighth wonder of the world.

His writing style is easy—clearly written for the layman. His explanations of technical details of the site are readily understandable. However, some his astronomical conclusions are beyond my skill level. Nonetheless, one can skip these details without losing the thread of his narrative. Outstanding graphics are exceptionally well annotated as are relevant photographs with cogent captions.

Archeologists estimate that the British began building Stonehenge about 2000 B.C. and finished around 1500 B.C. It was built in three eras—each about 150 years apart. The building of this temple to the sun and moon required its creators to have absolutely extraordinary theoretical and planning abilities and superb transportation and engineering skills—far beyond what we would have imagined of these people.

Significantly, the latitude of Stonehenge is sited at the almost perfect optimum for sun-moon rectangular alignments. There is only one latitude in the northern climes at which the extreme declinations of the azimuths of the sun and moon are separated by exactly ninety degrees. Stonehenge’s placement and orientation is within a few miles of this position—an error of only 0.2 degrees. The odds are astronomical that the builders chose this location by chance. They computed it.

The positioning of the large stones (some of the sarsen stones weigh as much as 40 tons) in precise astronomic alignment demanded critical astronomical and engineering skills. Such skills are beyond those possessed by most 20th century men.

Hawkins asks why so much energy, time, and physical and sociological resources were expended to build Stonehenge. We do not know. He suggests that they created this astronomical calendar for two reasons:

  1. It was an agricultural calendar used to compute the beginning of the seasons to plant crops and for other sociological purposes.
  2. It was for religious purposes—to create and maintain priestly power. For example, to predict the summer and winter solstices, many moon phenomena, and eclipses.

Hawkins concludes, “There are doubtless many remarkable things yet to be discovered about Stonehenge.”

I highly recommend this book for aficionados of this megalithic monument.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Armies of Warlord China 1911-1928 by Philip Jowett

Armies of Warlord ChinaRating-Four Stars

This is a large (11” x 9”), heavy book–in weight and content. Jowett tells us just about everything we’d want to know about the history of the warlords of China that ruled the Northern provinces (and a few in the south). He laces his narrative with relevant photographs.

Unfortunately, the organization of this book is askew, and the narrative may need more copy editing. In the Introduction he relates a short history of China from the early 20th century to the early 1930s. Following is an extensive chronology of this history outlined in a bullet-type format where he introduces the warlords. Some of these entries are lengthy and introduce significant duplication of the information contained in the Introduction. There is also massive duplication of information in the subsequent pictorial biography of the major warlords and the captioned photographs of military activities.

I did enjoy the illustrated section of the aviation activities in the relevant time frame. The color drawings of the airplanes are well done and add credence to the narrative. There is also a section detailing the uniforms and equipment in the Imperial and Warlord Armies. The photographs of the warlords festooned in all their habiliments and the detailed drawings of the soldiers of the various armies in their uniforms are particularly informative.

The color pictorial of the badges and medals relevant to the National and Warlord Armies was excellent, but the captions are far too meager for the reader to understand their significance and order of importance.

This book is heady reading and designed for the cognoscenti of China’s milieu in that time period. It could be used as an important reference book for those seeking details of this not-well-known history of the Celestial Kingdom and the warlord wars (1929 to 1930).

BOOK REVIEW: Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises by Timothy F. Geithner

Stress TestRating- Three Stars

Geithner weaves a complicated and compelling insight into the management of large scale financial crises. A great deal of the book is dedicated to the financial collapse of 1987. Economists and other gurus in the “money business” averred that this crisis was the worst since the 1930’s Great Depression. Soon it was a world-wide financial meltdown that spread to Europe and Asia.

Some of Wall Street’s most prestigious financial intuitions and big-name manufacturing corporations were on the verge of bankruptcy including Merrill Lynch, AIG, Carlyle Capital Corporation, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae. The 85-year old investment bank Bear Sterns was saved from bankruptcy by an infusion capital from the federal government and JPMorgan Chase. The storied Lehman Brothers, founded in 1847, could not find a savior, went bankrupt and closed its doors.

The world’s largest insurance company, American International Group (AIG) was near collapse. The government and the financial community feared that if the firm were to bankrupt it would cause the world banking system to fail—resulting in a world-wide depression of monumental proportions.  A massive infusion of federal funds saved AIG.

This financial upheaval was attributed in part to the mid-1980 the United States housing market which had exploded into sky-high prices. Complaints from the ACLU and other progressive groups claimed that minority groups were being excluded from home ownership. Such exclusion was not based on wealth but on race, they claimed.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) investigated the claim and concluded that the disparity between mortgage holders varied dramatically and had nothing to do with wealth but the color of the mortgage applicants’ skin. This scheme was known as “redlining” minority neighborhoods.

Actually, such discrepancy had all to do with wealth. The lenders were mandated by the federal government to make loans only to those who where financially able to fulfill their mortgage requirements to avoid another savings and loan crisis. Nonetheless, the federal government solved the problem with its neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. The Clinton administration under the Community Reinvestment Act cajoled Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac and other lending institutions to increase lending to minorities and low-income home buyers–a high-risk policy.

The financial gurus knew of the risks and started to bundle these high-risk loans into derivative packages and selling them at a discount. When the home mortgages started to default the entire system spiraled downward in a closed loop, ergo the financial crisis of 1987-88.

Stress Test is a detailed guide far beyond the interest of most “Joe Six-Packs.” Geithner’s tome is not for the proletariat to read in a comfortable chair in front the fireplace. Rather, it’s a research book for the financial cognoscenti and for government bureaucrats.

BOOK REVIEW: 20th Century China, 3rd Edition

20th century chinaClubb weaves a heavy book loaded with the incredible history of the Chinese government from the Boxer Rebellion to the Death of Mao Tse-tung and a little beyond. I read this tome from cover to cover, including the notes. Conclusion: This is not a reading book. Rather it is a superb reference book that details the inner workings, intrigues and polemics of the players in the Nationalist and Communist governments. The meticulous index engenders a ready find.

Clubb’s writing is a tad academic and is loaded with an advanced vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary many times.

My biggest complaint is the lack of photographs of the myriad personalities, bureaucrats, military officers he discusses. Compounding the problem is that I, an English speaker, had a difficult time remembering and categorizing the wholesale number of foreign names with their function, relationships, and importance. After a hundred pages, the names become a Chinese blur.

Another negative is the appalling lack of maps. The narrative is especially difficult to comprehend when set in perspective without such important graphics.

Nonetheless, 20th Century China is keeper and I’ll place it into my China bookshelf as soon as I finish this review.

BOOK REVIEW: Killing Reagan: A Violent Assault that Changed a Presidency by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

killing reaganAn outstanding book.  Exceptionally well written—no nonsense, no extraneous jabberwocky, no political twists—just the facts presented in a sterile, compelling narrative.

O’Reilly strips the Holy Grail sheen off Ronald Reagan and renders him an ordinary human being—much as the rest of us with all our frailties. At times, Reagan was petty, angry, vindictive, chapfallen, humdrum, and in his younger days a voluptuary. Nonetheless, his unswerving conservative principles engendered an accomplished presidency.

“Tear down this wall, Mister Gorbachev” (the Berlin Wall), and the fall of the Soviet Union best highlights his presidency.  Some of his stellar achievements were: his close association with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, his firing of all the US air-traffic controllers (who went on strike and refused to return to work on Reagan’s orders), his “deal” with Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release the fifty-two American diplomats they illegally held for 444 days, and his orders to invade the Caribbean Island of Grenada and overthrow the pro-Cuban regime and capture the 9,000 foot airstrip capable of accommodating the largest Soviet aircraft.

Perhaps it was the Iran-Contra scandal the besmirched his presidency the most and seriously eroded his credibility.  That kerfuffle is far too complicated to detail here.  However, the Tower Commission concluded that President Ronald Reagan was culpable.

John Hinckley, Junior, a schizophrenic, fired a twenty-two Devastator bullet into President Raegan. The bullet pierced Reagan’s left lung and settled one inch from his heart. Close to death, medical professionals conducted a difficult surgery and found and removed the bullet. I recall this incident and it was much more serious than we were told initially.

Kept from us was the fact that Alzheimer’s disease had invaded President Reagan’s brain sometime during his first term.  It was so severe during his second term that his team was near to encouraging him to resign. He had “good” days and “bad” days.  It was Nancy Regan who was the de facto president.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mexican Revolution: A Short History 1910-1920 by Stuart Easterling

Mexican RevolutionEasterling makes a reasonable clarification of the chaos of the Mexican Revolution—as he says “…ten years of social conflict, deprivation, and bloody warfare.” He skims through the ten-year revolution with seminal characters in this petite book as:

  • Profirio Diaz (1839-1915). Dictator of Mexico from 1884 to 1911. Overthrown by
  • Gustavo Madero (1875-19130. President 1911 to 1913. An advocate for social justice but not for distribution of the land to the peasants. Overthrown and assassinated by
  • General Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916). President from 1913 to 1914. Established a harsh military dictatorship. The Constitutionalist Army consisting of the bandit/revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his Northern Army, Emiliano Zapata and his Liberation Army of the South, and disaffected generals including Álvaro Obregón, Huerta was overthrown by
  • Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920). President from 1917 to 1920. Promised to restore the constitution of 1857 but did not affirm social reform. He waged war against Villa and Zapata—subduing both. Corruption was rampant in his administration.       He declined to participate in the 1920 presidential election. His best general/politician,
  • Álvaro Obregón (1880-1928) won the election and after a time brought a semblance of order to Mexico. He was ssassinated in 1928.

He assiduously avoids discussing the military campaigns, except in passing. He focuses instead on the personalities, their interactions, and affect on the populace and their reactions. To discuss, even in minor detail, the military operations, would have significantly clarified many passages that seem incongruous or the lack of a raison d’être for subsequence actions.

Unfortunately, Easterling’s narrative has several major construct problems.

  • Far too often Easterling leaves out important details in his narrative.
  • For example. During the 1915 presidential campaign, we learn that First Chief (President) Venustiano Carranza would not support his general, Álvaro Obregon as a candidate. Questions: Did Carranza decide on a second term? If not, why not. Would Obregon be his rival? This key information is not stated and is perplexing. (I found the answer on Wikipedia.)
  • Another example: He mentions the “The Red Battalions,” but does not explain who they are, their loyalty, or what was their function in the Revolution.
  • From time-to-time, his syntax introduces confusion in the narrative. For example, “Following the capture of a train hub that had been in Constitutionalist hands, some ninety soldaderas, their men now dead or wounded, were assembled and awaiting their fate.”

Throughout, this Haymarket publication (Chicago labor riots in 1886) is imbrued with Marxists phrases and jingoism. Here are several “collective organization, communal landownership, agrarian revolutionaries, anarcho-syndicalism, agitated for radical change, undermine the legitimacy of the regime, agrarian radicalism, capitalist economic transformation, dictatorial political system, urban proletariat, agrarian socialism, and social revolution, tyranny of capitalism.”

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BOOK REVIEW: Steve Canyon, Volume 1955 to 1956 by Milton Caniff

SteveCanyon5_PRI opened the cover of this tome with eager anticipation—to read and view another of Caniff’s boffo comic-strip stories about the rousing adventures of the heroic Lieutenant Colonel Steven B. Canyon, USAF. Alas! I was disappointed.

I found that Caniff’s stories in this volume had plots that are incongruous to the Steve Canyon mystic, and unfortunately, some are nonsensical.

Included are several of out-of-character stories: three smarmy, soap opera narratives. One smacks of the travails of Pearl White in Perils of Pauline film serials of 1914–Steve “Do Good” Canyon rescues the damsel in distress from a fate worse than death. Another is a Y/A recital in which Canyon adopts a distant cousin—a sixteen-year old rambunctious and comely female who helps Canyon save his Air Force base from a hostile populous.

I missed the roaring adventures of Canyon in some exotic location out whiting the classic “bad guy” that usually has distorted facial or body features. I missed Steve matching wits with a glamorous dame clad in a skin-tight ensemble that reveals more than it ought, and who is intent on corrupting him into her evil designs. I longed to see Caniff’s eeevil Dragon Lady maneuver her voluptuous charms to inveigle Canyon into her piratical schemes and into her quarters on her sea-going junk sailing the South China Seas.

Canyon drafts his females out of a dream—gorgeous creatures with body proportions not seen on humans—all proffer a wasp-thin waist, high-arched eyebrows, and brassy bosoms in blouses that are cut on the bias that emphasize their near-perfect form..

I miss Caniff’s finely detailed drawings of yesteryear where most every frame was a cameo —“Terry and the Pirates” of the 30s and “Miss Lace” of the 40s, for examples. However, progressively in the Steve Canyon narratives, his drawings reflect a short cut to his art. Occasionally some of his drawings mimic his past exactness but far too many do not.

Nonetheless all the above, I’m looking forward to getting the next publication in this series.

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