S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the category “20th Century Topics”

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.

BOOK REVIEW: Prelude to the First World War, the Balkan Wars 1912-1913 by E. R. Hooton

Prelude to the first world warHooton explores the complexities of the two Balkan Wars with a surgical analysis–two important, little known, wars that were the prelude to the Great War in 1914. He earns a sincere congratulation for his in depth research. His statistics are overwhelming–so overwhelming that the reader is inundated with details that after a time becloud the mind and have no meaning. The tide of these wars is lost in trivia. I’m not sure what I’ve read. The reader would be better served if Hooton had assembled all these myriad details into tables and incorporated them in Appendices. Then he could have focused his manuscript on the broad picture of these important wars.

At times, his syntax is muddled, he uses the passive voice too often, and I noticed a number of punctuation errors.

By far, however, Hooton’s most serious failure is to provide relevant maps. He does offer maps of various battles. Nonetheless, they are, on the whole, useless.

  • Missing is an overall, large-scale map of the Balkans so that the reader can set the perspective.
  • Missing are medium-scale maps that show larger scale areas and battle areas.
  • His small-scale maps pretend to show the details of various battles. Alas! They do not. Rather they have no cache. They are void of understandable of detail. We cannot fathom who did what to whom, where.
    • Often, the lettering is so miniscule that one needs a magnifying glass to read it.
    • No North Arrows.
    • No Legends to explain the symbols
    • No delineation between water and land that’s discernable.
    • Key points in the text are not noted (seen) on some maps.
    • Oftentimes he mentions a population center or a geographical feature in the text but he does not have it plotted on his map.
    • Frequently maps are on one page and the battle details are somewhere else.

This book is best used as a reference publication for the aficionados —not one to be read front to back.

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BOOK REVIEW: A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 by David J. Silbey

a war of frontierSilbey tells an intriguing and detailed tale of one of America’s little known and critically important conflicts that led to our acquisition of Guam, The Philippines, and Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean. His writing style is engaging and engenders empathy for the aficionado. We easily follow the campaign through the mountains and plains of Luzon, jungles of Mindanao, and the numerous islands of the archipelago. I fault Silbey for not providing sufficient and more detailed maps.

During the Cuban insurrection of 1897 against the brutal Spanish occupation, riots in Havana threatened American property. President William McKinley chided Spain to release its control of the island.

In February 1898, McKinley sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana Bay to protect American property and interest. On 15 February, an explosion of unknown origin sank the Maine killing 260 of its crew. No responsibility was ever proven.

William Randolph Hurst was the publisher of the New York Journal and twenty-nine other newspapers. His headlines screamed “This Means War.”

And, so it was. Spain’s brutal suppression of the Cuban rebellion, continued losses to American investment, and in large measure on Hurst’s continuous rabblerousing led McKinley to declare war against Spain in April 1898.

Commodore George Dewey, USN led the American Asiatic Squadron into Manila Bay and engaged the Spanish Pacific Squadron. After a five-hour battle, the Spanish Squadron destroyed, and they struck their colors. The War ended on 10 December 1898.

The guerrilla leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, had expected the United States to grant immediate independence with him as the head of state. Instead, President McKinley decided to occupy the Philippines to establish our presence in the western Pacific. Aguinaldo marshaled his forces and fought several set battles with the American army. Defeated in all battles, he retreated across the Luzon Peninsula and was finally captured in March 1901 near Palanan. Sporadic guerrilla war continued until December 1902.

BOOK REVIEW: I Could Never Be So Lucky Again by Lieutenant General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, US Army Air Corps, (ret.)

Lucky AgainI Could Never Be So Lucky Again is the autobiography of one of the United States’ great heroes: Lieutenant General James (Jimmy) H. Doolittle—aviation pioneer, and Doctor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts of Technology. After the First World War, he became one of America’s top racing aviators. He won the Schneider Marine Cup, 1925; Mackay Trophy, 1925; Bendix Trophy, 1931; Thompson Trophy, 1932; and many other aviation awards and honors. In 1932, he set the world’s speed record at 296 miles/hour.

Perhaps Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle is best know for his audacious scheme, precision planning, sterling leadership of the B25 aircraft squadron raid on the Japanese homeland during the grim, early months of World War II. He earned the Medal of Honor—America’s highest military award. President Franklin Roosevelt presented the medal to Doolittle. At end of the War, Lieutenant General Doolittle (a reserve officer) was the Commander of the Army Air Forces Eighth Air Force strategic bomber command—stationed in England. Following the conclusion of the War, he served on numerous Government and civilian aviation type committees and boards. In 1989, President George Herbert Walker Bush awarded Doolittle the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ronald Reagan promoted Doolittle to a full four-star general. Jimmy Doolittle died on September 27, 1993, at age 96.

Should you have more interest in the famous and important Doolittle Raid on Japan, may I suggest that you read my blog comments posted on 18 April 2015—the 73rd anniversary of this daring and critically important event in World War II. The address is “smartinshelton@wordpress.com/”

I am much impressed with Doolittle’s autobiography—perhaps awed is the more accurate term of this great American aviator. I remember clearly, as a young nipper, the newspaper headlines, radio broadcast, and newsreels announcing the raid—a much needed boost to our flagging morale as the Japanese overran Southeast Asia including the Philippine Islands and threatened Australia.

No need to summarize the contents—read it. Suffice to note that the writing is empathetic as he leads us through the key elements of his life. We garner insight in the real man—a man of honor, daring, and patriotism. My negatives are:

  1. He (or the publisher) failed to post photographs of the cadre of aircraft he flew, important locations, and of many of the persons with which he interacted.
  2. There are no maps. Accordingly, it’s difficult to follow his adventures and we loose perspective. The surfeit of maps is a major failing in this otherwise superior tome.

The Doolittle Raid

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and five other Japanese cities—one of the most audacious, brilliant, and important actions of World War II.

Background. In a surprise maneuver, aircraft from the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, 7 December 1941 that destroyed the our Navy’s battle fleet. Fortunately, our aircraft carriers were at sea conducting exercises and were unharmed.

Following the Pear Harbor attack, allied forces were reeling backwards as Japanese forces advanced deep into China; they conquered Hong Kong, Wake, and Guam. In the Philippines, American forces had retreated to the island stronghold of Corridor in Manila Bay and it was soon to fall. In southeast Asia, they occupied Vichy French Indo-China without opposition. Their aircraft sunk the British battleships, Prince of Wales, and Repulse in the South China Sea. Shortly Malaysia and Singapore fell. Burma and Thailand fell next, and the Japanese were poised to invade India (“The Crown of the Empire”). In the naval engagement of the Java Sea, the Japanese sank our heavy cruiser USS Houston, and our auxiliary aircraft carrier USS Langley. Eastward, they captured the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Timor, New Guinea, and vast areas of the central and southern Pacific: the Marshall, Caroline, and Gilbert Islands. The Japanese’s next scheduled conquest was Australia. (Most of its army was in Egypt fighting Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Africa Corps.)

American armed forces were in retreat throughout the western Pacific. The British and Commonwealth forces fell back to India. A Japanese submarine shelled the Elwood oil refinery near Santa Barbara. American moral was at the nadir as the war news became more and more negative. President Roosevelt demanded that we strike the Japanese homeland to boost American morale and put the Japanese Imperial Staff on notice that their day of reckoning was coming. The president’s charge was an impossible task. That is until Lieutenant Colonel James (Jimmy), Doolittle of the US Army Air Corp, devised a daring plan.

In the morning of 18 April 1942, in very heavy weather and pitching seas, sixteen Army Air Corps, North American “Mitchell” B25 medium bombers launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Colonel Billy Mitchell was first off with only 400 feet of flight deck ahead of his aircraft. Flying at low-level to avoid detection, the B25s hit targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. One B25 was forced down in Japan and the crew taken prisoners-of-war (and three executed), one landed in neutral Soviet Union and the crew interned, and the remaining fourteen aircraft crash-landed in China. President Roosevelt awarded James Doolittle the Medal of Honor.

In Doolittle’s autobiography, I Could Never be so Lucky Again, he said, “… as a result of our raid, the Japanese were withdrawing fighter (airplane) units from the front lines to defend their homeland.” They feared more attacks on their homeland and wanted to push their front lines to Midway for a follow on invasion of the Territory of Hawaii. The Japanese Navy suffered a stunning defeat in the ensuing Battle of Midway. We sank four of their aircraft carriers and several other warships; and the core of their veteran aviators was lost. Historians now agree that the Doolittle raid …”induced the Japanese to extend their forces beyond their capability. (p. 293) The Battle of Midway was the turning point in the war.”

In 1959, James Doolittle retired as a Major General and returned to an executive position at Shell Oil Company. In 1985, Ronald Reagan promoted Doolittle to a full four-star general. Doolittle died on September 27, 1993, at age 96.

Short Biography. Doolittle enlisted in the Army in 1917 when World War I was in full force. He earned his wings, and despite his repeated request for overseas duty, he was assigned to training aviation cadets. He earned his Doctor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the Massachusetts of Technology in1925. After the first world war, he became on of America’s top racing aviators. He won the Schneider Marine Cup, 1925; Mackay Trophy, 1925; Bendix Trophy, 1931; Thompson Trophy, 1932, and many other. In 1989 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Film Review: The Woman in Gold

the woman in goldDetails. Released April 2015. Orion Pictures. Actors: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Donald Bruke, Kate Holmes, Mana Altman. Director, Simon Curtis. Writers: Alexi Kaye Campbell.

Background. During the Anschluss of 1938, Nazi Germany overthrew the government of Austria. Following, the Austrian and German Nazis looted Jewish possessions: art, jewelry, furs, and silver, anything of value.

Synopsis. This film is liberally based on actuality. Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), an elderly Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, attempts to recover four valuable paintings by the now world-famous artist Gustav Klimt that Nazi thugs looted from her family. In particular she wants the painting titled “The Woman in Gold,” a portrait of, Adele Bloch-Baurer I, her aunt. After the War, the paintings were on display in the Austrian State Gallery. Over the ensuing years, “The Woman in Gold” became Austria’s equivalent of France’s “Mona Lisa.”

In 1999 Altmann, the now American citizen, employs the attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to plead her case against the implacable Austrian Government. Her motivation is to publicize the Nazi’s unmitigated genocide and illicit art theft and to seek some matter of justice and restitution. Eventually, Schoenberg, through extended, legal machinations, wins his case through an arbitration panel that declares that the paintings the property of Altmann. She returns the four paintings to the United States and they are now on display at the Neue Galerie in New York City.

Critique. On the whole, I enjoyed this film. On a scale of one to five, I place it at four. It engendered intense empathy in me as it stimulated my recalled these events from World War II. Helen Mirren is exceptional as Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann. Ryan Reynolds does a yeoman job as E. Randol Schoenberg—thought he’s bit stoic at times. The miss en scène is skillfully portrayed with excellent cinematography, background locations, costumes, props, etc. Directing, and editing are first-rate. And, as noted art direction is superb.

Several plot points piqued my interest.

  1. During the Austrian Nazi government regime, Maria Altmann and her husband board an aeroplane in Vienna bound for Cologne—in the heart of Nazi Germany. Next, she is in the United States without her husband. There is a large hole in this scenario. What happened to her husband? And how did they (she) escape from Nazi Germany?
  2. The transitions from present day to 1938 are exceptionally well executed. However, after a time they became timeworn.
  3. I must admit that I was somewhat annoyed that the Schӧnebrunn Palace was shown several times as some other building and not always the same building. I reckon that’s artistic prerogative.

BOOK REVIEW: The Spanish Civil War by Gabriele Ranzato

spanish civil warRanzato presents us with a pocketsize, summary of the political machinations of the various fighting-factions during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War. In large measure, he skips the military campaign. Permeating the conflict was the chaos of vacillating loyalties, conflicting interests of the various factions, and the telling influence of the military involvement of “non-interventionists” countries: for example, the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics and its Communist International’s (COMINTERN) domination of the “Republican” government, and the International Brigades comprised of men from most western nations. On the Nationalist side (Generalissimo Francisco Franco) were the Moroccan Legion, Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion, and Fascist Italy’s contribution of all manner of soldiers and arms.

On the positive side, he opens this book with an excellent summary of the political events that racked Spain before the Revolution. He discusses in detail the Soviet Union’s domination of the “Republican” government. On page fifty is a picture of a street scene in Barcelona—seen on the façade of a building is a large portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Emphasized throughout are descriptions of the atrocities committed by both sides. Relevant photographs and posters suffuse throughout the book. The Chronology at the end of the book set the perspective for the raison d’être the revolution.

Unfortunately, in Ranzato’s short treatise, he does not enlighten us very much. He mentions some of the factions and their involvement, but not enough to clarify the chaos. In fact, his text is so surfeit of details that our understanding of the internecine of the factions is seriously incomplete and muddled. Numerous side bar texts interrupt the flow of his narrative. His two small maps are insufficient in several ways: some geographic locations mentioned in the text are not shown on the maps, their scale is too large, and their paucity is a serious negative.

I would suggest that, in part, the problem lies in the translation to English from Spanish, his writing style, and the subject is so convoluted that one cannot resolve it in such a simple book.

BOOK REVIEW: A Box of Sand: The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912 by Charles Stephenson

a box of sandI’m conflicted reviewing this book. Stephenson reports the chronologic events of this war in exceptional detail. Unfortunately, it’s dull, and tedious—lacks an empathetic milieu. It’s hard reading for the ordinary citizen. Perhaps it is best as a reference book for the military historian.

This war between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ottoman Empire early in the twentieth-century (1911-1912) for control of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (now Libya) mostly is lost to history nor is its raison d’être much understood. Stephenson has superbly researched the war’s particulars and has penned about as historically accurate a scenario as one could reckon. He relates in excruciating detail the chronology of the war—laced with interminable quotes from journalists, diary entries, diplomatic and military messages, after-action reports, etc. He spends considerable text discussing the reactions of the Triple Entente to Italy’s (a member) participation in the war, Ottoman politics, and details and implications of the Balkan Wars. Such background is related to the conflict but is tangential and diverts our attention from the main theme.

I’m overwhelmed with ancillary information. The war’s key points are buried in this comprehensive blather. On completion of his text, I do not have a clear picture of the events of this war nor of its origins.

I have three more complaints: the text of this 296-page book is in a small font (size and type not given on the copyright page)—far too small for comfortable reading. And, the Appendices are in an even smaller font. Often times, he mentions locations in the text that are not plotted on his maps. The Index contains only the names of people mentioned in the text. A more comprehensive Index would contain geographic locations, ship’s names, and etc.

Lastly, though the war ended officially in 1912 it morphed into a protracted war with the indigenous Senussi that lasted until 1934. The Senussi are a Muslim political-religious Sufi order and tribe of (now) Libya and Sudan.

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