Author: John U. Bacon
Title: The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
Narrator: Johnny Heller
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
As a Bostonian, we hear about the Great Halifax Explosion every year when the Province of Nova Scotia delivers a giant Christmas tree to Boston Common. The annual gift symbolizes the gratitude they have for the people of Massachusetts being among the first to respond with relief after the devastating explosion of December 5, 1917. Bacon’s work is a comprehensive history of Halifax during the first World War, the explosion, and its aftermath.
Bacon does a great job of finding the stories of the people who lived in the Richmond neighborhood of Halifax that was flattened by the blast. Many of them had come to work in the port’s bustling economy, and some served in the military in Europe. Bacon also breaks down the many errors that lead to French munitions ship SS Mont Blanc colliding with Norwegian charter ship SS Imo, many of them exacerbated by wartime conditions. For example, in peacetime a ship carrying explosives flew a red flag as a warning but this was discontinued as it made ships a target for German u-boats.
Bacon also tells stories of the day of the explosion for dozens of Haligonians. Some of them contain graphic detail such as the man who survived by landing on something soft only to discover it was a pile of human corpses. But Bacon chiefly recognizes the heroism and self-sacrifice of many individuals and groups who helped in relief efforts and performed small acts of kindness. This includes the great support that came from the United States and Bacon marks this response as changing the relationship between the two countries from one of hostility to one of amity.
The explosion remains to this day the largest human-made accidental blast in history.
Release Date: August 12, 1927
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Famous Players – Lasky
A big budget war epic and romance featuring the biggest star of the era? This movie is totally Oscar bait! Except the Academy Awards didn’t exist when this movie was made and it would win the first Best Picture award at a ceremony in 1929. Clara Bow is the big star of this movie, and while it’s clear that here role is awkwardly shoehorned into an existing story, she’s a delight every time she’s on the screen. I found myself crushing hard on a woman born before my grandparents!
The story focuses on Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) a young man who tinkers with engines and is enthralled with the local beauty Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, his neighbor Mary (Bow) is in love with him, but he’s oblivious to her attentions. Sylvia is in fact all but betrothed to David (Richard Arlen). When the war comes, both Jack and David enlist in the Army Air Force, and after some initial tension at training camp they become good friends and ace pilots. Meanwhile, Mary does her part for the war effort as an ambulance driver.
The love “quadrangle” is central to the melodramatic plot of the film. But there’s also quite a bit of humor. El Brendel plays a character named Herman Schwimpf who consistently is challenged on his German name and thus demonstrates his over-the-top pugnacity for the American war effort (but then he disappears about half through, so I guess they ran out of gags for him). In an extended scenes in Paris, Jack gets intoxicated on leave and comically goes on about the bubbles in champagne (which are animated on the screen) while Mary attempts to get him to his room to sleep. But really, this movie is about airplanes flying and shooting and one another, and the scenes of aerial combat are really quite remarkable over 90 years later.
Author: Skip Desjardin
Title: September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series
Publication Info: Regnery History (2018)
It’s a running joke that the Boston news media will try to find the Boston angle to any major news story. The thesis of this book is that Boston was essentially the center of world events for the month of September 1918, and in many ways Desjardin is not exaggerating.
The 1918 World Series became famous for being the Boston Red Sox last championship for 86 years (after winning 5 of the first 15 World Series). But the World Series that year is remarkable for other reasons. First, it came at the end of a shortened season. As part of the work or fight edict from the US government, Major League Baseball agreed to end the season at Labor Day, with the Red Sox and the Cubs given an extra couple of weeks to complete the World Series. Baseball was then to be suspended for the remainder of the war, and when the World Series ended on September 11th, no one knew the armistice would occur exactly two months later. The war also depressed enthusiasm for the World Series with a low turnout in both ballparks. The players concern of getting the smallest bonus ever offered to World Series participants combined the uncertainty of future employment lead them to strike briefly before one of the games.
The first World War lies heavily over this book as the Wilson government heavily encouraged all-out participation by recruiting and dedicating the homefront to the war effort. One of the first American war heroes, the flying ace David Putnam of Jamaica Plain, died over Germany on September 12. The same day the American forces under General John Pershing began the three day offensive at Saint-Mihiel which included the Yankee Division, primarily made up of New Englanders. This was the first time American divisions lead by American officers took part in an offensive and the successful battle gained respect of the French and British, while making Germany realize their hopes for victory were growing slim.
The War also played a part in spreading the Great Influenza across continents and oceans. The flu made it’s first outbreak in the US in Boston at the end of August 1918 and by the early days of September it was infecting – and killing – great numbers of sailors at the Commonwealth Pier and a great number of soldiers at Camp Devens in Ayer. Patriotic events like the Labor Day Parade helped spread the flu to the civilian population. The official response tended towards prioritizing keeping morale high for the war effort rather than reporting the actual deadliness of the disease, and military officers repeatedly stated the worst was past even as the number of deaths in the ranks increased. The flu would burn through Massachusetts by the end of September while having an even more deadly October in the rest of the US in places like Philadelphia.
I’ve long thought that the period circa 1918-1919 in Boston is an historic era uniquely packed with significant and strange events. Desjardin proves that just picking one month from that period provides the material for a compelling historical work.
Recommended books: Flu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata and Red Sox Century by Glenn Stout
StarTalk :: The Stars that Guide Us
Discussion of the traditions of celestial navigation used by Polynesian voyagers to traverse wide expanses of the Pacific Ocean.
To The Best of Our Knowledge :: What’s Wrong With Work?
Work is bunk. Find out why employment is meaningless and “work ethic” is just there to control us, along with some more human alternatives.
Hidden Brain :: Bullshit Jobs
Another podcast goes in depth on how meaningless work is wearing us down. I sense a theme.
Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Jingles
Catchy tunes have been used to sell things since the early days of radio. This episode also offers a good deep dive into the phenomena of earworms and how to defeat them.
Hub History :: War, Plague, and the World Series
I’ve long been fascinated by the great number of significant events that happened in Boston around 1918-1919. This episode is an interview with Skip Desjardins who wrote a book about what in just September 1918.
99% Invisible :: The First Straw
Drinking straws have been in the news lately as they’re being banned for being a pollutant. This episode explores the origin of straws, their beneficial purposes, and possible alternatives to straws.
99% Invisible :: Double Standards
Yes, a double dose of 99 P.I. this week! This episode discusses blepharoplasty, a controversial cosmetic surgery which makes the eyes of people of Asian descent look more “Western.”
Decoder Ring :: The Paper Doll Club
Paper dolls are a toy that has fallen out of popularity with children, but there are sizable communities of adults who collect and design paper dolls, and a surprising connection with queer identity.
Risk! :: Man at Hawaii
Risk! host Kevin Allison tells the story of how his Catholic high school missionary trip lead him to become a storyteller.
Title: Wonder Woman
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: Patty Jenkins
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Talk about a movie living up to the hype! Gal Gadot puts in a great performance as Diana, the Amazon princess raised among the warrior woman of the island of Themyscira. When the outside world arrives in the form of an American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashing his plane near the island and an ensuing attack of Germans, Diana is drawn to leave home to end the war and defeat the god Ares.
Diana and Steve go to London and then to Belgium in the last days before the Armistice, with a plan to prevent a German plot to introduce a more dangerous form of mustard gas that would kill thousands and extend the war. One of the delightful parts of the movie is the team of misfits Steve puts together to accompany them on their mission: Sameer, the Indian secret agent, Charlie, the Scotish sharpshooter with PSTD, and Chief Napi, a Native American smuggler. The disparate characters alongside Steve and Diana add the “world” to the World War while transcending stereotypes of their cultural background.
There are comical scenes of Diana trying to adjust to the strange, patriarchal world of London, and there are some spectacular visual in the action sequences, particularly the scene in No Man’s Land in Belgium. Gadot may not be the type of actor to deliver a striking soliloquy, but provides a lot of striking subtle touches such as her little smiles as she discover her powers, as well as her convincing portrayal of a warrior. Pine also does a good job as a character who would typically be the superhero, but accepts being second fiddle as well as being full of wonder at Diana defying all that is accepted in his culture.
I have a few nitpicks. While the music in blockbuster films over the past 40+ years has been inspired by John Williams bombastic classical-style score, this movie attempts to break the mold with a score of bombastic prog rock that just doesn’t work, especially in the World War I period. The final battle between Diana and Ares seems unnecessary because it would’ve just made more sense for Diana to discover that humanity is violent on its own (and still worth saving), which is ultimately the conclusion she comes through after a stereotypical CGI-filled battle that just pads the film’s length.
Other than that though, this is a masterpiece. A stunning action film that shows a heroes journey, brings together a lovable group of characters, and makes a convincing case against war. See it now or see it again.
Title: The African Queen
Release Date: 1951 December 23
Director: John Huston
Production Company: United Artists
Happy Valentines Day! Rewatching this movie made me realize it’s the ultimate Rom-Com in which woman decides that their first date should be to cruise down some rapids and torpedo a boat. Wackiness ensues! Seriously though, The African Queen was always a favorite when I was young but it’s been decades since I’ve watched it. The movie loses points for the casually colonialist/racist opening scenes. But once you have Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart alone on a boat, it’s a treasure. These two actors seem to so effortlessly become the characters they’re playing. And the cinematography is spectacular, especially for a color movie filmed on location in 1950. A deserved classic.
Author: Max Brooks, Caanan White (Illustrator)
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Publication Info: Broadway Books, 2014
In graphic novel form, Max Brooks (curiously enough, the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks) tells the oft-overlooked story of 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. The largely African-American infantry regiment was among the first American troops to be sent to the front lines in France in 1919 during World War I, where they became known for their toughness and valor and earned their nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters” from their German opponents. It’s an interesting story although Brooks relies on a familiar story of racial discrimination at home and the horrors of war abroad. While the story is told from the point of view of a soldier named Mark, there isn’t much to distinguish the characters and personalize the story. White’s illustrations seem to revel in depictions of gore that would fit in with The Walking Dead, but it’s actually difficult to distinguish the characters – black, white, French, and German – from one another. One nice touch is that Brooks includes fragments of contemporary songs and poems to accompany scenes of the war. It’s very cinematic, in fact, which is not surprising since Brooks originally intended to write a screenplay. The graphic novel has it’s flaws but overall it’s a good introduction to the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
Author: Erik Larson
Title: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Narrator: Scott Brick
Publication Info: New York, New York : Random House Audio, 2015.
Other Books Read by the Same Author:
In typical Larson fashion, he crafts the story of the final voyage of the Lusitania and it’s aftermath drawing heavily on primary documents. Larson moves among telling the detailed experiences of the crew and passengers of the ill-fated ship, the captain and crew of the U-20, the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, and the British intelligence team known as Room 40. The Wilson stuff seems a bit tangential (although still interesting) but overall this is an engaging history from multiple perspectives of a key event that often gets summed up in just a few sentences.
Recommended books: Dirigible Dreams by C. Michael Hiam, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, and Krakatoa by Simon Winchester