It’s Time to Look Closer at Black History

Katherine Johnson is a remarkable woman, but you don’t need me to tell you that, all you have to do is look at her CV. She was one of Nasa’s ‘human computers’ – a physicist whose job, among other things, was to calculate trajectories and flight times for the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

Katherine was pivotal to the success of the mission and she did so using just a slide rule and pencil. That a woman could achieve such a distinction at a time when men ruled the employment roost is remarkable – but that the woman in question also happened to be black is downright amazing.

For her work in helping to win the space race, Katherine Johnson (now 97) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year by President Obama. Her story is told in the book, and soon-to-be-released movie, Hidden Figures.


Katherine Johnson

Katherine’s life and achievements are intriguing, but what really fascinates is the historical space (no pun intended) that her story inhabits. Quite frankly, the history we tend to read about black achievement and struggle usually centres not on the space race but on race itself – on issues like Civil Rights and the fight against slavery.

We are used to viewing black history through this prism, so when you throw in the fact that a very smart and very determined black woman helped put humans on the moon, that makes a lot of people suddenly pay attention.

It made me wonder, though, what other historical spaces have been overlooked when it comes to black people. For instance, what about all those black men who fought in Nazi armies during World War II. We don’t tend to read about the Phalange Africaine Legion, which fought for Hitler in the North Africa campaign, or the Free Arab Legion which formed part of the force that occupied Greece and which fought partisans in Yugoslavia.


Free Arab Legion soldier

Similarly, we read little about those black people who struggled to survive after falling prey to Nazi race laws and who were described as ‘of alien blood’ in Nazi Germany and were prohibited from marrying or having sex with ‘people of German blood’.

In the Rhineland, a programme was established, which led to up to 500 mixed-race children (conceived when French African colonial troops occupied the region) being sterilised lest they ‘contaminate’ the Aryan bloodline.

For some reason, the notion of black people living in Nazi Germany seems to be off our radar.

But it’s not just there that we have lost sight of the black experience. The American Civil War is another case in point. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment is celebrated for being the first black Union regiment of soldiers in the US Civil War. Books have been written and films made describing their fighting acumen and bravery.


A black man in Confederate uniform

As fascinating as they were, we hear little in popular culture about the black Confederate soldiers who fought during that conflict. They did exist (their numbers have been hotly debated), but their story is still waiting to be told. Maybe the notion of black people – even a tiny minority – supporting the Southern states is just too much to contemplate for some.

The popular history of America’s West also gives short shrift to the black experience. We tend to see the Old West through the stories of white settlers and ‘red’ Indians – the colour black doesn’t get much of a look-in, particularly when it comes to those charged with enforcing the law in those days.

Bass Reeves may be well-known to some, but for most of us I’d wager his name draws a blank. It shouldn’t because Bass had an extraordinary life. As the first black deputy west of the Mississippi, he worked for the ‘Hanging Judge’, Isaac Parker. For 32 years, he would serve in various districts.


Bass Reeves

By his own reckoning, he arrested 3,000 criminals and shot dead 14 outlaws. Based on his success as a lawman alone, his story certainly deserves to feature more prominently in the history of the Old West than some other ‘characters’ from that era who are better known than he is.

Of course, I might just be highlighting my own ignorance when it comes to black endeavour and not the fact that cases like black Nazi soldiers and black lawmen are little known.

For instance, I’d never heard of Matthew Henson, who is credited as being the first African-American Arctic explorer. Born in 1866 to a family of sharecroppers, Matthew fist went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of 12. He would go on to make seven voyages to the Arctic alongside explorer, Commander Robert Peary.

The Commander would be feted for his endeavours, but for decades Henson was only recognised within the black community. He would later be honoured by presidents, books would be written about him, and he was given a hero’s burial at Arlington Cemetery.


Matthew Henson

So, ultimately, Henson was recognised for his efforts. Yet, why did it come as a surprise to me to find a black face in the vast white landscape of the Arctic? Perhaps it’s a result of viewing black people through their experiences on American soil. That’s certainly how I viewed Frederick Douglass.

That great abolitionist, orator, writer and one-time slave, Douglass is a man synonymous with high intellect and great rhetoric.  I can imagine his high-flown oratory at public meetings in America where he might debate with proponents of slavery or argue for women’s rights.

But that a black man of such titanic intellect traversed my own isle of Ireland in 1845 and debated the issues of the day… well it’s hard to get one’s head around.

It was only until relatively recently that I discovered the great orator had come to Ireland on a lecture tour for four months at the outset of the famine, and that he had stood alongside Ireland’s ‘Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell, in whom Douglass found a match for his own great oratory.


Frederick Douglass

And what a wordsmith Douglass was. Here’s what he had to say about his time in Ireland:

‘I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!

Much like the notion of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of America, or Sitting Bull’s presence in England as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, I suppose we can sometimes find certain historical scenarios hard to envisage. So, perhaps I am not alone in finding it surprising to view black lives in the context set out above.

One thing’s for sure, though. February is designated Black History Month in some parts, and we should all make it our business to delve more deeply into the stories of black lives down the centuries.

I’ll be wading through aspects of the past that I had neatly pigeonholed as being areas of white experience. I will seek out the black stories there that may have been lost in the mix, I will rummage for that forgotten voice – the one that tells a tale unheard by many of us, and then I will marvel at the deep, dark recesses of my own ignorance.

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How The Good Nazis Put Their Lives on The Line

When we think of World War II it’s easy to know which side the good guys and gals were on, right? Unless, of course, you recall the GI murder gangs that sowed terror in wartime Paris. If you don’t know that story, then you can read about it in a previous post, here.

But it isn’t just criminal GIs who can turn our concept of good and bad on its head. We should also remember those Nazis who put their lives on the line, or gave them up entirely to save the ‘enemy’.

They seldom get the credit they deserve, but the good Nazis of Hitler’s Germany are owed a debt that can never be repaid. Here are some stories of the Nazis who really did make a difference… and for the right reasons.

On July 26, 1942, the bridge at the River San in southern Poland was thronged with troops at both ends.

It led to the town of Przemysl, where the SS had orders to liquidate 100 Jewish inhabitants, but they faced an obstacle in the form of a detachment of soldiers with orders to defend the town at all costs.

Each side’s men faced off against one another in broad daylight, their fingers hovering over triggers. The bridge’s defenders must have had their hearts in their mouths as they trained their guns on the SS troops opposite and waited for the order to fire.

All it would take was some over-excited trooper to let loose with a burst from his machine-gun and hell would be unleashed. Thankfully, the order to fire never came. Instead, the SS commander finally decided to pull back his men.

The soldiers involved must have breathed a sigh of relief. The town’s 100 Jews must have wept for joy. What’s remarkable about this little tableau is not that the SS turned on their heel without firing a shot, rather that those making them flee were fellow German soldiers, who had put their lives on the line to protect Przemusl’s Jews from liquidation.


Albert Battel

The events of that day were played out due to the determination of the local military commander Major Max Liedke and his adjutant, 51-year-old reserve officer, Lieutenant Albert Battel, who later that day entered the Jewish ghetto and evacuated the Jews, placing them under the protection of the Wehrmacht.

The affair created an almighty stink. An investigation was ordered, with SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler himself vowing to have Battel thrown out of the Nazi party and arrested once the war was over.

It never came to that. Battel was retired from the army due to heart disease. He was captured by the Russians, and upon his release moved to West Germany. He died in 1952. Israel honoured his act of heroism, making him one of the Righteous Among Nations in 1981.

But Battel wasn’t the only Nazi to put his life on the line for the enemy. In 1942, Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman avoided being rounded up by Nazis and sent to Treblinka concentration camp. He hid in Warsaw, always waiting for the heavy stomp of jackboots on stairs to announce that the Germans had discovered his whereabouts.


Wilhelm Hosenfeld

That day finally did come, in August 1944, when Szpilman was found hiding in an abandoned building by German Captain Wilhelm Hosenfeld. Instead of turning the pianist in, however, Hosenfeld found a better place for him to hide, brought food to him regularly and even gave him an army great coat to keep warm.

The German officer wasn’t so fortunate. He was captured by the Russians in 1945, and died in captivity six years later.

In 2009, Hosenfeld was posthumously honoured by Israel for his courage.

Hosenfeld’s act of humanity ensured that Szpilman survived the war. His remarkable story was later turned into the film, The Pianist. Hollywood also rightly eulogised the role played by Nazi industrialist and spy Oskar Schindler in saving Jews from the gas chambers. The story of how he used guile and huge bribes to secure the safety of 1200 Jewish workers is well known. Schindler was practically bankrupt by the time the time Hitler’s armies surrendered.


Oskar Schindler

For a time after the war he lived in Argentina with his wife, and took up farming. Neither the marriage nor the farming worked out and he returned to Germany in 1958, where a string of failed business ventures followed. Schindler survived through financial support from the Jewish workers he’d spent his fortune trying to save. He was named Righteous Among Nations in 1963, and died 11 years later.

Just as remarkable, though, is the story of the Hungarian Nazi officer who saved over 100 Jewish workers from execution. Zoltan Kubyini was not your average soldier. A Seventh Day Adventist who refused to carry a gun, he was placed in charge of the workers when their previous camp commander broke his leg while travelling to superiors to finalise orders for the workers’ execution.

Kubyini respected his charges, giving them more rations, allowing them to observe Jewish holidays and even fasting with them for Yom Kippur. But when he was given orders to escort his men to a destination where they would then be sent to the gas chambers, he instead took them into Hungary to hide from the Nazis.

The flight was full of risk. At one point the group were approached by policemen who intended to have them sent to Germany. Kubyini plied the officers with drink and then spirited his band of workers away.


Zoltan Kubyini

When they reached Russian forces, the Jewish workers pleaded with Kubyini to remove his uniform and pretend to be a Jew. He refused and was subsequently arrested and ended his days in Siberia, where he died, his great act of humanity forgotten in the surrounding tundra.

Today, though, after some detective work, his brave act has been recognised and he, too, is listed as Righteous Among Nations.

But it wasn’t only Jews the heroic Nazis risked their lives for. In November, 1944, the US First Army found itself in a deadly struggle with the German 275th and 353rd Divisions in the Hurtgen Forest, along the Belgium-German border.

Lt. Friedrich Lengfeld was commanding 2nd Company of the 275th Division. By November 11, his men had been decimated, and those who survived were exhausted, cold and hungry.

They had been fighting the US 12th Infantry at a forester’s lodge in the woods, besides which was a minefield.


Lt Friedrich Lengfeld

As the Americans retreated, one of them ran into the field, with devastating consequences. Severely injured, the GI survived and began calling for help. Hours passed, but there was no sign of an American rescue.

Maddened by the cries of the wounded man, Lengfeld entered the minefield to help. No sooner had he done so than he stepped on an anti-personnel mine.

The lieutenant suffered serious internal injuries and died later that evening at a first-aid station. The identity of the American soldier remains unknown.

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest lasted from September 1944 until February 1945. It cost the lives of 33,000 American lives and about 28,000 Germans.

Despite the large numbers involved, Lengfeld’s heroism wasn’t forgotten. In October 1994 veterans of the 22nd US Infantry Society erected a monument at Hurtgen War Cemetery to honour his memory.

Yet another brave Nazi was John Rabe, a businessman who operated out of Nanking in China. He was there when Japan’s Imperial Army rampaged through the city between November 1937 and February 1938 in what later became known as the Rape of Nanking. Between 200,000 and 300,000 (depending on your source) are said to have been killed in the attack.

Rabe and other Europeans still in the city organised an international Safety Zone, to which refugees could flee. He even sheltered 650 civilians in his own garden. As a Nazi and given the Sino-German alliance, Rabe was appointed head of the safety committee.  It was felt that his stature would prove effective when dealing with the Japanese.


John Rabe

Rabe certainly delivered on that score. He created several areas where Chinese could seek refuge, patrolling the streets unarmed, facing down marauding Japanese troops and preventing outrages from occurring. His policing campaign lasted for four months and saved the lives of 250,000 people.

Rabe fell on hard times after the war, but was supported financially and with food parcels by grateful Chinese. He died in 1950. It was fitting though, that 47 years later his headstone was moved to a memorial site in Nanking, where he is still remembered to this day in a very real way – many children in Nanking now bear the name of ‘Rabe’ in his honour.

We prefer to see the good and bad guys in black and white terms, but there are always nuances, and as much as it upsets our neatly ordered view of World War II, we should remember those who allowed their sense of humanity to override their loyalty to the twisted views of the Nazi party.

The stories of the good Nazis give us a valuable lesson, that even ardent followers of the most brutal regimes can have a conscience and can assert their humanity come the hour.

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Why we need Santa more than ever…


British and German troops during the Christmas truce in 1914 (pic: Imperial War Museum)

You might have read before about the Christmas truce of 1914, that impromptu gathering in the mud of Flanders’ No Man’s Land when German and British soldiers downed weapons and greeted each other as men, not enemies. For a few hours, the din of brutal battle was forgotten and the bond of common kinship rekindled over a shared smoke or a bit of prized grub saved for that special day.

The following year it was the turn of the Scots’ Guards when one of their company commanders agreed to a ceasefire which ended up with German soldiers dancing to the music of a Scot’s mouth organ.

The magic of Christmas does that to people. It’s a magic fostered by our memories of more innocent childhood times. I still remember that Christmas morning when I looked beneath my bed to see what Santa had left. There, waiting for me to play with was a fort… not just any fort, either. This one had the words ‘Fort Apache’ emblazoned over the front gates. The walls were painted blue and the roofs of the buildings inside were a glossy black.

Sentry towers stood in each corner and there was a corral for horses and some sort of shack – a goods store perhaps, or a jail. There were US cavalrymen brandishing pistols and rifles. Surrounding them, making silent blood-curdling cries were Apache warriors – tomahawks raised, about to rain down death blows on their enemies.

My heart caught in my throat. How could Santa possibly have known to choose such a perfect present. How could something so wonderful be delivered beneath my bed without my knowledge. I rushed downstairs to tell my parents.

My dad, a skilled woodworker, seemed to appreciate the way the wood had been shaped and cut, even somehow managing to point out details I had overlooked in the excitement of my discovery – like how a door opened to reveal a room within, and how there were ladders that cavalrymen could use to reach the battlements. Dad seemed very quick at spotting all these things, I thought.

For years after I would play with that wonderful fort. My heart wrenched when one of the towers eventually broke and the hinge on the gate gave way, but these were honourable wounds, inflicted by hours and hours of unfettered, joyous play.

The joy of Christmas is a much-needed blessing. We live in a hard and sometimes heartless world… a world where children drown in foreign seas while fleeing from their ravaged homelands; a world where the rich prevail and the ordinary worker clings on for dear life.

It’s a world where fear and anger are rampant. Parents look at depleted bank accounts and wonder with trepidation how they can support their families for another year… how they can keep the roof over their heads while the shadow of debt grows ever longer and ever darker.

We fear for our loved ones’ safety – from terror attacks, from predatory paedophiles, from drunken yobs. And when we don’t feel the fear, there’s always the anger to fall back on… anger at our governments for failing us, at our banks for exploiting us, and the justice system for ignoring us.

Then Christmas comes, and for many, the fear and the anger subside a notch, to be replaced by warmer, gentler thoughts.

Somehow, we become that little bit more thoughtful, have a greater awareness of those around us who are struggling more than we are. A glimmer of goodwill grows in our hearts as we plan homecomings, family get-togethers, and foresee the light of excitement in our children’s eyes on Christmas Eve night as they prepare for bed.

The presents help, too, of course. But it’s isn’t really about the gifts. The magic of Christmas lies in those tiny gestures that pass between us – the nods of understanding, the sense of unspoken kinship with our fellow beings as we make our preparations for the big day.

The thing is, though, the magic is there all year round, even in the harshest of times. Those Christmas truces in World War One weren’t the only cases of men showing kindness to one another.

Richard Van Emden’s book, Meeting The Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, highlights some others particularly well.

For instance, in one French sector of the front taken over by the British, a note pinned to some barbed wire suggested both sides exchange newspapers. Prior to the arrival of the British, German officers had been in the habit of popping over of an evening for a game of bridge with their French counterparts. That, alas, was soon knocked on the head.


German and British officers at Capt Wilfred Birt’s funeral (pic: Imperial War Museum)

The treatment of prisoners of war was also quite civil. In one instance, a British officer – Captain Wilfred Birt – died of his wounds while in a hospital in Cologne. He was buried with full military honours in Cologne Cathedral at a service attended by British officers who were given safe passage back to their own lines after the funeral


Max Immelmann

However, it was fighter pilots who displayed the greatest chivalry. Downed enemy pilots were often invited for a meal in the German officers’ mess. The British reciprocated with equally thoughtful gestures. When the German ace Max Immelmann was killed, a British pilot dropped off a wreath and message of condolence on the late German’s airfield.

If we can show humanity in wartime, why can’t we do so more often in times of peace. The spark of magic that prompts such acts of empathy is in us all, but it is terribly fragile.  Too often it is smothered by our rush-hour lives… bludgeoned by the daily grind.

Thankfully, it’s amplified come the middle of December, made more potent by the Nativity and the imminent arrival of Santa.

The man in the red suit brings more than a sack full of goodies when he comes calling. His imminent arrival brings expectation and excitement and a tingling effervescence. His real gift is in reinvigorating the dull glow that beats within us all, making us that little bit happier and turning the darkness that bit brighter.

Like those trench-line soldiers of World War One, we need to foster that Christmas glow and make it shine, but we need to do it the whole year round. We need to show its light to others, so that the magic spreads and the light of hope, happiness, fellowship – call it what you will – brightens all our days when the dark times threaten.

This year, play Santa yourself and bring some brightness into strangers’ lives. It doesn’t have to be with a present, a nod and a smile will work wonders, and will outlast many a gift found beneath the tree come Christmas morning.

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How History’s Lookalikes Helped Win The War

Growing up, I always had a great fondness for war movies, particularly those surrounding the Second World War. Of the many that I saw, one sticks in my mind a little longer than others. I Was Monty’s Double told the true story of the actor M.E. Clifton James who entertained troops during the war by pretending to be British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was Monty who helped crush Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert. He was then tasked with helping to plan Operation Overlord, the D:Day landings.

While Monty’s military career was going from strength to strength, James, who had been an actor before the war, was engaged in somewhat less stimulating work as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Pay Corps.  About seven weeks before D:Day, a newspaper article reported on how James had performed as Monty during a patriotic show.


General Bernard Montgomery (left) and lookalike M.E. Clifton James

An Intelligence officer spotted the uncanny resemblance and soon Operation Copperhead, a scheme to misdirect Nazi spies, was hatched. James learned Montgomery’s mannerisms and speech and was even fitted with a prosthetic finger to replace the one he’d lost while fighting in World War One. Monty was a non-smoker and teetotal, so James had to give up the booze and the fags to be truly convincing.

And so the deception began. While the real Monty got busy planning the invasion of France, James was flown to Gibraltar where, at a reception at the Governor-General’s house, he dropped hints of’Plan 303′ – a bogus invasion of southern France – which were overheard by German agents.

With those little seeds sown, he was then whisked off to Algiers in North Africa, where he made several public appearances with General Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, just to give Nazi spies the impression that something fresh was afoot in that military theatre.

Five weeks later, D:Day took place with Monty as one of the main commanders. James found himself back in his old job with the Pay Corps, trying to explain where he had been for the previous five weeks.

It’s not known for sure how successful James’s ruse was, but the German’s were certainly taken by surprise on D:Day, so maybe it was indeed useful.

Meanwhile, over in Russia, Joseph Stalin was having something of an identity crisis. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union is said to have had no less than four lookalikes to act as his decoys to thwart spies and would-be assassins.

One, ‘Rashid’ was said to be so like the Soviet leader, right down to pockmarks on his skin from a bout of childhood smallpox, that he was dismissed from the army because of his uncanny resemblance to Stalin. He was later recruited by the NKVD to act as a decoy and would sit in at meetings and formal dinners.

Rashid’s fascinating job came to an abrupt end in 1953 when Stalin died. The lookalike moved out of Moscow, shaved his hair and moustache and tried to blend back into society. Despite all his precautions, though, he would still find himself being stared at in the street due to his similarity to the late leader. Rashid died in 1991, aged 93.



Felix Dadaev (left) and Joseph Stalin

Another body double was Felix Dadaev, a one-time dancer and juggler, who was injured in the fight to re-take Grozny from the Germans in 1942. Impressed by his resemblance to Stalin, intelligence chiefs faked Dadaev’s death and spirited him away to transform him into the Soviet leader.

Dadaev was almost 40 years younger than Stalin, but the rigours of war had aged him. That, combined with some well-applied make-up did the trick. The Soviet leader’s voice was not so familiar to  Russian citizens, so all Dadaev had to do then was to practice Stalin’s mannerisms and gait in order to dupe onlookers.

His role, too, was to appear at ceremonies and rallies all across the USSR inplace of the real leader. Once, he said, he stood at the mausoleum in Red Square to review a parade of athletes that filed past. No one suspected a thing. In an age when there was no television and people rarely saw their leaders up close, the deception always succeeded.

His most important appearance as Stalin was when the Soviet leader travelled to the Yalta conference in 1945. Stalin’s flight was shrouded in secrecy but Dadaev’s was in the full glare of publicity, making him a ripe target for would-be assassins.

In 2008, Dadaev (88) wrote about his wartime secret in an autobiography, Variety Land (I’ve searched for it, but can’t find the book). Military intelligence wartime archives and Russian state security backup his extraordinary story.

I can’t help imagining the conversation at a lookalikes’ reunion, if only one had taken place – Stalin 1 and Stalin 2 comparing moustaches, while Nos.3 and 4 discussed tips on backcombing to achieve the desired bouffant style.


Gare Du Nord station in Paris

But Monty’s and Stalin’s lookalikes are in the ha’penny place when it comes to ambitious decoys. Finding a body double is one thing, but what about finding a city’s double?

No, I haven’t been at the magic mushrooms again. I refer to the ruse during World War I when the French built a fake Paris to fool German bombers.

An area about 15 miles outside the French capital was picked on a stretch of the River Seine, which was similar to Paris itself.

There, areas of the city around the Arc de Triomphe and suburbs like Saint-Denis were recreated. Wooden replicas of the Champs Elysees and Gare Du Nord were erected, and lighting effects, using white, yellow and red lamps, were employed to give the impression of machinery in operation at night and of trains and tracks which appeared real.

Special paint was even used to give the impression of dirty glass on factory roofs.

It was all in vain, though. The replica was still being built when the Germans made their final air raid on Paris in September 1918. Less than two months later the war ended.

Still, you can’t fault the French for effort…



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Suffragettes: The ‘madness’ of revolting women…




As America prepares to head for the polls to decide whether to elect its first female president, it’s worth noting how far women have come in terms of achieving a political voice. I’m pleased to welcome author Lucienne Boyce to HistoryWithATwist. Lucienne’s book, The Bristol Suffragettes, is a timely reminder of the ingrained social attitudes that early campaigners for women’s rights had to battle against in their bid for political equality.


In June 1914, Joan Lavender Guthrie, a 24-year-old actress also known as Laura Grey, wrote a final letter to her mother and then committed suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. She was pregnant. The coroner’s verdict was “suicide during temporary insanity”. In court a tragic story emerged of prostitution and addiction to both drugs and alcohol. A doctor determined that Joan had been mentally unstable ever since she self-harmed herself aged 16.

These all seemed sufficient reasons to account for her terrible death, but the coroner was not entirely satisfied. Miss Guthrie had been a militant suffragette, and it was to the awful influence of the movement that he attributed her end. Indeed, he felt that her very association “with these law-breakers and anarchists raises a very strong presumption as to her mental soundness or rather unsoundness”.

Joan had been charged with wilful damage four times, convicted twice, and had spent four months in prison in 1912 when she went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. The coroner opined that her militant career had “certainly increase[d] the derangement of a mind which was already ill-balanced”. He added that “The weak mind probably gave way” after she was awarded a medal by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The inquest was reported in The Times, 12 June, 1914, under the sub heading “From Militancy to Suicide”.


Author Lucienne Boyce

The following day, The Times published a letter from the novelist E W Hornung, who blamed the WSPU leaders for Joan Guthrie’s death. He wrote that “…the thirst for sensation had become a passion and the craze for revolt a disease… By what steps the last phase was reached, whether in the first instance by… tricks and traps… may never now be known.”

The connection of suffragette militancy and madness in the case of Joan Guthrie was not an isolated response. In 1913, during the trial of Bristol woman Lillian Lenton, who had burned the tea house at Kew Gardens, the magistrate asked, “is she responsible for her actions?”

Mary Lindsay, who struck Lord Weardale when she mistook him for Prime Minister Asquith, was remanded in custody until it was determined if she was of sound mind. The London County Council solicitor, prosecuting Elsie Neville Howey for setting off false fire alarms, described her crime as “an act of madness”.

On 16 March, 1912 a leader in The Times explained suffragette militancy by attributing it to women’s “Insurgent Hysteria”. The article suggested that “in a large number of cases, even though in the strict sense insanity is not present, there is a tendency to some form of hysteria or morbid moods akin thereto”.

Women’s mental weakness was inherent in their physiology: their “senseless outrages against property” could best by understood by physicians. Amongst the correspondence the leader inspired, one doctor, in a letter headed “What Every Doctor Knows”, agreed that physicians did indeed understand the type of woman referred to. He explained that “when she has reached a certain age, we know that there is no help in us”. To prevent the development of such characters, he added, “the lunacy laws will require revision”.

Medical scientist Sir Almroth Wright produced a whole book – The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage – exploring the theme, characterising the suffragettes as “spinsters in a state of retarded development”. Other newspapers, like the Daily Express, also described suffragettes as “crazy”, “frenzied” and “insane”.

The insane, of course, could not vote. Neither could criminals. Suffragette militancy itself proved that women should not have the vote. “If anything could strengthen the general conviction of ordinary men that women are unfit for the suffrage, it surely would be the supremely silly conduct of the window-breakers”, thundered The Times on 26 June 1912.

In 1912, Britain’s Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, introduced The Mental Deficiency Bill which would give him the power to compulsorily confine people for life based on quite sweeping definitions of insanity. In the House of Commons, Sir F Banbury criticised the Bill, saying it would make the Home Secretary “an absolute dictator” who could use the legislation to exclude who he chose from “the rights of citizenship”. It “would enable him to brand all the woman suffragists as deficient in mind and to lock them up”. Sir F Banbury added, however, that if he did so he “might be acting rightly”.

bristol-suffragettesWhen on 11 June, 1914, the Commons discussed methods of dealing with hunger-striking militants, treating them as lunatics was amongst the options considered. Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary, agreed that suffragettes were “hysterical fanatics”, but rejected the suggestion because his earlier attempts to get women certified as insane failed when doctors would not co-operate.

The other options considered were to let the prisoners die (“the most popular”, remarked McKenna), deport them, or give them the franchise. The last suggestion was greeted with “Hear, hear, and laughter”.

The threat of insanity has long been used as a tool of oppression. Vic Gatrell comments in The Hanging Tree that opponents to the Bloody Code “could be dismissed as sentimental, mad or radical”. A hundred years later, the suffragettes’ demand for justice was also dismissed as a form of madness.

The Bristol Suffragettes, by Lucienne Boyce

Twitter: @LucienneWrite

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How Changing Career Can Open New Opportunities

Jobs are funny things … you can invest your heart into them, or you can simply take the money and run. I’ve tended towards the former rather than the latter in the course of my journalistic career, but that’s about to change.

After 18 years with my current employer I’m about to head off into the great unknown – and not by choice, but by redundancy. It’s a little scary as prospects go but I’m hearted by the example of others who have made the same leap and found that everything has worked out just fine.

pope-francis-iiYou only have to look to Pope Francis II for an example. Before he donned a collar of his own, he used to grab people by theirs. You see, Il Papa used to be a bouncer in a Buenos Aires nightclub before he answered the call (and I don’t mean the one for last orders). So, if he can make such a huge leap then there’s hope for us all.

madeline-albrightEqually, those of us about to face major employment change can look to America’s first female Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, for inspiration. Before Madeline was involved in high-powered negotiations in which she pledged US support in exchange for trade deals, she sold support of an altogether different nature – bras. Yes, Madeline worked in a department store and specialised in brassiere sales…

colin_powellWhich is almost as bonkers as the idea of another US Secretary of State – Colin Powell’s – former job. Colin – remember, he was a four-star general – once sold baby cribs and prams in a shop in the Bronx.

warren-beattyStill, that must surely be better than Warren Beatty’s previous profession. Before his days bedding an army of Hollywood starlets, the great Lothario worked as a rat catcher. Somehow I can’t see that one working as a chat-up line. Well, maybe if I looked like Warren in his glory days it might…

But Warren’s past profession pales into withering insignificance when placed alongside some jobs from history. In rat catcher wasn’t ‘your bag’ you might have opted for the job of ‘fuller’. In Roman times that job involved one standing in a vat of water mixed with lots and lots of urine. Sheets would be placed in the mix and the fuller would trample the sheets to get the dirt out.

Alternatively, you might have set your sights higher – at the prestigious post of Groom of the King’s Close Stool, for instance. When they said ‘close’ they really meant it. The groom was tasked with, eh, helping the monarch in all aspects of his bowel movements. Now I know why the toilet is sometimes referred to as the throne…

Other royal appointments included that of ‘whipping boy’. This poor little chap would be the companion of a young prince. They would play and hang out together but if the prince was ever naughty, punishment would ensue.

histories-logoBut hey, you can’t punish a member of the royal family… which is where the whipping boy came in. When the royal misbehaved, it was the whipping boy who was beaten.

Some things never change, no matter how much time passes…

I think my favourite job from the past must be that of ‘lector’, and I don’t mean that Hannibal guy. No, a lector was someone who would read articles and works of literature aloud to factory workers engaged in tedious labour tasks. There’s something rather quaint and considerate about that.

People say it’s best to leave the past behind you, but I like to be immersed in it, which is where my own new job comes in. I’ve set up a little business involving past lives, called HistoriesInTheMaking.

The idea is to produce commemorative brochures and interactive digital files which collate family histories, putting people’s own genealogical research into context with other events of the time and presenting it in an attractive, readable format for all the family – not just the history enthusiasts out there.

Check out the link to see if it interests you. Fingers crossed it will be a success – I can’t see any vacancies for fullers at the moment.

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The Gamblers Who Won Big and Lost Huge…

The bald, bearded gent who sat at the gaming table of the renowned Casino de Monte Carlo in the summer of 1891 had a certain austere dignity about him. At 50 years of age, Charles Deville Wells certainly had the gravitas and demeanour of a businessman, not a gambler. Yet, his exploits there on July 28 would see him go down in history, and a popular song would be sung to celebrate his achievement for being ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte Carlo’.

‘Breaking the bank’ meant wiping out all cash reserves at a particular gaming table. Deville Wells managed to do this not once, not thrice, but ten times during his stint in the casino.

But then Wells had arrived ‘loaded for bear’ so to speak, with £4,000 packed into his suitcases (£400,000 in today’s money). Wells would walk away at the end of the week with the equivalent of £4 million during his spell at the card and roulette tables. Was it just cool nerves and skill that earned him his fortune, or was something else at play? Could blind luck really explain how he managed to win 23 out of 30 successive spins of the wheel?


Charles Deville Wells

Looking into his background might provide the answer. Deville Wells was an unusual fellow. His sober appearance belied a lifestyle and wayward moral compass that would see his name become notorious in some parts, and many would rue the day they ever met him. Wells had a chequered career as an engineer and inventor, creating a series of gadgets, none of which made him the fortune he dreamed of.

Hitting 40 and dispirited with his lack of legitimate success, he turned to crime as the means to achieve his riches. Deville Wells set up an investment scam into a fictitious engineering business that netted him a fortune – one investor actually paid out the equivalent of £2 million.

Yet even this was not enough to satisfy his needs, particularly when he fell for the charms of a 21-year-old model called Jeannette Pairis. Deville Wells bought an aging cargo ship and intended to turn it into a huge luxury yacht for Jeannette to enjoy. It was to fund this costly enterprise that he turned up at the Casino de Monte Carlo in 1891.

His winning streak caused a sensation. For five days, Deville Wells sat behind a growing wall of banknotes, playing the tables from lunchtime until closing time at 11pm, when he would haul his winnings up to his room, stick them under his pillow and fall asleep. Crowds gathered eight–deep to watch and replicate his own bets with their own, hastening the bank to ‘break’ in the process.

You might think the casino would be in torment as a result, yet it as been suggested that its director, Camille Blanc, may have actively colluded with Wells in his winning streak.

In the book, The Man Who Broke the Bank At Monte Carlo, author Robin Quinn makes that very assertion, and with good reason.

‘Breaking the bank’ was actually good for business. Blanc knew that the publicity such events generated attracted vast numbers of gamblers to the casino.

He even played up the drama by having a black cloth ceremonially spread over the table in an act of tribute to the ‘fallen’ table. Once an appropriate amount of time was given to reflect on the ‘sad’ loss, the table was reopened for business.

This piece of theatre ramped up the fervor of the crowds, who hoped that they, too, would break a bank.


Jeannette Pairis

The casino faced the threat of closure following the succession of Prince Albert to the throne in 1889. Albert was unhappy with the principality’s reliance on funding from the casino to fund municipal spending. There was even talk that it might be closed. Aware of this, Blanc – or so Quinn’s theory goes – would have wanted to maximise his profits in any way possible before it was too late.

Wells had once lived in Nice (just a short hop from Monaco) and had worked for one of Blanc’s relatives, so there is a possibility that their paths may have crossed. Could he have come up with the idea of breaking the bank with Wells as the frontman, in order to bring in the crowds and boost business?

Wells’s run of ‘luck’ saw thousands of people flock to the casino, to such an extent that within two years the Blanc family’s stake in the business had risen by approximately £120 million in today’s values.

Wells’ winning streak didn’t last much beyond hise casino coup. Never again would he achieve the heady heights of his Monte Carlo win. In 1893, he served six years for fraud. Despite this, he and Jeannette stayed together until Deville Wells’s death from a heart condition in 1922. By that stage his personal ‘bank’ was truly bust – the man who gambled big and won huge owed his landlord two weeks’ rent and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

There have been bigger wins and even bigger losses, though. Poker player Archie Karas went to Vegas in 1992 and turned $50 into $40million following a three-hour ‘losing’ streak playing Razz – a type of poker in which the lowest hand wins.

Alas, businessman Terrance Watanabe wasn’t so fortunate in 2007. In a year-long gambling spree he managed to lose $127 million of the family inheritence to Harrah’s Entertainment In, in Las Vegas. Watanabe would often play for 24 hours solid, regularly losing sums of up to $5 million in one sitting.


Big-money gambler Harry Kavakas

But if you want the daddy of all losers, look no further than Australian real estate developer Harry Kakavas. Renowned as a big-money gambler, the Melbourne’s Crown Casino spent €10 million trying to induce Kavakas to their tables. Inducements included luxury holdiays, free flights, food and accommodation, plus €50,000  hard cash delivered in a cardboard box.

The money was clearly worth the investment. Kavakas rolled into town and over 14 months staked $1.5 billion playig baccarat. In May of 2006, he clearly lost the plot – playing games at $300,000 a hand, and lost $164 million … in  five-and-a-half-hours.

Kavakas later took a case against the casino, claiming that it had exploited his weakness. Not surprisingly, he remained true to form and lost that, too.

As Kenny Rogers would say, ‘you gotta know when to fold ’em…’



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Daylight Saving: The Man Who Turned Back Time

They say time waits for no man, and that’s true – unless your name happens to be William Willett. It was because of Willett that I and my wife found ourselves sitting in an empty cinema staring at a blank screen one Sunday afternoon, wondering when the film was going to start. And it was because of Willett that I was once far too early for an appointment I had rushed to attend.

I don’t think I’m the only person to have experienced frustrating episodes in my life due to Willett, there are millions of people around the world who would probably have had similar experiences.

Without him, there would be no handy little memory aids like ‘spring forward and fall back’ . . . or is that ‘spring back and fall forward’? You see, a little over a hundred years ago, it was Willett who came up with the idea of Daylight Saving Time. It’s fair to say then that William Willett has made his mark on the world.

However, it is Benjamin Franklin that we must blame/credit for the debate which unfolded about the nature of time. In 1784, Franklin wrote to a Paris newspaper suggesting rising earlier as a way to save money on the purchase of candles.

The concept of daylight saving was first seriously suggested by New Zealander George Hudson, whose shift-work job led him to appreciate after-hours daylight. In 1895, he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing a two-hour daylight-saving shift and followed that up with another paper in 1898.

Waste-of-Daylight-19-coverWilliam Willett,  from Surrey, in England, was a builder of quality homes who became somewhat obsessed with daylight. He took up the subject in 1907 when he published a pamphlet, The Waste of Daylight, in which he praised the lightness of day: ‘Light is one foot the greatest gifts of the Creator to man. While daylight surrounds us, cheerfulness reigns, anxieties press less heavily, and courage is bred for the struggle of life.’

Willett’s points were hard to disagree with. His initial suggestion at daylight saving was to reduce the length of four consecutive Sundays in April by 20 minutes each, thereby moving the clocks forward by 80 minutes for the summer months so that workers could have extra light to enjoy the summer evenings.

The idea would also help the economy, he argued, by saving the Exchequer £2.5 million a year due to the need to consume less fuel to provide less artificial light.

The notion of subtracting or adding minutes to our lives is radical and shows an expansive mind, unrestricted by social convention. Willett deserves great credit for thinking outside the box – and the fabric of time for that matter, but it would be years before his plan would come to fruition.

William Willett

But let’s not think his was a lone voice in the time debate. The idea to save daylight was being picked up elsewhere, and on July 1, 1908, the town of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) in the Canadian province of Ontario, took the bull by the horns – or the clock by the hands – and turned their timepieces forward one hour to start the world’s first introduction of daylight saving time. Other parts of Canada soon followed, with Regina in Saskatchewan taking up DST in April 1914, and the cities of Winnipeg and Brandon, in Manitoba, doing so in April 1916.

But back to Willet… One avid supporter of his cause was British politician Robert Pearce, who, in 1908, introduced a Daylight Savings bill to the House of Commons. It passed its first and second readings but failed to get through other legislative stages. The bill would float around in several guises until it was finally passed in May of 1916.

By March 1914, Willett was advocating a single jump in summer time of one hour as opposed to four tranches of 20 minutes over a month. He claimed to have the support of a large number of MPs in the House of Commons. Even Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of daylight saving, claiming that it would benefit the ‘physical, mental, moral and financial welfare’ of citizens.

There was opposition to the idea, though. The argument being that for millennia mankind used the sun to tell the time, and if it was good enough for early civilisations, then it was good enough for today. There was a sense that people’s basic daily routine was inextricably linked to the sun and to somehow interfere with that wouldn’t bode well.

However, the outbreak of the First World War, gave the debate fresh legs as it was felt that any measure that would save the Exchequer money during the costly war, should be adopted. Germany is credited with being the first entire country to introduce Daylight Saving in 1916, and Britain followed suit in May of that year. Unfortunately, Willett died the year before his idea came to fruition. He was 58.

The initial burst of enthusiasm for DST was shortlived, with Germany and Austria soon growing weary of the practice.  Paris kept with time change but other parts of France dropped the idea, while Britain and Ireland would continue to set their clocks back and forward.

It’s one hundred and one years since Willet’s idea was voted into existence, it is still being used, albeit with a few changes of heart in between as it fell out of fashion down through the years.

It was the oil crisis of 1973 that reinvigorated interest in the notion of time change. When Opec – the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries – imposed an oil embargo, energy prices shot through the roof, leading to recession across Europe.  France was the first mainland European country to revive DST in 1976, and by the end of that decade, most of the continent was again changing clocks twice a year.

Remarkably, it was only as recently as 1996 that the EU standardised the schedule for daylight saving time – moving clocks forward an hour on the last Sunday of March, and turning them back again on the last Sunday of October.

I have RTE’s Century Ireland website to thank for teaching me something about the visionary thinker that was William Willett.

His idea gave us the opportunity to enjoy sunny summer evenings and to make a little more of the dark days of winter time, but, boy, it sure is irritating when you forget to turn that clock back.

I can see the benefits of it in Arctic regions, but in my neck of the global wood, I could live without the change. It’s hardly surprising that less than 40pc of the world’s countries actually use the system.

I’m still sore about sitting in that cinema an hour early the day after the clocks went back, so Daylight Saving Time still riles me a bit. Spring forward, fall back . . . spring back, fall forward . . . I’m sorry, life’s complicated enough for me without adding William Willett’s magic hour into the mix, no matter how well-intended.

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Interview with a Holocaust Survivor

Frank - Auschwitz

Young prisoners in Auschwitz

Frank Grunwald was just 12 years old when he and his family entered the concentration camps. Terezinstadt, Auschwitz, Melk, Mauthausen . . . he was in them all. Unfortunately, neither his brother nor his mother would leave Auschwitz alive.

Frank was born in Czechoslovakia in 1932. His father was a doctor, as well as being a very talented photographer. Both of his parents, Kurt and Vilma, were musicians and instilled a love of music into Frank and his brother, John, who was four years his senior.

The family lived a comfortable life in Prague. Growing up, Frank liked art – he focused on it, as he did playing the accordion. For him, the instrument’s melancholy sound was both personal and human.

The notion of being Jewish never really entered Frank’s head. He was just a Czech, like his fellow citizens – but not in the eyes of the Nazis who invaded in 1939. Less than two years later, the Grunwalds were wearing yellow stars and being forced to move from their large home to a small apartment. They endured intimidation, prejudice and social ostracisation. Then things really got tough.

Frank with his mother

Frank with his mother, Vilma

First the family were sent to the ghetto of Terezinstadt, then they were transported to Auschwitz in cattle wagons holding up to one hundred people. Upon their arrival, Frank’s mother was placed in the female quarters.

He barely survived the selection process overseen by the ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele, who decided whether people should live or die by placing them to the left or to the right of a table. Frank and his brother, John, were told to stand at the left. Neither knew this meant a death sentence.

Eight seconds changed everything…

…That’s how long it took for a brave prisoner to step forward and quickly shove Frank into the queue on the right. John was not so fortunate.

When their mother learned that her eldest son had been selected to die, she decided to join him – not wanting him to face death alone. She scribbled a hasty note just as the trucks arrived to take them to the gas chambers.

Frank’s story is unbearably sad and is told in the moving documentary, Misa’s Fugue.

I’m glad to say, though, that he is still with us – and still playing the accordion, as well as producing evocative works of sculptural art. His story is an inspiration to us all… that he could not only survive the horrors he experienced but that he could create art from the destruction that surrounded him, is remarkable.

Amazingly, Frank contacted me here on this blog after I referenced him in a previous post. He kindly agreed to answer some questions about his Holocaust experience. My questions may not be the ones you would have asked, but they were areas that intrigued me.

Here’s what Frank (below) has to say about life during and after the Holocaust…

Frank Grunwald

Do you feel duty-bound to discuss what happened, no matter how much it might upset you to think about it?

Yes, I feel that I need to talk about it since so few people do. I must talk about it since I was there, I am one of the witnesses and perhaps I can neutralize some of the lies perpetrated by the antisemitic Holocaust deniers. The deniers are a huge insult to the six million of Jews (including about a million and a half children) that were killed.

When you see barbarity elsewhere, does it make you think how little people have learned from what was done in the Holocaust, or do you feel that there is an inherent evil which will always be with us, no matter how many talks or movies are shown?

Yes – it proves my assumption that barbarity and hatred are part of the human brain. Nothing will change – ever.

In Misa’s Fugue, you said that in one camp you could see local townspeople going about their daily lives. What’s your attitude to those people?

It made me sad to see the contrast between the free and us. I wished I was on the outside, part of a ‘normal’ life. I felt lonely and abandoned.

Is all your art informed by what happened in the camps?

No, some represent normal / happy life.

What do you hope people will learn from your film and your work?

To be alert and to question the veracity of all information before judging others. Still, we must be openly critical of other cultures and religions, particularly the one’s that promote hatred and killing of others – who don’t believe in their religious laws. There is no room for political correctness, it hides the real truth.

Do you believe in God?

Not in the common / traditional way. I believe in the power and beauty of Nature. However, Nature is not here to control or decide how people should live or behave. People themselves must find their own way.

You say in the documentary that your parents imbued you with a strong ethical attitude. What other traits, gleaned from your time in the camps, would you consider important in making one’s way through life?

I am a good listener and have a high degree of empathy for people. I am a good reader of people and their body language. I am (sometimes unfortunately) a conflict avoider. I am also a good negotiator. I have learned to deal with my cowardly conflict avoidance, now that I am aware of it. Most of these characteristics were the result of my war experiences – I think. I use humor to reduce stress and to make people more comfortable.

Were you ever tempted to take your own life in the years after you were liberated?

Never. I respect who I am and I want to live.

Do you feel guilt that you survived selection and that John didn’t?

Most likely, and also that I was one of the few children that survived.

Did you ever have to resort to violence in camp in order to keep food from being taken from you by other inmates?

Never. I got into a wrestling match with a prisoner, after we were liberated. We fought for some red beets that we found in a wooden shack. I might have hurt his ear when we fought but it was not that violent.

What’s your attitude to OAP ex-Nazis going on trial?

Most of the ex-Nazis are now in their 90s. In my opinion, they should not go to prison but perhaps be forced to do some community service, such as speak to young people in high schools and colleges about their crimes.

Frank Misa's Fugue
You said in the film that you constantly have flashbacks. What is your overriding emotion when you get them – anger or despair? How long does a flashback last?

Sadness. I feel terrible about people’s suffering and death. They typically last just a few minutes.

When you were released and starting a new life, did you seek out camp survivors in order to feel empathy, or did you tend to avoid them as they reminded you of those nightmare years?

I did not seek them, I tried to suppress  some of the memories (but I could not). I did not mind meeting them, but we seldom spoke about our experiences. We were kind of in a ‘denial mode’.

Is it possible to forgive your tormentors?

It’s very hard not to be angry with them. Not because of personal reasons, more because of what they did to others. It’s not up to me to forgive them for what they did to others.

You said in Misa’s Fugue that you survived the camps by immersing yourself in your own fantasy world. Is your immersion in music and art a way of surviving today?

In a small way – yes. But to me, art is a communication medium and a challenge for me to communicate as much emotion as possible. I judge art by the amount of emotion it communicates and it has to be more than at an aesthetic level. It must be human.

You had success in your professional life as well as your artistic life. You have children and grandchildren, are you happy in yourself or is that not possible?

I am relatively happy – I would say. I am the happiest when I am with my family and grandchildren. I think that being with my grandchildren is all about them – not me. I do not do well being alone for a long time. I get easily lonely.

Describe a typical day in camp.

Getting up early, roll call, a little food (artificial coffee and a slice of bread), walking to the kitchen and peeling potatoes for soup, eating some raw potatoes while peeling, a light lunch, going back to the barrack. In the late afternoon, soup for dinner with one slice of bread and a small square of margarine. Spending some time with other prisoners outside in the yard, roll call, wash up, bed.

What is the most important thing to have in life?

Inner peace (self respect / self confidence), enjoying the company of others, enjoying the beauty of Nature. Most of all, being able to accept the fact that death is also a natural phenomenon (not just the result of murder) not being afraid of that. I am more afraid of being alone than being dead. For me it’s been important to communicate via art, I get a pleasure out of that. I also get pleasure out of teaching / lecturing at Purdue University, I do a class on strategic design and design research. I get a huge satisfaction out of sharing my professional experiences / knowledge with the students.


Frank Grunwald has somehow risen above his experiences to make a life for himself and to become a highly productive member of society. He is a lesson to us all. He witnessed the depths of depravity to which mankind can fall. But he is more than just a witness – he is also a beacon to the heights to which we can all rise, if we have the will.

Thank you, Frank, for your time and your wisdom.


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The Cult of the World War II Soldier

The American flag stands for different things to different people – some see it as the symbol of freedom, others see Old Glory in less benign terms as a banner of repression and global control. This 4th of July, though, Americans – and others – the world over will toast it and celebrate their nationhood with parties and parades festooned in red, white and blue.

The land of the free and the home of the brave – the Emerald City, where wealth, health and happiness are possible in a country forged by an unquenchable pioneering spirit – isn’t that what the founding fathers fought for? That ideal is held up as a benchmark for US citizens and politicians, however much history and cold hard facts might challenge it.

The American Dream may be less of a reality these days, but that doesn’t mean people don’t aspire to it and hope that the wealth it promises will some day come to them. And what’s wrong with that?

Hope – faith –  is what keeps us all going. We hope, we believe that our day will come, whether that be in the form of a lottery ticket, or in accepting that a higher power is guiding us and will reward us for our faithfulness.

Which, in part, explains why a religious cult in the South Pacific surrounding a World War II US soldier still flourishes to this day.

Americans have the 4th of July, but for the natives of Tanna – which forms part of the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, 1750km east of Australia – February 15 is the day to raise Old Glory and pray that the man who brought them great wealth will one day return.

Each year, the islanders dress up – the women in long, flowing multi-coloured grass skirts, while the elders wear old GI uniforms bedecked with medals. The men of the island parade in trousers with the letters USA painted on their bare chests, and carry sharpened red-tipped bamboo poles to resemble bayoneted rifles.

Songs are sung, flags are raised and music comes courtesy of a string band, all to pay homage to the god-like spirit of the almighty John Frum, who they hope will one day return, bringing wealth and gifts from the far-flung land of America.

During World War II, the island of Tanna (population 29,000) was inundated with 300,000 American serviceman preparing to fight  Japan following the murderous attack on Pearl Harbour.

To accommodate the soldiers, airstrips were built, hospitals erected and all manner of equipment landed. For the islanders it became a time of great prosperity as food and supplies were plentiful.

Naturally, the soldiers made a big impression. They would tell the islanders, ‘I’m John, from Mississippi,’; ‘I’m John, from Philadelphia…’ These ‘John Frums’ were the bringers of magical gifts, things Tanna’s residents had never seen before – Coca Cola, radios, watches, ice boxes – the list of wondrous objects seemed limitless.

But when the war ended, John Frum packed up and moved back home, taking all that magic and prosperity with him. Ever since, the people of Tanna have done all in their power to entice him back.


Tanna islanders celebrating John Frum Day

Rickety ‘observation towers’ were erected, fields were ploughed to resemble airstrips, replica airplanes were built, discarded uniforms were recovered and worn, Star Spangled Banners were raised, songs chanted and prayers were said, all in a bid to lure John Frum back.

And this has been going on since the 1940s. Smithsonian Magazine sent a reporter to the island in 2006, to learn more about the John Frum Movement, which has thousands of followers. Elders told him that they worshipped in the hope that John, who was ‘more powerful than Jesus’, would return with more cargo.

However, John Frum is not the only ‘cargo cult’. The islanders also revere ‘Tom Navy’ and even the Duke of Edinburgh. ‘The Prince Philip Movement’ stems from the Fifties or Sixties when islanders saw how much respect was given to the Queen, they came to the conclusion that her husband must be a very powerful man indeed.

To my American friends, I wish you all a happy 4th of July, and ask that the next time you watch Old Glory fluttering in the breeze, you think of the islanders of Tanna with their grass skirts, painted chests and sharpened bamboo poles. In their own way, they are just as patriotic when it comes to celebrating all that John Frum’s homeland has to offer.

God bless America indeed…

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