HistoryJournal.org

Eddie Rickenbacker: A very interesting life

Posted in American, Books, Technology by Alex L. on March 25, 2014

I’ve always found the historical figure of Eddie Rickenbacker very interesting. In one person, in one life, he combines a lot of the things that really stir my imagination: aviation (he was the leading U.S. ace in WWI), Indy car racing (he was one of the earliest competitors in the Indy 500), airliners (he was an executive of Eastern Air Lines), and the entrepreneurial spirit (he had other business enterprises, including an automobile company).

Back in Chicago, I have a book about the exploits of Rickenbacker’s 94th Aero Squadron called Hat in the Ring: The Birth of American Air Power in the Great War. I began reading it before coming to Edmonton and thought it was really good. Unfortunately, they don’t have it at local libraries here so I picked up W. David Lewis’s biography (Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century) instead.

Lewis, an elderly professor of history, combines years of scholarly experience with a childlike fascination with the figure of Rickenbacker that dates to his youth. He seems to provide a balanced view of the man, revealing his positive and negative qualities.

Advertisements

Aircraft and submarine restoration near Chicago

Posted in Museums, War by Alex L. on February 6, 2013

USS Drum submarine

I really like the kind of reality shows where you get to watch experts performing complex jobs with great skill. I enjoy it all: from Ice Pilots NWT, where aviators brave extreme winter conditions to fly in northern Canada, to Big Shrimpin’, a show about fishermen plying their trade off of the southern coast of the United States.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been interested in a show called Tank Overhaul. Each episode features a crew of a few men restoring rusty and battle-damaged tanks (from the World War II era and later) to like-new condition. There’s just something about sand-blasting decades-old rust from a tank chassis to reveal a brilliant metallic surface underneath that gets me going. With a wave  of a wand (literally) time is reversed and these half-decayed battle tanks come to life again.

Truth be told, though, I’m not a big tank enthusiast. But this show got me thinking about the restoration and preservation of two types of machines that I do have a passion for: (no surprise here to anyone who reads this blog) submarines and airplanes. So I got to imagining: is there anywhere in the Chicago area where I can see or even volunteer in the restoration of these historical artifacts?

A simple search revealed a few interesting leads. (more…)

New history books (August-December 2012 edition)

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on December 31, 2012

History off the Book header

Below are new books published in the second half of 2012 that seemed to me like really interesting reads in my favorite fields (ancient philosophy and military history). This is a condensed version of my typical monthly books post, but I hope to return to my usual reviews and previews again next month.

December

Churchill and Seapower. Christopher M. Bell. Churchill was a leading naval strategist in both the First and Second World War. This is the first systematic study of his role in naval affairs and should be an informative read.

Aviation (rarities)

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander

Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal by Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau

The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno by Christopher M. Rein

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton

Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis by William B. Ecker and Kenneth V. Jack

Notable mentions

Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy by Ronald Utt

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken

(more…)

Tagged with: ,

‘Low work’ over the Western Front

Posted in European, Reading, War by Alex L. on October 18, 2012

Winged Victory book coverComedian Jerry Seinfeld once said that the mark of a great joke is that it stays with you long after the first hearing. There’s something about its premise or symbolism that makes you see the world — or some small part of the world — differently. A great poem functions in a similar way, wrote Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. I also feel this way about Victor Maslin Yeates’s autobiographical novel, Winged Victory. I will never think of aerial warfare during the First World War in the same way after having read this book.

It’s not just that Yeates describes the historical moment well. Tom Cundall’s, the protagonist, two flight commanders (Captains Beal and MacAndrews) seem to me like literary recreations of two of the Royal Flying Corps’s legendary aces. Their names even sound similar to the real historical figures. Captain Beal seems to represent Albert Ball, one of the RFC’s earliest heros. Like Ball, Beal is seemingly fearless in accomplishing his gruesome work. Thousands of machine gun bullets fired in his general direction don’t seem to faze him: he is a rare specimen in war. Both the historical and literary figure die in the war, unable to beat the odds against such reckless courage for too long.

The character of MacAndrews (“Mac”) seems to represent the British ace and winner of the Victoria Cross, James McCudden. After Albert Ball’s death, McCudden became one of the leading stars of the RFC. His tactics differed vastly from Ball’s lone-wolf gallantry. McCudden developed the principles of aircraft working in concert with one another to press their advantage against an enemy air formation. If the advantages were not there, McCudden would have no qualms with fleeing the field of battle to fight another day. Through these characters, Yeates gives us an insider’s view into the real-life heroes of the Royal Flying Corps. (more…)

New history books (April 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on June 5, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverReaders of this blog may notice that my interests have lately been skewed toward the world wars (in particular the air and naval conflicts). When I was a boy my imagination was fired up by stories from my grandfather, who told me about his service as an aviator for the Soviet Navy during the Second World War. I suspect this was when I first became interested in history (I also remember my grandfather reading me a children’s book about the ancient origins of everyday objects, such as matchsticks and clothing irons). Stories about pilots during World War II were my Iliad and Odyssey: they helped me understand concepts such as friendship and courage when I was very young.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that there is hardly anything written in English about the air war on the Eastern Front during World War II. The struggle for dominance in the skies over Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 was the largest and longest air campaign in history according to amateur historian Christer Bergström (whose two sets of books about this conflict — Black Cross/Red Star and The Air Battle series — are some of the only comprehensive histories in English on the subject). That’s why I was eagerly awaiting the release in late March of a new book by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, titled Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. An overhaul of a previous work, Red Phoenix Rising will hopefully do justice to the drama and significance of this struggle (Bergström’s works, if meticulous, are admittedly dry to read). (more…)

First skydiver to land without a parachute

Posted in Uncategorized by Alex L. on June 2, 2012

First skydiver to land without a parachute

Gary Connery of England set an amazing record last month. He dived from 3,000 feet in a wing-suit and crash-landed into a “runway” of 18,000 cardboard boxes, becoming the first person to land from great height without a machine or a parachute strapped to him. This throwback to the reckless early days of aviation inspires the imagination even in the age of ubiquitous commercial jets.

Building aircraft out of ash wood and Irish linen

Posted in European, Just for Fun, Websites by Alex L. on January 9, 2011

SE.5a under construction at the Vintage Aviator shop. Image courtesy of The Vintage Aviator: http://thevintageaviator.co.nz/node/2784

If left to my own devices, without the influence of classes or teachers or scholarly communities, my interests will naturally gravitate and oscillate between two subjects: submarines and airplanes. It has been like this since I was in middle school, except now instead of scouring books for colorful pictures and playing computer simulations, I read memoirs and secondary sources about air wars and naval battles of the 20th century.

After a visitation from the Muse of U.S. Submarine Operations in the Second World War (which compelled me to dive deep into my long-shelved copy of Clay Blair’s classic, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan) my tastes were swung upwards and backwards to the heights of the air war during World War I. What did it this time was a documentary I watched on YouTube one night about the British aces James McCudden and Edward Mannock, which described their struggles with the stresses of primitive air combat and their untimely deaths.

This led me to embark on an unsystematic perambulation through the history of air combat during World War I. Curse Amazon and their “1-Click Ordering”, but I impulsively bought James McCudden’s memoir, Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, for my Kindle and received instant gratification reading it at a local Starbucks. I am still working through it, but have also gone on to watch other documentaries freely accessed on YouTube on the subject (such as this hidden gem: “Aces: A Story of the First Air War”, the probably-fictional story of a Canadian pilot in the RFC as narrated to his grandson).

As part of this binge of media consumption, I stumbled upon (though not through StumbleUpon, which I tried as a novel way to browse the web but with which I was slightly disappointed) a site called The Vintage Aviator, which is the actual topic of this post. (more…)