HistoryJournal.org

“The Hunley” movie

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on February 16, 2013

Close up of Mort Kunstler's painting, The Final Mission

Having moved back from New York City, I discovered  that my familiar public library in northwest Chicagoland got a facelift. The wall between the children and adult sections has been torn down, creating a pleasant sense of open space. While browsing there last week, I chanced upon a movie I had never heard about before: “The Hunley.”

A TNT movie from 1999, it didn’t win any awards for acting (though it did win an Emmy for sound editing). I enjoyed watching “The Hunley” because it recreates what it may have been like to serve aboard the first effective combat submarine in history. Starring Armand Assante, it has a bit of an action movie feel to it. For a film taking place inside of a weapons platform propelled by the underwhelming power of half a dozen men cranking away at the propeller shaft by hand, the high-intensity aesthetic is a bit of a mismatch. (more…)

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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…)

U-boats in World War I

Posted in Books, European, War by Alex L. on August 28, 2012

Part of a photo of the German submarine U-14 (source: Wikipedia)I’ve been interested in submarine warfare 0f the Second World War since I was in middle school. There are a lot of books written in English about the German U-boat campaign targeting Allied ships in the Atlantic and also the American submarine war against Japanese merchant shipping in the Pacific. Relatively little has been written in recent times, though, about submarine operations of any nation during the First World War.

That’s why I was happy to discover a copy of Edwyn Gray’s book, The U-boat War: 1914-1918 (which was originally published in the 1970s as The Killing Time) in Manhattan’s mecca for rare books: the Strand Book Store. I’m really glad I bought this book, because after reading it, I disabused myself of several erroneous notions about these early German submarine operations.

For example, I previously believed that German submarines during WWI in comparison to their counterparts in WWII

  • were generally smaller, slower, and carried less fuel, crew, and torpedoes,
  • exclusively operated in the coastal waters of Western Europe, and
  • did not wage as large or effective of a campaign against merchant shipping.

All of these preconceptions turned out to be false. By way of comparing the U-boat campaigns of the First and Second World War, I turned to some data from uboat.net, an ongoing research project by an amateur historian which I’ve enjoyed visiting since I first started using the internet in the mid-1990s.

Just looking at how many ships U-boats attacked during each war, it’s evident that the number of ships hit by submarines in the 1910s surpasses the totals of the 1940s: (more…)

Memoirs of a Russian submariner

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 22, 2012

Book coverIn high school English class, I was taught about the three general types of conflict that one may encounter in literature: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. Memoirs from combatants of the Second World War are often as exciting to read as literature because all three types of conflict figure into them on a grand scale. But there is a fourth type of conflict that we didn’t learn about in class but which, particularly for the men and women of the Soviet armed forces, added that extra dimension of drama: Man vs. Machine.

The nation that brought the world Lada and Zhiguli cars–which asked of their owners to spend nearly every weekend under their jacked-up chassis salving their ever-irritated metal bowels–produced submarines during WWII that would never quite pass muster in an American or German shipyard. This run-down state of submersible machinery can be fully appreciated by reading Victor Korzh’s memoir, Red Star Under the Baltic: A Soviet Submariner in WWII.

As the chief engineer aboard these subs, Korzh knew every nut and bolt and describes their mechanical failures with the technical detail befitting a master. But the inability of Soviet designers and shipyards to perfect submarine design is no stain on the reputation of the Russian sailor. On the contrary, the Russian submariners’ ability to not only survive but also sink many German merchantmen in the unforgiving seas of the Baltic is a testament to their boldness and technical ingenuity. (more…)