Foreword to the Mammoth Book of War Correspondents

By Alex Kershaw

Pyle on 18 March 1944, Anzio beachhead. Pyle was killed in 1945 by a Japanese machine gunner.

Pyle on 18 March 1944, Anzio beachhead. Pyle was killed in 1945 by a Japanese machine gunner.

Honest war reporters have never had it easy. From the earliest days of their trade to the present, cheerleaders rather than skeptics have been the most successful. The London Times’ William Howard Russell, who covered the Crimea War to great acclaim, would discover just five years later how picking the wrong side could backfire when his predictions of a Confederate victory in the American Civil War scandalized his readers and led to his resignation. He was not, as he claimed, the “first and greatest” of war correspondents but he was indeed one of the “miserable” parents of a “luckless tribe” that has dared to ask the wrong questions of the odds-on-favorites and paid for their insolence ever since, often with their lives.

The Civil War was perhaps the first war whose horror was revealed in heart-rending detail by at least some correspondents, for what could be glorious about a fratricide in which more Americans died than in WWII? Samuel Wilkeson of The New York Times, for example, reported on the slaughter at Gettysburg with great power and poignancy, delivering his dispatch having just learned that his own son had died.

It was the first great celebrity reporter, Richard Harding Davis, working for William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow press”, who delivered perhaps the most impactful newspaper report in history, in the run up to the Spanish-American War in 1898. “The Death of Rodriguez”, the story of the public execution of a rebel, whom Davis watched die, “the blood from his breast sinking into the soil he had tried to free,” changed public opinion in America like no other report before or since. Desperate to increase circulation, Hearst was delighted with Davis’s breathless propaganda. Davis was not a flat-out liar, however, and lesser figures had to be employed to guarantee Hearst the circulation-boosting conflict he so desired.

Davis was again in the thick of the action during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the first time a Western power was humiliated by an Asian nation. The Japanese were so strict in their censorship that Davis’ celebrity grew not through his derring-do on the battlefield but because he managed to save Jack London, a fellow correspondent and world famous author of The Call of the Wild, from incarceration. London had struck a Japanese in frustration, having stewed with the rest of the press corps in Tokyo, barred from the front.

“The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.” So declared American Senator Hiram Johnson at the height of the first great bloodbath of the last century: a war to end all wars in which the best and brightest in Europe were mowed down in Flanders for four long years. Throughout the First World War, censorship was even stricter than that suffered by Jack London at the hands of the Japanese. Even jingoists like Rudyard Kipling – “There are human beings and Germans” – confronted a military whose leaders feared and therefore despised war correspondence.

Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was chief among the detractors, describing the press as “drunken swabs”. Rare was the sober report throughout the war, even when young men were falling in the tens of thousands each week on the Somme and at Verdun for just a few yards of barbed wire and mud. It is doubtful that America’s entry into the conflict, shamefully managed throughout with horrendous and callous loss of life, would have occurred had it not been for the hysterical reporting of much of the American press.

The truth of war was still hard to find between the two world wars, whether in Russia or Spain, where ideologies violently divided nations. As Europe teetered on the brink yet again, George Orwell wrote from the Spanish Civil War, trying to warn of the horrors of fascism. Yet he left the conflict disillusioned by all sides, disgusted by the bias of left and right: “I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”

The Second World War was, by contrast, perhaps a golden age of frontline prose, starring such humanistic scribblers as Ernie Pyle whose sparse and heart-felt reports on ordinary GIs were adored by his subjects and readers alike. To this day, historians of that conflict – a “crazy hysterical mess” as John Steinbeck called it – swoon over Pyle’s elegiac account of the death of a captain called Waskow in Italy. Unlike Hemingway’s self-regarding reports, Pyle’s beautifully-crafted story of young men mourning their young leader still evokes the immense sadness of a war in which Pyle saw many “swell kids having their heads blown off”.

Pyle was in fact so nauseated by what he had seen that he eventually “lost track of the whole point of the war.” But it did have a point. Although it entailed the death in Europe of over 130,000 mostly working class Americans, with a final butcher’s bill of over fifty million lives around the globe, the fighting in WWII was without doubt necessary if barbarism was to be defeated. The concentration camps visited by Richard Dimbleby and others in 1945 were all the evidence one needed of why the sacrifice was so important, if no less palatable. Tragically, Pyle was one of 53 US-accredited reporters to lose their lives covering the war, killed only days from the end by a Japanese sniper in the Pacific.

During the Korean War in the early 1950s, reporting restrictions continued but a more critical tone began to emerge in the press as a whole. It was also marked by the extraordinary bravery of Marguerite Higgins, ambitious, blonde, the first woman to enter Dachau in 1945, and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting thanks to her work in Korea. She did not plan to marry, she quipped, until she found a man who was as exciting as war. For all her bravado, however, she had to fight sexist generals as much as she did the elements and censorship in order to get her stories from the battlefront.

The impact of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in 1961, which has since embroiled America in seemingly endless combat around the globe, has imbued war reporting since Korea with a far darker, nihilistic tinge. As the next major war dragged on in Vietnam, for more and more reporters so much of what they were witnessing no longer had any moral foundation. The sacrifice was seemingly in vain, as was the gross expenditure and the destruction.

At the height of the Vietnam War, half of Americans had no idea what the war was about. Today, far more still don’t. What would become “the longest running front-page story in history”, wreaking untold environmental damage and killing at least half a million Vietnamese civilians, began in earnest in 1962 and lasted more than a decade. For year after year, the war escalated with hundreds of reporters noting the daily body counts. Only when Walter Cronkite raised doubts from a US television studio in 1968, thousands of miles from Saigon and Khe Sanh, did many Americans first begin to wonder if all the blood and sacrifice was worth it.

The war couldn’t last long enough for some of those actually covering it. To many of the male correspondents, noted the perceptive Nora Ephron, “the war is not hell. It is fun.” Perhaps the most skilled of the stalwarts was New Zealander Peter Arnett, who spent more time covering the war than any other reporter. “As hard-boiled as a Chinese thousand-year-old egg,” according to another astute female observer, Marina Warner, Arnett was notable for his emotional detachment, at least in his reporting. Many others were far less objective, providing visceral, unforgettable images of the Green Machine sinking further into the South East Asian quagmire of hubris and bullshit that led to the US’s humiliating withdrawal in 1975. Amid all the madness and hallucinatory scenes, young writers such as Michael Herr managed to transcend the confines and clichés of deadline reporting, producing prose of lasting eloquence about young Americans performing for nightly news broadcasts, “doing little guts and glory Leatherneck dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks.”
The Vietnam War was, on reflection, arguably covered better than any in history, certainly by more journalists from more countries for longer than any other conflict. “But that is not saying a lot,” the Australian journalist Phillip Knightley has observed in his classic book, The First Casualty, an eviscerating examination of the war correspondent as “hero and myth maker”. “With a million-dollar corps of correspondents in Vietnam the war in Cambodia was kept hidden for a year.”
Barely a generation later, determined not to allow the press to lose them another war, the politicians who planned the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made sure things would be done right. They had their usual way with the eager to please military, which proudly introduced to primetime audiences “Shock and Awe”’s most potent weapon, far more effective than a SCUD missile – the “embedded reporter”. Every hack knew the only option was to get in bed with the military’s public relations corps in the hope of a ride with a bunch of grunts. The resulting exclusives usually entailed sweating in a flack jacket in a Bradley fighting vehicle while dodging IEDs. Other than the reporters’ egos, little was revealed. The fog of war got only thicker the closer most got to the grunts they were covering.

August sections of the media had built the case for the war in Iraq. Short and victorious conflicts are always great for circulation and ratings. It was expected to be both. And indeed much of the coverage in the first heady weeks after invasion was predictably gung-ho, the kind of “yellow journalism” that would have made Hearst proud. The Lebanese-American reporter Anthony Shadid was one exception. His March 2003 report on the burial of Iraqi civilians – the first collateral damage of the war – raised questions that few cared to answer back in Washington where post 9-11 hysteria had been shamelessly whipped up to aggrandize men who had ducked out of service in Vietnam: “If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?”

Ten years later, Shadid is sadly no longer with us, dead on assignment covering Assad’s atrocities in Syria. But the question civilians ask – how they, not the men in uniform, do most of the dying – is still a familiar lament as drones, not Hueys or B-52s, strike suspected militants, terrorists as well as innocents, on an almost daily basis. Indeed, there is no end in sight to the suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan despite a decade of countless reporters’ questions.

It is not the reporters’ fault that so few lessons have been learnt from so many conflicts. The fact is we are a destructive species. To pretend otherwise is to be ignorant of history or in denial. War gives men meaning. It is addictive – to combatants, megalomaniacs and journalists, male and female as the reporting in recent years of Janine di Giovianni and Christina Lamb, to name but two gutsy women, has shown.

Any writer worth their salt will tell you little comes close to the adrenaline high of bullets cracking over one’s head as you fumble for a notebook. As many of the brave reporters included in this anthology would attest, there’s nothing quite as effective as a stiff shot of combat when it comes to sharpening your prose. Thankfully, at least every war produces its fair share of great writing, even when censorship is at its most stringent and suffocating.

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The Tang was soon moving away at full speed, around 23 knots, partially hidden by a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Other captains might now have plotted a new course and not looked back. Not Dick O’Kane. At 10,000 yards from the convoy, he slowed the Tang. He was going back for more—to finish off the transport he’d seen dead in the water.
O’Kane ordered his torpedo mechanics to pull the last two torpedoes from their tubes and examine them. With so few left, he wanted to make sure there would be no mistakes. Pete Narowanski, Hayes Trukke, and the other torpedo mechanics carefully checked the Tang ’s last two fish. They then loaded them into forward tubes numbered five and six.
Thirty minutes later, Tang was ready to deliver the coup de grâce to the stricken transport…. The Tang moved forward at six knots, her bow pointing at the transport. There were no escorts in sight.
Floyd Caverly looked at the screen of his SJ radar in the conning tower.
“Range: fifteen hundred yards,” said Caverly.
The submarine crept slowly closer.
Nine hundred yards from the target, O’Kane was ready with his remaining two torpedoes—for all he knew, they were the last he might fire in combat during the war.
“Stand by below,” O’Kane ordered.
“Ready below, captain,” replied Springer.
A small jolt was felt throughout the boat as the next-to-last torpedo was fired….
Now just one torpedo was left. Once it had been fired, the Tang could head back to safety, having completed one of the most destructive patrols of the war.
O’Kane called for a time check. It was 2:30 A.M. on October 25, 1944.
In the conning tower, [Lieutenant] Larry Savadkin operated the torpedo data computer. He pressed a button which set the final firing angle of Tang ’s last torpedo.
“Fire!” ordered O’Kane.
Frank Springer stood a few feet from Savadkin in the conning tower. He pressed the firing plunger. Again, a jolting whoosh as the last torpedo, Number 24, left the Tang. The submarine shuddered as compressed air forced the torpedo from its tube and seawater flooded back into the tube.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski slammed his fist into the palm of his left hand.
“Hot dog, course zero nine zero,” he cried. “Heading for the Golden Gate!”
“Let’s head for the barn,” someone else shouted.
There was a massive explosion as Number 23 torpedo hit its target, sending flames and debris shooting into the sky….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold scanned the waters with his binoculars. He stood next to O’Kane. Suddenly, he saw the last torpedo, Number 24, broach and then begin to porpoise, phosphorescence trailing it. A few seconds later, it made a sharp turn to port and then, unbelievably, began to come about.
“There goes that one! Erratic!” shouted O’Kane.
The last torpedo was now heading like a boomerang, back to its firing point…back toward the Tang. Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps its rudder had jammed or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned.
“Emergency speed!” cried O’Kane.
Below, twenty-year-old Motor Machinist’s Mate Jesse DaSilva had just left his post in the engine room, having decided to get a cup of coffee. He was standing with one foot in the mess. Over the intercom, he could hear the bridge crew react as the torpedo headed back toward the Tang.
“Captain, that’s a circular run!” he heard Leibold say.
“All ahead emergency!” shouted O’Kane. “Right full rudder!”
“Bend them on,” added O’Kane. “Control, just bend them on.”
In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply, knowing the Tang needed all the power she could get if there was to be a chance of saving lives.
The torpedo was now making straight for the 300-foot submarine. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed, their eyes “popping out of their sockets.” The Tang was moving at about 6 knots, 20 less than her final torpedo.
“Left full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.
Bill Leibold watched in stricken silence as the torpedo headed right at them, coming dead-on toward the Tang. Then he lost sight of it as it continued down the port side.
Maybe it will miss. Maybe it will veer away and begin another erratic circle. Maybe the Tang will evade just in time….
In the conning tower, Floyd Caverly waited like the other men for the inevitable.
Surely there is enough time to get out of the way—to get the hell out of here? Surely?
Speed. Speed is all we need…just enough to get out of the way. If only the Tang would just set by the stern and set off like a speedboat.
But the Tang was not a speedboat. She could not avoid the charging torpedo. It hit the Tang ’s stern with a massive explosion somewhere between the maneuvering room and the after torpedo room, killing as many as half the crew instantly and flooding all aft compartments as far forward as the crew’s quarters, midway along the boat.
Caverly was standing looking at a radarscope when it happened. He…thought that the Tang had been snapped in two. The waves of concussion from the explosion made him feel as if he were experiencing a massive earthquake. He did not know which way to step to catch his balance. The deck plates rattled and shook. Lightbulbs went out.
In the conning tower, there was chaos.
“We’ve been hit!” cried Executive Officer Frank Springer.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski found himself flat on his back from the huge explosion. He picked himself up. What happened? There had been no alarm. One moment he had been rejoicing, looking forward to carousing in San Francisco. Now he could feel the Tang sinking. Had the Tang been hit by a Japanese shell?
…[Narowanski] and the other men in the forward torpedo room remained calm. They were well trained and had many years’ experience between them. As they tried to figure out what exactly had happened to the Tang, they scanned the compartment for damage. There was surprisingly little. Then, their training kicked in. They closed the watertight door leading to the next compartment. One of the men, who was still wearing headphones, tried to contact other compartments but without success. Someone else turned on the emergency lights.
[They] were lucky. Unlike men trapped in other compartments, the torpedomen knew they had a way out from theirs—they were a few feet from one of only two escape trunks on the Tang. The other was in the after torpedo room, which was flooded, its occupants either killed instantly by the explosion or now drowned….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold saw a cloud of what looked like black smoke. In fact it was water thrown up from the explosion. He and other men on the bridge felt the boat being wrenched, as if it were being split in half.
A few feet from Leibold, Dick O’Kane watched, aghast, as the tops of the after ballast tanks blew into the air. Water washed across the wooden main decking, around the five-inch main gun, and then toward the aft cigarette deck where Tang’s 40mm gun was positioned, several feet from where O’Kane now stood on the bridge.
“Do we have propulsion?” he then asked, speaking into his bridge phone.
There was no answer.
O’Kane again shouted into the bridge phone.
The men in the conning tower below could hear him. But O’Kane received no reply. The explosion had knocked out the microphone on his bridge phone.
“Radar!” shouted O’Kane. “I want to know how far it is to the closest destroyer and what the course is on that destroyer.”
Caverly picked up his microphone in the conning tower.
“The radar is out of commission,” said Caverly. “I have no bearing or range right now.”
“Radar,” barked O’Kane, “I’m asking for information and I want it now!”
Caverly realized that O’Kane’s microphone was out of action so he stepped over to the hatch and called up: “The radar is out of commission.”
Caverly then gave the Tang ’s last bearing and range, but O’Kane did not hear him. He had stepped away from the hatch.
“I want information, radar!” O’Kane shouted again, desperately.
Frank Springer grabbed Caverly by the nape of the neck and seat of his pants and began to shove him up the hatch.
“Get up there and talk to the skipper!” said Springer.
Caverly climbed up the ladder to the bridge [and]…stepped over toward O’Kane, who was a few feet from Bill Leibold…. Water started to rise up toward the bridge. It had soon covered the aft third of the submarine.
“Close the hatch!” cried O’Kane.
But it was too late. The Tang began to sink, tons of water pouring into the conning tower. The after section of the submarine had flooded….
Caverly knew it was now time for every man to look after himself.

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The platoon again opened fire as the Germans got to the fence. This time, it was Private First Class Milosevich who let rip with the .50-caliber jeep-mounted machine gun. The armor-piercing bullets, employed by rear gunners on B-17s to bring down fighters, blew holes a foot wide in the German soldiers. But the .50 caliber’s field of fire was too narrow, and the gun was not easy to maneuver from its fixed position in the jeep. Milosevich tried to take it off its stand but burned his hand because it had become so hot. He wrapped a handkerchief over the burn and again picked up the gun so he could better traverse the pasture.

Suddenly, Milosevich saw a German paratrooper to his left only yards from Lyle Bouck’s dugout. He fired and the German fell.

The enemy fire suddenly became particularly fierce. Milosevich decided to make for his dugout. A German appeared a few yards away, wielding a “potato-masher” grenade. Milosevich let rip, cutting the German in two.80 Milosevich made it back to his dugout and began to fire again. He screamed for Slape, who dived into the dugout, bruising his ribs.

The Germans kept coming.

Slape took over on the .50-caliber machine gun.

“Shoot in bursts of three!” shouted Milosevich, knowing the gun would overheat and they would be out of ammunition if Slape kept firing away without pausing.

“I can’t!” shouted Slape. “There’s too many of them!”

Slape continued to fire, hitting dozens of men with a sweeping arc. Milosevich saw the unwieldly gun start to pour off smoke. When he looked down the hillside, it seemed that they were outnumbered by at least a hundred to one, and the Germans just kept coming.

In their dugout on the extreme right side of the position, Sam Jenkins and Robert Preston had by now run out of ammunition for their BAR and were using their M-1s. Jenkins couldn’t understand why the Germans were attacking again without artillery support. If they brought just one tank into play, they would all be quickly blown off the hill.83 He fired again and again, knowing it was vital to hit the Germans before they got close enough to throw a grenade through the hole’s firing slit.

Nearby, Private Louis Kalil suddenly noticed that some of the Germans were fanning out and trying to infiltrate through the position’s flanks. A few feet from Kalil, Sergeant George Redmond was squinting through the sights of his M-1.

To the left of the dugout, a German paratrooper crawled along the rock-hard ground. He got to within thirty yards of Kalil and Redmond and then quickly aimed his rifle, loaded with a grenade, and fired. It was a superb shot. The grenade entered the dugout through its eighteen-inch slit and hit Kalil square in the jaw.

But it did not explode. Instead, it knocked Kalil across the dugout to Redmond’s side. Kalil was half-stunned as he lay sprawled on the base of the dugout. Redmond dropped his rifle, grabbed some snow, and rubbed it in Kalil’s face. Blood gushed from Kalil’s jaw. The force of the impact had forced his lower teeth into the roof of his mouth, where several were now deeply embedded. His jaw was fractured in three places.

Redmond sprinkled sulfa powder on the wound and then pulled gauze out of both their first aid kits and started to wrap Kalil’s face. There was no morphine in the kits to kill the pain. Once the shock wore off, Kalil would be in agony.

“How bad is it?” asked Kalil.

“Oh, it’s not too bad, Louis,” said Redmond.

“But I’ve got blood all over myself. It can’t be very nice.”

“It’s not too bad.”

“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”

Kalil knew Redmond was trying to make the wound sound a lot less severe than it really was. He could feel the teeth embedded in the roof of his mouth cutting into his tongue.

The battle still raged. Small-arms fire sounded like radio static during an electrical storm, a constant ear-piercing crackle. Redmond’s fingers did not shake despite his fear as he wrapped the last of the gauze around Kalil’s jaw. He knew the Germans could penetrate their position any moment. If they were to stand a chance, they would need to return to firing as soon as possible.

Redmond tied the last gauze bandage and met Kalil’s gaze.

“Don’t worry about it,” reassured Redmond.

“If things get to where you can take off, then take off,” Kalil replied. Redmond looked at Kalil fiercely.

“We’re staying here—together.”

“All right.”

Redmond grabbed his M-1 and began to fire. Kalil was now in terrible pain but did the same, aiming with the use of just one eye at the figures that still approached up the bloodied hillside. It was so cold in the dugout that Kalil could feel blood freezing to his face, stemming the flow from the wound. The damned cold had been good for one thing at least. In the desert, he would surely have bled to death.

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Alice Breuer, photographed in Stockholm, 2009, by John Snowdon

Alice Breuer, photographed in Stockholm, 2009, by John Snowdon

An excerpt from my book The Envoy about Raoul Wallenberg’s rescue of thousands of Jews in Budapest in late 1944

…The winter night was bitterly cold. Soon, Alice and Erwin and the others found themselves at the entrance to the Maria Teresa barracks. They were herded down narrow wooden stairs to a basement. A teenaged, red-haired Arrow Cross soldier was sleeping on the floor, a submachine gun on his chest. The youth woke up.
“Take them to the Danube,” he murmured to other Arrow Cross youths, and then fell back to sleep.

Alice and Erwin and the others were soon out on the street, marching again with hands above their heads, toward the local Arrow Cross headquarters, at 41 Ferenz Ring. On its first floor, they were pushed against a wall and their coats taken away. “We stood in our shirtsleeves,” recalled Erwin. “We knew that eventually we would have to shed the rest of our clothing, all but the underwear. Soon, but not yet. Questions were being asked by one of the Arrow Cross soldiers, who was seated behind a small table. A search for more valuables, and more abuse.”

Erwin was now close to collapsing from exhaustion. He stared at Alice. She, too, looked like she was “a hundred years old.” Fatigue had left deep lines on her face; her thin, pointed nose was now prominent. “A narrow, barely blue blood vessel arched up under her pale skin on the side of her neck, and where her jawbone protruded, a fine but visibly rapid, fluttering pulse betrayed her frightful expectation at parting so abruptly from her young life.”

Alice turned to face Erwin.

He would never be able to forget what she said next.

“I’m pregnant.”

Erwin held her close.

Then they were on the move again.

The Arrow Cross told them they were going to shoot them all and dump their bodies in the Danube.

Meanwhile, back on the fourth floor of Ulloi Street, Victor Aitay, who operated the telephone switchboard, called a secret number and managed to get a message to someone working on Wallenberg’s staff at Section C.

In the breast pocket of Erwin Koranyi’s jacket was half a cigarette. But the jacket had been taken away. It was all he could think about as he faced the Arrow Cross executioners.

Mortars landed in nearby streets.

Erwin wanted it all to end.

What if I jump into the Danube before the Arrow Cross opens fire? Would I stand a chance? Maybe it’s better to get it over with…

Erwin was “impatient” to die.

Alice then saw a large American car pull up nearby. A man in a darkblue suit, wearing a fedora, stepped out of the car. He was holding up a megaphone.

Alice stared at Wallenberg. He was unarmed, shouting that he wanted his Jews back. They did not belong to the Arrow Cross. They were his. “It was extraordinary because everybody could kill him,” Alice recalled. “Why not kill him? Killing was everywhere.”

It was around 2 a.m. as Alice and the others watched, barely able to believe what they were seeing.

“These are Swedish citizens! Release them immediately and return their belongings to them!”

To Alice, it seemed as if God had answered her prayers. “For an instant,” she recalled, “I thought: ‘God has come to save us.’ To our astonishment, the executioners obeyed Wallenberg. He seemed very tall indeed—and strong. He radiated power and dignity. There was truly a kind of divine aura about him on that night.”

Erwin saw several policemen, who were clearly working for Wallenberg. “The policemen were talking to the Arrow Cross commander. What was happening? One of the high-ranking police officers was Pal Szalai, with whom Wallenberg used to deal.” The police were armed. They began to take guns from the Arrow Cross youths. Among the policemen was a man in a leather coat, Karoly Szabo, whom Erwin recognized. Then some of the policemen told Alice and Erwin and the others to form a line and walk back to the Ulloi Street building….

Erwin Koranyi’s sister, Marta, spotted Erwin and Alice among the returning Jews. She cried as she kissed her brother and Alice.

All the returnees were given some bread.

Someone struck a match and the stump of a cigarette was lit. Erwin took it, filled his lungs with nicotine, and exhaled.

It was hard to believe, but he was still alive.

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By Alex Kershaw

We did not arrive at first light as Hitler had done, accompanied by a carefully selected entourage of aesthetes and adjutants, to be greeted by swastikas flying from rooftops and silent streets. Instead, we slip into the city at night, intent on seeing the sights as the Fuhrer did on 23 June 1940, but also determined to explore the darkest corners of the city, the avenues and quartiers where his most ardent followers, namely the Gestapo, had cast long shadows during four years of increasingly brutal occupation.

Der Fuhrer, a former art student, had always longed to see the most civilized city in history. For his first and as it turned out only visit, he brought along his favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, and his pet architects, Albert Speer and Hermann Giesler.

“Paris has always fascinated me,” Hitler confided in Breker, who shared a large Mercedes sedan with Hitler during a whirlwind tour.

Our first stop is the Opera, today at the heart of a bustling shopping district. In 1940, by contrast, the streets around this extraordinary theatre were empty. A lone gendarme saluted Hitler, his new master.

Hitler adored the Opera.

“This is the most beautiful theater in the world.”

Had Hitler explored the area, as we choose to do, rather than rush on to the next conquered landmark, he would have soon discovered 122 Rue de Provence, the address of the most famous of Paris’ many wartime brothels, the One Two Two club, which would soon be much frequented by the SS. The boite’s owner, Fabienne Jamet, loved the young Aryans’ jet black uniforms, appreciated their gifts of flowers and champagne for her best girls, and would always insist the German occupation was the best chapter in a long life as a Parisian hostess par excellence. Typically, her girls were examined three times a week for infection. The Germans viewed the act of sleeping with the enemy while infected as a particularly reprehensible form of sabotage.

Next, we head south through streets line with expensive cars, across the gray Seine to the Eiffel Tower. In 1940, Hitler had wanted to look down on his greatest prize from the top of the tower but when he arrived at the city’s most famous landmark he was told that the French had severed the cables to the lifts. The only way up was on foot. Hitler declined to climb the 1,792 steps. A few hours after he left, the lifts miraculously were working again.

Paris was the greatest prize of the Third Reich, by far the most favored place for Germans to be posted, lose their virginity and spend their leave. And the Germans made good conquerors at first. Tres correct. They paid their bills and left tips. Parisians had expected rape and pillage, not politeness. But then the Gestapo got down to business. As the tide of war turned against the Germans on all fronts in 1943, their security services became increasingly repressive. Assassinations and attacks on German soldiers soared. The SS hit back, sending thousands of Parisians to gruesome deaths.

At the height of Nazi terror in 1943-44, there was perhaps no more feared destination than 93 Rue Lauriston, the most notorious of the Gestapo’s addresses in Paris. Today, there is a small plaque on a wall on the building, a reminder that this was in fact a place of immense evil and suffering. In the cavernous cellar, the infamous Bonny Lafont gang invented gruesome torture techniques when not throwing wild parties on the upper floors for Gestapo and SS bigwigs who wanted to mingle with carefully selected young French actresses.

On a chilly December day, as the light begins to fade, we arrive on the Avenue Foch, the widest and grandest of Haussmann’s boulevards. This was the epicenter of Nazi power, even when Hitler visited. Along the avenue, the Gestapo set up several offices. At Number 72, SS Colonel Helmut Knochen orchestrated the crushing of resistance forces from a grand white villa that is today empty, its shutters closed. At Number 31, just across the street, in June 1942 Theodor Dannecker and Adolf Eichmann planned the Grand Rafle of 16 – 17 July in which over fifteen thousand Jews were taken to the Vel d’Hiver before eventually being sent to death camps. At Number 84, we stop and look up to the small servants’ rooms of a large villa. It was in these cramped rooms on the fifth floor that the legendary Violette Szabo, “The White Rabbit”, “Madeleine” and other British SOE agents were tortured until their upscale neighbors could hear their screams.

A short stroll from Avenue Foch, we discover the famous Prunier Restaurant, at the heart of the so-called “Nazi Triangle” – several grand streets and avenues near the Etoile. Our budget is limited so we decide not to indulge, unlike the SS officers and black market barons who spent large sums of occupation currency on caviar and oysters, surrounded by Art Deco opulence.

It’s after dark as we walk along the Champs Elysees, navigating through more crowds of frantic Christmas shoppers, headed for the most glamorous address in Paris for senior Nazis and where Hitler would have undoubtedly stayed if he had chosen to spend more than just a couple of giddy hours in the city. The Ritz.

Goering and Goebbels and others among the Third Reich’s top leadership found the hotel, on the Place Vendome, utterly sumptuous, the service impeccable. During the occupation, the Germans discreetly took up residence in one wing while regular guests had access to all but a couple of the suites. The most glamorous of France’s collaborators were also in residence. The actress Arletty, famous for her role in Les Enfants du Paradis, shared one of the famous brass beds with Hans Jurgen Soehring, ten years her junior. “Mon coeur est francais,” Arletty protested after the war. “Mon cul est international.” (My heart if French…. [but] my ass is international). Coco Chanel also made the hotel her home during the war. The window of her room actually overlooked her store on the Rue Cambon.

In the Imperial Suite, Goring examined looted art, some of it taken from Jewish homes on Avenue Foch. A crystal bowl full of morphine tablets sat on a side table beside another full of precious gems – rubies, black pearls. The morbidly obese Reichsmarshal liked to dance with the hotel’s waiters then drift into reverie lying on a replica of Marie Antoinette’s four poster bed.

Sadly, the hotel is undergoing renovation – it is due to reopen this summer – so we move on quickly and enjoy a long cocktail or two in a bistro opposite the Les Invalides where Napoleon’s tomb lies beneath a magnificent dome. In 1940, Hitler stared at the great French dictator’s final resting place for several minutes and then turned to Gieseler, the architect, and declared: “You will build my tomb.”

Hitler’s last stop was in Montmartre. After a last look at Paris, his group drove to the airport. By nine o’clock in the morning, the sightseeing tour was over. Later that day, Hitler confided in Albert Speer: “In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris. But when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?”

Four years later, Hitler had changed his mind. On our last day, fittingly, we decide to visit the Meurice hotel where the grand climax of occupation was played out. Dietrich von Choltitz resided here as the last German military governor of Paris, making the magnificent hotel his base. As the Allies closed on the city, Hitler apparently called him on a telephone in room number 213 and screamed in rage: “Is Paris burning?”

It was not. Once Hitler’s rant had ended, the portly Prussian general, Choltitz, set about making sure it did not, minimizing damage to the city Hitler had professed to admire more than any other, before surrendering to French general Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque at the Gare Montparnasse on August 25.

Before heading home, we find ourselves compelled to visit at least a couple of places where Nazism’s victims spent their last days. Not far from the Eiffel tower we find an elegant mansion bloc, 5 Avenue Élysées Reclus. It was here that the Jewish writer Helene Berr penned a deeply affecting diary of occupation that became a best seller in 2008, long after her death. “There is beauty in the midst of tragedy,” Berr wrote in the darkest days of the German occupation. “As if beauty were condensing in the heart of ugliness. It’s very strange.”

Hélène Berr died just five days from the end of the war in Bergen Belsen, where Anne Frank also breathed her last. Berr’s journey from Paris to hell had started in the rail yards to the north east of the city, a few miles from the Pere Lachaise cemetery. During our final hours in Paris, we walk though the fascinating graveyard, pausing for a while at the grave of Edith Piaf, who sang for Germans and French alike during Paris’s darkest years. Fresh flowers adorn her grave. Then we head even further east to a far corner. Here we find several impressive memorials to the French victims of Nazi rule and the 200,000 who were deported to concentration camps. There are no bouquets of garish flowers – just stark marble statues, haunting and unforgettable reminders of the four long years when the Nazis occupied the City of Light.


Where to go and stay

The area around Rue Cler, close to the American University of Paris is full of great and affordable restaurants, among the best being Le Petit Cler, 29 Rue Cler, where you can gorge on the perfect Croque Monsieur. Another wonderful street for food, wine and shopping is the Rue de Cherche Midi; the restaurant at 22 Rue de Cherche Midi, named after the street, has a loyal neighborhood clientele. Take a short walk north toward the Seine and you will find Bon Marche, 24 Rue de Sevres, a true foodie’s heaven. And don’t forget to check out the newly renovated Picasso Museum, 5 Rue de Thorigny, before knocking off the more traditional sights such as the Louvre.

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My guide to the tracks, Bob Hopkins, watching the Bitterroot river drift past. Montana.


Hobos have been taking free rides on America’s freight trains since Civil War days – they have always been a law unto themselves. But in recent years, the old camaraderie has given way to violence and murder. No one much cared until a few determined police officers began to suspect a serial killer was at work. Alex Kershaw rode the rails himself to follow their trail

To escape the brutally cold night, William Pettit Jr, a 39-year-old hobo, crawled into his sleeping-bag and pulled his High Times baseball cap over his wind-burned forehead. Finally, he fell asleep, huddled in a corner at the end of a metal box-car. While he slept, a lank-haired heroin addict called Sidetrack climbed aboard the freight train and crept towards him. With a blunt object, Sidetrack bludgeoned Pettit to death before taking items he could later sell to buy a fix. Then he washed his bloodied hands and face in a nearby stream and put on Pettit’s clothes. The sleeping bag became Pettit’s shroud – it was too blood-stained to be of any value.
Riding the rails – a uniquely American experience – has always been a dangerous pastime. In the 1860s, many of the first hobos died of exposure after hopping aboard steam trains leading home, they had hoped, from the killing fields of the Civil War. In the Thirties, when a million Americans “caught out” – jumped a train – and wandered the West looking for work to avoid starvation, countless thousands were crushed between carriages or simply fell to their deaths from moving trains.

America is a nation based on migration. It was the railroad that first opened up the West and the railroad lines are still the great arteries of the United States. Passenger trains have dwindled, but the freight trains trundle endlessly on, still offering the chance of a free ride.

Today, “riding the rods” is more perilous than ever. As millions are dumped off welfare rolls and mental institutions are emptied, more and more homeless people cower in the box-car shadows, rolling cigarettes with hands shaking from the DTs and cold. The railroads have become the last refuge of the destitute, moving from place to place collecting welfare benefits, hoping to find something better. Among the most pathological and drug-crazed, as befits America’s Social Darwinist society, predators such as Sidetrack have evolved.

The most violent of this new species belong to a gang of rogue riders calling themselves the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). Formed by Vietnam veterans – legendary figures with names such as “Melford Lawson”, “Uncle Joe”, “Joshua Long-gone” and “Daniel Boone” – and now estimated to have several hundred members nationwide, today’s stalwarts of this band of “welfare outlaws” are proud of their lightning-bolt tattoos and links to far-right militia and racist groups such as the Aryan Nations. Past and present members of the gang and their associates are suspected in some 300 murders nationwide in the past decade.

In the weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, an Amtrak train was intentionally derailed in Arizona, killing one and injuring 40. Four FTRA members were investigated as suspects. They included John Stanley Boris, aka “Dogman Tony”, suspected in two murders including that of 43-year-old Francis Terry, who was found in October 1995 in a grain car in Saginaw, Texas, with his throat slit. Boris is still at large.

“It’s real hard to find suspects after the crime,” says detective Jim Writer of Big Springs, Texas, who investigated Terry’s death. “The FTRA provides criminals with perfect mobility. In three days, you can be on the other side of the country. And there’s no record of your trip.”

According to Writer, there are cadres within the FTRA that are more organised and vicious than others. The most feared is the “Wrecking Crew”: “The most hardcore, alcoholic, and violent members belong. Many are ex-bikers who have fallen out of Hells Angels gangs because bikes have gotten so expensive.”

Only by taking to the rails would I see the fault-lines running through America’s rail-yards: the class and generation divides that often lead to bloodshed as one tribe of rail-riders encounters another. I decided to “catch out” on a box-car.

The country’s leading expert on the FTRA – Spokane Police Department’s detective Bob Grandinetti – was not enthusiastic about me taking a trip. “The odds are,” he warned, “you’re gonna end up lying dead between a couple of towns.” As if to stop me in my tracks, one FTRA member’s name was cited over and over: Robert Silveria, a 37-year-old, known to have committed ten murders between 1991 and 1995, and suspected in dozens more. In fact Silveria, as I was later to discover, was the one hobo I was unlikely to meet.

I decided to “catch out” anyway. The stretch of track I chose was the “Billygoat”: the most picturesque route through the Rocky Mountains as well as the heart of FTRA country, some 300 miles long, and the last journey made by one of the most recent victims of FTRA murderers.

On a freezing cold night, I arrived in Montana and headed straight to the rail yards in the town of Helena. Close to the tracks stood a row of stone buildings: a pawn shop, a thrift store and Hap’s Bar, rumoured to be where the FTRA was founded in the early Eighties. Two local characters were able to fill me in on the FTRA’s history. Leigh Lynn was a world-weary woman who had worked with the homeless for 13 years and, in so doing, had become a mother figure to ten retired FTRA founder members who passed through her mission from time to time. She chivied some into joining AA. Before others, she held up the Bible. Few had been saved.

“The FTRA, as people know it now, is a different group from the old days,” Lynn told me. “The original guys were great. But there’s a new bunch, kids in their twenties, doing drugs and attacking others when they get high, stealing the old guys’ names when they see them tagged on bridges, calling themselves FTRA.”

Another Hap’s Bar regular was Jerry “The Frog” Fortin, the 1997 National Hobo Association’s “King of Hobos”. Toothless, his face was prematurely aged by travelling more than a million miles in often extreme weather. Fortin explained that the FTRA originally stood for “Fuck The Reagan Administration” and was founded by a “bunch of guys who wanted to ride together and just came up with a joke name”. They were Vietnam veterans who had not been able to fit back into “normal society” and who wanted to ride “free” and see America their own way, surviving as they had in the jungles of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by hunting, fishing and living off the land. In the past decade, however, they have been replaced by a new breed of drifters, who have murdered and assaulted many old-time hobos.

Last summer in North Dakota, a group of teenagers jumped Fortin, beat him nearly to death with a baseball bat and stabbed him five times before taking his boots and backpack. “This latest generation have no respect,” Fortin told me bitterly. “They don’t understand the proud traditions of the hobo – the hard worker who built the West, kept the jungles [railside camps] clean, shared what he had with his fellow ‘bos. This new bunch are dirty – they defecate in camps, do hard drugs, don’t give a damn.”

Around 2am, I decided to call it a night at Hap’s Bar. The barman had mentioned that a “junk-train” – one made up of assorted wagons, grain containers and box-cars – left as regular as clockwork at six every morning, headed towards Missoula and then on to Spokane, the Pacific Northwest’s main railroad hub. I dropped a couple of dollars on the old oak bar, etched with lovers’ giddy initials, and headed out into the frigid pre-dawn air. I snatched two hours sleep in what locals called a “shotgun shack”, a cheap motel, and then I made my way to the furthest reaches of Helena yards, hoping to “catch out” before dawn on the Great Northern line: the Billygoat route.

Suddenly, a Ford Bronco, with a “bull” (railroad security guard) at the wheel, sped towards me. I could hear my heart pounding as I ducked behind a pile of fresh-cut logs. It’s illegal to ride a freight train, and I was trespassing on railroad property. In many yards, bulls have traditionally turned a blind eye to hobos, regarding them as minor nuisances. In recent years, however, they’ve become aggressive in pursuing trespassers because of the railroads’ increasing security concerns. Incidences of vandalism are on the rise. Then there’s the FTRA, a surge in derailments, and organised crime’s gathering shadow in many rail yards, particularly along the US borders.

The Bronco passed by. A few tracks away, I spotted the junk-train due to leave within the hour. I clambered between a couple of trains and, after ten minutes of jogging alongside the junk, I found an open box-car – first-class travel for any hobo, offering protection from the wind and rain and magnificent views through the open doors. Freight trains can be up to a mile long.

From an Internet website, Rail Rogues, I’d already memorised several dos and don’ts for the prospective rail rider. Don’t walk between rails. Don’t cross under couplers or cars. Expect trains to move suddenly, often silently, and at any time. Don’t jump on a moving train – “catch out on the fly” – unless you absolutely have to, though freight trains rarely travel faster that 12mph. Stay near the front of the car: if the train stops suddenly, you don’t want to go flying out of the door. Above all, as any hobo will tell you, don’t join anyone else in a box-car.

With a great deal of effort I managed to pull myself up into an open box-car, five feet above the tracks. I stowed my sleeping bag and a small backpack, full of water bottles and snacks, in a corner of the cavernous, metal-based box, and then I sat down and waited. As my entire backside became numb from the cold, the train slowly screeched into life. The metal seemed to groan as the couplings took up slack. Adrenaline rushed into my bloodstream. With a jerking motion the train pulled away, out of Helena, and up a long incline towards the 6,000ft Continental Divide that stretches down the Rockies.

I was headed for Missoula, and hopefully a breakfast of steak and eggs. “F-Trooper”, victim of a fellow FTRA member, was found on this same Montana Rail-Link with five bullets in his head, a cigarette in one hand and a can of Schmidt’s Ice beer in the other. Luckily, perhaps, I met no one.

Scenic routes such as the Billygoat are particularly popular with growing numbers of “weekend riders”, especially in the summer. Lured by what the writer James Michener once described as the last “red-blooded American adventure”, each year an estimated 30,000 people illegally catch out from hobo encampments dotted along the 170,000 miles of track. Some of them are rich, some of them famous, the actor Christian Slater among them.

Another such recreational rider was 20-year-old Santa Cruz engineering student Michael Garfinkle, the very opposite of the stereotype one might expect to see bumming on the rails. An academic “top gun”, he never did drugs, meditated three times a day, and ran a successful business. He also liked to ride the rails, and, in August 1994, he hopped on a freight train for the hell of it.

According to detective Wade Harper of Emeryville Police Department in northern California, Garfinkle then met Robert Silveria near Emeryville, America’s largest switching yard, just outside Sacramento. “Silveria said that Garfinkle didn’t belong,” Harper told me. “He said that he was an amateur, a tourist in Silveria’s world of the homeless. He wore new shoes and even his backpack was new.”

When Garfinkle’s back was turned, Silveria occupied Garfinkle’s spot in a rail-side jungle. “What are you doing in my space?” asked Garfinkle upon his return. “I go anywhere,” Silveria replied. “And this is the last day you’ve spent.” America’s first known railroad serial killer then hit Garfinkle at least 13 times with an axe-handle.

Elated but exhausted, I finally arrived in Spokane just as the sun was going down. I had gone from ice-cold conditions to the baking heat that stifles any occupant of a metal box-car in midday sun. I’d been thrust into pitch-blackness and clouds of diesel fumes as the train thundered through a tunnel that seemed to last forever. I’d glimpsed a white wolf, sparkling trout streams, abandoned homesteads, the stark majesty of the Bitterroot Mountains – all of it framed by box-car doors and set against an epic backdrop: the Montana portrayed recently in films such as The Horse Whisperer. It had been the thrill-ride of a lifetime, and it hadn’t cost a cent.

In Spokane, I found the man who knows most about the FTRA in his office, sipping weak coffee. Bob Grandinetti was about to retire after 30 years’ service with the Spokane Police Department, 12 of them patrolling the rail yards. His fascination with the transient underworld developed after a 13-year-old girl, Marsi Belcz, was found stabbed to death near the rail yards in May 1985. Her unsolved murder gnawed at him. “Because of where she was dumped, we believed it could be the work of transients,” he said.

Grandinetti discovered the FTRA’s existence after recording ten deaths between 1990 and 1992 on the “High Line” between Seattle and Minneapolis: “The bodies had their shirts and jackets pulled up around their heads, and their pants pulled down.” It seemed obvious that a gang was at work. Then Grandinetti noticed that some transients he interviewed were wearing “colours”. He discovered that there were several initiation rituals for those joining the FTRA, and that there was a “Goon Squad” – a group of 50-100 FTRA “enforcers” – which maintained discipline among the gang.

On a bitterly-cold, grey morning, I visited the switching yards of Spokane, home-town of serial killer Ted Bundy. Near disused warehouses, I ran into a bearded, shivering man in a dirty three-piece suit. He showed me a three-inch scar on his forehead. “I ran into the FTRA a few times in Helena,” he grumbled. “They robbed me and beat me half to death with a chain. Got me when I was asleep.”

Under a nearby concrete bridge, I spotted the signature graffiti for “Sidetrack”: a white daubing of two tracks, a spider’s web and a crushed skull.

From Spokane, I took the train again, this time buying a $150 ticket on Amtrak’s Empire Builder service, and rode in a sky-lounge with glass ceilings. I arrived in Portland, Oregon, eight hours later. I had a lunch date with a remarkable police officer called Mike Quakenbush, a hero to hobos who made him a Knight of the Hobo Order of Merit in honour of his brave and relentless pursuit of Robert Silveria.

Quakenbush could barely hide his anger about the fate of the dispossessed and the “double standards throughout America”: “There’s a great system of justice for the rich. But forget it if you’re a nobody.” His odyssey through the rail yards and doss-houses of the Pacific Northwest began in December 1995, when a railroad worker peered into an empty box-car during a routine check in Millersburg, Oregon, and found the body of William Avis Pettit Jr.

The case landed on Quakenbush’s desk when a computer trace of the box-car revealed that it had passed through Salem, where the murder had probably taken place, according to an autopsy report. The case resembled hundreds of others around the nation in the past decade: a couple of homeless guys have a fight and one gets his head smashed in. Some cops have a code for such deaths: N-H-I – no humans involved.

Quakenbush, however, was determined to “show that no one could kill a man and get away with it because the victim is unknown and homeless”. Soon, he had entered the world of the hobo, and was learning the rail-rider’s lingo and habits. He spent many hours trudging through switching yards, where he interviewed bulls and hundreds of transients.

He came across “Chooch Johnson” and a friend, both of them hobos, who were later to confirm key details about Silveria’s appearance. Silveria, they said, had told them he was a travelling roofer by trade, using the rails to move between jobs. He claimed that he sent child support payments to his wife, though he’d been on the road for five or six years. According to Johnson, “Silveria cheerfully said he was a member of the FTRA, but said that the FTRA had gotten a bad name based on the actions of a few.”

Most often, it was later revealed, Silveria would wait until his victims were asleep or drunk, and then cave in their skulls with a blunt object or baseball bat. Between April and December 1995, he managed to kill a fellow rail-rider once a month. After killing, Silveria adopted the identity of his victim, even dressing in his clothes, in order to claim ever more public welfare. When finally apprehended, he had 28 food stamp accounts around America, and was picking up $119 from each one, each month.

In a homeless shelter in Eugene, Oregon, I met Tony “Fireball” Stanley, a 62-year-old who had been homeless for seven years since suffering a heart attack and then going bankrupt when he could not meet his medical bills. He told me that he had met Silveria several times. Offered a camping stove by Silveria, Stanley refused it believing it was “hot” – stolen. As it turned out, Stanley was right: the stove was taken from James McLean, 50, found on July 25, 1995, beaten and stabbed near a hobo camp. McLean’s dog was also stabbed.

Silveria really was a predator, recalled Stanley. “He’d kill just for a buck, out of pure and simple greed… Silveria took from the poor and then killed them because he could, because no one cares about what happens to us. We’re worthless losers in a country which only respects the rich.”

The Silveria case broke open when Union Pacific Railroad police found another body in a box-car near the Willamette River in Portland. Quakenbush attended the autopsy of Michael Andrew Clites, 24. Six-foot-four and heavily tattooed, Clites had been riding the rails for six months when he met Silveria. Like Pettit, Clites had been bludgeoned repeatedly and died of severe head wounds.

The box-car in which Clites was found was part of a train that had pulled out of Eugene. In Eugene, Quakenbush interviewed several groups of homeless men. He showed them photographs of Clites and Pettit. Several of the homeless men remembered Clites because of his height. One said Clites had been in a mission in Vancouver, Washington, on December 4, 1995. At the mission in Vancouver, Quakenbush found a man who’d ridden a box-car with Clites to Eugene: Carl De Paul. De Paul said that the last time he’d been seen, Clites was walking off in search of methamphetamine with a tall stranger who called himself “Sidetrack”.

Meanwhile, investigators from Utah, Montana and Kansas contacted Quakenbush. Each was investigating the murder of a transient that had happened within the previous eight months. The Utah victim had been beaten over the head with a board and stabbed in the ear. The Kansas victim had been smacked with a rod, and finished off with some other blunt instrument.

The detectives exchanged information. Quakenbush asked whether any of them had come across the name “Sidetrack”. None had, but one did say he had heard the name Robert Silveria mentioned by a couple of rail-riders. Quakenbush thought he was now looking for two people: Sidetrack and Robert Silveria. He did not yet realise they were the same person.

Finally, Quakenbush’s persistence paid off. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 2, 1996, he got a call at home from a bull working in Roseville, one of the largest rail yards in the West. “Hey,” the bull said. “I have Silveria.” The bull had come across Silveria in the Roseville yard, run a routine check on him and then arrested him on an outstanding warrant for probation violation.

When Quakenbush first laid eyes on Silveria at Placer County Jail, his appearance and demeanour were baffling. Silveria didn’t look like a transient with the “eyes of a devil”, as other hobos had described. He was calm, polite, soft-spoken, 6ft tall and 180 pounds. Quakenbush read Silveria his rights. Then he leaned close to a Plexiglass window separating him from Silveria. “When you ride the trains, what name do you use?” asked Quakenbush. Silveria answered blankly: “Sidetrack.”

Quakenbush now realised that he had his man. To his surprise, Silveria quickly confessed to two killings in Oregon, said he was a prominent member of the FTRA “brotherhood”, admitted to being a heroin user, and then gave details of six more killings. “He wanted to get it all off his chest.” Quakenbush told me. “He was tired of the lifestyle. He said he was glad he got caught because he would have continued to kill.”

First brought to trial in June 1997, Silveria was convicted of two murders in Oregon. According to court records presented in Oregon, Silveria had monstrous delusions of grandeur, believing that he was the leader of his “nation” – America’s homeless, estimated by some charities to be well over 500,000-strong and fast growing.

In May last year, Silveria pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in Kansas for the murder of Charles Randall Boyd. In June, Silveria was tried and convicted in Tallahassee, Florida, for the murder of Willie Clark, 52, who was found clubbed to death with a metal pole that had concrete clumped at one end. He is now serving a life sentence in Oregon, unlikely ever to get out.

Journey’s end was not the Pacific but the rail yard in Salem where William Pettit Jr was killed by Robert Silveria. On a windy Sunday morning, Mike Quakenbush pointed to the stream where Silveria washed blood from his hurting hands. Nearby lay a pile of wooden sleepers under which Silveria stashed some of Pettit’s belongings. As he crossed rusting tracks, Quakenbush appeared to shudder for a split second in the shadow cast by a graffiti-strewn box-car. What had he learned, I asked, in following Silveria’s tracks of death? “It’s easy when you look at the homeless to think that they’re just low life,” sighed Quakenbush. “But they’re real people, just like Pettit, who’ve often simply fallen on hard times. They have family. They always have someone who cares about them somewhere.”

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Here’s a great story about Fiske and his team-mates.

Billy Fiske at front, with winning 1932 US bob sled team.

Billy Fiske at front, with winning 1932 US bob sled team.

By Andy Bull, The Guardian.

The sled careened down the mountain. Sixty miles an hour and still accelerating. The runners shrieked on the ice. One after another come the blinding banks, 10, 20, 30 feet high. The four rattling riders leaned over, helpless, straining, gasping for breath against the wind. They were hardly in control at all. Blinded by spray, tears streamed from their eyes as they raced towards Shady corner. The sled was doing 70mph when it hit the top of the incline. 500 pounds of steel and oak, it smashed through the top of the bank. Four bodies hurtled through the air, and disappeared into the ravine alongside the track.

“We raced up the slide,” remembered Edward J Neil, a journalist covering the race for Associated Press, “and helped carry the four battered blood-soaked unconscious forms to the ambulances. Grau has a fractured shoulder, a broken hip, a fractured spine and skull. Brehme’s skull and wrist are broken. The calf was all but torn from Hoppmann’s leg.”

A mile and a half away, at the top of the mountain, a telephone rang. The trilling bell pierced the freezing air, and the polyglot conversations of the assembled athletes, French, Swiss, Italians, Romanians, Americans, stopped. They waited for news of the German sled from the bottom of the run. “They’ve gone through the bank at Shady,” said the track official, raising a red flag to show that the track was not clear, “into the ravine. The ambulance is with them now.”

The crowd fell quiet. After a time Henry “Hank” Homberger, the USA’s No1 driver, spoke up: “That’s the way it goes.” Twenty minutes later the next sled set off down the track.

Tom Wolfe called it The Right Stuff, and these men had it. “It was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life, any fool could do that,” wrote Wolfe. “No, the idea seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment – and then go up again the next day.”

There have been a lot of extraordinary Olympic champions over the years. This is the story of four of them.

The set-up

There were 20,000 people crowded on Mount van Hoevenberg that Sunday. Officially the 1932 Winter Olympics had closed the previous afternoon. But nine miles south-south-east of Lake Placid, high in the Adirondacks, 52 men still had business on the mountain.

The final of the four-man bobsled final had already been postponed three times because of warm weather. “There was not enough ice on the bob run,” noted Neil drily, “to make a drink cold.” The event was supposed to be the centrepiece of the entire Olympics. The Lake Placid track had opened the previous spring, the first of its kind in the world. It was the reason why the Olympics had been awarded to this tiny town in upstate New York, rather than Chicago, which had also bid to be host. It cost $200,000 to build, and was the fastest bob run in the world.

Hank Homberger knew that better than anyone. He had designed and built it. In 1932 he and his team, the Saranac Lake Red Devils, had set a new world record on it for a mile-and-a-half run. They covered the course in 1min 52sec. Saranac Lake was a short way up the road from Lake Placid. Homberger’s crew were local heroes – his brakeman was the town florist – and this should have been their Olympics.

There were only three drivers who had a chance of beating Homberger and his Red Devils on that course. The first was the German fighter pilot Captain Walter Zahn. Unlike the other teams, who were racing open-sided sleds, Zahn was competing in a revolutionary bullet-shaped hull, a prototype of the bobs used today. But two days before Grau crashed, Zahn had lost control on a turn. His sled went over the top and sped 120 yards over the snow before smashing into a tree. He broke his left arm, and his No2 fractured his spine. The second challenger to Homberger was Grau, and he was in hospital. That left the USA’s No2 team, driven by Billy Fiske.

The competition finally got started on the final day of the Games. By then, though, the organisers were so alarmed by the casualty rate – six men were in hospital – that they insisted extra safety measures were taken. The run was filled with fresh snow. Fiske took an early lead over Homberger on the first of the four runs each sled was due to make. But the times were slow. After the second run the bobsledders made a group decision that they would not race in such sluggish conditions. “It’s a travesty on bob racing,” complained the florist Paul Stevens. “If you insist on making us race in these conditions, you will go on without us.”

The sledders agreed between them to return to the mountain the next day, the Sunday after the Olympics were over, when the track would be clear of snow, to finish the race. Overnight the Red Devils trailed Fiske by 3.8 seconds. Homberger felt confident he could pull it back. This was his course. It was his world record. Billy Fiske’s men would need to produce two of the sharpest, fastest runs of their lives to hold him off.

The race

The sled careened down the mountain. Sixty miles an hour and still accelerating. The runners shrieked on the ice. Fiske pushed his vehicle wide, searching for the fastest route across the rutted track. He needed all his speed if he was going to stop Homberger stealing the lead. The sled howled into the Whiteface turn, climbing up the 35-foot bank, rising perilously close to the rim.

Years later, Fiske’s No3, Eddie Eagan would remember that moment well. “That run will always be vivid in my memory. It took only about two minutes to make, but to me it seemed like an eon. I remember the snow-covered ground flashing by like a motion picture out of focus. Speeding only a few inches from the ground without any sense of security, I hung on to the straps. My hands seemed to be slipping, but still I clung.”

The outside runner of the sled crept towards the lip of the track. If it reached, the race would be up: “Just picture a steel comet with four riders hurtling through the air”, as Eagan put it. The riders, an inch away from disaster, leaned desperately into the run, bracing themselves on the footholds and clinging to the leather.

And that is where we will freeze them. If you were taking a picture, that would be the moment to press the button, to capture these four remarkable men. You would see, from the front of the sled to the back, Billy Fiske, Clifford Gray, Eddie Eagan and Jay O’Brien: four giants of the jazz age, and the four heroes of this story.

The driver: Billy Fiske: fighter pilot, bob prodigy, and golden boy

Look long enough and you will find the tablet erected in memory of Billy Fiske in St Paul’s Cathedral. It is mounted on the back wall of the crypt, between Nelson’s tomb and the gift shop. It is a cold grey slab of granite, fixed opposite a bust of the poet WE Henley, and alongside a frieze of an astronomer named William Huggins.

“William Meade Lindsey Fiske III,” it reads. “An American citizen who died that England might live. August 18th 1940.”

Underneath, mounted on green felt in a small golden frame, hang a tattered pair of RAF pilot wings.

Billy Fiske was born in Brooklyn in 1911. “He was the kind of man,” his biographer wrote, “who the sunlight seemed to follow around. He could have stepped out of the pages of a Scott Fitzgerald novel.” After a stint in Chicago his parents sent him to school in St Moritz. It was there that he caught the bobsled bug. Preposterously talented for his age, Fiske persuaded a group of schoolmates that they should enter trials for the USA bobsled team at the 1928 Winter Olympics, which was being held in St Moritz on a run that Fiske and his friends knew well.

Fiske won selection as a driver for the USA’s second sled. He went on to win the gold. He was 16 years old.

That feat does not even merit a mention on Fiske’s memorial. Nor does his gold at Lake Placid in 1932. In between his winters Fiske was flitting around as his fancy suited. He spent three years studying history and economics at Cambridge, and then dilly-dallied in the movie business, moving to Tahiti to co-produce a schlocky romance called White Heat, about an interracial love affair between a slave and a plantation owner.

The film tanked, but Fiske found other ways to amuse himself. He took flying lessons; raced the Cresta run; set a new record for the night-time road run between Nice and Cannes in his green Bentley; married a divorced countess and, eventually, took up a job in his father’s banking firm. It was only when war closed in that Fiske really began to find his purpose in life. He had always been outspoken in his dislike of the Nazi party, passing up on the opportunity to compete in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Bavaria because, he told his team-mates, he did not want to perform in front of Hitler.

In August 1939, as it became clear that war was inevitable, Fiske left the USA to enlist in the RAF. The RAF was not actually accepting American citizens into service at the time, but this did not deter him. He simply decided to blag the recruiting officer that he was Canadian. He wrote in his diary at the time:

“There is really only one reason, other than my own amusement, and that is the fact that I believe I can lay claim to being the first US citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of war. I don’t say this with any particular pride, except perhaps in so far as my conscience is clear.”
To enlist, Fiske had to con his way through a meeting with the Air Chief Marshal William Elliott. He played a round of golf at Roehampton the day before, to “give myself a healthy look. Needless to say, for once, I had a quiet Saturday night – I didn’t want to have eyes looking like blood-stained oysters the next day”.

After training Fiske was posted to No601, nicknamed the Millionaires Squadron because they had been handpicked from the ranks of White’s Club in St James by Lord Edward Grosvenor. They had a reputation for playing poker (for £100 stakes) and polo (on Brough Superior motorcycles). Fiske, foreigner though he was, fitted right in.

Fiske flew his first operational sortie on 27 July 1940. Over the next 27 days he flew 42 operations in the thick of the Battle of Britain. He made six claims for enemy kills, including a Heinkel bomber which, having already run out of ammunition, he forced into a barrage balloon. “Saw 4(?) probables” reads his log book on 11 August, “3 badly damaged. Sqdn lost 4. Terrific fight. Terrified but fun. Had to lead the sqdn in. Willie’s engine failed!”

On 16 August his luck ran out. His Hurricane was damaged in a dogfight with a group of Stukas over the east coast at Selsey Bill. Instead of bailing out, Fiske nursed his fighter back to Tangmere. The operation record book notes that his engine had stopped so he “glided in over the boundary and landed on his belly”. The fuel tank exploded as the airplane came to a stop. Fiske was trapped inside.

“I taxied up to it and got out,” recalled Squadron Leader Archibald Hope. “There were two ambulancemen there. They had got Billy Fiske out of the cockpit, they didn’t know how to take off the parachute, so I showed them. Billy was burned about the hands and ankles.”

Tangmere’s medical bay had been bombed, so Fiske was given a shot of morphine and taken to hospital in Chichester. He died of his wounds two days later. He had been the first US citizen to join the RAF, and became the first American airman to be killed in the second world war. “Unquestionably,” Hope would later remember, “Billy Fiske was the best pilot I’ve ever known. It was unbelievable how good he was. He picked it up so fast it wasn’t true. He’d flown a bit before, but he was a natural fighter pilot.”

The memorial tablet to Fiske in St Paul’s was erected partly as a political move. Winston Churchill had an interest in promoting the story. The USA had not yet joined the war, and the inscription on the plaque was designed to have propaganda value. But there is another, smaller and more honest memorial to Fiske in Boxgrove Priory, just outside Chichester. There, he has a full stained glass window, showing a draped Stars and Stripes. It was opened in 2008 in a ceremony involving two of his old squadron members. The inscription on his headstone reads simply “He died for England.

The No2: Clifford ‘Tippy’ Gray: actor, songwriter, man of mystery

Information about Clifford Gray is a lot harder to come by than it is for Billy Fiske. There is no memorial in St Paul’s this time, though it is thought there may be one in the Old Ipswich Cemetery. Nobody knows for sure. The confusion has come about because Gray switched his name as often as other people change their pants.

Born Percival Davies, at some point he became Clifford Gray. Which he sometimes spelled Clifford Grey. Then he became Tippy Gray. Or Tippi Grey, or indeed Tippi Gray and sometimes, yes, Tippy Grey. It all seemed to depend on his mood and the company he was keeping. His history is a mixed-up muddle of pseud-de-plumes and nomdonyms. The upshot is that Clifford Gray seems to have lived two entirely separate yet somehow entwined lives, one as a double Olympic champion bobsledder, and another as the star of a string of silver-screen silent movies with names such as Wall Street Tragedy, The Weakness of Strength and The Girl Who Feared Daylight.

Gray did not make his fame as an actor, but as a songwriter. If You Were The Only Girl (In The World) was one of his, along with 3,000 or so others, a selection of which still turn up today on the soundtracks of period pieces such as Gosford Park. Gray also has some 35 plays and film scripts attributed to him.

The one thing that really is not clear is exactly how he ended up taking the No2 seat in the bobsled behind the 16-year-old Billy Fiske in 1928, a role he reprised in 1932. It is believed he was on vacation in St Moritz at the time of the trials. But then the same source that says so also insists that the musician and actor was, in fact, an entirely different man from the Olympian.

Given that Gray was born in Birmingham (Warwickshire, not Alabama) to English parents it does seem a little odd that he managed to get away with moonlighting in the USA’s Olympic team. Gray’s own children have said they were oblivious to his life as an Olympian until after he died. It seems he led a secret life as a champion bobsledder. After a lot of searching, a crucial piece of this incomplete jigsaw popped up in the “New York Society” column of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Saturday 15 December 1934:

“Word comes back from Southern California that the indefatigable world wanderer Tippy Gray has finally found anchorage. For 15 years he has led the blow-torch life flitting to all corners of the earth. As Clifford Gray he has written tunes for the Folies Bergeres, and as Tippy Gray he has been prominent in bobsledding at San Moritz and Lake Placid. Recently he has purchased a hacienda near Hollywood and has taken up tennis and sunshine permanently. At least so he thinks.”
They were obviously confused as to how to describe Gray in his own day too. “World wonderer” is a description that pops up time and again in the society pages, along with a handful of references to an excessive amount of time spent “gadding about on the ocean”. Quite what attracted him back to Ipswich, where he died in 1941, aged 54, is, like so many other things about the man, not entirely clear.

The No3: Eddie Eagan: heavyweight boxer, Rhodes scholar, hall of famer

As a boy Eddie Eagan read a lot. His favourites were Gilbert Patten’s Frank Merriwell novels. No one reads them now, but Merriwell was the original high school hero. He was a goody-two-shoes, studied hard, didn’t drink or smoke, excelled at each of the several sports he turned his hand to and spent what spare time he had left righting wrongs, solving mysteries and having capers.

Eagan was born in Denver in 1898. His father died in a railroad accident a year later. With no male authority figure to draw inspiration from, Eagan ended up inheriting his world view from his fictional hero Merriwell. The character, Patten would later say of his creation, “had little in common with his creator or his readers”. He can never have met Eddie Eagan, who would write in his 1932 autobiography: “To this day I have never used tobacco, because Frank Merriwell didn’t. My first glass of wine, which I do not care for, was taken under social compulsion in Europe. Frank never drank.”

Eagan first flourished as an amateur boxer. He was a heavyweight, and during stretches as a student in Denver and in the artillery corps in the first world war he won championships in the US and Europe. While he was at Denver, Eagan fought an exhibition bout with Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion of the world.

“I landed a hard punch on his jaw,” Eagan remembered, “then Dempsey hummed the tune ‘Everybody Two-Step’, keeping time with his whole body. Then something fell on my head. It felt like a rafter from the roof. Soft brown cushions like fairyland balloons were making circles before my eyes. One came toward my nose and halted lightly on it, then fell like a bomb on my neck.”
Like Merriwell, Eagan ended up at Yale. While he was there he made the US team for the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. He won gold as a light heavyweight.

From Yale he went on to study law at Harvard, and then travelled to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. There he befriended the Marquis of Clydesdale, whom he taught to box. After graduation the two men toured the world, Eagan challenging the amateur champion in every country they visited. “He finished the tour undefeated,” recollected Eagan’s wife Peggy, “so when you talk about undefeated champions, my husband was one of them.”

Among other things, Eagan found time to do a little big-game hunting in Africa. He continued to box, and though he scorned several offers to turn professional he did become the regular sparring partner of Gene Tunney, the man who eventually took the title off Dempsey. It seems one of the few things Eagan did not get around to doing before he settled into a legal career was to go bobsledding.

In fact Eagan had never actually been near a bob until he arrived at Lake Placid in January 1932. A member of Fiske’s original team had pulled out, preferring to enter the two-man competition. The warm winter meant that the US Olympic Bobsled Committee had not been able to hold any trials, so there was no one on hand to fill the slot. Jay O’Brien, the Bobsled Committee’s head and the fourth man in Fiske’s crew, was a good friend of Eagan.

“One night,” Peggy Eagan explained, “Eddie came back from dinner with Jay and said: ‘Guess what. I’m on the United States bobsled team’.” Eagan later explained that he “was practising law at the time and finding it a little cobwebby”. As though entering the Olympic bobsled was something akin to a weekend break in the country, he added: “I felt the change would do me good.”
Eagan was a natural. Like Merriwell he had excelled at every sport he tried – tennis, fencing, swimming and wrestling as well as boxing. Bobsledding came easy. “Eddie was absolutely fearless,” Peggy reminisced. “He would try everything just for the thrill of it. After a few practice sessions the team performed like they had been together for years.”

Eagan’s bobsled career was short, but could not have been more successful. The four races at Lake Placid were the only competitive runs he ever made. He went on to become the assistant attorney to southern New York. When the second world war broke out he joined the air logistics corps, and rose to become a lieutenant colonel. After that he served the Eisenhower government, and later became boxing commissioner for New York.

He died of a heart attack in 1967, aged 69. He remains the only man in Olympic history to have won gold in different events in both the Winter and Summer Olympics, a feat which ensured he was one of the seven inaugural nominees in the USA Olympic hall of fame.

The brakeman: Jay J O’Brien: jockey, gambler and playboy

They say James O’Brien was a man with three pursuits. Chief among them was riding horses, then came chasing women and last of all was making money. It was a cute design for life: he was a champion at the first, which made him a success in the second, and that looked after the third.

Born in 1883, O’Brien made his name as a dashing gentleman jockey in the late 1900s. He would race at the hunt clubs and turf tracks of upstate New York. The first of many references to O’Brien’s name in the national press came in 1906, buried deep in a report in the New York Times. Leading over the first lap of the three mile Vanderbilt Cup, he swung his horse out too wide on one late corner and “scattered the closely packed line of men and women, causing them to scamper back towards the automobiles parked along the field”.

It was not a mistake he would repeat. Later that month he rode four winners in a single day at Huntington, and from that point on whenever his name appeared it was in the headlines, not hidden in the copy. Over the next six years news of O’Brien’s latest victories became a regular fixture in the back pages. Each of the reports, though, would begin with a long list of the high society nabobs who had been in attendance at the meet. That was the world O’Brien was moving into.

In 1914 O’Brien made headlines by betting big on the World Series. He had, the papers announced, wagered $2,000 on the Boston Braves and was “willing to go further but only if he could get 2-1″. It was a shrewd bet. The “Miracle” Braves had been bottom of the National League on 4 July. But they went on to win the first clean sweep of the World Series. “The man who studied the form, the scientific bettor, placed his money on the Athletics,” said The Day newspaper’s betting correspondent. “The man with the hunch was the one who cashed in.”

O’Brien made $10,000, and a reputation as a “daring bettor and operator in the market”. At least, that was how he was described in the society pages when news broke that he had married the actress Mae Murray, otherwise known as “the Gardenia of the Screen”. Murray was on the up and up in Hollywood. After joining MGM, she would become one of the biggest stars of the 1920s. “Once you become a star, you are always a star!” was her catchphrase. In 1965 she was found destitute and sick at the age of 75, living rough on the streets of St Louis.

Their marriage lasted less than a year. O’Brien soon found his second wife, the stage actress Irene Fenwick. That marriage lasted a little longer, 18 months or so.

O’Brien had long since given up jockeying and taken up polo, a sport better suited to a man of his station in life. In 1923 he was playing a match at the Long Island estate of the yeast magnate Julius Fleischmann, one of the richest men in the America. It was there and then that O’Brien met the great love of his life. She was Fleischmann’s wife, Dolly. The ensuing scandal was one of the biggest of the decade.

So smitten was Julius Fleischmann that it was said he had “never refused his wife anything she asked”. That included a divorce. Dolly Fleischmann eloped to France with O’Brien. Officially Fleischmann denied that he knew the two were having an affair. “I know nothing of such a contemplated marriage,” he told the world, “but it is true that Jay O’Brien has been my guest here. He has played polo on my field. But it is foolish to say he is my friend.”

It soon became public knowledge that much of that million dollars a year Julius had been lavishing on Dolly had been making its way into O’Brien’s pocket, funding his investments on Wall Street.

Jay and Dolly married two months after her divorce was finalised. “What is he?” spluttered Fleischmann in the Pittsburgh press. “He is just one of those strange figures on horseback who appear on the fringes of society and wealth. His only means of support are the four legs of his horse.”

O’Brien had a little more than that now. Dolly was worth around $4m, enough to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed for a year or two. The pair hit the French Riviera. They were still there, four months later, when news reached them that Julius Fleischmann had died of a heart attack while playing polo. One of the last things he did was to tear up his will and write a new one. If Dolly had stayed married to him for another six months, she would have inherited $60m. As it was, she got nothing.

Jay became infamous as the man who had cost his wife a fortune. His story was splashed across the gutter press. “Supposing that he happens to be the greatest lover of all time, is it still possible he can make that good?” asked the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “$60m returns $8,000 in interest every day,” the paper pointed out. “Every time Mrs O’Brien gazes at her husband across the dinner table it must be apparent that within the next 24 hours he must deliver $8,000 worth of tenderness, gallantry, wit, sympathy and attention or she has made a bad bargain. Can any husband be worth $50,000,000?”

As it turned out the answer was yes, he could. When Dolly died in 1965, her friend Suzy Knickerbocker wrote an obituary.

“Love was the most important thing in the world to Dolly, and she and Jay, beautiful creatures, set out to conquer high society. They became the toast of Paris and London, and the darlings of Biarritz and New York. They entertained dukes and duchesses and played golf with the Prince of Wales. They brought an enormous property in Palm Springs and christened it “The Garden of Eden”. Dolly and Jay were dazzling and brilliant and golden. And very much in love and very happy.”
Somewhere along the way, and even after all the research I’m not sure where or when, Jay O’Brien also became an Olympic-standard bobsledder. I suppose he tired of riding horses, just as he tired of chasing women. Certainly the habit came late. He was 48 when he was competing at Lake Placid, which makes him the oldest gold medallist in Winter Olympic history.

Otherwise he spent his time investing in real estate in Palm Beach, where he became a grandee of the community. He died of a heart attack in 1940 and, Knickerbocker wrote: “A part of Dolly died with him.” She married her fourth husband, a Bulgarian count, six years later. And then dumped him for Clark Gable.

The ending

Let’s cut back to the sled, just where we left it that February Sunday in 1932, frozen on the rim of the Whiteface turn an inch away from oblivion, the four riders leaning desperately into the track. “If any other man than Billy Fiske had been at the wheel,” Eagan said, “we would have gone. We survived only because of Billy.”

Fiske pulled hard, and the sled surged back towards the centre of the track, the four men fighting the forces of gravity and momentum. They shot out of the curve and flew down the straight away, catching their breath as they went.

They passed on through the Shady turn that had finished Fritz Grau, and ran on into the notorious Zig-Zag curve at the end of the track. The sled bucked to the left, thumping off the ice wall, then leapt off a jump, all four runners off the ground. As it landed it whipped back to the right. “My head snapped backward as we went through a zig-zag,” wrote Eagan. “I was dizzy as my head snapped first to the right, then to the left. And then finally it was over.”

When the sled crossed the line the clock stopped at 1min 56.59sec. Fiske’s final run was his fastest. Homberger would need to beat his own world record to steal the gold. “He made a spectacular effort,” said the man from the Spokane Daily Chronicle, “riding the curves high and taking every chance but the best he could get out of his sled was 1min 54.28sec.” It was quick, but not quick enough. Fiske, Gray, Eagan, and O’Brien had taken the gold.

There are a handful of photos of Billy Fiske and his crew after the race. They are posing on their sled, each flashing a broad grin. In one they are being presented with a trophy by captain Walter Zahn, his arm still bandaged. The Americans are wearing neat double-breasted white jackets, and their hair is slick and gelled underneath their peaked caps. The Olympic flag stands in the backdrop.

It was the last time that the four would ever be in a bobsled together. Eagan never went near a bob run again in his life. Fiske declined to race at the 1936 Games, and O’Brien was too old to consider a return to the track. Gray made himself available for selection, but did not make the cut. By 1941 three of the four would be dead. Only Eagan survived the war. These four amazing men came together in that bob for just two days of competition, and in that time they wrote themselves a small slice of history. There has never been another team like them.

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An extract from The Bedford Boys
By Alex Kershaw


6 June 1944, 12.30am: The British troopship Empire Javelin steamed steadily across the Channel. Among her passengers were 34 young men from the small Virginia town of Bedford. They belonged to the 116th Infantry’s Company A, a select 200-man unit. After 18 months of arduous training, Company A had been chosen from among the 15,000 GIs in the Army of the United States’s 29th Division to spearhead the most critical US assault of the entire war.

Bedford boy Lieutenant Ray Nance, 28, managed to get a few hours’ sleep. He awoke at 2am, dressed in full combat gear. He had not even removed his boots. Nearby were five fellow officers from Company A. By lunchtime, three of them would be dead.

In the non-commissioned men’s berths, a few dozed fitfully. Most sat in silence, alone with their thoughts. Other Bedford boys lay in bunks writing last-minute letters home. Nance knew that some would not live to write another. He felt responsible for them all. He had grown up with these men, trained them to be first-class soldiers, censored their love letters to girls he knew back in Bedford. The men under his command were family.

As Nance was getting up, 21-year-old British Sub-Lieutenant Jimmy Green was being woken by an orderly and told that his flotilla commander wanted to see him urgently. Green was second-in-command of the flotilla, but in full command of the first wave of boats that would land Company A in France. Green’s commander told him the boats would have to leave earlier than planned because weather conditions in the English Channel were so bad. Green grabbed a cup of tea and a ‘bite to eat’ and then drew his weapons from the Empire Javelin’s store. He had no illusions about what lay ahead. There would be heavy casualties. In his last shore briefing, he’d been told to expect to lose a third of his men and his boats.

After breakfast, Ray Nance gathered his kit and climbed up a gangway. A heavy canvas curtain stopped light seeping on to the deck from below. Nance stepped through and into pitch blackness. He went to the rail and looked out at the dark waters, swelling ominously. Suddenly, he noticed Captain Fellers at his side. Fellers had, like Nance, grown up on a farm outside Bedford. The two were cousins. Twenty-nine-year-old Fellers was tall and thin, with a prominent chin and rolling gait. He was suffering badly from a sinus infection and looked tired and concerned. Before embarking for France, Fellers had confided in Nance, telling him that very few would come back from France alive. Fellers had studied the Allied intelligence and countless aerial shots and concluded that Company A was being sent to face certain slaughter.

Fellers and Nance both looked out to sea.

‘We stood there awhile,’ recalls Nance. ‘We didn’t say a word, not a single word to each other.

I guess we’d said it all.’

An anti-aircraft gun broke the silence, tracer bullets spitting through the sky, and then a searchlight caught the blaze of an exploding plane. ‘That brought it home to me,’ remembers Nance. ‘This thing is real. It’s not an exercise.’

A loudspeaker called the British naval crew to its stations. The troops knew they would be next.

‘Now, hear this! All assault troops report to your debarkation areas.’ As 34 Bedford boys emerged from below into the cold darkness, Nance touched every one of them lightly on the arm. ‘It was a gesture, a goodbye,’ he says 60 years later. ‘They were the best men I have ever seen in my life.’

The men included husbands, three sets of brothers, pool-hall hustlers, a couple of highly successful Lotharios, a minor-league baseball player destined for great things, and several Bible-reading, quiet young men who desperately missed their mothers and dreamed of home cooking.

The Bedford boys checked weapons and kit, exchanged scribbled home addresses ‘just in case’, wished each other good luck, and tried to bolster others who suddenly looked terrified.

‘This is it, men,’ a loudspeaker blared. ‘Pick it up and put it on, you’ve got a one-way ticket and this is the end of the line.’

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The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945
By Rick Atkinson. 896 pp.
Henry Holt and Co., 2013. $40.


For almost 15 years—three times longer than World War II lasted—Pulitzer winner Rick Atkinson has toiled with Herculean devotion to trace the American journey through hell to moral and military victory in Europe: from North Africa up the jagged and murderous spine of Italy, and now at last from Normandy to the gates of Dachau.

Has it all been worth it? The question inevitably arises when assessing yet another sweeping account of Europe’s liberation: what can be added to the canon that has not been covered before by so many so well? In short, a great deal. To use that well-worn but apt cliché, it all depends on how you tell it. Indeed, this final installment of Atkinson’s exhaustive Liberation Trilogy is unlikely to win the Pulitzer for originality. But it will gain Atkinson his largest readership yet. Unlike other heavyweight authors who penned doorstopper tomes in recent years, Atkinson does not resort to contrarian posturing, blatant regurgitation, or queasy mythmaking. Instead, with lyrical élan, he accurately and objectively tells the greatest story of our time, and does so with the general reader always in mind.

While the pacing is a little too slow at the outset, once the Allies land in France the narrative moves into high gear and rarely falls back. It pulls us across Hell’s Beach where young Americans were “butchered like a bunch of hogs,” as one dispatch put it on June 6, 1944, through the Norman hedgerows, to sunlit avenues during the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944—”one of the greatest days of all time,” in the words of Ernie Pyle, whose muscular and elegant prose Atkinson’s best writing often evokes. The stalling of the Allies in fall 1944 along Germany’s borders, the British debacle at Arnhem, the immense courage and suffering of GIs throughout but particularly at the Battle of the Bulge, the egomania of the Allied generals, the infighting that seemed only to grow more rancorous the closer the Allies got to Berlin—Atkinson covers all of it with both judicious broad strokes and vivid detail.

There is much to savor that hasn’t received full due from others attempting to tell all in one volume: the heady march north from the Cote D’Azur after Dragoon, the war’s most successful amphibious invasion, the unforgivable slaughter in Hürtgen Forest, where so very many died for no good reason, and the bitter winter fighting in the Vosges. These episodes contain little glory but more than enough tragedy, and now have their proper place in the greater story of the American odyssey in Europe. Particularly effective are Atkinson’s crisp portraits of the Allied generals. There is no cheap sniping at Montgomery, no over-inflation of Eisenhower’s skills. Both legends are fully realized humans—flawed but still possessed of awe-inspiring devotion to duty. “If I could get home,” a chain-smoking Ike wrote his mother in July 1944, “I could lie down on the front lawn and stay there for a week without moving.” Patton too leaps from these pages as a charismatic enigma. America’s last great cavalryman, he was crucially also the hard-driving maniac even democracies need to win wars. “Hang up and keep going,” bellowed Old Blood-and-Guts to a subordinate who called to report his position.

Finally, gloriously, the Rhine was crossed, the unimaginable camps liberated, and Germany’s surrender accepted as spring flowers bloomed amid the ruins where more people had died more quickly than ever in history, including 135,576 Americans. For the 361,000 wounded GIs who returned home, forever changed, there were further struggles. But there was also profound consolation for more than a few. The war had been the most meaningful accomplishment of their lives—”the one great lyric passage,” as one officer called it. The same could be said of Atkinson’s richly rewarding and beautifully crafted book.

Alex Kershaw has been a journalist for 25 years, and is the bestselling author of several books about World War II, including
The Bedford Boys (2004) and The Liberator (2012). The National WWII Museum, for which Kershaw leads the annual Victory in Europe travel tour, opened an exhibit in January 2013 on the USS Tang, which Kershaw first wrote about in his 2008 book, Escape from the Deep.

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Ray Nance with some of his medals.

They were teenage buddies in the Depression days, growing up in Bedford, a town of 3,200 in central Virginia. They joined the National Guard together, they marched in Fourth of July parades and they gathered with their girlfriends at American Legion halls.

But the country life faded for the young men who would become known as the Bedford Boys. In February 1941, they were called into federal service as part of the 29th Infantry Division. Assembled in Company A of the division’s 116th Infantry, they shipped off to Britain in September 1942. Lt. Elisha Ray Nance, the son of a tobacco farmer, helped train them for combat.

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, when the long-awaited Allied invasion of northern Europe got under way, 30 soldiers from Bedford and its environs were among the first infantrymen approaching Omaha Beach. The bombings and shellings preceding the landings failed to soften up the German gunners in the heights. The beach became the scene of carnage.

Four of the 30 Bedford boys were in a landing craft that was hit by German fire and sank. Fished out of the waters, they were the fortunate ones; 19 others died approaching the beach or in their first moments on French soil, among them Capt. Taylor Fellers, the company commander. Lieutenant Nance’s boat, carrying a radio man and a medic, was the last craft from Company A to reach the sands.

“There was a pall of dust and smoke,” Mr. Nance recalled in a 2001 interview with WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va. “In the distance I could see the church steeple we were supposed to guide on. I waded out of the water up on the beach. I could not see anybody in front of me. I looked behind, and there’s nobody following me. I was alone in France.”

Most of the Bedford boys were dead or dying by then. In all, 22 were killed in the invasion.

“I started crawling,” Mr. Nance remembered. “There was continuous fire from mortars and machine guns.”

Soon he began to see bodies strewn on the beach, and he was shot twice in the foot and once in the hand.

“When I thought there was no more hope, I looked up in the sky,” he told Alex Kershaw for his book “The Bedford Boys.” “I didn’t see anything up there. But I felt something settle over me. I got this warm feeling. I felt as though I was going to live.” He made it to shelter beneath a cliff.

On July 16, the Western Union teletype at Green’s Drug Store in Bedford began clattering with messages from the War Department announcing the deaths of the boys from town.

After a long period of hospitalization, Mr. Nance returned home. He farmed, then became a rural letter carrier.

To honor the memories of his men, he recruited a new Company A in the Virginia National Guard and helped organize a memorial service in town for the 10th anniversary of D-Day. Bedford was said to have lost more men per capita on D-Day than any other town in America. The origin of that claim is unclear, but the losses brought Congressional support for creation of a National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

When the memorial’s granite arch was unveiled in May 2000, Mr. Nance struggled with his emotions. “It brings back a lot of bad memories,” he told The Associated Press. “I never really got over it, and I’m not sure if I ever will.”

The memorial was dedicated on June 6, 2001, in ceremonies attended by President George W. Bush. On Wednesday, a hearse with Mr. Nance’s body circled that memorial before burial with a military honor guard.

Mr. Nance is survived by his wife, Alpha; his daughters Martha Susan Cobb of Front Royal, Va., and Sarah Watson Jones of Richmond; his son, John, of Lynchburg, Va.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Nance’s mail-carrying duties offered no respite from anguish. Some of the families on his rounds had lost sons on D-Day. He wondered what they might have been thinking about his having survived.

“I never was very good at reading people’s hearts,” he once told The Richmond Times-Dispatch. “There was a little twinge of guilt that I was allowed to come back.”

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