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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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.

Loudspeakers blared: “Fight to get your troops ashore…. If you’ve got any strength left, fight to save yourselves…. Away all boats!…. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name….” At 5:50 a.m., the battleships Texas and Arkansas opened up. In Life photographer Robert Capa’s landing craft, which was nearing Omaha Beach, some men were bailing water frantically with their helmets. Others looked up at the heavy salvos flying over their heads and cheered.

For men of the 16th Infantry Regiment and the 30-year-old Capa, H-hour on D-Day had almost arrived—by far the biggest story in an action-packed career that had seen the photographer crisscross the globe in search of romance and danger. Capa alone had been selected from the press pool’s dozens of photographers to land with the first wave. If he could survive and return with photographs, he would have bagged arguably the greatest picture exclusive of the 20th century: shots of the first GIs landing in France on D-Day. His reportage would be forever associated with America’s finest hour, rather than that of his more famous rivals and close friends—Scripps Howard correspondent Ernie Pyle and Collier’s Ernest Hemingway, both of whom were also anxious to record the greatest invasion in history.

A few miles from the beach, already exhausted men—having gone without sleep for over 24 hours—started to collapse with acute seasickness. “Some of the boys were politely puking into paper bags and I saw that this was a civilized invasion,” Capa recalled. “We waited for the [special assault teams] to go in and then I saw the first landing boats coming back and the black coxswain of one boat [was] holding his thumb in the air and it looked like a pushover. We heard something popping around our boat, but nobody paid any attention.”

Capa crouched down in vomit and seawater as artillery fire from German shore emplacements found the range of his landing craft. He pulled out one of his two cameras from a waterproof oilskin. Despite the overcast sky, there was just enough light to take fast-action pictures. Then his craft’s ramp lowered and men in front of Capa leaped into the waist-deep water with their rifles above their heads. “My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting [and] a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return,” he recalled. Dozens of men died in the first few minutes on the Easy Red sector of the beach, mere yards from him. “I saw men falling,” he later told fellow correspondent Charles Wertenbaker of Time magazine, “and I had to push past their bodies, which I did politely.”

Capa later joked, typically, about his first harrowing moments on Omaha. “I was going in very elegant with my [Burberry] raincoat on my left hand. I had a feeling I would not need that raincoat. I let go of it and it floated away and I hid behind some tanks that were firing on the beach. After twenty minutes I suddenly realized that this is not a good place to be. The tanks were a certain amount of cover from small arms fire, but they were what the Germans [were] shooting at.”

As shells exploded around Capa and the shallows became clogged with corpses, he found himself repeating words he had learned in Spain: “Es una cosa muy seria,” he muttered. “Es una cosa muy seria.” This is a very serious business.

Men dared not lift their heads above the sand of the beach in case they were shot. “The slant of the beach gave us some protection, so long as we lay flat, from the machine gun and rifle bullets, but the tide pushed us up against barbed wire, and the guns were enjoying open season,” Capa recalled. For several minutes, he lay with his entire body pressed as close to the sand as possible, gripped by a debilitating fear that was far greater than any he had experienced in a decade of covering war: “I had it bad. The empty camera trembled in my hands. It was a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face.”

Capa unclipped his entrenching tool and tried to dig a foxhole, but he hit heavy gravel almost immediately and threw it away. Then he noticed that the men around him were motionless; “only the dead on the waterline rolled with the waves.” He knew that the only way to overcome the terror was to take pictures, get the job done as quickly as possible, and get the hell off the beach. He later told Wertenbaker that he had spent 90 minutes taking pictures before he used all his film. Then he saw a landing craft 50 yards out at sea.

A group of medics, with red crosses daubed on their helmets, jumped out of it. A machine gun snarled. Several of the medics died instantly. Capa stood up and ran for the boat without making a conscious decision. Soon he was wading out through blood-red water. The cold seas came up to his chest, then waves slapped his face. He held his cameras above his head. On the landing craft, LCI 94, 19-year-old motor machinist Charles Jarreau was struggling to lift wounded aboard when he spotted Capa. “Poor fellow, he was there in the water, holding his cameras up to try to keep them dry, trying to catch his breath.”

As soon as Capa clambered aboard, he started to change his film. Then he felt “a slight shock” and found himself covered
with feathers. “What is this?” he thought. “Is somebody killing chickens?” He looked up and saw that the 150-foot boat had taken a direct hit from an 88mm shell. Body parts littered the blood-splattered craft. “The feathers were the stuffing from the kapok jackets of the men who were blown up. The skipper was crying because his assistant had been blown all over him and he was a mess.”

The landing craft was listing badly but somehow managed to slowly pull away from Omaha Beach. Capa went below, dried his hands, changed the film in his cameras, and returned to the open deck. All around him he found dead and moaning men. A few hundred yards from the beach, he looked back and took a last shot of “Bloody Omaha,” shrouded in smoke.

By the time the first wave of Americans finally found a way off Omaha Beach later that morning, Capa was in the middle of the English Channel, talking with motor machinist Jarreau. The photographer looked stunned by what he had seen, gray-faced and still in shock. After changing his film again, he photographed the first American wounded to be taken off Omaha in LCI 94. He then put down his cameras and helped lift several stretchers of wounded men aboard the attack transport Samuel Chase. Only six hours before, he had clambered down into a landing craft from the Chase’s immaculate decks. Now it was “no longer nice and clean. Even the cooks that made such good food were helping to hoist the wounded.”

Once the wounded were aboard the Samuel Chase, Capa collapsed with exhaustion. The ship was nearing the English coast when he woke up naked beneath a coarse blanket with a note around his neck: “Exhaustion case. No dog tags.” Early on June 7, the Samuel Chase docked at Weymouth. Reporters surrounded Capa, eager to get a firsthand account of the invasion. Capa later claimed that when he stepped onto dry land he was offered a plane to whisk him to London so that he could make a radio broadcast about the invasion. Instead, he put his film in a courier’s pouch, changed into clean, dry clothes, and found the first boat returning to the beachhead.

The greatest gamble of Capa’s career paid off, firmly establishing his legend as the gutsiest snapper in the business. Capa’s extraordinary pictures, which retain a heart-pounding immediacy to this day, first appeared in Life on June 19, beside perhaps the magazine’s most famously understated headline: “the fateful battle for europe is joined by sea and air.”

Capa landed back on Omaha Beach on June 8. Before heading for the press camp inland at Bayeux, he paused to photograph the beach once again. Macabre flotsam and jetsam crowded the high-tide line: rifles, body parts, scattered kit, and many a Bible. Capa’s colleague Ernie Pyle, who had landed the day before, described this “human litter” movingly as “extending in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark…. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out…, toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand.”

Near Easy Red sector, Capa found local fishermen gazing at rows of covered corpses. Elsewhere, he watched captured Germans, who had fired on him 48 hours before, digging temporary graves. He arrived in Bayeux, five miles inland, by evening.

Capa was astonished to find his press colleagues sitting in a barn around flickering candles, drinking a bottle of Calvados, holding a wake in his honor. He later claimed that a sergeant had reported seeing his corpse floating in the shallows on Omaha. Because he had been missing from the front line for 48 hours, he had been announced officially dead. That night, in a hotel called the Lion D’Or, Capa and his colleagues apparently polished off several more bottles of Calvados to celebrate his return from the dead.

Among those at this celebratory wake was 44-year-old Ernie Pyle. By this stage of the war, the Scripps Howard correspondent was famous for his tender yet muscular prose, which recorded better than any peer the human tragedy of American victory in Europe. Indeed, much to his embarrassment, he was sometimes mobbed by GIs who would gladly give the one-and-only Ernie Pyle whatever booty they had liberated. Wherever he went, soldiers asked him to sign franc notes and rifle stocks. “Each day brought new invitations,” biographer James Tobin wrote, “from soldiers ranging from privates to generals yearning to have Pyle’s recognition bestowed upon their units.”

Pyle was frustrated that he had missed out on the landings on June 6. Ernest Hemingway, world famous then as the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, had as well, having watched them from a landing craft offshore, frantically drying his spectacle lenses with a woolen sock as American destroyers had blown “every pill box out of the ground with their five-inch guns.” Other colleagues had been the victims of a huge blunder by the army’s public relations divisions, which had left nine correspondents designated to the invasion behind in England. Now everyone was playing catch-up.

On June 9, Capa teamed with the slightly built, chain-smoking Pyle and Time’s Wertenbaker to cover the Allied advance on Cherbourg, the “first great objective of the invasion” as Wertenbaker called it. Before returning to the front lines, each man tucked into a good steak, shaved, took a hot bath, and changed his clothes. It might be weeks before they would do the same again.

Nine days after D-Day, the correspondents were in the thick of the fighting. The men who had survived D-Day were losing yet more friends and brothers as they crept from steep hedgerow to hedgerow. On June 26, the trio joined an American battalion of the 9th Division as it entered a suburb of Cherbourg. At one street corner, Capa found several German prisoners as well as Russian conscripts and their wives, who were hysterical with fear: the Germans had told their husbands that the Americans didn’t take prisoners. It was the best way to keep them fighting.

In the distance, Cherbourg harbor was ablaze. As the battalion advanced toward the city center, Capa heard intense fighting in nearby streets: the hack-hack-hack of German MG42 machine guns and lonely single Luger pistol shots. Sniper fire crackled. The battalion’s immediate objective was a hospital where German troops had captured more than a hundred wounded Americans.

A young lieutenant wearing sunglasses despite the overcast weather approached Capa and his colleagues. “Our company is starting in a few minutes to go up this road and clean out a strongpoint,” said the officer. “It’s about half a mile from here. There are probably snipers in some of the houses along the way. Do you want to go with us?” Pyle didn’t want to, but couldn’t refuse the invitation. It would have been cowardly. Wertenbaker nodded calmly. Capa looked eager. They moved forward, Capa checking his cameras, until they were at the front of a column.

The lieutenant introduced himself as Orion Shockley of Jefferson City, Missouri. He had been named after Mark Twain’s brother. One of his fellow officers had arrived with the company just three hours before, and was so new to combat that he ducked when “outgoing mail” —American shells—flew overhead, in contrast with the men under his command who had been in combat since June 14. They had snatched a few hours of sleep in damp cellars and hastily dug foxholes. Their uniforms were slick with dirt and sweat, their expressions numbed, for each one was now certain he would either die or be taken home on a stretcher—the only two ways out of the hell of Normandy. By the war’s end, the 9th Division had spent 264 days in combat, suffering 33,864 casualties, more than any other infantry division in Europe. The turnover in troops was a staggering 240 percent.

“Why don’t you tell the folks back home what this is like?” an exhausted soldier asked Pyle, anger in his voice. “All they hear about is victories and a lot of glory stuff. They don’t know that for every hundred yards we advance somebody gets killed. Why don’t you tell them how tough this life is?” It was a cruel reproach. Of all the American reporters covering the war, Pyle had expressed the greatest sympathy in his prose for the ordinary GI’s plight. But there was only so far he could venture in print given the constraints of censors and the American public’s weak stomach for the reality of combat.

It started to rain. Soon, Capa and Pyle were soaked to the bone. Shockley explained to Capa how his men were going to wipe out machine gun positions and pillboxes at the end of a street. “We don’t know what we’ll run into,” he said, “and I don’t want to stick you right out in front, so why don’t you come along with me?” Capa nodded. There was a loud thwack-thwack of bullets passing just above his head. Capa crouched down behind a high wall near a crossroads. To advance any further, he would have to brave open ground under fire.

Shockley ordered his men forward while Capa watched. “Spread it out now!” Shockley yelled, knowing that men bunched together would be easy targets. “Do you want to draw fire on yourselves? Don’t bunch up like that. Keep five yards apart. Spread it out, dammit!” Pyle was struck by the utter vulnerability of the men as they carried out Shockley’s orders: “They were really the hunters, but they looked like the hunted. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice.”

Word came down the line that German troops were 200 yards ahead, near their objective—a hospital full of wounded Americans. Fifty yards from the hospital, an American tank opened up with its 75mm gun. Windows shattered as the street shook from the blast. Then the tank took a direct hit, flames ripping from its underbelly. The crew scampered out and ran for cover.

A few minutes later, a group of Germans appeared ahead, an officer leading them, waving a Red Cross flag on a stick. They were carrying two stretchers with wounded. Capa jumped over some wreckage, ran toward the surrendering Germans, lifted his camera and photographed them several times. He then told them in German to follow him back to the American lines.

When Capa finally arrived at the hospital, he discovered more than 200 bandaged men from the 82nd Airborne Division. He also learned that the hospital’s basement had a supply of the very best wine and brandy. But when he got there, he found “every soldier of the 47th Infantry [Regiment] already had his arms, jacket, and pockets bulging with precious bottles.” Capa needed a drink badly and begged one soldier for some booze. The soldier laughed: “Only if you’re Ernie Pyle.” Capa asked another soldier for a bottle for Pyle and was quickly given one.

Cherbourg fell later that afternoon. It had been a costly victory, especially for the Americans, who had comprised two-thirds of Allied casualties since D-Day, and the mounting death toll bore heavily on any who witnessed it. On June 30, Pyle wrote to a friend: “This hedge to hedge stuff is a type of warfare we’ve never run into before, and I’ve seen more dead Germans than ever in my life. Americans too, but not nearly so many as the Germans. One day I’ll think I’m getting hardened to dead people, dead young people in vast numbers, and then next day I’ll realize I’m not and never could be.”

Pyle had by now been covering the war in Europe, mostly from the front lines, for almost four years. He was in fact close to an emotional and physical breakdown, increasingly overwhelmed by “too much death” wherever he turned. “I’d become so revolted, so nauseated by the sight of swell kids having their heads blown off,” Pyle later told a fellow reporter, “I’d lost track of the whole point of the war. I’d reached a point where I felt that no ideal was worth the death of one more man.”

Robert Capa returned to England with Charles Wertenbaker in mid-July, leaving Pyle to report on the ever-more-bloody fighting around the strategically vital town of St.-Lô. In London, Capa discovered to his outrage that most of his D-Day shots had been ruined in a darkroom accident in a rush to develop them to beat deadlines. Only 11 of his images had survived from more than 100 shots he had taken, and even these were blurred because the emulsion on the negatives had melted when they were dried too quickly. Capa was even more bitterly resentful when he discovered in Life’s June 19 issue a bogus explanation for his spoiled pictures: “Immense excitement of moment made Photographer Capa move his camera and blur picture.”

When Capa got back to France in late July, he found that more than 300 members of the press corps, including Pyle, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck, were now vying to be in the lead in the race to Paris: the city’s liberation was the next great story.

Hemingway was determined to make up for lost time, having missed much of the action since D-Day. The 44-year-old “Papa,” as his poker-playing buddy Capa and numerous others called him, had spent the following six weeks in England stewing and cursing his wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, for trumping him by getting to Normandy first. She had arrived on a hospital ship around June 7 and then returned to London to rub salt into the notoriously thin-skinned writer’s wounded ego.

Now Papa was back in the game, busy waging his own private war, advancing with a unit of the 4th Infantry Division. Hemingway was popular with several senior officers. Colonel Charles Lanham, commander of the 4th Division’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, called the writer “simple, direct, gentle, and unaffected.” Capa, however, said Hemingway had his own cook, a driver/photographer, and his very own ration of Scotch. Hemingway’s companions were public relations officers, but under Papa’s influence had become what Capa called a “bunch of bloodthirsty Indians.” Barred from carrying a weapon, as were all war correspondents, Hemingway had made sure his personal platoon carried “every weapon imaginable”—both German and American.

In an August 1 letter to his latest mistress, the 36-year-old correspondent Mary Welsh, Hemingway described the “jolly and gay life” he was leading: “Full of deads, German loot, much shooting, much fighting, hedges, small hills, dusty roads…, wheat fields, dead cows, horses, new hills, dead horses, tanks, 88’s, Kraftwagens, dead U.S. guys, sometimes don’t eat at all, sleep in rain, on the ground, in barns, on carts, on cots, on one’s ass and always moveing, moveing….”

A few days later, Hemingway invited Capa to join him and his band of “irregulars,” as he had dubbed his platoon members. Sensing a story in the making, with Hemingway his main focus, Capa accepted. The daredevil photographer had first met and then photographed America’s most famous living writer at the height of the Spanish Civil War, and knew images of Papa in action would guarantee yet more bylines in Life magazine.

It wasn’t long before Hemingway was riding beside Capa in a jeep. A German fighter appeared and began to strafe the road. Capa and the driver dived beneath the vehicle for cover but Hemingway remained erect in his seat, ignoring the bullets.

When the plane passed over, Capa crawled from beneath the jeep and ordered the driver to head back to a command post so he could fly some film back to London. “What?” Hemingway shouted. “Go back? I’m not going to retreat because of Henry Luce!”— Life magazine’s visionary publisher.

Early the next day, near Granville in Normandy, Hemingway sent a captured Mercedes field car to pick up Capa for another jaunt. With Colonel Lanham he had decided he was going “to take” the village of St.-Pois, and wanted Capa along to record the action. When Hemingway held up a map and outlined his plan of attack, Capa advised Papa against the foolhardy and unnecessary action, telling him that he should obey a simple rule: always go forward behind as many soldiers as possible, and never take “lonely shortcuts through no-man’s-land.”

As Capa later recorded, Hemingway looked at the photographer with disdain, implying he was a coward. Capa reluctantly agreed to go along, but only if he could follow at a safe distance behind. Hemingway set off, riding in a motorcycle sidecar. Capa followed in the Mercedes. Hemingway again came under fire as the motorcycle rounded a corner. In the distance stood a panzer. The motorcycle’s driver slammed on the brakes and Hemingway was thrown into a shallow ditch where he was soon pinned down.

“Get back, goddammit!” Hemingway snapped. But Capa stayed where he was. “Get back, goddammit, I said.” Still he refused to budge. When the Germans finally withdrew, a furious Hemingway confronted him and a bitter argument ensued. Hemingway’s son John later heard what happened that day from both Capa and his father: “Capa said that he finally did go back and the only reason he stayed at first was so he could help Papa. But Papa always swore that the reason Capa didn’t go back was because he wanted to be there to get the story and pictures of Papa getting it from the machine gun.”

In any case, Hemingway and Capa were back on speaking terms less than a week later as they took a short break from the war in the picturesque Norman seaside town of Mont St. Michel. Several other correspondents also gathered in the Hôtel de la Mère Poulard to drink, gorge, and relax. The New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling, a true gourmand, ordered dishes made from fresh local ingredients, utterly delicious after a long subsistence on rations and wartime London meals. Hemingway chose the best vintages, which had been hidden from the Germans behind a woodpile, and over two-hour lunches he laughed and joked with Capa and others, although he soon grew tired of the CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood and Charles Wertenbaker’s antics. The pair had found a joke shop in the town and used various gadgets to booby-trap Papa’s dinner plate; a left-handed corkscrew was particularly irritating.

After bidding Hemingway adieu, Capa and Wertenbaker teamed up yet again and returned to the front. On August 23, they learned that the first troops to enter Paris would be General Philippe Leclerc’s French 2nd Armored Division. There was just one problem: Leclerc had stated that he wanted only the French press with him and he had moved his division closer to Paris without informing any of the American correspondents, thus earning Hemingway’s pithy nom de guerre —”that jerk Leclerc.”

On the 24th, Capa and Wertenbaker caught up with Leclerc’s tanks in Étampes, near Paris. Wertenbaker later described how that afternoon “the clouds blew away and the sun shone through a pale blue sky. The tall lovely bending trees that lined the roads and fields stood dark against the sunset.” That night, they laid out their bedrolls beside Route National 20. “From beneath the Big Dipper came occasional flashes of light and then the sound of artillery in the distance. The French tanks were dark blurry shapes beneath the trees.” The blacked-out city of light was only a few miles away.

The next morning, the sun seemed to rise in a rush. Capa didn’t bother to brush his teeth. At nine o’clock, the driver of his and Wertenbaker’s jeep maneuvered just behind Leclerc’s armored car and drove fast toward the Porte d’Oléans. Minutes later, a dense crowd swarmed around them, waving flags and bouquets of flowers. Women climbed aboard their jeep and kissed them passionately. “Vive de Gaulle,” they cried. “Vive Leclerc!” Others shouted over and over again “merci, merci, merci!” Capa and Wertenbaker passed through the Porte d’Oléans at precisely 9:40 a.m. They had beaten Hemingway’s army to the gates of Paris by just a couple of hours.

After five years, Capa was back in the only city he would ever consider home. It was the most joyous day of his life. All the bottled-up emotions of the last few years soon flooded out. “Bob Capa and I rode into Paris with eyes that would not stay dry,” Wertenbaker recalled. “We were no more ashamed of it than were the people who wept as they embraced us.”

They left their jeep near the Boulevard des Invalides and walked toward the Quai d’Orsay, where Germans were still putting up a spirited resistance. A bearded priest in a steel helmet ran past, rushing to reach a fatally wounded French marine and give him last sacrament. At one street corner, Capa came across a crowd gathered around a German officer kneeling in the street, praying for his life. Several Resistance workers wanted to shoot him then and there, but three French marines arrived and took him prisoner.

Meanwhile, shortly after noon, a carbine-toting Hemingway and his irregulars finally arrived at the Arc de Triomphe. A French captain invited Papa and others to get a better view of the liberation from the monument’s roof, which provided an unforgettable vista. “One saw the golden dome of the Invalides,” recalled one of Papa’s group, “the green roof of the Madeleine, Sacre-Coeur…. Tanks were firing in various streets. Part of the Arc was under fire from snipers. A shell from a German 88 nicked one of its sides.”

Hemingway and his party took cover, knocked back several glasses of champagne, and then drove at high speed down an almost-deserted Champs-Élysées through joyous throngs in the Place de L’Opéra to the Hôtel Ritz. The hotel’s manager welcomed Papa and his merry band—a group of perhaps a dozen—at the entrance. When asked if they required anything other than lodging, Hemingway’s party promptly ordered 50 martini cocktails.

That afternoon, Ernie Pyle also arrived in central Paris, having talked his way through a roadblock, and then watched from the third floor of a hotel as jubilant French women jumped up onto tanks to embrace and kiss soldiers. By evening most of the Germans left in Paris had surrendered. As darkness fell and the sound of gunfire faded into the distance, the city of light was again lit up for the first time in four years, and the Tricolor and the Stars and Stripes were raised side by side over the Eiffel Tower. Parisians sang “La Marseillaise” from windows throughout the city.

“[It] was like a champagne dream,” remembered one war correspondent.

“Any GI who doesn’t get laid tonight is a sissy,” Pyle said.

The next afternoon, beneath azure-blue skies, Capa photographed General Charles de Gaulle as he walked in a victory procession from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame. The photos show him breaking into a rare smile during his greatest moment of glory. But the parade was cut short in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville: several maverick German snipers, perhaps ignorant of the surrender order, opened up on the crowd. Thousands of Parisians were soon huddled together on bloodstained pavements. A beautiful woman wearing sunglasses, utterly fearless, stood tall—too proud to cower any more. In nearby streets, Resistance fighters quickly located the snipers and returned fire with machine guns and automatic rifles. In one street, Capa found an elegant businessman in a double-breasted pinstripe suit, lying on his back, firing a carbine; behind him, bullet holes scarred the door of a restaurant.

A few hours later, the last of the snipers had been eliminated and Capa joined Wertenbaker at the Hôtel Scribe; its bar had quickly became the watering hole of the international press corps. Life artist Floyd Davis later captured the bar scene wonderfully. In his painting, Capa looks like a swarthy bandit as he surveys his colleagues: Wertenbaker, resembling a distinguished general, New Yorker writer Janet Flanner with her perpetual cigarette, eye-patched broadcaster William Shirer, a barrel-chested Hemingway, and a grim-looking John Steinbeck.

For Ernie Pyle, the “pent-up semi-delirium” of Paris marked the end of his war in Europe; he was at long last headed home. “My spirit is wobbly and my mind confused,” confessed America’s finest-ever war correspondent. “The hurt has finally become too great.” The hurt stretched on, endlessly it must have seemed to Pyle, Hemingway, and Capa—who had all hoped, like the Allied generals, that after the liberation of Paris the Third Reich would fall by Christmas. Instead, there were 12 more months of fighting, countless more of those whom Pyle had called “swell kids with heads blown off.” Capa followed the Allies through the Ardennes, to the German border, and across the Rhine. Hemingway reported during that fall of 1944 on the 22nd Infantry Regiment’s heroics and numbing losses in the hell of the Hürtgen Forest, evoking a brutal World War I battle when he called it “Passchendaele with tree bursts”—his words for senseless slaughter. Pyle returned to America, a household name, and then went “warhorsing off to the Pacific.”

It was, finally, almost over when the first of them fell. In Leipzig on April 18, 1945, Robert Capa was awakened with the news that his good friend Ernie Pyle had finally run out of luck. The previous day, around 10 a.m., Pyle had been shot through the temple, just below his helmet, by a Japanese machine gunner on the 10-square-mile Pacific island of Ie Shima off Okinawa.

Capa sat in silence, getting blind drunk. He had slept beside Pyle in Africa, shared his flask with him in times of terror and jubilation in Italy and on the killing fields of the Cherbourg peninsula. Like tens of millions of Americans, he had read Pyle’s columns to find tenderness and humor amid what John Steinbeck called “the crazy hysterical mess” of the Second World War.

While so very different in so many respects as craftsmen in the trade of journalism, Pyle and Capa had set the standard for both reporters and photographers to this day. After Pyle, biographer James Tobin wrote, “No war correspondent could pretend to have gotten the real story without having moved extensively among the front-line soldiers who actually fought.” The same had been true of Capa, if not more so: Pyle had not had to stick his head above a parapet every day to do his job.

As with Pyle, it was only so long before the odds caught up with his daredevil friend. This time it would be Ernest Hemingway’s turn to be poleaxed by the news. In 1954, while visiting Madrid, he learned that Capa had been killed after stepping on a land mine in Indochina. Hemingway, who would take his own life seven years later, could just as well have been referring to any of the 54 U.S. Army–accredited reporters who had died in World War II when he wrote of Capa: “It is bad luck for everybody that the percentages caught up with him…. He was so much alive that it is a hard, long day to think of him as dead.”

Alex Kershaw is the bestselling author of eight highly acclaimed books, seven of them about World War II. After graduating from University College, Oxford, he worked as a features writer for over a decade at the Guardian, the Sunday Times, and other UK publications before moving to the United States in 1994. His biography of Robert Capa has been translated into over a dozen languages.

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Ernie Pyle sits with men of the 191st Tank Battalion of the 5th Army, Anzio, 1944.

Ernie Pyle sits with men of the 191st Tank Battalion of the 5th Army, Anzio, 1944.

ON THE NORTH AFRICAN DESERT, March 23, 1943 – When our Sahara salvage expedition finally found the wrecked airplanes far out on the endless desert, the mechanics went to work taking off usable parts, and four others of us appointed ourselves the official ditchdiggers of the day.

We were all afraid of being strafed if the Germans came over and saw men working around the planes, and we wanted a nice ditch handy for diving into. The way to have a nice ditch is to dig one. We wasted no time.

Would that all slit trenches could be dug in soil like that. The sand was soft and moist; just the kind children like to play in. The four of us dug a winding ditch forty feet long and three feet deep in about an hour and a half.


The day got hot, and we took off our shirts. One sweating soldier said: “Five years ago you couldn’t a got me to dig a ditch for five dollars an hour. Now look at me.

“You can’t stop me digging ditches. I don’t even want pay for it; I just dig for love. And I sure do hope this digging today is all wasted effort; I never wanted to do useless work so bad in my life.

“Any time I get fifty feet from my home ditch you’ll find me digging a new ditch, and brother I ain’t joking. I love to dig ditches.”

Digging out here in the soft desert sand was paradise compared with the claylike digging back at our base. The ditch went forward like a prairie fire. We measured it with our eyes to see if it would hold everybody.

“Throw up some more right here,” one of the boys said, indicating a low spot in the bank on either side. “Do you think we’ve got it deep enough?”

“It don’t have to be so deep,” another one said. “A bullet won’t go through more than three inches of sand. Sand is the best thing there is for stopping bullets.”

A growth of sagebrush hung over the ditch on one side. “Let’s leave it right there,” one of the boys said. “It’s good for the imagination. Makes you think you’re covered up even when you ain’t.”

That’s the new outlook, the new type of conversation, among thousands of American boys today. It’s hard for you to realize, but there are certain moments when a plain old ditch can be dearer to you than any possession on earth. For all bombs, no matter where they may land eventually, do all their falling right straight at your head. Only those of you who know about that can ever know all about ditches.


While we were digging, one of the boys brought up for the thousandth time the question of that letter in Time magazine. What letter, you ask? Why, it’s a letter you probably don’t remember, but it has become famous around these parts.

It was in the November 23 [1942] issue, which eventually found its way over here. Somebody read it, spoke to a few friends, and pretty soon thousands of men were commenting on this letter in terms which the fire department won’t permit me to set to paper.

To get to the point, it was written by a soldier, and it said: “The greatest Christmas present that can be given to us this year is not smoking jackets, ties, pipes or games. If people will only take the money and buy war bonds . . . they will be helping themselves and helping us to be home next Christmas. Being home next Christmas is something which would be appreciated by all of us boys in service!”

The letter was all right with the soldiers over here until they got down to the address of the writer and discovered he was still in camp in the States. For a soldier back home to open his trap about anything concerning the war is like waving a red flag at the troops over here. They say they can do whatever talking is necessary.

“Them poor dogfaces back home,” said one of the ditch-diggers with fine soldier sarcasm, “they’ve really got it rugged. Nothing to eat but them old greasy pork chops and them three-inch steaks all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t have to eat eggs several times a week.”

“And they’re so lonely,” said another. “No entertainment except to rassle them old dames around the dance floor. The USO closes at ten o’clock and the nightclubs at three. It’s mighty tough on them. No wonder they want to get home.”

“And they probably don’t get no sleep,” said another, “sleeping on them old cots with springs and everything, and scalding themselves in hot baths all the time.”

“And nothing to drink but that nasty old ten-cent beer and that awful Canadian Club whiskey,” chimed in another philosopher with a shovel.

“And when they put a nickel in the box nothing comes out but Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw and such trash as that. My heart just bleeds for them poor guys.”

“And did you see where he was?” asked another. “At the Albuquerque Air Base. And he wants to be home by next Christmas. Hell, if I could just see the Albuquerque Air Base again I’d think I was in heaven.”

That’s the way it goes. The boys feel a soldier isn’t qualified to comment unless he’s on the wrong side of the ocean. They’re gay and full of their own wit when they get started that way, but just the same they mean it. It’s a new form of the age-old soldier pastime of grousing. It helps take your mind off things.

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Crew members try to escape from forward torpedo room.

Crew members try to escape from forward torpedo room.



“No,” Alex Kershaw laughs, “I’m always asked, but I’m not related to [Hitler biographer] Ian Kershaw.” Like his nonrelative, though, he has carved out his niche as a scholar of World War II. Born in England forty-two years ago, he worked as a journalist and emigrated to the United States in 1994. He wrote a few screenplays: “None of them were ever actually produced, but they taught me about blocking out scenes and pacing and such.”

His first book, Jack London, tackled the outsized life of that American writer. The next, Blood and Champagne, was a controversial biography of war photographer Robert Capa. Then came bestsellers powered by his human touch, dramatic flair, and meticulous research. The Bedford Boys chronicles one town’s home front war and the experiences of its sons on Omaha Beach. The Longest Winter tracks the war’s most decorated platoon through the Battle of the Bulge and a POW camp. The Few remembers the American flyboys who violated the Neutrality Act to join the RAF. Kershaw’s latest, Escape from the Deep, tells the suspense-driven story of the USS Tang, the high-killing navy submarine sunk by its own torpedo during a late 1944 “unrestricted warfare” run near Formosa.

Why retell this story now?

I’ve always loved submarines and submarine stories and movies, and I was looking for an adventure story, really. And that’s what became my book’s center: the escape. I saw it as a powerful story about human survival that took place during the war. I mean, there you are, in the forward torpedo room, 180 feet below the surface, and your only escape route is through a tiny room where you have to survive pressure equalization. That’s six or seven times surface pressure. So your head is exploding, you’re talking like you’re on helium, and blood can start gushing from your nostrils and ears. If you manage to stand that, then you have to very slowly and carefully find your way up a knotted line through the dark water, pausing at every knot to try to avoid the bends, or just getting lost and drowning. It’s no wonder, really, that only nine men out of about forty managed to pull it off. Many of them didn’t even want to try; some just pulled the blankets over their heads and waited for the inevitable, as the water and smoke and battery acid gradually leaked into their sealed compartment. So this is a story about human endurance. And it was historic: it was the first time Americans escaped from a submarine in a situation like this. You have to remember, submariners assumed that if they were sunk, they would die. That’s why many never bothered training to escape; it seemed pointless.

You almost gave up on this book early on.

When I first talked to Larry Savadkin, one of the three surviving crewmen from the Tang, he seemed noncommittal. I didn’t know then that he had early Alzheimer’s, so I decided to move on to another submarine story. I didn’t want to do a book without that sense of commitment, because you get really involved in the lives of the people whose stories you’re telling. I’m not interested in strategy and operational decisions. What I care about is how history affects people’s lives. Historians like David McCullough write about this incredibly well. The loftier stuff I leave to the academic military historians. I’m a journalist, so I think that while people who actually experienced the war are still alive, we should talk to them. What they remember is astounding, especially about moments that changed their lives—like the Tang’s sinking.

What drew you back to the Tang?

When I talked to [Floyd] Caverly and [William] Leibold, the only other survivors still alive, they were really enthusiastic about my doing a book. That more than canceled out the initial reaction I’d gotten from Savadkin, who was quite helpful afterward. I gradually got the sense that they felt ever so slightly like they’d been standing in [Tang captain Richard] O’Kane’s shadow all these years. They turned out to be amazing sources. Then it became a question of assembling the puzzle and deciding which pieces to emphasize.

There are amazing vignettes: Caverly and Leibold, adrift in the Pacific, countering hypothermia by floating in their own urine.
And keeping each other alive. They did that in many ways; each of them kept coming up with ideas. They remembered everything with such clarity, the way you do when it’s total disaster, you know? The escape, the camps, but especially their time in the water, all these years later—they remembered all these details. They recreated conversations verbatim. It helped bring the story to life.

A great story with a great twist: they’re sunk by their own torpedo.

It doesn’t get any better than that as far as reversals, right? And lurking in the background is the idea that maybe O’Kane did push too far with that last shot—he was a hunter, after all, a killer. Maybe not a Captain Ahab, the way a couple of the crew saw him, but definitely someone who is going to take enormous risks to achieve his goal, which is to sink the most enemy ships of any American sub. He is highly competitive, to say the least. So there is a nice historical irony in having his sub sunk by this torpedo that literally reverses course. He himself, in a way, was enormously lucky. Being up on the bridge when the torpedo hit, he was literally thrown clear of the boat into the sea. He didn’t have to face what his men below did. He wasn’t tested that way.

But for O’Kane, as for the rest, the Japanese camps await.

And they are brutal—the endless beatings, the lack of food and medical treatment. They were special prisoners, not POWs, which put them at even greater risk. But they also met humane Japanese here and there. I felt this was important to get across: there was so much racism on both sides during the Pacific war. This is the first book I’ve written about that theater, and it really struck me how much propaganda both sides were pumping out—Bushido and slanty-eyed Japs. It was different in Europe. Working-class Americans who liberated Dachau could likely have ancestors who emigrated from a nearby town. At Ofuna (a naval POW interrogation center), the Tang’s crew witnesses an American B-29 firebombing. The destruction shocks them.

Less than half of the Tang’s survivors had happy homecomings.

Remember that when a sub sank the way the Tang did, everyone, including the navy, assumed all hands were lost. Wives and families might talk about their loved one being alive, but it was more hope than real belief, I think. Savadkin’s wife had another guy’s child. When [crewman Clay] Decker comes back, his wife meets him with their four-year-old and tells him she’s married somebody else and collected [Decker’s] life insurance. Yet it was the thought of her that kept him, it’s what made him dare the escape. That was the main thing the men who made it out of the Tang shared: the compelling thought that they had to see their loved ones again. But that doesn’t mean it had to work out.

What attracts a British expatriate to these American tales?

I sometimes wonder if I watched too many war movies as a kid—too much hero worship, you know? But really, it was America’s finest moment, the peak of its achievement. World War II had less gray areas than any conflict since: Americans saved Europe, and the world, from having the light of hope and freedom extinguished. It sounds very neocon today, but there you are. That doesn’t make American soldiers the “greatest generation” in the cheap marketing sense that term has come to be used in. Most of them were working-class guys who were just doing a job. They wanted the war to end so they could go home. The amazing thing is how much they accomplished with that attitude, without any self-consciousness or halos. They changed the world, and created the world we still live in. That’s quite a historical achievement.

buy the book at amazon.com


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Children play amid weapons abandoned in ruins of Nazi Germany, spring 1945.

Children play amid weapons abandoned in ruins of Nazi Germany, spring 1945.


“Exceptional….The Liberator balances evocative prose with attention to detail and is a worthy addition to vibrant classics of small-unit history like Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers….From the desert of Arizona to the moral crypt of Dachau, Mr. Kershaw’s book bears witness to the hell that America’s innocents came through, and the humanity they struggled to keep in their hearts.” – Wall Street Journal

“A revealing portrait of a man who led by example and suffered a deep emotional wound with the loss of each soldier under his command….The Liberator is a worthwhile and fast-paced examination of a dedicated officer navigating — and somehow surviving — World War II.” – Washington Post

“Kershaw’s writing is seamless. He incorporates information from a vast array of sources, but it works – you get a sense of the different voices coming into the story….A gripping read.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A history of the American war experience in miniature, from the hard-charging enthusiasm of the initial landings to the clear-eyed horror of the liberation of the concentration camps….An uncynical, patriotic look at our finest hour.” – The Daily Beast

“Kershaw has ensured that individuals and entire battles that might have been lost to history, or overshadowed by more ‘important’ people and events, have their own place in the vast, protean tale of World War II….Where Kershaw succeeds, and where The Liberator is at its most riveting and satisfying, is in its delineation of Felix Sparks as a good man that other men would follow into Hell — and in its unblinking, matter-of-fact description, in battle after battle, of just how gruesome, terrifying and dehumanizing that Hell could be.” – Time.com

“Kershaw’s accounts of the battles Sparks survived are clear and grisly and gripping.” – World War II

“[Kershaw] is a captivating narrator, hammering home the chaos and carnage of war, sparing no sensory detail to paint a cohesive picture. [His] portrayal of his subject (based on interviews with Sparks, who died in 2007, and other survivors) makes for a riveting, almost epic tale of a larger-than-life, underappreciated figure.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This engrossing wartime narrative offers a fresh look at the European campaign and an intimate sense of the war’s toll on individual participants.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Inspiring….A gripping and superbly told account of men in war.” – Booklist

“Alex Kershaw’s gripping account of one man’s wartime experiences has both the intimacy of a diary and the epic reach of a military history. The Liberator reminds us of the complexity and moral ambiguity of the Second World War.” – Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire

“A searing, brilliantly told story of the heroism and horror of war, Alex Kershaw’s The Liberator is a book that’s impossible to put down. A must read for anyone who loved Band of Brothers.” – Lynne Olson, author of Citizens of London

“Alex Kershaw, long acclaimed for his terse, lightning-fast narratives of true wartime action and heroism, reaches his full maturity with this sweeping saga of a legendary infantry unit and the leader who spurred it to glory.” – Ron Powers, co-author of Flags of Our Fathers

“A literary tour de force. Kershaw brilliantly captures the pathos and untold perspective of WWII through the eyes of one of its most courageous, unsung officers – a great leader, who always put his men first. The Liberator is a compelling, cinematic story of the highest order.” – Patrick K. O’Donnell, combat historian and author of Dog Company

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Jeff Glor talks to Alex Kershaw about, “The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau”

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Alex Kershaw: I was researching a story about men who liberated the camps in WW11. I came across an extraordinary photograph which showed a young American officer, Felix Sparks, firing his pistol into the air on 29 April 1945. He is in a coal-yard at Dachau, which he has just liberated, and some of his men have opened fire on SS soldiers. He is firing his pistol and shouting to make them stop. The image captures an amazing moment of incredible humanity when one considers that Sparks had by then spent over 500 days in brutalizing combat, losing an entire company at Anzio and a battalion to the SS, since landing on the first day of the invasion of Europe. Most people would not have stopped the killing of such evil men, just minutes after discovering the full horrors of Hitler’s first concentration camp. I had to meet this man and in 2007 I interviewed him, literally on his death-bed. No other American fought for longer or suffered more to free more people from the greatest evil of modern times.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

AK: I was often astonished by the sheer violence and trauma endured by the so-called Greatest Generation. Over 150,000 mostly working-class Americans died to liberate Europe. Hundreds of thousands came home and never talked about it. Why would you want to recount what felt like being in a terrible car crash each day? I interviewed many men who served with and under Sparks and because they opened up to me I was struck over and over by how great their suffering had been. None came home unbroken. They all paid a huge price if they were in combat.

JG: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

AK: I’d be a retired banker, sipping cocktails in St. Lucia, lazily scanning the Wall Street Journal to see how my investments, taxed at almost nothing, are doing. Sadly, l decided to try to do something a little more interesting….

JG: What else are you reading right now?

AK: I am utterly absorbed in the Civil War and Revolutionary War America – my son is studying these periods at middle school. It’s hugely colorful history. Even as an expat “limey” who has lived here for 20 years I’m astonished by how radical the idea was that all men should be equal before the law, not subjects of a king. As concerns the Civil War, Michael Shara’s The Killer Angels is amazing. The Civil War has not ended of course – just look at the red and blue states.

JG: What’s next for you?

AK: An American family in Paris in WWII under the Nazi occupation. I’m a European in my heart and soul, and I want to write about extraordinarily brave Americans who find themselves in the most civilized place on earth during the darkest time in recent history.

For more on the “The Liberator” visit the Random House website.

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Alex Kershaw

Alex Kershaw

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