Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Wright Brothers

David McCullough is an American national treasure.  His latest book, The Wright Brothers (, is an instant classic.

McCullough tells the story of the Wright Brothers’ lives in the American Midwest with great clarity and grace.  Wilbur and Orville grew up with their sister Katherine in Dayton, Ohio.  Katherine is given a justifiably prominent place in this story.  Their father, Milton Wright, was a Bishop in the United Brethren church.  Bishop Wright described his sons as being “Independently” Republican.

Wilbur and Orville Wright were brothers who complimented each other.  Both shares a phenomenal work ethic that drove them on to extraordinary achievement.  Both demonstrated enormous physical courage in the early testing days at Kitty Hawk and Dayton.

At the dawn of the 20th century human flight was a dream shared by some hopeful inventors and a few cranks.  Many governments, including the USA, spent a fortune to make it a reality.  But it was this amazing labor by two American brothers who were bicycle mechanics that transformed a dream into the reality of controlled manned flight.

Wilbur and Orville succeed not merely in their invention of powered flight but also in the promotion of their invention.  The demonstrate their fragile contraptions in France before spectators such as King Edward VII and many more.  They become successful men of business.

McCullough points out that Wilbur lived long enough to see the destruction caused by military aviation in World War II.  Wilbur saw himself explicitly and accurately in Promethean terms.  He wrote…"We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth.  But we were wrong.  No, I don’t have any regrets about my part in the invention of the airplane, though no one could deplore more than I do the destruction it has caused.  I feel about the airplane much the same as I do about fire.  That is I regret all the terrible damage done by fire, but I think it is good for the human race that someone discovered how to start fires and that we have learned how to put fire to thousands of important uses.”

This is an important story told by a master storyteller.  This is an old fashioned book about men with old fashioned values who did more than any two people to create our modern world.

Black and white photography enhances the book.

My only quibble with McCullough’s book is that, at 320 pages, it is just too short!

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Rome brought Christianity and Rabbits to Britain

Stuart Laycock, me and Trajan
 Tower Hill, London
Merry Christmas 2015!

In the United Kingdom chapter of our new book, Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, we noted the profound impact that Rome had on Britain.  They may have come for the pearls but their legacy was Christianity, literacy, rabbits and much more...
Julius Caesar
Archaeological Museum, Arles, France
The Romans had long been aware of the presence of Britain, but they finally arrived in force in 55 BC. According to Suetonius, they came in search of pearls that were much prized by the women of Rome. Colchester became a significant town in Roman Britain, and remains a center of oyster production to this day. Julius Caesar, on the lookout for new victories after rampaging across Gaul, took Roman troops onto British soil for the first time. It wasn’t a great success for Caesar, as storms in the English Channel threw his plans into disarray. He withdrew to Gaul fairly rapidly.
He returned in 54 BC and made a rather more determined invasion of the island. This time, he managed to penetrate some distance inland and achieve a kind of victory over local British leader Cassivellaunus. However, in the end, once again, the Romans withdrew.
Emperor Claudius
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, IT
It was not until almost a century later, in AD 43, that the Romans, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, invaded Britain and managed to impose long-term occupation on most of what is now the United Kingdom.

The British tribes were not united in opposition to Rome. Roman forces advanced in the east and fairly soon took Colchester, and then expanded control across other parts of Britain. The future emperor Vespasian campaigned in the southwest; and soon Roman forces entered what is now Wales, where they encountered fierce fighting.

And all was not well for Rome in the east of the island. In AD 60 or 61, the mighty Iceni tribe under their queen Boudicca rose in revolt. The rebels enjoyed some success against Roman forces before eventually being crushed, with much attendant slaughter.

Emperor Hadrian
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, IT
Eventually, the Roman invaders focused on the drive north, which would take them into what is now Scotland. However, despite repeated pushes into the area, Rome would never firmly control much of what that territory. Agricola, for instance, thrust north before Hadrian built his seventy-three-mile wall to establish the long-term frontier. Hadrian’s Wall, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was mainly constructed by three Roman legions (about 15,000 men) with around two million tons of stone over at least six years. Hadrian’s Wall is a tangible reminder of the impact of Italian invasions on Britain; it may also have provided inspiration for George R. R. Martin’s dividing wall in A Game of Thrones.

Hadrian's Wall
Ran for 73 miles across Northern Britain

Under Antoninus Pius, the Antonine Wall was built farther north, temporarily sealing a large chunk of what is now Scotland within the empire, but then that was abandoned. In another example, Septimius Severus campaigned in the north, but again, his temporary conquests achieved little. Constantius and his son Constantine both campaigned in the north.

No Italian Invasion = No Watership Down
Christianity became widespread in Roman Britain especially after the conversion of Constantine, who was acclaimed emperor in York in 306. The Romans also introduced rabbits to Britain. No Roman invasion, therefore, would have meant no Watership Down.

However, as Roman power in Britain weakened in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD, peoples from north of Hadrian’s Wall and peoples from across the North Sea began raiding inside Roman-controlled Britain. Eventually, Roman power in Britain ended entirely as much of the army left for Gaul to pursue Constantine III’s ambitions there. Britons probably started fighting other Britons then, as Britain fragmented."  Source: Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, Kelly / Laycock, 2015.

For more on the collapse of Roman Britain that followed the fall of Rome see our earlier post Was King Arthur Italian? (

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 16, 2015, London Odeon

Last night my son and I had the distinct honor to attend the European premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in London.  Most of the cast were there along with George Lucas and the film's director J. J. Abrams.  Robert Iger, Disney's Chairman was there to kick things off.  Disney's stock price has ticked up as the positive reviews are rolling in.

Inspiration for Lucas
Here is the history of Star Wars in one paragraph.  The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung ripped off world mythology.  Joseph Campbell ripped off Jung.  George Lucas ripped off Campbell to make the original Star Wars.  And now Disney and J. J. Abrams are ripping off Lucas to make The Force Awakens.  In 2015 we have the Hero with a Thousand Merchandising Options.

Star Wars has a long association with World War II history.  Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) was a Royal Navy reservist who piloted landing craft ashore during the 1943 invasion of Sicily.  The late Christopher Lee (Count Dooku) served with distinction in the SOE that was charged with "setting Europe ablaze" by Churchill (For more on the SOE see  The Imperial stormtroopers have clear links to the Nazi SS troops.  The laser guns of the Millennium Falcon are clearly an homage to the gunners that served aboard Allied bombing aircraft of the Second World War such as B-17s and B-29s.  In The Force Awakens the First Order is garbed in the garish reds and black colors of the Third Reich.

Commander K and Bomber memorial, UK
Star Wars represents a clash of good versus evil.  The rebel alliance fights a war against a patently fascist empire.

But on closer examination there is an ambivalence at the heart of Star Wars.  Darth Vader is really Annikin Skywalker.  And Carl Jung, the Ursprung of Star Wars, admired the overt myth-making propensity of the Nazi regime.  Lucas, an American raised on serial adventures, sought to make an anti-fascist myth that would not be simply a cartoon characterization of the struggle of good versus evil.
Grass Valley Death Star Switcher
George Lucas made the first Star Wars movie for an astonishing $10 million.  The controls of the Death Star were a Grass Valley production switcher that was in use with TV stations during the 1970s.  This was economical and also, perhaps, an expression of Lucas' attitude toward the television industry.
Star Wars invades Tunisia
Lucas was also, in a sense, an American Invader.  In the Tunisia chapter of our work, America Invades, we noted, "Americans brought war of a different kind in 1976 to Tunisia again when George Lucas filmed parts of Episode IV: A New Hope in Tunisia. Star Wars would return to film parts of Episodes I and II in the Tunisian desert as well."

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
will be a fan favorite for those who loved the original three episodes of Star Wars (IV, V a VI).  Its characters, style sheet and much of the plot are lifted straight from the first Star Wars film.  In spite of a new Director and some younger ingenue cast members, this is not really a film that breaks much new ground.  Go see the new Star Wars to escape back to 1977.

I won't be ruining anything if I tell you that the best line in the film belongs to Luke Skywalker!  Mark Hamill even named his daughter Leia.

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Sunday, December 6, 2015

Have Italians Invaded Montana?

Italians in Montana?
Have Italians ever invaded Montana?  The question may strike some as absurd.  If by "invasion" one means occupation by forces from an Italian government then the answer is clearly "no".  If, however, one defines "invasion" as simply "Italian forces fighting in Montana" then the surprising answer is "yes".

For Italians really did fight in the area now known as Montana in the 19th century.  In our new book Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World we explored the topic...
Where Custer fell
Little Bighorn, MT
"After the US Civil War, Italians and Italian Americans would fight in the Indian wars on the western frontier. No less than six Italians were members of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the time of the Battle of Little Bighorn. They were First Lieutenant Charles DeRudio (b. Belluno), Private Augustus DeVoto (b. Genoa), Private James John (b. Rome), Private Frank Lombard (b. Naples), and Trumpeter John Martin (b. Sola Consalino). Somewhat surprisingly, none of these men were killed with Custer at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

Giovanni Martini
The trumpeter, John Martin—or Giovanni Martini—played a vital role in the dramatic events of that fateful day as he carried Custer’s final message to Captain Benteen. The famous message, found in the West Point Museum today (and reproduced in our photo section), reads: “Benteen, Come on. Big Village, Be quick. Bring packs. W.W. Cooke. P.S. Bring packs.” Some historians have interpreted this as a call for ammunition, while others see it as a last desperate plea for immediate reinforcement. Martin, a fortunate musician who had served as a drummer boy in the Italian Army, died in 1922 in Brooklyn."
Custer's Last letter
West Point Museum, NY
Poor Martini, in fact, died after having been struck by a beer truck!

Fort Missoula Display
Missoula Airport, MT
Many years later Italians would again become involved with Montana.  Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 Mussolini declared war on the USA.  As a result of this action an Italian cruise ship, the SS Conte Biancamano, was seized in Panama.  The ship was converted into an Allied troop transport and renamed the USS Hermitage.  The largely Italian crewmen and male passengers were made prisoners of war and interned at Fort Missoula in Montana (  About 1,200 of them remained there until 1944.  Many of these POWs grew to love Montana, referring to Big Sky country as "Bella Vista," and many of them ended up staying in Montana.  The vibrant Italian American community in Missoula today can trace many of its members back to the SS  Conte Biancamano. 
SS Conte Biancamono

Friday, December 4, 2015

Taranto: An Italian Connection to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

Battle of Taranto
November 11-12, 1940

Italy and Japan fought two World Wars together as allies in the 20th century.  During World War I Japanese ships were sent to the Mediterranean sea to support the Italians against the Austrian fleet.  During World War II an Italian-made ship was used to strike one of the final Axis blows of World War II when, in August of 1945, the Japanese-manned crew of the Torelli shot down an America B-25 bomber. At the end of the war, US forces captured the Torelli at Kobe in Japan, and subsequently sunk it off Kobe.
Luigi Torelli
Marconi Class submarine
But very few realize that there was a direct Italian connection to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  The seeds of the day of infamy were in fact sown in the Mediterranean with a crushing Italian naval defeat.

Here is how we explained it in our new work Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World...
Japanese Zero
Texas Flying Legends Museum, Houston, TX

"The Italian naval defeat at the Battle of Taranto on November 12, 1940, had a profound impact on Japan and the course of World War II. In the space of less than one hour, outdated British biplanes launched from the decks of aircraft carriers managed to put half of the Italian battle fleet out of combat for about six months. Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito was an assistant naval attaché based in Berlin at the time. After the battle, he flew to Taranto to inspect the damage inflicted on the Italian fleet. Naito later lectured Admiral Yamamoto’s staff on the battle, which played a major role in formulating the Japanese plans for the subsequent attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II on the Allied side." 

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor Attack

December 7, 1941
December 7, 2016, will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  This "Day of Infamy" provides a temporal dividing line between the American isolationism that preceded it and the American engagement with the rest of the world that followed.  This engagement, for better or worse, endures into the 21st century.  The lessons we draw from seventy five years ago can help us to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.
Edward Gibbon
The great English historian Edward Gibbon described history as being “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was surely a crime that galvanized and unified our nation.  It also set into motion a series of misfortunes that would culminate with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki just over 70 years ago.
Admiral Yamamoto
The Japanese attack was surely a great folly as well.  As Admiral Yamamoto presciently remarked, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  World War II was remarkable among American wars in many ways but not least because of the political unanimity that followed the Pearl Harbor attack.  All races, creeds and political viewpoints in America were united to remember and avenge Pearl Harbor.  President Franklin D Roosevelt led our nation in the construction of a vast “Arsenal of Democracy” that ground the Axis powers into dust.

Every year at this time, charges arise that FDR knew in advance of the coming attack on Pearl Harbor.  We live in an age of rampant conspiracy theorizing with fires stoked by Internet speculation, yet these charges lack credible evidence.  Yes, FDR knew in a general sense that the Japanese might launch an attack on American military positions throughout the wide Pacific, but he did not know that the naval base at Pearl Harbor would be targeted in the early morning hours of December 7.  FDR, having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I, loved the US Navy above all other military branches, and he would have done anything in his power to preserve it from destruction.
FDR statue, Grosvenor Square, London
FDR was not a perfect wartime leader.  He trusted Stalin too much.  He was overly suspicious of de Gaulle.  He was excessively partisan when he declined Herbert Hoover’s offer to assist with humanitarian relief during the war.  But he was an inspirational leader who did lead his nation to victory in World War II.  And he was certainly not a traitor.

These charges against FDR are based upon a gross underestimation of Japanese abilities.  The Japanese Navy really did achieve strategic surprise against the Americans.  They did so mainly because Admiral Nagumo ordered the fleet to maintain strict radio silence for its voyage from Japan to the Hawaiian Islands: “All transmissions of messages are strictly forbidden.”

Many Americans simply could not credit the Japanese with such military skill.  Even after the Pearl Harbor attack, some suggested that the Zeroes marked with the Rising Sun must have been piloted by Germans!

When the news of the Battle of Little Bighorn first spread in 1876, many Americans could not accept that Custer’s 7th Cavalry had been wiped out in Montana by a force of Native Americans.

While history may be the record of mankind’s crimes and follies it also holds valuable lessons.  The lesson of December 7 is that one should never allow ethnic stereotypes to underestimate one’s opponent.  The only effective cure for racism is knowledge.

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