The Christmas Ship

It is a rainy Christmas Eve morning here in Brooklyn. Listening to the rain is quite relaxing. I just wrapped up and emailed off a small project that hopefully will see the light of day in the next few weeks. I don’t want to give too much away for the moment but I will say here that it is about the USS New York. Yesterday I came across these incredible images at the Library of Congress Prints and Images website and thought I would share them today. They were taken aboard the New York in the Brooklyn Navy Yard one hundred years ago, on Christmas Day 1916.

I am submitting them with little comment but will note that the funds for the gifts and toys were provided by the crew. On his own dime the ship photographer printed 1917 calendars with images of Captain Hughes and others, which he then sold for 30 cents apiece. The ship tailor raffled off a custom made suit, and so forth. For its endeavor, which it had begun the year before after returning from the blockade of Veracruz, the New York became known as the Christmas Ship. For Christmas 1916 they raised $1000–over $22,000 in today’s currency–and provided toys and Christmas dinner to 500 needy New York children. One year after these images were taken the United States was in the Great War and the dreadnought was attached to Britain’s Grand Fleet, keeping the Germans in check in the North Sea.

A few things: notice the Williamsburg Bridge in the background of some of the images; also note the stamps in some of the images, which I intentionally did not crop out. I could not tell if these were revenue stamps, and if so why they would be necessary. If anyone knows, I’d be interested to learn.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Josephus Daniels looks back on 1916

With the election over and the year winding down Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels issued his annual report in December 1916.

With the election over and the year winding down Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels issued his annual report in December 1916.

Woodrow Wilson had won re-election by the time his Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, submitted his annual report on the state of the Navy in December 1916. In his communiqué Daniels singled out the Brooklyn Navy Yard for distinction. It was a busy era at the facility on the East River across from Manhattan; everyone knew that ships would be increasingly important with the coming completion of the Panama Canal. Construction of the USS New York and Florida had begun even before the outbreak of the Great War, and the Arizona came soon after.

During the hot summer of 1916 Daniels pushed for a greater expansion of the Navy, advocating for 100+ new ships. This was good news to Daniels’s assistant, the rising politico, Preparedness advocate, and avid amateur naval historian Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR had personally attended the laying of the keel for the USS Arizona in March 1914, the same month Wilson entered the White House. Now, 2 1/2 years later, Secretary Daniels wrote that the Brooklyn Navy Yard had “demonstrated an increase of efficiency in new construction” and added that “the actual cost” of the Arizona in real dollars was much lower when compared with that of those even slightly older ships. The cost per ton of the Florida had been $286, of the New York $233, and of the Arizona $211.

(image/Library of Congress)

The memoir of a cultural emigrant

a turn of the twentieth century Cleveland steel mill

a turn of the twentieth century Cleveland steel mill

I have a friend here in New York City who during the 2008 presidential campaign took an extended leave from work and went Ohio to work in a local campaign office for one of the two candidates. He stayed with a relative and ventured to the campaign headquarters each day as a volunteer staffer, answering phones, sending emails, and greeting people who came in to the office to lodge any complaint, share any idea, or unburden themselves in any way about what they felt about the state of the nation. It was challenging work, but my friend is a bright, articulate person with a strong sense of emotional intelligence. He needed all of those powers because, though just one of a few volunteers in a campaign office in some rust belt community, to whoever walked through the front door at that moment he very much represented the Full Faith and Power of the National Government. This came back to me over the week as I was reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Published late this past June, Vance’s memoir caught a wave, or struck a nerve, when it hit bookstores just a few weeks before the first presidential primary. It has been a bestseller ever since. Vance is the progeny of Scots-Irish with long roots in Appalachian Kentucky, though he himself was raised in Middletown, Ohio. Vance explains that his family history is not unusual; the migration from Kentucky to Ohio began just after World War One, when hillbillies like his ancestors made the move to work in the steel mills and factories. It is almost a case study in the old song’s great question: “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” At least according to legend Breathitt County, Vance’s family homeland, was the only county in the United States to fill its WW1 draft quota entirely with volunteers. Vance’s family and neighbors did well for themselves in Ohio in the ensuing decades, even if some of the social problems–drinking, family violence, academic underachievement–from back home did not disappear entirely. The downward spiral came in the 1980s and after, with factory closings and the economic and social problems related to that. It’s the usual rust belt story.

Broken homes, Family drug abuse. Violence. All of these and other problems were things Vance had to overcome. Vance clearly loves his family, enough to tell their story in all its drama and complexity. He eventually graduated from high school, served in the Marines, did his undergraduate work at Ohio State, and earned his law degree from Yale. He explains that as he was transitioning to his new life he often felt, and sometimes still feels, like a “cultural emigrant.” The power in Vance’s story is in the showing of how complicated the whole thing is, and that personal and societal problems, at least as he experienced them, are a stubborn mix of nature and nurture. How to parse the two out is the difficult part. Vance has his own thoughts on these issues. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy captures our historical moment in a way that few books or articles have managed to do.

(image/New York Public Library)

75 years ago today: Pearl Harbor

I attended a Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary event on Monday. The Cadman Park Conservancy organized the event, which was held at Brooklyn Borough Hall. There were eighteen WW2 veterans in attendance, one of whom was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Having the event in Brooklyn was poignant, being that ships such as the Arizona were built just a few miles away at the Navy Yard. I wrote five years ago about the Pearl Harbor anniversary and so won’t do so again here. I do want to share a few images from the day. There is only one 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Camera crews were gathered.

Camera crews gathered.

ROTC teams from two high schools provided color guards.

ROTC teams from two high schools provided color guards.

An a cappella trio doing period songs also performed.

An a cappella trio doing period songs also performed.

Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger spoke about life in the borough as it was in 1941.

Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger spoke about life in the borough as it was in 1941.

The commemoration had several fine speakers besides Ron. Understandably the veterans themselves were the focus.

The commemoration had several fine speakers besides Ron. Appropriately, the veterans themselves were always the focus.

After the speeches, wreath laying, songs, and color presentations, film crews moved in to interview the men.

After the speeches, wreath laying, songs, and color presentations, film crews moved in to interview the men.

1939: another generation for the American Field Service

an excerpt from the New York Times article about American drivers leaving for Europe in 1939

an excerpt from the New York Times article about American drivers leaving for Europe in November 1939

Yesterday I was working on a small project that hopefully will come to pass in 2017. I don’t want to go too much into the details just yet; we’ll see how things go. I did come across something I thought worth sharing: this 26 November 1939 New York Times article about the next generation of American Field Service ambulance drivers heading off for Europe. This is the cohort that would serve in the Second World War. Oddly enough, their departure fell between Franksgiving on the 23rd and Thanksgiving on the 30th. The AFS story began in 1914 when idealistic young men, usually from America’s finest universities, left their campuses for the field hospitals of Flanders, Italy and elsewhere. We had a reconstructed WW1 AFS ambulance at Governors Island on Doughboy Day this past September which drew large crowds.

When war came to Europe again in September 1939, the AFS picked up where it left off after the Armistice and Treaty of Versailles twenty years earlier. It’s interesting to note the initial centers were Paris and New York City, as they were during the First World War. November 1939 was of course six months prior to the German occupation of Paris. I imagine that by summer 1940 the Parisian offices had relocated either to Vichy France or to another European city.

Franksgiving

Because Franksgiving itself lasted three years I figure I get today and 2018 to share this post I wrote last year on Black Friday. Enjoy your weekend, everyone.

I hope everyone got enough to eat yesterday and refrained from waking up at 4:00 this morning for Black Friday. In a sense we have Franklin Roosevelt to thank/blame for turning the day after Thanksgiving into the retail orgy it has become. Since 1863, when Lincoln asked Americans to pause and give thanks for what they had during the difficult days of the Civil War, the country always marked Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. Decades later, in the waning days of the Depression, leaders of the Retail Dry Goods Association convinced President Roosevelt that because Thanksgiving fell on November 30 the late date would dent their Christmas sales. And so in August of that year FDR announced that Thanksgiving would fall a week earlier, on the fourth Thursday of the month, November 23.

The cover of the menu for the Marines Thanksgiving dinner, Pearl Harbor 1939. It is unclear if the Marines marked the earlier or later date, though an educated guess would say the earlier being that the directive had come from their commander-in-chief, President Roosevelt. Note that it says Territory of Hawaii. The islands would not achieve statehood.

The cover of the menu for the Marines Thanksgiving dinner, Pearl Harbor 1939. It is unclear if the Marines marked the earlier or later date, though an educated guess would say the earlier being that the directive had come from their commander-in-chief, President Roosevelt. Just over two years later the Japanese would attack the base, launching the United States into World War II.

Thanksgiving at this time was not yet a legal holiday; state governors had the option of setting the date themselves, though by tradition they had usually rubber-stamped what presidents since Lincoln had done. That was not to be in 1939. Roughly half the state governors chose November 23, with the other half opting for the traditional. So the United State had two Thanksgiving that year, and again in 1940 and 1941 as well. Tellingly the most resistance came from New England, especially Massachusetts, where the holiday had originated in 1621. Bay Staters did not see the humor in messing with the traditional date. Roosevelt’s detractors called the president’s proclamation “Franksgiving.” The financial benefits of the earlier date were ambiguous, perhaps because of the confusion with the mulitple. The experiment came to an end three years later; facing so much backlash and resistance, FDR called off the dual celebrations. In a larger sense he–and the retailers–got their way however. Thanksgiving was permanently and legally moved to the fourth Thursday of the November, adding a few extra days to the holiday shopping season.

(image/USMC Archives from Quantico, USA, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The American Machiavelli

Annapolis, Maryland, 25 June 1937: Congressional and Cabinet leadership boards to meet FDR at the Jefferson Island Democratic Club, left to right: House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring; Secretary of State Cordell Hull; Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead; and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace

Annapolis, Maryland, 25 June 1937: Congressional and Cabinet leadership boards to meet FDR at the Jefferson Island Democratic Club; left to right: House Majority Leader Sam Rayburn, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, House Speaker William B. Bankhead, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace

Roosevelt knew how to use these men for his own purposes; he resembled Hawthorne’s picture of Andrew Jackson as one who who compelled every man who came within his reach to be his tool, and the more cunning the man, the sharper the tool.

–James McGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox: Vol. 1, 1882-1940

(image/Library of Congress)

 

Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire

POW burial detail at Camp O¹Donnell just after the Bataan Death March

POW burial detail at Camp O¹Donnell just after the Bataan Death March

I had a meeting in the city today, after which I went to a small movie theater in Greenwich Village to see the film Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire. It is a documentary about the Bataan Death March. What made it more immediate was that we interviewed one of the subjects this past summer at Governors Island. The film is a joint U.S./Chinese production and so focused in part on the often overlooked Sino experience during the Second World War. One can imagine that with China playing an ever larger role on the economic and political stage that this will be a more common thing. The interviews with the survivors are always riveting without lapsing into bathos, and the documentary even ends on something of an uplifting note.

The film’s major drawback was the unfortunate decision to re-enact scene from the Bataan march and the later POW experiences at the Mukden Prison Camp. I cannot express how distracting the re-creations are, or the extent to which they cheapen the film. The re-enctments may lessen the movie but they can’t take away from the events themselves; the Bataan/Mukden story is too powerful for that. With all that said, the filmmakers did the historical record a great service by interviewing these people before it was too late. If you have a chance, try to  see the film if you can. I’m sure it will be available via streaming in the near future.

(image/Associated Press via National Archives)

 

Assemblyman Ted Roosevelt

troosevelt-letterI know someone who is researching their local library out on Long Island who in the process came across this interesting Roosevelt document. It is a $20 pledge from Ted Roosevelt toward the creation of the Freeport Long Island Memorial Library. The library opened in 1924 and is one of the few libraries that served–and serves–as a Great War memorial. Note that the letterhead is addressed Albany, where Roosevelt was serving in the New York State Assembly when he signed this in August 1920. His signature is quite similar to his father’s. One can only speculate to what extend that might have been intentional.

It was a busy time for the thirty-three year old Great War veteran. Ted had returned from France in March 1919 and immediately helped get the nascent American Legion off the ground. That year he also began his political career, winning the assembly chair from Nassau County that fall. In 1920 he was running for re-election and spent much of the summer criss-crossing the county. Ted and wife Eleanor were not just thinking of his re-election. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle notes in its October 2, 1920 edition that Eleanor Butler Alexander-Roosevelt turned out in Freeport for the Nassau launch of the Warren G. Harding-Calvin Coolidge presidential campaign.

(image/Freeport Memorial Public Library)