Archive for September, 2017


Eight years ago tonight, we sat down for dinner at our farewell banquet and asked them to turn on ABC News. It was Friday evening after a three day reunion at our high school that included a dinner dance with American soldier liberators and Holocaust survivors on a steamboat on Lake George. This is what we watched together with students and family members.

In the opening sequence, Frank Towers is walking his wife Mary into the high school, and he says, ‘Here we are! We have arrived!’

65 years before, Carrol Walsh and George Gross did exactly that- arrived on the scene with their two tanks to save 2500 Jews from probable death. The next day, Frank arrived to transport those saved by the Americans out of harm’s way.

They are gone now, but thankfully got to meet and reconnect with over 275 Holocaust survivors and their families. What they did will last forever.


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L-R- Sergeant Clarence B McGuire, Sergeant Maurice J Franzblau, Sergeant Fenton D Strohmeyer, Sergeant Guido Signoretti, Sergeant John Swarts. Source: John Swarts

I’d like to tell you a story about how this photo came into my possession.

I had never seen it before the end of this past August, just a week ago.  In fact, all of my life I thought that the man who sent it to me was dead, like everyone else in the picture. Even as I began my latest book, I had assumed everyone in my dad’s cousin’s B-17 was killed when their plane blew up 20,000 feet over Nazi Germany in the summer of 1944.

My dad’s cousin Clarence was a twenty year old waist gunner on the crew, clean cut, the one in the white T-shirt.  Many times I accompanied my dad on walks to the quiet cemetery a few blocks from our house. The memorial reads:




JULY 29, 1944



Clarence McGuire, rear, tallest, center; John Swarts, rear, far right.

So naturally, for years I thought that all of his crew had died in 1944 when their B-17 was hit on a mission to bomb a German oil refinery. I think that is what my dad told me; I dug their crew photo—the only photograph I had ever seen of Clarence, to be honest—out from his desk after Dad passed. So imagine my surprise a few weeks back when I found the exact same photo, labeled, on the internet, at the American Air Museum in Britain. Then I noticed that someone had sponsored the page, ‘in memoriam’, and it was the same name as one of the crew. A son, perhaps?

No. I tracked the tail gunner in Florida, and mailed him a letter to what I hoped was the right address, hoping that maybe he was still alive.  Well, he called me shortly thereafter.

‘‘This is John Swarts’, said the voice with the distinctive Southern twang. ‘Me and Clarence was pretty good friends.’ A pause. ‘You got it right, address and everything. I knew him well; I went with him to his home up there in New York. Me and him used to ride horse together; I got some pictures to send you. His mother used to write me letters afterwards.’ 

John hailed from Missouri, and later settled in St. Louis.

‘Things worked out right for me. Was married twice, got a boy and a girl. Spent 33 years on the railroad, and then had my own business. I’ll be 93 on February 3rd. But it was just me and the co-pilot who survived that day. I was burned in the eye and didn’t go on the last mission.’ 

The plane went down on July 29th, 1944. This last weekend in July of 2017, the 73rd anniversary was upon us as we spoke.

‘The name of the plane was Pugnacious Ball. Flak got the plane. Blew up before it hit the ground. But I think they recovered a body bag to send home to his mother.’ 

‘I watched for the planes coming back; you always do when they are out on a mission. You count them. We waited and waited. They didn’t come back.’

‘It was the worst day of my life. Still is.’

John also sent me newspaper clippings. ‘Vet Feels Guilty Because Buddies Died’, declares one. ‘I feel so guilty. They were buried in Germany the same day they were shot down.’

And he sent me the picture I had never seen before, labeled in his hand, five friends for life smiling for the moment, smiling for eternity, though the kid in the back looks more reserved, almost as if he is already carrying the burden that will haunt him in some ways forever.

My new book starts with the kid on the far left in the photograph (Clarence), and ends with the one in the back, on the far right (John), 73 yrs later. So I went back to the cemetery where I had visited with my father many times in my boyhood, and left a simple note, and my book.

John Swarts, Washington DC, Honor Flight recipient.

I found him, Clarence, or maybe John had rediscovered you, somehow, through me. But he did not forget you, and neither will anyone who reads John’s words:

‘I get a little emotional. I’m almost 93; I hope to see them all again in heaven.’

You can read more in The Things Our Fathers Saw- VOL II, Book One: War in the Air here.


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I wrote this post on my Facebook author page the other day; I met one of the principal characters in my new book.
My wife and I went to visit with one of the main characters in my latest book today, down in a retirement community in Saratoga. He’s 91, and probably one of the more highly educated, brilliant men I have come across in my travels.
“Did you know that my father served in the Navy, and then the Army? In World War I and World War II? He wasn’t around much; I was an only child and my mother raised me; she was a strong woman. She signed the papers for me, and said, ‘Don’t do anything stupid.’ All my life I wanted to fly-so I volunteered soon after Pearl Harbor.”
Richard was anything but stupid. He went to Brooklyn Law School after the war on the GI Bill, passing the bar exam in New York. Only after that did he go for his undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree! I asked him why.
“I just wanted to learn. I basically went into the army at seventeen and a half years old. I didn’t really have a major, I just took classes, all kinds of subjects I was interested in. I racked up 132 credits in college; they kicked me out because I had too much.” Later, he also became a highly regarded painter and collected art.
He asked me about my world travels; I mentioned I had been to Germany. He said, “Me, too. Actually about 20,000 feet over it, dropping bombs.”
Later I asked Richard about what he thought of the current state of affairs in our country. Having seen what he had seen, and gone through what he had experienced in World War II, he was not the type of man to suffer fools lightly; he gave me a blistering earful.
I pressed on. I thought it was important to ask him his thoughts about American neo-Nazis parading openly with torches and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, right here at home in America—after all our veterans had fought and died for in World War II. I suppose I expected him to register bewilderment, or perhaps profound disappointment. He didn’t bother with those sentiments.
“It’s simple. I hated the Army, but they trained me to kill Nazis. I was an excellent shot. If I had my .50 cal., those sons-of-bitches wouldn’t have gotten very far.”
Immediately after the post above, I got comments about the shortsightedness of the removal of Confederate monuments, of how I am not looking at the whole picture, perhaps relying too heavily on CNN and MSNBC for my news consumption.
I definitely have some opinions to add to this ‘great monument debate’, but the point I was trying to make was that this was not about monuments or politics.  ‘Jews will not replace us’. Hitler salutes? Torchlight parades? ‘Blood and soil’?
It does not simply boil down to Democrats and Republicans, monuments or no monuments. And if we want to start drawing battlelines, or can’t agree that terrorizing young Jewish children, elderly survivors, our friends and neighbors with what we are now witnessing here in America, HERE and NOW, then we have an issue.
Because there is no argument here, but it seems logic and reason no longer has a place. Is there any wonder Holocaust denial is on the rise? How does one combat this, when the questioning of the imposition of false narratives is like challenging an article of dogmatic religious faith?
I went to visit with a  family member who lives a couple hours away yesterday. We don’t talk much about politics, but the conversation came around to current events, and onto the HBO video that I had watched—twice—as the march in Charlottesville was winding down. This young reporter had embedded herself in with the neo-Nazi demonstrators. The main subject is chilling to watch, especially as he celebrates the loss of life at the hands of a fellow white supremacist. My kin remarked that slowly the realization dawned on her, up here in the northeast, that the guy living right down the street was that neo-Nazi ‘star’ down in Charlottesville. It’s not isolated, or far removed; it’s right in the backyard.
If you have not seen this video, you should take the time. It’s 22 riveting minutes, and it’s not about monuments. It’s about the ever-illusory veneer of civilization wearing away as incendiary demagogues have their way. I write books, history books, but sometimes I wonder if any of it matters. Because as Richard alluded in his no-nonsense fashion, we’ve seen this movie before.

“VICE News Tonight” correspondent Elle Reeve went behind the scenes with white nationalist leaders. From the neo-Nazi protests at Emancipation Park to Cantwell’s hideaway outside of Virginia, “VICE News Tonight” provides viewers with exclusive, up close and personal access inside the unrest.

This episode of VICE News Tonight aired August 14, 2017 on HBO.

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