Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sycamores, shadows and tall buildings

Sycamores and shadows, Feb. 20, 2016.
One great thing about not-quite-spring in Riverside Park is that with the trees still leafless you can see the buildings up above. In all seasons but winter their motley facades hide behind the trees. They are gifts from architects and designers of another age.

The trees themselves are monuments. Since we lived in New Hampshire for 36 years, my wife Monique and I are accustomed mainly to birches and maples. Pardon the malaprop, but sycamores have grown on us.

Here are some pictures we took this afternoon. Don't miss the one at the bottom!

Up the bank from the Hudson.

Tall trees in the park, tall buildings on Riverside Drive.

Sycamore bark

Riverside Church, where Martin Luther King spoke several times.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A walk through time and memory

Martin Luther King Jr. statue by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin.
As a man of a certain age and generation, I’m not alone in realizing how much like my father I have become. We were opposites – opponents – during the 1960s. He rooted for Liston, Ali became my hero. He liked crew cuts, I wanted long hair. He was indifferent to civil rights, I embraced the idea. An army officer during World War II, he told his pals for years that I was West Point material. When I said I’d defect before I’d go to Vietnam, he said, “Your country calls, you go.” My mother had to pry us apart.

We reconciled as he aged. He became my biggest fan, and I came to admire his bravery, honesty, reliability and calm. Now I’m almost 70 and he is nine years gone, but I know he lives in me.
Nevertheless, I was unprepared for his visit the other day.

Legend on monument reads: 'Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.'
It was Saturday in Washington, D.C., one week after the blizzard. My wife Monique and I had set out on a sightseeing tour, starting with a cab ride to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin.

The memorial was dedicated 4½ years ago. The Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin created the statue, and a San Francisco design firm planned the park around it. The effigy of King emerges from a huge block of Chinese granite much as the four presidents jut from the face of Mount Rushmore. Behind the statue the panels of a 450-foot wall bear quotations from King.

The wall is crescent-shaped, or arc-shaped, as a National Park guide pointed out to us, suggesting one of King’s most famous statements: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The words are familiar but inspiring, a reminder that King was an orator of renown – maybe the last one in a country once famous for oratory. The memorial’s emphasis on words suits the man it honors. It fits with America’s history as a country created and shaped by written and spoken words.

King stands on an axis between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. He stares sternly across the Tidal Basin at Jefferson, who wrote, “All men are created equal,” the test of King’s time and ours. To his back is Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and pronounced “a new birth of freedom.”

It was, of course, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that King delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he beseeched the throng on the mall.

Monique and I walked next to look for the place where King stood when he spoke. Inside the Lincoln Memorial a veteran ranger leaning on a cane told us there was a marker but could not remember just where. We did not find it but would have, of course, had it occurred to us to use our iPhones. We did see the landscape King had seen, now barren of humanity and covered with ice and snow.

It was on the last leg of the day’s journey that my father showed up.

I cannot go to the west end of the Mall without visiting some of my names on the Vietnam wall. It had been a few years since I was last there. We went to the books of names, protected by Plexiglas. In the early years, visitors lined up before them, but not last Saturday. It stands to reason that fewer visitors have ties to men on the wall. Monique helped me scribble my names and their locations.

I was drafted 50 years ago. Rather than take my chances of winding up in the infantry, I enlisted for four years with the hope of avoiding combat duty in Vietnam. It worked, but I lost friends and acquaintances in the war. Assigned in 1970 to a support company at Fort Gordon, I also roved Georgia and South Carolina on a funeral detail firing squad, burying Vietnam dead.

Twenty-five years later, as a journalist looking for a column for Memorial Day, I contacted the family of Robert Louis King, one of the men I had helped bury. He was an Army specialist killed in Pleiku on July 5, 1970. He had just turned 21. I did not know him, but after speaking with his family, I felt I did. I certainly remembered his funeral in Anderson, S.C.

Posing with Nick Ut after a discussion at the Newseum. He took the photo of a girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam. 
When I visited his name on Saturday, Vietnam was fresh in mind. Monique and I had just attended a discussion at the Newseum in which four journalists talked about covering the war. One of them was Nick Ut, who took the photo of the naked 9-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing after South Vietnamese planes napalmed her village. Before turning in his film, Ut took her and the other children in the picture to Saigon for medical treatment. Kim Phuc nearly died of her burns. She now lives in Canada, and Ut has stayed in touch with her.

I thought about this as Monique and I descended into the memorial to panel 9W and counted down to line 122 to find Robert L. King. Whenever I go to the wall, I think: The presidents and statesmen who escalated and perpetuated the war knew early that it was unwinnable. For nothing, they continued to sacrifice American men and even more – far more – Vietnamese citizens into a cauldron of death.

Snapshot of Robert King (right) posted on
website for Vietnam Veterans Memorial
And now, more than 20 years after I observed the 25th anniversary of Specialist King’s death in a newspaper column, here I stood, alive and relatively well, having enjoyed 45 years of life that was denied him.

I stooped and ran my fingers across his name. Straightening again, I turned to a volunteer who stood by to assist visitors. I started telling him I had fired the 21-gun salute at Robert King’s funeral. But I lost it – I lowered my head and sobbed and I could not stop. The man said nothing. He edged away, possibly to give me room. Monique put an arm around me, then gripped my hand.

Maybe the first coherent sentiment I uttered to her was: “I’m becoming my father.”

Dad ran a cemetery. One day he had an epiphany while staring into the fresh grave of a young man killed in Vietnam. He had already buried a few, all around my age. For some reason this one was one too many. He changed his mind about the war.

The older he got, the more Irish he became, by which I mean the more sentimental. He teared up often. He wore a First Cav baseball cap and went to Memorial Day services in the Florida heat even in his late 80s, when a friend had to go along to hold him up so that he could salute.

At the wall on Saturday I visited other names, too – boys I knew. Like my dad, nearly all their parents are ancient or dead now. The wall will always be a powerful symbol, but it is becoming a historical symbol – understood to honor 58,000 victims of folly but less likely to revive their faces in memory.

It is mainly contemporaries like me who can still see the cheerful, big-toothed Rusty Ford and the wiry, curly-headed Terry Newkirk or hear the weeping of Robert King’s family. While age can steal and distort memory, it can also enhance its power. I saw this in my dad, and now it’s my turn.

The King statue stands with his back to Lincoln and his front toward Jefferson.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A woman in uniform: Photos don't tell the whole story

Boston photographer Samuel Masury's photo of Frances Clayton

Let’s start with a short, intriguing newspaper story. Scott Preston Hardy shared it with me this week from his collection of scrapbooked Civil War clippings, mainly from Concord, N.H., papers. This clipping came from a page of stories dated July 1-2, 1864. Here it is:

“A FEMALE SOLDIER – A woman was found on the street last night at a late hour, with no means to procure lodgings. Officer Rand provided for her at the station house. She gave her name as Mrs. Frank Claton, 30 years of age, and said that her residence was in Minnesota. – From her statements it appears that in disguise she served 22 months in a Western regiment, and also received several wounds in battle. Her husband was a member of the same company to which she belonged, and was killed last summer. On the discovery of the sex of the distinguished soldier she was of course dismissed from service. She seems to be of a ‘roving disposition’ and left on the Boston train this morning.”

It is believed that a few hundred women fought in the Civil War. Because doing so required them to conceal their gender, the numbers cannot be verified and the stories are difficult to tell with confidence and proper documentation. 

Details in the Concord newspaper story make the identity of “Mrs. Frank Claton” clear. They also add a bit to the skimpy and shaky record of her life during the Civil War. You can read a lot about her on the web, but there are many discrepancies and scant sourcing.

Her maiden name was possibly Frances Louisa Clalin, although Clalin could be a variation of Clayton, as the name is spelled Clatin in at least one important instance. She was from the Midwest, most likely Ohio, and married a man named either John or Elmer Clayton. The Claytons might have had a farm in Minnesota. When the war began, the stories go, Frances posed as Jack Williams, a man, as she and her husband joined heavy artillery and/or cavalry units in Missouri.

Most of the web stories about Frances include colorful details. Many newspapers chronicled her war exploits based on interviews with her, but the details differed from story to story. It is hard to know whether her inconsistency or reporter error is to blame.

Another shot of Frances Clayton, also by Masury.
A short narrative of a consensus of these stories goes like this: Frances was wounded three times in battle during 22 months of service. After her husband’s death at Stones River (or Murfreesboro) in Tennessee on Dec. 31, 1862, she disclosed her gender and left the service.

I searched the web for the original stories from which these details were gleaned but found only one secondhand contemporary reference and a few fuller ones in annotated histories. I found no record of an Elmer or John Clayton or a John or Jack Williams from a Missouri cavalry or artillery unit that fought at Stones River. Other accounts had the couple fighting at Fort Donelson, but I couldn’t verify that either. Nor could I find proof of Mr. Clayton’s death or Mrs. Clayton’s wounds.

A book titled She Went to War: Women Soldiers in the Civil War includes this paragraph about Frances Clayton:

“According to many accounts, Frances Clayton (also recorded as Frances Clalin) enlisted in 1861 with her husband, John, in St. Paul, Minnesota. They fought together for the Union in eighteen battles, until she was wounded and John was killed at Stones River in December 1862. Elizabeth Leonard writes that ‘Clayton was hospitalized with a bullet in the hip, and an examination led to a discovery of her sex and her eventual discharge.’ In a pamphlet used by famous woman’s suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in her efforts to win women the vote, D.R. Livermore wrote this about Clayton: ‘She was wounded three times while fighting bravely for her country, and was once taken prisoner. Could not such a woman defend her vote?’ ”

Carrie Chapman Catt was born in 1859, and her suffrage activity began long after the Civil War. The quote from her pamphlet is from her 1897 monograph “Ballots and Bullets.” It adds a detail mentioned in no other account I found (and thus doubtful): Frances’s capture in battle. It also gives an alternative story of Clayton’s departure from the service. After her husband’s death in battle, Catt wrote, Clayton “concluded to retire from active service, and on informing her commander that she was a woman, received her honorable discharge.” It’s nice to think she was honorably discharged, but it seems unlikely to me.

Bonnie Tsui, the author of She Went to War, goes on to say that Civil Ceremony, a 1996 play, was based on Frances Clayton’s wartime exploits. A reviewer of the play wrote that despite the horrors of war Clayton looked back on her service as the best time of her life. That’s the stage character talking. Whether Clayton would have bought it no one knows.

A 2002 book, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, gives the most thorough and scholarly account of Clayton. Its authors, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, found several of the newspaper accounts based on interviews with her and did their best to piece them together despite their contradictions. They also put Clayton’s picture on the dust jacket of their book.  
Business card of  Clayton's photographer.
“Frances Clayton took up all the manly vices,” they wrote. “To better conceal her sex, she learned to drink, smoke, chew, and swear. She was especially fond of cigars. She even gambled, and a fellow soldier declared that he had played poker with her on a number of occasions.”

Citing an 1863 St. Paul Pioneer story headlined “An Amazon,” Blanton and Cook wrote that Clayton saw her husband die right in front of her at Stones River but did not hesitate to join a bayonet charge a few moments later. “Clayton stepped over his body and charged,” they wrote. (The authors do not question the notion of a cavalry regiment making a bayonet charge.)

After Clayton’s discharge in Louisville in 1863, the book asserts, she began a long journey to try to collect bounty money and back pay she believed she and her husband were owed. Reporters interviewed her along the way. The St. Paul Pioneer called her an “accomplished horse-man.” The Clarion in Princeton, Ind., described her as a “very tall masculine woman bronzed by exposure.”

Apparently she told one reporter she had lost her papers and money when a Confederate guerrilla band attacked her train. She told another she had been wounded at Fort Donelson, not Stones River. Blanton and Cook lost her trail when she supposedly headed for Washington. They lamented their inability to clear up which regiment or regiments the Claytons had fought in. “Each newspaper gave conflicting military information,” the authors wrote.

One web account, typical of this hole in the story, says that “Elmer” Clayton gave his wife a men’s suit and false facial hair before the two were mustered into Co. A of the 13th Missouri Cavalry. The 13th Missouri regiment that fought at Fort Donelson was infantry, not cavalry. The 13th Missouri Cavalry regiment did not muster until September 1864.

The third edition of A Chronological Record from the Creation to the Present Time, the Englishman Daniel O’Gorman’s curious 1860s compendium, lists the Missouri Democrat as the source of his version of the Clayton story. The Democrat has Clayton resigning after her husband’s death at Stones River and walking “93 miles, from Lexington to Louisville, bareheaded and barefooted, tracking her way in blood.”

Samuel Masury woodcut by Winslow Homer
Clayton’s story, with many variations, is popular with bloggers. Mainly that is because the most tangible evidence for it is photographic. Both the Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library have Cartes de Visite – the small photographs on cards of the Civil War era – of Clayton. She is in uniform in two, in civilian dress in a third. All the photos were taken by Samuel Masury, an early daguerreotypist in Salem, Mass., who had a photo salon on Washington Street in Boston during the war.

On the back of a photo owned by the Library of Congress this information is penciled:

Frances L. Clatin  4 mo
heavy artilery  Co. I
13 mos cavelry Co A
22 months

This is consistent with Clayton’s claim of having served 22 months, although four months in the artillery and 13 months in the cavalry obviously fall short of 22 months. If Clayton actually served that long, she and her husband must have enlisted in April 1861, right after Fort Sumter.

Backmark of the Library of Congress CDV.
A couple of things about the photographs strike me as odd. For one, they were taken in Boston. No account of Clayton I have read – except the Concord, N.H., story we began with – refers to a Boston connection. Several, like Blanton and Cook, say that when last heard of, she was headed for Washington, D.C.

More important, I think, is that the cavalry uniform Clayton is wearing in the photograph is brand new and without adornment. What could this mean? Had she just bought it? Is the photo from very early in the war? If so, what was the wife of a Minnesota farmer doing in Boston? Had she acquired it after leaving the service or borrowed it for the photo session? Was it a prop in Masury’s studio?

Which brings us back to the Concord newspaper story. Although it omits more than it reveals, it does paint its subject as sleeping on the streets and of a “roving disposition.” She lacked the money for lodging but either already had a train ticket to Boston or enough money to buy one. Or perhaps the city or a good Samaritan bought her a ticket   

The war story she tells, at least as remembered by the reporter or the cop who told it to him, contains some elements of the accounts of Clayton’s service sloshing around today. She is from Minnesota, served 22 months in a Western regiment (but one, not two), was wounded several times and was booted out when her gender was discovered. The story says her husband was killed “last summer” – the summer of 1863, which does not compute.

The tale of Frances L. Clalin Clayton a/k/a Private Jack Williams is the kind of story we want to believe. People striving for colorblind, gender-neutral treatment are heroes of the American experiment. But census, pension and war records and many more reliable corroborating sources are available. Someone with more time than I have should dig into these and see if more can’t be verified about Clayton. I don’t suggest this is easy, but history is not served by repeating secondary sources as though they were true, especially when the story they tell is muddled in its details.

Clayton in civilian attire, also by Masury.

Friday, December 4, 2015

A betrothal, a lover's anguish, a face

Here is a chapter from Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union, my book on New Hampshire’s Civil War history. In the book I strove to show the big picture through a bunch of little pictures. The book’s chapters are based on events of 50 days of the war as seen through the eyes of the participants.  

Frank Buzzell in his new uniform. He was a corporal by 1864.
Some of these events are personal, like this one, the story of a woman who has been hurt and perplexed by her lover. Her name was M. Annie Thompson. She was from Salisbury, N.H, her betrothed from the nearby town of Andover.

The reason I’m sharing the story here is that, through my friend David Morin, I have just found a picture of Frank Buzzell, the soldier in question. Many of the subjects of Our War are pictured in the book, but not Buzzell.

I don’t know what you’ll think, but when I saw him, I was not surprised that the man in M. Annie Thompson’s life looked like this.


One winter’s day in 1864, M. Annie Thompson went to Andover, Corporal Frank Buzzell’s hometown, to post the formal declaration of their intention to marry. A twenty-year-old teacher, Thompson lived with her parents in nearby Salisbury. The groom-to-be was off with his regiment and could not go with her. A twenty-six-year-old minister’s son, he had been a farmer before volunteering with the Fourth New Hampshire in 1861. But Frank Buzzell had a secret. He had just re-enlisted for three years without telling Thompson. His decision had the potential to keep the couple apart until early 1867.

When Buzzell broke the news by mail, Thompson found it a “kind letter,” but she had expected him home in months and the prospect of more years of danger for the man she loved brought her low. What hurt most was that he had acted on his own. She made this point between the lines of her response to him on the pleasant Sunday afternoon of February 21, the day after she received the news. She was so upset she could not go to church that day, and it took her six pages to pour out her emotions. “Oh Frank,” she wrote, “you do not know how my heart aches – how each beat is laden with deep deep sorrow.” She hated the idea that “another three years must wear away” before they could be together. And yet she saw her pain as a sign of the depth of her love for him. “I never felt the need of your sympathy and love as I do to-day – never knew before yesterday and to-day how much I love you,” she wrote. She sometimes dreamt of him the night before a letter arrived, as she had before his latest letter. He had talked about re-enlisting, but she had hoped he would come home to her instead. “God knows I would have you do what you think to be right and I would try to help you tho it cost a mighty struggle with my own feelings.” She took him at his word that his decision was best for both of them. “I will not murmur,” she wrote. And then she murmured: “Angels cheer your way – though you will never know how hard it has been for me to do so.”

She told him she would be with him wherever the war took him. “Whenever you are lonely, sad or weary, then remember that Annie though far, far from you still loves you and sympathizes with you in all your trials and hardships.” Her hurt made her long for him as never before. “I love you as ever and wish more than ever to see you and receive your loving embraces,” she wrote. She hoped he would get the commission he wanted, especially if being an officer made soldiering safer. She prayed for a furlough so they could be together, even if only briefly. She respected him for becoming a soldier. “I am glad that as things occurred to bring about this cruel war, you were one of those who possessed sufficient patriotism to enroll your name among the many that were bound to serve their country and strive to defend and protect its rights. . . . Yes, I love and pity the poor, suffering soldier.” She did not mean any soldier, of course. “Some day, I hope not far distant – may see us happy together – but alas only for a few short days. . . . How I would love to put my arms round your neck and say ‘good bye’ with a good kiss and receive one too. Just imagine me doing so, and believe me to be – yours as ever.”

Frank Buzzell knew a good thing when he saw it. He came home on furlough even sooner than Annie had asked him to. On March 20, less than a month after her letter, the couple rode to Fisherville, where the governor’s son, the Baptist minister Joseph H. Gilmore, performed their wedding ceremony.

Four months later, in the trenches at Petersburg, a rebel marksman shot Buzzell halfway between the right elbow and the wrist, shattering his ulna. A surgeon removed four inches of bone. Buzzell’s recovery was long and difficult. Gangrene nearly cost him his little finger, and in time both that finger and his ring finger became deformed. The other fingers stiffened and curled so that his right hand was useless. His arm atrophied.

In the unpredictable way of war, Buzzell’s re-enlistment did not lengthen his service. True, his treatment lasted until February of 1865, when he was discharged at Depot Hospital in Concord, but it would have been long in any case. For re-enlisting, he received a bonus, a promotion to sergeant, and the furlough during which M. Annie Thompson became Annie Buzzell.

Frank brought home her beseeching letter, and they kept it. Each added a note to the end. Frank wrote his while still a soldier: “God bless you Annie B. I have kissed your name for I wished to kiss you and could not.” In a corner of the same page, she wrote: “This is the last letter that M. Annie Thompson wrote to F.A.B. and signed her name.” She meant her maiden name, and to emphasize the point, she underlined “Thompson.” 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nuremburg: a regime on trial

One of the perks of being editor of the Concord Monitor through eight New Hampshire presidential primaries was the chance to feed my interest in American history. There was the history in the making before my eyes, but there was also history history -- encounters with people who had held power or been close to it.

Sen. Chris Dodd in 2007, during his run for president.
It took little prodding to persuade Ted Sorensen, who came to Concord on behalf of Gary Hart in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008, to tell Kennedy stories. Al Haig's presidential hopes were nil in 1988, but he had been Richard Nixon's chief of staff and Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. When he came to the paper for an interview, he gladly expounded on the last days of the Nixon White House and on the day Reagan was shot.

In 2007, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut made a forgettable run for the Democratic presidential nomination. I was working as a reporter that year, my 30th and last at the paper. When I learned that Dodd was about to bring out a book of his father's letters from Nuremberg, I began agitating for a manuscript copy or the galleys.

After they arrived, I wrote a story about them that ran in the July 15 Monitor. Tom Dodd had been a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. As the story recounts, his son had a personal as well as a political aim in bringing them out.

Chris Dodd camped out in Iowa in 2007 in an effort to win the caucuses and raise his chances in the New Hampshire primary. After finishing seventh in Iowa, he pulled out of the race.

Here is the story I wrote about his dad's Nuremburg letters.

Nuremburg: a model of postwar justice that the Bush administration ignored

A white sheet covered an object at the front of the courtroom in Nuremberg. On cue from the prosecutor, Thomas J. Dodd, a guard lifted the sheet and revealed a shrunken human head.
Thomas J. Dodd with shrunken head
The Nazis, Dodd told the shocked courtroom, had created this ornament. They had hanged a Polish man for fraternizing with a German woman, removed his skull and shrunk, stuffed and preserved his head.

It was December 1945. Adolf Hitler's regime had killed millions of innocents. The Nuremberg trials convened in the rubble of Hitler's defeat. Their purpose was to impose the order of civilized society on the chaos of war, to show that the Nazis had not just waged war but also committed crimes. Using a single stolen life, Dodd's dramatic gesture crystallized the issues before the court.

Dodd's son, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Often on the campaign trail he brings up his late father's service as the No. 2 American prosecutor at Nuremberg.

At Nuremberg, the younger Dodd says, the United States and its allies in World War II insisted on the rule of law. They wanted to show the world in a court of law what the Nazis had done and how they had done it. They wanted to make surviving Nazi leaders pay. In a still-raw world, they sought to elevate justice over revenge.

On the campaign trail, Chris Dodd cites Nuremberg as a shining example but also as an example the Bush administration has ignored in the struggle against terrorism.

Now Dodd is compiling his father's letters home from Nuremberg for publication. Thomas Dodd wrote more than 300 of them, and they give a detailed account of his encounters with Hermann Goering, Wilhelm Keitel and other high-ranking Nazis.

Dodd's letters also provide a window into the future – his and the country's. He disliked and distrusted the Russians, America's allies in World War II. “They are no different from the Nazis,” he wrote in March 1946. His highest hope was that the coming conflict with the Soviet Union would not be an actual war. In later life, as a two-term U.S. senator, Dodd became a leading cold warrior.

Two other important themes emerge in the letters. One is in Dodd's insightful observations from his work as a prosecutor. The other is the longing of a husband and father to return to his wife Grace and their children in Connecticut. It is to Grace that he addressed these letters, which he wrote with energy and style, often just after the events he had witnessed and participated in.

Dodd at the prosecution table at Nuremburg
Chris Dodd was an infant when his father left the States to take the job at Nuremberg. Later, as he writes in the prologue to Letters from Nuremberg: My Father's Narrative of a Quest for Justice, which will be published in September, he and his five siblings were forbidden to go up to the attic to look at the papers and relics his father had collected during his 14 months as a prosecutor of Nazis. Being children, they were too curious to obey such an admonition.

In the attic they found pictures of emaciated bodies piled high, comic books demonizing Jews and even a news photograph of their father holding up the shrunken head. As Chris Dodd puts it now, long before knowledge of the Holocaust permeated the public consciousness, he and his siblings knew a great deal about it.

Dodd encountered his father's letters much later, after his siblings found them in his sister's basement. He first read them in 1990, beginning on July 28, by coincidence the 45th anniversary of the first letter.

Nuremburg after bombing raid in January 1945
Dodd and his siblings only recently decided to make the letters public. Current events impelled them to do so, Dodd wrote in the prologue. Thomas Dodd accused the Nazis of “the apprehension of victims and their confinement without trial, often without charges, generally with no indication of the length of their detention.” Chris Dodd saw parallels at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the secret prisons authorized by the Bush administration.

“The rule of law that my father addressed at Nuremberg and the standards so eloquently expressed at the trial can seem lost in an array of abuses, some of them committed by our own country,” Dodd wrote.

Interrogating Nazis

In 1945, Thomas Dodd was a 38-year-old lawyer who, as a federal prosecutor in Minnesota, had been involved in the hunt for John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber. He went to Nuremberg to help a large U.S. legal contingent prepare the case against 21 Nazi leaders. Among them were Goering, Adolf Hitler's heir apparent; Keitel, the Third Reich's top military commander; Franz von Papen, Hitler's first vice chancellor; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson headed the American legal team. Dodd initially served as an interrogator, interviewing Keitel, von Papen and others before the trial began in November 1945. Unhappy with the “military caste system,” staff infighting and other aspects of the work, he intended to head home once the case was prepared. But he was appointed to the prosecution team for the trial and served as Jackson's executive trial counsel.

Even from his own letters, it is easy to see why Dodd rose amid the jealousies and squabbling of the lawyers. A hard worker, he was sharp and seasoned at cross-examination. Although Telford Taylor, a leading historian of Nuremberg, has questioned Dodd's pretrial interrogation work, he excelled at sizing up the defendants he interviewed.

During a Sept. 3, 1945, interview, Dodd caught von Papen, a former chancellor, lying about his role in Hitler's rise to power. “His face colored ever so slightly, but years of diplomatic deceit have given him excellent self control,” Dodd wrote to Grace.

Rudolf Hess, Hitler's private secretary, had fled Germany for England during the war. When he appeared for trial, Dodd pronounced him “completely balmy,” writing to Grace that Hess's loss of memory was genuine: “He has suffered a complete mental collapse.”

Dodd's relationship with Keitel, whom he interviewed many times, was complex.

He described Keitel as “a stupid opportunist with enough cunning to hold a job.” Keitel doomed himself in one interview, acknowledging that he had ordered German troops to carry out “the most brutal measures” against Russian women and children.

But Dodd developed a warm relationship with Keitel, once agreeing to a request to send a message to his wife. “Keitel gets under my skin,” he wrote. “I know he is terribly guilty. I know better than most men. Yet now I know him. He is so weak. . . . He is a human being.”

The courtroom at Nuremburg (Dodd is at front left) 

Gruesome discoveries

Once the trial began, one of Dodd's jobs was to establish that the Nazi regime had committed atrocities. He had plenty of evidence, but he chose not to rely solely on the Germans' detailed documentation of their own crimes.

The day he unveiled the shrunken head in court, he read from a document from Buchenwald in which all prisoners with tattoos were ordered to report to the dispensary. The Nazis gave lethal injections to the men with the best tattoos. Dodd illustrated what happened next by showing the court lampshades made from the tattooed skin.

Dodd's travels in Europe included trips on which he saw more evidence of Nazi cruelty. In Prague, he examined the guillotine and meat hooks used to kill enemies of the Third Reich and move their bodies about. “Thousands were beheaded in that terrible place which still smells of blood and death, some for the offense of ‘giving bread to a Russian prisoner of war,’ ” he wrote.

Nearby, he went to what was left of Lidice, a Czechoslovakian village that Hitler had ordered destroyed as retribution for the assassination of a Nazi official.

“The Nazis killed every male in town, sent every woman to a concentration camp, and scattered the children all over central Europe,” Dodd wrote Grace. “Then they actually obliterated the place – they built a special railroad into it to carry off every bit of rubble after they had burned and blasted everything and then they graded the whole area and planted grass and crops so there is no sign of any kind to show that there was any such place as Lidice. . . .

“The children are mostly all missing. . . .The women of Lidice are searching Europe for their little ones.”

When Dodd visited Czechoslovakia, it was not yet under the Soviet thumb, but its time would soon come.

In his letters, he was relentless in warning of the perfidy of the Russians. “The sight of them raises my blood pressure,” he wrote to Grace the day the Russian advance party arrived in Nuremberg. “You have no idea what goes on. They are beasts and worse. . . . They are looting Germany of everything.”

As the Soviets occupied German territory, he wrote, they first took all machinery and tools and then all furniture. “The third week all men between 16 and 40 are shipped to Russia – and all the time rape and violence are the order of the day.”

In March 1946, Dodd wrote home about “a certain tenseness” in the air over the prospect of another war. “Some think the Russians will attack us here and elsewhere in Europe suddenly and with great strength,” he wrote. His own view was a wary optimism: “I think we need not be at war. None of us can stand another one. The world will be a total wreck after another – every city will be a Nuremberg.”

‘Desolate ruin’

Dodd's time in Europe was not all business. He met heads of state and had an audience with the pope, who approved of his and Grace's large family. He spent time with actor Mickey Rooney and journalism luminaries Walter Lippmann and Henry Luce and broke bread with a young reporter named Walter Cronkite. He went to the film festival at Cannes.

He collected souvenirs – a Nazi flag, bayonets, SS helmets for his boys. He visited Hitler's Munich apartment, remarking to Grace that the Fuehrer had been there just the previous Christmas. “All of Hitler's furniture and furnishings are there intact,” he wrote.

Dodd was also a witness to the devastation of wartime bombing, Axis and Allied.

He arrived in England between VE day and VJ day. He wrote Grace that he had seen miles of “desolate ruin” in the East End, where the poor lived. “Many are still there in partly demolished areas. . . . They stared at the cab from eyes I could not meet.”

Nuremberg – “the dead city of Nuremberg,” he called it – was even harder on the eyes. Other than the court complex where the trial was held, nearly everything was destroyed or broken.
Dodd checked into the best hotel in town.

“The main part of the hotel is not habitable,” he wrote. “My room is quite comfortable. The walls are all ripped out – bullet holes in them – no glass in the windows. The ceiling is half gone. . . . It is awesome to walk along the corridors and walk on a plank over an opening three stories up, or to walk down a bit further and pass a whole section of the building that is one gaping hole – no walls, just space. There is no hot water, no heat, no nothing.”

Once the trial ended after more than a year later, Dodd traveled from Nuremberg in style. He was chauffeured across western Europe in the 16-cylinder Mercedes Benz convertible that had once belonged to Joachim Von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister. “It has everything but a bath,” Dodd wrote Grace.

By then, the verdicts and sentences had been rendered: death for 12 defendants, life in prison for three, lesser sentences for three and acquittal for three. Dodd had left Nuremberg by the time the sentences were carried out.

Goering cheated the hangman, taking poison in his cell the night the executions were scheduled. Martin Bormann, one of the condemned, had been tried in absentia.

Early on the morning of Oct. 16, 1946, Von Ribbentrop was the first man hanged. The others soon followed. They were photographed in plain wooden coffins with ropes around their necks. Goering's body was also photographed. Two trucks carried the 11 coffins to the crematories at Dachau. The ashes were dumped in the Isar River.

'A great landmark'

Doubt about the Nuremberg trials occasionally crept into Thomas Dodd's mind. Near the end of the proceedings, tired and homesick, he poured out his frustration to Grace.

“Sometimes I get so discouraged I wonder if any of this is worthwhile,” he wrote. “Was I a fool to take on this long and difficult task while others remain at home and criticize us because we try to make the waging of war not worth the risk? Is the world so cynical, so deeply cynical as it sometimes seems to be?”

In other letters – and even in this one – he answered his own questions. He stood up for the principles that had taken him away from his family and envisioned a bright future.

“I'm doing the right thing and I feel sure we will not regret it,” he wrote Grace. “Some day it will be a great landmark in the struggle of mankind for peace. I will never do anything as worthwhile.”

Postscript: A search of the web indicates that in my story I missed a controversial quotation from these letters. Although the comments should be viewed in the context of their time, they shed light on how even some liberal Americans thought about Jews. They were  written just over 70 years ago, on Sept, 25, 1945.

"You know how I have despisted anti-Semitism. You know how strongly I feel toward those who preach intolerance of any kind. With that knowledge -- you will understand when I tell you that this staff is about seventy-five percent Jewish. Now my point is that hte Jews should stay away from this trial -- for their own sake.

"For -- mark this well -- the charge 'a war for the Jews' is still being made and in the post-war years will be made again and again.

"The too large percentage of Jewish men and women here will be cited as proof of this charge. Sometimes it seems that the Jews will never learn about these things. They seem intent on bringing new difficulties down on their own heads. They are pushing and crowding and competing with each other and everyone else."

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A walk in the city: Trinity Church & the 9/11 neighborhood

The winglike World Trade Tower Transportation Hub and the Freedom Tower 
Our 28th floor apartment window faces south. In the distance we see a shimmering presence in the night, alight but often ghostly, the Freedom Tower. It stands on the site of the World Trade Center and bears the address of one of the original towers, now fallen, World Trade Center 1.

Eliza Hamilton's vault, Alexander's obelisk
Last Sunday we took the train downtown to visit the graveyard of Trinity Church, which is in the same neighborhood. I’ve been reading and occasionally blogging from the diaries of George Templeton Strong, who saw the Episcopal cathedral being built (its third incarnation) between 1839 and 1846. He recorded its rise in the diary.

Strong is apparently in a vault with someone else’s name on it, but where? We couldn’t find it. Nor could we find the grave of John Peter Zenger, champion of a free press in the 18th century, learning only through a deeper Google search that his grave is unmarked.

We did find the graves of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza. These have become a minor tourist attraction since the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a brilliant Broadway musical based on an innovative but relatively faithful historical interpretation. Fortunately Hamilton’s grave has not been overrun like Jim Morrison’s in Pere Lachaise in Paris, but flowers, stones and notes had been left there.

The cemetery is worth visiting even without the celebrity factor. It is well kept, and some of the stones have withstood the elements for centuries. The words on them hint at such human stories. 

The graves of Hannah Welsh and her 9-year-old daughter Elisabeth Rose
The oldest grave belongs to Richard Churcher, son of William, who died at 5 years old in 1681. Side-by-side stones mark the graves of Hannah Welsh, died at 40 years, 10 months, 12 days, on Oct. 15, 1795, and Elisabeth Rose Welsh, her 9-year-old daughter, gone 23 days later. How did James Welsh, the husband and father, cope with such a loss?

Steve Tobin's Sycamore sculpture
Beside the cathedral near the entrance to the south side of the cemetery stands a symbol of another kind. During the 9/11 attacks, the blast from the collapsing towers felled a sycamore tree in the yard of St. Paul’s Chapel, several blocks from Trinity. The tree helped protect the chapel from damage.

Steve Tobin, of Bucks County, Pa., created a bronze sculpture of the sycamore’s stump and roots. In 2005, while making it, he told The New York Times that he intended it not as a memorial but as a work of art “to show the power of the unseen.” People now walk between the roots and have their pictures taken before the sculpture.

It is in some ways a jarring experience to walk around the neighborhood of the church. This is the site of the great catastrophe of 9/11. It is still being transformed into a grand cityscape of memorial, resilience and resolve. It has also become a tourist attraction.

On this bright sunny Sunday, hawkers sold booklets to help visitors orient themselves to what used to be and to see how the damaged buildings in the neighborhood looked right after the attack Excited people in open-topped double-deck buses gazed and pointed upward.

This is the beginning of the inevitable transition from memory to history. Some people walking the streets were not even born when the towers fell, and many were young children. They are the first wave of visitors with no memory of 9/11. Many decades hence, every tourist will see the World Trade Center neighborhood as they now look upon a Civil War battlefield. It will be a place where terrible slaughter occurred, but the tragedy will be folded into history.

And yet after having spent the last two anniversaries of the attacks in the city, I found it disorienting to be in that neighborhood on a bright, pleasant fall Sunday. From close by, the Freedom Tower looks majestic. So does the great white birdlike World Trade Center Transportation Hub. The streets are alive. But the place also seemed removed from the way 9/11 touched – and still touches – so many people who live in and around the city.

New York City Hall
Freedom Tower rises above neighboring buildings.
From Robert Fulton grave, Trinity cemetery

Gravestones, Trinity cemetery

Alexander Hamilton's epitaph, Trinity Church Cemetery
The Woolworth Building, built in 1913, now a luxury condominium building.