Monday, August 31, 2015

Nazi Gold Train

Nazi Gold. Two words that conjure up hidden treasure, greed, the horrors of World War II, a Ludlum thriller, and which strike continued fascination, today, seventy years after the war. Old newsreel clips on Youtube show the Allies at war’s end in the Austrian salt mines recovering crates of gold wedding rings from Holocaust victims, gold bars, paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer, treasures looted and hidden by the Nazi’s from all over Europe. Recovered treasure looted from the Third Reich that Hitler envisioned to become the Thousand year Reich. Given the sheer quantity of art and valuables pillaged by the Reich, one historian claims, it may take a thousand years to recover.
The stuff of legends? Maybe, yet a recent rumored ‘discovery’ of a Nazi gold train, buried in a tunnel in Poland either under a castle or in the mountains, has sparked treasure hunters, the curious, World War II buffs and the attention of the world to the Polish region near the border of Poland and Germany.
News came to light several weeks ago after two men, only identified as one Polish and one German, registered a finder’s claim which legally would entitle them to ten percent of the findings from a hidden Nazi gold train which they claimed to have discovered. As reported in the Telegraph UK “Since the end of the Second World War rumours and legends of a Nazi gold train that disappeared without trace in the dying days of the conflict have swirled around the town of Walbrzych, in south-west Poland. Stories put the train in the hills around the town, but despite many attempts to track it down it was never found – until now, it seems.”
Naysayers comments abounded; how could this be hidden for so many years, the logistics were impossible, who would leave gold and how could a long train be ‘hidden’. They insisted this was yet another fable of lost treasure.  Turns out, well-known to the residents of that region, that the Nazi’s used slave labor to build warrens of tunnels threading the mountains and construct rail tracks to these tunnels.
Geographically the area is near the border and convenient to Berlin. Theories abounded that the tunnels were used as storage for looted art and treasure, or more sinister claims of dangerous chemicals manufacturing.
But almost every day since the claim was registered in the Walbrzych town hall, a new turn in this story comes to light. A treasure hunting group insisted they had ‘discovered the location of the gold train’ under a hill two years previously. That the group mapped the location, stored the information on their computer and it was stolen. Hence, their claim should be rightful as the first discoverers. No proof of this has surfaced and one wonders why the group can’t remember the location which they said was on a four-kilometer stretch of the Wroclaw-Walbrzych main train line near Walbrzych. 

Rival treasure hunters, stolen maps, tunnels, castles, hidden Nazi gold. All the components for a historical thriller, right?
  Following that the town hall spokesman came out with a statement to the effect that since a finder’s claim was filed, all necessary actions were being taken to investigate this location and the procedure was complicated involving the fire department, heavy land moving equipment, experts at defusing munitions, rights to the property and access. This would all take a long time and involve cooperation on many levels. In the meantime the spokesman asked for what amounted to a plea to dissuade the rush of treasure hunters combing the area. The spokesman asked them to back off since they had no idea how dangerous the remains, if any, and their contents could be. The press was asked to wait for further announcements when they had information.

Now disgruntled treasure hunters complained over what they saw as a press blackout, how this reeked of a cover-up or it was a plot for tourism to bring visitors to this quiet region. "There are discrepancies between maps of the area from the 1920s and the 1940s which suggests there are tunnels under the town which have never been found," a local is quoted as saying. "Up to 1947 the Soviets were here and we do not know what they found."
The Ksiaz castle was being prepared for Hitler's arrival right up to the end of World War Two with a study and en suite lavatory installed for the dictator.
A comprehensive bunker complex based on the blueprint of the dictator's Berlin wartime base was also under construction when the fortress was overrun by Soviet troops in 1945.
Local politician Lukasz Kazek claims that just one third of the vast tunnel network built by the Germans during the Second World War, dubbed the 'Riese' project - German for 'giant' - have been discovered.
This story fascinated me. Every day a new aspect has been unfolding. I wondered why no residents of this area between the four-kilometer stretch of the Wroclaw-Walbrzych main train line near Walbrzych had been interviewed. Surely, if these gold train rumors existed since the war wouldn’t anyone still alive remember? Or their descendants recall hearing stories? Or had interviews and accounts occurred on Polish radio and didn’t make it to the international papers. Again, it intrigued me, and that thought of what if, the what if spark that triggers a story. What if the locals knew about this train and had kept quiet over the years because they had helped themselves long ago to the contents?
The could almost parallel my next book involving Nazi gold and a train through France. I’d done research concerning the Reich’s trains carrying gold from Switzerland, through France to Spain and their destination of Portugal. Documentation shows the Nazi’s paid Salazar, the dictator of Portugal, in newly minted bars of looted gold for Tungsten, also know as Wolfram the metal mined in Portugal needed to armor plate tanks. Salazar had wised up early in the war, refused Reich marks and demanded gold in payment. 
A hurdle in this transportation operation, that had to be surmounted again and again, was that the French rail tracks, the standard European gage-tracks and the Spanish broad-gage didn’t match.
Don’t to this today. The French train would stop at the ‘end’ of the line at the foothills of the Pyrenees, the contents in this case Nazi gold bars to pay Salazar, in order to be transferred manually to the Spanish trains waiting on their tracks at Canfranc, a Belle Epoque era train station. 

No forklifts then. And gold is heavy. Think of a five kilo bar, that’s a little over 11 pounds. If each box carried five bars, that’s 55 pounds requiring not one strong man but two. Think of hundreds of boxes with gold bars needing to be transferred. The villagers of Canfranc were enlisted for the work. 

In the journalist Ramon J. Campo’s exhaustively researched book, Canfranc, Gold and the Nazis, new revelations about the station’s old secrets emerge. According to Campo, 86 tons of gold passed through Canfranc. He describes border officials who loaded up on gold bars, people who got glimpses of paintings and clocks. The people in Canfranc who Campo met and interviewed knew the stories. Hence in my story, the gold headed for Canfranc plays a role.
During the war Nazi’s systematically looted works of art and cultural property from public and private collections in Europe with close to 80,000 objects confiscated in Poland alone. We know from historical documentation that a German army presence existed there all during the war and they headquartered at Ksiaz castle on a hill, close to Walbrzych, where you can lodge today.
You can also visit the tunnel underneath the castle built by Nazi slave labor.
  The saga continued yesterday in a startling announcement by Piotr Zuchowski, head of conservation for the Polish Arts Ministry, who revealed at press conference that a 90 year old man on his deathbed confessed to being involved the operation to hide the train 70 years ago.
The minister said he is now “99 per cent” that the train has been found, after seeing photographs of an object taken with ground penetrating radar.
“This is unprecedented. The train is over 100 metres long, and is armoured. We do not what’s inside but its armour indicates it has a special cargo,” said Mr Zuchowski. “There is probably military equipment but also jewelery, works of art and archive documents which we knew existed, but never found.” 
The identity of the dying 90 year old man, and the two treasure hunters remain part of the mystery still surrounding the train. Historians have warned that the train could be booby-trapped and the possibility that it contains toxic chemicals.

What do you think? 
Cara - Tuesday

WWII: Seventy Years of Remembering


This coming Wednesday, the 2nd of September, will be the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender in Tsingtao.  My father Samuel Puglise was there.  He had fought on Guadalcanal, Saipan, Okinawa, and Guam, and then after VJ Day, his unit was sent to China.
The surrender ceremony.  Sam is in there somewhere.

The Japanese had invaded China in 1937.  With more advanced war materiel, they soon overwhelmed the Chinese, despite their home territory advantage.   By the time my father joined the fight to rout them from the islands of the Pacific, the Japanese were firmly entrenched in China.  After the 1945 surrender, there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers who needed to be repatriated.  Naturally, this was an operation that would take some time.  The Japanese troops were kept in holding areas while the available ships were used to transport them home.  American Marines were put on guard duty to keep them in custody until they left.

Japanese after the surrender.

But there was a big problem.  The Chinese had reasons (one of which I wrote about last week) to want revenge on the Japanese.  During the night, Sam told me, local people would crawl under the barbed wire and kill the Japanese.  And there were not enough Americans to properly patrol the perimeter and keep the inmates safe.  The solution enacted boggled Sam’s mind.  The American commanders rearmed the Japanese officers and had them walk guard duty  with the Americans.  “Think of it, Sweetie,” Sam said.  “A few weeks beforehand, we were trying to kill one another.  And then, there we were, armed and walking guard duty together.”

Card Sam sent to my mother at Christmas 1945

After the repatriation was complete, Sam and his fellow Marines were kept on for a while, guarding Cheng Kai-shek’s supply lines in his war against Mao Zedong.

Sam in China

Sam’s time in China was not without challenges.   His group—a contingent of the 6th Marines—was attached to the 1st Marine regiment.  On the one side, assumptions were made that the 6th would continue to supply them and on the other that the 1st would.  For a while, nothing arrived, not even rations.  At one point, they managed to trade with the Chinese for a cow, which they butchered and ate.   Sam made a chewing motion when he described this.  “It was old and TOUGH.  We named it ‘Confucius’ calf.”

Confucius' Calf

Sam on the extreme right, dining on tough meat.

He made friends with a Dutch missionary priest, who later escaped the religious cleansing after the Communist victory.  I wish I could remember his name.  He came and visited us in Paterson, on his way home to the Netherlands.  For years after the war, Sam corresponded with a doctor and his wife named Pfister.  I found their address on Pei Tai Road in the blue notebook shown in this collection of memorabilia:

Sam's memorabilia

Sam's souvenir photos of Chinese he served with.

Sam rescued a monk from a bombed out Buddhist temple.  As they left, the man reached down into the rubble and took up a roof ornament and gave it to Sam.  He kept it, and brought it home when on 1 April 1946, the 6th Marine Division was disbanded, and Sam was finally shipped Stateside.   By “slow boat from China,” he said, and then train from San Diego to NYC, and them by inter-city bus to Paterson, and then by city bus to home.

Coming home!

He told me much later that people at the Paterson City Hall bus stop looked askance at him and asked why he was still wearing his uniform more than six months after the war ended.  When he walked into the house, I was alone, sitting on the sofa where my mother told me to stay and not move until she got back from the store.  I had turned five the month before.  For more than a year I had been begging for a dog.  My mom told me I had to wait until my father got home.  She had written of this to Sam.  He opened his duffle bag and gave me a dog, one that used to occupy the roof of a temple in China.  Here it is:

My dog.

Sam brought home this Buddha carved from coal.

A few of the items Sam collected in China

During the first fifty years after coming home, Sam did not talk much about his war experiences. I remember only two rather benign stories.  Here they are as accurately as I can recall them:

My mother had sent my father a package that contained pairs of socks, a cake, and a box of raisins thrown in at the last minute.  The socks were something Sam had requested.  He and his buddies had found that in the soggy climate of the South Pacific, in unrelenting battle, they often did not take off their boots for a week at a time.  When they did, their socks were gone.  With endangered supply lines stretching back to San Diego, there were often no replacement socks to be had.

When I saw this last year in London, it resonated with me.  It was part of
an exhibition at the British Library about World War I

The cake was a mess of moldy crumbs.  But the raisins!  Drinking alcohol, except for wine at dinner, was not part of my father’s culture.  His best buddy, a guy of Scottish descent from Connecticut, however, saw a marvelous opportunity.  They were, at that time on a beach getting a few days of R&R.  Sam climbed a palm tree and came down with five coconuts.  They used their bayonets to cut off the tops, put a handful of raisins in each one, recovered them, and buried them in the warm sand.  Three days later they dug them up and drank the fermented coconut milk.  Sam laughed out loud when he recounted how after their “cocktail hour” he could not stand up, but had to crawl through the trees and underbrush to get back to his tent that night.

On Okinawa, after the last major battle, they were “mopping up.” Sam and two other Marines were patrolling a rocky part of the island pockmarked narrow caves, some of which went straight down into the ground.  Snipers were hiding in these as well as in caves on the sides of the mountains.  American patrols investigated the holes in the ground by shouting for anyone hiding in them to come out.  If no one did, they dropped in a grenade to make sure no sniper would pop up later and kill them.  Sam and two others from his platoon were on such a patrol after weeks of jungle fighting without any let up. "We did not look very spiffy," he said.  At one such hole, they stood poised and ready, with rifles pointed down and called for any one inside to come up. To their astonishment, a gray-haired gentleman in a perfectly clean linen Panama suit, complete with white shirt, tie, and vest emerged, followed by two equally pristine young women in silk dresses, wearing white gloves and fashionable little hats.  "I never felt so filthy and smelly in my life," Sam said, laughing.

Uncle Paul in his Seabees uniform

In true Sicilian fashion, even with the war raging, Sam managed to wangle transportation to visit family members who were also at the front.  His older brother, who was beyond combat age, joined the SeaBees (Construction Battalions).  When Sam was still on Okinawa after the conquest of the island, he found out that Paul was with a group building an airstrip on Saipan.  Sam talked his CO into letting him hitch a ride on a transport plane and spent a day with his brother.  He learned that my mother’s youngest brother Joe was on Peleliu.  Following that battle, Sam found a way to get there and spend some family time.  Sam could do that sort of thing.  He was a modest, but thoroughly engaging and charming man.  Whoever you were, his sincerity made him irresistible.

It was not until a few months before he died that Sam told the horror stories.  The only family members he talked to about the awful parts were me and David.  When you read them you will see why he did not want to talk about it.

During that mopping up operation on Okinawa, those same three who found the pristine people in the hole in the ground, on another day, emerged from the jungle toward a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Scores of Japanese had been driven to the edge, but no one knew they were there.  “Though there were only three of us, they must have thought we were leading a large force coming through the trees,” Sam said.  “As soon as they saw us, some of them threw themselves off the cliff onto the rocks below.”  Some killed themselves by falling on grenades.  Pairs of them pulled the pin on a grenade held between them, embraced, and went over the edge headfirst.

This last story made Sam weep with anger and sadness when he told it to us more than sixty years after it happened.  He and a member of his platoon were having a smoke under a tree.  There was no enemy action anywhere in the area, and no one else was around.  An elderly Japanese man, resident of Okinawa, came along the road walking with great difficulty with a cane, making very slow progress.  The Marine sitting there with Sam picked up his rifle, aimed it at the old man, and killed him.

At ninety-four, Sam looked at us through his tears.  “I spent my life trying to forget these things, Sweetie,” he said to me.  “But I never could.”

Annamaria - Monday    


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Making It Up As You Go Along: the latest new words

There have been some wonderful new additions to online dictionaries recently, although Grexit has never been one of my favourites. And now the spin doctors have coined ‘Brexit’ for a possible UK exit from the European Union.

The latest I’ve come across is in connection with the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. The inquiry has come under fire (pun intended) for its long-delayed conclusions. Indeed, the inquiry was announced in 2009 and is still ongoing, with further delays expected due to the legal requirement of ‘Maxwellisation’.

This word comes from the affair of publisher Robert Maxwell, who was criticized in a 1969 report by the Department of Trade and Industry, which announced he was “unfit to hold the stewardship of any public company”. Maxwell took the DTI to court, where the judge ruled the DTI had “virtually committed the business murder” of Maxwell. To avoid any recurrence of this ruling, prior notice of critical findings has to be given to those affected by them.

During the last Olympics in 2012 the commentators got way overexcited about Team GB’s prospects of winning shiny things or – as they put it “medalling” in various events. Even greater excitement has been caused because distance runner Mo Farah has just won double gold medals in the latest World Championships in Beijing.

Of the latest word manglings to be officially recognised, ‘hangry’ is almost self-explanatory. It’s a display of bad temper caused by lack of food. Or, alternatively, the excuse used by TV ‘Top Gear’ presenter Jeremy Clarkson as the reason for thumping his producer and getting sacked from the BBC. (Not that he should worry, Netflix are now paying him £10m a year to do the same job.)

I did have a chuckle at ‘manspreading’ as a new word. It’s the habit blokes seem to have – particularly while travelling on public transport – to sit with their legs as wide apart as possible. Just … put it away, will you? I know there are arguments that the narrower construction of the male pelvic girdle means they need to spread their legs for greater stability, but I’m not really buying it, guys.

One of the best words to make it into the online dictionaries is ‘Mx’ which is a totally gender-nonspecific prefix for people to use instead of Mr/Ms etc. It first appeared in the 1970s, but has been gaining popularity in more recent years. I applaud this one, and may start using it myself. (There are people who’ve wondered about me for years. Why not utterly confuse them?)

I’m sure we’ve all had phishing emails, but the latest development to this is ‘spear phishing’, which is spam that aimed to induce the recipient to reveal confidential – usually financial – information. It usually comes from an apparently trusted source rather than the total stranger from some small African country telling you he has access to the treasury which he needs to get out of the country and he’ll split it with you if you’ll just provide your bank account details …

And do you remember when the portmanteau word ‘spam’ was just a simple combination of ‘spare parts’ and ‘ham’?

Apparently also included in the latest update are such words as ‘brain fart’, which is a momentary lapse of … erm … y’know.

Also, ‘MacGyver’ from the mullet-ridden character in the TV show of the late 1980s, early 1990s, who fixed things in an improvised way. Hence, “We managed to MacGyver the Large Hadron Collider back together with chewing gum and duct tape.”

As I’ve done nothing but explore new words this week, I’ll dispense with the usual Word of the Week, but I’d love to hear your favourite – and least favourite – new words, or old words with annoying new meanings?