Friday, January 29, 2010


In the spring of 1945, during the closing days of World War II, at a place known locally as Ettersberg Hill in eastern Germany, advance elements of the U.S. 8th Army broke through the gates and barbed wire of a prison facility called Buchenwald. What the battle-hardened American soldiers found there would not only live forever in their memories, but would make of the name itself an epithet on the lips of generations to follow. In its eight-year history as a prisoner “work camp”, the crematorium and surrounding forests of Buchenwald had witnessed the disposal of the bodies of at least 56,000 of the quarter million slave-laborers who had toiled there. The American liberators were met by 28,000 emaciated survivors.
As terrible as were the grizzly statistics carefully recorded in the German captors’ daily logs, they paled in comparison with the lists just as meticulously maintained by other “camps”- especially those master-minded by Heinrich Himmler and created as part of the infamous “Operation Reinhard”. Such facilities as those at Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzac in Poland were different. At these places there were no labor projects; no detention barracks; no temporary holding pens. They were “extermination camps”, pure and simple. The one held up as a “model” of perfection by Himmler and his SS leaders – an example of the kind of efficiency to be emulated – was Treblinka.
Situated in a remote and heavily-forested area in the northeast corner of Poland, where Bison still roam and forests are primal, it is easy for a visitor today to understand how the secrets of Treblinka could have remained hidden for so long. While names like Dachau and Buchenwald quickly became world-infamous, very little was said about Treblinka well into the 1970s and 1980s. For one thing, it lay in an area occupied by the Soviets whose own anti-Semitic activities were not so foreign to what the Germans had done. Secondly, by 1943 the Nazis had managed to cover up much of the evidence – even exhuming and cremating what bodies had not previously gone to the ovens. And thirdly, very few of those taken there in the first place ever saw the light of day. There was, though, a prison uprising in 1943, with a handful of prisoners escaping to survive with local partisans.
The Reinhard Plan had as its goal the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. The daily trains which came down the single track leading to the make-believe station at Treblinka pulled box cars filled with Jews gathered from at least twelve countries. Within two hours of arrival, death by asphyxiation, cremation over a system of grates, and burial of the ashes would be completed, and all would be in readiness for the next arrival. The camp’s infrastructure could handle 2000 per day.
Treblinka operated as a death camp for only one year, in which time 800,000 Jews were “processed”.
Of all the stone memorials which share the silence of Treblinka today, the most telling is a large circle of 1700 carefully-placed native stones, each commemorating one of the villages whose innocent residents ended up here. Gone with them are the untold stories of the 800,000 individuals who made that sad, sad one-way journey. There is, however, one stone honoring an individual. It carries the name of Januse Korczak, the pen name of a radio host and writer of childrens’ books. Dr. Henryk Goldzmit also operated an orphanage in Warsaw. He declined an opportunity to leave the ghetto, but instead chose to march with his 192 orphans to the train station, and to die with them at Treblinka.
As we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, on January 27th, we are left still with the haunting question: How could an inhumanity of such gigantic proportions take place amidst the cultural and educational landscape of one of the world’s most progressive countries in the middle of the twentieth century ?
We each have our own way of dealing with the act of mourning. For me, I regularly take from a desk drawer, and hold in my hands a hand-written list of sixteen names I have committed to memory and determined never to forget: Aushwitz – Buchenwald – Dachow – Bergen-Belsen – Sachsenhausen – Mathau – Birkenau – Chelmo – Ravensbruck – Mittelbau – Nordhausen – Sobibor – Theresienstadt-Matheusen – Treblinka.
And as I write these words today, I am able to weep for those who traveled THE SAD, SAD ROAD TO TREBLINKA.

Al Cooper can be heard on Cedar City’s KSUB talk radio each Monday at 4:00 PM. Al was recently awarded “Hall of Fame” status by the Utah Emergency Management Association.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In researching this story, I made contact with one of the last living crew members of the Boeing 314 era, and was able to obtain and view copies of the flight log from Clipper NC 18602 on its round-the-world flight. As a young boy, I watched the famous flying boats arrive at and depart New York’s Battery Bay.

Every once in a great while, the dreamers with drawing boards, the engineers with slide rules, and the captains of industry with an ever-dawning technology come together in a moment of creative destiny to produce by that rare coupling a true masterpiece. In the field of American aviation, classic aircraft such as the North American “Mustang” in WW II, the Douglas DC-3 “Gooney Bird” which transformed air transport, and the supergiant 747 which remains a worldwide heavy-mover today stand out. If there was one such moment in the Golden Age of Flying Boats, it came in the form of the Boeing 314 “Clipper” which first flew on June 7, 1938 only to meet with an early and quiet retirement in 1946. Only 12 were ever built, and its instant of fame was fleeting. Yet all these years after its demise – a casualty of war and the passing of an era accelerated by that war – the niche it carved out for itself in the annals of transoceanic flight remains unchallenged.
In many ways, the 314 was the Boeing 747 of its day, with a wingspan of 152 feet, and passengers, cargo and crew occupying different parts of its two-level ship-like hull. Its four Wright Twin-Cyclone engines turning extra-large propellers at 1600 horse power each were beautifully fared into a high wing originally designed for the experimental XB-15 bomber which never made it into production. Its unusual fuel capacity gave it a range of nearly 4,000 miles at 180 mph. It could carry 70 passengers and a crew of 11 in daytime configuration and could sleep 45 in berths at night. Passengers ate in a formal dining room in three shifts, served by full-time stewards. Crew sleeping quarters made it possible for two sets of pilots, navigators, engineers and radio officers to work in shifts on long flights, and from the spacious flight deck, hatches on opposite sides afforded in-flight access along walkways in the thick wings to the engines themselves.
Both in the air and on the water, the Boeing design was distinctive. Gone were the usual wingtip balancing floats and all signs of reinforcing struts and guy wires. Instead, short sea wings –or sponsons - sprouted from the hull, acting both as a steadying device when taxiing or maneuvering on water, and a natural gangway for boarding and disembarking passengers. Another hallmark was the triple rudders which aided steering and stability.
The Boeing Clippers not only resembled seagoing ocean liners, but Pan American World Airways
maintained a management and operational culture just as formal as a steamship line, with captains due the
same level of respect, authority and courtesies. When on duty, crew members wore the complete uniform, including officers’ hat and tie, even during hours at the controls . Corporate rules and protocols were strictly adhered to, including the keeping of detailed flight logs, and fifteen-minute en route radio reports. B-314 flight crews endured rigorous training, cross-training and certification testing, with an emphasis on celestial navigation. In short, only the very best got to walk the flight deck of a PanAm Clipper.
On December 1, 1941, a PanAm Airways B-314 with tail number NC 18606 lifted from the waters of San Francisco bay and set a course westward on a scheduled flight to Honolulu, Hawaii. Captain Robert Ford and his crew knew they would be swapping for another plane – number NC18602, The Pacific Clipper - at Pearl Harbor before continuing on to New Zealand and then back home.
At about the same time, somewhere near the Kurile Islands in the far north Pacific, a carrier task force flying the flag of the Empire of Japan was turning south, also heading for Pearl Harbor. The approaching confluence of these two events was about to result in one of the most unusual, and long-secret dramas to emerge from World War II.
Recognizing that hostilities between the two nations could break out at any time, Pan Am’s management had delivered secret orders to its transpacific captains, a set of which was carried in a sealed envelope in Captain Bob Ford’s inner pocket. When Clipper No.18602 now in Auckland, New Zealand, found itself cut off from its normal route “home” by Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the crew looked on as Ford broke the seal. To no one’s surprise, their orders were to get the airplane back to the U.S. mainland with all possible dispatch. But NOT by flying east ! Rather than take a chance of flying right into a brand new war, they were to fly WEST. Secretly, and in total radio silence.
And so, the world’s first round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner involved a route which had to be made up as they went, without navigational aids beyond the sun, and the stars, and sometimes based on charts hand-drawn from a school geography book. With some of its legs involving 23 plus hours over water, their course took them across three oceans, five continents and twelve nations. In 31,000 miles of flight, they crossed and re-crossed the equator four times and made 22 landings, sometimes on waterways which were uncharted, and from which no aircraft of similar size and weight had ever taken off. With no more than $500. in spendable cash between them, they had to beg or purchase with questionable I.O.Us, fuel, food and temporary housing, perform engine overhauls, endure compromised engine performance because of low octane fuel at times, and escape cannon fire from an enemy submarine.
Thirty four days after its departure from New Zealand, Clipper No. 18602 landed at New York’s LaGuardia marine terminal, having written one of the most remarkable chapters in aviation history.
PanAm Captain Robert Ford passed away at his California ranch in 1994 at the age of 88.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010



In the years between the two great World Wars, aviation rapidly came of age, and as ever more powerful aircraft engines became available, the potential of commercial air travel became a driving force in all of the industrial nations. Crossing the Atlantic by the fastest seagoing passenger liners of the day was still a five-day affair, and the vastness of the Pacific defied easy solution for all but the most committed. As technologies brought together larger air frames and matching power plants, multi-engine aircraft made it more and more profitable to establish regular passenger service between major cities, and commercial carriers began to serve the traveling public as well as to transport mail and cargo.
The oceans still presented a barrier to that growth. To carry sufficient fuel to feed two, three or four hungry engines for a three or four thousand mile flight, and enough passengers to make it feasible in the first place meant larger airplanes. And industry had long since been capable of building those. The problem was that not many destinations possessed runways of sufficient length and engineering standards to accommodate them.
Seaplanes of one kind or another had been around since the very earliest days of aviation history; usually float planes on pontoons, or even amphibians which had the virtue of being able to land and take off on either land or water, and a handful of manufacturers had continued to pursue these duel-capability craft. The “flying boat”, however, was a creature unique in both design and operation. It was built around a fuselage which was basically a water-tight hull, much like that of a sea-going ship. Moreover, a true flying “boat” obviated the need for land-based runways and their associated operational costs.
By the dawning of the 1930s, Italy’s Savoia-Marchetti, and Germany’s Dornier were well along with designs no longer inhibited by the constraints of such considerations, and an American dreamer named Juan Trippe was already thinking about an airline operation without borders. Trippe envisioned a world-wide airline system which would offer regular scheduled service across the Atlantic, down the coast of Central and South America, and even to the far-flung Pacific frontier – all built around a fleet of yet-to-be-built flying boats offering a level of customer luxury rivaling sea-going ocean liners.
One of the first aircraft designers to be captivated by this idea was an immigrant from Russia named Igor Sikorsky, who had escaped the 1917 revolution, and who had been experimenting with seaplanes. It was Sikorsky’s S-40 which became the first true “flying boat” in the stable of famous aircraft which would make Juan Trippe’s Pan American World Airline company a commercial pace-setter for decades to come.
Story has it that it was on an early demonstration flight when Trippe was talking to his guest, Charles Lindbergh aboard the new S-40, that the plan for using the log books of old clipper ship captains from the age of sail in setting up a navigation system arose. From that moment on, PanAm would name each of its yet-to-be-born trans-oceanic flying boats “Clippers”.
Besides Sikorsky, the Martin Company and the infant Seattle-based Boeing Company would be asked to submit designs and bids. Martin won the bidding competition with their model 130 (which they underbid, to their eventual misfortune). Thus the first “clipper”, the famous China Clipper was a Martin 130, inaugurating mail service to Manila, Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam under the command of Captain Edwin C. Musick, in November, 1935. In October of 1936, the same “Clipper” would carry passengers in unprecedented luxury along the same route while the whole world watched. The first nine passengers each paid $1,438.20 in 1936 dollars for the round trip. That same year Humphrey Bogart and Pat O’Brian starred in a film named for the famous flying boat.

The original Sikorsky S-42 with its distinctive twin rudders, soon to be eclipsed by history and the coming of the mighty Boeing 314 flying boat, which stars in PART II of this story.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Our tabletop Christmas tree is long gone; packed away in the basement along with wreaths, ornaments and other seasonal decorations. A visitor to my writing place though might think I had forgotten to retire the colorful bits of frippery still adorning the top and edges of a nearby computer monitor. Actually, each “ornament” is a small square from a pad of “Post-It” notes, and each is imbued with a value which belies the few hand-written words printed neatly on its surface.
As I look back over the last year, I calculate that between the scripts for 50 radio programs, a similar number of newspaper and newsletter columns, and notes for two dozen classes and public lectures, I have written close to 80,000 words on a wide range of subjects. Because of the very eclectic nature of the subject matter I choose to pursue, the difference between the two venues in which I work, and the challenges implicit in the contrasting disciplines, I am always searching for new ideas and fresh fields of discovery. Many of the stories I have voiced on the radio or reduced to the written word as a columnist , and many of those I hope to explore in the days ahead, began on one of those “post-it” notes or on a 3X5 index card in a shirt pocket.
More than thirty years ago, I began to keep a “Happiness Calendar”, an informal journal – usually again, a collection of 3x5 pocket cards - of things worthy of remembering; things observed, overheard, discovered. Sometimes they would come in the form of a sentence or paragraph glimpsed in passing, or simply a word which triggered something more. The article I wrote about the “Forgotten Art of Listening” was born years before on a scrap of paper in my Happiness Calendar. So too was “History From Klootchy Creek”.
It is no exaggeration to say that researching, gathering, considering and finally converting to words, what is destined to become the theme of a radio program, a chapter in a book, or a column for NEIGHBORHOODS is an adventure. Looking back on just the past year, I can revisit the many “adventures” I have lived in my search for stories to tell.
One day while broadcasting, a caller came on the line to ask if I was the same guy who had written an article or two about planes and aviation in the SPECTRUM. Because of the few words shared by this humble man, I ended up visiting with, and getting to know Sam Wyrouck, who had flown an amazing 35 missions as a B-17 ball turret gunner with the 8th Air Force in WW II. From that chance phone call came the article called “Saying Thank You to The Greatest Generation”. More important, Sam has become for me a real hero and an admired friend.
Speaking of wartime history, I was researching for another project the strategic bombing policies of the Allied air forces in WW II – in particular the fire-bombing of enemy cities ¬– when, while considering the phenomenon known as a “fire storm”, I ran across a forgotten story of our own. There followed research into the personal accounts of Wisconsin victims of a naturally-spawned parallel event which became the article about the Peshtigo firestorm of 1871, printed on October 7, 2009.
My life-long love affair with the New England coast, and particularly the lighthouses of Maine, acquainted me long ago with the story of Abbie Burgess Grant who, as a young girl, became the heroine of the U.S. Lighthouse Service in the 1850s while living on a sea-washed islet known as Matinicus Rock. What earned Abbie a page in my “Happiness Calendar” was the sense of fulfillment I felt the day I finally found her burial site in a wooded forest sanctuary near Tenants Harbor, Maine. The article about Matinicus Rock found its way into print on October 21st.
There is a well-established article of faith known to all public speakers which points out that it is far more difficult to prepare and give a five-minute talk than a one-hour address. As a writer, I can also attest to a comparable dictum for authors. The columnist confronts the challenge of trying to say well and compellingly in a few words what might otherwise make a good short story. That and the matter of facing weekly deadlines, make this caper a unique balancing act. At this, the beginning of a new year, I can only say thank you to those who allow me to contribute this column and – especially – to those unnumbered readers for whom I write.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Daughter posting...

Pardon my interruption... This is Al's daughter posting today. I just wanted to say that my father has made my life richer by his example. As far back as I can remember, books and writing have been a very important part of my Dad's life. He took me to the library as a young girl, he read to me and my siblings. His example made reading important to me. It is always special when he shares stories that he has written with the family. His Christmas stories are among my favorites! So, I just wanted to pay a little tribute via a digital scrapbook page that I made on the subject.
You can click on it to make it bigger if the text is hard to read. Thank you for looking.