Civil War Saw Train Chase Worthy of a Hollywood Movie

A half sheet movie poster for Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General sold for $16,730 at a March 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 12, 1862, “The General,” a small locomotive on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, pulled into Big Shanty, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. The crew and passengers went to have breakfast, but James J. Andrews hung back. He and 22 other Union volunteers had orders to steal a train and burn bridges while General Ormsby Mitchel attacked Huntsville, Ala.

While a dazed sentry looked on, they uncoupled the General and three boxcars and sped north, while the conductor and two others gave chase on foot. Then they borrowed a handcar until it was derailed by a break Andrews men had made in the track. After righting the car, the railroad men then discovered another engine (the Yonah) on a siding and resumed their chase.

Andrews had stopped the General several times to cut telegraph wires and in his haste had failed to disable the Yonah. To try and stay in sync with the railroads regular timetable, he sidetracked the General and let several other trains pass by. He waited a precious 65 minutes before getting the General back in flight, which allowed the railroad men time to close the gap.

Meanwhile, the pursuing Yonah encountered three southbound trains parked on a main line, abandoned their little engine, sprinted to another junction and commandeered the larger William L. Smith engine. However, another broken rail sidelined the Smith, so the men (on foot again) flagged down the Texas. Engineer Peter Bracken quickly backed his cars into the station and resumed the chase, although still in reverse!

Andrews and his speeding raiders cut loose two boxcars and dropped cross ties across the tracks, desperately trying to gain enough time to burn rain-soaked bridges. The Texas simply pushed both boxcars on to a nearby siding and resumed pursuit of the General… at speeds of 65 mph. Up ahead, the little General, unable to stop for wood or water, ran out of steam and came to a complete stop.

The relentless Confederate pursuit, bad weather and just plain bad luck prevented the raiders from doing any lasting damage. James Andrews and seven of his men were captured, tried and hanged. Eight others later escaped from an Atlanta jail. The remaining six raiders were exchanged for prisoners of war and became the first recipients of the U.S. Medal of Honor.

This event was made into a silent movie in 1927 – The General – starring Buster Keaton in “his favorite role.” Initially a box-office failure, film critic Roger Ebert put it in his personal top 10 films of all time and it is routinely listed among the top 100 movies by the AFI and many others.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

After Napoleon and Nazi Germany, Russia Lives with Paranoia of Conflict

A 1953 Russian propaganda poster showing Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin sold for $2,629 at a July 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, after ruling the Soviet Union for 25 years and leading the country in its transformation into a major world power. Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in 1878, while in his 30s he took the name “Stalin” meaning “Man of Steel.” After studying at a theological seminary, he read the works of revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, which inspired him to join the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

He was a protégé of Vladimir Lenin and after Lenin’s death, Stalin earned a reputation as one of the most ruthless and brutal dictators in world history (“Ideas are more powerful than guns,” he once said. “We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”).

After an extended Cold War with the West, the Soviet Union started to unravel when its eighth and final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed control in 1988. He seemed eager to “destroy the apparat” – weaken the Stalinist structure of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. Only then could he take the bold economic steps to revamp a bankrupt system that was crumbling fast.

The West hailed Gorbachev as the tsar liberator, a political magician, or as Time magazine editorialized in January 1990: “The Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped into one.” A year earlier, he was Time’s “Man of the Decade.” But in early 1990, Lithuania demanded outright independence and a crowd of 200,000 in the capital of Vilnius demonstrated to get the entire Lithuanian territory returned. This was quickly followed by an Azerbaijani Popular Front rally that escalated into a civil war along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, with both sides clamoring for independence.

In August 1991, Latvia and Estonia declared restoration of full independence, followed by the Ukraine on Dec. 1. On Dec. 25, Christmas Day, Gorbachev resigned and the following day the Supreme Soviet voted itself and the Soviet Union out of existence.

I first met current Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in 1992 when he was head of the Committee for External Relations, a group in the mayor’s office responsible for promoting international relations and foreign investment. We started shipping Lays potato chips from Warsaw and soon built a Frito-Lay plant near Moscow. I totally underestimated him and thought he was just another thug, a feeling that was reinforced when we started Pizza Hut in Moscow.

According to Henry Kissinger, Putin has always blamed Gorbachev for the dissolution of the Soviet Union due to his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). “The greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” It has always been a mystery to me why they gave up so much when the United States and others were willing to negotiate a softer landing. I haven’t read Putin’s autobiography, but I suspect the Russians will never be satisfied until there is an east-west buffer zone along the Ukrainian border.

After Napoleon and then Nazi Germany, there is an inherent paranoia that will only be exacerbated if Poland ever joins NATO. As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

No Other Peace-Time Economic Chaos Compares to the Great Depression

Just as the Great Depression began taking hold in 1929, movie-goers were being entertained by films such as That’s My Wife, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. This 1929 one sheet sold for $11,950 at a July 2011 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Every economist who writes or thinks about the Great Depression inevitably faces the questions of what really caused it and could it happen again? These issues are still (surprisingly) debated yet today.

For me, it is much easier to simply remember the scale of the economic meltdown that occurred in 1929-1933.

During a three-year period, real GDP in the major world economies declined by over 25 percent and one in four adult males lost his job. Commodities prices declined by 50 percent and average wages fell by a third. Here in America, the working class was entering a difficult period and no one had any solutions.

Bank credit in the U.S. shrank by 40 percent and in many countries, the entire banking system collapsed. Almost every major sovereign debtor in Central and Eastern Europe defaulted, including Germany, the third-largest economy in the world. The economic turmoil spread from the prairies of Canada to the teeming cities of Asia, from the heartland of America to the smallest village in India. No other peace-time economic chaos has come close to the breadth and depth of this cataclysm.

Part of the reason for the extent of the economic collapse was that it was not just one crisis, but a sequence of events, ricocheting across the Atlantic, each feeding off the previous. It started with the contraction of the German economy in 1928, then the Great Crash on Wall Street in 1929, the serial bank failures in 1930, and the unraveling of European finances in the summer of 1931.

Most modern economists do not believe it was an act of God or the result of basic flaws in capitalism. It was the cumulative effect of misjudgments by economic policymakers. It was, by any measure, the most dramatic sequence of collective blunders ever made by financial officials, at least to that time.

It probably started with the Paris Peace Conference (1919) that burdened a shaky world economy with a giant overhang of international debt from the First World War. Central bankers then decided to take the world back to a dysfunctional gold standard, holding interest rates low and keeping Germany afloat on borrowed money. By 1927, the Federal Reserve was torn between conflicting objectives of propping up Europe or controlling speculation on Wall Street. It tried to do both and achieved neither.

The stock market bubble created an international credit squeeze on the way up and cratered the U.S. economy on the way down. When the U.S. let the Bank of United States fail (1930), the panic moved into high gear with a wave of dreaded “runs on the bank” – a phenomenon that is a banker’s nightmare. It would take a long time to break the fever, restore confidence and then start the monumental task of rebuilding an international monetary system and reigniting economic growth.

In the end, it took another world war to provide the final ingredient for success. However, in the process, it created a bonanza for factoid geeks who relish unusual and interesting historical situations. (Who, moi?)

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Wilson Turned Conscription into Act of Public Patriotism

This World War I recruitment poster for the U.S. Army sold for $13,742.50 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

One hundred years ago this month – in June 1917 – 10 million men between the ages of 21 and 31 started lining up to register for military service in the United States armed forces. President Woodrow Wilson had decided in 1916 to make one last effort to end World War I and made an offer on Dec. 18 to mediate a peace, pending both sides specifying their acceptance terms.

The Central Powers had no interest since they were confident of victory. The Allies – who had no sincere interest in peace – stipulated that their enemies had to dismantle and disarm.

Wilson’s offer was allowed to lapse, which ensured two things: First, the war would continue, and secondly, the United States would be forced to abandon a policy of neutrality and issue a formal declaration of war on Germany. Congress enacted it on April 6, 1917.

Once committed to hostilities, America’s extraordinary capacity for industrial production and human organization took over. A conscription system was created and the Selective Service Act enacted on May 18, 1917, to build a national army through compulsory enlistment. Aware of the nation’s reluctance to get involved, Wilson cleverly created local civilian registration boards, which decided whether individuals entered active service or stayed on the civilian side to support the badly needed build-up efforts.

Over 24 million men registered in 1917-18 and those deemed most eligible – young, unmarried males without dependents – formed the first contingent of 2.8 million draftees. The public nature of this process transformed the dread of being drafted into a spirit of public patriotism. It was almost magically and remarkably different from the Vietnam situation 50 years later.

Only 10 percent to 11 percent of those eligible tried to evade the mandatory registration and local communities had designated people to track down the “slackers” who were required to carry proof of registration via a draft card. If anyone was nabbed without one, they were put in jail and publicly humiliated.

Families proudly put a Blue Star in their home windows whenever a family joined the military, and let their neighbors know they were “Enrolling in Liberty.” Gold Stars were displayed if a death occurred. Soon, registrants started wearing lapel pins or ribbons to advertise their status since there were five classes for draft deferments. So you could register publicly, but then privately apply for a deferment.

Naturally, there were problems since 20 percent of draftees were foreign-born citizens, but any suspicions were allayed when the bullets started flying. Another major issue was that the Army was strictly segregated and about 90 percent of black men were assigned to non-combatant roles. In a pleasant twist, those sent to France were given special treatment by the French people, who welcomed them into their homes. For those from the Jim Crow South, this became an exciting adventure.

Under current law, all male U.S. citizens between 18 and 25 are required to register with the Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday. I wonder how many are aware of this law? However, the last prosecution for non-registration was in January 1986, so I guess they are safe.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

How Can Catastrophe Fall From a Cloudless Sky?

British economist Norman Angell’s 1910 book The Great Illusion, which argued that war between industrial countries was futile, inspired the 1937 French film La Grande Illusion. A theater poster for the movie sold for $8,625 at a July 2006 auction.

“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson

By Jim O’Neal

Throughout history, armies have always made plans. Alexander the Great had one to invade the Persian Empire to capture or kill Emperor Darius III. Phillip II of Spain had a plan to defeat England in 1588 by sailing an armada up the Channel, load his troops and land in Kent. The Duke of Marlborough planned to save Holland in 1704 by luring the French army down the Rhine and defeat it away from their home base.

Another famous plan by Hannibal in the Second Punic War was evading Rome’s navy, crossing the Alps and confronting the Legions in their homeland. Even the United States had a plan in 1861 to strangle the South by blockading the Mississippi River and all southern ports (the Anaconda Plan).

All these plans were made in the midst of war or when war was imminent. By 1870, war planning evolved to abstract contingencies for use only if a war became a reality. It was a futile effort of the paranoid, since war can become a reality if an overwhelming force becomes available for use by some ambitious leader (O’Neal’s Rule).

The Second World War – when it inevitably started in 1939 – was simply a continuation of the First World War. It was tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events could have been interrupted at any point during the five weeks that preceded the first clash of arms. Tragic because the war ended the lives of 16 million people, tortured the lives of millions more, and destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent.

The puzzlement, of course, was how such a catastrophe came out of a cloudless sky in 1914 to a population raised to believe that war could never trouble their continent again. In the summer of that year, Europe enjoyed peaceful economic prosperity, so dependent on international exchange and cooperation that the prevailing wisdom considered war an impossibility.

A bestseller in 1910, The Great Illusion was an analysis of economic interdependence. It confirmed that war would be deterred by any threat to the disruption of international credit, and both industrial and commercial society were unambiguous in agreement. Industrial output was strong. New categories of manufactured goods, chemical dyes and internal-combustion vehicles flourished as new sources of cheaply extracted materials became more widely available. Rising populations everywhere and the enormous expansion of overseas empires were followed by a second revolution in transportation – steamships overtook sailing-ship tonnage.

Banks recovered their confidence. Gold-backed capital was circulating freely and fueled Russian railways, South African gold and diamonds, South American cattle, Australian sheep, Malaysian rubber and Canadian wheat. Every sector of the United States’ enormous economy devoured European capital as fast as it became available.

Naturally, everyone had strategic alliances (just in case), armies built up to offset naval imbalances (just in case), and contingency plans. However, diplomatic communications had not kept pace, as their need was a quaint relic of the past. There was no need since there was no trouble. Everybody was too busy getting rich.

War? Not a chance (plus, everyone had a “plan”). Maybe boxer Mike Tyson is smarter than we give him credit for.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Shortly After His Inauguration, Wilson Pivoted and Entered World War I

This World War I Tank Corps recruitment poster, issued by the U.S. government in 1917, sold for $8,962.50 at a July 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Jan. 31, 1917, Germany’s Navy Admiral Eduard von Capelle assured his nation’s parliament, Americans “will not even come, because our submarines will sink them. Thus America from a military point of view means nothing, and again nothing and for a third time nothing.”

American President Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected just months earlier on a campaign slogan of, “He kept us out of war.” Although the Germans were regularly sinking American ships in the Atlantic, Wilson had consistently declared, “America is too proud to fight.” However, a month after his inauguration, he led Congress to vote to enter World War I.

The 1916 presidential election was almost as bizarre as the one we suffered through in 2016. In this case, an incumbent president (Wilson) was running against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate. Wilson’s win was the first time a Democratic Party candidate had won two consecutive presidential elections since Andrew Jackson (1832).

But before the election, Democrats were so uncertain about their chances that they developed a radical plan to avoid leaving a potential four-month, lame-duck vacuum with war raging in Europe. It consisted of appointing president-elect Hughes (if he had won) as Secretary of State, followed by the resignation of Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall. This would allow the new president to take residence in the WH immediately and avoid the gap until the scheduled March 1917 inauguration.

The Progressive Republicans had already essentially forfeited their chances by selecting Teddy Roosevelt for president and he had sent a telegram refusing their offer. The vice presidential candidate had already decided to support Hughes so that was out as well.

Admiral Capelle’s “they will never come” statement became one of history’s worst declarations when on May 29, the Allies launched a three-hour barrage of fire that exceeded what both sides fired during the entire four-year Civil War. The $180 million equated to $1 million of ordnance every 60 seconds. I suspect the folks in Afghanistan recently experienced something similar.

You can never tell about these American presidents.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Put on Your Trivia Hat … it’s Time for the Academy Awards

A rare six-sheet poster for The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Fox, 1940), measuring 81 by 81 inches, sold for $35,850 at a July 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The 89th Academy Awards are set for Sunday:

►Three films won 11 Oscars: Ben Hur (1959), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).

►Three films had 14 nominations: All About Eve (1950), Titanic and La La Land (2016).

►Cabaret (1972) won eight Oscars … but not Best Picture.

►Katharine Hepburn has the most Best Actress Oscars … four (yes, more than Meryl Streep).

►Henry Fonda is the oldest actor (76) to win an Oscar for Lead Role in On Golden Pond (1981).

►John Ford won four Oscars for Best Director … The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952).

►Peter Finch won Best Actor posthumously for Network (1976).

►Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor posthumously for The Dark Knight (2008).

►Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor and lost eight times.

►Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland are the only sisters to each win an Academy Award for Best Actress.

►Walt Disney won 22 competitive Oscars and four Honorary.

►Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar, for her Supporting Role in Gone With the Wind (1939).

►Midnight Cowboy (1969) is the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture.

►Gone With the Wind (1939) is the first color movie to win Best Picture.

►Cate Blanchett won an Oscar playing real-life Oscar-winner Kate Hepburn in Aviator (2004).

►Laurence Olivier is the only person to direct himself in winning an acting Oscar, for Hamlet (1948).

►Barry Fitzgerald was nominated twice for the same role in Going My Way (1944) … Best Actor and Best Supporting (won). The rules were changed to avoid this in the future.

►The most nominations (11) with zero Oscars … The Turning Point (1977) and The Color Purple (1985).

►Halle Berry is the only African-American to win Best Actress, for Monster’s Ball (2001).

Tatum O’Neal and Ryan O’Neal in 1973’s Paper Moon.

►George Bernard Shaw is the first person to win an Oscar and a Nobel Prize (Bob Dylan matched this feat last year).

►Timothy Hutton is the youngest (20) to win Supporting Actor, for Ordinary People (1980).

►Tatum O’Neal is the youngest (10) Supporting Actress, for Paper Moon (1973).

Best of luck to the nominees.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Winning a War is Difficult, Even with Vastly Superior Forces

The original movie poster art for Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam war drama Platoon, by artist Mike Bryan, sold for $21,510 at a March 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The decision to mount a sustained bombing campaign was not made until Feb. 13, 1965 – two days after the Viet Cong had launched yet another attack on the U.S. barracks at Qui Nhon. The significance was that this decision, which had taken so long, had been kept completely separate from the decision on combat troops. It was to be an activity unto itself. But in their hearts, the military knew better and this was a crucial lapse in judgment. It differed sharply from the decision-making in 1954, when the Army staff cast serious reservations about U.S. aerial intervention in Indochina.

In 1954, Army Chief of Staff Matthew Ridgway had made one thing crystal clear: Air power and ground power could not be separated. If air power was used and failed, ground power would almost certainly be necessary. In 1965, no one made the comparable case as the pressure for bombing escalated too fast.

The bombing campaign was going ahead under the name of Rolling Thunder, designed to force the other side to start negotiating, thus avoiding the use of ground troops. In the intelligence community, the ones most knowledgeable about Vietnam knew with certainty that Hanoi would never negotiate or capitulate. However, the principals were convinced that bombings would preclude the use of any ground forces.

On Feb. 22, nine days after the decision to go ahead with the bombing, General William Childs Westmoreland – commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam – sent in a request for two battalions of Marine Corps, strictly to provide security for the U.S. air base in Danang. It was a modest request, just the two groups, and the mission was minor, as well. Just provide security.

This was the first time American combat units would arrive as units. There was a nagging fear among many in Washington and Saigon that this was not the end. However, it was a small request and it had to be done.

After all, slipping in the first troops was just an adjustment, an asterisk really, to the firm decision they had made to avoid sending in troops. Of course, there had to be protection for the airplanes and if there was bombing, then you needed airfields. And if there were airfields, then troops were needed for security. No one pointed out that a regiment is small and can’t really protect itself. Even as they were bombing, they were preparing for a new rationale: the protection of men and material. The expanding rationale would provide its own rhythm of escalation. The whole basis of the escalation and of providing ground troops hung on a slender hope; it would be brief.

Four short years later, in 1969, United States troops in Vietnam peaked at 549,500, with 16,592 KIA (killed in action).

It is hard to win a war, even with vastly superior forces, if the other side is determined to never quit. You can even leave the country, as we did in Iraq, but chances are you will be back. Especially in wars on “terrorism,” even if you choose to quit, who do you surrender to?

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bataan Death March a Cruel Episode of an Already-Brutal War

The 1945 film Back to Bataan starring John Wayne tells the story of the U.S. Army Ranger raid at the Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp.

By Jim O’Neal

Last month marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) that resulted in the United States entry into World War II.

The Japanese war plan assumed that a quick strike that disabled American naval forces would deter the United States from interfering with their strategic objective of conquering Asia and acquiring rich natural resources.

They predicted a surprise victory would preclude a declaration of war and keep us focused on Europe, where Nazi Germany was on a rampage. The primary target was the Pacific Fleet, which included aircraft, battleships and aircraft carriers. They intentionally ignored the fuel depots and maintenance facilities since they would become superfluous (wrong!).

Ironically, U.S. plans included a proviso “to avoid charging across the Pacific” … in stark contrast to the core Japanese rationale. Further, the three aircraft carriers (Enterprise, Lexington and Saratoga) were at sea and escaped damage. So, quite perversely, these assets, three aircraft carriers, airplanes and all the supporting infrastructure, were precisely what we used to respond. “Remember Pearl Harbor” was the rallying cry that gave Congress the cover to declare war, something the American public opposed.

Six hours later, in a less-familiar situation, the Japanese also started bombing the U.S. Protectorates in the Philippines and Guam. General Douglas MacArthur was in Manila the day the bombing started – in his cozy suite at the Manila Hotel – and inexplicably failed to pass on the warning he had received hours before. He then relocated to the island of Corregidor in the mouth of Manila Bay and was there from December until March 1942, when FDR ordered him to Australia for his safety.

Bataan is a peninsula in the Philippines between Manila Bay and the South China Sea. It is a mountainous, hot, densely jungled place. It is also the location of one of the worst American defeats in WWII. On April 9, 1942, U.S. and Filipino forces on Bataan surrendered unconditionally to the Japanese after months of bombing and an invasion.

What followed was the infamous Bataan Death March.

More than 70,000 already-weakened Allied POWs were forced to walk over 60 miles to Japanese prison camps; many were sent to the Cabanatuan prison camp on the coast of Luzon. Thousands died en route of sickness, dehydration and murderous acts inflicted by their Japanese captors. Conditions at the camp are almost too gruesome to repeat.

In addition to the ordinary conditions of malaria, dysentery, scurvy, pellagra, beriberi and rickets, the long-term effects of vitamin and mineral deprivation exposed an abyss of human physiology. When the last phantom residues burned away, prisoners lost their voices, hair, eyes, teeth and hearing. Even their skin fell off. It was a pseudo-human medical freak show.

Finally, after nearly three years of tortuous living conditions, in January 1945, 121 hand-selected troops from the elite U.S. Army 6th Ranger Battalion slipped behind enemy lines and rescued the 513 American and British POWs that were still alive at Cabanatuan. It was a long three years for these survivors and it is almost miraculous that any made it.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Battle of Stalingrad Defined Struggle Between Fascism and Bolshevism

the-boy-from-stalingrad-columbia-1943
The Boy from Stalingrad was a 1943 Columbia Pictures movie about Russian youths fighting the German assault on Stalingrad. The propaganda film was officially approved by the U.S. government, which briefly worked to maintain its wartime alliance with the Soviets.

By Jim O’Neal

While the siege of Leningrad was under way, a ferocious battle was beginning over Stalingrad, a sprawling provincial city of half a million, outlining the banks of the Volga River.

If there was one battle that defined the struggle between fascism and Bolshevism – the essential confrontation that Adolf Hitler had long dreamed of winning – it was this one. From a strategic standpoint, it would allow Germany to cut off the supply route to the Russian Army up north and open the way for the Wehrmacht to control the oil fields surrounding the Caucasus Mountains.

But Hitler wanted Stalingrad for a personal reason, too. Joseph Stalin had named this city in 1925 to honor the battle he had led there during the Russian Civil War. Its capture would be a symbolic victory and erode Russia’s willpower. However, Stalingrad would prove important to both sides and together they would expend the lives of 1 million people in just five months.

The drama began with the Germans attacking the city’s northern edge and discovering Russian civilians, many of them women in dresses, firing the guns. It was a harbinger of the legendary Russian resistance. That night, an enormous roar deafened Stalingrad, the sound of 600 German planes descending at once. They dropped bombs carrying incendiary devices and when they ignited, the city was so bright from flames that soldiers 40 miles away claimed they could read a newspaper. In all, 40,000 civilians died that night and the worst was yet to come.

Since the city was home to several prized armament plants, tanks rolled off the assembly line directly into battle. Yet it was hand-to-hand combat that came to dominate the fighting – building by building, block by block, rooftop to rooftop – until giant piles of rubble remained. Snipers worked from every garret, booby traps appeared at every turn, and hand grenades came flying from every angle. The insanity of the fighting was obvious even to impotent commanders, but the two leaders in Moscow and occupied Ukraine insisted their armies fight on.

Ignoring the pleas of his advisors, Hitler failed to protect his flanks and fresh Russian troops encircled the city, trapping the entire German army inside. Now they were the ones under siege, starving and freezing while they waited for the promised reinforcements that never came.

By January 1943, the battle was over and 80,000 German troops were marched off to Soviet camps, where all but a handful would eventually die. Things would only go downhill from here as the German people lost faith and the Allies started their offense directly against the Fatherland.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].