Archives for June 2015

The Scottish Lord and Pearl Harbor—Winston Churchill’s Protected Spy: A True Story

Image of Winston Churchill mug

A Story of Betrayal in John Steinbeck’s Time

Winston Churchill’s mug? Odd connections to John Steinbeck’s life continue to appear at, thanks to authors like John Bell Smithback, a Far East expert and former resident of the neighborhood in Pacific Grove, California, where Sea of Cortez was written in 1941. His true story of the spy who contributed to the attack on Pearl Harbor—the 200th post since started—combines compelling narrative, imaginative investigation, and a streak of ornery independence, features that appeal to our readers and attract web surfers to John Steinbeck. Who knew that Winston Churchill colluded, through his silence, with a high-ranking Scottish spy to provide Franklin Roosevelt a reason to join Britain’s war with Germany? The true story begins in the spring of 1941, as Steinbeck sat writing Sea of Cortez while his marriage collapsed, Europe fell, and Japanese aggression threatened the Far East. On December 7, within days of the book’s publication, Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor and Franklin Roosevelt declared war, as Winston Churchill had every reason to hope. Pearl Harbor swamped Sea of Cortez, which as John Steinbeck predicted it would, sold poorly. Blackballed from receiving a military commission by brass in Franklin Roosevelt’s war office, Steinbeck—remarried and living in New York in 1943—enlisted as a foreign war correspondent for American newspapers, reporting first from England, then from North Africa and Italy. In London he got leads and told stories other reporters overlooked. Did he hear rumors of a high-ranking spy in Winston Churchill’s government? “Certain people could not be criticized or even questioned,” he wrote years later in Once There Was a War, a collection of his World War II correspondence: “It is in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies.”—Ed.

Cover image of the first edition of Sea of Cortez

Watching Churchill’s Funeral: An Incident in Pacific Grove

“Ambition, not so much for vulgar ends, but for fame, glints in every mind.”

                                                                     Winston Churchill, The Second World War

John Steinbeck lived just around the corner. He was on Eardley Avenue and I was on Laurel. Of course, we lived there at different times—so different, in fact, that it might be said we inhabited Pacific Grove in different eras. When John was there in the spring of 1941, he and Ed Ricketts were working on Sea of Cortez and World War II was underway. Most of Europe was occupied by German forces, and Hitler had begun his invasion of the Soviet Union. General Rommel’s Desert Afrika Korps had taken Benghazi, President Franklin Roosevelt announced that he’d run for a third term, and the Japanese looked more and more menacing in the Far East. Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo Choo would be playing on John Steinbeck’s radio, and Cheerios had just been invented.

During my time in Pacific Grove, Lyndon B. Johnson was President, Martin Luther King was leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Norman Mailer, and Norman Thomas were holding a teach-in in Berkeley to protest Johnson’s war in Vietnam, and a publication put out by the John Birch Society claimed that Negroes in America were better off than ever because of the good will of whites. The Byrds were singing Mr. Tambourine Man and television had replaced radio.

It’s January 30, 1965, and outside my door I notice a small woman moving back and forth with uncertainty. She studies my house, bends forward to read my address, then moves on. I turn on my television and find there is wall-to-wall coverage of Winston Churchill’s funeral. A barge with his coffin is moving slowly up the Thames past Tower Bridge, and the event is being described as one of the most moving tributes in modern history.

John Steinbeck lived just around the corner. He was on Eardley Avenue and I was on Laurel.

It’s at that moment that my doorbell rings and I open the door to find a frail and  bewildered woman standing there. She’s the same one I’d seen earlier, and she says she’s visiting from England. She’s lost, she exclaims, and says she can’t seem to find her family’s house. I ask the address and assure her the house she’s looking for is nearby, just around the corner and down the block. She’s obviously exhausted so I open the door and invite her in, offering her a cup of tea and a chance to rest. “Winston Churchill’s funeral is on television, live and direct from London,” I say. “Come in and watch, and then I’ll drive you home.”

She stiffens and makes a disagreeable face. “Young man,” she scowls, “those of us who lived through the horrible days of the war owe everything to that great man. We stood alone, and his speech about fighting the Germans on the beaches strengthened us and led us through those terrible times. Even now, I can remember listening to his words on the wireless, and no thank you, I will not come in. I wouldn’t think of watching Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral on American television!”

Such determination. And such a mistake. The truth is that few of Churchill’s speeches were broadcast during World War II: they were spoken in the House of Commons at Westminster to members of Parliament. Only after the warin some cases, nine years after itsensing the historical, political, and financial gains to be had, did Churchill record them in a studio for posterity. It wasn’t the first time the public had been duped into believing what Winston Churchill wanted history to believe.  A true-story timeline of his long career would be made up of an unbroken series of serious errors, horrendous blunders, and Machiavellian maneuvers made to cover his many mistakes and further his vast ambitions.

Image of Winston Churchill V-ing for victory

Churchill the Manipulator, Wrong About Almost Everything

Several years ago the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a revisionist version of Churchillian history for The Atlantic magazine, describing Winston Churchill as “ruthless, boorish, manipulative, alcoholic, myopic, and wrong about almost everything” and noting that Churchill himself admitted he “never stood so high upon a principle that he could not lower it to suit the circumstances.” And lower it he did. So far, in fact, that had anyone else been Prime Minister when World War II ended, Winston Churchill—a Tory turned out of office by a Labor Party sweep—would in all likelihood have been arrested and tried for high treason.

Churchill was a master manipulator—ignoring the truth, bungling the facts, and rearranging historical events to enhance his deeply flawed role in a political career spanning nearly half a century. In his Atlantic article, Hitchens short-listed the worst mistakes, misdeeds, and deceptions and explained Churchill’s method: “A sort of alternate bookkeeping was undertaken, whereby the huge deficits of his grand story (Gallipoli, the calamitous return to the gold standard, his ruling-class thuggery against the labor movement, his diehard imperialism over India, and his pre-war sympathy for fascism) were kept in a separate column that was sharply ruled off from ‘The Valiant Years.'”

While the calculatedly slow release of official papers of the British government has helped Hitchens write Winston Churchill down, neither Hitchens nor anyone else to my knowledge exposed two acts of calculated treachery that facilitated Japanese imperial aggressions in the Far East, a deceit designed to drag the United States into World War II and give Franklin Roosevelt the justification needed to overcome domestic resistance. The first involved a Scottish lord, the second a slow-moving steamship.

Image of the Scottish lord, William Francis Forbes-Sempill

Churchill’s Spy, At Work For Japan

The Scotsman was a hereditary member of the British House of Lords named William Forbes-Sempill, the 19th Baronet of Craigievar. A decorated Royal Flying Corps pilot in World War I, Sempill transferred to the Royal Navy Air Service when World War I ended in 1918. In 1921, the Imperial Japanese Navy requested England’s help in setting up its nascent naval air service. In the hope of negotiating a number of lucrative arms deals, the British Admiralty appointed Sempill to lead the government’s advisory delegation to Tokyo.

When he left for Japan, Sempill took with him the plans for two new British aircraft carriers, the HMS Argus and the HMS Hermes. Once he arrived, he proceeded to persuade the Japanese of the advantage of basing naval warplanes on ocean-going carriers instead of on airfields. Sempill was so pleased with his success in convincing the Japanese that he remained in Japan for 18 months, training pilots in techniques of flight control and shallow-water torpedo bombing—skills that 20 years later the Japanese Empire was to employ to disastrous advantage in attacking the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Acknowledging Sempill’s “epoch-making service” to the Empire, Prime Minister Tomosaburo Kato awarded the Scottish lord Japan’s highest honor, the Order of the Rising Sun, “for his especially meritorious military service.”  Sempill faithfully returned the favor: for the next two decades he was paid to provide the Japanese with secret information on the latest British aviation technology, helping Japan become a world-class naval power. It was only when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration raised concern over Japan’s growing naval strength that the British government questioned Sempill about leaking secrets to Tokyo. A resulting investigation revealed that Sempill was an active member of several far-right, anti-Semitic organizations in England, including the fascistic Anglo-German Fellowship, a secretive group dedicated to ridding the Tory Party of Jews.

Image of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor

The House of Windsor’s High Hopes for Germany

But Sempill wasn’t the only member of England’s establishment elite who embraced fascist ideology. The most famous—Sir Oswald Mosley, the 6th Baronet of Ascoats—founded the British Union of Fascists, and its activities received positive press from London’s Daily Mirror newspaper owned by the billionaire Lord Rothsmere, a Viscount. As Hitler rose to power in Germany, Mosley’s organization attracted dozens of viscounts and dukes, earls and barons, and a wide assortment of Lords and Ladies of the realm who were sympathetic to fascism and opposed to the rising Labor Party.

Even the Royal House of Windsor—formerly the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha—contained ardent supporters of Hitler’s cause. Until being forced to renounce his throne “for the woman I love,” Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, maintained such friendly relations with the Nazis that Albert Speer, Hitler’s arms minister, lamented his abdication: “I am certain that through him, permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss.” Two years after the outbreak of World War II, the disgraced Duke of Windsor and his American wife were living in neutral Portugal, where they met with Hitler’s representatives to negotiate a Nazi-sponsored return to the British throne. The twice-divorced Duchess stated that she would become Queen of England “at any price.”

Sempill wasn’t the only member of England’s establishment elite who embraced fascist ideology.

In Britain, the appeasement policy of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been quietly encouraged by members of the House of Windsor who feared Britain’s involvement in the war would spell the loss of the British colonial empire. When the Duke of Windsor’s brother became King George VI, his Queen was heard to say she’d be happy enough if the Nazis invaded—”as long as they kept the royal family.”

For a time, neighboring Norway (the unnamed nation in John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down) entertained hopes that an arrangement with Hitler to remain neutral would keep the Nazis at bay and the monarchy intact. But when Norwegian royalty and the entire Norwegian cabinet suddenly showed up on England’s shores as refugees, barely escaping the Nazi occupation, Neville Chamberlain finally submitted his resignation to Buckingham Palace. The date was May 10, 1940, and at the pleasure of the King on England, the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Spencer Churchill was instated as Prime Minister.

Image of President Franklin Roosevelt

Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt’s Fateful Atlantic Meeting

As Winston Churchill prepared to move into No. 10 Downing Street, he was handed a document from the war government’s new Bletchley Park Code and Deciphering Unit. The report showed that Sempill was still receiving payments, funneled through the Mitsubishi Corporation, to spy for the government of Japan from his position in the Admiralty office. For reasons of his own, Churchill chose to ignore the evidence and Sempill kept his post at Admiralty, where he continued to have unlimited access to sensitive information about military hardware and official secrets.

Though nearly all of the intelligence files on Sempill’s subsequent activities mysteriously  disappeared, surviving records show that he traveled with Churchill to meet with Franklin Roosevelt at the Atlantic Conference, held in Newfoundland in August of 1941. Four months earlier, a Gallop Poll indicated that three-quarters of Americans would support joining England’s war, but only if they believed there was no other way to defeat Germany. Bolstered by the poll, Roosevelt sent his close friend and special adviser, Harry Hopkins, to deliver a private message to Winston Churchill in London: “The President is determined that we shall win this war together. Make no mistake about it: he has sent me here to tell you that at all costs and by all means he will carry you through.”

At the Atlantic Conference, however, Roosevelt reminded Churchill that the 1937 Neutrality Act enacted by Congress prevented direct intervention, and that the strong isolationist element in Washington still tied his hands.  America First, a conservative anti-war movement formed after 1919, persuaded many citizens that enough American blood had already been shed in Europe, and the sentiment was shared by progressives within the President’s own party, many of them isolationists who expressed disappointment that Europe was “acting so tribal” and seemed unable to attend to its own affairs. A Republican Senator, Robert Taft, the son of a former President, spelled it out bluntly: “Even the collapse of England is to be preferred to the participation for the rest of our lives in European wars. If we enter the war today to save England, we will be involved in her wars the rest of our lives.”

Though details of what transpired at the Atlantic Conference remain cloudy at best, we know that two weeks before the meeting Franklin Roosevelt had closed the Panama Canal to Japanese traffic; and in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China, he ordered the seizure of Japanese assets in the United States. The governments of Britain and the Dutch East Indies quickly followed suit, with the result that, virtually overnight, Japan was deprived of 88 percent of its imported oil supply.

We also know Roosevelt again reminded Churchill  that because of the Neutrality Act, the U.S. could only offer a token contribution to the British war effort.

“At least for now,” Roosevelt said.

“Unless,” Churchill asserted, “you are attacked.”

Roosevelt agreed: “Unless we are attacked first.”

And if that attack on America came from Japan? At Guam or Wake Island? Or in the Philippines, or even Pearl Harbor? Would the United States concentrate its forces in the Pacific rather than in Europe? In other words, when could England count on America’s attention?

Franklin Roosevelt, a New York patrician of Dutch-English descent, reassured Winston Churchill—the son of an American mother—that the United States was “with him all the way.” In the event of such an attack, America would throw her full weight behind Britain to defeat Germany and liberate Europe. Until then, fighting a war in the Pacific would be put on hold.

Churchill had cause to press his point: he knew that in a matter of months—even weeks—the United States would, somewhere in the Pacific, be attacked by Japan. Even Roosevelt knew something ominous was transpiring, for at that very moment all Japanese merchant vessels were being called home, presumably in preparation to transport troops and war material to points in the Far East targeted in Japan’s invasion plans.

But Churchill had other, more personal reasons for bringing Sempill to the meeting with Roosevelt. In the first instance, Sempill’s paymasters in Tokyo would learn that Roosevelt was giving them a considerable period of grace—as long as two or even three years—in which to solidify their gains. And secondly, Sempill’s boss, Winston Churchill, knew he would need a scapegoat for what was about to happen to Britain’s colonies in the Far East. It was, after all, a matter of political preservation, for at that point only he knew about the capture of the English steamship, the SS Automedon . . . .

Image of the SS Automedon

The SS Automedon: The Ship That Launched a Thousand Lies and Would Lead to the Death of Millions in the War

Within five days of the Atlantic Conference, Bletchley Park experts decoded a series of messages to Tokyo from the Japanese embassy in London containing nearly word for word the conversations that had occurred between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill aboard the USS Augusta and the HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland. When Churchill read the transcript, he acknowledged it was “pretty accurate stuff,” then signaled for Sempill’s removal: “Clear him out while there is still time.”

Called before the Chief of Naval Air Services, Sempill received an ultimatum: quit or get sacked. Before Sempill could clear his desk, however, Churchill reversed his order to fire the spy. “I had not contemplated Lord Sempill being required to resign his commission,” he explained, “only that he be assigned elsewhere in the Admiralty.”

The story of the SS Automedon had yet to be disclosed. Best to keep a first-class spy like Sempill close at hand for a future bailout.

Best to keep a first-class spy like Sempill close at hand for a future bailout.

Outside John Steinbeck’s cottage beneath the oaks on Eardley Avenue, scrub jays call to one another in the trees, the California sun is warming the fragrant pines, and the monarch butterflies are making their annual pilgrimage to Pacific Grove. The writer has learned that The Grapes of Wrath has been awarded the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the controversial novel selling more than 430,000 copies, and Viking Press had ordered another printing. Steinbeck is spending his mornings working on a new book, one he and Ed Ricketts will call Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journey of Travel and Research.

But John Steinbeck doesn’t appear happy. There is a melancholy air about him as he makes manuscript corrections, sips a beer, and listens to Tommy Dorsey’s I’ll Never Smile Again on the radio. War clouds hover figuratively over his narrative of adventure and discovery, co-authored with Ricketts. Though Steinbeck’s wife Carol accompanied them on the expedition, he has just written her out of the book. Very soon he will write her out of his life.

John Steinbeck doesn’t appear happy. There is a melancholy air about him as he makes manuscript corrections.

Under a lead-colored sky in a more somber part of the world, a merchant ship flying the British ensign leaves the port of Liverpool bound for the tropical waters of Singapore. Hugging the coastline to avoid detection by German submarines, the slow-moving vessel eventually steams around the Horn of Africa into the relative safety of the Indian Ocean. Three days later, making its way east through calm seas, the SS Automedon is detected by a German military ship, the Atlantis—part of a fleet of surface raiders known as “ghost ships” that seek out and destroy merchant vessels carrying cargo to the Far East.

During a short encounter, the wireless operator aboard the Automedon has time to send a distress call that is picked up by two nearby merchant ships flying the British flag. They immediately send coded messages detailing the incident to naval listening stations in Singapore and Durban, South Africa. In turn, both stations relay word of the ship’s imminent capture to London. Overwhelming evidence indicates that British military authorities at the highest level are made fully aware of the Automedon’s fate.

At the scene of the encounter, a  boarding party from the German ship finds the Automedon’s captain dead at the helm. A report filed by the leader, First Lieutenant Ulrich Mohr, states that “the ship proved to be unarmed and the crew gave up without a struggle. Unobstructed, we got to work on the strong room where we found fifteen bags of secret mail, including one hundredweight of decoding tables, fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and various British Naval Intelligence reports, including all the top-secret post en route for the Far Eastern Command, Singapore.”

Included in the haul is a complete set of Royal Navy fleet ciphers, New Merchant Navy ciphers scheduled to become valid in two months, a wealth of British Admiralty shipping and intelligence summaries, and several green bags containing 6,000,000 freshly minted New Straits Singapore dollars.

Lieutenant Mohr’s report continues: “Our search of the Chart Room brought us far greater rewards. Our real prize was a long narrow envelope enclosed in a green bag marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL – SAFE HANDS – TO BE DESTROYED. It was addressed to the Commander in Chief, Far East, with the words TO BE OPENED PERSONALLY. It was equipped with brass eyelets to let water in to facilitate its sinking should it prove necessary to dispose of it at sea.”

Under a lead-colored sky in a more somber part of the world, a merchant ship flying the British ensign leaves the port of Liverpool.

The money, the reports, the codes, the intelligence reports, the green bags, the crew—the entire haul—was taken aboard the Atlantis. Then, stripped of its information and valuables, the Automedon is dispatched to the bottom of the Indian Ocean by German explosives. As the captain of the Atlantis sorts through the haul, he realizes that he’s looking at a mountain of intelligence information—a cache so vast, so significant, that he aborted his raiding mission and turned his ship to Truk Island, the nearest safe port in the Japanese-mandated island group.

There he transferred the secret documents and surviving crew of the Automedon onto a captured Norwegian tanker that was leaving for Kobe, Japan with 10,000 tons of aviation gasoline. As evening fell over Japan on December 5, 1940, the haul from the Automedon arrived at the German Embassy in Tokyo.

Over the next three days, Admiral Paul Wenneker, a German naval attaché, carefully photographs the codes and Chief of Staff reports taken from the Automedon before turning the haul over to a fellow officer, Captain Paul Karmenz, for delivery to Berlin. Karmenz went first to Vladivostok in Russia—for the moment a neutral nation—then crossed Russia  by train, traveling day and night on his urgent mission.

If there was  trouble, Admiral Wanneker planned to send a four-part coded telegram to Naval Command Headquarters in Berlin summarizing each of the captured reports. But the plan wouldn’t be needed. Safely delivered and deciphered, the messages were circulated among the Nazi top brass, and on December 12, under orders from Hitler, the Japanese naval attaché in Berlin was summoned to German Naval Command Headquarters. When he arrived, Captain Yokai was  shown a copy of Wanneker’s summary which he immediately relayed to his superiors in Tokyo.

Yokai’s message to Tokyo was intercepted by an American listening station in the Pacific, probably on Guam or in Hawaii, where it was to sit in someone’s in-basket. It wasn’t to be deciphered until August 19, 1945, four days after Japan surrendered.

Image of Adolph Hitler

The German-Japanese Connection in the Wartime Far East

But in Tokyo, things were moving considerably faster. On December 12, Admiral Wanneker presented copies of the report to the Japanese Naval Chief  of General Staff, Vice Admiral Kondo. The Admiral read the contents and shrugged. “These codes and position documents,” he remarked, “they have been allowed to fall into our hands to mislead both the Germans and the Japanese governments. This, of course, is a deception.”

“I doubt that emphatically,” replied Wanneker. “The Automedon was an unarmed merchant vessel whose captain was killed outright in our initial shelling. To a man, the crew surrendered without a fight, and upon boarding her First Lieutenant Mohr went directly to the captain’s quarters, where he found the sealed bags containing these documents. No, this is hardly a deception. The plain truth is that the ship’s encounter with the Atlantis was too short and swift to afford anyone an opportunity to destroy them.”

To make his point, Wanneker showed Kondo photographs of the green bag and a copy of the SAFE HANDS report that was to be handed over personally to the Far East Commander-in-Chief.

“This information is marked to the personal attention of Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham,” Wanneker adds, “And what we have here is an intimate view inside the British War Cabinet. These, Admiral, are the full minutes of the Cabinet’s meeting of 8 August 1940, a meeting in which a complete assessment of the Far East situation was presented. Included in it is a highly confidential Chief-of-Staff report on the defense of Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Far East with respect to their defenses against any Japanese attack.”

Kondo was silent, perhaps overwhelmed. “So,” he said slowly, clicking his heels sharply and bowing generously to Wanneker. “So, these are the minutes of the British War Cabinet, with their diplomatic and naval codes.” He whispered as if only half-believing his eyes and ears: “And, of course, full information on the defense of Hong Kong and Singapore.”

“Perhaps I can remind you, Admiral,” Wanneker said, giving weight to his words, “that it was Herr Hitler himself who directed that this information be shared with you.”

“Certainly, Admiral. I assure you that this material shall be given careful scrutiny. And you must extend Japan’s gratitude to your Führer,” replied Kendo, clicking his heels and making his exit.

Image of the bombing of Britain

The London Blitz and Japan’s Good Fortune

Three years earlier, Konto had been part of the military coalition that swept out the civilian cabinet in Tokyo and took control of the government, making Japan a military dictatorship much like Nazi Germany. Within five months, the coalition had put together a war plan and, on July 7, 1937—in the dead of night and without warning—Japanese troops launched an undeclared war against China.

As the coalition had surmised, the Chinese would be no match, and by 1940 Japan controlled every important city in China. There was only one exception, and that was the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Putting one boot across the border would, the invaders realized, incur the wrath and power of the British Empire. Instead, Japan turned its attention to nearby Siam (today’s Thailand), where by diplomacy and threat it established a large naval base and built a number of military airstrips.

Then, quite unexpectedly, on June 22, 1940 France surrendered to Germany and Nazi troops occupied Paris. Seizing the opportunity, Japan presented an audacious request to the collaborationist Vichy government: “As Germany’s ally, we demand that France relinquish immediate control of all its colonial possessions in French Indo-China.” When a positive reply was forthcoming, Japan’s military leaders made preparations to take over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Putting one boot across the border would, the invaders realized, incur the wrath and power of the British Empire.

Back in England, Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister, and as war raged across Europe, Japan’s expansionist policies began to encroach on Great Britain’s Far East possessions. Directing his War Cabinet to evaluate the situation with respect to Hong Kong, Malaya (Malaysia), and Singapore, Churchill wanted to know the size of the fleet that would be required to safeguard England’s Far East outposts in the event of war with Japan. Referring to a study made a year earlier, it was determined that the minimum needed to meet Japanese aggression would be a flotilla of 10 battleships and two battle cruisers, plus several cruisers and escort destroyers. It might even be necessary as well to send an aircraft carrier or two—an action requiring 70 days or more.

As if by chance, the German Luftwaffe chose that same moment to send 348 bombers and 617 fighter planes across the channel to bomb England. The first raid would last two hours, followed by a second, then by a third wave of bombers. They came by daylight, they came at night, and the bombing of England continued for 57 days. Homes vanished, factories were destroyed, cathedrals burned. Entire cities were devastated.

Back in England, Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister.

In Berlin, Hitler issued Directive #16 setting in motion preparations for Operation Sea Lion, the Nazi plan for an event unprecedented since the Spanish Armada—a military invasion of the British Isles by sea. “As England still shows no signs of willingness to come to terms,” Hitler explained, “I have decided to prepare and, if necessary, to carry out a landing operation against her. The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English Motherland as a base from which the war against Germany can be continued.”

Meanwhile, urgent pleas were arriving in London from the Governors of Singapore and Hong Kong: “Where are the promised troops? Where are the promised ships? Where are the promised aeroplanes of the RAF?’’ The governments of Australia and New Zealand were asking the same questions.

In response, Winston Churchill convened his top advisers, ordering the British Chiefs of Staff to update their earlier estimates about the size of the fleet needed to protect Hong Kong and Singapore. The new report, 87 pages long, was gloomier than anyone could have imagined: Britain was in no position to resort to war if Japan attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, or the Dutch East Indies. The Far East was indefensible, and without the active involvement of the United States, Britain’s remaining colonies were doomed. In the event of a Japanese attack, the Prime Minister was advised, Britain must make concessions and adapt a delaying strategy.

Churchill’s reaction was to dispatch a copy of the report to his newly-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Far Eastern Command. It was a new command, making Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham responsible for all defense matters in Singapore, Malaya, Burma, and Hong Kong. In the interest of secrecy, Churchill’s decision was to hand the bag containing the full diplomatic report over to the captain of the S.S. Automedon for delivery.

Britain was in no position to resort to war if Japan attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, or the Dutch East Indies.

Six thousand miles away in Tokyo, a military committee called the Council for the Conduct of the War poured over the intelligence report drawn up after careful review of the documents captured by the Germans from the Automedon. Captain Yamaguchi Bujiro (Head of 5th Intelligence Section, dealing with the U.SA.) and Captain Horiuchi Shigetada (Head of 8th Intelligence Section, dealing with Britain and India) offered this prediction to the Japanese General Staff: “Even if Japan sends forces into Indo-China or beyond, Britain will not go to war.”

The Council then sent the following message to Naval Marshal Admiral Yamamoto: “In the event it is decided to go to war in Southeast Asia, to neutralize the United States Pacific Fleet it is imperative that you begin drawing up plans to attack Pearl Harbor.”

On November 26, 1941, a Japanese attack force consisting of six aircraft carriers, nine destroyers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser, and three submarines left Iturop Island in the Kurils northeast of Japan and began the 3,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to its American target.

Image of the attack on Pearl Harbor

Before Pearl Harbor: The Great British Double-Cross

Within a week of the Atlantic Conference, a joint Army-Navy board in Washington had presented the results of an ongoing study to the White House: in the event of War Plan Orange (war with Japan), the Philippines could not be defended and would have to be yielded by default. The following day, Roosevelt signed a bill permitting the Army to keep men currently in service for an additional 18 months. Then, perhaps on a hunch, he ordered four of the seven aircraft carriers out of Pearl Harbor, along with a number of cruisers and destroyer escort vessels, three battleships, and 21 tenders, fuel ships, and minesweepers. The carriers left at Pearl Harbor were to be assigned missions away from Hawaii.

After Churchill’s meeting with Roosevelt, British ships loaded with Hurricane fighters en route to Singapore were abruptly ordered to change course. The planes promised to Singapore were dispatched to Libya instead. Experienced troops in Malaya and Singapore—the men best prepared to defend the Peninsula and save it from Japanese conquest—were put aboard ships and diverted to India, the Crown Jewel of the dissolving British Empire.

Churchill’s earlier authorization to send a fleet of fast torpedo boats to defend Singapore was similarly rescinded. In Hong Kong, Royal Air Force combat planes were ordered out and dispersed to Burma and India. Munitions and supplies from Canada meant for Hong Kong’s defense were inexplicably sidetracked to the Philippines, and the Bank of Hong Kong, which printed and controlled the colony’s currency, was spirited out of the colony. Additionally, every ranking government official in Hong Kong—from the Governor down to the Director of Public Works—was abruptly recalled to England or transferred to a safer location. Next, nearly all merchant and naval ships received orders to leave the harbors of Singapore and Hong Kong—immediately.

After Churchill’s meeting with Roosevelt, British ships loaded with Hurricane fighters en route to Singapore were abruptly ordered to change course.

Sometime between the hours of 2:30 and 3:00 the morning of December 7, at the very moment the fleet of merchant ships was hurrying out of Hong Kong harbor,  Madame Sun Yet-Sen, widow of the Republic of China’s first president, plus the head of the London Times Newspaper Bureau and a number of other notables who had been visiting Hong Kong, were hurriedly piling their luggage outside their doors at the Hong Kong Hotel and desperately summoning help to get them and their luggage to a ship that was waiting in the harbor. When someone asked them why they were leaving in such a mad rush, they replied that he “had to be a dumb mutt not to know that the Japanese were going to attack Hong Kong at any moment.” Madame Sun Yet-Sen and the rest of the visitors got clean away; the “dumb mutt” didn’t.  Like thousands upon thousands of others, he was to spend the next 3 years and 8 months being starved and beaten by Japanese guards behind barbed wire in a prisoner of war camp.

Clearly, the man behind the desk at No. 10 Downing Street knew not only what was about to happen in Hong Kong but when, and he was making last-minute adjustments.

Clearly, the man behind the desk at No. 10 Downing Street knew not only what was about to happen in Hong Kong but when, and he was making last-minute adjustments.

When the attack came, the defense of Hong Kong was left to a volunteer militia comprised of civilian businessmen, lawyers, merchants, bankers, and other professionals armed with pistols and World War I rifles. Canada, which had been asked to provide support troops, had responded by sending two battalions of fresh recruits–the Royal Rifles from Quebec and the Winnipeg Grenadiers—that had been training in the cool autumn climate of Newfoundland. Through a bureaucratic blunder, the young soldiers arrived in Hong Kong while their baggage and gear was sidetracked to Manila in the Philippines. They had disembarked in the tropical heat wearing their woolen winter uniforms, and nearly all of them were seasick. Three days later, the bombs fell. They were at war.

From London, Winston Churchill took to the airwaves to warn the military planners in Japan that, though under constant attack from the Germans, England had no intention of abandoning “one single centimeter of soil” in the Far East. As a consequence of its aggression, he said, Japan would have to reckon with the fearsome might of Great Britain. As proof, he said he’d already dispatched two of Britain’s newest, fastest, and virtually unsinkable battleships, the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse, to the region.

On the third day of the war, the two major battleships were quickly and almost effortlessly sent to the bottom of the South China Sea by a squadron of Japanese torpedo bombers.

Image of John Steinbeck

The Cost Of the War John Steinbeck Called Dishonest

In Pacific Grove, it would have been 10:55 a.m. on Sunday. Monarch butterflies clustered on the trunks of the pines, and from the shore came the sound of the surf rolling over rocks on the beach at the foot of Eardley Avenue. Gulls screeched, sea lions barked, and the noise of fishing boats returning from their morning sardine run came from Monterey Bay. In the distance, hawks soared in wide circles seeking thermals above Jack’s Peak, and as it was a day of rest, Cannery Row was silent. It was December 7, 1941, and Japan had gone on the attack. Across the Pacific, Asia was on fire and Pearl Harbor was burning. Though he couldn’t have known it, John Steinbeck would soon be leaving the scents and the sounds of Pacific Grove for a very long time.

To a shocked world, Pearl Harbor would be universally described as a surprise attack, and for the next 44 months America and the world would be at war. Thanks to a Scottish lord, Winston Churchill, and the easy capture of a slow-moving steamship, these are the territories that would be swiftly occupied  by the Empire of the Rising Sun:

  • Hong Kong
  • British New Guinea
  • The Philippines
  • Guam
  • Dutch East Indies
  • Portuguese Timor
  • Malaya
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands
  • Straits Settlements (Singapore)
  • Kingdom of Sarawak
  • Brunei
  • North Borneo
  • Nauru
  • Imphal
  • Wake Island
  • Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Christmas Islands
  • Attu and Kiska Islands

One year after the capture of the Automedon, the crew of the Atlantis would be invited to the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo where Captain Rogge would be presented with a samurai sword by Emperor Hirohito. Only two other Germans had received such an honor: Field Marshal Hermann Goering, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.

Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, died while still in office, at Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, age 63. The President from Hyde Park, New York was mourned by millions around the world.

Sir Winston Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA, lived 20 years longer, passing away peacefully in his own bed in London, age 90, on January 24, 1965. His state funeral would be described as the largest in the world. In Britain, the Secrets Act protects official papers from public scrutiny for a period of thirty years. Before leaving office, Churchill locked his official and personal papers out of public reach for a period of 50 years after his death.

Churchill carried the secrets about Sempill and the Automedon to his grave, but during the terrible days that Singapore and Hong Kong were under attack, he issued these words to their doomed defenders: “There must be no thought of sparing the troops or population; commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honor of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.”

The man in Singapore to whom the order was addressed, Air Marshal Robert Brooke-Popham, was in such a hurry to flee the burning island in the final days of its siege that he broke a leg scurrying down a ramp to board the speedboat that would take him to the safety of Australia. It was he, the Far East Commander-in-Chief, to whom Winston Churchill had sent the TOP SECRET, HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL documents. Via the SS Automedon.

Churchill carried the secrets about Sempill and the Automedon to his grave.

William Forbes-Sempill—19th Lord Sempill and Baronet of Craigevar, AFC, Third Class Commander in the Order of the Raising Sun (Japan)—died 11 months after the death of the Prime Minister who protected him, at his Craigevar Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, at the age of 72.  Ten days following the outbreak of war in the Pacific, at the moment Hong Kong was on the verge of surrendering, Sempill was discovered making calls to the Japanese Embassy in London. The Admiralty asked him to retire immediately, and that time he did. Unfortunately, his ruling-class connections saved him from the hangman’s noose.

Most of the documents relating to Sempill’s spying activities, like a great many of Winston Churchill’s papers, have disappeared from government archives, as have those relating to the SS Automedon. The depth of one man’s treachery, and the collaboration of another, only came to partial light in 2002. But the following statistics suggest the scale of destruction caused by this forgotten man of history, and by the Prime Minister who protected him.

Casualties in the Pacific War numbered approximately 36,000,000, half of the total casualties of the Second World War.

The estimated number of civilian victims of Japanese democide is 20,365,000:

  • China12,392,000
  • Indochina1,500,000
  • Indonesia375,000
  • Dutch East Indies3,000,000
  • Malaya and Singapore283,000
  • Thailand60,000
  • Philippines500,000
  • Burma170,000
  • Pacific Islands57,000
  • Timor60,000

The number of POW deaths in Japanese captivity is estimated at 539,000:

  • Netherlands8,500
  • Britain12,433
  • Canada273
  • Philippines23,000
  • Australia7,412
  • New Zealand31
  • United States12,935

Out of 60,000 Indian Army POWs taken at the Fall of Singapore, 12,000 died in captivity.

Not long after the war ended, John Steinbeck issued his own statement about the war that he had reported on from London, North Africa, and Italy: “The crap I wrote overseas had a profoundly nauseating effect on me.  Among other unpleasant things, war is the most dishonest thing imaginable.”  One wonders if, in the course of his foreign travels, he had discovered the true story of treachery and deceit recorded here.

How to Write a Blog Post John Steinbeck Would Read

Image of Strunk and White's how-to-write classic, The Elements of Style

Remember, you’re encouraged to submit your writing to We’ve published 200 blog posts since launching last year, and we’d like to share what we’ve learned from the experience. The following tips on how to write a blog post John Steinbeck might enjoy show why elements of style still matter, why revising is essential, and why learning to be your own editor makes it likelier your blog post will be published.

  1. Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a classic guide on how to write well about anything. It’s short, sweet, and crystal clear.
  2. Remember that a blog post isn’t an academic article. Be concise, concrete, and compelling. Blog post readers are turned off by long sentences, unnecessary words, and other bad habits that can be overcome by following The Elements of Style.
  3. Choose four or five keywords relevant to your blog post subject and use them frequently in your text. If you’re writing about John Steinbeck’s connection to something in the past, for example, find keywords that people search for about the era or event. Make sure every paragraph you write contains all of your keywords.
  4. Read your first draft aloud to a friend for feedback. (John Steinbeck did, though he didn’t always take advice.) Reading aloud will prevent grammatical mistakes, incomprehensibility, and inconsistency, the most common reasons a blog post is rejected.
  5. Revise before you submit. Make sure words are spelled right, sentences are complete and punctuated, and paragraphs flow logically from your lead. Make sure you have a lead—an opening sentence that identifies your subject, states your thesis, and communicates your purpose. (It’s spelled lede in journalism school, but that’s just confusing.)

So what were the keywords used in this blog post? You guessed it: john steinbeck, elements of style, how to write, and blog post. Remember, John Steinbeck hated revising his work, but not as much as reading mistakes in print. If you’re asking yourself what he’d think of blogging you’re on to something. Write a blog post that answers the question. We’d like to publish it.

Appalachian Mountains: Poem by Roy Bentley

 Image of Appalachian Mountains Scene

Walking Hills

Just over a rise, I glimpse a starred truck windshield,
a beveled dresser-mirror, the reverse lives of the trees.
I’m walking the switchbacks from the ridge and down,
skidding, grabbing at a sassafras branch here and there.
A friend has been sending emails about haunted places
in Parkersburg. I think Ghosts and stare into the mirror
become a slope to a river, the river, the flanking hills.
In this light, apparitions are legion. Flashes of anger
and escape from home, if home is these hollows.

Some days, I could bet myself a fifth of scotch
this much of the earth is God’s country and win,
but today a busted windshield is splendoring into
the unbroken part of itself. I’m rectangular, a casket
with eyes and hair and a mouth—wasn’t it Mark Twain
who said humans make graveyards of the beautiful places?
It starts to rain. I duck inside the ruined truck. The roof
is like correspondence with a friend: not much cover.
Rain becomes the calm and storms and calm again

that is Appalachia: isolating voices, old-old hurts,
and a need to hurt others some carry like a handsel.
I’m told that I’m a threatening presence. Dangerous.
And I’ve been told to lower my voice when speaking
so that bystanders won’t think that I’m about to strike.
But I am about to strike: I begin to bust the windshield
the rest of the way out as I would’ve done years ago
surrounded by big-hearted boys from around here.
Boys who became men who make others nervous.

J. Crew Recalls Steinbeck’s 1953 Trip to Positano, Italy

J. Crew's image of specially bound John Steinbeck travel piece

John Steinbeck’s brand remains a resilient commodity with commercial uses that continue to surprise. Steve Hauk alerts Steinbeck lovers to J. Crew’s online profile of Carla Sersale, a clothing designer whose family owns a summer resort on the Amalfi Coast, a magical place visited by John Steinbeck in 1953. Along with the view, the hotel’s rooms feature specially bound copies of John Steinbeck’s piece on Positano, Italy, written for Harper’s Bazaar magazine—a reminder that Steinbeck knew how to travel well and commercialize, too.

Interview: Marietta, Ohio Visual Artists Appreciate John Steinbeck in Show

Image of visual artists Michelle Waters, Todd Morrow, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Geoff Schenkel

REsolve Studios, a visual-artist group in Marietta, Ohio, is designed with both visual artist and local community values in mind. Its distinctive connection to literary artists, including John Steinbeck, involves sharing shows that travel to other venues in the Southern Ohio-West Virginia area. The Appalachian Soul, a show that featured a distinctive installation called “The Victorian Brain,” is one example of exhibitions that make local and literary references of special significance to lovers of John Steinbeck, interactive art, and the Appalachian heritage. Ideas and images from The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men informed the exhibition’s eclectic visual elements, reminding viewers that John Steinbeck’s circle of friends at the time he wrote these books embraced visual artists, musicians, and other writers. In the following text by a Chillicothe, Ohio poet-editor and contributor, visual-artist interviews and individual artist statements suggest how John Steinbeck’s social vision applies to a region suffering marginalization, deprivation, and conflict similar to the cultures of the Dust Bowl, California, and Mexico depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Forgotten Village, and The Pearl. The writer remained painfully aware that genocide was the price of expansion under the invading Spanish, and the rapacious Yankees who followed. The earliest settlers of John Steinbeck’s California were the Ohlone Indians. Chillicothe, Ohio, the home of ancient Indian cultures predating the Ice Age, was later settled by the Shawnee people for whom the city is named. To the east of Chillocothe, the historic town of Marietta, Ohio sits on the West Virginia border. A station along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, it is the site of the Marietta Earthworks, a burial venue of the pre-European Hopewell Indian culture referred to in the introduction to Kathleen Burgess’s interview with the visual-artist group eager to talk about their sense of mission and heritage, and their appreciation of John Steinbeck.—Ed.

Driving through the Marietta, Ohio neighborhood occupied by the REsolve Studios visual artist collective, I found one of Geoff Schenkel’s murals transforming the wall of an old brick building. On one side of the two-story studio, a garden blooms on land the artists reclaimed from an abandoned gas station. I first met core members—Geoff, Michelle Waters, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Todd Morrow—in 2014 when they were installing The Appalachian Soul at PVG Artisans, a gallery in Chillicothe, Ohio, where I live. Gallery owner Cynthia Davis saw, in REsolve Studios’ blend of energy and social purpose, artists on a spiritual quest to redefine being an artist in Appalachia. They reimagined and reconstructed the exhibit for her gallery. Geoff and Michelle wrote the artists’ statement for the show:

It is a massive, yet intimately approachable, room-sized sculptural environment. Anchoring this innovative combination of literary, musical, and uniquely mixed visual sources, this exhibit draws viewers to its wildly sprawling interactive core and continues to reward its “participants” when they pull back . . . to catch their breath while taking in the surrounding, focused satellite works. This deeply engaging, richly cohesive yet hard-to-define body of work represents the adventurous, even noble inclinations of REsolve artists to reach for a better life by letting go of the comforts, conventions, and security of their known world and seeking new depths in a wilderness of worlds yet to be defined.

Geoff and Michelle stayed in Chillicothe for days assessing the community’s character and needs. Several of the artists presented workshops, spending hours commuting from their homes in the river cities of Marietta, Ohio and Parkersburg, West Virginia. They also attended literary, art, and music activities at the gallery and were embraced by the Chillicothe, Ohio arts community.

Image of Chillicothe, Ohio art installation "The Victorian Brain"

“The Victorian Brain” occupied the center of the gallery, an eight-foot-high block of cabinetry with shelves, drawers, and cubbyholes exposed on all four sides. Its small doors, audio features, moving parts, books and notebooks, and written messages invited interaction. Sturdy beams connected “The Brain,” as it is affectionately known, to other sections, creating a 10’ x 17’ foot space large enough for several visitors to enter and move through at the same time. An outer layer of photographs and sculptures on walls, shelves, and pedestals surrounded the central structure. Some participants sought to contribute and added small objects to the installation. Others moved elements to different places as they passed through. Children contributed notes taped to shiny stones. A beekeeper added an antique bee smoker.

The theme of Appalachians coping with economic, societal, and environmental pressures, limited opportunity, and traditional values fits the city of Chillicothe, Ohio, the first and third capital in the history of the state. White settlers arrived in the 1700s when President Thomas Jefferson granted land to members of the victorious Continental Army following the Revolutionary War. People of the region are proud of this heritage, yet are sometimes seen by outsiders as unlettered and incompetent, as expendable as the Indians driven from Ohio 200 years ago. Authors Allan W. Eckert, Ron Rash, Donald Ray Pollock, Roy Bentley, and Diane Gilliam, among others, have written about Appalachian culture from this perspective. Despite challenges, however, Chillicothe, Ohio continues to plan for the future with optimism, and the area is under consideration for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the stunning Hopewell earthworks being rediscovered and authenticated by archaeologists using lidar technology.

Image of visual artist Anthony Wilson

Visual Artist Interview: John Steinbeck in Appalachia

Kathleen Burgess: Welcome to the Steinbeck Now community. Please tell us about yourselves and how literature, and John Steinbeck in particular, figures in the life and work of REsolve Studios.

Geoff Schenkel: We come from humble beginnings. We have challenges. We struggle. We feel uncertainty. When we are together, I feel at times like George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men, almost as if they are different parts at work in my mind, dreaming of something better than when we are on our own. Fellowship is great, belonging is great, but it feels fuller and richer when it is infused with purpose. Of Mice and Men normally travels with the exhibit, and it reflects some of our work as a team of artists.

At PVG Artisans we organized groupings of art into seven interrelated clusters. Each part drew inspiration from a written work. Books are featured because of a question posed by Kentucky-born Gurney Norman (Kinfolks) many years ago at an Appalachian conference that addressed issues of marginalization and stereotypes. He asked, “What would essential reading for the Appalachian region include?” Answering Norman’s question guided the creation of “The Brain.”  Michelle and I, as content curators, selected seven works from a list that is now quite long. Around this core we organized The Appalachian Soul. Our raw library responds to Norman’s question with answers derived from many cultures, including John Steinbeck’s California-based work. For me, REsolve’s work expresses, from the margins of mainstream society, a perspective shared in Steinbeck’s writing.

KB: What is REsolve Studios? How does the name describe what you do, who you are together?

Anthony Wilson: The REsolve name is about solving things by thinking through solutions from all possible angles via collaboration. It’s about working together and building a better community, reconciling our own pitfalls, and making ourselves better people. We improve ourselves, and, thereby, our immediate environment, which extends to the overall community.

Lisa Haney-Bammerlin: For me it means family, a sense of belonging. It means giving a new sense of purpose to discarded things. It’s the will to keep going no matter what is thrown our way. Much like the discarded items, we all were once needed but have to adapt to challenges. Having friends, brothers and sisters, makes the journey less daunting.

Todd Morrow: REsolve = the determination to bring about a solution.

GS: After several years as a community muralist, I began doing studio-based work and toyed with the idea of calling the studio “Junk Man Designs” to play off the found objects I was beginning to use in my work. REsolve worked because it has to do with committing and then living with a decision. We seem like a practical lot of dreamers who lean toward healing the broken, fixing up the discarded, loving the imperfect, and finding a home for the outcasts.

I decided to seek others of similar mindset. If I couldn’t find them in neighborhoods, towns, physical communities, maybe I could find them in communities of shared interest, similar mindset, values, wishes. Todd chose to join. Others passed through. Then Anthony found us. He said he hadn’t become the artist he wanted to be yet and wanted to discover what he was capable of in this community. We attempted big projects, leaps of faith. Michelle liked the work she saw coming from the studio and reached out to us. She said we’d have a hard time getting rid of her. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to deal with her overwhelming cheerfulness, but it didn’t turn out that way. Lisa found in us kindred spirits. Here we are, a family of choice with all our imperfections.

KB: Tell us something about John Steinbeck that engaged you in planning and creating The Appalachian Soul.

GS: (Quoting Tom Joad’s description of Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath): But now I been thinkin’ what he said, an’ I can remember—all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone.

I believe what Tom Joad says. In that place I’d called alone is the breeding ground for violence and the hurt we unleash actively and passively against ourselves and others.

KB: How do you engage the neighborhood through your art and your garden?

GS: Through our art we seek to create a place where it’s safer to imagine what is possible, safer to explore differences in ways that are open, not competitive, trying to find resolutions to chronic problems, and ways to accept human imperfection. Some might call our work “mentorship.” We work with schools, community groups, and religious individuals, while thinking with others about issues of sustainability, community, inclusiveness, and fairness. Something I’ve always valued about this work is its ability to surprise. Many come to it in joyful, childlike response.

While I love that and want that to be part of the experience, I also love that below the surface there is more going on related to Appalachians coping with outsiders’ attitudes and challenges. Recently I got the great opportunity to watch a young man explore “The Brain.” He’s at that stage of life where he’s getting a sense of himself in the world at large. There is for him a dawning awareness of just how big the world and its issues and its forces can be.

As he explored, sort of posturing as he went, not wanting to be too interested, trying to maintain his cool, on-top-of-the-world football star swagger, he unrolled one of the hidden messages like a fortune from a cookie, and he read these words from a 1912 New York Times editorial titled “Education or Extermination”: The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination. The mountaineer, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson. As he read, his jaw dropped and he impulsively showed everyone around him. That back and forth between magical, playful elements and jaw-dropping, serious understanding is our aim.

We seek to make the studio and gardens spiritually and physically a healthy, nourishing place by amending once neglected soil through intensive composting and sharing with others the abundance of what grows here: art, food, and human relationships through mutual exchange.

Michelle Waters: I think the moments that struck me the most were when I was working in the garden, people I didn’t know would drive by and smile, honk, wave, as if they supported the act, the momentum of what we were doing. That felt really special to me. I also really enjoy the concrete blocks that have become a part of the garden’s retaining walls—the blocks that we made with the local boys and girls club, creating art together that they could see when they walked through the neighborhood, and be proud because they helped make their part of the planet more beautiful.

KB: How have you grown within the collective and in interactions with communities you’ve served?

GS: Fighting the bitterness that stems from living in proximity to what some call a “sacrifice zone” isn’t as hard as it once was, and the desire to punish others for their inhumanity doesn’t burn as strongly. Doling out punishment isn’t my job, and with that burden removed I can grow into being a healthier participant in this creation we share. I’ve witnessed suicidal individuals become more forgiving of themselves and seen people at wit’s end come here to ground themselves, seeking comfort and a chance to deal with the trauma that comes from life.

KB: How do you make decisions—regular, structured meetings, or another way?

GS: We have had regular meetings. We are currently working on our own projects, but we come together every so often to reconnect. We discuss things as if we were a family sitting around the kitchen table weighing facts, opinions, options, then sorting the tasks that need to be completed to reach our group goals. It is not a clean, efficient business model. It doesn’t run itself, but this method has produced some wondrous results. I think we go by instinct, or hunches. Michelle wanted to create the exhibit at PVG Artisans. Anthony and Todd wanted to do the steampunk show in Athens [Ohio]. Those turned out well on many levels. We constantly adapt to challenges.

KB: No other studio captures the spirit of this region, its traditions, realities, and potential, better than REsolve Studios. I know that your art offers chances for exploration and delight, with serious educational implications. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about John Steinbeck, community, and art at

Photo of Michelle Waters, Todd Morrow, Lisa Haney-Bammerlin, and Geoff Schenkel by Cynthia Davis.

Photo of “The Victorian Brain” courtesy REsolve Studios.

Photo of Anthony Wilson courtesy Michele Coleman.

Steinbeck Star Rises to the Occasion: Susan Shillinglaw Named Interim Director of National Steinbeck Center

Image of John Steinbeck star Susan Shillinglaw

Susan Shillinglaw has a PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill, a bibliography as long as your arm, and star status as an internationally celebrated professor of English at San Jose State University, where she teaches a course devoted to John Steinbeck and formerly served as director of San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. No disrespect intended, but years after earning her UNC-Chapel Hill degree she looks more like a graduate student than a “senior scholar,” living proof that people who love their work really do keep their youth.

No disrespect intended, but years after earning her UNC-Chapel Hill degree Susan looks more like a graduate student than a ‘senior scholar.’

Watching Susan in action, you wonder when she sleeps—organizing conferences, writing books, editing reissues of John Steinbeck works famous for the fluent style of her helpful introductions. She lives with her husband, a marine biologist, in laid-back Pacific Grove, John Steinbeck’s former home, but clocks more frequent-flyer miles on Steinbeck business than some CEOs. Her management portfolio now includes the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where she was named interim director following Colleen Bailey’s appointment as managing director of the Monterey Jazz Festival.

She lives with her husband in laid-back Pacific Grove, but clocks more frequent-flyer miles on Steinbeck business than some CEOs.

From its inception, Susan has served as an organizer, board member, and resident expert for the Salinas center, which has struggled against local odds to live up to its national name. The Monterey County Weekly reported last week on the slow pace of the lease-back deal to relieve finances by selling the center’s downtown Salinas building to San Jose State University’s sister school, California State Monterey Bay, saying of Susan that “she doesn’t like the term ‘limbo.’ It implies inactivity, and she say’s that’s not what’s happening.”

Susan has served as an organizer, board member, and resident expert for the Salinas center, which has struggled against local odds to live up to its national name.

According to the newspaper, Susan wants to increase active collaboration between the Steinbeck center at San Jose State University where she teaches and the one in Salinas, California, a distinction she understands can be confusing to outsiders, despite the physical and cultural distance between the two venues: “She wants to join the forces of the San Jose State and Salinas Steinbeck Centers next year in a synergistic partnership to share programming, attendance and advertising.”

‘She wants to join the forces of the San Jose State and Salinas Steinbeck Centers next year in a synergistic partnership to share programming, attendance and advertising.’

Speaking as a friend of Susan’s and a fellow PhD-graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, I can’t imagine anyone better prepared by education, experience, or energy to bridge existing gaps and make John Steinbeck, her life’s work, more accessible to the public.

Love John Steinbeck and Care about International Affairs? Subscribe Today to Steinbeck Review

Cover image of spring 2015 issue of John Steinbeck Review

John Steinbeck ideas and events are international affairs. Need proof? The current issue of Steinbeck Review, a scholarly journal published in the spring and fall for San Jose State University by Penn State Press, demonstrates Steinbeck’s global relevance in an array of articles, book reviews, and announcements of interest to Steinbeck lovers everywhere. Four academic experts—Susan Shillinglaw, Melinda Pham, TK Martin, and Pete Barraza—discuss the topic “Teaching and Living Steinbeck’s Stories” based on decades of classroom experience. Mimi Gladstein, a professor in Texas, focuses on “Immigration Issues: Steinbeck’s Continued Relevance.” Other contributors connect Steinbeck’s writing to issues of ecology, economy, and technology, international affairs of equal importance today. A helpful list of books and papers about John Steinbeck published in 2012-13 further confirms Steinbeck’s continuing appeal, despite declining readership for other authors of his generation. So does a pair of book reviews—one about discovering post-Steinbeck America on the road (with your dog), another about the ongoing controversy over Steinbeck’s alleged involvement with the CIA. The announcement that San Jose State University will host a conference on John Steinbeck’s internationalism in May of 2016, the first such event since 2013, is particularly welcome news for readers of Steinbeck Review outside the United States. Love John Steinbeck’s fiction and follow international affairs? Do yourself a favor. Subscribe today.

Happy Birthday to Oliver Sacks, On the Move at 82

Image of Oliver Sacks, author of On the Move: A Life

The literary neuroscientist Oliver Sacks will be 82 next month. Robin Williams, who portrayed Sacks in the 1990 film Awakenings, would be 64 in July if he were still alive. Like John Steinbeck, both men broke boundaries in inspired work that defied convention, created controversy, and kept wowing the public year after year. Luckily, Sacks has written a memoir—On the Move: A Life—that will please fans of Sacks, Robin Williams, and John Steinbeck, whose novel Cannery Row moved Sacks to consider becoming a marine biologist as a boy in post-World War II England.

Cover image of Oliver Sacks's memoir, On the Move

Sacks became a doctor instead, but he emulated Steinbeck by also becoming a bestselling writer—so brilliantly that he’s been described as the poet laureate of medicine. Migraine, his first book, was published in 1970. The next, Awakenings, appeared in 1973. It was adapted as an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in 1989 and helped make Oliver Sacks a synonym for science you can understand.

Oliver Sacks became a doctor, but he emulated John Steinbeck by also becoming a bestselling writer—so brilliantly that he’s been described as the poet laureate of medicine.

Since Awakenings, Sacks has written more books and hundreds of articles about the miracles, mysteries, and malfunctions of the human brain, his specialty. Like Steinbeck, he records real life in his writing, narrating clinical case histories with the compelling power of the best fiction. Also like Steinbeck, he’s autobiographical by nature, and his case histories frequently include himself. Migraine grew out of his personal experience with the debilitating condition, which I learned from my former boss Dr. William Langston—author of The Case of the Frozen Addicts (1995)—is common among neurologists.

Like Steinbeck, he records real life in his writing, narrating clinical case histories with the compelling power of the best fiction.

An avid motorcyclist addicted to speed, Oliver Sacks wrote A Leg to Stand On (1984) after losing the awareness of one of his legs following an accident. A music lover who plays the piano, he wrote Musicophilia (2007) about patients with unusual musical obsessions. When cancer cost him sight in one eye he wrote The Mind’s Eye (2010), an amazing account of the ways in which visually impaired people perceive and communicate. Six months ago he learned that the cancer has spread to his liver. On the Move may be his last book.

Image of portrait of John Steinbeck by artist Jack Couglin

In the first chapter Sacks recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a teenager attending school outside London, where his parents and uncles practiced medicine. (Two of his brothers became doctors; a third, also brilliant, is bipolar.) After graduating from Oxford and finishing his medical training, he left England for America, where he has treated patients, taught, and written since 1960. He interned in San Francisco and completed his residency at UCLA during the period when John Steinbeck was writing The Winter of Our Discontent, Travels With Charley, and America and Americans. Though On the Move doesn’t mention meeting Steinbeck, it details Sacks’s friendship with other writers, including the poets W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn— gay men who, like Sacks, left England for the sexual freedom of San Francisco and New York.

In the first chapter Sacks recalls reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a teenager attending school outside London.

Like John Steinbeck, Oliver Sacks bloomed in California, falling in love with San Francisco, living in Los Angeles, and exploring Baja California in his travels and writing. Like Steinbeck, Sacks was influenced by the California writer Jack London, whose People of the Abyss provided a working title for the book that became Awakenings. Like Steinbeck and London, he was attracted to drugs and alcohol, suffered from depression, and found healing in the act of writing. In 1968, the year Steinbeck died, Sacks encountered the book that inspired Awakenings—A.R. Luria’s Mind of a Mnemonist: “I read the first thirty pages thinking it was a novel. But then I realized that it was in fact a case history—the deepest and most detailed case history I had ever read, a case history with the dramatic power, the feeling, and the structure of a novel.”

Like Steinbeck and Jack London, Sacks was attracted to drugs and alcohol, suffered from depression, and found healing in the act of writing.

Like Steinbeck, Sacks eventually left California for New York, where he saw patients at Beth Abraham Hospital, began writing for the New Yorker, and ended up teaching at a succession of star schools, including Columbia, New York University, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The true story told by Sacks in Awakenings unfolded at Beth Abraham, where comatose patients suffering from an extreme form of parkinsonianism caused by encephalitis lethargicus responded dramatically when treated with the drug L-dopa. Among them was “Lenny L,” the patient played by Robert De Niro in the movie adaptation of Awakenings. Robin Williams played Oliver Sacks, the story’s empathetic neurologist-narrator—what John Steinbeck called the authorial character found in any good novel.

Image of Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in the movie Awakenings

The movie brought the author and the actor together in much the way John Steinbeck met Burgess Meredith and Henry Fonda 50 years earlier. Sacks reacted to Williams as Steinbeck did to Fonda—with awe. Before the filming of Awakenings began, Williams and Sacks visited a geriatric ward “where half a dozen patients were shouting and talking bizarrely all at once. Later, as we drove away, Robin suddenly exploded with an incredible playback of the ward, imitating everyone’s voice and style to perfection. He had absorbed all the different voices and conversations and held them in his mind with total recall, and now he was reproducing them, or, almost, being possessed by them.”

Image of Robin Williams in the film role of Oliver Sacks

Then Williams began imitating Sacks, too—“my mannerisms, my postures, my gait, my speech—all sorts of things of which I had been hitherto unconscious.” The experience, says Sacks, was uncanny and a bit uncomfortable, “like suddenly acquiring a younger twin.” As On the Move reveals, however, the real Ed Ricketts figure in Sacks’s life wasn’t Robin Williams but Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer who died from cancer, age 60, in 2002. Gould’s version of non-teleology, the idea dramatized by Steinbeck in Cannery Row, is called contingency, a concept drawn from modern sociobiology that would have appealed to Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck.

The real Ed Ricketts figure in Sacks’s life wasn’t Robin Williams but Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist and science popularizer who died from cancer, age 60, in 2002.

Like Steinbeck, Oliver Sacks as a writer engages me for personal reasons. I read Awakenings when my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in her 70s. I read Musicophilia with the curiosity of an amateur pianist, a trait I share with Steinbeck and Sacks. I read Sacks’s earlier memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), while working for The Scripps Research Institute. There I met another hero of On the Move, the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman, who graciously autographed my copy of his wonderful book Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (2004). Edelman, a violinist and Nobel Laureate, was suffering from Parkinson’s, another link. The final pages of On the Move are devoted to Edelman’s elegant insights (“Every perception is an act of creation”), dissecting Edelman’s metaphor of a musical ensemble to explain how our minds work through reentrant signaling, the complex process that “allows the brain to categorize its own categorizations.”

The final pages of On the Move are devoted to Gerald Edelman’s elegant insights, dissecting Edelman’s metaphor of a musical ensemble to explain how our minds work.

Like Robin Williams, Gerald Edelman died in 2014, while Oliver Sacks was writing On the Move, and Edelman’s string quartet metaphor seems a good way to end this review. As an artist Sacks, like Williams, is more virtuoso than ensemble member. As a writer, like Steinbeck he’s a restless experimenter, constantly on the move between the worlds of art and science. Williams’s genius was visual mimicry, verbal speed, and comic improvisation. Oliver Sacks’s great gift—like John Steinbeck’s—is telling stories that explore the depths of suffering and the heights of hope in words anyone can understand. It’s sad that On the Move may be his last book, but a joy to celebrate his birthday. Five stars for On the Move and a toast to Oliver Sacks!

Oliver Sacks died at his home in Manhattan on August 30, 2015. On the Move topped the list of the year’s best books compiled by Brain Pickings.—Ed.


Three Poems by Roy Bentley Praising the Gods Among Us

Image of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

“All That’s Missing Are the Slamming Doors”

—James Kaplan, Frank: The Voice

By 1950 Ava and Frank fought so frequently it began to affect
Frank’s performances, his voice stressed from hours of yelling.

They’d started checking in to separate suites in the same hotel.
In order to take time outs. Let the adrenaline rush fade a little.

One night, they were at it. Arguing. Ava Gardner complaining
to sister Bappie. About his mobster pals. Frank wasn’t there;

he’d gone back to his room. Ava was using words she adored.
Big words. Saying, “Bappie, he’s cosseted.” The phone rang.

It was Frank: I might as well kill myself. Then the gunshot.
And of course she rushed over. There was a body on a bed.

A gun in the hand of the body, a blue smoke ungarrisoned
from the gun. And Ava Gardner threw herself on the body

and the body rolled over and said, Ava? like she was crazy.
Gunshots—even one gunshot—in the middle of the night

meant David O. Selznick was sent for to handle police,
the newspapers. What are we to make of this? Nothing.

Unless you’re Frank Sinatra and see the nineteen fifties
as a river in flood, all the boats tasked with one rescue.

Image of Paul Newman

Newman as Newman

The afternoon Gloria Regalbuto answered Paul Newman’s
question about his race car, a red-white-and-blue 300 ZX,
Number 33, they were at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

She was a worker at an information desk, Newman was
Newman, and yet she managed, Off the track. Corner 7.
He had a can of Budweiser in his hand. Drank. Aimed

it-would-be-worth-it blue eyes at her. She wasn’t driving.
He was from Cleveland—where she was born, grew up—
and he asked. And she mouthed what a passenger voice

in her Bose headphones told her to say. She was a wife,
kids—a boy (Eoin) and a girl (Erin)—a PhD from OSU.
In this other capacity, she had inspected his underwear,

white Nomex with the red P.L. Newman over one breast.
He was 62. Gray-white at the temples. Thin as memory.
If she ever wanted a story to watch her back like anyone

searching the rear view for a next danger, next triumph,
here was that story: the V-8 blare of Camaros Firebirds
Mustangs Barracudas saying 1987 would be in her ears

for months, Newman finishing 5th (next day) because
a life is an endurance race you never win without
risking everything as you shout Shit! and leap.

Image of Erinn Ruth and Gloria Regalbuto Bentley


Here comes the grim-faced urologist in surgical scrubs,
the bluegreen uniform in the service of the way of all flesh.
When he stops, his speech affixes the confining fit of gravitas
to the subject at hand. He says he doesn’t know anything yet.
No novice, he brushes off a Thank you like a blood spatter.
The guy across from me is in street clothes and drinking
Schweppes Ginger Ale through a bendable drinkstraw.
I recall the IV sedation. What I said to a nurse who
woke me after, saying Roy once and then Roy again:
it was as if I had been in bed with a three-day fever
and it had broken and hers was the first face I’d seen—
I told her that I thought God a woman, a black woman.
And all right with my saying that, she said, You can talk
as if male citizens of the Garden State are always talking
and here’s this one more dumb ass coming out of his fog.
Something to say about the world. His small place in it.
In the lobby of Shore Outpatient Surgicenter I had heard
two Italian men recall the movie Moonstruck, one saying
he never forgot Nicholas Cage telling Cher that most men
are unfaithful in order to cheat death. And so I’m thinking
about that—men, death, lies—when an attendant arrives.
He’s a white goatee his mouth opens and closes within.
Another bearer of anonymous kindness. I recall telling
the RN borrowing the face of God that I meant what
I said to her, even coming awake like that, and I hear
Go through there, urinate, and you can get dressed.
The stream is bloody. I don’t know what to make
of what I let go that scalds the water and the white
bowl red-orange, but it’s spring near the Atlantic
and redbuds stain the frail air on the drive home.

Photo of Erinn Ruth and Gloria Regalbuto Bentley by Roy Bentley.

James Franco Writes About Motion Picture Adaptation of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle

Image of James Franco in Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle

It isn’t surprising that James Franco has made a specialty of John Steinbeck. The 37-year-old actor grew up in Palo Alto, California, where Steinbeck attended college. Following high school, Franco dropped in and out of jobs and trouble—as Steinbeck did at the same age—before majoring in writing at UCLA, studying art at the Rhode Island School of Design, and pursuing a PhD in English at Yale. Like Steinbeck during the Great Depression, Franco is attracted to social causes by personal experience: exposing troubled kids to literature and advocating equal rights for gay people. A prolific writer, he recently blogged about his motion picture adaptation of Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel In Dubious Battle, scheduled for release this year. Franco’s connection to Steinbeck is strong, so the movie should be good.