What am I? I've been called everything from an extreme liberal to an ultra-conservative. I am neither. I have been labeled a “Nazi” because of my numerous interviews with Hitler's adjutants, secretaries, doctors, and military leaders, both SS and Wehrmacht. I loved the remark the Soviets made in 1976 about me being “the leading Western running-dog, lacky historian.” I would have put it on my stationery, if I bothered to have stationery. On the other hand, the People's Republic of China has published five of my books.
I fell for Communism when I was a young man, like so many others in those days who were idealistic and thought a lot about the world and people. We were attracted by the humanitarianism in Communism, and we were innocent. By being with those people, I learned more about Communism, and saw how they distorted the truth. For example, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, we were called in and told that we were no longer the American peace mobilizers, but were now part of a united front against the peace campaign. “The hell you say,” I replied. “I'm still against the war.” I was criticized for that, but after the Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor, I changed. I went down and enlisted in the air force.
Well, what am I? God knows! I belong to no school of history. I'm not a conventional historian, but primarily a teller of tales without thesis. I deal with history's human side, portraying history through the experiences of participants of all ranks. I write what I call li that you've been Japanized.” I replied, “Yes, and it's about time.”
She then asked me why I was writing about Hitler, and I said: “I think that he was the greatest mover and shaker of our century. He changed all of our lives, and I'm going to try to tell the objective story of Hitler.” She then said to me: “Toland, nobody is objective.” And I replied, “Speak for yourself, Barbara.”
As a matter of fact, I liked her work, and I have never criticized her books. I just couldn't understand why she thought I was a Nazi. Was it just because important Nazis visited me at our home?
One of them was Hitler's SS adjutant, Richard Schulze-Kossens. I interviewed him in his home in Germany, and I got great stuff from him. He visited our house three times on lengthy stays - he was always bringing me new information. I would invite my friends over to meet these Nazis, whom they also found to be human beings. Much of my information came from people who still believed in Hitler. But why should I have relied only on Germans who were against Hitler? In fact, I just couldn't trust those Germans who said after the war, “I never liked Adolf Hitler!”
As a playwright who has written twenty unproduced plays, I look upon each of my histories as a drama. I strive to let the contestants on all sides act freely, uninhibited by my own conclusions. I simply observe them and try to make some meaning out of the drama. I take no sides and I treat all the actors equally, regardless of nationality. I try to understand the motivations of those involved, regardless of rank or status.
This is “living history.” I tell it as it happens, without giving any hints or foreshadowings of how the drama will end. To accomplish this, I must first spend many months reading other histories and accounts, and working in archives and libraries. Then I start mass-interviewing. I will go anywhere to get a good story, to get as close to the truth as possible. I must go to the places where the battles were fought, where critical conferences were held. I've got to learn what the characters were wearing, what the weather was, what they thought — everything in order to gain insight. And that is living history.
My concept of living history had its beginnings when I was fourteen years old. My father was a singer, a fine baritone, and my mother was an artist. All our friends were writers, dramatists, artists, and so forth. I had no idea what bankers or businessmen were like, and by the age of twelve I had decided to be a writer.
When I was fourteen a man named Porter Emerson Browne came to live with us. Porter had been a very successful playwright, but when his wife died he'd became an alcoholic. (My father, like most Irish, was sure he could cure anything.) Within a week, Porter was my idol. He was a little fat guy with false teeth, which he used to take out of his mouth and twirl as he talked to me. He once taught me to cheat at cards while twirling his false teeth. (He told me that if I was going to be a writer, I would have to know how to cheat, so that I wouldn't be cheated by others.)
Porter's most famous play was The Bad Man , a very successful comedy. It ran on Broadway for two years and was made into a motion picture with Wallace Beery. It was about Pancho Villa. But the Bad Man was not a “bad man” — he was really a good man.
I asked Porter why his play was such a success, and he replied: “I rode with Pancho Villa for two years. I knew him. I knew that he was a great patriot. I wanted to write a play about him and I knew that if I wrote a serious play, no one would take it seriously. So I decided to present him in this way so that for the first time the real truth about Pancho Villa could be understood by the average American, who was convinced that he was simply a criminal.” Well, this touched me, and I wanted to do the same thing. Porter Browne began to teach me about playwrighting.
He stayed with us for two years. And before he left, he told me: “John, there's one thing that I must imprint in your mind — never forget, no matter what you write: don't tell'it, show it.” I've been showing it ever since. In other words, most historians talk about and describe everything as if it were not even part of life. I use my playwrighting experience to show it from an objective point of view, to bring it to life. And because I interview so many people, I have sometimes been severely criticized.
While I was doing research on the dirigible, Hindenburg, I interviewed ten people who had survived the disastrous fire and crash. Do you think any of them will ever forget that day? Do you think that anyone who was in any of those great battles of World War II will ever forget what happened to them? Nowadays, of course, everybody goes around with a tape recorder and interviews people, but when I first began writing, they didn't realize this.
When I graduated from high school I was in no shape to go to college. So I worked in the Norwalk Tire Factory in order to go to Phillips Exeter Academy to learn how to study. Best thing I ever did. From there I went to Williams College, a wonderful school. It was very conservative, but they had two or three left-wing professors so you could hear both sides of every issue.
They also had a system whereby if you received a certain mark by your junior year, you could go into honors work, working with one teacher. I strove to do my best, and as a result my marks were high enough that I had two honors work teachers. One French, with whom I did French literature and drama, and the other was a delightful fellow in English who taught me playwrighting.
While going to school, I managed, my senior year, the Williams Christian Association Book Store. After finding out what books the professors would be assigning in their classes, I would send my spies to two competing book stores, where they would buy up all the books for a third of the price that I sold them for. As a result, by graduation day in 1936 I had made more than $5,000 - which was big money in those days.
That day a guy from Esso corporation [now Exxon] came up. The man who owned Barnes & Noble (a Williams man) had told him about me. So the man from Esso told me that he wanted me to begin as a junior executive with a very good starting salary. My first assignment would be in the South Pacific. I told him that I was honored by his offer, but that I would be going to the Yale Drama School because I was going to be a playwright. He looked at me and said, “What a waste of talent!” He didn't realize that I made money so I could write — it wasn't for the desire of making money. Otherwise, I might have eventually become head of Exxon. Wouldn't that be terrible?
I didn't want to go back home, so I went to New York. I packed a knapsack and went riding freight trains. I loved it, and I had a marvelous time. You meet a better class of people riding freight trains. The first time I went to California I hitchhiked. But hitchhikers are a low breed. On the way I saw a freight train loaded with guys sitting on top, all waving to me to get on. They ranged in age from about 12 to 16 years, all young farmers. They were wonderful people, guys you could trust, and they taught me how to ride freight trains. So for the next three years I had a wonderful time seeing the best part of America.
Traveling like that, you take along water and newspapers, which you use as blankets. You usually go with three guys. The older fellow would guard our bindles. (We were called bindlestiffs in those days.) Another guy would set off and hit all the bakeries for day-old bread and meat ends. The third guy would be the star of the show. He would hit up people for ten or fifteen cents, which would last us until the next stop.
I was Phi Beta Kappa, and that became my job. By studying how it was done, I became a terrific panhandler. I didn't whine or anything like that. But I knew how to pick 'em. If a guy looks prosperous, leave him alone. I'd stay away from neighborhoods where the lawns are cut clean and neat. People there don't like panhandlers. But where lawns are neglected, and there are dogs and children, they'll help you. And if you're really desperate, go to the very poor. They will always give you something to eat.
All this taught me so much, and I wrote all about it. The concept of seeing human beings observing them and seeing how they act and interact, not caring about their religion or rank or anything, but letting them act, instead of forcing them to do something they don't do I found this fascinating.
By the time I was 41 I had written thirty-five plays none produced; hundreds of unsold short stories and four unpublished novels. Two years later I had published a dozen factual articles and my book on dirigibles, Ships in the Sky. Then I visited Washington to research a book on the depression. The Army was wonderfully helpful — they gave me so much material. Well, that afternoon, I was called by Ted Clifton, who later became John Kennedy's right-hand man. He told me that he had read my book on dirigibles, and liked the way I treated enlisted personnel. He said that he wanted me to do the same for the GI. He turned over to me all the materials about the Battle of the Bulge that the historians were working on, and he said that he would send me over to the Seventh Army in Germany with orders, and that it wouldn't cost me anything. So I set off. I didn't know I was going to be a historian. I was just going to write a story.
I hated all Germans! Naturally, a good American should. And then I arrive in Germany, where General Bruce Clarke ordered people who had been in the Battle of the Bulge to meet and talk with me. Some of these fellows told me about their experiences with the Germans. Then, after a while, Bruce said, “Now I want you to really get to know the enemy.”
General Hasso von Manteuffel was one of the main commanders in the battle. He was a famous German commander, and his grand uncle had been a Prussian field marshal. Well, Clarke phoned him in Bonn where he represented the “lost” province of Prussia, and he said: “Manteuffel, Clarke here. I'm going to send an American up to see you, and I'd appreciate it if you would see him for the next five days.”
So I went to the U.S. Embassy, where we met. Manteuffel was wearing civilian clothes, but he still looked like a soldier. He was only five foot, two inches, but he was a great athlete. I hated him. He was the most Prussian of Prussians. He looked at me, in my sloppy clothes, and so forth, and he hated me. Well, then we started in. As I went after him, I began to see that this man was honest. He was telling me the truth about his relations with Hitler. And he said to me, “Toland, you only want to know what happened!” And I said, “Yes.” Well then he really opened up and told me everything.
After we got to know each other better, he told me that he was planning to run for public office, and he asked me what I thouught about a campaign poster that showed him in uniform. “Forget it,” I said. “No one is going to vote for you now. You ought to go down to southern Germany and live and enjoy youself.” “ But,” he said, “they tell me I'll win.” “You won't,” I replied. Well, he didn't. Instead, he went south and enjoyed life, and we remained fast friends for the next twenty years. He was also my conduit to former Wehrmacht people because, he said, I could be trusted.
Then I heard from an American about a man named Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian who became famous by rescucing Mussolini in a commando operation. This American had been a GI where the Malmedy massacre [during the Battle of the Bulge] took place. He and a dozen other Americans were stuck during the battle in a hotel, and thought they were go to be killed. Then one night this big face looked down at them and said, “You are now my prisoners.”
It was Skorzeny, who commanded a special regiment of German soldiers dressed as American GIs. He took the Americans prisoner and thereby saved them. The former GI said that Skorzeny now lives in Madrid, and he asked if I would like to talk to him. I said, “You're talking about 'Scarface,' the guy that was going to kill Eisenhower, a criminal whom you say saved your lives?” In those days, everyone was trying to find Skorzeny, but this former GI was ready to direct me to him.
So I went down to Spain and found him in two hours! I met this huge man, like a mountain, who had a big scar. Wow! I had to tell him that I was John Toland, and that I was going to write a book about the Battle of the Bulge. And he replied, “I've been waiting for you.”
Well, he took me home, cooked me dinner, and we had a marvelous time. I could see what a marvelous, historical artifact I had found. He loved Hitler! He wasn't like those other characters who talked about how terrible Hitler had been. Skorzeny offered to put me in touch with former SS men living in South America and elsewhere, people like former Belgian SS commander Leon Degrelle. “Fine,” I replied, I'll listen to anybody.” And so he became my conduit to the SS.
I had all these things going for me, and the book itself wasa success. You know, we really screwed up in the Battle of the Bulge, but people love to see us screw up, because we always come out ahead in the last minute of play.
After talking to people like Skorzeny, my perspective and thinking changed. I saw that the Germans had a point, too, and I presented them as human beings. Similarly, I never used pejorative adjectives. You know, it worked!
Fortunately, the people who loved my book, like the GIs who were there, and most of the army brass, wanted to know what the enemy was really like. You see, when two peoples are fighting like this, do you know who the real enemy is? It's often behind them — the guys who are pushing them to fight. The poor birds who have to do the actual fighting have no concept of what is really going on.
I had never been west of Los Angeles, and so I decided to visit the Far East. With my new perspective on history, I decided to write about the first six months after the Pearl Harbor attack. I visited Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Saipan, and the Philippines, and I learned about the Filipinos.
In the Philippines, I was seeing more Filipinos than Americans, because the Americans had stopped helping me. I complained, and as a result the American officer (who was like the “ugly American” character in the novel and motion picture of the same name) asked me if I wanted to meet President Garcia. After hearing my story, President Garcia told a young fellow, Major Ramos, “ I want him taken all over the Philippines.” Imagine that! Here I was, a nobody, and I didn't have to pay a cent. I was taken all over. For example, within an hour after landing at Cebu, a young man told me that former President Osmaña wanted to see me the next morning.
Well, Osmaña was dying when I saw him, and he said to me: “I must tell you the secret that [former president Manuel] Quezon told us never to reveal about the so-called collaborationists.” [That is, Filipino officials who cooperated with the Japanese occupation authorities during the war years]. He told me: “Just before Quezon left to go to America, he called together the six most prominent men in the Philippines, and he ordered them to pretend to collaborate with the Japanese in order to save the country.” They were never to tell the story, and it caused a great sensation when it came out.
I got to meet the Aquinos, whom I've now known for years. I knew Mrs. Aquino [who is now the country's president] when she was a housewife. I never imagined that she would be head of anything. Her husband was the half-brother of my friend, Tony Aquino, who was a playboy. Tony was a wonderful guy, but his life was for pleasure. On the other hand, his younger brother was, at 26, governor of Pampanga. I met all these people, had a wonderful time, before going on to Hong Kong, Taiwan and, finally, Japan
I hated the Japanese, of course, but after arriving in the country, I thought that I'd been had. While observing women clogging along the road with their kids, I thought to myself, “Are these the people I'm supposed to hate? I think I'm wrong.”
Although I was a virtual nobody — I had written only two books - I arrived at the Sanyo Hotel for interviews with Japanese army and navy figures, the most important of whom was General Nara. He had brought along a copy of my book, Battle: the Story of the Bulge. He opened it to the biographical information about myself, and then his interpreter said that Nara wanted to tell me something that no officer should reveal, the general said: “You Williams, me Amherst. Must tell secret of Bataan.” I said, “Back in three days, same place, good interpreter.”
So, that evening I went to the press club and told my tale of woe to all the boys sitting around, and someone pointed to a very attractive young lady named Toshiko Matsumura, who was coming across the room to where we were. They said that she was a very good interpreter. After we met, she asked, “Mr. Toland, are you writing factual book or fiction?” She later often reminded me of my answer, which was: “Only the facts, girl!” At any rate, she liked the idea and offered to help me evenings when she wasn't working.
With her help I got a good story from General Nara. He told me about how he had ordered a colonel to carry out an attack against the American lines, which were protected on one side by a mountain, and on the other by water. The colonel took his troops over the mountain to get them to the rear. They had almost reached the top when they had to come back. The colonel asked General Nara to try again, but Nara refused. Nevertheless, they sneaked out and this time they made it. They got behind the Americans, and that's how they cracked the American line. I tell this story in honor of all those who were involved in this campaign.
Toshiko and I then went to see Admiral Genda, who had been in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was now a general, and he headed the Japanese self defense forces. I became excited as he told me about the attack, and I began to feel like a Japanese participant in the campaign, which was wonderful.
After that, I talked with a flier who had taken part in the sinking of the Prince of Wales, a great British battleship.The Japanese felt so terrible about sinking such a beautiful ship that the next day they flew out and dropped flowers over it! During those days, as I listened to all these things, I thought to myself that these are not the Japanese I had heard so much about. I told these stories in my book But Not in Shame, and I felt that I was beginning to get in touch. And all the time I was thinking of Porter Emerson Browne.
Another hero of mine was Edgar Snow, an editor of the Saturday Evening Post. He had gone to Asia to get the real story about China, which he told in his book, Red Star Over China. I was very glad to finally meet Snow in New York, through my Chinese friends. His book inspired me, and I also wanted to uncover suppressed truth. Instead of the usual bull that you get from the media, I wanted to find out what really happened. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was forming “living history.”
The next book I wanted to write would be about the last one hundred days of the war in Europe. To research it, Toshiko and I spent about eight or nine months driving around in Europe. We toured 21 countries, including five countries behind the Iron Curtain.
We had incredible luck. In Hungary, for example, we got to know that country's most prominent opera singer, who was in charge of foreign travelers. He was a baritone like my father, and so we became friends right away. He warned Toshiko, “Please, madam, don't take so many pictures because the Soviets get very upset if you do that.” He introduced us to Hungarian historians, who told us inside stories about the Soviets. After one such meeting, we found that our car had been broken into and that all of our photographs had been destroyed. However, we continued on our journey. Everywhere, we found people who helped us and provided useful information for my book. In Poland, we were given assistance everywhere.
Probably the most fantastic leg of our journey was in East Germany. This was in 1963, when Americans were not permitted to travel there. It said so in our passports. While we were in West Berlin, I interviewed an American journalist who had been born in Germany. He has been a young boy at the time of the bombing of Dresden in February 1945.
During this interview he made a passing reference to Dresden that moved me to ask if he had been there recently. He begged me not to tell anybody, and I promised that I would keep the secret only if he would tell me how I could also get into the country. So he told me how, and he gave me a letter for a friend of his who was an official in the East German government. We crossed over, met the woman, and gave her the letter. I told her that I was working on a book about the final hundred days of the war from every side, and that we wanted to visit East Germany. She told me to return in four days, but not to tell anybody that I was coming. The night before we left, General Polk, the commanding general in West Berlin, had us over for dinner. When he asked what we would be doing the next day, I told him that we would be returning to West Germany.
Of course we crossed over the border instead, in our Volvo. We met with a young man in the foreign tourist agency who was a devoted Communist, and who was very glad that we wanted to learn about the German Democratic Republic. And so it was that we spent three of the most marvelous weeks of our lives going through East Germany, where we were given every possible help.
The only ones who tried to stop us were the Soviets. For example, Toshiko was always taking pictures of key bridges and buildings. While she did, our young Communist friend would talk to guards to distract them. On one occasion, we visited a location that I wanted to see in order to better tell the story of American prisoners of war. As we were coming down from the hill, where I had noticed that the ground was all torn up, we heard the wail of quickly approaching police sirens. Our young Communist friend told the police that he represented the government, that we were guests of the government, and so forth. (And he told Toshiko, “For God's sake, hide your camera!") So we got away free from there. When I later asked what the police had been so upset about, he told us that the location, of which Toshiko had taken many photos, was a military tank exercise ground.
How did we get back into West Germany? We were waved through a seldom-used crossing point by the West German border police, who assumed that a couple like us — one who looked like a Swede and the other Oriental _ driving a Volvo with West German license plates for foreigners must be okay. We simply drove through, all the time smiling and waving.
The first man we interviewed after returning was Gero von Gaevernitz, who had worked with American OSS official Alan Dulles. He had told us the story of how SS General Wolff had turned over all of the German troops in a famous operation [the German surrender in Italy], without any loss of life.
During our final meeting with von Gaevernitz, he said, “John, where did you come from? We got word from General Polk that you disappeared. What happened?” We told him that we had been in East Germany. He pretended that he wasn't in the CIA at that time, but we knew that he was. And he said to us, “East Germany? You know, you're in real trouble. You'll have to report to this office in the capital. There's no name on it, just a number. It's the CIA, and they'll handle this thing.” Well, nothing ever happened to us. But I'm not going to tell you how we got away with it. You'll have to read our autobiography!
Our history books portray SS GeneralKarl Wolff — whom I've mentioned — as a real swine. Even though he had willingly worked with von Gaevernitz and the Americans in the surrender, he was held prisoner in Stadelheim prison, near Munich. Well, I decided to meet with Wolff, even though no journalist had been permitted inside Stadelheim. I met this commandant, who spoke English, and I told him, “Sir, I want to see General Wolff.” He replied, “You have three minutes.” Well, I knew that the commandant would be interested in my story, so I told him all about it. As a result, I was there for almost three hours, and I got the whole story from Wolff, who explained why he had done what he did, for for which he never got any credit.
Day after day, we had similar experiences in working on The Last Hundred Days , which became our first big bestseller. After that I decided to rewrite my experiences about Japan. I had only been there for six weeks, and I now felt that I knew nothing about the country. I wanted to dig deeper, and so I said to Toshiko, “Let's spend five or six years doing a book.”
I went to my editor at Random House and I told him, “I've got a great idea. I'm going to write a book called The Rising Sun. “ He replied, “About Japan? But no one is interested in Japan.” I said, “I don't give a damn. I'm going to write a book and if you want to publish it, all right.” They reluctantly told me to go ahead. So after much research in the United States, we went to Japan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan and Thailand, where we spent a year and a half. That was probably the most fruitful time of my life. Moreover, I was finally getting to understand things and people.
I learned that Toshiko's father knew many key officials in Japan. The most important of these was Marquis Kido, the Privy Seal who had been the chief advisor to the emperor. He had also kept the so-called Kido diaries. Even though he had worked with the emperor for peace, he was sentenced to life imprisonment as a war criminal. And because the Americans had taken his diary and had defectively translated it, and would not pay attention to his corrections, hated Americans. I told my father-in-law that I had to see him. So he phoned Kido who agreed to meet with me.
He was a short fellow, about five feet tall, but he had tremendous authority. For two days he seemed to look right through me as we talked. And then suddenly he said to me, “You only want to know what happened!” I said, “Yes, I only want to know what happened!” He responded, “Why didn't you tell me?” He then opened up and during the course of my six or seven interviews, we got to the heart of this whole story.
Whenever I interviewed someone, whether they were a president or a private, and regardless of nationality _ Itreated everyone the same — I routinely sent the material back for checking. Other authors I knew warned me that I was crazy to do this, and that I would lose every good story this way. In fact, I never lost a good story. In the case of Marquis Kido, for example, he sent us numerous pages. For one thing, I had got his religion wrong, his name wrong, and about ten other things like that. Most importantly, he explained that I had not understood what his special relationship with the emperor was. He then explained this in great detail, and told me many things he had not previously related.
The Germans were astounded by this practice of mine, which I followed in each case, no matter who the person was. The person was able to see that I could be trusted. The few things that people wanted removed were personal matters.
It took me a week to persuade Hitler's youngest secretary, Traudl Junge, to really agree to an interview. After several unproductive hours, her sister said to her in German, “Why don't you give it to him?” I wondered what she meant. Finally with a pleading look, I told her I would send back everything and she could check it. In her case, it came back as a thick manuscript about her personal relationship with Adolf Hitler — a gold mine. I had my interpreter make copies, and I returned her material before the time she had specified.
In the book's section about her, I included a portion telling how Hitler liked to arrange romances in the office. He'd had arranged a romance and a marriage with a young SS officer, for example. Well, she blew her top and wrote me a scathing letter. I replied by asking what she was kicking about. I told her that if she didn't want it, I would cut it out. So we cut that out. However, she never cut anything about Hitler.
I respect the right of whomever I interview, and I accurately relate what I'm told. As a result, I was trusted by both Nazis and anti-Nazis — they all knew that I knew everybody else. It's crazy, but I don't know anybody else who does this, and I don't understand why.
Well, I was very unhappy about what I'd written about Hitler in my two previous books. I regarded it as two-dimensional, and not the real Hitler. So I decided to write a book about him. After talking to my wife about this project, I spent six years working on the book. I returned to Germany, where I interviewed many people. Manteuffel and Skorzeny were very helpful.
Let me tell you about Otto Skorzeny. While working on The Last Hundred Days , we met with him in Spain, where he told us the marvelous story about Hungarian leader Horthy's secret deal with the Soviets to switch sides. Hitler found out about this and called in Skorzeny, who was his favorite troubleshooter. He told him that he could have a regiment to take care of the situation in Hungary. Skorzeny replied, “Sir, I want one tank and 25 men. And I want a truck.” So he went to Hungary and successfully carried out “Operation Mickey Mouse.” (Horthy's son was called Miki.)
Skorzeny had been inspired by reading George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra(as a young girl) is stolen away from a kind of lighthouse by wrapping her in a carpet. So Skorzeny got a big rug and took it to young Horthy's apartment on Castle Hill, the huge government headquarters. After saying to him “Miki, I've got a present for you,” he shot him in the arm, rolled him up in the rug, packed him in the truck, put him on a plane and sent him off to Hitler. Skorzeny then phoned Horthy and told him, “Your son's about to be sent to the Fuhrer's headquarters. What would you like me to do with him?” Horthy said, “I never wanted him to do this, tell me what you want me to do.” Skorzeny told him that he wanted his cooperation in taking over Castle Hill. And so with just one tank and 25 men, Skorzeny took over the entire citadel within an hour. He was most proud of the fact that he had accomplished it without almost no deaths — he killed four Hungarians and lost two of his own men. Otto Skorzeny also told me about his great friend Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who was one of the Fuhrer's greatest heroes. He was a Stuka pilot who had sunk a Soviet battleship and destroyed more than 500 Soviet tanks. A superman. Skorzeny told me the story of how Rudel had lost one leg during the last hundred days, was grounded and told that he would never fly again. When Skorzeny heard that this great athlete had lost his leg, he was very unhappy and visited his friend. When he arrived, he heard strange thumping noises coming from Rudel's room. He opened the door and found Rudel banging his stump against the table. Otto shouted, “Oh God, don't do that!” Rudel said, “Hi Otto, how are you doing?” and Otto responded, “What the hell are you doing?” Rudel answered, “Getting my leg tough so I can go back in my Stuka. My mechanics are fixing it so that I can fly it with one leg.” And do you know that this guy went back to his plane? Can you imagine the pull of diving like that, the pain? Hitler was furious when he heard, because he had ordered Rudel never to go up again. He regarded him almost as a son.
To get back to my story, Otto asked me if I had communicated with Rudel, who lived in Chile. After I told him that he would not answer my letters, Otto picked up the phone, reached Rudel in Chile, and told him “Toland says you're afraid to see him.” Skorzeny then looked at me and said, “He'll be here tomorrow.”
Otto told me more about his friend. “Do you know Rudel has become a champion skier? With one leg? And not only that, did you know that last year he went on a climb of the highest mountain in Chile? He went up with ten people and was abandoned, with no skis and one leg, and after three weeks he came down again?” This was a superman; I was eager to talk with him.
And that's how Otto, Toshiko and I found ourselves at the airport waiting for this man with one leg. All of a sudden we saw this youngish man running as if he had three legs. It was Rudel. Otto served as our translator. Even though he had a curious English that was entirely his own, we managed to get a terrific story from Rudel.
I later became very friendly with Rudel. You may know he was one of the leaders of the neo-Nazi group. I visited him and his beautiful new wife and their two-year-old child at his new home on the border of Austria and Germany. When he told us of all his ideas about changing Germany, I said, “Gee, why don't you just enjoy life.” He simply said, “No. What can I do for you?” I told him about Hitler's air force adjutant, a snob who was the only Hitler adjutant I was not able to meet. So Rudel phoned this fellow and told him, “Rudel here. Toland is here and he's going to tell our story. You are going to see him.” And that's how he got this air force snob to see me.
Meeting a man such as Rudel was really something. For example, as he told me, at the end of the war he refused to let the enemy capture him. He flew directly to an American airfield in spite of their guns and so forth. Later, British airmen treated him chivalrously and were glad to shake the hand of the great Rudel. Doug Bader, a great British ace and his country's most popular airman, lost both legs during the war, but flew with artificial limbs. He sent Rudel his first artificial leg.
After completing my biography of Hitler, I was disgusted with this whole subject, and I wanted to get away from it. What made Hitler do all these things? So I decided to look into the First World War, and I began to work on a book entitled No Man's Land.
In response to my book The Rising Sun I received many letters — mostly from naval officers — who told me that I was mistaken in writing that Roosevelt did not know in advance that the Japanese task force was on its way to attack Pearl Harbor. I received so many letters that I told Toshiko that I might have made a terrible mistake. I decided to write another book and find out if I had been wrong. Well, I went at it in my usual manner and within a year found out that I had been mistaken. Franklin Roosevelt did know. For example, after a two-year search I had located a certain Admiral Ranneft, a Dutchman. In late 1941 he had been a captain, and was serving as the Dutch naval attaché in Washington.
After we established contact, he wrote to me: “You might be interested in my story. Did you know that I was the one who brought the plan for the Bofors anti-aircraft guns to the U.S. Navy, and because of that they used to let me into the Navy secret intelligence office all the time? And on December 3, 1941, I went in there and they told me they had discovered two apparent carriers, obviously Japanese, heading towards the east. When I returned there on the afternoon of December 6, I asked where the two carriers were now. The commanding officer motioned to a man who went up to the board and pointed to an area two hundred miles from Pearl Harbor".
"Wow! That's a great story,” I told Ranneft, “but I just can't just take your word for it. What about some documentation?” It's in my war diary,” he replied. “You know, some of it burned up here, but I sent the rest to The Hague. Why don't you inquire there?”
Two weeks later, I received the entire December 1941 portion of his diary. Everything he told me was right there, proving that we knew that the Japanese were coming. By the way, that evidence has been pooh-poohed by those who can't believe it.
Another great lead: one evening a man phoned me to tell me that he had been the person who had located the Japanese force in the Pacific. He was just a young navy enlisted man at the time, but he was a brilliant electronics specialist and eventually became a millionaire because of his inventions. (For example, he invented the anchor that is used by all of our small craft. Everyone who has a yacht uses one.) So after listening to what he had to say, I said, “Fine. I'll come up to Maine and see you.” After spending an entire day with him, I believed him. But I told I him that I would come back the next day with my wife. I returned with Toshiko, and after we spent another whole day with him, she said to me: “He's telling the truth.”
Well, about six months later, he called up in a jovial mood and said, “Oh, John, I'm getting married! You know, I'm marrying a woman who owns almost all of California and she doesn't like publicity. Do you mind not using my name?” I said, “Okay, I'll call you Seaman Z.” I then asked about the photographs he had given me of himself. “Oh, use the pictures,” he said, because, you see, he really did want to be uncovered.
Well, when my book Infamy was published, the Washington Post claimed that I had invented “Seaman Z.” About a year later he came out in the open and publicly confirmed what I has written, but this was not mentioned in the media.
The most important part of my book was my treatment of the various trials and investigations into the Pearl Harbor affair. I was floundering because I had all this great stuff, butI was not able to put it all together. I was trying to support Captain Safford, the naval genius who realized that all his information had been destroyed. So he went to a Boston lawyer named Rugg, who was representing Admiral Kimmel, who was getting the blame for Pearl Harbor.
I was saved by a man named Percy Greaves. I had heard about this strange fellow up in Dobbs Ferry (New York), who had been collecting material about Pearl Harbor for years. After talking to him by phone, I went to see him. We got along well together, and I visited him dozens of times during the next six months. He allowed me free access to his dank, dark cellar, where he fed his dog and where he kept all this precious material. I owe a great deal of the quality of Infamy to Percy Greaves.
[Editor's note: Until his death in 1984, Greaves was a frequent contributor to The Journal, served as an IHR editorial adviser, and addressed the Third IHR Conference (1981). See the JHR issues of Fall 1982 (pp. 319-340), Winter 1983-84(pp. 388-474), and Winter 1984 (pp. 444-445).]
Finally, I would like to tell you about the book we've been working on for the last three years. It's a history of the Korean War. We've done a great deal of research on this in Korea, Taiwan and China. Through our contacts, we were finally invited to China itself, and our visit there was one of the most important times of our lives.
When we arrived in Beijing in late April 1989, the Chinese historians I had been in touch with were very excited because the students were organizing a revolt. They were protesting against the corruption of the fat cats in power, and were receiving tremendous public support.
Well, on the fourth of May, we were interviewing a young lieutenant colonel from the People's Liberation Army who had written a book about the Korean war. Unfortunately, I got nothing from him because he would not let me tape him and he refused to answer any of my tough questions. When we went out for lunch, we saw this great flood of students coming back from the first demonstration at Tienanmen Square. It was most exciting. When we returned to the young lieutenant colonel after lunch, he was very excited and said, “I'm going to bring my old professor to see you. He was the first to write about the Korean War. He was a top commissar there. Maybe he will be willing to tell you about it.”
Two days later he introduced us to this large man. Dressed in a dark Mao uniform, he looked like a bear. When we sat down, I asked him if I could tape him, and he said, “Yes. I'm not going to tell you about my book. I'm going to tell you things I couldn't put in my book.” He then began revealing all this marvelous information. Toshiko asked him if she could take his picture, and he readily agreed. He put a big arm around me for a picture that we could use for publicity if we wanted. All this was a great breakthrough.
The next day we were invited to lecture on living history at the Academy of Military Science. It turned out that the entire staff had read my books, five of which have been published in China. Our lecture was very well received. Afterwards, the commanding general allowed us to take his picture. And then they opened up this archival material to us, which told what the Korean War was like, what Mao was like, and so forth.
The media horribly misrepresented the Chinese students' revolt. This was only a limited revolt against corruption by the top officials, but the TV circus turned it into a demonstration for democracy, which they did not understand at all. Their older professors told them “You have won. Now leave Tienanmen Square.” But no, they were told to put up a kind of statue of liberty, and the media turned the thing into a tragedy. No one has written the truth about what really happened. The young Chinese were doing something very Chinese. It was not like we all saw on television, and turning it into a Western thing corrupted the spirit of the entire campaign.
Fortunately, we managed to get out of China with all our material, and as soon as we got out, the doors closed again.
After writing seven histories of war in the twentieth century, I've come to a number of conclusions. It is human nature that repeats itself, not history. In fact, we often learn more about the past from the present, than the reverse. I have also discovered that a vile man can occasionally tell the truth, and a noble man can tell a lie. And that men don't make history as often as history makes men. That the course of history is not only unpredictable, but inevitable. Finally, I've learned that the writing of history can never be definitive.
I have tried to approach history as a non-partisan, ignoring nationality and ideology, and to portray the horrors of war through the sufferings of ordinary people as well as in the imaginations of the mighty. Throughout it all, I have tried to present living history, human history, with subjective objectivity, in my obsessive search for reality.
Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 5-24.