||Book Review -
Fort Bliss Monitor
by Clifford Cole
Loaghtan Books, 2012 (£18.95)
British soldier’s account of 1943 AAA demonstration tour gets published.
Imagine what El Paso and Fort Bliss were like in the early 1940s. It’s difficult to picture, despite knowing that this was during the Second World War. Now, try imagining Fort Bliss circa 1943 through the eyes of a British soldier. What exactly would a Tommy (an old nickname for a soldier of the British Army) be doing in El Paso? It turns out that it has to do with World War II, when the 1st British Anti-Aircraft Demonstration Battery RA toured across the United States for six months to educate American troops about the British war effort and demonstrate the use of anti-aircraft artillery.
Maj. Clifford Cole, who was a captain of the 64th Anti-Aircraft Brigade, was one of the fortunate soldiers to be chosen for the battery, which consisted of more than 300 officers and men in the British Army, including a photographer and entertainers. He not only preserved pictures from the tour; he documented his journey through journal entries and news clippings. Earlier this year, his documents were published in a book called Invading America 1943: Ambassadors at Large.
“Naturally, we were very excited about such material coming into our hands,” said Sarah Goodwins, one of the publishers at Loaghtan Books. “The Demonstration Battery’s tour of the States in 1943 seems to have been largely forgotten, yet it played a big part in cementing the relationship between the two English-speaking allies; President Roosevelt had requested such a visit, and so Prime Minister Churchill sent the Demonstration Battery.”
At first, when Cole’s brigade commander called him over to announce that a new battery would be formed and tour in the U.S., he knew very little of the mission, writing in his journal entry, “The Brig could not however enlighten me as to what I was to do there; nor could he say how I would go to America, or when. He could only add that I had two days to prepare to leave.”
Cole was later informed that he would be the battery’s radar expert and that they would be issued with the latest radar equipment. During their tour, he and other soldiers occasionally spoke for radio shows such as The Army Hour, an NBC show that aired Sunday afternoons and drew millions of listeners. The battery also participated in parades and social events in addition to their “ack-ack,” another word for anti-aircraft artillery, demonstration.
“These men were ordinary squaddies – they’d all seen action at the front,” said George Hobbs, also a publisher at Loaghtan Books and husband of Goodwins. “Although put together as a Demonstration Battery, the gunnery teams were not a group of actors putting on a show, but real soldiers demonstrating how they had fought off air attack in Europe and North Africa.”
Invading America 1943 is not just an account of one man’s journey during the six-month brigade tour; it is also a history lesson that provides about 200 well-preserved photographs, numerous press clippings, letters from Cole to his parents and vice versa and helpful footnotes added by Goodwins that give more insight to topics mentioned throughout the 144-page book.
Even photos of Hollywood celebrities who helped raise money for the war effort and entertained soldiers (such as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and Judy Garland) add excitement to Cole’s recollections. Aside from visuals and intriguing stories making the book a smooth read, historical key events told through a first-person point of view give the reader a better understanding of their importance, such as in the Boston chapter (titled “That Other England”) when the battery is informed that the Italian government formally surrendered.
“Personally, I feel that we are under- informed about events that have happened this century, or at least in the last one. Being born so close to the end of World War II, I was amazed at the lack of education about it at school,” said Graham Cole, Cole’s son. “I only hope that one day books like this will be used to educate people of what actually happened during one of the most life-challenging wars ever.”
The battery not only visited large cities such as New York and Los Angeles; El Paso (along with Fort Bliss) and Juarez are also mentioned in the chapter called Texas and Mexico. One doesn’t need a history book to know how much El Paso and Fort Bliss have changed since 1943, however, Cole’s account of the cities on both sides of the border add visuals that most history books do not. Indeed, it was a unique experience for the British soldiers when they attended a banquet in Juarez and watched and bullfight which showcased El Maestro des Maestros Carmenita, “the highest-paid bull fighter in the world.”
Not everything about the border area was different, particularly concerning the climate and sunrises/sunsets. Cole described the sunrise at Orogrande, NM, (referred to as Oro Grande in the book) where the Battery demonstrated the anti-aircraft artillery: “The morning was the most magnificent sight I’d seen. Staring out in the dark, we watched the sun rise, saw the marvelous effect of the red sun on the hills to the west, and the rainbow effect in the east.”
Unfortunately, Cole passed away in 2008 at age 96 and was unable to see his work get published. However, his family expressed much excitement about Invading America 1943 reaching the bookshelves.
“I can honestly say that when we, and in particular Mum, found out that the book was to be published, we were all tremendously proud and happy that at last he had had something that was very important to him published,” said Cole. “I am sure that Dad would have been the proudest person on earth.”
It wasn’t an easy journey having his documents published. While Cole’s writing enthusiasm was never hindered when publishers turned down his work, it took a while for it to finally happen. The publishers at Loaghtan Books saw the treasure that was Cole’s archival material and were enthusiastic to promote Invading America 1943.
“My personal thanks, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of the family, including Dad, must go to Sara and Loaghtan Books without whom this book would still be notes on paper,” said Cole. “It is their inspiration and hard work that got the book to where it is, so praise must go to them.”
Victoria G. Molinar, Fort Bliss Monitor