And now for something completely different

All right; I’m taking a break from blogging about weird historical things and writing in general to indulge in a musical (more or less) interlude about one of the great problems facing mankind. I am speaking, or course, about writer’s block. I was a problem before, but now with untold thousands writing the Great American Novel/thriller/mystery/romance/western/erotica, the problem has grown exponentially. Like the great folk singers of the 1960s, I believe that instead of actually doing something about a problem, it’s so much easier and enjoyable to just sing about it. You get to feel self-righteous without any of the messy work involved in earning it.


What are all these strings for?

So here it is in music video form.

Recently, The Eastern Shore Writers Association held its monthly meeting in Rock Hall, Maryland and asked members to write and perform their own songs. The theme was the Chesapeake Bay, so, naturally, I wrote about something completely unrelated.

The submarine that sunk a train

As a result of the atomic bombing or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered without the need for an invasion of the home islands. So in spite of all the battles and struggles across the Pacific, the United States conducted no ground combat operations on the Japanese mainland.

Except one.

The only American ground combat action on the Japanese home islands was conducted by the Navy, and it involved sailors from a U.S. submarine who destroyed a Japanese train.


The submarine USS Barb, commanded by Commander Eugene “Lucky” Fluckey already had a distinguished record of sinking Japanese shipping and warships when, on the night of July 23, 1945, in the bay off of Karafuto, Japan, eight men were put ashore in inflatable boats. Their mission was to set explosive charges to destroy a train on a Japanese rail line that ran  along the coast. This was a very dangerous thing to do and there were plenty of ways for the mission to go wrong. The men got to the tracks and started to place the charge when a train came by in the other direction, causing the team to dive for cover.They places a pressure switch they had fabricated on board, so that the weight of the train on the track would set off the charge. The team headed back to the sub, but the next train appeared while they were still in the inflatable boat. The charge blew up the locomotive and caused the train to pile up behind it. The men reached the sub, that was waiting in dangerously shallow water to get as close to the shore as possible, and the USS Barb made its escape. The USS Barb had a number of other firsts, including being the first sub to deploy rockets in an attack, but nothing was quite like being the only submarine to destroy a train and the only American military unit involved in a ground  combat operation in Japan in WWII.

Getting it wrong again

All right, this is repetitious, but is it too much to ask that highly paid TV news people display at least a rudimentary knowledge of what they talk about? I don’t mean they have to be experts in everything, or display a vast range of detailed knowledge, but at least grasp the basics of things most people should know anyway.

Here is the latest case in point.NBC news this morning made a reference to “the time President Clinton was trying to ban automatic weapons”. This is utter nonsense. Automatic weapons, which  to anyone other than an NBC news anchor means machine guns, have been effectively illegal since the 1930s. Apparently they were referring to the so-called assault weapons ban, which did not actually ban assault rifles. (They were already illegal because actual assault rifles have an automatic firing capacity.)

Whatever your feelings on various gun control issues might be, people will take you a lot more seriously if you give some indication that you actually know what you are talking about…even if you are a TV news reporter.


On March 5, I am doing a talk at the Easton, Maryland library on Mayan Conquistador: The amazing story of Gonzalo Guerrero, based on my new book The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero was a real person, a Spaniard shipwrecked on the then unknown coast of the Yucatan in Mexico in 1511. He was captured by the Maya, but in a few years became a warrior and was married to a Mayan woman. Even more remarkable, he helped the Maya fight back against the other Spaniards when they finally arrived.

The library is putting notices up here and there, and they are sending an announcement to the local newspaper, but I wanted to pitch the talk to people I thought might really be interested in the subject: the local Hispanic community. So how to go about it? Well,  there are three Latin grocery stores in the area and they are heavily patronizer by local Hispanic folks, so I went to two of them today. The owners were very cooperative and let me post the announcement in their windows. Here is one of them.

The notice is the one closest to the left side of the door. latinGroceryI hope this will bring out some people who might have otherwise missed it.

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The Queen’s blunder

There are few sure bets in this world, but one thing you can usually count on is that when a government sets out to solve a problem, two things will happen:

1- The problem will not be solved, only distorted.

2- New problems will be caused by the “solution” to the original problem.

Examples abound, (Almost any law with the words “comprehensive” and “reform” in the title is a good candidate) but one that I read about recently is a classic. According to author Charles Mann, in his book 1493, England had a problem with a shortage of farmland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first. One day, the queen, or more likely some-up-and-coming courtier, noticed thousands of empty acres of water-soaked fens, moors and marshlands all over the place. So the full might and majesty of the crown pushed an effort to drain these areas and populate them with sturdy yeoman farmers. The areas were drained and the farmland was created, but soon they noticed that people were dropping dead from Malaria in far greater numbers than before. The hardest hit were those who had moved to the newly created farmland, where the numbers were alarming.


What was going on with this brilliant plan?

It seems that the boggy areas were mostly tidal,and were regularly flushed out by the surging of the water. When the areas were drained, however, the action created stagnant pools that were ideal mosquito nurseries. The mosquitoes bred in record swarms and spread Malaria to the hapless farmers and beyond. According to one source, many of the original Jamestown settlers came from such areas and carried the disease to America with disastrous results. Much later, when improved ways of reclaiming such lands were developed, the problem was brought under control, but the death toll in the meantime was staggering.

Of course, the neither the queen nor anyone else had any idea of what caused Malaria at the time, but that’s the point. Sweeping massive government fixes NEVER have all the necessary information, so keeping “cures” modest in scale, at least at first, is usually the prudent way to go. It keeps the body count down.

The Conquistador who became a Mayan war chief

The great thing about history is how weird it can be; how the most unlikely story can turn out to be true. I just released a book based on one of the strangest true stories you are ever likely to hear; the story of Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero was shipwrecked on the coast of the Yucatan in 1511 and captured by the Maya, and struggled to survive and avoid the sacrificial stone.


After a hazardous struggle to survive in this bizarre and bloody new land, he became a Mayan warrior and married a Mayan woman, the beautiful and clever Zazil Ha. But several years later, other Spaniards arrived bent on conquest, and Guerrero was forced to choose between his new family and the land of his birth. Where does his loyalty lie; to his relatives and family in Spain, or to his Mayan wife and her people, now facing death or enslavement at the hands of the Conquistadors? If he abandons Zazil Ha and returns to the Spaniards, he will be treated as a hero; if he remains, he will become a renegade.
He made his choice….and made history.
Based on the true story, The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero plunges the reader into the dangerous and alien world of the Maya, and the tragic story of the Spanish conquest; a struggle between two worlds that only one could survive.The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero is written from Guerrero’s point of view and answers questions about him that have been asked for centuries. Here is the link.

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Update: Here is a review from

and here is the video trailer

Ghost fleet

Just down the Potomac River below Washington and across from the Quantico Marine Base is a shallow indentation in the Maryland shore line called Mallows Bay. If you look at a satellite image of Mallows Bay, you’ll be struck by what looks like several dozen sunken ship’s hulls just at or below the surface. So what’s the deal? Is it an enemy submarine fleet lying in wait to attack D.C.? You can tell this has to have a weird story behind it, and you’d be right.

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When the US entered WW1, we needed a big increase in shipping capacity and we needed it in a hurry. With so much steel going to the war effort elsewhere, someone came up with the idea of constructing wooden ships to take up he slack. So a big wooden shipbuilding program began and the ships, mostly of 4,000-8,000 ton capacity, started coming off the ways. But the war ended and the ships soon became orphans no one knew what to do with. Over 200 ships of various sizes were sold to a private company for the scrap metal they contained. The company anchored the ships in the Potomac and towed them one by one to a yard where the metal was stripped. Each hull was then taken back and burned to the waterline so that some of the embedded fittings could be removed. But the ships were considered a nuisance and a danger to navigation, so the company bought the land surrounding Mallows Bay and moved the fleet there. The burning and salvaging continued until scrap prices collapsed. The company stopped salvage operations and locals took up the slack, stripping whatever fittings they could carry away. In the 1930s, scrap metal became more valuable and at least some of the stripped fittings found their way to Japan, where they no doubt were later returned in the form of bombs and torpedoes.

Through the years, the hulks, now resting on the bottom to prevent drifting, were being colonized by vegetation and various critters. A lot of political struggling went on  between those who who wanted the eyesores removed and those who thought stirring up the bottom would cause environmental problems. So the hulls remained and today resemble a series of wooded islands as they slowly return to nature.