Category Archives: Travel

Two Tales of Mr. Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me

Mr. Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me:

Churchill War Rooms

A contemporary picture featuring Mr. John James Evans as Winston Churchill                                                (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

Two Tales about Mr. Winston Churchill, the War Rooms, Chartwell, and Me:

1. In 1992, I was charged with running an event in London for my Fortune 500 employer. This was to be an evening dinner for the Board of Directors and the local London executives. It was meant to be special. I checked several venues around town, many of which were perfectly acceptable, elegant restaurants, but I didn’t find anything that fit the memorable category.

I took an afternoon off from my search to indulge my interest in British history, with a short tour of London that ended up in The Cabinet War Rooms, on Horse Guards Road, near Parliament and Westminster Abbey, in the heart of ceremonial London.

These underground, concrete bunkered rooms, over 20 of them, were built 10 feet underground to protect the Prime Minister and the British Government against enemy attack. They were opened in 1939 and regularly accommodated Mr. Winston Churchill, his War Cabinet, and the Chiefs of Staff, during this great peril, until peace finally came in 1945. They worked there, ate there, slept there – in short, often lived there – as necessary during Hitler’s bombing campaigns against London.

These rooms have been restored and furnished to their original World War II look and feel, and opened to the public in 1984. Naturally, I had to see them.

They are a heavily fortified, underground, office complex. The exterior is unadorned and could pass for the ground floor of any large building in the area.

Inside, the rooms are expertly furnished with every little touch. Churchill’s cigar butt is in the ashtray by his bed. The Map Room has the “latest” enemy movements identified with colored arrows showing advances, retreats, and causalities. The Transatlantic Telephone room is open to be seen. It houses the secret telephone equipment developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories which, for the first time, allowed direct voice contact between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt. It employed the most significant scrambler of its time, in some thirty, seven foot tall cabinets, weighing 80 tons. It was never hacked. The Cabinet Room has military papers and files left on the original table, as though the meeting staff had just taken a momentary tea break in the canteen where meals were served to one and all.

On the wall is a prominently displayed plaque, engraved with Queen Victoria’s famous dictum to another staff in another war: “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.”

It was like stepping back in time. It was wonderful. I had an idea: The gentlemen attending the dinner were about my age, so they clearly remembered World War II; what if we held our dinner here? I spoke to the officials and learned, yes, it could be rented for an evening after closing hours. Yes, dinner could be served there. In fact, the wait staff could be dressed in British uniforms as the servers would have been back in the day. It could be a perfect recreation of a Churchill Staff dinner during the early 1940’s.

I pushed the envelope: “What about Mr. Churchill?” They smiled, and told me about Mr. John James Evans, the character actor who specializes in Mr. Churchill recreations. He had appeared as Mr. Churchill on stage, in the movies, and on several BBC television specials. I made the arrangements, and then went forth to find Mr. Evans.

It wasn’t hard to do. He lives just outside London. I reached him by phone, told him my plan, and asked him to participate. We negotiated the deal and agreed that we would meet and work on updating one of Mr. Churchill’s speeches to be relevant to a modern business community. Everything was settled.

On the evening, our guests arrived, filled with a sort of personal wonder. The guards at the blast proof doors were in uniform, passes were checked, and our guests were escorted into the main corridor for a guided tour. Big Band music played softly in the background. We saw first hand the locale and detail of England’s war planning during the darkest days of the war. Then, we had cocktails in the canteen, complete with contemporary dinner service, uniformed attendants, and lantern lit tables. Occasionally, a faint siren could be heard in the background. A marvelous dinner followed, centered on an English roast beef.

The evening was shaping up to be a great success; but the best was yet to come. After dinner, our CEO stood up, struck his glass with a spoon to gain attention, and said simply, “Gentlemen, the Prime Minister.”

Through the side door, huffing and puffing on his cigar, as he leaned on his cane and made his way to the front along the narrow aisle between tables, came Mr. Churchill himself. He was perfect. His homburg was perched atop his head; he wore a long black suit jacket with a boutonnière, over the waistcoat, which displayed the heavy gold watch chain across his considerable girth. He looked and acted the part. No, he was Winston Churchill for that moment in time. One of the guests had his feet stretched out into the aisle as he gazed in wonder at this approaching apparition. Churchill came up to him, leaned over and snarled, “Move your bloody feet.” The man replied, “Yes, sir,” and did so promptly.

Mr. Churchill took the lectern and delivered his perfect Churchillian speech, modified to the business interests of the people in the room. It took about 10 minutes, but seemed much shorter. He then made as to go, but the diners stopped him with their applause. They asked him to take a few questions. He muttered about that, and then agreed to do so. He was very knowledgeable, and answered their questions well and in character. At the end, someone asked him what other parts he played. Mr. Churchill smiled and replied, “Never strip away an actor’s character. You might be distressed to find nothing significant underneath.” He received another round of applause for that.

Then he was gone. Nightcaps were served, cigars were smoked, as the guests relived the experience, and then they were bussed back to their hotel.

It was probably the most memorable event I have ever run. I still occasionally hear back from the attendees via cards and emails remembering their memorable evening in London, in the War Rooms, with the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

2. I have always admired Mr. Churchill, and so I decided to do the “hat trick” and visit all three of Churchill’s memorable haunts: The War Rooms, the BlenheimCastle of his youth, and the Chartwell Estate of his later years. I visited Chartwell next.

Chartwell and Ed 1992

           The Churchill Estate at Chartwell (and me)

Chartwell is a wonderful, bucolic spot in the country where Churchill wrote, painted, erected his famous hand made stone wall, and tried to live mainly in peace. It is on a hillside above a small village. We toured the grounds, his art studios, looked inside the estate, and tried to get a feel of the great man in retirement.

After a few hours, we drove down the hill again into the village where I had decided to check out its pub and its bookstore, in that order.

The pub was fun, and we shared an ale or two with fellow tourists and a few locals. The bookstore was better yet. In the bookstore on High Street, I met the owner: Major Alan Taylor-Smith (Ret’d).  Major Taylor-Swift was a “townie” and proud both of his professions (soldier and bookseller), and of his lifelong association with Chartwell. He was extremely knowledgeable of Mr. Churchill, and also full of the local history and the local Churchill stories – the little stories, the ones that don’t make the history books. He loved to share them. This was my favorite:

“The road from the village to the Chartwell estate back then was a rugged, uphill country road that passed by a Gypsy camp in a roadside open field. Whenever Churchill’s car labored up the hill, the Gypsies could hear it coming, and an old woman would come to the edge of the road and yell something to him as he slowly drove past. With the windows up to keep out the road dust, he could never make out what she said – but she said it every time he passed by.

“Finally, one warm afternoon, his curiosity could take it no longer. When she came to the side of the road, he instructed his driver to stop. Churchill rolled down the window and asked, ‘Madam, what is it you say to me each time I pass?’

She replied, ‘Why don’t you get off your fat arse and walk?’

Churchill thanked her, and drove on.”

Major Taylor-Swift told me he was planning a book of these local stories, which most of us had never heard before. I thought that was a wonderful idea, said I’d like to buy the first copy, shook hands and left Chartwell with many happy memories.

That was 1992. I have since retired, and spent my time reading and writing and working on a few book projects of my own. In January, 2013, I was getting my papers in order, and I found the business card given me by Major Taylor-Swift. The whole story came back to me in a flash. I went on-line, found the village, contacted the local chamber of commerce, and learned that Major Taylor-Swift was retired, and living quietly with his family. They put me in touch and, within hours, I heard from his daughter-in-law. She was amused, I think, that I had remembered the event, the story, and the possibility of a book. It turns out the book was never written, although notes and recordings were made. The family felt sad that these stories had never been published, but that’s the way of it.

I had another idea: Would they entrust me with the project? Would they grant me access to the notes and recordings and see if I could mold and edit them into book form? It would be the Major’s book of course, with perhaps an “as told to”, or “with”, credit for me. They agreed to discuss the matter and let me know. I’m waiting to hear.

So – there are my two Churchill stories. I have not yet visited BleinheimPalace, the third leg of Mr. Churchill’s lifelong residence stool, but I still intend to. I haven’t received a decision yet on the Major’s book, but I’m sure I will hear.

I’ll keep you posted on both stories.

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December 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor

A Visit to Pearl Harbor

May, 1941: Author Ed McManus at rest, six months before Pearl Harbor.Photo by  Francis Poisson

May, 1941: Author Ed McManus at rest, six months before Pearl Harbor.
Photo by Francis Poisson

It was Japanese Appreciation Week in Nineteen Eighty-Something when I left Waikiki, Hawaii and began the drive to Kuilama to see about opening a new sales and services office for my company. I was in the computer business. There are all sorts of businesses on Hawaii, although the tourist business is still Number One.

The Japanese, I was told, account for half the Hawaiian tourist business. They come as social groups, families, and young married couples who, for a stiff fee, can reenact their wedding western style, complete with parson, gown, music, tux, and limo. The mandatory photo album is extra. It always is.

My business in Kuilama went quicker than I anticipated and it was all wrapped up in one evening dinner, and a meeting the following morning. My plane wasn’t scheduled until the next morning. The idea of laying out on the beach was very attractive, until a friend asked, “Is this your first trip to Oahu? Aren’t you going to visit Pearl Harbor?”

Oahu; Pearl Harbor; December 7, 1941: “The date that will live in infamy.”

The drive down the shore road to Pearl Harbor takes about an hour and a half. It is one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. Mile upon mile of mountains and valleys and ocean waves crashing against volcanic rock. If you pull off the narrow road from time to time you can see things off the coast like whales and dolphins, and the island of Molokai, the 19th century leper colony of both heroic and tragic reputation. It is now being reworked into a tourist destination.

The USS Arizona Memorial is administered by the U.S. Navy and the U. S. Park service. You arrive easily. The Navy has everything clearly marked. You park, and then walk a short distance to a concrete shell, housing the gateway to the memorial. Admission is free and you request a ticket for the next tour from the smiling attendant behind the desk. All smiles, clean, good manners, spit & polish – it’s nice. It’s what I like to believe America really is.

The wait is short and since you have your ticket there’s no need to queue up. You can spend a restful time walking the grounds and watching the ships come in and out of Pearl Harbor, still an important naval base.

The huge anchor from the USS Arizona is hung in a monument by the entryway. I wanted to get a picture of it but couldn’t get through the Japanese tourists who were photographing each other with that grim determination that the Japanese bring to relaxation. I went into the gift shop instead.

They had postcards, fact sheets (did you know that oil still bubbles up from the Arizona? Oil is still leaking from the fuel tanks. Environmental pollution, one minor tragedy added to the long list of lost lives). They had plastic models of Japanese Zeros, recordings of the actual radio and news broadcasts of that day, and books on every aspect of the Pacific War in general and Pearl Harbor in particular. All books are available in both English and Japanese.

Tour Group 18 was called and we all moved into a theater to watch the US Navy prepared documentary shown on a huge wall screen.

The theater too is interesting (everything on Pearl is interesting). It incorporates all the crowd movement and control techniques given to the world by Walt Disney at his famous theme parks. How did we ever manage to line up before Walt Disney showed us how?

The movie began. It is part American and part Japanese newsreel footage, part contemporary color sequences, part recreation, and part revisionist history. Emperor Hirohito, we learn, was a peacetime leader who surrendered power to Marshall Tojo when hostilities broke out. I’m not sure it was all that simple, but Japanese-American relations are very important today, and Tojo was an easy guy to hate back then and today as well.

And then, on the huge screen, came the attack. The first wave of Japanese carrier based planes came out of the rising sun over Ford Island at 8am on a quiet Sunday morning. There were 49 bombers carrying armor piercing torpedoes, 40 torpedo bombers, 50 dive bombers, and 42 Zero’s flying the air cover that was never necessary. The Zeros spent their time strafing the men in the water as they tried to get away from the burning hulks; and strafing the men on the airfields trying to get away from the flaming planes and hangers at Hickham Field. The planes came in two waves, and the attack lasted an incredible two hours.

The USS Arizona took several direct hits from both aerial bombs and torpedoes. One or more of them hit her magazines and she violently exploded, taking over 1,800 officers and men with her to the bottom. Seventeen other ships were lost or seriously damaged, countless planes, and a total of 2,403 dead and another 1,178 wounded soldiers, sailors, and marines.

The USS Arizona is still there, right where she sunk, and her 1,800 crewmen are still aboard.

The movie ends quietly. We are reminded that we are about to visit a cemetery. We head for the USS Arizona shrine.

The USS Arizona shrine is a modern, white bridge-like structure which is welded to the sunken hull. It has a modified wing look to it, depressed at the center and high on both ends to suggest the war’s low start and soaring finish. Along the walkway is the Arizona’s bell and on the far wall are the names of all who died here.

In the middle of the memorial is an open well cut into the steel and if you look down into it, she can see her. You can see the USS Arizona resting in less than 40 feet of water: The ship that fought its first and last battle here at Pearl Harbor; the ship, the shrine, the symbol, the tomb.

On the boat ride back I chatted up a fellow tourist about my own age. He was a history buff. He told me that the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor was not as complete as it could have been. In their haste to get the ships, the planes, the men running on the ground and swimming in the sea, they completely overlooked the American fuel storage tanks, the submarine pens, and the shipyards.

Those storage tanks fueled the entire Pacific fleet. The submarine pens birthed and sent forth hundreds of American submarines, crewed by angry men who had lost buddies at Pearl. And the ship yards – those marvels of engineering – they cleared the harbor and put back into fighting order 14 of the 18 ships sunk that fateful Sunday, and watched them sail again to hasten the Japanese defeat. The Japanese had destroyed the giant’s weapons, but they had enraged him in the process, and they had left him his tools.

The principals are all gone now: FDR, Nimitz, Tojo, MacArthur, Yamamoto, Maguma, even the Emperor Hirohito, that mild little marine biologist who basically got in over his head and in that unique Japanese mentality so alien to American understanding, only wielded his absolute and unquestionable authority as long as he never attempted to use it.

And the USS Arizona is still there, leaking oil in 40 feet of clear water, to remind us:

1. An unsuspecting America can be viciously attacked without warning by an enemy who would employ without remorse the most terrible and sophisticated weapons of the day.

2. That Marshal Tojos exist among us, just below the surface of every civilized society, ready to rise on a moment’s notice to seize an opportunity, to spread their hateful and destructive ambitions.

3. We must always remember that day and that story of what happened and why. We must remember the USS Arizona, its eternally captive crew, and all those who suffered and died in the short term, terrible triumph of hatred and treachery over trust and good will.

We must remember Pearl Harbor.

 

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Worcester Telegram on December 7, 1981

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London: Memories from the Eighties

Back in the Eighties, I visited London a few times each year on business. We’d meet with clients in an upscale hotel and, at day’s end, have a drink together in our host’s parlor room. The BBC played soft background music over his FM radio. Two memories stand out.  Both are fine examples of English (dry) wit and wisdom:

1. One evening, the BBC played classical music. They always ended  their broadcast with a “Thought for the Day.” That day’s thought went like this: “Before you drive away the love you have, consider that it may be the greatest love to which you are entitled.”

2. Another evening, they played a live piano concert by the maestro himself, Arturo Rubenstein. At the conclusion of the first half, the BBC commentator called Rubenstein “the greatest pianist that ever lived.” After the break, he came back and said he had received several telephone calls pointing out that “…I  could not call Rubenstein the greatest pianist that ever lived, because I have not heard every pianist that ever lived.”

He paused and said, “The callers are quite correct. Allow me to amend my earlier statement: Rubenstein is not only the greatest pianist that ever lived, he is the greatest pianist who will ever live.”

He then announced the program for the second half of the concert.

This bonus anecdote has nothing to do with the BBC. It has to do with the Fifties, Ferruchio Tagliavini, my brother Leo, and a little man in a duck suit at Harrod’s in London. I use this story to describe people who know their business:

Back in the Forties, we would sit around the big Crosley parlor radio with my father and listen to his favorite musical programs. I remember “The Bell Telephone Hour,” “The Voice of Firestone,” and “City Services Band of America.” I think it shaped all of our musical tastes.

In the Fifties, big brother Leo bought an RCA Golden Seal classical record album entitled: “Ten Tenors, Ten Arias.” He played it endlessly and explained classical music in general to me, and the skill and range of tenors in particular. His favorite tenor was the Italian tenor, Ferruchio Tagliavini. He was a “sweet tenor,” and could go from an almost whispered and perfect low note to a crashing crescendo in fewer seconds than a Ferrari going from 0 to 60. Tagliavini had one aria on the album: “Una Furtiva Lagrima.” It was memorable.

I remembered all that for the next 30 years, and would occasionally stop in large record stores around the country, and ask “Do you have any recordings by Ferruchio Tagliavini?” I would sometimes get a polite no, a blind, incomprehensible stare, or the inevitable lazy clerk reply: “If we have it, it’s over there against the wall.”

Sometime in the Eighties, I visited Harrod’s Department Store in London. Harrod’s is the world’s largest department store, upscale, and very British. I went into the music department. There were recording racks stretching in every direction, as far as the eye could see. They had recordings of every kind.

I was approached by a very proper British “Music Department Counselor”. He was an older man, wearing pince nez glasses, and a morning suit, complete with tails and hand done bow tie. “May I help you, sir?” he asked.

“I’m interested in recordings by Ferruchio Taglianvini,” I said.

He paused for a moment and then asked: “Would you prefer his operatic performances or his concert appearances?”

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