Thursday, August 4, 2011


Typical Blair worksheets assembled for book on German U-boat
warfare in the Atlantic in WWII show
patrols, boats, skippers and particular operations.


Notes:   This interview segment, Part VI, is about the Blairs tackling the autobiography of General Omar Bradley, and how that work led into two other, related Army books about the Korean War and Gen. Ridgway.  Then they took on an even bigger, more challenging project about German U-boats in WWII, using newly declassified German logbooks and records.   
There will be one (maybe two) more installment of this 1994 interview yet to follow.  -  DP

Q – About that time (about 1978) you moved to the island, then, right?  

Clay -  Then we moved from Malibu back to Miami. 

Joan -  But that’s when we bought the cottage up here, in the middle of all this.   But we’d been coming to the island in the summers all through the years.

Clay – We got married in 1972.

Q – I never asked, did you take vacations? You were working almost continually.

Joan – We almost never had a vacation. 

Clay -  Yeah.  That’s my fault, I think.

But we had very heavy...all this time…

Joan – We had to work like mad. 

Clay - When I got divorced, I gave everything there was to my wife and kids. I left with my books, and the piano, and the third car - the worst car, in other words.   And the alimony went forward from there, and we felt that was our first call in our lives, for years.   So all during this time, we scrambled financially to meet that huge obligation, and also live ourselves and conduct our business.   Tough.

So that’s one reason we’re working all the time. 

Then we did the Bradley book.  Do you know who Omar Bradley was? 
I knew him in the Pentagon.  Remember when I said I was in the Pentagon, when I was a young Times guy?  He was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at that time, and the way this all worked, you would see him from time to time on an off-the-record basis.   So I had got to know him when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.    And, I admired him a great deal. 

We got a call from Simon Schuster.   Bradley was trying to write his memoirs…

Joan -   Again.
Clay -  Again.  

And it wasn’t working out.  Simon Schuster wanted to publish it, but they needed a writer, and so, I renewed my acquaintance with Bradley in Ft. Worth, Texas.   Our chemistry was good.

Q – Was he still in the service when you interviewed him? 

Clay -  Oh, no.  He’s eighty years old, he’s long since retired, living in Ft. Worth.   And I write this book.  He was a brilliant mathematician, at science, he was very strong  at math, but very weak in liberal arts or writing.  He couldn’t write a letter, really.  And so we plunk in there.  This was a big project.  Big money.  Big responsibility.  Big everything.   Research.  An enormous amount of time.  I’m trying to remember how much.  Probably three years.  Lot of work.

Q -  Did he have a fair amount of things assembled?  He died in the middle of this, didn’t he?

Clay -  Right.  They did not have a lot of stuff assembled, but we could acquire it very quickly.   He was a five-star general, and you know you never retire if you’re five stars.  You’re still on active duty and give orders.  And so all you do is call on him and say, “I need so-and-so,” and his staff would request it for us, and then we’d get the stuff.   Plus, then we also got all his papers, his personal papers.  This is a very complex process. 

Joan -  We spent several weeks out there at Ft. Worth, talking with him, every single day, all day long.  Oh Lord!  How many tapes of him do we have?   Hundreds of hours. 

Clay -  It was a ritualized thing.   We worked all day.   We wrote the book, and he died in the middle, but we went ahead with it anyway. 

This book was a Book of the Month Club main selection, sold very well.   And, it was a trade paperback.   It’s still in print. 

We fell back into our ‘history mode’ that we developed in the Kennedy book.  We turned that button on, did very serious research in army archives and papers, other papers, oral history – all of that.   ‘Cause he’d forgotten everything.

Q – But you’re writing it all from his viewpoint?

Clay -  Oh, yes.

Joan -  We interviewed everybody who knew him, like Maxwell Taylor, General Ridgeway, Galvin.    Everybody, all the way back.

Clay – We tramped around in the Missouri woods where he grew up.   He had his whole family screwed up, the sequence of grandfathers, he had the wrong grandfather, all that, we sorted that out…in the census records.  It was a nightmare.  I mean it was not a nightmare.  It was totally fascinating.

Joan -  That’s the best part, is when you get to do all that, go around and do research and unearth these things and talk to these people.   I love that. 

Clay -  He was a premiere figure. 

Joan -  He was a wonderful guy, he really was.   He had this dry sense of humor.  He had a couple little jokes that he always liked to tell.   And he spoke to the master sergeants school out at Ft. Bliss, every once a month or so he would address them, and we went to one of those.   And it happened it was his birthday, his 88th birthday.   Mrs. Bradley had this big dinner party that we attended.   

We were with him day and night for weeks and weeks.  He was just darling.  He was the nicest, most wonderful person.         

Q -   When you are working with someone as you did, where did you stay?

Clay -  We were in the VIP quarters a block away, nearby.  He was in his quarters, we were in ours. 
Q -  The process of obtaining documents and doing interviews, are you gaining information for future books, maybe not consciously, but was it happening?

Clay -  Yes, in a way.  As it turned out, yes.   

One little side thing we did, we became interested in the role of the code breaker, as they would supply Bradley with information.  So we interviewed not the code breakers, but the people who were attached to each army, under Bradley, the army corps, who got this code breaking information and briefed the generals every morning on what the generals were (to do) each morning.   So we got very interested in those people. We interviewed all of them in the course of researching Bradley, with the idea we were going to do a book about that, and those people.  But, we didn’t ever do that.
So we were doing all kinds of things.  Then we interviewed Ridgway, whom I’d also known at the Pentagon when he was Chief of Staff of the army, actually before that, when he was Deputy Chief of Staff.    The idea struck us of doing a book on him, which grew out of the interview with him.   We realized, here was another great figure.  
So, yes, in that sense, this became a breeding ground, so-to-speak, for ideas for other books.   But principally, the Ridgway book.  

Joan -  THE Ridgway book.   When it started out, it was going to be a biography of Ridgway, but when we got into it, we realized there really wasn’t a very good book about the airborne operations in WWII, so that’s when we really got into the airborne.
Clay -  That became Ridgway’s Paratroopers, the whole American airborne in WWII, with him as the centerpiece.   

Joan -  But then, we had the rest of his career.  His greatest achievement was in Korea.   But that didn’t fit in the airborne book, so then, that’s how The Forgotten War came about.  

Clay -  It was really kind of continuation of the Ridgway story, which was an outgrowth of the Bradley story.    This is why we call these “the three army books.”  Because, as you’ve suggested, they were all of a piece, really, because Bradley and Ridgway were contemporaries, Galvin and all these people, and so we were interviewing army people for years.  

Q -  The Bradley book had a lot of minute information about troops, and later, the Korean war book was even more so.    How can you keep the dates and times separated?

Clay -  I’ll put it this way.  In the Bradley book, we kept the action at Division level.  We talked about divisions doing this and that.   In the Ridgway’s Paratroopers, which came next, then we went to battalion level with the airborne people, and that book is written at the battalion level, you might say.   In other words, we pick a battalion,  and there are nine battalions in a division.   In the Korean War, we stayed at the battalion level.   And the basic organizing principle for the Korean War was that it fell at the battalion level.   So that’s how we got the detail.

We first did that with Ridgway’s Paratroopers.  We don’t think of the battalion level as being of much detail, but it is, of course.  

Joan -  We don’t think of it as being detailed as to army units, because the divisions are big. 
Clay -  Yeah, they’re huge. We had sixty of them over there in Europe.   We didn’t deal with all of them, but we dealt with a lot them at that level.  I don’t think we did any battalion stuff in Bradley.
When we started with that Ridgway book, we were going with an airborne book.

Q -  Now we’re approaching the current book.

Joan – No, it was those three army books, and then the U-Boat book.  (laughs)
O, God!

Clay -   We started…  when we finished Silent Victory, the history of American submarine warfare against Japan.  People said, “Now, why don’t you do the German submarine war, because that’s equally of interest.” 

But you couldn’t do the book at that time, in 1975, because the documents had not been released.   U-boat patrol reports - this, that and the other – nothing was released because of the code threat, large use of code used in defeating the Germans.   It was still secret.  And we knew this.   Because as I think we told you earlier, we had revealed for the first time the use of Japanese code breaking in our submarine war.

Q -  It was still being kept secret by the Germans?

Clay -  No, no.  By British and Americans.  Everybody involved, assigned, never talked about it.  Nobody ever did.   Then this British air force guy published a book called “ --?-- Secret” in 1974 or ’75 and that blew the lid off, and he told about breaking the German code. 

Joan – But it was still classified.  They would declassify one teeny little thing a year.  It was ridiculous.  There’s still stuff in England they wouldn’t let us see.   They said it was classified. 
Clay -  Anyway, it was not possible to do this story in 1975, but it became possible to do it in 1987 because of the raft of memoirs that came out of that code breaking, and the Anglo-American agreement not to ever say anything was revised.  Both sides started releasing all documents ever concerned with code breaking during the entire war, like millions of papers - mostly by us (Americans).

So in 1987 it was now possible to do this book right. 

Q -  You started in ‘87, or were you still finishing something else?

Joan -  We started after The Forgotten War was published.

Clay -  We were in London.  We finished it (Forgotten War).  We segued right into the … 
Actually, we had already started in these interims … during the copy editing, the legal and all of that.   In those gaps we had started, plus the fact I had been accumulating books on the German U-boats for years.   So we didn’t exactly start.    I knew about it, the German U-boat war, not as much as I needed to know, but a lot.   I didn’t know much about code breaking, except that it was done.   It was a major factor in defeating the U-boats. 

Q -  This became the longest, the lengthiest process for you?  And most involved?

Joan and Clay -  Oh, yes.
Clay – There’s so many boats, and the war was so long.
See, their war was 28 months longer than our war.   So we had something like 2 ½ years of war to write about.   Plus a bunch of U-boats.

Q  -  Let me show you this, from March of 1993, a column from the Milwaukee Journal, and the headline is, “U-boats Struck Terror in the Hearts of Allies.”   It goes on to talk about the “wolf pack.”

Clay -  For goodness sake!  I never saw this.  

Oh yeah.  Drum Beat.  This guy, see … either a Florida State or Florida University professor wrote a book called, Drum Beat a couple or three years ago, in which he took…  

When the Germans attacked our east coast by U-boat, he took one boat which made two patrols to our east coast, and wrote a book about it, called Drum Beat.  The skipper of that boat is still alive, and he came over here, and the publisher did a PR tour.   They went everywhere.  And there were write-ups like this in the Washington Post, the New York Times, everywhere.  I assume that’s what this is from. 

Q – He’s now giving an overview of what (happened) 50 years in the Milwaukee Journal Greensheet article.  The reason I kept this was…the article plays up the psychological value of the wolf pack, the terror.

Clay -  Well, look at the headline they’re printing 50 years later.  That’s probably true.   This is not what I thought it was.  I’d like to read this.   Gannon and the U-boat skipper went on this huge tour.  

(break)    (tape has large empty hole with nothing recorded for quite a time, then picks up again)
Clay -  That quote is used by everybody, who wants to set up the U-boat as this big threat, and there are several other quotes similar.   It may be the only thing that ever frightened them during the war, but maybe he began to believe his own propaganda.

Surely, the German bomber offensive against London and Birmingham, Liverpool and Coventry, and all of those places, the blimps - that surely must have frightened him.   It was in our interest, our navy’s interest, to blow up this threat, so that we would have forces, the American people for the navy, for the huge shipbuilding program we were involved in.  Everybody. 

If you said, “Hey, that’s a bunch of baloney.  These U-boats aren’t really doing any harm,” that would take the service out of a hell of a lot of people, say in Sturgeon Bay, where they were building destroyer escorts, the Kaiser shipyard in California that were building liberty ships.

Q – Bottom line, what did they (U-boats) actually do as far as damage? 

Clay -  They actually sank 2800 ships, a lot of ships, 14 million tons.  This is over a period of almost six years.  But to give you an idea, during the same period of time we alone built 6000 ships of 42 million tons.  That’s just us.  The British built a million tons a year.   But the bottom line is, 95% of all ships embarked got through. 

We just finished … I added little thing on the last chapter, we were talking about…
 “In 1944, out of 14,000 sailings, the Germans sank 100 ships. “

Joan, do we have the last page of Chapter 20 anywhere here?  
That’s in 1944.  They sank more ships in ‘43, of course.  Sank almost no ships in ’45, sank a lot of ships in 1942, off our coast.  They sank 600 ships. 

Q – The Germans had the realization this was a propaganda weapon as well as a military tool?

Clay -  Oh, yeah.  All the German U-boats were great heroes in Germany, much publicized.

Q - Pulling up to the coastline of the U.S. must have struck terror into the citizens of those cities when they had a sinking?

Clay -  It did.  I think the U-boat as a terror weapon was unsurpassed. 
(Joan finds copy sheet and Clay reads from the last chapter of book….)

    “In all of 1944, U-boats sank only 13 ships of the 14,852 ships which sailed in 266 convoys.”

Clay -  I mean, we’re talking about 13 ships! 

Q -  All of this was considered the height of the U-boat activity, or is it on the wane? 

Clay -  Actually, I’d have to say it was on the wane in 1944.   We had totally beaten the Type 7, Type 9 boats that constituted the main thrust of their force.

Q –  Beaten them with sonar? 

  Clay – Everywhere.  Radar, particularly, airborne radar.  Sonar, of course.   Homing torpedoes, dropped from airplanes.   Depth charges made out of torpex (torpedo explosive), a highly powerful explosive.  HFDF ranked with radar, that is, high frequency direction finding.  When U-boats would spot a convoy, one of them would start a beacon so that the others could come to form a wolf pack, but we devised direction finding devices on board our ships, escorts, and we could pick up those transmissions, run out the bearing and sink the boat to prevent sinking by the wolf pack.  HFDF was really very important.  And, code breaking. 

Q – Your primary point of view is from the German, or is it from the Allied?

Clay -  Both sides.  Joan, is that point of view primarily from the German?  
For the first time, actually, the Germans have been given full treatment.  (To Joan:  That’s certainly true, isn’t it?)

Joan – I think so. 

Clay -  With all these sailing charts and everything…   We worked from German sources a lot.  We also worked from Allied sources.  

Q – Did the German sources reveal that they had a lot of uncertainty, that they lacked confidence?

Clay – No.   They were very bold and they were very .. right up to the last day of the war. 

Here’s the way it went.  First off, I should mention, they had 100% inflation in the shipping claims, the Germans did.  They claimed they sunk 4 million tons in 1943, but actually they sank only 2 million tons.     If they said they sunk 10 million, they only sunk 5, and like that.   And that was consistent throughout the war.  So that they were always doing half as good as they thought they were.  

Q -  Was this known in advance, or did you pick this up, figuring the amount of tonnage sunk on the records?  Was this a PR move on the part of Germans? 

Clay -  Well, no.   They actually felt they were sinking that much.    Let’s put it this way:  A German skipper would see a ship in a periscope and sink it.   And he’d say, “Hey, that was a liberty ship, 7,200 gross tons.”  But, it may have actually been a 1500 ton tramp.  Its hard to see through a periscope.

Q – So it wasn’t an obvious attempt to inflate the figures?

Clay -  In some cases, by some skippers. 

Joan – They also claimed they sank the ship, but it didn’t actually sink. 

Clay-  Yeah.  Maybe it didn’t really sink at all.  We knew this in our book, before we started the book, because our submarines did exactly the same thing.

 We claimed 10 million tons of Japanese shipping.  It was only 5 million.  So we knew about it all the time.   It was not a deliberate attempt at fraud, it was a difficulty of submarine skippers in assessing their own actions.

Q – I thought what you were getting at might be the submarine skippers put in their reports, and the Admiral, Doenitz, would multiply by two, and that would be the …

Clay – No.  What they were doing in the office – and actually they were very strict about this – they were passing along the claims without a lot of scrutiny. 

Q – Your primary German source then was the log book or series of log books, the Admirals records kept by him or his staff? 

Clay -  Yes.  Our primary source was the daily war diary of the Submarine Commander Doenitz.  That’s thousands of pages, and it has the position of every U-boat out every day, radio communications with the boat, what they reported, what they were told to do, all of that. Everything that you could possibly want is in there.

Q – They must have charted this actively on a board while the war was going on?

  Clay – Yes.   They did, the same way we had convoys up on a huge map of the Atlantic.  They had the same thing.  

Its really interesting, if you get down in the detail of this thing.  The Germans were breaking our convoy code.   And we were breaking their code.    So you could plot a situation like this:   A convoy steaming off, and we pick up a German intercept saying, “Convoy is proceeding on a course of so-and-so.  Assemble and attack.”   But we know the U-boat force is preparing to assemble and attack.   So they change the convoy course, and then the Germans pick up this change of course, and they tell the pack, “Convoy is changed here…”  and the Allies change the course back again, or to some other course. 
Everybody’s reading everybody’s code, so every move is like you’re listening in on the radio.   The difference being, the code breakers on one side or the other were either slower or faster in getting the keys and breaking the code.  And more often than not, we outwitted them.

Q -  You mentioned the similarity to the scud missile.

Clay -   Yeah, in the sense of its overall effectiveness.   The scud missile struck terror into the Israelis. 
Q -   As I recall, for six months this was ballyhooed as a weapon that could strike at the heart of Israel or any of the other neighboring countries and could carry chemical weapons, and it did have a tremendous psychological impact.   There was the one that fell on a barracks in Saudi Arabia and killed 28 people.    Aside from that, there were injuries but no deaths. 
Clay -  Just a very few deaths.   The scud, to make a parallel with the U-boats, the bottom line effectiveness gave the U-boat the edge.  Not a false claim, but an actual fact.  I don’t think the scuds did anything of note, except they terrorized.   The cachet about the scud was the same for the U-boat.  

People were terrorized by the U-boat, especially if they were riding around on a Liberty ship (U.S. mass-produced cargo vessel), where people sailed with their heart in their throat.   But, as I explained to you, the odds of being sunk by a U-boat were just astronomical.   And particularly so after a certain point of the war, and that would be September of 1942, after which the sinking by U-boats declined dramatically.   That’s when our shipbuilding program grew exponentially.    

END PART VI       -  Dick Purinton

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