Monday, August 17, 2015


We won World War II 70 years ago this month, and I'm finally revealing The Ultimate Weapon.  Just remember: you saw it here first.

Never mind the world's greatest industrial base

or the 15-million-man force structure 

or the 90-division army

or the two-ocean navy

or the globe-spanning logistics 

or the atom bomb.

THIS is how we won the war:

The booklet is dated November 1944, a crucial period in WW II history.  To quote my friend and colleague Richard B. Frank, author of Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, “This manual was published just as we were bogged down fighting on Leyte and about to face the Battle of the Bulge.  After it was published: (1) we finally overcame resistance on rain soaked Leyte and (2) contained and then threw back the last great German offensive of the war.

“Obviously, there is a connection between the timely publication of this manual and these pivotal events that historians shamefully have overlooked for decades.  No snickering please.”

Actually, the greatest war in history could not have been fought without legions of typists.  Somewhere deep in the cavernous labyrinth of government warehouses—perhaps alongside the missing Ark of the Covenant—is a rusty, moldy file cabinet with the strategic information on Typewriter Proliferation.  However many machines the U.S. Government (in all its permutations) possessed in 1941, the figure surely exploded over the next four years.

The manual is thorough, providing details on Remington, Royal, Woodstock, Underwood, and L.C. Smith models.  Royal is particularly relevant to me because I learned to type on a Royal Standard my father bought before I was born (in the first half of the previous century).  Eventually I wrote my first six books and about 100 articles on that valiant machine, which I used until most of the vowels wore thin.  At length I was dragged into the computer age with a doorknob in each hand and skid marks on the floor.

Some context:

In 1940 Congress passed the Draft Act by one vote, activating the Selective Service bureaucracy to conscript millions of young men.  Some were more perceptive than others.  Knowing that military service probably was unavoidable, thousands figured on their own, or benefited from the experience of others, that pounding a typewriter was infinitely preferable to pounding the tundra in the Aleutians, swamps on a godforsaken Pacific isle, or ankle-deep African sand.  Straight out of basic training, a soldier or sailor who demonstrated 40 words per minute had his ticket out of combat.

In the sweltering Alabama summer of 1941 the Air Corps Tactical School produced the basic plan for the air war against Germany and Japan.  It was amazingly prescient, predicting with exceptional clarity the force necessary to bomb the Axis into submission.  Furthermore, it was completed by just nine officers and a small clerical staff in nine days.  The document, AWPD-1, was produced on manual typewriters with carbon paper for duplicates.  No word processors; no computers.

In 1945 a late friend, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, was a Marine Corps major on the staff of III Amphibious Corps, planning the invasion of Japan.  Operation Olympic was due to seize the southern island of Kyushu that November, and he recalled that mountains of paper were consumed with all the minutae of so great an undertaking: available shipping; routes and timing; tides and weather; logistics; supplies; casualty estimates; time-tables; on and on.  Every aspect required multiple copies of clean typescript: naval gunfire support, air support, and landing craft to name a few.

But the typewriter produced papers well beyond the theaters of operation.  Remember the scene in Saving Private Ryan?  In Washington a large roomful of typists—all female—earnestly batter away at their keyboards, typing form letters of bereavement to families across the nation, filling in the blanks according to the format of the time:

“The (War-Navy) Department regrets to inform you that your (son, husband, relative) was (killed, wounded, missing) in the performance of his duty on (date) in the (European, Mediterranean, Pacific, China-Burma-India) Theater of Operations.

“The department extends to you its sincerest sympathy in our great loss. On account of existing conditions, the body, if recovered cannot be returned at present. If further details are received you will be informed. To prevent possible aid to our enemies, please do not divulge the name of his (ship-station).”
“You will be informed of additional details as they become available.”

Chief of Staff/Personnel”

The verbiage was transmitted by telegram, prompting a generation of Americans to dread the appearance of the local Western Union courier.

However, the typewriter’s importance was not limited to America.  One of the most fascinating epics to emerge from the war involved a German soldier captured by the Soviets and sent to perish in a slave-labor camp.  In 1946 word came down that a typewriter repairman was needed in the gulag commandant’s office, and the emaciated Soldat grasped the opportunity.  Though he neither repaired office machines nor read Cyrilic, he bluffed his way into the office where a goon said in fractured Deutsch, “You fix, one hour.  Or else.”

The desperate young German searched the office for something useful and came up with a broken piece of furniture.  When the turnkey reappeared, the German bashed him stoutly and fatally, then took his uniform and rifle.  Wrapping a muffler about his face, he trudged through the gate, waving to the guards, and disappeared into the Russian vastness. 

He took 18 months to get home, but he made it.

Best-selling historian Rick Atkinson has written an epic account of the U.S. Army in WW II.  His Liberation Trilogy accessed enormous amounts of wartime documents, reckoned at 17,000 tons of paper.  Most will decompose before anyone can copy them, but they represent the enormity of the irreplaceable contribution that the manual typewriter made to victory in the Second World War.