Category Archives: Book Recommendations

Book Recommendation: Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans

jackson book cover

by Rick Bretz

Before the people voted Andrew Jackson President, he was a lawyer, self-made business man and a commanding officer and general of a United States military unit.   The book “Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans” with the subtitle, “The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny”  by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager concentrates on a short time period in  Jackson’s career but important to his future nonetheless.  The subtitle concerns the vital geographic New Orleans port and the Mississippi River in that they were both vital to westward expansion.  The outcome went a long way toward the United State’s goal of forging a strong voice in international relations.

This is the third book by the co-authors.  The others, “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates”, and “George Washington’s Secret Six” used the same strategy as this one, zooming in from a satellite’s view of America’s history and the Jackson legacy to give the reader a pinpoint, telescoped examination of an important battle at the end of the War of 1812 with Britain.  These short, 200 or so page books will not give a reader a wide sweeping view of subject but a slice in time or an event important to the United State’s history.  The authors are putting together the history puzzle one piece at a time.

The General

Jackson’s personality and leadership style brought results.  The book shows how Jackson, without any formal training, intuitively understood battle tactics and how to use the terrain to his maximum benefit.  He could make decisions in the middle of a battle but took advice when it was clear someone else in the command had a better idea, and that included the suggestions of a privateer or pirate, depending on one’s  assessment, Jean Lafitte.  He understood how to motivate his men and how to relate to the people of New Orleans during social functions.


The authors do a good job of outlining the British plan of attack leading up to the Battle of New Orleans.  The British commanders made several mistakes at the beginning that helped Jackson’s cause.  However, Jackson’s ability to forecast the British Navy and Army’s avenues of attack was as much a factor in the victory as was the British commander overconfidence in taking on solders, Native Americans, Pirates and volunteers from several states in the area.  It was a mixed recipe of anyone Jackson could muster but General Jackson made the Army a personality of one, his.  That personality was tough, resourceful, with a boiling and deep hatred of the British Army from his childhood years due to events that caused the death of his family members.

The books also gives detailed descriptions of the swampy lands in the bayou that both sides of the war had to maneuver through to build defenses and a launch point for an attack.  The challenges presented by the New Orleans terrain was in contrast to the problems the diplomatic team had in Britain when negotiating a truce.  The snail’s pace communication presented difficulties in know who had the upper hand when ironing out details of a peach agreement.  They didn’t want to negotiate a peace with New Orleans in British hands. For as the book points out, the New Orleans port and control of the Mississippi River was key to America’s Westward expansion and a victory over the British invading force for a second time meant increased prestige to the World’s countries looking on a young United States.

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Book Recommendation: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

by Rick Bretz

The United States has always had issues with the Middle East.  For that matter, so has the rest of world.  Some of the issues are due to conquering and occupying nations and their policies but a majority can be traced back to dictator egos and their need for flaunting power. The fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I created many problems as well.


The United States has had problems with that region from the beginning.  Presidents George Washington,  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dealt with pirates, hostage takers and terrorist  demands for ransom.  This reality forced them to make difficult decisions so that the nation could build itself into a stable group of unified state governments with a federal power structure to deal with foreign policy and constitutional issues.

The troubled violent Middle East history as it pertains to the United States begins with the Tripoli Pirates and continues to this day.

A list of Middle East issues is a long one:

Thomas Jefferson book cover

The Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger book, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, covers just one of the issues the United States had to solve at the start of the 19th Century.  The subtitle, The Forgotten War That Changed American History, makes a point that the Tripoli Pirate issue is largely buried or glossed over in history books but remains significant concerning the rest of world’s outlook toward the then young country of the United States of America.  The book tells the story about four Muslim countries extorting the United States by capturing ships and enslaving the crews until a ransom was paid by the United States government.  Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco saw the kidnapping and ransom process as their religious right to capture vessels on the Mediterranean high seas to fill their financial coffers.

George Washington and John Adams tried to use diplomacy while they were building a Navy and a nation while paying back war debt to countries supporting the colonies’ war for independence. As a secretary of state and diplomat, and Vice President during those years, Thomas Jefferson had seen how diplomacy never worked. It was this experience dealing with the pirates that compelled Jefferson to send the US Navy’s recently built warships to the Middle East for a blockade.  The Barbary Wars and the outcome sent a message to the world that the young country of the America would defend itself if needed.  This sent the country on a journey where its elected leaders had a say on the world stage, and later used to full effect by President Teddy Roosevelt.


The book does a good job of writing about the courage of the captured ships’ sailors held in prisons.  It also tells the story of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur’s night raid and General William Eaton’s five hundred mile march from Egypt to the Port of Derne for a surprise attack by US Marines. The result of this became a well-known line in the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”  All together now!  This book is worth reading because the authors describe the difficulty of beginning a new nation, building a Navy, and defending America’s prestige on the world stage while keeping government politicians contented back home.

From the early 1800 Tripoli Pirates, the United States has dealt with a number of Middle East issues including, regime changes, oil embargos, Palestinian/Israeli conflicts, The Yom Kippur War, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan, The Iranian Revolution, government-funded terrorism, and many others.  The Middle East and each administration’s malleable foreign policy that goes with dealing with this region, as well as the United Nations attitude toward Israel compared to the surrounding countries, is a nightmare that keeps coming back when you want to get a good sleep.  In this case the nightmare has lasted more than a couple hundred years.


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The Two O’Clock War

by Rick Bretz

I came across an interesting book with an even more captivating title.  The book, by Walter J. Boyne, and published in 2002 is titled “The Two O’Clock War.”  The first thought that enters the mind is:  Why Two O’clock?

Two O'Clock War Book Cover

The Two O’clock question is answered in the book but the subtitle made me want to read it the minute I picked it up from my father-in-law’s bookshelf, “The 1973 Yom Kippur Conflict and the Airlift That Saved Israel.”  What Airlift and by whom?

The Yom Kippur War or as some call it, The October War,  began on the holiest of Jewish Holidays on October 6th of 1973 and the Arab forces chose “Two O’clock”  for a reason.

The author, a retired Air Force Colonel, explains the Two O’clock time hack in the title is derived from a couple of factors.  One is that Israeli commanders and the government leadership never thought the Arab forces would begin a war at two o’clock in the afternoon.  President Anwar Sadat and Air Chief Marshal Hasni Mubarak elected to change strategy to achieve the element of surprise.  Also, they knew the Israeli leadership’s guard would be the most lax at that time on Yom Kippur.


Israel thought the Suez Canal provided a natural defensive barrier and would give them enough time to call up their reserve forces if they tried to cross the canal for an attack on Israel.  However,  in the case of  October 6th, soon after the explosives started hitting the concrete bunkers, 600 tanks started rolling towards the Israeli front on pontoon bridges crossing the Suez Canal.  At the same time, Syrian MiG jet fighters and Sukhoi bombers attacked the Golan Heights in the North.

Arab Forces led primarily by Anwar Sadat’s bold decision making wanted some revenge for the six day war and also wanted to reclaim some prestige and the land Israel won after soundly defeating the Arab coalition in June of 1967.  This War, lasting until October 26th, almost completely redrew the map in that region.

The book describes how the Israeli military and its government became overconfident in the years leading up to the Yom Kippur War.  Due to the Six Day War outcome, the Israeli leadership never gave Arab Forces from any of the surrounding countries any credit.  That overconfidence almost resulted in disaster during the first couple of days of the Arab surge once they crossed the Suez. Arab forces caught Israel by surprise and with supplies and support from the Soviet Union, the Arab coalition almost succeeded in overrunning the Israeli Defense Force if not for the heroism and bravery of soldiers and airmen of the Israeli Defense Force who lost their lives defending their young country.

Boyne’s account of how American and Soviet leadership faced-off in a proxy war with the Soviet’s supplying the Arab Forces and the American Military airlifting supplies, weaponry and ammunition to the Israeli government is a lesson in diplomacy and decision-making.  What’s eye-opening is the fact that, 10 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, hands were ready to send nuclear warheads down range in a last, desperate act to save their country.  Henry Kissinger working with the Soviets stepped in and clearer heads prevailed.

All of the key players have a primary role in this event in history: Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Leonid Brezhnev, Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat and Ariel Sharon.  After many meetings, and diplomatic trips back and forth from one country to another, Nixon ordered the US Military and specifically the US Air Force to airlift weapons, ammunition and other logistics to Israel as they were running out of vital supplies, arriving just in time to resupply the Israeli Defense Forces. The Israeli and United States military’s coordinated efforts resulted in supplies moving from the planes just after landing on the airfield in Tel Aviv to supply trucks and then forward to the battle fronts.

The United States Air Force’s leadership saved the day because, while the politicians were talking, they were developing a plan and putting their airmen on notice to be ready for an airlift to Israel. An Airlift of Yom Kippur’s magnitude just doesn’t happen overnight and it occurred while Vietnam required air support simultaneously. Working 24 hours a day for several days straight, the Air Force contributed to saving Israel and were thanked by Golda Meir through a special visit.  This book is worth the read to get a little history that forms Middle East politics as it is today.

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A Book Recommendation-Hero For Our Times

Leonard Mosely book cover
Leonard Mosley book cover

by Rick Bretz

Once in a while, an entertaining surprise appears in front of you. In this case, a trip to the local library’s book fair was the catalyst where a book rested at the top of a pile and I picked it up. The book was a biography about General George C. Marshall, written and research by Leonard Mosley and published in 1982. I picked it up and bought for a few dollars, along with five others, and felt good about supporting my local library. I did not know at the time that this book would soon become one of my favorite books about military generals.

Having read books about General George S. Patton, General Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Marine General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, Air Force General Chuck Yeager, General George Washington, General Douglas MacArthur, Napoleon, Alexander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Roman Legion commanders and many more, I don’t know why I hadn’t read anything about Marshall until now.  This was a huge oversight, considering the man’s greatness and legacy.

After reading the book, I have become an admirer of General Marshall and how he conducted himself during his service to the country as a military officer and for his efforts serving under the Truman Administration as Secretary of State. I am late to the group of Marshall Scholars since it has been 33 years since the book’s release by Hearst Books and several more years since Marshall’s passing on October 16, 1959 at Walter Reed Hospital.

Col. George C. Marshall
Col. George C. Marshall

Mosely’s other books cover historical figures and topics ranging from Charles Lindbergh, Emperor Hirohito, and Haile Selassie to the Battle of Britain and the DuPont’s of Delaware.

Mosley’s book spans the decades of George Catlett Marshall’s birth on December 31, 1880 in Uniontown, Pa., to his final days at Walter Reed Hospital. The first few pages surprise when we learn that growing up in Uniontown Marshall was a slow learner and not the favorite of his father. His family didn’t expect much from him as the first chapter’s title suggests, “A Disgrace to the Family?” Never expecting to see the word “Disgrace” in a book about General Marshall, I was hooked.

What we learn soon after a few more pages is that something lit a fire in the young George Marshall—and that “someone” was sibling rivalry. His brother, Stuart, graduated from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) but didn’t enter the military. When his brother found out that George wanted to attend VMI, he tried to persuade his parents into preventing George from getting an education there because he thought the slow-learning George would fail.

We learn that sixteen year old George Marshall did attend VMI and excelled and succeeded well beyond everyone’s expectations while also meeting his future wife there who lived near the institution. We find out in later chapters that he was a disciple of General Black Jack Pershing and that he was more than brilliant during all of his assignments after getting his Army officer’s appointment.

The author gives us an idea of what made Marshall tick, how he dealt with people and how he honed his leadership skills. He was a no-nonsense leader and didn’t like dealing with politicians or being political. It seems from the book that George Marshall had a way with dealing with subordinates and superiors that impressed everyone. This trait brought him promotions, although slow due to the small Army budget and size before World War I and after, and important assignments. He had few enemies if any but one important one seemed to have it out for him—General Douglas MacArthur.

The book does something after the final chapter that I don’t see often in research notations at the end of books. He takes the time to compare his sources and write a couple of paragraphs about where he got his material for each chapter and why certain sources were used over others. An interesting part of the book. His material comes from more than 40 hours of tapes Marshall recorded near the end of his life and from books written by his official biographer Forrest C, Pogue, documents from the George C. Marshall Research Foundation, the Military History Institute and other resources from the author’s work on other books.

This book is certainly well worth the read. It lets us in on how he found all of those talented generals that served him so well during World War II as well as criticizing Marshall where he sent out ambiguous orders or failed to see the political and  cultural implications in China and the Far East after World War II.

Marshall had many successes too such as his World War II leadership, The Marshall Plan, The Berlin Airlift, and in many other areas that will surprise us, especially during the Great Depression years.

You just never know what literary gems you will find at your local library book fair.


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A Book Recommendation-Five Came Back


Timeline for blog


by Rick Bretz

If you watch the Turner Classic Movies Channel and study history, then “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” will fascinate you.

five came back cover


Researched and written by Mark Harris, he is a prolific writer for many periodicals such as Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine as well as the New York Times and Washington Post. His previous work was also a best seller, “Pictures and the Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.”

The book covers the exploits of five Hollywood heavyweights who hung up their tinsel town regalia to put on a uniform and shoot the combat footage that we see today on the History channel and other documentaries. The title refers to five powerful Hollywood people who could have stayed in their comfortable California surroundings but went to war overseas, survived the experience, and came back alive to produce more classic films.

It covers John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra. These five were responsible for some of Hollywood’s classics. Movies that film historians consider the finest the industry has produced and film school students today analyze shot by shot. These are also classic stories film buffs see each day when movie channels air them at all hour into the early morning.

Here is the short list of the five’s accomplishments.

1.  “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” Starring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur

2. “The Grapes of Wrath” Starring Henry Fonda

3. “The Maltese Falcon” Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre

4.  “Young Mr. Lincoln” Starring Henry Fonda

5. “Woman of the Year” Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn

6. “Shane” Starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur

7. “Mrs. Miniver” Starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon and Teresa Wright

8. “The Best Years of Our Lives” Starring Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Frederic March

The book tells the story of five movie professionals and how the war changed them. Once they joined the military, they trained their film teams, coordinated their missions and made sure the public was able to see their productions. These five went on dangerous missions in the air as well as on the ground to capture shots that would tell the story of how the allies won the war and what it cost in lives.  They were a key part in keeping morale high on the home front by telling loved ones what their service men and women were doing overseas.

The book also covers the politics involved with creating a documentary and field photo unit with civilians turned officers leading the groups. At the beginning, some government officials were in favor of commissioning these five future officers to be charged with documenting the war while others thought it wasn’t the best idea. The important people, like General George C. Marshal, were proponents of the program.

The book reads slowly at times when Harris outlines the administrative maze that the documentary group had to navigate when confronted with Washington personalities and egos.  Once you get past that, the author does a wonderful job of describing how Hollywood directors handle the military life and protocols.  The action really begins when Harris describes the harrowing and dangerous missions some of them witnessed while viewing combat through a lens.

John Ford’s unit shot footage of the Battle of the Midway while John Huston and William Wyler went on bombing runs with the Army Air Corps. William Wyler lost hearing in one ear and partially in another from the concussion flak noise while trying to get some aerial combat footage. George Stevens had the unfortunate task of shooting horrific scenes of the liberated Nazi concentration camps. He also produced a film shown as evidence of the atrocities at the Nuremberg Trials to the war criminals and witnesses in the gallery.  Stevens was the last to come back and thus through a film lens saw up close the inhumanity people are capable of to other human beings. This experience forever changed George Stevens as the book covers in detail.

“Five Came Back” is an entertaining and informative read, especially if you like history. More importantly, it points out how the Hollywood elite of that era stood up and did their part when asked by the government to contribute.

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A Book Recommendation-A Circle of Treason

Circle of Treasonby Rick Bretz

Cold War consequences remained high from the end of World War II to long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For some, the price of being captured meant prison time, public trials, or for some, torture and execution by being shot in the back of the head.

The authors of the book,”A Circle of Treason“, Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, started their careers in the CIA in 1967 and 1954 respectively.  The authors give a detailed account of their lives in the CIA.  Each started out as Administrative and Intelligence Assistants and advanced to the level of station and branch chiefs.

The book is exactly what the subtitle states, “A CIA account of the traitor Aldrich Ames and the men he betrayed.”  The authors produced a book that details the inside story of how the agency caught one of its own spies, Aldrich Ames.   What can’t be denied after looking at the evidence  is Ames’ dishonesty, lack of integrity, avarice and betrayal to the people he swore to protect.

Aldrich Ames, according to the authors, caused the deaths of many CIA assets who were vital to the security of the United States at a time when both countries had nuclear weapons and not that much command and control over them. The task force investigated Ames the detailed information on bank accounts and meeting they found led to his arrest in 1994.  So why take this long to write the book.    The authors let the readers know up front that their work was vetted and scrubbed by the CIA’s Publications Review Board so nothing in the book compromises security.  The CIA review process took three years. Between that and the insistence that the book be accurate gave the book a published date of 2013.

The book covers the history of the team, the authors’ careers and how each arrived at the table of five principal investigators with the mission of trying to find out why their CIA assets were being systematically identified, called back to Moscow, tortured for information and executed.  The years long investigation was tedious and frustrating but the Grimes and Vertefeuille continued their dogged pursuit eliminating a group of people to get to the only one they determined could be the mole that gave up their people.

The book makes clear that it is not enough to accuse someone of spying and being a mole for America’s adversaries but an agency has to have proof.  Proof that can hold up in court.  This means having dates, times, documents, video and audio if possible so that when an officer or agent arrest the person that person pleads guilty or there is a conviction.  The book covers that and includes instances where Ames was given his own office so that the agency could hide a camera to get more information for their case.

What is particularly chilling is how Ames sells out his people for money and nothing else.  The authors give their Soviet assets a human form by covering their backgrounds, their families and revealing why they might have chosen to spy for the United States and rather than be loyal to the communist regime.

The internal political issues and personality clashes hindered the process as it moved along.  As an understatement, these problems are systematic of the Washington, DC, area government offices in general.  It is a testament to the group that they stuck with their mission of identifying the traitor.

The book is highly recommended for getting the inside story from two people who actually were there and understood the process and why it took a while to capture on of their own.  In the aftermath, many people didn’t get proper recognition for sticking with the investigation.  This book outlines who the primary heroes in this case and who in the bureaucracy set out to place blame and take credit where credit wasn’t due.

These two highly skilled professionals and authors fall into the heroes category but they are professionals and getting the man who betrayed so many people was enough.  This book opens the building cipher lock doors, walks by the badge checker to the rooms where daily CIA operators work so the reader can find out how they caught their mole.  It doesn’t tell you everything but it is as close as the public will get.

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A Book Recommendation-The Wild Blue


By Rick Bretz

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit this book is my first authored by Stephen E. Ambrose. After finishing it in less time than it took veterans travelling from the United States to Italy by boat in 1944, I will read more written by Ambrose, who also wrote “Band of Brothers”, “Undaunted Courage”, “Eisenhower: Soldier and President”, and many others.

The Wild Blue, with the subtitle, “The Men and Boys Who Flew The B-24s Over Germany”, is well researched and an entertaining read. It is not a thorough examination of air power used in World War II. It, however, depicts the stages several individuals passed through to get ready, travel to a foreign country, and fly combat missions and hopefully arrive safely back home. The book zeroes in on one particular B-24 unit, the pilots and crews of the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, and one crew in particular that flew missions from Italy into Central Europe at the end of the war.

As Ambrose’s story unfolds chapter after chapter, the reader understands the commitment and courage bomber crews exhibited during the last days of World War II. Ambrose died in 2002 and with this book, published in 2001, he left us with the story about another significant American, 1972 Democratic Presidential Candidate and Senator from South Dakota, George McGovern, who died in 2012, and the his fellow servicemen.

Before George McGovern worked as an author, history professor, US Representative, Senator from South Dakota and Presidential Candidate, he was a trained pilot. By all accounts from the book, he was an excellent, composed pilot, respected and admired by his crew. Ambrose’s description of McGovern’s training and the dangers involved just to make it through the training is riveting.   His account of how his fellow crew members came to sign up for the Army Air Forces and how they worked their way through training to graduation is enlightening. Some potential pilots washed out while some didn’t make it back. The book takes you through McGovern’s and his crew’s missions during World War II while describing his leadership style. The account of how he earned his Distinguished Flying Cross is particularly captivating.

The book is thorough but short enough to satisfy the reader who wants to know about the B-24 Liberator bombers and the story of George McGovern’s experience during the war.

I’m giving away my age here, but I was 12 years old when the 1972 Presidential Election was decided by the voting majority. I didn’t know much about either candidate back then.  Today, I know more about former President Richard Nixon. I understand that McGovern was against the Vietnam War as early as 1962. As a World War II bomber pilot, McGovern understood the cost of war and in reading this you develop more insight into his thinking during those turbulent days in the 1960s.


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