Monday, August 10, 2015

Book R & R: The First "Great Escape"

This "Book Review and Recommendation" is on "Zero Night: The Untold Story of World War Two's Greatest Escape" by Mark Felton.

I must have watched the movie "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen more than a dozen times. Of course, since the first time I watched it was back in the sixties when I was just a kid (it was one of my dad's favorites) I never got around to reading the book it was based on. This movie and book are about a mass escape of allied POWs from Stalag Luft III in 1944. In this escape the prisoners dug a tunnel under the camp's perimeter fence. Because of the movie, this "Great Escape" has long over shadowed an earlier escape, that while did not free as many prisoners, certainly scores just as high in audacity.

In "Zero Night" author and historian Mark Felton tells the story of an escape from Oflag VI-B in August 1942. Unlike the great escape of Stalag Luft III nearly two years later, the forty allied officers who attempted this breakout chose to storm the double fence perimeter with ladders. They called their escape plan Operation Olympia, but it became known as the "Warburg Wire Job," named for the local town in Germany where the camp was located. The twelve-foot ladders were constructed out of bed slats and other scrounged wood. During preparation they were hidden in plain sight as bookshelves. Because of a design error in the camp's construction, a prisoner was able to cut the lights that enabled 36 men to escape during a mad three minute, well rehearsed, scramble over three scaling ladders.

St. Martin's Press provided an advance copy for this review. The book will be available on Amazon on August 25th. I found the book to be a fast paced read that kept my interest through the entire book. I was reminded of the movie "The Great Escape" several times while reading the book, not only because of the same POW jargon, but also because of the pace and suspense that the author has woven into this reality tale. So much so that the book has already been optioned for a movie version. For more information and pictures of the ladders over the perimeter fence, check out these two articles on War History Online.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

Day Trip to Sequoia NP or "A Tale of Two Trees"

The vacation part of my summer has consisted of a few day trips and overnighters rather than a long trip. It's a good thing, California has a lot to see. Since we live only an hour and a half drive from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and my daughter had not been there since she was very young, a day trip to see the big trees again was a logical choice to start out the summer.

The sequoia tree or "Sierra redwood" should not be confused with the coastal redwoods in northern California's Redwood National and State Parks. The coastal redwoods grow taller, up to 379 feet. However, the sequoia grows in heights up to 311 feet and have thicker trunks and branches. So in mass the sequoias are larger, and live to be older at up to 3,200 years. Reminiscent of the Griswold's family vacation, we set out to visit the two largest trees in the world, the General Grant Tree and the General Sherman Tree.

Highway 180 will take you from Fresno to the Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park in about an hour and a half or a little less if there is no traffic. Lucky for us we are early risers and were the second car to arrive in the parking lot about 7:30 in the morning. There is a short walk of about a half mile on a paved path (completely ADA accessible) around the General Grant tree. The General Grant tree is the second largest living tree in the world at 267.4 feet tall and a trunk diameter at the ground of 107.6 feet. Although these famous named trees are a huge tourist attraction, if you arrive before the crowds it is still a peaceful walk in nature and you stand a good chance of seeing some wildlife. We saw a mule deer, chipmunks, and squirrels. You also stand the chance of seeing a black bear. Some other visitors told us they had spotted one.

After a quick stop in the Kings Canyon Visitor's Center to look at the books, we drove the fifty minutes down the General's Highway (198) to visit the General Sherman tree that is located in Sequoia National Park. The General Sherman is the
largest tree (by volume) in the world. It is approximately 275 feet tall and 106.4 feet around its trunk at the ground. The walk to the Sherman tree is a little more challenging, about a mile with an elevation drop of about 300 feet. Then of course it's a mile climb back up to your car. But the Sherman tree is still ADA accessible with a special parking area closer to the end of the trail for cars with
handicap placards. By the time we got there (around 11:00 am on a Friday) there were already a large number of tourists. This includes several tour buses full of visitors speaking French and German. Most people are well behaved and courteous. But like anywhere else you go, the more people trying to see the same thing the more frustrating it gets. So we finished our day with a scenic drive down from the mountains on Highway 198 through Visalia then back up to our home in Fresno.

Image from nps.gov.
If you've seen one sequoia, have you seen them all? Well, maybe. No doubt it is hard to tell from the ground which trees are taller or bigger around. It is more impressive to me to see the forest rather than the trees. What I mean is that in the groves of sequoias located in the Sierras there are some impressive groups of trees and some individuals that I find more attractive than either the Grant or Sherman tree.  They have an interesting history. Protected before the area was made into a national park and before park rangers were in service, these trees were originally guarded by the United States cavalry. And of course there are other things to do in these national parks besides standing at a large tree looking up. Years ago, before the bad knees came on, the wife and I hiked into the mountains on several occasions. There is indescribably beautiful scenery in the mountains, away from the giant trees but also away from the crowds. But everyone should come to visit the giants at least once.When you do look at them, you might wonder, like I do, why anyone would have wanted to cut them down.

Since it's hard to capture these giant trees in one photograph up close, here's a couple of videos courtesy of my daughter's iPhone. First the General Grant tree:

And the General Sherman tree: