Putin Plays the Great Patriotic War Card

Vladimir Putin had not even been born in 1945 when the Red Army stormed into Berlin, but his rhetoric suggests otherwise. During his 2014 campaign to annex Crimea and harass Ukraine, the Russian president has repeatedly invoked the Soviet Union’s triumph over Hitler’s Germany. Putin, 61, dismisses pro-Europe, anti-Russia politicians in the Ukrainian capital Kiev as modern-day fascists. The claim plays on history: In 1941, many Ukrainians did welcome invading Germans as liberators. Russian government media have dubbed the current Crimean takeover “the third defense of Sevastopol”—a Crimean city Russians defended against a British siege during the Crimean War and a German siege in 1941–1942—driving home the point by working World War II footage into news coverage.

Putin’s critics at home joke bitterly that his main accomplishments are Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 trip into space and the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, as Russian TV editor Tikhon Dzyadko noted in the New Republic. But Putin’s incantatory employment of the past nonetheless seems to be working—in Russia, anyway. Almost a quarter century after the Soviet regime’s collapse, one of the few themes Russians can rely on to unite their country are memories of the Great Patriotic War. “In this environment the War (capital W) has become the central and basically the only symbol of Russia’s greatness,” Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Society and Regions Program said by e-mail. “The farther it gets from actual events, and the fewer survivors of the war time generation, the grander the celebrations, the more the memory is reduced to just the Victory, rather than the losses or the hardships.”

Official Russian history airbrushes out darker aspects of the war: the German Soviet Nonaggression Pact that divided Poland between Germany and the U.S.S.R.; the 1940 Soviet massacre of Poland’s officer corps and intelligentsia in Katyn Forest; the way Hitler’s June 1941 invasion initially routed a Red Army weakened by Stalin’s purges. Some observers liken Putin’s annexation of Crimea, ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians, to Hitler’s use of ethnic Germans’ claimed vulnerability as a pretext for seizing Czechoslovakia and invading Poland. In May, Britain’s Prince Charles set off the chattering classes when he declared, “And now Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.

Translator Brings U-Boat War Diaries to Life

As a Cold War U.S. Navy pilot, Jerry Mason chased Russian submarines, which fascinated him. Now retired to Victoria, British Columbia, Mason is translating the logbooks of German U-boats and posting the results at uboatarchive.net.

U-boat radio operators strained to hear encoded Morse transmissions from headquarters, transcribing dits and dahs, then feeding their work into Enigma machines that rendered the content into German for entry into the boat’s Kriegstagebuch (“war diary.”) Entries can be terse to the point of obscurity, or show a skipper’s facility with language.

At first Mason relied on friends who knew German to handle the translations, but submarine jargon defied their skills. So he works on his own, counting on the fact that most skippers were “trying to say as little as possible,” frequently recycling technical terms to fill out the pages. He has translated 200 logs, including the day book from U-96, made famous by the 1981 hit film Das Boot.

Transmissions sometimes show a human touch. Admiral Karl Dönitz, the subsurface fleet’s commander, personally informed skippers of family events on open circuits—only boats’ transmissions were secure—so good news like a baby’s birth reached all of the tight-knit U-boat fraternity. On occasion skippers broke into verse.

Through their writings Mason has come to admire many U-boat commanders. “I get to know them a little,” he says. “They were professional military men. I never thought they were bad people. All in all, the U-boat war was fought in an almost chivalrous way…. Compared to U.S. submariners, they were actually better behaved. That was the nature of the war in the Pacific. U.S. guys in the Pacific would machine-gun [Japanese] guys. In only one incident did the Germans machine-gun guys in the water.”

Seeing the Maritime Ghosts of Slapton Sands

Robots obtained the first high-definition sonar images of two American vessels sunk off England as troops were practicing for the D-Day landings. The Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) were at Slapton Sands for Exercise Tiger, an April 28, 1944, rehearsal, when German torpedo boats attacked. (See “Exercise in Tragedy,” May/June 2014.) The incident was hushed up to keep the invasion secret. The Pocasset, Massachusetts, company Hydroid, which operates the submersibles, will donate the images to Britain’s National Archives and to local memorials. There are no plans to raise the vessels’ remains.

Japanese Searchers on Saipan Seek American MIAs

David Rogers was only a kid in 1944, but he remembers the telegram that devastated his family in Brooklyn, New York, with the news that his uncle, U.S. Army Private Bernard Gavrin, was missing in action on Saipan. He and hundreds of other GIs had fallen on July 7, 1944, when 3,000 Japanese, some armed only with makeshift spears, attacked in the largest banzai charge of the war. Afterward, the dead were buried en masse. Gavrin’s remains never surfaced, his fate remained unknown, and all the relatives who knew him subsequently died—except for David Rogers, 81, now retired to Delray Beach, Florida, and hanging onto a memory of his Uncle Bernie comforting him after a childhood mishap.

The mystery of Bernie Gavrin’s fate has been solved by a surprising source: volunteers from Kuentai, a Japanese nonprofit. Originally dedicated to finding the remains of a million Japanese troops still missing seven decades after the war, the organization now has a U.S. branch to search for fallen Americans. “They are all heroes,” says Yukari Akatsuka of the group’s American affiliate. Guided by a Life magazine photo showing the aftermath of the suicide charge, the Saipan search team located the impromptu burial ground, where searchers encountered Bernard Gavrin’s dog tag.

Akatsuka, a translator, first volunteered with Kuentai out of interest in the war, in which her grandfather had served. Her field experience moved her to give up an office job to work full-time scouring the South Pacific for missing remains, first of her countrymen and, when GIs’ bones appeared, their foes. When Kuentai started its American entity, she became its secretary general.

She was in Virginia researching another Saipan casualty when Gavrin’s dog tag, bearing his father’s name and the family address, turned up near the other man’s remains. Akatsuka added the search for Gavrin’s survivors to her tasks and, with a librarian’s aid, found Rogers. Remains found near Gavrin’s ID tag are being studied by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). If they are confirmed as Gavrin’s, the family will seek a military burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The remains of William Carneal, found by the volunteers and positively identified as one of the GIs killed in the banzai attack, were interred at a national cemetery in Paducah, Kentucky, in April 2014.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.