First World War in Visual Culture

Here is my latest from The Wall Street Journal, a great World War I art exhibit at the Wolfsonian in South Beach.

From the Somme to South BeachWolfsonian

By Mark Yost

South Beach

Most of the major exhibits marking the 100th anniversary of World War I have been martial, focusing on battles, weapons and strategies. But now comes a comprehensive exhibit at the Wolfsonian, a small museum at Florida International University that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. “Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture” featuring artists’, designers’ and filmmakers’ response to the war, from nationalistic propaganda pieces and recruiting posters to dark, retrospective postwar works looking back on a conflict that many thought would last a few months, but which dragged on for four years and cost millions of lives.

Keen visitors will notice the dazzle pattern—camouflage used by World War I ships to fool German U-boats—painted on the outside of the building near the entrance. The lobby features vinyl flooring with a poppy design created in-house (the flowers have long been worn to remember the Allied war dead) and a contemporary photo exhibit by Milan-born Luca Artioli of bunkers and trenchworks still visible in the Italian Alps. These are but preludes to the three galleries over two floors of the museum that have been well put together, mostly using artworks from the museum’s vast collection, by curator Jon Mogul.

“War Machines” opens with “Paris bombardé,” a 1919 series of etchings and woodcuts by artist-turned-aviator Maurice Busset depicting the 1918 air raids and dogfights over Paris. “La sirène de Notre-Dame” is his view of the famed cathedral from above, looking down on the air-raid sirens installed on its roof, with the Seine and searchlights in the distance. Its companion piece, “Sous les bombes,” is an aerial perspective of biplanes engaged in combat with the city below. In “Sous les voûtes du métro Odeon,” Parisians are seen huddling in a dark subway tunnel in the foreground, with more amorphous mobs on the well-illuminated station platforms in the distance.

Much of the artwork in this first gallery illustrates the industrial effort to win the war. While World War I officially fell between the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods, visitors will clearly see the connection between design and technology that was a central theme of both periods as well as the pieces on display here. Among them is a series, “Britain’s Efforts and Ideals,” commissioned by the War Propaganda Bureau. It features works by C.R.W. Nevinson, who observed that soldiers had become “mere cogs in the mechanism.”

“Assembling Parts” is Nevinson’s 1917 etching of workers (including a woman) around an unskinned aircraft, the latticework of its bowed wings and fuselage foreshadowing the Art Deco period’s celebration of craftsmanship and technology. Another etching, “Making the Engine,” also from 1917, shows workers in a plant, with more detail given to the pulleys and crankshafts than the faces. An oil on canvas—one of the few works in color here—by British artist Anna Airy captures a Singer sewing-machine factory in Glasgow converted to make 15-inch artillery shells. Although the painting was commissioned, a plaque explains that “the factory…is hardly a model of efficiency. Instead, it is a cluttered, disorganized space, and some of the workers are standing around rather than making armaments.” Completed in 1918, its tone is reflective of how Britain had become weary of the mounting casualties from what seemed to be a never-ending war.

The objects in this gallery also reflect the early 20th century’s fascination with the airplane, which itself was symbolic of the mechanization of war. “Winged Vision of the War in Italy” is a series of reconnaissance photos issued by a Rome publisher in the 1920s to celebrate Italy’s campaigns against Austria-Hungary. An iPad nearby, one of several scattered throughout the museum, lets visitors examine the photos more closely.

“By mounting cameras to aircraft,” one panel reads, “militaries were able to record terrain behind enemy lines along with troop positions, trench networks, and artillery emplacements.”

The second gallery, “Unknown Soldiers,” delves deeper into Nevinson’s widely held view that tanks, airplanes and machine guns had turned soldiers into faceless parts in the war machine. In the lithograph “1915,” a panel explains, Austrian artist Albin Egger-Lienz depicts rank upon rank of German soldiers “nearly identical in posture, physique and expression” marching toward the viewer. “Their massive bodies, blank faces, and extreme uniformity convey a threat.” Similar in tone and style is Italian artist Anselmo Bucci’s 1918 portfolio of 50 lithographs made from sketches of the naval infantry.

“Bucci’s aim,” the exhibit explains, “was to make visible what was invisible by capturing the texture of everyday life at the front.” He does exactly that with “In linea: difese e rifugi” (“At the Front: Defenses and Shelters”), which features two images; one of soldiers digging a trench, then another alongside showing them seeking refuge in it.

For all its carnage, World War I also produced its share of kitsch, including a series of German decorative plates, miniature statues of soldiers marching off to war, and album covers for the popular American songs “Your Lips Are No Man’s Land But Mine” and “Somewhere in France is Daddy.”

If the first two galleries mostly celebrate the war, “Loss and Redemption” puts the aftermath in perspective. The most somber objects are a series of 1921 etchings by Austrian artist Ludwig Hesshaimer, “The World War: A Dance of Death.”

“To tell this tale,” the wall panel explains, “Hesshaimer combines modern and Biblical imagery: biplanes join the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to lay waste to earth; German soldiers share a dugout with Death; demons riding a giant serpent threaten a group of children gathered around Jesus, after His second coming has vanquished Death.”

Equally unflinching is “Lens,” a 1920 offset lithograph by French artist Julien Lacaze that depicts the northern French city in utter ruin, but also as a curiosity to tourists who were encouraged by the state railroad, which commissioned the piece, to come see it for themselves.

After the war also came public artworks of remembrance, including a victory arch in New York’s Madison Square. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was studying sculpture in Paris at the outbreak of the war, was one of 20 artists invited to contribute. Instead of some grand symbolic piece, she created relief panels that show everyday soldiers in combat, digging trenches, and marching. There’s also a nurse, symbolic of the field hospital she helped set up in Juilly, France. On display here are the bronzes she had cast from the reliefs.

All in all, a worthwhile—and different—remembrance of the First World War.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.


Nice Comment on My ‘Battle of New Orleans’ Review in WSJ

New OrleansI don’t usually post these, but I received a nice email today from a guy who had been through the new “Battle of New Orleans” exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in the Big Easy.

Your concise review of this exhibit provides a great overview. Spent about three hours in January during a visit to NOLA tying to digest this incredible offering at the LA State Museum; wish I had been able to read your review before my visit. All in all just a breathtaking and expansive look at the story and it’s impact then and now on New Orleans and its people. I hope your piece will bring the attention this exhibit deserves.

The whole piece, entitled “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers,” is here.


From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers

My latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the new War of 1812 exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

It is only fitting that the Battle of New Orleans should be remembered at the conclusion of the three-year bicentennial of the War of 1812. Not only was it the last major engagement of the war, but it was the young country’s second defeat of the British Empire, which further cemented our independence. It also made a folk hero of Andrew Jackson, helping to propel him eventually to the White House, and spawned a pop culture fascination that continued well into the 20th century. The Louisiana State Museum has done a great job of explaining all this with its show “From ‘Dirty Shirts’ to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture,” which opened Jan. 11 in the historic Cabildo, a magnificent 1790s Spanish-era building just off Jackson Square.

A winding staircase leading to the two main exhibit galleries is lined with portraits of important historical figures from the battle—such as an 1840 oil on canvas by E.B. Savary of Gov. William Charles Cole Claiborne, the first territorial and state governor of Louisiana—as well as the campaign banner (also oil on canvas, c. 1840) of Gen. J.B. Plauché, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1849 and reminded voters that he was a “companion of Jackson.”

New OrleansAt the top of the stairs is the sweeping “Battle of New Orleans,” a roughly 34-by-41 inch painting on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art that was done by Jean Hyacinthe de Laclotte, a French draftsman and engineer who was at the battle. He sketched scenes while overlooking the decisive Chalmette battlefield and used them as the basis for his 1815 oil on canvas, which depicts the pitched battle between British regulars and the ragtag group of soldiers that Andrew Jackson assembled for his successful defense of the Crescent City.

If you are getting the sense that this exhibit features as many historic artworks as artifacts, you would be right. Both are displayed in two galleries. The first focuses on the military history of the conflict; the second, on the myths and legends of the battle in popular culture in the decades that followed.

The most affecting image in the military gallery is an 1839 oil on canvas from the French artist Eugène Louis Lami that combines an accurate picture of some of the battle and landscape with his own artistic license to highlight some of the more dramatic events. The battle was really a series of skirmishes that began on Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, and concluded with the major engagement at Chalmette on Jan. 8, 1815. The painting is one of five Lami created for the Palace at Versailles. He ended up selling the New Orleans and Battle of Yorktown works to William Corcoran in 1878 for $1,500, a nearby panel tells visitors. The Washington, D.C., philanthropist and art collector then donated the artworks to the states of Louisiana and Virginia, respectively.

One of the most prominent features of the painting is Jackson, the hero of New Orleans and the future U.S. president, leaning calmly on his sword amid the turmoil of battle. One example of artistic license is the depiction of the pirate Jean Laffite leading a band of his Baratarians against the British. While Laffite ran supplies to the American troops, the exhibit explains that there is no evidence he was at the culminating battle.

In the painting’s foreground a wounded soldier, lying on the ground, looks out at the chaos of battle. This is Lami’s way of symbolizing the ferocity of the fighting, which resulted in the death of 291 and wounding of 1,262 British soldiers, while the American casualty count stood at only 13 dead and 39 wounded.

For all the large works of art here, there are also some very interesting smaller ones. Among them, a Joseph Langlumé lithograph portrait (c. 1835) of Bishop Louis William Valentine DuBourg. Jackson had him celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on Jan. 8, 1815; it is repeated every year and includes a hymn of thanks to God for saving the city.

Frock coatAs for martial artifacts, there is much to see here, including Jackson’s battle coat, on loan from the Smithsonian, as well as the Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl painting of the future president begun at the Hermitage outside Nashville in January 1817. Considered one of the best portraits of Jackson, the oil on canvas, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, hangs next to the battle coat.

Weapons are plentiful, and the museum believes that all were used in the famous battle. Among them, a pair of flintlock pistols; a Baker rifle with bayonet from the Tower Armory in London, lost by a soldier of the 95th Rifle regiment on the plantation of Gen. Jacques Villeré, where the British set up a headquarters; Gen Villeré’s sword; and a 5-foot-long British drum major’s baton.

There is also a very brief but informative film that reminds visitors of the particulars of the battle, including Jackson’s decisive move to set up his defenses so the British, who greatly outnumbered his forces, had to come at the Americans through a narrow isthmus between the Mississippi River and a nearby swamp. It was critical to the Americans winning the battle.

The second gallery, “Remembering & Mythmaking” (which will be up for only a year, while a version of the martial gallery will become a permanent exhibition) begins with a display dedicated to the 1959 Johnny Horton hit “Battle of New Orleans,” which went to No. 1 on the U.S. pop chart. Also told here is the lesser-known story of Lonnie Donegan, the so-called King of Skiffle, whose own version of the song went to No. 2 on the U.K. charts that same year. Visitors can listen to both songs on headsets.

Much of this gallery is also dedicated to “The Buccaneer,” a film that Cecil B. DeMille made first in 1938 with Fredric March and again in 1958 with Yul Brynner, just a year after he won his Oscar for “The King and I.” A short video explains that the 1958 version was originally slated to be a musical; those plans were scrapped. And while Brynner may have gotten top billing, Charlton Heston stole the spotlight with his portrayal of Jackson.

There was also a “Last of the Buccaneers” film, released in 1950, that starred Paul Henreid, best known for “Casablanca.” The movie poster lists him as playing “Jean Lafitte.” I asked the curators whether “Laffite” or “Lafitte” is correct and was told that it has been spelled both ways throughout history, with “Lafitte” considered to be the Anglicized version.

The exhibit closes with a plaster cast of the head of Andrew Jackson. A nearby panel explains that on Feb. 23, 1934, vandals cut off the head of the Jackson statue that is in the center of nearby Jackson Square. It was replaced, but the museum keeps the cast around just in case.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston.

Better the Second Time Around

Jimmy's NephewAnother 5-Star review for “Jimmy’s Nephew,” the second book in my Rick Crane Noir series.

Just finished reading Jimmy’s Nephew for the second time and liked it even more this time around. It’s not often you can find something that’s keeps you interested….twice, all while tackling sensitive issues combined with drama, mystery, a little love and sexiness all in one.

Can’t wait to see what Rick uncovers next!

Here’s what other reviewers had to say about the detective story:

– The swift pace set by author Yost makes it tough to put down.

– Yost is at his best in the upstate NY detective thriller.

– I was a little on edge with the subject matter but could not put the book down. Highly recommended.

The first book in the series was “Cooper’s Daughter,” which received 27 4-5 Star reviews.

‘Great Book from Start to Finish’

Jimmy's NephewAnother 5-star review for “Cooper’s Daughter,” the first book in my Rick Crane Noir series.

That makes 27 top reviews for the book (23 5-star and four 4-star).

What makes it all the better is the latest accolades come from one of Amazon’s top reviewers.

“Great book from start to finish,” says B. Burns, who has 15 pages of reviews on Amazon.

“It will  tug at your heart at times,” Burns wrote, “and cheering in the next !!”

The second book in the series, from Stay Thirsty Publishing is “Jimmy’s Nephew.”



I Will Never Forget. Thank You

Every once in awhile you get a note that reminds you why you do what you do.

B17I got one of those notes from Maurita Adler, whose dad was a 19-year-old turret gunner on a B-17. She wrote to thank me for my piece in The Wall Street Journal on the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force outside Savannah, Georgia.

Just read your recent article in the Feb. 5, 2015 WSJ. U did a great job. My Dad was 19 and a turret gunner on the b-17 in 1943. Have wonderful photos and will get in touch w/this museum. He was awarded 5 distinguished flying crosses because of all the risks bombing over Germany. My Dad took me and my son to this great place years ago. An experience I will never forget. Thank you for writing this.

Thank you, Maurita.

And thanks to your dad.

National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of the Mighty Eighty Air Force Museum outside Savannah. Next year, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg will release another of their HBO miniseries, based on the 100th Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, again using real life airmen they researched in the museum’s archives.


Sacrifice Remembered, Symbol Restored

By Mark Yost

Pooler, Georgia

‘The Greatest Generation” is a common moniker given to the men and women who served in World War II. But after going through the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in this suburb of Savannah, it will be clear that the airmen of this highly distinguished unit earned some superlatives all their own.

B17Most people probably know the story of the Eighth Air Force from “Twelve O’Clock High,” the film and TV series based on the unit’s missions. But visitors will learn that the Eighth Bomber Command (redesignated the Eighth Air Force in February 1944) was activated at nearby Hunter Army Airfield in January 1942 and almost immediately departed for England. Its primary mission: bombing industrial targets inside Nazi Germany. At its peak in 1944, the Eighth had some 200,000 men and on any given day from its airfields in East Anglia, England, could launch 2,000 four-engine bombers and 1,000 escort fighters on a single mission, making it the single-largest air armada in history. But those missions came with a heavy price: Some 47,000 men from the Eighth were either killed, captured or reported missing in action, accounting for half of all the U.S. Army Air Corps’ casualties. One of the Eighth’s units, the 100th Bombardment Group, earned the nickname “the Bloody Hundredth” for the casualties it suffered. In an October 1943 raid on Münster, Germany, for example, only one B-17 out of 13 made it back to the airfield at Thorpe Abbotts.

Those are the facts and figures that are presented in the 90,000 square feet of space divided into a dozen galleries that include artwork, diaries, maps, photos and dioramas, as well as the usual artifacts. The most recent addition among the bomber jackets, caps, bullets, ball turrets and medals is a fully restored B-17G Flying Fortress, a gift from the National Air and Space Museum that was unveiled on Jan. 28 and now sits in the center of the museum’s Combat Gallery. The project, which took six years, was important because some 4,700 B-17s were lost during the war. Afterward, most were destroyed and sold for scrap metal. Today, fewer than 50 B-17s remain, with only about a dozen restored to flying condition.

There is also “The Mission Experience,” where visitors are given an overview of the Eighth Air Force, attend a mock preraid planning meeting, and then go into a theater for a film that tries to give them a sense of what it was like to be at 32,000 feet, with temperatures well below zero, flying for hours on oxygen, constantly harassed by German fighter planes and flak, the English abbreviation for Flugzeugabwehrkanone, or “aircraft-defense gun.”

But where the museum excels is in telling the personal stories of the men and the missions of the Eighth Air Force. Among them, Robert Rosenthal, who a plaque tells us was the pilot of Royal Flush, that lone B-17 that returned from the raid on Münster. “With two engines out, a hole in the starboard wing, and three wounded crewmembers, Rosie maneuvered his stricken bomber like a fighter which forced the attacking Germans to seek an easier target.”

In a small gallery honoring Medal of Honor winners is the story of First Lt. Donald J. Gott, whose plane was heavily damaged and caught fire during a raid over Saarbrücken in November 1944. “Antiaircraft fire had wounded the flight engineer’s leg and severed the radio operator’s arm causing him to lose consciousness,” his plaque reads.

Because the radio operator was unconscious, Gott refused to give the order to bail out. Instead, he flew the plane on one engine to friendly territory. “He ordered his crew to bail out while he and his co-pilot, William Metzger, Jr., attempted to land the aircraft with the wounded radio operator aboard. At only 100 feet above the ground, the aircraft exploded . . . ”

The highly decorated unit’s most devastating day might have been Oct. 14, 1943, known as Black Thursday, its second mission to take out the German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. As one of the informative panels notes, the Allies did not have the air superiority they would enjoy some eight months later in Normandy for the D-Day landings. That morning 251 B-17s left England and by the time the sortie returned, 60 bombers had been lost. An additional 12 subsequently had to be scrapped, and 121 needed extensive repairs. Worse yet, 600 airmen were lost over enemy territory, and those planes that did make it back carried five dead and 43 wounded.

While much is made of the B-17—both here and in the history books—the museum also tells the story of the Second Air Division, a unit of the Eighth Air Force that included some 9,000 officers and 45,000 enlisted men who flew the slightly smaller B-24 Liberators on some 94,000 sorties during 400 missions from 1942 to 1945. And it has a section devoted to the VIII Fighter Command, the escort squadrons of P-38 Lightnings, P-47 Thunderbolts and, later in the war, P-51 Mustangs that tried to keep the German fighters from decimating the bombers before they could reach their targets.

The museum also doesn’t shirk from discussing the political feud between Eighth Air Force commanders and Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris of RAF Bomber Command, who ridiculed U.S. daylight bombing tactics and greatly underestimated the accuracy of the American’s Norden bombsight. The men of the Eighth Air Force not only destroyed Germany’s industrial might, but also inflicted far fewer civilian casualties than did British nighttime raids.

Latest Amazon Review: ‘Damn Fine Story’

Jimmy's NephewJimmy’s Nephew is my newest Rick Crane Noir, but Cooper’s Daughter, the first book in the series, continues to find fans and garner great reviews.

“Damn Fine Story” is the headline on the latest 5-star review of my first book from Stay Thirsty Publishing.

This is Noir at it’s best.

The twisted plots and turns took you along nicely.

I held my breath more than once.

Always nice to hear when you have another fan.

The Long, Hard Road to Berlin

Here is my latest in The Wall Street Journal.

By Mark Yost

New Orleans

Seventy years ago, much of the U.S. was anticipating the end to the war in Europe. The Allies had liberated Paris and pushed back the Nazis’ last-gasp effort at the Battle of the Bulge. In January 1945, the Allies were on their way into Germany in force.

But how we got there—from North Africa through Sicily and other parts of Italy to the beaches of Normandy—is a story worth telling, and it is told well in the newest exhibit to open at the National World War II Museum, “Road to Berlin: European Theater Galleries.”

BerlinThe permanent exhibit, housed in the brand-new Campaigns of Courage pavilion, opens with some important historical background. An interactive map and accompanying narration remind visitors of the task we faced in Europe. There is archival footage of Hitler’s rise to power and a summation of his territorial conquests up to 1942, when the Americans made their first foray into Nazi territory—not into heavily fortified Europe, but North Africa. One factoid that sticks out: The German military machine was at its apex in 1942, with some nine million men in uniform.

Setting the tone for the entire exhibit, the North Africa section, titled “Desert War,” doesn’t shirk from telling visitors just how unprepared America was for war against the battle-hardened Germans. Maps, dioramas, diary entries and informative plaques explain that the North African landings were pretty much a disaster in terms of coordinating ships, men and machinery and landing them effectively on the beaches. But they also illustrate how smart Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was in resisting political and alliance pressure to assault on Fortress Europe in the early stages of the war.

The museum also does much to explain that it was really America’s industrial might—its ability to mass produce tanks, planes and other armaments—as much as its eventual military prowess that defeated the Nazis. And the weapons on display are placed in their historical and tactical context. For instance, we learn from the text accompanying a desert diorama that it was the longer range of the M2A1 105 mm howitzer compared with the German 88 mm guns that made it so effective—able to inflict damage on the seasoned Germans before they got to our inexperienced troops.

The exhibit tries to personalize the war by giving each visitor the dog tag—an electronic keycard, really—of a soldier. You learn about him at the start—where he is from, when he enlisted, and why. That is one of the ways the museum has made available its vast archives of diaries, letters and oral histories. I was assigned Martin Perrett, a native of New Orleans who wanted to enlist in the Navy but was instead sent to the Coast Guard, where he learned to drive the Higgins landing boats that were made here in the Crescent City. Throughout the exhibit, there are kiosks where you check in with your soldier, sailor or airman, learning what he was doing during the landings in Sicily, the Italian mainland and on D-Day.

Perrett, I learned, spent most of his time in Scotland and England, mastering his skills as a Higgins boat coxswain, preparing for Normandy. After some post-D-Day landings in southern Europe, his unit was transferred to the Pacific to ferry Marines to the beaches of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which the museum reminds us was a bigger amphibious landing than Normandy.

There are also personal stories told throughout the exhibit in a variety of mediums—such as a May 1943 Life magazine cover story, “War Hits Red Oak,” about a small town in Iowa that, like small towns everywhere, was starting to get telegrams of casualties from the North Africa campaign that began in November 1942.

The next gallery focuses on the Italian campaigns, an often-forgotten part of World War II history. This section is aptly named “A Long, Bloody Slog,” reminding visitors with maps, photographs, plaques and archival footage that it took some 20 months to fully take the Italian mainland and cost both sides dearly—the Allies, 300,000 men; the Germans, 400,000. Told well here is the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Nisei—Japanese-Americans whose families were interred back home while they fought valiantly to liberate Europe.

Between the Italy and D-Day galleries is a replica of an Air Force barracks made of corrugated metal. Behind a ragged bomb hole in the roof is a sky-blue screen that shows various aircraft flying overhead; on the walls are glass display cases with aircrew uniforms hanging up. In the middle is a large, interactive briefing table that re-creates bombing runs, such as the costly August 1943 Allied raid on the German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt that cost the Allies 60 bombers lost, as many more heavily damaged, and more than 500 crewmen shot down and either taken prisoner or listed as missing in action. Among the personal stories told here is that of a B-17 flight engineer who had his foot nearly blown off by flak. The plane’s rotating ball turrets required two feet to operate; we’re told he had to use his good foot to lift his mangled foot into the stirrup so he could continue fending off German fighter planes.

If there is anything to criticize here, it is near the end in the gallery devoted to the final days of the Nazi regime. Maps and photos chronicle the last battles for Cologne (March 1945) and the crossing of the Elbe River near Berlin (April 1945). In the background, a well-done film documents the atrocities that the Allies found as they liberated the Jewish concentration camps. It notes that even a battle-hardened, tough-as-nails soldier like Patton couldn’t complete his tour of Ohrdruf. Nearby and completely out of place is a case with official state china from the Third Reich, and silverware engraved with Hitler’s initials. It adds nothing to the story of the Road to Berlin.

But that is just a small faux pas in an exhibit that is thorough and unflinching in telling how America got from the beaches of North Africa to the doorstep of Germany, some 70 years ago.

Talking Firefighting and Funding on WGN Radio Tonight

I will be on WGN Radio (720 AM) tonight at 10 p.m. CDT talking about my piece in the Stay Thirsty magazine about Antioch (IL) Fire and the challenges they face since a resolution to fund EMS service in the northern Illinois town was defeated.

Here’s the piece I wrote:

If there was a state symbolic of the anti-government wave that swept through the country in the 2014 mid-term elections, it was Illinois. Once considered a staunchly blue state that could be counted on to reliably elect Democrats year after year, the (former) Land of Lincoln voted to put a Republican in the statehouse.

And not just any Republican.

AntiochGovernor-elect Bruce Rauner is a multi-millionaire business owner who campaigned on a platform of widespread tax reform to lure businesses back to the state, radically reform and restructure public-employee pensions that are in the red to the tune of $100 billion, and do whatever he could to prevent the passage of a higher minimum wage. The fact that he beat Chicago machine politician Pat Quinn by more than 5 points was the exclamation point to the change in voter sentiment.

The “throw the bums out” voter attitude that put Rauner in office also propelled conservatives to victories across the country, including taking back the U.S. Senate. Pundits called it a “wave election.”

But with every tidal wave, there are innocent bystanders. One group being unfairly swamped in all of this is firefighters. You know, the guys who show up when you forget to clean the lint in your dryer for 18 months. Their quick response and experience is the reason the fire doesn’t spread from your ductwork to the rest of your house. They’re also the guys who show up unexpectedly over the holidays and revive Uncle Ernie, who between his third cocktail and fourth trip to the snack tray had a massive coronary in your living room.

When they’re not showing up in your most dire hour of need, fire departments across the country are literally fighting for their financial lives. They’re struggling for money to replace worn out equipment or buy new lifesaving heart monitors; they’re also fighting city councils over staffing levels – some cities want to ignore industry and government recommended standards and only have three firefighters on a truck or engine, and staff ambulances with just one paramedic who has advanced training such as the ability to read ECGs in the field and deliver drugs that can mean the difference between Uncle Ernie living or dying.

The one community that perhaps best symbolizes this nexus of anti-government voter sentiment and the good Samaritans who are caught in the middle of it all is Antioch, Illinois. Literally situated on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, about an hour north and slightly west of Chicago, Antioch has a bit of a storied fire history.

There are actually two Antiochs. There is the village, and then there is the township. For decades, both Antiochs – which comprise about eight square miles of a small downtown surrounded by rolling hills, lakes and channels – was protected by a mostly volunteer fire department. For ambulance service, the community relied on the private Antioch Rescue Squad. The rescue squad had an endowment that was left by a wealthy benefactor, but for the most part both groups relied on the usual funding – a small tax abatement (that barely covered operating expenses) that was heavily subsidized by donations, chicken barbecues and pancake breakfasts.

“For the longest time, this was a Norman Rockwell community of about 5,000,” said Deputy Chief Chris Lienhardt, who has been on the department for 30 years. “But over the past decade or so, our population has tripled and the number of people who could volunteer on the fire department has shrunk.”

And for decades, the rescue squad and the volunteer fire department had a “gentlemen’s agreement,” to help out each other, said Chief John Nixon. The fire department – which had volunteers who were Emergency Medical Technicians – would respond to rescue squad calls when they needed extra help, and the rescue squad would come to Antioch fire calls, should anyone be injured and need medical care.

“When I was a kid, I split my finger wide open,” Lienhardt said. “I didn’t call 9-1-1 or go to the ER. I walked up the block to Doug Lang’s house. He was on the rescue squad, patched up my finger, and sent me on my way. That’s how this town was.”

That all started to change in 2013 when the Antioch Rescue Squad was sued by a former employee for sexual harassment. Long story short, the village and township both ceased doing business with the rescue squad, so the fire department stepped in to provide EMS service to the community.

Historically, the fire department had been an all-volunteer corps. But over the past five years it had evolved to include a 24-hour paid crew at one station, followed by another crew at a second station. Many of those paid crew members were full-time firefighters at other departments, working second jobs. So when Antioch Rescue folded, many of the Antioch volunteers and paid firefighters were already certified paramedics.

Within nine days of Antioch ending its relationship with the rescue squad, the fire department had three crews with nine people, Lienhardt said.

Today, the Antioch Fire Department has four used ambulances with full crews, providing EMS service to a community that’s at least 20-30 minutes away from any other Advanced Life Support ambulance service.

“We took over EMS with no funding sources,” Chief Nixon said. “The village set aside some of its reserves for operation of an ALS ambulance, but without a sustainable funding mechanism, we couldn’t keep it going.”

Adding to Antioch’s budget problems, the demise of Antioch Rescue came in the middle of the budget cycle, and at a time when property tax revenues had fallen along with real estate values.

Fast-forward a few months to the 2014 mid-term elections. The fire department put together a series of town hall meetings to explain to residents in both the village and the township why they were asking to raise property tax levies. They volunteered to canvas neighborhoods, passing out fliers and talking with anyone who had questions about the proposed levy.

In the meantime, in May 2014, the Antioch Rescue Squad, which had been temporarily suspended by the city and township, was terminated permanently. In what can only be seen as an act of spite, the rescue squad donated all of its equipment to departments outside of Antioch.

“We needed to establish a permanent funding mechanism,” Chief Nixon said. “The best way to do that was to create a levy to provide ALS ambulances funded off real estate property taxes.”

So what did the Antioch Fire Department ask for, you’re wondering?

“We asked for one quarter of one percent,” Chief Nixon said.

In other words, 0.25%.

“On a residence valued at $100,000, it would mean the homeowner would pay $83 a year,” Deputy Chief Lienhardt said.

According to the 2010 census, the median value of a home in Antioch is just over $200,000, up from about $160,000 in 2000, but down significantly from 2007-08.

“We picked the absolute hardest time to attempt this real estate levy,” Chief Nixon admits. “There hadn’t been a request [for a property tax increase] in Lake County in five years.”

You know where this is going.

Out of about 4,000 voters, the measure failed by 214 votes in the village and 650 votes in the township.

“Many people didn’t understand why this was suddenly being thrust upon them,” Chief Nixon said. “But in the end, people simply didn’t want to pay for any new taxes.”

And here’s the kicker: If your house in Antioch is worth, say, $200,000, you’d pay about $170 a year for ambulance service that you may or may not need. But without the referendum, Antioch Fire is now billing $1,500, the standard rate. Thanks to Medicaid and private insurance rules, the fire department is only collecting about 40% of what they’re billing. Adding to the fire department’s budget woes, a survey of the area found that some 37% of residents don’t have insurance of any kind that would cover ambulance trips.

So where does all this leave the Antioch Fire Department, which currently responds to about 2,000 calls a year in both the village and township?

“We will make a second attempt at referendum in April 2015,” Chief Nixon said. “The fire district is out of money and has no reserves. We’ve already had to close one fire station and reduce on-duty staffing from 11 to 8.”

And if the April 2015 referendum fails?

“There’s a strong possibility that there won’t be any ambulance service in Antioch, and residents will have to rely on private EMS,” Deputy Chief Lienhardt said.

In the meantime, Antioch Fire – ever the good guys, mostly volunteers – will continue to run EMS calls at their own expense (and to the detriment of their overall fire budget) until April 2015.

“We’re not a wealthy department,” said Deputy Chief Lienhardt, who has an annual training budget of just $18,000 and 20-year-old equipment that’s now 25 years old, with no hope of replacement anytime soon with the budget strain of the new, unfunded EMS responsibilities.

But the taxpayers got what they wanted: No new taxes.

The big question is: Can they live with that decision – both literally and figuratively?

Mark Yost is a frequent contributor to The Wall St. Journal and is the author of Cooper’s Daughter and Jimmy’s Nephew