Rumrunners, heroes, germ warfare

Books Of The Region

March 19, 2000|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Chesapeake Bay is a great place for wildlife, commerce, recreation -- and smuggling. From 1920 to 1933, the Prohibition Amendment years, the bay and its shores teemed with the boats and cars of bootleggers.

In his exuberant account, "Chesapeake Rumrunners of the Roaring Twenties" (Tidewater Press, 210 pages, $25.95), Eric Mills reports unconfirmed instances of bottle delivery even by small airplane. And one illicit Anne Arundel distillery had its own rail spurline.

The Treasury Department and its Coast Guard strove to smash the stills, jail the lawbreakers, disrupt the shipments; but federal agents were far outnumbered and bribery flourished. At society's top and bottom, scoffing was rampant -- see the works of H. L. Mencken. Mills, earlier the author of "Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War," is the first historian to have examined the bay's liquor traffic. A painstaking researcher, he turned to Coast Guard archives and contemporary newspapers, not movies about flappers. Yet, without romanticizing, his narrative does have a cops-and-robbers overtone. Mills lets exhibitionists -- Billy Sunday, the evangelist, and the Anti-Saloon League -- state the case for moderation or abstinence.

The action, as these Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era speedboats and ordinary bay workboats come and go, servicing the speakeasies of Norfolk, Washington and Baltimore, will engross a drink-in-hand 21st century reader. America has always drunk alcohol, Mills points out, somehow not mentioning alcoholics.

He does allude to the situation's gruesome, right-now parallel -- to the lawbreaking smugglers who supply Chesapeake dealers and addicts with narcotic drugs.

William P. Mack of Annapolis has sailed away from home wars and home shores. In "Captain Kilbournie" (Naval Institute, 368 pages, $25.95), his eighth novel, he sets course for the Anglo-French maritime battles of the 1790s. The Battle of the Nile, Horatio Nelson, prize money, the rocks off Donegal -- and Britons never, never shall be slaves.

Bold deeds and sterling virtues do not assure a Royal Navy commission for a Scot, such as Fergus Kilbournie. But friends help, and war's fatalities make for vacancies, then and still. Mack, a retired vice admiral and former Naval Academy superintendent, knows not only the system but the personality types who grease or clog it.

His hero and heroine are of the mold common to countless historical romances. But in Mack, open-ocean detail comes alive. A prime disadvantage in the wooden warship? Splinters (from a cannonball hit). This way to the ratlines, the orlop deck, the futtock ribs. Floozies and doxies aboard ship? Certainly -- while it's in home port. To proper young women: be aware that only in retirement does the typical Royal Navy captain get around to marrying.

Back to reality, from 1798 to 1800 France and the youthful United States shadow-boxed in naval history's so-called Quasi-War. At the start, this country "had no Secretary of the Navy nor any fleet to speak of," Frederick C. Leiner remarke in his "Millions for Defense: The Subscription Ships of 1798" (Naval Institute, 265 pages, $36.95).

So, with Newburyport, Mass., in the lead, private business in ten East Coast cities put up the money to build 10 naval vessels (the federal government paid these investors 6 percent; today's equivalent would be bonds). Two Baltimore shipyards each delivered a small sloop of war, the Maryland and the Patapsco -- instead of the single, larger frigate desired by the Navy.

Leiner, a Baltimore attorney and an admirable researcher, follows his fleet through thick (the frigate Boston captured a French corvette) and thin (the prides of Baltimore did sentry and convoy duty in the Caribbean). The war fever of 1798 soon abated; merchants skittish about their commercial shipping developed more discreet tactics. But "Millions for Defense" turns a forgotten episode into a dramatic story.

Nowadays, one of the faces of international danger is flushed with disease. Which country, or organization, has schemes for disseminating lethal or disabling microbes over broad areas? How many countries are ready to reply in kind, should biological warfare start?

United States involvement began Dec. 21, 1942, when Ira Glassman, a University of Wisconsin bacteriologist, checked in at Edgewood Arsenal (now part of Aberdeen Proving Ground, but in World War II home to the Army's Chemical Warfare Service). Under Glassman, a civilian, biological warfare (BW) moved to Camp Detrick, an abandoned National Guard airfield outside Frederick, later expanding to Mississippi, Arkansas, Indiana and Utah -- none of it made public.

Declassified documents have enabled Ed Regis of Sabillasville to reconstruct the story in his "The Biology of Doom: America's Secret Germ Warfare Project" (Henry Holt, 259 pages, $25). Britain and Canada had a long head start; the first assignment at Detrick (named for a local physician) was just to mass-produce the agents for anthrax, Q-fever, botulinum, typhus, brucellosis, etc.

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