Generations later, underwater "graveyard" explored

The short version of World War II sounds simple: Pearl Harbor is attacked, Americans rage and promptly smite their foes.

The real; story, it seems, was tougher. For a wretched year, German ships kept sinking U.S. supply ships. Now -- under the imposing title "Nazi Attack on America" -- PBS tells the story Wednesday (May 6) on "Nova"; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Americans leaped
into World War II with anger and optimism.

Pearl Harbor was a
one-time defeat, they figured. What they didn't know was that
subsequent losses – smaller, but consistent – kept happening;
near our shores, transport ships were being sunk.

“We weren't
prepared .... Two German U-boat commanders said, 'We had an easy game
there,'” said Kirk Wolfinger, whose “Nova” film debuts
Wednesday on PBS.

Germans kept
shooting supply ships. “They weren't taking any casualties,” said
underwater explorer Robert Ballard. “It was a turkey shoot.”

Ballard has led the
expeditions that found the Titantic, Bismark, PT-109 and more. On
Wednesday, viewers will see him locate the U-166 boat in the “Nova”
hour called “Nazi Attack on America.”

The title may be
exaggerated, but not by much. In a stretch that began two months
after Pearl Harbor, historian Martin Morgan said, the U-boats were
just off our coast.

That was after
Germans sensed that the British had cracked their “Enigma machine”
code. They switched codes, Morgan said, and dominated.

“From February,
1942, until December, 1942, we were incapable of reading their
communiques,” Morgan said. U-boats went “into the Gulf of Mexico
and devastated our commercial shipping.”

In all, 609 American
ships were sunk in the Gulf and off the East Coast. More than 5,000
men were killed and three million tons of cargo was lost. Officials
managed to suppress news of the attacks ... which ended after the
code was cracked again and after the Americans -- overcoming a slow
start -- used new convoy methods.

Now, generations
later, the artifacts remain underwater. “It's an amazing graveyard,
(with) the deeper ships in an amazing state of preservation,”
Ballard said.

A key discovery
began in 2001, he said, during work in the Gulf of Mexico. “The oil
companies were doing a pipeline survey and said, 'Hmm, I wonder what
that target is on sonar.'”

They soon found the
U-166; Ballard and others were able to revise history: A Naval
commander had been criticized for failing to sink the ship; 70-plus
years later, he got posthumous credit.

“It was quite a
moving ceremony in the Pentagon,” Ballard said, “when the
Secretary of the Navy put that medal on (the late commander's) son
.... It was a nice moment to get it right.”

There will be other
revisions, he said, with more than a million ships on the ocean
floor. “There's more history in the deep sea than in all of the
museums .... Technology is accelerating our rate of discovering our
chapters of lost human history.”

-- “Nova: Nazi
Attack on America”

-- 9 p.m. Wednesday,
PBS (check local listings)


Theater break: Lisa Kron's double day

This blog is usually about TV, but let me pause for a brief theater break: When Lisa Kron landed two Tony nominations this week, I wrote a short story for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. The story wasn't needed -- someone else was already on it -- but I wanted to put it here, in case anyone missed the news. It's mostly a local story, but I'll be back to national TV next:

By Mike Hughes

Local writer-actress
Lisa Kron now has two more Tony nominations.

That gives her three
Tony nods, plus three Obie (off-Broadway) wins and a Pulitzer Prize

When Broadway
announced its Tony list Tuesday, it was topped – with 12
nominations apiece – by “An American in Paris” and “Fun
Home.” The latter is a Kron creation; she's nominated for the book
(dialog, basically) and, as lyricist, shares the nomination for the
music score.

Kron, 53, was born
in Ann Arbor, but moved to Lansing as a pre-schooler. Her dad –
Walter Kron, a German-born lawyer whose parents were killed in a Nazi
death camp -- and mom, Ann Kron, were prime foreces in the Westside
Neighborhood Organization and its push for an integrated community.

She graduated from
Everett High in 1979, going on to Kalamazoo College, a tour and New
York. Her one-person shows drew raves off-Broadway; then her
autobiographical “Well” reached Broadway in 2006, with Kron
nominted for best actress in a play.

“Fun Home” is a
departure, her first musical and first show based on someone else's
work. Alison Bechdal's graphic novel told of growing up lesbian in
small-town Pennsylvania, with a closeted gay father. For the musical,
Kron, a lesbian, wrote the book and the lyrics; Jeanine Tesori
(“Shrek,” “Caroline or Change”) wrote the music.

Last year, the show
brought Kron the Obie and the Pulitzer nomination; this year, it
opened April 19 on Broadway, promptly becoming a Tony favorite.



Forty years later, a rag-tag exit brings deep emotions

I was lucky enough to leave Vietnam in the standard way -- end of tour, scheduled airline, no hurry. Many people weren't as fortunate; they were caught up in the final flurry, as Americans and their Vietnamese supporters rushed to get out. Now, 40 years later, Rory Kennedy has made a compelling documentary that airs Tuesday (April 28) on PBS, Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Forty years ago,
chaos put these men in the same quaking spot. There was:

-- Stuart Herringon,
an Army captain at the U.S. embassy during the 1975 withdrawal from
Vietnam. “I (was) the guy on the ground who spoke Vietnamese, who
reassured these frightened people that nobody would be left behind,”
he said.

-- Binh Pho, in the
crowd and hanging on every word. “I was barely 19 .... To me
(Herrington) was a big, giant guy, American, with a uniform .... I
just heard his promise over a megaphone.”

Both are featured in
Rory Kennedy's “Last Days in Vietnam,” which airs Tuesday on PBS.

Thousands of people
were packed into the embassy courtyard, Herrington said, each fearing
reprisals because of working with the Americans. The North Vietnamese
army was advancing, but helicopters were whisking people to U.S.
ships; there was, he said, enough time to get everyone out. And then

“A presidential
order intervened,” Herrington said. “When there were 420 of them
left ... I was ordered to leave and I did ... I thought about those
420 people for the better part of 37 years.”

Then he met one of
them. After the airlift suddenly ended, Pho had scrambled.

“I left the
American embassy very scared,” he said. “Then I tried to escape
with my uncle and go through Laos to get to Thailand, and we got
caught.” He spent a year in a “re-education camp,” had two more
failed escapes (using fake identites) and then – three years after
the fall of Saigon – succeeded.

After eight months
in a refugee camp, Pho was reunited with relatives in St. Louis. He
went to college, became a wood artist in suburban Chicagto ... and,
three years ago, thanked Herrington. Had he been rescued in 1975, Pho
said, “I would be a spoiled-rotten kid. (In those) four years, I
really learned a lot.”

Such memories ripple
through the Vietnam-withdrawal story. For Kennedy, it's familiar

“My father, Robert
Kennedy, ran his (presidential) campaign in 1968 because he wanted us
to get out of Vietnam,” she said. “I've recognized from as early
as I can remember how important Vietnam is.”

Born after her
father's death, she's become a top filmmaker. “Ghosts of Abu
Ghraib” won an Emmy, three other documentaries have been nominated
... and “Last Days” received an Oscar nomination.

It's a subject
filled with rich details, she said, involving the rag-tag efforts.

“Our ambassador
(Graham Martin) was in denial up until almost the very end,”
Herrington said. “He simply didn't believe that the country would

He belatedly
realized the situation, said Mark Samels, who commissioned the film
for PBS' “American Experience” series. “Ambassador Martin ...
came around at the end and personally was responsible for saving so
many Vietnamese, packing them on those helicopters. That's what makes
him such a compelling character: He starts from such a place of

With no official
plan for an orderly withdrawal, Herrington said, people improvised.
They “did everything they could – borrowed trucks, for example,
loaded them with people.” They took boats, helicopters and more;
one baby was dropped from a hovering chopper, into the arms of a U.S.

“These little
micro-events steamrolled” until 130,000 Vietnamese were rescued,
Herrington said.

And many werte
abandoned, including the last 420 at the embassy. Still, there were
make-do heroics.

“That's one of the
things that makes us strong under adversity,” Herrington said. “And
hopefully, we won't have to do that again.”

-- “Last Days in

-- 9-11 p.m. Tuesday
(April 28), PBS, under the “American Experience” banner (check
local listings)


"Time Traveling" finds history close to home

Brian Unger has a special ability to mix facts and fun. He did that skillfully with"How the States Got Their Shapes"; now he's doing it again with the fun "Time Travelling." It debuts Monday (April 20); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

So let's say you
want to mingle with history.

Don't be so quick to
try Athens or Machu Picchu. There might be something historic near
your home.

“I am shocked by
how little people know about the place where they live,” Brian
Unger said.

He includes himself
in that. Unger lived in New York City for a dozen years, but it
wasn't until starting cable's “Time Traveling” series that he
really discovered the Woolworth Building.

“We've walked by
it many times,” he said. “But as New Yorkers, we're too busy to
notice anything.”

Then the show had
him tour it with local people and tell some intriguing stories.

In an era when most
businessmen were understated, Unger said, F.W. Woolworth was “the
Donald Trump of his time.” With a nickel-and-dime business
(literally), he compiled a fortune and created a building that cost
$13.5 million in 1913. For its first 15 years, it was considered the
world's tallest building; after a century, it was still one of the
country's 100 tallest.

Most of this space
was rented to other people ... including, eventually, a secret office
for the military's “Manhattan Project” atom-bomb effort. But the
building has a grand look ... complete with a sculpture showing
Woolworth counting coins. One booklet-writer called it “the
cathedral of commerce.”

Other spots have
similar quirks. In the two opening-night episodes, Unger also shows
local people:

-- The Golden Gate
Bridge, crafted (in the middle of the Depression) by two brilliant
engineers ... who disagreed so often that one didn't get his name on
the plaque. That was rectified, 70 years later.

-- Las Vegas ranches
where people stayed (often with current lovers) during a six-week
Nevada divorce. These were the temporary homes of Clark Gable, Mickey
Rooney, Howard Hughes and more.

-- And Tombstone,
Ariz., where, he was told, the “gunfight at the OK Corral” didn't
happen at the corral ... probably lasted less than a minute ... and
was in a city where wearing guns was illegal.

“We've embellished
that so much,” Unger said. “The stories get so mythologized.”

Hey, he liked those
myths. Unger, 49. was a “pretty stereotyped” kid with cowboy hat
and toy guns.

That was in
Granville, an Ohio town of 5,400, that seemed to promise bigger
possibilities. Granville has Denison University; Ohio has large
chunks of history. In school, Unger learned the state has been the
home of flight (Orville Wright, like Unger, was born in Dayton, where
the Wright Brothers spent their lives) and of presidents (seven
native Ohioans and one transplant).

So history was big
for him ... as was education. In Granville, his mom was his guidance
counselor and his dad was the superintendent. “When I told my dad I
wanted to be an actor he said, 'No you won't.'”

So he studied
journalism and did some acting, but mainly specialized in light news
reports – ranging from the first version of “The Daily Show” to
the amiable “How the States Got Their Shapes.”

Now the “Shapes”
producers have this new show, again with Unger hosting. These days,
he lives in California -- “the opposite of New York” -- and has
his own horses ... which may be why he looked like a natural while
riding a coin-operated kiddie horse in Tombstone, Arizona.

-- “Time Traveling
with Brian Unger”

-- 10 and 10:30 p.m.
Mondays, Travel Channel, rerunning at 1 and 1:30; debuts March 20

Food is an adventure; lutefisk is a challenge

For a few days there, my Web site was down; sorry about that. Anyway, it's back now and I've added the TV columns I sent to papers in the interim. Also, here's a story I sent; the series debuted April 13, but it reruns almost constantly, so the story still makes sense: 


By Mike Hughes

For many of us, food
was never meant to be an adventure. We can always find burgers and

Then there's Andrew
Zimmern, who says we're missing out. “We are eating from too small
a range of choices,” he said, “especially when it comes to
protein. It's nuts.”

His Travel Channel
show – which has new episodes Mondays, plus reruns on most days –
offers plenty of possibilities. Zimmern talks zestully of:

-- Horse meat. It's
“maybe my favorite red meat. I only hedge because donkey is so

-- More meat. “In
Finland, they know how to prepare bear meat; it's unbelievable.”

-- Proetein
alternatives. “When I'm in the Philippines, eating a whole range of
bugs or reptiles, (it's) an amazing food experience.” Then there
was munching giraffe beetles with tribal people in southern
Madagascar ... or “eating bumble bees in the mountains outside
Taipei and Taiwan.”

-- And something
that sounds like a carnivore's pinata: “They slaughter a sheep
(and) stuff it with every piece of meat from the animal .... They
make a fire out of dried anmal dung and (you) come back later and eat
the stuffed stomach with all the meat and goodies inside.”

This was in
Kakakhstan, which he visited for the season-opener. He describes a
“staggeringly beautiful place” where he was able to hunt rabbit
with the help of a golden eagle.

Zimmern sounds
adventurous, which he sometimes is. He's been in a van that was swept
down a Puerto Rican mountain. He's been in a tin boat off Samoa,
“where we did think we were going to die – twice, actually.”
He's been threatened by robbers and beaten by a witch doctor.

Still, don't confuse
him with Indiana Jones. “I'm a frumpy, 53-year-old Jewish guy who
lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis,” he said. “There's nothing
very tough or macho about me when I'm at home. But when I'm on the
road, I'm pretty fearless.”

At home, he doesn't
even use the bus system. “But when I'm in Bolivia, I'll spend 14
hours on a rickety bus being driven by a 12-year-old on a treacherous
mountain road, without any knowlege about where I'm going to get my
next meal or when I'm going to the bathroom.”

All of this started
in New York City, with “two adventurous parents who loved food and
traveled a lot” and a “grandmother who cooked kidneys and
tongue.” As a young man, his travel choices were fairly whimsical,
“pulling bong hits and drinking beer on the couch and (throwing) a
dart at a map.”

There may have been
too many bong hits there; Zimmern was homeless for a year, before
going into rehab at the Hazelden Treatment Center in Minneapolis.

He's been based in
the Minneapolis area ever since, as an award-winning chef. He's a fan
of the city's people and food ... with the obvious exception of a
local specialty, lutefisk.

“It's god-awful,”
Zimmern said of the dish, which takes perfectly fine cod and has it
“rehydrated in water with lye in it. (It's rinsed) for like eight
days and the results turn it into like fish jello. It just destroys a
great product, which is salt cod .... Why this weird pocket of
Scandinavians decided they had to treat it with an animal poison is
absolutely beyond me.”

And that's about all
the food grumbling you'll hear from from Zimmern. Only twice in his
life has he refused a dish, both times because “I knew that it was
going to put me in the hospital.”

A few other times,
he considered skipping something for health reasons ... then took a
chance because he liked the host. Neither time did he get sick.

Even Indiana Jones
is afraid of snakes. On the road, Andrew Zimmern seems to fear
nothing ... except, of course, lutefisk.

-- “Bizarre Foods With Andrew
Zimmern,” 9 p.m. Mondays, Travel Channel, repeating at midnight

-- Season opens with Kakakhstan
on April 13; April 20 has Tapei, with Kakakhstan rerunning at 8 p.m.

-- Many reruns; show times
include: April 13, noon to 4 a.m.; April 14, noon to 5 p.m., 6-7 p.m.
and 8-10 p.m.; April 15, 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 11 p.m.; April 16, 6 p.m.