Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Meeting of the Minds…and Fists


Gordie Howe (www.beehivehockey.com)

One winter night, 15,000 New Yorkers witnessed the heavyweight Fight of the Century. No, it wasn’t Max Schmeling vs Joe Louis…or Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston…or the more recent Mohammed Ali vs Joe Frazier. And it wasn’t fought in a ring either.  It was Lou Fontinato vs Gordie Howe…a hockey fight, a bout of gigantic proportions still talked about today, more than 50 years after the fact.

New York Ranger defenseman Lou Fontinato was the young upstart, the challenger, the tough dude from Guelph, Ontario, who played his junior hockey with the 1952 Memorial Cup winning OHL Guelph Biltmores. He had a distinct nickname. They called him “Leapin’ Lou” and for 2 reasons. He would leave his skates when he would hit someone with one of his stiff bodychecks. And he would  leap into the air to protest a penalty called against him or his team while he was on the ice.

Fontinato was a crowd favorite in New York, a stay-at-home defenseman who was very adept at moving the puck out of his own end. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he loved to play it rough the minute the Rangers called him up from the minors for 27 games in the 1954-55 season. The next year, while playing in the full 70 games, he led the NHL with a then-record 202 minutes in penalties. He topped the league again 2 years later with 152 minutes. You see where I’m going with this? He had already taken on opposing hard-hitting hombres like Bruins Fernie Flaman. By the time the 1958-59 season came along, Leapin’ Lou  thought he should take his brand of game to the next level. However, one person stood in his way.

Veteran Detroit Red Wings superstar right-winger Gordie Howe was in a class by himself. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, this 6-foot-200-pounder was a tough dude, too, collecting over 100 minutes in penalties 6 different times leading up to the 1958-59 season. He got into at least 6 fights his first 3 years in the NHL before settling down on his other abilities. He hadn’t had a fight now for 9 years. He was also an excellent all-around player, a big money scorer and an outstanding penalty killer. Boy, could he score. He had already collected 40+ goals 4 times earlier in the 1950’s, including a personal-high 49 in 1952-53, when he set a then-record 95 points. He also helped the Wings win 4 Stanley Cups since 1950, the last one coming in 1955. Hitting 30 now, Howe still had it all together. He was at the top of his game.

Fontinato and Howe had an ongoing feud for a few years. In the latter part of 1958, Look magazine did a 6-page spread on Fontinato that showed him flexing his biceps, implying that he was the crowned NHL heavyweight. Every time a team’s star such as Howe or Rocket Richard or Jean Beliveau took to the ice, Ranger coach Phil Watson would send Leapin’ Lou out to distract them. On one occasion, Fontinato crushed his stick down on Howe’s head.  Another time he butt-ended Howe to the mouth, splitting his lip and loosening a tooth. Fontinato then mocked Howe from the penalty box by skating by and mocking, “What’s the matter with your lip, Gordie?”

The next game they met, Howe got even by nearly taking Fontinato’s ear off with his stick. Fontinato went to the dressing room and returned with a bandage to his head shaped like a turban.  It was Howe’s turn now. He skated by the Ranger bench and said to Fontinato, “What’s the matter with your ear, Lou?”

Then the 2 combatants met in the game of note at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 1 February 1959, a game in which both the Rangers and the Wings were struggling for a playoff spot. Prior to the start, Wings trainer Lefty Wilson taped Howe’s ribs which were hurting him from a previous game. At the 17-minute mark of the first period, with New York up 4-1, there was a tussle between Howe and Rangers Eddie Shack behind the Red Wing net minded by goalie Terry Sawchuk. Fontinato came in to separate them. During the stoppage of play prior to the next faceoff, Fontinato skated over to Howe and said something that Howe could not quite distinguish. Howe said later, “I couldn’t tell what he was saying because he was spitting all over my uniform.” Howe replied by telling the Ranger defenseman to go mind his own business.

When the puck dropped and it went behind Sawchuk, another fracas occurred. This time it was Wings defenseman Red Kelly and Shack pushing each other around. Howe entered the scene and all 3 collapsed against the side of the net. When they got up, everything appeared to be over. But Fontinato didn’t see it that way. From his position on the point, he dropped his stick and gloves and raced up to Howe, who saw Fontinato and ducked at the last microsecond. Fontinato swung and missed, then connected on a series of punches while Howe had difficulty sliding his gloves off. When Howe got his hands free, he grabbed Fontinato’s jersey with his left hand and with one punch broke the defenseman’s nose, then got into him with his own series of hard right punches to Leapin’ Lou’s face that “sounded like someone chopping wood,” according to one of the bystanders. “Whop, whop, whop,” said another player. Fontinato returned with more solid punches. Linesmen Bill Morrison and Art Skov let the 2 players go at it, while the other players on the ice paired off, watching every blow. While Howe had his opponent’s right hand tied up, Fontinato switched to his left and hit Howe to the left side of his head. Howe then changed to his left hand too and continued hammering away.
Lou Fontinato (www.beehivehockey.com)

After about 30 or 40 seconds of an all-out, toe-to-toe slugfest, New York’s Bill Gadsby and Andy Bathgate skated between the 2 to call a truce. Fontinato and Howe didn’t object. They were too tired to continue, anyway. Referee Frank Udvari handed a fighting major to both. Neither player even gave each other a dirty look after that, while they played on, with Fontinato receiving 2 more 2-minute infractions. New York ended up winning the game 5-4. Howe had a lump over his right eye and a badly-sprained little finger on his right hand. Fontinato headed to the local hospital with massive facial bruises, a rearranged nose, and a fractured jaw. To many fans and press people, the fight appeared to be a draw. That is, until pictures were splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in North America, including Life magazine a few days later, showing Fontinato’s heavily-bandaged face. If Fontinato had known about Howe’s ribs, it might have been a different story. But he didn’t, and it wasn’t. After that Howe was the undisputed heavyweight champ of the National Hockey League. And he never had to fight again. Fontinato was never quite the same from then on, his tough guy image damaged forever. Rangers coach Phil Watson admitted that the fight broke the spirit of the team, thus killing their hopes of making the playoffs for 1958-59.

It turned out, neither the Rangers nor the Red Wings made the playoffs that season. New York finished 5th with a 26-32-12 record, while Detroit slid into the basement with an awful  25-37-8 mark, the first time not making the playoffs since 1938. In 1961, Leapin’ Lou was  traded to Montreal for all-star defenseman Doug Harvey, who had just won his 6th James Norris Trophy in 7 years as the NHL’s best defenseman, although Montreal management thought he was slowing down at 36. Many felt Harvey was traded away for his involvement with Red Wings Ted Lindsay in starting up the first Players Association in 1957. Harvey proved everybody wrong by winning his last James Norris while a Ranger. On 9 March 1963, in a game against his old team, Fontinato missed a check on Rangers Vic Hadfield and slammed into the boards headfirst. Paralyzed for a month with a broken neck, he recovered but his playing career was over at 31. He took to farming and is still at it outside Campbellville, Ontario.

Decades after the bout with Howe and despite the photo evidence of his bandaged face, Fontinato claimed he never really lost the fight as badly as it had been portrayed and that it was no worse than a draw.

I met Gordie Howe once. It was 5 years ago at a luncheon outside Harrow, Ontario. Howe was 80 then. A trim 80 too. He was wearing a suit jacket, so I didn’t get a chance to see the mighty forearms I had been hearing about. But I do remember looking at his long, powerful hands and strong wrists. I suddenly felt bad for Fontinato all those years before. I wouldn’t want those sledgehammers pounding my pretty face.
 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Chief Sitting Bull and the Canadian Connection



General George Custer in 1865 (US Public Domain)
If it wasn’t for the discovery of gold in the Dakota Territory in the mid-1870s there may not have been any infamous Battle of Little Bighorn and the subsequent escape of Chief Sitting Bull to Saskatchewan.  OK, let’s start from the beginning…

As part of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, signed at Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory, the US government granted the region’s Native Americans exclusive farming and hunting rights to the Black Hills…holy ground to the local tribes of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Then gold was discovered there in 1875 after prospectors had crossed reservation borders in clear violation of the 1868 treaty. When they were assaulted by the Native Americans, the US Army saw trouble brewing, ignored the original treaty agreement and invaded the region. The tribes were a little pissed, to say the least, leading many Natives to leave their reservations and join the rebel Chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse who were forming up bands of warriors to the west in Montana.

November 1875, the US government ordered all Natives--including those who were part of the already-established Great Sioux Reservation--to move onto reservations. Any who didn’t were considered “hostile.” Them were fighting word to the Natives. The US Army, including Major General George Custer with his 7th Cavalry, was sent into the region to bring the Plains Indians under control. By force if necessary. When the government demands were ignored, Custer moved into southern Montana Territory near the Big Horn River to engage the Sioux nation with his force of 700 men, split into 3 battalions. Underestimating the Native American strength,  Custer and his 200-man battalion  were cut off and annihilated within an hour’s fighting  on June 1876 at The Battle of Little Bighorn (also called Custer’s Last Stand) by an attacking force of some 3,000 Native warriors. Montana’s version of the Alamo, only much quicker. White Americans were outraged. Come on! This was the country’s Centennial and they were used to battlefield victories.

The most prominent Native American leader was Chief Sitting Bull, a well-respected Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux medicine man. To avoid the avenging US Army troops after the battle, many of the Sioux under Sitting Bull fled north and crossed the international border into Canada in what is now Saskatchewan, called the North West Territories then.

To set back the clock a bit…

As early as May 1876 the Canadian North West Mounted Police had received reports of American plans to destroy the Sioux. Put on alert, NWMP Inspector James Morrow Walsh at Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills (he named the newly-established post  after himself) ordered border patrols and told the men to report back on any movements. By December 1876 an advance party of Hunkpapas led by Black Moon appeared and camped near Wood Mountain, 20 miles over the Canadian border, an area said to have bountiful buffalo grazing lands. The land was surrounded by hills and deep ravines where wood, water, shelter and grazing fields were plentiful. The hills were excellent lookouts for catching buffalo herd migration as well as the approach of any enemy horsemen. Years later--in the Twelve Mile Lake area just 20 miles to the northeast--my mother’s family and relatives started farming the fertile grasslands and many family members still reside there. I’s an area I was quite familiar with as a young boy during my many visits to my grandparents’ farm.

A NWMP police scout was sent out and came back to give Walsh the Sioux numbers. There were 500 men, 1000 women, 1400 children, 3500 horses and 30 mules. But no Sitting Bull. Nevertheless, Walsh had to lay down the law from the start and rode into the Sioux camp on 15 December (a 4-day ride east from Fort Walsh) to inform the new arrivals that they could not use Canada as a base to make across-the-border hit-and-run raids. If they did, they were gone. The Sioux force stated they were tired of fighting and only wanted to live in peace without fear. They did ask Walsh for a small amount of ammo to hunt with.  Walsh agreed, providing it was used for hunting only. To Walsh’s surprise, the Sioux claimed they were British Indians because 65 years earlier their grandfathers had fought with the British during the War of 1812 and that King George III had promised them Canadian residency should they not wish to live any longer  in the US. As proof, many of the Sioux braves proudly displayed medals originally presented to their grandfathers by George III.

Returning to Fort Walsh, Walsh made immediate arrangements to reopen the NWMP post at Wood Mountain--which had been shut down 2 years prior--to keep an eye on things so that nothing got out of hand. In January 1877 a half-dozen white soldiers arrived, including a Sioux interpreter. That same month more Sioux arrived too, but still no Sitting Bull. Yet.

Then 25 May 1877 Chief Sitting finally made his appearance in Wood Mountain to bring the total Sioux numbers of men, women and children up to 5000. Walsh again rode east to meet the incoming Sioux and to inform Sitting Bull on what was expected of him as a guest on Canadian soil. At the meeting Sitting Bull expressed his hated for the Americans and how happy he was to be in Canada, the country of the “Great White Mother.” Walsh told Sitting Bull the same thing he told Black Moon. Sitting Bull had no objections, stating he had buried his arms on the American side of the border. Although on opposite sides, Walsh and Sitting Bull became good friends over the next few years, establishing a trust with each other.

But Walsh was now caught in a bind, a real international predicament, you might say. To the Canadian federal government, the Sioux were a threat to Western settlement. They were concerned that Sitting Bull could unite Canadian and American Native Americans to rise up against the white population. Meanwhile, the Americans only wanted the Sioux back in America on certain terms and that was complete surrender and agreeing to reserve settlement, something the Sioux did not adhere to. Canadian Native Indians—the Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, along with the Metis--weren’t all that thrilled by the presence of armed Sioux in Canada because that meant more mouths to feed on the already-disappearing Buffalo herds, although the previous winter had been a good one for the existence of Buffalo, with some herds drifting in from the Cyprus Hills area. But that was the last good year. After that, they were in very short supply.

NOTE: According to some information, the numbers of American Buffalo roaming the American-Canadian West at the time of the American Civil War may have been as many as 60 million, perhaps more. By 1890, they were down to less than 1000. Quite a drop. Why? Millions were shot just for sport plus killing them was a tactic to starve out the American Natives and force them onto reservations. The Buffalo numbers are up to about 360,000 today. Like cattle, they are in controlled herds across North America. Four years ago, I saw one such heard of several hundred along the Trans-Canada Highway about an hour east of Regina.

On more than one occasion, the American authorities tried to persuade Sitting Bull and his followers back south, even sending an official commission led by General AH Terry of the US Calvary. But the Sioux weren’t budging, even though their Buffalo food supply was dwindling after an exceptionally harsh 1877-78 Western Canadian winter.  On orders from Ottawa, Walsh told the Sioux they would not be given any government assistance--except for protection from the Americans--with the hope the Sioux would return to the US. By 1879 Inspector Walsh transferred his personal headquarters to Wood Mountain to be closer to the scene. There were now 26 NWMP at the post, expecting to keep thousands of Sioux under control.
Chief Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody in
Montreal, Quebec, 1885 (Canadian Public Domain)


That summer a far-reaching grass fire hit the prairies, forcing any migrating Buffalo to avoid the region altogether. It was an even more terrible blow to the Sioux and the other Native Americans, who were now facing starvation. May 1880 saw most of the Sioux finally leave to take up residence on American reservations. Two months later, Ottawa decided to replace Walsh, feeling his friendship with Sitting Bull was a hindrance to American-Canadian relations and Western settlement. Also, for the past several months, the American press were referring to Walsh as, “Sitting Bull’s Boss.” Stubborn, Sitting Bull and a few others still stayed north of the border until the following year, when most of them left Canada too. Sitting Bull stayed on, then finally surrendered to American forces July 1881 at Fort Buford in the Dakota Territory. However, 60 Sioux stayed in Canada and became citizens, eventually belonging to the Wood Mountain First Nation.

The international crisis had finally come to an end. Sitting Bull went to a reserve and later performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where he became a good friend to young sharpshooter star Annie Oakley, whom he nicknamed “Little Miss Sure Shot.” In 1890, nearing 60, he was shot to death in South Dakota for allegedly resisting arrest in what the American authorities alleged was another native uprising.
James Walsh went on to be the first Commissioner of the Yukon Territory at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897-98. He died in Brockville, Ontario in 1905. He was 65.

All these years later, the fight between the Sioux nation and the US government for the Black Hills rages on. In a 1980 decision by the United States Supreme Court, Washington offered the Lakota Sioux $15.5 million market value for the land, plus 103 years of interest at 5 percent to bring the combined total to $120.5 million. The Lakota refused the money, demanding return of the land instead. It’s still in the courts.

July 1965 the Wood Mountain Historic Park was officially opened by the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources. On a nearby hill is a monument to the legendary Chief Sitting Bull. Although Wood Mountain has a population of only 25 people today, those numbers swell for a brief period in mid-July when the village celebrates the Wood Mountain Stampede, an event that many of my relatives take part in or at least watch. My wife and her father attended it in 2009 during a family reunion. Since its inception in 1890, the Stampede is Canada’s  longest-running annual rodeo, even going strong through 2 World Wars.

Yippee-yi-yo-ki-yay!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Gerry James…A Tale of Two Sports

Gerry James, Toronto Maple Leafs
(courtesy www.beehivehockey.com)

From what I can recall, I first heard of Gerry James when I purchased some Canadian Football League bubble gum cards at the local corner store in Regina in the late-summer of 1960. I was 8 at the time and just starting to really like sports. The Big Three. Hockey, football, and baseball. The football cards—as were the hockey and baseball cards in the 1960s—came in a pack of 4 cards, complete with stale gum that we chewed and sucked the life out of anyway, all for a nickel. We Baby Boomers remember those days. James’ card had him in a brushcut and a Winnipeg Blue Bombers uniform.

Later in the year, when hockey season came upon us, I raced to the local store once again and purchased the new hockey cards. In one of the packs was a photo of a Toronto Maple Leafs player in dark, curly hair and his name too was Gerry James. How about that, I thought. There’s a Gerry James who plays hockey. Back at home, I compared the 2 card photos and saw a resemblance. When I flipped the hockey card over to read the back, it stated that James also played for the Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. Hey, what do you know! It was the same guy!

Gerry James was one of those unique athletes…a two-sport professional, long before Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders had a fling at it. Edwin Fitzgerald “Gerry” James was born in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1934, a Great Depression year. But his parents moved to Winnipeg when he was a baby and that’s where he was raised. Once he took to sports, his life was set for him. His father, Eddie James, nicknamed “Dynamite,” was a rock of a running back in western Canada football with the Regina Roughriders (long before they became known as the Saskatchewan Roughriders) and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and good enough to be elected to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1958. In his day, Eddie was the Babe Ruth of the Western running backs. For most of his career, Gerry was often compared to his dad. Could he cut it? Would he be as good? It turned out Gerry may have been even better, so much so that they called him “Kid Dynamite” and he too made it to the CFL Hall of Fame in 1981. He’s also in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Saskatchewan equivalent. When James retired from football in 1964, he had 18 CFL records to his credit and was the second all-time Canadian-bred  running back with 5,554 yards and 57 TDs, behind only to Edmonton’s great Normie Kwong.

Growing up in Winnipeg, James played junior hockey as a defenseman for the Winnipeg Monarchs, a team that had a working agreement with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This was back in the sponsorship era before Expansion in 1967 and the amateur draft. James impressed Leaf scouts at the age of 16 during the Memorial Cup finals in 1951, when the Monarchs lost to the Toronto Marlboros, and was asked to move East to play for the Marlies. In Toronto, he was converted to left wing. In 1952, he signed on to play pro football with Winnipeg at the tender age of 17, making him the second youngest to ever play in the league. At the “Peg,” he was a part-time running back and a superb full-time punt returner. In Toronto, he helped his new junior team win the Memorial Cup in 1955, and this was only a few months after winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award in its first year of voting. A few days after the Memorial Cup win, James was called up to the Leafs for one game to play on the top line with Teeder Kennedy and Sid Smith. Whew! All this in a five-month timespan.

Later in the year, he had his first 1,000-yard rushing season for the Bombers—where he was a West all-star--by gaining 1,205 yards with a 6.4 yard average per carry. After the end of the football season, he joined the Leafs for 46 games, becoming a penalty killer and enforcer. In the first round of the playoffs, the Leafs were knocked out by Detroit in five games, but James scored a breakaway goal on goalie great Glenn Hall, outskating icon Gordie Howe who was right on his heels.  This was James’ only playoff goal as a Leaf in 15 total playoff games. In regular season play as a Leaf for six seasons, ending in 1959-60, he played in 149 games, netting 14 goals, 26 assists and 257 minutes in penalties. In one game near the end of the 1957-58 season, he decked Red Wings tough guy Ted Lindsay. Even Lindsay was impressed. He didn’t realize James had a left hook. During a time that overlapped the 1959 CFL season and the 1959-60 NHL season, James was the only player to play in a Grey Cup (which the Bombers won in November 1959 over Hamilton) and an NHL Stanley Cup final (which the Leafs lost in April to Montreal) in the same season.  In the same vain, on 30 November 1957, he played in the Grey Cup game in Toronto (a loss to Hamilton), then that night he suited up for his first game of the season for the Leafs when they faced the Boston Bruins.

It was around this time that sportswriter Jim Hunt wrote in the Toronto Daily Star…”There’s only one thing that seems likely to keep Gerry James from being one of the great stars in Canadian Football. That’s hockey. And there’s only one thing that seems likely to keep the same Gerry James from being a star in the National Hockey League. That’s football.”

But it was James’ football career that really stood out…

On more than one occasion, he received offers from the NFL’s New York Giants, but he chose to stay in Canada simply because the CFL paid better at the time and he had a family to support, which was a another reason why he took up 2 pro sports in the first place...to pay the bills.  He was on 4 Grey Cup winners in 6 appearances. He ran for 100 or more yards in 10 different games. In 1957, he scored 18 touchdowns rushing and one receiving. His 18 rushing TDs stood as a record for over 30 years. He also ran for 1,192 yards in 1957, his second season netting 1,000 yards. He twice won a Schenley Award as the top Canadian, 1954 and 1957. Then in 1960, James also became the Winnipeg place-kicker, a left-footed one at that. In the 1961 Grey Cup against Hamilton, James scored 14 of Winnipeg’s 21 points in a 21-14 OT victory, including the rushing TD and the convert to tie the score at 14-14.

Gerry James, Winnipeg Blue Bombers (courtesy Post Foods)
The following year, during the notorious Fog Bowl played in Toronto, James converted all 4 of Winnipeg’s touchdowns, while Hamilton’s kicker, Don Sutherin, missed on 2 of his team’s 4 TDs. Final score…Winnipeg 28 Hamilton 27. It was James’ last time in a Bomber uniform. In the off-season, after finishing second in scoring in the West with 116 points, he was asked to take a pay cut from $13,000 to $8,500. He refused and was released by coach Bud Grant. After coaching hockey in Switzerland for 2 years, he returned to the CFL in 1964 as the Saskatchewan Roughrider place-kicker, lasting only half the season before they too released him.

His football career over, he turned to senior hockey and the Yorktown Terriers of the Saskatchewan Senior League. Between 1966-70, Yorkton won 4 straight provincial titles, the first 3 of those with James as player-coach.  When the World Hockey Association came into being in the early 1970s, many of the senior leagues across Canada quickly folded as the new WHA teams needed players. This opened up  a new career for James…coaching junior hockey which he was very successful at. He was ahead of his time with playbooks as in football and proper conditioning for the players.  Above all, he wanted his players to have fun.  Between the years 1972 to 1985, he coached in the Tier II Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League with the Yorkton Terriers, the Melville Millionaires, and the Estevan Bruins. His best player was Melville’s Brian Propp who set the SJHL record of 168 points in only 57 games in 1975-76. James’  last fling at coaching was spent with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Tier I Western Hockey League in 1988-89, where his forces finished 27-42-3, one of only 3 junior seasons below .500 for him. He packed in coaching after that.

James now lives in Nanoose Bay, British Columbia on Vancouver Island.  For some strange reason, he was left off the 2006 TSN list of Top 50 CFL players of all time, shunted instead to the Honor Roll.  And Hamilton great QB Bernie Faloney is there too. Huh!

What a shame for such a remarkable Canadian-born football player as Gerry James. Oh yeah, he played hockey too. A 2-sport pro.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Neutrals in World War II


A Swedish soldier in training during World War II (Swedish Public Domain)





 


In the past, countries that decided to be officially neutral during war time did it at their own risk and hoped they were not attacked by the belligerent nations surrounding them. It was always a balancing act trying to keep both sides of warring countries happy. What I’ve learned through research is that being neutral didn’t really mean a hill of beans.

So…what did it mean?

During World War II several countries in Europe made their neutrality known but were attacked by Nazi Germany regardless. Hitler didn’t give 2 hoots about international law. Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands all fell on 9-10 May 1940. For various reasons, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Turkey and Switzerland, and the tiny country of Lichtenstein all came out of the conflict unscathed. But were they really neutral?

Sweden
began a massive military build-up as soon as Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson declared his country neutral 1 September 1939. At that time, his Army was 130,000 strong. And he doubled that number by 1943. The other branches of the forces either doubled or tripled in the same time-span, along with their machinery manufactured within the country, such as  the 40mm anti-aircraft guns that the Americans and British eventually used. All this despite a German blockade on the Swedish southern seaports on 9 April 1940, in order to make the Swedes totally dependent on German trade. Hitler relented 6 months later to allow five non-Axis ships through each month. But it wasn’t enough for Sweden’s survival. So, this industrious people improvised. Dependent on coal (which they had received from Britain) for heating prior to the blockade, they converted to wood, thanks to an abundance of forests. They received meat and egg rations, but learned to survive on fish and milk as staples, 2 items that weren’t rationed. Any oil and gas that got through the blockade went to the vital areas such as their military, ambulances, and fire engines, while the masses took to bicycles as never before.

Too strong to be attacked, Sweden seemed to the Allies to be pro-German at first, openly selling 10 million tons of iron ore per year to Hitler. This was from their supply of 2 billion tons in an area north of the Arctic Circle, closely guarded by the Army against foreign attack. Sweden then turned around and bought gold bullion, food and what coal they could from Germany. Sweden also sold their ore to the British, but that had to be smuggled out by secret Stockholm-to-Scotland air routes.

Sweden allowed Germany use of their military training facilities for railway troop movements to and from occupied-Norway before and during the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union. Throughout the war, however, Swedish young men  joined the Allied forces over the Axis forces at a ratio of 5-to-1. When the tide of the war was starting to turn in the Allied favor in 1943, Sweden let the Allies use their air bases during the 1944-45 liberation of Norway. Sweden was a haven for Jewish refugees. Over 8,000 fled neighboring occupied-Denmark with the help of the Danish underground who received from Sweden 5,000 pistols, 5,000 carbines, 10 million rounds of ammunition and 10,000 hand grenades in return for their troubles. Sweden took in anybody--no questions asked--who wished to leave the Nazi territories, including Danes, Norwegians and Finnish children, who were put into foster homes.

Although the Republic of Ireland was a member of the British Commonwealth, it  considered itself a separate state that made its own decisions aside from the British Crown. Most Irish supported its official neutrality. The joke throughout the country was…”Who are we neutral against?” But when France fell and England stood alone against the Nazis, Prime Minister Eamon de Valero appealed to Britain for additional arms and equipment to supplement their meager military supplies. Still, a small minority favored fighting against Hitler. However, over 200,000 Irishman worked in Britain throughout the war and more than 50,000 served in the Allied forces.

Ireland was bombed 7 different times by the German Luftwaffe, supposedly by accident. On each occasion, the Germans claimed questionable reasons such as bad weather or navigation errors. Dublin, on the Irish Sea, was bombed 3 times, including 31 May 1941, when bombs fell on the northern suburbs  killing 28 people. Those in-the-know believed it could have been Hitler sending a “message” to Ireland not to aid Britain with troops…and/or it could have been for them sending aid to Belfast, Northern Ireland after it had been severely bombed by the Luftwaffe in April 1941. Many years after the war, the Irish government was compensated financially by the German government for these “accidental” raids to the tune of $250,000.

At the commencement of World War II, Spain was still feeling the effects of a devastating civil war that lasted from 1936-39. Pro-Fascist General Francisco Franco’s Nationals won out over the Republicans (financed by the Soviet Union) but it proved costly to Spain. Franco’s country of 26 million was in no condition to throw its weight into another war. His people were hungry and homeless. Bridges, roads, and churches had been destroyed. Droughts had devastated farm land and had persisted into the middle 1940s. The civil war cost Spain $9 billion, plus half a million lives. It owed the Nazis $212 million for their involvement…troops, machinery, other military supplies from Berlin. Without Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini’s help, Franco’s rebels would have had their butts kicked. This was actually Hitler’s military testing ground, his chance to try his state-of-the-art machinery.

Although Franco aligned himself with the Nazis, Spanish volunteers fought on both sides during the war. Hitler tried on many occasions to bring Spain into the war, but Franco stood his ground. At one point, he finally said he’d enter the conflict providing Germany gave him fuel, military aircraft, vehicles, armaments, grain and fuel, plus heavily-fortify the Canary Islands in defense against the Allies. Hitler said nuts to that. Some historians believed Franco had deliberately set the price too high in order to stay out of the war. It was a good thing because his country would have been overrun too in 1945. Cash-strapped Franco did manage to cut a deal with Germany by shipping them tungsten, used in the production of armor-piercing shells, and in return received much-needed food.

There were 45,000 Spanish who served alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front, a group called the Blue Division. Responding to this, Stalin at the Potsdam Conference of July 1945 demanded an Allied invasion of Spain to get even. I guess, Stalin forgot about the 1,000 Spanish Nationalists who fought on the Russian side. But he eventually settled for a trade embargo on Spain once British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Harry Truman cooled him down.

Portugal
was quite the oddity. At Sintra Field, 18 miles out of the nearby capital of Lisbon, the ticket offices and hangars of Lufthansa and BOAC were right beside each other. Fancy that. Germans and Brits side by side. The mechanics could probably wave to each other every morning. They could’ve shared a tea…or better yet, a schnapps together on the tarmac. Although pro-Fascist, Portugal’s government under Antonio de Oliveira Salazar refused to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact that would align him with the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Instead, Salazar chose to honor the 1386 Treaty of Windsor between England and Portugal, the oldest alliance in the world and is still active today. A treaty of mutual support. But this didn’t stop his country from exporting tobacco, sugar and tungsten to both the Allies and the Axis. In June 1941 Germany initiated Operation Isabella, a plan to go into effect that would secure bases in Spain and Portugal in order to put the squeeze on England should the Soviet Union fall into Hitler’s hands. But it was plain to see by mid-war that wasn’t going to happen. Throughout most of the war, Salazar feared that Spain would join the Axis and his country would be attacked. To appease Franco, he sent 10,000 tons of wheat and 6,000 tons of corn as a gift to Spain.

By 1943, British and American air forces were allowed at Lajes Field, Azores to use the facility to protect Allied shipping in the mid-Atlantic. The next year saw Portugal sign an agreement with the US to allow the construction of an air base on Santa Maria Island in the Azores. In all, 30,000 Jews fled to Spain from continental Europe, then got out through Portugal and beyond to the US or Great Britain, either by ship or plane.  But it wasn’t easy getting out. A person had to obtain get a visa, which could take months, then purchase a ticket. More weeks or months. Lots of bribes along the way, money under the table. A popular way out was the 3-a-week Pan American flights to New York City aboard Sutherland flying boats.

The national flag of Switzerland,
a neutral country for 200 years
The most publicized World War II neutral had to be Switzerland, a nation of 3 major languages that had been a professional neutral since 1815. We’ve all heard of Swiss bank accounts. As the story goes, the nation’s international businessmen supposedly had a saying that went something like…“Six days of the week we bank for the Nazis. On the 7th day, we rest and pray for the Allies.  Bordered by occupied France, and 2 Axis powers in Italy and Germany, they were the Nazi bankers, all right, taking in currencies, gold, and what-have-you plundered from the occupied countries. But the Swiss also considered a German invasion as a reality. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the entire land-locked country of 4 million people was mobilized within 72 hours. Once mobilized, mountain passes were patrolled by elite ski troops and fortified with gun turrets, operated by young men who knew how to handle such heavy weaponry. Every village became a stronghold, complete with machine-gun posts and bunkers. This was a nation containing a superbly-trained militia, where every male between the ages of 20 to 60 years old had a uniform, a working weapon and ammo at home. By law, every grade school boy had to learn how to handle a gun.

The Swiss press were anti-German, which infuriated Adolf Hitler’s butt to no end, calling his neighbors “Renegade Germans.” He also referred to them as, “A haven for Jews and Marxists.” But money talks. He and his henchmen still banked with their half-brothers. Switzerland was also a base for espionage and spying by both sides. Over 300,000 refugee-seeking people (29,000 Jews) of all nationalities escaped to Switzerland during the war, while thousands of others were turned away because the country could only take in so many due to their dwindling wartime supplies. “Our lifeboat is full,” declared one Swiss official after a time.

On many occasions, Swiss air space was violated by the German Luftwaffe. For example, during the first few weeks of Germany’s 1940 invasion of France, Swiss pilots flying German-made Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters shot down 3 Heinkel-111 bombers, much to Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goring’s disgust. So, on one of the next German intrusions over Swiss airspace, he sent several Luftwaffe 109s to escort the Heinkels. A large air battle commenced…38 German 109s against 14 Swiss 109s. Same fighters…different markings. How ironic. The fearless Swiss shot down 4 German fighters, while losing only one of their own. The Swiss may have been neutral, but they didn’t take any guff from anybody, even when they were outnumbered. Allied aircraft intruded on Swiss airspace too. Damaged B-17 and B-24 bombers returning from raids over Italy and Germany would land on Swiss air bases, where the crews and bombers were interned. After some time, the crews were usually diplomatted (if there is such a word) out of the country, while the bombers stayed behind until war’s end. After the war, a total of 150 bombers were returned to the US Army Air Force. During the six years of war, over 1,700 Allied airmen were interned.

Turkey was the largest European neutral and the least talked about of the group. Almost forgotten. It had an army of 800,000 peasants with light arms and equipment, but were well organized. Hitler did everything he could to bring the country into the war as an Axis brother, which may have been easy for his foreign diplomats to do--negotiating, that is--because in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, the German and Italian embassies were on the same street, side by side. The British embassy was right there to, I might add. An ally to Germany in World War I, Turkey, early in the war, wasn’t quite convinced enough to side this time around with the Fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Once the German Army was defeated at Stalingrad, Turkey was glad for its decision. If it did side with the Axis, Hitler would have easy access to Turkey’s copper and chromium ore deposits, the latter used in the production of weapons-grade steel. As a result, the Germans had to pay big bucks for the precious metals.

On more than one occasion, Britain’s Winston Churchill tried to swing the Turks over to the Allied side, but Turkish leadership under President Ismet Inonu wanted to stay right in the so-called middle. At least their neutrality prevented the Nazis from using Turkey as a launch pad to the Middle East oil reserves. That was only one of their contributions to the Allied cause. Their second was taking in thousands of fleeing Jews without passports or visas. They even made arrangements for their own Turkish diplomats to head to Europe for the purpose of saving Jews from the concentration camps and the gas chambers, in some cases claiming the Jews were Turkish citizens. All told, Turkey was responsible for saving the lives of 100,000 Jews.

Lastly, there’s little Liechtenstein. Ever hear of it? A lot of people haven’t. It’s a German-speaking country of 35,000 people today, only 62 square miles in land mass completely surrounded by the Alps. Established in 1806, it borders Austria (occupied by Hitler during the war) to the east and north, and Switzerland to the west and south. The capital is Vaduz and the largest town is Schaan. As of 2013, Liechtenstein has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world, the lowest external debt, and also has very low unemployment at 1.5%. During World War II, it looked to Switzerland for support and advice, and used the Swiss Franc (still does) as its currency. According to declassified 2005 records, it admitted 240 wealthy Jews into the country before the start of the war, people who could pay their own way and provide jobs. Of these, 144 eventually became citizens. Even a tiny country like Liechtenstein did what they could for humanity by taking in Jewish refugees during those scary years when Adolf Hitler and his Nazis ran their reign of terror on Europe.

To sum it up, there were no true neutrals in Europe during World War II. Only in name.