Tom Swift and His War Tank
Or, Doing His Bit for Uncle Sam
By Victor Appleton ©1918 Book #21
Review by JP Karenko, August 2005
Duotone image courtesy of Mark Snyder
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
There is an oft repeated formula to this story. I wonder if some higher authority set it down or if it was just endlessly re-invented. War has come to Shopton. We begin with Our All-American Hero being maligned for malingering. Tom has not gone down to the local Army Recruiter and volunteered to become Bayonet Bait. As a matter of fact, he has actually appealed (to the President of the US, no less) for an exemption from military duty. Even his closest chum, Ned Newton speculates that he could be a "slacker." To compound this, he has gone all secretive about what he is doing in a large fenced-in yard that has been built on the Swift property. There are strange noises coming from the yard and German spies snuffling around everywhere, to boot...
All is not lost, as after about 50 pages of this nonsense, it is revealed that Tom has put his intellect to work at building a bigger, better, stronger and faster armored dragon to go slay the enemies of the Allies. War Tank A is revealed, and then the real fun begins. Espionage, subterfuge, assault, kidnapping and grand theft, are all on the menu. How and if the Good Guys prevail are all in the story available on line at: Tom Swift and His War Tank
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Tom Swift-Intrepid Inventor, Hero, and now, betrothed love interest of Miss Mary Nestor.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer and traveling companion of Tom & Ned, whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited mental facilities. Antagonist and rival of Eradicate.
Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor master machinist and holder of numerous patents. Mr. Swift, has failed in his health of late, and much ado is made of his advanced age. Previously a doomsayer, he now seems to be able to assist Tom in developing details of his new war machine.
The Bearded Stranger-Later determined to be Blakeson (NFN) of Blakeson & Grinder, a construction firm that tried to sabotage efforts to build the Big Tunnel in a previous episode (#19)
Ned Newton-Chum & constant companion of Tom. Currently back to clerking at a Shopton bank. Has given up his position as Swifts' financial manager to sell Liberty Bonds in support of the war effort.
Eradicate Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant given over to the ravages of advanced age. Ex-Civil War era slave. Constant antagonist of Koku. In this episode, old and feeble. His faithful mule Boomerang, also getting old and cranky, helps corral a German spy.
Mr. (Amos) Nestor ñ Mary's father. No description given, except he smokes cigars. Amos remains excitable and is continuing to jump to negative conclusions about Tom, in spite of having been saved by him in both the Wireless Message and Wizard Camera adventures. In this tome, he speculates that Tom is a "slacker." Our Hero has not volunteered to don khaki and Go Get Killed, as all the "sensible" able-bodied males in town have done. Mary's mother has never been described or named, and is not even given passing mention in this tale.
Miss Mary Nestor-Love interest of Tom. Plucky, courageous, intelligent and apparently engaged to Our Hero, although no direct mention is made of this momentous condition.
Jennie Morse-No description given. Friend of Mary Nestor, and soon to be married.
Mrs. Baggert-Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family for 15+ years at the time of this story. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages.
Miles-NFN or description. Loyal Swift Construction employee.
Harry Telford-Shopton youth. Caught snooping at Tom's Tank by Ned Newton. Last seen running scared in the general direction of his home...
The German Spy Ring:
The Moustached Stranger-AKA "Walter Simpson"-Well dressed, educated and authoritarian. Wears a mini "Kaiser" style moustache. Suspected German National. Brains of the outfit. At large.
Carl Schwen-No description given. Employed by Swift Construction as one of Tom's best machinists. German National caught spying by Eradicate, and given over to the tender mercies of the irascible Boomerang. Currently in custody.
Otto Kuhn-Swift employee who spies in collusion with Schwen, above. Currently in custody.
Crossleigh-NFN or description. Fourth spy-passing mention. At large.
Tom's Tank Crew:
Hank Baldwin-No Description. Chief tank mechanician.
The Little Englishman-No name or description. Knows about British tanks.
Amos Kanker-Cranky, bearded, belligerent, bucolic farmer who causes trouble for Tom. Unwitting tool of German spies trying to steal the tank.
Helen Sever-No description, except likes chocolate. (I see large hips in her future...) Chum of Mary Nestor. Interested in Ned Newton.
Kent-NLN or description. Swift watchman. Drugged by spies.
Miss Blair- NFN or description. Swift phone operator.
Mr. Kimball & Son Bub-Local farm family. Find note from Tom and help effect rescue from kidnappers, late in tale. A Mrs. Kimball is not mentioned.
Hawk is a small, speedy 2-seat monoplane, capable of doing "spiral turns." (See Engineering Fact vs. Fiction)
A "large carburetor" is under development, that will allow alcohol, kerosene or gasoline to be used in an IC engine at will. (See Errata.)
"War Tank A" A bigger, better, faster & heavier Juggernaut than those in current use on the front lines. Twice the speed (12mph vs. 6mph) better traction due to increased weight (more than 42 tons) and able to leap a 20ft trench (as opposed to 12ft) at a single bound, by use of an-onboard bridging mechanism. It is powered by twin gasoline engines (See Errata) and has innovations such as dual steering systems, solid suspension and electrical communications between control & engine compartments. Large enough to carry "several" riflemen in addition to crew, it also has rudimentary living arrangements "in case of breakdown in no-man's land." Armaments limited to 4 machine guns: port & starboard, & fore and aft, and armor proof against a "Bertha Shell" or a "Jack Johnson." (See Attitudes.) Also capable of remote control by wireless.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted. It also has given me a grasp of just how technologically and culturally unsophisticated the average reader was in the early 1900's.
Attitudes and Prejudices-
Weapons of mass destruction-1917 style. The "Bertha shell" references a cannon named "Big Bertha," named after Gustav Krupp's wife. This state of the art howitzer weighed 43 tons, and threw a truly impressive (for the era) 2,200 lb shell over 9 miles.
Big Bertha Howitzer Jack Johnson, ca 1915
Jack Johnson, was the first black heavyweight champion of the world. His reign lasted from 1908 to 1915. He was also the first African American pop culture icon, and was photographed more than any other black man of his day. His name was synonymous with a "knockout punch."
I've concluded that Mr. Nestor is bipolar. One minute, Tom is a no-good slacker and the next he's "a wonder." I'm thinking he may be the Mother of all Father-in-laws...?
We are back to the British spelling of gasolene and clew. I'll have to assign nicknames to the various ghost writers that concoct these stories and keep score, like I have with Mr. D's hometown. This one is hereinafter called "The Brit."
War fever comes to Shopton. In this tale, the Germans are now "The Bad Guys." They are described with the pejorative names "boches," "fritzes," or "huns." It is now "the European War," reflecting America's still-not-quite-involved attitude.
Interesting note that Tom can go haring cross-country in his tank chewing up pastures, firing machine guns and demolishing buildings with abandon (or permission.) Seems it was easier to ask forgiveness, than get permission, even then...and just pay damages if anyone objected. Can you imagine having a thousand dollars for "pocket money" in 1917 dollars? Poor little rich kid...
Errata- Mr. Damon is first relegated to residing "in a nearby town." (After four books in a row in Waterford, NY, the author apparently forgot where he lived in the previous volume.) This tale moves him back to Waterfield, making the current tally of his many moves between Waterford and Waterfield stand at 11-Waterfield, 4-not recorded or confused, and 9-Waterford, for 21 volumes, to date. The numbers don't total, because two volumes have him residing in both places at the same time. Four others (including this one) either do not specify a town name, or have multiple references that change.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy-
Spiral Turns: Hawk apparently has newly discovered larger rear stabilizer planes. The early models of "aeroplanes" had woefully inadequate vertical and horizontal stabilizer surface areas. If the craft got into any extreme attitude, loss of control was almost guaranteed. Any pilot who wanted to die of old age (and many didn't) stayed out of violent aerobatic maneuvers, even one as tame as a "spiral turn." War changed all that.
Tank Troubles: Yes, tanks started out gasoline powered. Not for long, though. Les Boches found out rather quickly that gasoline vapors make pretty short work of Allied tank crew when sparked by even a simple rifle shot placed in the right spot. Then, there's the old leaky fuel line plus confined space plus smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em combination. The equation equals "poof-crispy critters in a can." Diesel engines were not long in coming, as it is harder to get Diesel vapors to explode. Also, it is easier (and cheaper) to refine Diesel fuel.
British Mk IV WW1 Era War Tank
Les Boches Stalking a British Crawler
My Kingdom for a Bazooka...
All images from http://mailer.fsu.edu/~akirk/tanks/ww1/
The above image shows some of the acrobatics that early tanks were capable of. Tom & Co. do a spiral roll in War Tank A, to right it after "turning turtle," by driving it up an embankment at an angle. With a solid, un-sprung suspension! Considering the crew was rattling around loose inside the can, unrestrained except for grab rings, I think WW1 era soldiers were made of pretty stern stuff. You begin to wonder who suffered more, our guys or the enemy...
Carburetors for multiple fuels: Can be done, but Rube Goldberg would be proud of the result. The energy content of gasoline vs. kerosene vs. alcohol dictate dramatically different fuel flow rates, plus the "safe" aspect of Diesel ( it is hard to explode) makes using a carburetor counterproductive. Fuel injection (not invented for a few years, yet) is the way to go for this set up.
Armor: Tom's tank is said to be built to stand up to a "Bertha Shell." 2200lbs of high explosive, armor piercing artillery would make short work of even a Swift-built crawler. The only way possible to survive one of these was to not be there when it arrived, or hope that the German gunners were poor shots. Not good odds, in my book.
Geography- Shopton is now home to Grant Army Base, where "bird-men" are being trained to fly. There is a new town named Sackett, nearby (I'm going to have to start on a Shopton county map, too...) as is "Tinkle Creek." We also find out that Swift Construction Co. actually makes things besides Tom's toys. Their manufactory produces "aeroplanes, submarines and tunnel diggers." (Most sub-building firms are located on ocean coasts-I wonder if there are U-Boats in Lake Carlopa???)
JP Karenko, 8/24/05
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