As a writer, it’s rare to feel that a story is destined for you. I felt that way with my first book, Ginseng, the Divine Root, about forests and a secretive subculture around a medicinal plant from American forests that for over two centuries has been exported to Asia.
Years later in a library, I stumbled on an article about a tree-planting campaign during World War II. Americans were planting millions of cork oak trees from coast to coast, with the idea they could save the country. Cork wasn’t native to North America, but people considered it important. How could tree-planting help win a war?
What really stuck with me was when I talked with a person involved in the campaign. Charles McManus Jr. was 96 years old when we met, very sharp. We sat in the empty ballroom of his retirement community outside Baltimore and he said two things that captivated me. First, he described an otherworldly scene of cork harvests in Portugal. Back in his 20s, McManus had visited Portugal with his father, and the traditional harvest – the skilled workers peeling the thick cork bark from the trees -- was magical.
The second scene he described was hellish: A massive 15-alarm fire at the Baltimore factory in September 1940, which burned for days and destroyed nine acres of cork inventory. On the brink of the war, he said, that fire put Crown Cork and the whole industry in the headlights of the government security agencies.
Later after we spoke, a history fusing those two things – the magic of the forest producing cork, and the national security intrigue – started to come together. The story showed how nature can get entangled in human conflict. I’ve worked with foresters who studied the interrelationships of people and forests, and published articles about what happens when forests get weaponized. So it felt like this story had found me too.
In the Government Vault, Finding Secret Stories
The narrative evolved as I dug into once-secret government files that were finally declassified. In the National Archives, I found records and cables of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the spy agency that preceded the CIA) and they documented how people at the Baltimore company, Crown Cork and Seal, got embroiled in espionage. And they pointed me to individuals who could give firsthand accounts.
At the heart of the book are three families. First, the McManuses who owned the company. They navigated defense contracts and launched a national tree-planting campaign that could in time replace the foreign supplies of cork that America depended on. The second family is that of Melchor Marsa, a Spanish-born factory manager who the OSS recruited for corporate espionage in Portugal. The third family lived in the Highlandtown neighborhood near the Baltimore factory: Frank DiCara was a teenage son of Italian American immigrants. He needed to help support his family with a wartime factory job, and came into the orbit of Crown Cork and Seal.
Together, the personal histories illustrated effects of the war on American industry and families. They pointed to a larger chapter of our shared history.
It almost felt like a secret. Who knew this side of cork? Before the war, it was among the most modern materials, featured in the 1940 World’s Fair in the World of Tomorrow exhibit. After the war, that got turned upside down. Plastics were the short-term wartime substitute that ultimately replaced cork.
One of the biggest surprises for me was in the social history. We learn that Japanese Americans were unfairly targeted by racially biased restrictions and forced into camps. Those were the most egregious breaches of civil rights, but restrictions also impacted Italian Americans and German Americans, who were branded “enemy aliens.” The restrictions robbed millions of their freedoms--of where to live, where to work, and their means of livelihood. After the war, officials pledged that we would never again impose such unfair restrictions.
Introducing Characters in their Voices
As the book came together, it seemed that a few videos could help draw readers in. I worked with a documentary filmmaker, Kiley Kraskouskas, on several short films to introduce the story and its characters. From my previous work with documentaries, we sketched out some ideas. We could draw on my recorded interviews, and use animation or archival film. Altogether, four videos introduce the book and the main characters.
Together the films invite you into what I hope readers will agree is a compelling human story of nature and industry. You can find them all of them at corkwarsbook.com.
David A. Taylor is a journalist who teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Cork Wars: Intrigue and Industry in World War II, Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America, and Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World.