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Cork Wars

, 240 pages

25 b&w photos

December 2018



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Usually ships 2-3 business days after receipt of order.

Cork Wars

Intrigue and Industry in World War II

In 1940, with German U-boats blockading all commerce across the Atlantic Ocean, a fireball at the Crown Cork and Seal factory lit the sky over Baltimore. The newspapers said that you could see its glow as far north as Philadelphia and as far south as Annapolis. Rumors of Nazi sabotage led to an FBI investigation and pulled an entire industry into the machinery of national security as America stood on the brink of war.

In Cork Wars, David A. Taylor traces this fascinating story through the lives of three men and their families, who were all drawn into this dangerous intersection of enterprise and espionage. At the heart of this tale is self-made mogul Charles McManus, son of Irish immigrants, who grew up on Baltimore’s rough streets. McManus ran Crown Cork and Seal, a company that manufactured everything from bottle caps to oil-tight gaskets for fighter planes. Frank DiCara, as a young teenager growing up in Highlandtown, watched from his bedroom window as the fire blazed at the factory. Just a few years later, under pressure to support his family after the death of his father, DiCara quit school and got a job at Crown. Meanwhile, Melchor Marsa, Catalan by birth, managed Crown Cork and Seal’s plants in Spain and Portugal—and was perfectly placed to be recruited as a spy.

McManus, DiCara, and Marsa were connected by the unique properties of a seemingly innocuous substance. Cork, unrivaled as a sealant and insulator, was used in gaskets, bomber insulation, and ammunition, making it crucial to the war effort. From secret missions in North Africa to 4-H clubs growing seedlings in America to secret intelligence agents working undercover in the industry, this book examines cork’s surprising wartime significance. Drawing on in-depth interviews with surviving family members, personal collections, and recently declassified government records, Taylor weaves this by turns beautiful, dark, and outrageous narrative with the drama of a thriller. From the factory floor to the corner office, Cork Wars reflects shifts in our ideas of modernity, the environment, and the materials and norms of American life. World War II buffs—and anyone interested in a good yarn—will be gripped by this bold and frightening tale of a forgotten episode of American history.

Journalist David A. Taylor teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of 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.

"An absorbing and illuminating read, Cork Wars is hard to put down. Few readers will come away without an enhanced appreciation of cork, what it does, and how it is created. Clear, concise, and vivid, Taylor's prose pulls the reader in from the first and never lets go. Anyone who likes a good story well told should read this book, especially those who like the offbeat corners of history."

"This well-researched, well-told story takes readers into a world of espionage, industrial ingenuity, and American resilience. Transporting readers back in time, Taylor turns a seemingly small subject into a compelling history with surprising breadth."

"David Taylor's Cork Wars is a marvelous history about pre-synthetic times when large cork oaks were coveted far and wide. Everything from bottle-cap factories to the container revolution and cork planting are explored with great vigor. Taylor gives a vivid slice of life from that time that speaks to ours. A landmark achievement!"

"Taylor's work unveils the little-known yet vital role cork has played throughout human history, from ancient times to the present day. His account of Nazi spying and sabotage to deprive the Allies of cork during World War II is intriguing. A revealing read on an unusual topic."

"Cork Wars doesn't just illuminate a critical element of the World War II economy: it reveals the surprising ways that war reshapes lives. Whether he's writing about Baltimore immigrants or globetrotting spies, David Taylor fills his story with emotion and intrigue. It’s richly researched history, delivered with a novelist's heart."

"The humble cork that lines our pry-off bottle caps has unique qualities that also make it a key ingredient in engines and other machinery. Control of its supply is a prize in peace, a necessity in war. Taylor weaves this reality into an exciting true narrative of spies, intrigue, submarine warfare, soldiers, sailors, tree farmers, and assembly line workers, all caught up in history and skillfully shown in their individuality. Cork Wars is a tale you won't want to miss."

"Drawing upon deep research and deft storytelling, David A. Taylor builds a compelling narrative. Cork Wars captures the drama of three families whose lives are bound up with a precious forest product—and the urgency of war."

"Immigrants, spies, and businessmen populate David Taylor's fascinating history of the important role that cork played in World War II. Next time you hold a wine cork in your hand, it'll be hard not to think of a Baltimore factory and a story stretching from Maryland and California to Portugal and Morocco."

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