The post was written by intern Elise Plyler.
During September and October of 1945, the German Imperial Navy made repeated and brutal attempts to overtake the British base in Laurentic. Over the course of four battles, the British forces were devastated by the German fleet, resulting in a surrender agreement on October 2. This agreement called for the surrender of not only Laurentic, but Mohawk Island and all remaining sea units controlled by Great Britain and her ally, Canada. Left with no other option, the terms were agreed to by the commander of the British navy, Admiral Ronald La Rocca. A note at the corner of the document coldly states, “Failure to comply with these terms means total destruction of everything British.”
If this seems completely bizarre, it is because these battles never really happened. They took place only in the minds of fifteen-year-old Carl Nancken and his friends. Between the years 1942 and 1945, while World War II raged on in Europe, across the Atlantic a group of teenage boys were playing out fictional naval battles in a suburban home on Long Island.
The documentation of these battles is found in a black binder titled “Normandie.” Also archived within this binder are pages of detailed backstory, fleet lists, tactical maps and treaties dictating the rules of engagement. They are written out in pencil and ballpoint pen in a schoolboy’s immature cursive script and riddled with spelling errors, but the whole project shows remarkable imagination. Many of the pages are topped with a hand-drawn letterhead and there is a particularly comprehensive diagram of a disguised warship called “USS Wolf” which, as its name suggests, was meant to serve as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and pose as a merchant ship. At one point in the games chronology, Germany and Holland make an agreement that Germany, in exchange for the oil to power their fleets and their country, will provide 8 cents per month to the “Netherlands” along with naval protection. These transactions are performed with the use of “checks” written out on strips of notebook paper.
In addition to props like the German “checks,” the binder contains drawn maps of the play area. The earliest map, kept in a section titled “Naval Museam” (sic) clearly shows the upper floor of a home. The rooms are given names such as “Hall Sea” and “Tile Sea” for the bathroom. Bases are marked with common household objects and called “Shoe Island” and “Book Island.”
While live action role playing, or LARPing, was not a recognized hobby until the late 1970s, what these boys were doing in the early 1940s was far beyond simple imaginary play and seems to fit the term. Judging from the maps, the roleplaying took place throughout the Nancken home, not on a tabletop. In later maps the names become more sophisticated, perhaps reflecting what Carl found interesting as he began high school. A science lesson may have spawned “Leewenhoek Island” while an introduction to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” inspired “Caliban Sea.” The later maps still clearly follow the floor plan of a home and while “Hall Sea” becomes “Nerger Sea.” “Shoe Island” survives the test of time.
The project seems to be mainly the work of Carl Nancken; his signature appears several times throughout the notebook, including the trade agreement between Germany and the Netherlands where Carl has signed as both Carl H.B. Nancken of Holland and Grand Admiral C. Nancken, I.G.N. of Germany. We cannot know whether this is because he was the game leader or because the other boys had binders of their own, but Carl had a major hand in their game’s development.
It seems that Carl’s background may have contributed to the addition of one interesting aspect of this project. During 1945, the Imperial German Navy became a major force within the game, not as a designated antagonist, but, as shown by their cooperation with the Netherlands and their victories against Great Britain, a formidable and respected fleet headed by Grand Admiral Carl H.B. Nancken. It is hard to believe that a group of American boys in the mid-1940s, near the end of World War II and while the full extent of the atrocities committed by Nazi forces was in the process of coming to light, would have been inclined to present a German fighting force in this neutral way. However, the 1940 census shows that in residence in the home while the boys played was Carl’s German-born grandmother, Adlaide. Both she and Carl’s namesake, his paternal grandfather, emigrated from Germany near the turn of the century. Her presence, and the knowledge of Carl’s own heritage, may have softened the boys’ views towards the enemy nation. In some small way, Carl may have been paying respect to his heritage through his fictional command of the Imperial German Fleet and building something positive from his background in an era when it was shameful.
The last year written in the binder is 1946. Again, we cannot know whether this is because the boys merely started a new binder or they were growing too old for imaginary war-games, but Carl soon began fighting in a real war. Only two years after roleplaying naval battles in his family home, Carl enlisted in the naval reserve and, upon graduating high school, was transferred to active duty. Soon after that the Korean War began and he served in a ground controlled approach unit working with aircraft carriers and fighting aircraft as he had pretended in his teenage years (Baumgardner 128). The “Normandie” binder is not only a record of this boy’s creativity and ingenuity; it shows how youthful play can develop into lifelong passions and purpose.
Gavin, Philip. “Holocaust Timeline.” The History Place. N.p., 1997. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2015
Baumgardner, Randy W., ed. The Tailhook Association. Nashville, TN: Turner, 1997. Print.