The Second World War and its aftermath continue to epitomize the evils of dehumanization, all the way from mass genocide and medical experiments on prisoners of war across Nazi-occupied European territories to Japan’s bombing of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor and the US’s retaliation with bomb-fueled explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Against this backdrop, a controversy that remains a mystery is that of the gold plundered from southeast Asia by Imperial Japanese forces who enlisted Yakuza gangsters to run transnational organized crime syndicates. The loot, often referred to as “Yamashita’s gold,” after General Tomoyuki Yamashita of the Imperial Japanese Army, was allegedly stashed away in caves, tunnels, and underground complexes across the Philippines.
US intelligence operative Edward Lansdale, who reportedly squelched an insurgency in the Philippines, found a dozen or so Yamashita treasure sites and flew to Japan to inform US General Douglas MacArthur of his discovery, according to multiple credible sources, including historians Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave. General MacArthur had commanded the Southwest Pacific during World War II and oversaw the Allied occupation of postwar Japan from his exalted base in Tokyo.
Meanwhile, life in Hawaii, which came under martial law on the heels of the Pearl Harbor bombing, had undergone a sea change amid frozen wages, weakened union power, and disrupted commercial shipping as the military took charge of US government operations.
Inspired from these real-life events spanning the Yamashita gold conspiracy and General MacArthur’s inheritance of the “secret mother lode” of looted fortune, Steve Anderson’s THE PRESERVE, set in the Hawaii of 1948, raises the curtain on the American hegemony that persisted in the postwar era.
Second World War veteran Wendell Lett flounders to overcome his combat fatigue. Optimistic about the possibility of being salvaged from the terrors of his mind, Lett joins the Preserve, a camp run by Edward Lansdale and Lett’s wartime Executive Officer Charlie Selfer.
That sliver of hope is shattered when Lett unravels the reality festering in the façade of the Preserve: this secret camp intends to mold him into a cold-blooded assassin. The tentacles of this sinister nexus plunge deep into the heartline of all that it touches. And merciless punishments are meted out if Lett shies away from cooperating. Lett’s only savior is Kanani Alana, a headstrong Hawaiian woman who had also sought a new lease on life at the Preserve. Kanani has hatched a dangerous escape plan that will free them from the shackles of the Preserve, assuming they can survive the harsh wilderness of the Big Island while in hiding.
Anderson’s never-give-up attitude finds its way into Lett, whose origins hark back to one of the author’s previous novels, Under False Flags, published in 2014.
THE PRESERVE lived through different incarnations since its conception roughly 15 years ago. It was first self-published on Kindle under a different title, and then reborn after literary agent Peter Riva came along. “Peter has always been supportive, and he’s got great inputs on my work,” Anderson says.
The author, whose oeuvre on the Second World War and its aftermath include the Kaspar Brothers series (The Losing Role, Liberated, and Lost Kin), has drawn upon his exposure to German culture, his penchant for history, and his childhood interest in building tank and airplane models to tell stories of poignance, darkness, and suspense. When he isn’t hammering away on a novel, he translates German to English as an editor. Anderson was also a Fulbright Fellow in Munich.
Anderson was adopted at birth by a couple who lived through the Second World War. Materials and artifacts from that era sat in his parents’ basement, eliciting his interest in exploring them further as a little boy who grew up on the West Coast in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Anderson attributes his intrigue with Germanic influences to his adoptive mother, who attended German Saturday school, his adoptive maternal German grandfather, and his study of the German language at university.
In the interview below, Anderson spoke to The Big Thrill about how he strikes a balance between dark fiction and his role as an author seeking to entertain.
Why did you choose to write a novel around these events as opposed to a non-fiction book?
That’s probably coming from the would-be historian in me. When I went to university, I rediscovered a lot of the history of that era, which I studied during my master’s. I originally thought I would go on to get a PhD in history. But, luckily, I discovered fiction writing. The sheer blacks and whites from the Second World War and early Cold War periods have intrigued me. I live in those times through my fiction. Creating a new world that takes readers to a place of historical detail is much better than telling the story straight, as it were.
I like including one or more real-life events to hang my story on. It’s fascinating how much is at stake for military men. They’re always caught in the middle—between orders and frontlines.
You’ve mostly chosen European settings in your stories. What inspired your setting in Hawaii in THE PRESERVE?
I enjoy exploring overlooked historical themes where I can find a good story. I’ve been to Hawaii a number of times, specifically the volcanic Big Island. I like putting my main characters between a rock and a hard place, and the Big Island is literally a rock in a hard place! It is rugged, windswept, and replete with lava rock. I even have Kanani speak Hawaiian Pidgin English a couple of times in the book. It’s a little detail that aims to lure readers deeper into the story.
One aspect of THE PRESERVE, which is heartrending, is the trauma that Wendell Lett goes through. When he discovers the Preserve’s true intentions, you exacerbate the state of mind he is already in. Clearly, this isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted. How do you hope readers will respond to that?
My stories tend to be somewhat dark. I do often wrestle with how far I should take it. But, for me, stories just aren’t as interesting without that. The hope that one can somehow rise above terror and darkness is what keeps readers going too. It’s certainly an added complication to have Wendell experience combat fatigue. But that actually ends up serving his interests. For example, he is visited by the ghosts of his dead friends. Even if those hauntings are all in his head, they help him understand that Lansdale is not who he believes he was. And that makes Wendell realize that he needs to escape from the Preserve for good.
How do you balance a level of emotional voltage that is steeped in grief and sorrow with elements of thrill that can accentuate your role as an author who entertains?
It’s about pacing. It can’t be an onslaught of darkness all the time. You’ve got to sometimes give your readers hope, no matter how bleak. I hope to do that. The hope I give [readers] is tinged with hints of threat.
How did you go about combining elements of crime and conspiracy with a historical setting?
THE PRESERVE originally had a contemporary landscape. It was my agent [Peter] who suggested a historical setting and led me to the idea of these spoils of war and the Yamashita Gold conspiracy. Where all that gold went is still being contended today, so that was my launching pad for the drivers of crime in this book. Back then, there wasn’t quite a CIA yet. And what was then called the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during the Second World War had more or less disbanded. So I followed the money backwards and zeroed in on a story about what would happen in a specific realm where different factions were jockeying to become the main US intelligence operation—at a time when General MacArthur was exercising authority through his oversight of the Japanese occupation. Ed Lansdale is a character who is portrayed as a criminal in this book, even though what kind of man he was is disputed in reality. In the book, I extend all of this to Americans who are looking to get a leg up and make a profit. And unfortunately, Wendell Lett is caught in the midst of it all.
What kind of research went into THE PRESERVE?
I was able to return to Hawaii repeatedly, revisit sites, get a better sense of the geography, and talk to locals on the ground. Among other things, I consulted a linguistics professor at the University of Hawaii who specializes in Hawaiian Pidgin, and his insight was helpful in enabling me to figure out the dynamics of Kanani speaking in it. In the book, she uses Pidgin strategically in ways that serve her interests.
I also discovered phenomena like the Business Plot, a 1930s US political conspiracy where right-wing businessmen conspired to overthrow the presidency. General MacArthur, who gained dominance at the time, led a charge on horseback and drove out World War 1 veterans who were protesting because they had not been paid for their services in the war—like an early version of Occupy Wall Street. These aspects were not necessarily central to the book, but they gave additional dimensions of personality to MacArthur’s character.
Fiction writing is a slow process for those who want to be in it for the long haul. What are your words of wisdom for novelists?
It’s tough out there. So stick to it only if you absolutely love it. I envision the reader I’m writing for. That image is not a specific person. It’s more like a composite figure who likes to read a certain type of book, and that’s probably akin to an inverse image of me. I like to write things that I would myself enjoy reading. If you stay on that plane and keep honing your craft, that’s the best thing there is.
What’s next in the cards for you?
I’ve recently finished the fourth book in the Kaspar Brother series. It’s got black humor and behind-the-Iron-Curtain intrigues. We’re deciding where to go with it and I’m quite excited.
Steve Anderson is the author of the Kaspar Brothers series (The Losing Role, Liberated, Lost Kin), Under False Flags: A Novel, and other works centered on WWII and its aftermath. In the crime thriller The Other Oregon and the novella Rain Down (Kindle Single), he writes about his home state. Anderson was a Fulbright Fellow in Germany, and is a literary translator of German to English as well as a freelance editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
To learn more about Steve and his work, please visit his website.