The Second World War

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The Second World War

The Second World War

The first days of war were comparatively tranquil. Most of the work of preparation was done, the people sent off, the Cheques called in, the office shipshape. That first Sunday, Merrill cruised around Berlin in an ancient limousine, sizing up the situation. On his trip he accumulated a curious collection of anxious people. There was an aged United States senator and his wife, a jittery isolationist congressman, and a worried little British newspaperman from the London Chronicle. Merrill succeeded in getting the politicians out of the city, but he could do nothing for the journalist, who was broke and strangely apathetic. The man drifted around Berlin, seemingly in a pathetic daze for months, finally taking a job with a broadcasting studio. Much later Merrill learned that he was a crack British spy.

The Berlin office remained open, and most of its German employees were amazingly loyal to American Express. Early in September the porter, a huge fellow with curving handle-bar moustaches, came into Merrill's office and clicked heels with military formality. "Forgive me, Herr Manager," he said, "but I feel I must tell you that I have orders to open all the letters you send."

Merrill grinned up at him. "Okay, I'll leave them open, and you seal them after you've read them."

That was a bitter winter in Berlin, and fuel was only for making war. At one point the intense cold forced most of the unheated business offices to close. Merrill got a stove, secured coal somehow from Potsdam, and American Express stayed open, with everyone working in overcoats and mufflers For nearly a month it was the only foreign banking institution open in Berlin.

The dust settled on vanquished Poland, and the guns were still. A weird silence fell over embattled Europe, broken only by the perfunctory boom of an occasional cannon from the Maginot Line, or a brief rattle of machine-gun fire as scouting patrols blundered into each other. This long intermission, called the "phony war," allowed plenty of time to complete the repatriation of American tourists and to put American Express on a war footing. The blueprint called for closing 100 of its 150 offices and reducing personnel from 4,700 to approximately 1,000, to offset an expected slump in revenue of £2,500,000. This was accomplished and the company prepared to weather the storm like a ship with her hatches battened down and her topsails double-reefed.

However, retrenchment did not mean that initiative was abandoned. American Expressmen abroad still sought new ways of rendering service - and found them. The principal European offices remained open to service the embassies and Americans who were obliged to remain abroad. Strenuous efforts were made to care for the refugees who swarmed into Holland and France. This included financing them temporarily and arranging their departures to other countries, including the United States.

In England, through a British subsidiary, American Express helped to finance and forward goods for England under the Cash and Carry provision of the American Neutrality Act.

In April the Nazis overwhelmed neutral Norway and Denmark. The phony war finally ended in May as the Nazi horde rolled over the borders of Holland and Belgium and crashed through the Maginot Line at fatal Sedan. In the first stages of the offensive Rotterdam was made the classic example of what the Luftwaffe could do to a people who were too proud to surrender.

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MORE NAZI TROOPS were marching in the spring of 1989, and the air over Europe shuddered to the beat of the Luftwaffe's propellers. The shrill, angry voice of the Fuehrer became a hysterical screaming that numbed men's brains. The pretence of seeking a lasting peace was almost abandoned, and the only question that remained was, When?

But Americans' love of travel was too strong to be much disturbed by these uneasy conditions. As June smoothed out the ocean highways, all the liners were packed with passengers; the German Bremen and Europa were as full as the Queen Mary and the Normandy.

The headquarters group at 65 Broadway was very busy, for more pressing than the routine work of servicing the tourists was the matter of making a blueprint for war. Reports from all the long chain of offices were studied and evaluated. Decisions were made as to which would be closed and which kept open. The probable financial needs of each of... see: FOUR MILLION DOLLARS IN A PIE WAGON

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