« Back to Books

Cork Wars

Intrigue and Industry in World War II

David A. Taylor

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.

David A. Taylor teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins University. His articles about people, food, health, and science have appeared in Smithsonian, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, Outside, the Christian Science Monitor, Science, the Oxford American, and The MillionsHis previous books include Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley, 2009) and Ginseng, the Divine Root: The Curious History of the Plant That Captivated the World. For more information, visit davidataylor.org.

Reviews

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!—Douglas Brinkley

“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.” —Maury Klein, author of A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II

“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.” —Robert Whitaker, author of The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale Of Love, Murder, And Survival In The Amazon

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.” —Mark Athitakis, author of The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt

“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.” —Bernard A. Weisberger, editor of The WPA Guide to America: The Best of 1930s America As Seen by the Federal Writers Project

“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.” —Mary Otto, author of Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America

“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.” —Meredith Hindley, author of Destination Casablanca: Exile, Espionage, and the Battle for North Africa in World War II

Praise for Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley, 2009)

“A vivid reminder of two things: the creative power of America’s government at its best and the remarkable richness and diversity of America’s people.” —Geoffrey C. Ward

“A revealing and a valuable resource. Taylor goes inside the project to give us intimate snapshots of the writers and what they saw and felt during that hard time.” —Nick Taylor, author of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA

“An excellent history.” Washington City Paper

Praise for Ginseng: The Divine Root (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006)

“[A] fascinating tour … a master storyteller.” Library Journal

“[An] intelligent, wide-ranging account by documentarian Taylor. Skeptical (though ultimately persuasive) about ginseng’s subtle but genuine curative powers, Taylor uses the intriguing substance, prevalent in both China and the eastern U.S., as an occasion to ponder the different approaches to medicine in East and West and to present some amusing characters, including traders, experts and the ‘ginsengers’ who hunt the ‘sang.’” —Publishers Weekly

“Taylor here traces the commercial complex surrounding the ancient herb ginseng. He profiles his guides through the hierarchy of the ginseng business, from collecting it in America to its sale in China, its main market. Including discussion of the medicinal benefits attributed to ginseng, as well as interesting historical arcana—the Jesuits, the Qing dynasty, and Daniel Boone oddly have ginseng in common—Taylor’s adventurous tour should tap into the root’s rising popularity with herbal-product consumers.” Booklist

Cork Wars

Johns Hopkins University Press (December 2018)

Read David’s recent article on cork and Portugal, in the Washington Post.

More about the book at DavidTaylor.org

Frank DiCara, one of the people whose TRUE STORIES INSPIRED CORK WARS, grew up in Baltimore when Italian-Americans came under suspicion as the U.S. entered World War II. Hear his oral history on YouTube.

David A. Taylor talks to “All Things Considered” (NPR) about his book Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.

(Read an excerpt.)

(Watch David Taylor’s Ted talk on storytelling.)