The effect of the papal Bull, was as a commandment. “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live”.
In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, whose fleas would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others. High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.
In some cases, bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood system as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran as high as 98%-100%.
Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas which came with them.
The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”
This was the experience of individual sufferers. So, what allowed the pandemic to spread with such rapidity?
The story begins one-hundred years earlier. On this day in 1227, eighty-year-old Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was elected Supreme Pontiff, taking the name Pope Gregory IX. Gregory’s papal ordination came at a time of spreading heresy, the earliest reverberations of what came to be known some three hundred years late, as the Protestant Reformation.
The Waldenses, founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo, claimed that individuals could commune with directly with God. Other sects such as the Cathars followed similar beliefs. Such heresies challenged the authority of the One True Church, and could not be left unchecked.
Today, Gregory is best remembered for his organization of Canon law, the formalization of practices later forming the basis of the medieval inquisition. At the time, a more immediate problem was the rise of what were seen as satanic cults.
The German priest and nobleman Conrad of Marburg was an early leader in the persecution of heretics, claiming to have rooted out a number of Luciferian cults around the cities of Mainz and Hildesheim. The first Bull of the new papacy, the Vox in Rama, beseeched the bishops to come to Conrad’s aid, and went on to describe in some detail, the depraved rituals of such cults.
The devil at the center of it all was a shadowy figure, half man and half cat.
From the mists of antiquity, the cat was worshiped as some kind of deity. The Vox reshaped the European view to where cats were now seen, as agents of hell. The French theologian Alain de Lille piled on, falsely claiming the Cathar sect took its name from the animal and not the real source, the Greek katharoi or ‘pious ones’.
The effect was as a commandment. “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live“.
The orgy of cruelty which followed, makes for some tough reading. Cats were hurled from high cathedrals and set on fire, ritually tortured or summarily stomped or clubbed, to death.
In Denmark, the festival of Fastelavn held at the start of Lent, held that Spring would not come until evil, was banished from the land. Black cats were ritually beaten to death, to purge evil spirits. Cat killing became a folk practice all over Europe. During the festival of cats or Kattenstoet held in the Belgian city of Ypres, the custom was to hurl cats from the belfry of local churches, before setting them on fire. The hideous practice carried on until 1817 with live cats and continues to this day, only now, they’re stuffed.
So it is that nature’s most efficient hunter of rodents was all but exterminated from the land, paving the way for the rat-borne apocalypse, to come.
One-third of the world’s population died in the rat-borne plague of 1347-’52. It’s as if over two billion were to sicken and die, today.
Feature image, top of page: Hat tip historythings.com
A Trivial Matter
The term ‘Black Death’ was not adopted until some time later. For years, the plague was known as “the Pestilence” or simply “the Great Mortality”.
The Presidential election of 1884 was as close as any in history and Republicans made hay with the Halpin scandal. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa”?
Born this day in 1837, Stephen G. “Big Steve” Cleveland was 33 the day he left his practice of law to become Sheriff of Erie County, in western New York.
As Sheriff, Cleveland was responsible for carrying out the sentence of death, either with his own hands, or by that of a deputy. For this, the hangman was paid a fee of ten dollars.
Sheriff Cleveland took care of this job himself, personally releasing the trap door on September 6, 1872 and hanging one Patrick Morrissey, who’d been convicted of stabbing his mother to death in a drunken rage. He executed another convicted murderer six months later, hanging John Gaffeny on February 14, 1873.
The fees for these and other services were surprisingly lucrative, amounting to $40,000 over a two year term, equivalent to $836,556, today.
A lifelong Democrat, Cleveland had a reputation for ‘shooting straight” at a time of rampant political corruption, by both parties.
Elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1871, Cleveland was called upon to approve a street cleaning contract awarded to the highest bidder. The difference between high and low bids came to the considerable sum of $100,000, a pot of money which could be expected to find its way back to the politicians who’d approved it.
This sort of graft had long been a feature of political life in New York, but not now. Mayor Cleveland vetoed the measure, describing the scheme “as the culmination of a most bare-faced, impudent, and shameless scheme to betray the interests of the people, and to worse than squander the public money“.
This reputation for honesty propelled Big Steve’s political career from the Mayoralty of Buffalo to the Governor’s mansion, in New York.
Talk about corruption. Five years earlier, one New York city alderman’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall machine fleeced New York taxpayers to the tune of $25 to $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as an astonishing $200 million, equivalent to a jaw-dropping $2.8 Billion, today. As Governor, Cleveland earned the ire of the city’s Tammany Hall machine, with eight vetoes in his first two months in office.
In 1884, the “Buffalo Hangman” found himself Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Boston Globe columnist and political commentator Jeff Jacoby notes that “Not since George Washington had a candidate for President been so renowned for his rectitude.”
Despite all that rectitude, the candidate was not without skeletons in his closet. One was a relationship with one Maria Crofts Halpin which produced a son, named Oscar Folsom Cleveland.
Halpin insisted to the end of her days, that she’d been raped. Big Steve claimed she was crazy and overly generous with her affections, accepting paternity only as a way of doing right by an old girlfriend. Cleveland did manage to get the woman involuntarily committed, for a time, and the boy taken away to be raised in anonymity, by his adoptive family.
The Presidential election of 1884 was as close as any in history and Republicans made hay with the Halpin scandal. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa“?
Despite all of it, Stephen Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by one quarter of one per cent, and an electoral college victory of 219-192, leading to the rejoinder “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha“.
Fun fact: The only former executioner ever elected President of the United States, Grover Cleveland is best remembered for being the only President to ever serve two non-consecutive terms. The 22nd and 24th President of the United States was also, something of a medical miracle.
President Grover Cleveland was inaugurated for the second time in the midst of a disastrous recession known as the Panic of 1893. The nation suffered vast unemployment, with hundreds of businesses closing down. The railroad industry was devastated. With Americans struggling everywhere, many looked to the new President to provide hope and a new direction.
Early in his second term, the President noticed a bumpy and rapidly growing patch, on the roof of his mouth. White House physician Dr. Robert Maitland O’Reilly took one look and pronounced: “It’s a bad looking tenant, and I would have it evicted immediately”.
The health of the famously rotund, cigar chomping President was already a matter of public concern. Cleveland feared a cancer diagnosis would set off a panic. The tumor would have to be removed and the whole procedure, kept secret.
The only answer to the prying eyes of the press was to do it on the move, and there could be no scar. President Cleveland announced a four-day vacation aboard a friend’s yacht, a cruise through Long Island Sound to Buzzard’s Bay and on to the President’s summer home, on Cape Cod.
A surgical team of six boarded the yacht in disguise. On July 1, 1893, the President was strapped into a chair and anesthetized, with ether. The tumor was removed in a ninety minute procedure, along with the entire left side of the upper jaw, and five teeth. For all that, there was no external incision. The President’s life was saved, the trademark mustache undisturbed.
The operation remained secret until 1917, nine years after the death of the former President. A medical miracle for the time, the President’s surgery is studied, to this day.
A Trivial Matter
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to call the official residence, the “White House.” Prior to that, the building was called the Executive Mansion or the President’s House.
“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”. – GAO report, 1994
The father-daughter pair had just finished a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. The two took ill two hours before sunset. A passing doctor and nurse found the couple on a park bench.
Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”
Though Vladimir Putin’s Russia vehemently denies the charge, the incident has been classified as an attempted assassination carried out against the former spy and his daughter, using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.
The terrifying history of “Nerve “Agents” began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides. Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms, the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed, days later.
Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.
Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un. in 2017.
Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest follows within minutes.
British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate compounds in the 1950s, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon taken off the market, as it was too dangerous for safe use. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.
The American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war in 1961. The Russian military developed an analog of VX called VR in 1963, later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.
The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical compounds.
A 1994 GAO (US General Accounting Office) reports:
“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.
On this day in 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep. The animals had been grazing in the Skull Valley area, some 27 miles from the proving ground.
The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”
Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident. Total sheep deaths were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized. With even the suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatever, either for their meat, or for wool.
A report which remained classified for thirty years, blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.
Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding. President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.
Today, few nations possess stockpiles of nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it. The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation, should any nation so attacked, posses the capability. So it is the nations of the world hold the proverbial wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on, and unable to let go.
Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown. Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station. Three surgical staff. All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.
Paktika Province is a wild and lawless region in the east of Afghanistan, a border crossroads with the west of Pakistan and home to a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda units. An article from Time magazine describes the U.S. base:
“The U.S. firebase looks like a Wild West cavalry fort, ringed with coils of razor wire. A U.S. flag ripples above the 3-ft.-thick mud walls, and in the watchtower a guard scans the expanse of forested ridges, rising to 9,000 ft., that mark the border. When there’s trouble, it usually comes from that direction.”
The morning of Thursday, March 16, 2006 dawned bright and clear, as a force rode out from the 10th Mountain Division. Their mission was to seek out a remote mountain village, and meet with village elders. They were twenty-four American soldiers in five Humvees and a handful of Afghan National troops, riding a pickup truck.
Paktika is a trackless wilderness of ragged hillsides and wadis, seasonal riverbeds flowing southwest from the mountains of Sar Hawza, to the north. The land appears custom made for an ambush, with dangerous high spots in nearly every direction.
Gunfire broke out from above, some four hours into the mission. First small arms, then came the rocket-propelled grenades. One gunner, twenty-three-year-old Private Channing Moss, remembered it sounded like rattling spoons.
RPGs were soon raining down. The pickup exploded, killing two Afghan soldiers. The rest scrambled to get out of the “kill zone”, as three rocket propelled grenades struck Private Moss’ Humvee. Staff Sergeant Eric Wynn, 33, felt one slice through his face. Channing Moss, standing with his upper body out of the Humvee, felt something and smelled smoke. He looked down to see it was himself. He was smoking.
A rocket propelled grenade is exactly what it sounds like, a weapon roughly the size of a baseball bat, propelled at the speed of a bullet. Standing as he was, Channing Moss had taken one of these things in the hip, leaving nothing but the fins, sticking out of his body. The weapon inside of him was capable of turning everyone in the vehicle into a “pink mist”.
What happened next, is beyond belief. When every human instinct says “get the hell away from that thing”, Moss had a whole team by his side, throughout the ordeal. Company medic Spc. Jared Angell, 23, working to stabilize that thing for transportation. Lieutenant Billy Mariani came over once the fighting had died down: “I grabbed his hand and I just said, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re gonna get you out of here.'” Badly wounded himself, Wynn held his own face together while reporting casualties over the radio, and holding Moss’ hand.
The MEDEVAC crew arrived escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, they knew what they were dealing with. Army regulations say it’s too dangerous to carry such a human bomb. It could take out every man on the chopper and blow the bird out of the sky: four MEDEVAC crew members, and three wounded soldiers.
Pilot CW2 Jorge Correa spoke with his team: “I asked my crew, you know, ‘Are you guys comfortable with this? Because I wasn’t gonna put my crew in jeopardy if they weren’t comfortable with it.” Co-pilot Jeremy Smith recalled the moment: “We all said, ‘Yeah, let’s get him on board and let’s get outta here.'”
It was the same thing, back at the aid station. Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown. Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station. Three surgical staff. All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.
Channing Moss was well beyond the “golden hour” with expectations of survival, growing dim. The man’s heart actually stopped and the surgeons administered epinephrine, knowing that physical heart massage could detonate the ordnance still inside the man’s body.
Private Moss survived, despite massive injury to his body. There were four more surgeries back at Walter Reed and an endless hell of physical therapy as the man progressed from bed to wheel chair to crutches, to a cane. Moss had a Purple Heart coming and then some and refused to receive it, until he could stand on his own two legs and walk to receive his medal, himself.
Explosives expert Dan Brown spoke for the whole team, I think, in explaining what they had done: “He was American, he was a solider, he was a brother and he was one of us. And there was nothing gonna stop us from doing what we knew what we had to do … We knew we did right. In that screwed up world we did something right.”
A Trivial Matter
While rare, unexploded ordnance has been lodged inside living human bodies on no fewer than thirty six occasions between WW2 and the modern era, requiring surgical removal. All but four, survived.
The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground. Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.
The great rebellion effectively came to an end in October 1781 with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though no one knew it at that time. Eight years after the “shot heard round the world“, the American Revolution had slowed to a standoff.
King George III remained personally in favor of prosecuting the war even after the Patriot victory at Yorktown, while opinion in Parliament, was split. Across the water, some 26,000 British troops remained in occupation in Charleston, Savannah and New York, backed up be a mighty fleet.
The Americans’ greatest ally departed in 1782, never to return. With state finances already prostrate with debt, l’Ancien régime (French: “the old order”) would be overthrown by its own revolution inside the next ten years, the French King Louis XVI and Queen Consort Marie Antoinette executed, by guillotine.
Negotiations carried on for nearly three years in Paris while, an hour’s drive north by modern highway from the British occupation of New York, the Continental Army waited at Newburgh.
France wasn’t the only one, ruined by this war. The American Revolution debilitated the finances of all three principle belligerents, none more so than the new-born American Republic, itself. In fact, the fledgling United States nearly died on this day in 1783, by the very hands which had given them birth.
The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in March 1781, provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. In theory, Congress possessed the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency. In practice, these powers were limited to a national body with no authority to enforce its will on the states.
In 1780, Congress promised Continental officers a lifetime pension, equal to half-pay upon discharge. The government in Philadelphia attempted to amend the Articles, to allow a new import duty or “impost”. States were divided against the measure. Two years later, the cupboard was bare. Continental soldiers weren’t being paid at all.
It wasn’t even possible to borrow. That required evidence, of an income stream.
The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground. Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it. At the outset of war, these guys left homes and fields and families, to risk their lives on behalf of the dream of Liberty. Many among their number, had given all in service to that dream.
There was little to do during those long winter months of 1782-’83, but wait. Each with his own financial hardship waiting at home, every man worried that his promised compensation, would not come. The rumor mill worked overtime: The Army would be disbanded. The promised pensions would remain, unfunded.
The vague unease of rumor turned to a fury of near certainty through the late winter months, as one overture after another met with defeat, in Congress. On March 10, an unsigned letter believed to have been written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, urged unspecified action against the Continental Congress. Another called for a meeting on the morning of March 11. Events were building toward armed insurrection. A coup d’état.
General George Washington reacted quickly, objecting in his General Orders of March 11 to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of such a meeting. Washington specified the morning of March 15 for an officer’s meeting and requested a report, implying that he himself, would not be present.
The mood was one of surprise and anger when the Commander-in-Chief himself walked into the room, hard men pushed past the point of patience, and now determined to take action. The General urged patience in a brief and impassioned speech remembered as the Newburgh address.
Washington’s words may as well have fallen on deaf ears. There was little of the usual deference, in this room.
The future President of the United States then produced a letter from a member of Congress, to read to his officers. The content is unimportant. George Washington gazed on the letter in his hands without speaking and, fumbling in his pocket, came up with a pair of reading glasses. These were new. Few men in the room even knew the man required glasses.
Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.
The words were as a physical blow, on the men assembled in that room. Obstinate and unheeding mere moments before, the realization dawned on all at once. This man had been at their head and by their sides. Washington had personally endured every bit of the hardship, as these men bent on mutiny.
There was hardly a dry eye in the place. The moment was broken for all time. Bent on mutiny a mere moment before, the cream of the continental army now determined, to wait. This Republic to which we owe so much may have died before it was born, two hundred thirty-six years ago on this day. All but for one magnificent man with an actor’s sense of timing. And a new pair of spectacles.
A Trivial Matter
At age twenty-six, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children: Jacky and Patsy. The Father of the Nation never had any children of his own. At 6 feet, 3½ inches and 200-pounds, George Washington towered above his fellow Continental soldier, with an average height of 5-feet, 8-inches in height.
Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever. Something had to be done. One answer, was concrete.
The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion.
The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.
From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.
The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.
1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping. Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats. Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever. Something had to be done. One answer, was concrete.
The idea of concrete boats was nothing new. In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.
By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud. Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.
Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s. British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century. The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.
The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.
The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917. The test was judged a success. President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort. The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.
The New York Times was ecstatic:
‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.
All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.
The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun. None were completed. All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.
For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks. Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements. We’ve all see that on bridge abutments. Worst of all, the stuff is brittle. On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.
SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.
SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good. That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.
The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane. All the liquor, was lost.
The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.
In 1942, the world once again descended into war. With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships. The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet. This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war. Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.
In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius. It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California. A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.
Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:
“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”
1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944. The majority of those, in the North Atlantic. The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool. Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”
Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.
On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels. Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots. These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete. There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war. Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.
Their services would not be required. The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.
These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”. Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast. Utah. Omaha. Gold. Juneau. Sword.
Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion. None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.
A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.
Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”
The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War captured at Cold Harbor and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout, Maryland to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.
Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was delayed while guards located missing prisoners. Then there was the wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.
Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags. His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure of it. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.
Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City. Kent gave the All Clear at 2:45, the main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.
Only four miles of track stood between the two speeding locomotives.
The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility. Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck:
“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken.” The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. [Witnesses] saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”
Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”
51 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners escaped in the confusion.
Captured at Spotsylvania in early 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry private James Tyner was incarcerated at the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.
William was badly injured in the wreck, and survived only long enough to avoid being buried in a mass grave, in Shohola. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.
I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time. James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers, farmers who laid down their tools and went to war for their home state of North Carolina, in 1861.
We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.
A Trivial Matter
There were more Northern-born Confederate generals in the Civil War, than Southern-born Union generals. The last government to formally repeal ordinances of secession and rejoin the Union was the Village of Town Line, New York. In 1945.