October 23, 1943 The Last Great Act of Defiance

You may take my freedom, she might have said. You may take my life but you will not take away, my free will.

Before the age of the internet, sight gags were copied and re-copied and passed around from hand to hand, much the same as we text each other amusing memes, today. One stands out after all these years, as worth remembering. A “Last Great Act of Defiance”, in the face of certain destruction.

I considered whether such an image trivialized the death of a human being, because that’s what this story is about. But no, silly as it is this cartoon works just fine, as a symbol. A symbol of a small woman, naked, defenseless and yet defiant, in the face of the Nazi death camp. A ballerina barely 100 pounds soaking wet by the look of her photographs and yet, a woman who, in her last moments of life managed to take one of the Nazi sons of bitches, with her.

Franceska Mann

They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Franceska Mann was born to dance. Any mother or father of such a child would smile at the thought of what she must have been like, growing up. By the time Franceska had come of age she had mastered classical and several forms of popular dance.

Mann studied dance at Irena Prusicka’s School of Gymnastics and Artistic Dance, one of three major studios, in pre-war Warsaw. She competed in 1939 in an international dance competition in Brussels placing fourth, out of 125 ballerinas. She was the pride of Poland considered by many to be the most beautiful and most talented, of her generation.

When the Nazi war machine invaded Poland in 1939, she was performing at the Melody Nightclub in Warsaw

For a time, Franceska’s physical features allowed her passage on the “Aryan” side of the city while up to 460,000 fellow Jews and not a few Romani people were rounded up in the “Residential District”, the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto and others like it were little more than waiting rooms, for the death camps. Even before ultimate deportation conditions, were grisly. The daily food ration for Jews in the ghetto was a scant 184 calories compared with 699 for Polish gentiles and 2,613, for Germans. Disease and starvation quickly set in to begin a process the waiting “showers”, were built to complete.

The human being is a funny critter. We’re capable of believing anything, we want to believe. For two years under these conditions, residents clung to the desperate hope that the “resettlement” promised by Nazi authorities, meant something better. By the end of 1942 it was clear nearly to all that the transports out of this place, meant only death.

Irena Sendler

Books have been written about the ghetto uprising and the desperate attempts of Irena Sendler and others, to save these people. Using her work as nurse for cover this “Angel of the Ghetto” would smuggle children out of that place with the help of a small dog trained to bark, at Nazi soldiers.

Irena would be ratted out and savagely tortured by the Gestapo but never did give up the names of countless children written on slips of paper and buried for safekeeping, in her garden.

Weapons’ and ammunition were smuggled through the sewers of Warsaw throughout much, of 1942. Nazi soldiers entered the ghetto on January 18, 1943 bent on yet another roundup. Some 600 were summarily shot and 5,000 removed from their homes when all hell broke loose from Jewish underground members, and resistance fighters.

Armed only with handguns and Molotov cocktails, resistance fighters kept the Nazis at bay for nearly four months but the end, was never in doubt. 2,000 Waffen-SS soldiers began the final assault on April 19 systematically burning or blowing up ghetto buildings, block by block. Some 56,065 people were murdered on the spot or rounded up, for extermination. Major resistance came to an end on April 28. The May 16 demolition of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw little more, than symbolic.

The “Jewish Residential District” of Warsaw, after the uprising.

Today, the Nożyk Synagogue is the only pre-war Jewish house of worship left standing, in the Polish capital. The building was used as a horse stable for the German Wehrmacht, during the war.

At this point, the Nazi government turned its attention to rooting out those left in hiding, outside the ghetto. Since 1941, Jewish and Polish diplomats worked with certain South American nations to send documents into the Warsaw ghetto. Such documents it was believed, may help Jews and others “prove” to be nationals of neutral nations and thus eligible, for safe transfer.

Passports both real and forged flooded into the region often, through the Hotel Polski. Many if not all such documents were intercepted by the Gestapo. With the help of Jewish collaborators, thousands left in hiding were lured to the Hotel Polski in hopes, of escape. Nations from Paraguay, Honduras and El Salvador to Peru and Chile beckoned, or so it was imagined. Genuine passports of Jews no longer alive sold on the black market for the equivalent, of up to a million 2021 dollars.

As many as 3,500 came out of hiding and moved to the Hotel Polski. The Polish Underground warned Jews it was probably a trap but we all believe what we want to believe, don’t we? Franceska Mann most likely received her own passport, in this manner.

Some 1,700 were rounded up at this place arriving on the trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau, on October 23. You can find a dozen or more versions of what happened next since it all comes out, of the death camp rumor mill. What is certain is that women were separated from men and made to disrobe for “delousing”. It was all prior to final deportation to Switzerland, they were told.

Fit, young and attractive as she was Franceska Mann drew the attention of two of her guards, Josef Schillinger and Wilhelm Emmerich. Using her considerable gifts she drew them in close and, with the speed of an athlete knocked Schillinger in the face with her shoe, drew the man’s gun and shot him twice in the belly. Emmerich was shot once, in the leg. Pandemonium broke out near the showers as hundreds of women in all states of dress and undress, turned on their tormenters. One SS man had his nose bitten off. Another was scalped by the desperate, angry mob.

This fanciful artist’s rendition is anything but accurate but, we get the picture.

Reinforcements arrived within moments. The gas was turned on killing those trapped, inside the chamber. Women in the changing area were machine gunned while those few caught outside were summarily, murdered.

On this day in 1943 it was all over, in minutes. Josef Schillinger died a painful death from those two gunshots. Emmerich recovered from his wounds.

Dark rumors may be found on the internet as to whether Mann herself was a Nazi collaborator. Witnesses who were there tell a different story, their stories recorded in transcripts, of the Nuremberg trials. The tales told by foreign professors born decades after the fact may be accepted or dismissed as you wish but one thing is left to contemplate. How would the chattering classes have behaved had they themselves lived in such a time, and such a place.

The Nazi extermination machine ground on for nearly two more years but one thing was certain. One terrified, desperate ballerina disarmed and about to die had rendered the beasts short, one of their own number.

October 20, 1977 That Other day, the Music Died

As for that so-called feud with Neil Young it never was anything more, than a good-natured brushback pitch. “I think “Sweet Home Alabama” is a great song” Young would later say, “I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself”.

If you’d like to start an argument, find yourself a pair of music enthusiasts and ask them, about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. And then sit back because I guarantee you, hours of entertainment.

If you’d permit me a gross oversimplification, the answer may be found in the collision of black and white culture of the 1940s and 50s, an amalgamation of style and instrumentation exceeding the sum of its parts and resulting in nothing short, of cultural revolution.

Religious leaders, government officials and parents’ groups decried the new style, as the “devils music. The FBI launched a year-long obscenity investigation directed at the Jamaican sailor’s ballad “Louie Louie”, as performed by an obscure Portland Oregon outfit, called the Kingsmen. The G-Men could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and asked lead singer Jack Ely about those lyrics, but that would have made sense. As it is, the FBI’s archival website contains no fewer than 119 pages, covering the investigation.

Witnesses were interviewed and Louie Louie played forward, backward and at varying speed. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Rock ‘n’ roll music, was here to stay.

Before the “British invasion“ of the 1960s, rock ‘n’ roll music remained largely a product, of the American south. Artists such as Bo Diddley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis all hailed, from the deep South.

Popular music changed in the 1960’s from the “Land of Cotton” to large cities like Liverpool, New York, London, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A generation of youth the world over “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” in the words of Timothy Leary while bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat and a Canadian folk rock group called The Band featuring Arkansas’s own Levon Helm preserved a Southern blues, boogie woogie and country music heritage which would come to be known, as Southern rock..

For a man tragically taken from among us at the age of 24, few have brought about the tectonic cultural shift of a man called “Skydog” by his friends, Howard Duane Allman, by the rest of us. As a session musician with established artists such as Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Derek and the Dominoes, Rolling Stone ranked Allman #2 guitar player of all time in 2003 second only, to Jimi Hendrix.

The Allman Brothers Band established in 1968 never played so much as a single gig before cutting their first album and yet, went on to become “the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years,” according to George Kimball of Rolling Stone. Following session work on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Eric Clapton himself described Allman as the “musical brother I’d never had but wished I did.”

On October 29, 1971, a motorcycle crash on the streets of Macon Georgia ended the life of Duane Allman. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley was himself killed in a motorcycle crash only three blocks from the spot, where Allman had perished. He too, was only 24.

“You can’t help the revolution, because there’s just evolution … Every time I’m in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace”

Duane Allman

Up to this point, the Allman Brothers’ sound may be described, as blues rock. The 1972 double album “Eat a Peach” turned the corner to a more “Southern Fried” sound led by guitarist Dickey Betts’ epic, “Blue Sky“. The band led the 1970’s Southern rock phenomenon with hits like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica“, both from the Brothers and Sisters album. Groups like Marshall Tucker, ZZ Top and Molly Hatchet rocketed to stardom during this period but none so much, as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In the insanity that was the summer of 2021, the Robert E. Lee High School of Jacksonville Florida was renamed, Riverside High. Back in 1969, five Lee High school buddies, were in a band. Ronnie Van Zant (guitar), Bob Burns (drums), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar) and Larry Junstrom (bass) went through several band names from ’64 on, including The Noble Five, The One Percent, and My Backyard. In 1969, the boys took a backhanded swipe at a flat-topped gym teacher who didn’t care for all that hair. Forby Leonard Skinner was his name, the band at first calling itself Leonard Skinnerd and later morphing into, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“It seems a physical education teacher named Leonard Skinner didn’t cotton to long hair or loud music. A run-in with him helped get the boys suspended. As a way of getting back, they named the band for Skinner, changing the vowels to avoid a lawsuit and becoming famous enough to make the story a rock legend.

Associated Press
Leonard Skinner, in later life

Skinner went on to sell real estate and even had his sign and phone number (for which he gave permission) included in the cover art for the band’s third album. Fans would call him up at all hours to ask “who’s speaking”? What followed was invariably “far out” at the response “Leonard Skinner”, but the retired PE teacher said such calls at 4:00am tended to be, anything but.

In 1972, songwriter, musician and record producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat and Tears saw the band on performance in Atlanta and signed them to his “Sounds of the South” label to produce their first album: “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd” featuring the hit song “free bird“ debuted in August 1973. The band never looked back.

An opening slot on the Who’s Quadrophenia tour of late 1973 cemented the band’s popularity proceeding to the follow-up album “Second Helping”, in 1974. Much was made at the time (and since), of the so-called “feud” between Neil Young and these sons of the south but that drama may be a wee bit, overblown. Everyone concerned describes themselves as fans of the other’s work. Neil Young later described his own lyrics in “Alabama” and “Southern Man” as overly accusatory. Ronnie van Zant said the man was shooting all the ducks when he only wanted to kill, one or two. The song “Sweet Home Alabama” they claimed, started out as a joke and was, after all, just a song.

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

Be that as it may, the song rocketed up the charts scoring Gold and/or Platinum certifications in Denmark, Italy, the US and the UK. Lynyrd Skynyrd was on the way to becoming one of the most popular Southern rock bands of all time, but such popularity does not come, without a cost.

There were brushes with the law and band defections much of it steeped, in drugs and alcohol. Allen Collins and Gary Rossington were involved in serious car crashes only hours apart over Labor Day weekend 1976, prompting Ronnie van Zant’s ominous warning in a song called, “That Smell”.

Angel of darkness is upon you
Stuck a needle in your arm (Ya fool you)
So take another toke have a blow for your nose
One more drink fool would drown you (Hell yeah)

Guitarist Ed King left the band in 1975. Looking to restore the signature three-guitar front-end Lynyrd Skynyrd, went looking for a replacement. Back up singer Cassie Gaines recommended her younger brother, Steve. Steve Gaines proved to be a prodigiously talented singer, songwriter and musician. The band was headed for greatness, in 1977. The Street Survivors tour brought the band to sold-out concerts throughput Europe and all the way to Asia and a first-ever appearance for a Southern rock band, in Japan. The same group who had once opened for the Who was now playing the same venues, as headliners.

With the release of the Street Survivors album on October 17, Lynyrd Skynyrd rebranded the next leg of the tour with the ominous name, “Tour of the Survivors“. The October 19 show in Greenville South Carolina followed a three day run through their native Florida and ended with a 20 minute rendition of the now famous rock anthem, “Free Bird“. A bright future lay in wait. A future, never meant to be.

26 people boarded the Convair CV-240 chartered from South Carolina on October 20, bound for Baton Rouge and the next concert, at LSU.

“Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars, Oak tree you’re in my way / There’s too much coke and too much smoke / Look what’s going on inside you / Ooooh that smell / Can’t you smell that smell … The smell of death surrounds you.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Realizing the aircraft was running out of fuel, the pilots attempted to reach the airport outside McComb, Mississippi. Visibly distressed and losing altitude, pilot  Walter McCreary instructed passengers, to strap in.  Gary Rossington describes a sound like baseball bats on the aircraft’s aluminum skin as tree branches began to strike  the fuselage.

Keyboard player Billy Powell, deeply lacerated with his nose all but torn from his face later described Van Zant being hurled from the plane, his head striking a tree as the aircraft, broke apart. Despite broken ribs, former United States Marine-turned drummer Artimus Pyle extricated himself from the wreckage and walked to a nearby home to notify the inhabitants.

Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed in the crash.  Everyone else on the aircraft, all 20 of them, were seriously injured.

This was to be the band’s last flight in this particular aircraft. Everyone agreed the Convair was well past its prime, unbefitting a band some have called, the best in the world. Pyle said the thing looked like it belonged to the Clampett family, referring to the Beverly hillbillies. Aerosmith had previously looked at the same aircraft and flight crew and rejected it for the 1977 American tour, despite objections from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.

Lynyrd Skynyrd went on hiatus for over a decade after the crash but eventually, reformed. The band remains on tour to this day including original member Gary Rossington and now featuring Van Zant’s brother Johnny, as a lead singer and lead guitarist.

I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.”

Neil Young in his 2012 book, “Alabama”

As for that so-called feud with Neil Young it never was anything more, than a good-natured brushback pitch. “I think “Sweet Home Alabama” is a great song” Young would later say, “I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself. My own song “Alabama” richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it today.” There were even plans to collaborate on Young’s upcoming song “Powderfinger” recorded on the 1979 “Rust never sleeps: album, but it wasn’t meant to be.

In later life, Leonard Skinner opened a bar in Jacksonville called “The Still” and his namesake rock group, played there. Skinner died in 2010 leaving a New York Times obituary to call him, “Arguably the most influential high school gym teacher in American popular culture“. Other music fads of the 1970s would come and go. Today, the Funk and Punk movements of the period make for good trivia questions. The disco craze is more of a punchline.

Ain’t nobody making fun of Sweet Home Alabama…

October 19, 1778 The Road to Independence

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress declared a break from Great Britain. The former colonies were to be a free and independent nation. That same day and an ocean away, a business was formed to aid in the pursuit. An enterprise formed between the French House of Bourbon, and Spain.

first_salute

The Rodrigue Hortalez Trading Company was a ruse, a fictitious outfit organized by the French playwright, politician and spy, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

In May of 1776, Beaumarchais obtained one million livres from France and the same amount from Spain, weeks before the committee of five put pen to paper, to compose the Declaration of Independence. In addition to all that money there were muskets, cannon, gunpowder, bombs, mortars, tents and enough clothing for 30,000 men, traveling from French ports to the “neutral” Netherlands Antilles island of St. Eustatius.

The delivery could not have been more timely. When General Washington took command on July 3, 1775 the Continental Army faced the most formidable military on the planet with enough powder for something like nine rounds per man.

Here’s a great trivia question for you…what foreign government first openly recognized the fledgling nation? It was little St. Eustatius who first acknowledged American Independence, firing the traditional “First Salute” on November 16 of that year, an overt recognition that an independent nation state in the form of the brig Andrew Doria, had entered its harbor.

Hortalez & Co. was one of four channels of Spanish aid. New Orleans Governor Luis de Unzaga began providing covert aid to the American rebels in 1776, expanding the following year under his successor, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez.  

It is he for whom Galveston Texas, bears that name.

saratoga-reenactment

Meanwhile, the Spanish port at Havana was opened to the Americans under Most Favored Nation status, and further Spanish aid flowed in from the Gardoqui family trading company in Bilbao whose Patriarch, Don Diego de Gardoqui, would become Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States. According to the Ambassador, the House of Gardoqui alone supplied the American patriots with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca wrote in March 1777, “the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit”.

The American Victory at Saratoga in October 1777 opened the door to more overt aid from the French, thanks largely to the tireless diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis du Lafayette. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.

The “Southern Strategy” of 1778-80 cost the British army and its Hessian allies more casualties from disease, than from Patriot bullets. About 1,200 Hessian soldiers were killed in combat over the course of the war. By contrast, 6,354 more died of disease and 5,500 deserted, later settling in the fledgling United States.

In February 1781, General Washington sent Lafayette south at the head of a handpicked force of 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops, and 1,200 French allies.  Washington himself lead an army he himself described as “not strong enough even to be beaten”.

5,500 French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island that summer, linking up with General Washington’s Patriot army. Meanwhile, Lafayette harassed and shadowed Cornwallis’ much larger force as it moved north through North Carolina and east toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Cornwallis was looking for a deep water port from which to link up with his ships. It was at this time that Lafayette received help from a slave named James, on the New Kent Armistead Farm. James pretended to serve Cornwallis in Yorktown while sending valuable military information to Lafayette and Washington, who was now moving south through New Jersey with Rochambeau. The man would later legally change his name to James Lafayette.

rochambeau-plaque
“To the generous help of your Nation and to the bravery of its troops must be attributed in a great degree to that independence for which we have fought, and which after a severe conflict of more than five years have been obtained”.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, was in Santo Domingo, meeting with the representative of Spain’s King Carlos III, Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis. De Grasse had planned to leave several warships in Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic, to protect the French merchant fleet. Saavedra promised assistance from the Spanish navy, enabling de Grasse to sail north with all of his warships. He needed those ships.  The crucial Naval battle of the Revolution took place on September 5 when de Grasse defeated the British fleet of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves cutting Cornwallis off, from the sea.

yorktown

French Admiral de Barras arrived from Newport a few days later, carrying vital siege equipment, while de Grasse himself carried 500,000 silver pesos from Havana to help with the payroll and siege costs at the final Battle of Yorktown.

If there was ever a “window of opportunity”, the siege of Yorktown was it. Fully ½ of Cornwallis’ troops were sick with Malaria during the siege, a disease to which the Americans had built some degree of immunity. Most of the French were newly arrived, and thus had yet to encounter the disease’ one-month gestation.

Now out of options, General Cornwallis surrendered on October 19, 1781, the day his relief force finally sailed out of New York Harbor.

Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential. Ben Franklin, John Jay and John Adams would negotiate through two more years and four British governments before it was done. The Treaty of Paris was at last signed on September 3, 1783. The American war for Independence, had come to an end.

October 12, 1994 Fort Mosé

Long before the famous “underground railroad”, the first such track pointed not north, but south, to St. Augustine.

From the earliest years of the “new world” period, every economy from Canada to Argentina was, to varying degrees, involved with slavery. Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the Americas in 1501, establishing the new world’s first international slave port in Santo Domingo, modern capital city of the Dominican Republic.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans entered the Americas through the sister ports of Veracruz, Mexico, and Portobelo, Panama, “products” of the “Asiento” system wherein the contractor (asientista) was awarded a monopoly in the slave trade to Spanish colonies in exchange for royalties, paid to the crown.

The first such contractor was a Genoese company which agreed to supply 1,000 slaves over an 8-year period, beginning in 1517. A German company entered into such a contract eight years later with a pledge of 4,000.

2_1_transatlantic_route

By 1590, as many as 1.1 million Africans had come through the port of Cartagena, Colombia, sorted and surnamed under the “casta de nación” classification system.

In the American colonies, 17th century attitudes toward race appear to have been more fluid than they would later become. The first black Africans, 19 of them, came to the Virginia Colony in 1619 not as slaves, but as indentured servants. Their passage, involuntary as it was, was paid for by a term of indenture, a sort of ‘temporary slavery’, usually lasting seven years.

John Punch ran away from his term of indenture along with two Europeans, in 1640. The trio was captured in Maryland and sentenced to extended terms of indenture. Alone among the three, Punch was punished with indenture for life, effectively making him the first African ‘slave’ in the American colonies.

Meanwhile, black Africans both enslaved and free had arrived in the north American colonies, for nearly a hundred years.

ex black conquistadors

Juan Garrido moved from the west coast of Africa to Lisbon, Portugal, possibly as a slave, or perhaps the son of an African King, sent for a Christian education. Be that as it may, Garrido came to the new world a free man in 1513, with Juan Ponce de León. A black Conquistador who spent thirty years with the conquest, “pacifying” indigenous peoples and searching for gold, and the mythical fountain of youth.

He was not alone. Other black Africans entered Spanish society as free men, and joining the conquest as soldiers. Some did so in exchange for freedom, some for land, official jobs, or public pensions.  Ponce was fatally injured by a native arrow in 1521.  Garrido went on to marry and settle in Mexico city, where he is credited with the first commercial cultivation of wheat, in the new world.

Twenty years before the “Lost” English colonists first landed at Roanoke, Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, in the Spanish colony of Florida. Aviles’ colonial expedition included many black Africans, both free men and slaves, who remained a part of St. Augustine society, from that time forward. The first recorded birth in the New World of an American child of African descent took place in 1606 according to St. Augustine Catholic parish records, a year before the English settlement, at Jamestown.

The Spanish government in Florida began to offer asylum to slaves from British colonies as early as 1687, when eight men, two women and a three year old nursing child arrived there, seeking refuge. It probably wasn’t as altruistic as it sounds, given the history. The primary interest seems to have been disrupting the English agricultural economy, to the north.

The Florida governor required only that such runaways convert to Catholicism, and then he put the men to work for wages.

In 1693, King Charles of Spain officially proclaimed that runaways would find freedom in Florida, provided they would convert to Catholicism and perform four years of service to the Crown. Spain had effectively created a maroon colony (from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning “fugitive, runaway”, literally “living on mountaintops”), forming a front-line defense against English attack, from the north.

Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (pronounced “Moh-say”), was a military fortification two miles north of St. Augustine, established by Colonial Governor Manuel de Montiano, in 1738. Spanish militia would place incoming freedom seekers into military service at the fort, under the leadership of an African Creole man known as Francisco Menendez.

Fort Mosé was the first legally sanctioned free black settlement, in what would become the United States.

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Long before the famous “underground railroad”, the first such track pointed not north, but south, to St. Augustine. Word of the settlement reached into Georgia and South Carolina to the north, attracting escaping slaves. It was probably the “final straw” that set off the unsuccessful 1739 slave insurrection known as the Stono Rebellion, in which several dozen runaway slaves attempted to reach Spanish Florida.

In the early phase of the War of Jenkins Ear, Fort Mosé was abandoned and occupied by General James Oglethorpe, colonial governor of Georgia, along with a force of British colonial rangers, Scottish Highlanders, enslaved black auxiliaries and native Creek and Uchise allies.

FortMose002-big-pic

The British garrison was caught by surprise in the pre-dawn hours of June 16, 1740 and all but annihilated, by a force of Spanish soldiers, free black militia and native Yamasee allies.  The coquina fortification was destroyed in the process, and would not be rebuilt until 1752.

In June of this year, Florida Living History, Inc. and the Fort Mosé Historical Society presented the latest in a series of re-enactments, celebrating the 277th anniversary of the “Bloody Battle of Fort Mosé “.  The site has seen several archaeological excavations in recent years, and is considered the “premier site on the Florida Black Heritage Trail.”  Fort Mosé was officially designated an Historic State Park on October 12, 1994.

1st-Saturday-malita
“1st Saturday militia”, H/T Fort Mosé Historical Society

October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, called the “Mayor of the Palace”. This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King. By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States. In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs. It was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

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Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue. For the third time in a half-century, a Pope had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what now remained of the Roman Empire, was in Constantinople. Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe. German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire from that day, to this.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy. The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor. Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as the founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

HRE 1500

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

October 1, 1918 Lawrence of Arabia

“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” TE Lawrence

In 1879, 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence arrived at Killua Castle in Tremadog, Wales, the estate of Sir Thomas Chapman and his wife, Edith.  Sarah had come to work as governess for their four daughters, but would soon become more than a mere employee.

The affair between the Victorian Aristocrat and the domestic servant produced a son, born in secret in 1885.  When the scandal was discovered, Chapman left his wife and moved his new mistress to England.  Edith never did grant a divorce, so the couple adopted Sarah’s last name and pretended to be, husband and wife.  The couple’s second of five children, Thomas Edward Lawrence, learned the true identity of his parents only after his father died, in 1919.

TE Lawrence

TE, as Lawrence preferred to be called, was reading books and newspapers by the age of four.  He first went to the Middle East as an archaeology student in 1909 walking 1,100 miles across Syria, Palestine, and parts of Turkey, surveying the castles of the Crusaders for his thesis. 

During this time he was shot at, robbed and severely beaten.  Despite all of it, TE Lawrence developed a love for the Middle East and its people which would last, the rest of his life.

In 1914, the British government sent Lawrence on an expedition across the Sinai Peninsula and Negev desert.  Ostensibly an archaeological expedition, this was in reality a secret military survey, of lands then controlled by the Ottoman Turks.

Lawrence joined the Army after the Great War broke out that August, taking a desk job as an intelligence officer, in Cairo.

You may picture the man as 6-foot 3-inch Peter O’Toole, especially if you’ve seen the film.  In reality, Lawrence stood only 5’5” a fact about which he was always, self conscious. 

Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia

It irritated him to have a safe desk job while millions were dying, on the front.  The guilt must have become overwhelming when two of his own brothers were killed in 1915.

The Ottoman Empire was in decline at this time, the “Sick Man of Europe”, though still one of the Great Powers.  The Hashemite Kingdom of the Arabs had long chafed under Ottoman rule, particularly following the “Young Turk” coup of 1908 when secular, Turkish nationalism replaced the formerly pan-Islamic unity of the Caliphate.

TE Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, of 1916 – 1918

Seeing his chance to break away and unify the Arab Lands and trusting in the honor of British officials who promised support, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs, saw his chance and launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, in 1916.

Despite zero military training, Lawrence took to the field at the outbreak of hostilities.

Lawrence and Feisal

Dressing himself in the flowing Arab Thawb, Lawrence joined the forces of Ali’s son, Feisal.

In theory, the Hejaz Railway could take you from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople to the Arab city of Medina, some 1,800 miles distant, without your feet ever touching the ground. In reality, the rail line was a ripe target for attackers. By his own count, TE Lawrence “scientifically” destroyed 79 bridges, a method of his own perfection by which bridges were destroyed but left standing, requiring Turkish workmen to dismantle the wreckage before repairs could begin.

Lawrence was captured in 1916, subjected to beatings, torture, and homosexual rape by the Governor of Daraa, Hajim Bey, a man he described as an “ardent pederast”.

Lawrence at Aqaba
Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917

Lawrence escaped, though shattered by the experience, joining the desert guerilla war against the Turk.  He would take personal risks he would not order on his followers, spying behind enemy lines, leading camel charges, blowing up trains and enduring the hardships of the desert.  Lawrence would suffer dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, in raids that tied up thousands of Ottoman troops and undermined their German ally.

By the summer of 1918, there was a price on his head.  One officer wrote “Though a price of £15,000 has been put on his head by the Turks, no Arab has, as yet, attempted to betray him. The Sharif of Mecca [King of the Hedjaz] has given him the status of one of his sons, and he is just the finely tempered steel that supports the whole structure of our influence in Arabia“.

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.

(T.E. Lawrence to artist Eric Kennington, May 1935 )
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Feisal party at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. H/T Wikimedia Commons

Two thousand years after the Apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Road to Damascus, “Lawrence of Arabia” entered the defeated city on October 1, 1918.  Like many, Lawrence saw Damascus as the future capital of a united Arab state.  He tried to convince his superiors that Arab independence was in their own best interest, but found himself undermined by the Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated in secret between French and British authorities with the backing of the Russian government back in May, 1916.

Lawrence_in_Arabia, 1919
Lawrence of Arabia, 1919

Lawrence was furious, believing what had been won by Arab arms, should remain in Arab hands.  Interrupting the praise of his own exploits at a war cabinet meeting, Lawrence snapped ‘Let’s get to business. You people don’t understand yet the hole you have put us all into.’  He refused a knighthood personally given him by King George V, thinking instead that he’d been summoned to discuss Arab borders.

In the end, the pan-Arab kingdom of the Hashemites was never meant to be.  The Middle East was carved into zones of English and French influence. Lawrence never did come to terms with the betrayal.

Today, Lawrence of Arabia is the subject of three major motion pictures, and at least 70 biographies.  A prolific writer himself, author  of countless letters and at least twelve major works, Lawrence seems to have disliked the fame which had come his way.  “To have news value”, he would say, “is to have a tin can tied to one’s tail”.  TE Lawrence would go on to serve under a series of assumed names, his latest being TE Shaw, a nod to his close friend, the Irish playwright and noted polemicist, George Bernard Shaw.

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The Brough Superior motorcycle, T. E. Lawrence’s eighth, was awaiting delivery when he died. It is at the Imperial War Museum.

An avid motorcyclist, Lawrence would ride 500-700 miles a day, once even racing a Sopwith Camel biplane.  He owned several Brough (rhymes with rough) motorcycles, the last a Brough Superior SS100.  This thing came with a certificate, guaranteeing that it would do 0-100 within ¼ mile.

There is a roadside memorial in Dorset, marking the spot where TE Lawrence went over the handlebars, trying to avoid two boys on bicycles.  He was forty-six.  Mourners at his funeral included Winston and Clementine Churchill, novelist EM Forster and his own brother Arnold, the last of the Lawrence sons left alive.

It’s been said that only he who rides the camel, understands the camel. It may be that only he who understands the camel, understands the desert. To the rest of us the desert is an inscrutable place, as is the mind, culture and history of the Middle East.  Few westerners would ever get to know this part of the world like TE Lawrence.

Lawrence taught us a bit about it, when he said “Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the free holding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression”.

September 30, 1946 Goobers

The British taxpayer still held a ration card a year after the war while his government owed a crushing 270% of the entire economy to its former colony, across the Atlantic. The answer to both problems became one of the greatest government boondoggles, of the colonial era.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft, the Prime minister began to speak. The piece of paper Neville Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to the east, had been sated.

The cataclysm of the War to end all Wars was as recent on September 30, 1938 as the horrors of 9/11 is, to our own time. Now, a world could breathe a little easier. It was “Peace in our Time”.

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Unlike the participants in this tale we know, how the story ends. World War 2 was all but foreordained. The world was an altogether different place on this day in 1946, a burned and broken thing struggling to emerge from the greatest catastrophe, in human history.

European GDP would triple between the end of the war and the turn of the century but, on September 30, 1946, a continent lay on its back.

At one point during the war, every major power on the European continent was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. The island nation of Great Britain stood alone against the onslaught, aided by heroic contributions by individuals from Poland to Jamaica and massive economic support, from the United States.

A study by the World Bank once reported, national debt exceeding 77% to have a deleterious effect, on a nation’s economy. For every percentage point over that number, the situation gets worse. On this day in 1946, Britain owed fully 270% of its GDP, to the US.

Still a colonial power in 1946, Great Britain looked to her assets overseas to help settle those debts and hit upon one of the great hare-brained ideas, of the modern era.

During the late 1940s the British government tried to create vast plantations in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) for growing groundnuts (peanuts).; (add.info.: East African Groundnuts Scheme. .

They would grow goobers, in Africa.

Goober peas, monkeynuts, groundnuts or ground peas. Whatever you call Arachis hypogaea, microfossil and starch grain analysis dates the peanut back some 8,500 years to the Zaña mountains, of Peru. The Incas used peanuts as sacrificial offerings as early as 1500BC and entombed them, with their dead.

Today, worldwide peanut consumption amounts to some 42,600,000 tons making goobers the most popular nut on the planet by a factor of ten compared with the next nine nuts, combined.

East Africa was a German colony in 1914 under the military command of one Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika. The Lion of Africa, a German patriot who detested the upstart führer so much he once told Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act. Only he wasn’t that polite.

Vorbeck returned to Deutschland a hero, the only German commander during all world war one, to be undefeated in the field. So it was that Britain took control of Tanganyika, as a League of Nations mandate.

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Which brings us back, to goobers. Peanuts and peanut butter were important parts of Armed Forces rations, during both world wars. Following WW2 the Labor party of Prime minister Clement Atlee faced what economist John Maynard Keynes called “financial Dunkirk”.

With the British population still on food rations in 1946, Frank Samuel, head of the United Africa Company, came up with a scheme to produce food and cooking oils, in Tanganyika.

Warnings of too much clay in the soil and too little rain fell on deaf ears as did 5,000 years of African experience, in farming their own soil. John Wakefield, former director of agriculture in Tanganyika led the delegation, that April. Three months work produced a favorable report. It didn’t hurt that the area contemplated was largely unpopulated solving the problems up front, of relocation.

There might be a reason nobody lived there but none of them noticed that.

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Some 3¼ million acres were designated for peanuts, an area the size, of Connecticut. European “Experts” soon discovered they had underestimated what the legendary British explorer Henry Morton called “an interminable jungle of thorn bushes…mile after mile of damn-all“. Former Labor politician Allen Wood wrote, “In patches the thickets of scrub are impenetrable. A rhinoceros can force a way through, a snake can wiggle through but no size or shape of animal in between, except a bulldozer“.

Early land clearing met with a maze of rubbery tree roots so thick as to defeat the efforts of all but bulldozers and even those broke down, within days. Towering baobab trees of a kind known to live 6,000 years and more were impervious, even to that. Even if you did knock one down you still had to deal with Volkswagen-sized hives, of African honey bees. Ever hear of “Killer bees”? Yeah. Those are what results when you “Africanize”, the North American variety.

With farm equipment in short supply in post-war Europe, Sherman tanks were retrofitted by the score at the Vickers corporation and converted to monstrosities known as “Shervicks”.

Even today you can ask someone, what animal kills more humans than any other, in Africa. It’s a great trivia question the answer to which, is the mosquito. Malaria, Dengue fever, sleeping sickness…entire textbooks have been written of mosquito borne diseases in this region to say nothing, of poisonous snakes.

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At the end of two years land clearing was 90 percent short, of projections. Peanut production was less than half of what was purchased as seed, in the first place.

And here’s where that clay comes in. During the dry season the soil becomes as hard as asphalt. Regular plows had a life expectancy of five hours in that stuff. With a miniscule percentage actually planted one worker claimed “Nothing but pneumatic drills and dynamite could get the nuts out“.

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Devices were attached to engines and operators were paid according to the time the engine was running. It wasn’t long before tractors were found running in ditches while their operators were off, drinking.

During the four year life of the Great Tanganyika Groundnut Boondoggle only one year brought enough rain, to sustain a peanut crop. Those groundnuts actually produced cost six times to grow, what they were worth. Making matters worse, many men abandoned family farms to the lure of high wages contributing to severe famines in 1947, 1949 and 1950.

A last ditch effort was made to save the whole trainwreck planting sunflowers, instead of goobers. At least those could be harvested above ground but even that failed, due to lack of rain. The plug was pulled after four years, about the time it took conservative politicians to quit hollering out “Groundnuts“! every time a Liberal rose up, to speak.

The whole boondoggle cost 36 million pounds equivalent to a Billion, today. Not a single British taxpayer ever received so much as an increase, in margarine rations.

September 27, 1822 The Rosetta Stone

Other bilingual and even trilingual inscriptions have since been found but this was the first time western scholars were able to peep through that small keyhole into one of the great civilizations, of antiquity.

In geologic time, the Holocene epoch refers roughly to the last 11,700 years, a time delineated by the retreat of massive formations which, together, constitute the last of eight glacial periods to occur over the last 740,000 years.

The north of Africa was once wetter than it is now, a vast, green savannah of grasses, lakes and trees with abundant herds of ungulates. The geologic record reflects some of the earliest attempts at agriculture and animal husbandry in this region sometime around the sixth millennium, BC.

The gradual end of this “African humid period” led great numbers of small nomadic and tribal cultures to settle in the fertile Nile River valley where predictable, seasonal flooding supported a cessation of hunter/gatherer sustenance and an increased reliance on the growing of food products and the raising of domesticated livestock.

This inevitably led to trade among and competition between the various tribes and the growth of some, often at the expense, of others. And then at last, there were two.

In the third century BC the Egyptian priest Manetho grouped a long succession of Kings over a period of thirty dynasties, beginning with the mythical King Menes. It is he who united what was then the two kingdoms of upper and lower Egypt.

This early dynastic period gave way to the first of three relatively stable periods in ancient Egypt, separated by long intermediate periods of chaos. These were the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Taken together ancient Egypt created a system of mathematics, the earliest known peace treaty and a lasting legacy of art, and literature. Innovations in quarrying and construction led to monumental temples, pyramids and statuary inspiring scientific and archeological investigation which lasts, to this day.

The Greco-Roman period initiated a 300-year political cross pollination with the new-comers of the era. It all came to an end in the age of Cleopatra, and Roman conquest. A system of writing some three thousand years old began to die out. These were the Heiratic cursive script most often drawn out with brush and ink on papyrus and the Hieroglyphic system comprising some 900 symbols representing words and sentences most often used for permanent inscription, on stone. Within three hundred years or so the old language, was dead. The scholar viewing the ancient texts throughout much of the first 2,000 years of the modern era, had no idea of what he was looking at.

Sometime around 196BC, a black stone slab believed to be about 4-feet 11-inches in length was inscribed with a royal decree in three languages on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. It was three renditions of the same text written out in Hieroglyphic, Greek and Demotic script, the ‘language of the people’ itself derived from the much older, Hieratic.

French Captain Pierre-François Bouchard discovered this first among a handful of bilingual Hieroglyphic scripts in 1799 during the Napoleonic invasion, of Egypt. It was near the ancient city of Rashid (Rosetta) from which the stele derives its name.

Rosetta stone superimposed on an artist’s conception of what the original, may have looked like.

The long work of translation began with that of Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy who first deciphered the 32 lines of Demotic script, in the middle.

The work was done with reference to the Coptic language derived from the ancient Egyptian tongue and fortified by reference to readily identifiable aspects of the ancient Greek text.

On this day in 1822 the French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced the successful translation, of the Rosetta Stone.

Today, large pieces of the original stele are broken away. Much of the original text is lost. Other bilingual and even trilingual inscriptions have since been found but this was the first time western scholars were able to peep through that small keyhole into one of the great civilizations, of antiquity.

Two centuries later the term “Rosetta Stone“ yet describes that first clue, which leads to new levels of human understanding.

September 26, 2021 Gold Star Mother

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, in honor of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. April 5 is set aside, as Gold Star Spouse’s Day. 

Suppose you were to stop 100 randomly selected individuals on the street, and ask them:  

Of all the conflicts in American military history, which single battle accounts for the greatest loss of life“.  

I suppose you’d get a few Gettysburgs in there, and maybe an Antietam or two.  The Battle of the Bulge would come up, for sure, and there’s bound to be a Tarawa or an Iwo Jima. Maybe a Normandy. 

I wonder how many would answer, Meuse-Argonne.

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The United States arrived late to the “War End all Wars”, entering the conflict in April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson asked permission of the Congress, for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany.  American troop levels “over there” remained small throughout 1917, as the formerly neutral nation of  fifty million ramped up to a war footing.

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US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

The trickle turned to a flood in 1918, as French ports were expanded to handle their numbers.  The American Merchant Marine was insufficient to handle the influx, and received help from French and British vessels.  By August, every one of what was then forty-eight states had sent armed forces, amounting to nearly 1½ million American troops in France.

After four years of unrelenting war, French and British manpower was staggered and the two economies, nearing collapse.  Tens of thousands of German troops were freed up and moving to the western front, following the chaos of the Russian Revolution.  The American Expeditionary Force was arriving none too soon.

Gun crew , 1918
“Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions. , 1918”, H/T Wikipedia

Following successful allied offensives at Amiens and Albert, Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to take overall command of the offensive, with the objective of cutting off the German 2nd Army. Some 400,000 troops were moved into the Verdun sector of northeastern France.  This was to be the largest operation of the AEF, of World War I. With a half-hour to go before midnight September 25, 2,700 guns opened up in a six hour bombardment, against German positions in the Argonne Forest, along the Meuse River.

Montfaucon American Monument, World War I, France
Butte de Montfaucon, today

Some 10,000 German troops were killed or incapacitated by mustard and phosgene gas attacks, and another 30,000 plus, taken prisoner.  The Allied offensive advanced six miles into enemy territory, but bogged down in the wild woodlands and stony mountainsides of the Argonne Forest.

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Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

The Allied drive broke down on German strong points like the hilltop monastery at Montfaucon and others, and fortified positions of the German “defense in depth”.

Pershing called off the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 30, as supplies and reinforcements backed up in what can only be termed the Mother of All Traffic Jams.

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Fighting was renewed four days later resulting in some of the most famous episodes of WW1, including the “Lost Battalion” of Major Charles White Whittlesey, and the single-handed capture of 132 prisoners, by Corporal (and later Sergeant) Alvin York.

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Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

The Meuse-Argonne offensive lasted forty-seven days, resulting in 26,277 American women gaining that most exclusive and unwanted of distinctions. That of becoming a Gold Star Mother.  More than any other battle, in American military history.  95,786 mothers would see their boys come home, mangled.

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Gold Star Mother’s Monument At The Putnam County (NY) Veteran Memorial Park, photograph by James Connor

George Vaughn Seibold was born in the nation’s capital, Washington DC,  At 23, Seibold volunteered when the US entered the war, in 1917. He requested a flying assignment and, as the US had no aerial force in the war at that time he was sent to Canada to be trained, on British aircraft.

George Vaughn Seibold

He was assigned to the 148th Aero Squadron of the British Royal Flying Corps and sent off for combat, in France. George sent a regular stream of letters back home to his family. George’s mother grace Darling Siebold would do community service visiting wounded servicemen, in hospital.

And then one day, the letters stopped.

The Siebold family inquired but, as aviators were under British control US authorities, could be of little assistance. Grace continued to visit the maimed from the war “over there” but now in the vain hope that George might somehow appear, among them.

It wasn’t meant to be.

On October 11, 1918, George’s wife in Chicago, Catharine (Benson) Siebold received a box, marked “Effects of deceased Officer 1st Lt. George Vaughn Seibold”. The family later learned that George was killed in action over Baupaume, France, August 26, 1918. His body was never recovered.

Grace believed that grief turned inward was corrosive, and self destructive. She continued to visit the wounded but now she founded a group of other mothers, who had lost sons in military service. The group not only gave comfort to these women but an opportunity to reach out, and help the wounded. They named the organization after the gold star families hung in their windows, in honor of their dead.

On May 28, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, that American women were asked to wear black bands on the left arm, with a gilt star for every family member who had given his life for the nation.

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, in honor of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. April 5 is set aside, as Gold Star Spouse’s Day. 

In recent years both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump have signed proclamations, setting this day aside as Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.

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At first a distinction reserved only for those mothers who had lost sons and daughters in WW1, (272 U.S. Army nurses died of disease in the great War) that now includes a long list of conflicts, fought over the last 100 years.  At this time the United States Army website reports  “The Army is dedicated to providing ongoing support to over 78,000 surviving Family members of fallen Soldiers”.

Gold Star Mother’s commemoration, Arlington National Cemetery, 2015

Seventy-eight thousand, out of a nation of nearly 330 million.  They are so few, who pick up this heaviest of tabs on behalf of the rest of us.

September 26, 1965 Rocky

At the end of his tour this special forces warrior intended to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to Vietnam to help the nation’s orphaned children.  He’d already received his acceptance letter. It wasn’t meant to be.

Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the first son of Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of The Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

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“Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace receives his 90-day combat infantry badge from his father, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace”. H/T http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net, for this image

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky”), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and Parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Armored Cavalry regiment in South Korea, then with the 3d US Infantry.  The “Old Guard”.

Versace attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

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In his spare time, this Green Beret, Army Ranger and Special Forces warrior would volunteer to work in the countless orphanages of South Vietnam.

By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his second tour.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.

Rocky intended to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to Vietnam to help the nation’s orphaned children.  He’d already received his acceptance letter.

It wasn’t meant to be.

On October 29, Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense force of South Vietnamese troops, to remove a Viet Cong command post in the Mekong Delta, when the unit was ambushed by an overwhelming force of  VC .

This was a daring mission in a dangerous place.  It was unusual for anyone to come forward for such a hazardous assignment, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”, but Rocky had volunteered.

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POW Rocky Vesace

Under siege and all but overwhelmed, himself suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived too late to effect the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For much of the next two years, 2’x3’x6’ bamboo “Tiger” cages would be their home.  On nights when the netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, that it looked like they were wearing socks.

Tiger cage
H/T United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) at Carlisle Barracks, photographer John Messeder, for this image.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.”

There in the East Wing of the White House, the line was met with great laughter.  In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them.  These people were not going to break his brother.

MOH_Versace

Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, after which he’d only try harder.

Fluent in French and Vietnamese as well as English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him senseless.

Incessant brutalization and repeated confinement in “isolation boxes” earned his tormentors nothing but an invitation to “Go to Hell”, in three languages.

Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear the man blow up their communist propaganda in their own language.

Finally, Captain Versace was separated from the rest of the prison population, and placed in an isolation box.  He responded by singing, the lyrics of popular songs replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  He was last heard belting out “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs.

Versace, playing ball

Rocky was murdered by his captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Versace’ remains were never recovered.  His name is inscribed on panel 1E, line 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The headstone bearing his name in memorial section MG-108 of Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.

If you’re ever in Alexandria, Virginia, pay a visit to the Mount Vernon Recreation Center. There in the central plaza, a sculpture by artist Antonio Tobias Mendez, depicts a Special Forces warrior.  With hands on their shoulders, he is coaching two Vietnamese kids, how to play ball.

This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort which culminated in a posthumous Silver Star.

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In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Let Rocky’s Medal of Honor citation, tell his story.

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Humbert Roque Versace Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special OperationsPlace:  Republic of VietnamEntered service at:  Norfolk, VirginiaBorn:  Honolulu, HawaiiCitation:For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortarautomatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versaces extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.

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