January 31, 1945  The Execution of Private Slovik

“I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”

When he was little, his neighbors must have considered him a bad kid.  His first arrest came at the age of 12, when he and some friends were caught stealing brass from a foundry.  There were other episodes between 1932 and ’37: petty theft, breaking & entering, and disturbing the peace.  In 1939 he was sent to prison, for stealing a car.

slovik-weddingEdward Donald “Eddie” Slovik was paroled in 1942, his criminal record making him 4F.  “Registrant not acceptable for military service”.  He took a job at the Montella Plumbing and Heating company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he met bookkeeper Antoinette Wisniewski, the woman who would later become his wife.

There they might have ridden out WWII, but the war was consuming manpower at a rate unprecedented in history.  Shortly after the couple’s first anniversary, Slovik was re-classified 1A, fit for service, and drafted into the Army.  Arriving in France on August 20, 1944, he was part of a 12-man replacement detachment, assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, US 28th Infantry Division.

Slovik and a buddy from basic training, Private John Tankey, became separated from their detachment during an artillery attack, and spent the next six weeks with Canadian MPs.  It was around this time that Private Slovik decided he “wasn’t cut out for combat”.

The rapid movement of the army during this period caused many replacements difficulty in finding their units.  Edward Slovik and John Tankey finally caught up with the 109th on October 7.  The following day, Slovik asked his company commander Captain Ralph Grotte for reassignment to a rear unit, saying he was “too scared” to be part of a rifle company.  Grotte refused, confirming that, were he to run away, such an act would constitute desertion.

That, he did.  Eddie Slovik deserted his unit on October 9, despite Private Tankey’s protestations that he should stay.  “My mind is made up”, he said.  Slovik walked several miles until he found an enlisted cook, to whom he presented the following note.

“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time slovik-noteof my desertion we were in Albuff [Elbeuf] in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”.

Slovik was repeatedly ordered to tear up the note and rejoin his unit, and there would be no consequences.  Each time, he refused.  The stockade didn’t scare him.  He’d been in prison before, and it was better than the front lines.  Beside that, he was already an ex-con.  A dishonorable discharge was hardly going to change anything, in a life he expected to be filled with manual labor.  Finally, instructed to write a second note on the back of the first acknowledging the legal consequences of his actions, Eddie Slovik was taken into custody.

1.7 million courts-martial were held during WWII, 1/3rd of all the criminal cases tried in the United States during the same period.  The death penalty was rarely imposed.  When it was, it was almost always in cases of rape or murder.

2,864 US Army personnel were tried for desertion between January 1942 and June 1948.  Courts-martial handed down death sentences to 49 of them, including Eddie Slovik.  Division commander Major General Norman Cota approved the sentence. “Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944,” he said, “I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it–if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose–I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.”

On December 9, Slovik wrote to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency.  Desertion was a systemic problem at this time.  Particularly after the surprise German offensive coming out of the frozen Ardennes Forest on December 16, an action that went into history as the Battle of the Bulge.  Eisenhower approved the execution order on December 23, believing it to be the only way to discourage further desertions.

slovik-movie-poster
Slovik movie poster

His uniform stripped of all insignia with an army blanket draped over his shoulders, Slovik was brought to the place of execution near the Vosges Mountains of France. “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army”, he said, “thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”

Army Chaplain Father Carl Patrick Cummings said, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me.” Slovik said, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon”. Those were his last words.  A soldier placed the black hood over his head.  The execution was carried out by firing squad.  It was 10:04am local time, January 31, 1945.

Edward Donald Slovik was buried in Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, his marker bearing a number instead of his name.  Antoinette Slovik received a telegram informing her that her husband had died in the European Theater of war, and a letter instructing her to return a $55 allotment check.  She would not learn about the execution for nine years.

eddie-slovik-graveIn 1987, President Ronald Reagan ordered the repatriation of Slovik’s remains.   He was re-interred at Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery next to Antoinette, who had gone to her final rest eight years earlier.

In all theaters of WWII, the United States military executed 102 of its own, almost always for the unprovoked rape and/or murder of civilians. From the Civil War to this day, Eddie Slovik’s death sentence remains the only one ever carried out for the crime of desertion. At least one member of the tribunal which condemned him to death, would come to see it as a miscarriage of justice.

Nick Gozik of Pittsburg passed away in 2015, at the age of 95.  He was there in 1945, a fellow soldier called to witness the execution.  “Justice or legal murder”, he said, “I don’t know, but I want you to know I think he was the bravest man in that courtyard that day…All I could see was a young soldier, blond-haired, walking as straight as a soldier ever walked.  I thought he was the bravest soldier I ever saw.”

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January 30, 1948 Hear no Evil

The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century

The Analects of Confucius is a written record of the sayings of the philosopher and his contemporaries, compiled between 475 and 221BC.  In it, a follower named Yen Yüan asked the Master about perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him”.

analectsofconfuciuspic“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked Yen Yüan.  The Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety.  Listen not to what is contrary to propriety.  Speak not what is contrary to propriety.  Make no movement which is contrary to propriety”.

The idea was not new. Zarathrusta, also known as Zoroaster, is in some respects the father of the world’s first monotheistic religion. It was sometime around 1200BC when Zoroaster taught his followers on the high Iranian Plateau “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta”, or “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.

The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.

In medieval Japanese, mi-zaru, kika-zaru, and iwa-zaru translate as “don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak”, -zaru being an archaic negative verb conjugation and pronounced similarly to “saru”, the word for monkey.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The visual play on words, then, depicts Mizaru, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, covering his ears, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth. Though it’s rare to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey. Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, the name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.

The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century.toshogu

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from gandhithe Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”.  He is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Gandhi lived a life of poverty and simplicity, owning almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles, and a carved set of 3 monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

 

January 20, 1829 An Ass for a Lion

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world”

The Declaration of Independence, the birth certificate of the nation, begins with this preamble: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”.

The next paragraph leads with the phrase most commonly cited: “We hold these truths todeclaration-of-independence be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The paragraph ends with a personal indictment of one man, followed by a 27 item bill of particulars against him. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world”.

The overall tenor of the document is a personal indictment of one man, George III, King of England. The word “He” appears in the document 19 times, “tyrant” is used twice and “ruler” only once, as in: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people”.

Thomas Paine wrote of George III in “Common Sense”, the pamphlet which inspired a people to rise up in the summer of 1776: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.

To be sure, the King had little or nothing to do with the policies which brought the two countries to war. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend duties on tea, paper and other products in 1767; these came from Parliament, as did the “Coercive Acts” of 1774, referred to by the Patriots of Massachusetts and others as “The Intolerable Acts”.

These policies were a result of the financial burdens of garrisoning and administering the huge territories of the American colonies, the never ending wars with France and Spain, and the loans given to the East India Company, which was then responsible for administering India.

The third King of the House of Hanover was himself a creature of Parliament, his lineage having been invited to rule over Great Britain in 1714, after the fall of the House of Stuart. What Parliament gives, Parliament may take away. Yet today, George III is remembered for two things; losing the American colonies, and for losing his mind.

He is the longest reigning of any English King, ruling from 1760 until his death on January 29, 1820. Medical historians have long said that George III suffered from a genetic blood disorder called Porphyria, a term from the Greek meaning “purple pigment”. This refers to a blue discoloration in the urine of those suffering from the condition, along with symptoms primarily involving the central nervous system, and accompanied by severe abdominal pain, vomiting and mental disturbances.

The illness seems to have afflicted George III alone however, casting doubt on an hereditary condition. George III’s medical records cast further doubt on the porphyria diagnosis, showing that he was prescribed medicine based on gentian, a plant with deep blue flowers which may turn the urine blue. He seems to have been afflicted with some kind of mental illness, suffering bouts which occurred with increasing severity and longevity. At times the King of England would talk until he foamed at the mouth or go into convulsions where pages had to sit on him to keep him from injuring himself.

An ongoing research project at St George’s, University of London, has looked at thousands of King George III’s handwritten letters, and concluded that the King suffered from mental illness. His writing was erratic at times coinciding with his “spells”, with run-on sentences of 400 words or more and as many as 8 verbs with no punctuation. These are features of the writing and speech of patients as they experience the manic phase of bipolar disorder. This manic phase stands at one end of a spectrum of mood disorders, with an overwhelming sadness or depression at the other. Research is ongoing, but these types of mood swings are consistent with contemporary witnesses to George’s behavior, as well as the written record.

The last ten years of George’s reign were spent in complete seclusion, mentally unfit to rule.  His eldest son, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, acted as Prince Regent from 1811 on.

There is an historic lesson in this story. If the country ruled by a King (or Queen) wins the lottery and gets a good and fair monarch, then that country can experience a period of peace and prosperity. If that country draws the cosmic short straw and gets a bad one, the results can be catastrophic. In the end, it’s the most powerful argument I can think of for a governmental system of diffuse power with checks and balances.

January 28, 1942 The Mighty Eighth

“Consider yourself dead. Some of you won’t come back from this. Some of you will, but you’ll be the lucky ones.” – Briefing officer, 97th BG, 15th AAF, Foggia Italy, to B-17 Navigator Lt. Mike Scorcio and crew before a mission to Germany

Under the terms of the tripartite pact with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany mighty-eighth-crewmanwas obliged to render aid in the event that either ally was attacked. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima came to  Joachim von Ribbentrop, looking for  a commitment of support from the German Foreign Minister.

Ribbentrop balked. Germany was under no obligation to intervene with their ally having been the aggressor.  Adolf Hitler thought otherwise. He couldn’t stand Roosevelt, and thought it was just a matter of time  before the two countries were at war. He might as well beat the American President to the punch.

It was 9:30am Washington time on December 11, when German Chargé d’Affaires Hans Thomsen handed the note to American Secretary of State Cordell Hull. For the second time in the diplomatic history of the United States and Germany, the two nations were in a state of war.

8thaf-shoulder-patch48 days later, at Hunter Field in Savannah, the Eighth Bomber Command was activated as part of the United States Army Air Forces. It was January 28, 1942.

The 8th was intended to support operation “Super Gymnast”, the invasion of what was then French North Africa.  Super Gymnast was canceled in April.  By May, the 8th Bomber Command had moved its headquarters to a former girls’ school in High Wycombe, England, from where it conducted the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

thndbrdRe-designated the Eighth Air Force on February 22, 1944, at its peak the “Mighty Eighth” could dispatch over 2,000 four engine bombers and more than 1,000 fighters on a single mission. 350,000 people served in the 8th AF during the war in Europe, with 200,000 at its peak in 1944.

By 1945, the Wehrmacht had a new joke to tell itself:  “When we see a silver plane, it’s American. A black plane, it’s British. When we see no plane, it’s German”. American aviation paid a heavy price for it.

Half of the US Army Air Force casualties in World War II were suffered by the 8th, over 47,000 casualties, with more than 26,000 killed. By war’s end, 8th Air Force personnel were awarded 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. There were 261 fighter aces in the 8th, 31 of them with 15 or more kills apiece. Another 305 gunners were also recognized as aces.the-mighty-eighth-banner

After victory in Europe, 8th AF Headquarters was reassigned to Sakugawa (Kadena Airfield), Okinawa, under the command of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle.  Tasked with organizing and training new bomber groups for the planned invasion of Japan, the 8th received its first B-29 Superfortress on August 8.  Seven days later, the war in the pacific had come to an end..

b-52h_static_display_arms_06

With the onset of the jet age, the 8th Air Force moved to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts on June 13, 1955, the second of three Numbered Air Forces of the newly constituted Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Since then, the Mighty 8th has been called on to perform combat missions from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, flying out of its current headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

mightyeightmuseum

If you’re ever in Savannah, do yourself a favor and pay a visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force (http://www.mightyeighth.org/). Not only will you experience an incredible story well told, but you will meet some 90+ year old veterans who walk as straight and tall today as they did, 75 years ago. Happy Birthday, Mighty Eighth.

 

January 27, 1945  The Great Raid

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.

bataan1942 was a bad year for the allied war in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for 10,000 to 25,000.

20,000 of them died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.  2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, which were nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor where prisoners waited to die.  A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

pows-cabanatuan
Cabanatuan Prisoners

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

On December 14, units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and burned them alive, machine gunning any who tried to escape the flames.   The atrocity sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

alamoscoutsraidoncabanatuan
Alamo Scouts, After Raid

On the evening of January 27, 1945, 14 individuals separated into two teams, beginning the 30 mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan. They were an advance team, formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the Alamo Scouts. The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, who served as guides and helped in the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.  Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison and as many as 7,000 deployed just a few miles away.

p61-black-widow
Northrup P-61 Black Widow

On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out into the open.  They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.cabanatuan-prison-camp

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers and two prisoners were killed, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  464 American military personnel were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

cabanatuan-rescued
Rescued POWs from Cabanatuan

One POW was left behind, a British soldier named Edwin Rose.  Rose heard the firing and thought the Americans were there to stay, so he went back to sleep.  When he woke the next morning and realized he had “Cabanatuan all my own”, he shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, from virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
  • Captain John Dugan, Milton
  • 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
  • Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
  • Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
  • Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
  • Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
  • USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
  • USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin,Danvers
  • USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham

I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.  These guys have earned the right to be remembered.

January 26, 1945 Audie Murphy

These days, you hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Murphy’s Day, they called it “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”. Murphy would spend a 21-year post-war career in Hollywood and, until his death in a plane crash in 1971, his post-war life was never free of it

Audie Leon Murphy attempted to enlist in the Armed Services after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Marine Corps, Navy and the Army all turned him down for being underweight and under age. After a change in diet to “fatten” up, Murphy appeared at a Dallas recruiting station on June 30, 1942 with a sworn affidavit from his sister, inflating his age by a year. It was 10 days past his 17th birthday when Murphy, all 5’5½” and 112 lbs of him, enlisted in the US Army.

Murphy’s company commander thought he was too small for infantry service, and attempted to transfer him to cook and bakers’ school. Murphy refused.  He wanted to become a combat soldier.

amphibious-landingJoining the 3rd Infantry Division of George S. Patton’s 7th Army, Murphy participated in amphibious landings in Sicily in July, fighting in nearly every aspect of the Italian campaign. From Palermo to Messina and on to Naples, Anzio and Rome, the Germans were driven out of the Italian peninsula in savage and near continuous fighting that killed a member of my own family.  By mid-December, the 3rd ID suffered 683 dead, 170 missing, and 2,412 wounded. Now Sergeant Murphy was there for most of it, excepting two periods when he was down with malaria.

Two months after the “Overlord” landings in the north of France, elements of the 7th Army landed in southern France in an operation called “Dragoon”. By mid-September, only three of Company B’s original roster remained, the rest either killed or removed due to wounds or illness. It was around this time when Murphy received his first Purple Heart.  A mortar blast resulted in a heel wound that wasn’t very serious, but a far more dangerous hip wound followed from a sniper in December. He repaid it with a bullet between the German’s eyes.

Murphy was still in the hospital when his unit moved into the Vosges Mountains. The colmar_pocket“Colmar Pocket” was an 850 square mile area held by German troops: Murphy described it as “a huge and dangerous bridgehead thrusting west of the Rhine like an iron fist. Fed with men and materiel from across the river, it is a constant threat to our right flank; and potentially it is a perfect springboard from which the enemy could start a powerful counterattack.”

Rejoining his unit in January, now Lieutenant Murphy became Company Commander, being the only officer remaining in the Company. Disease, wounds and casualties had reduced company B’s fighting strength by this time from an original 235 to 18.

What remained of the unit was awaiting reinforcements on January 26, 1945, as a combined force of German infantry and armor assembled itself outside of town. “I see the Germans lining up for an attack”, said Murphy. “Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen”.

audie_murphyLet Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation describe what happened next: “Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective”.

These days, you hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In Murphy’s Day, they called it “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”.  Murphy would spend a 21-year post-war career in audie-murphy-gravesiteHollywood and, until his death in a plane crash in 1971, his post-war life was never free of it.

Data from the National Vital Statistics System, a collaboration of the National Center for Health Statistics of the Department of Health and Human Services, reveals a suicide rate among veteran populations approximately twice that in comparable civilian populations.

I wonder about the term, “Disorder”.  That makes it sound like there’s something wrong with these guys.

When a soldier experiences an event, so traumatic that the very memory of it causes pain, I don’t understand how that can be characterized as a “disorder”. To me that seems like the properly functioning conscience of a good man, recoiling in horror at what he’s seen in service to his country.

I don’t know the answer to PTSD-related suicide, I don’t even know the right question.  It seems to me that the only “disorder” belongs to that fraction of a percent who remain unaffected by the horrors of war.

January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

Dr. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality rates among these populations could be expected to approach 100%

diphtheria
Corynebacterium diphtheriae

Diphtheria is highly contagious, with early symptoms resembling a cold or flu. Fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing. Later symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies, as proteins form a leathery, white “pseudo membrane” on the throat and nasal tissues.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a major killer of children.

Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease.  In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became illdiphtheria_vaccination_poster with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the white pseudo membrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the Lower 48, had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  It was enough for 30 patients. A million units were needed, but this was enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived in February.

serum-runThe 300,000 units shipped as far as they could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way by dog sled.

It was 9:00pm and −50°F on January 27, when “Wild Bill” Shannon and his nine dog team received the 20lb cylinder of serum. The temperature was −62°F when Shannon reached Minto at 3:00am, hypothermic, with parts of his face blackened by frostbite.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and

sepp-and-togo
Seppala & Togo

zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F. Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve year old “Togo” who was trusted with the lead. Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley” and across the unstable ice of Norton Sound, visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see the “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled. Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to his lead dog.

With Seppala’s 8 year old daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, stakes could not have been higher. Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the next handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

balto-of-nome
Balto & Team, in Nome

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 at night. At one point, hurricane force winds upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the dark with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

20 mushers and 150+ dogs had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks.  Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough serum for 30, the serum run had held the death toll at 5, 6 or 7, depending on which version you accept. Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died before completing the run, several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dogbalto-statue becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country after Rin Tin Tin. It was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53 mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead dog little more than a “freight dog”.

A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925 where it stands to this day, though he is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards). Togo lived another four years, though he was never again able to run. He spent his last years in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away on December 5 at the ripe old age of 16.togo

Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” Today, Togo is stuffed and mounted, standing watch in the Iditarod museum headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.