December 24, 1814 Shanghai’d

In the 1860s and 70s, one “ferocious old harridan” called “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. She’d maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door before serving them her “Miss Piggott Special” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with laudanum or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall, to the mattress waiting below.

In modern times, governments have employed various strategies to meet the personnel needs of national armed services. Recruiting methods range from voluntary to compulsory service, and even a lottery or other form of draft, in times of national emergency.

During the age of sail, vast numbers of skilled and unskilled seamen alike, were required to meet the needs of naval vessels at sea. Governments resorted to more straightforward methods of meeting manpower requirements, namely, kidnapping.

Such involuntary service or “impressment”, was first made legal during Elizabethan times, but the practice dates back to the 13th century.

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“Press gangs” would patrol waterfronts looking for vagrants, raiding taverns and even pouncing on unsuspecting victims in their beds. Prints from the time show armed gangs barging into weddings and hauling the groom away, much to the dismay of the bride.
Such “pressing” more often took place at sea, where armed gangs would board merchant ships and take what they needed, sometimes leaving victims without sufficient hands to take them safely back to port.

Such methods were essential to the strength of the British Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often targets. The British Navy impressed over 15,000 American sailors alone, between 1793 and 1812.

impressThe American public was outraged and there were calls for war in 1807, when HMS Leopard overtook the USS Chesapeake, kidnapping three American-born sailors and one British deserter, leaving another three dead and 18 wounded.

This time, American retaliation took the form of an embargo. Five years later, continued impressment of American seamen would be a major cause of the war of 1812, the conflict formally ending this day in 1814.

Crimping 1Outside of the British Royal Navy, the practice of kidnapping people to serve as shipboard labor was known as “crimping”. Low wages combined with the gold rushes of the 19th century left the waterfront painfully short of manpower, skilled and unskilled, alike. “Boarding Masters” had the job of putting together ship’s crews, and were paid for each recruit. There was strong incentive to produce as many able bodies, as possible. Unwilling men were “shanghaied” by means of trickery, intimidation or violence, most often rendered unconscious and delivered to waiting ships, for a fee.

Crimps made $9,500 or more per year in the 1890s, equivalent to over a quarter-million, today. The practice flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. You certainly didn’t want to be caught out alone and drunk, in east coast port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Baltimore.

James Kelly kept several bars and a boarding house, in San Francisco. Better-known as “Shanghai” Kelly, the man provided a steady stream of the unwilling to labor aboard the undermanned ships of the San Francisco waterfront.

He once shanghai’d 100 guys, in a single evening.

In the early 1870s, Kelly rented the paddleboat Goliath, and widely publicized a free booze cruise to celebrate his birthday. Bartenders drugged unwitting revelers with opium-laced whiskey, and then offloaded them to waiting ships. Shanghai Kelly’s biggest concern was returning after such a public event, with an empty boat. His luck held, when another paddle wheel steamer, the Yankee Blade, struck a rock and began to sink. Goliath rescued everyone on board, and continued the party. Nobody back at the waterfront, noticed a thing.

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James “Bunko” Kelley

Joseph “Bunko” Kelley was another infamous crimp, also working out of the San Francisco waterfront. The “King of Crimps”, Kelley once set a record, rounding up 50 guys in three hours. The Bunko name stuck, when Kelley delivered one crewman for $50, who turned out to be a cigar store Indian. In 1893, Kelley delivered 22 guys who’d mistakenly consumed embalming fluid, from a local mortuary. He sold all of them for $52 apiece though most of them were dead, a fact to which the ship’s captain only became wise, after returning to sea.

The “Shanghai tunnels” of Portland run through the Old Town/Chinatown section to the main business district, connecting the basements of hotels and taverns to the waterfront at the Willamette River. The tunnels themselves are real enough, though their history is shrouded in mystery. Originally constructed to move goods from the Willamette waterfront to basement storage areas, the number of unconscious bodies hustled down the dark chambers of the Portland Underground”, remains unknown. There are those who will tell you, the practice continued into the WW2 period.

State and federal legislatures passed measures to curb the practice after the Civil War, but crimping didn’t go away, easily. In their heyday, the owners of sailor’s boarding houses had endless supplies of manpower, fanning out across polling places to “vote early and often”.

crimping 2San Francisco political bosses William T. Higgins, (R) and Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley (D) were both notable crimps, and well positioned to look after their political interests. Notorious crimps such as Joseph “Frenchy” Franklin and George Lewis were elected to the California state legislature. There was no better spot, from which to ensure that no legislation would interfere with such a lucrative trade.

A brief list of infamous crimps includes Andy “Shanghai Canuck” Maloney of Vancouver, Anna Gomes of San Francisco, and New Bedford’s own “Shanghai Joe” and Tom Codd the “Shanghai Prince”. William “Billy” Gohl, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” of Aberdeen Washington, was also a serial killer.

In the 1860s and 70s, one “ferocious old harridan” called “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. She’d maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door before serving them her “Miss Piggott Special” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with laudanum or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall, to the mattress waiting below.

Crimping 5Imagine the hangover the next morning, to wake up and find you’re now at sea, bound for somewhere in the far east. Regulars knew about the trap door and avoided it at all costs, knowing that anyone going over there, was “fair game”.

Widespread adoption of steam power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did as much to curb shanghaiing as did any legislative effort. Without acres of canvas to furl and unfurl, the need for unskilled labor was greatly diminished. The “Seaman’s Act of 1915”, sometimes called the “magna carta of sailor’s rights,” ended the practice for good.

You might want to do yourself a favor, though, and look out for that trap door.

December 23, 1972 Miracle in the Andes

Warm and well-fed members of the media made a hysterical fuss in the days that followed, about the manner in which those last few had survived. There were lurid headlines and grisly images of cannibalism, while others treated the whole thing like it had been some kind of glorious adventure. It was neither.

On October 12, 1972, Uruguayan Air Force turboprop flight #571 departed from Carrasco International Airport. On board were 5 crew, and 40 members of the Old Christians Club rugby team from Montevideo, on the way to a match in Santiago, Chile. It’s a relatively short flight, equivalent to a trip from Boston to Chicago, with one major difference.

This flight has to get over the Andes Mountains.

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Poor mountain weather forced an overnight stop. The flight resumed on Friday the 13th, making its way through a mountain pass that afternoon. The pilot notified air controllers that he was over Curicó, Chile, but it was a fatal error. With zero visibility, he was forced to rely on dead reckoning, but strong headwinds had slowed them significantly. Cleared to descend 55 miles east of where he thought he was, the aircraft clipped two peaks at 13,800′, first losing one wing and then the vertical stabilizer, and finally the other wing.

The battered fuselage crashed down on an unnamed peak, later called “La Glaciar de las Lágrimas”, “Glacier of Tears”.

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12 died instantly or shortly after the crash, including the team doctor. By the next morning another five were gone. Several had their legs broken, as the plane’s seats tore loose and piled together. Those who could move built walls of suitcases to shut out the cold.

For a week they waited for rescue, while aircraft from three countries searched in vain for a white aircraft in snow covered mountains.

You can only imagine the despair they must have felt on the 8th day, when survivors heard on their small transistor radio that the search had been called off.

andes-crash-b-800Stranded and alone in the high Andes, meager supplies soon gave out. A few chocolate bars, assorted snacks and several bottles of wine. It was gone within days, as the survivors scoured the wreckage for crumbs. They ate leather from suitcases, tore apart seats hoping to find straw, finding nothing but inedible foam. Nothing grew at this altitude. There were no animals. There was nothing in that desolate place but metal, glass, ice and rock.  And the frozen bodies of the dead.

The conclusion was unavoidable.  One by one the survivors agreed. They had to eat their dead friends, or none of them would survive.

An avalanche swept down on October 29, killing another 8 and burying the fuselage under several feet of hard packed snow. The survivors were buried alive, compressed into a horrifyingly small space from which it took three full days to claw their way out.

The days were above freezing as what passes for summer spread over the Andean highlands, but nights were bitter cold. Several set out soon after the avalanche, but had to return to the crash site after nearly freezing to death in the open.

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They spent several weeks scrounging materials and sewing them into a makeshift sleeping bag for three. Three of the strongest, Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa and Antonio Vizintín, began their trek out of the mountains on December 12, 1972. It was two months after the crash.

It soon became clear that the distances were vastly greater than they had believed. Three were rapidly going through their meager rations, so Vizintín left the small expedition and returned to the crash site. This hike down the mountains was their only chance, and now there were two.

viven5The Juan Valdez of the coffee commercials is an “Arriero”, a man who transports goods using pack animals.  Parrado and Canessa had hiked for almost two weeks when they were building a fire by a river, and spotted such a man on the other side. Sergio Catalán probably didn’t believe his eyes at first, but he shouted across the river. “Tomorrow”.

The 14 survivors waiting and hoping at the crash site heard the news on their transistor on December 22.  They were saved. The first helicopters arrived that afternoon, flying out with the weakest of the survivors. Altitude sickness, dehydration, frostbite, broken bones, scurvy and malnutrition had all taken their toll. They were one decrepit bunch, but they were alive. The second expedition arrived on the morning of December 23, removing the last survivors around daybreak.

Warm and well-fed members of the media made a hysterical fuss in the days that followed, about the manner in which those last few had survived. There were lurid headlines and grisly images of cannibalism, while others treated the whole thing like it had been some kind of glorious adventure. It was neither.

Nando Parrado later wrote “There was no glory in those mountains. It was all ugliness and fear and desperation, and the obscenity of watching so many innocent people die”.

December 22, 1944 The Battered Bastards of Bastogne

The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well. General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division, to hold the town, at all costs.

The largest German offensive of the western front burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming to drive a wedge between British and American forces and to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to the German need to re-supply. It was called “Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein”.  “Operation Watch on the Rhine”.

The tactical surprise was complete, allied forces driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the US in WWII, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving 610,000+ Americans.

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The seven roads leading to Antwerp converged in Bastogne, in what the Germans called “Straße Oktopus”, “Road Octopus”. The town was strategically indispensable to the German drive on Antwerp, and all or parts of 7 German armored divisions converged on the place. Over 54,000 men. The Allies understood the importance of the place as well. General Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division, to hold the town, at all costs.

For two days, a desperate defense of the nearby villages of Noville and Foy held back the 2nd Panzerdivision, as 11,000 men and 800 officers of the 101st joined a combined force of 11,000 converging on Bastogne. By the 21st, Bastogne’s field hospital was overrun, surrounded by forces outnumbering them 2½ to one. Poorly supplied for the cold winter conditions with air supply made all but impossible by weather conditions, the citizens of Bastogne gave their blankets to the Americans, along with white linens to be used for camouflage.

On the morning of December 22, 1944, two German officers appeared at the American perimeter along with two enlisted men, carrying a white flag. They were a Major Wagner of the 47th Panzer Corps, and Lt. Hellmuth Henke of the Panzer Lehr Operations Section.

The pair carried a note from German General Luttwitz, 165 words in all, and reading in part: “To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note“.

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General Anthony McAuliffe

The note worked its way up the chain of command to the acting Division Commander, General Tony McAuliffe. Told that there was a surrender ultimatum, McAuliffe first thought that it was the Germans who wanted to surrender. Soon disabused of that notion, he laughed and said: “Us surrender? Aw, nuts!”

Knowing that he had to reply, McAuliffe said “Well I don’t know what to tell them.” Lt. General Harry Kinnard spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”. McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” They all agreed, and McAuliffe wrote his reply.

“To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”

Joseph H. “Bud” Harper was the American army officer who delivered the reply, with medic Ernie Premetz acting as translator.

Confused by the American slang, Henke asked “What does that mean?” Harper said to Premetz “You can tell them to take a flying shit.” The medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell. Harper then said, “If you continue to attack, we will kill every goddamn German that tries to break into this city.” Henke replied, “We will kill many Americans. This is war.” Harper then said, “On your way Bud, and good luck to you.”

Years later, Harper would say that he always regretted wishing the Germans luck.

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In his Christmas eve letter of 1944, General McAuliffe wrote “What’s merry about all this, you ask? We’re fighting – it’s cold we aren’t home. All true but what has the proud Eagle Division accomplished with its worthy comrades the 10th Armored Division, the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion and all the rest? Just this: We have stopped everything that has been thrown at us from the north, east, south and west”.

Elements of George Patton’s 3rd Army would break through from the southwest two days later, ending the German encirclement.

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By the end of January, the last great effort of German armed forces had been spent and driven back beyond their original lines. An official report by the US Army on the Battle of the Bulge lists 108,347 casualties, including 19,246 killed, 62,489 wounded and 26,612 captured and missing.

Those numbers could have been far worse, if not for what newspapers would soon call the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”.

 

Afterward

A Black nurse called “Anna” briefly appeared in Historian Stephen Ambrose’ ‘A Band of Brothers’, and on the HBO series based on the book.  But who was Anna?  Was she a myth?  British military historian Martin King discovered her in a nursing home, 61 years after the encirclement at Bastogne.

Augusta-ChiwyAugusta Marie Chiwy (“Shee-wee”) was the bi-racial daughter of a Belgian veterinarian and a Congolese mother, she never knew.

Thinking it safe to visit her father in Bastogne that Christmas, Chiwy found herself, like everyone else in that place, surrounded.  A trained nurse, Chiwy spent the entire siege tending to the wounded, along with Dr. Jack Prior.  Once, she even ran through enemy fire to collect the wounded from the field.

On Christmas eve, the petite nurse was blown off her feet and through a wall. She got up and went back to it, despite the direct hit that killed 30 American wounded, along with the only other nurse at the Rue Neufchatel aid station, Renée Lemaire.

AugustaanuresChiwy married after the war, and rarely talked about her experience in Bastogne.  It took King a full 18 months to coax the story out of her.  The result was the 2015 Emmy award winning historical documentary, “Searching for Augusta, The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne”.

In 2011, Augusta Chiwy was awarded a Knighthood in the Order of the Crown in the name of King Albert II, of Belgium.  The United States Army awarded her the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service, presented by the Ambassador to Belgium.

The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne died on August 23, 2015, at the age of 94.

December 21, 1861 Medal of Honor

Medals of Honor are not awarded casually, reserved only for the bravest of the brave, and for well-documented acts of valor. Permit me to share a few examples, each from his own moment in history.

As Revolution-era General, George Washington once wrote that the “road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is…open to all”.   European armies of the time bestowed honors, only on high-ranking officers who had achieved victory in battle. There was no such honor for the common soldier.

There was precedent for such an award in the Colonial military, but only under limited circumstances.  Congressional medals were awarded to Washington himself on March 25, 1776, following the British evacuation of Boston, to General Horatio Gates in November 1777, in recognition of his victory over British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, and to Major-General “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, father of Civil War-era Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in recognition of his 1779 attack on the British position at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

purpleheartA “Fidelity Medallion” was awarded to three militia men in 1780, for the capture of John André, the British officer and spy whose capture uncovered the treachery of General Benedict Arnold.

The future 1st President’s general orders of August 7, 1782 established a “Badge of Military Merit” to recognize those members of the Continental Army who performed “any singular meritorious action”.

In time, Washington’s Badge of Military Merit morphed into what we now know as the Purple Heart, but the precedent had been set.  This was the first such honor available to any U.S. military service member, who had distinguished himself by act of valor.

Congress created the “Meritorious Service Citation Certificate” around the time of the Mexican-American war, a recognition of “any private soldier who had distinguished himself by gallantry performed in the presence of the enemy”.  The award would come in and out of use in the decades that followed, later becoming the Distinguished Service Medal, an award available to United States and foreign military service personnel and, in limited circumstances, civilians.

In the early days of the Civil War, General-in-chief of the army Winfield Scott was against such an award.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles adopted the idea on behalf of the Navy, following Scott’s retirement in October 1861.  President Abraham Lincoln signed “Public Resolution #82” on December 21, 1861, creating a Navy medal of honor.

DoV1-018_-_Mitchel_RaidAn Army version of the medal was created the following July, first awarded to six Union soldiers for hijacking the Confederate locomotive, “The General”.  Leader of the raid James Andrews was caught and hanged as a Union spy.  He alone was judged ineligible for the medal of honor, as he was a civilian.

Medals of Honor are not awarded casually, reserved only for the bravest of the brave, and for well-documented acts of valor. Permit me to share a few examples, each from his own moment in history.

downloadFew soldiers on the Civil War battlefield had a quicker route to death’s door, than the color bearer.  National and regimental flags were all-important sources of inspiration and communication.

Reverend W. Jamison Thomson of Hartford, CT described the importance of the battle flag: “It represents the cause, is the rallying point, while it is aloft proclaims that victory is still intended, is the center of all eyes, is the means of communication between soldiers, officers, and nation,” he said, “and after the engagement, and after many of them, is their marked memento so long as its identity can be preserved.”

Pvt. Joseph E. Brandle served as regimental color bearer, with the 17th Michigan Infantry.  Private Brandle earned the MOH for his actions of November 16, 1863, near Lenoire, Tennessee…”…[H]aving been twice wounded and the sight of one eye destroyed, [he] still held to the colors until ordered to the rear by his regimental commander.”

During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Chaplain’s assistant and regimental musician Calvin Pearl Titus of Vinton, Iowa, volunteered to scale the 30-ft walls of Peking, raising the American flag over the outer walls of the city.  President Theodore Roosevelt awarded Titus the medal of Honor, for “Gallant and daring conduct in the presence of his colonel and other officers…”  He was “the last color bearer”.

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Sergeant York

On October 8, 1918, Tennessee native Cpl. Alvin Cullum York of the 82nd Division lead a group of seventeen against a numerically superior German force, dug in at Chatel-Chehery, France.

Let his citation tell the story: “…After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring toward a machine gun nest, which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine gun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.”

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Audie Murphy

Kingston Texas 2nd Lieutenant Audie Murphy found himself senior officer of a company of 18, whittled down from 235 by disease, wounds and casualties.  On January 26, 1945, Murphy’s small force found itself under assault by six German tanks and a large infantry force.

A man the Marine Corps had once turned down for being too small, Murphy climbed aboard a burning tank destroyer.  Out in the open and exposed to German fire from three sides, the 19-year old single-handedly fought off the entire assault, killing or wounding fifty and causing the German tanks to withdraw.

The Medal at LastFather Emil Kapaun selflessly sacrificed himself on behalf of his fellow prisoners in 1951, in the frozen hell of a North Korean prison camp.  President Barack Obama awarded Kapaun’s family the Medal of Honor during a ceremony in the east wing of the White House, on April 11, 2013.

Chaplain Kapaun’s body lies in an unmarked mass grave, somewhere in Pyoktong county.

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Sammy Lee Davis

PFC Sammy Lee Davis distinguished himself during the small hours of November 18, 1967, when the 4th Artillery of 9th Infantry Division came under heavy attack west of Cai Lay, Republic of Vietnam.

Repeatedly knocked to the ground by enemy mortar fire and suffering multiple injuries, the Cannoneer from Dayton, Ohio fought back first with a heavily damaged, burning howitzer, and then with recoilless rifle and machine gun.

Two Medals of honor were awarded posthumously, to Delta Force snipers Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart, for their hopeless defense of the crash site of a downed UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, against hundreds of fighters loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

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Corporal Jason Lee Dunham

Corporal Jason Lee Dunham of Scio New York deliberately threw himself on an Iraqi grenade on April 14, 2004, saving the lives of fellow Marines at the sacrifice of his own life.  He was twenty-two.

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Sergeant Jared Monti

Sergeant 1st class Jared Monti of Abington Massachusetts was killed in the mountains of Nuristan Province in Afghanistan, while attempting to rescue a wounded soldier from a hail of small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

Monti was the sixth person from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  The Lee Brice song “I Drive your Truck“, voted Song of the Year at the 49th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, is his story.

The nation’s highest medal for military valor has been awarded 3,517 times since its inception in 1861, to 3,498 distinct recipients.  621 were awarded posthumously.  Possibly without exception, these are people who will tell you that they are not heroes.  They were doing a job and those left behind, are the real heroes.

If that is not the very definition of true heroism, it should be.

December 20, 1943 When Enemies became Brothers

The battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into one another’s eyes.

Franz Stigler
Franz Stigler

At the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August, earlier in the war. This man was no Nazi. He was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills.  On December 20, 1943, he needed one more for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber lumbered overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

21-year-old Charles Brown was at the throttle of that B17, a plane named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew had paid a heavy price.

The aircraft had been savaged by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.

big-holeThe battered aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot well inside German air space, when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into one another’s eyes.

Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” was Brown’s reply. This had been his first mission.  He was sure it was about to be his last.

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Before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had said “Honor is everything here. If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”.

The German ace must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified US airmen inside the B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

The German had to do something. The Nazis would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and then peeled away. Ye Olde Pub made it, crossing 250 miles of the frozen North Sea before finally landing in Norfolk.

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More than 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada, when Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter. It said that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on December 20, 1943.’ Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said of that first meeting. “Like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

The two became close friends and occasional fishing buddies until their passing in 2008, six months apart. Franz Stigler was 92, Charles Brown 87.  A book called “A Higher Call”, tells their story in far greater detail, if you want to know more about it.

In their obituaries, both men were mentioned as the other’s “Special Brother”.

 

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December 19, 1843  A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

That wasn’t what you thought I’d say, was it.

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Charles Dickens’ 1842 travelogue

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; were all behind the young author at the time of his trip to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, Massachusetts, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan had educated each other, a half-century later.

He visited a school for neglected boys in Boylston.  Dickens must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, for he later wrote “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

LowellMillGirlsIn February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked there.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

Lowell OfferingDickens left with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

7ba33a5b1a569dd293edd9eff5d8eb80--christmas-carol-vintage-christmasThe research which followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts
The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits
How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”
Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin
Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

 

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December 18, 1944 Typhoon Cobra

Hulls would creak and groan with the pounding and rivets popped.  Captains in wheelhouses would order course headings, but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended course.  Some ships rolled more than 70°.  The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock, scooped tons of water onto its flight decks, 57′ up.

In September 1935, the Imperial Japanese Navy was conducting wargame maneuvers, when the fourth fleet was caught in extremely foul weather. By the 26th, the storm had reached Typhoon status,  The damage to the Japanese fleet was near catastrophic. Two large destroyers had their bows torn away by heavy seas. Several heavy cruisers suffered major structural damage.  Submarine tenders and light aircraft carriers developed serious cracks in their hulls. One minelayer required near total rebuild, and virtually all fleet destroyers suffered damage to their superstructures. 54 crewmen were lost.

Nine years later, it would be the turn of the American fleet.

The war in the Pacific was in its third year in December 1944. A comprehensive defeat only weeks earlier had dealt the Imperial Japanese war effort a mortal blow at Leyte Gulf, yet the war would go on for the better part of another year.

Carrier Task Force 38 was a massive assembly of warships, a major element of the 3rd Fleet under the Command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.  In formation, TF-38 moved in three eight-mile diameter circles, each with an outer ring of destroyers, an inner ring of battleships and cruisers, and a mixed core of 35,000-ton Essex class and smaller escort carriers. TF-38 was a massive force, fielding eighty-six warships, altogether.

By mid-December 1944, Task Force 38 had been underway for three weeks, having just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines, suppressing enemy aircraft in support of American amphibious operations against Mindoro.  Ships were badly in need of re-supply.  A replenishment fleet, 35 ships in all, was sent to the nearest spot near Luzon, yet still outside of Japanese fighter range.  Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th.

Rapid movement into previously enemy-held territory made it impossible to establish advance weather reporting.  By the time that Task Force aerological (meteorological) service reports made it to ships in the operating area, weather reports were at least twelve hours old.

Cobra 9

Three days earlier, a barometric low pressure system had begun to form off Luzon, fed by the warm waters of the Philippine sea.  High tropospheric humidity fed and strengthened the disturbance, as counter-clockwise winds began to develop around the low pressure center.  By the 18th, this small “tropical disturbance” had developed into a compact but powerful cyclone.

Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th, as increasing winds and building seas made refueling increasingly difficult.  Refueling hoses were parted on several occasions and thick hawsers had to be cut to avoid collision, as sustained winds built to 40 knots.  Believing the storm center to be 450 miles to his southeast, Admiral Halsey didn’t want to return to base.  That would take too long, and combat operations were scheduled to resume, two days later.  Halsey needed the carrier group refueled and on station, and so it was decided.  Task Force 38 and the replenishment fleet, would proceed to a second replenishment point, hoping to resume refueling operations on the morning of the 18th.

Cobra

Four times over the night of December 17-18, course was corrected in the search for calmer water.  Four times, the ships of Task Force 38 and it’s attendant resupply ships, turned closer to the eye of the storm.  2,200-ton destroyers pitched and rolled like corks, towering over the crest of 70-waves, only to crash into the trough of the next, shuddering like cold dogs as decks struggled to shed thousands of tons of water.

Hulls would creak and groan with the pounding and rivets popped.  Captains in wheelhouses would order course headings, but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended course.  Some ships rolled more than 70°.  The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock, scooped tons of water onto its flight decks, 57′ up.

Cobra 4

Typhoon Cobra reached peak ferocity between 1100 and 1400, with sustained winds of 100mph and gusts of up to 140.

The lighter destroyers got the worst of it, finding themselves “in irons” – broad side to the wind and rolling as much as 75°, with no way to regain steering control.  Some managed to pump seawater into fuel tanks to increase stability, while others rolled and couldn’t recover, as water cascaded down smokestacks and disabled engines.

146 aircraft were either wrecked or blown overboard.  The carrier USS Monterrey nearly went down in flames, as loose airplanes crashed about on hanger decks and burst into flames.  One of those fighting fires aboard Monterrey was then-Lieutenant Gerald Ford, the former Michigan Wolverine center and future President of the United States.

 

Many of the ships of TF-38 sustained damage to above-decks superstructure, knocking out radar equipment and crippling communications.

 

790 Americans lost their lives in Typhoon Cobra, killed outright or washed overboard and drowned.

It could have been worse.  The destroyer escort USS Tabberer defied orders to return to port, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage conducting a 51-hour boxed search for survivors, despite the egregious pounding being taken by his own ship.  USS Tabberer plucked 55 swimmers from the water, survivors of the capsized destroyers Hull and Spence.

Typhoon Cobra moved on that night, December 19 dawning clear with brisk winds. Admiral Halsey ordered “All ships of the Task Force line up side-by-side at about ½ mile spacing and comb the 2800-square mile area” in which they’d been operating.  Carl M. Berntsen, SoM1/C aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven, recalled that “I saw the line of ships disappear over the horizon to starboard and to port”. The Destroyer USS Brown rescued six survivors from the Monaghan, and another 13 from USS Hull.  18 more would be plucked from the water, 93 in all, by ships spread across 50-60 miles of open ocean.

When it was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz said typhoon Cobra “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”

Afterward

Carl Martin Berntsen passed away on October 13th, 2014 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He would have been 94, the following month. I am indebted to him and his excellent essay for this story.  Virtually all ships of Task Force 38 were damaged to some degree.  I tip my hat to Wikipedia, for the following summary of the more serious instances.

USS Hull – with 70% fuel aboard, capsized and sunk with 202 men drowned (62 survivors)

USS Monaghan – capsized and sunk with 256 men drowned (six survivors)

USS Spence – rudder jammed hard to starboard, capsized and sunk with 317 men drowned (23 survivors) after hoses parted attempting to refuel from New Jersey because they had also disobeyed orders to ballast down directly from Admiral Halsey

USS Cowpens – hangar door torn open and RADAR, 20mm gun sponson, whaleboat, jeeps, tractors, kerry crane, and 8 aircraft lost overboard. One sailor lost.

USS Monterey – hangar deck fire killed three men and caused evacuation of boiler rooms requiring repairs at Bremerton Navy yard

USS Langley – damaged

USS Cabot – damaged

USS San Jacinto – hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts and sprinkling system causing widespread flooding. Damage repaired by USS Hector

USS Altamaha – hangar deck crane and aircraft broke loose and broke fire mains

USS Anzio – required major repair

USS Nehenta – damaged

USS Cape Esperance – flight deck fire required major repair

USS Kwajalein – lost steering control

USS Iowa – propeller shaft bent and lost a seaplane

USS Baltimore – required major repair

USS Miami – required major repair

USS Dewey – lost steering control, RADAR, the forward stack, and all power when salt water shorted main electrical switchboard

USS Aylwin – required major repair

USS Buchanan – required major repair

USS Dyson – required major repair

USS Hickox – required major repair

USS Maddox – damaged

USS Benham – required major repair

USS Donaldson – required major repair

USS Melvin R. Nawman – required major repair

USS Tabberer – lost foremast

USS Waterman – damaged

USS Nantahala – damaged

USS Jicarilla – damaged

USS Shasta – damaged “one deck collapsed, aircraft engines damaged, depth charges broke loose, damaged “