December 11, 1913  The Boll Weevil of Coffee County

ICYMI – “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

Few machines have changed the course of history, like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

The long, hot summers of the southeastern United States have always been ideal for growing cotton, but there was a time when the stuff was extremely expensive to produce.  Cotton comes out wet from the boll, the protective capsule requiring about ten man hours just to remove the seeds to produce a pound of cotton.

By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.

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In 1792, the year that Whitney invented his machine, the southeastern United States exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and to the northern states.  Two years later, that number had risen to 1,600,000 pounds.  By the time of the Civil War, Britain alone was importing ¾ of the 800 million pounds it used each year, from the American south.

Enterprise, Alabama got its start when John Henry Carmichael first settled there in 1881.  Within a few years the Alabama Midland Railway came to Enterprise.  By the turn of the century the place was a major cotton growing hub.

bollweevil1Anthonomus grandis, the Boll Weevil, is a small beetle, about the size of the nail on your little finger. Indigenous to Mexico, the beetle crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, sometime around 1892.  The insect spread rapidly, producing eight to ten generations in a single growing season and preying mainly on the young cotton boll.

The insect is capable of destroying entire cotton crops, which it did in 1915, the year the insect reached Enterprise and most of Coffee County.  Facing economic ruin, local farmers were forced to diversify their crops, just to recoup some of the losses caused by that one wretched beetle.

Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the country.  Not only had farmers been able to stave of disaster, but they were already becoming prosperous as a result of the thriving new crop base.

Town fathers decided to build a monument, their “herald of prosperity”, to the boll weevil.  The bug that had almost ruined them.

Boll_weevil_monumentDesigned in Italy at a cost of $1,800, the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head, and holding in her hands a trophy.

The monument was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of Enterprise’ business district.

You can’t have a Boll Weevil monument without a Boll Weevil.  Thirty years later, Luther Baker added a big bug on top of the trophy.  At the base of the monument appears this inscription:  “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

The original has been vandalized so many times that it was moved it to a protected facility, and a replica put in its place.  So it is that you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama today, in the footsteps of my own brother Dave, and there you will find a statue of…a bug.

December 10, 1917 Oh, Christmas Tree…

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, 100 years ago, today.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

The Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running itself aground.

That was when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

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The first ray of light the morning of December 7 revealed some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

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The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone. President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train on the scene.

Halifax HeraldThere was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  A very large Christmas tree.

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In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.Halifax Tree Sendoff

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the people of Boston.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

events3406This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

This year’s tree stands 53′ tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax exlosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.download

For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word this year, at the tree lighting ceremony. “We had massive deaths and injuries,” McNeil said of the 1917 catastrophe. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”

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December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along a 476-586A.D. timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east lived for another thousand years.

A certain type of politician loves nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own advantage, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of the Dorian city state of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi advised Byzas to build his city “opposite the city of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros“, or “cow-ford”), the narrow channel dividing Europe from Asia and the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, the party judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to have recognized the advantages of the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today one of the ten largest cities, in the world.

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Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade at the crossroads of east and west.

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma”:  New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Roman Empire in the east.

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Byzantine Empire and its vassal states, as it looked under Emperor Justinian the Great

The eastern and western Roman empires would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be  little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last beyond the birth of Columbus, one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces on the Eurasian landmass.

Theodosian walls
Theodosian walls

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after the child Emperor Theodosius II, these fortifications were built on the orders of the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of antiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Between the mid-5th and early 13th centuries, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in all Europe. Located along the 4,000-mile long “spice roads” at the confluence of east and west, the city was guardian to some of the holiest relics in all Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.  Constantinople was home to some of the architectural masterpieces of the age, including the Greek Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the Golden Gate of the Land Walls. The vast Imperial library of the University of Constantinople was home to no fewer than 100,000 volumes and ancient texts, including some of the last remnants of the ancient library of Alexandria.

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Hagia Sophia, interior

The Byzantine empire entered a period of decline in the 13th century, following the devastation of the fourth crusade.  Constantinople would experience a brief recovery following the restoration of Nikephoros Palaiologos as sole Emperor in 1261, as territories and population of the greater Byzantine Empire were swallowed up by the fledgling Ottoman Empire.

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Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, “The Conqueror”

By mid-15th century, the former seat of the Byzantine Empire was little more than an island.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell in the wake of a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of 22-year old Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.  It was May 29, 1453.

Constantinople, now Istanbul, became an Islamic stronghold.  Istanbul would remain seat of the Ottoman Empire until joining the losing side in WW1.  The Ottoman Empire was partitioned in the wake of the Great War, creating the modern contours of the Arab World and the Republic of Turkey, with its economic, cultural, and historic center of Istanbul.

Siege of Constantinople, 1453
Siege of Constantinople, 1453

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December 8, 1941 Day of Infamy

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, the armed forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Navy’s Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was notified almost immediately.  It had been an act of war, a deliberate attack on one sovereign nation by another.  Roosevelt intended to ask Congress for a declaration of war.

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Presidential Limo “Sunshine Special”, used in both the FDR and Truman administrations

Work began almost immediately on what we now know as Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, to be delivered to a joint session of Congress the following day.

There was no knowing if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been an isolated event, or whether there would be a continuation of such attacks, sabotage on facilities, or even assassination attempts.

The Willamette University football team, in Honolulu at this time to play the “Shrine Bowl”,  took up a defensive cordon around the Punahou school.

Roosevelt’s speech was scheduled for noon on the 8th, and the Secret Service knew they had a problem. Roosevelt was fond of his 1939 Lincoln V12 Convertible.  Roosevelt called it the “Sunshine Special,” but the car was anything but secure.  Armored Presidential cars would not come into regular use for another 20 years, after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Federal regulations of the time restricted the purchase of any vehicle costing $750 or higher, $10,455 in today’s dollars, and that wasn’t going to get them an armored limo. They probably couldn’t have gotten one that quickly anyway, even if there had been no restriction on spending.

Al Capones LimoIn 1928, Al Capone purchased a Cadillac 341A Town Sedan with 3,000 pounds of armor and inch-thick bulletproof windows.  It was green and black, matching the Chicago police cars of the era, and equipped with a siren and flashing lights hidden behind the grill.

Advanced syphilis had reduced Al Capone to a neurological wreck by this time.  By the time of FDR’s speech, Capone had been released from Alcatraz, and resided in Palm Island, Florida.   His limo had been sitting in a Treasury Department parking lot, ever since being seized in his IRS tax evasion suit from years earlier.

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Mechanics cleaned and checked Capone’s Caddy well into the night of December 7th, making sure that it would safely get the Commander in Chief the few short blocks to Capitol Hill.  It apparently did, because Roosevelt continued to use it until his old car could be fitted with the same features.  To this day, Presidential limousines have flashing police lights hidden behind their grilles.

Roosevelt probably learned that he was riding in Al Capone’s limo after he got in, on the way to Capitol Hill.  He didn’t seem to be bothered, the President’s only comment was “I hope Mr. Capone won’t mind.”

Afterward

Capone, FDR LimoThe internet can be a wonderful thing, if you don’t mind taking your water from a fire hose.  The reader of history quickly finds that some tales are true as written, some are not, and some stories are so good you want them to be true.

Napoleon once asked, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” Winston Churchill said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”.

You can find on-line sources if you like, to tell you this story is a myth. Others will tell you it’s perfectly true.  CBS News reports: “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt made use of a heavily armored Cadillac that was originally owned by gangster Al Capone until the Sunshine Special could be modified with armor plating, bulletproof glass, and sub-machine gun storage“.

As a piece of history, you may take this one as you like.  I confess, I am one who wants it to be true.

 

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December 7, 1942 The Ship that Wouldn’t Die

Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”.  No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.  The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178.  Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom.  Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed. 188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground.  All eight battleships then in harbor were damaged.

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USS Oklahoma

Four torpedoes slammed into USS Oklahoma, capsizing the Nevada-class battleship and trapping hundreds within the overturned hull.  Frantic around-the-clock rescue efforts delivered 32.  Bulkhead markings later revealed that at least some of the sailors aboard the doomed battleship lived another seventeen days.  Seventeen days alone in that black, upside down hell, they died waiting for the rescue that came too late. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Harvard-educated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, writing home to a correspondent “I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices”.  Yamamoto well understood the consequences of the actions taken by his government, confiding to his diary. “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”

Isoroku_YamamotoFor Imperial Japan, Yamamoto’s worst nightmare would prove correct.  In terms of GDP, the Tokyo government had attacked an adversary, nearly six times its own size.  The Japanese economy reached its high point in 1942 and declined steadily throughout the war years, while that of the United States exploded at a rate unseen in human history.

1942 started out grimly in the Pacific, with Americans and their Filipino allies besieged in Bataan and Corregidor, and Commonwealth forces hurled from the Malayan peninsula.  The Kriegsmarine celebrated the “Second Happy Time”, as German submarine commanders called it the “American shooting season”.  Yet, at the home front, 1942 saw massive industrial mobilization.

The backbone of American naval power during this period was the Essex-class aircraft carrier, remaining so until the supercarriers of the 60s and 70s.  Twenty-four Essex class carriers were completed during WW2, including USS Franklin, her hull laid down seventy-five years ago, today, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  December 7, 1942.

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Essex-class carrier, USS Franklin

“Big Ben” was launched ten months later at Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia, and commissioned on January 31, 1944.

For the remainder of 1944, Franklin’s engagements read like a timeline of the war, South of the Japanese home islands. The Bonin archipelago. Mariana Islands. Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Haha Jima, Leyte, Guam and the Palau Islands.

By late 1944, a series of defeats had left the Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and groundcrew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, USS Reno was hit by the deliberate crash of a Japanese airplane.   The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers, against a carrier task force including USS Franklin.  Arima was killed and part of a plane hit Franklin.

It’s not clear that this was a suicide attack, but Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.   Official Japanese accounts bear little resemblance to the actual event, but Arima was officially given credit for the first kamikaze attack, of World War II.

By war’s end, this “divine wind” tactic would end the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 naval personnel.

On October 30, Franklin was attacked by a three-plane squadron of enemy bombers, bent on a suicide mission. One plummeted off her starboard side while a second hit the flight deck, crashing through to the gallery deck, killing 56 and wounding 60.   The third discharged it’s bombs nearly missing Franklin, before diving into the flight deck of the nearby Belleau Wood.  It was a harbinger of things to come.

Both carriers withdrew to Ulithi Atoll for temporary repairs of battle damage, and Franklin proceeded to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, for more permanent repairs.

Early in the following spring, Franklin rendezvoused with Task Force 58, joining in strikes against the Japanese home islands.

On the morning of March 19, 1945, Franklin turned into the early dawn wind preparing to launch aircraft, while up on the bridge, Commander Stephen Jurika was writing in his log.  On the hangar deck, chow lines snaked their way between 12″ wide “Tiny Tim” rockets on ordnance carts, while Messmen plopped the morning’s breakfast onto steel trays.

At 7:05, Commander Jurika heard a message from the carrier Hancock.  “Enemy plane closing on you…one coming toward you!”  Franklin’s Combat Information Center (CIC) picked up the enemy bomber at a range of twelve miles, but lost it in the clutter of Task Force 58’s morning launch.

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At 7:07, Commander Jurika saw the Japanese dive bomber sweep over his head, dropping two 500-pound bombs on Franklin.  The first ripped through 3-inch armor to the hangar deck, as the second exploded two decks below. Great sheets of flame enveloped the flight deck, as the 32-ton forward elevator literally rose into the air.  5 bombers, 14 torpedo bombers and 12 fighters were engulfed in the inferno, between them carrying 36,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 30 tons of bombs and rockets.

From the other ships of TF 58, Franklin appeared to be engulfed in flames.  With firefighters working fore and aft and Franklin making 24 knots, an aft gas line ruptured, igniting bombs, rockets, and a 40mm ready-service magazine. This second explosion literally lifted Franklin and spun her to starboard, as a 400′ sheet of flame towered over the carrier.  Franklin was listing at 13°, with radar and CIC, gone.  The flight deck was ruptured in a dozen places.  In ready room #51, eleven of twelve aviators of the famed “Black Sheep Squadron”, were dead.

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12′ Tiny Tim rockets flew screaming across the decks in every direction, as entire aircraft engines, propellers attached, flew through the air.  Each time firefighters dropped to the deck, and then went back at it.

Commander Jurika felt as if the carrier was a rat, being shaken by an angry cat.

The destroyers Miller and Hickox moved within several hundred feet, aiming their hoses at the damaged ship. A Mitsubishi Zero fighter was reported diving on the carrier at 7:41, but determined flak batteries, brought it down.

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Six minutes later, the light cruiser Santa Fe moved up, hurling life jackets and floater nets into the water to help swimmers.  Task Group 58.2 commander Rear Admiral Ralph Davison departed Franklin for the destroyer Miller, telling Captain Leslie Gehres, “Captain, I think there’s no hope. I think you should consider abandoning ship — those fires seem to be out of control”.

Ensign William Hayler later said “I was not sure whether I was entering Dante’s Inferno or crossing the River Styx”

A mile-high column of thick, greasy smoke rose from the carrier, as signalmen blinkered a message to Santa Fe: “We have lost steering control. Can you send fire hoses? Can you send for sea tugs?” Santa Fe blinkered back, asking if Franklin’s magazines were flooded.  “We believe the magazines are flooded, Big Ben replied. “Am not sure”. No one knew at the time, that the water valves were on, but the pipes had split. Hundreds of tons of explosives stored in the aft magazines, were dry.

Franklin 3Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest from Boston and former Holy Cross track star was a Chaplain aboard the Franklin.  O’Callahan was everywhere, hurling bombs overboard and administering last rites, shouting encouragement and fighting fires.   Father O’Callahan would be the only Chaplain of WW2, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

At 10am, Santa Fe signaled the carrier Bunker Hill: “Franklin now dead in water. Fires causing explosions. Have got a few men off. Fires still blazing badly…whether Franklin can be saved or not is still doubtful”.  Boards and ladders stretched between the cruiser and the carrier, evacuating the wounded.  Gehres ordered 800 off Franklin onto Santa Fe, as thirty sailors hacked at the starboard anchor with files, steel cutters and acetylene torches, dumping the anchor and using the 540′ chain as a towline, to the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser, USS Pittsburgh.  Others passed hot shells hand to hand, and dumping them overboard.

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Chaplain O’Callahan administers last rites

Another dive bomber attacked at 12:40, dropping its 500-pounder close enough to shake the carrier, while a motley crew of laundrymen and ship’s buglers manning the last operational 40mm AA guns, dropped the “Judy” into the water.

By 15:45, Franklin was under tow at 7 knots. That night she was able to make way under her own power.  No lights shone that night, but for the faint red glow of still burning fires.  The few Franklin crew remaining would continue to fight off additional dive bombers and put out fires, through the 31st.

832 were dead and another 300 wounded, one-third of the crew. Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”.  No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.

 

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December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girlThe Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field.  Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 lbs.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said that the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books hurled into its waters, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad, range from 90,000 to one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

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In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Golden Horde never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for the pyramids of skulls he left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute.  A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

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The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries under Mongol control.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black DeathThe Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as chieftains fell to squabbling over bloodlines.

The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), in the 1550s.

The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his fist.  Genghis Khan.

 

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December 5, 1914 Shackleton Expedition

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. “The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”.  As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.  Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

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The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island.  It was December 5.Shackleton 12

The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent.  The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for another 497 days.

The disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.Shackleton 7

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, not knowing that she only had six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would one day end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean, as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”.  The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.Shackleton 10

The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat, James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

Shackleton 9The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20.  They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting their long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad“.

 

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December 4, 1966  War Dogs of Vietnam

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

There are times when two highly trained individuals are able to function at a level higher than the sum of their parts.  Professional athletes like NFL linemen and NHL forwards are two examples.  Another is often the partnership formed between law enforcement officers.

On the battlefield, few assets are more powerful than a well equipped and highly trained soldier. Unless we’re pairing that soldier with a Military Working Dog.

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

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“Nemo”, born in October 1962, entered the United States Air Force as a sentry dog in 1964, at the age of 1½ years.  After an 8-week training course at Lackland AFB Sentry Dog Training School in San Antonio, Texas, the 85-pound German Shepard was assigned to Airman Leonard Bryant Jr., and sent to Fairchild Air Base in Washington for duty with Strategic Air Command.

The pair was transferred to the Republic of South Vietnam with a group of other dog teams, and assigned to the 377th Security Police Squadron, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.  Six months later, Bryant rotated back to the States, and Nemo was paired with 22-year-old Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg.

Early on the morning of December 4, 60 Vietcong guerrillas emerged from the jungle, setting off a near-simultaneous alarm from several sentry dogs on perimeter patrol.

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Three dogs, Rebel, Cubby and Toby, were killed with their handlers in a hail of bullets.  Several other handlers were wounded, including one who was able to maintain contact with the enemy, notifying Central Security Control of their location and direction of travel.

Thanks to the early warning, a machine gun team was ready and waiting when 13 infiltrators approached the main aircraft parking ramp.  None of them lived to tell the story.  Security forces quickly deployed around the perimeter, driving some infiltrators off and others into hiding.  Daylight patrols reported that all VC infiltrators were gone, either killed or captured, but they had made a big mistake.  They should have brought the dogs with them.

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That night, Thorneburg and Nemo were out on patrol near an old Vietnamese graveyard, about ¼ mile from the air base’ runways.  Nemo alerted on something.  Before Thorneburg could radio for backup, that something started shooting.  Thorneburg released the dog and charged in shooting, killing one Vietcong before being shot in the shoulder.  Nemo was badly wounded, shot in the face, the bullet entering below his eye and exiting his mouth.  Ignoring the injury, Nemo attacked the four enemy soldiers hiding in the brush, giving his partner time to call for reinforcements.

Reichenbach, Major, 2Four additional Vietcong were discovered hiding underground, as quick reaction teams scoured the area.  They found Nemo and Thornburg, both seriously wounded, together on the ground.  Both would survive, though Thorneburg was shot a second time, while returning to base.

I’m sure that individual dog handlers were as good to their dogs as they knew how to be, during the Vietnam era.  That’s a guess, but having an MWD handler in the family, I think it’s a good one.  The Department of Defense bureaucracy was another matter.

Roughly 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam, leading patrols through the dense jungle terrain.  Overall, these animals are credited with saving close to 10,000 lives.

When Marine Corps handler Steve Reichenbach arrived in country in 1966, he was paired with a cream colored Great Dane-German Shepherd mix.  “Major”, whose previous handler had been killed only weeks before, was an excellent match for Reichenbach, both being “mellow, relaxed, even-keeled types” who bonded, almost immediately.

Reichenbach, Major
Marine dog handler Steve Reichenbach with his dog, Major, on a patrol north of Danang in late 1966. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF STEPHEN K. REICHENBACH, with a tip of the hat to National Geographic

At 90 pounds, Major’s size alone seemed to intimidate the enemy, often leading VC to trip off ambushes, too early.

A land mine exploded on the Marine’s last day in country, killing four and wounding six.  Though badly wounded, Reichenbach would survive the war.  Major was unhurt, but he wasn’t so lucky.  The last the pair saw of one another, was in the medevac chopper.  Major still had Reichenbach’s blood on his fur, when he was paired with his next handler.  The marine never saw his “battle buddy” after that, but later heard the dog had succumbed to some tropical disease.

Nemo on the PlaneThe vast majority of MWDs who served in Vietnam, were left behind as “surplus equipment”.  Left to succumb to tropical disease, to be euthanized by the South Vietnamese Army, or worse.  Nemo was one of the few lucky ones.  He came home.

MWD Nemo was officially recognized for having saved the life of his handler, and preventing further destruction of life and property.   He was given the best of veterinary care and, on June 23, 1967, USAF Headquarters directed that he be returned to the United States.  The first sentry dog officially retired from active service.

The C124 Globemaster touched down at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, on July 22, 1967.  Nemo lived out the seven years remaining to him in a permanent retirement kennel at the DoD Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base.

 

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December 3, 1586, Spuds

ICYMI – Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet, following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center in Peru.

The expedition which would end in the Lost Colony of Roanoke began in 1585, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane. On board was the Oxford trained mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Herriot, the man who would introduce the potato to England on this day, the following year.

The Inca of Peru seem to have been the first to cultivate potatoes, around 8,000BC.

Inca foodWild potatoes contain toxins to defend themselves against fungi and bacteria, toxins unaffected by the heat of cooking.  In the Andes, mountain people learned to imitate the wild guanaco and vicuña, licking clay before eating the poisonous plants. In this manner, toxins pass harmlessly through the digestive system. Mountain people dunk wild potatoes in “gravy” made of clay and water, accompanied with coarse salt. Eventually, growers developed less toxic tubers, though the poisonous varieties are still favored for their frost resistance.  Clay dust is sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets, to this day.

Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in Peru in 1532 eventually brought potatoes home to Spain.  The first written mention of the potato comes from a delivery receipt dated November 28, 1567, between the Grand Canaries and Antwerp.

Among its other virtues, the potato provides more caloric energy per acre of cultivation than either maize or grain and, being below ground, is likely to survive calamities that would flatten other crops.  Taters quickly became staple foods in northern and eastern Europe, while in other areas remaining the food of peasants and livestock.

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Louis XVI placing a potato blossom in his buttonhole, 1737

French army pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussians during the seven years war, learning to appreciate the gustatorial delights of the potato while in captivity.

Primarily used as hog feed in his native France, Parmentier was determined to bring respectability to the lowly tuber.  It must have been a tough sell, as many believed that potatoes caused leprosy.  The Paris Faculty of Medicine declared them edible in 1772, thanks largely to Parmentier’s efforts.  He would host dinners featuring multiple potato dishes, inviting such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  Franklin was enormously popular among the French nobility.  Before long Louis XVI was wearing a purple potato flower in his lapel.  Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.

Sir Walter Raleigh first introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589.  By mid-19th century, the crop occupied one third of arable land in Ireland. This was due entirely to landless laborers, renting tiny plots from landowners interested only in raising cattle or producing grain for market. An acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to sustain a family.  Even poor families could grow enough surplus to feed a pig, which could then be sold for cash.

potato-late-blightCalamity struck Ireland in 1845, in the form of a blight so horrific that US military authorities once considered stockpiling the stuff as a biological weapon.  Seemingly overnight, Ireland’s staple food crop was reduced to a black, stinking ooze.

There followed the seven years’ “an Gorta Mór”, “the Great Hunger”, killing over a million Irish and reducing the population by 20-25% through death and emigration.  Throughout the Irish potato famine, the country continued to produce and export thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce, more than enough to feed the population.

Today, many see the effects of the absentee landlord system and the penal codes as a form of genocide.  At the time, already strained relations with England were broken, giving rise to Irish republicanism and leading to Irish independence in the following century.

Until Nazis tore it down, there was a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, Germany, giving him credit for introducing the potato. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his left gripping a potato plant. The inscription read “Sir Francis Drake, disseminator of the potato in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1586. Millions of people who cultivate the earth bless his immortal memory”.

Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet, following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center in Peru.

In the Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, there’s a chase sequence through an “asteroid” field in which some of the asteroids are, in fact, potatoes.

Scientists have created genetically modified potatoes to ward off pests.  The “New Leaf”, approved in 1995, incorporated a bacterial gene rendering it resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, an “international superpest” so voracious that some credit the creature for creating the modern pesticide industry.  Other varieties were genetically modified to resist phytophthora infestans, the cause the Irish potato famine.

Seeming to prefer insecticides and anti-fungal sprays, “food activists” decry such varieties as “Frankenfoods”.  Each time, the improved variety has been hounded out of business.

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In 2014, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co. introduced the “innate” potato.  Rather than “transgenic” gene splicing, the introduction of genome sequences from unrelated species, the innate variety uses a “silencing” technique on the tuber’s own genes, to resist the bruising and browning that results in 400 million pounds of waste and a cost to consumers of $90 million.

In October 2016, NBC news reported that “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved commercial planting of two types of potatoes that are genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine. The potatoes next must clear a voluntary review process through the Food and Drug Administration as well as get the OK from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency“.

GMO HystericsThe Innate potato produces less acrylamide, a known carcinogen produced by normal potatoes in the high heat of fryers.

This might actually be the first genetically modified variety to succeed in the marketplace, but McDonald’s, possibly the largest potato user on the planet, has already announced that “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”

You can never underestimate the power of hysterical people, in large groups.

 

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December 1, 2013 Sacred Soil

ICYMI – I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and to never let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the 99-year anniversary of the end of World War One.

Before they had numbers, this was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all Wars”.

There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history, which cannot be traced back to it.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.

In Flanders Fields

The current boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife is nothing new, those conditions would have taken a very different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history (WWI is only #5), was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”. He was off, by something like 36 days.

I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened four years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

In the summer of 2013, over 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme.  All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

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The soil from those battlefields was placed in seventy WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  Those sandbags were transported to London, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War will nourish and support a garden.  Ready for the following year, a solemn remembrance of the centenary of that war.

That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.

I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and never to let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

 

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