January 31, 1945 Deserter

“They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army”, he said, “thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con”.

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

306e1a79104ddd52b3b29ec4c5bee167--eddie-slovik-art-vintageEdward Donald “Eddie” Slovik was paroled in 1942, his criminal record making him 4F. “Registrant not acceptable for military service”. He took a job at the Montella Plumbing and Heating company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he met bookkeeper Antoinette Wisniewski, the woman who would later become his wife.

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

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

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

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

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

Slovik was repeatedly ordered to tear up the note and rejoin his unit, and there would be no consequences. Each time, he refused. The stockade didn’t scare him. He’d been in prison before, and it was better than the front lines. Beside that, he was already an ex-con. A dishonorable discharge was hardly going to change anything, in a life he expected to be filled with manual labor.  “I’ve made up my mind”, he said. “I’ll take my court martial”.

Finally, instructed to write a second note on the back of the first acknowledging the legal consequences of his actions, Eddie Slovik was taken into custody.

eddie-slovik-soldier-army-life-dont-agree-with1.7 million courts-martial were held during WWII, 1/3rd of all the criminal cases tried in the United States during the same period. The death penalty was rarely imposed. When it was, it was almost always in cases of rape or murder.

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

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

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Movie poster – “The Execution of Private Slovik”

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

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

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

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“Bernard Calka, a former Macomb County commissioner, fought to have Pvt. Eddie Slovik’s remains brought back from France to be reburied next to his wife” Detroit News Blog

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

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

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

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January 30, 1948 Madame, I Think You’re Missing a Monkey

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

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

220px-Commentaries_of_the_Analects_of_Confucius“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked the student.  Confucius replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety. Listen not to what is contrary to propriety. Speak not what is contrary to propriety. Make no movement which is contrary to propriety”.

It was an ancient idea, even then. Zarathrusta, also known as Zoroaster, is in some respects the father of the world’s first monotheistic religion. It was sometime around 1200BC when Zoroaster taught his followers on the high Iranian Plateau “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta”.  “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.

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

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3 Wise Monkeys by Yannick Bouchard

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

download (8)The visual play on words, then, depicts Iwazaru covering his mouth, Kikazaru covering his ears, and Mizaru covering his eyes.

Though it’s unusual to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey.  Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, his name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.

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

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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from Gandhithe Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”.

Ghandi is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Mohandas Gandhi lived a life of poverty and simplicity, owning almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Vinayak Godse on January 30, 1948.

Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles and a set of three carved monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 29, 1944 Operation Pied Piper

In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past.  Hitler had swallowed up Austria, only six months earlier.   Authorities divided the British Isles into “risk zones”, identified as “evacuation,” “neutral,” and “reception.”  In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning “Operation Pied Piper”, the evacuation of millions of their own children, in the event of war.

For the people of the modern Czech Republic, the Munich agreement of 1938 was a betrayal. “O nás bez nás!” “About us, without us!”

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Nazi propaganda depicting German Anschluss with Austria

Intent on avoiding war with Nazi Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain had convened in Munich that September, to resolve German claims on western Czechoslovakia.  The “Sudetenland”.  Representatives of the Czech and Slovak peoples, were not invited.

On September 30, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London, declaring “Peace in Our Time”.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand bore the signatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier as well as his own, annexing the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.

To Winston Churchill, it was an act of appeasement.  Feeding the crocodile (Hitler), in hopes that he will eat you last.  For much of Great Britain, the sense of relief was palpable.

In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past.  Hitler had swallowed up Austria, only six months earlier.   British authorities divided the home islands into “risk zones”, identified as “Evacuation,” “Neutral,” and “Reception.”  In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning “Operation Pied Piper”, the evacuation of millions of their own children, in the event of war.

94330When Nazi Germany invaded Poland the following September, London mayor Herbert Morrison was at 10 Downing Street, meeting with Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson.  Morrison believed that the time had come for Operation Pied Piper.  A year to the day from the Prime Minister’s “Peace in our Time” declaration, Wilson protested.  “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?”

Morrison was done with the Prime Minister’s dilatory response to Hitler’s aggression, practically snarling in his thick, East London accent “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?”

Thirty minutes later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation, had begun.

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Next weekend, Superbowl 52 will be played at U.S. Bank Stadium, in front of a crowd of 66,655. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days of the evacuation, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside. What must that have sounded like?

Operation_Pied_Piper-PosterBBC History reported that, “within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address”.

Zeppelin raids had killed 1,500 civilians in London alone, during the ‘Great War’.  Since then, governments had gotten so much better at killing each other’s citizens.  As early as 1922, Prime Minister Lord Arthur Balfour had spoken of ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure.’  As many as 4,000,000 civilian casualties were predicted, in London alone.

BBC History describes the man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, as a “cold, inhuman character with little understanding of the emotional upheaval that might be created by evacuation”.

Children were labeled ‘like luggage’, and sent off with gas masks, toothbrushes and fresh socks & underwear. None of them knew to where, or for how long.

thumbnail_ww2evacueesThe evacuation of all that humanity ran relatively smoothly, considering.  James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association, recalls ‘We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying.’

Arrivals at the billeting areas, were another matter.  Many kids were shipped off to the wrong places, and rations were insufficient.  Geoffrey Barfoot, billeting officer in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, said ‘The trains were coming in thick and fast. It was soon obvious that we just didn’t have the bed space.’

Kids were lined up against walls and on stages, and potential hosts were invited to “take their pick”.

For many, the terrors and confusion of those first few days grew into love and friendships, that lasted a lifetime.  Others entered a hell of physical or sexual abuse, or worse.

For the first time, “city kids” and country folks were finding out how the “other half” lived, with sometimes amusing results.  One boy wrinkled his nose on seeing carrots pulled out of muddy fields, saying “Ours come in tins”.  Richard Singleton recalled the first time he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ for directions to the toilet.  “She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums.  She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.”

John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, had his rations stolen by his host family. He was horsewhipped for speaking out while they enjoyed his food, and he was given nothing more than mashed potatoes. Terri McNeil was locked in a birdcage and left with a piece of bread and a bowl of water.

an-evac-killed-by-bus-near-blackpoolIn the 2003 BBC Radio documentary “Evacuation: The True Story,” clinical psychologist Steve Davis described the worst cases, as “little more than a pedophile’s charter.”

Eighty years later, the words “I’ll take that one”, are seared into the memories of more than a few.

Hundreds of evacuees were killed because of relocation, while en route or during their stays at “safe havens”.  Two boys were killed on a Cornish beach, mined to defend against German amphibious assault. Apparently, no one had thought to put up a sign.

Irene Wells, age 8, was standing in a church doorway, when she was crushed by an army truck.  One MP from the house of Commons said “There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas. Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated”.

When German air raids failed to materialize, many parents decided to bring the kids back home.  By January 1940, almost half of evacuees had returned.

980xAuthorities produced posters urging parents to leave the kids where they were, and a good thing, too. The Blitz against London itself began on September 7. The city experienced the most devastating attack to-date on December 29, in a blanket fire-bombing that killed almost 3,600 civilians.

Sometimes, refugees from relatively safe locations were shipped into high-risk target areas. Hundreds of refugees from Gibraltar were sent into London, in the early days of the Blitz. None of them could have been happy to leave London Station, to see hundreds of locals pushing past them, hurrying to get out.

This story doesn’t only involve the British home islands, either.  American Companies like Hoover and Eastman Kodak took thousands of children in, from employees of British subsidiaries.  Thousands of English women and children were evacuated to Australia, following the Japanese attack on Singapore.

62d70d4914a701b66b42480e66c82105By October 1940, the “Battle of Britain” had devolved into a mutually devastating battle of attrition, in which neither side was capable of striking the death blow. Hitler cast his gaze eastward the following June, with a surprise attack on his “ally”, Josef Stalin.

“Operation Steinbock”, the Luftwaffe’s last large-scale strategic bombing campaign of the war against southern England, was carried out three years later.  285 German bombers attacked London on this day in 1944, in what the Brits called the “Baby Blitz”. You’ve got to be some tough cookie, to call 245 bombers a Baby Blitz.

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Late in the war, the subsonic “Doodle Bug” or V1 “flying bomb” was replaced by the terrifying supersonic V2.  1,000 or more of these, the world’s first rocket, were unleashed against southern England, primarily London, killing or wounding 115,000. With a terminal velocity of 2,386mph, you never saw or heard this thing coming, until the weapon had done its work.

15092_0In the end, many family ‘reunions’ were as emotionally bruising as the original breakup.   Years had come and gone and new relationships had formed.  The war had turned biological family members, into all but strangers.

Richard Singleton remembers the day his mother came, to take him home to Liverpool.  “I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”

Douglas Wood tells a similar story.  “During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once,” he recalls. “On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognise me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”

The Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, commissioned an examination of the psychological effects of the separation. After a 12-month study, she concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”

January 28, 1521 A Scholarly Debate

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting Church authorities. This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium” – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer, but the boy wanted none of it.

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Hans & Margarethe Luder by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  Martin Luther was cut out for different things.

Luther entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out, almost immediately.  His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good deeds, over a lifetime.  Sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t a medium to be exchanged, he believed.  Rather, such grace was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “Commissioner for Indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. A saying attributed to the Dominican friar went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

0531f24949Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Martin Luther.  In 1520, the Papal Bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded the Professor of Theology to recant under pain of excommunication.

Luther stood on dangerous ground. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy.  Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against his followers, the “Hussieten”, five years later.

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King Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Pope Leo X named Henry “Fidei Defensor”.  “Defender of the Faith”. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin was forced to flee for his life, from a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.

Anabaptists Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were tortured in the public square for their heresies, with white-hot pliers.  Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, in Münster. The bones were removed some fifty years later, but those three cages remain there, to this day.

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The Papal edict had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions, and he publicly burned the document. Twenty-four days later, Martin Luther was excommunicated.

On this day in 1521, Emperor Charles V convened the Diet, the deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  Luther was summoned to defend himself in April.

With copies of his writings laid before him on a table, Luther was asked if the books were his, and if he stood by their contents.  He affirmed that yes, they were his, but asked time to consider his second answer.

The following day, Luther gave his response.  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

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Martin Luther testifies before the Diet of Worms, 1521

The “Edict of Worms” of the following month declared Luther an outlaw, ordering that he “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone who wished to do so was now permitted to kill the monk, without legal consequence.

Five years earlier, Erasmus of Rotterdam had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  It was there that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teachings far beyond his intentions, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding very much like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

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The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 27, 1945 Cabanatuan

The Japanese atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

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

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1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for ten to twenty-five thousand.

pows-cabanatuan20,000 died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

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

Cabanatuan-prisoncamp-report_555Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.

2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.

A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

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

Palawan_Massacre_POW_Burial_Site_1945On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames.   Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one.  Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale.  139 were burned, clubbed or machine gunned to death.

The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the United States Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.

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6th Ranger Battalion Capt. Robert Prince

On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.

The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, serving as guides and helping in the rescue.

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

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

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Filipino Guerilla fighters of Captain Juan Pajota

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

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

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

Two American Rangers were killed in the raid, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate.  Another died of illness on the long trip back.  464 American soldiers were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

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Carabao cart, similar to the ones used after the raid on Cabanatuan

Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out.  He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity.  One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”.  He “knew the Americans had arrived” but he rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he had “Cabanatuan all my own.”

POWs_celebrateHe dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

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

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

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

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January 26, 1945 Underage, and Under Weight

After the war, Audi Murphy was asked how he could have grabbed that machine gun, and taken on an entire company of German infantry.  “They were killing my friends”, he replied.

In the days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to enlist in the United States’ armed services.  One of these was the son of a Hunt County Texas sharecropper family,  Audie Leon Murphy.

He went to the Marine Corps, Navy and the Army, and all turned him down, for being underweight and under age.  Murphy changed his diet to “fatten” up, and appeared at a Dallas recruiting station six months later, armed with a sworn affidavit from his sister, inflating his age by a year. It was 10 days past his 17th birthday when Audi Murphy, all 5’5½” and 112 lbs of him, enlisted in the United States Army.

f50b348dd608662fdfc1b4b1203ddf06Murphy’s company commander thought he wasn’t big enough for infantry service, and attempted to transfer him to cook and bakers’ school. Murphy refused.  He wanted to be a combat soldier.

Joining the 3rd Infantry Division of George S. Patton’s 7th Army, Murphy participated in amphibious landings in Sicily in July, fighting in nearly every aspect of the Italian campaign.

From Palermo to Messina and on to Naples, Anzio and Rome, the Germans were driven out of the Italian peninsula in savage and near continuous fighting that killed a member of my own family.

By mid-December, the 3rd ID suffered 683 dead, 170 missing, and 2,412 wounded. Now Sergeant Murphy was there for most of it, excepting two periods when he was down with malaria.

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

Reduction of Colmar Pocket - January 20, 1945-February 9, 1944He was still in the hospital when his unit moved into the Vosges Mountains, in Eastern France.

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

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

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

Let Lt. Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation describe what happened next:

Audie-murphy-tank-scene-world-war-II-2“Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective”.

After the war, Audi Murphy was asked how he could have grabbed that machine gun, and taken on an entire company of German infantry.  “They were killing my friends”, he replied.

MurphyMOHThe man who had once been judged too small to fight was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of WW2, having received every military combat award for valor the United States Army has to give, plus additional awards for heroism, from France and from Belgium.

Audi Murphy returned to civil life and a 21-year career in Hollywood, starring in 40 feature films and a television series.  The transition was difficult  There were frequent bouts of depression and insomnia, and an addiction to sedatives.  He turned to poetry and songwriting for a creative outlet, but images of German war orphans could bring him to tears of guilt.  He slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, and there were episodes which professional colleagues and family members, found alarming.

In Murphy’s Day it was called “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”.  He was candid about his own difficulties, and called on government to give increased consideration to the emotional toll inflicted on those whom it sent into combat.

Audi Murphy was killed in a plane crash near Catawba, Virginia, and buried with full military honors, in Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 45.

Audie Murphy Gravesite

Nine years later, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the 3rd edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

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

I wonder about that term. “Disorder”.  The word makes it sound like there’s something wrong with these guys.

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

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January 25, 1925 Serum Run

A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way by dog sled.

In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates of Kos identified an upper respiratory infection, characterized by the formation of a leathery white “pseudomembrane” on the tonsils, pharynx, and/or nasal cavities of its victims.  Early symptoms resemble a cold or flu, in which fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.  Late symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies.

German bacteriologist Friedrich August Johannes Loeffler first identified Corynebacterium diphtheriae in the 1880s, the causal agent of the disease Diphtheria.  Within ten years, researchers had developed an effective antitoxin.

diphtheria-virus

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a leading cause of death among children and adults over 40.

Diphtheria is highly contagious and spread by direct physical contact and by breathing aerosolized secretions of its victims.  Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

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

download (7)Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the pseudomembrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

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

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A plea for help went out by telegram and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum. Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be required, but perhaps this would be enough to stave off epidemic, until a larger shipment arrived in February.

serum-run

A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin and wrapped in protective fur shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

On January 27, a US Marshal pounded on the door of Willard J. “Wild Bill” Shannon, begging for his help with the relay to Nome.   It was after midnight and −50° Fahrenheit , when Shannon and his nine-dog team received the serum. The temperature had dropped to −62°F by the time the team reached Tolovana, 24 hours later. Shannon himself was hypothermic, with parts of his face turned black with frostbite.  Three of his dogs had died on the way, of frostbitten lungs.

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Leonhard Seppala and his team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.  With Seppala’s 8-year old-daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, the stakes could not have been higher.

Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley”, Seppala gambled on a shortcut across the unstable ice of Norton Sound.  The howling gale threatened to break up the ice, stranding the team at sea, while visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see his “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled.  The 19-dog team struggled for traction on the glassy skin of the ocean water, returning to the coastline only hours before the ice broke up.

Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to Seppala’s lead dog.  Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve-year-old “Togo”, who was trusted with the lead.

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Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 that night. A massive gust estimated at 80mph upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the darkness with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

seppala520 mushers and 150 dogs or more had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks. Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough antitoxin for 30, the serum run had held the death toll to no higher than seven.

Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died while completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

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Gunnar Kaasen and Balto

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dog becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country, after Rin Tin Tin. There was a nine-month vaudeville tour, and Hollywood produced a 30-minute silent film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” starring himself in the lead role.

A bronze likeness was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925, with Balto in attendance.  The statue stands there to this day, though Kaasen’s lead is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards).

Balto’s notoriety was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53-mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead little more than a “freight dog”.  The statue was particularly galling.  “It was almost more than I could bear” he said, “when the ‘newspaper dog’ Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’”.

Balto, statue

Togo lived another four years though the serum run had rendered him lame, never again able to run. The real hero of the serum run spent the last years of his life in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away at the ripe old age of 16.

Wild Bill Shannon disappeared in 1937, while prospecting for gold.  His bones were discovered four years later, perhaps a victim of exposure, or his final “close call”, with a grizzly bear.

Togo and Seppala
Leonhard Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled his lead dog on the serum run.   “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”

Today, the memory of the 1925 serum run lives on in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, held every March and run over much of the same terrain as the ‘Great Race of Mercy’.   Togo himself is stuffed and mounted,  standing watch at the Iditarod museum headquarters, in Wasilla.