February 28, 1944 Test Pilot

In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – mein leben”, (Flying is my life), Hannah Reitsch offers no moral judgement one way or the other, on Hitler or the Third Reich.

Hannah Reitsch wanted to fly.  Born March 29, 1912 into an upper-middle-class family in Hirschberg, Silesia, it’s all she ever thought about. At the age of four, she tried to jump off the family balcony, to experience flight.  In her 1955 autobiography The Sky my Kingdom, Reitsch wrote:  ‘The longing grew in me, grew with every bird I saw go flying across the azure summer sky, with every cloud that sailed past me on the wind, till it turned to a deep, insistent homesickness, a yearning that went with me everywhere and could never be stilled.

94329f643cf875a2a36889aec9d1162c--hanna-reitsch-medical-schoolReitsch began flying gliders in 1932, as the treaty of Versailles prohibited anyone flying “war planes” in Germany. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women (9,184 feet).  In 1936, Reitsch was working on developing dive brakes for gliders, when she was awarded the honorary rank of Flugkapitän, the first woman ever so honored. In 1937 she became a Luftwaffe civilian test pilot.  She would hold the position until the end of WW2.

A German Nationalist who believed she owed her allegiance to the Fatherland more than to any party, Reitsch was patriotic and loyal, and more than a little politically naive.  Her work brought her into contact with the highest levels of Nazi party officialdom.  Like the victims of Soviet purges who went to their death believing that it would all stop “if only Stalin knew”, Reitsch refused to believe that Hitler had anything to do with events such as the Kristallnacht pogrom.  She dismissed any talk of concentration camps, as “mere propaganda”.

Hubschrauber Focke-Wulf FW 61 V1 in Berliner Deutschlandhalle 1938
In February 1938, Hannah Reitsch became the first person of either sex to fly a helicopter, the Focke-Achgelis Fa-61, inside a building, Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle. (ullstein bild via Getty Images)

As a test pilot, Reitsch won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life in an attempt to cut British barrage-balloon cables. On one test flight of the rocket powered Messerschmitt 163 Komet in 1942, she flew the thing at speeds of 500 mph, a speed nearly unheard of at the time. She spun out of control and crash-landed on her 5th flight, leaving her with severe injuries.  Her nose was all but torn off, her skull fractured in four places.  Two facial bones were broken, and her upper and lower jaws out of alignment.  Even then, she managed to write down what had happened, before she collapsed.

Hannah ReitschDoctors did not expect her to live, let alone fly again.  She spent five months in hospital, and suffered from debilitating dizzy spells.  She put herself on a program of climbing trees and rooftops, to regain her sense of balance.  Soon, she was test flying again.

On this day in 1944, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring awarded her a special diamond-encrusted version of the Gold Medal for Military Flying. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class, the first and only woman in German history, so honored.

It was while receiving this second Iron Cross in Berchtesgaden, that Reitsch suggested the creation of a Luftwaffe suicide squad, “Operation Self Sacrifice”.

Hanna-Reitsch-2Hitler was initially put off by the idea, though she finally persuaded him to look into modifying a Messerschmitt Me-328B fighter for the purpose. Reitsch put together a suicide group, becoming the first to take the pledge, though the idea would never take shape. The pledge read, in part: “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”

The plan came to an abrupt halt when an Allied bombing raid wiped out the factory in which the prototype Me-328s were being built.

In the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed his designated successor Hermann Göring, over a telegram in which the Luftwaffe head requested permission to take control of the crumbling third Reich.  Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, ordering Hannah to take him out of Berlin and giving each a vial of cyanide, to be used in the event of capture.   The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Adolf Hitler was dead.

Taken into American custody on May 9, Reitsch and von Greim repeated the same statement to American interrogators: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” She spent 15 months in prison, giving detailed testimony as to the “complete disintegration’ of Hitler’s personality, during the last months of his life.  She was found not guilty of war crimes, and released in 1946. Von Greim committed suicide, in prison.

Hanna-Reitsch

In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – mein leben”, (Flying is my life), Reitsch offers no moral judgement one way or the other, on Hitler or the Third Reich.

She resumed flying competitions in 1954, opening a gliding school in Ghana in 1962.  She later traveled to the United States, where she met Igor Sikorsky and Neil Armstrong, and even John F. Kennedy.

Hannah Reitsch remained a controversial figure, due to her ties with the Third Reich.  Shortly before her death in 1979, she responded to a description someone had written of her, as `Hitler’s girlfriend’.  “I had been picked for this mission” she wrote, “because I was a pilot…I can only assume that the inventor of these accounts did not realize what the consequences would be for my life.  Ever since then I have been accused of many things in connection with the Third Reich”.

592644327Toward the end of her life, she was interviewed by the Jewish-American photo-journalist, Ron Laytner. Even then she was defiant:  “And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost“.

Hannah Reitsch died in Frankfurt on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack.  Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown received a letter from her earlier that month, in which she wrote, “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.”  There was no autopsy, or at least there’s no report of one.  Brown, for one, believes that after all those years, she may have finally taken that cyanide capsule.

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February 27, 1992 The Founding Father & Son, of Golf

Young Tom Morris followed that first Open Championship in 1868 with three more, in 1869, 1870 and 1872. His record stands to this day, the only player ever to win four consecutive Open Golf Championships.   (There was no championship in 1871).

On this day in 1992, 16-year-old Tiger Woods became the youngest PGA golfer in 35 years, going on to become the first $100 million man on the Professional Tour.

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“Young” Tom Morris

The youngest in thirty-five years, but not the youngest.  Andy Zhang made the US Open in 2012, at the ripe old age of fourteen years, six months, but even he wasn’t the youngest.

The youngest golfer ever to play in one of the majors (the Masters, US & British Opens and the PGA Championship), was the appropriately named “Young” Tom Morris  Jr., a Scot who played in the 1865 British Open at 14 years and four months.

Morris withdrew from that year’s tournament, at about the time General Robert E. Lee was meeting General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.  Young Tom went on to win the British Open three years later, winning the equivalent of $12 for the feat. Ironically, the victory came at the expense of his father “Old” Tom Morris, Greenkeeper and club pro at the famous ‘Old Course’ at St. Andrews.

Young Tom followed that first Open Championship in 1868 with three more, in 1869, 1870 and 1872. His record stands to this day, the only player ever to win four consecutive Open Golf Championships.   (There was no championship in 1871).

The 18th Green of the Old Course at St. Andrews looks much the same today, as it did in 1891.

Young Tom went on to win three more Open tournaments, the first of only two teenagers in history to win any of the majors.  In 1864, Young Tom attended a tournament with his father at the King James VI Golf Club.  With days to go before his 13th birthday, he was too young to compete in either the professional or amateur sections.  Local organizers set up a two-man tournament between himself and a local youth champion.  A large gallery followed the two young golf stars throughout their match.  Those who did so were rewarded by seeing young Tom win the match, by a score sufficient to have won the professional tournament.

a-golf-match-involving-willie-park-old-tom-morris-and-young-tom-morris-g3b8fhThe Father/Son team tee’d off in match against the brothers Willie and Mungo Park on September 11, 1875. With two holes to go, Young Tom received a telegram with upsetting news. His wife Margaret had gone into a difficult labor. The Morrises finished those last two holes winning the match, and hurried home by ship across the Firth of Forth and up the coast. Too late. Tom Morris Jr. got home to find that his young wife and newborn baby, had died in childbirth.

Weeks later, Young Tom played a marathon tournament in wretched weather, leaving him in a weakened state and bleeding from his lungs. He died at St. Andrews, the “Home of Golf” and place of his birth, twenty-four years earlier. It was Christmas day.

In 2016, the historical drama “Tommy’s Honour” opened the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival, based on “Tommy’s Honor:  The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son” by Kevin Cook, one of five books voted 2007 “Book of the Year”, by Sports Illustrated.  Journalist and film critic Ross Miller wrote in The National newspaper of Scotland, calling the film “emotional, inspiring and deeply heartfelt.  You don’t have to be a golf fan” Miller wrote, ” to be taken in by this engrossing, quietly passionate film that not only brings something new to the sports biopic table but also serves as a poignant, often heartbreaking portrait of paternal love and pursuing your passion with everything you have.

The feature image at the top of the page depicting Old and Young Tom was shot at St. Mary’s Studio, and recently sold for $19,850.

February 26, 1936 The Road to War

While unsuccessful, the incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate internationalist politicians, putting an end to effective civilian control over the army while increasing the military’s influence over civilian government. 

As Japan emerged from the medieval period into the early modern age, the future Nippon Empire transformed from a period characterized by warring states, to the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shōgunate.  Here, a feudal military government ruled from the Edo castle in the Chiyoda district of modern-day Tokyo, over some 250 provincial domains called han.

48d1a1f4d1544d2b0e6a6093b3455ca8The military and governing structure of the time was based on a rigid and inflexible class system, placing the feudal lords or daimyō at the top, followed by a warrior-caste of samurai, and a lower caste of merchants and artisans.  At the bottom of it all stood some 80% of the population, the peasant farmer forbidden to engage in non-agricultural work, and expected to provide the income to make the whole system work.

Concerned about 17th century Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion into Asia made possible by Catholic missionaries, the Tokugawa Shōgunate issued three edicts of expulsion beginning in the early 1630s, effecting a complete ban on Christianity in the Japanese home islands.  The policy ushered in a period of national seclusion, where Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad, and foreign contact limited to a small number of Dutch and Chinese merchants, trading through the port of Nagasaki.

Economically, the production of fine silk and cotton fabrics, the manufacture of paper and porcelain and sake brewing operations thrived in the larger urban centers, bringing considerable wealth to the merchant class.  Meanwhile, the daimyō and samurai classes remained dependent on a fixed stipend tied to agricultural production, particularly in the smaller han.

The system led to a series of peasant uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme dislocation within the warrior caste.

Into this world stepped the “gunboat diplomats” of President Millard Filmore in the person of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, determined to open the ports of Japan to trade with the west.  By force, if necessary.

main-qimg-bcbcbd9d5177f80c4a51fcaa82d8ccb5In time, these internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment led to the end of the Tokugawa period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, in 1868.  The divisions would last, well into the 20th century.

By the 1920s, two factions had evolved within the Japanese Imperial Army.  The Kōdō-ha or “Imperial Way” members were the radical nationalists, resentful of civilian control over the military.  This group sought a “Shōwa Restoration”, purging Japan of western ideas and returning the Emperor to what they believed to be his rightful place.  By force, if necessary.  Incensed by the rural poverty they blamed on the privileged classes, the group was vehemently anti-capitalist, seeking to eliminate corrupt party politics and establish a totalitarian state-socialist government, run by the military.

Opposed to this group was the much larger Tōsei-ha or “Control faction” within the army, who stressed the need for technological development within the military, while taking a more conciliatory tone with the government when it came to military spending.

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Rebel occupation of the Sannō Hotel

In the Fall of 1930, a group of young officers of the Kōdō-ha attempted the assassinations of Prime Minister Osachi Hamaguchi, Prince Saionji Kinmochi. and Lord Privy Seal Makino Nobuaki.  The group attempted a coup the following March, and the installation of soldier-stateman Ugaki Kazushige, as Premier.  Ugaki himself was of the more moderate faction and took no role in the attempted coup, though he assumed responsibility and resigned his post.

That September, the ultra-nationalists launched an invasion of Manchuria, without authorization from the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff Office, and over objections from the civilian government.  A month later the group launched another coup attempt.  This too was unsuccessful but, as with the “March Incident” of six months earlier, the government’s response was excessively mild.   Ringleaders were sentenced to 10 or 20 days’ house arrest, and other participants were merely transferred.  For the radicals, such lenience became a virtual hall pass, ensuring that there would be future such efforts.

This “Righteous Army” faction remained influential throughout the period known as “government by assassination“, due largely to the threat that it posed. Sympathizers among the general staff and imperial family included Prince Chichibu, the Emperor’s own brother.  Years later, Winston Churchill would describe Hitler’s appeasers as “one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. Despite being fiercely anti-capitalist, this particular crocodile received sustenance from zaibatsu – the industrial and financial business leaders who hoped that their support would shield themselves.

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The February 26 incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate, internationalist leaders, including Finance minister Takahashi Korekiyo (left) and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, Saitō Makoto.

General Tetsuzan Nagata was murdered in 1935, following the discovery of yet another coup plot and the Army’s arrest and subsequent expulsion of its leaders.

In 1931, Japan abandoned the gold standard in an effort to defeat deflationary forces exerted by worldwide depression.  The “John Maynard Keynes of Japan”, the moderate politician and Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, argued for government deficit spending to stimulate demand.   The country emerged from the worst parts of the depression two years later, but Takahashi’s efforts to reign in military spending created a conspiracy mindset among more radical army officers.

On February 26, 1936, 1,438 soldiers divided into six groups attacked Prime Minister Admiral Keisuke Okada, former Prime Minister and now-Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, Grand Chamberlain Admiral Suzuki Kantarō, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and former Prime Minister Saitō Makoto, the Ministry of War, the offices of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, Tokyo police headquarters and attempted to seize the Imperial palace of the Emperor himself.

While unsuccessful, the incident killed some of Japan’s most moderate internationalist politicians, putting an end to effective civilian control over the army while increasing the military’s influence over civilian government.  Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was reassigned to sea to prevent his assassination by army hard-liners.  Another step had been taken, on the road to war.

February 25, 1921 Fellow Traveler

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

In the wake of the “Great War” and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities became increasingly alarmed concerning the rise of radical Leftism.

00000744Far-left anarchists mailed no fewer than 36 dynamite bombs to prominent political and business leaders in April 1919, alone. In June, another nine far more powerful bombs destroyed churches, police stations and businesses.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had one hand delivered to his home by anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who did something wrong and somehow managed blow himself to bits on the AG’s doorstep. Palmer attempted to suppress these radical organizations in 1919-20, but his searches and seizures were frequently illegal, his arrests and detentions without warrant, and his deportations questionable.

436398aceb9a0d77db5df9e6439394aa--red-scare-open-handsTo this day there are those who describe the period as the “First Red Scare”, as a way to ridicule the concerns of the era. The criticism seems unfair. The thing about history, is that we know how their story ends. The participants don’t, any more than we know what the future holds for ourselves.

Looking over the international tableau of the time, the largest nation on the planet had fallen to communism, in 1917. The Red Army offensive of 1920 drove into Poland, almost as far as Warsaw. The “Peace of Riga”, signed in 1921 split off parts of Belarus and Ukraine, making them parts of Soviet Russia. On this day in 1921, Bolshevist Russian forces occupied Tbilisi, capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

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Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers was one of those who believed the winning side to be on the political Left, and joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1925. Chambers worked for a time as a writer at the Party’s newspaper “Daily Worker”, before becoming editor of “New Masses”, the Party’s literary magazine.

From the early to mid-thirties, Chambers delivered messages and received documents from Soviet spies in the government, photographing them himself or delivering them for Soviet intelligence agents to photograph. At some point, Chambers’ idealism began to waver, with the realization that he was supporting a murderous regime. By 1939, he joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he pushed a strong anti-communist line.

A series of legislative committees were formed between 1918 and the outbreak of WWII to investigate this series of threats, though these committees sometimes did more to construct the image of a threat than they did to stop one. It was in this context that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938, becoming a “standing” (permanent) committee in 1945.

Alger Hiss
Alger Hiss

Whittaker Chambers warned about communist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration as early as 1939, the FBI interviewed him in 1942.  Government priorities began to change n the wake of WWII, and Chambers was summoned to testify on August 3, 1945, where he named Alger Hiss and others as Communists.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss seemed an unlikely communist. He had gone on to practice law in Boston and New York before returning to Washington to work on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, winding up at the State Department as an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, former President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. By this time Hiss was a high ranking official in the State Department.

Hiss flatly denied Chambers’ charges, filing suit for defamation of character in December. Chambers escalated in his 1948 deposition for the suit, claiming that, not only was Hiss a communist sympathizer, he was also a spy.

pumpkinBefore defecting from the Left, Chambers had secreted documents and microfilms, some of which he hid inside a pumpkin at his Maryland farm. The collection was known as the “Pumpkin Papers”, consisting of incriminating documents, written in what appeared to Hiss’ own hand, or typed on his Woodstock no. 230099 typewriter.

Defending himself, Hiss claimed to have given the typewriter to his maid, Claudia Catlett. When the idiosyncrasies of Hiss’ machine were demonstrated to be consistent with the documents, he then claimed that Chambers’ team including freshman member of Congress Richard M. Nixon, must have modified the typeface on a second typewriter to mimic his own.

woodstockHiss’ theory never explained why Chambers side needed another typewriter, if they’d had the original long enough to mimic its imperfections with a second.

Alger Hiss’ first trial for lying to a Grand Jury ended with a hung jury, 8-4.  A second trial began on November 17, found him guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950.  Hiss maintained that he was innocent but lost his conviction, and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary before being released in 1954.

What many saw as a devoted civil servant maligned by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940, others believed to be a liar and enemy agent.  Alger Hiss went to his grave in 1996, protesting his innocence.

Soviet-era cables, decrypted through a now-declassified program called the “Venona Project”, seem to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of being a soviet agent. Venona transcript #1822, sent in March 1945 from the Soviet Washington station chief to Moscow, describes the subject codenamed ALES as having attended the February 4–11, 1945 conference at Yalta, before traveling to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta on these dates, before going to Moscow with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.

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Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr report that the Venona transcripts tie approximately 349 Americans to Soviet intelligence, though fewer than half that number were ever identified.  The Office of Strategic Services alone, precursor to the CIA, housed between fifteen and twenty Soviet spies.

The CIA’s official conclusion, based on the CIA.gov on-line library is that “Although no specific file on Hiss has been released from the KGB or GRU archives, enough material has been found in other files–in Moscow, Eastern Europe, and Washington–to enable historians to write several new works that leave almost no room for doubt about Hiss’ guilt”.

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February 24, 1917  The Zimmermann Telegram

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

On May 10, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson gave what came to be known as his “Too Proud to Fight Speech” in which he said:  “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right”.

Lusitania sinkingThough Wilson didn’t mention it directly, HMS Lusitania had been torpedoed only three days earlier with the loss of 1,198, 128 of whom were Americans.

No one doubted that the attack on the civilian liner was foremost on the President’s mind.  Back in February, Imperial Germany had declared a naval blockade against Great Britain, warning that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening“.  “Neutral ships” the announcement continued, “will also incur danger in the war region“.

Lusitania warningThe reaction to the Lusitania sinking was immediate and vehement, portraying the attack as the act of barbarians and huns and demanding a German return to “prize rules”, requiring submarines to surface and search merchantmen while placing crews and passengers in “a place of safety”.

Imperial Germany protested that Lusitania was fair game, as she was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

Nevertheless, the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war against Germany.

President Wilson was elected back in 1912, talking about the sort of agrarian utopia favored by Thomas Jefferson.  In 1916, the election was about war and peace.  Wilson won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, but it hadn’t been easy.  In Europe, WWI was in its second year while, to our south, Mexico was going through a full-blown revolution.  Public opinion had shifted in favor of England and France by this time.  The German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, threatened to tip the balance.

With Great Britain holding naval superiority on the surface, Germany had to do something to starve the British war effort.  In early 1917, chief of the Admiralty Staff Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff argued successfully for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the policy to take effect on February 1.

Anticipating the results of such a move, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann dispatched a telegram to German ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckardt on January 19, authorizing the ambassador to propose a military alliance with Mexico, in the event of American entry into the war.  “We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

housatonic-4-facta-nautica-1000x544The American cargo vessel SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England on February 3, and boarded by German submarine U-53.  Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who explained he was sorry, but Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”.  She would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American’s soap supplies.  Apparently, WWI-vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, the U-Boat towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been spotted, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

SS_CaliforniaPresident Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed, but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

In Mexico, a military commission convened by President Venustiano Carranza quickly concluded that the German proposal was unviable, but the damage was done.  British code breakers intercepted the Zimmermann telegram, divulging the contents to the American government on February 24.

images (22)The contents of Zimmermann’s note were published in the American media on March 1.  Even then, there was considerable antipathy toward the British side, particularly among Americans of German and Irish ethnicity.  “Who says this thing is genuine, anyway”, they might have said.  “Maybe it’s a British forgery”.

Zimmermann himself put an end to such speculation two days later, telling an American journalist, “I cannot deny it. It is true.” What Zimmermann had hoped that Americans would see as mere contingency, public opinion in the US saw as an unforgivable betrayal of American neutrality.

The combination of events was the last straw.  Wilson’s War Cabinet voted unanimously for a declaration of war on March 20.  The President himself delivered his war address before a joint session of Congress, two weeks later.  The United States entered the “war to end all wars”, on April 6.

Afterward

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

Lusitania, ammunition

February 23, 1836  The Lexington of Texas

“If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”

Following the Mexican War of Independence with Spain, (1810 – 1821), Texas became a part of Mexico.  In 1831, Mexican authorities gave the settlers of Gonzales a small swivel cannon, a defense against the raids of the Comanche.  The political situation deteriorated in the following years.  By 1835, several Mexican states were in open revolt.  That September, commander of “Centralist” (Mexican) troops in Texas Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, came to take it back.

Dissatisfied with the increasingly dictatorial policies of President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the colonists had no intention of handing over that cannon.  One excuse was given after another to keep the Mexican dragoons out of Gonzalez, while secret pleas for help went out to surrounding communities.  Within two days, 140 “Texians” had gathered in Gonzalez, fashioning a flag that echoed some 2,315 years through history, King Leonidas’ defiant response to the Persian tyrant, Xerxes:   “Come and Take it.”

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Militarily, the skirmish of October 2 had little significance, much the same as the early battles in the Massachusetts colony, some sixty years earlier.  Politically, the “Lexington of Texas” marked a break between Texian settlers, and the Mexican government.

Settlers continued to gather, electing the well-respected local and former legislator of the Missouri territory Stephen F. Austin, as their leader.  Santa Anna sent his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos to reinforce the settlement of San Antonio de Béxar, near the modern city of San Antonio.  On the 13th, Austin led his Federalist army of Texians and their Tejano allies to Béxar, to confront the garrison.  Austin’s forces captured the town that December, following a prolonged siege. It was only a matter of time before Santa Anna himself came to take it back.

Two forts – more like lonely outposts – blocked the only approaches from the Mexican interior into Texas: Presidio La Bahía (Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio) at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio de Béxar.  That December, a group of volunteers led by George Collinsworth and Benjamin Milam overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo, and captured the fort  The Mexican President arrived on February 23 at the head of an army of 3,000, demanding its surrender.  Lieutenant Colonel William Barret “Buck” Travis, responded with a cannon ball.

Knowing that his small force couldn’t hold for long against such an army, Travis sent out a series of pleas for help and reinforcement, writing “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” 32 troops attached to Lt. George Kimbell’s Gonzales ranging company made their way through the enemy cordon and into the Alamo on March 1. There would be no more.

Alamo-Weight-Loss-Motivation-2Estimates of the Alamo garrison have ranged between 189 and 257 at this stage, but current sources indicate that defenders never numbered more than 200.

On March 2, 1836, the interim government of Texas signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.  The final assault on the Alamo began at 5:00am, four days later. 1,800 troops attacked from four directions.  600 to 1,600 were killed from concentrated artillery fire and close combat, but the numbers were overwhelming. Hand to hand fighting moved to the barracks after the walls were breached, and ended in the chapel.

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As many as seven defenders still lived when it was over, many believe that former Congressman Davy Crockett was among them. Santa Anna ordered them summarily executed. By 8:00am there were no survivors, except for a handful of noncombatant women, children, and slaves, slowly emerging from the smoking ruins. These were provided with blankets and two dollars apiece, and given safe passage through Mexican lines with the warning:  a similar fate awaited any Texan who continued in their revolt.

Three weeks later following the Battle of Coleto, 350 Texian prisoners were murdered by the Mexican army under direct orders from Santa Anna, an event remembered as the Goliad massacre.

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Measuring 570′, the San Jacinto Monument is the world’s longest masonry column

The ranks of Sam Houston’s unit swelled with volunteers, as Houston’s army retreated eastward, along with the provisional government and hordes of civilians.  Houston’s green and inexperienced force of 1,400, were now all that stood on the side of Texan independence.

On April 21, a force of some 900 Texans shouting “Remember the Alamo!” & “Remember Goliad!” and led by Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna’s force of some 1,300 at San Jacinto, near modern day Houston.  In “one of the most one-sided victories in history” 650 Mexican soldiers were killed in eighteen minutes and another 300 captured, compared with 11 Texians dead and another 30 wounded, including Houston itself.    Mexican troops occupying San Antonio were ordered to withdraw, by May.

Intermittent conflicts continued into the 1840s between Texas and Mexico, but the outcome was never again placed in doubt.  Texas became the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845.

As for Santa Anna, he went on to lose a leg to a cannon ball two years later, fighting the French at the Battle of Veracruz. Following amputation, the leg spent four years buried at Santa Anna’s hacienda, Manga de Clavo. When Santa Anna resumed the presidency in late 1841, he had the leg dug up and placed in a crystal vase, brought amidst a full military dress parade to Mexico City and escorted by the Presidential bodyguard, the army, and cadets from the military academy. This guy was nothing if not a self-promoter.

The leg was reburied in an elaborate ceremony in 1842, including cannon salvos, speeches, and poetry read in the General’s honor. The state funeral for Santa Anna’s leg was attended by his entire cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and the Congress.

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna served 11 non-consecutive terms as Mexican President, spending most of his later years in exile in Jamaica, Cuba, the United States, Colombia, and St. Thomas. In 1869, the 74-year-old former President was living in Staten Island, trying to raise money for an army to return and take over Mexico City. Santa Anna is credited with bringing the first shipments of chicle to America, a gum-like substance made from the tree species, Manilkara chicle, and trying to use the stuff as rubber on carriage tires.

Thomas Adams, the American assigned to aid Santa Anna while he was in the US, also experimented with chicle as a substitute for rubber. He bought a ton of the stuff from the General, but his experiments would likewise prove unsuccessful. Instead, Adams helped to found the American chewing gum industry with a product called “Chiclets”.

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February 22, 2005 Not for Sale

“Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution”, Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not”.

In 1775, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull proposed a fortification at the port of New London, situated on the Thames River and overlooking Long Island Sound. The fort was completed two years later and named for the Governor. During the Revolution, Fort Trumbull was attacked and occupied by British forces, for a time commanded by the turncoat American General, Benedict Arnold.

By the early 20th century, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood consisted of 90 or so single and multi-family working class homes, situated on a peninsula along the fringes of a mostly industrialized city center.

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In 2000, Susette Kelo and her “little pink house” became the main plaintiff in the Supreme Court eminent domain case, “Kelo v. New London”

In 1996, chemists working at Pfizer Corporation’s research facility in England were studying compound UK-92, 480 or “Sildenafil Citrate”, synthesized for the treatment of a range of thoracic circulatory conditions.  Study subjects were expected to return unused medication at the end of the trial. Women showed no objection to doing so but a significant number of male subjects refused to give it back. It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening.  The chemical compound which would one day bear the name “Viagra”, had revealed itself to be useful in other ways.

For the newly divorced paramedic Susette Kelo, the house overlooking the Fort Trumbull waterfront was the home of her dreams. Long abandoned and overgrown with vines, the little Victorian cottage needed a lot of work, but where else was she going to find a waterfront view at such a price?  It was 1997, about the time that Connecticut and New London politicians resurrected the long-dormant New London Development Corporation (NLDC), in an attempt to revitalize the city’s waterfront.

Susette Kelo sanded her floors on hands and knees as Pfizer Corporation, already occupying the largest office complex in the city, was looking at a cataract of new business based on their latest chemical compound. The company was recruited to become the principal tenant in a “World Class” multi-use waterfront campus, including high-income housing, hotels, shopping and restaurants, all centered around a 750,000 sq. ft. corporate research facility.

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Bill von Winkle stands in front of two properties he owns in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, CT

Connecticut College professor and NLDC President Dr. Claire Gaudiani liked to talk about her “hip” new development project.  Fort Trumbull residents were convinced that stood for “High Income People”. With an average income of $22,500, that didn’t include themselves.

Most property owners agreed to sell, though not exactly “voluntarily”.  There was considerable harassment of the reluctant ones, including late-night phone calls, waste dumped on properties, and tenants locked out of apartments during cold winter weather.

Seven homeowners holding fifteen properties refused to sell, at any price. Wilhelmina Dery was in her eighties. She was born in her house and she wanted to die there. The Cristofaro family had lost another New London home in the ’70s, taken by eminent domain during yet another “urban renewal” program. They didn’t want to lose this one, too.

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Susette Kelo and her “little pink house”

In 2000, Susette Kelo came home from work the day before Thanksgiving, to find an eviction notice taped to her door.

Letters were written to editors and protest rallies were held, as NLDC and state officials literally began to bulldoze homes. Holdout property owners were left trying to prevent personal injury and property damage, from flying demolition debris.

Facing a prolonged legal battle which none of the homeowners could afford, the group got a boost when the Libertarian law firm Institute for Justice took their case pro bono. There was cause for hope. Retired homeowner Vera Coking had faced a similar fight against Now-President Donald Trump’s development corporation back in 1993, when the developer and Atlantic City New Jersey authorities attempted to get her house condemned to build a limo lot.

KeloAfterWreck0209Eminent domain exists for a purpose, but the most extreme care should be taken in its use. Plaintiffs argued that this was not a “public use”, but rather a private corporation using the power of government to take their homes for economic development, a violation of both the takings clause of the 5th amendment and the due process clause of the 14th.

Vera Coking won her case against the developer and the municipality.  The casino itself later failed and closed its doors. New London District Court, with Susette Kelo lead plaintiff, “split the baby”, ruling that 11 out of 15 takings were illegal and unconstitutional. At that point, the ruling wasn’t good enough for the seven homeowners. They had been through too much.  All of them would stay, or they would all go.

Connecticut’s highest court reversed the decision, throwing out the baby AND the bathwater in a 3-4 decision. The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, argued before the seven justices then in attendance on February 22, 2005.

SCOTUS ruled in favor of New London in a 5-4 decision, Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer concurring. Seeing the decision as a reverse Robin Hood scheme that would steal from the poor to give to the rich, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms“.

20110325_26_300x400Clarence Thomas took an originalist view, stating that the majority opinion had confused “Public Use” with “Public Purpose”. “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution“, Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not“.  Antonin Scalia concurred, seeing any tax advantage to the municipality as secondary to the taking itself.

In the end, most of the homes were destroyed or relocated. State and city governments spent $78 million and bulldozed 70 acres.  The 3,169 new jobs and the $1.2 million in new tax revenue anticipated from the waterfront development, never materialized.  Pfizer backed out of the project, moving 1,400 existing jobs to a campus it owns in nearby Groton.  The move was completed around the time when tax breaks were set to expire, raising the company’s tax bill by 500%.

Susette Kelo sold her home for a dollar to Avner Gregory, a preservationist who dismantled the little pink house and moved it across town.  A monument to what Ambrose Bierce once called “The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

Movie Trailer and feature image above from the film “Little Pink House”, scheduled for release in April, 2018.

In 2011, the now-closed redevelopment area became a dumping ground for debris left by Hurricane Irene.  The only residents, were feral cats.

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“Michael Cristofaro in the field in New London, Conn., where his parents lived. The city seized the land for a private “urban village” that was never built. Pfizer’s complex is in the background”. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times