August 31, 1959 Sgt. Reckless

Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard an RCLR go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t bother to look up.  She was happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

A Recoilless Rifle is a type of lightweight tube artillery. Think of a portable cannon. Kind of a bazooka, really, only the Recoilless fires modified shells rather than rockets. The back blast of these shells compensates for the mule’s kick which would otherwise be expected from such a weapon, making the rifle “recoilless”.

While that reduces projectile range, reduced gas pressures permit a thinner-walled barrel, resulting in a weapon light enough to be served by a 2 to 3-man crew, and shoulder fired by a single infantryman.

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The “RCLR” weapon system has provided the punch of artillery to mobile troop formations since the early days of WWII, including Airborne, Special Forces and Mountain units.

The problem arises when combat operations consume ammunition faster than the supply chain can replace it. Mountainous terrain makes the situation worse. Even today in the more mountainous regions of Afghanistan, there are times when the best solution for the problem, is horsepower.

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Ah Chim-hai was a chestnut mare of mixed Mongolian and Thoroughbred lineage, a race horse at the track in Seoul, South Korea. Her name translated as “Flame of the Morning”.
Lieutenant Eric Pedersen of the recoilless rifle platoon, anti-tank company of the 5th Marine Regiment, needed a pack animal to carry the weapon’s 24-lb shells up Korean mountain passes. In October 1952, Pederson received permission from regimental commander Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, to buy a horse for his platoon.

Lt. Pederson and stable boy Kim Huk-moon agreed on a price of $250, and Pederson paid with his own money. Kim cried on watching his “Flame” leave the stable, but the sale had a higher purpose.  The boy’s sister had stepped on a land mine, and badly needed a prosthetic leg.

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The Marines called the new recruit “Reckless” – a nod to the weapon system she was meant to serve, and to the fighting spirit of the 5th Marines.

Pederson wrote to his wife in California to send a pack saddle, while Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham and Private First Class Monroe Coleman provided for her care and training.

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Navy Hospitalman First Class George “Doc” Mitchell provided most of Reckless’ medical care, Latham taught her battlefield skills: how to step over communication wires, when to lie down under fire, how to avoid becoming entangled in barbed wire. She learned to run for cover, at the cry “Incoming!”

The platoon built her a bunker and fenced off a pasture, but soon Reckless was allowed to roam freely throughout the camp. She’d enter tents at will, sometimes spending the night if it was cold.

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She’d eat anything: bacon, mashed potatoes, shredded wheat.  She loved scrambled eggs.  Just about anything else that a Marine wasn’t watching closely enough, as well. Reckless even ate her horse blanket once, and she loved a beer. Mitchell had to warn his fellow Marines against giving her more than two Cokes a day, which she’d drink out of a helmet. Once, she ate $30 worth of winning poker chips.

General Randolph McCall Pate, a veteran of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Korea, served as the 21st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1956 – ’59.  Pate wrote: “I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her.”  Reckless was a Marine.

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Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard an RCLR go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t bother to look up.  She was happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

Recoilless rifle tactics call for fire teams to fire four or five rounds, and then relocate before the enemy can shoot back. Reckless usually learned the route after one or two trips, often traveling alone to deliver supplies on the way up, and evacuate wounded on the way down.

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In February 1953, Captain Dick Kurth and his Fox Company were fighting for a hill called “Detroit”. Reckless made 24 trips by herself, carrying a total 3,500lbs of ammunition over 20 miles. She made 51 solo trips that March, during the battle for Outpost Vegas. Reckless carried 9,000lbs of ammunition in a single day, over 35 miles of open rice paddies and steep hills. At times, artillery exploded around her at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. She was wounded twice during the battle. That night, she was too exhausted to do anything but hang her head while they rubbed her down.

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

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On August 31, 1959, Reckless was promoted to Staff Sergeant in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. 1,900 of her 5th Marine comrades attended, as did two of her sons, “Fearless” and “Dauntless”. A third, “Chesty”, was unavailable to attend.

General Pate wrote: “In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did. . .Reckless.”

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Life Magazine published a collector’s edition in 1997, listing 100 heroes from American history. Alongside the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Sally Ride and Abraham Lincoln, was that of a small Mongolian horse. Sergeant Reckless.

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August 30, 1776 A Damn Close-Run Thing

The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible only through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

When General George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did he take command of an “army”, equipped with with an average of only nine rounds per man.

116037-040507-01.tif1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.

Manhandled all the way from the frozen wilderness of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.

General sir William Howe faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill.   A British victory, yes, but one which came at a cost that  Howe could ill afford to pay again.

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when that fleet evacuated Boston Harbor, and removed to Nova Scotia.  Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw.  The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor along with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

Declaration of IndependenceThe Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.

King’s Regular and Rebel alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communications between the New England colonies, and those in the south.  Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York, placing his troops along the west end of Long Island in anticipation of the British arrival.

The British fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June.  Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island, under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother.  By August 12 the British force numbered 400 vessels with 73 warships, with a force of some 32,000 camped on Staten island.

American forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. The British dug in for a siege, confident that their adversary was cornered and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience, while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

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“British troops in the type of flat-bottomed boat used for the invasion of Long Island. Hessians in their blue uniforms are in the two boats that are only partly visible”. H/T Wikipedia

Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great feats of military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side on waking for the morning of August 30, to discover that the American army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

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Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By December, the Continental army had fled New York, to the south of New Jersey.  Already reduced to a puny force of only 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced a decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of those.  With nowhere to go but on offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25, defeating a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

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While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of its time.  Cornwallis had suffered three defeats in the last ten days, and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared, as enlistments came flooding in.

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Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777

The American war for independence would not be over, for another six years.  Before it was through, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined.  Yet, that first year had come and gone, and the former colonies were still in the fight.

A generation later, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain “Corsican corporal” at a place called Waterloo.  Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815:  “It was a damn close run thing“.

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 as well. 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.

August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, a token of gratitude for the return of HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier. Excepting a brief period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the desk has been in the oval office or a private study in the White House, from that day to this.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

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Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few ships suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

e9b3482e7a0e242654668c20479b9fb4HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan, and refitted for Arctic exploration. Re-named Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  HMS Resolute found and rescued the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

resoluteice2Three of the HMS Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it, despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return.
Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

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The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, giving her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit, and Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented her to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.

Resolute, ReaganThe desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office.

FDR had a panel installed in the opening, since he was self conscious about his leg braces. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk, while his young son JFK, Jr., played under it.
Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House, after the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only time the desk has been out of the White House.

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office, where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, thus far, Donald J. Trump.

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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 as well. 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.

August 28, 1854 Broad Street Well

If you’re ever in London, stop and hoist a glass to an unsung hero.  One of the Founding Fathers, of modern epidemiology.

The waterborne bacterium Vibrio cholerae (V. cholerae) lives in the warm waters of coastal estuaries and rivers, and the waters along coastal plains. Most of the time, those contracting the bacterium do so by consuming contaminated water, developing only mild symptoms or none at all.

Most times the infection resolves itself yet, at times, urban density has combined with poor sanitation, to produce some of the most hideous pandemics, in medical history.

The origins of Cholera, are unknown. The Portuguese explorer Gaspar Correa described a flare-up in the Ganges Delta city of Bangladesh in the spring of 1543, an outbreak so virulent that it killed most victims within eight hours, with a mortality rate so high that locals struggled to bury all the dead.

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V. Cholerae populations undergo explosive growth in the intestines of the sufferer, releasing a toxin and causing cells to expel massive quantities of fluid. Severe cramps lead to “rice water” diarrhea and the rapid loss of electrolytes.  Dehydration is so severe that it leads to plummeting blood pressures and often, death.  It’s easy to see how the disease can “spike”.  One such episode can cause a million-fold increase in bacterial populations in the environment, according to the CDC.

The first pandemic emerged out of the Ganges Delta in 1817, spreading to Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. 100,000 were killed on the island of Java, alone. The severe winter of 1823-’24 appears to have killed off much of the bacteria living in water supplies, but not for long.

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H/T Cholera. Between Life and Death Fr. Scott Binet MD, MI CTF-SOS D RS Sao Paulo, Brazil – October 20, 2011

The second Cholera pandemic began in 1830-’31, spreading throughout Poland, Russia and Germany. The disease reached Great Britain in 1832, when authorities undertook quarantines and other measures, to contain the outbreak.

Four years earlier, William Burke and William Hare had carried out 16 murders over a ten-month period in Edinburgh, selling the corpses to Doctor Robert Knox for dissection during his anatomy lectures. Now, quarantines were met with pubic fear, and distrust of government and medical authorities. ‘Cholera riots’ broke out in Liverpool and London, with demands to ‘Bring out the Burkers”.

burke_and_hare-600x450The world would see four more cholera pandemics between 1852 and 1923, with the first being by far, the deadliest. This one devastated much of Asia, North America and Africa. in 1854, the worst year of the outbreak, 23,000 died in Great Britain, alone.

In 1760, the British capital of London was home to some 740,000 souls. One-hundred years later, population shifts had ballooned that number to nearly 3.2 million, in a city without running water.

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A Drop of Thames Water, by Punch,,1850

At one time, the many farms surrounding the city of London used the, er…”stuff” provided by “Gong Farmers”, the ‘nightsoilmen’ whose execrable job it was to shovel out the growing numbers of cesspits throughout the city, for fertilizer.  Transportation costs grew as the city expanded, and the farms moved away.  In 1847, solidified bird droppings (guano) were brought in from South America at a cost far below that of the local stuff, leaving London’s poorer quarters increasingly, to their own filth.

The “Great Stink” of Victorian-era London is beyond the scope of this essay, save to point out that formal portraits may be found of Queen Victoria herself, with a clothespin on her nose.  Today the topic is mildly amusing and not a little disgusting however, in an era before public sewage, we’re talking about life and death.

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In 1854, police constable Thomas Lewis lived with his wife Mary and five-month-old Frances, at 40 Broad Street in the Soho neighborhood of London.  The baby developed severe diarrhea over August 28-29, as Mrs Lewis soaked the soiled ‘nappies’ in pails of water.  These she dumped into the pit in front of her house, as first her baby and then her husband, sickened and died.

The pit was three feet away from the Broad Street well, where much of the neighborhood came to pump drinking water.

homePageImageSeveral other outbreaks had occurred that year, but this one was particularly acute.  Within the next three days, 127 died within a short distance of the Broad Street address.  By September 10, there were five-hundred more.

In the third century AD, the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon first described the “miasma” theory of illness, holding that infectious disease such as Cholera were caused by noxious clouds of “bad air”. Today the theory is discredited but, such ideas die hard.

Most everyone blamed the fetid air for the cholera outbreak, but Dr. John Snow was different.  Snow suspected there was something in the water and, through door-to-door interviews and careful analysis of mortality rates, devised a ‘dot map’ identifying the Broad Street address.

“On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street …”

Snow himself believed in the Miasma theory of disease as did Reverend Henry Whitehead, who helped him collect his data. Yet somehow, the pair became convinced that infectious agents were somehow concentrated in the water, and they had found the “Index Case”.

Despite near-universal skepticism regarding Dr. Snow’s theories, the pump handle at 40 Broad Street was removed.  It was later re-installed but, by that time, the danger had passed.  Untold numbers of lives were saved by Dr. Snow’s intervention.

Dr. Snow succumbed to a stroke in 1858 and died at the age of 45, never learning how right he had been.  Dr. Louis Pasteur opened his institute for the study of microbiology, thirty years later.

Today, the place is known as “Broadwick Street”.  There’s a replica of the old water pump out front of #40, across from the John Snow pub.  If you’re ever in London, stop and hoist a glass to an unsung hero.  One of the Founding Fathers, of modern epidemiology.

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 as well. 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.

August 27, 1955 Guinness Book of World Records

The free reference book once intended to inform barroom squabbles has spawned a franchise including museums and television programs, becoming the leading  international authority for the certification of every world record you can think of, from the longest fingernail (2 feet, 11 inches), to the longest mustache (14 feet), to slam dunking basketball bunnies.

Hugh Campbell Beaver was a British engineer and industrialist and, at the time of this story, Managing Director of the brewery founded by Arthur Guinness, about two hundred years earlier. Beaver was on a hunting trip in County Rexford in Ireland, when a friendly argument broke out among the group. Which is the fastest game bird in Europe, the golden plover, or the grouse?

StjamesgateThe information was surprisingly difficult to find, and no reference book was available to settle the matter.

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Julia Gnuse, Guinness World Record most tatooed woman H/T IrishCentral.com

At that time, there were some 81,400 pubs in Great Britain and Ireland. What if they all had a reference book to settle such weighty matters, while enjoying a Guinness Draught, of course.

Beaver turned out to be more correct, than he realized.

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H/T Today.com

At that time, Norris and Ross McWhirter were running a fact-finding agency in London “to supply facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks, encyclopedias and advertisers” and working as sports reporters, on the side. One of the athletes they covered was the middle and long-distance runner Christopher Chataway, who just happened to work for the Guinness Brewery.

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“Chandra Bahadur Dangi, from Nepal, left, the shortest adult to have ever been verified by Guinness World Records, poses for pictures with the world’s tallest man Sultan Kosen from Turkey, in London on November 13, 2014, to mark Guinness World Records Day.” H/T Today.com

Chattaway introduced the pair to Beaver in 1954. Guinness’ directors were impressed with the encyclopedic knowledge possessed by the McWhirter twins, when it came to facts and figures. The brothers agreed to take up work and, on this day in 1955, the 198-page Guinness Book of Records was first published in Great Britain.

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“Guinness World Records Day: The world’s shortest married couple”  H/T Express.co.uk

The book was intended to be given out for free, but proved to be far more popular than anyone had expected. The company began selling it that fall. Within four months, the book was non-fiction best-seller, in all the United Kingdom.

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“Norris McWhirter holding a copy of the largest diamond in the world (1977)” HWikipedia

Soon, the McWhirter brothers were traveling the world over, to research and verify records. The first American edition was published in 1956, followed by editions in other countries.

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Largest human image, of a camera. H/T Nikon

In the early 1960s, the McWhirter twins became involved in British Conservative party politics, bringing the pair into conflict with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Ross was hunted down and murdered in front of his home in 1975, by IRA gunmen. His brother Norris continued to serve as the book’s editor until retiring, in 1986.

Guinness-World-Records-2017-stars-main_tcm55-443157The free reference book once intended to inform barroom squabbles has spawned a franchise including museums and television programs, becoming the leading  international authority for the certification of every world record you can think of, from the longest fingernail (2 feet, 11 inches), to the longest mustache (14 feet), to slam dunking basketball bunnies.

As of this year the book is in its 63rd year of publication, published in 100 countries and 23 languages and itself holding a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted book of all time.

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 as well. 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.

August 26, 1883 Krakatoa

Roughly 90% of all earthquakes and 75% of potentially active volcanoes in the world, occur along a horseshoe shaped Ring of Fire, encircling the Pacific Ocean.

Within living memory, the “greatest generation” fought the most destructive war, in human history. Had any of them survived the experience, the parents and grandparents of that generation could’ve gazed into the abyss, at a force capable of breaking the very world, on which the great contest was won.

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H/T LiveScience.com

Deep in the ground beneath our feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer layer, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet.  Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a liquid core of molten material, comprising approximately two-thirds the cross-section of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of approximately 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate the pressures within this outer core to be approximately 3.3 million times atmospheric pressure, generating temperatures of 10,800° Fahrenheit, a temperature comparable to the surface of the sun.

ABWCWW Earth s Core
ABWCWW Earth s Core

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

This movement in what we’d like to regard as Terra Firma, results in deep ocean trenches (the Aleutian Trench reaches depths of 25,194 feet) and mountain ranges such as the Andes along the border with Argentina and Chile, where towering peaks reach a height of over 22,500 feet or more.tectonic+plates+map

800px-Subduction-en.svgRoughly 90% of all earthquakes and 75% of potentially active volcanoes in the world, occur along a horseshoe shaped Ring of Fire, encircling the Pacific Ocean.

One hundred and thirty five years ago today, a mere blink of an eye in geologic time, the most destructive volcano in recorded history erupted along the western reaches of this ring of fire on the Indonesian island of Krakatau (Krakatoa).

Early seismic activity began several years before the 1883 eruption, with earthquakes felt as far away, as Australia. Steam began to vent in May of that year, from the northernmost of three cones comprising the island group of Krakatau. Explosions could be heard from as much as 99 miles away by the end of May, propelling thick clouds of ash to an estimated altitude of 20,000 feet, before activity died down in early June.

Eruptions at Krakatoa resumed around the 16th of June, and continued until the 24th. The violence of these ongoing eruptions caused tides in the area to be unusually high, while ships at anchor, had to be moored with heavy chains.

This thing was only yawning and stretching.  Just getting out of bed.

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Dutch topographical engineer Captain H. J. G. Ferzenaar investigated the Krakatoa islands on August 11, reporting three major ash columns and steam plumes from at least eleven other vents. All vegetation was extinct by this time, leaving only tree stumps, buried beneath nearly two feet of ash.

Eruptions intensified on August 25, while ships twelve miles away reported softball-sized pieces of hot pumice, raining down on their decks.  A small tsunami hit the shores of Java and Sumatra, twenty-five miles away.  Krakatoa entered its paroxysmal stage on August 26 followed by four prodigious explosions, the following day.

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Mount Mazama in the Cascade Range of Oregon, collapses into the magma chamber below. Crater Lake reaches a depth of 1,943 feet, the deepest freshwater body in the United States. H/T Wikipedia

The first explosion at 5:30am triggered a Tsunami of 98-feet or more, wiping out much of the island of Sumatra.  The second explosion at 6:44 triggered a second tsunami.  The third and largest explosion at 10:02 am was so violent it could be heard 1,930 miles away in Perth, in Western Australia.  On the Indian Ocean islands near Mauritius, 3,000 miles distant, the sound was mistaken for cannon fire, from a nearby ship.

It’s reported to have been the loudest sound in recorded history, equal to the explosive force of 200,000 tons of TNT, four times the explosive force of the Soviet Tsar Bomba explosion of October 30 1961, the most powerful thermonuclear weapon, ever detonated.

The colossal fourth and final explosion generated pressure waves racing outward from Krakatoa, at 675 mph. The sound was so loud as to be heard clearly from the United States to Great Britain, the pressure wave rounding the globe and returning to the volcano no fewer than 3½ times.

Barometric pressure gauges spiked 2½ inches of mercury, equivalent to 180 decibels, of sound pressure.  As a point of reference, short-term hearing damage can occur at 120, and the threshold for human pain, is 134.

Untold millions of tons of super heated ash rose fifty miles and more, into the air. Ships as far away as South Africa, were rocked by the series of tsunamis.

The combined effects of the explosions, tsunamis and the Pyroclastic Flow, the fast-moving air current of superheated gases and volcanic material capable of reaching ground speeds of 430 miles per hour, resulted in an official death toll of 36,417.  Some estimates put the number as high as 120,000.

When it was over, all but the bottom third of the island was gone, swallowed whole by the empty magma chamber, below. Fifty-six miles distant, the westernmost provinces of Java have been reclaimed by jungle and remain depopulated, to this day.

scream-16_6155Following the 1883 eruption, temperatures in the northern hemisphere fell by an average of 2.2°, Fahrenheit. Weather patterns were disrupted for years on end.

Particulate matter in the atmosphere refracted light worldwide resulting in glowing white clouds at night, and some of the most spectacular red sunsets, ever seen. Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream“, is thought to be an accurate depiction of the colors. Fire trucks were called out in Poughkeepsie and New York, for what many believed to be a raging fire.

In 1927, a new island emerged from the caldera left by the 1883 cataclysm.  Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatoa”) is currently the site of eruptive activity, one of 1,500 potentially active volcanoes, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS.gov).  Approximately five hundred of these were active, in historic times.

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Anak Krakatau, “Child of Krakatoa” in modern times

The ability to predict such an eruption, remains elusive.  Iceberg tremors, gas emissions, thermal monitoring and relative rates of ground deformation remain areas, for continued study. When Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980, USGS scientists were able to provide about three weeks warning.

Feature Image, top of page:  Anak Krakatau

August 25, 1835 Hoax

Today we hear a lot about ‘Fake News’ but that’s nothing new.  On this day in 1835, the New York Sun published the first of a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.

Nine years ago, Richard and Mayumi Heene released a helium-filled gas balloon into the atmosphere, and claimed that their six-year-old son Falcon, was stuck inside. The world looked on in horror, as a young boy soared to altitudes of 7,000-feet. National Guard helicopters and local police, gave chase. The thing flew for more than an hour, only to come down with nobody on board. Rumors quickly turned into “reports”, that an object was seen falling from the balloon. A search was carried out, but revealed nothing.

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Later that day, the kid was found hiding in the attic. He’d apparently been there all day. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer for the Larry King Live television program, Falcon was asked why he’d been hiding. The boy turned to his father: “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.” Busted. The Balloon Boy Hoax was born, for which Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay $36,000, in restitution. Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail, to be served one weekend at a time.

Dino StampsThose of us of a certain age remember the “Thunder Lizard”, the Brontosaurus, that iconic dinosaur seemingly at the center of every museum display. The Sinclair Oil Company adopted the creature as its mascot. The United States Postal Service featured the animal, in a series of commemorative stamps.

Except that – oops – someone had put the wrong head on the thing and, the previously discovered ‘Apatasaurus’ was, in fact, a juvenile specimen of the same animal.

This wasn’t a ‘hoax’ so much as a mistake, forged by the great “Bone Wars”, of the 19th century. Dinosaur enthusiasts accused the Postal Service of fostering ‘scientific illiteracy’. An ironic charge, given the number of museums that had mislabeled the animal, for over a century.

The dearly departed Brontosaurus was more a mistake, than a hoax. Not so “The Earliest Englishman”, a few fossils discovered near the village of Piltdown.  Between 1911-’12,  a portion of a skull was discovered along with a jawbone and a few teeth. It was the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans.  Years of scientific thought would be spent, reconstructing the life and times of ‘Piltdown Man’, and fitting the creature into the narrative of our shared, evolutionary history.

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In 1953, the British Museum of Natural History revealed the whole thing to have been a fabrication, a clever hoax carried out with modern bones most likely those of an orangutan, and treated with chemicals to make them appear much older.

Today we hear a lot about ‘Fake News’ but that’s nothing new.  On this day in 1835, the New York Sun published the first of a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.

The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, the most prominent astronomer, of his time.

The byline was that of the non-existent Dr. Andrew Grant, ostensibly a colleague of Dr. Herschel.  Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown South Africa in January 1834, to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope.

The articles took this one slender reed and ran with it, describing a 24-foot-wide behemoth instrument revealing fantastic creatures on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns and a two-legged creature resembling a beaver with no tail, that walked upright and carried its young in the manner of human mothers.   There were temple-building, vegetarian, furry bat-like humanoids, called “Vespertilio-homo”.

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The articles described palm trees and lush forests, with flowers and rushing rivers.  There were valleys with melon trees, and all of it witnessed through “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”

Readers couldn’t get enough, and circulation figures shot up from day one.  A committee of oh-so serious Yale University scientific types traveled to New York, in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. Panicked newspaper employees sent these guys back & forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to wear them out.  It worked.  The committee returned to New Haven empty handed, never realizing they’d been punked.

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That September, the Sun admitted the whole thing to have been a gag. Herschel himself knew nothing about it.  The astronomer was amused, noting that nothing in his own work was quite that interesting, but would later become irritated at the incessant questions of those who took the thing seriously.

British journalist and Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke confessed to writing the series, not as a hoax, but as satire. Locke set out to ridicule some of the more outlandish astronomical theories then in publication, by the likes of Munich University professor of Astronomy Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, and his “Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings.”  Of course, it didn’t hurt that such a sensational tale as civilization on the moon, would help sell newspapers.

Be that as it may, readers were amused, and newspaper circulation didn’t suffer. The Sun merged with the New York World-Telegram in 1950, and folded in 1967. The New York Sun newspaper founded in 2002, has no relation to the original.

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