July 31, 1917 Passchendaele

“My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet

The “War to end all Wars” exploded across the European continent in the summer of 1914, devolving into the stalemate of trench warfare, by October.

The ‘Great War’ became Total War, the following year.  1915 saw the first use of asphyxiating gas, first at Bolimow in Poland, and later (and more famously) near the Belgian village of Ypres.  Ottoman deportation of its Armenian minority led to the systematic extermination of an ethnic minority, resulting in the death of ¾ of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Empire at that time. For the first time and far from the last an unsuspecting world heard the term, genocide‘.

Battle of Passchendaele

Kaiser Wilhelm responded to the Royal Navy’s near-stranglehold on surface shipping with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the first zeppelin raids were carried out against the British mainland.  German forces adopted a defensive strategy on the western front, developing the most sophisticated defensive capabilities of the war and determined to “bleed France white”, while concentrating on defeating Czarist Russia.

Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command that September, following catastrophic losses in Galicia and Poland.  Austro-German offensives resulted in 1.4 million Russian casualties by September with another 750,000 captured, spurring a “Great Retreat” of Russian forces in the east and resulting in political and social unrest which would topple the Imperial government, fewer than two years later.   In December 1915, British and ANZAC forces broke off a meaningless stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning the evacuation of some 83,000 survivors.  The disastrous offensive produced some 250,000 casualties.  The Gallipoli campaign was remembered as a great Ottoman victory, a defining moment in Turkish history.  For now, Turkish troops held their fire in the face of the allied withdrawal, happy to see them leave.

Passchendaele, 1917

A single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 could produce more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined. Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded while vast stretches of the Western European countryside were literally torn to pieces.

1917 saw the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and a German invitation to bring Mexico into the war, against the United States.  As expected, these policies brought America into the war on the allied side.  The President who won re-election for being ‘too proud to fight’ asked for a congressional declaration of war, that April.

Sealed Train

Massive French losses stemming from the failed Nivelle offensive of that same month (French casualties were fully ten times what was expected) combined with irrational expectations that American forces would materialize on the western front led to massive unrest in the French lines.  Fully one-half of all French forces on the western front mutinied.  It’s one of the great miracles of WW1 that the German side never knew, else the conflict may have ended, very differently.

The sealed train carrying the plague bacillus of communism had already entered the Russian body politic.  Nicholas II, Emperor of all Russia, was overthrown and murdered that July, along with his wife, children, servants and a few loyal friends, and their dogs.

This was the situation in July 1917.

third-battle-of-ypres-passchendaele-ww1-007For eighteen months, British miners worked to dig tunnels under Messines Ridge, the German defensive works laid out around the Belgian town of Ypres.  Nearly a million pounds of high explosive were placed in some 2,000′ of tunnels, dug 100′ deep.  10,000 German soldiers ceased to exist at 3:10am local time on June 7, in a blast that could be heard as far away, as London.

Buoyed by this success and eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, General Sir Douglas Haig planned an assault from the British-held Ypres salient, near the village of Passchendaele.


British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, as did the French Chief of the General Staff, General Ferdinand Foch, both preferring to await the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Historians have argued the wisdom of the move, ever since.

The third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The next 105 days would be fought under some of the most hideous conditions, of the entire war.

In the ten days leading up to the attack, some 3,000 guns fired an estimated 4½ million shells into German lines, pulverizing whole forests and smashing water control structures in the lowland plains.  Several days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall, in thirty years.

German pillbox, following capture by Canadian soldiers.

Conditions defy description. Time and again the clay soil, the water, the shattered remnants of once-great forests and the bodies of the slain were churned up and pulverized by shellfire.  You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived and fought in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze, capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules.  Most of the offensive took place across a broad plain formerly crisscrossed with canals, but now a great, sucking mire in which the only solid ground seemed to be German positions, from which machine guns cut down sodden commonwealth soldiers, as with a scythe.

Soldiers begged for their friends to shoot them, rather than being left to sink in that muck. One sank up to his neck and slowly went stark raving mad, as he died of thirst. British soldier Charles Miles wrote “It was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on.”

Passchendaele, aerial
Passchendaele, before and after the offensive. H/T Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

In 105 days of this hell, Commonwealth forces lost 275,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The German side another 200,000.  90,000 bodies were never identified.  42,000 were never recovered and remain there, to this day.  All for five miles of mud and a village barely recognizable, following capture.

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?! 

The soldier-turned war poet Siegfried Sassoon reveals the bitterness of the average “Joe Squaddy”, sent by his government to fight and die, at Passchendaele.  The story is told in the first person by a dead man, in all the bitterness of which a poet decorated for bravery and later shot in the head by his own side, is capable.  It’s called:

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,  
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—  
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,  
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell  
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.  

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,  
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:  
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;  
‘In proud and glorious memory’… that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:  
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.  
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…  
What greater glory could a man desire?

July 29, 1967 Ghosts of the Forrestal

With the life of the carrier at stake, tales of incredible courage became commonplace.

The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk in June 1967 with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, she stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the South China Sea, arriving on July 25.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of Navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-pound bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures. Think of an enormous sparkler.

Along with Mark 83s, ordnance resupply had included sixteen AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, Korean war era surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs scheduled for the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, as much as 50%, by weight.


These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last ten years in the heat and humidity of Subic Bay depots.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys with their rusting shells leaking paraffin, and rotted packaging.  Some had production date stamps as early as 1953.

Some handlers feared the old bombs might spontaneously detonate from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign was the longest and most intense such effort in US Naval history.   Over the preceding four days, Forrestal had already launched 150 sorties against targets in North Vietnam.  Combat operations were outpacing production, using Mark 35s faster than they could be replaced.

When Forrestal met the ammunition ship Diamond Head on the 28th, the choice was to take on the Fat Boys, or cancel the second wave of attacks scheduled for the following day.


In addition to the bombs, ground attack aircraft were armed with 5″ “Zuni” unguided rockets, carried four at a time in under-wing rocket packs.   Known for electrical malfunctions and accidental firing, standard Naval procedure required electrical pigtails to be connected, at the catapult.

Ordnance officers found this slowed the launch rate and deviated from standard procedure, connecting pigtails while aircraft were still, “in the pack”.  The table was now set for disaster.

At 10:50-am local time, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and rockets.  An electrical malfunction fired a Zuni rocket 100-feet across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crew member and piercing the 400-gallon external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk, awaiting launch.

The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.


During World War 2, virtually every American carrier crewmember was a trained firefighter.  Over time, this began to change. By 1967, the United States Navy had adopted the Japanese method at Midway, relying instead on specialized and highly trained damage control and fire fighting teams.

Damage Control Team #8 came into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boy bombs turning cherry red in the flames.  Farrier  was working without benefit of protective clothing. There had been no time to suit up.  Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1000-lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent the thing from cooking off as the rest of his team brought the conflagration under control.


Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 had all but ceased to exist.

Margins of survival were now become, split-second. Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Lieutenant Commander Fred White scrambled out of his own aircraft only a split-second later, but he was killed in that first explosion.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the explosions, office furniture thrown to the floor as much as five decks below.  Huge holes were torn into the flight deck while a cataract of flaming jet fuel, some 40,000 US gallons of the stuff, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

Ninety-one crew members were killed below decks, by explosion or fire.


With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, sailors and marines fought heroically to bring the fire under control, though that sometimes made matters worse.  Without training or knowledge of fire fighting, hose teams sprayed seawater, some washing away retardant foam being used to smother the flames.

With the life of the carrier at stake, tales of incredible courage became commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The destroyer USS George K. MacKenzie plucked men out of the water as the destroyer USS Rupertus maneuvered alongside for 90 minutes, directing on-board fire hoses at burning flight and hangar decks.


Throughout the afternoon, crew members rolled 250-pound and 500-pound bombs across the decks, and over the side.  The major fire on the flight deck was brought under control within four hours but fires burning below decks would not be declared out until 4:00am, the following day.

Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial records the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Another 161 were seriously injured.  26 aircraft were destroyed and another 40, damaged.  Damage to the Forrestal itself exceeded $72 million, equivalent to over $415 million today.

image (13)Gary Childs of Paxton Massachusetts, my uncle, was one among hundreds of sailors and marines who fought to bring the fire under control.  He was below decks when the fire broke out, leaving moments before his quarters were engulfed in flames. Only by that slimmest of margins did he and any number of sailors aboard the USS Forrestal on this day in 1967, escape being #135.

July 28, 1932 The Bonus Expeditionary Force

It was a “pitiful spectacle, the mightiest government in the world chasing unarmed men, women, and children with Army tanks. If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”

Washington Daily News

In 1924 the United States Congress passed the “World War Adjusted Compensation Act”, awarding cash bonuses to veterans of the “Great War”, in which the United States had been involved between 1917 and 1918.

3,662,374 military service certificates were issued to qualifying veterans, bearing a face value equal to $1 per day of domestic service and $1.25 a day for overseas service, plus interest. The total face value of these certificates was $3.638 billion, equivalent to $43.7 billion in today’s dollars and payable to each veteran or his estate upon his birthday, in 1945.

The Great Depression was two years old in 1932, and thousands of veterans had been out of work since the beginning. Certificate holders could borrow up to 50% of the face value of their service certificates, but direct funds were unavailable for another 13 years.

WWI veterans began to arrive in Washington on May 29 to press their case for immediate cash redemption. Veterans set up encampments between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial and around Washington DC, led by former US Army sergeant Walter W. Waters. They were the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” named after the American Expeditionary Force of WWI, though it’s unclear if that’s what they called themselves or a term of derision, used by opponents. The media of the day called them, the “Bonus Army”.

This had all had happened before. Hundreds of Pennsylvania veterans of the Revolution marched on Washington in 1783, after the Continental Army was disbanded without pay.

The Congress fled to Princeton New Jersey on that occasion, and the Army was called up to expel these war veterans from the Capital. Washington, DC was later excluded from the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act, making it the only part of the United States where the military can be used for domestic police activity.

17,000 veterans and their families, 43,000 all told, gathered in and around Washington: men, women and children living in tents or in make-shift shelters built out of old lumber, packing boxes and even scrap tin, scavenged from nearby junkyards.

With unemployment at 24 percent, Congressman Wright Patman (D-TX), himself a WW1 veteran, introduced a bill before the House of Representative to make $2.4 billion available, immediately. On June 15, Congressman Edward Eslick (D-TN) literally had a heart attack and died, in the middle of his address.

In the end the House passed the bill which then went over to the Senate for a vote, on June 17. One newspaper described it as “the tensest day in the capital since the war.” 10,000 marchers crowding the Capitol grounds responded with stunned silence when they got the news. The Senate had voted it down, 62 to 18.

On July 13, 1932, Brig. Gen. Pelham D. Glassford, superintendent of the Washington, D.C., police, asked a group of war veterans on the Capitol grounds to raise their hands if they had served in France and were 100 percent American.

“Sing America and go back to your billets” Waters said, and so they did. Marchers would hold a silent vigil in front of the Capitol, a “death march”, until July 17. The day the Congress adjourned.

Marchers were in their camps on July 28 when Attorney General William Mitchell ordered them evicted. Two policemen became trapped on the second floor of a building when they drew their revolvers and shot two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, both of whom died of their injuries. Two police officers were also killed in the ensuing protests.

President Hoover ordered the Army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the Bonus Army from Washington. 500 Cavalry formed up on Pennsylvania Avenue at 4:45pm supported by 500 Infantry, 800 police and six battle tanks under the command of then-Major George S. Patton. Civil Service employees came out to watch as bonus marchers cheered, thinking that the Army had gathered in their support. And then the Cavalry was ordered to charge. The infantry followed with tear gas and fixed bayonets, entering the camps and evicting men, women and children alike.

It was a “pitiful spectacle, the mightiest government in the world chasing unarmed men, women, and children with Army tanks. If the Army must be called out to make war on unarmed citizens, this is no longer America.”

Washington Daily News

Bonus marchers fled to their largest encampment across the Anacostia River, when President Hoover ordered the assault stopped. Believing that the Bonus March was an attempt to overthrow the government, General MacArthur ignored the President and ordered a new attack, the army routing 10,000 and leaving their camps in flames.

1,017 were injured and 135 arrested. The wife of one veteran miscarried. 12 week old Bernard Myers died after being caught in the gas attack. A government investigation later claimed he died of inflammation of the small intestine, but a hospital employee said the tear gas “didn’t do it any good.”

Then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of MacArthur’s aides at the time. Eisenhower believed that it was wrong for the Army’s highest ranking officer to lead an action against fellow war veterans. Characteristically blunt he said “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there”.

The bonus march debacle doomed any hope Herbert Hoover had for re-election. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opposed the veterans’ bonus demands during the election, but was able to negotiate a solution when veterans organized a second demonstration in 1933. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor was instrumental in these negotiations, leading one veteran to comment: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife”.

July 27, 1890 A Starry Night

“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness”. — Aristotle

In his 72 years on this earth Herman Melville wrote more than 90 books and short stories. He was no stranger to some small fame but it was only after death that the man’s magnum opus Moby Dick, came to be seen as one of the finest works of literature ever written. Edgar Allen Poe struggled as a writer. The Raven was sold for only $9 during his lifetime. Now a towering figure in the literary world Poe’s fame too, would only come after death. Shy and introverted in life, Emily Dickinson published only 8 poems during her lifetime. Her remaining body of work she hid carefully away, some 1,800 poems coming to light, only after she was gone.

Such a list could be long and include the likes of Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau and Jane Austen. Artists who became famous only in death contain a who’s who of painters including Monet, Gaugin, Cezanne and more but none so tragic, as Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born and died on March 30, 1852, a stillbirth. The artist with the same name was born one year later, to the day. Confusingly, the church register even assigned the infant the same number, as his dead brother. Vincent van Gogh, #29. It wasn’t unusual in those days for grieving parents to give the same name as a child who had died. What it’s like to grow up a replacement, to visit a grave marked with your own name and birthdate minus a year, is something the rest of us can only guess at.

Vincent was close with his brother Theodorus, all but inseparable.

A successful Dutch art dealer, Van Gogh’s younger brother Theodorus (“Theo”) had an important impact on the world of French and Dutch art. Thanks to Theo van Gogh and his financial and emotional support of his older brother, that we’re able to enjoy much of the artist’s work.

Four years his junior it was Theo who encouraged his brother to paint in the first place. Vincent could always draw but he didn’t pick up a brush, until he was 27.

Vincent Van Gogh began to write letters in 1872, an average of one every ten days. He would continue this practice for the rest of his life, some 903 in all. His sister Wil was a frequent recipient as were the artists Paul Gauguin, Anthon van Rappard and Émile Bernard, but none so much as his brother Theo. 663 of these letters are known to survive including this 1885 note describing the artist’s first masterpiece, “The Potato Eaters”. It is through these letters we know much of the life, of Vincent van Gogh.

2,300 years ago, Aristotle spoke of the confluence of Greatness and mental illness. Even now that place where genius meets darkness, is imperfectly understood. Definitive diagnoses of historical figures are elusive and yet, history abounds with stories pointing toward mental illness in some of the great figures of the past. Michelangelo displayed signs of autism, as did Isaac Newton. The famous “scream” painting by Edvard Munch may be autobiographical of a man, prone to panic attacks. Ludwig von Beethoven suffered mood swings likely amounting to bipolar disorder as did Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent tried his hand at dealing art but suffered depression during visits to London. There followed a period as Christian missionary in the south of Belgium before, feeling ill and depressed, van Gogh moved in with his parents. Theo, always the source of encouragement and support both financial and emotional convinced his brother, to take up the brush.

Vincent van Gogh had but ten years to live when he started to paint. In that time the man produced 2,100 artworks including 860 oil paintings, most of those, in the last two years of his life. First there were the dark colors of the “Dutch period” seen in peasant scenes, portraits and still life.

The Potato Eaters painted in April 1885 in Nuenen, Netherlands

Vincent moved to Paris in 1886 where he met members of the avant-garde art world, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. These were the iconoclasts, the radicals, the unorthodox who opened a whole new vision. Here we see the burst of bright colors and bold brush strokes for which Vincent is now known.

This too was a period of depression, of mental instability and psychotic episodes. The confrontation ending Vincent’s friendship with Paul Gaugin culminated in van Gogh cutting off his own ear, with a razor.

Still Life with Irises, Café Terrace at Night, The Starry Night

Thus began a period of mental decline. A period spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, of heavy drinking, poor diet and declining health. One day, this tortured soul would be recognized as one of the finest artists who ever lived. For now he was just another madman, a failure in work, and in life.

Fun Fact: Following the self-mutilation episode in which Vincent removed his own ear, van Gogh spent time in an asylum outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in France. There he was fond of painting outdoors where he painted olive groves, and other pastoral scenes. If you look very closely just to the right of this 1889 portrait you will find the remains of a dead grasshopper, blown by the wind and trapped in wet paint. There are no signs of struggle, indicating the insect was deceased before hitting the canvas. As for the Master he either didn’t notice, or did not care.

Olive Trees, 1889

For the man, the last two years were a downward spiral from which there would be no return. For Vincent’s art this was the most productive, the most brilliant period of a short career.

Theo alone understood his brother. His talent. His madness. For Vincent, Theo was the only person he could open up to. Vincent received a never-ending stream of letters from his brother, words of love, of encouragement, and always the painting supplies, and the money. Theo received a stream of letters in return with day-to-day news, plans for upcoming works but all the while, it wasn’t enough.

Around this time, Vincent set out on foot to visit the French naturalist Jules Breton, a walk of some 80 kilometers. Unlike van Gogh, Breton achieved considerable success in his lifetime. Perhaps Vincent was intimidated by the high walls. The large estates. Nobody knows. After all that he turned and walked home. The man he intended to visit never knew he was there.

In Paris, Theo fell in love with one Johanna Bonger. The couple was married on April 17, 1889. Ten months later came a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. The name was intended to honor his brother but, to Vincent, who knows? Perhaps in his madness the replacement felt that he himself, was now replaced. Theo had always been there with money, with painting materials and words of encouragement but to Vincent, he himself was nothing but a burden on a brother, now responsible for a family of three.

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In May of 1890, Vincent moved to a small attic room in the village of Ouvers-sur-Oisne. To be closer to Theo, and to Dr Paul Gachet, the quack homeopathic doctor Vincent himself described as “iller than I am, it seemed to me, or let’s say just as much.”

On July 27, 1890, Vincent departed his small apartment for the countryside. This time he carried no paints or brushes. Sick in body and mind and bereft of the Christian faith which had once buoyed his thoughts, Vincent had nothing to believe in anymore but his paintings and those, he couldn’t sell. No one knows where Vincent shot himself. The 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. One bullet. In the stomach or the chest, depending on which version you happen to read. Vincent managed to stagger back to his lodgings. He lit up his pipe and lay down in his bed, to die. Gachet was called but the bullet was too deep.

Wheatfield, with crows.

Infection set in as Theo was called and rushed to catch a train, to be there. Vincent van Gogh died in the arms of the brother to whom a last, unposted letter was found in his pocket. In it, Vincent describes a recently finished painting, called Wheatfield with crows. The letter said it depicted “vast fields of wheat beneath troubled skies,” adding “I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”

Vincent van Gogh, a self portrait

Theo van Gogh was destroyed over his brother’s death both physically, and mentally. A sharp decline ended six months later with the younger man’s death, at the age of 33. The cause of death was ruled dementia paralytica caused by “heredity, chronic disease, overwork, sadness.” He was buried in Utrecht and later exhumed at the request of his widow to be re-interred, next to his brother

As for Johanna herself, she inherited the vast bulk of her husband’s paintings and drawings and spent the rest of her life, promoting his work.

On March 17, 1901, eleven years after his death, 71 van Gogh paintings were shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, in Paris. A failure in life, Vincent’s work hit the art world, like an electric shock. Today some of the artist’s works number among the most expensive paintings, ever sold.

Post script: Theo’s great-grandson, also called Theo van Gogh, was a Dutch film and television director, producer, actor and author. Working from a script provided by Somali-born Dutch-American activist, feminist and former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh produced a ten-minute short film called Submission, concerning the plight of women in Islam. Both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats to which Theo responded “nobody kills the village idiot”. He often used that term in describing himself. On November 2, 2004, Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri shot and stabbed the director while bicycling to work, leaving a note pinned with a knife to his dead chest, containing threats against Jews, the west, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

July 26, 1945 Blood in the Water

Naval Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to USS Indianapolis.  A random patrol aircraft discovered men floating in open ocean. The last survivor was plucked from the water well past half-dead following nearly five days in the water.

The Portland class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on her secret mission July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay III.  What very few knew at that time, “Indie” was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35) underway September 27, 1939

Indianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.

Indianapolis Sub

The Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive.  Within 12 minutes, the 584-ft, 9,950-ton vessel had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

Approximately 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving nearly 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets.  There had been no time, and there were few life boats.

Caribbean Reef sharks circling the sailors in reenactment scene after USS Indianapolis had been sunk by Japanese submarine. As seen on OCEAN OF FEAR: WORST SHARK ATTACK EVER. H/T photographer: Tim Calver

The ordeal faced by the survivors, is beyond description.  Alone and stranded in open ocean, these guys treaded water for four days, hoping and praying for the rescue that did not come.

Shark attacks began on the first day, and never let up. Kapok-filled life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless. Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the hours turned into days. Some men went insane and began to attack their shipmates, while others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them within a few hours. Some simply swam away, following some spectral vision that only he could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, then to disappear forever, as the sharks claimed another victim.

Naval Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to Indianapolis, nor why she didn’t show up on the 31st.  A random patrol aircraft passing the area that Thursday afternoon, that finally discovered men floating in open ocean. The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, well past half-dead after nearly five days in the water. Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 316 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

Mochitsura Hashimoto

The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew there were at least two Japanese submarines, operating in the area.

No captain in the history of the United States Navy was subjected to court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war.  The United States Navy lost over 350 ships to combat operations during WW2.  It didn’t matter.  On this occasion, someone was going to pay.

A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to McVay’s court-martial. There was evidence that the Navy itself had put the ship in harm’s way.  When prosecutors flew the I-58 commander in to testify, Hashimoto swore that zigzagging would have made no difference. The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag“, his career ruined.

Charles Butler McVay, III

McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go and there was always some piece of hate mail, blaming him for the death of a loved one. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.

McVay began to doubt himself.  By 1968 he must have felt the weight of Indianapolis’ dead, like a great stone upon his shoulders.

On November 6, 1968, Charles Butler McVay III sat down on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and shot himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

It would take more than 20 years for exonerating evidence to be declassified.

Hunter Alan Scott was eleven and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. The boy was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks. The following year, Scott created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on the USS Indianapolis sinking. The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents.  The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.

Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, but was rejected because he had used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.


He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.

Senator Bob Smith of NH joined Scarborough in a joint resolution.  Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.

Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.

Some of Indianapolis’ crew, before her sinking.

The record cannot not be expunged.  Congress has rules against even considering bills altering military records, and there is no means by which to reverse a court-martial.  It’s never happened.  Yet Captain McVay was exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried to accomplish without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.  Who said one person can’t make a difference?

Today, only 3 of  Indianapolis’ survivors remain alive.  The wreck of the “Indy” was discovered in August 2017, in 18,000-feet of water.  Leader of the civilian expedition which located the wreck, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen commented ”To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling”.

July 25, 1944 Doodlebug

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.

In the early morning hours of June 13, 1944, a member of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) spotted a bright yellow glow in the early morning darkness. The sentry was on the lookout for such a sight and immediately informed his superiors. The code word, “diver”.

The yellow glow went out within moments and plummeted to the earth, landing in the village of Swanscombe, some 20 miles east of the Tower of London. Other such devices were soon falling from the sky with terrible exclusive force. Cuckfield, West Sussex, London and Sevenoaks, in Kent. This time only six people died in a place called Bethnal Green. There would be more.

Most V1 rockets were launched from a simple rail system, others taken aloft attached to host aircraft

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.

Nazi Germany aimed as many as 10,492 of these Doodlebug rockets against England. Some 6,000 were killed in London alone, with another 18,000 serious injuries. The subsonic Doodlebug was an effective terror weapon but, bad as it was to be the target of one of these things, the “low and slow” trajectory and the weapon’s short range lacked the strategic punch Nazi Germany needed to win the war.

The next generation V2 missile was a different story.  The V2 ushered in the era of the ballistic missile and Nazi Germany was the first off the starting line.

The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148 pound payload at 5 times the speed of sound over a 236-mile range. While you could hear the V1 coming and seek shelter, victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack, until the weapon had exploded.

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Hitler said, “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”

Allies were anxious to get their hands on this new secret weapon. In early 1944 they had their chance when a V2 crashed into a muddy bank of the Bug River in Nazi-occupied Poland, without exploding. The Polish underground was waiting for such an opportunity and quickly descended on the rocket, disguising it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the weapon, Germans conducted a week long aerial and ground search for the V2, but failed find it under all that camouflage.

Polish Partisans preparing for battle_WW2
Polish Partisans preparing for battle, WW2

The search came to an end after what must have seemed an eternity, when partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.

The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lt Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness at a secret air strip near Tarnow.

Home Army intelligence on V1 & V2

The V2 chassis and several technical experts were loaded on board, but it was all too much.  The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field – the port wheel stuck fast in the mud.  Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench.  Nothing worked.

Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so the hydraulic leads supplying the brake, were cut. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. Two attempts failed to get the aircraft off the ground, and Culliford was thinking about blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence.  There could only be one more attempt.

The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try.  The last of the partisans scattered into the night, even as the headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen, approaching in the early morning darkness.

18lfbi20zpunyjpgThere would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight through Nazi-controlled air space and an emergency landing with no brakes, before those V2 rocket components finally made it to England.

Today, few remember the names of these heroes, struggling in the dark to defeat the forces of Tyranny.  We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazis remained in sole possession of the game changing super weapons, of WWII

July 21, 1865 Aces and Eights

Wild Bill Hickok lived in an age when the good guys and the bad guys, were hard to tell apart.

The Wild West gunfight is the stuff of American legend. A lone gunslinger rides down a dusty street. Townsfolk dive for shelter leaving two men standing. Only one can be the quickest draw. One man will walk away and another will die.

And yet these are movie images. If anything, the real gunfights of the wild west were uglier, more violent and less heroic than anything we ever saw on film. It was often hard to tell the good guys, from the bad.

So step aside Clint Eastwood, John Wayne. We’re here to talk about a real-life gunslinger, called “Wild Bill” Hickok.

James Butler Hickok was born in Homer Illinois in the present-day town of Troy Grove, the 4th of 6 children of William “Bill” Hickok and his wife, Pamelia “Polly” Butler Hickok. The family home is gone now but believed to be a stop on the “underground railroad”, a network of households offering refuge and assistance, to runaway slaves.

James learned from an early age to shoot a pistol. He was good at it. Photographs of the era depict him with dark hair but the age of photography, was in its infancy. Those who knew Hickok described the man, with red hair.

He was fifteen when his father died. At 18 he fled the Illinois territory after a fight, with one Charles Hudson. Both fell into a canal and believed (wrongly) he had killed the other man. He was attracted to the “Banditti of the prairie” lifestyle and took up with Jim Lane’s violently abolitionist Free State Army known as Jayhawkers, during the Bleeding Kansas era. There he met a 12-year-old who, despite his young age became a scout for the US Army, only two years later. We remember the boy today for the soldier, showman and bison hunter he would later become, Buffalo Bill Cody.

A young James Hickok in the 1860s, before his gunfighting days

Hired as a stagecoach driver by the Russell, Majors and Waddell freight company, Hickok was driving a team from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, when an incident with a cinnamon bear resulted in one dead bear, and four months in bed recovering from a crushed chest and a shoulder and arm, mangled in the melee.

Recovering from the bear incident, Hickok was sent to become a stable hand at the Rock Creek station, a stagecoach and Pony Express stop in the Nebraska territory.

David Colbert McCanles leased a well and a cabin to Hickok’s employer. The former sheriff of Watauga County, North Carolina, McCanles was a bully who didn’t like this newcomer, Hickok. He called the younger man “Duck Bill” for his large nose and protruding lips and derided the man’s slender, almost girlish build. McCanles’ mistress Sarah (Kate) Shull didn’t seem to mind any of it and became romantically involved, with Hickok.

David C. McCanles

You know where this is going, right?

 McCanles arrived at the station with his cousin James Woods, another employee called James Gordon and his 12-year-old son, Monroe. Accounts vary but soon, there was a brawl. Hickok stepped from behind a curtain where he was hiding and shot McCanles, dead. He shot Gordon and Woods as well, one of whom was finished off with a shotgun blast by station employee J. W. “Doc” Brink and the other hacked to death with a garden hoe, either by Horace Wellman, or Wellman’s wife.

I did say these things could be ugly, right? As for 12-year-old Monroe, he managed to get away.

The trial lasted all of 15 minutes and ended in acquittal, based on self-defense. Hickok rode out to the McCanles home and told the widow he was sorry, he had killed her man. He gave her all the money in his pocket saying ‘This is all I have, sorry I do not have more to give you”. It was $35, equivalent to $1,056 today.

After the McCanles episode Hickok grew a moustache, to hide that protruding lip. He encouraged people to call him “Wild Bill”.

Surprising though it may seem to the modern reader, the “news” media, couldn’t always be trusted. According to George Ward Nichols of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, “Hundreds” of men lay dead at the smoking barrel of Hickok’s gun. Never mind that, everywhere Hickok was actually known his supposed death counts, were often disputed.

Like the rest of Wild Bill’s life his civil War service is shrouded in mystery. No scion of stout abolitionists would have missed an opportunity to serve, with the federal cause. He seems to have begun as a teamster, later rejoining now-General James Henry Lane’s Kansas brigade as provost marshal, basically military police. Some say he managed to infiltrate the other side as a spy. Buffalo Bill Cody claimed to have seen the man in 1964, wearing Confederate gray.

Hickok lived in an age when the good guys and the bad guys, were hard to tell apart. In 1869 the good folks of Ellis Kansas appointed Hickok, interim Sheriff. Tall, hard and imposing this was no longer the scrawny youth of his younger days. One cowboy described Hickok standing “with his back to the wall, looking at everything and everybody under his eyebrows — just like a mad old bull”.

As for “keeping the peace”, Hickok managed to kill two men in his first five weeks. He lost the election to his own deputy after three months on the job.

In Springfield Missouri, Hickok had several run-ins with a local gambler, called Davis Tutt. The two men had affection for some of the same women as well, and that’s never a good place to start. By 1865, gambling disputes had upped the ante to lethal levels.

Hickok was sentimental about a gold watch and lost it in a poker game, to Davis Tutt. He asked the man not to wear the thing in public but Tutt couldn’t resist, rubbing his nose in the loss. Hickok warned Tutt to stay away. That came to an end on July 21 in a scene, right out of the spaghetti western. The two men stopped in the street glaring, ever so slowly turning to the side, to provide a smaller target. Tutt drew first, and missed his target. Hickok’s bullet struck right through the heart. Tutt clutched his chest and cried out, “Boys, I’m killed” before he collapsed, and died. The “quick draw” duel has become the stuff of legend, but this was the first.

Judge Sempronius Boyd (how do you not love that name) instructed the jury they could not acquit, if there had been reasonable opportunity to avoid the fight. The unwritten doctrine of the “fair fight” however did apply, and the jury voted to acquit.

Wild Bill Hickok fought and won the first “quick draw” duel in history, killing Davis Tutt with a bullet through the heart, at 75 yards

Wild Bill Hickok was the best gunfighter of his time but not always, the fastest draw. Tom Clavin’s book WILD BILL: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter claims Tutt drew first but Hickok…he didn’t miss.

His favorite weapons were a pair of 1851 twin cap & ball navy revolvers he’d wear butt first and cross-draw, cavalry style. In an age when weapons were not always on target Hickok was cold as ice and took a moment to steady his aim. On top of that the man was ambidextrous and aimed as well with one eye, as the other.

Nothing lasts forever. For Wild Bill Hickok the beginning of the end came in 1871. As Marshall for Abilene Kansas Hickok’s methods were tried and familiar and understood if not liked, by all. It is said that Hickok had but three options for troublemakers. They could leave on the train going east or the one heading west. Or they could go north. If they didn’t already know they would find out soon enough. The town cemetery was located to the north.

On October 5, 1871 he had a terrible shootout with local saloon owner, Phil Coe. Hickok managed to kill Coe but turned like a flash and fired at a third man, sprinting toward him. Both bullets hit their mark, mortally wounding Hickok’s deputy and good friend, Mike Williams. Hardened as he was it’s said that he cried, as they carried his friend away to die.

James Hickok was a gambler, a gunfighter and a part-time law man, what the History of Greene County, Missouri later described as “by nature a ruffian … a drunken, swaggering fellow, who delighted when ‘on a spree’ to frighten nervous men and timid women.”

Mike Williams was the last man he would ever kill.

On August 1, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s saloon in Deadwood, in the Dakota territory. A seat opened up and John “Broken Nose Jack” McCall joined the game. McCall started out drunk and he lost. Badly. Hickok encouraged McCall to quit the game until he could cover his losses and he gave the man money, for breakfast. McCall accepted the money but felt insulted. Next day he returned, intending to settle the score.

Dead man’s hand

Hickok was once again at the table but this time, with his back to the door. Wild Bill Hickok always sat with his back to the wall but this time Charles Rich had that seat, and wouldn’t give it up. McCall strode into the saloon and drew his .45-caliber revolver shouting “Damn you, take that!”. The bullet entered the back of Hickok’s head from point-blank range and came out his right cheek before striking another player on the wrist. Wild Bill Hickok was dead before his head hit the table. He held two pair in his hand. Aces and eights, remembered from that day to this, as the “dead man’s hand”.

The 5th card hand is disputed and remains unknown, to this day.

Jack McCall

Jack McCall was “tried” and acquitted by a loose collection of miners and local businessmen. He claimed to be avenging the death of his brother but there is no way to verify the story. McCall was re-arrested and re-tried, the second trial was held in Yankton, capital of the Dakota territory. Deadwood was at the time part of unorganized Indian territory and for that reason, the 2nd trial wasn’t considered double jeopardy.

Jack McCall was convicted that second time and sentenced to death, his hanging carried out on March 1, 1877. The cemetery was moved nearly five years later. When McCall was exhumed the noose was still tied, around his neck.

July 20, 1969 Holy Communion

Is there anyone alive that day who doesn’t remember Neil Armstrong’s words, as he stepped onto the lunar surface “There’s one small step for [a] man, and one great leap for mankind”. Yet something else happened up there only hours earlier, and most of us never heard about it.

On May 25, 1961, American President John F. Kennedy delivered a message before an audience at Rice University in Houston, articulating a goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade.

The president wouldn’t live to see it, but his pledge would come to life 53 years ago, today. July 20, 1969.


The accomplishments of the Apollo series seem almost foreordained to us, the massive complexities of the undertaking, all but forgotten.

In the modern era, the most powerful supercomputers on earth put space telescopes into orbit, albeit sometimes with “vision” needing to be corrected with “glasses”, as in the case of the Hubbell space telescope.

In 1969, these guys were sending human beings 240,000 miles into space to land on the moon and come back again, on less computing “horsepower” than your cellphone.

Any one of countless calculations could have misfired, slinging three astronauts into the black void of space, there to spend eternity, in a flying tomb.

The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three components: a Command Module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, a Service Module (SM) supporting the CM with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen and water; and a Lunar Module (LM) for the actual landing.

The moon as seen from the International Space Station on July 9, 2018 H/T Alexander Gerst, NASA

The vehicle was launched into space by a Saturn V rocket, designed to break apart as each of a series of rocket stages were exhausted, and separated from the main craft.

The 363-foot, nearly seven million pound Saturn V launch vehicle lifted off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island Florida on July 16, carrying mission commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Command Module pilot, Michael Collins.

The Command/Service Module passed behind the moon at 12:21 Eastern Standard Time on July 19, firing its service propulsion engine and inserting the craft into lunar orbit.

Aldrin and Armstrong next moved into the LM, the only component to actually land on the lunar surface, with Collins remaining to orbit the moon in the CM.


The pair landed on a flat plain called the “Sea of Tranquility” on this day in 1969, three-foot probes touching the lunar surface at 4:18pm eastern standard time followed within seconds, by the LM itself. There were fifteen seconds of fuel left, in the “gas tank”. 

Two men had landed in the 1/6th gravity of the moon, in a vehicle so delicate that the thing couldn’t support its own weight, back on earth. Half the world heard the words “Tranquility base, the eagle has landed”.

Back in Houston, controllers joked about turning blue. Now at last, they could breathe.

The schedule called for a break. A few hours to rest before that now-famous walk, on the surface of the moon.

Is there anyone alive that day who doesn’t remember Neil Armstrong’s words, as he stepped onto the lunar surface “There’s one small step for [a] man, and one great leap for mankind“. Yet something else happened up there only hours earlier, and most of us never heard about it.

Buzz Aldrin was a Christian. An elder in the Presbyterian church. He wanted to mark this momentous occasion and so he discussed it, with his pastor. The two agreed. He would bring with him the bread and the wine of Christian sacrament. He would receive holy communion, on the surface of the moon.

Conscious that this was a moment for all mankind and not only Christians, Aldrin invited listeners to pause, to reflect on the significance of the moment and to give thanks, in their own way. Then he opened the bread and the wine. Let him tell this part of the story, himself:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute [they] had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare [sic], the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements. And of course, it’s interesting to think that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the Earth and the moon — and Who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the “Love that moves the Sun and other stars”.

Buzz Aldrin

At 10:39 Eastern Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong opened the door. And stepped onto the surface of the moon.

July 19, 1916 The Red Zone

“The Zone Rouge is a 42,000-acre territory that, nearly a century after the conflict, has no human residents and only allows limited access”. – National Geographic

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

The early 20th century has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, and for good reason.   As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” advanced through July, 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton made the final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.   Despite the outbreak of war, 1st Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to proceed.  The “Endurance” expedition” departed British waters on August 8.

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

Endurance was destined to be stuck in the ice, stranding the men of the Shackleton Expedition floating on pack ice, in open ocean.

As the unofficial Christmas Truce descended over the trenches of Europe, Shackleton’s expedition slowly picked their way through the ice floes of the Weddell Sea.

The disaster of WWI became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of her own.  The ship was frozen fast, with no hope of escape.  As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station.  Finally, camps were set up across the drifting ice.  On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.


In December 1915, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the river Somme.  In February, Erich von Falkenhayn began an offensive in Verdun designed to “bleed France white”. The Shackleton party was at this time camped on an ice pack, adrift in open ocean. 

The ice began to break up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats.  Five brutal days would come and go in those open boats, the last of 457 days spent at sea before finally reaching the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

The whaling station at South Georgia Island some 720 miles distant, was the nearest outpost of civilization. The only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 in a 20-foot lifeboat.  They shouldn’t have made it, but somehow did.  In hurricane-force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island came into view four weeks later.

Scaling those terrible cliffs alone was a survival epic, worthy of its own story. Somehow, not a man was lost. They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies.  The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.  At last, on May 20, 1916, the Shackleton expedition was saved.

Like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe emerged from the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, Shackleton asked for news on the war. How it had all ended.  The response came back as if every word of it, was a hammer blow.  

“The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

Preparatory bombardment for the Somme offensive began that June, 1,500 guns firing 1.7 million shells into a twelve-mile front.  27 shells for every foot of the front.  Allies went “over the top” on July 1, the single worst day in British military history.  19,240 British soldiers were killed in that single day, along with 1,590 French.  German losses numbered 10,000–12,000.  By July 19, 1916, the Somme offensive was just getting started.  The battle would last another 122 days.

Former battlefield at Dououmont. The sign reads “Danger Access Forbidden”

The toll exacted by the 1st World War was cataclysmic in human, economic and environmental terms.  After the war, hundreds of square miles along the north of France were identified, thusly:

“Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.

Vast quantities of human and animal remains permeate this “Zone Rouge”, an area saturated with unexploded shells and munitions of all sizes and types:  gas, high explosive, anti-personnel.  There are hand grenades and bombs, small arms and rusted ammunition, by the truckload.

Lochnagar Crater
Lochnagar bomb crater in the Somme Photo Credit Telegraph Newspaper: HENRY SAMUEL

Lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic and other toxins permeate the soil.  In two areas near Ypres and Woëvre, arsenic constitutes up to 17% of some soil samples.  The Red Zone is smaller today than it once was but, to this day, 99% of all plants still die in some of these places.

During World War 1 the two sides fired an estimated ton of explosives at each other, for every square meter of the western Front. As many as one in three shells failed to explode. The Ypres salient alone was believed to contain as many as 300 million unexploded shells at the war’s end. 87 years after the cessation of hostilities, one “Red Zone” survey uncovered up to 150 shells per 5,000 square meters in the top six inches of soil, alone.  

By means of comparison, an American football field covers 5,351.215 square meters.

Signs like this dot the landscape in parts of France and Belgium: “Village Destroyed”

100 years after WW1, more than 20 members of Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal (DOVO) were killed in 1998, alone.

In June 2016, head of the bomb disposal unit at Amiens Michel Colling, said: “Since the start of the year we’ve been called out 300 times to dispose of 25 tons of bombs.  As soon as you start turning the earth up”, Colling said, “you find them. At this rate, we have another 500 years to clear the area, so the work is far from over.

The rotor blades from farmers’ tractors sometimes set them off.   In June 2016, farmer Claude Samain plowed up a Lee-Enfield rifle. Last held in all probability by a British infantryman, the rifle was now seeing the sun for the first time, in 100 years. He placed it on a pile rusted old shells and ironworks. As a farm kid of the 1930s, Claude remembered turning up bodies in his fields.  ‘We find shells every time we turn the earth over for potatoes or sugar beet.” he explained.

French farmers call the stuff, récolte de fer. Iron harvest.

By derivative work: Tinodela (talk)Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg: Lamiot – Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4798391

That part about Claud Samain comes from a Mirror story published July 1, 2016 and written, by Andy Lines. “As Claude, 76, passed me the gun” Lines writes, “he smiled: “You Brits are so respectful of what happened here on the Somme. “Three coachloads of children arrive every single day to learn what happened 100 years ago – you never see any French children.””

Nor I would guess, any American children, and that’s a damned shame.

July 18, 1969 When Hell was in Session

“After a period of time, pain becomes an all‑encompassing entity, a fiery, blinding devil that courses into every part of the brain until you would literally do anything to escape it. After three cycles, the rig became too much. It had driven me to the point where I would have happily committed suicide to escape it. I would have run my own mother down with a truck if the price was freedom from pain, but I could do nothing. I felt my heart pumping mightily to force the blood through my strangled limbs and hoped that it would give out.

I prayed to die”.

POW, Commander Jeremiah Denton

A lot can happen in eight years. Like when your preschooler comes home one day, and he’s ready for high school. Eight years after that your little bundle of joy is a college graduate and headed for medical school. It’ll take another eight years or so to become a doctor, depending on the specialty.

As a POW, Jeremiah Denton endured eight years in a brutally harsh captivity punctuated by daily abuse and frequent torture sessions, and went on to become a United states Senator.

His story deserves to be told.

Jeremiah Denton had already compiled an impressive resume when he slid into the cockpit of the A-6A Intruder attack aircraft on July 18, 1965.

Entering the United States Naval Academy in 1943, Denton joined an “accelerated class” to graduate in June 1946, along with future President of the United Sates, Jimmy Carter. Then came Armed Forces Staff College, a Master of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University and the Naval War College, where Denton’s thesis revolutionized naval tactics earning top honors, including the prestigious President’s Award, in 1964.

Get an education or you’ll get stuck…how was that again…Mister Kerry?

Then it was July 18, 1965. For Jeremiah Denton, that was the day when everything changed.

While serving as a naval aviator, Commander Denton was leading a 28-aircraft bombing mission over North Vietnam, along with Bombardier/Navigator LTJG Bill Tschudy. The pair was forced to bail out when one of their own Mark 82 bombs exploded prematurely, sending the A-6A Intruder spinning out of control.

The two were quickly captured and brought to a colonial prison the French used to call, La Maison Centrale. The Vietnamese called this place Hỏa Lò, the name translating as “fiery furnace”. Some Americans called it the Hell Hole but for most, mocking their captors was a technique that helped them survive. They called this place, the “Hanoi Hilton”.

“They beat you with fists and fan belts. They warmed you up and threatened you with death. Then they really got serious and gave you something called the rope trick.”

Jeremiah Denton

Over nearly eight years of captivity, Denton, Tschudy and others endured daily abuse up to and including outright torture. Torments unimaginable but for the most sadistic among us. Shackles on the floor meant for far smaller men caused Americans’ hands to turn black. Lice and cockroaches joined with rats and all manner of vermin to prey on men shackled to the floor, forced to live in their own excrement as they slowly, starved.

American POW is escorted by North Vietnamese militia

Denton endured eight years of these stinking, fetid cells including periods of solitary confinement, locked day and night in a sweltering box and shackled to the floor of an iron box, measuring 3-feet by nine..

Over 700 Americans were held captive by enemy forces over roughly ten years during the war in Vietnam. 114 did not survive. One of them went on to run unsuccessfully, for President. He can tell you better than I can, what it was like.

And then there were the torture sessions. Let Denton tell his own story about an episode with one guard, he and his fellow POWs called Mickey Mouse.

“Having beaten them in my last two torture sessions in 1966, I thought I could do it again. In an effort to deter the punishment, I wrote Mickey Mouse a note reminding him of my previous success, and said that if they were determined to torture me, they would have to torture me to death. That was a mistake. It was a pledge I couldn’t keep.

The next stage was rear cuffs and leg irons. A guard dragged me around the rough cement floor until the leg cuffs began tearing into my ankles. He jerked me left and right, lifted me by the rear handcuffs – the same mess all over again for hours. Then I was left on the floor for a day.

Mickey Mouse gave me one more chance to write the letter, and again I refused.

In the months since my last torture, the Vietnamese had developed a rig that was unknown to me, and it was the perfect answer to my ability to take pain until passing out. As soon as Mickey Mouse left the room, a guard slammed open the door, and held out a rope and a four-and-a-half-foot pole, pointed at one end.

Two more guards came into the room, and the three of them began tying my wrists and lower forearms together in front of me. They forced my elbows apart and forced my knees between them, and pushed the pole through the hole created by my elbows and knees. Then they tipped me back on my spine and propped my feet on an overturned stool so that my feet were raised about a foot off the ground.

In essence, I was in the fetal position, my thighs pressed against my chest so tightly that I could hardly breathe. My body was tipped at such an angle that most of my weight was on the tip of my spine. The pole was the key to the rig. If the rig was properly tied, I would pass out eventually and fall on my side; the end of the pole would hit the floor and slide out of the rig, easing the pressure on my arms and restoring circulation. The pain that came with the blood circulation would bring me back to consciousness; thus the prisoner couldn’t beat the rig by passing out.

“A stone mural memorializes inmates who were tortured and killed at the former Hoa Lo prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton, which held Vietnamese revolutionaries and later American prisoners of war”. Hat tip KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

“As a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, I could recall nothing from military survival training that explained the use of a meat hook suspended from the ceiling. It would hang above you in the torture room like a sadistic tease — you couldn’t drag your gaze from it. During a routine torture session with the hook, the Vietnamese tied a prisoner’s hands and feet, then bound his hands to his ankles — sometimes behind the back, sometimes in front. The ropes were tightened to the point that you couldn’t breathe. Then, bowed or bent in half, the prisoner was hoisted up onto the hook to hang by ropes. Guards would return at intervals to tighten them until all feeling was gone, and the prisoner’s limbs turned purple and swelled to twice their normal size. This would go on for hours, sometimes even days on end.”

ex-POW, Sam Johnson

Over time, camaraderie became the key to survival. POWs learned to communicate. During his first four months in solitary confinement, Lt. Cmdr. Bob Shumaker noticed one particular inmate, regularly dumping his slop bucket. In a note scribbled out on a scrap of toilet paper and slipped under the door, Shumaker wrote, “Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton. If you get note, scratch balls as you are coming back.” The soldier did as asked and even wrote his own note, identifying himself as Air Force Captain Ron Storz.

“A diorama shows an inmate in solitary confinement at the former Hoa Lo prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton, which held Vietnamese revolutionaries and later American prisoners of war”. Hat tip KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

POWs developed a tap code to warn about particularly sadistic guards, what to expect during interrogations and a hundred other things. They even tapped out jokes. A kick on the wall meant laughter. Air Force pilot Ron Bliss once said the Hanoi Hilton “sounded like a den of runaway woodpeckers.”

In this place each other, was all they had. “I guess they thought if they had a Southern white boy taking care of a black man” Porter Halyburton once told the Washington Post, “it would be the worst place for both of us,” Fred Vann Cherry turned out to be tougher than either man realized, at the time. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, said Halyburton”.

Halyburton looked after his injured cellmate, changing the dressings on his infected wounds, feeding him, bathing him and watching over him. “He said I saved his life, and he saved my life. . . . Taking care of my friend gave my life some meaning that it had not had before.

Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace was a US Army Ranger who planned to become a priest of the Roman Catholic faith , who planned to come back to Vietnam to help the many orphans who had touched his heart. It was a bright and shining future, never meant to be.

Despite terrible injuries and incessant beatings Rocky would crawl away and escape, only to be beaten, yet again. So fluent was he in the tongue of his captors he would berate them and their communist ideology in their own language, humiliating his captors in front of villagers.

Rocky Versace was captured, but never defeated.

Even from solitary confinement Rocky would belt out words of inspiration to his fellow prisoners, sung to the tune of popular songs. Finally his guards had had enough. Rocky Versace was murdered in cold blood and later earned the Medal of Honor, for his defiance.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale

In July 1966, Denton and 50 fellow POWs were bound and paraded through the streets of Saigon, beaten and kicked by North Vietnamese civilians, along the way.

And yet some acts of defiance, astonishing even to contemplate. Summoned to appear to appear in a propaganda film to attest to his “good treatment”, Vice Admiral James Stockdale battered his own face with a stool and cut his hands and wrists, rather than appear in such a production. The man was a leader and an inspiration to his fellow captives, for which he too was awarded the Medal of honor.

“We had a war to fight and were committed to fighting it from lonely concrete boxes. Our very fiber and sinew were the only weapons at our disposal. Each man’s values from his own private sources provided the strength enabling him to maintain his sense of purpose and dedication. They placed unity above self. Self-indulgence was a luxury that could not be afforded.”

Vice Admiral James Stockdale

Jeremiah Denton was summoned to produce such a video. Feigning trouble with the bright lights, he blinked out the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code.

The stunt earned him no end of abuse when his communist captors figured out what he had done but by that time, it was too late. Somehow the tape made it out. It was the first confirmation of long-standing rumors that American POWs were in fact, being tortured.

Civilian pilot Ernest Cary Brace was the longest serving POW, at 7 years, 10 months and 7 days. Brace’s wife Patricia assumed he was dead and remarried, a fact he learned at the processing station, following his release.

With the war winding to a close, Tschudy and Denton were released on February 12, 1973. The release was part of “Operation Homecoming”, the return of some 591 POWs following the Paris Peace Accords.

POWs in their cell awaiting release, March 29, 1973

How you or I would endure even a day of such a place is a question, without an answer. Many of them are gone now, those years of abuse surely robbing many of their later years. And yet endure they did.

Jeremiah Denton wrote a book about his experiences called When Hell was in Session, if you want to learn more. James Stockdale, John McCain, Denton and others went on to further service, to the nation. There are those who will tell you some of our POWs, Never came home. All of them, every one, have earned the right to be remembered.

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