August 9, 1945 Destroyer of Worlds

Shigeaki Mori was 8 when he became Hibakusha, or “explosion affected person”. As a man, Mori-san came to believe the families of Allied POWs killed in Hiroshima possessed a connection through the nuclear blasts, to their Japanese counterparts. Mori’s “Secret History of the American Soldiers Killed by the Atomic Bombs”, tells the story of those soldiers, one of whom was John A. Long, Jr. of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

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Trinity Test Fireball

The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these were the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, on witnessing the world’s first successful nuclear test.

The project began with a letter from physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”.  The “Trinity” test culminated in the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equal to the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

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The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.

President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, Harry Truman immediately sworn in, as the new President. Ten days later he was fully briefed on the Manhattan project, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. To deploy an atomic bomb.

The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy” as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named for the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant.  Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.

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Fat Man

Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar” was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.

Three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.

Kokura was the primary target on this day in 1945, but local weather reduced visibility.  Bockscar crisscrossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop.  Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, while Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on Japanese fighter direction radio bands.

In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.

The 10,000-pound, 10-foot 8-inch weapon was released at 28,900-feet.  43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650-feet, a circle of 64 detonators simultaneously exploded, compacting a plutonium ball and combining separate hearts of beryllium and polonium thus ejecting hordes of neutrons into the supercritical mass. Nuclei within countless fuel atoms were thus split in a cascading effect known as induced nuclear fission, exploding outward with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000.  70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.

Nazi Germany was in fact working on a nuclear weapon, though the program never made it past the experimental stage. That one critical failure put the Third Reich behind in the arms race. How different would the world be today had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas, painted on their sides.

August 6, 2011 A Sports Story

In delivering tribute to his father Ed, Steve Sabol explained a philosophy applicable in business, as in life. “Tell me a fact,” he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart, forever”. – Steve Sabol

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from world war 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart wasn’t in it.  What he liked more than anything, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film the games. He discovered he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong that it blew the ball off the tee three times before opening kickoff.  Despite all of it, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

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Commissioner Pete Rozelle proposed the NFL buy Sabol out the league’s 14 owners disagreed. Instead, each franchise gave him $20,000 in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight film for each team.

NFL Films production style is unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way you could hear every hit, every sound, as if you were personally on the field.

With the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.”  NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

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Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small relative to the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.

Fun Fact: While team owners and the teams themselves pay taxes on income the NFL does not. With revenues of $12.2 Billion in 2020 (according to statista.com) the NFL has been a tax exempt non-profit, since 1942.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at that time, a condition destined to take his life the following year.   In a tribute to his father, Steve explained a philosophy applicable in business, as in life:

“Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart, forever”.

Sabol_Notes_Quotes

August 5, 1942 Born a Teacher

What can you say about a man offered freedom, who chose instead to die with the children left under his care.

Janusz Korczak was a children’s author and pediatrician, a teacher and lifelong learner. A student of pedagogy, Korczak was particularly interested in the art and science of education, and how children learn.

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Born Henryk Goldszmit into the Warsaw family of Józef Goldszmit, in 1878 or ’79 (sources vary), Korczak was the pen name by which the physician wrote his children’s books.

Henryk was an exceptional student, of above-average intelligence. His father fell ill when the boy was only eleven or twelve and was admitted into a mental hospital where he died, six years later. As the family’s situation worsened, the boy would tutor other students, to help with household finances.

Goldszmit was a Polish Jew, though not particularly religious, who never believed in forcing religion on children.

He wrote his first book in 1896, a satirical tome on child-rearing, called Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). He adopted the pen name Janusz Korczak two years later, writing for the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Literary Contest.

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Korczak wrote for several Polish language newspapers while studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, becoming a pediatrician in 1904. Always the writer, Korczak received literary recognition in 1905 with his book Child of the Drawing Room (Dziecko salonu), while serving as medical officer during the Russo-Japanese war.

He went to Berlin to study in 1907-’08 and worked at the Orphan’s Society in 1909, where he met Stefania “Stefa” Wilczyńska, an educator who would become his associate and close collaborator.

In the years before the Great War, Korczak ran an orphanage of his own design hiring Wilczyńska, as his assistant. There he formed a kind of quasi-Republic for Jewish orphans, complete with its own small parliament, court, and newspaper. The man was a born educator.

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In early modern European Royalty, 15th – 18th century, a “whipping boy” was the friend and constant companion to the boy prince or King, whose job it was to get his ass kicked, for the prince’s transgressions. The Lord was not the be struck by a social inferior. It was believed that, to watch his buddy get whipped for his own misdeeds would have the same instructional effect, as the beating itself.

The extent of the custom is open to debate and it may be a myth altogether, but one thing is certain.  Poland has been described as the “whipping boy of Europe”, for good reason.

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The Polish nation, the sixth largest in all Europe, was sectioned and partitioned for over a century, by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian imperial powers. Korczak volunteered for military service in 1914, serving as military doctor during WW1 and the series of Polish border wars between 1919-’21.

The “Second Polish Republic” emerging from all this in 1922 was roughly two-thirds Polish, the rest a kaleidoscope of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.  Relations were anything but harmonious between ethnic Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others, and most especially Poland’s Jewish minority, the largest in pre-WW2 Europe.

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Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta

Janusz Korczak returned to his life’s work in 1921 of providing for the children of this Jewish community, all the while writing no fewer than thirteen children’s books along with another seven on pedagogy, and other subjects.

In the inter-war years, Korczak put together a children’s newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the daily Polish-Jewish newspaper, Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).

Korczak had his own radio program promoting the rights of children, to whom he was known as Pan Doktor (“Mr. Doctor”) or Stary Doktor (“Old Doctor”).

The Polish government awarded “Old Doctor” the Polonia Restituta in 1933, a state order bestowed on individuals for outstanding achievements in the fields of education, science and other civic accomplishments.

Yearly visits to Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity partitioned from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and future Jewish state of Israel, led to anti-Semitic crosscurrents in the Polish press, and gradual estrangement from non-Jewish orphanages.

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The second Republic’s brief period of independence came to an end in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Korczak volunteered once again but was refused, due to his age.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Wehrmacht are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Poland never had a chance against the Nazi war machine, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on, two weeks later.

As an independent nation-state the Sovereign Republic of Poland was dead, though Polish air crews went on to make the largest contribution to the Battle of Britain, among the United Kingdom’s thirteen non-British defenders and allies.  Polish Resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, throughout WW2.

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By the following year, Warsaw had become the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.  The Jews of Poland were herded into the city, barely existing on meager rations while awaiting the death squads of the SS.  Old Doctor and his orphans were forced into the Ghetto, in 1939.

Korczak had around 200 under his care on this day in 1942, when soldiers of the Gross-Aktion (Great Action) Warsaw, came to “resettle” them, to the east.

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The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman

The extermination camp at Treblinka, was waiting.

Polish-Jewish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, one of precious few survivors of the Jewish ghetto, describes the scene in his 1946 memoir, The Pianist:

“He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…”

Eyewitness Joshua Perle states that:  Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child… A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

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At the Umschlagplatz, the rail-side assembly area on the way to Treblinka, an SS officer recognized Korczak and called him aside.  The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but he refused, saying that he would stay with his children.  Stary Doktor was offered deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp instead. Again, he refused.

The man who declined freedom to die with the orphans in his care was last seen boarding the train to Treblinka on August 5. All 200 were murdered the following day.

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Janusz Korczak memorial stone, Treblinka

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand”.

Mary Berg, The Diary

August 4, 1697 Drinking the Stars

According to legend it was August 4, 1697 when Brother (Dom) Pérignon called out “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”.

Wines were near-universally red in medieval and renaissance Europe and almost always, still.  The in-bottle refermentation that gives “sparkling” wine its ‘fizz’ was a problem for winemakers.  Fermentable sugars were frequently left over when weather began to cool in the fall, particularly with the white grape varietals.  Refermentation would set in with the warm spring weather, converting bottles into literal time bombs.  Corks would pop out and wine would spoil.  Sometimes the whole batch would explode, one pressurized bottle going off in sympathetic detonation with the next.

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Pierre Perignon entered the Benedictine Order when he was 19, doing his novitiate at the abbey of Saint-Vannes near Verdun, later and transferring to the abbey of Hautvillers, in 1668.

According to legend it was August 4, 1697 when Brother (Dom) Pérignon called out “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”.

The story seems to be an 1821 embellishment by one Dom Groussard, in an attempt to increase the reputation of the abbey.  The English scientist and physician Christopher Merret seems to have been the first to add sugars, beginning the refermentation process which resulted in the first carbonated wine.

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Yet Dom Pérignon most certainly perfected the double fermentation process, and made important contributions to the quality of the abbey’s fine wines.  He was an early advocate of natural process, farming methods we would call “organic”, today.  He strictly avoided the addition of foreign substances and insisted that all blending take place at the grape stage. Pérignon insisted on “blind” tasting, not wanting to know what vineyard a grape came from prior to selection.

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Pérignon didn’t like white grapes because of their tendency to enter refermentation. He preferred the Pinot Noir, and would aggressively prune vines so that they grew no higher than three feet and produced a smaller crop. The harvest was always in the cool, damp early morning hours, and he took every precaution to avoid bruising or breaking his grapes. Over-ripe and overly large fruit was always thrown out. Pérignon did not allow grapes to be trodden, preferring instead the use of multiple presses.

Dom Perignon

Dom Pérignon served as the “cellarer” of the Hautvillers abbey until his death in 1715, in a time when the abbey flourished and doubled the size of its vineyards.  In a sign of honor and respect, Dom Pierre Pérignon was buried in a section of the abbey cemetery, historically reserved only for abbots.

Moët et Chandon, which began as Moët et Cie, purchased the vineyards of the Abbey of Hautvillers in 1792. To this day, Moët’s most prestigious cuvée bears the name of a certain Benedictine monk from Sainte-Menehould in the ancient Province of Champagne. Dom Pérignon.

August 3, 1914 Apocalypse

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

In 1869, Germany had yet to come into its own as an independent nation. Forty-five years later she was one of the Great Powers, of Europe.

Great Powers, 1914

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of her historic adversary, the French government had by that time increased compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the German’s military of a much larger population.

Joseph Caillaux was a left wing politician, once Prime Minister of France and, by 1913, a cabinet minister under the more conservative administration of French President Raymond Poincare.

Never too discreet with his personal conduct, Caillaux paraded through public life with a succession of women, who were not Mrs Caillaux. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, Madame Raynouard had become the second Mrs Caillaux.

A relative pacifist, many on the French right considered Caillaux to be too “soft” on Germany. One of them was Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, who regularly excoriated the politician.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the paper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark.  Gaston Calmette was dead before the night was through.

Cailloux Affair

It was the crime of the century.  This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ever ask for. It was the OJ trial, version 1.0, and the French public was transfixed.

The British public was similarly distracted, by the latest in a series of Irish Home Rule crises.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 nations, 20 Parliamentary groups and 27 political parties, desperately needed to bring the Balkan peninsula into line following the June 28 assassination of the heir apparent to the dual monarchy. That individual Serbians were complicit in the assassination is beyond doubt but so many government records of the era have disappeared that, it’s impossible to determine official Serbian complicity. Nevertheless, Serbia had to be brought to heel.

Balkan Troubles

Having given Austria his personal assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of her Slavic ally, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany left on a summer cruise in the Norwegian fjords. The Kaiser’s being out of touch for those critical days that July has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in naval history.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd, little more that a bald pretext for war.  Czar Nicholas wired Vienna as late as the 27th proposing an international conference concerning Serbia, but to no avail. Austria responded that same day.  It was too late for such a proposal.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia the following day, the day on which Madame Caillaux was acquitted of the murder of Gaston Calmette, on the grounds of being a “crime of passion”.

As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia.  For Germany’s part, nothing was to be feared more than a two-front war with the “Russian Steamroller” to the east, and the French Republic to the west.  Germany invaded neutral Belgium in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which she sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the far larger Russian adversary.

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On August 3, 1914, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey announced before Parliament his government’s intention to defend Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Pre-planned timetables took over – France alone would have 3,781,000 military men under orders before the middle of August, arriving at the western front on 7,000 trains arriving as often as every eight minutes.

Declaration

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

Sir Edward Grey

August 2, 216BC An Uneven Fight

The Battle of Cannae is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.

There were two great powers in the Mediterranean region of 264BC:  the Romans on the Italian peninsula and Carthage, a North African maritime power settled by Phoenician travelers some 800 years earlier, in modern day Tunisia.

A dispute in Sicily that year led to war between the two powers, ending in Roman victory in 241BC and a vanquished Carthage being stripped of her Navy.

Hamilcar Barca was a great general of this, the first “Punic” war, the name deriving from the Latin word for Phoenician. Barca made his then 12-year-old son Hannibal swear undying hatred for the Romans.

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At the age of 20, Hannibal Barca set out on what would become the second Punic war.  It was late Spring, 218BC, when Hannibal left the Iberian outpost of “New Carthage”, now the Spanish city of Cartagena. Crossing into hostile Gaul (France) at the head of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 37 war elephants, Hannibal arrived at the Rhône River in September.

Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing almost half his force before entering Italy that December.

Hannibal crossing the Alps

What followed was a series of crushing defeats for Rome. First at the Battle of Trebia, then Lake Trasimene, Hannibal’s army laid waste to the Italian peninsula.

There was almost no family in all of Rome that didn’t lose one or more members in the swath of destruction brought down by Hannibal and his Carthaginian army.

At this point, Rome took the extreme step of appointing one man, absolute dictator of the Roman Republic.  His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus.  Rather than joining the Carthaginians in pitched battle, Fabius sought to wear them down in a series of “hit & run” and “scorched earth” tactics.

Fabius was right.  His tactics were a military success and bought the Republic time in which to rebuild its military, but they were a political flop.  The Roman psyche would accept nothing short of pitched battle.  In six months, Fabius “Cunctator” (“the Delayer”) was replaced by the co-consuls Gaius Terentius Varro, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.

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In the co-consul system, Varro would be supreme commander of the army on one day, and Paullus the next.  Knowing full well how this system worked and wanting to draw the more aggressive Varro into pitched battle, Hannibal sprung his trap on a day when Varro was in command.

The Battle of Cannae, fought this day in 216 BC, is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.

Unable to function as a disciplined unit, as many as 75,000 Romans were hacked to death, equivalent to the seating capacity of the New York Mets’ Citi Field and Harvard Stadium, combined.

Another 10,000, were captured.  Among the dead was a current Consul, the most powerful elected official in the Roman Republic as well as both consuls, from the previous year.

80 senators, nearly a third of the entire Roman Senate, were wiped out in single day.

There was now no military force left between Hannibal and Rome itself.  Most powers would have admitted defeat, and sued for peace.  Not Rome.  Unable to defeat the Carthaginians in open battle, Rome returned to Fabian tactics, harassing the foe and wearing them down in an endless series of scorched earth and guerrilla tactics.

For 16 years, Hannibal remained undefeated on Italian soil while his political adversaries at home, never once sent him reinforcement. He was finally recalled to Carthage to defend his homeland against Roman attacks in North Africa and Spain.  Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics at the Battle of Zama, the second Punic War ending in 201BC.

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Hannibal, Louvre Museum.

Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but some in Rome wouldn’t let it go. Misbehaving Italian children were threatened that Hannibal would come and get them if they weren’t good.  Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, ended his every speech, “Carthago delenda est”, “Carthage must be destroyed“.

The third Punic War saw the Romans attack Carthage itself. After three years of siege, the city fell in 146BC. Thousands were slaughtered, as many as 70,000 sold into slavery. Though the salting of fields is probably a later embellishment to the story, the city was sacked, then burned to the ground. Utterly destroyed.

Hannibal himself had grown elderly by 181-183BC, fleeing from one town to the next to escape his Roman pursuers.  Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, Hannibal committed suicide by poison sometime that same year. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too weighty a task, to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

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‘.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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