December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, almost to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.
The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by interference from foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties to the south.
Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that he was destined to become a great leader. By 1197 the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.
natgeo-cover-afghan-girl  The Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.
The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.
The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”. Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. They have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses apiece, and are able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep their horses fresh. In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including backward. The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with stretching animal sinews glued to the exterior. The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field. Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw of an English longbow is 70-80 lbs. The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs.
After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Chief of state (Khan) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.
13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one they fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.     Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde. It was this day, December 6, 1240, when Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev after several days’ struggle.
The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter from the battlefields to the death camps. WWII ended the lives of roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth, 40 to 72 million souls dead in a few short years. By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one by one by edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.
By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of mongolsHungary, to parts of Austria, to Eastern Persia.   Plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy in December, 1241, when news arrived informing them of the death of the Great Khan. Ögedei and Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.
The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000 mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, entirely under Mongol control. The “Black Death” of the 14th century would begin to change that. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of   Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.
The Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as they fell to squabbling over bloodlines. Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan. Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day. Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more, have never entirely recovered. Best known for the pyramids of skulls left behind, as many as 19 million fell to Tamerlane’s murderous regime.
The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible) in the 1550s.
The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about .5% of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby holding the blood clot, Genghis Khan.

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his wife and son, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin

Ever since the overthrow of the Roman Monarchy in 509BC, Rome governed itself as a Republic.  The government was headed by two consuls, annually elected by the citizens and advised by a Senate.  The Republic operated on the principle of a separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.  Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

A series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century BC, ending the Republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its conga line of dictators.

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during this period, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic.  In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate.  He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his wife and son, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

The first of two conspiracies bearing his name began in 65BC.  Catilina was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul.  He may or may not have been involved at this stage, but he certainly would be for the second.

In 63BC, Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan with a number of disaffected veterans, to overthrow the Republic. On the night of October 18, Crassus brought letters to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero warning of the plot.  Cicero read the letters in the Senate the following day, later giving a series of four speeches:  the Catiline Orations, considered by many to be his best political oratory.

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63BC, Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause.  As Consul, Cicero was not allowed to voice an opinion on the execution of conspirators, but this speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, primarily Cato the Younger.

The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators.  They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River.  The rest were executed by the end of December.  Cicero’s actions had saved the Republic.  For now.

At one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing, replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect.  He wouldn’t let it go.  Finally, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.

It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar when she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.

Here’s where the story becomes Very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,
The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, Brutus?” But that’s not what he said

By the time of his assassination, he had carried on with Servilia for years.  Servilia Caepionis had a son, called Marcus Brutus.  He was 41 on the 15th of March, 44BC.  The “Ides of March”.  Caesar was 56. The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in.  “And you, Brutus?”  But that’s not what he said.  Those words were put in his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded his dying words as “Kai su, Teknon?”  In Greek, it means “And you, my child?”

I’m not convinced that Brutus murdered his father on the Ides of March, in fact I believe it to be unlikely.  Still, it makes you wonder…

 

December 4, 1966  War Dogs of Vietnam

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset. It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

There are times when two highly trained individuals are able to function at a level higher than the sum of their parts.  Professional athletes like NFL linemen and NHL forwards are two examples.  Another is often the partnership formed between law enforcement officers.

On the battlefield, few assets more powerful than a well equipped and highly trained soldier. Unless we’re pairing that soldier with a Military Working Dog.

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

“Nemo”, born in October 1962, entered the United States Air Force as a sentry dog in 1964, at the age of 1½ years.  After an 8-week training course at Lackland AFB Sentry Dog Training School in San Antonio, Texas, the 85 pound German Shepard was assigned to Airman Leonard Bryant Jr., and sent to Fairchild Air Base in Washington for duty with Strategic Air Command.

The pair was transferred to the Republic of South Vietnam with a group of other dog teams, and assigned to the 377th Security Police Squadron, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.  Six month later, in July, Bryant rotated back to the States, and Nemo was paired with 22-year-old Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg.

Early on the morning of December 4, 60 Vietcong guerrillas emerged from the jungle, setting off a near simultaneous alarm from several sentry dogs on perimeter patrol.

Three dogs, Rebel, Cubby and Toby, were killed with their handlers in a hail of bullets.  Several other handlers were wounded, including one who was able to maintain contact with the enemy, notifying Central Security Control of their location and direction of travel.

Thanks to the early warning, a machine gun team was ready and waiting when 13 infiltrators approached the main aircraft parking ramp.  None of them lived to tell the story.  Security forces quickly deployed around the perimeter, driving some infiltrators off and others into hiding.  Daylight patrols reported that all VC infiltrators were gone, either killed or captured, but they had made a big mistake.  They should have brought the dogs with them.

That night, Thorneburg and Nemo were out on patrol near an old Vietnamese graveyard, about ¼ mile from the air base’ runways.  Nemo alerted on something.  Before Thorneburg could radio for backup, that something started shooting.  Thorneburg released the dog and charged in shooting, killing one VC before being shot in the shoulder.  Nemo was badly wounded, shot in the face, the bullet entering below his eye and exiting his mouth.  Ignoring his injury, Nemo attacked the four enemy soldiers hiding in the brush, giving his partner time to call for reinforcements.

Four additional VC were discovered hiding underground, as quick reaction teams scoured the area.  They found Nemo and Thornburg, both seriously wounded, together on the ground.  Both would survive, though Thorneburg was shot a second time, while returning to base.

I’m sure that individual dog handlers during the Vietnam era were as good to their dogs as they knew how to be.  That’s a guess, but having an MWD handler in the family, I think it’s a good one.  The Department of Defense bureaucracy was another matter.  The vast majority of MWDs were left behind as “surplus equipment”.

Nemo was one of the few lucky ones.  He was officially recognized for having saved thenemo-on-the-plane life of his handler, and preventing further destruction of life and property.   MWD Nemo was given the best of veterinary care and, on June 23 1967, USAF Headquarters directed that he be returned to the United States, the first sentry dog officially retired from active service.  The C124 Globemaster touched down at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, on July 22, 1967.  Nemo lived out the seven years remaining to him in a permanent retirement kennel at the DoD Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base.

December 3, 1586, Spuds

Now the fifth largest food crop on the planet, there was a time when taters were thought fit for no one but peasants and livestock.

The expedition that would end in the Lost Colony of Roanoke began in 1585, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and led by Sir Ralph Lane.  On board was the Oxford trained mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Herriot, the man who introduced potatoes to England on this day the following year.

The Inca of Peru seem to have been the first to cultivate potatoes, around 8,000BC.

Wild potatoes contain toxins to defend themselves against fungi and bacteria, toxins unaffected by the heat of cooking.  In the Andes, mountain people learned to imitate the wild guanaco and vicuña, licking clay before eating the poisonous plants. In this manner, toxins pass harmlessly through the digestive system. Mountain people dunk wild potatoes in “gravy” made of clay and water, accompanied with coarse salt. Eventually, growers developed less toxic tubers, though the poisonous varieties are still favored for their frost resistance.  Clay dust is sold in Peruvian and Bolivian markets, to this day.

Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in Peru in 1532 eventually brought potatoes home to Spain.  The first written mention of the potato comes from a delivery receipt dated November 28, 1567, between the Grand Canaries and Antwerp.

Among its other virtues, the potato provides more caloric energy per acre of cultivation than either maize or grain and, being below ground, is likely to survive calamities that would flatten other crops.  Taters quickly became staple foods in northern and eastern Europe, while in other areas remaining the food of peasants and livestock.

French army pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by Prussians during the seven years war, and learned to appreciate the gustatorial delights of the potato while in captivity.  Primarily used as hog feed in his native France, Parmentier was determined to bring respectability to the lowly tuber.  It must have been a tough sell, many believed that potatoes caused leprosy.  The Paris Faculty of Medicine declared them edible in 1772, thanks largely to Parmentier’s efforts.  He would host dinners featuring multiple potato dishes, inviting such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  Franklin was enormously popular among the French nobility.  Before long Louis XVI was wearing a purple potato flower in his lapel.  Marie Antoinette wore them in her hair.

Sir Walter Raleigh first introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589.  By 1845 the crop occupied one third of arable land in Ireland. This was due entirely to landless laborers, renting tiny plots from landowners interested only in raising cattle or producing grain for market. An acre of potatoes and the milk of a single cow was enough to sustain a family.  Even poor families could grow enough surplus to feed a pig, which could then be sold for cash.

Calamity struck in 1845, in the form of a blight so horrific that US military authorities once considered stockpiling the stuff as a biological weapon.  Seemingly overnight, Ireland’s staple food crop was reduced to a black, stinking ooze.  There followed the seven years’ “an Gorta Mór”, “the Great Hunger”, killing over a million Irish and reducing the population by 20-25% through death and emigration.  Throughout the Irish potato famine, the country continued to produce and export thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce, more than enough to feed the population.  Today, many see the effects of the absentee landlord system and the penal codes as a form of genocide.  At the time, already strained relations with England were broken, giving rise to Irish republicanism and leading to Irish independence in the following century.

Until Nazis tore it down, there was a statue of Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, Germany, giving him credit for introducing the potato. His right hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his left gripping a potato plant. The inscription read “Sir Francis Drake, disseminator of the potato in Europe in the Year of Our Lord 1586. Millions of people who cultivate the earth bless his immortal memory”.

Today, potatoes are the 5th largest crop on the planet, following rice, wheat, maize and sugar cane.  Almost 5,000 varieties are preserved in the International Potato Center in Peru.

In the Star Wars movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, there’s a chase sequence through an “asteroid” field in which some of the asteroids are, in fact, potatoes.potato-asteroid

Scientists have created genetically modified potatoes to ward off pests.  The “New Leaf”, approved in 1995, incorporated a bacterial gene rendering it resistant to the Colorado potato beetle, an “international superpest” so voracious that some credit it for creating the modern pesticide industry.  Other varieties were genetically modified to resist phytophthora infestans, the cause the Irish potato famine.  Seeming to prefer insecticides and anti-fungal sprays, “food activists” decry such varieties as “Frankenfoods”.  Each time, the improved variety has been hounded out of business.
In 2014, the J.R. Simplot Company received approval for their “Innate” potato.  Rather than “transgenic” gene splicing, the introduction of genome sequences from unrelated species, the innate variety uses a “silencing” technique on the tuber’s own genes, to resist the bruising and browning that results in 400 million pounds of waste and a cost to consumers of $90 million.

The Innate potato produces less acrylamide, a known carcinogen produced by normal potatoes in the high heat of fryers.  This might actually be the first genetically modified variety to succeed in the marketplace, but McDonald’s, possibly the largest potato user on the planet, has already announced that “McDonald’s USA does not source GMO potatoes, nor do we have current plans to change our sourcing practices.”

You can never underestimate the power of hysterical people in large groups.

December 2, 1899 Filipino Thermopylae

On December 2, 60 handpicked Filipino guerillas turned to face the 300 troops of the 33rd Infantry Regiment.

After three wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States.  It was the third of these, the “Little War”, when the US intervened directly on behalf of Cuba, and which finally won the island nation its freedom.  That intervention led to the Spanish–American War in 1898.  Before long, US attacks on Spain’s Pacific possessions led to American involvement in the Philippine Revolution.

When it was over, Filipino revolutionaries were no more excited about what they saw as American Imperialism, than they were that of the Spanish.

Emilio Famy Aguinaldo was 25 when he joined the Katipunan, a secret organization dedicated to the armed expulsion of Spain and independence for the Philippines.  By the age of 29, Aguinaldo was elected the first President of the Philippines, calling himself “Magdalo”, in honor of Mary Magdalene.

Aguinaldo accepted a substantial bribe from Spain and removed himself to Hong Kong in 1897.  By the following year, he was back.

By 1899, the United States had yet another war on their hands, variously known as the Philippine Insurrection and the Philippine–American War.
The US and Spain signed a Peace protocol on the 12th of August, in which neither party recognized the June 12 declaration of Philippine independence.  Insurgents prepared a triumphant entry into the capital city of Manila, only to be denied access by the Americans.  They were honoring their agreement with Spanish authorities, who had stipulated that they wanted to surrender to Americans, and not to the insurgents who’d been making war on them.  To the Revolutionaries, it was a de facto partnership between the former combatants, with themselves on the outside.

It was only a matter of time before Filipino-American relations took a turn for the worse.
Fighting erupted between US and Filipino revolutionary forces on February 4, 1899. Without investigation, General Arthur MacArthur ordered his troops to advance against Filipino troops the following day, beginning a full-scale battle for Manila.

By June of that year, the First Philippine Republic had officially declared war on the United States. By November, President Aguinaldo had disbanded the regular Filipino army into guerrilla units, as he fled through the mountainous terrain of Bayambang.  Reaching the strategic bottleneck of Tirad Pass (Pasong Tirad) on November 23, Aguinaldo left a rear-guard under General Gregorio del Pilar to turn and face the pursuing Americans.  The handpicked force of 60 constructed trenches and stone barricades on both sides of the pass.

On December 2, they turned to meet Major Peyton C. March’s 300 troops of the 33rd Infantry Regiment.

The position was unassailable, but for the trail which outflanked the defenders and came up behind the position.  As Efialtes betrayed Leonidas’ 300 Spartans to Xerxes almost 2,400 years earlier, an Igorot villager named Januario Galut led the attackers around to the rear of the fortified position.  When it was over, the 33rd Infantry had lost 2, the Filipino rearguard 52.tirad-pass-movie

The Philippine Insurrection formally ended on July 4, 1902, though fighting would continue as late as 1913 with several minority factions.

There is an oft repeated story concerning General “Black Jack” Pershing’s treatment of a Muslim uprising, in the south of the country, among a people called the Moro.  The story involves American forces executing 49 out of 50 Moros with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, allowing the last to go back and warn his people not to mess with these guys.  The information is contradictory.  The story may be apocryphal, but not entirely so.  The closest I could come to confirming the story comes from the diary of Rear Admiral D.P. Mannix III, who fought the Moros as a young Lieutenant.   He refers to “…the custom of wrapping the dead man in a pig’s skin and stuffing his mouth with pork. As the pig was an unclean animal, this was considered unspeakable defilement.”

Interestingly, it was John Hay, former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, whose name adheres to one of 5 known copies of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s own hand, who served as Secretary of State during this period.    President Theodore Roosevelt’s October 25, 1903 executive order set aside land in the Benguet region of the Philippines for a military reservation, named Camp John Hay in his honor.  The property was turned over to the Philippines in 1991, on the expiration of the Philippine-US Bases Agreement.  A private developer transformed the property into a world class resort in 1997.  It retains the name of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, to this day.

December 1, 2013 Sacred Soil

The Flanders Fields Memorial Garden will open in 2014, marking the centenary of the “great War”. “The war to end all wars”.

This November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the 98-year anniversary of the end of WWI.
At the time, it was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all wars”.  There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history which cannot be traced back to it.  International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, nor Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.
The current boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious differences are nothing new, they would have taken a very different shape if not for those boundaries.
World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history (WWI was only #5), was little more than the Great War, part 2. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”. He was off by something like 36 days.
I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle benefits of examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened three years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.
More than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War in the summer of 2013.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme.  All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”, there they collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields.
The soil from those battlefields was placed in WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  These seventy sandbags were transported to London, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards. There the soil of the Great War will nourish and support a garden.  Ready for the following year – a solemn remembrance of the centenary of that war.
That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.
I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and not let it fade into some sepia toned and forgotten past.

This is what it looked like

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

“What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called ‘la sale guerre’. The ‘dirty war'”.

Speak of France, and most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.
That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, French forces faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. It was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.
What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”.  The “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
The war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.
Late in the preceding year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.
In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu:  a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.
“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as supplies, troops, and engineering equipment poured into the isolated base.
Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each reportedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.
Vo felt that he’d made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.
The French staff based their battle plan on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.
French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

dien_bien_phu-base
Enemy artillery virtually ringed the French position by March of 1953.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.
“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

victory_in_battle_of_dien_bien_phu
Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison, on May 7. By nightfall it was over.

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.
The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in north and south alike.
US support for the south increased as France withdrew its own.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.
The next war in Indochina, had begun.

 

November 29, 2004 Godzilla

“He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one”

In 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) was fishing near the Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific. On March 1, 23 fishermen were witness to a western sky that “lit up like a sunrise”. For eight minutes, they watched the mushroom cloud rise into the sky.  And then came the sound of the explosion. Next came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll that fell like snow from the sky.

These fishermen returned to Yaizu, Japan two weeks later, all 23 suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms.  They were now “hibakusha”.   “Explosion-effected people”.

It had been only nine years since the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a fierce anti-nuclear sentiment was building in Japan. In this context, there arse a metaphor for all that destruction.  Literally rising from the sea, this product of the Japanese entertainment industry took the form of a monster:  “Godzilla”.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, meaning gorilla, and “kujira”, meaning whale. It was the Gorilla Whale, with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on its back and skin modeled after the keloid scarring of the hibakusha.

MCDGODZ EC052The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin, then changing the speed at playback.

The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, becoming the standard for most of the Godzilla films.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little confusing in the 1998 American remake “Zilla”, when he started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. He is the best known, but certainly not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

Godzilla appeared in 28 original films by the Toho Co., Ltd studios, and countless remakes. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

On this date, November 29, 2004, Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame”, timed to coincide with the release of the movie “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version is spawned by “environmental pollution”.  It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole. The film grossed less than $12 million after a production budget of $19 million, so ol’ Godzilla may stay frozen up for a while, this time. But you never can tell about these things.

November 28, 1942 Cocoanut Grove

492 lost their lives in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, a building with a rated capacity of 460

If go behind the Hotel Radisson in Boston, over by the parking garage, you’ll find 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood. The address is a parking lot now.  74 years ago, it was the most popular nightclub in Boston.
Rumors of criminal connections followed the Cocoanut Grove for years. The former owner, gangster and bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon, was gunned down ten years earlier in the men’s room of Roxbury’s Cotton Club. “Barney” Welansky, the current owner, liked to brag about his ties with the Mob and with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Welansky was in Mass General Hospital that night, recovering from a heart attack. He would soon have a lot of company.
The club had been a speakeasy during prohibition. Originally a garage and warehouse, Cocoanut Grove was converted into a 1½ story complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges, offering patrons dining and dancing in a “tropical paradise” of artificial palm trees, satin bunting and paper palm fronds, complete with a roof which could be rolled back when weather permitted for dancing under the stars.
Welansky was a tough boss, who seemed maniacally determined not to be beaten out of a tab or a cover charge. He locked exit doors, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit. Nobody was going to leave Cocoanut Grove without paying up.
Boston College had just ended an undefeated season, losing their slot in the Sugar Bowl in a stunning loss to Holy Cross, 55–12.  Over a thousand football fans, military service members and Thanksgiving weekend revelers crowded into the nightclub that night.  The rated capacity was 460.
Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, Goody Goodelle played piano on a revolving stage, surrounded by paper palms. Someone, perhaps a soldier on leave with his sweetheart, had removed a light bulb to have a little privacy. 16 year old bus boy Stanley Tomaszewski climbed up to replace the bulb, lighting a match so he could see what he was doing.
The decorations ignited immediately, fire racing so fast along the satin canopy, that wooden strips hanging it from the ceiling remained unscathed.
Waiters attempted to douse the fire with water, but it spread far too quickly. Lounge patrons were overcome so rapidly by toxic smoke, that some were later found dead in their seats, drinks still in their hands.
Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of people trying to escape. The orchestra was just beginning its evening show as a fireball leapt across the dance floor, spreading quickly through the Caricature Bar, and down a hallway to the Broadway Lounge. Inside of five minutes, flames had spread into the main hall and the entire nightclub was ablaze.cocoanut_grove_night_club_fire
Today, fire codes require revolving doors to be flanked by doors on either side, but that wasn’t the case in 1942. Desperate to escape, patrons packed the single revolving door, their bodies jamming it so tightly that firefighters later had to dismantle the entire frame.
The bodies of club guests piled up at locked exits, as other doors, opening inward, quickly became useless in the crush of bodies. Firefighters later testified that 300 could have been saved, if only those doors had opened to the outside.
The most striking story of survival that night was that of Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson, who returned to the nightclub no fewer than four times in search of his date, Estelle Balkan. He didn’t know that she had safely escaped, and each time Johnson returned with another unconscious smoke victim in his arms. Johnson himself was on fire his last time out, when he collapsed onto the sidewalk, still ablaze.
Three other burn victims were taken to Mass General that night, with burns over 30% of their bodies. Johnson alone survived the ordeal, despite suffering third degree burns over 55% of his body. He would suffer almost two years of painful medical treatments, including no fewer than 30,000 skin grafts in the first year alone.
I earn my living in the Commercial Furniture business.  I can tell you from experience that Cocoanut Grove effects Boston fire code regulations to this day. 492 died in the conflagration, the deadliest nightclub fire in American history. Barney Welansky was tried and convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to 12-15 years. Maurice Tobin, by then Governor, released him after four, his body ravaged with cancer. Welansky died 9 weeks later. Stanley Tomaszewski was exonerated.  It wasn’t he who had placed all those flammable decorations, but he was treated like a Jonah for the rest of his life.
Clifford Johnson would be 21 months in the hospital, after which he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri, the first of his era to survive such severe burns. Ironically, Johnson would be killed in a car wreck in 1956, pinned beneath an overturned Jeep, and burned to death.

November 27, 1868 George Armstrong Custer

Like many of his fellow “goats”, George Armstrong Custer would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’. Dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, he would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

At 25, Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union army, when Robert E. Lee met George Gordon Meade at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
He wasn’t the youngest. That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker, who at 20 was the only General Officer in history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day. In fact, it was in opposition to Pickett’s Charge that Custer makes his biggest contribution to the Union war effort, though I believe his role is overlooked.
The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. On the third day, that would change.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. Their superior mobility allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.

For his first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving him effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼ mile distant from the Federal line. Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest that the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back. But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line?  The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants: “As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

east-cavalry-fieldStuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day, but of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them were from Custer’s brigade.

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, then Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles that would end, for him, eight years later on a hill in the eastern Montana territory.

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have ended, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear, at the same time as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign had been Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States of America to go its own way. On that third day at Gettysburg, the Civil War could have come to a very different ending.