May 27, 1940 The Miracle of Dunkirk

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27,  7,669 were evacuated.  By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until the Great boat lift of September 11, 2001.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but its armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.dunkirk evacuationIn May of 1940 the British Expeditionary Force and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24, while Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of Allied forces. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard they could find for boats to ferry their people off of the beach.

Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume their advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.dunkirk-evacuation.-1-june-1940-troop-positions.-operation-dynamo.-hmso-1953-map-[2]-272563-pThe battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.

Larger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.Dunkirk EvacuationA thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent stranding. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27,  7,669 were evacuated.  By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until the Great boat lift of September 11, 2001.dunkirk1It all came to an end on June 4. Most of the light equipment and virtually all the heavy stuff had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a fighting force that would live to fight on. Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.dunkirk_marqueeOn the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for a “stay behind” mission in the weeks that followed. With “Operation Sea Lion” all but imminent, the German invasion of Great Britain, their mission was to go underground and to disrupt and destabilize the invaders in any way they could. They were to be part of the Home guard, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret, that he was to be assassinated in case of invasion to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.

Participants of these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families, what they were doing or where they were. Bob Millard, who passed in 2014 at the age of 91, said they were given 3 weeks’ rations, and that many were issued suicide pills in case of capture.  Some 400-500 elaborately concealed underground “operational bases” are believed to have been built, from which Home Guard units were to carry out the arts of guerrilla warfare including unarmed combat, demolition, sabotage and even assassination.

Left, Operational base, reconstruction at Parham Airfield Museum. Right, Auxiliary Units, Operational Base, emergency exit. H/T Wikipedia

Even Josephine, Millard’s wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about it until the auxiliaries’ reunion in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in 20th century conflicts. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes members of the Home Guard and the “Bevin Boys”, the 18-25 year old males conscripted to serve in England’s coal mines. In 2013, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.

2E3BB40600000578-3308996-image-a-222_1446983695741Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving”.

May 26, 1941 Avenging Brother

On this day in 1941, Sergeant Clive Hulme learned of the death of his brother Harold, also fighting in the battle for Crete.  The life expectancy for German snipers was about to become noticeably shorter. 

Throughout the history of armed conflict, men who have endured combat together have formed a special bond.  Prior to the David vs. Goliath battle at Agincourt, Henry V spoke of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers“.   The men who fought the “War to end all wars” spoke not of God and Country, but of the man to his left and right.  What then does it look like, when the man you’re fighting for is literally your own brother?

Hellenic forces enjoyed early success when fascist Italy invaded Greece on October 28, 1940, the Greek army driving the intruder into neighboring Albania in the first Allied land victory of the second World War.

Until the intervention of Nazi Germany and her Bulgarian ally.

german-invasion-greece-april-1941-008
German occupation of Greece

British commonwealth troops moved from Libya on orders from Winston Churchill proved too little, too late. The Greek capital at Athens fell on April, 27. Greece suffered axis occupation for the rest of the war, with devastating results. Some 80% of Greek industry was destroyed along with 90 percent of ports, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. 40,000 civilians died of starvation, in Athens alone. Tens of thousands more died in Nazi reprisals, or at the hands of Nazi collaborators.

german-invasion-crete-1941-002
Airborne invasion of Crete

Fearful of losing the strategically important island of Crete, Prime minister Winston Churchill sent a telegram to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir John Dill: “To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime.”

By the end of April, the Royal Navy evacuated 57,000 troops to Crete, largest of the islands comprising the modern Greek state.   They’d been sent to bolster the Cretan garrison until the arrival of fresh forces, but this was a spent force.  Most had lost heavy equipment in the hasty evacuation.  Many were unarmed, altogether.

German_troops_board_a_Junkers_52_for_Crete
German mountain troops board a Junkers Ju 52 for Crete, 20 May 1941, H/T Wikipedia

Occupied at this time with operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s surprise invasion of his erstwhile Soviet ally, German Army command had little desire to go after Crete.   Eager to redeem themselves following the failure to destroy an all-but prostrate adversary during the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe High Command was a different story.

Hitler recognized the strategic importance of Crete, both to the air war in the eastern Mediterranean and for the protection of the Axis southern flank.

By the time of the German invasion, Allied forces were reduced to 42,000 on Crete of which only 15,000, were combat ready.  New Zealand Army Major-General Bernard Freyberg in command of these troops, requested evacuation of 10,000 who had “little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population“.

Once again it was too little, to late.  The first mainly airborne invasion in military history and the only such German operation of WW2 began on May 20, 1941.

The Luftwaffe sent 280 long-range bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance aircraft into the attack, along with 530 transport aircraft and 100 gliders.

hulme
Sgt. Clive Hulme

The allied garrison was soon outnumbered and fighting for their lives.  Recognizing that the battle was lost, leadership in London instructed Freyberg to abandon the island, on May 27.

The “Victoria Cross” is the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor.  Sergeant Clive Hulme of the New Zealand 2nd Division was part of that fighting withdrawal.  He was 30 years old at the time of the battle for Crete where his actions, earned him the Victoria Cross.  Let Sergeant Hulme’s citation, tell his story:

“On ground overlooking Malene Aerodrome on 20th and 21st May [Sergeant Hulme] personally led parties of his men from the area held by the forward position and destroyed enemy organised parties who had established themselves out in front of our position, from which they brought heavy rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire to bear on our defensive posts. Numerous snipers in the area were dealt with by Serjeant Hulme personally; 130 dead were counted here. On 22nd, 23rd and 24th May, Serjeant Hulme was continuously going out alone or with one or two men and destroying enemy snipers. On 25th May, when Serjeant Hulme had rejoined his Battalion, this unit counter-attacked Galatas Village. The attack was partially held up by a large party of the enemy holding the school, from which they were inflicting heavy casualties on our troops. Serjeant Hulme went forward alone, threw grenades into the school and so disorganised the defence, that the counter-attack was able to proceed successfully.”

On this day in 1941, Sergeant Clive Hulme learned of the death of his brother Harold, also fighting in the battle for Crete.  The life expectancy for German snipers was about to become noticeably shorter.  Again, from Hulme’s VC citation:

On Tuesday, 27th May, when our troops were holding a defensive line in Suda Bay during the final retirement, five enemy snipers had worked into position on the hillside overlooking the flank of the Battalion line. Serjeant Hulme volunteered to deal with the situation, and stalked and killed the snipers in turn. He continued similar work successfully through the day.  On 28th May at Stylos, when an enemy heavy mortar was severely bombing a very important ridge held by the Battalion rearguard troops, inflicting severe casualties, Serjeant Hulme, on his own initiative, penetrated the enemy lines, killed the mortar crew of four…From the enemy mortar position he then worked to the left flank and killed three snipers who were causing concern to the rearguard. This made his score of enemy snipers 33 stalked and shot.  Shortly afterwards Serjeant Hulme was severely wounded in the shoulder while stalking another sniper. When ordered to the rear, in spite of his wound, he directed traffic under fire and organised stragglers of various units into section groups.”

hulme-medals
Clive Hulme’s medals

The man took out 33 German snipers by himself in 8 days and still assisted in the withdrawal, after being shot badly enough to put him out for the rest of the war.

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

 

May 25, 61 Boudicca

Apoplectic with rage and determined to avenge her family, Boudicca was not a woman to be trifled with. She led the Iceni, the Trinovantes and others among the Celtic, pre-Roman peoples of Britain, in a full-scale, bloody revolt.

The “Pax Romana” (“Roman Peace”) refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone who stood against it. Historians speak in terms of Great Empire. For most, the mountains of dead become cold statistics, themselves dead and bereft of human experience. There is no quantifying the mass of human misery left in the wake of such a regime. The conquered peoples of the time, who would tell you a different tale. Sometime circa 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the Pax Romana: “They make a desert and call it peace“.

paxIn the Roman imagination, Britain was a faraway and exotic place, a misty, forested land inhabited by fierce, blue painted warriors.

Caesar himself invaded the place in 55BC and again in 54 with little to show for it.  100 years later, the Roman empire stretched from the beaches of modern-day Normandy to Asia, from the Sahara desert to the northern Rhineland.   In 9AD, the destruction of three legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoberg forest served as a sharp reminder.  That was about as much as even the Roman empire, could handle.

display-2255Militarily, there was no reason to attack the British home isles.  The channel itself formed as fine a protector of the western flank, as could be hoped for.

Even so, the assassination of the mad emperor Caligula in 41 and the ascension to the Royal Purple of a minor member of the Claudian family, led to strong resistance in the Roman senate.   If he was to survive, emperor Claudius had to prove himself worthy.  The Roman culture of antiquity revered nothing so much as military conquest and what could be better, than the glorious subjugation of Britannia.   So it was, Claudius set about to invade Britain in the year 43.

1200px-Roman.Britain.campaigns.43.to.60

20,000 citizen-legionaries and another 20,000 auxiliaries recruited from the wild fringes of the empire, had their work cut out subjugating the iron age hill fortifications, of the British interior.  Wales would prove all but impenetrable behind the anti-Roman front erected by the Welsh tribes following Prince Caratacus.

Before achieving the defeat of the west, the invader had to contend with a force which came closer than any other, to throwing the Italians out of the place, altogether.  A threat in the person of Queen Boudicca, of the Iceni people.

RAB-Boudica-bust-2x800

Boudicca (a.k.a. Boudica, Boudicea, Boadicea, Buddug) reigned over the Iceni tribe of East Anglia, co-ruler with her husband, Prasutagus. A nominally independent kingdom and ally of the Romans, King Prasutagus believed himself the protector of his people when he willed the kingdom jointly, to his two daughters and to the Roman emperor. Prasutagus lived a long and prosperous life but, when he died, that all changed.

With the arrogance of unchecked and unlimited power, emperor Nero moved to take what was His. Prasutagus’ will was ignored and his kingdom annexed and all his property, forfeit.  Financiers from the Roman statesman Seneca to emperor Nero himself called in their loans but worst of all, Queen Boudicca was publicly flogged, her two daughters, raped.

s-960230fdc4350d3f3c28bb087385c273e4311848Apoplectic with rage and determined to avenge her family, Boudicca was not a woman to be trifled with. She led the Iceni, the Trinovantes and others among the Celtic, pre-Roman peoples of Britain, in a full-scale, bloody revolt.

Emperor Claudius himself had once overseen the invasion of Camulodunum in what is now Colchester, in Essex.  Then a Roman province and home to the only classical-style temple in Britain, in British eyes the thing was arx aeternae dominationis (“stronghold of everlasting domination”).

tumblr_nblk7dxpGw1rwjpnyo2_1280For the Celtic peoples, the hour of payback had arrived.  For the seizure of lands to provide estates for Roman veterans to their own forced labor in building the Temple of Claudius to the sudden recall of loans and destruction of estates and properties.  The Roman historian Tacitus writes of the last stand at the Temple of Claudius: “In the attack everything was broken down and burnt. The temple where the soldiers had congregated was besieged for two days and then sacked“.

Everything that could be taken up was smashed, the population slaughtered and the city burnt to the ground.  A relief army rushing to the assistance of Camulodunum was itself destroyed, before ever reaching the town.

The archaeological record backs it all up.  The “Boudican destruction layer” forms a thick deposit of ash, human bones, shattered buildings, smashed pottery, furniture and glasswork at Camulodunum, Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London).  An estimated 70,000-80,000 Romans and British citizens were slaughtered and many tortured, within the smoking ruins of the three cities.

Nero himself contemplated removing his entire force from the British home islands as Governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus gathered his forces to strike back.

Sometime in 60 or 61, the precise date is unknown and this one is as good as any, the decisive battle for British if not western history was fought between Celtic followers of the warrior queen Boudicca, and the most powerful military on the planet.

Roman Shield WallOutnumbered 23 to 1, the 10,000 strong Roman legion was battle hardened, well-equipped and disciplined, facing off against a mob of nearly a quarter-million unarmored, poorly disciplined individuals.

Suetonius chose the ground carefully for the fight we remember today, as the battle of Watling Street. Backed into a narrow gorge with thick forests protecting his sides, Suetonius enemy was made to approach across an open plain, narrowing in the front so as to nullify numerical advantage. Like the Germanic chieftains Boiorix of the Cimbri and Ariovistus of the Suebi before their own battles against Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar, Boudicca’s forces arrayed their wagons in a tight circle to the rear, the better for family to watch what was about to happen.  It was a deadly trap they had laid for themselves, should things go wrong.

FilmWhat must it look like, when 230,000 screaming warriors charge a fixed force of 10,000 disciplined soldiers.  First came the Pila, the Roman javelins tearing into the tightly packed front, of the adversary.  Then the Legion advanced, shields out front with the short swords, the long swords and farm implements of the Celts unable to move in the crush of humanity.  The wedge formation advanced unbroken, slaughtering all who came before it as a scythe before the grass.  The turning and the attempt to flee, only to be boxed in by their own tightly packed crescent formed wagon train.

Street-680,000 of Boudicca’s men lay dead before the slaughter was ended, against 400 dead Romans.  Queen Boudicca poisoned herself according to Tacitus, Cassius Dio claims she became ill.

Romans never did subdue the wild tribes to the north, the Scots, the Picts and the Scoti (modern Irish).  By 122, Hadrian had begun construction on a wall.

Boudicca’s gone now but her name lives on. On this day in 1972, the cruise ship Royal Viking Sky launched from drydock at the Wärtsilä Hietalahti shipyard in Helsinki, Finland.  In 2005, the thousand passenger liner was sold to Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and renamed MV Boudicca.  She remains active, to this day.

Boudicca_departing_Tallinn_7th_September_2013
MV Boudicca in Talinn Estonia, in 2013

May 24, 1973 The Real-Life “Dexter”

To search on the term “Serial killers with the highest known victim count” is to be rewarded with the knowledge that the top 32 serial killers of the modern era, are responsible for a proven list of 1,661 victims and a possible count, several times that number. 

On October 1, 2006, the premium television network Showtime broadcast the premier episode of the crime mystery drama, Dexter.  Set in Miami, the series tells the story of Dexter Morgan played by actor Michael C. Hall.  Hall’s character is a forensic technician, working for the fictional Miami Metro Police Department and specializing in crime scene analysis based on splatter patterns.  Splatter patterns of blood and tissue.

In his off-hours, Dexter’s an avenging angel.  A serial killer, who preys on other serial killers.  Dexter’s after the bad guys, murderers who for one reason or the other, slipped through the system.  The program ran for nearly five years.  The series finale broadcast on September 22, 2013 drew the largest audience in Showtime history.b28117ea-41bc-47fe-93ef-f82a1f31717bTo search on the term “Serial killers with the highest known victim count” is to be rewarded with the knowledge that the top 32 serial killers of the modern era, are responsible for a proven list of 1,661 victims and a probable count, several times that number.

Digging down on the list reveals a depressing similarity between the thirty men and two women on the roster.  Victims are overwhelmingly represented among the weaker members of society, the women, and children, and the elderly.  Mostly, but not entirely so.  Number 6 on the list is the Brazilian serial killer Pedro Rodrigues Filho, as close to a real-life Dexter as you’re likely to get.

Known as “Pedrinho Matador” (Killer Petey), Filho came out of the womb with head injuries, the result of a savage beating his mother received, at the hands of his father.RodriguesFilho says he first wanted to kill at age 13, when he tried to push an older cousin into a sugar cane press.  His first victim came a year later.  Filho murdered the deputy mayor of Santa Rita do Sapucaí with a shotgun in front of city hall, for firing his father from the school where he worked as security guard.  It was claimed the elder Filho, was stealing food.  Pedro then killed the guard whom he believed to be the real thief.

He fled to Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo where he took up robbing and killing, among the members of local drug gangs. There he met and fell in love with one Maria Aparecida Olympia. The couple lived together until Maria, herself pregnant with his child, was murdered by drug gangs. Filho went on a tear after that, torturing and killing gang members in the effort to find her killer.

In the end, the gang leader responsible was betrayed by his ex-wife.  Pedro paid the man a visit, during a wedding party.  When it was over there were seven dead and sixteen wounded.

By this time, Pedro‘s father was in prison for the machete-murder of his wife, Pedro’s mother. Visiting his father in prison, he stabbed the man 22 times before cutting his heart out and eating a piece, before tossing the thing away.

Killer Petey was arrested for the first time on this day in 1973.  Handcuffed and thrown in the back with an accused rapist, the other man was dead before the squad car reached the station.

Filho was sentenced to 128 years for his crimes.

The brutality within Brazilian prisons is shocking even by the standards of hardened criminals.  They are overcrowded hellholes ruled over by gangs and drug dealers where gruesome murders are a daily occurrence.  Inmates are often given keys to their own cells, so terrified are their jailers, of entering those dark and filthy hallways.  Video may be found of inmates playing “football” with decapitated heads.  Gang fights are vicious and deadly and yet even here, Pedrinho Matador racked up his greatest body count. pedro-rodrigues-filhoHe was once attacked by five gang members before killing three by himself and chasing off, the other two.  Brazilian law dictates a maximum of 30 years.  By the time he got out the Brazilian Dexter had killed another 47.

After spending most of his adult life in prison, Filho describes himself as a changed man.  Pedrinho Matador is proven to have killed 71 and claims 100+, all of whom are themselves murderers, rapists or those who he felt, did him wrong.  He converted to Christianity in 2018 and now has a YouTube channel where he warns troubled youth, of the dangers of a life of crime.Killer Petey

May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

May 22, 1176 Assassin

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From religious figures to politicians and generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible. It was important that no one miss the intended message.

For the Islamic world, the 11th century was a time of political instability.  The Fatimid Caliphate, claiming to descend from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, was established in 909.  By this time quartered in Cairo, the Ismaili Shia caliphate was in sharp decline by 1090, destined to disappear within the next 100 years, eclipsed by the Abbasid Caliphate of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to anyone familiar with the story of Richard Lionheart, as Saladin.sm_1c5fec69910767eb2024ea4a2f868b96To the east lay the Great Seljuk Empire, the Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim state established in 1037 and stretching from the former Sassanid domains of modern-day Iran and Iraq to the Hindu Kush.  An “appanage” or “family federation” state, the Seljuk empire was itself in flux after a series of succession contests, destined to disappear altogether in 1194.

Into the gap stepped the “Old Man of the Mountain”, Hassan-i Sabbah, and his fanatically loyal, secret sect of “Nizari Ismaili” followers, the Assassins.1_Nq3vtxWf1nYQJt2zT4gn7wThe name derives from the Arabic “Hashashin”, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”. Marco Polo reported a story that the old man of the mountain got such fervent loyalty from his young followers, by drugging and leading them to a “paradise” of earthly delights, to which only he could bring them back. The story is probably apocryphal, there is little evidence that hashish was ever used by the Assassins’ sect. Sabbah’s followers believed him to be divine, personally selected by Allah. The man didn’t need to drug his “Fida’i” (self-sacrificing agents).  He was infallible in their eyes, his every whim to be obeyed, as the literal Word of God.

The mountain fortification of Alamut in northern Persia was probably impervious to defeat by military means, but not to the two-years long campaign of stealth and pretend friendship practiced by Sabbah and his followers. In 1090, Alamut fell in a virtually bloodless takeover, becoming the headquarters of the Nizari Ismaili state.alamut-castleWhy Sabbah would have founded such an order is unclear, if not in pursuit of his own personal and political goals. By the time of the first Crusade, 1095-1099, the Old Man of the Mountain found himself pitted against rival Muslims and invading Christian forces, alike.

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From religious figures to politicians and generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible. It was important that no one miss the intended message.

Though the “Fida’in” occupied the lowest rank of the order, great care was devoted to their education and training. Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual Assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman. All the necessary traits, for anyone who would penetrate enemy territory, insinuate himself into their ranks, and murder the unsuspecting victim who had come to trust him.ASSASSINSSometimes, a credible threat of assassination did as much an actual killing. When the new Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar rebuffed Hashashin diplomatic overtures in 1097, he awoke one morning to find a dagger stuck into the ground, next to his bed. A messenger arrived sometime later from the Old Man of the Mountain. “Did I not wish the sultan well” he said, “that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast?” The tactic worked nicely. For the rest of his days, Sanjar was happy to allow the Hashashin to collect tolls from travelers in his realm. The Sultan even provided them with a pension, collected from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied.

The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people.  The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake.  The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on his life.the-crusades-22-638Conrad of Montferrat was elected King of Jerusalem in 1192, though he would never be crowned. Stabbed at least twice by a pair of Hashashin on April 28, on the way home, the Kurdish historian and biographer wrote “[T]he Frankish marquis, the ruler of Tyre, and the greatest devil of all the Franks, Conrad of Montferrat — God damn him! — was killed.”

In the 200+ years of its existence, the Assassins occupied scores of mountain redoubts, though Alamut would remain its principle quarters.

It’s impossible to know how many of the hundreds of political assassinations of this period, were attributable to the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah. Without a doubt, their fearsome reputation ascribed more political murder to the sect, than they were actually responsible for.

The Fida’in of Hassan-i Sabbah were some of the most feared killers of the middle ages. Scary as they were, there came a time when the Order of the Assassins tangled with someone far scarier, than even themselves.Al_Gazi_the_assassin_by_hunqwertThe Grand Master of the Assassins dispatched his killers to Karakorum in the early 1250s, to murder the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the “Golden Horde”, Möngke. It was a Bad idea.

The Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire Kitbuqa Noyan, was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses in 1253. Möngke’s brother Hulagu rode out at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen in 1255, with no fewer than 1,000 Chinese engineer squads. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

That they did. Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.591db11cb4831eaddd0ec6b0858997b1-baghdad-islamHulagu went on to subjugate the 5+ million Lurs people of western and southwestern Iran, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Ayyubid state of Damascus, and the Bahri Mamluke Sultanate of Egypt. Mongol and Muslim accounts alike, agree that the Caliph of Baghdad was rolled up in a Persian rug, whereupon the horsemen of Hulagu rode over him.  Mongols believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood.

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, and a WWI-era “merrymaker’ or traveling entertainer.  He was also a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia.  Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a dwarf.  Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz.  All ten survived to adulthood.  Three grew to normal height.  The other seven were “little people”, the largest dwarf family unit, in history.

On her death bed in 1930, Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other and live for one another”.

war2_1687882aCircus-like performing dwarves were common enough at this time but the Ovitz siblings were different.  These were talented musicians playing quarter-sized instruments, performing a variety show throughout the 1930s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”.  The family performed throughout Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, with their normal height siblings serving as “roadies”.   And then came the day.  The whole lot of them were swept up by the Nazis and deported to the concentration camp and extermination center, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19, 1944.  Thoroughly accustomed to a degree of celebrity, one of them began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

flat,800x800,070,f
The “death gate” of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Even so, cultural currents run deep.  Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves.   Knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed and what he called “blood” (family) experiments, Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened.  The “Angel of Death”was delighted, exclaiming “I now have work for 20 years!”

The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a baby boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, as all insisted they were close relatives.    All told, there were 22 of them.

the-dwarves-of-auschwitz-4
Ovitz family performers, before the war

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  Where others were directed to the gas chambers, these were kept alive for further use.  As bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than freakish torture rituals.  Three dwarf skeletons were on prominent display, the bones of earlier arriving little people, ever-present reminders of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears, followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was the holy grail in the mind of Josef Mengele, and the stuff was drawn until each would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.the-ovitzs-leaving-the-ca-008On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform.  Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele then gave a speech and invited the audience onstage, to poke and prod at the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where an entire family lived to tell the tale.

Auschwitz_I_(22_May_2010)
Before becoming an industrialized extermination center, Auschwitz I was a slave labor camp for Polish and later Russian prisoners. The words over the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, translate: “Work Makes You Free”.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found the place ruined.  The gold coins buried for safekeeping before the war were right where they had left them.  Otherwise, there was no future in this place.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512baf Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned.  In 1949, the family emigrated to Israel and resumed their musical tour, performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never did face justice. The man who had directed victims by the hundreds of thousands to the gas chamber, fled to South America after the war.  He was living under a false name in Brazil in 1979 when he suffered a stroke, while enjoying an afternoon swim.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of modern history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska or “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

The hour-long film “Standing Tall at Auschwitz” fills in a lot of the details.  It’s worth watching.

May 18, 2011 No Ordinary Donkey

Marines took him in, this malnourished Iraqi donkey, and built him a stable, and corral. The donkey would stroll into offices where he learned to open desk drawers in search of a goody. An apple, a carrot or some other sweet treat, planted there by some Marine.  He loved to steal cigarettes whether lit or unlit and so it was, they called him “Smoke”.

The air strip lies in central Iraq 50 miles west of Baghdad, on the Habbaniya plateau. Originally built by the RAF in 1952, the base was home to several Iraqi Air force units following the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy and ascension of the Arab socialist ‘Baath” party, in 1958. The place was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war and destroyed by American Air forces, in 1991. Reoccupied by the US Army following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the abandoned base was briefly known as Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ridgeway.

In 2004 the name was changed to Taqaddum, Arabic for ‘progress”, to keep a more Iraqi face on the mission. In 2008, camp Taqaddum or “TQ” was home to several United States Marine Corps fixed- and rotary wing squadrons, plus ground support and combat operating units.

Taqaddum
U.S. Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, Ted Stevens of Alaska, and John Warner of Virginia visit Al Taqaddum, in 2005

Marine Colonel John Folsom was stationed at TQ in 2008, along with the rest of Marine 1st Combat Logistics Battalion, stationed at the base near Fallujah. That was the year the small animal first appeared, wandering the countryside. Starved, emaciated and alone it was a donkey, arrived in hopes of a morsel.marinedonkeyx-large1Marines took him in, this malnourished Iraqi donkey, and built him a stable, and corral. The donkey would stroll into offices where he learned to open desk drawers in search of a goody. An apple, a carrot or some other sweet treat, planted there by some Marine.  He loved to steal cigarettes whether lit or unlit and so it was, they called him “Smoke”.XC2LPNK7EFFE7AOKIME32BJAPISmoke had his very own blanket, bright red and emblazoned with unit insignia, for the camp’s September 11 parade. On the side were these words, “Kick Ass”.b0d27c9b662c9ca0a135af12049865ce--pet-services-marinesRegulations prohibited keeping the animal on base but Colonel Folsom found a Navy psychologist, willing to designate Smoke a therapy animal.  He was good for morale.

Dads would write letters home to their kids, telling stories about Smoke the donkey.

Folsom and his Marines left TQ in 2009. The army unit moving into the base, didn’t want a donkey. Marines found an Iraqi sheikh who said he’d look after the animal, and they said their reluctant goodbyes.smoke-the-donkey-matt20shelatoAfter half a life serving the United States Marine Corps, John Folsom returned home to Omaha.  He’d often think of his “battle buddy” and those long walks, around the base.

In 2010, Folsom learned that Smoke was out on his own again, wandering half starved and alone.  Home-Page-LowerSliderThus began “Operation Donkey Drop”, Folsom’s 18-month odyssey first to raise the funds and then to wrangle the red tape thrown in his way through multiple jurisdictions, on Smoke’s journey to his new home in Nebraska.

Turkey alone posed a titanic, 37-day ordeal to untie the bureaucratic Gordian knot, with help from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International.  Folsom himself grew a beard to help conceal his western identity and flew to Turkey to enlist the aid of the US Departments of State and Agriculture and the United States Marine Corps, with further aid from the German government.donkeykissTerri Crisp heads SPCAI’s “Baghdad pups”, reuniting US troops with dogs and cats they had once bonded with, while serving overseas.  This was her first donkey.

Reuters news service reports, ““He was a great traveler,” Crisp said, noting Smoke posed for hundreds of photos during a six-hour wait in the Istanbul airport parking lot. “Everywhere we went, he’d draw a crowd.””

Smoke was formally released  by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on May 18, 2011, arriving at JFK International Airport in New York for the long drive to his new home in Nebraska.

5818e46f9a03a.imageFor Colonel John Folsom, USMC (retired), “semper fidelis” (“always faithful”) had become “semper fi(nally).”

Smoke lived out the rest of his days at the Take Flight Farms in Omaha, helping therapists help children come to terms with deployed or war-wounded parents.

Smoke died of natural causes on August 14, 2012 and was cremated, along with that red blanket with the words, “Kick Ass”.

The daily Star Newspaper of Lincoln Nebraska interviewed Sharon Robino-West, a Marine veteran who once worked with the donkey and “still has to bite her lip when she talks about laying a shiny Marine challenge coin on Smoke’s red blanket”.

Today, the ashes of John Folsom’s old battle buddy are on his desk, in his own special urn.  As of October 2014 a little donkey filly peered out of the stall, where Smoke’s face could once be seen.

“She doesn’t have the story that Smoke did,” Folsom said, “but I needed to fill the void.”

 

May 17, 1934 A Most Perfect Aryan Baby

It must have been terrifying but secretly amusing, at the same time. To see this beautiful Jewish baby, depicted as the perfect “Aryan” child.

In the world of crackpot theories, none have had more lasting effect than the work of 19th century intellectuals.    The economic theories of Karl Heinrich Marx, which continue to plague us, to this day.  The French aristocrat Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, whose work on “racial demography” renders him the intellectual father of Aryan “Master Race” theory.

250px-Arthur_de_Gobineau
Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau

De Gobineau’s work was lauded by white supremacist, pro-slavery Americans like Josiah Nott and Henry Hotze, who translated his book into English but somehow managed to leave out the hundreds of pages describing Americans themselves, as racial mongrels.

The book went on to fuel the late-19th and early 20th century movement in eugenics but nowhere did the work enjoy more enthusiastic support, than the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler.

With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP) lost no time in consolidating power.  Interestingly, the former Austrian corporal did not call himself a “Nazi”. That term was an insult, coined a long time before the party’s rise to power.

Two days later, the 876-member democratically elected deliberative body, the “Reichstag”, was dissolved.

On February 27, an arson fire broke out in the German Parliament building. Hitler’s government blamed Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe for the fire, claiming the arson to have been the result of communist plots, against the Nazi government. Today, the term “Reichstag fire” is synonymous with a false flag operation, carried out by authorities to exact retribution on a political adversary. At the time, the “Reichstag Fire Trial” served to decimate political opposition and consolidate Nazi power.Reichstag-fire-IIMarch elections failed to produce a Nazi party majority. For the time being, Herr Hitler was forced to rely on his coalition partner the German National People’s Party (DNVP), to hold a majority in the new Reichstag.

OIPKHAK42CDNazi propaganda was relentless.  Hitler himself had written back in 1924,  that propaganda’s “task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”

Nazi racial propaganda was everywhere, in art, in music, in theater, radio and educational materials.  Posters, leaflets, books and magazines proclaimed the perfect, “Aryan Master Race,” the Übermenschen of Friedrich Nietzsche, in contradistinction with the Üntermenschen:  the Roma, the “feeble-minded”, the Jew.

In the first six years after Hitler took power,  no fewer than 400 decrees and regulations were aimed specifically, at the Jews of Germany.

brutal-germans-holocaust-persecution-jews-001Jacob and Pauline Levinsons came to Berlin in 1928, a few years before Hitler came to power.  Both Latvian Jews, the couple gave birth to a beautiful baby girl on this day in 1934.  Later that year, the proud parents brought wide-eyed, curly haired, chubby little Hessy to photographer Hans Ballin of Berlin.

As required by law, the Levinsons informed the photographer they were both Jews.  Hessy was the perfect photographer’s subject, and Jacob and Pauline happily brought home a portrait, to keep on the shelf.

hessy_levinsons_taftAnd that’s where the story ends, except, no.  Unbeknownst to the Levinsons, the photographer submitted the portrait in a contest, a search for the perfect Aryan child.

You know where this is going, right?  Ballin’s picture won.  Pauline was struck with terror, to find the image on the cover of a prominent Nazi magazine.  There were posters, billboards, the picture was…everywhere.

Near hysterical, she called the photographer.  You knew very well that we’re Jewish, how could you do this?  Ballin, no friend of the Nazis, replied “I wanted to allow myself the pleasure of this joke”, he said, I wanted to make the Nazis ridiculous”.  

The picture spread throughout the Reich.  It must have been terrifying but secretly amusing, at the same time.  For her first birthday, Hessy’s aunt gave her a birthday card, with her own image printed on the front.  To escape attention the little girl lived her childhood years, entirely indoors.  The Nazis never did figure out, who she was.

In 1938, Jacob Levinsons was arrested by the SS, but later released.  This was the year of the Kristallnacht and the family fled, first for Paris and later to Cuba before emigrating to the United States in 1949.

Hessy Levinsons went to Julia Richman High School in New York and later majored in chemistry at Barnard College, graduating in 1955. As a graduate student at Columbia University, Hessy met her future husband, mathematics professor Earl Taft.  The couple joined the faculty at Rutgers University before she interrupted her career to raise a family.

She was interviewed in 2014, by the German magazine Bild.  “I can laugh about it now, she said, “but if the Nazis had known who I really was, I wouldn’t be alive.”  Hessy Levinsons Taft, once the Jewish infant selected to represent the Most Perfect Aryan Baby, retired from academia in 2016.

Hessy Levinsons Taft

May 15, 1602 Cape Cod

A “cape” is a headland or promontory extending into a body of water, formed by glaciers, volcanoes or changes in sea level. A quick count reveals the existence of 67 capes around the world, (Cape Fear, Cape Canaveral, Cape Coral), yet we locals love to call our little bit of paradise on earth, “The Cape™”.

In the Elizabethan and Stuart ages, exploration and colonization was a private enterprise. The English Crown would grant exclusive rights to individuals and corporations to form and exploit colonies, in exchange for sovereignty and a portion of the proceeds. Such propositions were high risk/reward, profit-driven enterprises, of interest to a relative few explorers and investors.

mudQueen Elizabeth I of England granted Walter Raleigh a charter to establish a colony north of Spanish Florida in 1583, the area called “Virginia” in honor of the virgin Queen. At the time, the name applied to the entire coastal region from South Carolina to Maine and included Bermuda.

By the turn of the 17th century, Raleigh’s influence with the Queen was just about nil. Liz’ only interest seemed to be the revenue stream produced for the crown, and Raleigh was providing none after sinking £40,000 into the disastrous “Lost Colony of Roanoke”.

By the mid-1590s, a new colonial plan identified parts of northern Virginia where climate conditions better suited English sensibilities, than those of the more southerly latitudes. The area produced vast wealth from the cold-water fish prized by Europeans, providing the foothold and profits required to support the addition of settlers.

Early explorers to the area included Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Martin Pring and George Weymouth, who brought back an American Native named Squanto, who learned to speak English before returning to his homeland. Sir John Smith called the area “New England”.

Bartholomew Gosnold departed Falmouth, Cornwall in 1602 with 32 onboard the barque “Concord”. Intending to establish a colony in New England, Gosnold sailed due west to the Azores, coming ashore at Cape Elizabeth Maine, on May 14.  He sailed into Provincetown Harbor the following day, naming the place “Cape Cod”.

Cape_Cod_ISS_croppedFollowing the coastline, Gosnold discovered an island covered with wild grapes. Naming it after his deceased daughter, he called the place Martha’s Vineyard. The expedition came ashore on Cuttyhunk in the Elizabethan island chain where they briefly ran a trading post, before heading back to England. Today, Gosnold is the smallest town in Massachusetts with a population of 75 with most of the land owned by the Forbes family.

The title of “first European” may be a misnomer, as Vikings are believed to have explored the area as early as 1000AD. The land was fruitful for those first Viking explorers, but the indigenous peoples fought back ferociously, causing the Nordic interloper to withdraw to the more easily colonized areas of Greenland and Iceland.

The first Puritans fetched up on the shores of Cape Cod in 1620, staying long enough to draw up the first written governing framework in the colonies, signing the Mayflower Compact off the shore of “P’town” on November 11. Today the sandy soil and scrubby vegetation of the Cape is a delight to tourists, but those first settlers weren’t feeling it. They had to eat. The only positive result from two exploratory trips ashore was the discovery of seed corn stashed by the natives.  A third trip ashore resulted in a hostile “first encounter” on the beaches of modern day Eastham, persuading the “Pilgrims” that this wasn’t their kind of place. They left the Cape for good on December 16, dropping anchor at Plymouth Harbor.

SK_Eastham-First-Encounter-Sunset_10.24.16-11
First Encounter beach, Eastham

The Pilgrims would later encounter the English-speaking natives Samoset and Squanto, who helped to conclude peace terms with Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoag.
Some 90% of the native population had been wiped out in the two years preceding, by an epidemic long thought to be smallpox but now believed to be Leptospirosis, a highly contagious pulmonary hemorrhagic syndrome. Things may have otherwise gone for the Pilgrims as they did for those Vikings of 600 years earlier, but that must be a tale for another day.

Militia from my own town of Falmouth and neighboring Sandwich poured onto the beaches on April 3, 1779, opposing a landing by 220 Regulars in the modern day area of Surf Drive. The invaders were repulsed but not before little Falmouth sustained a cannonade of ball shot and grape that lasted from eleven in the morning, until dark.

falmouth1779_350The British warship HMS Nimrod fired on my little town during the War of 1812. It’s closed now, but the building  formerly housing the Nimrod Restaurant, still sports a hole in the wall where the cannon ball came in.

Cape Cod was among the first areas settled by the English in North America, the town of Sandwich established in 1637 followed by Barnstable and Yarmouth, in 1639. The thin soil was ill suited to agriculture, and intensive farming techniques eroded topsoil. Farmers grazed cattle on the grassy dunes of the shoreline, only to watch “in horror as the denuded sands ‘walked’ over richer lands, burying cultivated fields and fences.”

By 1800, Cape Cod was all but denuded of trees and firewood had to be transported by boat from Maine. Local agriculture was all but abandoned by 1860, save for better-suited, smaller scale crops such as cranberries and strawberries. By 1950, Cape Cod forests had recovered in a way not seen since the late 1700s.

cranberry-picking-around-cape-cod-1906
Picking cranberries, ca 1906

The early Industrial Revolution that built up Rhode Island and Massachusetts bypassed much of Cape Cod, but not entirely. Blacksmiths Isaac Keith and Ezekiel Ryder began building small buggies and sleighs in the Upper Cape town of Bourne, in 1828. Two years later Keith went off on his own.  By the Gold Rush of 1849, the Keith Car Works was a major builder of the Conestoga Wagons found throughout the United States and Canada, as well as its smaller, lighter cousin, the Prairie Schooner. Before the railroads, Conestoga wagons were heavily used in the transportation of shade tobacco grown in Connecticut, western Massachusetts and southern Vermont, even now some of the finest cigar binders and wrappers available.   To this day we still call cigars, “stogies”.

Conestoga_Wagon_1883The dredging of a canal connecting the Manomet and Scusset rivers and cutting 62 miles off the water route from Boston to New York had been talked about since the time of Miles Standish. Construction of a privately owned toll canal began on June 22, 1909. Giant boulders left by the glaciers and ghastly winter weather hampered construction, the canal finally opening on July 29, 1914 and charging a maximum of $16 per vessel. Navigation was difficult, due to a 5-plus mile-per-hour current combined with a maximum width of 100′ and a max. depth of 25-feet. Several accidents damaged the canal’s reputation and toll revenues failed to meet investors’ expectations.

German submarine U-156 surfaced off Nauset beach in Orleans on July 21, 1918, shelling the tug Perth Amboy and its string of towed barges. The federal government took over the canal under a presidential proclamation within  four days, later placing it under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. The canal was re-dredged as part of President Roosevelt’s depression era Works Progress Administration to its current width of 480-feet and depth of 32-feet and connected to the mainland by the Sagamore, Bourne, and Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridges.

_MG_3896 - Version 4Despite the WuFlu, millions of tourists will wait countless hours this year in a sea of brake lights, to cross those two narrow roadways onto “the Cape” to enjoy that brief blessed moment of warmth hidden amidst our four seasons, known locally as “almost winter, winter, still winter and bridge construction”.

If anyone wonders why my buddy Carl calls me the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”, I can only say in my own defense.  I’ve been commuting through that crap, for decades.