July 15, 1864 The Great Shohola Train Wreck

Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold that eastbound coal train, until West #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen.  He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45 on this day in 1864. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola. Only four miles now separated the two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.  “Hellmira”.

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“Jupiter 1864 train engine, typical of the type of engine used during the Civil War Era”. Tip of the hat to http://www.civilwaralbum.com/misc11/shohola1.htm, for this image

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was running late. First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags. His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed.

Duff Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold the eastbound coal train, until #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen.  He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

shohola stationErie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after the prime engineering contractor. The section of track followed a blind curve with only 50-feet visibility.

Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237. Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact. One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear. He too would live. There were no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.

On the 100th anniversary of the wreck, historian Joseph C. Boyd described what happened next.  Let him pick up the story:

ShoholaTrainWreck“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken. The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. Witnesses saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

Pinned by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together…Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.”

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King and Fuller’s Cut

Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Others put the number as high as 60 to 72. 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.

Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. He was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trackside trench outside of Shohola. William Tyner died three days later in Elmira, never having regained consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other, that one last time. James Tyner was my Grandfather twice removed, one of four brothers who went to war for what each saw as his nation, in 1861.

We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865.  Twenty-seven days later, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

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Note the shape of the stones themselves. Union tombstones from the Civil War era have rounded tops. Those marking Confederate graves are pointed at the top. It’s been said the pointed top was there to prevent “Yankees” from sitting on Confederate headstones. This photo taken in the family cemetery, in the “Sand Hills” of North Carolina.

Best,

Rick

Afterward
Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York. The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track. Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

shohola6lgAs the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.

The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.  Site of the largest mixed mass grave, of the Civil War era.

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May 2, 1958 The Boy who Made the Stars

The Lancaster Ohio High School junior’s project got a “B Minus”.  He was offended.  A buddy had taped five leaves to a white sheet of paper. His project received an “A”.

The first distinctly American flag featured the Red Ensign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, emblazoned with the words “Liberty and Union”, a solemn declaration that the colonies would stick together, and colonist’s rights as British citizens, would not be abridged. First raised above the town square of Taunton Massachusetts on October 19, 1774, the Taunton Flag flies above the “Silver City”, to this day.

The first national flag of the fledgling nation was designed by Philadelphia milliner Margaret Manny, featuring the Union Jack and alternating red and white stripes, symbolizing the thirteen original colonies.  The “Continental Colors” were first raised on December 3, 1775 above the United States Navy’s first flagship USS Alfred along with the “Don’t Tread on Me” of the Gadsden flag, the personal ensign of the Navy’s first Commodore, Esek Hopkins.

Boston loyalists had just received copies of a conciliatory speech delivered by King George III when Manny’s “Grand Union” was raised above the siege of Boston on January 2, 1776.  British observers took the display to be a sign of surrender, leading many to think of a more uniquely American banner.

Grand Union Flag

History fades into mythology during the confusion of early 1776, when the Continental Congress authorized the Commander-in-Chief $50,000 to acquire “sundry articles for use in the continental army,” including “colours.” According to legend, Washington traveled with English born merchant and founding father Robert Morris to the Philadelphia upholstery shop of George and Elizabeth Ross, with a design for thirteen red and white stripes and as many six-pointed stars, on a field of blue.

“Betsy” Ross showed the group how, by folding in a certain way, a five-point star could be fashioned with a single cut of her shears.  The first “Star Spangled banner”, was born.

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Surprisingly, there exists no “official” symbolism behind the Red, White and Blue.  In 1782, the Congress of the Confederation chose those same colors for the Great Seal of the United States describing the meaning of each, as follows:

  • Red: signifying Valor and hardiness,
  • White: Purity and innocence
  • Blue: Vigilance, perseverance, and justice.

According to legend, Washington himself interpreted the stars as coming from the sky, the red from the British colors with the white stripes signifying secession from the home country.

Since that day in 1776, flag makers have simply added stars, with every new state. Or so it would seem, but it’s not that simple. Each new flag is its own careful design, the arrangement of each star, precise and symmetrical.

Since 1818, the admission of new states were followed by the adoption of a new star, on the following Fourth of July.  Five stars were added in 1890, following the admission of as many states, in a single year. The exact pattern for the stars were not specified until 1912.  The exact colors remained unspecified until 1934.

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The sun that rose on this day in 1958, shone down on a flag containing 48 stars. Alaska and Hawaii would not be admitted, until the following year.

Robert G. Heft was a high school junior at that time, and a Boy Scout with Troop 113 in Lancaster, Ohio. Alaska and Hawaii were in the news at that time.  Heft thought it was just a matter of time, and they would become #49 and 50. When the History teacher assigned a school project, the boy knew what he wanted to do. “I had never sewn in my life,” Heft told StoryCorps in 2009. “I watched my mom sew, but I had never sewn. And since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.” He went home and he found a pair of scissors. It could not have thrilled his parents to find him in the kitchen, cutting up their flag.

“The teacher said, ‘What’s this thing on my desk?’” Heft later explained, “And so I got up and I approached the desk and my knees were knocking.  He said, ‘Why you got too many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have.’”

Heft was bent out of shape.  His project had gotten a “B Minus”.   A buddy had labeled and taped five leaves to a white sheet of paper. His project received an “A”.

“If you don’t like the grade, get it accepted in Washington,” the teacher said “Then come back and see me. I might consider changing the grade.”

Two years came and went, along with twenty-one letters to the White House, and eighteen phone calls.

And then came the phone call, at work. The operator. The President of the United States wants to talk to you.

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The voice that came over  the line, was that of Dwight David Eisenhower.

“Is this Robert G. Heft?”  
“Yes, sir, but you can just call me Bob.”
“I want to know the possibility of you coming to Washington, D.C., on July Fourth for the official adoption of the new flag.”

Heft put the President of the United States on hold and worried to his boss. “Dwight” wants me to come to Washington.  I don’t have any time off.

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Needless to say, the Boss figured a way.  Heft’s design had been chosen, over 1,500 others.  So it is that a Boy Scout and a High School Junior, designed the flag we all know, as the Star spangled banner.   Bob Heft passed away in 2009.  It is his flag we salute, to this day.

Oh.  And the teacher?  He proved a man of his word.  He did what he said and changed the grade, to an “A”.

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Hat tip, ScoutingMagazine.org

 

A Trivial Matter
35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the words for the “Star-Spangled Banner”on September 14, 1814, on the back on an envelope. The words were later set to the music of an 18th century English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”

April 30, 1900 Two Minutes Late

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

Acts of heroism have a way of popping up, in the most unexpected places. Ordinary people rising to the occasion, in anything but ordinary circumstances.

Just recently, two teenage boys chased down a kidnapper on their bicycles, freeing a little girl from captivity.  The Poway, California Rabbi grabs hold of a gun in the hands of a demented killer, losing a finger and saving untold numbers of congregants, in the process.  An eight-month’s pregnant mother-to-be dives into the Australian surf, to save two drowning boys.

This is one of those stories.

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Jonathon Luther Jones lived near Cayce Kentucky as a boy, and the nickname stuck. For reasons which remain unclear, he preferred to spell it, “Casey”.

Casey Jones was a train man, working on the I.C.R.R., the Illinois Central Railroad.

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Jonathon Luther “Casey” Jones

One example of the man’s character comes to us from 1895, when Jones was thirty two. Outside Michigan City Mississippi, a group of children darted across the tracks, fewer than sixty yards from the speeding train.  Most made it across except one little girl, who froze in terror before the oncoming locomotive.

With fellow engineer Bob Stevenson hauling back on the emergency brakes and buying precious extra moments, Jones ran across the running boards and inched his way down the pilot, better known as the “cow catcher”.

This is no trick rider.  No circus acrobat.  Casey Jones worked on the railroad. Bracing himself with his legs, Jones reached out and scooped up the little girl, at the last possible moment. 

On this occasion, the man had every hope and expectation of remaining alive, and that he did.  Five years later, he’d perform his last act of heroism in the face of certain and violent, death.

Casey Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he performed well, receiving first a promotion to brakeman, and then to fireman. He met Mary Joanna (“Janie”) Brady around this time, whose father owned the boarding house, where Jones lived. The pair fell in love and married on November 11, 1886, buying a house in Jackson Alabama where the couple raised their three children. By all accounts the man was sober and devoted to his work, a dedicated family man.

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Several crews from the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) were down with yellow fever in the summer of 1887. Fireman Jones went to work for the IC the following year, firing a freight run between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

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Jones achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an engineer in 1891.  He was well  known, for being on time. Jones insisted he never “fall down” and get behind schedule. People learned to set their watches by his train whistle, knowing he would always “get her there on the advertised” (time).

Jones moved his family to Memphis in 1900, transferring to the “cannonball run” between Chicago and New Orleans. The run was a four train passenger relay, advertising the fastest travel times in the history of the American railroad. Experienced engineers were worried about the ambitious schedule and some even quit, but Jones saw the new itinerary as an opportunity for advancement.

How a steam locomotive, works

On this day in 1900, Engine #382 departed Memphis at 12:05am, ninety-five minutes behind schedule due to the late arrival of the first leg, of the relay.

The Memphis to Canton, Mississippi run was 190 miles long and normally took 4 hours, 50 minutes at an average speed of 39 MPH. 95 minutes was a lot of time to make up but #382 was a fast engine and traveling “light” that night, with only six cars.

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Fireman Simeon “Sim” T. Webb

Fireman Simeon Taylor “Sim” Webb was one of the best. He would have to be. This would be a record breaking run.

Jones hit the Johnson bar, throttling #382 up to 80 MPH despite sharp turns and visibility reduced by fog. There were two stops for water and a brief halt on a side track, to let another engine through. Despite all that, #382 made up most of that time by the 155-mile mark. On leaving the side track in Goodman, Mississippi, Jones was only five minutes behind the advertised arrival time of 4:05am.

Jones was well acquainted with those last 25 miles into Vaughn Mississippi.  There were few turns and the engineer throttled his engine up to breakneck speed. He  was thrilled with his time, saying “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!”

Unknown to Casey, there was a problem ahead. Three trains were in the station at Vaughn, with a combined length ten cars longer, than the main siding. Rail yard workers performed a “saw by” maneuver, backing #83 onto the main line and switching overlapping cars onto the “house track”. Then there was that problem with an air hose. Four cars were stranded on the main line.

#382 sped through the final curve at 75MPH, only two minutes behind schedule. Clinging to the side board, Sim Webb was the first to see the red lights, of the caboose. “Oh my Lord”, he yelled, “there’s something on the main line!”

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Jones didn’t have a prayer of stopping in time. He was moving too fast. He reversed throttle and slammed the air brakes into emergency stop, screaming “Jump Sim, jump!” Sim Webb jumped clear with only 300 feet to go as the piercing scream of the train’s whistle, rent the air.

Jones could have jumped himself. His ordering Webb to do so, demonstrates he understood the situation.  Casey Jones stayed on the train as “Ole 382” plowed through the red wooden caboose and three freight cars, before leaving the track. By the time of impact, Jones frantic efforts had slowed the engine to 35 miles per hour, saving his passengers from serious injury or death. Jones himself was the only fatality, his watch stopped at 3:52am.  He was only two minutes behind schedule.

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Passenger Adam Hauser of the New Orleans Times-Democrat was in a sleeper car, at the time of the wreck: “The passengers did not suffer” he said, “and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life”.

Legend has it that, when Jones’ body was removed, his dead hands still clutched the whistle cord, and the brake.

Casey Jones has achieved mythological status since that day, alongside the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Jones’ son Charles was 12 at the time of  his death at age 37, his daughter Helen, 10.  The  youngest, John Lloyd (“Casey Junior”) was 4.  Janie received two life insurance payments totaling $3,000 as Casey was “Double Heading” at that time, as a member of two unions.   she received no other compensation.  The Railroad Retirement Fund didn’t come about, until 1937.

Janie never had any thought of remarrying and lived the rest of her years, dressed in black.  She died on November 21, 1958 in Jackson Alabama, at the age of 92

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A Trivial Matter
In 1907, brakeman Jesus Garcia drove his flaming train away from the small mining town of Nacozari, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The train was carrying dynamite, and blew up,  Killing Garcia.  His quick actions had saved the town, where Jesus Garcia remains a hero, to this day.

April 28, 1752 John Stark, American Cincinnatus

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

The Roman Republic of antiquity operated on the basis of separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of authority. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

The retired patrician and military leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was called from his farm in 458BC to assume the mantle of Dictator and, despite his old age, again, twenty years later. With the crisis averted, Cincinnatus relinquished all power and the perks which came with it, and returned to his plow.

The man’s name remains symbolic, from that day to this. A synonym for outstanding leadership, selfless service and civic virtue.

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

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Outside of his native New Hampshire, few remember the name of John Stark.  Born August 28, 1728 in Londonderry (modern day Derry), the family moved up the road when the boy was eight, to Derryfield. Today we know it as Manchester.

On April 28, 1752, 23-year-old John Stark was out trapping and fishing with his brother William, and a couple of buddies. The small group was set upon by a much larger party of Abenaki warriors. David Stinson was killed in the struggle, as John was able to warn his brother away. William escaped, in a canoe.

John was captured along with Amos Eastman.  267 years ago today, the hostages were heading north, all the way to Quebec, where the pair were subjected to a ritual torture known as “running the gauntlet”.

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Frontiersman Simon Kenton, running the gauntlet

In the eastern woodlands of the United States and southern Quebec and Ontario, captives in the colonial and pre-European era often faced death by ritual torture at the hands of indigenous peoples, a process which could last, for days.  In running the gauntlet, the condemned is forced between two opposing rows, where warriors strike out with clubs, whips and bladed weapons.

Eastman barely got out alive, but Stark wasn’t playing by the same rules.  He hit the first man at a dead run, wrenching the man’s club from his grasp and striking out, at both lines.  The scene was pandemonium, as the tormented captive gave as good as he got. To the chief of the Abenaki, it may have been the funniest thing, ever. He was so amused, he adopted the pair into the tribe.  Eastman and Stark lived as tribal members for the rest of that year and into the following Spring, when a Massachusetts Bay agent bought their freedom. Sixty Spanish dollars for Amos and $103, for John Stark.

3590100173_0a6114e466_bSeven years later during the French & Indian War, Rogers’ Rangers were ordered to  attack the Abenaki village with John Stark, second in command.  Stark refused to accompany the attacking force out of respect for his Indian foster family, returning instead to Derryfield and his wife Molly, whom he had married the year before.

John Stark returned to military service in 1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, accepting a Colonelcy with the 1st Regiment of the New Hampshire militia.

During the early phase of the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Colonel William Prescott knew he was outgunned and outnumbered, and sent out a desperate call for reinforcements. The British warship HMS Lively was raining accurate fire down on Charlestown Neck, the narrow causeway linking the city with the rebel positions. Several companies were milling about just out of range, when Stark ordered them to step aside. Colonel Stark and his New Hampshire men then calmly marched to Prescott’s position on Breed’s Hill, without a single casualty.

Stark and his men formed the left flank of the rebel position, leading down to the beach at Mystic River.  The Battle of Bunker Hill was a British victory, in that they held the ground, when it was over. It was a costly win which could scarcely be repeated. At the place in the line held by John Stark’s New Hampshire men, British dead were piled up like cord wood.

John Stark’s service record reads like a timeline of the American Revolution. The doomed invasion of Canada in the Spring of 1776. The famous crossing of the Delaware and the victorious battles at Trenton, and Princeton New Jersey. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and his Brunswick mercenaries ran into a buzz saw in Bennington Vermont, in the form of Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys and John Stark, rallying his New Hampshire militia with the cry, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”  When it was over, Stark reported 14 dead and 42 wounded. Of Lt. Col. Baum’s 374 professional soldiers, only nine walked away.

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Battle of Bennington

The loss of his German ally led in no small part to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s defeat, at Saratoga.  Stark served with distinction for the remainder of the war and, like Cincinnatus before him, returned home to his farm.

In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered for a reunion. Stark was 81 at this time and not well enough to travel. Instead, he wrote his comrades a letter, closing with these words:

“Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

The name of the American Cincinnatus is all but forgotten today but his words live on, imprinted on every license plate, in New Hampshire.  “Live Free or Die”.

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A Trivial Matter
Neither George Washington nor Samuel Adams liked political parties, believing that such “factions” would splinter the Congress and divide the nation.

April 23, 1982 Where the Weird, Go Pro

From “Robert” the evil doll of Fort East Martello to the wild chickens who roam the streets, where conch fritters are considered a food group and history is literally built on salvaging shipwrecks, we’re talking about Key West Florida, where the “Weird go Pro”.

On December 5, 1937, bar owner Joe Russell faced an increase in rent. From three dollars a week to a whopping four bucks. Lucky for Joe, the former Victoria Restaurant owned by one Juan Farto (I didn’t make that up), was available. That night, everyone in the place picked up his drink, and his chair, and “moved the bar” across the street.

None other than Ernest Hemingway pitched in, (yeah, That Ernest Hemingway), helping himself to the urinal. “I’ve pissed enough of my money into this thing to pay for it‘ he said, bringing the thing home to his wife Pauline, who converted it to a fountain. The peacocks who once roamed “Papa” Hemingway’s yard are gone now but the fountain’s still there, not far from “Sloppy Joe’s Bar” on the corner of Greene and Duval Street.

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Papa Hemingway’s fountain

Where else but Duval Street could you watch a “bed race”, pulled by men and women in Wonder Woman outfits, or men in grass skirts. Where Times Square drops a ball to ring in the New year and Miami drops an orange, while Sloppy Joe’s drops a six-foot conch.

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Duval Street Bed Races, July 2015. H/t CBS, Miami

Even the above-ground cemetery is “off the beaten path”.   Inscriptions on headstones include “I told you I was sick“. One long-suffering wife got to write this one, for a philandering husband: “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight“.

From “Robert” the evil doll of Fort East Martello to the wild chickens who roam the streets, where conch fritters are considered a food group and history is literally built on salvaging shipwrecks, we’re talking about Key West Florida, where the “Weird go Pro”.

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Oh.  Did I tell you the place seceded?  Really.  It’s the “Conch Republic”, now.

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Except for the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and Coast Guard installations in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, most of the economic activity in the Florida Keys, comes from tourism. It’s no wonder that, when the federal government shuts down the only road into the Keys, the locals are going to get cranky.

In April 1982, the Mariel boat lift was a mere two years in the past, and very much in the public memory.

spidey1991-editThe United States had a border in those days, which the Federal government attempted to enforce.

On April 18, Border Patrol set up a roadblock in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, shutting down US Route 1, the only road in and out of the Florida Keys.  Originally intended to intercept illegals entering the country, the roadblock soon morphed into a hunt for illegal drugs, as well.

Cars waited for hours, in lines stretching 19 miles. Predictably, the attitude of Federal officials was one of towering indifference. Not so local business owners. Robert Kerstein wrote in his Key West on the Edge — Inventing the Conch Republic, “No one in Key West doubted that drugs were trafficked widely in the Keys by road and by boat. But tourism’s boosters had little tolerance for interruptions to their business.”

poster1Dennis Wardlow, then-Mayor of Key West, contacted the chief of police, the Monroe County sheriff, his State Representative and then-Governor Bob Graham, demanding the roadblock’s removal. With none of the above having any knowledge of the barrier and lacking the authority to pull it down, Wardlow contacted INS directly. When the Border Patrol told him it was “none of his business,” the Mayor’s response could best be summed up in the words of Bugs Bunny: “Of course you know, this means war!

Suffering a blizzard of hotel cancellations, this “attack on Key West’s sovereignty” could not stand. On April 22, Mayor Wardlow, local attorney & pilot David Horan and Old Town Trolley Tours operator Ed Swift flew to Miami seeking legal remedy. When District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue an injunction, the Key West delegation took to the courthouse steps.

“What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, asked the assembled media. Swift leaned over and whispered into the Mayor’s ear, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede!” “We are going to go home and secede!”, said Wardlow, and that’s what they did.

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Over the next 24 hours, secessionist co-conspirators worked feverishly to form a new government, filling cabinet positions such as “Secretary of Underwater Affairs” and “Minister of Nutrition”.

logo-navy2On April 23, with federal agents on scene to monitor the proceedings, a crowd gathered before the old customs building. Mayor Wardlow and a gaggle of allies mounted the back of a flatbed truck, to read the proclamation of secession. “We serve notice on the government in Washington”, Wardlow began, “to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people, may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats“.

With that, Mayor Wardlow declared “war” on the United States.  The “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” broke out in the harbor, when the Schooner Western Union commanded by Captain John Kraus, attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters and toilet paper.  Diligence fought back with water hoses, as the new “Prime Minister” broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a Navy uniform.

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Naval History was forever changed on this day, as the “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” raged across the waters of Key West
Pandemonium broke out as onlookers launched stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personnel. One minute after declaring his “verbal shot” at the Federal government, Mayor Wardlow surrendered to a nearby Naval officer, demanding a billion dollars in “foreign aid” in compensation for “the long federal siege.”

conch-republic-passportsApparently, that’s what it takes to get the attention of a Federal government bureaucrat. The roadblock lifted.  The restaurants, stores and hotels of the Keys soon filled with tourists and, once again, happiness smiled upon the land.  Key West never got its “foreign aid”, but secessionist leaders never received so much as a letter, saying they couldn’t leave the Union, either.

ConchRepublicSpecialForcesSo it is that the micro-nation of Key West celebrates its independence, every April 23. The “Conch Republic’ issues its own passports, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “We seceded where others failed”.

And if the Federal government ever comes back to mess with the sovereign nation of Key West, it had best be prepared to deal with the Conch Republic’s very own “Special Forces”, the motto for which is “Sanctus Merda”.  “Holy Shit”.

Tip of the hat to

“Conch Republic Military Forces, The Official Site of the Conch Republic Military” for the “Conch Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  Lyrics by First Sea Lord, Admiral Finbar Gittelman, October 14, 2012 © Finbar Gittelman

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sunshine and the sea
Right here upon our islands, where we love to live so free 
But in April 1982, the peace was not to be 
And we went rolling on

CHORUS
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
From Key to shining Key

They were setting up a check point, tween the mainland and the Keys 
They had put a US Border, where it shouldn’t ‘oughta’ be 
So that’s when we seceded, and declared our sovereignty 
And the fun had just begun

(CHORUS)

We went forth into the harbor and a cutter we did spy 
And we sailed up along side her and we took her by surprise 
We hoisted up our battle flag, so proudly and so high 
And we went sailing on

(CHORUS)

The water and Conch fritters and the Cuban bread did fly 
Our bombers, they were raining toilet paper from the sky 
Our cannons they did thunder to proclaim our victory 
And we fought bravely on

(CHORUS)

We have faced the silly forces of misguided zealotry 
We have stood up to their foolishness for all the world to see 
And we’ve showed the other nations what America can be From
Key to shining Key

(CHORUS)

Feature image, top of page:  Hat Tip Captain Tony’s Saloon, http://www.capttonyssaloon.com/

 

A Trivial Matter
The 39th Annual Hemingway® Look-Alike contest will be held at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, July 18-21, 2019. Contestants are invited to apply at http://www.sloppyjoes.com/papa-look-alike-contest/

April 19, 1775 Lexington and Concord

The conflict that afternoon at the Old North Bridge in Concord was the first instance of the American Revolution, when colonists fired to deadly effect on British regulars.

The column of British soldiers moved out from Boston in the late night hours of April 18, with the mission of confiscating the American arsenal at Concord and  capturing the Patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, known to be hiding in Lexington.

Patriots had been preparing for such an event.  Sexton Robert John Newman and Captain John Pulling carried two lanterns to the steeple of the Old North church, signaling the Regulars were crossing the Charles River to Cambridge.

Dr. Joseph Warren ordered Paul Revere and Samuel Dawes to ride out and warn surrounding villages and towns, the two soon joined by a third rider, Samuel Prescott. Prescott alone would make it as far as Concord, though hundreds of riders would fan out across the countryside before the night was through.

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The column arrived in Lexington with the first moments of sunrise on April 19, bayonets gleaming in the early morning light.  Armed with a sorry assortment of weapons, colonial militia poured out of Buckman Tavern and fanned out across the town square.   Some weapons were hand made by village gunsmiths and blacksmiths, some decades old, but all were in good working order.   Taking positions across the village green to block the soldiers’ line of march, eighty “minutemen” turned and faced seven hundred of the most powerful military, on the planet.

Words were exchanged and no one knows who fired the first shot.  When it was over, eight Lexington men lay dead or dying, another ten wounded. One British soldier was wounded.

If you’ve never see the dawn reenactment of the Battle of Lexington, I highly recommend it.  It’s a regular feature of the Patriot’s Day festivities around the city of Boston, and well worth getting up early.  Hat tip Gethin Coolbaugh for this film of the 2018 event

Vastly outnumbered, the militia soon gave way as word spread and militia gathered from Concord to Cambridge.   The King’s Regulars never did find the weapons for which they had come, nor did they find Adams or Hancock.  There had been too much warning for that.

Regulars clashed with colonial subjects two more times that day, first at Concord Bridge and then in a running fight at a point in the road called “The Bloody Angle”.  Finally, hearing that militia was coming from as far away as Worcester, the column turned to the east and began their return march to Boston.

Hat tip DiscerningHistory.com, for this brief video on the Battle of Concord Bridge.

Some British soldiers marched 35 miles over those two days, their final retreat coming under increasing attack from militia members firing from behind stone walls, buildings and trees.

One taking up such a firing position was Samuel Whittemore of Menotomy Village, now Arlington Massachusetts. At eighty years old, he was the oldest known combatant of the Revolution.

Whittemore took his position by the road armed with his ancient musket, two dueling pistols and the old cutlass captured years earlier from a French officer whom he had once explained had “died suddenly”.

Waiting until the last possible moment, Whittemore rose and fired his musket at the oncoming Redcoats.  One shot, one kill. Several charged him from only feet away as he drew his pistols.  Two more shots, one dead and one mortally wounded. He had barely drawn his sword when they were on him, a .69 caliber ball fired almost point blank tearing part of his face off, as the butt of a rifle smashed down on his head. Whittemore tried to fend off the bayonet strokes with his sword but he didn’t have a chance.  He was run through thirteen times before he lay still.  One for each American colony.

Hat tip, The History Guy, for this presentation on Sam Whittemore. The ages given vary slightly from that engraved on his memorial but, age 78 or 80 at the time of this story, it seems a small matter.

The people who came out of their homes to clean up the mess afterward found Whittemore, up on one knee and trying to reload his old musket.

Doctor Nathaniel Tufts treated the old man’s wounds as best he could, but felt there was nothing anyone could do. Sam Whittemore was taken home to die in the company of his loved ones, and that’s what he did.  Eighteen years later, at the age of ninety-eight.

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A Trivial Matter
Just after midnight, April 19, 1775 , William Dawes, Dr. Samuel Prescott and Paul Revere were intercepted by a British patrol, just outside of Lexington. Prescott and Dawes bolted but Revere was captured, held through the small hours and interrogated. Revere was finally released, without his horse. The “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, humiliatingly ended on foot.  Revere arrived in Lexington just in time to witness the last moments on Lexington Green.  The conflict that afternoon at the Old North Bridge in Concord was the first instance of the American Revolution, when colonists fired to deadly effect on British regulars. In the 1837 classic “Concord Hymn”, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the “shot heard round the world”.

April 17, 1945 Kamikaze

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a human bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

By the end of 1944, a series of naval defeats had left the Imperial Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and ground crew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, the Atlanta class light cruiser USS Reno was hit by a Japanese aircraft in what many believed to be a deliberate crash.  The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers against a carrier task force.  Arima was killed and part of one bomber hit the USS Franklin, the Essex-class carrier known as “Big Ben”.

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17-year-old Corporal Yukio Araki (holding the puppy) died the following day in a suicide attack near Okinawa. H/T Wikipedia

Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.  Whether this was a deliberate “kamikaze” attack remains uncertain.  The tactic was anything but the following week, during the battle of Leyte Gulf.  Japanese aviators were deliberately flying their aircraft, into allied warships.

By the end of the war, this “divine wind” would destroy the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 American naval personnel.

American Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, the first allied landing on Japanese territory. It was a savage contest against a dug-in adversary, a 36-day battle costing the lives of 6,381 Americans and nearly 20,000 Japanese.

The table was set for the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war.

On April 1, Easter Sunday, 185,000 troops of the US Army and Marine Corps were pitted in the 85-day battle for Okinawa, against 130,000 defenders of the Japanese 32nd Army and civilian conscripts.  Both sides understood, the war would be won or lost in this place.

While Kamikaze attacks were near-commonplace following the October battle for Leyte Gulf, these one-way suicide missions became a major part of defense for the first time in the battle for Okinawa.  Some 1,500 Kamikaze aircraft participated in the battle for Okinawa, resulting in US 5th Fleet losses of 4,900 men killed or drowned, and another 4,800 wounded.  36 ships were sunk and another 368 damaged.  763 aircraft, were lost.

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Kamikaze, taking off

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a flying bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

On April 16, 1945, the Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey was assigned to radar picket duty, thirty miles north of Okinawa. At 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of blips at 17,000 yards, too numerous to count and approaching fast.  165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft were coming in, from the north

The Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber appeared near the destroyer at 8:30. This was a reconnaissance mission and, fired upon, the Val jettisoned her bombs, and departed. Four more D3As were soon to follow, tearing out of the sky in a steep dive toward USS Laffey. 20mm AA fire destroyed two while the other two crashed into the sea. Within seconds, a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber made a strafing run from the port beam while another approached on a bomb run, from the starboard side. These were also destroyed but, close enough to wound three gunners, with shrapnel. The flames had barely been brought under control when another Val crashed into the ship’s 40mm gun mounts, killing three sailors while another struck a glancing blow, spewing aviation fuel from a damaged engine.

kamikaze - USS Laffey

Immediately after, another D3A came in strafing from the stern, impacting a 5″ gun mount and disintegrating in a great column of fire as its bomb detonated a powder magazine. Another Val came in within seconds, crashing into the burning gun mount while yet another scored a direct hit, jamming Laffey’s rudder to port and killing several men. Within minutes, another Val and yet another Judy, had hit the port side.

It was all in the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, four FM2 Wildcats followed by twelve Vought F4U Corsair fighters from the escort carrier Shamrock Bay waded into the Kamikazes attacking Laffey, destroying several before being forced to return, low on fuel and out of ammunition.

DD-724_Laffey

By the time it was over, some fifty Kamikazes were involved with the action. USS Laffey suffered six Kamikaze crashes, four direct bomb hits and strafing fire that killed 32 and wounded another 71. Lieutenant Frank Manson, assistant communications officer, asked Commander Frederick Becton if he thought they should abandon ship. Becton snapped “No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire.” He didn’t hear the comment, from a nearby lookout: “And if I can find one man to fire it.”

For USS Laffey, the war was over.  She was taken under tow the following day, April 17, and anchored near Okinawa.  She would not emerge from dry dock, until September.

Damaged-ship-Into-Seattle

Today, the WW2 destroyer is a museum ship, anchored at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  A bronze plaque inside the ship is inscribed with the Presidential Unit Citation, received for that day off the coast of Okinawa:

For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY sent up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.

For the President,
James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

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The Battle for Okinawa
“The Battle of Okinawa was an intense 82-day campaign involving more than 287,000 US and 130,000 Japanese troops. It was considered the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, and more than 90,000 men died from both sides, along with almost 100,000 civilian casualties. During this conflict, Kamikazes inflicted the greatest damage ever sustained by the US Navy in a single battle, killing almost 5,000 men. All told, Kamikazes sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others during the entire war”. H/T Listverse.com