May 21, 1944 Hammerberg

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

From June to November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and US Army conducted an offensive intended to dislodge Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau, with operations supported by elements of the US Navy and code named, Operation Forager.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed to defeat the Japanese empire, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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LST in Sicily

In May 1944, the naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  78 years ago today, twenty-nine LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers in the “West Loch” loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

Shortly after 15:00 local time, LST-353 exploded causing a chain reaction down the line. Munitions exploded hurling men and equipment into the air. 200 men and more were hurled into the water in explosions powerful enough to knock over vehicles. On shore eleven buildings were destroyed altogether. Another nine were damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs were able to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs. Others were left adrift and afire and slowly sinking, into the channel.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires burned for twenty-four hours as yet other vessels were intentionally sunk to contain the disaster.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident in West Loch and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines. The idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was dead. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded. Others contend that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette, or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack from two years prior.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known about the incident, today.

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Less still is remembered about the men who came to clean up the mess. The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later during salvage operations, for a sunken LST.

In February 1945, five teams of hardhat divers were brought in to raise these hulks and clear the channel. Working under the mud and the water of West Loch, four teams using jet nozzles successfully cleared tunnels under some of the wrecks, the first stage in refloating the sunken hulls.

Disaster struck as the fifth team labored to clear a tunnel under one sunken LST. We can only imagine the blackness down there in all that swirling mud as divers George Fuller and Earl Brown labored with jet nozzles, to clear the way. Suddenly steel wreckage overhead, caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled in jagged shards of steel, the pair was trapped under 40-feet of water and some 20-feet of muck. 

Other divers attempted t0 reach the pair but only stirred up more mud. A US Department of Defense website page describing the event relates that even a special dive team, declined to take further risk.

There seemed no chance for either man’s survival when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg slipped into the water.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

Owen Hammerberg had nothing to prove when it came to guts, and cold courage. Once stationed aboard the USS Advent Hammerberg dove into the water to free cables, snarled about a live mine. Imagine being down there, so close as to touch a mine powerful enough to blow himself to rags and atoms and sink the ship, on which he was stationed. And yet the man patiently labored until finally freeing the cable, without explosion.

Now working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  After five hours of exhausting labor Hammerberg was able to locate and free the first man, George Fuller. Following later inquiry congressional records state “Fuller, who had been pinned by a steel plate, shook Hammerberg’s hand underwater before heading to the surface for safety”.

Though physically tired Hammerberg labored on to reach Earl Brown, the second trapped diver. Eighteen grueling hours after the rescue began he finally found his man.

I do office work and I’m worn out after an eighteen hour day. What one man experienced after such a span of time down there, we will never know. Suddenly the whole mess caved in and a great piece of steel pinned Owen Hammerberg on top of Earl Brown.

Two days later a Filipino father and son team of divers at last rescued one of them and recovered the dead body, of the other. The cave-in had killed Owen Hammerberg even as his body protected that of the second man.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in all of World War 2 and the last man ever to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

Let the man’s Medal of Honor citation tell his story. He didn’t live long enough to read it for himself.

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“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a diver engaged in rescue operations at West Loch, Pearl Harbor, 17 February 1945. Aware of the danger when 2 fellow divers were hopelessly trapped in a cave-in of steel wreckage while tunneling with jet nozzles under an LST sunk in 40 feet of water and 20 feet of mud. Hammerberg unhesitatingly went overboard in a valiant attempt to effect their rescue despite the certain hazard of additional cave-ins and the risk of fouling his lifeline on jagged pieces of steel imbedded in the shifting mud. Washing a passage through the original excavation, he reached the first of the trapped men, freed him from the wreckage and, working desperately in pitch-black darkness, finally effected his release from fouled lines, thereby enabling him to reach the surface. Wearied but undaunted after several hours of arduous labor, Hammerberg resolved to continue his struggle to wash through the oozing submarine, subterranean mud in a determined effort to save the second diver. Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades. His heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”

Author’s note: I have searched without success for the names of the Filipino father and son divers who rescued Earl Brown and recovered the body of Owen Hammerberg. Kindly let me know if you find that information. They too have earned the right to be remembered.

Feature image top of page: “Divers are lowered into Bikini Lagoon during an Operation Crossroads survey in July 1947”. Hat tip Naval History and Heritage Command

May 18, 2011 Smoke, the Donkey

The humor of the situation was hard to resist, and the “ass jokes” all but told themselves.  (Sorry, but we’re talking about Marines, here).  Dozens of Marines laughed uproariously in that mess hall in 2009, belting out a mangled version of an old Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooove youuuuuuuuu.”

Al Taqaddum Airbase or “TQ” in military parlance is a military airbase, 45 miles west of Baghdad on the Habbaniyah Plateau of Iraq. In 2008, Al Taqaddum was home to the 1st Marine Logistics Group, under the command of Colonel John D. Folsom.

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Early one August morning, Colonel Folsom awoke to a new sound. The thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopters, the endless hum of the generators – those were the sounds of everyday life. This sound was different. This was the sound of braying donkey.

Folsom emerged from his quarters to find the small, emaciated animal, tied to a eucalyptus tree.  Standing all of 3′ tall, a sergeant had spotted the donkey roaming outside Camp Taqaddum and thought it would be amusing to catch him.  Folsom thought it might be fun to have one around. Time would tell they were both right.

Smoke visits Sgt Lonnie Forrest
Smoke visits Sgt Lonnie Forrest

The website for a UK donkey sanctuary recommends a diet of highly fibrous plant material, eaten in small quantities throughout the day. I read the list twice and nowhere will you find bagels and yet, for this little Iraqi donkey, there was nothing better.  Preferably frozen.  He’d hold them in his mouth and walk along, scraping the bagel in the dirt before eating it.  He liked to play the same game, with a deflated rubber ball.

You won’t find cigarettes on the list either, but he stole one once, and gobbled it down.  It didn’t seem to matter that the thing was lit.  For that reason and because of the color of his coat Marines called him, “Smoke”.

Smoke-the-donkey-MattShelatoBefore long,  Smoke was a familiar sight around Camp Taqaddum.  After long walks around the wire, Smoke learned to open doors and wander around.  If you ever left a candy dish out on your desk, you were on your own.

Smoke

Regulations prohibit the keeping of pets in a war zone.  A Navy Captain helped get Smoke designated as a therapy animal, and he was home to stay.  As it turned out, there was more than a little truth to the label.  For young women and men thousands of miles from home in a war zone, the little animal was a welcome reminder of home.

The humor of the situation was hard to resist, and the “ass jokes” all but told themselves.  (Sorry, but we’re talking about Marines, here).  Dozens of Marines laughed uproariously in that mess hall in 2009, belting out a mangled version of an old Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooove youuuuuuuuu.”

That was the year Folsom’s unit cycled out of Camp Taqaddum, to be replaced by another contingent of Marines.  These promised to look after the 1st MLG’s mascot, but things didn’t work out that way.  A Major gave the donkey away to a Sheikh who in turn dumped him off on an Iraqi family, and that was the end of the story. 

Except, it wasn’t.

Smoke-Home-LowerColonel Folsom couldn’t get the little animal out of his head and, learning of his plight in 2010, determined to get him back.  There were plenty of kids who had survived trauma of all kinds in his home state of Nebraska.  Folsom believed this animal could do them some good, as well.

You can even find his poster if you like, on sale on the internet, for about nineteen bucks

There ensued a months-long wrangle with American and Iraqi authorities, who couldn’t understand why all the fuss over a donkey.  For the family who now owned him, the  neglected, half-starved pack animal out back suddenly became a “beloved pet”.  They couldn’t possible let him go for anything less than $30,000, US.  (But, of course).

900 donors pitched in and, despite seemingly endless obstacles and miles of red tape, Smoke the Donkey slowly made his way from al-Anbar to Kuwait and on to Turkey and finally, to a new home in Nebraska.

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Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, at his new home in Omaha

ABCNews.com broadcast this announcement on May 18, 2011. Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, “mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy” was now, an American.  Semper Fi, Smoke.

May 17, 1781 Faces of the Founders

To look into the eyes of the men who fought the Revolution is to compress time, to reach back before the age of photography, and look into the eyes of men who saw the birth of a nation.

Imagine for a moment, being able to see the faces of the American Revolution.

Dr Eneas Munson

Not the paintings. Those are nothing out of the ordinary, save for the talent of the artist.  I mean their photographs. Images that make it possible for you to look into their eyes.

In a letter dated May 17, 1781 and addressed to Alexander Scammell, General George Washington outlined his intention to form a light infantry unit, under Scammell’s leadership.

Comprised of Continental Line units from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Milford, the Massachusetts-born Colonel’s unit was among the defensive forces which kept Sir Henry Clinton penned up in New York City, as much of the Continental army made its way south, toward a place called Yorktown.

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Reverend Levi Hayes was a fifer with a Connecticut regiment

Among the men under Scammell’s command was Henry Dearborn, future Secretary of War under President Thomas Jefferson. A teenage medic was also present.  His name was Eneas Munson.

One day that medic would become Doctor Eneas Munson, professor of the Yale Medical School in New Haven Connecticut and President of the Medical Society of that state. 

And a man who would live well into the age of photography.

The American Revolution ended in 1783.  By the first full year of the Civil War, only 12 veterans of the Revolution remained on the pension rolls of a grateful nation.

Two years later, Reverend EB Hillard brought two photographers through New York and New England to visit, and to photograph what were believed to be the last six.  Each was 100 years or older at the time of the interview.

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Peter Mackintosh was apprenticed to a Boston blacksmith, the night of the Boston Tea Party

William Hutchings of York County Maine, still part of Massachusetts at the time was captured at the siege of Castine, at the age of fifteen.  British authorities said it was a shame to hold one so young a prisoner, and he was released.

Reverend Daniel Waldo of Syracuse, New York fought under General Israel Putnam, becoming a POW at Horse Neck.

Adam Link of Maryland enlisted at 16 in the frontier service.

Alexander Millener of Quebec was a drummer boy in George Washington’s Life Guard.

Clarendon, New York native Lemuel Cook would live to be one of the oldest veterans of the Revolution, surviving to the age of 107.  He and Alexander Millener witnessed the British surrender, at Yorktown.

FOTR, Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith Fought in the Battle of Long Island on August 29, 1778

Samuel Downing from Newburyport, Massachusetts, enlisted at the age of 16 and served in the Mohawk Valley under General Benedict Arnold.  “Arnold was our fighting general”, he’d say, “and a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing, he’d ride right in. It was ‘Come on, boys!’ ’twasn’t ‘Go, boys!’ He was as brave a man as ever lived…He was a stern looking man, but kind to his soldiers. They didn’t treat him right: he ought to have had Burgoyne’s sword. But he ought to have been true. We had true men then, twasn’t as it is now”.

Hillard seems to have missed Daniel F. Bakeman, but with good reason.  Bakeman had been unable to prove his service with his New York regiment.  It wasn’t until 1867 that he finally received his veteran’s pension by special act of Congress.

FOTR, James Head
James Head was only thirteen when he joined the Continental Navy. Head was taken prisoner but later released in Providence, and walked 224 miles home to Warren, Maine.

Daniel Frederick Bakeman would become the Frank Buckles of his generation, the last surviving veteran of the Revolution. The 1874 Commissioner of Pensions report said that “With the death of Daniel Bakeman…April 5, 1869, the last of the pensioned soldiers of the Revolution passed away.  He was 109.

Most historians agree on 1839 as the year in which the earliest daguerreotypes were practically possible.

When Utah based investigative reporter Joe Bauman came across Hillard’s photos in 1976, he believed there must be others. 

Photography had been in existence for 35 years by Reverend Hillard’s time.  What followed was 30 years’ work, first finding and identifying photographs of the right vintage and then digging through muster rolls, pension files, genealogical records and a score of other source documents, to see if each was involved in the Revolution.

FOTR, George Fishley
George Fishley served in the Continental army, and served in the Battle of Monmouth

There were some, but it turned out to be a small group.  Peter Mackintosh for one, was a 16-year-old blacksmith’s apprentice, from Boston.  He was working the night of December 16, 1773, when a group of men ran into the shop scooping up ashes from the hearth and rubbing them on their faces.  It turns out they were going to a Tea Party.

James Head was a thirteen year-old Continental Naval recruit from a remote part of what was then Massachusetts.  Head would be taken prisoner but later released. He walked 224 miles from Providence to his home in what would one day be Warren, Maine.

Head was elected a Massachusetts delegate to the convention called in Boston, to ratify the Constitution.   He would die the wealthiest man in Warren, stone deaf from his service in the Continental Navy.

FOTR, Simeon Hicks
Rehoboth, Massachusetts “Minuteman” Simeon Hicks mobilized after the battles of Lexington and Concord, and help to seal off the British garrison in Boston.

George Fishley served in the Continental army and fought in the Battle of Monmouth, and in General John Sullivan’s campaign against British-allied Indians in New York and Pennsylvania.

Fishley would spend the rest of his days in Portsmouth New Hampshire, where he was known as ‘the last of our cocked hats.”

Daniel Spencer fought with the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, an elite 120-man unit also known as Sheldon’s Horse after Colonel Elisha Sheldon.  First mustered at Wethersfield, Connecticut, the regiment consisted of four troops from Connecticut, one troop each from Massachusetts and New Jersey, and two companies of light infantry. On August 13 1777, Sheldon’s horse put a unit of Loyalists to flight in the little-known Battle of the Flocky, the first cavalry charge in history, performed on American soil

FOTR, Daniel Spencer
Daniel Spencer fought with the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, an elite unit of 120 also known as Sheldon’s horse and known for the first cavalry charge, ever carried out on American soil

Bauman’s research uncovered another eight in addition to Hillard’s record, including a shoemaker, two ministers, a tavern-keeper, a settler on the Ohio frontier, a blacksmith and the captain of a coastal vessel, in addition to Dr. Munson.

The experiences of these eight span the distance from the Boston Tea Party to the battles at Monmouth, Quaker Hill, Charleston and Bennington.  Their eyes saw the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton & Henry Knox, the battles of the Revolution and the final surrender, at Yorktown.

Bauman collected the glass plate photos of eight and paper prints of another five along with each man’s story, and published them in an ebook entitled “DON’T TREAD ON ME: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries”.

To look into the eyes of such men is to compress time, to reach back before the age of photography, and look into the eyes of men who saw the birth of a nation.

May 7, 1945 Victory in Europe

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

Beginning on May 5, reporters from AP, Life magazine, and others began to sleep on the floor of Eisenhower’s red brick schoolhouse headquarters, for fear of stepping out and missing the moment. Adolf Hitler was dead by his own hand, the life of the German tyrant extinguished on April 30.

General Alfred Jodl came to Reims to sign the document including the phrase “All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European time on 8 May 1945“.

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The signing of the instruments of surrender ending the most destructive war in history took place on Monday, May 7, at 2:41am, local time.   In Europe, World War II had come to an end.The German government announced the end of hostilities right away to its own people, but most of the Allied governments, remained silent.   It was nearly midnight the following day when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed a second instrument of surrender, in the Berlin headquarters of Soviet General Georgy Zhukov.

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had his own ideas about how he wanted to handle the matter while the rest of the world, waited.

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In England, May 7 dragged on with no public statement. Large crowds gathered outside of Buckingham Palace shouting “We want the King”. Bell ringers throughout the British Isles remained on silent standby, waiting for the announcement. The British Home Office issued a circular, instructing Britons how they could celebrate: “Bonfires will be allowed, but the government trusts that only material with no salvage value will be used.” And still, the world waited.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally lost patience in the early evening, saying he wasn’t going to give Stalin the satisfaction of holding up what everyone already knew. The Ministry of Information made this short announcement at 7:40pm: “In accordance with arrangements between the three great powers, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe Day and will be regarded as a holiday”.

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The news was greeted with reserve in the United States, where the first thought was that of the Pacific. Even now, many months of savage combat lay ahead. President Harry Truman broadcast his own address to the nation at 9:00am on May 8, thanking President Roosevelt and wishing he’d been there to share the moment.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died on April 12 in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Truman’s speech begins: “This is a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity”.

So it is that most of the world celebrates May 8 as Victory in Europe, “VE Day”, the day of formal cessation of all hostilities, by Nazi Germany. And yet in some sectors, the fighting continued.

German military operations officially ceased on May 8, a day celebrated as VE Day in in the United States, Great Britain, Western Europe and Australia. VE Day occurs on May 9 in the former Soviet territories, and New Zealand.

Even so isolated pockets of resistance continued to surrender day through May 14-15. The “Georgian uprising” of some 400 German troops and 800 allied Georgian soldiers under German officers continued until May 20 on the Dutch island of Texel (pronounced “Tessel).

The last major battle in Europe concluded on May 25 between the Yugoslav Army and Croatian Armed Forces. One contingent of German soldiers lost radio communications in Spitsbergen in the Norwegian archipelago and surrendered to a group of seal hunters, on September 4. Two days after the formal surrender of Imperial Japan and the end of war, in the Pacific.

May 5, 1945 A Sunday School Picnic

Only once during all of World War 2 did death result from enemy action, in the 48 contiguous United States. That of a Sunday School class out for a picnic, on May 5, 1945.

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Following the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, weather watchers described an eastbound, upper atmospheric air current described as the “equatorial smoke stream”. 

In the 1920s, Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi tracked these upper level winds using pilot balloons from a site, near Mount Fuji. Oishi published his findings in Esperanto, dooming his work to international obscurity. Inside Japan there were those who took note, filing away this new-found knowledge of what we now call the “Jet Stream”.

Japanese balloon bomb diagram

During the latter half of WWII, Japanese military thinkers conceived a fūsen bakudan or “fire balloon”, a hydrogen filled balloon device designed to ride the jet stream using sand ballast and a valve system, to navigate its way to the North American continent.

With sandbags, explosives, and the device which made the thing work, the total payload was about a thousand pounds at liftoff.  The first such device was released on November 3, 1944, beginning the crossing to the west coast of North America. 

Between late 1944 and April 1945 some 9,300 such balloons were released, with military payloads.

Today, inter-continental ballistic missiles are an everyday if frightening reality, of our time. Such a long range attack was unheard of during World war 2 and would not be duplicated until the Falklands War, in 1982.

In 1945, intercontinental weapons existed only in the realm of science fiction.  As these devices began to appear, American speculation ran wild. Authorities theorized that they originated with submarine-based beach assaults, German POW camps, even the internment camps into which the Roosevelt administration herded Japanese Americans.

These “washi” paper balloons flew at high altitude and surprisingly quickly, completing the Pacific crossing in only three days. Balloons came down from Alaska to Northern Mexico and as far east, as Detroit.

A P-38 Lightning fighter shot one down near Santa Rosa, California, while Yerington, Nevada cowboys cut one up to make hay tarps. Pieces of balloon were found in the streets of Los Angeles. A prospector near Elko Nevada delivered one to local authorities, on the back of a donkey.

Among US units assigned to fight fire balloons was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which suffered one fatality and 22 injuries fighting fires.

One of the last balloons came down on March 10 near Hanford Washington, shorting out power lines supplying electricity for Manhattan Project nuclear reactor cooling pumps. The war in the Pacific could have ended very differently had not backup safety devices restored power, almost immediately.

Japanese Balloon Bomb

Colonel Sigmund Poole, head of the U.S. Geological Survey military geology unit, asked, “Where’d the damned sand come from?”  Microscopic analysis of sand ballast identified diatoms and other microscopic sea life.  This and the mineral content of the sand itself proved to be definitive.  The stuff could only have come from the home islands of Japan, more specifically, one or two beaches on the island of Honshu.

American authorities were alarmed.  Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs were relatively low grade threats.  Not so the biological weapons Japanese military authorities were known to be developing at the infamous Unit 731, in northern China.

284 of these weapons are known to have completed the Pacific crossing to the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Experts estimate as many as 1,000 may have made the crossing.  Sightings were reported in seventeen US states. Pilots were ordered to shoot them down on sight, but many escaped detection, altogether.

In an effort to deny valuable intelligence to their Japanese adversary, US military and government authorities did everything they could to keep these “Fire Bombs” out of the media.  Even while such secrecy put Americans at risk.

Japanese Authorities reported that the bombs were hitting key targets. Thousands were dead or injured they insisted, and American morale was low.

On the morning of May 5, 1945, Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took a Sunday school class of five on a picnic to a forest area near Bly, Oregon.  As Pastor Mitchell parked the car, Elsie and the kids came upon a large balloon with a strange looking device, attached. There was no way they could have known, what they had found was a Japanese weapon of war.  The device exploded killing all six, instantly.

Japanese balloon bomb shrapnel tree

Several such devices exploded, igniting wildfires in the forests of California, Oregon and Washington, but the site near Bly is the only one known to have resulted in American casualties.

Today there is a small picnic area located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Lake County, Oregon.  It’s maintained by the US Forest Service, memorialized as the Mitchell Recreation Area and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  A small stone marker points the way to a shrapnel scarred tree.

A second monument bears the words cast in bronze:  The “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II”.  There are six names above those words, those of five children and their teacher:  Elsie Mitchell, age 26,  Edward Engen, 13,  Jay Gifford, 13,  Joan Patzke, 13,  Dick Patzke, 14 and  Sherman Shoemaker, age 11.

Elsie Mitchell was pregnant at the time of her death. Her unborn child was the 7th albeit nameless victim, of one of the most bizarre weapon systems of WW2.

Mitchell Monument

April 28, 1752 American Cincinnatus

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.

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. The process 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.

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Seven 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 the state of 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 25, 1898 Newsies

We hear a lot these days about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series describing civilization, on the moon. 

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US presidential election results from 1796 to 1820 gives a good idea of partisan press circulation, where Green shaded states usually voted for the Democratic-Republican Party, while brown shaded states supported the Federalist Party

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were little more than “wretched little” sheets according to America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep the presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

We hear a lot these days about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series describing civilization, on the moon.   The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, one of the best known astronomers of the age.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades by ages 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

For thousands of them newspapers were all that stood in the way, of an empty belly.

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Homeless children sleeping in Mulberry Street district of New York, circa 1890

Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

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For that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

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Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, and hundreds of them descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.

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Several days later, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?”

The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted. Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

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Brooklyn newsboys, 1908

Newsies struck the two in 1899, refusing to sell their papers. 5,000 newsboys blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill. Competing papers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.  The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite: “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but they did agree to take back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

Long before modern notions of child welfare, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.  “Dutch” Johnson, Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie”, caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious, and he was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed that it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no chance.

“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com for this image

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could have easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers.   Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.  So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and their dimes.  For $53.40, Dutch Johnson would have his plot in Linden Hill Cemetery, complete with small stone marker.  Not a plain black wagon and a nameless grave in some anonymous Potter’s Field.

April 11, 1970 Apollo 13

 With communications being impossible, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  On board Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible as the idea that the stranded astronauts could get out and walk home.

Apollo 13 liftoff

The seventh manned mission in the Apollo space program was scheduled to be the third moon landing, launching at 13:13 Central Standard Time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Jack Swigert was the backup pilot for the Command Module (CM), officially joining the Apollo 13 mission only 48 hours earlier, when prime crew member Ken Mattingly was grounded, following exposure to German measles.

Jim Lovell was the most seasoned astronaut in the world at that time, a veteran of two Gemini missions and Apollo 8.  By launch day, April 11, 1970, Lovell had racked up 572 space flight hours. For Fred Haise, backup crew member on Apollo 8 and 11, this would be his first spaceflight.

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Apollo 13, original crew photo, Left to right: Commander, James A. Lovell Jr., CM pilot Ken Mattingly, LM pilot, Fred W. Haise Jr.

Two separate vessels were joined to form the Apollo spacecraft, separated by an airtight hatch. The crew lived in a Command/Service module called “Odyssey”.  The Landing Module (LM) dubbed “Aquarius”, would perform the actual moon landing.

56 hours into the mission and 5½ hours from the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence, Apollo crew members had just finished a live TV broadcast.  Haise was powering the LM down while Lovell stowed the TV camera.  Mission Control asked Swigert to activate stirring fans in the Service Module’s hydrogen and oxygen tank. Two minutes later, the astronauts heard a “loud bang”.

Apollo 13 Schematic

Manufacturing and testing of the vessel had both missed an exposed wire in an oxygen tank.  Swigert had flipped the switch for a routine procedure, causing a spark to set the oxygen tank on fire. Alarm lights lit up all over Odyssey and in Mission Control.  The entire spacecraft shuddered as one oxygen tank tore itself apart and damaged another.  Power began to fluctuate.  Attitude control thrusters fired, and communications temporarily went dark.

The crew could not have known at the time.  The entire Sector 4 panel had just blown off.

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The movie takes creative license with Commander James Lovell saying “Houston, we have a problem”.  On board the real Apollo 13 it was Jack Swigert who spoke:  “Houston, we’ve had a problem”.

205,000 miles into deep space with life support systems shutting down, the Lunar Module became the only means of survival.  There was no telling if the explosion had damaged Odyssey’s heat shields.  It didn’t matter. For now, the challenge was to remain alive.  Haise and Lovell frantically worked to boot up Aquarius, while Swigert shut down systems aboard Odyssey.   Power needed to be preserved for splashdown.

The situation had been suggested during an earlier training simulation, but considered unlikely. As it happened, the accident would have been fatal without access to the Lunar Module.

annexe6 A13-S70-34986 Fifteen years before Angus “Mac” MacGyver hit your television screen, mission control teams, spacecraft manufacturers and the crew itself worked around the clock to “MacGyver” life support, navigational and propulsion systems. For four days and nights, the three-man crew lived aboard the cramped, freezing Aquarius, a landing module intended to support a crew of 2 for only a day and one-half.

With heat plummeting to near freezing food inedible and an acute shortage of water, this tiny, claustrophobic “lifeboat” would have to do what it was never intended to do.

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Apollo XIII timeline

Atmospheric re-entry alone presented near-insurmountable challenges. The earth’s atmosphere is a dense fluid medium. If you reenter at too steep an angle, you may as well be jumping off a high bridge. As it is, the human frame can withstand deceleration forces no higher than 12 Gs, equivalent to 12 individuals identical to yourself, piled on top of you.  Even at that, you’re only going to survive a few minutes, at best.

We all know what it is to skip a stone off the surface of a pond.  If you hit the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, the result is identical to that stone. There is no coming down a second time. You get one bounce and then there is nothing but the black void of space.

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“Astronaut John L. Swigert, at right, with the “mailbox” rig improvised to adapt the command module’s square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the lunar module, which took a round cartridge”. /T Wikipedia

The world held its breath it seemed for seventy-eight hours, waiting for the latest update from newspaper and television news.  With communications being impossible, TV commentators used models and illustrations, to describe the unfolding drama.  On board Odyssey, power was so low that voice-only transmissions became difficult. Visual communications with Mission Control were as impossible as the idea that the stranded astronauts could get out and walk home.

As Odyssey neared earth, engineers and crew jury-rigged a means of jettisoning the spent Service Module, to create enough separation for safe re-entry.

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Shooting star as seen by night, H/T contentbuket.com

One last problem to be solved, was the crew’s final transfer from Lunar Module back to Command Module, prior to re-entry.  With the “reaction control system” dead, University of Toronto engineers had only slide rules and six hours in which to devise a way to “blow” the LM, by pressurizing the tunnel connecting it with the CM.  Too much pressure might damage the hatch and seal.  Too little wouldn’t provide enough separation between the two bodies.  Either failure would result in one of those “shooting stars” you see at night, as the searing heat of re-entry incinerated the Command Module and everything in it.

By this time, the Command Module had been in “cold soak” for days.  No one knew for certain, if the thing would come back to life.

Apollo 13 after it came back to Earth.
Apollo 13 landing

Crashing into the atmosphere at over 24,000mph, the capsule had 14 minutes in which to come to a full stop, splashing down in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. External temperatures on the Command Module reached 2,691° Fahrenheit, as the kinetic energy of re-entry converted to heat.

The Apollo 13 mission ended safely with splashdown southeast of American Samoa on April 17, 1970, at 18:07:41 local time.  Exhausted and hungry, the entire crew had lost weight.  Haise had developed a kidney infection.  Total duration was 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds.

April 11, 1970  Houston, we Have a Problem

April 5, 1761, That Other Ride, You Never Heard About

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of…Sybil Ludington

“Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of” …Sybil Ludington.

Wait…What?

Paul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” began on the night of April 18, 1775.  Revere was one of two riders, soon joined by a third, fanning out from Boston to warn of an oncoming column of “regulars”, come to destroy the stockpile of gunpowder, ammunition, and cannon in Concord.

paul-revereRevere himself covered barely 12 miles before being captured, his horse confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.  Revere would finish his “ride” on foot, arriving at sunrise on the 19th to witness the last moments of the battle on Lexington Green.

Two years later, Patriot forces maintained a similar supply depot, in the southwest Connecticut town of Danbury.

William Tryon was the Royal Governor of New York, and long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, Tryon was major-general of the provincial army.  On April 25th, the General set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

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Patriot Colonel Joseph Cooke’s small Danbury garrison was caught and quickly overpowered on the 26th, trying to remove food supplies, uniforms, and equipment.  Facing little if any opposition, Tryon’s forces went on a bender, burning homes, farms and storehouses.  Thousands of barrels of pork, beef, and flour were destroyed, along with 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents.

Colonel Henry Ludington was a farmer and father of 12, with a long military career.  A long-standing and loyal subject of the British crown, Ludington switched sides in 1773, joining the rebel cause and rising to command the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

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In April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, and spread across the countryside.  An exhausted rider arrived at the Ludington farm on a blown horse, on the evening of the 26th, asking for help.  15 miles away, British regulars and a force of loyalists were burning Danbury to the ground.

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel had one night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born, his daughter, Sybil.

Born April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was barely sixteen at the time of her ride.  From Poughkeepsie to what is now Putnam County and back, the “Female Paul Revere” rode across the lower Hudson River Valley, covering 40 miles in the pitch dark of night, alerting her father’s militia to the danger and urging them to come out and fight.  She’d use a stick to knock on doors, even using it once, to fight off a highway bandit.

By the time Sybil returned the next morning, cold, rain-soaked, and exhausted, most of 400 militia were ready to march.

Arnold’s forces arrived too late to save Danbury, but inflicted a nasty surprise on the British rearguard as the column approached nearby Ridgefield.  Never outnumbered by less than three-to-one, Connecticut militia was able to slow the British advance until Ludington’s New York Militia arrived on the following day.  The last phase of the action saw the same type of swarming harassment, as seen on the British retreat from Concord to Boston, early in the war.35 miles to the east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling inflicted by these colonials ensured that this was the last hostile British landing on the Connecticut coast.

The British raid on Danbury destroyed at least 19 houses and 22 stores and barns.  Town officials submitted £16,000 in claims to Congress, for which town selectmen received £500 reimbursement.  Further claims were made to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1787, for which Danbury was awarded land.  In Ohio.

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At the time, Benedict Arnold planned to travel to Philadelphia, to protest the promotion of officers junior to himself, to Major General.  Arnold, who’d had two horses shot out from under him at Ridgefield, was promoted to Major General in recognition for his role in the battle.  Along with that promotion came a horse, “properly caparisoned as a token of … approbation of his gallant conduct … in the late enterprize to Danbury.”  For now, the pride which would one day be his undoing, was assuaged.The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

Henry Ludington would become Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, mayor of Milwaukee and 12th Governor of Wisconsin.

Gold Silliman was kidnapped with his son by a first marriage by Tory neighbors, and held for Nearly seven months at a New York farmhouse.  Having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, Patriot forces went out and kidnapped one of their own, in the person of Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

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Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, who was brutally raped by English forces for denying them the use of her home.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells the story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives during the Revolution, as well as Mary’s own negotiations for her husband’s release from his Loyalist captors.

IMG_6632General David Wooster was mortally wounded at the Battle of Ridgefield, moments after shouting “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!”  Today, an archway marks the entrance to Wooster Square, in the East Rock Neighborhood of New Haven. 

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends and even that of George Washington.  She then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would have likewise faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Eighty-six years, later.

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“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm. ”Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore. Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all. Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats. Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides. It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down. It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon. It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball. You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load. So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere”.
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Founding Mother
Fatherless at age three and orphaned at twelve, Mary Ball learned a sense of independence, at an early age. She was wed at age 22 in a “semi-arranged” marriage by her guardian, George Eskridge. Mary’s first and only husband was Augustine “Gus” Washington, father to six children, borne of the union. Gus died when the eldest was only eleven and Mary thirty-five, leaving Mary to raise Eskridge’ namesake and four surviving siblings, alone. Today, little is written about Martha Ball Washington, a woman whose personal strength of character taught her son to lead, by example. Eleven-year-old George would grow to become a General in the cause of Liberty and first President of the United States, a man who himself died childless whom we remember today as “Father of the Country”, George Washington

March 25, 1965 Murder Bay

“Men were known to go into Murder Bay and were not heard of again until their bodies were discovered in the canal or found buried in ash dumps”. – Washington Post, 1888

March is upon us once again, a time when tourists flock to our nation’s capital to take in the cherry blossoms, along the banks of the Potomac. A gift to the United States from the people of Japan the Yoshino cherry in bloom has been called, the “most beautiful thing in the world.

H/T ABC News for this image of the cherry blossoms, of 2022

There, tourists may take in the Lock Keeper’s House, the oldest structure yet standing on the National Mall whose purpose it was to collect tolls and make records of travelers, on the Washington City Canal. Why you may ask, is a lock keeper’s house located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, some ten blocks from the Potomac?

The answer takes us back to a day when our nation’s capital was anything but, the most beautiful place on the earth.

Between 1775 and 1783, the United States Congress and its predecessor bodies did their business in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, later known as “Independence Hall”.

Lenfant City Plan

The “Residence Act” of July 1790 established a home for the Federal government along the banks of the Potomac River. 

The specific site was under negotiation when Alexander Hamilton brokered a deal.  Several delegates supported the current location in exchange for which, the Federal government agreed to assume their state’s debt, from the late revolution.

Pierre L’Enfant was selected to create the city plan as well as a design, for the buildings themselves. At the time, navigable waterways formed the economic backbone of the nation. L’Enfant’s plan allowed for a great canal connecting the Anacostia River called the “East branch” with the Tiber Creek, a tributary waterway to the Potomac.

Interest was high in such a canal but funding, was not. The project proceeded in fits and starts over the following decade and stopped altogether, during the War of 1812.

The Washington City Canal was dedicated in 1815. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was finished in 1833 and the lock keeper’s house, two years later. The system had problems from the beginning, overflowing its banks at extreme high tides and becoming too shallow for navigation, at extreme lows. Congress appropriated funds for improvements in 1849 but there were problems with contractors, and staff.

By now, business and government alike looked to the railroad as the future of commerce. The Washington City Canal fell into disrepair.

Washington City Canal H/T photographer, Tom Bosse

Dead animals joined with effluent of every manner and description to fill the W canal. In an age before streetlights, the Washington Evening Star of 1859 called the thing a “Man Trap”, “…because of the number of persons who have walked into it and drowned.” The Secretary of the Interior labeled the canal “a shallow, open sewer, of about one hundred and fifty feet in width, (sometimes called a canal,) which stretches its filthy surface through the heart of the city.”

The Civil War more than doubled Washington’s population with everything from soldiers and political types to escaped slaves living in “contraband camps”, along the canal.

Prostitutes flocked to over 100 houses of ill repute to service the needs, of Union General Joseph Hooker’s army. It’s a myth to say that’s where we get the term “hooker” from, but these ‘ladies of the night’ arrived in such numbers they would come to be called, “Hooker’s Division”.

Desperate to contain the seedier aspects of the city General Hooker consolidated the dark underbelly of the nation’s capital into these few blocks. What was already a seedy redlight district of brothels, gambling dens and alcohol was transformed to a hideous slum, known as “Murder Bay”.

Murder bay in 1855, H/T Smithsonian

Crime and violence rose to almost cartoonish levels. The place was so dangerous the police themselves stayed out, if at all possible. The Washington Post wrote in 1888 “Men were known to go into Murder Bay and were not heard of again until their bodies were discovered in the canal or found buried in ash dumps”. ‘Reforms’ were attempted throughout the post-war era, without success.

Murder Bay as it looked, in 1910

What began with the best of intentions was destined to end, with the wrecking ball. As the ‘Great War’ started up ‘over there’ the federal government bought up land on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets. In the 1920s a handy new invention called the bulldozer, helped out.

Ten large city and federal office buildings were built in parts of Murder Bay to form an area now known as, the Federal Triangle. Other parts were razed beginning in the mid-1920s to be replaced with the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Justice, Labor, Interstate Commerce and the National Archives.

Washington DC, skyline with federal government buildings and the Monument

On March 25, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order No. 11210 providing for “the development of an orderly, phased program for carrying out the improvement of Pennsylvania Avenue”.

The notorious slum known as Murder bay is but a memory now but the canal where it all began, yet flows to the sea. Pierre L’Enfant’s channel is still there, bricked over beneath the wheels of the busses and the bicycle rickshaws and the feet of all those tourists, come to see the cherry blossoms, along the Potomac.

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