October 14, 1987 Well of Darkness

3309 Tanner Drive quickly became, a circus.  Television trucks arrived, to cover the ordeal.   Baby Jessica’s rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil, from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China. Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union. Telephone linemen installed extra lines, to handle the traffic. 

baby-jessica-11.jpgJessica McClure Morales is 33-years old.  A typical West Texas Mom, with two kids and a dog.  Her life is normal in every way.  She’s a teacher’s aide.  Her husband Danny, works for a piping supply outfit.

Thirty-two years ago, Jessica McClure’s day was anything but normal.

October 14, 1987 began like any other, just an eighteen-month-old baby girl, playing in the back yard of an Aunt.  That old well pipe shouldn’t have been left open, but what harm could it do. Standing there only three inches above the grass, the thing was only eight inches wide.

And then the baby disappeared.  Down the well.

My command of the language fails to produce a word, adequate to describe the horror that young mother must have felt, looking down that pipe.

wellMidland, Texas first responders quickly devised a plan. A second shaft would be dug, parallel to the well.  Then it was left only to bore a tunnel, until rescuers reached the baby.  The operation would be over, by dinnertime.

Except, the rescue proved far more difficult than first imagined. The tools first brought on-scene, were inadequate to get through the hard rock surrounding the well.  What should have taken minutes, was turning to hours.

3309 Tanner Drive quickly became, a circus.  Television trucks arrived, to cover the ordeal.   Baby Jessica’s rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil, from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China. Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union. Telephone linemen installed extra lines, to handle the traffic.

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Local and national news reporters watch from ladders overlooking a fenceline as rescue crews attempt to free Jessica McClure. (October 1987)

The whole world it seemed, held its breath.

Midland police officer Andy Glasscock spent much of those fifty-eight hours on his belly next to that hole, concentrating on every sound to come up from the well.   Hard-eyed veteran though he was, the man could be brought to tears at the sound of that little voice, drifting up from deep in that hole in the ground…”Mama“.  “How does a kitten go?” Officer Glasscock would ask, into the darkness.  The little voice would respond…”Meow“.

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Supporters wait outside the barricade line as workers attempt to rescue Jessica from the well. (October 1987)

Watching the evening news, it’s sometimes easy to believe the world is going to hell.  It’s not.  What we saw for those fifty-eight hours was the True heroism and fundamental decency of every-day women and men.  Fathers, sons and brothers, straining each fiber and sinew, inching closer to the bottom of that well.  Mothers sisters and wives, pitching in and doing whatever it was, that needed to be done.  We’d see it again in a New York Minute, should circumstances require it.

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Rescue crews worked through the night to pump warm air into the well where Jessica had become trapped (October 1987)

You could watch it happen, around the clock. Many of us did. I remember it.  Each man would dig until he’d drop, and then another guy would take his place. These were out-of-work oil field workers and everyday guys. Mining engineers and paramedics. The work was frenetic, desperate, and at the same time, agonizingly slow.

Anyone who’s used a jackhammer, knows it’s not a tool designed to be used, sideways. Even so, these guys tried.  A waterjet became a vital part of the rescue, a new and unproven technology, in 1987.

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Jessica’s father Chip McClure speaks to a cadre of reporters. (October 1987)

The sun went down that Wednesday and rose the following day and then set again.  Still, the nightmare dragged on.

A microphone was lowered down, so doctors could hear that baby girl breathe. She would cry.  Sometimes she would sing. A small voice drifting up from that hole in the ground.  The words of “Winnie the Pooh”.

billresclThese were good signs. A baby could neither sing nor cry, if she could not breathe.

The final tunneling phase of the operation could only be described, as a claustrophobic nightmare. An unimaginable ordeal. Midland Fire Department paramedic Robert O’Donnell was chosen because of his tall, wiry frame. Slathered all over with K-Y jelly and stuffed into a space so tight it was hard to breathe, O’Donnell inched his way through that black hole that Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning until finally, he touched her leg.

The agony of those minutes dragging on to hours, can only be imagined. What O’Donnell was trying to do, could not be done.  In the end, the paramedic was forced to back out of the hole, one agonizing inch at a time, defeated. Empty handed.  As men went back to work enlarging the tunnel, the paramedic sat on a curb, and wept.

On the second attempt, O’Donnell was able wrestle the baby out of that tiny space, handing her to fellow paramedic Steve Forbes, who carried her to safety.

Jessica McClure rescueBaby Jessica came out of that well with her face deeply scarred and toes black with gangrene, for lack of blood flow.  She required fifteen surgeries before her ordeal was over, but she was alive.

nintchdbpict000307656606 (1)The story has a happy ending for baby Jessica.  Not so, for many others.  The New York Times wrote:

“The little girl’s parents moved her out of town, to a three-bedroom house that they never could have afforded before she was rescued, to hide from the world that embraced them so hard they couldn’t breathe. Eventually, they were divorced. Others who helped to save the child — O’Donnell was just the most visible of hundreds — found themselves drinking, or in marriage counseling, or in legal tangles, all because of the fickle, seductive, burning spotlight”.

baby-jessica-17175736-1-402President Ronald Reagan quipped, “Everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” Baby Jessica appeared with her teenage parents Reba and Chip on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, to talk about the incident. Scott Shaw of the Odessa American won the Pulitzer prize for The photograph. ABC made a television movie:  Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure. USA Today ranked her 22nd on a list of “25 lives of indelible impact.”  Everyone in the story became famous. Until they weren’t.

For paramedic Robert O’Donnell, the nightmare never ended.  Already claustrophobic, those hours spent alone in a black hole so tight as to all but prevent breath, were pure agony.   The failure and that agonizing inchworm’s crawl out of that hole, empty handed.  The ultimate success.   The fame and celebrity.  The Oprah show.  The relentless pursuit, of media.  “For a year afterward everyone wanted a piece of him” said his older brother, Ricky. “Then all of a sudden one day it seemed like everyone dropped him.”

"Baby Jessica" McClure Rescue
Lee High Rebelettes hold up a sign during halftime of the Lee-Odessa Permian football game showing their support for Jessica. (October 1987)

The Paramedic had rescued lots of people but, somehow, his life stopped in 1987. Transfixed in the bright lights and the fame of those last fifteen minutes of The Rescue.  Everywhere he went, he was “The man who Saved Baby Jessica™”.

Post-traumatic stress is a strange and incomprehensible thing.  The next seven years were a downward spiral.  There were marital problems.  That humiliating episode with that made-for-TV movie.  The whole family watching to see his part, but no one bothered to tell them.  The scene had been cut.  The 11-year career with the Midland Fire Department, collapsing amidst allegations of prescription drug abuse.  Divorce.

22272348_124421455985In April 1995, O’Donnell’s mother noticed the missing shotgun at the family ranch, in Stanton Texas.  The 410 buckshot, loaded with larger pellets intended for bigger game, or self defense.  They found the body some 20-miles away, slumped over the wheel of the new Ford pickup.  This was no accident.  You don’t put a barrel that long into your mouth, without meaning to.

Those of us of a certain age remember the baby Jessica episode, well.  I suspect Robert O’Donnell’s story is less well known, and that’s a shame.  The man is an American hero.  He has earned the right to be remembered.

 

October 11, 1776 Buying Time. The Battle of Valcour Island

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time.  Congress was alarmed at the potential of a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to his left leg. Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan captured, along with some 400 fellow Patriots.

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The nightmare took on a life of its own in the String of 1776, with the massive reinforcement of Quebec.   10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army were driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

The continental Congress was correct about the British intention of splitting the colonies. General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial Governor of Quebec, set about doing so, almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed nearly every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775: the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge. Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence and moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

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There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake. 120 miles to the south, colonials were doing the same.

The Americans possessed a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.  Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.  In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Skenesborough Sawmill.jpgHermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.

200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was this duty that workmen were paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns.  There was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

It is not widely known, that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort. Notwithstanding, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, which almost brought their work to a halt.

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

download - 2019-10-11T070000.649.jpgAs the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage. The element of surprise was going to be critical. Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, where he was hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.

Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark.  Both sides did some damage. On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each. In the end, the larger ships and more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

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Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase.

One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else, too damaged to go on, abandoned. The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods. Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

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On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle. Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving her for the last time, flag still flying.

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British forces would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.
The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it. Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter.

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as turncoat.  A traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his infant nation, another year in which to fight.

 

Afterward

221 years later, maritime surveyors from the Survey Team of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum located the last vessel left unaccounted for, from the October 11, 1776 Battle of Valcour Island.  With mast yet standing and her bow gun at the ready, the wreck lies upright at a depth inaccessible to recreational divers, protected and preserved by the cold, dark, fresh waters of Lake Champlain.

Over the next two years, careful examination of source documents eliminated one patriot gunboat after another from consideration as the identity of the “missing gunboat”. In the end, the Pristine wreck was identified as the Spitfire, sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54-foot gunboats constructed over the Summer of 1776, in the wilderness of Skenesborough.

Today, the Spitfire site is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act, providing that “No person may possess, disturb, remove, or injure” any part of this precious underwater shrine, to our shared American history.

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Painting of the Spitfire by Ernie Haas.  Hat tip https://www.lcmm.org/explore/shipwrecks/revolutionary-war-gunboat-spitfire/

 

October 6, 1945 Billy Sianis’ Goat

There are different versions of the story, but they all end up with Billy Sianis and his pet goat Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team. “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

For a Red Sox guy, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory, putting to rest the “Curse of the Bambino”.  Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. They had grandchildren and great grandchildren and even a few great-greats, and still.  The drought wore on.  For an arid span 86 years, one of the longest World Series championship dry spells in Major League Baseball history.

Yet the suffering of We who love the Red Sox™ pales in comparison, with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs.  And they say it’s the fault of Billy goat.

It was October 6, 1945, game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field.  The atmosphere was festive.  Electric.  The first post-season for America’s pastime, since the most destructive war in human history, bringing with it hopes for the first Cubs World Series victory, since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908

Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.

Billy Sianis

Anyone who’s ever found himself in the company of a goat understands the problem. Right?  There are different versions of the story, but they all end up with Billy and Murphy being thrown out of the game and casting a curse on the team. “Them Cubs”, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more”.

Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Billy Sianis was right. The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series. The Curse of the Billy Goat, had begun.

Billy Sianis himself tried to break the curse, prior to his death in 1970, but no dice.  Nephew Sam brought a goat onto the field in 1984, 1989, 1994 and again in 1998. All to no avail.

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Sam Sianis, 1984 AP photo

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese zodiac, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named “Virgil Homer” to Houston, during the division championship series. They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

That got the Cubbies through the series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the National League championship. It was Cubs 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6.  Chicago was ahead in the series, when lifelong Cubs fan Steve Bartman deflected what should have been an easy catch for Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou.

Alou slammed his glove down in anger and frustration. Pitcher Mark Prior glared at the stands, crying “fan interference”.  The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning. Steve Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

For fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

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In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across a statue of Harry Caray.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings. Cubs’ manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

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Five fans set out on foot from Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012, accompanied by a goat.  Calling the effort “Crack the Curse”, the group hiked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field. The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but did nothing to lift the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the infamous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the gag “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. With due respect to Mr. Buckner, he was far better than that story would have you believe, there’s something my fellow Sox fans may not know.  The former Cub 1st Baseman was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt.  For “luck”.

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A philanthropic enterprise sprang up in 2011 called “Reverse the Curse”, selling goat milk lip balms, soaps and more, and, according to their website, “[C]ollaborating with an institution that provides technical cooperation for agriculture in the U.S., Dominican Republic and Haiti to develop goat breeding centers, vegetable gardens, and chicken farms for small producers”.

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2015 was once again the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac. That September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in a Bag”. The goat was gone. Surely that would work.

The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

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Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run. Mets fans quipped that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.), but he wasn’t the first.

As the 2017 season drew to a close, the Chicago Cubs found themselves defending World Champions.  That’s right. On October 22, 46 years to the day following the death of Billy Sianis, the Cubbies defeated the LA Dodgers 5–0 to win the 2016 National League pennant.

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The mother of all droughts came to a halt on November 2 in a ten-inning cardiac arrest that had all of us up, Way past midnight.  On a school night, no less.  Personally, I even watched that 17-minute rain delay.  And I’m a Red Sox guy.

So it was, the drought has ended.   Steve Bartman has emerged from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by the 108 diamonds of his very own World Series ring.  Billy Sianis and Murphy may, at long last, rest in peace.  The curse is broken.

 

In reading up for this story, I learned that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, named Fatima. No, really. I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

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August 18, 1942 Ghosts of the Butaritari

The old man spoke no English, save for a single song memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler, first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

That April, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic,  beating marchers at random and bayoneting those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

The Imperial Japanese Navy asserted control over much of the region in 1941, installing troop garrisons in the Marshall Island chain and across the ‘biogeographical region’ known as Oceana.

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WWF Map of the biogeographic region ‘Oceana

The “Island hopping strategy” used to wrest control of the Pacific islands from the Japanese would prove successful in the end but, in 1942, the Americans had much to learn about this style of warfare.

Today, the island Republic of Kiribati comprises 32 atolls and reef islands, located near the equator in the central Pacific, among a widely scattered group of federated states known as Micronesia. Home to just over 110,000 permanent residents, about half of these live on Tarawa Atoll.  At the opposite end of this small archipelago is Butaritari, once known as Makin Island.

marine-raiders-about-to-deployA few minutes past 00:00 (midnight) on August 17, 1942, 211 United States Marine Corps raiders designated Task Group 7.15 (TG 7.15) disembarked from the submarines Argonaut and Nautilus, and boarded inflatable rubber boats for the landing on Makin Island. The raid was among the first major American offensive ground combat operations of WW2, with the objectives of destroying Japanese installations, taking prisoners to gain intelligence on the Gilbert Islands region, and to divert Japanese reinforcement from allied landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

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Makin Island as seen by Nautilus

High surf and the failure of several outboard engines confused the night landing.  Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson in charge of the raid, decided to land all his men on one beach instead of two as originally planned, but not everyone got the word. At 5:15, a 12-man squad led by Lt. Oscar Peatross found itself isolated and alone but, undeterred by the lack of support, began to move inland in search of the enemy. Meanwhile, the balance of TG 7.15 advanced inland from the landing, encountering strong resistance from Japanese snipers and machine guns.

Two Bansai charges turned out to be a tactical mistake for Japanese forces. Meanwhile, Peatross and his small force of 12 found themselves behind the Japanese machine gun team engaging their fellow Marines.  Peatross’ unit killed eight enemy soldiers along with garrison commander Sgt. Major Kanemitsu, knocked out a machine gun and destroyed several enemy radios, while suffering three dead and two wounded of their own.

Unable to contact Carlson, what remained of Peatross’ small band withdrew to the submarines, as originally planned.  That was about the last thing that went according to plan.

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View of Makin Island from USS Nautilus, waiting to withdraw Marine Corps raiding force

At 13:30, twelve Japanese aircraft arrived over Makin, including two “flying boats”, carrying reinforcements for the Japanese garrison. Ten aircraft bombed and strafed as the flying boats attempted to land, but both were destroyed in a hail of machine gun and anti-tank fire.

The raiders began to withdraw at 19:30, but surf conditions were far stronger than expected. Ninety-three men managed to struggle back to the waiting submarines, but eleven out of eighteen boats were forced to turn back. Despite hours of heroic effort, exhausted survivors struggled back to the beach, most now without their weapons or equipment.

Wet, dispirited and unarmed, seventy-two exhausted men were now left alone on the island, including only 20 fully-armed Marines originally left behind, to cover the withdrawal.

Many survivors got out with little but their underclothes, and a few souvenirs

A Japanese messenger was dispatched to the enemy commander with offer to surrender, but this man was shot by other Marines, unaware of his purpose.  A rescue boat was dispatched on the morning of the 18th to stretch a rescue line out to the island. The craft was attacked and destroyed by enemy aircraft.  Both subs had to crash dive for the bottom where each was forced to wait out the day. Meanwhile, exhausted survivors fashioned a raft from three remaining rubber boats and a few native canoes, and battled the four miles out of Makin Lagoon, back to the waiting subs. The last survivor was withdrawn at fifty-two minutes before midnight, on August 18.

The raid annihilated the Japanese garrison on Makin Island, but failed in its other major objectives.  In the end, Marines asked the island people to bury their dead.  There was no time.  Casualties at the time were recorded as eighteen killed and 12 missing in action.

The war in the Pacific continued for another three years, but the Butaritari people never forgot the barbarity of the Japanese occupier.  Nor did they forget the Marines who had given their lives, in the attempt to throw out the occupier.

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Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson holds a souvenir with his second-in-command from the Makin Island raid, James Roosevelt.  The President’s son. 

Neither it turns out, had one Butaritari elder who, as a teenager, had helped give nineteen dead Marines a warrior’s last due.  In December 1999, representatives of the Marine Corps once again came to Butaritari island, this time not with weapons, but with caskets.

The old Butaritari man spoke no English, save for a single song memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

July 20, 1969   Sick of Space

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

It’s hard to turn on the TV this week, without hearing about Apollo 11.  Fifty years ago, those famous words spoken by the first human being, to set foot on the moon.  “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind“.

The moon landing of July 20, 1969 was the culmination of tens of millions of man-hours, a twelve-years long space race with the Soviet Union, five dead astronauts and the young President who had dared them to do it, himself shot through the head some six years earlier.

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

Ten years earlier,  NASA needed to know what happened to the human body in space.  The Soviet space program was halted for nearly a year, so sick was the #2 (human) “traveler in the cosmos”.  Astronauts would be subjected to weightlessness, G-forces beyond imagination and constant rotation.  A world where up is down and down is up and the delicate sensors of the middle ear cry out, Enough!

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The vertigo and the nausea of motion sickness has played its part, from the earliest days of human history.  The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about it.  The Roman philosopher Seneca writes of the misery of a long voyage in which ‘he could bring nothing more up’.  The lyric poet Horace writes of seasickness as a great social leveler, in which wealth is no protection and the rich man suffers just as much as the poor man.  The sea-going military exploits of Julius Caesar are replete with tales of vomiting legionaries and seasick horses.

To the Great good fortune of the Protestant England of 1588, the terrifying Armada sent by Spanish King Phillip II to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an Army general with little to no experience at sea. Sidonia suffered such severe seasickness that this, combined with a stroke of exceptionally bad luck, destroyed the Spanish Armada and paved the way to the next three hundred years in which “Britannia Ruled the Waves”.

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Were you to catch the early space travelers in a candid moment, many are the tales of less-than-heroic moments, spent wiping the product of space sickness from the interiors of craft from the Gemini program to the Space Shuttle.

From the beginning, scientists needed to understand the mechanisms of space sickness.  So it was that, in the mid-twentieth century, NASA happened upon a group of space pioneers, you’ve likely never heard of.  What better group with which to study motion sickness, than those literally immune to it.  The profoundly hearing impaired made deaf by spinal meningitis and without a functioning vestibular system, that delicate inner ear structure which gives us sense of balance.

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Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 as a grammar school for the deaf and blind and remains to this day, the world’s premier institution for the higher education of the deaf and hearing impaired.  In 1961, researchers with the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine paid a visit.  Hundreds of faculty and students were tested and a handful selected, for further tests.  There were parabolic flights.  Some were suspended for days, in swinging cages.

One group was deliberately taken into a severe storm off the coast of Nova Scotia, an outing former students remember as a lark, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.  Researchers didn’t enjoy the trip quite so much, passing the voyage in a state of green and gut-wrenching decrepitude.

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Gallaudet Eleven

Eleven Gallaudet students were selected as early as 1958, to spin for nearly two weeks in a room-sized centrifuge.  Though it was hard work, participants viewed the study as an adventure.  One remembers his experience as a way to serve his country, since he’d never be allowed to join the military.

Today, their names are all but forgotten.  Barron Gulak.  Harry Larson.  David Myers and others.  The forgotten pioneers of those early days of the American space program, without whom the first astronauts may well have viewed the moon landing, from the bottom of a barf bag.

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Featured image, top of page: “Space Sickness”. Hat tip graphic designer Douglas Noe (aka “Robotrake”), and society6.com

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.

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.”