January 20, 1829 An Ass for a Lion

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world”

The Declaration of Independence, the birth certificate of the nation, begins with this preamble: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”.

The next paragraph leads with the phrase most commonly cited: “We hold these truths todeclaration-of-independence be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

The paragraph ends with a personal indictment of one man, followed by a 27 item bill of particulars against him. “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world”.

The overall tenor of the document is a personal indictment of one man, George III, King of England. The word “He” appears in the document 19 times, “tyrant” is used twice and “ruler” only once, as in: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people”.

Thomas Paine wrote of George III in “Common Sense”, the pamphlet which inspired a people to rise up in the summer of 1776: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion”.

To be sure, the King had little or nothing to do with the policies which brought the two countries to war. The Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend duties on tea, paper and other products in 1767; these came from Parliament, as did the “Coercive Acts” of 1774, referred to by the Patriots of Massachusetts and others as “The Intolerable Acts”.

These policies were a result of the financial burdens of garrisoning and administering the huge territories of the American colonies, the never ending wars with France and Spain, and the loans given to the East India Company, which was then responsible for administering India.

The third King of the House of Hanover was himself a creature of Parliament, his lineage having been invited to rule over Great Britain in 1714, after the fall of the House of Stuart. What Parliament gives, Parliament may take away. Yet today, George III is remembered for two things; losing the American colonies, and for losing his mind.

He is the longest reigning of any English King, ruling from 1760 until his death on January 29, 1820. Medical historians have long said that George III suffered from a genetic blood disorder called Porphyria, a term from the Greek meaning “purple pigment”. This refers to a blue discoloration in the urine of those suffering from the condition, along with symptoms primarily involving the central nervous system, and accompanied by severe abdominal pain, vomiting and mental disturbances.

The illness seems to have afflicted George III alone however, casting doubt on an hereditary condition. George III’s medical records cast further doubt on the porphyria diagnosis, showing that he was prescribed medicine based on gentian, a plant with deep blue flowers which may turn the urine blue. He seems to have been afflicted with some kind of mental illness, suffering bouts which occurred with increasing severity and longevity. At times the King of England would talk until he foamed at the mouth or go into convulsions where pages had to sit on him to keep him from injuring himself.

An ongoing research project at St George’s, University of London, has looked at thousands of King George III’s handwritten letters, and concluded that the King suffered from mental illness. His writing was erratic at times coinciding with his “spells”, with run-on sentences of 400 words or more and as many as 8 verbs with no punctuation. These are features of the writing and speech of patients as they experience the manic phase of bipolar disorder. This manic phase stands at one end of a spectrum of mood disorders, with an overwhelming sadness or depression at the other. Research is ongoing, but these types of mood swings are consistent with contemporary witnesses to George’s behavior, as well as the written record.

The last ten years of George’s reign were spent in complete seclusion, mentally unfit to rule.  His eldest son, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, acted as Prince Regent from 1811 on.

There is an historic lesson in this story. If the country ruled by a King (or Queen) wins the lottery and gets a good and fair monarch, then that country can experience a period of peace and prosperity. If that country draws the cosmic short straw and gets a bad one, the results can be catastrophic. In the end, it’s the most powerful argument I can think of for a governmental system of diffuse power with checks and balances.

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January 28, 1942 The Mighty Eighth

“Consider yourself dead. Some of you won’t come back from this. Some of you will, but you’ll be the lucky ones.” – Briefing officer, 97th BG, 15th AAF, Foggia Italy, to B-17 Navigator Lt. Mike Scorcio and crew before a mission to Germany

Under the terms of the tripartite pact with Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany mighty-eighth-crewmanwas obliged to render aid in the event that either ally was attacked. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima came to  Joachim von Ribbentrop, looking for  a commitment of support from the German Foreign Minister.

Ribbentrop balked. Germany was under no obligation to intervene with their ally having been the aggressor.  Adolf Hitler thought otherwise. He couldn’t stand Roosevelt, and thought it was just a matter of time  before the two countries were at war. He might as well beat the American President to the punch.

It was 9:30am Washington time on December 11, when German Chargé d’Affaires Hans Thomsen handed the note to American Secretary of State Cordell Hull. For the second time in the diplomatic history of the United States and Germany, the two nations were in a state of war.

8thaf-shoulder-patch48 days later, at Hunter Field in Savannah, the Eighth Bomber Command was activated as part of the United States Army Air Forces. It was January 28, 1942.

The 8th was intended to support operation “Super Gymnast”, the invasion of what was then French North Africa.  Super Gymnast was canceled in April.  By May, the 8th Bomber Command had moved its headquarters to a former girls’ school in High Wycombe, England, from where it conducted the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

thndbrdRe-designated the Eighth Air Force on February 22, 1944, at its peak the “Mighty Eighth” could dispatch over 2,000 four engine bombers and more than 1,000 fighters on a single mission. 350,000 people served in the 8th AF during the war in Europe, with 200,000 at its peak in 1944.

By 1945, the Wehrmacht had a new joke to tell itself:  “When we see a silver plane, it’s American. A black plane, it’s British. When we see no plane, it’s German”. American aviation paid a heavy price for it.

Half of the US Army Air Force casualties in World War II were suffered by the 8th, over 47,000 casualties, with more than 26,000 killed. By war’s end, 8th Air Force personnel were awarded 17 Medals of Honor, 220 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 442,000 Air Medals. There were 261 fighter aces in the 8th, 31 of them with 15 or more kills apiece. Another 305 gunners were also recognized as aces.the-mighty-eighth-banner

After victory in Europe, 8th AF Headquarters was reassigned to Sakugawa (Kadena Airfield), Okinawa, under the command of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle.  Tasked with organizing and training new bomber groups for the planned invasion of Japan, the 8th received its first B-29 Superfortress on August 8.  Seven days later, the war in the pacific had come to an end..

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With the onset of the jet age, the 8th Air Force moved to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts on June 13, 1955, the second of three Numbered Air Forces of the newly constituted Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Since then, the Mighty 8th has been called on to perform combat missions from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, flying out of its current headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana.

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If you’re ever in Savannah, do yourself a favor and pay a visit to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force (http://www.mightyeighth.org/). Not only will you experience an incredible story well told, but you will meet some 90+ year old veterans who walk as straight and tall today as they did, 75 years ago. Happy Birthday, Mighty Eighth.

 

January 27, 1945  The Great Raid

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.

bataan1942 was a bad year for the allied war in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for 10,000 to 25,000.

20,000 of them died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.  2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, which were nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor where prisoners waited to die.  A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

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Cabanatuan Prisoners

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

On December 14, units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and burned them alive, machine gunning any who tried to escape the flames.   The atrocity sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

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Alamo Scouts, After Raid

On the evening of January 27, 1945, 14 individuals separated into two teams, beginning the 30 mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan. They were an advance team, formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the Alamo Scouts. The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, who served as guides and helped in the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.  Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison and as many as 7,000 deployed just a few miles away.

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Northrup P-61 Black Widow

On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out into the open.  They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.cabanatuan-prison-camp

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers and two prisoners were killed, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  464 American military personnel were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

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Rescued POWs from Cabanatuan

One POW was left behind, a British soldier named Edwin Rose.  Rose heard the firing and thought the Americans were there to stay, so he went back to sleep.  When he woke the next morning and realized he had “Cabanatuan all my own”, he shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, from virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
  • Captain John Dugan, Milton
  • 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
  • Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
  • Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
  • Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
  • Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
  • USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
  • USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin,Danvers
  • USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham

I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.  These guys have earned the right to be remembered.

January 26, 1945 Audie Murphy

These days, you hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Murphy’s Day, they called it “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”. Murphy would spend a 21-year post-war career in Hollywood and, until his death in a plane crash in 1971, his post-war life was never free of it

Audie Leon Murphy attempted to enlist in the Armed Services after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Marine Corps, Navy and the Army all turned him down for being underweight and under age. After a change in diet to “fatten” up, Murphy appeared at a Dallas recruiting station on June 30, 1942 with a sworn affidavit from his sister, inflating his age by a year. It was 10 days past his 17th birthday when Murphy, all 5’5½” and 112 lbs of him, enlisted in the US Army.

Murphy’s company commander thought he was too small for infantry service, and attempted to transfer him to cook and bakers’ school. Murphy refused.  He wanted to become a combat soldier.

amphibious-landingJoining the 3rd Infantry Division of George S. Patton’s 7th Army, Murphy participated in amphibious landings in Sicily in July, fighting in nearly every aspect of the Italian campaign. From Palermo to Messina and on to Naples, Anzio and Rome, the Germans were driven out of the Italian peninsula in savage and near continuous fighting that killed a member of my own family.  By mid-December, the 3rd ID suffered 683 dead, 170 missing, and 2,412 wounded. Now Sergeant Murphy was there for most of it, excepting two periods when he was down with malaria.

Two months after the “Overlord” landings in the north of France, elements of the 7th Army landed in southern France in an operation called “Dragoon”. By mid-September, only three of Company B’s original roster remained, the rest either killed or removed due to wounds or illness. It was around this time when Murphy received his first Purple Heart.  A mortar blast resulted in a heel wound that wasn’t very serious, but a far more dangerous hip wound followed from a sniper in December. He repaid it with a bullet between the German’s eyes.

Murphy was still in the hospital when his unit moved into the Vosges Mountains. The colmar_pocket“Colmar Pocket” was an 850 square mile area held by German troops: Murphy described it as “a huge and dangerous bridgehead thrusting west of the Rhine like an iron fist. Fed with men and materiel from across the river, it is a constant threat to our right flank; and potentially it is a perfect springboard from which the enemy could start a powerful counterattack.”

Rejoining his unit in January, now Lieutenant Murphy became Company Commander, being the only officer remaining in the Company. Disease, wounds and casualties had reduced company B’s fighting strength by this time from an original 235 to 18.

What remained of the unit was awaiting reinforcements on January 26, 1945, as a combined force of German infantry and armor assembled itself outside of town. “I see the Germans lining up for an attack”, said Murphy. “Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen”.

audie_murphyLet Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation describe what happened next: “Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective”.

These days, you hear a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In Murphy’s Day, they called it “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”.  Murphy would spend a 21-year post-war career in audie-murphy-gravesiteHollywood and, until his death in a plane crash in 1971, his post-war life was never free of it.

Data from the National Vital Statistics System, a collaboration of the National Center for Health Statistics of the Department of Health and Human Services, reveals a suicide rate among veteran populations approximately twice that in comparable civilian populations.

I wonder about the term, “Disorder”.  That makes it sound like there’s something wrong with these guys.

When a soldier experiences an event, so traumatic that the very memory of it causes pain, I don’t understand how that can be characterized as a “disorder”. To me that seems like the properly functioning conscience of a good man, recoiling in horror at what he’s seen in service to his country.

I don’t know the answer to PTSD-related suicide, I don’t even know the right question.  It seems to me that the only “disorder” belongs to that fraction of a percent who remain unaffected by the horrors of war.

January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

Dr. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality rates among these populations could be expected to approach 100%

diphtheria
Corynebacterium diphtheriae

Diphtheria is highly contagious, with early symptoms resembling a cold or flu. Fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing. Later symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies, as proteins form a leathery, white “pseudo membrane” on the throat and nasal tissues.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a major killer of children.

Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease.  In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became illdiphtheria_vaccination_poster with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the white pseudo membrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the Lower 48, had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A telegram went out and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum.  It was enough for 30 patients. A million units were needed, but this was enough to stave off an epidemic until the larger shipment arrived in February.

serum-runThe 300,000 units shipped as far as they could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way by dog sled.

It was 9:00pm and −50°F on January 27, when “Wild Bill” Shannon and his nine dog team received the 20lb cylinder of serum. The temperature was −62°F when Shannon reached Minto at 3:00am, hypothermic, with parts of his face blackened by frostbite.

Leonhard Seppala and his dog team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and

sepp-and-togo
Seppala & Togo

zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F. Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve year old “Togo” who was trusted with the lead. Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley” and across the unstable ice of Norton Sound, visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see the “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled. Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to his lead dog.

With Seppala’s 8 year old daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, stakes could not have been higher. Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the next handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

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Balto & Team, in Nome

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 at night. At one point, hurricane force winds upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the dark with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

20 mushers and 150+ dogs had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks.  Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough serum for 30, the serum run had held the death toll at 5, 6 or 7, depending on which version you accept. Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died before completing the run, several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dogbalto-statue becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country after Rin Tin Tin. It was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53 mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead dog little more than a “freight dog”.

A statue of Balto was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925 where it stands to this day, though he is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards). Togo lived another four years, though he was never again able to run. He spent his last years in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away on December 5 at the ripe old age of 16.togo

Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” Today, Togo is stuffed and mounted, standing watch in the Iditarod museum headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.

January 24, 1776 A Noble Train of Artillery

It must have been a sight when that Noble Train of Artillery entered Cambridge on this day in 1776

The American Revolution began with the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the morning of April 19, 1775. Within days of the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the subsequent British withdrawal to Boston, over 20,000 men poured into Cambridge from all over New England. Abandoned Tory homes and the empty Christ Church became temporary barracks and field hospitals.  Even Harvard College shut down, its buildings becoming quarters for at least 1,600 Patriots.

The Continental Congress appointed George Washington General of this “Army” on June 15, two days before the British assault on Farmer Breed’s hill. An action which took its name from that of a neighboring farmer, going into history as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

At the time, Boston was a virtual island, connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. Shortly after his arrival in July, General Washington discovered that his army had enough gunpowder for nine shots per man, and then they’d be done. British forces were effectively penned up in Boston, by a force too weak to do anything about it.

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Fort Ticonderoga

The stalemate dragged on for months, when a 25 year old bookseller came to General Washington with a plan. His name was Henry Knox. His plan was a 300-mile, round trip slog into a New England winter, to retrieve the guns of Fort Ticonderoga. Washington’s advisors derided the idea as hopeless, but the General approved. Henry Knox set out with a column of men on December 1.

Located on the New York banks of Lake Champlain, Fort Ticonderoga was captured by a small force led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold, in May of that year. In it were brass and iron cannon, howitzers, and mortars, 59 pieces in all. Arriving on December 5, Knox and his men set about disassembling the artillery, making it ready for transport. A flotilla of flat bottom boats was scavenged from all over the countryside, the guns loaded and rowed the lengthcolonel-knox-bringing-the-cannons-from-fort-ticonderoga-1 of Lake George, arriving barely before the water began to freeze over.

Local farmers were enlisted to help and by December 17, Knox was able to report to General Washington “I have had made forty two exceedingly strong sleds & have provided eighty yoke of oxen to drag them as far as Springfield where I shall get fresh cattle to carry them to camp. . . . I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery.”

Bare ground prevented the sleds from moving until Christmas morning, when a heavy snow fell and the column set out for Albany. Two attempts to cross the Hudson River on January 5 each resulted in cannon being lost to the river, but finally Knox was able to write “Went on the ice about 8 o’clock in the morning & proceeded so carefully that before night we got over 23 sleds & were so lucky as to get the Cannon out of the River, owing to the assistance the good people of the City of Albany gave.”knoxtrailmap

Continuing east, Knox and his men crossed into Massachusetts, over the Berkshires, and on to Springfield. With 80 fresh yoke of oxen, the 5,400lb sleds moved along much of what is modern day Routes 9 and 20, passing through Brookfield, Spencer, Leicester, Worcester, Shrewsbury, Northborough, Marlborough, Southborough, Framingham, Wayland, Weston, Waltham, and Watertown.

It must have been a sight when that noble train of artillery entered Cambridge on this day in 1776. By March, Henry Knox’ cannon would be manhandled to the top of Dorchester Heights, resulting in the British evacuation of Boston and a peculiar Massachusetts institution which exists to this day, known as “Evacuation Day”: March 17.

It is doubtful whether Washington possessed either powder or shot for a sustained campaign, but British forces occupying Boston didn’t know that. The mere presence of those guns moved British General Howe to weigh anchor and sail for Nova Scotia, but that is a story for another day.

January 21, 1968 Blue House Raid

On January 17, 1968, Unit 124 infiltrated the 2½ mile demilitarized zone (DMZ), cutting the wire and entering South Korea. Their mission was to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee in his home, the South Korean Executive Mansion known as “Blue House”

By 1967, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had some 44,829 South Korean forces in Vietnam. An overwhelming force of NVA and Vietcong had the misfortune of surrounding a platoon of “Blue Dragon” Marines on February 15 of that year, near the village of Trà Bình. Poor visibility precluded air support, and the fighting that followed was close and personal. When it was over, 243 NVA lay dead. Korean Marines lost fewer than a dozen men.

Any combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia will tell you, in Vietnam they faced a tough and disciplined soldier. POW interrogations of captured NVA revealed one bluedragonpatchLieutenant Trung to be particularly hard core, a tough guy in a world of tough guys. A US Marine Corps Lieutenant of Korean ancestry, dressed in the uniform of the Blue Dragon Marines, and paid a visit to Lt. Trung’s cell. Not a word or gesture passed between the two, the mere presence of a Blue Dragon was enough to get this guy talking. Korean fighters are no joke.

For two years, an elite, all-officer force of 31 North Korean commandos were trained in infiltration and exfiltration techniques, weaponry, navigation, concealment and hand-to-hand combat, with particular emphasis on knife fighting. They were “Unit 124”, highly trained and fanatically loyal soldiers, tough as rawhide and each prepared to die for the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK), Kim Il-Sung.

On January 17, 1968, Unit 124 infiltrated the 2½ mile demilitarized zone (DMZ), cutting the wire and entering South Korea. Their mission was to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee in his home, the South Korean Executive Mansion known as “Blue House”.

It’s hard to think of anything goofier, and at the same time more lethal, than the hare-korea1brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head out of the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula under DPRK government.

On the 19th, four brothers of the Woo family were out gathering firewood, when they stumbled upon Unit 124. A fierce debate ensued among the commandos, as to what to do with these guys. Training dictated that they be immediately killed, yet somehow that didn’t seem right. Wasn’t communist ideology supposed to be a “people’s movement”?  Besides, it would have taken too long to bury their bodies in the frozen ground.

The decision was made to convert them on the spot. Talk about goofy. After a suitably long harangue on the wonders of communism, the Woo brothers wisely proclaimed themselves converts. Whereupon they were released, and went directly to the authorities.

Unit 124 broke camp, for the next two days averaging 10kph over mountainous terrain, despite carrying an average 70lbs apiece in equipment.

Commandos made it to within 100 meters of Blue House on January 21, when they were challenged at a road block. The firefight broke out without warning, dissolving into a running gunfight and manhunt lasting until the 29th. When it was over, 26 Southkim-shin-jo Korean military and police personnel were killed along with two dozen civilians, and 66 wounded. Four Americans were killed in efforts to prevent Unit 124 members from re-crossing the DMZ.

29 commandos were killed or committed suicide. One escaped, back into North Korea. Only one, Kim Shin-jo, was captured alive.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole. The Battle of Khe Sanh started in Vietnam the same day as the raid.  Two days later a US Navy technical research ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korean forces. The Tet Offensive broke out all across South Vietnam on January 31st.  Soon the Blue House raid was all but forgotten.

Kim Shin-Jo was interrogated for a year, to learn how the raid had been carried out. Meanwhile, ROK authorities “recruited” their own commando assassination squad, as a bit of payback. The 31 members of “Unit 684” were recruited from South Korean death row unit-684and other hardened prisoners, possibly due to the suicidal nature of their mission. The “training” they were subjected to on Silmido Island, off the coast of Inchon, was beyond brutal. Seven of them would not survive it.

The raid was never carried out. North-South relations were thawing by August of 1971, as the Silmido Island recruits staged an insurrection. How it started is unclear, but 20 inmate/recruits were dead before it was over, along with a number of their overseers. The four surviving Unit 684 recruits were tried for their role in the uprising by a military tribunal, and executed in 1972.

In May of 2010, Seoul courts ordered the government to pay $231 million to the families of 21 members of Unit 684.

Kim Shin-jo’s parents were murdered by North Korean authorities and his relatives “purged”, after he became a citizen of the ROK in 1970. Now a married father of two, Kim renounced his communist ideology, since becoming a pastor of the Seoul “Sungrak” (“Holy Joy”) Baptist Church.

I’m indebted for this story to a man who was a family friend, almost before my parents decided to start a family. I have known this man longer than I can remember, and flatter myself to regard him as a personal friend. He was one of the interrogators, during both the Trung and the Kim episodes related above. Thank you, Victor, for your story, and for your service.