February 25, 1944 Soldier Bear

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

The most destructive war in history began on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces invaded from the north, south and west, following an SS-concocted false flag operation known as the Gleiwitz incident. The Soviet Union, then allied with Nazi Germany, invaded from the east on September 17, according to a secret provision of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Polish forces fought back with stunning bravery, horse cavalry riding to meet German tanks, but little Poland never had a chance. German and Soviet forces were in full control of Polish territory by October 6.

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France and Great Britain declared war in support of their Polish ally on September 3, but effective relief came too little, too late. In the end, some 65,000 Polish troops were killed in the fighting, compared with 16,000 Germans. 420,000 became prisoners of the Reich and a quarter-million more, of the USSR. In April 1942, some 22,000 Polish officers were murdered in the forests of Katyń, an atrocity carried out by Soviet troops but blamed at the time, on German soldiers.

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Scene from the 2007 Polish film, “Katyń”

Some 120,000 Polish troops escaped via neutral Romania, another 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania. The second Polish Republic was dead, but Polish soldiers made some of the most heroic contributions to the allied war effort. Polish units fought from North Africa to Italy, to the north of Europe. Polish pilots and air crews made some of the largest contributions of any non-British nationality, to the Battle of Britain.  As the first light of dawn broke over the age of the inter-continental ballistic missile, Polish partisans captured the first V2 rocket, that supersonic and potentially game-changing super weapon of the Third Reich.

V2The doors to the Soviet Gulags opened after June 22, 1941, following Hitler’s surprise invasion of his Soviet “Ally”. While tens of thousands of free Poles worked their way to the assistance of France and Great Britain, these former POWs became the core of the Polish II Corps, numbering some 100,000 soldiers by 1945.

Around the time of the Katyń massacre, Polish troops of the newly formed “Anders Army” were passing through Hamedān Iran, in the company of thousands of civilians fleeing Soviet territory. A Kurdish boy was keeping a bear cub at that time, a Syrian brown bear whose mother had been shot, by hunters. Eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz was smitten with the animal, prompting Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy him. The young bear spent three months in a Polish refugee camp before being handed over to the 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. The soldiers called him Wojtek (“VOY-tek”), the diminutive form of “Wojciech”, meaning “Happy Warrior”.

wojtek5Wojtek was small in the beginning, yet to be weaned from his mother’s milk and having trouble swallowing.  Soldiers fed him condensed milk from an old vodka bottle, leading to honey or syrup and marmalade and whole fruit.

From Iraq through Syria and on to Palestine and Egypt, Wojtek moved with the 22nd Company. He loved to wrestle and learned by imitating, marching alongside on his hind legs, and learning to smoke. As he grew larger, soldiers rewarded Wojtek with a beer, which soon became his favorite libation.

With the Italian armistice of September 3, 1943, Allied planners hoped to occupy the Italian peninsula with minimal bloodshed.  It wasn’t meant to be.  The Italian campaign was embarked on its eighth month on this day in 1944, with another three months yet to go.  No campaign in all the West of Europe, cost the lives of more infantry, on both sides.

I personally have an uncle among them, killed in the fighting around Anzio.

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The shattered ruins of Monte Cassino cost the Allied side 55,000 casualties, to 20,000 Germans. H/T Life Magazine

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company joined a British transport out of Egypt, bound for the Italian peninsula.  Regulations prohibited mascot animals from troop ships.  So it was that Wojtek was officially enlisted as a soldier with his own serial number and paybook, and given the rank of Private.

Twenty divisions of Allied troops were engaged against the fortified strong points at Monte Cassino and the Gustav line, in terrain that would have challenged the talents of a mountain goat. On May 18, the Polish flag was raised over the shattered ruins, followed by the Union Jack. The former abbey had cost the Allies 55,000 casualties.

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“Polish soldiers carry ammunition to the front lines just before the capture of the abbey”. H/T Wikipedia

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company helped provide ammunition during the battle for Monte Cassino, the men carrying 100-pound crates of shells and stacking them on trucks.  Wojtek was quick to imitate and, though a mere stripling of a bear at 200-pounds, could carry a crate by himself, which would’ve taken four men.  He never dropped a single one.800px-Wojtek_soldier_bear.svg

Wojtek’s actions earned him a promotion to the rank of Corporal, his image becoming the official emblem of the 22nd Company.

Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire, Scotland after the war, along with the 22nd Company. There he became a local celebrity, and honorary member of the Polish-Scottish association.

Following full demobilization in 1947, Wojtek was given over to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. Journalists and former Polish soldiers would visit from time to time.  Some would toss him a cigarette which he would eat, not having anyone to light it for him. At the time of his death in 1963, the former soldier bear weighed in at 490-lbs.

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

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Monument to Wojtek in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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February 6, 2007 Animals at War

Neither knowing nor caring why they were there, the animals of the Great War suffered at prodigious rates. 

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Felis silvestris catus suggests two great waves of expansion, first with the dawn of agriculture, when grain stores attracted vermin. Genetic analysis of the common house cat suggests they all descend from one of five feline ancestors: the Sardinian, European, Central Asian, Subsaharan African or the Chinese desert cat.

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The second “cat-spansion” occurred later, as man took to water. From trade routes to diplomatic missions and military raids, men on ships needed food, and that meant rodents. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from that day to this, first helping to control damage to food stores, ropes and woodwork and, in modern times, electrical wiring.

Fun fact:  Who knew the Vikings had cats!  Norskskogkatt_Evita_3

One Viking site in North Germany from ca 700-1000AD, contains one cat with Egyptian mitochondrial DNA.  Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) descends from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to Norway from Great Britain sometime around 1000AD.

Not without reason, were cats seen as good luck.  The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, capable of detecting even minor changes in barometric pressure.  Sailors paid careful attention to the ship’s cat, often the harbinger of foul weather ahead.

Left to right:  1. Ship’s cat, HMS Queen Elizabeth, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915. 2. Togo, ships cat aboard the HMS Dreadnought, 3. Ship’s cats “inspect” the breech of a 4-inch gun aboard an unidentified US ship.

When the “Great War” arrived in 1914, animals of all kinds were dragged along.  Cats performed the same functions in vermin infested trenches, as those at sea.

1. Gunner with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, February 6th, 1918.  2. Officers of the U.S. 2nd Army Corps with a cat discovered in the ruins of Le Cateau-Cambrésis 3. Trench cat, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915

Tens of thousands of dogs performed a variety of roles, from ratters to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.

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“A dog pulling the wheelchair of a wounded French soldier in the remarkable series of images featured in new book Images of War, Animals in the Great War” H/T Daily Mail

The French trained specialized “chiens sanitaire” to seek out the dead and wounded, and bring back bits of uniform.  Often, dogs provided the comfort of another living soul, so the gravely wounded should not die alone.

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“Messenger dogs pictured running the gauntlet of rifle fire during their training during the First World War” H/T Daily Mail

With the hell of no mans land all but impassable for human runners, dogs stepped up, as messengers. “First Division Rags” ran through a cataract of falling bombs and chemical weapons. Gassed and partially blinded with shrapnel injuries to a paw, eye and ear, Rags still got his message where it needed to be.

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“First Division Rags”

Other times, birds were the most effective means of communication. Carrier pigeons by the tens of thousands flew messages of life and death importance, for Allied and Central Powers, alike.

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“A carrier pigeon held tight before release from the belly of a tank in 1918. Birds were often used to pass messages between troops” H/T Daily Mail
Cher Ami
Cher Ami

During the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918, Cher Ami saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion”, arriving in her coop with a bullet through the breast, one eye shot out and a leg all but torn off, hanging by a single tendon.

Even the lowly garden slug pitched in.  Extraordinarily sensitive to mustard gas, “slug brigades” provided the first gas warnings, allowing precious moments in which to “suit up”.

The keen senses of animals were often the only warning of impending attack.

Albert Marr, JackiePrivate Albert Marr’s Chacma baboon Jackie would give early warning of enemy movement or impending attack with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.

One of many wrenching images of the Great war took place in April, 1918.  The South African Brigade withdrew under heavy shelling through the West Flanders region of Belgium. Jackie was frantically building a stone wall around himself, when jagged splinters wounded his arm and all but tore off the animal’s leg.  Jackie refused to be carried off by stretcher-bearers, hobbling about on his shattered limb, trying to finish his wall

Constituted on June 13 1917, British Aero Squadron #32 kept a red fox, as unit mascot.

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H/T Daily Mail

The famous Lafayette Escadrille kept a pair of lion cubs, called Whiskey and Soda.

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German soldiers in Hamburg, enlisted the labor of circus elephants in 1915.

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H/T Daily Mail

The light cruiser Dresden was scuttled and sinking fast in 1914, leaving the only creature on board to swim for it.  An hour later an Ensign aboard HMS Glasgow spotted a head, struggling in the waves.  Two sailors dove in and saved him.  They named him “Tirpitz”, after the German Admiral.  Tirpitz the pig served out the rest of the war not in a frying pan, but as ship’s mascot aboard the HMS Glasgow.

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“Tirpitz” the pig

No beast who served in the Great war was as plentiful nor as ill used as the beast of burden, none so much as the horse.   Horses were called up by the millions, along with 80,000 donkeys and mules, 50,000 camels and 11,000 oxen. The United States alone shipped a thousand horses between 1914 and 1917, every day.

thIA31MUJ1Horsepower was indispensable throughout the war from cavalry and mounted infantry to reconnaissance and messenger service, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons.  With the value of horses to the war effort and difficulty in their replacement,  the loss of a horse was a greater tactical problem in some areas, than the loss of a man.

horses-ww1-bFew ever returned.  An estimated three  quarters died of wretched working conditions.  Exhaustion.  The frozen, sucking mud of the western front.  The mud-borne and respiratory diseases.  The gas, artillery and small arms fire.  An estimated eight million horses were killed on all sides, enough to line up in Boston and make it all the way to London four times, if such a thing were possible.

The United Kingdom entered the war with only eighty motorized vehicles, conscripting a million horses and mules, over the course of the war.  Only one in sixteen, lived to come home.

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Neither knowing nor caring why they were there, the animals of the Great War suffered at prodigious rates.  Humane organizations stepped up, the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) processing some 2.5 million animals through veterinary hospitals.  1,850,000 were horses and mules.  85% were treated and returned to the front.

Downsize_Help Save the Horse to Save the Soldier

The American Red Star Animal Relief Program sent medical supplies, bandages, and ambulances to the front lines in 1916, to care for horses injured at a rate of 68,000 per month.

The century before the Great War was a Golden age, mushrooming populations enjoying the greatest rise in living standards, in human history. The economy at home would be dashed to rags and atoms by the Great War. Trade and capital as a proportion of the global economy would not recover to 1913 levels, until 1993.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of the home front, was the desperate plight of animals.  Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London.  To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, carrying out over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

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Dickin Medal

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals, in WW2.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the highest British military honor equivalent to the American Medal of honor, is awarded in recognition of “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.”

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and a cat. An honorary Dickin was awarded in 2014, in honor of all animals serving in the Great War.

Two Dickins were awarded on this day in 2007. the first to Royal Army Veterinary Corps explosives detection dog “Sadie”, a Labrador Retriever whose bomb detection skills saved the lives of untold soldiers and civilians in Kabul, in 2005. The second went to “Lucky”, a German Shepherd and RAF anti-terrorist tracker serving during the Malaya Emergency of 1949 – ’52. Part of a four-dog team including “Bobbie”, “Jasper” and “Lassie”, Lucky alone would survive the “unrelenting heat [of] an almost impregnable jungle“.

Handler Beval Austin Stapleton was on-hand to receive Lucky’s award. “Every minute of every day in the jungle” he said, “we trusted our lives to those four dogs, and they never let us down. Lucky was the only one of the team to survive our time in the Malayan jungle and I’m so proud of the old dog today. I owe my life to him.

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Ship’s cat, Her Majesty’s Australian Ship (HMAS) Encounter, World War I

 

January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

“It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates of Kos identified an upper respiratory infection, characterized by the formation of a leathery white “pseudomembrane” on the tonsils, pharynx, and/or nasal cavities of its victims.  Early symptoms resemble a cold or flu in which fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.  Late symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies.

German bacteriologist Friedrich August Johannes Loeffler first identified Corynebacterium diphtheriae in the 1880s, the causal agent of the disease Diphtheria.  Within ten years, researchers had developed an effective antitoxin.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a leading cause of death among children and adults over 40.

Diphtheria is highly contagious and spread by direct physical contact and by breathing aerosolized secretions of its victims.  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”.

download (7)Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the pseudomembrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch 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, likely had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A plea for help went out by telegram and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum. Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be required. but, perhaps this would be enough to stave off epidemic. Until a larger shipment arrived, in February.

A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin and wrapped in protective fur shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none could be started in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

On January 27, a US Marshal pounded on the door of Willard J. “Wild Bill” Shannon, begging for his help with the relay to Nome.   It was after midnight and −50° Fahrenheit , when Shannon and his nine-dog team received the serum. The temperature had dropped to −62°F by the time the team reached Tolovana, 24 hours later. Shannon himself was hypothermic, with parts of his face turned black with frostbite.  Three of his dogs had died on the way, victims of frostbitten lungs.

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Leonhard Seppala and his team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.  With Seppala’s 8-year old-daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, the stakes could not have been higher.

Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley”, Seppala gambled on a shortcut across the unstable ice of Norton Sound.  The howling gale threatened to break up the ice, stranding the team at sea.  Visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see his own “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled.  The 19-dog team struggled for traction on the glassy skin of the ocean water, returning to the coastline only hours before the ice broke up.

Much of the time, navigation in that black, frozen wilderness was entirely up to Seppala’s lead dog.  Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve-year-old “Togo”, who was trusted with the lead.

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Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the 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”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 that night. A massive gust estimated at 80mph upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the darkness 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 to use,  by noon.

seppala520 mushers and 150 dogs or more 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 antitoxin for 30, the serum run had held the death toll to no higher than seven.

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 while completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

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Gunnar Kaasen and Balto

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dog becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country, after Rin Tin Tin. There was a nine-month vaudeville tour, and Hollywood produced a 30-minute silent film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” starring himself in the lead role.

A bronze likeness was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925, with Balto in attendance.  The statue stands there to this day, though Kaasen’s lead is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards).

Balto’s fame 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 little more than a “freight dog”.  The statue was particularly galling.  “It was almost more than I could bear” he said, “when the ‘newspaper dog’ Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’”.

Togo lived another four years though the serum run rendered him lame, never again able to run. The real hero of the serum run spent the last years of his life in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away at the ripe old age of 16.

Wild Bill Shannon disappeared in 1937, while prospecting for gold.  His bones were discovered four years later, perhaps a victim of exposure, or perhaps yet another “close call”, with a grizzly bear.

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Leonhard Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled his lead dog on the serum run.   “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, the memory of the 1925 serum run lives on in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, held every March and run over much of the same terrain as the ‘Great Race of Mercy’.   Togo himself is stuffed and mounted,  standing watch at the Iditarod museum headquarters, in Wasilla, Alaska.

Afterward

Despite the decrepit condition of those three biplanes, pilots and mechanics thought they could have one ready to go, in three days.  The challenge was immense.  Ethylene Glycol wouldn’t be used as an automotive anti-freeze until the following year, and older methods such as Methyl Alcohol wrought havoc on internal engine components.

e16a10c46b80a325b8c6e8e4009c828c“The once tight fabric covering the wings and fuselage was weak from all the rough landings as well as the wind and rain. Dirt and oil caked the engine and prop. Wires for the rudders and elevators hung from the sides of the fuselage.” Even in such disrepair, the pilots and mechanics thought one of the planes could be ready to go Nome in just three days, a flight they thought would take no more than 6-hours”.

If unsuccessful, all would be lost.  Pilot, aircraft and serum.

The decision was a high stakes gamble, falling in the end to Alaska Governor Scott Bone, who decided on the twenty-team relay.  Good thing, too.  Multiple efforts to get one of those aircraft in shape for the second shipment, failed.

The Salisbury cousins Gay and Laney tell the tale in a harrowing account called The Cruelest Miles, if you’re interested in more reading.  I haven’t gotten to mine yet, but it sounds like a good read.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 4, 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant

In the six years I’ve been writing “Today in History”, I’ve written about 700 of these stories. A father isn’t supposed to have favorites among his “children”, but I have to confess. I do. This is not one of those. This story, I detest.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb.  The first platinum filament bulb arrived some forty years earlier. What he did was to make the thing commercially viable, earlier versions being too expensive, and too quick to burn out. Edison went through thousands of materials before discovering the right filament, finally landing on carbonized bamboo leading to his famous quip, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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Topsy

Half a world away from Edison’s workshop, an elephant was born in the jungles of Southeast Asia, captured by elephant traders and smuggled into the United States.

Adam John Forepaugh, owner of the Forepaugh Circus, bought the animal and named her “Topsy”, after a slave girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Circuses of the era were known for sleazy business practices. Adam Forepaugh was at home in this environment. The Forepaugh circus claimed Topsy was the first elephant born in America, a hoax publicly exposed when the elephant trader who sold the animal, tipped off arch-rival circus operator, P.T. Barnum.

Edison opened his first electrical power plant in 1882, in New York city. Two years later, a young Serbian immigrated to America, and went to work for Edison. His name was Nikola Tesla. Tesla was himself a brilliant inventor and helped his boss improve his Direct-Current generators, while simultaneously developing a different method of electrical distribution: Alternating Current.

Tesla tried to convince Edison the future belonged to AC, but the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was adamant. AC had no future he claimed, Edison would not budge. Tesla quit his job in 1885 and applied for several patents for his work in AC technology. In 1888, he sold his patents to industrialist George Westinghouse, and the Westinghouse Electric Company. The “War of the Currents” had begun.

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Edison’s first bulb

Topsy grew to be 10-feet tall and twenty-feet long, and worked for the circus for 27 years.  She gained a reputation for being a “bad” elephant, but it’s hard to separate circus hype, from reality.  Newspapers of course, were happy to play along.   These were the days of Yellow Journalism, and circulation wars were red hot.  Newsies hawked lurid headlines, on the streets. Anything to sell papers – extra extra, read all about it.

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Topsy was supposed to have killed twelve men by 1900.  More common accounts claim she had killed two Forepaugh & Sells Brothers’ Circus workers: one in Paris, Texas and one in Waco.  Journalist Michael Daly wrote in 2013 there is no record of anyone killed by an elephant in Waco.  The handler attacked in Paris received injuries, but there is no record of his being killed.

No matter, the story sold papers.  It was great for attendance too.  People crowded into the circus to see the “man-killing elephant”.

Topsy and the other elephants were being unloaded from a train in June 1902, when one Louis Dodero thought he’d”tickle” her, behind the ear. Topsy seized him around the waist and lifted him high, before hurling him to the ground. It could have been worse but a handler stepped in and savaged her, with a fork.

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An illustration of Topsy from the St. Paul Globe on June 16, 1902. H/T Smithsonian.com

Meanwhile, Edison felt threatened by the rise of AC, which could be distributed over long distances far more cheaply, that DC.  Edison launched a propaganda campaign, publicly executing several dogs and even a horse, to demonstrate the dangers of AC.

When New York came looking for a more humane way to execute the condemned, the one-time opponent of capital punishment recommended an electric chair. In 1890, convicted murder William Kimmler was the first person to die in an electric chair, the apparatus powered by a Westinghouse AC generator designed by a salesman secretly on Edison’s payroll.

Despite such propaganda, Tesla’s low-cost alternative won out. Westinghouse won the contract to power the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the all-important generators, at Niagara Falls. The War of the Currents was over by 1896. AC has remained dominant in the power industry, to this day.

the current war

In March 1902, one James Fielding Blount entered the elephant’s tent, possibly drunk.  Accounts vary as to what happened next.  The common story is that Blount began teasing the animals each in turn, offering the elephants a bottle of whiskey. He reportedly threw sand in Topsy’s face and then burned the tip of her trunk with a cigar.  Topsy hurled the fool to the ground and crushed the life out of him

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Being led to the place of execution

Forepaugh sold their “bad” elephant in June, when she was added to the animal menagerie at Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park. William “Whitey” Alt, Topsy’s handler, came along.

A bad summer season and heavy competition convinced owner Paul Boynton to get out of the business. New owners Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy decided to expand the park, and Topsy was put to work moving timbers and heavy equipment.

Newspapers and publicity shots characterized the work as “penance” for Topsy’s rampaging ways.

Meanwhile Alt, an habitual drunk and the only person who could handle her (albeit brutally), stabbed Topsy with a pitchfork and then set her loose to run free in the streets. The episode led to Alt’s arrest as did another, in which the drunk handler rode the elephant through the streets of Coney Island and into a local police station, causing the officers to dive for the cells for protection.

Alt was fired after that episode, and the owners claimed they had no way of handling the park’s elephant.  Thompson and Dundy tried to give her away without success, before hitting on an idea.  They would execute their problem elephant by hanging, and charge admission to witness the spectacle.

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President of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals John Peter Haines got wind of the plan, and objected to the “needlessly cruel” means of execution. Weeks of negotiations ensued, in which the owners offered to give Topsy to the SPCA, before settling on an “all of the above” means of execution including poison, strangulation by means of ropes tied to a steam powered winch, and electrocution.

The execution was carried out on August 4, 1903 and recorded by an Edison film crew, one of many “actuality” films produced by the Edison Mfg. Co. from 1897, on.  The short film “Executing an Elephant” runs for 74 seconds. You can find it on Youtube if you are so inclined. I don’t want to see it again.

In the following years, Thomas Edison was blamed for staging the spectacle, to discredit his rival. The story is repeated from that day to this, but it’s a myth.

Edison lost his battle to supply the world’s electricity, years before. There’s no evidence he was even there on the date of execution, and his written correspondence contains no mention of it.  This then, is the story of an innocent animal, caught between ignorance and a changing business climate.  I do not think I could hate this story, more.

 

 

December 30, 1951 Chief Dog Sinbad, USCG

Sinbad’s breed was best described as “liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of Bulldog, Doberman, Pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not”- Martin Sheridan Life Magazine, December 1943.

In times of peace, the United States Coast Guard is charged with protecting the security of the nation’s borders, maritime law enforcement and rescue operations. One of seven uniformed military service branches, Coast Guard operations may be expanded in time of conflict, or by order of the Commander-in-Chief.

During WW2, the Coast Guard operated hundreds of vessels from patrol frigates to troop ships, performing convoy escort, anti-submarine and replenishment operations. Many of the landing craft used in amphibious operations were operated by Coast Guardsmen. There may be no group in the employ of the United States government, better qualified to navigate the shoals, surf and strong currents encountered by small boats, in shallow water.

Semper Paratus. Always Ready.

Sinbad_pawprint-517x640In the winter of 1937, the Coast Guard cutter USCGC George W. Campell steamed out of New York harbor, patrolling the east coast with a mission of life-saving and national defense. The night before, Chief Boatswain’s Mate A. A. “Blackie” Roth (the name is also given as “Rother”) had given his girlfriend, a puppy. She couldn’t keep him, the landlord wouldn’t allow it. No other crewman could take the small dog. It was either leave him astray and hope for the best, or smuggle the puppy on board.

The Captain addressed the assembled crew on the first day of the cruise. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when one of them, barked back.

They called him “Sinbad”, and gave him a uniform, a service record and a rank.  Dog, 1st class.

Sinbad quickly learned ship’s routine, and often “racked” with other sailors.  He could always be found near the galley knowing that’s where the food comes from, and he loved himself a cup of black coffee.

Sinbad_2Sinbad’s favorite toys were the large metal washers which he’d hide, until someone came to play with him.  They even built him a hammock, much more comfy to sleep in, in those long Atlantic swells.

Sinbad was possessed of the best qualities of the sailor and of his own kind, and of the worst.  In 1940, he nearly set off an international incident.

With the dark clouds of WW2 already over Europe, Denmark was overrun and occupied, by Nazis.  Greenland was once a Danish territory, and the allies hoped to keep the place out of German hands.  Campbell was sent to secure diplomatic ties with the Danes and the Greenlanders, who lived there.

Greenland is thinly populated, a place where locals mainly fish and raise sheep, for a living.  On shore for a week, Sinbad was quick to discover the pastures and the great fun of chasing sheep.  The sheep themselves were not amused and some died of exhaustion. Others became too nervous to go out and eat.  The owners weren’t amused either, and one demanded that Sinbad be shot.

The captain thought that too severe a punishment and Sinbad was banished, never to set foot on Greenland, again.  There was no end of amusement among the crew of the Campbell, that Sinbad had been brought before a Captain’s mast. It would not be his last.

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Sinbad was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and Navy Occupation Service Medal, which he wore, attached to his collar.

When war came, the cutter was transferred to the Navy, and the patrols became longer.

Sinbad_Statue_on_909
“Sinbad’s statue in Campbell’s mess hall watching over the ship. Captain James Hirschfield believed the WWII Campbell would survive after being disabled in combat so long as Sinbad stayed aboard”.

In the winter of 1943, Campbell was assigned to convoy protection, defending the vital north Atlantic supply route from roving “wolf packs” of German submarines.  Sinbad never did get used to the sound of gunfire or depth charges, and would hide below decks, his paws over his ears.  On February 22, the German submarine U-606 unleashed a barrage of torpedoes, against an allied convoy.

A day-long game of cat & mouse ensued in which the sub would pop up for another attack, only to be swarmed and driven into yet another crash dive.  A periscope was spotted at 7:26 pm and Campbell charged in with a string of depth charges, colliding with the sub at the end of the run.  U-606 was destroyed and Campbell badly damaged, disabled and without power, due to flooding.

All but “essential personnel” were evacuated  Captain James Hirschfield felt that Sinbad was good luck.  No harm could befall the cutter while he was on board, and so he remained, essential personnel, taken under tow for repairs by the Polish destroyer, Burza.  Sinbad had remained on deck with “his boys”, throughout the action.

Sinbad’s breed was best described as “liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of Bulldog, Doberman, Pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not”- Martin Sheridan Life Magazine, December 1943.

Sinbad was promoted in 1943 to the rank of K9C, “Chief Dog” – equivalent to Chief Petty Officer – the second of only two dogs to be classified as non-commissioned officers.  Since that time, ‘regulations’ have transformed all subsequent animals into “property” rather than personnel.

Fun fact:  The first was Sergeant Stubby, the Staffordshire Terrier who was smuggled “over there” during the Great War, and once caught a German spy by the arse while he was prowling about allied trenches.

Campbell served the duration of WW2, with Sinbad on board, the entire time.  In 1948, he was ready to retire.  Sinbad had been at sea for eleven years.   He was finally ready for shore detail.

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After eleven years at sea, Sinbad was “retired” to enjoy the comfortable life of a mascot, at the Barnegat shore station.,

The assembled media and photographers were too much that day, and Sinbad bolted across the gang plank, and down the dock.  To be AWOL from a United States Coast Guard cutter is a serious offense, and Sinbad was busted in rank, back to Dog, 1st class.  He was probably just as happy to be back with the enlisted guys.

Sinbad was transferred to the Barnegat Light Small Boat Station in New Jersey, where he served as station mascot for the duration of his military career.

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Sinbad is welcomed aboard by the crew of the Barnegat light station

Chief Dog Sinbad served all of his fourteen years with the United States Coast Guard.  He passed away on this day in 1951 at the Barnegat light station and is buried there, at the base of the flagpole.  A sailor always, Sinbad could drink with the best of them, and always enjoyed that cuppa black coffee.  Irrespective of his latest rank, he was many years, a media celebrity.  Life magazine may have said it best:  “An Old Sea Dog Has Favorite Bars and Plenty of Girls in Every Port.”

Throughout her 46 years of service, USCGC Campbell was referred to as “The Queen of the Seas”.  She was sunk as a training target in November 1984, a single harpoon missile leaving her nearly intact, as she went out of sight.  The final radio message, broadcast as she disappeared beneath the waves:  The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen.

Today, the USCGC Campbell (WMEC-909) patrols the east coast out of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, the sixth Coast Guard Cutter to bear the name.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

The meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami

Only hours from now, families will gather from across the nation, for the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

Wait…What?

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Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen, Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of beautiful delicate purple and blue flowers, floating across tranquil ponds on thick, dark green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans, and remain viable for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species, while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  “Lake Bacon”.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times.  One Agricultural official estimated that such a free-range hippo herd would produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, these things are dangerous.

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The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  And heaven help anyone caught between a cow, and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little slower than Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

p-hippo-1_1467398cBe that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

What could be better than taking care of two problems at once.  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be solved.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream, some four years earlier.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Frederick Burnham was the “most complete human being who ever lived “.

Frederick Russell Burnham (left), Fritz Joubert Duquesne (right)

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Duquesne was destined to be a German spy and saboteur, through two world wars.  Frederick Burnham described his mortal adversary, thus:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

in-1910-President-Roosevelt-supported-a-bill-that-would-have-released-hippopotamuses-into-Louisiana-to-eat-an-invasive-plant-species-and-to-provide-delicious-hippo-bacon-to-hungry-AmericDuring the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other.  In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast.  Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote, but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what we’re already doing, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges, and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbug”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

That golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if any of us could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the roast hippopotamus, got there.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

December 18, 1943 Bat Bomb

What if thousands of these creatures were equipped with tiny little fire bombs, and dropped on Japanese cities. All that bamboo & paper construction, the place oughtta go up like a match head.

In a letter dated January 7, 1941, Marshall Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto directed Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro under conditions of utmost secrecy, to study the feasibility of an attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.  Half a world away in Irwin Pennsylvania, American dentist Dr. Lytle S. Adams was planning a driving vacation to the Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico.

Dr. Adams was gripped with amazement that day in December, on witnessing millions of bats, exiting the cave.  It was December 7 and word came over the radio, of a sneak attack in Hawaii. Millions of Americans must have been thinking about payback that day, Dr. Adams among them.  His thoughts returned to those bats. What if thousands of these creatures were equipped with tiny little fire bombs, and dropped on Japanese cities. All that bamboo & paper construction, the place oughtta go up like a match head.

635830388988624957-Bats-in-Flight

Lytle Adams was a personal friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and submitted the idea, the following month.  Zoology professor Donald Griffin was conducting studies at this time of echolocation among animals, and recommended the White House approve the idea. The Presidential memorandum read: “This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.” The mammalian super weapon that never was, was born.

Bat_Bomb_Canister

Four biological factors lent promise to the plan. First, they’re the most plentiful mammal in North America.  A single cave can hold several million individuals. Second, load-carrying tests conducted in the dirigible hangar at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, California, demonstrated that bats can carry more than their own weight. Third, they hibernate, making them easy to handle and, last, bats like secluded places such as buildings to hide during daylight.

Professor Louis Fieser, the inventor of military napalm, devised a tiny little canister to be carried by the bats. A suitable species was selected by March 1943, the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicanus).  “Bat bombs” were devised including 26 stacked trays, each containing compartments for 40 bats. Carriers would be dropped from 5,000-feet with parachutes deployed at 1,000-feet, allowing hibernating bats sufficient time to “snap out” of it.

Carlsbad_AAF_Fire_after_Bat_Bomb_Accident
Carlsbad AAF Fire, following Bat Bomb Accident

Early tests were promising. Too promising. On May 15, armed bats were accidentally released at the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and incinerated the place when some of them came to roost under a fuel tank.

Despite the setback or possibly because of it, the program was handed off to the Navy that August, and code named Project X-Ray. The project was handed off once again that year, placed under control of the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centro, California, by December 18.

A “Japanese Village” was mocked up by the Chemical Warfare Service at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.  National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) observers were positive, one stating: “It was concluded that X-Ray is an effective weapon.” The Chief Chemist’s report was more enthusiastic: “Expressed in another way, the regular bombs would give probably 167 to 400 fires per bomb load where X-Ray would give 3,625 to 4,748 fires.”

Project X-Ray was scheduled for further tests in mid-1944 and not expected for combat readiness for another year, when the program was cancelled by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King.  The project had already cost $2 million, equal to over $29 million today.  It was too much, for too little.

BatHouse

Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”) was a German operetta by composer Johann Strauss II, featuring a prolonged and drunken soliloquy by one Frosch, (the jailer), in act 2. Stanley Lovell was director of research and development for the OSS at the time (Office of Strategic Services), precursor to the CIA.  Ordered to evaluate the bat bomb by OSS Director “Wild Bill” Donovan, Lovell may have had the last word.  “Die Fledermaus Farce” he called it, noting that the things were dropping to the ground, like stones.

Fun Fact:
During WW2, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) devised a “Rat Bomb”, for use against German targets. 100 rat carcasses were sewn up with plastic explosives, to be distributed near German boiler rooms and locomotives. The idea was that the carcass would be disposed of by burning, resulting in a boiler explosion. The explosive rats were never put to use as the Germans intercepted the first and only shipment. The project was deemed a success anyway, due to the enormous time and manpower resources expended by the Germans, looking for booby trapped rats.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.