May 5, 1945 A Sunday School Picnic

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

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

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

Japanese balloon bomb diagram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese Balloon Bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese balloon bomb shrapnel tree

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

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

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

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

Mitchell Monument

March 23, 1994 A Good Day for a Jump

“It was soldiers saving soldiers. Soldiers putting out fires on other soldiers; soldiers dragging soldiers out of fires; resuscitating; giving soldiers CPR; putting tourniquets on limbs that had been severed; putting out fires on their bodies, sometimes with their own hands. Anything they could do to care for their buddies that were more seriously injured they were doing. They can’t do that without knowing how. They responded the way they would in combat”.

March 23, 1994 was a good day for a jump.. The skies were clear with moderate winds of 5 -7 MPH, temperatures a comfortable mid-sixties.

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H/T History.army.mil

Some 500 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were assembled around the parking area known as “Green Ramp”, part of a joint exercise between Fort Bragg North Carolina, and nearby Pope Air Force base.

There were two parachute drops scheduled that day. The sky above was filled with aircraft, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolts and C-130 aircraft, conducting training.

On the ground, paratroops of the First Brigade, 504th Infantry Regiment, and 505th Infantry Regiment prepared to board Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Lockheed C-141 Starlifter aircraft parked on Green Ramp, or practiced jumps from one of several concrete tail mock-ups or just waited, resting in a large personnel shed called the “PAX”, or surrounding lawns.

An F-16D Fighting Falcon was conducting a simulated flame-out on final approach to the runway, with two pilots at the stick. 300-feet above tree level, the giant four-engine turboprop military transport known as the C-130E Hercules, was making the same approach.

The Fighter’s nose struck the tail of the transport, severing the C-130E’s right elevator.  F-16 pilots applied full after burner trying to recover the aircraft, as its frame began to disintegrate. The transport was able to recover, veering off to circle the air field and assess the damage. Meanwhile both F-16 pilots ejected with the fighter still on afterburner, hurtling toward Green Ramp.

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H/T Fayettville Observer

The shattered wreckage of the F-16 hit the ground between two parked C-130s before striking the right wing of the C-141B Starlifter, puncturing 55,000 gallon fuel tanks. A great fireball of flaming wreckage some 75-feet in diameter ricocheted across the tarmac, hurtling toward 82nd Airborne personnel staging for that second jump.

“S. Sgt. Daniel E. Price of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, sacrificed his life to save a female soldier he had never met before. Spc. Estella Wingfield, an information systems operator with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, remembered:

He looked me in the eye, grabbed me by the shirt, threw me several feet in the air and jumped on top of me…. An instant later, I heard the blast, felt the extreme heat from the explosion and the debris falling on us…. After the explosion and the rounds stopped going off, he whispered in my ear, “Crawl out from underneath me.”” I did and took off running.

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Captain Gerald K. Bebber, Chaplain to the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade chaplain, remembers he:

“heard the high pitched screech of a jet fighter airplane at open throttle from beyond the pack shed [sic] suddenly give way to a deep reverberating thud and massive explosion. I recognized the sound from my experience in battle in Desert Storm. As soon as I could think this, a great roaring rush of fire entered my sight above and to the left of the pack shed. It was at tree-top level, slanting down as it gushed into the mockup area at terrific speed…. The flame came though the tops of the trees that stood in a small open area beside the pack shed. In the torrent of flame I saw pieces of wreckage and machinery hurling along. As the torrent rushed in I could hear cries of alarm, curses, and someone yelling “run” from the mock-ups. The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides it curled outward as it went forward. I was standing perhaps thirty feet beside the edge of the blast, and could see eddies of the flame curling out toward me. I turned and ran from the flame, to just beyond the right end of the pack shed, where . . . I no longer felt the intense heat, so I stopped. To my left, out on the aircraft ramp, now in my line of sight I could see a parked C-141 engulfed in flames. It was the left one of a pair of C-141s parked there”.

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H/T Fayetville Observer

Jump master Captain James B. Rich was conducting a pre-jump briefing by one of those concrete mock-ups, and remembers the “overwhelming understanding that there was no way in hell I could outrun the oncoming debris…” Captain Rich “felt fully exposed” as flaming chunks of white hot metal, rained down. It was like “heavy pipes clanging against each other, mixed with a handful of steel marbles thrown against a road sign“.

2d Battalion S. Sgt. Michael T. Kelley remembered nuclear event training and hit the ground as the fireball rolled over him. When he got up he was on fire. Sergeant Kelley dropped and rolled as a would-be rescuer jumped on his body, to put out the flames. A second beat back the fire with “a wrap of some kind” while a third came up with water. When the flames went out, Sgt. Kelly had severe burns over 70 per cent of his body, including the lower one-third of his face.

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Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, began to roll when the fire caught up with him. “Ammunition was going off”, he said, “I couldn’t tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire.

Rank held no distinction that day, Privates to Captains age eighteen to forty, pulling one another from the flames and shielding the wounded, with their bodies. Twenty three were killed outright, another eighty severely injured. One badly burned soldier survived nine agonizing months before succumbing, to his wounds.

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82d Airborne commander Major General William M. Steele, remembered:

“It was soldiers saving soldiers. Soldiers putting out fires on other soldiers; soldiers dragging soldiers out of fires; resuscitating; giving soldiers CPR; putting tourniquets on limbs that had been severed; putting out fires on their bodies, sometimes with their own hands. Anything they could do to care for their buddies that were more seriously injured they were doing. They can’t do that without knowing how. They responded the way they would in combat”.

The Green Ramp disaster of March 23, 1994 was the greatest single-day loss of life suffered by the 82nd Airborne division, since the Battle of the Bulge.

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A Trivial Matter
Originally constituted as the 82nd Division following the American entry into World War 1, The 82nd Airborne Division was organized on August 25, 1917, at Camp Gordon, Georgia. The “AA” on the arm patch stands for “All American”. Now based out of Fort Bragg North Carolina, the All Americans have participated in virtually every American conflict, of the last 100 years.

March 19, 1916 Chasing Pancho

During three months of active operations inside Mexico, American forces killed or captured 292 Villistas. Pancho Villa remained elusive.

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Porfirio Diaz

In thirty-five years as President of Mexico, the administration of José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori had yet to figure out the question of Presidential succession. Popular at first following his seizure of power in the coup of 1876, the Porfirian regime soon began to stagnate. Diaz’ policies benefitted ‘el jefe’ cronies and supporters, the wealthy estate-owning “haciendados”, while rural agricultural “campesinos” were unable to make a living.

Following the turn of the century, the aging President expressed support for a return to democracy and an intention to step down from office.

An unlikely opponent stepped forward in the person of UC-Berkeley educated lawyer and wealthy hacienda owner, Francisco Madero.  Madero wanted a return to democratic elections, but Diaz would have none of it.

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Francisco Madero

Perhaps the octogenarian President expected that his country would beg him to stay, or maybe he changed his mind, but anyone stepping into Diaz’ path, did so at his own risk.  Madero fled to the United States, but later returned and faced arrest.  Meanwhile, the 80-year old Porfirio Diaz won re-election to an eighth term by a margin that would make Saddam Hussein blush.  Voters were outraged by what was clearly a massively corrupt election.

Madero escaped prison and produced the Plan de San Luis Potosí to nullify the elections and overthrow Díaz by force.  The table was set for the Mexican Revolution.

Armed conflict ousted Diaz from office the following year, when a free and fair election put Francisco Madero into office. Opposition was quick to form, from both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives and land owners saw Madero as too weak, his policies too liberal. Former revolutionary fighters and the economically dispossessed saw him as too conservative. In February 1913 both Madero and his vice president Pino Suárez were run out of office and murdered by order of military officer, Victoriano Huerta.

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Pancho Villa

Francisco “Pancho” Villa was a Mexican constitutionalist and a Madero supporter. As commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North), Villa fought on behalf of Primer Jefe (“First Chief”) of the Constitutionalist army Venustiano Carranza, but later turned on his erstwhile leader.

American newspaperman and commentator Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary and my favorite curmudgeon, joined Pancho Villa’s army in December 1913, as an observer. And then he vanished. Most likely the Hearst columnist faced a firing squad in Chihuahua but his story remains, unknown.

Trouble began between Villistas and the American government when the US declared its support for Villa’s former ally, providing rail transport from Texas to Arizona for 5,000 Carrancista forces.

In July 1915 the Division del Norte was badly defeated by forces loyal to Carranza, and again in November. Villa’s army ceased to exist as a military fighting force, reduced to foraging the countryside while conducting local skirmishes and cross-border raids.

A three-way fight broke out on November 26 when Villa’s forces attacked the border town of Nogales, Sonora, and fired across the border at American troops in Nogales, Arizona. On January 11, sixteen American employees of the American Smelting and Refining Company were taken from a train near Santa Isabel Chihuahua, stripped naked, and executed.

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In early March, a force of some 1,500 Villistas were camped along the border three miles south of Columbus New Mexico, when Villa sent spies into Camp Columbus (later renamed Camp Furlong). Informed that Camp Columbus’ fighting strength numbered only thirty or so, a force of 600 crossed the border around midnight on March 8.

Villa divided his force into two columns, launching a two-pronged assault in the early morning darkness of March 9. Townspeople were asleep at first but soon awakened to the sounds of burning buildings, and shouts of “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!”

What began as a pre-dawn raid soon erupted into full-scale battle, as residents poured from homes with hunting rifles and shotguns.  The Camp Columbus garrison was taken by surprise but recovered quickly, as barefoot soldiers scrambled into position. Four Hotchkiss M1909 machine guns fired 5,000 rounds apiece before the shooting died down, joined by another 30 troopers with M1903 Springfield rifles.

Pancho Villa proclaimed the raid a success, having captured over 300 rifles and shotguns, 80 horses, and 30 mules. Strategically, the raid was a disaster. The Mexicans had lost 90 to 170 dead they could barely afford out of a raiding force, of 484 men. Official American reports indicate 8, 10 or 11 soldiers killed, plus another 7 or 8 civilians, depending on which report you choose to believe.

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The United States government wasted no time in responding. That same day, the President who would win re-election in eight months on the slogan “He kept us out of war” appointed Newton Diehl Baker, Jr. to fill the previously vacant position of Secretary of War. The following day, Woodrow Wilson ordered General John Pershing to capture Pancho Villa, dead or alive.

7,000 American troops crossed into Mexico on March 13. It was the first American military expedition to employ mechanized vehicles including trucks and automobiles to carry supplies and personnel and Curtiss Jenny aircraft, used for reconnaissance.

On March 5, 1913, President William Howard Taft ordered the formation of the 1st Aero squadron, nine aircraft divided into two companies.  ‘Aviation’ at that time was not what is, today.  Aircraft were highly experimental, many built by the pilots themselves.  Crashes were commonplace, and flight lessons all but unheard of.  Frequently, general guidelines were given on the ground, and pilots were left to their own devices.  One of the early pilots, Captain Benjamin D. Foulois, sent away and received written instruction from Orville Wright, by mail!

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The 1st Aero Squadron arrived in New Mexico on March 15 with 8 aircraft, 11 pilots and 82 enlisted men. The first reconnaissance sortie was flown the following day, the first time that American aircraft were used in actual military operations.

Five aircraft departed on the evening of March 19 with orders to report ‘without delay’ to Pershing’s headquarters in Casas Grandes, Mexico. One made it that night, another two straggled in the next morning. One returned to Columbus and 2 others went missing. The problems, it turned out, were insurmountable. 90 HP engines were unable to bring them across 10,000 – 12,000’ mountain peaks, nor could they handle the turbulent winds of mountain passes. Dust storms wrought havoc with engines and, making things worse, the unrelenting heat of the Sonoran Desert de-laminated wooden propellers.

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On May 14, a young 2nd Lieutenant in charge of a force of fifteen and three Dodge touring cars got into a running gunfight in Chihuahua, while foraging for corn,. It was the first motorized action in American military history. Three Villistas were killed and strapped to the hoods of the cars and driven back to General Pershing’s headquarters. General Pershing nicknamed that 2nd Lt. “The Bandito”. History remembers his name as George S. Patton.

During three months of active operations inside Mexico, American forces killed or captured 292 Villistas. Pancho Villa evaded capture. Pershing publicly proclaimed the operation a success, but privately complained that Wilson imposed too many restrictions, making it impossible to fulfill the mission. “Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw”, Pershing complained, “we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped cur with its tail between its legs.”

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Pancho Villa Expedition, “Around the Campfire”

American forces were withdrawn by January 1917, as the European war loomed over American politics. German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann observed political opposition to American operations inside of Mexico, and concluded that a military alliance was possible between the two countries.

The ‘Zimmermann note‘ proposing such an alliance between Germany and Mexico and promising the “restoration of its former territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona“, may be seen as the ‘last straw’ that brought the United States into WW1.

Zimmerman note

March 4, 1942 Revisiting Pearl

In the months following the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor the US ramped up its war fighting capacity, significantly. Realizing this but having little idea of the specifics, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) determined to visit Pearl Harbor once again, to have a look around.

On December 7, 1941, forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States’ Pacific naval Anchorage, at Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress the following day, requesting a declaration that, since the attack, a state of war had existed between the United States, and Japan. Three days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, reciprocated by an American declaration against Nazi Germany, and its Italian allies. Two years of conflict in Europe, had become a World War.

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In the following months, the United States ramped up its war capacity.  Significantly. Realizing this but having little idea of the specifics, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) determined to visit Pearl Harbor once again, to have a look around.

For the IJN, this was an opportunity to test the new Kawanishi H8K1 “Emily” flying boat, an amphibious bomber designed to carry out long distance bombing raids. So it was that a second albeit smaller attack was launched against Pearl Harbor.

The IJN plan was complex.  This, the first Kawanishi H8K1 operation in Japanese military service, involved a small formation of flying boats to be sent to Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands, from there to stage the long-range attack.  The five flying boats would be loaded with four 550-pound bombs apiece and flown to French Frigate Shoals northwest of Oahu, there to refuel with the help of three Japanese submarines, already waiting. 

Ten miles south of Oahu, the 356-foot diesel-powered submarine I-23 was to hold watch over the operation, reporting weather and acting as “lifeguard” in case any aircraft had to ditch in the ocean.

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“A Kawanishi H8K1 of the 802nd Kokutai is lifted out of the water onto the decks of the HIJMS Akitsushima, 1942, off Shortland Island”. H/T fly.historicwings.com, for this image

After refueling, the bomber – reconnaissance mission would approach Pearl Harbor and attack the “10-10 dock”, so-called because it was 1,010 feet long and a key naval asset for the US Pacific Fleet.

If successful, this would be an endurance mission, one of the longest bombing raids ever attempted and carried out entirely without fighter escort.  The mission was designated “Operation K” and scheduled for March 4, 1942.

As it turned out, the raid was a “comedy of errors”, on both sides.

Things began to go wrong, almost from the beginning.  I-23 vanished.  To this day nobody knows where the submarine went. American forces reported several engagements with possible subs during this time frame.  Maybe one of those depth charges did its job.  It’s also possible that, unknown to the Imperial Japanese Navy, I-23 was involved in an accident and lost at sea, with all hands.

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As it was, only two of the new flying boats were ready for the operation, the lead plane (Y-71) flown by Lieutenant Hisao Hashizume with his “wingman” Ensign Shosuke Sasao flying the second aircraft, Y-72.

The staging and refueling parts of the operation were carried out but, absent weather intelligence from the missing I-23, the two-aircraft bombing formation was ignorant of weather conditions, over the target.  As it was, a thick cloud cover would render the Japanese pilots all but blind.

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Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, USN

On the American side, Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, USN, worked in the Combat Intelligence Unit, tasked with intercepting enemy communications and breaking Japanese codes.  Four months earlier US code breakers had intercepted and decoded Japanese radio communications, but urgent warnings were ignored by naval authorities at Pearl Harbor.

As before, Rochefort’s team did its job. Urgent warnings were sent to Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) and to Com-14.  Incredibly, these warnings too, fell on deaf ears.  Captain Rochefort was incredulous.  Years later, he would describe his reaction, at the time “I just threw up my hands and said it might be a good idea to remind everybody concerned that this nation was at war.”

American radar stations on Kauai picked up and tracked the incoming aircraft, but that same cloud cover prevented defenders from spotting them.  Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters were scrambled to search for the attackers, while Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats were sent to look for non-existent Japanese aircraft carriers, assumed to have launched the two bombers.

Meanwhile, the two Japanese pilots became confused, and separated.  Hashizume dropped his bombs on the side of Mt. Tantalus, about 1,000 ft. from nearby Roosevelt High School.  Hashizume’s bombs left craters 6-10 ft deep and 20-30 ft across on the side of the extinct volcano.  Sasao is presumed to have dropped his bombs, over the ocean.

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President Theodore Roosevelt High School, Honolulu

Ever anxious to rent a rapt audience to a sponsor the media, were off and running. One Los Angeles radio station reported “considerable damage to Pearl Harbor”, with 30 dead sailors and civilians, and 70 wounded.  Japanese military authorities took the broadcast to heart and considered the operation to have been a great success.  Talk about ‘fake news’.  As it was, the damage was limited to those craters on Mt. Tantalus and a few broken windows, at Roosevelt High.

Th Army and the Navy blamed each other for the explosions, each accusing the other of jettisoning munitions over the volcano.

The IJN planned another such armed reconnaissance mission for the 6th or 7th of March, but rescheduled for the 10th due to damage to Hashizume’s aircraft, and exhaustion of the air crew.  The second raid was carried out on March 10 but Hashizume was shot down and killed near Midway atoll, by Brewster F2A “Buffalo” fighters.

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The results of the second Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, carried out on March 4, 1942, were limited to four craters on the side of an extinct volcano.

A follow-up to Operation K was scheduled for May 30 but by that time, US military intelligence had gotten wise to the IJN meet-up point.  Japanese submarines arriving at French Frigate Shoals found the place mined, and swarming with American warships.

In the end, the Imperial Japanese Navy was unable to observe US Navy activity, or to keep track of American aircraft carriers.  Days later, this blindness would bring the Japanese war effort to a terrible crossroads at a place, called Midway.

February 20, 1942 Father and Son

Eddie was a mob lawyer who testified against his boss and paid for it, with his life. Eddie’s son Butch went on to be the first Ace of WW2 and recipient, of the Medal of Honor.

We’ve all heard the story of the mob lawyer who had everything but a good name, and gave it all up to show his son. That personal integrity is more important than all the riches of the underworld. His name was “Easy Eddie”. Eddie went on to testify against Al Capone, the most notorious gangster in the history of the underworld. Eddie paid for it with his life. Eddie’s son “Butch” learned the lesson his father taught from beyond the grave and went on to become a world War 2 WWII flying ace, and recipient of the Medal of Honor.

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Eddie O’Hare

The story is true more or less, but it does lays on the morality, a little thick.

Edward Joseph O’Hare, “EJ” to friends and family, passed the Missouri bar exam in 1923 and joined a law firm.  Operating dog tracks in Chicago, Boston and Miami, O’Hare made a considerable fortune working for Owen Smith, the high commissioner for the International Greyhound Racing Association. He’s the guy who patented the mechanical rabbit used in dog racing.  EJ and Selma Anna (Lauth) O’Hare had three children together between 1914 and 1924, – Edward (“Butch”), Patricia, and Marilyn.

EJ developed an interest in flying in the 1920s, once even hitching a ride on Charles Lindbergh’s mail plane.  For a time he worked as pilot for Robertson Aircraft, occasionally giving his teenage son a turn at the controls.

Eddie and Butch O’Hare

One day, EJ came home to find 13-year -old Butch sprawled on the couch, munching on donuts and banana layer cake.  He enrolled the boy in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois.  The kid was getting way too lazy.

EJ and Selma divorced in 1927.  Eddie left St. Louis for good moving to Chicago while Butch stayed with his mother, attending WMA.  It was there the elder O’Hare met Al Capone and later earned his second fortune working as the gangster’s business manager and lawyer.

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In 1930, O’Hare approached John Rogers, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, asking that he arrange a meeting with the Internal Revenue Service, then in pursuit of Capone on grounds of tax evasion. 

It all could have been to restore his good name, or maybe Eddie saw the writing on the wall.  Some will tell you he HAD to get right since no Congressman would nominate the son of a gangster, to the nation’s premier naval academy.

Who knows, maybe it’s all of the above.  None of them are mutually exclusive.  Whatever the motivation, IRS Agent Wilson later said of EJ “On the inside of the gang I had one of the best undercover men I have ever known: Eddie O’Hare.”

Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to Alcatraz, becoming eligible for early release in 1939 due to syphilitic dementia. A week before the gangster’s release, EJ left his office at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in Cicero, driving his black ’39 Lincoln Zephyr. Two shotgun wielding gunmen pulled alongside, firing a volley of big game slugs and killing O’Hare, instantly. No arrest was ever made.

Butch had graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis by this time, receiving his duty assignment aboard the USS New Mexico.  Shortly after his father’s assassination, the younger O’Hare began flight training at Naval Air Station in Pensacola.

Assigned to the USS Saratoga’s Fighting Squadron, Butch O’Hare made his first carrier landing in 1940, describing the experience as “just about the most exciting thing a pilot can do in peacetime.”

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Butch O’Hare became the first American flying Ace of WWII on February 20, 1942.

The carrier Lexington was discovered by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, 450 miles outside of Rabaul.  Six Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and Lexington’s anti-aircraft guns were engaged with an incoming formation of nine Japanese bombers when nine more bombers were reported incoming.

Six more Wildcats roared off the flight deck of the Lexington, one piloted by Butch O’Hare.  He and his wingman Marion William “Duff” Dufilho were the first to spot the V formation, diving to the intercept and leaving the other four fighters too far away to affect the outcome.  Dufilho’s guns jammed, leaving Butch O’Hare alone on the unprotected side of his flotilla.  One fighter against nine enemy bombers flying in tight V formation, mutually protecting one another with rear-facing machine guns.

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O’Hare’s Wildcat had four 50-caliber guns with 450 rounds apiece, enough to fire for about 34 seconds.  What followed was so close to the Lexington, that pilots could hear the carrier’s AA guns.  Full throttle and diving from the high side, O’Hare fired short, accurate bursts, the outermost bomber’s right-hand engine literally jumping from its mount.  Ducking to the other side and smashing the port engine on another “Betty”, O’Hare’s Wildcat attacked one bomber after another, single handedly taking out five bombers with an average of only 60 rounds apiece.

O’Hare’s Medal of Honor citation calls the performance “…one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation…”

In a confused night action in the darkness of November 26, 1943, Butch O’Hare stepped from the pages of history.  Some say he was cut down by friendly fire, mistakenly shot down by TBF Avenger gunner Alvin B. Kernan.  Others say it was a lucky shot by a gunner aboard his old adversary, a Rikko (Betty) bomber.  Yet another theory was that O’Hare’s Hellcat caught a wingtip on a wave and cartwheeled into the ocean.

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On September 19, 1949, the Orchard Depot Airport in Chicago was renamed in tribute to the fallen Ace. O’Hare International Airport.   Neither his body nor his aircraft were ever recovered. 

February 14, 1945 The Firebombing of Dresden

“We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from”. Eyewitness to the firebombing at Dresden

The most destructive war in history entered its final, apocalyptic phase in January 1945, with another four months of hard fighting yet remaining before Allied forces could declare victory in Europe. In the west, the “Battle of the Bulge” was ended, the last great effort of German arms spent and driven back beyond original lines. In the east, the once mighty German military contracted in on itself, in the face of a massive Soviet advance.

Dozens of German divisions hurried east to meet the threat. Allied intelligence believed the war could be over in April if the major cities to the east, were destroyed. Dresden. Leipzig. Chemnitz. Letting these places stand to serve as bases for retreating German forces, could drag the war out until November.

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of the Air Staff, put the problem succinctly: “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”

With its baroque and rococo city center, the capital city of Dresden was long described as the “Jewel Box” of the Free State of Saxony, family seat to the Polish monarchs and royal residence to the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Dresden was the seventh-largest city in Germany in 1945, home to 127 medium-to-large sized factories supplying the German war machine, and the largest built-up area in the “thousand-year Reich”, yet to be bombed.

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Long described as “Florence on the Elbe” Dresden was considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a treasure of art and architecture.

For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained a mere forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star he was forced to wear on his coat.

Now, the man witnessed notices for final “deportation” being delivered even to those last few. There wasn’t one who received such a notice who didn’t understand what it meant. Terrified that he might be next the process was interrupted by the coming firestorm. Three nights later Klemperer removed the yellow star, an act punishable by death at the time.

Three hundred miles away, bad weather hampered operations for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).  The first wave in the fire bombing of Dresden would be a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation.

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The first group of Lancaster bombers arrived in the skies over Dresden two hours before midnight, February 13. These were the pathfinders, their job to find the place and drop magnesium parachute flares, to light up the target. Then came the marker planes, Mosquito bombers whose job it was to drop 1,000-pound target indicators whose red glare provided something to aim at. Then came the first wave, 254 Lancaster bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosives ranging from 500-pounders to massive, 4,000-pound “blockbusters”. Next came the incendiaries. The “fire bombs”. 200,000 of them.

For those caught on the ground like scared rabbits in oncoming headlights, the horrors had only begun.

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The second wave came in the small hours of February 14, just as rescue operations were getting underway. By now thousands of fires were burning, with smoke rising 15,000 feet into the air. You could see it from the air, from five hundred miles.

Then came another 529 Lancasters, dropping another 1,800 tons of bombs.

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Lancaster bomber

The USAAF arrived over the target on the afternoon of February 14, the 317 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the “Mighty 8th” delivering another 771 tons of bombs.

Fires enveloped the city by the tens of thousands growing into a great, howling firestorm. A shrieking, seemingly living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path.

A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires. Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and into the flames.

Lothar Metzger brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:

“It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them”.

He was ten years old at the time.

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For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. On the 19th he joined a refugee column fleeing the inferno, for American held territory. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.

Official death tolls from the burned out city are estimated at 18,500 to 25,000. The real number will never be known. At this point in the war refugees and military forces were streaming through the area by the tens of thousands. Estimates run as high as 200,000. That number if accurate, is more than death tolls resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.

November 9, 2013 A Vintage like No Other

On November 9, 2013, a company of heroes cracked open and enjoyed a 117-year-old bottle of rare and vintage cognac. If there can be a more magnificent act of tribute, I cannot at this moment think of what it might be.

On November 9, 2013, there occurred a gathering of four.  A tribute to fallen heroes. These four were themselves heroes, and worthy of tribute.  This was to be their last such gathering.

This story begins on April 18, 1942, when a flight of sixteen Mitchell B25 medium bombers launched from the deck of the carrier, USS Hornet. It was a retaliatory raid on Imperial Japan, planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the United States Army Air Force. The raid was payback for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, four months earlier. A demonstration that the Japanese home islands, were not immune from destruction.

Launching such massive aircraft from the decks of a carrier had never been attempted. There were no means of bringing them back.  With extra gas tanks installed and machine guns removed to save the weight, this was to be a one-way mission, into territory occupied by a savage adversary.

Doolittle Signatures

Fearing that mission security was breached, the bomb run was forced to launch 200 miles before the intended departure spot.  At this range the bombers themselves might not even make it. Fighter escort, impossible.

Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo was inspecting military bases, at the time of the raid. One B-25 came so close he could see the pilot, though the American bomber never fired a shot.

After dropping their bombs, fifteen continued west, toward Japanese occupied China.  Unbeknownst at the time, carburetors bench-marked and calibrated for low level flight had been replaced in flight #8, which now had no chance of making it to the mainland.  Twelve crash landed in the coastal provinces.  Three more, ditched at sea.  Pilot Captain Edward York pointed flight 8 toward Vladivostok, where he hoped to refuel.  The pilot and crew were instead taken into captivity and held, for thirteen months.

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Crew 3 Engineer-Gunner Corporal Leland Dale Faktor died in the fall after bailing out. Staff Sergeant Bombardier William Dieter and Sergeant Engineer-Gunner Donald Fitzmaurice bailed out of aircraft #6 off the China coast, and drowned.

The heroism of the indigenous people at this point, is a little-known part of this story.  The massive sweep across the eastern coastal provinces, the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign, cost the lives of 250,000 Chinese.  A quarter-million murdered by Japanese soldiers, in the hunt for Doolittle’s raiders.  How many were in a position to betray the American flyers and refused, will never be known.

Amazingly, only eight were captured, out of seventy-seven survivors.

First Lieutenant Pilot “Bill” Farrow and Sergeant Engineer-Gunner Harold Spatz, both of Crew 16, and First Lieutenant Pilot Dean Edward Hallmark of Crew 6 were caught by the Japanese and executed by firing squad on October 15, 1942.  Crew 6 Co-Pilot First Lieutenant Robert John Meder died in a Japanese prison camp, on December 11, 1943.  Most of the 80 who began the mission, survived the war.

Jimmy Doolittle and his crew in China, after the raid

Thirteen targets were attacked, including an oil tank farm, a steel mill, and an aircraft carrier then under construction.. Fifty were killed and another 400 injured, but the mission had a decisive psychological effect.  Japan withdrew its powerful aircraft carrier force to protect the home islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto attacked Midway, thinking that to have been the jump-off point for the raid. Described by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”, the battle of Midway would be a major strategic defeat for Imperial Japan.

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Ryozo Asano, left, spokesman for a group of diversified Japanese family enterprises called the Zaibatsu, inspects the wreckage of his Tokyo steel plant

Every year since the late 1940s, the surviving Doolittle raiders have held a reunion.  In 1959, the city of Tucson presented them with 80 silver goblets, each engraved with a name. They are on display at the National Museum of the Air Force, in Dayton Ohio.

With those goblets is a fine bottle of vintage Cognac.  Hennessy VS 1896, the year Jimmy Doolittle was born. For many years there a bargain between the survivors that, one day, the last two would open that bottle, and toast their comrades.

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They changed that bargain in 2013.   Just a little. Jimmy Doolittle himself passed away in 1993. Twenty years later, 76 goblets were turned over, each signifying a man who had passed on.  Now, there were only four.

  1. Lieutenant Colonel Richard E. Cole* of Dayton Ohio was co-pilot of crew No. 1.  Remained in China after the Tokyo Raid until June 1943, and served in the China-Burma-India Theater from October, 1943 until June, 1944. Relieved from active duty in January, 1947 but returned to active duty in August 1947.
  2. Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Hite* of Odell Texas was co-pilot of crew No. 16. Captured by the Japanese and held prisoner for forty months, he watched his weight drop to eighty pounds.
  3. Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Saylor* of Brusett Montana was engineer-gunner of crew No. 15.   Served throughout the duration of WW2 until March 1945, both Stateside, and overseas.  Accepted a commission in October 1947 and served as Aircraft Maintenance Officer at bases in Iowa, Washington, Labrador and England.
  4. Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher* of Bridger Montana was engineer-gunner of crew No. 7.  Served in England and Africa after the Tokyo raid until June 1944, and discharged in July 1945.
*H/T, http://www.doolittleraider.com

These four agreed to gather, one last time.  It would be these four men who would finally open that bottle.

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Robert Hite, 93, was too frail to travel in 2013.  Wally Hite stood in for his father.

On November 9, 2013, that 117 year-old bottle of rare, vintage cognac was cracked open, and enjoyed among a company of heroes.  If there is a more magnificent act of tribute, I cannot at this moment think of what it might be.

On April 18, 2015, Richard Cole and David Thatcher fulfilled their original bargain, as the last surviving members of the Doolittle raid.  Staff Sergeant Thatcher passed away on June 23, 2016, at the age of 94.  Today, not one of those eighty goblets remains upright.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole passed from this life on April 9, 2019, at the age of 103.  There is no living man today who has so earned the right to open that rare and vintage cognac.

November 6, 1944 Going Home

Sometime in the 2030s it is said, the most destructive war in human history will fade from living memory as the last World War II combatant, is laid to rest. They have All earned the right, to be remembered.

As Depression descended over the 1930s US, few states had a harder time of it, than the Sooner state. This was the world of Loyce Edward Deen, growing up 7th of eight children born to Grace and Allen Deen in the small town of Sulphur, Oklahoma.

The family moved to Altus, Oklahoma where Allen worked as a schoolteacher. Loyce would care for his younger brother Lewis, born with Down’s syndrome. The pair became extremely close. It broke his brother’s heart when Lewis became and ill and died, while Loyce was still in Junior High.

Loyce and his older brother Lance were busy during the High school years, caring for their mother following a debilitating stroke.

Loyce’s niece Bertha Deen Sullivan was little at the time, and still remembers. “Loyce was a tall dark handsome young man with deep blue eyes”. He would pick her up and ask “Who loves ya?” And then he would kiss her on the forehead.

Altus was a small town, the kind of place where the newspaper printed the bio of every graduating high school senior. Where Deen was concerned, the Times-Democrat wrote “Loyce Deen is a young man with high ambitions. He plans to enter the US Navy aeronautical mechanics division after graduation and finds subjects such as problems of American democracy, the most interesting. He has also been active in dramatics work at school.

Loyce worked for a time with the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and later joined the Douglas Aircraft Company in Wichita, building wing sets for the A-26 Invader attack bomber.

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Deen wanted to join the Navy, even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In October 1942, he did just that.

First came basic training in San Diego and then gunner’s school, learning all about the weapons systems aboard a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber. Then on to Naval Air School Fort Lauderdale, before joining the new 15th Air Group, forming out of Westerly, Rhode Island.

On April 29, 1944, the Air Group reported for duty aboard the “Fightingest Ship in the Navy” at Pearl Harbor.  The aircraft carrier, USS Essex.

An Air Group consists of eighty or so aircraft, of three distinct types. First are the fighters, the fast, single seat Grumman Hellcats. Next are the two-seat dive bombers, the Curtiss Helldivers, the pilot joined by a rear-seat gunner whose job it is to lay the one-ton bomb on the target while handling a machine gun, at the same time. Third is the torpedo bomber, the Grumman Avenger, with two enlisted crewmen in addition to the pilot. The Avenger carries a ton of bombs, depth charges or aerial torpedoes and, like the Helldiver, is designed for low-level attack.

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Loyce was the turret gunner on one of these Avengers, assigned to protect the aircraft from above and teamed up with Pilot Lt. Robert Cosgrove from New Orleans, Louisiana and Radioman Digby Denzek, from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cosgrove was a superb pilot, often returning aircraft to the carrier, so shot up as to seem unflyable. Digby had several jobs, including arming the weapons systems, and operating the radio. When the team was under fire, Digby would crawl down into a ball turret on the belly of the aircraft, his machine gun defending from below.

The 15th Air group saw some of the most intense fighting it had ever encountered during the battle of Leyte Gulf of October 24-25, 1944. Commander Lambert, who oversaw the Avenger squadron, described “Coming in through the most intense and accurate AA yet experienced, the squadron made three hits on one battleship, two hits on another battleship, and two hits each on two different heavy cruisers“.

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Dennis Blalock of Calhoun GA, his hands on the shoulders of shipmate, Loyce Deen. Both would be dead within ten days, of this photograph

Deen received a shrapnel wound to his foot sometime during the fighting of the 24th. He wrapped the thing up and stayed on to fight, the following day. He would later receive a Purple heart medal for the wound. Posthumously.

Following rest and replenishment at Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands, USS Essex was on station for the November 5 Battle of Manila Bay.  Loyce could have stayed back on a hospital ship until that foot healed, but chose to ignore the injury and rejoin his unit.

Loyce’s niece Bertha, was not surprised. On being informed of his injury, she said “I’m not surprised he stayed with his unit. Loyce would not have it any other way – he would always remain at his post to make sure his brothers came home safely with him.

Loyce Deen climbed into his gun turret for the last time on November 5. It was a two hour ride to the target zone in Manila Bay, with Japanese aircraft on the radar for most of that time, the carriers USS Lexington and Ticonderoga, under kamikaze attack.

Lieutenant Cosgrove’s Avenger came under savage anti-aircraft fire, from a Japanese cruiser.  Loyce Deen took two direct hits and was killed, instantly.  The Avenger aircraft, tail number 93, was so smashed up as to be all but unflyable.  It took all of the pilot’s strength and skill to fly the thing back through two thunderstorms, and land on the Essex.

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The body Loyce Edward Deen was so badly mangled it was impossible to disentangle the remains, from the smashed turret. For the first time in history and I believe the only time, a man was deliberately buried at sea, entombed by the aircraft in which he had served.

Fingerprints were taken and dog tags removed. This particular Avenger wasn’t even scavenged, for parts. With the crew of the USS Essex assembled on deck, the shattered aircraft was pushed over the side. Two other Avengers flew overhead in salute, as the tail dipped beneath the waves.

Loyce Edward Deen, was going home.

Not long after the ceremony, the carrier went to General Quarters. There were kamikazes to deal with.

For us this story has come to an end. Lieutenant Cosgrove and the rest of Air Group 15 got back into their aircraft the following day, November 6 and again on the 12th, 13th and 14th, each day yet another mortal combat against that same fleet, in Manila Bay.

For the Deen family the dread knock came to their door, the week of Thanksgiving.

August 26, 1918 The Computer Wore a Skirt

“So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”

In plasma physics, the Heliosphere is a vast cavity formed by the Sun, a “bubble” continuously “inflated” by plasma originating from that body known as “solar wind’ and separating our own solar system, from the vastness of interstellar space. The outermost reach of the Heliosphere comprises three major sections called the Termination Shock, the Heliosheath, and the Heliopause, so called because solar winds and interstellar winds meet to form, a zone of equilibrium.

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Only five man-made objects have traversed the heliosphere to penetrate interstellar space: Pioneer 10 and 11 launched in 1972-73, Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977 and New Horizons which left earth’s atmosphere, in 2006. Of those five only three remain active and continue to transmit data back to our little blue planet.

Voyager 2 Spacecraft

Spectacular images may be found on-line if you’re inclined to look them up. Images such as this jaw dropping shot of the ‘Blue Planet” Neptune taken two days before point of closest contact in August, 1989.

This picture of Neptune was taken by Voyager 2 less than five days before the probe’s closest approach of the planet on Aug. 25, 1989. The picture shows the “Great Dark Spot” – a storm in Neptune’s atmosphere – and the bright, light-blue smudge of clouds that accompanies the storm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Or these images of the rings of Neptune taken on this day thirty two years ago before Voyager 2 left the last of the “gas giants”, behind.

Voyager 2 took these two images of the rings of Neptune on Aug. 26, 1989, just after the probe’s closest approach to the planet. Neptune’s two main rings are clearly visible; two fainter rings are visible with the help of long exposure times and backlighting from the Sun.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Few among us are equipped to understand the complexity of such flight. Precious few. One such was a little girl, an American of African ancestry born this day in 1918 in White Silver Springs, West Virginia. The youngest of four born to Joyletta and Joshua Coleman, Creola Katherine showed unusual mathematical skills from an early age.

For black children, Greenbrier County West Virginia didn’t offer education past the eighth grade, in the 1920s. The Colemans arranged for their kids to attend high school two hours up the road in Institute, on the campus of West Virginia State College. Katherine took every math class offered by the school and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French, in 1937.

There were teaching jobs along the way at all-black schools and a marriage to Katherine’s first husband, James Goble. The couple would have three children together before James died of a brain tumor. Three years later she married James A. “Jim” Johnson.

With all that going on at home, Katherine found time to become one of only three black students to attend graduate school at West Virginia University and the only female, selected to integrate the school after the Supreme Court ruing Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada.

Careers in research mathematics were few and far between for black women in 1952, but talent and hard work wins out where ignorance, fears to tread.

So it was Katherine Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), in 1952. Johnson worked in a pool of women who would read the data from aircraft black boxes and carry out a number of mathematical tasks. She referred to her co-workers as “computers who wore skirts”.

Flight research was a man’s world in those days but one day, Katherine and a colleague were asked to fill in, temporarily. Respect is not given it is earned, and Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry made quick work of that. Male bosses and colleagues alike were impressed with her skills. When her “temporary” assignment was over it no longer seemed all that important to send her, back to the pool.

Katherine would later explain that barriers of race and sex continued, but she could hold her own. Meetings were taken where decisions were made, where no women had been before. She’d simply tell them that she did the work and this was where she belonged, and that was the end of that.

Johnson worked as a human computer through most of the 1950s, calculating in-flight problems such as gust alleviation, in aircraft. Racial segregation was still in effect in those days according to state law and federal workplace segregation rules introduced under President Woodrow Wilson some forty years, earlier. The door where she worked was labeled “colored computers” but Johnson said she “didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research. You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job … and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

“We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, “Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.” So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something”.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine worked as an aerospace technologist from 1958 until retirement. She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 flight to become the first American, in space. She worked out the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission and plotted navigational charts for backup in case of electronic failure. NASA was using electronic computers by the time of John Glenn’s first orbit around the earth but Glenn refused to fly until Katherine Johnson personally verified the computer’s calculations. Author Margot Lee Shetterly commented, “So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”

Katherine Johnson retired in 1986 and lived to see six grandchildren and 11 “Greats”. Everyone should live to see their own great grandchild. Not surprisingly, Johnson encouraged hers to pursue careers in science and technology.

President Barack Obama personally awarded Johnson the medal of Freedom in 2015 for work from the Mercury program, to the Space Shuttle. NASA noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.”

A delightful side dish for this story is the Silver Snoopy award NASA gives for outstanding achievement, “For professionalism, dedication and outstanding support that greatly enhanced space flight safety and mission success.”

Following the Mercury and Gemini projects, NASA was searching for a way to focus employees and contractors alike on their own personal contribution to mission success. They wanted it to be fun and interesting, like the Smokey the Bear character, of the United States Forest service. Al Chop of the Manned Spacecraft Center came up with the idea.

Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, a combat veteran of WW2 and avid supporter of the space program, loved the idea. Shulz drew the character to be cast in a silver pin and worn into space, by a member of the Astronaut corps. It is this astronaut who personally awards his or her Snoopy to the deserving recipient.

The award is literally once in a lifetime. Of all NASA personnel and that of many contractors fewer than one percent have ever receive the coveted Silver Snoopy.

Astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin personally awarded Johnson her own Silver Snoopy at the naming ceremony in 2016, for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin presents Katherine Johnson with a Silver Snoopy award. / Credit: NASA, David C. Bowman

May 6, 1937 Hindenburg

The largest dirigible ever built, an airship the size of Titanic burst into flames as the hull collapsed and plummeted to the ground.  Passengers and crew jumped for their lives and scrambled to safety along with ground crews only moments earlier, positioned to receive the ship.

The airship Hindenburg left Frankfurt airfield on her last flight at 7:16pm, May 3, 1937, carrying 97 passengers and crew. Crossing over Cologne, Beachy Head and Newfoundland, the largest dirigible ever constructed arrived over Boston at noon on May 6.  By 3:00pm she was over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, headed for the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Foul weather caused a half-day’s delay but the landing was eventually cleared, the final S turn approach executed toward the landing tower, at 7:21pm. Within moments, the ship arrived at the mooring mast. She was 180-feet above the ground with forward landing ropes deployed when the first flames appeared near the top tail fin.

Hindenburg

Eyewitness accounts differ as to where the fire, came from.  The leading theory is that, with the metal framework grounded through the landing line, the ship’s fabric covering became charged in the electrically charged atmosphere, sending a spark to the air frame and igniting a hydrogen leak.  Seven million cubic feet of hydrogen ignited almost simultaneously.  It was over in less than 40 seconds.

The largest dirigible ever built, an airship the size of Titanic burst into flames as the hull collapsed and plummeted to the ground.  Passengers and crew jumped for their lives and scrambled to safety along with ground crews only moments earlier, positioned to receive the ship.

The famous film shows ground crew running for their lives, and then turning and running back to the flames. It’s natural enough to have run, but there’s something the film doesn’t show.  That was Chief Petty Officer Frederick “Bull” Tobin, the airship veteran in charge of the landing party, bellowing at his sailors above the roar of the flames.  “Navy men, Stand fast!  We’ve got to get those people out of there!” On September 4, 1923 Tobin had survived the crash of the USS Shenandoah.  He wasn’t about to abandon his post, even if it cost him his life. Tobin’s Navy men obeyed.  That’s what you’re seeing when they turn and run back to the flames.

The Hindenburg disaster is sometimes compared with that of the Titanic, but there’s a common misconception that the former disaster was the more deadly of the two. In fact, 64% of the passengers and crew aboard the airship survived the fiery crash, despite having only seconds to react.   In contrast, officers on board the Titanic had 2½ hours to evacuate, yet most of the lifeboats were launched from level decks with empty seats. Only 32% of Titanic passengers and crew survived the sinking.  It’s estimated that an additional 500 lives could have been saved, had there been a more orderly, competent, evacuation of the ship.

As it was, 35 passengers and crew lost their lives on this day in 1937, and one civilian ground crew.  Without doubt the number would have been higher, if not for the actions of Bull Tobin and is Navy men.

Hindenberg Crash

Where a person was inside the airship, had a lot to do with their chances of survival.  Mr and Mrs Hermann Doehner and their three children (Irene, 16, Walter, 10, and Werner, 8) were in the dining room, watching the landing.  Mr. Doehner left before the fire broke out.  Mrs. Doehner and the two boys were able to jump out but Irene went looking for her father.  Both died in the crash.

For all the film of the Hindenburg disaster, there is no footage showing the moment of ignition. Investigators theorized a loose cable creating a spark or static charge from the electrically charged atmosphere.  Some believed the wreck to be the result of sabotage, but that theory is largely debunked.

Four score years after the disaster, the reigning hypothesis begins with the static electricity theory, the fire fed and magnified by the incendiary iron oxide/aluminum impregnated cellulose “dope” with which the highly flammable hydrogen envelope, was painted.

The 35 year era of the dirigible was filled with accidents before Hindenburg, but none dampened public enthusiasm for lighter-than-air travel. The British R-101 accident killed 48, the crash of the USS Akron 73. The LZ-4, LZ-5, Deutschland, Deutschland II, Italia, Schwaben, R-38, R-101, Shenandoah, Macon, and others.  All had crashed, disappeared into the darkness, or over the ocean.  Hindenburg alone was caught on film, the fiery crash recorded for all to see.  The age of the dirigible, had come to an end.

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