January 28, 1942 The Mighty 8th Air force

On this seventy-seventh birthday of the Mighty 8th Air Force, we can all thank a teacher, that we are able to read this story. We can thank a Veteran, that we can read it in English.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.

The invasion of Poland brought France and Great Britain in on the side of their ally, in 1939.  Ground forces of the United Kingdom were shattered the following year, along with those of her French, Indian, Moroccan, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch allies.

The hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small were all that stood between salvation, and unmitigated disaster.  338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France.  Defeated, all but disarmed yet still unbeaten, these would live to fight another day.

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Dunkirk

In 1940, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.  The island nation of Great Britain stood alone and unconquered, defiant in the face of the Nazi war machine.  In Germany, street decorations were prepared for victory parades, as plans were laid for “Operation Sea Lion”, the planned invasion of Great Britain and final destruction of the British Isles.

After the allied armies were hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.   Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Göring convinced Der Fuhrer that aircraft alone could do the job.

Hitler approved, and turned his attention to the surprise attack on his “ally” to the East. The “Battle of Britain” had begun.

Two days in August 1940 saw 3,275 sorties against the British home isles, with only 120 aircraft lost to the German side.  A single Junkers 88 or Heinkel 111 bomber carried 5,510-pounds of bombs.

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The wrath of the Luftwaffe was spent by the end of October, Operation sea Lion postponed again and again.  Great Britain would fight on alone, but for the shattered remnants of formerly allied powers, for another year and one-half.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period as only he could, when he said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

Battle of Britain

Hitler would turn his his back and launch “Operation Barbarossa” in June, 1941.  The surprise invasion of the Soviet Union.

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

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Crewman, Mighty 8th

Ribbentrop balked.  With their ally having been the aggressor, Germany was under no obligation to intervene.  Adolf Hitler thought otherwise. Hitler detested Roosevelt, and thought it was just a matter of time before the two powers were at war. He might as well beat the American President to the punch.

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

Half a world away, one man went to bed to sleep the “sleep of the saved and thankful”.

“Silly people, and there were many, not only in enemy countries, might discount the force of the United States… But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before—that the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler’. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.  Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”. – Prime Minister Winston Churchill

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

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

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

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

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

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Following the allied victory in Europe, 8th AF Headquarters was reassigned to Sakugawa (Kadena Airfield), Okinawa, under the command of Lieutenant General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.  Tasked with organizing and training new bomber groups for the planned invasion of Japan, the 8th received its first B-29 Superfortress on August 8.  Seven days later, the atomic bomb had ended the war in the Pacific.

With the onset of the jet age and the “Cold War” at it height, the 8th Air Force moved to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts on June 13, 1955, the second of three Numbered Air Force groups of the newly constituted Strategic Air Command (SAC).

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

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

Happy Birthday, Mighty Eighth.

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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January 26, 1972 Sole Survivor

A keyword search reveals seventy-two sole survivors, defined as the only survivor of a plane crash that killed ten or more passengers and crew.

With his father suffering tuberculosis and often hospitalized, Otis Ray Redding, Jr. quit school at the age of fifteen to help support the family. He worked at a gas station, but it was the occasional musical gig that got him noticed.  From Macon (Georgia) talent contests to local bands, Redding later joined Little Richard’s band “The Upsetters” when the singer abandoned rock & roll music, for gospel.

Redding began his musical career at a time of racial segregation, touring the “chitlin circuit”:  a string of venues hospitable to black musicians, comedians and entertainers throughout the American south, northeast and upper Midwest.  Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and others.

800px-otisreddingstatueRedding joined STAX Records in 1962, a portmanteau of the founding partners and siblings Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax).

The label’s use of a single studio and a small stable of musicians and songwriters produced a readily identifiable sound based on black gospel and rhythm & blues which came to be known as Southern soul, or Memphis soul.

Singer-songwriter-musician Otis Redding became Stax Records’ biggest star in the five years before the plane crash that took his life: the “Big O”, the “King of Soul”.

Musicians from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Janis Joplin and virtually every soul and R&B musician of the era have taken musical influence from Otis Redding. It was he who wrote the ballad R-E-S-P-E-C-T made famous by the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.

His initial recordings were mainly popular with black audiences, but Redding (and others) crossed the “color barrier”, performing at “white owned” venues like Whisky a Go Go in LA, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and venues throughout Paris, London and other European cities.

Redding’s iconic song and  #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.  Dock of the Bay was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

The song wasn’t intended to turn out the way it did.

Redding had taken strong influence from the Beatles, particularly the layered sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  He wanted to expand his musical footprint beyond the soul and R&B genre.  If you listen to the song – the seagulls, the sound of lapping waves – that’s what he was going for.  The “outro”, the twenty-five seconds’ whistling at the end, were nothing but a place holder, intended to be replaced by some yet-to-be-decided vocal effect in a second recording session, a few days later.

That second session was never meant to be.

The kid who once pumped gas to help support his family boarded his own Beechcraft H-18 aircraft on December 10, 1967, along with Bar-Kays guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, trumpet player Ben Cauley, drummer Carl Cunningham, their valet Matthew Kelly and the pilot, Richard Fraser.

The band had played two nights in Cleveland.  The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. The plane took off despite warnings of foul weather.  The show must go on. Ben Cauley remembers waking from a nap to see band-mate Phalon Jones look out a window and exclaim “Oh No!”  He then found himself alone, clutching a seat cushion in the 34-degree waters of Lake Monona.  He was the sole survivor.

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Bar-Kays trumpet player, Ben Cauley

A keyword search reveals seventy-two sole survivors, defined as the only survivor of a plane crash that killed ten or more passengers and crew.

Pilot error was ruled at fault for the wreck of Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 on September 3, 1997. The Tupolev Tu-134B-3 crashed at final approach at Phnom Penh Internatinal Airport in Cambodia, leaving Chanayuth Nim-anong the youngest on the list, at 14-months-old. The crash killed 66 passengers and crew including Taiwanese national Ho Suicheng, who was there to marry his fiancée, Cambodian Khuth Linda.  It was she who identified his body. Khuth went through with the wedding, as planned.  With his photograph.

Crew member Alexander Sizov is the oldest at 52, sole survivor of the charter plane crash of September 7, 2011 that wiped out forty-three members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team along with Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon. At the time, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was a member of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Russia’s top ice hockey league.

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The old adage ‘only the good die young’ may be illustrated with Chinese national Huáng Yù, sole survivor of the hijacked Cathay Pacific aircraft Miss Macao in the 1948 crash that killed the other 27 people on board.  Huáng was the lead hijacker.  He not only escaped death, but prosecution, too.  No one could decide what jurisdiction to try him under.

Though they would never meet, the Beatles form a common bond between the Redding crash and another sole survivor, half a world away.

Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović grew up in the age of Beatlemania, and wanted nothing more than to learn English, and move to London. That she did for a time before moving to Stockholm, but the girl’s parents would have nothing of the drugs and sex of the Swedish capital. On returning to Belgrade, Vulović saw a friend in a stewardess uniform. That was it, she remembered: “I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I be an air hostess? I could go to London once a month’.” Vulović joined JAT, Yugoslavia’s national flag carrier and largest airline, in 1971.

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Vesna Vulović

JAT 367 flew from Stockholm to Belgrade with stopovers in Copenhagen and Zagreb, arrived in Denmark on January 25, 1972. Vulović wasn’t intended to be on the second leg scheduled for the following day, but JAT confused her for another flight attendant with the same name.

Croatian nationalists carried out 128 terrorist attacks against Yugoslav civilian and military targets between 1962 and 1982. JAT Flight 367 became one of them on this day in 1972, the briefcase bomb exploding at 33,330-feet and tearing the aircraft into three pieces.

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JAT DC-9 YU-AHL, sister ship of the aircraft involved H/T Wikipedia

Former WW2 medic Bruno Honke found Vulović screaming among the wreckage outside the Czechoslovak village of Srbská Kamenice, her turquoise uniform covered with blood, her 3-inch stiletto heels torn off by the force of the impact. Vulović herself has no recollection of the explosion, or the descent. She suffered a fractured skull with brain hemorrhage, two broken legs and three broken vertebrae. She would spend her next 27 days, in a coma. Two months later, she was offered a sedative for the flight back to Belgrade. She declined the injection, saying she had no memory of the crash. What was there to be afraid of?

Something of a Yugoslavian national hero, Vesna Vulović went back to work for JAT following sixteen months recuperation, albeit, with a limp. She wanted to go back to flying, but got a desk job, instead.  The Guinness Book of world Records officially recognized Vulović’s 1971 fall.  The title was officially awarded in 1985 in a special ceremony, personally bestowed by none other than Paul McCartney.

Feature image, top of page:  Otis Reddings aircraft is fished out of the frigid waters of Lake Monona, near Madison Wisconsin.  The band was four miles from their destination.

 

January 16, 2003 Columbia Disaster

The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, with a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first space-worthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

o-columbia-shuttle-disaster-facebookSTS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida.  It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

It was the first, and (to-date) only manned maiden test flight of a new system in the American space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with external hydrogen fuel tanks painted white.  From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted, to save weight.

Initially, there were four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”.  A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.

Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank striking Columbia’s left wing, leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.

Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, none was able to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even in the event of major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.

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December 2, 1988 ‘Atlantis’ mission narrowly missed repeting the Columbia disaster, four days later. “More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle’s belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal – a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna – was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through”. H/T Spaceflightnow.com

For Columbia, 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds of space travel came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003.  Over the California coast and traveling twenty-three times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000° Fahrenheit and more, when super-heated gases entered the wing’s interior.

231,000 feet below, mission control detected four unconnected sensors shut down on the left wing, with no explanation.   The first debris struck the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am.  The last communication from the crew came about a minute later.

Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am Eastern Standard Time.

Debris and human remains were found in 2,000 locations from the state of Louisiana, to Arkansas. The only survivors were a can full of worms, brought into space for study.

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“Mon Landscape” by Petr Ginz

Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Ramon is the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors and family member to several others, who didn’t live to tell the tale.  In their memory, Colonel Ramon reached out to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center, for a holocaust relic to bring with him into space.

Petr Ginz was incarcerated for a time in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he drew this picture.  A piece of teenage imagination:  the Earth as it may appear, from the moon.

Petr Ginz was destined to be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, though his drawing survived.  He was fourteen years old.  Colonel Ramon was given a copy,  a young boy’s drawing of a safer place.  This would accompany the astronaut, into space.

Today, the assorted debris from the Columbia disaster numbers some 84,000 pieces, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.  To the best of my knowledge, this drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

Afterward:

Andrew “Drew” Feustel is a car guy, with fond memories of restoring a ’67 Ford Mustang in the family garage in North suburban Detroit.

When he’s not fixing cars he’s an astronaut, and veteran of two space missions.  He was also for a time a colleague of Colonel Ramon.  The pair had several close friends, in common.

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The ‘car guy’ in space thing seems to have worked. NASA reports “The spacewalkers overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws and stuck handrails, four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments, new batteries, a new gyroscope and a new computer were installed. | NASA photo

In March 2018, Feustel left for his third spaceflight, this one a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.  Before he left, Rona Ramon, widow of the Israeli Astronaut, gave him another copy of Petr Ginz’ drawing.

The circle was closed.  This fruit of a doomed boy’s imagination once again broke the bonds of space. This time, to come home.

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 12, 1985 Arrow Air Flight 1285

The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.

The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 departed Cairo, Egypt at 20:35 Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday, December 11, 1985. The flight was the first of three legs, scheduled for refueling stops in Cologne and Gander International Airport, then on to a final destination at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the “Screaming Eagles” of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division.

This was Arrow Air Flight 1285, an international charter flight returning with 248 military personnel, following a six-month deployment in the Sinai, part of a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission, overseeing terms of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Passengers departed the aircraft while refueling in Newfoundland, as the flight engineer conducted his external inspection. Then came the new air crew of eight, after which passengers re-boarded the aircraft. Arrow Air Flight 1285 achieved flight velocity at 10:15 on December 12, 167 KIAS (“Knots-Indicated Air Speed”) and accelerating.

There was no way to know. 256 passengers and crew, had only seconds to live.

Airspeed reached 172 KIAS and then began to drop, the aircraft crossing the Trans-Canada Highway some 900-feet from the runway and beginning to descend. Witnesses on the highway below reported seeing a bright light, emanating from inside of the aircraft. Seconds later, flight 1285 crashed some 3,500-feet from departure, breaking apart and striking an unoccupied building near Gander lake, before bursting into flames.

Of the 248 servicemen, all but twelve were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), mostly from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry.  Eleven others were from other Forces Command units.  One was an agent with the Criminal Investigations Command (CID).  It was the deadliest accident to occur on Canadian soil, the United States Army’s single deadliest air crash in peacetime.  There were no survivors.

Hours later, an anonymous caller phoned a French news agency in Beirut, claiming responsibility for the crash on behalf of Islamic Jihad, a wing of Ḥizbu ‘llāh, (literally “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon. According to United Press International “Hours after the crash the Islamic Jihad – a Shiite Muslim extremist group – claimed it destroyed the plane to prove [its] ability to strike at the Americans anywhere.”

Canadian and Pentagon government authorities dismissed the claim.

The nine-member Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) investigated the crash and issued a report, over the signature of five members:

“The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact sequence of events which led to this accident. The Board believes, however, that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that, shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift which resulted in a stall at low altitude from which recovery was not possible. The most probable cause of the stall was determined to be ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing. Other possible factors such as a loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds may have compounded the effects of the contamination”.

The report went on to criticize the antiquated foil-tape Flight Data Recorder as inadequate, as well as a non-functioning cockpit-area microphone.  No one would ever know what flight 1285 sounded like, in those final seconds.

The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.

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Memorial service at Dover AFB, December 6, 1985

There were changes in de-icing procedures, but little confidence in the CASB’s official report.  The Canadian government disbanded the board five years later, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

A memorial was erected at the crash site overlooking Gander Lake, a “Silent Witness”, designed by Kentucky artist, Steve Shields.  A stone memorial was erected at Fort Campbell, the Gander Memorial bearing the names of the 248, slain.  The scar on the ground is easily seen from the ground as well as from satellite, and remains there, to this day.

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Feature image, top of page:  “Silent Witness” by Kentucky artist Steve Shields. Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Gander Lake, with a DC-8 taking off in the background. H/T wikipedia

Afterward

Canadian teenager Janice Johnson wanted to find a way to honor the fallen from flight 1285. “I wanted these Families to know that we as Canadians cared.

Johnson (now Nikkel) came up with $20 earned from babysitting, and a letter to the Toronto Star.  Nikkel’s letter sparked an international campaign, resulting in 256 Canadian sugar maple trees in 1986, a living memorial to the fallen soldiers and crew, of flight 1285.

What a Canadian could have told you and Kentucky had to learn the hard way, is that 20-ft. spacing isn’t enough room, for a grove of sugar maples.

Thirty-two years later, the Gander Memorial grove is crowded and tangled and, sadly, no longer viable. The old memorial closed this year, to be replaced in April 2019, if the schedule holds. You can read about it in the Fort Campbell Courier, if you’d like to know more.

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 7, 1941 Aftermath

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes.  Across Hickam Field and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40′ were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

_oahuBilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawled out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull. USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remaining within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona. Repairs were prioritized and USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma DiverRecovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3″ cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day, for the first time in over two years.

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USS Oklahoma, righting strategy

Fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

9781591147244CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay. She would never make it. Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around, when these two giant tugs suddenly found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

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Ocean-going tug Hercules, photograph by William Havle

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached, but Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks directly over Oklahoma’s final resting place, the 409-ton tug bobbing to the surface like the float of a child’s fishing line.

“Okie” had been stabbed in the back, attacked and mortally wounded before she knew her nation was at war.  The causes leading to her final descent, remain uncertain.  Most will tell you, those plates couldn’t hold.  The beating of six years earlier, was just too much.   Those who served on her decks, might tell you she preferred to die at sea.

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 4, 1950 Wingmen to the End

Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

Jesse LeRoy Brown was born in 1926 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the son of a schoolteacher and a warehouse worker.   A mixed-race young man of African, Chickasaw and Choctaw ancestry, Jesse grew up in a time of real discrimination.  Brown had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up under depression-era segregation, but his parents kept him on the “straight & narrow”.  Julia and John Brown made sure their kids stuck with their studies.  Such parental devotion would serve them well.

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Thomas Jerome Hudner, Jr. was born in 1924, the son of a successful Irish grocer from Fall River, Massachusetts who went on to attend the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, in 1939.

The pair could not have come from more different backgrounds, but both men became  carrier pilots with the United States Navy, and served together during the conflict in Korea.

110kqivOn June 25, 1950, ten divisions of the North Korean People’s Army launched a surprise invasion of their neighbor to the south. The 38,000-man army of the Republic of Korea didn’t have a chance against 89,000 men sweeping down in six columns from the north. Within hours, the shattered remnants of the army of the ROK and its government, were streaming south toward the capital of Seoul.

The United Nations security council voted to send troops to the Korean peninsula. In November, the People’s Republic of China entered the conflict in support of their Communist neighbor.

By December, 120,000 troops of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) had all but overrun the 15,000 men of the US X Corps, who found themselves surrounded in the frozen wasteland of the Chosin Reservoir. Dozens of close air support missions were being flown every day to keep the Chinese army at bay.

At 13:38 on December 4, Thomas “Lou” Hudner took off from the carrier USS Leyte, part of a six-aircraft flight with squadron executive officer Lieutenant Commander Dick Cevoli, Lieutenant George Hudson, Lieutenant Junior Grade Bill Koenig, Ensign Ralph McQueen and Hudner’s wingman, Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown.

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“Off To The Chosin” by Nicolas Trudgian

An hour later, Koenig radio’d Brown that his aircraft appeared to be trailing fuel.  Chinese infantry were known to hide in the snow, and ambush incoming aircraft.  It’s likely that Brown was hit by small arms fire, from the ground.  Losing oil pressure with the aircraft all but impossible to control, Brown had no choice but to crash land on a snow covered mountain side. Flying overhead, Hudner could see his wing man below, severely injured, his leg trapped in the crumpled cockpit, struggling to get out of the burning aircraft.

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“Wingmen to the End” by Gareth Hector Hat tip Adam Makos, author of “Devotion, an epic story of heroism, friendship and sacrifice”, https://www.adammakos.com/devotion-book.html

Hudner did the unthinkable and deliberately crash landed his own aircraft.  Now injured himself, Hudner hobbled across the snow to the aid of his trapped wing man. He scooped snow onto the fire with his bare hands in the 15° cold, burning himself in the process as Brown faded in and out of consciousness. A Marine Corps helicopter landed at 15:00, piloted by Lieutenant Charles Ward.  The two went at the stricken aircraft with an axe for 45 minutes, but could not free the trapped pilot.

The two were considering Jesse’s plea that they amputate his trapped leg with that axe, when the pilot faded away for the last time. Jesse Brown’s last words were “Tell Daisy I love her”.

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They had to leave. “Night was coming on” Hudner later explained, “and the helicopter was not equipped to fly in the dark. We’ll come back for you”, he said.  Jesse Brown could no longer hear.

Hudner pleaded the following day to be allowed to go back to the crash site, but his superiors were unwilling to risk further loss of life. Two days later, the site was bombed with napalm, to prevent the aircraft and the body from falling into Chinese or North Korean hands.  Jesse Brown’s body was still stuck in the cockpit though, by this time, his clothes had been removed.

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H/T Sierra Hotel Aeronautics

American pilots recited the Lord’s prayer, as they watched his body being consumed by the flames.

Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first Black Naval Aviator in American history, became the first to die, sixty-eight years ago, today.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart,  posthumously.

Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on that frozen mountainside. One of eleven to be so honored following the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, Hudner would remain the only Naval aviator awarded the Medal of Honor, during the entire conflict in Korea.

In July of 2013, Thomas Hudner returned to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, in fulfillment of a 63-year-old promise.  “We’ll come back for you“.

Political relations with the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea were as frigid at that time as the frozen mountains of the Chosin Reservoir, yet Hudner received permission to return to the site. He was 88 at the time. In the end, wretched weather hampered the effort.  North Korean authorities told him to return when the weather was more cooperative.

Recently, American President Donald Trump has worked toward a thaw in relations on the Korean peninsula, in cooperation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Less than a week ago, a South Korean train crossed the demilitarized zone into North Korea, a move which would have been unheard of, for much of the last seventy years.

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“Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Hudner, left, meets Commander Nathan Scherry following the christening of the USS Thomas Hudner in Bath, Maine, on April 1, 2017. Scherry will command the new guided-missile destroyer”.  H/T, KDSK.com

The future is uncertain, but Korean rapprochement comes too late for Lou Hudner and Jesse Brown.  Thomas Jerome “Lou” Hudner passed away at his home in Concord, Massachusetts, on November 13, 2017, and was buried a with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 93.  The remains of Jesse LeRoy Brown were never recovered from that North Korean mountainside.

Three days ago, Hudner’s wife of fifty years Georgea was on-hand to witness the United States Navy commission its newest naval warship in Boston.  The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Thomas Hudner.

Afterward – Do you believe in Ghosts?

November 9, 2013 A Rare and Vintage Cognac

On November 9, 2013, a 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 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 took off 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 Forces.  It was payback for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, seven 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, and 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 had been breached, the bomb run was forced to launch 200 miles before the intended departure spot.  The range made fighter escort impossible, and left the bombers themselves with only the slimmest margin of error.

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 and 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 could have betrayed the Americans and refused, will never be known.

Amazingly, only eight were captured, among the 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.

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 it 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.  1896, the year Jimmy Doolittle was born. There’s been a bargain among the survivors that, one day, the last two would open that bottle, and toast their comrades.

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In 2013 they changed their bargain.  Just a little. Jimmy Doolittle himself passed away in 1993. Twenty years later, 76 goblets had been 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 that they would 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, a 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.  As I write this, only one of those eighty goblets remains upright.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole, co-pilot to mission leader Jimmy Doolittle himself, is 103.  He is the only living man on the planet, who has earned the right to open that rare and vintage cognac.

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.