April 19, 1961 Bay of Pigs

Castro proclaimed his administration to be an example of “direct democracy”, and dismissed the need for elections.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista seized power in March 1952, proclaiming himself president and labeling his new governing philosophy “disciplined democracy”. While Batista enjoyed limited popular support when he canceled presidential elections, many Cubans came to see the administration as a one-man dictatorship.  Opponents of the regime formed several anti-Batista groups, taking to armed rebellion to oust the government. The best known of these groups was the “26th of July Movement”, founded by the lawyer Fidel Castro and operated out of base camps in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

bay-of-pigs_timeline

Batista’s repressive tactics led to widespread disapproval by the late 1950s, culminating in his resignation on December 31, 1958.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro proclaimed his administration to be an example of “direct democracy”, and dismissed the need for elections.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports stadia in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of supporters of the former regime were executed.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he would personally order a retrial.

American influence had once been widespread on the island, but that went away as the Castro regime adopted an increasingly leftist posture. “Until Castro”, said Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, “the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”

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When US authorities objected to being required to process oil purchased from the Soviet Union, Castro nationalized US controlled oil refineries run by Esso and Standard Oil as well as Anglo-Dutch Shell.  Tit-for-tat retaliations resulted in the expropriation of American owned banks and sugar refineries. By October 1960 the Castro regime had “nationalized” a total of 166 such businesses including Coca Cola, and Sears & Roebuck.

Secretary of State Christian Herter publicly stated that Castro was “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern” by instituting a single-party political system, taking control of trade unions, suppressing civil liberties and sharply limiting both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Castro fired back, criticizing the way blacks and the working classes were treated in New York City, attacking US media as “controlled by big business” and claiming that the American poor were living “in the bowels of the imperialist monster”.

A “secret” operation was conceived and initiated under the Eisenhower administration, and approved by the incoming Kennedy administration.  Beginning on April 15, 8 B-29 CIA bombers attacked Cuban military aircraft on the ground at several locations. A B-26 bearing Cuban markings and perforated with bullet-holes later landed at Miami International Airport, the pilots claiming to be defecting Cubans. The story began to unravel, as soon as reporters noted the plane’s machine guns, hadn’t been fired.  Furthermore, Cubans didn’t operate that type of aircraft. Fidel Castro quipped, not even Hollywood would have tried such a feeble story.

The invasion began on the 16th, when 1,400 Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón”, or “Bay of Pigs”.  Snagged on razor sharp coral that reconnaissance had identified as seaweed, landing forces were pinned down as government forces responded in the early morning hours of April 17. The landing achieved a beachhead, but things quickly started to go wrong.  A freighter containing food, fuel, medical equipment and ten days’ ammunition, was sunk. The Cuban Air Force had taken a beating two days earlier, but “Brigade 2506” wasn’t supplied with fighter aircraft at all.  Wanting to preserve “plausible deniability”, President Kennedy refused to allow US fighters to go into combat, leaving the remnants of the Cuban Air Force unopposed. 

Landing forces were bombed and strafed, at will.

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In the end, Kennedy was persuaded to authorize unmarked US fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Essex to provide escort cover for the invasion’s B-26 bombers, most of which were flown by CIA personnel in support of the ground invasion. Fighters missed their rendezvous by an hour, due to a misunderstanding about time zones.  Unescorted bombers are easy targets, and two of them were shot down with four Americans killed. The fiasco came to and end on April 19 with 118 dead and 1,202, captured.

In reality, the Bay of Pigs invasion was doomed from the start. Castro was popular at that time and the project had not exactly been a secret. The New York Times ran a story a month earlier, predicting a US invasion of Cuba in the coming weeks.  Another story ran on April 7, headlined “Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases,” reporting that invasion plans were in their final stages. When Kennedy saw the paper, he said that Castro didn’t need spies. All he had to do was read the news.

April 14, 1958, Pupnik

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took the small dog home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”


At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

Baker
“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

Laika
Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11-pound mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

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Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika and capsule

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that only allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

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In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

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Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

AFTERWARD

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As a lifelong dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript to this thoroughly depressing tale.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 and returned safely, to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

Charlie, Pushinka
Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev gave one of them, a puppy called “Pushinka,” to President John F. Kennedy.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies. JFK called them his “pupniks”. Rumor has it their descendants are still around, to this day.

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Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn

Tip of the hat to the 2019 Vienna Film Award winning “Space dogs” for the artwork at the top of this page.

March 9, 1953 Always be a Good boy

For that one moment one signal operator was the only man in the free world, who knew what the world would soon learn


All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe once orchestrated the murder of 20,000 civilians from a single province, after failing to receive even one vote. During the late 1970s, Pol Pot and a revolutionary leftist cadre called the Angka murdered 1/5th the population of the southeast Asian nation, of Cambodia. Communist Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s policies and political purges killed between 49 and 78 million fellow Chinese citizens, between 1949 and 1976.

You’re really playing in the Big Leagues when they can’t get your body count any closer than the nearest thirty million.

Life in Mao’s China was quite different from that depicted in the propaganda posters.

From Adolf Hitler to Idi Amin, the top ten dictators of the last 150 years account for the loss of nearly 150 million souls. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin joined this parade of horribles with the deliberate starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians in 1932-’33, a political famine known as the Holodomor. Estimates of the dead attributed to the Communist monster run as high as 60 million, surpassing that of even the National Socialist dictator, Adolf Hitler.

Stalin suffered from poor health in his final years. He was found on the floor of his Kuntsevo Dacha on March 1, 1953, semiconscious, suffering from a brain hemorrhage. His was “a difficult and terrible death” according to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, lasting four days. Josef Stalin died on March 5, perhaps of natural causes, perhaps he was murdered. Few knew. Fewer cared. The beast was dead.

Fifteen hundred miles to the west in Landsberg Germany, a young staff sergeant was listening. Landsberg was a forward base at this time in the decades-long standoff we remember, as the “Cold war”.

John enlisted in the Air force in 1950, reporting for duty at Lackland AFB, in Texas. He met the woman who would become his first wife there, Vivian, but that was all four years in the future. For now, the budding romance would have to wait. John had deployment papers, to Landsberg.

Today if we want to talk with someone we pick up the phone, but it wasn’t always that easy. In the early 19th century, Europeans experimented with various electrical signaling devices.

Samuel Morse developed a system of timed signals in the early 1840s. Two tones, one short and one long, combined to represent every letter in the alphabet, and every number.

Dots and dashes. Dits and Dahs

John had talent when it came to Morse code. Signals were anything but clear but he could almost anticipate the patterns, coming out of the ether.

Rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant, John was often placed at the forward position, straining to derive meaning through the static from the distant Dits and Dahs of Soviet communications.

The work was demanding and highly secretive. He wasn’t allowed to leave base and when he did, privileges were sharply limited. He couldn’t even share the work with his sweetheart, back in Texas. In hundreds of letters home he never could talk about what he did. He may as well have been in prison.

John saw an American film around this time, a film noir crime drama called Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison. He could relate.

At night, “Johnny” would seek a kind of lonely solace with his old guitar. He found a rhythm, a melody of sorts in the dots and dashes, of Morse code.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-Dah

He even started a band, called the “Landsberg Barbarians”.

So it was the young Staff Sergeant was listening to Soviet chatter on March 5, 1953, straining to pull some order out of faint and distant signals confused and all but obliterated, by static. And then it came to him. The one word standing out from the sequence.

DDah-Dit-Dit
EDit
ADit-Dah
DDah-Dit-Dit

He listened to it again, and again. The news was momentous if true but he had to get this right. In all the free world he alone knew, what the rest would soon learn. The Soviet leader, the Great Beast Josef Stalin, was dead.

Sergeant Cash told his superiors of what he had learned, and the rest is history. Josef Stalin lay in state for three days at Moscow’s House of Unions where the crush of crowds killed 100 people. He was laid to rest in Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square on March 9.

Johnny went back to his job. At night he’d pick up his guitar. The Dits and Dahs. The words would come later but, for now, the melody. A song begun in Landsberg so many would come to believe had arrived later, following that famous visit to Folsom Prison.

For many years, Johnny Cash could tell no one about the Stalin intercept. 3 Hall of Fame inductions, 9 CMA awards and 17 Grammys would have to wait. For now he went back to his job save for nights spent alone. Nights when the talent which had found its voice in that rare ability to find patterns in Morse code found another voice, one we could all understand.

Dit-Dah-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dit-Dah-Dah, Dit-Dah-Dah-Dit-Dah-DahWhen I was just a baby, my mama told me “Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns…“”

November 23, 1932 Holodomor

Warm and well fed with Russian mistress comfortably ensconced in Moscow, French wife hidden away on the Riviera, the British born New York Times Times reporter-turned international playboy opined, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

In 1928, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding such as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Holodomor_Novo-Krasne_Odessa_11_1932.pngArmed “dekulakization brigades” confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Nearly half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31 alone, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter.  Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

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Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

no-nb_blds_01867-beskåret-1200x1278.jpgAt the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under. How many died in total, is anyone’s guess. Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

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2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

Stalin denied to the world there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”. Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the New York Times.

Warm and well fed with Russian mistress comfortably ensconced in Moscow, French wife hidden away on the Riviera, the British born New York Times Times reporter-turned international playboy opined, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

1um1ow.jpgTo this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed.

Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union to see for herself.

Holodomor-Great-Famine-Ukraine-emaciated-horse-1932-1933-Alexander-Wienerberger-photographer.jpgTo do so at all was an act of courage.  single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history.  Particularly when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in a world of Soviet propaganda and ignorant of the world as it was.

Duranty’s idea of “bon voyage” was the cynical offer, to write her obituary.

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Rhea Clyman

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside, as it really was.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens in Ukraine.

To read what Clyman wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  The moment of discovery:  “They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

A tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.  “We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….” 

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”  What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people starved to death, every day. Pitifully, many yet believed the government in Moscow was going to help. If only comrade Stalin knew…

holodomor-1.jpgThe Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley once explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev. A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

Holodomor memorial. The Holodomor/????????? was a man-made famine in the Ukrainian SSR between 1932 and 1933. During the famine, 2.4 – 7.5 millions of Ukrainians died of starvation.

Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected adults. I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor even means. We are a self-governing Republic. All 100 should be well acquainted with the term.

November 16, 1959 Pepsi’s Navy

Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of “New Coke” has been described as the “marketing blunder of the ages” but, what really turned business rivalry to blood feud, was when Pepsi bought it’s own navy.

Coca-Cola was first introduced in 1886. Pepsi appeared seven years later, in 1893. The most famous rivalry in the soft drink business really heated up in the 1930s, when Pepsi offered a 12-oz. bottle for the same 5¢ as Coca Cola’s six ounces.

The Coca Cola Company’s flagship brand had a 60% share by the end of WWII, but that declined to less than 24% by the early 80s. Most of the difference was lost to Pepsi and their “Pepsi challenge” blind taste test promotions, of the late 1970s.

Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of “New Coke” has been described as the “marketing blunder of the ages” but, what really turned business rivalry to blood feud, was when Pepsi bought it’s own navy.

Alright, it didn’t happen quite that way but, still. The company did have its own navy. Not a little one, either. In 1990, Pepsi owned the 6th largest navy, in the world.

Permit me to rewind, just a bit. The “Cold War” experienced a period of thaw in 1959. Chairman of the Council of Ministers Nikita Kruschev came to visit President Eisenhower in the White house, and the two agreed on a bit of cultural exchange. A display of each civilization for the benefit of the other’s citizens.

So it was the American National Exhibition came to Moscow in the summer of 1959 followed by a Soviet display, in New York.

An argument broke out between Vice President Richard Nixon and Leader Kruschev, over the benefits of Capitalism vs Communism. A heated debate really, it was July, and the Soviet leader looked thirsty.

Pepsi Cola VP Donald McIntosh Kendall thought it was a swell idea, to offer the man a Pepsi. That’s Kendall, pouring, below. That drink was a propaganda coup, the image itself a victory, so much so that on this day in 1959…nothing happened. The “Sound of Music” opened on Broadway. I don’t know, maybe they were all distracted, but one thing is certain. Nikita Kruschev loved him a Pepsi

The exhibition opened the way to the Soviet market for several American companies including IBM, Dixie-cup, Disney and…you got it…Pepsi. That image was a coup for Kendall as well. Within a few years he was CEO and, in 1972 Pepsi negotiated an exclusive marketing agreement, for the Soviet consumer. Coke was out. Pepsi was in. It was the first popular consumer product to make its way to the soviet consumer, a market which would come to be worth $3 Billion, with a capital “B”.

There was a problem however, in the form of payment. The Ruble was no good on the international currency exchange. There had to be a more…umm…liquid form of transfer.

Vodka.

The Russians had tons of the stuff, and so it was agreed. Pepsi would be transferred in exchange for…Vodka.

The system worked so nicely that “Stoli’s” become a household word but, by the late 80s, it was time to renegotiate. Pepsi had 20 bottling plants on Soviet soil. Vodka wasn’t about to pay for all that. Did I mention the USSR was a $3 Billion market for sugary, bubbly water?

It happened by this time, the Soviet Union was looking to get rid of surplus equipment from the Cold War, including a Destroyer, a Cruiser, 17 Submarines and a Frigate.

So it was, at least for a time, Pepsi became owner of the 6th largest navy, on the planet.

Lucky for Coke, the Cola Wars were destined to remain cold. Ice cold. The Pepsi Fleet was sold to a Swedish outfit, for $3 Billion worth of scrap. Donald Kendall left this world on September 19 of this year but we must give him the last word, in this story.

According to his New York Times obituary Kendall once quipped to Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to President George H. W. Bush: “We’re disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are”.

October 22, 1962 Thirteen Days

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock. The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock, reset. Even so, the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any other time in history, before or since. A scant handful of seconds is all that remained, before worldwide nuclear incineration.

doomsday clock, 1

In 1947, members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists envisioned a “Doomsday Clock”, a symbolic clock face to dramatize the threat of global nuclear catastrophe.  Initially set at seven minutes to midnight, the “time” has varied from seventeen minutes ’til with the 1995 collapse of the Soviet Union, to two minutes before midnight with “Operation Ivy”, the first American thermonuclear detonation, in 1952.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was never reflected on the doomsday clock.   The deadlock broke before circumstances could be fully determined and the clock, reset.  Even so, the events of October 1962 brought us closer to the brink than any other time in history, before or since.  A scant handful of seconds is all that remained, before worldwide nuclear incineration.

All that needs to be known about Cuban Dictator Fulgencio Batista, is that he fled office with $300,000,000 US, on December 31, 1958.  The triumphant rebel columns streaming out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, were quick to establish themselves in power.  By February 1959, Fidel Castro had installed himself as Prime Minister.

Castro dismissed the need for elections, proclaiming his government to be a “direct democracy”.  The Cuban people could assemble demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally, he said.  Who needs elections?

“Trials” were carried out across the country, some in sports arenas, in front of thousands of spectators.  Hundreds of Batista supporters were executed or imprisoned as Castro’s “Revolutionary Socialist State” purged itself of the former regime.  When Castro didn’t like the outcome, he’d personally order a retrial.

Earl Smith, former American Ambassador to Cuba, described the Ambassadorship as “the second most important man,” in Cuba.  Now, the Castro administration distanced itself from the US, adopting an increasingly leftist posture and seizing US controlled oil installations, banks and sugar refineries.  By October 1960 the government had “nationalized” 166 such businesses, including Coca Cola and Sears, Roebuck.

bay-of-pigs

Since the Presidency of James Monroe, US foreign policy has opposed outside intervention in the American hemisphere.  The government was not about to permit a communist state, 90 miles from Key West.

A secret operation to overthrow the Cuban government was conceived and initiated by the Eisenhower administration, and put into motion in April 1961.  1,400 CIA backed Cuban exiles landed on Cuba’s “Playa Girón“ (Bay of Pigs), intending to overthrow the communist government.

The effort was doomed to failure.  The New York Times had been reporting on the “secret invasion”, for a month before it began.

Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration sought other means of removing communists from power.  “Operation Mongoose” sought to embarrass and discredit Castro personally, with tactics ranging from print & radio propaganda, to hallucinogenic chemical-laced cigars.  Some dedicated public servant had the hare-brained idea of lining Castro’s shoes with thallium salts, to make his beard fall out.

The Communist government consolidated power, taking control of trade unions, jailing opponents, suppressing civil liberties and sharply limiting freedom of speech and the press. Secretary of State Christian Herter described Castro’s single-party political system as “following faithfully the Bolshevik pattern”.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev concluded from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that the American President was impotent and indecisive.  One Soviet adviser described Kennedy as “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations… too intelligent and too weak.”

Cuban and Soviet officials reached a secret arms agreement in July, 1962.   By late summer, American intelligence discovered Soviet Ilyushin Il-28 jet bombers in Cuba.

Worse yet, construction had begun on several missile sites.  On October 14, ultra-high-altitude Lockheed U–2R reconnaissance aircraft photographs revealed the presence of medium and intermediate range ballistic nuclear missile sites, under construction in Cuba.

1st_Reconnaissance_Squadron_Lockheed_U-2R_80-1068
A redesigned version of the U-2, the U-2R, was used from the late 1960s through the 1990s

President Kennedy warned of the “gravest consequences” resulting from the introduction of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba, while Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko insisted that Soviet aid was purely defensive. U-2 photographs gave lie to Gromyko’s protestations.  Images taken on the 17th revealed the presence of 16-32 missiles.

The administration went to great lengths to portray “business as usual”, while behind the scenes, policy makers wrangled over options from quarantine to tactical air strike to outright military invasion.  President Kennedy himself suddenly departed a political event in Chicago, his aids concocting a “cold” diagnosis to explain his sudden absence.

Cuban Missile Crisis, cold

In a televised speech on October 22, Kennedy publicly revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, and called for their removal.  A naval quarantine would close off the island, Kennedy said, until Soviet leaders agreed dismantle missile sites, and to make certain that no additional missiles were shipped to Cuba.

From the Soviet perspective, Cuba was a small ally behind enemy lines, no different than the Americans toehold, in West Berlin.  Beside that, the Americans already had missiles in Italy and Turkey.

Kruschev had gambled and lost, that he could “[I]nstall nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them”.

Distances of Major Cites from Cuba
1962 — This newspaper map from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis shows the distances from Cuba of various cities on the North American Continent. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The President warned “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”  There was no mistaking American intent.

Kruschev replied, “I hope that the United States Government will display wisdom and renounce the actions pursued by you, which may lead to catastrophic consequences for world peace…”

Soviet nuclear submarines moved in response to the quarantine, as Cuban waters became the scene of a tense, naval standoff.

Cuban Missile Crisis, contest

Kruschev responded on the 24th, describing the US blockade as an act of aggression.  Castro urged the Soviet leader to initiate a nuclear first strike, should the Americans invade Cuban soil. The Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a “Defense Readiness Condition” status of DEFCON 3.  The United States Air Force was now ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.

U-2 photographs of the 25th & 26th showed accelerated construction on the island, with several silos approaching operational readiness.  US air forces were placed at DEFCON 2.  War involving Strategic Air Command, was now “imminent”.

Cuban Missile Crisis, mushroom cloud

On day twelve of the standoff, October 27, an American U-2 was shot out of the sky by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.  The pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson Jr, was posthumously awarded the first Air Force Cross in history, as well as the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the Cheney Award.

Anderson’s was the only combat death of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he wasn’t alone.  Three reconnaissance-variant Stratojets crashed between September 27 and November 11, killing 11 airmen.  Seven more died on October 23, when their C-135B Stratolifter stalled and crashed delivering ammunition to the Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay.

The most dangerous phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end on October 28, when Radio Moscow announced that Cuban missiles would be removed in exchange for an American pledge not to invade.  In a secret “side deal”, the Kennedy administration also agreed to remove American “Jupiter” missiles, from Turkey.

Cuban Missile Crisis, headline 2

The most dangerous thirteen days in world history, had come and gone.  The American quarantine would continue until November 20, when the Soviets agreed to remove their bombers.  The Americans removed Turkish missiles, the following April.

Throughout this period, a blizzard of communications both direct and indirect, were exchanged between Washington and Moscow.  With little to go on but mutual distrust, Kennedy, Kruschev and both their aids each sought to discern the true intent of their adversary.

If there is no intention,” wrote Kruschev, “to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.”

Cuban Missile Crisis, headline 1

In 1963, American and Soviet governments established the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link, from a mutual desire that we never again, get that close to the brink.  Contrary to popular culture, this “hotline” has no “red phone”. Never did.  The Moscow–Washington hotline was at first a dedicated teletype, replaced by direct-link fax machine in 1986. Since 2008, the Pentagon maintains a secure computer link with the Russian Federation, where messages are exchanged by email.

March 11, 1958 The Day the US, Nuked Itself

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.

If you’re ever in South Carolina, stop and enjoy the historical delights of the Pee Dee region. About a half-hour from Pedro’s “South of the Border”, there you will find the “All-American City” of Florence, according to the National Civic League of 1965. With a population of about 38,000, Florence describes itself as a regional center for business, medicine, culture and finance.

Oh.  And the Federal Government dropped a Nuke on the place. Sixty-two years ago, today.

maxresdefault (29)To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible time.  Those of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The Air Force Boeing Stratojet bomber left Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, on a routine flight to Africa via the United Kingdom.  Just in case thermonuclear war was to break out with the Soviet Union, the B47 carried a 10-foot 8-inch, 7,600-pound, Mark 4, atomic bomb.

The Atlantic Coastline Railroad conductor, WWII veteran & former paratrooper Walter Gregg Sr. was in the workshop next to his home in the Mars Bluff neighborhood of Florence, South Carolina while his wife, Ethel Mae “Effie” Gregg, was inside, sewing. The Gregg sisters Helen and Frances, ages 6 and 9, were playing in the woods with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies as the B47 Stratojet bomber lumbered overhead.b47-7aAt 15,000-feet, a warning light came on in the cockpit, indicating the load wasn’t properly secured.   Not wanting a thing like that rattling around in the back, Captain Earl E. Koehler sent navigator Bruce M. Kulka, to investigate.  Kulka slipped and grabbed out for something, to steady himself.  That “something” just happened to be, the emergency release.

Bomb bay doors alone are woefully inadequate to hold back a 4-ton bomb. The thing came free and began a 15,000-foot descent, straight into the Gregg’s back yard.

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This hole 50 feet wide and 20 feet deep was made after an Air Force nuclear weapon accidentally fell from a B-47 and exploded in Florence, South Carolina, March 12, 1958. The home of Walter Gregg (background) was almost destroyed. Several members of his family were treated for injuries. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

The Mark 4 atom bomb employs an IFI (in-flight insertion) safety, whereby composite uranium and plutonium fissile pits are inserted into the bomb core, thus arming the weapon. When deployed, a 6,000-pound. conventional explosion super-compresses the fissile core, beginning a nuclear chain reaction. In the first millisecond, (one millionth of a second), plasma expands to a size of several meters as temperatures rise into the tens of millions of degrees, Celsius. Thermal electromagnetic “Black-body” radiation in the X-Ray spectrum is absorbed into the surrounding air, producing a fireball. The kinetic energy imparted by the reaction produces an initial explosive force of about 7,500 miles, per second.

This particular nuke was unarmed that day but three tons of conventional explosives can ruin your whole day.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-feet wide and 35-feet deep and destroying the Gregg home, the farmhouse, workshop and several outbuildings.  Buildings within a five-mile radius were damaged, including a local church.  Effie gashed her head when the walls blew in but miraculously, no one was killed except for a couple chickens.  Not even the cat.

screen_shot_2016-05-11_at_60319_pmThree years later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crew members ejected from the aircraft at 9,000-feet and landed safely, another ejected but did not survive the landing. Two others died in the crash.

In this incident, both weapons were fully nuclear-enabled.  A single switch out of four, is all that prevented at least one of the things, from going off.

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One Mk 39 nuclear weapon from the Goldsboro incident remained largely intact, with parachute still attached. The second plunged into a muddy field at about 700mph, and disintegrated.

Walter Gregg described the Mars Bluff incident in 2001, in director Peter Kuran’s documentary “Nuclear 911”. “It just came like a bolt of lightning”, he said. “Boom! And it was all over. The concussion …caved the roof in.” Left with little but the clothes on their backs, the Greggs eventually sued the Federal Government.

The family was awarded $36,000 by the United States Air force.  It wasn’t enough to rebuild the house let alone, replace their possessions.  Walter Gregg resented it, for the rest of his life.

download - 2020-03-11T083015.786Over the years, members of the flight crew stopped by to apologize for the episode.

The land remains in private hands but it’s federally protected, so it can’t be developed.   They even made a path back in 2008 and installed a few signs,  but those were mostly stolen by college kids.

You can check it out for yourself if you want to amuse the locals.  They’ll know what you’re doing as soon as you drive through the neighborhood, the second time.  Crater Rd/4776 Lucius Circle, Mars Bluff, SC (Hat tip roadsideamerica.com)

A month before the Mars Bluff incident, a hydrogen bomb was accidentally dropped in the ocean, off Tybee Island, Georgia.  Incidents involving the loss or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons are called “Broken Arrows“.  There have been 32 such incidents, since 1950.  As of this date, six atomic weapons remain unaccounted for, including that one off the Georgia coast.

Feature image top of page;  “C. B. Gregg looks at the bomb damaged home of his brother Walter Gregg who was injured after an Air Force bomb hit about 100 yards away on March 12, 1958, in Florence, S.C. (AP Photo) H/T Military Times

January 25, 1949 The Candy Bomber

By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche.  College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood.  By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.

World War II ended on May 8, 1945 in Europe, leaving the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) in place, in and around the former Nazi capital of Berlin.  Representatives of the 3 met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg between July-August, hammering out a series of agreements known as the Potsdam agreement.

Built on earlier accords reached through conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, the agreement addressed issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.

The Potsdam agreement called for the division of defeated Germany into four zones of occupation, roughly coinciding with then-current locations of the allied armies. The former capital city of Berlin was itself partitioned into four zones of occupation. A virtual island located 100 miles inside of Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.

berlin-1948During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the drive to destroy the Nazi war machine.  Such differences were quick to reassert themselves in the wake of German defeat.  In Soviet-occupied east Germany, factories and equipment were disassembled and transported to the Soviet Union, along with technicians, managers and skilled personnel.

The former Nazi capital quickly became the focal point of diametrically opposite governing philosophies.  Leaders on both sides believed that Europe itself, was at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

images (58)West Berlin, a city utterly destroyed by war, was home to some 2.3 million at that time, roughly three times the city of Boston.

Differences grew and sharpened between the former allies, coming to a crisis in 1948. On June 26, Soviets blocked access by road, rail and water, to western occupation zones.

This was no idle threat.  Of all the malignant governing ideologies of history, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has to be counted among the worst.  These people had no qualms about using genocide by starvation as a political tool.  They had proven as much during the Holodomor of 1932 – ’33, during which this evil empire had murdered millions of its own citizens, by deliberate starvation.  To Josef Stalin, two million dead civilians was nothing more than a means to an end.

At the time, West Berlin had only 36 days’ worth of food, and 45 days’ supply of coal.Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-19000-1661_Berlin_Kinder_spielen_in_Ruinen-e1445197409271With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated a daily ration of only 1,990 calories would require 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for the children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.

With electricity shut off by Soviet authorities, heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline.

All of this and more was going to be needed.  Every.  Single. Day.

BA_Aircrews_LgWhat followed is known to history, as the Berlin Airlift.  At the height of the operation, a cargo aircraft landed every thirty seconds, in West Berlin. Altogether, the USAAF delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 on a total of 278,228 sorties.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 flights.

Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from Earth to the Sun, at a cost of 39 British and 31 American lives.

800px-BerlinerBlockadeLuftwegeUS Army Air Force Colonel Gail “Hal” Halvorsen was one of those pilots, flying C-47s and C-54 aircraft deep inside of Soviet controlled territory.  On his days off, Halvorsen liked to go sightseeing, often bringing a small movie camera.

One day in July, Hal was filming take-offs and landings at the Templehof strip when he spotted some thirty children, on the other side of a barbed wire fence.  He went over to speak with them, and felt impressed.  It was normal for children to ask GIs  “Any gum, chum?” or “Any bon-bon?”  Not these kids.  Dirty, half starved and possessed of nothing whatsoever, these kids had spirit.  Halvorsen remembers:

“I met about thirty children at the barbed wire fence that protected Tempelhof’s huge area. They were excited and told me that ‘when the weather gets so bad that you can’t land, don’t worry about us. We can get by on a little food, but if we lose our freedom, we may never get it back.'”

Reaching in his pocket, Halvorsen found two sticks of gum.  Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. Breaking them each into four pieces he gave them to the nearest children, only to watch them break the gum into smaller pieces, to share with their friends.  Those who got none received tiny slivers of the wrappers themselves, small faces shining with joy at just a whiff of mint from the wrapper.

Halvorsen told the kids he’d be back tomorrow, on one of those planes.  He’d have enough for them all, he said.  You’ll know it’s my plane because I’ll wiggle my wings.

That night, Halvorsen, his co-pilot and engineer, pooled their candy rations.  Even small boxes can’t simply be tossed out of a moving aircraft, and so, the three rigged handkerchiefs.  Tiny little “parachutes”, for tiny little packages.

Halvorsen made such drops three times over the next three weeks and noticed each time, the group of children waiting by the wire, grew larger.

tumblr_mc0esdHpaP1rezpz7o1_500Newspapers got wind of what was going on.  Halvorsen thought he’d be in trouble, but no. Lieutenant General William Henry Tunner liked the idea. A lot. “Operation Little Vittles” became official, on September 22.

What had begun between Halvorsen and his friends spread to the whole squadron. Word quickly crossed the ocean and children all over the United States gave up their own, for kids who had less.  Soon, candy manufacturers themselves joined in.

By November, what had begun as a trickle had turned to a confectionery avalanche.  College student Mary Connors of Chicopee Massachusetts stepped up and offered to take charge of the flood.  By now, this was a national project. Volunteers were assembled in their hundreds to collect candy and tie them to little cloth parachutes.

“Christmas from Heaven: The Candy Bomber Story” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra, Narrated by Tom Brokaw

Before long, pilots were dropping little packages, all over Berlin. They were the Rosinenbombers. Raisin Bombers. Halvorsen himself came to be known by many names, to the children of Berlin. “Uncle Wiggly Wings”. “The Chocolate Uncle”. “The Gum Drop Kid”. “The Chocolate Flier”.

Colonel Halvorsen’s work even earned him two letters, proposals of marriage, but he turned them both down.  He was carrying on a romance by letter at this time, with Miss Alta Jolley.  The couple would go on to marry in April of 1949, a marriage which would last, for fifty years. Alta Jolley Halvorsen passed away on this day in 1999 leaving her husband, 5 adult children and 24 grandchildren.

On this day in 1949, the Berlin Airlift had barely cleared the mid-point.  The largest humanitarian airlift in aviation history would last until the blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949, and then some.  Operation Little Vittles continued throughout the period, dropping an estimated 23 tons of candy from a quarter-million tiny little parachutes.

Over the years, many of those now-grown children have sought Halvorsen out, to say thank you and to tell stories.  Tales of hope, and fun, of fond anticipation.  All in a time and place when such things were very hard to find.

557b6348427ef.imageYou never know, he said. “The small things you do turn into great things.”

January 22, 1959 The Real Che

While Che himself made no secret of his blood-lust, Western Liberals appear pathologically incapable of regarding the man’s history, as it really was. 

Valkyrie. Che. Two films, both produced by the Great Hollywood Myth Machine. Both released to US audiences in December, 2008. One tells the story of Claus von Stauffenberg, the disillusioned, war-crippled German patriot who led the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The other is Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a middle-class Argentinian intellectual and accomplished athlete, despite a life-long problem with Asthma. One, the towering Aristocrat. The bearer of hereditary titles of nobility.  The other the left-ish physician radicalized by the poverty of his day to become the Marxist Revolutionary.

Some 4,980 Germans were murdered for complicity real or imagined, in the Valkyrie plot.  Many slowly strangled with piano wire, their death agonies filmed for the delectation of a Dictator.  Von Stauffenberg himself met his end, before a firing squad.

Guevara breathed his last before a Bolivian firing squad.  The similarity ends there.

che_1215322cErnesto Guevara trained and motivated firing squads credited with the summary execution of 16,000 Cubans or more, since the Castro brothers swept out of the Sierra Maestro Mountains in 1959.  It was around this time he acquired the nickname “Che” from an odd fondness for the verbal filler che, not unlike the Canadian English “eh” or some Americans’ fondness for the punctuating syllable “Right?”

CheG1951Numbers are surprisingly inexact but Guevara is believed personally responsible for the murder of hundreds if not thousands, in the name of “Revolutionary Justice”.  Guevara himself described in his diary, the murder of peasant guide Eutimio Guerra:

“The situation was uncomfortable for the people and for Eutimio so I ended the problem giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of the brain, with exit orifice in the right temporal [lobe].”

Such a cold and clinical description for a murder which surely splattered the blood and brains of the victim over his executioner, bespeaks a man at best thoroughly hardened to casual bloodshed and at worst, a stone psychopath.

Guevara wrote home to his father: “My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood…I’d like to confess, Papa, at that moment I discovered that I really like killing.”

As the proverbial fish who knew not that he was wet, Che Guevara believed the natural social order, was Marxism.  “There are truths so evident” he would say, “so much a part of people’s knowledge, that it is now useless to discuss them. One ought to be Marxist with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics, or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology.”

At one time signing letters home as “Stalin II”, Guevara became disillusioned with the Revolutionary zeal of even the Soviet Union, adopting instead the North Korea of Kim Il-sung as the ideal political order.  God help anyone friend or foe whose politics came to disagree even slightly, with those of this “Man of the people”.

famous-photographers-Alberto.Korda_.1960.Che_-750x499
Photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, who later used the name “Korda” liked to describe the Che image as encabronado y doliente (pissed off and pained) – H/T Smithonian.com

After seven years of the military dictator Fulgencia Batista, the Cuban people were in a “lynching mood”.  On this day in 1959, the Universal Newsreel arrived in the United States,  narrated by Ed Herlihy.  In it, Fidel Castro can be seen asking an estimated one million Cubans if they approved of executions.  The question was met with a booming response “¡Si!”.

Che was bitterly disappointed in the wake of what he saw as capitulation, following the Cuban Missile Crisis.  To Che Guevara, millions of Cuban citizens added up to nothing more than “A people ready to sacrifice itself to nuclear arms, that its ashes might serve as a basis for new societies.”

YAFChePosterWhile Che himself made no secret of his blood-lust, Western Liberals appear pathologically incapable of regarding the man’s history, as it really was.

download - 2020-01-21T120856.886Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!…Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become” – Ernesto Ché Guevara

Then-candidate Barack Obama ignited social media indignation in 2008 when Houston campaign headquarters popped up, sporting a stylized image of Che Guevara.

20080211ObamaCheHouston2For many of us, then-President Obama’s March 21, 2016 moment in Havana, Cuba defies understanding, unfolding as it did under a ten-story image of Che Guevara.

The BBC’s 2014 “History” is precious little more than a wet kiss.

Ernest Hemingway, who never saw a Leftist Revolution he didn’t like, was living in Cuba at the time of the revolution. Hemingway invited the young American journalist George Plimpton, to come for a visit.   One afternoon, “Papa” summoned the young writer.  “Come” he said, “there’s something you should see”.  Plimpton arrived with a few others.  After a short time mixing cocktails in flasks and collecting lawn chairs, the group was off.  An hour outside of town.  It was a grand adventure.

Setting up chairs as if they were there to watch the sunset, a truck appeared in the distance, a short time later.   The group watched as bound men were unloaded from the truck and shot, their still-twitching bodies thrown back in the truck and hauled away.  Over a long career in American journalism…Paris Review…PBS, George Plimpton never managed to write a word about the event though he did elevate himself to such a state of middling dudgeon, he declined to publish Guevara’s memoir, the Motorcycle Diaries.

Che_and_Fidel_Graffiti_Bergen_Norway
Street graffiti of Guevara wearing a Che t-shirt in Bergen, Norway.

The iconic photograph of the killer, taken by photographer Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez, is one of the most reproduced images of all time.  More than the “Mona Lisa”.  More than Marilyn Monroe standing over that grate, with skirts a-flying.  It was Che, just Che, risen to the level of secular God.  The Marxist High Priest of anti-capitalism, his image adorning the t-shirts and shot glasses of Social Justice Warriors and Hipsters from Berkeley to the Congo, from the East Village to Saigon.

Entire websites are devoted to peddling such garbage while not one of them, (NOT ONE!!!) gives a moment’s thought to the insensate character of glorifying such an image by such “capitalist” means.

Claus von Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin of one of the Great Tyrants of History, is all but lost to the popular imagination.

What a sick, sad, sorry commentary that is, on our popular culture.

President Obama Lays Wreath At Jose Marti Memorial

 

January 21, 1968 Blue House Raid

It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly  lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.

By 1967, the Republic of Korea (ROK) had some 44,829 South Korean forces in Vietnam. An overwhelming force of NVA and Vietcong had the misfortune of surrounding a platoon of “Blue Dragon” Marines on February 15 of that year, a 10-to-1 numerical superiority near the village of Trà Bình. Poor visibility precluded air support and the fighting which followed was close, and personal. By the time it was over, 243 NVA lay dead. Korean Marines lost 15 men.

North Vietnam’s Commander-In-Chief put out an order to all his forces advising them: “Avoid ROK Marines at all costs.”

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ROK Marines of the 11th Company, 3rd Battalion, Blue Dragon Unit

Any combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia will tell you.  In Vietnam they faced a tough and disciplined soldier. POW interrogations of captured NVA revealed one Lieutenant Trung to be particularly hard core, a tough guy in a world of tough guys. One US Marine Corps Lieutenant of Korean ancestry dressed in the uniform of the Blue Dragon Marines and paid a visit to Lt. Trung’s cell.

Not a word or gesture passed between the two.  The mere presence of a Blue Dragon was enough to get this guy talking.  Korean fighters are no joke.

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

North-Korean-TroopsOn January 17, 1968, Unit 124 infiltrated the 2½ mile demilitarized zone (DMZ), cutting the wire and entering South Korea. Their mission was to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee in his home, the Executive Mansion equivalent to the United States’ own White House, the “Pavilion of Blue Tiles” known as “Blue House”.

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South Korean Executive Mansion and Office Complex – the Blue House

It’s hard to think of anything goofier and at the same time more hellishly  lethal, than the hare-brained political calculations of DPRK leadership. Somehow it made sense to these guys, that to assassinate the South Korean President and hurl his head from the official residence, would start a popular uprising leading to the re-unification of the Korean peninsula. Under DPRK government, no less.

780px-Korea-Seoul-Blue_House_(Cheongwadae)_garden_0681&2&3-07
Garden and Grounds of South Korean Executive Mansion

On the 19th, four brothers of the Woo family were out gathering firewood when they stumbled upon Unit 124. A fierce debate ensued among the commandos, as to what to do with these guys. Training dictated they be killed without hesitation, yet somehow that didn’t seem right. Wasn’t communist ideology supposed to be a “people’s movement”?  Besides, it would take too long to bury the bodies in the rock-hard, frozen ground.

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The crooked pine behind the presidential Blue House in Seoul is pock-marked with bullet holes, from the 1968 raid. Photo courtesy: AFP

The decision was made to convert the brothers, on the spot. Talk about goofy. After a suitably long harangue on the wonders of communist ideology, the Woo brothers wisely proclaimed themselves, converted.  Thus released, the brothers went directly to authorities.

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

Commandos made it to within 100 meters of Blue House on January 21, only to be challenged at a road block.  The firefight broke out without warning, dissolving into a running gunfight and manhunt lasting for the next eight days.  When it was over, 26 South Korean military and police personnel were dead along with two dozen civilians and another 66, grievously wounded.

Four Americans were killed in efforts to prevent Unit 124 members from re-crossing the DMZ.

Korea_BlueHouseRaid29 commandos were killed or committed suicide. One escaped, back to North Korea. Only one, Kim Shin-jo, was captured alive.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole.  Over in Vietnam, the Battle of Khe Sanh began the same day as the raid.  Two days later, a US Navy technical research ship, the USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korean forces. The Tet Offensive broke out all across South Vietnam on January 30.  In no time at all, the Blue House raid was forgotten.

Kim Shin-Jo’s interrogation lasted nearly a year, to learn how the raid had been carried out. Meanwhile, ROK authorities “recruited” their own commando assassination squad, as a bit of payback. The 31 members of “Unit 684” were recruited from among South Korean petty criminals, the sort of guys who “got into street fights”.  A lot.

The three years’ “training” these recruits were subjected to on Silmido Island, off the coast of Inchon, was beyond brutal. Seven of didn’t live through it.

Silmido, a 2003 film produced by Kang Woo-suk

The raid was never carried out. North-South relations had thawed by August 1971, as the Silmido Island recruits staged an insurrection.   20 inmate/recruits were dead before it was over, shot to death by members of the ROK military or committed suicide, with hand grenades.  The last four Unit 684 survivors were tried by a military tribunal for their role in the uprising and executed, in 1972.

The government buried the story.  The tale of Unit 684 was all but unknown until the 2003 film Silmido, the first movie in South Korea to attract a box office of over 10 million viewers.  In May of 2010, Seoul courts ordered the government to pay $231 million to the families of 21 members of Unit 684.

Kim Shin-jo became a citizen of the Republic of Korea in 1970.  Kim’s parents were murdered by North Korean authorities and his relatives “purged”.  Kim renounced his communist ideology and became an ordained minister with the Seoul “Sungrak” (“Holy Joy”) Baptist Church in Gyeonggi-do. He has a wife and two children.

Kim-Shin-jo
Kim Shin-jo

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