January 15, 1919 Molly Molasses

In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first human being to break the four-minute mile. Today, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

The fastest man alive today is the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He may be the fastest man who ever lived. The average male aged 20 to 40 in reasonably good shape is capable of speeds, between 10 and 15 miles per hour. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters from a standing start at an average 23.35 mph and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 marks, at an average 27.79 mph.


On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister became the first human to run a sub-four minute mile with an official time of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys that they are literally slower than cold molasses. In January.

File photo of Bolt of Jamaica competing in the men's 100 metres semi-final heat event during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
Usain Bolt

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated an enormous iron storage tank, in the North End of Boston. Six stories high and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons of molasses, awaiting transformation to sweeteners, drinking liquor and alcohol based munitions.

It was cold that month but on January 15 the temperature reached a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

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If you were there that morning you would have heard sounds, not unlike the grumbling of some great, upset stomach. At 12:30 came a rumble, a sound like a distant train. Then came the staccato chatter of the machine gun, as iron rivets popped and the sides of the great tower split apart.

The collapse hurled a wall of molasses 40-feet high down the street at 35 miles per hour, smashing the elevated train tracks on Atlantic Ave and hurling entire buildings from foundations. Horses, wagons and dogs were caught up with broken buildings and scores of people struggling in the brown deluge, speeding across the North End. Twenty municipal workers eating lunch in a nearby city building were swept away, parts of the building hurled some fifty yards. Part of the tank wall fell on a nearby fire house, crushing the building and burying three firemen, alive.

The men playing cards at the firehouse looked out the windows and saw a dark wall that didn’t belong there. Whatever it was, the wall was coming right at them.

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The power of the deluge may be seen in the elevated rail, twisted and deformed as by the temper tantrum, of some titanic child.

In the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton described the physical properties of fluids. Water, a “Newtonian” fluid, retains a constant viscosity (flow) between 32° and 212°, Fahrenheit. We all know what it is to swim in water. You can propel yourself through the stuff but a “non-Newtonian” fluid such as ketchup or molasses, behaves differently. Non Newtonian fluids change viscosity and “shear” in response to pressure. You can’t propel yourself through a non-Newtonian fluid. The stuff will swallow you, whole. Not even Michael Phelps would be able to swim out of a sea of that gunk.

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“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

The Boston Post reported “Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise”.

In 1983, a Smithsonian Magazine article described the experience of one child: “Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him”.

All told, the molasses flood of 1919 killed 21 people and injured another 150. 116 cadets from the Massachusetts Nautical School, now Mass Maritime Academy, were the first to arrive on-scene. They were soon followed by Boston Police, Red Cross, Army and Navy personnel. Some Red Cross nurses literally dove into the mess to rescue victims while doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital and worked around the clock.

Four days later the search was called off, for additional victims. The cleanup has been estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

The rupture resulted from a combination of factors. Construction was so poor, locals knew they could come down and collect household molasses from drippings down the outside of the thing which was leaking so badly the company painted it brown, to hide the leaks.

This was only the 4th time the tank was filled to capacity and rising temperatures helped build up gas pressure, inside the structure. Subsequent analysis determined the thickness and quality of the iron itself was insufficient, to contain 14,000 tons of molasses.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. Everyone knows what it is to turn over a jar of the stuff…and wait. Now, cold molasses had all but exploded. In January, no less. There must be something else. There HAD to be. Dark rumors spread outward like ripples, on a pond. Newspapers speculated. There must be some insidious cause, a bomb perhaps, planted by Italian anarchists. Or the work of German saboteurs.

The newspapermen of the age would have learned more if they’d cracked a physics textbook. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Like, say, a wall of molasses, into the surrounding air. The air around us is after all, a fluid. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even when there is no wind.

Harvard lecturer and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp explains that, as a non-Newtonian fluid, the flood would have advanced with terrifying rapidity behaving much the same as a mudslide, avalanche or lava flow. Sharp’s calculations confirm the initial flow could have indeed traveled as fast, as 35 miles per hour.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. Boston Duck Tours regularly visit the place in amphibious vehicles, designed for land and water. Especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on the side.

January 14, 1967 The Cloud

“The Army disclosed yesterday that it secretly conducted 239 germ warfare tests in open air between 1949 and 1969, some tests releasing live but supposedly harmless microscope [SIC] “bugs” at Washington’s Greyhound bus terminal and National Airport as part of the experiment.” Washington Post, March 9, 1977

Hat tip Wall Street Journal

On October 11, 1950, Mr. Edward J. Nevin checked into Stanford hospital in San Francisco with a fever, respiratory and other symptoms. Doctors diagnosed the retired pipefitter, with pneumonia.

Ten other women and men checked into the same hospital at this time, all suffering with the same symptoms. Respiratory difficulty combined with kidney and/or urinary tract infections so rare as to prompt their publication in a prestigious medical journal.

The cause was believed to be exposure to the bacterium, Serratia marcescens. Mr. Nevin, 75, underwent prostate surgery causing S. marcescens to travel through his blood from the urinary tract, to his heart. Three weeks later, he was dead. The other ten recovered.

In 1981 the Nevin grandchildren sued the federal government for the death of their grandfather and the economic destruction wrought on their grandmother, the direct result of ruinously high medical expenses. The alleged cause of death was the deliberate poisoning of the entire city of San Francisco, by the United States Navy.

On January 14, 1967, the New York Times reported the United States Army was conducting secret germ warfare experiments, on its own citizens.

Turns out the San Francisco episode was part of a biowarfare experiment, called “Operation Sea-Spray”. Beginning on September 20, 1950 and continuing for seven days the US Navy sprayed massive amounts of two bacteria into the air believed to be harmless at the time, along with an iridescent agent, to aid with tracking. With cover and assistance from the famous San Francisco fog enough of this stuff was released into the atmosphere, that 43 tracking stations set up across the city determined that every one of the city’s 800,000 residents inhaled no fewer than 5,000 such particles.

Ten years later the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research held a series of hearings, on the matter. On March 9, 1977, the Washington Post reported: “The Army disclosed yesterday that it secretly conducted 239 germ warfare tests in open air between 1949 and 1969, some tests releasing live but supposedly harmless microscope [SIC] “bugs” at Washington’s Greyhound bus terminal and National Airport as part of the experiment…Washingtin [SIC] was one of five cities where the Army released simulated lethal germs i [SIC] public places. Other cities where the public served as unknowing guinea pigs were New York, San Francisco, Key West and panama City, Fla”.

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 22, 2001, “In New York, military researchers in 1966 spread Bacillus subtilis variant Niger, also believed to be harmless, in the subway system by dropping lightbulbs filled with the bacteria onto tracks in stations in midtown Manhattan. The bacteria were carried for miles throughout the subway system, leading Army officials to conclude in a January 1968 report: “Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic [disease-causing] agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death.””

The Post reported 27 instances of simulated germ warfare attacks on two tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a number of military installations including Fort Detrick, Maryland, Fort Belvoir, Virginia and the Marine training school at Quantico, Virginia.

The Post goes on to report that “Another 504 workers connected with biological warfare activities at Ft. Detrick, Dugway proving Ground and the Deseret test Center in Utah and the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas suffered infections, according to the Army’s count”. The Army went on to report that “three laboratorers at Fort Detrick died from diseases contracted in the 1950s and 1960s”.

I wasn’t aware that “laboratorers” is a word but the Washington Post seems to think it is.

Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground alone conducted “hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants” according to a 1994 report, by the GAO (US General Accounting Office). One such experiment resulted in 3,843 dead animals in an episode known as, the “Skull Valley Sheep Kill“. In the end as many as 6,400 were killed or humanely euthanized as even the rumor of nerve agents renders both the wool and the meat of such an animal, less than worthless. A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) agents, in 1969.

In the past, military spokesmen have argued that such tests are necessary. That NBC agents are readily available to state and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations and we must know how these agents behave, under real world conditions.

Perhaps they have a point. As does the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which tells us, “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

January 5, 1976 Killing Fields

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on it so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That’s but one story, among millions.  And those were the lucky ones.

For 700 years the Khmer Empire occupied much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was once home to the largest city in the world.  Until recently overrun by Jungle, the capital city of Angkor, whose original name was Yashodharapura (“Glory-bearing city”), was nearly the size of modern day Los Angeles, and home to roughly a million people.

Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains one of the largest religious monuments in the world.

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Temple Complex at Angkor Wat

During the 1950s, a group of some 200 middle-class Cambodian kids were educated at French Universities.  The greater part of that group formed a student organization of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

What began as a small leftist insurgency grew in power, thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmers” (Khmer Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmer Republic’s government of King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Lon Nol.  By early 1975, the Khmer Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.

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Even as the last, humiliating scenes of America’s war in neighboring Vietnam played themselves out in the capital of Saigon, Khmer Rouge forces captured the Cambodian capital at Phnom Penh, overthrowing the Khmer Republic and executing its officers.

This was to be “Democratic Kampuchea”, the name representing a local pronunciation of the word as it comes into English, as Cambodia.

The Kampuchean constitution, formally approved on January 5, 1976, theoretically vested power in a 250-member, directly elected “Kampuchean People’s Representative Assembly”.  In reality, the body met once in April, and never again.  Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, all power in the CPK (Communist Party of Kampuchea) belonged to “The Center”, a shadowy, nine-member standing committee of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, led by Prime Minister and Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar, better known as ‘Pol Pot’.

This nine-member “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah), meaning ‘The Organization’, ushered in one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, a four-year genocide remembered as the “Killing Fields”, of Cambodia.

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Khmer Rouge Uniforms

The “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people out of a population, of some 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian “Worker’s Paradise”.

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on it so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That’s but one story, among millions.  And those were the lucky ones.

The very embodiment of the ivory tower leftist intellectual, the Angkar was detached and incapable of connection with the masses.  Theirs was a radicalized ideology, heavily influenced by French communists and the writings of Lenin and Mao and heavily tinged with ideas of racial superiority.  Paradoxically, this was a creed altogether averse to an educated or merchant class and determined to use violence in pursuit of “class struggle”.

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The Khmer rouge set out to create a peasant’s utopia.  An agrarian, atheist state.  Among the first to go were the Buddhist monks, nearly 25,000 murdered most often with a rock, or club.  All religion was banned, repression of Christians and Muslims, extensive.

For generations, European colonists had exploited the mineral resources of “French Indochina”.  Now, abandoned mine shafts filled with the bones of the slain.

Whole cities were liquidated as “parasitic” and “corrupt”.  Shop owners, business people and educators.  Police officers, government employees and ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.  All were driven from their homes and murdered as “class enemies”.  Anyone who so much as wore eyeglasses or owned a wristwatch, was as good as dead.

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Today, the Tuol Sleng (“Hill of Poisonous Trees”) Genocide Museum occupies the former  Chao Ponhea Yat High School, operated during the Cambodian Genocide as Security Prison 21.  In its day, “S-21” held an estimated 20,000 people at one time or another – no one knows for sure.   Between 1976 and ’79, only seven adults survived this place.

The Khmer Rouge operated at least 150 such torture and execution facilities.

There, Khmer interrogators extracted “confessions” by torture.  After two to three months, victims would eagerly agree to anything, thousand-word “confessions” weaving true stories into outlandish tales of conspiracy with Vietnamese, KGB and CIA operatives.  Friends, families and acquaintances would be identified in such narratives as they in turn, were brought in for interrogation.

All were turned over to extermination centers, where squads of blank-eyed teenagers awaited with machetes, pick axes and iron bars.  Ammunition was too expensive.

The vast majority of victims were Cambodian, but not all.  488 Vietnamese passed through S-21, as did 31 Thai, one Laotian, an Arab, one Brit, four French, two Americans, a Canadian, a New Zealander, two Australians and an Indonesian. An unknown number of Indians and Pakistanis also passed through the facility.  Not a single foreigner lived, to tell the tale.

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One among some 20,000 mass grave sites, in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have executed over 1.38 million people in this way, with death by starvation, torture, overwork and disease accounting for some 2½ million more.  Twenty-five per cent, of the entire nation.

The last straw came on April 18, 1978, four miles over the border into Vietnamese territory.  Khmer Rouge troops took a page out of their own playbook, murdering 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in what came to be known as the Ba Chuc Massacre.

The New York Times reported:

“The Khmer Rouge then used the same formula for execution as in Cambodia. ‘They pointed their weapons and ordered us to come to a meeting with their superiors,’ said Nga, a dignified, soft-spoken woman.

She was forced toward the border with parents, siblings, husband and six children. Suddenly, their escorts began clubbing the children. Her youngest daughter was struck violently on the head three times and cried ‘Mother, Mother.’”

Four years earlier, North Vietnam had helped the Khmer Rouge take power.  Now the Vietnamese government staged a massive invasion of its erstwhile ally.  By January 7, 1979 it was over, the Khmer regime toppled and a new government installed in Phnom Penh.

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Cambodian journalist Dith Pran managed to escape the regime, one among millions swept up in the humanitarian disaster following the war in Vietnam and the genocide, in Cambodia.   It was he who coined the term, Killing Fields.

Justice was slow in coming.  Most senior Khmer officials would not be tried, until well into the twenty-first century.  Pol Pot died quietly in his bed, in 1998.

December 18, 1944 Typhoon

Hulls would creak and groan with the pounding and rivets popped. Captains in wheelhouses would order course headings, but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended course. Some ships rolled more than 70°. The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock, scooped tons of water onto its flight decks, 57-feet above the surface.


In September 1935, the Imperial Japanese Navy was caught in foul weather while conducting wargame maneuvers. By the 26th, the storm had reached Typhoon status.  The damage to the Japanese fleet was near catastrophic. Two large destroyers had their bows torn away by heavy seas. Several heavy cruisers suffered major structural damage.  Submarine tenders and light aircraft carriers developed serious cracks in their hulls. One minelayer required near total rebuild and virtually all fleet destroyers suffered damage to superstructures. 54 crewmen lost their lives.

Nine years later, it would be the turn of the American fleet.

The war in the Pacific was in its third year in December 1944. A comprehensive defeat only weeks earlier had dealt the Imperial Japanese war effort a mortal blow at Leyte Gulf, yet the war would slog on for the better part of another year.

Carrier Task Force 38 was a massive assembly of warships, a major element of the 3rd Fleet under the Command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.  In formation, TF-38 moved in three eight-mile diameter circles, each with an outer ring of destroyers, an inner ring of battleships and cruisers and a mixed core of 35,000-ton Essex class and smaller escort carriers. TF-38 was a massive force fielding eighty-six warships, all told.

By mid-December 1944, Task Force 38 was underway for three weeks, having just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines, suppressing enemy aircraft in support of American amphibious operations against Mindoro.  Ships were badly in need of re-supply.  A replenishment fleet, 35 ships in all, was sent to the nearest spot near Luzon still outside of Japanese fighter range. 

Rapid movement into previously enemy-held territory made it impossible to establish advance weather reporting.  By the time that Task Force meteorological service reports made it to ships in the operating area, weather reports were at least twelve hours old.

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Three days earlier, a barometric low pressure system had begun to form off Luzon, fed by the warm waters of the Philippine sea.  High tropospheric humidity fed and strengthened the disturbance as counter-clockwise winds began to develop around the low pressure center.  By the 18th, this once-small “tropical disturbance” had developed into a compact but powerful cyclone.

Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th as increasing winds and building seas made refueling increasingly difficult.  Refueling hoses were parted in several locations. Thick hawsers had to be cut to avoid collision as sustained winds built to 40 knots.  Believing the storm center to be 450 miles to his southeast, Admiral Halsey declined a return to base.  It would take too long and beside, and combat operations were scheduled to resume, two days later.  Halsey needed the carrier group refueled and on station, so it was decided.  Task Force 38 and the replenishment fleet would proceed to a second replenishment point, hoping to resume refueling operations on the morning of the 18th.

Cobra

Four times over the night of December 17-18, course was corrected in the search for calmer water.  Four times the ships of Task Force 38 and it’s attendant resupply ships turned each time moving closer to the eye of the storm.  2,200-ton destroyers pitched and rolled like corks, towering over the crest of 70-foot waves only to crash into the trough of the next, shuddering like cold dogs as decks struggled to shed thousands of tons of water.

Hulls creaked and groaned with the pounding. Rivets popped.  Captains in wheelhouses order course headings but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended direction.  Some ships rolled more than 70°.  The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock scooped tons of water onto its own flight decks, 57-feet up.

USS Cowpens during Typhoon Cobra

Typhoon Cobra reached peak ferocity between 1100 and 1400 with sustained winds of 100mph and gusts of up to 140.

The lighter destroyers got the worst of it, finding themselves “in irons” – broad side to the wind and rolling as much as 75° with no way to regain steering control.  Some managed to pump seawater into fuel tanks to increase stability, while others rolled and couldn’t recover, water cascading down smokestacks and disabling engines.

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146 aircraft were either wrecked or blown overboard.  The carrier USS Monterrey nearly went down in flames as loose aircraft crashed about on hanger decks and burst into flames.  One of those fighting fires aboard Monterrey was then-Lieutenant Gerald Ford, the former Michigan Wolverine center and future President of the United States.

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Many of the ships of TF-38 sustained damage to above-decks superstructure, knocking out radar equipment and crippling communications.

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790 Americans were killed by Typhoon Cobra:

USS Hull – with 70% fuel aboard, capsized and sunk with 202 men drowned. There were 62 survivors.
USS Monaghan – capsized and sunk with 256 men drowned. There were 6 survivors.
USS Spence – rudder jammed hard to starboard, capsized and sunk with 317 men drowned after hoses parted attempting to refuel from New Jersey because they had also disobeyed orders to ballast down directly from Admiral Halsey. There were 23 survivors.
USS Cowpens – hangar door torn open and RADAR, 20mm gun sponson, whaleboat, jeeps, tractors, kerry crane, and 8 aircraft lost overboard. One sailor lost.
USS Monterey – hangar deck fire killed three men and caused evacuation of boiler rooms requiring repairs at Bremerton Navy yard
USS Langley – damaged
USS Cabot – damaged
USS San Jacinto – hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts and sprinkling system causing widespread flooding. Damage repaired by USS Hector
USS Altamaha – hangar deck crane and aircraft broke loose and broke fire mains
USS Anzio – required major repair
USS Nehenta – damaged
USS Cape Esperance – flight deck fire required major repair
USS Kwajalein – lost steering control
USS Iowa – propeller shaft bent and lost a seaplane
USS Baltimore – required major repair
USS Miami – required major repair
USS Dewey – lost steering control, RADAR, the forward stack, and all power when salt water shorted main electrical switchboard
USS Aylwin – required major repair
USS Buchanan – required major repair
USS Dyson – required major repair
USS Hickox – required major repair
USS Maddox – damaged
USS Benham – required major repair
USS Donaldson – required major repair
USS Melvin R. Nawman – required major repair
USS Tabberer – lost foremast
USS Waterman – damaged
USS Nantahala – damaged
USS Jicarilla – damaged
USS Shasta – damaged “one deck collapsed, aircraft engines damaged, depth charges broke loose, damaged“

It could have been worse.  The destroyer escort USS Tabberer defied orders to return to port, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage conducting a 51-hour boxed search for survivors despite the egregious pounding being taken by his own vessel.  USS Tabberer plucked 55 swimmers from the water, survivors of the capsized destroyers Hull and Spence.

Cobra 7, Pittsburgh

Typhoon Cobra moved on overnight, December 19 dawning clear with brisk winds. Admiral Halsey ordered “All ships of the Task Force line up side-by-side at about ½ mile spacing and comb the 2800-square mile area” in which they’d been operating.  Carl M. Berntsen, SoM1/C aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven, recalled that “I saw the line of ships disappear over the horizon to starboard and to port”. The Destroyer USS Brown rescued six survivors from the Monaghan and another 13 from USS Hull.  18 more would be plucked from the water, 93 in all, by ships spread across fifty to sixty miles of open ocean.

When it was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz said typhoon Cobra “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”

Afterward

CARL MARTIN BERNTSEN PASSED AWAY ON OCTOBER 13TH, 2014 IN KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA. HE WOULD HAVE BEEN 94, THE FOLLOWING MONTH. I AM INDEBTED TO HIM AND HIS EXCELLENT ESSAY FOR THIS STORY.  VIRTUALLY ALL SHIPS OF TASK FORCE 38 WERE DAMAGED TO VARYINHG DEGREEs.

December 10, 1986 Toxic Sanctuary

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone.

The accident began as a test. A carefully planned series of events intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters began with a series of smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire.  “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called the largest civil engineering project in history, involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By December 10 the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

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A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

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Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

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View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

Today the descendants of those dogs, some 900 in number occupy an exclusion zone some 1,600 square miles, slightly smaller than the American state, of Delaware. They are not alone.

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In 1998, 31 specimens of the Przewalski Horse were released into the exclusion zone which now serves as a de facto wildlife preserve. Not to be confused with the American mustang or the Australian brumby, the Przewalski Horse is a truly wild horse and not the feral descendant, of domesticated animals.

Named by the 19th century Polish-Russian naturalist Nikołaj Przewalski, Equus ferus przewalskii split from ancestors of the domestic Equus caballus some 38,000 to 160,000 years ago, forming a divergent species where neither taxonomic group is descended, from the other. The last Przewalski stallion was observed in the wild in 1969. The species is considered extinct in the wild, since that time.

Today approximately 100 Przewalski horses roam the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone one of the larger populations of this, possibly the last of the truly wild horses, alive today.

In 2016, US government wildlife biologist Sarah Webster worked at the University of Georgia. Webster and others used camera traps to demonstrate how wildlife had colonized the exclusion zone, even the most contaminated parts. A scientific paper on the subject is linked HERE, if you’re interested.

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone. Wildlife spotted within the exclusion zone include wolves, badgers, swans, moose, elk, turtles, deer, foxes, beavers, boars, bison, mink, hares, otters, lynx, eagles, rodents, storks, bats and owls.

Not all animals thrive in this place. Invertebrates like spiders, butterflies and dragonflies are noticeably absent, likely because of eggs laid in surface soil layers which remain, contaminated. Radionuclides settled in lake sediments effect populations of fish, frogs, crustaceans and insect larvae. Birds in the exclusion zone have difficulty reproducing. Such animals who do successfully reproduce often demonstrate albinism, deformed beaks and feathers, malformed sperm cells and cataracts.

Tales abound of giant mushrooms, six-pawed rabbits and three headed dogs. While some such stories are undoubtedly exaggerated few such mutations survive the first few hours and those who do are unlikely to pass on the more egregious deformities.

Far from the post-apocalyptic wasteland of imagination the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a thriving preserve for some but not all, wildlife. Which brings us back to the dogs. Caught in a twilight zone neither feral nor domestic the dogs of Chernobyl are neither able to compete in the wild nor are many of them candidates for adoption, due to radiation toxicity.

Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations, and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America.

For most there is no future beyond this place and a life expectancy unlikely to exceed a span of five years.

Thirty five years after the world’s most devastating nuclear disaster a surprising number of people work in this place, on a rotating basis. Guards are stationed at access points whose job it is to control who gets in and to keep out unauthorized visitors, known as “stalkers”.

BBC wrote in April of this year about the strange companionship sprung up between these guards, and the dogs of Chernobyl. Jonathon Turnbull is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge. He was the first outsider to recognize the relationship and gave the guards disposable cameras, with which to record the lives of these abandoned animals. The guards around this toxic sanctuary had but a single request: “please, please – bring food for the dogs”.

December 9, 1952 The Great Smog

Visibility was down to a meter at times and driving, all but impossible. Public transportation shut down requiring those rendered sick by the fog, to transport themselves to the hospital.

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“Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. Czarek Sokolowski / AP” H/T CBS News, Inc.

In 2018, climate activists and world leaders gathered in Poland to discuss carbon pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, and ways to combat what they see as a future of anthropogenic global warming.

In a speech before the assembly, Arnold Schwarzenegger swore that he’d go back in time if he could and “terminate” oil, coal, gasoline and natural gas. “The biggest evil is fossil fuels” Schwarzenegger thundered, “it’s coal, it’s gasoline, it’s the natural gas”.

A doubling of average life expectancy in the US from 39.41 in 1860 to 78.81 in 2020 went entirely, unremarked. Perhaps allowing actors to direct public policy is a greater evil than fossil fuels, but I digress.

Adherents to currently fashionable climate change theories hold onto such ideas with a fervor bordering on the religious while skeptics raise any number of questions, but one thing is certain. There was a time when the air and the water around us was tainted with impunity, with sometimes deadly results.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio caught fire, resulting in property damage worth $100,000, equivalent to nearly $700,000, today. The fire resulted in important strategies to clean up the river, but this wasn’t the first such fire. The Cuyahoga wasn’t even the first river to catch fire. There were at least thirteen such incidents on the Cuyahoga, the first occurring in 1868. The Rouge River in Michigan caught fire in the area around Detroit in 1969, and a welder’s torch lit up the Buffalo River in New York, the year before. The Schuylkill River in Philadelphia caught fire from a match tossed into the water, in 1892.

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Cuyahoga River burning, in 1952. H/T Getty Images

Today, the coal silts, oil and chemical contaminants at the heart of these episodes are largely under control in the developed world, but not the world over. One section of Meiyu River in Wenzhou, Zhejiang China burst into flames in the early morning of March 5, 2014. Toxic chemical pollution and other garbage dumped into Bellandur Lake in Bangalore India resulted in part of the lake catching fire the following year, the fire spreading to the nearby Sun City apartments.

If you happen to visit the “Iron City”, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, photographs can be easily found of streetlights turned on in the middle of the day. In November 1939, St. Louis brought a new meaning to the term “Black Tuesday”, when photographs of the Federal building at Twelfth Boulevard and Market Street show the sun little more than a “pale lemon disk” and streetlights on at 9:00 in the morning.

Federal Building, St. Louis
Federal Building, St. Louis

Air pollution turned deadly in the early morning hours of October 26, 1948 when atmospheric inversion trapped fluorine gas over Donora Pennsylvania, home of US Steel Corporation’s Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire. By the 29th, the inversion had trapped so much grime that spectators gathered to watch a high school football game, couldn’t see the kids on the field. The “Death Fog” hung over Donora for four days killing 22 and putting half the town, in the hospital.

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Donora Smog at Midday with streetlights on. H/T Donora Historical Society

The Donora episode was caused by an “anticyclone”, a weather event in which a large high pressure front draws air down through the system and out in a clockwise motion.

When such a weather system occurs over areas with high levels of atmospheric contaminants, the resulting ground fog can be catastrophic. 63 people perished during a similar episode in 1930 in the Meuse River Valley area, of Belgium. In 1950, 22 people were killed in Poza Rica, Mexico. In 1952, the infamous “Great Smog of London” claimed the lives of thousands over a course of five days.

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Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952

On December 5 of that year, a body of cold, stagnant air descended over a near-windless London, trapped under a “lid” of warm air. London had suffered poor air quality since the 13th century and airborne pollutants had combined to create “pea soupers” in the past, but this was unlike anything in living memory. The smoke from home and industrial chimneys and other pollutants such as Sulphur dioxide combined with automobile exhaust, with nowhere to go.

Yellow-black particles of the stuff built and accumulated at an unprecedented rate. Visibility was down to a meter and driving, all but impossible. Public transportation shut down requiring those rendered sick by the fog, to transport themselves to the hospital.  Outdoor sporting events were canceled and even indoor air quality, was affected.  Weather conditions held until December 9 when the fog finally dispersed.

There was no panic. Londoners are quite accustomed to the fog, but this one was different. Over the weeks that followed, public health authorities estimated that 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog by December 8, and another 100,000 made permanently ill. Later research pointed to another 6,000 losing their lives in the following months, as a result of the event.

More recently, research puts the death toll of the Great Smog at 12,000.

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A similar event took place about ten years later in December 1962, but without the same lethal impact. A spate of environmental legislation in the wake of the 1952 disaster began to remove black smoke from chimneys.  Financial incentives moved homeowners away from open coal fires toward less polluting alternatives such as gas or oil, or less polluting coke.

Today, the wealthier, developed nations have made great strides toward improvement in air and water quality, though problems persist in the developing world.  In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that:

“[B]etween 1980 and 2017, gross domestic product increased 165 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 110 percent, energy consumption increased 25 percent, and U.S. population grew by 44 percent. During the same time period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 67 percent”.

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The same report shows that, during the same period, CO2 emissions have increased by 12 percent.  Policy makers continue to wrangle over the long-term effects of carbon.  At this point, it’s hard to separate the politics from the science.

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While politicians and climate activists jet around the planet to devise trillion dollar “solutions” for “Global Warming”, let us hope that cooler heads than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, will prevail.  There is scarcely a man, woman or child among us who do not want clean air and clean water and a beautiful, natural environment around us, for ourselves and our posterity.  It is only a matter of how we get there.

December 7, 1941 USS Oklahoma

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 mark was drawn by the last survivor, on Christmas Eve.


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 aircraft.  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, as holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into her side. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

She never had a chance.

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Bilge plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. The ninth torpedo slammed home even as Oklahoma rolled over, and died. 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, tied 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 craft were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed. 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.

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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. Thirty-two 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 mark was drawn by the last survivor, on Christmas Eve.

Of sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen were destined to be repaired, and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom to this day, 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.

Of necessity, such repairs were prioritized. For the time being, USS Oklahoma was beyond help. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma Diver

Recovery 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 and 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 USS Oklahoma, 3-inch 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, her 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.

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

Ken Hartle died in January 2017 in an Escondido, California Alzheimer’s and dementia center. He was 103, possibly the oldest of those divers. Before the age of SCUBA, Hartle and his fellow divers worked in heavy canvas suits and brass helmets weighing together, over 200 pounds. He regularly risked death, towing away unexploded bombs and torpedoes. He suffered the bends and nearly lost his life one day, when an anchor chain exploded into flying shards of metal. The part he’d never talk about even after all those years, was the hardest part. ‘Bringing up our boys’.

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.

Divers standing in front of a decompression chamber, while they were working to salvage ships sunk in the 7 December 1941 Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. Note warrant officer standing at right. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

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 the former battleship to be 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 began to move backward. She was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17 mph.

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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. 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 on a child’s fishing line.

Postcard image of USS Oklahoma (BB-37) from the service of AMM2c Durrell Wade“. H/T nationalww2museum.org

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

Afterward

Jesus Garcia of Guam died at age 21 on December 7, 1941, a sailor serving aboard the USS Oklahoma. William Eugene Blanchard of Tignall Georgia, was 24.

In 1947, “Okie’s” honored dead were disinterred. Dental records and dog tags were used to identify thirty-five. The other 391 including Blanchard and Garcia were reburied in 61 caskets, in Hawaii’s National Military Cemetery of the Pacific. Their names were known, only to God.

Nearly sixty years later, scientific advances in DNA analysis made further identifications, possible. Veteran Ray Emory was serving aboard the USS Honolulu on that day in 1941 and persuaded the D.o.D., to make the attempt.

Exhumations began in 2015. Mitochondrial DNA was enough for many identifications, but not all. Mitochondrial DNA comes from the maternal side. Shared ancestral lines means that sometimes, that’s not enough. One DNA sequence matched 25 victims.

Further DNA was collected from paternal lines, combining with the mitochondrial to identify many of Oklahoma’s dead. William Blanchard was laid to rest with full military honors on June 7, 2021 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

As I write this it is December 7, 2021. 80 years after the fact some ninety percent of those who gave their lives on board USS Oklahoma once again, have their names.

Jesus Garcia went to his final rest in San Diego on October 6, 2021. Gilbert Nadeau, 95, was the only WW2 veteran able to attend.

November 18, 1978 Jonestown

The visit of the 17th was cordial at first, with Jones himself hosting a reception in the central pavilion.  Underlying menace soon came to the surface as a few Temple members expressed the desire, to leave with the delegation.

Those who remember him as a child spoke of a “really weird kid“, obsessed with religion and death.  He’d hold elaborate, pseudo-religious ceremonies at the house, mostly funerals for small animals.  How James Warren Jones got all those dead animals, was a matter for dark speculation.

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It was depression-era rural Indiana, in the age of racial segregation.  Father and son often clashed over issues of race.  The two didn’t talk to each other for years one time, after the time the elder Jones refused to let one of his son’s black friends, into the house.

Jim Jones was a bright boy, graduating High School with honors, in 1949.  He was a voracious reader, studying the works of Stalin, Marx, Mao, Gandhi and Hitler and carefully noting the strengths and weaknesses, of each.

Jones married Marceline Baldwin in 1949 and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he attended Indiana University and later Butler University night school, earning a degree in secondary education.

A long-standing interest in leftist politics heightened during this period, when Jones became a regular at Communist Party-USA meetings.  There he would rail against the McCarthy hearings, and the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Jones recalled he later asked himself, “How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”

jim-jones-red-robe-ht-jef-180925_hpEmbed_21x16_992.jpg“Reverend” Jim Jones got his start as a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church but soon left, over issues of segregation.  This was the age of Jim Crow and Jones, was a Social Justice Warrior .

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The New York Times reported in 1953, “declaring that he was outraged at what he perceived as racial discrimination in his white congregation, Mr. Jones established his own church and pointedly opened it to all ethnic groups. To raise money, he imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.”

Jones witnessed a faith-healing service and came to understand the influence to be had, from such an event.  He arranged a massive convention in 1956, inviting the Oral Roberts of his day, as keynote speaker. Reverend William Branham did not disappoint.  Soon, Reverend Jones opened his own mission with an explicit focus on racial integration. 

Thus began the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ.

Jones’ integrationist politics did little to ingratiate himself in 1950s rural Indiana.  Mayor and commissioners alike asked him to tone it down, while he received wild applause at NAACP and Urban League conventions with speeches rising to a thundering crescendo:  “Let My People GO!!!”

Jones spoke in favor of Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea, branding the conflict a “war of liberation” and calling South Korea “a living example of all that socialism in the north has overcome.

Jim and Marcelline adopted three Korean orphans, beginning what would become a family of nine including their only biological child, Stephan Ghandi.  The couple adopted a black boy in 1961 and called him Jim Jr., the Jones’ “rainbow family” a reflection of the pastor’s congregation.

jim-jones-family-pic-01-ht-jef-180925_hpMain_4x3_992An apocalyptic streak began to show, as Jones preached of nuclear annihilation. He traveled to Brazil for a time, in search of a safe place for the coming holocaust.  He even gave it a date:  July 15, 1967. On returning from Brazil, the “Father” spoke to his flock.  Jones’ “children” would have to move.  To northern California, to a new and perfect, socialist, Eden.

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Jim Jones preaching, 1971

For Jim Jones, religion was never more than a means to an end. ”Off the record” he once said in a recorded conversation, “I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. Uh, we— we think Jesus Christ was a swinger…I must say, I felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became uh, an atheist, uh, I have become uh, you— you feel uh, tainted, uh, by being in the church situation. But of course, everyone knows where I’m at. My bishop knows that I’m an atheist.

Faith healing.  The California days

Jones referred to himself as the reincarnation of Mohandas Gandhi. Father Divine. Jesus, Gautama Buddha and Lenin, all rolled into one. “What you need to believe in is what you can see…. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father…. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”

The years in California were a time of rapid expansion from Temple Headquarters in San Francisco to locations up and down the “Golden State”.  Jones hobnobbed with the who’s who of Democratic politics, from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone to Presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Even First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

“If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”

Jim Jones

California Assemblyman Willie Brown called Jones a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Mao Tse Tung.  Harvey Milk wrote to Jones after one visit: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.

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“Jones receives a Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977” H/T Wikipedia

Meanwhile, Jones was building the perfect socialist utopia in the South American jungles of Guyana, formally known as the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”.  Most simply called the place, “Jonestown”.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff wrote in the summer of 1977, telling a grotesque tale of physical and sexual abuse, of brainwashing and emotional domination. Chronicle editors balked and Kilduff published the piece in the New West Magazine.

That was when Jones and his congregation left town and fled.  To Guyana.

A long standing drug addiction became more pronounced in Jonestown where the preacher spoke of the gospel of “Translation”, a weird crossing over from this life to some other, finer, plane.

Some 68 percent of Jonestown faithful were black at this time, congregants who somehow got something from this place, they couldn’t get at home.  Inclusion.  Fulfillment.  Acceptance.  Whatever it was, the cult of Jonestown was mostly, a world of willing participants.

Mostly, but not entirely.  Those who entered Jonestown were not allowed to leave.  Those who escaped told outlandish tales of abuse:  mental, physical and sexual.

Former members of the Temple formed a “Concerned Relatives” group in the Fall of 1977, to publicize conditions afflicting family members, still in the cult.

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Jonestown compound, Guyana

Concerned Relatives produced a packet of affidavits in April 1978, entitled “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones“.  Jones’ political support began to weaken as members of the press and Congress, took increasing interest.

California Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission that November, to see things for himself.  The Congressional Delegation (CoDel) arrived at the Guyanese capital on November 15, with NBC camera crew and newspaper reporters, in tow.

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Congressman Ryan arrives at Jonestown

The delegation traveled by air and drove the last few miles to Jonestown, by limo. The visit of the 17th was cordial at first, with Jones himself hosting a reception in the central pavilion.  Underlying menace soon came to the surface as a few Temple members expressed the desire, to leave with the delegation. Things went from bad to worse when temple member Don Sly attacked Congressman Ryan with a knife, the following day.

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NBC photographer Bob Brown took this shot, of the shooters

Ryan’s hurried exit with fifteen members of the Temple met with no resistance. At first. The CoDel was boarding at the small strip in Port Kaituma, when Jones’ “Red Brigade” pulled up in a farm tractor, towing a trailer.   The new arrivals opened fire, killing Congressman Ryan and four others.  One of the supposed “defectors” produced a weapon and wounded, several more.

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Back at the compound, Jones lost an already tenuous grasp on reality.

Fearing assault by parachute, lethal doses of cyanide were distributed along with grape “Flavor Aid” for 900-plus members of the People’s Temple, including 304 children.

This wasn’t the first time the Jonestown flock believed they were ingesting poison, for The Cause.  It was about to be the last.

Jones spoke with an odd lisp which seemed to grow more pronounced, at times of excitement. You can hear it in the 45 minute “death tape“ below, his words sometimes forming a perfect “S“ and at other times, lapsing into a soft “TH” or some combination, of the two.

You can hear it clearly, in the recording.  Heads up dear reader.  If you care to listen, it’s 45-minutes of tough sledding.

Jonestown “Death Tape”  November 18, 1978

909 people lost their lives in the murder/suicide of November 18, 1978, at the Jonestown compound, the Kaituma air strip and the Temple-run building in the Guyanese capital city, of Georgetown. It was the largest loss of civilian life in American history, until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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Jones:  How very much I’ve loved you. How very much I’ve tried, to give you the good life…We are sitting on a powder keg…I don’t think that’s what we wanted to do with our babies…No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down…If we can’t live in peace, then let us die in peace.
Christine [Miller]: Is it too late for Russia?
Jones: Here’s why it’s too late for Russia. They killed. They started to kill. That’s why it makes it too late for Russia. Otherwise I’d said, “Russia, you bet your life.” But it’s too late.
Unidentified Man: Is there any way if I go, that it’ll help?
Jones: No, you’re not going. You’re not going.
Crowd: No! No!
Jones: I haven’t seen anybody yet that didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of.
Crowd: Right, right.
Jones: Tired of it.
Unidentified Man: It’s over, sister, it’s over … we’ve made that day … we made a beautiful day and let’s make it a beautiful day … that’s what I say.
“A lot of people are tired around here, but I’m not sure they’re ready to lie down, stretch out and fall asleep”. Jim Jones

September 11, 2001 Ogonowski

It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and benefactor had been hijacked and murdered, his aircraft flown into a New York skyscraper.

At the turn of the 20th century, a great wave of immigrants came to the United States, 20 million Europeans and more making the long journey to become Americans.

Among those multitudes came the Ogonowski family, emigrating from Poland and making a new home in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, along the New Hampshire line.

Those early members of the Ogonowski family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well accustomed to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate.  Generations later, the family still tilled the soil of the 150-acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.

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Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Alexander Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force.  During the war in Vietnam, this farmer-turned military pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, often returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard that giant, C-141 transport aircraft.

Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There he  met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to friends and family. The two would later marry and raise a family of three daughters, Laura, Caroline, and Mary Catherine.

Twelve days a month, Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform, flying jumbo jets out of Logan Airport.  When he was finished , he would always return to the land he loved.

Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into formerly open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field”, John would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.

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John Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the growing town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming, as well.  The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.

That was the year the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Cambodian immigrants from Lowell.

“This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both”. – Margaret “Peggy” Ogonowski

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It was a natural fit. Ogonowski felt a connection with these people, based on his time in Southeast Asia. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago, had helped his ancestors.

Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. They raised taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, the food they knew.  They would sell their produce into nearby immigrant communities, and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.

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The program was a great success.  Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.

So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC.  It was September 11.

By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11. He may have been the first to die, attacked from behind and murdered in his cockpit by terrorist savages.

It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and benefactor had been hijacked and murdered, his aircraft flown into a New York skyscraper.

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The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined.  John’s dream would not die.  Peg said it best:  “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.

9-11 as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge

John Ogonowski was working with the Land Trust at the time of his death, in an effort  to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34-acre farm in Dracut, slated for development.  Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress.  The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003.  A living memorial to one day that changed the world.   And to John Alexander Ogonowski.  Pilot.  Farmer.  Fallen angel.

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Loyalty

Another tale to emerge from that awful day concerns one of the many first responders who rushed to the inferno, and never returned. This was one of the lucky ones, in a way. This firefighters family had a body to mourn over.

The night before the funeral, the firefighters wife and his buddies “stole“ the body, casket and all, with the connivance of the folks at the funeral home. They brought him to the beach where they spent that last night with a case of beer, laughing together, crying and sharing stories. The next morning, they brought him back to the funeral home as promised, and their loved one was buried with honors.

I don’t know the name of this man or that if his wife, but that part matters more to those precious few. For the rest of us, this is a story of a short life well lived, a story of love and friendship and loyalty. May we all be so fortunate, as to be blessed with friends such as these.

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August 22, 1992 Ruby Ridge

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. – Ronald Reagan

Randall Claude “Randy” Weaver came into the world in 1948, one of four children born to Claude and Wilma Weaver, a farming couple from Villisca, Iowa. Deeply religious people, the Weavers moved among several Evangelical, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches, in search of a spiritual ‘home’ to fit with their faith.

Weaver dropped out of community college at age 20 and enlisted in the Army, stationed at Fort Bragg and serving three years before earning an honorable discharge.

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A month after leaving the Army, Weaver married Victoria Jordison and soon enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa to study criminal justice. At the time, Weaver wanted to become an FBI agent, but the high cost of tuition put an end to that. Randy found work at a local John Deere factory while “Vicki” became first a secretary and later a homemaker, as the Weaver family grew.

Over time, the couple came to hold increasingly fundamentalist views, all the while becoming more and more distrustful of the government. Vicki came to believe that the Apocalypse, was imminent.  The answer to the family’s survival lay in moving ‘off the grid’ and away from ‘corrupt civilization’.

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In the early 1980s, the couple paid $5,000 cash plus a moving truck for a piece of property, and built a cabin on the remote Ruby Ridge in the north of Idaho.

In 1984, Randy Weaver had a falling out with neighboring Terry Kinnison, over a $3,000 land deal. Kinnison lost the ensuing lawsuit and was ordered to pay Weaver an additional $2,100 in court costs and damages. Kinnison took his vengeance in letters written to the FBI, Secret Service, and county sheriff, claiming that Weaver had threatened to kill Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan, and Idaho governor John Evans.

Randy and Vicki Weaver were interviewed by FBI as well as Secret Service agents, and the County sheriff. Investigators were told that Weaver was a member of the white supremacist Aryan Nation and that he had a large gun collection in his cabin. Weaver denied the allegations, and no charges were filed.

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Sarah and Samuel on family property

There was no small amount of paranoia and mutual mistrust, in what came next. The Weavers filed an affidavit in 1985, claiming their enemies were plotting to provoke the FBI into killing them. The couple wrote a letter to President Reagan, claiming a threatening letter may have been sent to him, over a forged signature. No such letter ever materialized but, seven years later, prosecutors would cite the 1985 note as evidence of a Weaver family conspiracy against the government.

White supremacist Frank Kumnick was a member of the Aryan Nations, and target of an investigation by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Weaver attended his first meeting of the World Aryan Congress in 1986 where he met a confidential ATF informant, posing as a firearms dealer. In 1989, Weaver invited the informant to his home, to discuss forming a group to fight the “ZOG”, the “Zionist Occupation Government” of anti-Semitic and paranoid conspiracy theory.

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ATF charged Weaver that same year, with selling its informant two sawed-off shotguns. The government offered to drop the charges in exchange for Weaver’s becoming an informant. Weaver declined, and ATF filed illegal weapons indictments, claiming the subject was a bank robber, with an extensive criminal record. Subsequent United States Senate investigation revealed that Weaver had no such criminal convictions, but Weaver was ensnared, by a  government bureaucracy as unreasoningly suspicious, as himself.

Trial was set for February 20, 1991 and subsequently moved to February 21, due to a federal holiday. Weaver’s parole officer sent him a letter, erroneously stating that the new date was March 20. A bench warrant was issued when Weaver failed to show in court, for the February date.

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Randy Weaver was now a “Fugitive from Justice”.

The U.S. Marshals Service agreed to put off execution of the warrant until after the March 20 date, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office called a grand jury, a week earlier. It’s been said that a grand jury could indict a ham sandwich and the adage proved true, particularly when the prosecution failed to reveal parole officer Richins’ letter, with the March 20 date.

The episode fed into the worst preconceptions, of both sides. Marshalls developed a “Threat Profile” on the Weaver family and an operational plan: “Operation Northern Exposure”. Weaver, more distrustful than ever, was convinced that if he lost at trial, the government would seize his land and take his four children leaving Vicki, homeless.

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Surveillance photos of Weavers with guns, on their own property

Marshalls attempted to negotiate over the following months, but Weaver refused to come out. Several people used as go-betweens, proved to be even more radical than the Weavers themselves. In a rare show of reason under the circumstances, Deputy Marshal Dave Hunt asked Bill Grider: “Why shouldn’t I just go up there … and talk to him?” Grider replied, “Let me put it to you this way. If I was sitting on my property and somebody with a gun comes to do me harm, then I’ll probably shoot him.”

On April 18, 1992, a helicopter carrying media figure Geraldo Rivera for the Now It Can Be Told television program was allegedly fired on, from the Weaver residence. Surveillance cameras then being installed by US Marshalls showed no such shots fired and Pilot Richard Weiss, denied the story.  Even so, a lie gets around the world, before the truth can get its pants on. (Hat tip, Winston Churchill, for that bit of wisdom). The ‘shots fired narrative’ now became a media feeding frenzy. The federal government drew up ‘rules of engagement’.

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US Marshall Recon Team photo of Vicki Weaver, taken August 21, 1992

On August 21, a six-man armed Recon team arrived to scout the property, for a suitable spot to ambush and arrest Randy Weaver. Deputy Art Roderick threw rocks at the cabin to see how the dogs would react. The cabin was at this time out of meat and, thinking the dog’s reaction may have been provoked by a game animal, Randy, a friend named Kevin Harris and Weaver’s 14-year-old son Samuel came out with rifles, to investigate. Vicki, Rachel, Sarah and baby Elisheba, remained in the cabin.

Marshalls retreated to a place out of sight of the cabin, while “Sammy” and Harris followed the dog ‘Striker’ into the woods. Later accounts disagree on who fired first but a firefight erupted, between Sammy, Harris, and the Marshall’s team. When it was over, the boy, the dog and Deputy US Marshall William “Billy” Degan, lay dead.

The standoff now spun out of control, with National Guard Armored personnel carriers, SWAT, State Police and FBI Hostage Rescue Teams, complete with snipers.

On August 22, Harris, Weaver and sixteen-year old daughter Sarah were entering a shed to visit the body of Weaver’s dead son, when FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi fired from a position some 200 yards distant. The bullet tore into Weaver’s back and out his armpit. The three raced back to the cabin. Horiuchi’s second round entered the door as Harris dove for the opening, injuring him in the chest before striking Vicki in the face as she held baby Elisheba, in her arms.

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Protesters were quick to form at the base of Ruby Ridge

Two days later, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Danny Coulson wrote the following memorandum, unaware that Vicki Weaver lay dead:

Something to Consider
1. Charge against Weaver is Bull Shit.
2. No one saw Weaver do any shooting.
3. Vicki has no charges against her.
4. Weaver’s defense. He ran down the hill to see what dog was barking at. Some guys in camys shot his dog. Started shooting at him. Killed his son. Harris did the shooting [of Degan]. He [Weaver] is in pretty strong legal position.”

The siege of Ruby Ridge dragged on for ten days. Kevin Harris was brought out on a stretcher on August 30, along with Vicki’s body. Randy Weaver emerged the following day. Subsequent trials acquitted Harris of all wrongdoing and Weaver of all but his failure to appear in court, for which he received four months and a $10,000 fine.

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Randy Weaver, mugshot

Questions persist about the government’s ham-fisted approach at Ruby Ridge, and intensified after the Branch Davidian conflagration six months later in Waco Texas, involving many of the same agencies and federal officials.

In 1995, two reprobates carried out their own act of “revenge” on the government, blowing up a federal office building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 innocent people, injuring 680 others.  Nineteen of the dead, were children.

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Subsequent Senate hearings criticized Ruby Ridge “rules of engagement” as unconstitutional, the use of deadly force unwarranted, under the circumstances.  Kevin Harris was awarded $380,000 damages for pain and suffering.  Weaver was awarded $100,000 and his three daughters, $1 million each.

FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi was indicted for manslaughter in 1997, charges later dismissed on grounds of sovereign immunity.

Deadly force procedures were brought about, intending to bring the government into line with Supreme Court precedent resulting in a kinder, gentler federal law enforcement apparatus.  That was the idea. 

You might want to ask Elian Gonzalez, how that worked out.

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