July 28, 1957 Broken Arrow

In cold war military parlance, a “Nucflash” is the accidental detonation of an atomic weapon carrying with it, the potential for nuclear war. A “Broken Arrow” refers to a similar incident, absent the potential for war.

At one time, the C-124 was the world’s largest military transport aircraft.  Weighing in at 175,000lbs with a wingspan of 175-feet, four 3,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney propeller engines drive the air frame along at a stately cruising speed of 246 mph.  Manufacturer Douglas Aircraft called the aircraft “Globemaster”.  Airmen called the plane “Old Shaky”.

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The Air Force C-124 Globemaster transport left its base in Delaware on July 28, 1957, on a routine flight to Europe. On board were a crew of seven, three nuclear bombs, and one nuclear core. The flight would routinely have taken 10-12 hours.  This trip was destined to be anything but routine.

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Exactly what went wrong remains a mystery, due to the sensitive nature of the cargo. Two engines had to be shut down shortly into the mission, and the aircraft turned back.  The nearest suitable airfield was the Naval Air Station in Atlantic City, but that was too far. Even at maximum RPMs, the best the remaining two engines could do was slow the massive aircraft’s descent into the sea.

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An emergency landing on open ocean is not an option with such a large aircraft.  It would have broken up on impact with the probable loss of all hands.   Descending rapidly, the crew would have jettisoned everything they could lay hands on, to reduce weight.  Non-essential equipment would have gone first, then excess fuel, but it wasn’t enough.  With only 2,500ft and losing altitude, there was no choice left but to jettison those atomic bombs.

At 3,000 pounds apiece, two of the three bombs were enough to do the job, and the C-124 made it safely to Atlantic City.  What became of those two atomic bombs remains a mystery.  Most likely, they lie at the bottom of the ocean, 100 miles off the Jersey shore.

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The United States Department of Defense has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components, which do not involve the immediate risk of nuclear war.  Such incidents are called “Broken Arrows”.

Broken Arrows include accidental or unexplained nuclear or non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon, the loss of such a weapon with or without its carrying vehicle, and the release of nuclear radiation resulting in public hazard, whether actual or potential.

The US Defense Department has reported 32 Broken Arrow incidents, since 1950.  To date, six nuclear weapons remain lost, and never recovered.

If you’re interested, a handy “Short History of Nuclear Folly” may be found HERE, including details of each incident along with a handy map. It all makes for some mighty comforting bedtime reading.

July 13, 1908 Apocalypse

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

The first atomic bomb in the history of human conflict exploded in the skies over Japan on August 6, 1945. The bomb, code named “Little Boy”, reached an altitude of 1,900-feet over the city of Hiroshima at 8:15am, Japanese Standard Time.

A “gun-triggered” fission bomb, barometric-pressure sensors initiated the explosion of four cordite charges, propelling a small “bullet” of enriched uranium the length of a fixed barrel and into a sphere of the same material. Within picoseconds (1/.000000000001 of a second), the collision of the two bodies initiated a fission reaction, releasing an energy yield roughly equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.

66,000 were killed outright by the effects of the blast. The shock wave spread outward at a velocity greater than the speed of sound, flattening virtually everything in its path for a mile in all directions.

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Thirty-seven years before, the boreal forests of Siberia lit up with an explosion 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. At the time, no one had the foggiest notion that it was coming.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international beltline of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, an area 1.6 times the size of the continental United States.  The Stony Tunguska River wends its way along an 1,160-mile length of the region, its entire course flowing under great pebble fields with no open water.

Tunguska

On the morning of June 30, 1908, the Tunguska River lit up with a bluish-white light.  At 7:17a local time, a column of light too bright to look at with the naked eye moved across the skies above the Tunguska. Minutes later, a vast explosion knocked people off their feet, flattening buildings, crops and as many as 80 million trees over an area 830 miles, square. A vast “thump” was heard, the shock wave equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale. Within minutes came a second and then a third shock wave and finally a fourth, more distant this time and described by eyewitnesses as the “sun going to sleep”.

On July 13, 1908, the Krasnoyaretz newspaper reported “At 7:43 the noise akin to a strong wind was heard. Immediately afterward a horrific thump sounded, followed by an earthquake that literally shook the buildings as if they were hit by a large log or a heavy rock”.

Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure were detectable as far away as Great Britain.  Night skies were set aglow from Asia to Europe for days on end, theorized to have been caused by light, passing through high-altitude ice particles.

In the United States, lookout posts from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles recorded a several months-long decrease in atmospheric transparency, attributed to an increase in dust, suspended in the atmosphere.

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first. Or the last.  Mistastin Lake in northern Labrador was formed during the Eocene era 36-million years ago, cubic Zirconium deposits suggesting an impact-zone temperature of some 4,300° Fahrenheit. 

That’s halfway to the temperature, of the sun.

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“A bolide – a very bright meteor of an apparent magnitude of &−14 or brighter” H/T Wikimedia

Some sixty-six million years ago, the “Chicxulub impactor” struck the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, unleashing a mega-tsunami of 330-feet in height from Texas to Florida. Superheated steam, ash and vapor towered over the impact zone, as colossal shock waves triggered global earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.   Vast clouds of dust blotted out the sun for months on end leading to mass extinction events, the world over.

The official history of the Ming Dynasty records the Ch’ing-yang event of 1490, a meteor shower in China in which “stones fell like rain”. Some 10,000 people were killed for all intents and purposes, stoned to death.

In 2013, a twenty-meter (66-foot) space rock estimated at 13,000-14,000 tons flashed across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia, breaking apart with a kinetic impact estimated at 26-times the nuclear blast over Hiroshima.  This Superbolide (a bolide is “an extremely bright meteor, especially one that explodes in the atmosphere”) entered the earth’s atmosphere on February 15, burning exposed skin and damaging retinas for miles around.  No fatalities were reported though 1,500 were injured seriously enough to require medical attention.

The 450-ton Chicora Meteor collided with western Pennsylvania on June 24, 1938, in a cataclysm comparable to the Halifax Explosion of 1917.  The good luck held, that time, the object making impact in a sparsely populated region.  The only reported casualty, was a cow.  Investigators F.W. Preston, E.P. Henderson and James R. Randolph remarked that “If it had landed on Pittsburgh there would have been few survivors”.

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

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It puts a lot of things into perspective.

July 10, 1943 Where are we Going?

The worst hyperinflation in history peaked on July 10, 1946, when an item that cost 379 Pengö back in September, cost 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

You’ve worked all your life.  You’ve taken care of your family, paid your taxes, and paid your bills. You’ve even managed to put a few bucks aside, in hopes of a long and happy retirement.  So…what if you never touched it and that “nest egg” was suddenly reduced by 10%…40%…70%.

The subject of currency devaluation is normally left to eggheads and academics.  Hyperinflation is treated as an historical curiosity.  But I wonder.  Any economic textbook will tell you what fuels inflation.  Even hyperinflation. What makes us think it couldn’t happen here?

Throughout antiquity, Roman law required that coinage retain a certain silver content.  Precious metal made the coins themselves objects of value, and the Roman economy remained relatively stable for 500 years. Republic morphed into Empire over the 1st century BC, leading to a conga line of Emperors minting mountains of coins in their own likenesses. Slaves worked to death in Spanish silver mines. Birds fell from the sky over vast smelting fires, yet there was never enough silver. Silver content was inexorably reduced until the currency itself collapsed, in the 3rd century reign of Diocletian. A once powerful empire and its citizens were left to barter as best they could, in a world where currency had no value.

In the waning days of the Civil War, the Confederate dollar wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Paper money crashed in the post-Revolution Articles of Confederation period as well, when you could buy a sheep for two silver dollars, or 150 paper “Continental” dollars. Creditors literally hid from debtors, not wanting to be repaid in worthless paper currency. For generations after our founding, a thing could be described as worthless as, not worth a Continental.

The assistance of French King Louis XIV was invaluable to Revolutionary era Americans, but French state income was only about 357 million livres at the time, with expenses of over half a billion. France descended into its own Revolution, as the government printed “assignat”, notes purportedly backed by 4 billion livres in property expropriated form the church. 912 million livres were in circulation in 1791, rising to almost 46 billion in 1796. One historian described the economic policy of the Jacobins, the leftist radicals behind the Reign of Terror:  “The attitude of the Jacobins about finances can be quite simply stated as an utter exhaustion of the present at the expense of the future”.

That sounds depressingly familiar.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the losing side of WW1, and was broken up after the war.  Lacking the governmental structures of established states, the newly independent nation of Hungary began to experience inflation.  Before the war, a US Dollar would have bought you 5 Kronen.  by 1924 that number had risen, to 70,000.

Hungary replaced the Kronen with the Pengö in 1926, pegged to a rate of 12,500 to one.

Hungary became a battleground in the latter stages of WW2, between the military forces of Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 90% of Hungarian industrial capacity was damaged, half of it destroyed altogether.  Transportation was difficult with most of the nation’s rail capacity, damaged or destroyed.  What remained was either carted off to Germany or seized by the Russians, as reparations.

The loss of all that productive capacity led to scarcity of goods, and prices began to rise.  The government responded by printing money.  Total currency in circulation in July 1945 stood at 25 billion Pengö.  Money supply rose to 1.65 trillion by January, 65 quadrillion and 47 septillion July.  That’s a Trillion Trillion.  Twenty-four zeroes. 

47,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.00

Banks received low rate loans, so that money could be loaned to companies to rebuild. The government hired workers directly, giving out loans to others and in many cases, outright grants.  The country was flooded with money, the stuff virtually grew on trees, but there was nothing to back it up.

Inflation took a straight line into the stratosphere.  An item that cost 379 Pengö in September 1945, cost 1,872,910 by March, 35,790,276 in April, and 862 billion in June.  Inflation neared 150,000% per day as the currency became all but worthless.  Massive printing of money had accomplished the cube root of zero. 

The worst hyperinflation in history peaked on July 10, 1946, when that 379 Pengö item back in September, cost 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The government responded by changing the name, and the color, of the currency.  The Pengö was replaced by the Milpengö (1,000,000 Pengö), which was replaced by the Bilpengö (1,000,000,000,000) and finally the (supposedly) inflation-indexed Adopengö.  The spiral resulted in the largest denominated note in history: the Milliard Bilpengö.  A Billion Trillion Pengö.

The thing was worth twelve cents.

One more currency replacement and all that Keynesian largesse would finally stabilize the currency, but at what price?  Real wages were reduced by 80%. If you were owed money you were wiped out.  The fate of the nation was sealed when communists seized power in 1949.  Hungarians could now share in that old Soviet joke.  “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

The ten worst hyperinflations in history occurred during the 20th century, including Zimbabwe in 2008, Yugoslavia 1994, Germany 1923, Greece 1944, Poland 1921, Mexico 1982, Brazil 1994, Argentina 1981, and Taiwan 1949.  The common denominator in all ten were government debt, and a currency with no inherent value, except the tacit agreement of a willing buyer, and a willing seller.

In 2015, Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff testified before the Senate Budget Committee.  “The first point I want to get across” he said, “is that our nation is broke.  Our nation’s broke, and it’s not broke in 75 years or 50 years or 25 years or 10 years. It’s broke today”.  Kotlikoff went on to describe the “fiscal gap”, the difference between US’ projected revenue, and the obligations our government has saddled us with.  “We have a $210 trillion fiscal gap at this point”, Kotlikoff said.  11.6 times GDP – the total of all goods and services produced in the United States.

US fiscal operating debt stood at 18 trillion dollars when Professor Kotlikoff testified before congress. That’s just the on-the-books stuff. We are now north of twenty-eight, seemingly hell-bent, for thirty.  The printing presses are working overtime, our currency is unmoored from any objective value.  

What could go wrong?

June 22, 1918 Showmen’s Rest

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The saddest thing you could ever imagine was the sight of a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, weeping inconsolably beside the dead and mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

In the world of the Big Top, the term “First of May” describes a new employee’s first season, with the circus.

There’s an oft-repeated but mistaken notion, that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity. The panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” of Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), refers more to the ancient precursor of the modern racetrack, than to the modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, as the Latin root ‘circus’, translates into English, as “circle”.

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The father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley. A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.

Astley’s afternoon shows gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, when he hired acrobats, rope-dancers and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events. The modern circus, was born.

Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to keep their balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, which he exhibited all over the country. The exotic animal angle was a great success. Other animals were added and soon farmers were leaving their fields, to get into the traveling menagerie business.

The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a standard feature of the American circus.

There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless smaller ones. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ broke down its tent for the last time in 2017, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ended a 146-year run. There was a time though, when the circus really WAS, the greatest show on earth.

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The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued the end to the war ‘over there’.

At 3:56 on the morning of June 22, 1918, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the controls of an empty 21-car troop train. Automatic signals and flares should have warned him that there was a stalled train on the track ahead. A frantic flag man tried and failed to get him to stop. Alonzo Sargent had been fired before, for sleeping on the job. Tonight, Sargent was once again, asleep at the wheel.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days. The famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, on this night tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was enroute from Hammond Indiana to Monroe Wisconsin, when an overheated axle box required an unscheduled stop.

Most of the 400 circus employees were asleep at that early hour, in one of four rear sleeping cars.

The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train at 60mph. Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly. Others were horribly maimed, as wooden sleeping cars telescoped into one another. Confused and bleeding survivors struggled to emerge from the wreckage as gas-fed lanterns began to set all that wood on fire.

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Those lucky enough to escape looked on in horror, as friends and family members were burned alive. Some had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the inferno.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck. The saddest thing you could ever imagine was the sight of a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, weeping inconsolably beside the dead and mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

The rumor mill went berserk. Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana. Elephants died in the heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks. None of the stories were true. The animals had passed through hours before on one of two additional trains, and now awaited a train that would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President. The group purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois only a year earlier, calling it “Showmen’s Rest”. They had no idea their investment would be used so soon.

Only thirteen of the dead were ever identified. A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable. Most of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired just recently and known only by nicknames. Then there were the performers known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Baldy,” “4-Horse Driver”, “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.

Only one show had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey, Ringling brothers and others lent workers, performers and equipment. The show would go on.

Today, the International Circus Hall of Fame is located in the former Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana.

In the elephant world, an upraised trunk symbolizes joy. Five elephant statues circumscribe the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn cemetery. Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath. Their trunks hang low, a symbol of mourning. The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.” On the other four are inscribed the words: “Showmen’s Rest”.

June 15, 1904 Earth’s Purest Children, Young and Fair

The all but forgotten disaster of June 15 1904 stole the lives of 1,021 innocents, mostly women and children. No one could know it at the time but the flaming wreck of the General Slocum would kill their community, as well.

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world save for Berlin, and Vienna.

General Slocum token

It was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300 or so children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

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The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered.”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island just off the Bronx’ shore, as the wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into a holocaust.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion and then jumped overboard with her newborn, to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye. His feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

General Slocum Casualties

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned this day in 1904.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history. Only 321 lived to tell the tale.

Six month old Adella Liebenow was the youngest survivor of the disaster. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial to the calamity which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters were among the unidentified dead.

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Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There followed more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-close community as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them anymore, in this place.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

The East Village Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library was originally bilingual, with half its collection in German and the other half, in English.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9-foot stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside these words:

“They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

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Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

May 6, 1937 Hindenburg

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

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

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

Hindenburg

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

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

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

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

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

Hindenberg Crash

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2011 When I Fell from the Sky

Abraham Lincoln was neither the first nor the last to fall from a high place, and live to tell the tale.

In 1840, a young politician found himself in a legislative minority, opposed to a payment to the Illinois State Bank.  In order to prevent a quorum, a handful of Whigs attempted to leave the chamber.  Finding the door locked, our man stepped to a second-story window, and jumped out.  Abraham Lincoln would come to regret what he called his “window scrape”, but the future 16th President was far from the first person to fall from a high place.  Voluntarily, or otherwise.

The term is “Defenestrate”: to throw a person or thing, out of the window.

Jezebel, yeah that Jezebel, the unlovable Queen of Israel from the Bible, was executed by defenestration, in 842BC.

In 1618, three regents of the imperial crown were thrown from the window of the Prague castle, 70-feet from street level. Things hadn’t worked out so well 200 years earlier, when a burgomaster and 13 members of the Prague town council, were similarly defenestrated.

All three survived this time, thanks to the help of mythic angels, according to friends and supporters. Detractors weren’t quite so kind, attributing the trio’s survival to a pile of horseshit. Be that as it may, one of them became a noble thanks to the emperor, and received a title: Baron von Hohenfall. (“Baron of Highfall“). Honest. I couldn’t make up a thing like that.

Since the age of aircraft there are tales of survival, enough to make Baron Highfall’s adventures look like stepping from a curb.

The 2003 737 crash outside port Sudan airport killed 113 and left 2-year-old Mohammed el-Fateh Osman lying on a fallen tree, injured, but still alive.

In 2009, pilot error put Yemenia Flight 626 into aerodynamic stall over the Indian ocean. Alone among 153 passengers and crew, 14-year-old French schoolgirl Bahia Bakari found herself the sole survivor, clinging to wreckage and floating in pitch black heavy seas, for 13 hours.

Base jumper James Boole plunged 6000-feet landing on snow covered rocks in 2009 while filming another jumper, in Russia. “This is going to hurt a lot” he later recounted to the guardian newspaper, “or not at all”. Boole broke his back that time but he was at it again, a year later.

In December 1971, lighting struck LANSA Flight 508 over the Amazon rainforest, breaking the Lockheed Electra to pieces. 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke plunged 10,000 feet still strapped to her seat and survived despite deep gashes and a broken collarbone. Koepcke, the daughter of German scientists working in the Amazon, had grown up a “jungle child”. If you’re lost in the jungle her father would say, follow a stream. Water will always lead you to civilization. For ten exhausting days she trekked through knee-deep water, poking the ground ahead of her to scare away rays and dodging crocodiles.

With maggot infested wounds and nothing to live on but candy scrounged from the wreck, Juliane found her salvation on day 11 at the hands of remote fishermen. Following a period of recovery, she led search parties back to the scene of the crash. It was then that she learned, astonishingly, that her mother had also survived the crash only to succumb to her injuries, days later. Now Juliane Diller, she returned to Germany and followed her parents, into the physical sciences. Her autobiography came out on this day in 2011, if you want to learn more of her story. When I Fell from the Sky (German: Als ich vom Himmel fiel). That must be one hell of a story.

Julianne Koepcke Diller in 2019

In 1985, two sky divers became tangled during a 12,000-foot jump near Victoria Australia. Frank’s injuries were minor. Dave Hodgman wasn’t so lucky but still returned to jumping, within three months.

21 year old RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade found himself under attack by German aircraft on March 24, 1944. With his parachute burned away and his aircraft in a burning death spiral, Alkemade chose a quick death over being burned alive. At 18,000 feet. The tail gunner regained consciousness looking up from the snow, at the stars above. He lit a cigarette. With a sprained ankle, the airman was easily captured. German interrogators were so impressed with his story they gave him a certificate, attesting to his tale.

Joe Herman of the Royal Australian Air Force was blown out of his bomber, in 1944. Free falling through the night sky Herman grabbed wildly for anything he could get hold of. It happened to be the leg of fellow airman John Vivash. Herman hung on for dear life and returned the favor, hitting the ground first and breaking the fall, for his benefactor. Herman walked away with two broken ribs.

In 1943, American turret gunner Alan Magee was forced to jump from the B-17F Snap! Crackle! Pop!, four miles through the skies over France. He fell 22,000 feet, crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. On the ground, his German captors were astonished. With 28 shrapnel wounds, massive internal injuries and a right arm all but severed the man lived on, for another 61 years.

Turret gunner Alan Magee poses for the camera, halfway out of his “office”

Soviet Airforce Lieutenant Ivan Chisov bailed out of his Ilyushin Il-4 bomber, at 22,000 feet. He intended to freefall out of the combat zone so as not to be gunned down by vengeful German pilots, while dangling from his parachute. And a fine plan it was, too, until he lost consciousness, due to the altitude. Chisov hit the snowy embankment at somewhere between 120 and 150 miles per hour, breaking his pelvis and injuring his spine. He was flying again, three months later.

In January 1972, Croatian terrorists placed a briefcase bomb on JAT Air flight 367 from Stockholm, to Belgrade. The bomb exploded, breaking the aircraft into three pieces. Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović survived the fall with a fractured skull and brain bleeding, two broken legs and three broken vertebra. Vulović passed the next 27 days in a coma and remembers nothing after greeting passengers, on the flight. When offered sedatives for her return flight to Belgrade, she declined the injection. With no memory of the crash, there was nothing to be afraid of.

At 33,330 feet, Vesna Vulović is listed in the Guinness book of world records, for surviving the highest fall.

JAT flight attendant Vesna Vulović

If you’re ever caught in such a situation, experts advise that you spread out your arms and legs to create as much drag, as possible. How one becomes “expert” in such a subject, remains unexplained. Let me know how it works out, if you ever give it a try. As for myself I think I might bend down if I was a little more flexible, and kiss my behind goodbye.

February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica. Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.


Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

Yonaguni

In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Fifteen-hundred to twenty-five hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 to 9-feet or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites containing just a single to four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated with remains then going through a secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  It’s the most dangerous archaeological site on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic failure of the rice crop.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

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The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

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On February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

February 10, 1258 The Fall of Baghdad

Imagine an army of circus riders, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad.

Following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of greater Syria, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur established a new capital on the banks of the Tigris River, occupied by a Persian village called Baghdad. Mansur’s grandson Harun al-Rashid subsidized the work of scientists, religious scholars, poets and artists who converged into the city. Books and manuscripts were written on paper, a new technology imported from China, and bound, in finest leathers. No fewer than 36 public libraries were built in addition to the grand library, the ‘house of Wisdom”. Baghdad became a center for learning in the medieval world, unusual for the time, most of its citizens, were literate.

Over the next 200 years, local conflicts reduced Abbasid control over much of the vast Islamic empire, to a mostly religious and ceremonial role. But for Baghdad itself, which continued to grow into the center of science, culture and philosophy western writers would later call, the Golden Age of Islam.

Meanwhile far to the east, a boy was born to the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins, of field mice. acts of violence would be met with retribution and response between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

By 1197, that boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia to become the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet. His name was Temujin, known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

Fun fact: Genghis Khan is often depicted with Asian features, though history fails to record of what the man actually looked like. He never let anyone paint his likeness. The Eurasian Steppe was a major crossroad before written history with genetic makeup as diverse, as any on the planet. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes, or maybe blue. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors were one of the deadliest episodes, in world history. Between 1206 and 1405, victims are estimated to number between 20 and 57 million. This at a time when the world’s population, was around 450 million. In 1221, Mongol armies carried out one of the bloodiest massacres in history in the old city of Urgench, in modern Turkmenistan. An army of two tumens (20,000) was ordered to murder 24 people, per man. In 1241, five separate Mongol armies invaded Hungary, the main armies under Subutai and Batu Khan. When it was over a third to one-half of the Hungarian population, had ceased to exist.

Let it be said that Batu was also known as Sain Khan, Mongolian for “Good Khan”.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan and his son and successor, Ögedei, ordered Chormaqan to attack Baghdad, in 1236. The general made it as far as Irbil about 200 miles from Baghdad, but the mongols would return. Just about, every year. Muslim armies were at times successful against such invasions and at other times, not. By 1241, the Caliph had had enough and began the annual payment of tribute.

That lasted five years. Baghdad sent emissaries to the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan (Great Khan) in 1246 and that of Möngke Khan, in 1251. Güyük expected full submission and demanded the presence of Caliph Al-Musta’sim in Karakorum, the capital of the Mongolian empire.

Imagine an army of circus riders, armed a minimum of 60 arrows apiece. Laminate composite bows combined the compression of horn with the elongation of sinew to develop draw weights up to 160-pounds. Each was capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, even to the rear. Each rider has no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop to keep his horses fresh.  In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more. 

Since 1092 the charismatic and reclusive Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors kept far more powerful adversaries in their place using a secretive, elite band of fida’in adherents to the Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam. Great figures Muslim and Christian alike feared the secretive Hashashin (assassins) of the Alamut valley. The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people. The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake. The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on the General’s life.

The Grand Master of the Assassins even tried to assassinate Möngke Khan and the Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire, Kitbuqa Noyan. It was a bad idea.

In 1253, Noyan was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses. Möngke’s brother Hulagu conscripted one in every ten military age males in the entire empire and rode out in 1255, at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

As Khan, Möngke wanted full submission from several Muslim states, including the caliphate. Hulagu sent word to Baghdad, demanding submission. Musta’sim must have gotten some bad advice. Convinced the Muslim world would rise up against the invader, the caliph sent word. They could all go back where they came from.

A force of some 120,000 Mongol, Turkic and Manchurian cavalry arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad on January 29, 1258. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers joined in along with a force of Armenian and Georgian Christians, bent on revenge for raids carried out against the homeland.

20,000 Muslim horsemen sent out to do battle were crushed while Mongol sappers breached dikes along the Tigris, trapping Abbasid forces outside the city.

The mongol army constructed a palisade and a ditch around the city. Seige engines and catapults pounded the walls. By February 5, Hulagu’s forces had seized much of the defenses. Al-Musta’sim attempted to parlay but it was too late for that. 3,000 of Baghdad’s “notables” then attempted to negotiate. Every one of them were slaughtered.

The city surrendered on February 10, 1258. Mongols held back at last entering the city, on February 13.

To the modern reader, the ‘bloodiest day in human history” conjures images of modern warfare. The industrialized warfare of the Somme. Stalingrad. The homicidal regimes of Adolf Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin. Maybe so but many events in this parade of horribles unfolded over weeks, or months, or years.

A million people live in Baghdad on February 28, 1258. The orgy of killing that began on February saw no fewer than 90,000 killed one at a time, with edged or pointed weapons. Some estimates run to several times that number.

Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife Dokuz Khatun persuaded him to spare Baghdad’s Christians. All others, men, women and children, were slaughtered. The largest collection of books on the planet were torn to shreds, their leather jackets used for sandals and pages thrown in the river. They say the Tigris ran red with the blood of the slain, and black with the ink from all those books.

This was all carried out in front of Caliph Al-Musta’sim. His family was murdered save for a son brought back to Mongolia and a daughter taken as concubine, to Hulagu.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

So many people died in the sack of Baghdad, there was no longer labor to maintain agricultural systems. Irrigation canals not destroyed in the assault, broke down and silted up. Generations would come and go before the city regained anything close, to its former population. That center of learning in the medieval world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, was gone forever.

February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

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U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

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The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

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A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.