June 15 1904 A Community, no More

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  

In the first full century of American independence, three great waves of European and later Asian immigrants left their homes in the ‘old country’, headed for a life in the new world.

The-Scotch-Irish-the-Eighteenth-Century-Irish-Diaspora-1Starvation, shipwreck and disease killed no fewer than 1 in 10 during the period 1790 – 1820, without any so much as setting foot in the new world. And still they came.

The largest non-English speaking minority were the ethnic Germans, escaping economic hardship and in search of political freedom.  At the time of the Civil War, nearly one-quarter of all Union troops were German Americans, some 45% of whom were born in Europe.

German migration rose faster than any other immigrant group through the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th, many in pursuit of agricultural opportunity while others settled in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

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 the area, 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.

Little Germany

June 15, 1904 dawned bright and beautiful on Little Germany, a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel Passenger Steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into the East River.

PS General Slocum was on a charter this day, carrying German-American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on a harbor cruise and picnic. Over a thousand tickets were sold, not counting 300+ children who were sailing for free.

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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 into the forward section lamp room. The flames spread quickly, fueled by lamp oil and oily rags.  A 12-year old boy first reported the fire, but the Captain didn’t believe him.  The fire was first noticed at around 10:00am.

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.

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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.

The wind and the speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.
Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.

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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.

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Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and 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.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death, or drowned. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.

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Adella Liebenow

There were only 321 survivors.

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six-month-old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster 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 of Liebenow’s sisters were among the unidentified dead.

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.

There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of a once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  2600326453_0eae4732c8

There was no longer anything for them, in that place.

Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the General Slocum disaster, had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

Deep inside the East Village, amidst the hipsters and the poets’ cafes of “Alphabet City”, stands a forgotten memorial.  A 9′ stele erected in Tompkins Square Park, sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside them are inscribed these words: “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.

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.

 

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June 4, 1629 A Real-Life ‘Lord of the Flies’

Rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

VOC Logo
VOC Logo

During the colonial period, joint-stock companies were established by European powers to carry out foreign trade and exploration, to colonize distant lands and conduct military operations against foreign adversaries.

Such organizations may have been chartered for a single voyage or for an extended period of time, and were much more than what we currently associate with the word “company”. In their day these organizations could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrong doers, and largely functioned outside the control of the governments which formed them.

The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), better known as the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, was the world’s first formally listed public company, an early multi-national corporation paving the way to the corporate-led globalization of the early modern period.

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Batavia Replica

On October 27, 1628, a Dutch East India Co. merchant fleet departed the Dutch West Indies bound for the south Pacific Moluccan Islands to trade for spices. Among these vessels was the 650-ton ship Batavia, embarked on her maiden voyage.

On board were enormous stockpiles of gold and silver coinage and a complement of 341 passengers and crew, including men, women and children.

Among ship’s officers were the bankrupt pharmacist Onderkoopman (junior merchant) Jeronimus Cornelisz, in flight from the Netherlands due to his heretical religous beliefs, and skipper Ariaen Jacobsz. While underway, the two conceived a plan to mutiny, and start a new life somewhere else. All that specie in the hold would have given the pair a very nice start.

A small group of men were recruited and a plot was hatched to molest a ranking female member of the passenger list. The plotters hoped to provoke a harsh act of discipline against the crew, which could then be used to recruit more men to the mutineers. Lucretia Jans was assaulted as planned but, for whatever reason, Opperkoopman (senior merchant) Francisco Pelsaert never made any arrests.

bat7Perhaps the man was ill at the time but, be that as it may, the die was cast. The conspirators now needed only the right set of circumstances, to put their plans in motion.

Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course and away from the rest of the fleet. He got his ‘right set of circumstances’ on the morning of June 4, 1629, when Batavia struck a reef off the west coast of Australia.

Forty people drowned before the rest could be gotten safely to shore, swimming or transferred to nearby islands in the ship’s longboat and yawl.

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Statue of Wiebbe Hayes at Geraldton, Western Australia.

With no source of fresh drinking water, the situation was dire. A group comprising Captain Jacobsz, Francisco Pelsaert, several senior officers and crew members plus a few passengers set out in a 30-foot longboat.  The group performed one of the great feats of open boat navigation in all history, arriving after 33 days at the port of Batavia in modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia.

Boatswain Jan Evertsz was arrested and executed for negligence in the wreck of the Batavia, his role in the conspiracy never suspected.

Pelsaert was immediately given command of the Sardam by Batavia’s Governor General, Jan Coen.

Pelsaert’s rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

Left alone in charge of the survivors, Cornelisz and several co-conspirators took control of all the weapons and food supplies, then carried out plans to eliminate potential opposition.

A group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes was tricked into being moved to West Wallabi Island, under the false pretense of looking for water. Convinced there was none, Cornelisz abandoned the group on the island to die.  The psychopath and his dedicated band of followers,  was now free to murder the rest at their leisure .

Author Mike Dash writes in Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny: “With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children”.

Like some prototype Charles Manson, Cornelisz left the actual killing to others, though he did attempt to poison one infant who was later strangled.  No fewer than 110 men, women and children were murdered during this period.  Those women left alive were confined to ‘rape tents’.

Meanwhile, Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers found water and, unaware of the butchery taking place on Beacon island, began to send smoke signals, according to a prearranged plan.  The group would only learn of the ongoing massacre from survivors, who escaped to swim for their lives.

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Makeshift ‘fort’ built by Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers, on West Wallabi Island

With their own supplies dwindling, Cornelisz & Co. assaulted the soldiers on West Wallabi Island, now in possession of crude handmade weapons and manning makeshift fortifications. Pitched battles ensued, pitting muskets against sticks and spears. The bad guys almost won too, but the better trained and (by this time) better fed soldiers, prevailed.

Pelsaert’s arrival triggered a furious race between Cornelisz’s men and the soldiers. Fortunately for all, Hayes won the race. A brief but furious battle ensued before Cornelisz and his company were captured. After a brief trial, Cornelisz and the worst of the conspirators were brought to Seal Island, their hands chopped off, and hanged.

Two judged only to be minor players were brought to the Australian mainland and marooned, never to be seen again.

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The hangings on Long Island as illustrated in the Lucas de Vries 1649 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie.

The remaining conspirators were brought back to Batavia and tried. Five of them were hanged. Jacop Pietersz, second-in-command, was broken on the wheel, a hideous remnant of medieval justice and the worst form of execution available, at that time. Captain Jacobsz resisted days of torture and never did confess. What became of him is unknown.

Francisco Pelsaert was judged partly responsible for the disaster, due to his failure to exercise command. Senior Merchant Pelsaert’s assets were confiscated.  He would die penniless in less than a year, a broken man.

The exact number of those buried in mass graves on Beacon Island, is unknown.  Of the 341 who departed the West Indies that day in 1628, 68 lived to tell the tale.  Archaeologists labor an land and at sea but, three centuries later, the Wallabi Islands are jealous of their secrets

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“Archaeologists recovering Batavia timbers from the wreck site”.  H/T, HuffPo for this image
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May 30, 1896 A Cup of Sorrows

When it was over, 1,389 people had been trampled to death, and another 1,300 injured.

On May 26, 1896 according to the Gregorian calendar, Tsar Nicholas II, known as Saint Nicholas II to the Russian Orthodox Church, was crowned Tsar of Russia.  The traditional celebration banquet was scheduled for May 30 at a large open space to the northwest of Moscow, called Khodynka Field.

697452_tsar-nicholas-ii-tsarina-alexandra-feodorovna_cardIt was customary that gifts be given to the guests of such a celebration. There were commemorative scarves and ornately decorated porcelain cups, bearing the ciphers of Nicholas and Alexandra opposite the double-headed symbol of the Imperial dynasty, the Romanov eagle.

There were food gifts as well, bread rolls and sausages, pretzels, gingerbread, and a cup of beer.  150 buffets and 20 pubs were constructed, to handle their distribution.

Revelers began to gather on the 29th.  By 5:00am on the 30th, the crowd was a half-million strong, and growing.

Khodynka Field

Khodynka field was a poor venue for such an event, the crowd far larger than could be safely handled. A military training ground, the plain before the speaker’s Cups of Sorrowspodium was pocked and lined with trenches and pits.

Rumors began to spread among the crowd. There wasn’t enough beer to go around.  Those enameled cups, already a great novelty for the time, each contained a gold coin.

The crowd became a mob and began to surge forward, as rumors grew and spread. An 1,800-man police force was inadequate to maintain order. The crush of the crowd grew into a panic, and then became a human stampede.

1,389 people were trampled to death in the rout, another 1,300, injured.

The new Czar and Czarina didn’t hear about the disaster at first but, when they did, the royal couple spent the rest of the day visiting their subjects in hospital.

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Nicholas thought it best not to attend a ball put on that night by the French embassy, fearing that it would make him appear insensitive to the suffering of his people. The Tsar’s advisers persuaded him to go, however, and later events proved him correct.

Khodynka, aftermath

There was great public indignation over the disaster at Khodynka field, despite generous subsidies paid to victims, by the Russian government.  Despite his best efforts, Tsar Nicholas became ‘Bloody Nicholas”, to the Russian people. For the Tsarina, that enameled coronation cup more closely resembled a ‘Cup of Sorrows “.

Mystics prophesied that Nicholas’ refusal to decline the invitation would lead to his doom.  J. Balmont wrote in 1905 that “Who started his reign with Khodynka, will finish it by mounting the scaffold”.

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Hat tip to the Russian artist known as ‘Klimbims’, for her work in colorizing these vintage images

Tsar Nicholas was murdered by order of the Ural regional Soviet in Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. The Tsarina, the couple’s five children, servants, dogs and a number of individuals who had chosen to accompany the Imperial family into imprisonment, were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death.

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Great countess Maria Vladimirovna.

It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia. The malignant ideology which arose to take its place, would murder more of its own civilians, than any system of government, in history.

 

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May 21, 1944 That Other Disaster, at Pearl Harbor

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

Between June and November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and Army conducted Operation Forager with support from the United States Navy, an offensive intended to dislodge Imperial Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed during the last two years of WW2, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

In May 1944, the Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  Seventy-four years ago today, twenty-nine Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers, loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

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LST in Sicily

LST-353 exploded shortly after three in the afternoon, causing an incendiary chain reaction down the line of LSTs. 200 men were blown into the water in the first few minutes, in explosions powerful enough to knock vehicles on their sides. Eleven buildings on the shore were destroyed altogether and another nine, damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway, due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs began to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs, others were abandoned and left adrift and burning, before sinking in the channel.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires continued to burn for the next twenty-four hours.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines, but the idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was killed. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe that a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded, others that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack of two years earlier.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

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The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later, during salvage operations for a sunken LST.

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Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

On February 17, 1945, two divers were using jet nozzles to tunnel under a sunken LST, when the steel wreckage above them caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled with jagged pieces of steel, the pair was trapped under 40′ of water and another 20′ of mud.  There seemed no chance of survival, when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg went into the water.

Working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  Hammerberg reached the first man after hours of exhausting labor, freeing his lines and enabling the man to reach the surface.

Let Owen Hammerberg’s Medal of Honor citation, the one he would not live to read, tell what happened next.

Cmoh_army“…Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades…”.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in WW2 and the last person ever, to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

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April 18, 1906 American Plague

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

images (49)In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, the fleas from which would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others.

High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.

In some cases, Bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in Pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood stream as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran from 98% to 100%.

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The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas that came with them. One-third of the world’s population died in the five-year period which followed, equivalent to over two Billion today.

The Black Death of the 14th century is far and away the most famous, but it’s not the first. The Plague of Justinian, 541-542AD, centered mostly around the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanid Empires, the disease resulting in the death of 25 million individuals. Roughly 13% of the world’s population, at that time.

150827150729-plague-explainer-cohen-orig-mg-00001604-full-169The Black death of 1346-’53 was a catastrophe unparalleled in human history, but it was by no means the last such outbreak.  The Third Pandemic began in China in 1855, spreading to Hong Kong and on to British India. In China and India alone the disease killed 12 million people. It then spread to parts of Africa, Europe, Australia, and South America.

In the newly formed Territory of Hawaii, the first signs of the plague began to appear in Honolulu in December, 1899. Not sure how to control the outbreak, city health officials decided to burn infected houses. Changing winds soon fanned the flames out of control. On January 20, 1900, an inferno consumed nearly all of Chinatown, 38 acres, leaving 6,000 homeless.

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In January 1900, Honolulu’s Chinatown burned down in an effort to control bubonic plague.

In 1900, The ship Australia brought Yersinia Pestis with it from Hong Kong into San Francisco. The ship was immediately quarantined and, despite the escape of two stowaways confirmed to have the bacilli, there was no immediate outbreak. The quarantine seemed to work for a time, but there was no way to contain the rats on board. They are probably the reason that plague spread to the city.

norway_rats_on_ropeThe body of an elderly Chinese man was discovered in a Chinatown basement. An autopsy found the man to have died of plague. There were more than 18,000 Chinese and another 2,000 Japanese living in the 14-block Chinatown section of the city. Many called for a quarantine of Chinatown, but Chinese citizens objected, as did then-Governor Henry Gage, who tried to sweep the whole outbreak under the carpet. Business interests likewise objected to the quarantine. Except for the Hearst Newspapers, not much was heard about it.

100 confirmed cases of plague were discovered by the end of 1902, but Governor Gage was still denying its existence. There were a total of 121 cases with 113 deaths by 1904, but the outbreak seemed to be contained.

yersinia-pestis-plague-bacteria-pasiekaSan Francisco was hit by a massive earthquake on April 18, 1906, followed by a great fire. Thousands of San Franciscans were crowded into refugee camps with an even higher number of rats. For the first time, the disease now jumped the boundaries of Chinatown.

On May 27, 1907, a San Francisco sailor was diagnosed with bubonic plague. The epidemic spread aggressively over that summer, the New York Times reporting in November that “the disease increased with such virulence that it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as were medieval Europe”.

The plague popped up one last time, but local, state, and federal health officials combined to all-but eradicate the rat population, and with it the disease. It was all over by 1909.

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Reported cases of human plague in the United States, 1970 – 2012

Or was it. Nothing could stop the fleas from infected rats from transferring to wild rodents, squirrels, and prairie dogs, and permanently establishing plague bacilli in the western United States.

In 2015, the CDC reported 15 cases of Bubonic plague in the United States, as of October.  Four of them were fatal.  The bacterium is treatable with modern antibiotics, but I can’t help thinking about the massive quantity of anti-microbials used in livestock production. Given the apparent increase in multiple-drug resistant “superbugs”, I hope that people far smarter than I am, are thinking about it too.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 11, 1958 Carolina Nuked

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way. 

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

Oh, and the Federal Government dropped a nuke on the place.  Sixty years ago, today.

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To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way.  The Air Force Boeing Stratojet bomber left Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, on a routine flight to Africa via the United Kingdom.  Just in case nuclear war was to break out with the Soviet Union, the B47 carried a 10’8″, 10,900lb, Mark 4, atomic bomb.

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The Atlantic Coastline Railroad conductor, WWII veteran & former paratrooper Walter Gregg Sr. was in the workshop near his home in the Mars Bluff neighborhood of Florence, South Carolina while his wife, Ethel Mae “Effie” Gregg, was inside, sewing.  The Gregg sisters Helen and Frances, ages 6 and 9, were playing in the woods with their nine-year-old cousin Ella Davies, as the B47 Stratojet bomber lumbered overhead.

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At 15,000 ft., a warning light came on in the cockpit, and the pilot accidentally pulled the emergency release pin.  Bomb bay doors alone are woefully inadequate to hold a five-ton bomb.  The thing broke free and began its 15,000-ft. descent, straight into the Gregg’s back yard.

The Mark 4 atom bomb employs an IFI (in-flight insertion) safety, whereby composite uranium and plutonium fissile pits are inserted into the bomb core, thus arming the weapon. When deployed, a 6,000-lb. conventional explosion super-compresses the fissile core, beginning a nuclear chain reaction. In the first millisecond, (one millionth of a second), plasma expands to a size of several meters, as temperatures rise into the tens of millions of degrees, Celsius. Thermal electromagnetic “Black-body” radiation in the X-Ray spectrum is absorbed into the surrounding air, producing a fireball.  The kinetic energy imparted by the reaction produces an initial explosive force of about 12,000 kilometers, per second.

This particular nuke was unarmed, but three tons of conventional explosive can wreak a lot of havoc.   The weapon scored a direct hit on a playhouse built for the Gregg children, the explosion leaving a crater 70-ft. wide and 35-ft. deep and destroying the Gregg residence and several out buildings.  Seven buildings within a five-mile radius, were damaged.  Both Greggs, all three of the girls and son Walter Jr. were injured, though fortunately, none fatally.

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

Three years later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs broke up in the air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five crew members ejected from the aircraft at 9,000-ft. and landed safely, another ejected but did not survive the landing. Two others died in the crash. In this incident, both weapons were fully nuclear-enabled. One single switch out of four, is all that prevented the detonation of at least one of them.

Walter Gregg described the Mars Bluff incident in 2001, in director Peter Kuran’s documentary “Nuclear 911”. “It just came like a bolt of lightning”, he said. “Boom! And it was all over. The concussion …caved the roof in.”  Left with little but the clothes on their backs, the family sued the Federal Government.  They were awarded $54,000 by the United States Air force, equivalent to about $448,000 today.

Over the years, members of the flight crew stopped by to apologize for the episode.

Incidents involving the loss or accidental detonation of nuclear weapons are called “Broken Arrows“. There have been 32 such mishaps, since 1950. As of this date, six such weapons have been lost, and never recovered.

 

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February 3, 1943  Greater Love Hath No Man Than This

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.

The Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 904 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers.  They were headed for the  the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19, together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.

Built as a coastal liner in 1926, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering her way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.

German U-Boats had already sunk several ships in these waters.  One of the Cutters detected a submarine late on February 2, flashing the light signal “we’re being followed”.  Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night.  Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on, but many disregarded the order.  It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.

Dorchester-facta-nautica-1000

Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night.  Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement.

They were the Jewish rabbi Alexander David Goode, the Catholic priest John Patrick Washington, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) minister Clark Vandersail Poling, and the Methodist minister George Lansing Fox.

At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes.  One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line.  A hundred or more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor billowing from ruptured boilers.  Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks.  With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal.  For reasons not entirely clear, there never were any signal flares.

druidartThose who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the cold and darkness.

The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage.  They opened a storage locker and handed out life preservers, until there were no more.  “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!”  Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit.  One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind.  I have two pairs”.  It was only later that Mahoney realized, Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.

size0Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live.  Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle.  Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding them to the point of capsize.  Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.

Private William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.

images (17)Rushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets.  Most marked the location of corpses.  Of the 904 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.

The United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless act of courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented it from doing so.  Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.

chaplains_medalJohn 15:13 says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant.  Each gave his life jacket to the nearest man.

Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”  If I were ever so tested, I hope that I would prove myself half the man, as any of those four chaplains.

four-chaplainsUSSDorchester