December 18, 1944 Typhoon Cobra

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

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

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

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

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

By mid-December 1944, Task Force 38 had been underway for three weeks, having just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines, suppressing enemy aircraft in support of American amphibious operations against Mindoro.  Ships were badly in need of re-supply.  A replenishment fleet, 35 ships in all, was sent to the nearest spot near Luzon, yet still outside of Japanese fighter range.  Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th.

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

Cobra 9

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

Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th, as increasing winds and building seas made refueling increasingly difficult.  Refueling hoses were parted on several occasions and thick hawsers had to be cut to avoid collision, as sustained winds built to 40 knots.  Believing the storm center to be 450 miles to his southeast, Admiral Halsey didn’t want to return to base.  That would take too long, and combat operations were scheduled to resume, two days later.  Halsey needed the carrier group refueled and on station, and so it was decided.  Task Force 38 and the replenishment fleet, would proceed to a second replenishment point, hoping to resume refueling operations on the morning of the 18th.


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

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

Cobra 4

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

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

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


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


790 Americans lost their lives in Typhoon Cobra, killed outright or washed overboard and drowned.

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

Typhoon Cobra moved on that night, December 19 dawning clear with brisk winds. Admiral Halsey ordered “All ships of the Task Force line up side-by-side at about ½ mile spacing and comb the 2800-square mile area” in which they’d been operating.  Carl M. Berntsen, SoM1/C aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven, recalled that “I saw the line of ships disappear over the horizon to starboard and to port”. The Destroyer USS Brown rescued six survivors from the Monaghan, and another 13 from USS Hull.  18 more would be plucked from the water, 93 in all, by ships spread across 50-60 miles of open ocean.

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


Carl Martin Berntsen passed away on October 13th, 2014 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. He would have been 94, the following month. I am indebted to him and his excellent essay for this story.  Virtually all ships of Task Force 38 were damaged to some degree.  I tip my hat to Wikipedia, for the following summary of the more serious instances.

USS Hull – with 70% fuel aboard, capsized and sunk with 202 men drowned (62 survivors)

USS Monaghan – capsized and sunk with 256 men drowned (six survivors)

USS Spence – rudder jammed hard to starboard, capsized and sunk with 317 men drowned (23 survivors) after hoses parted attempting to refuel from New Jersey because they had also disobeyed orders to ballast down directly from Admiral Halsey

USS Cowpens – hangar door torn open and RADAR, 20mm gun sponson, whaleboat, jeeps, tractors, kerry crane, and 8 aircraft lost overboard. One sailor lost.

USS Monterey – hangar deck fire killed three men and caused evacuation of boiler rooms requiring repairs at Bremerton Navy yard

USS Langley – damaged

USS Cabot – damaged

USS San Jacinto – hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts and sprinkling system causing widespread flooding. Damage repaired by USS Hector

USS Altamaha – hangar deck crane and aircraft broke loose and broke fire mains

USS Anzio – required major repair

USS Nehenta – damaged

USS Cape Esperance – flight deck fire required major repair

USS Kwajalein – lost steering control

USS Iowa – propeller shaft bent and lost a seaplane

USS Baltimore – required major repair

USS Miami – required major repair

USS Dewey – lost steering control, RADAR, the forward stack, and all power when salt water shorted main electrical switchboard

USS Aylwin – required major repair

USS Buchanan – required major repair

USS Dyson – required major repair

USS Hickox – required major repair

USS Maddox – damaged

USS Benham – required major repair

USS Donaldson – required major repair

USS Melvin R. Nawman – required major repair

USS Tabberer – lost foremast

USS Waterman – damaged

USS Nantahala – damaged

USS Jicarilla – damaged

USS Shasta – damaged “one deck collapsed, aircraft engines damaged, depth charges broke loose, damaged “

December 10, 1917 Oh, Christmas Tree…

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, 100 years ago, today.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

The Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running itself aground.

That was when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light the morning of December 7 revealed some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone. President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train on the scene.

Halifax HeraldThere was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  A very large Christmas tree.


In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.Halifax Tree Sendoff

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the people of Boston.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

events3406This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

This year’s tree stands 53′ tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax exlosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey

For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word this year, at the tree lighting ceremony. “We had massive deaths and injuries,” McNeil said of the 1917 catastrophe. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”


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December 5, 1914 Shackleton Expedition

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. “The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”.  As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.  Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

Shackleton 5

The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island.  It was December 5.Shackleton 12

The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent.  The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for another 497 days.

The disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.Shackleton 7

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, not knowing that she only had six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would one day end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean, as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”.  The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.Shackleton 10

The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat, James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

Shackleton 9The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20.  They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting their long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad“.


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December 2, 1943 Pearl Harbor of the Mediterranean

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread. 

Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the hydra monster. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poison arrows, according to Homer’s Iliad, and Odyssey.   Alexander the Great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe the arsenic-laced “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt in 178 A.D.Gas Masks

France was first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces, in August 1914.

Imperial Germany was the first to seriously study chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915, and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

Mustard gas poster, WW2

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, and a death toll of 91,198.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.

The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous chemical and biological experiments conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas on no fewer than 375 occasions, during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, alone.

A 1936 intercept from Emperor Haile Selassie describes a gas attack, during the Italian colonial war on Ethiopia:  “Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. To systematically kill all living creatures, to more surely poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare”.

Nazi Germany is reported to have had about 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western-front adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle with the Soviet Union – was a different story.   Chemical weapons were used against Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

Mustard gas experimentNone of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice Nazi Germany’s chemical stockpile.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.

Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, lewisite, phosgene and Paris green, waiting for the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons during the invasion of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said that he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British Isles.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated in 1937, by President Franklin Roosevelt:  “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

Yet, by 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians, with a budget in excess of $1 billion.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered to the allies in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

Bari Satellite
Bari Harbor, as it appears today.  Tip of the hat to Google Maps, for this image.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey left port in Baltimore, arriving in Oran, Algeria, and taking on 2,000 M47A1 bombs, each containing 60-70 pounds of sulfur mustard.  Ship’s manifest labeled the cargo, “HS”.  Hot Stuff.  Following inspection by an officer of the 7th chemical ordnance company, the John Harvey sailed into the straits of Otranto, arriving at the southern Italian port of Bari on November 26.

Liberty ship at sea

Bari was crammed with ships waiting to be unloaded,  packed so tightly that they touched when the wind shifted.  It would be days before stevedores could even get to John Harvey. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities about his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. A week later, SS John Harvey was still waiting.

For Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army. 105 Junkers JU 88 bombers came out of the East on December 2, the attack opening at 7:25 PM and lasting an hour.

Bari Harbor attack, December 2, 1943

The port at Bari was an easy target that night.  With the battle of Monte Cassino little more than a month away, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree, to facilitate the unloading of supplies.  Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, sending a sheet of burning petrol across the harbor and igniting those ships left unscathed.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed, including John Harvey.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a malignant vapor cloud drifted across the port and into the city of 250,000.

Mustard gas victim. Image credit, Smithsonian magazine.

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract.  The stuff attacks every cell type with which it comes in contact.

First comes the pungent smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching on exposed areas, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on the skin.

The victim is literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.  Victims experience blindness, cough, shortness of breath and sinus pain.  Digestive tract symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

Death comes in days or weeks, and survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in cancer and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote to mustard gas.  The CDC reports the only treatment to be “supportive care”.

A thousand or more died outright in the conflagration at Bari, or in the days and weeks to come.  No one knows for sure.  The entire episode was shrouded in secrecy.

Today, the seventh circle of the seventh circle of Hell is covered and hidden by a tidy acronym known as NBC (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical), but the monster is never far from the surface. For now, we are left only to hope that that nightmare demon, remains buried where it lies.

Gas mask, horseDuring the trials at Nuremburg, interrogators asked Hermann Göring why the Nazi military hadn’t used poison gas stockpiles.  The Wehrmacht, Göring explained, depended on horse-drawn transport, to move supplies to combat units.  German scientists were unable to devise a gas mask, good enough to protect and still allow a horse to pull a cart.  For this reason, the Nazis had limited use for gas under most field conditions.

World War 2, the most horrific conflagration in human history, could have been so much worse.  But for the want of a mask, for a horse.


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November 28, 1942 Cocoanut Grove

ICYMI – “Barney” Welansky, the current owner, liked to brag about his ties with the Mob and with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Welansky was in Mass General Hospital that night, recovering from a heart attack. He would soon have a lot of company.

If you go behind the Hotel Radisson in Boston, over by the parking garage, you’ll find 17 Piedmont Street, in the Bay Village neighborhood. The address is a parking lot now.  75 years ago, it contained the most popular nightclub in Boston.

Cocoanut Grove Menu

Rumors of criminal connections followed the Cocoanut Grove for years. The former owner, gangster and bootlegger Charles “King” Solomon, had been gunned down ten years earlier in the men’s room of Roxbury’s Cotton Club. “Barney” Welansky, the current owner, liked to brag about his ties with the Mob and with Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin. Welansky was in Mass General Hospital that night, recovering from a heart attack. He would soon have a lot of company.

During prohibition, the club had been a speakeasy . Originally a garage and warehouse, Cocoanut Grove was converted into a 1½ story complex of dining rooms, bars, and lounges, offering patrons dining and dancing in a “tropical paradise” of artificial palm trees, satin bunting and paper palm fronds, complete with a roof which could be rolled back when weather permitted, for dancing under the stars.

Cocoanut_Grove_Night_Club_FireWelansky was a tough boss, maniacally determined not to be cheated out of a tab or a cover charge. He locked exit doors, concealed others with draperies, and even bricked up one emergency exit. Nobody was going to leave Cocoanut Grove without paying up.

Boston College had just ended an undefeated season, losing their slot in the Sugar Bowl in a stunning upset to Holy Cross, 55–12.

Over a thousand football fans, military service members, and Thanksgiving weekend revelers crowded into the nightclub that night.  The rated capacity was 460.

Downstairs in the Melody Lounge, Goody Goodelle played piano on a revolving stage, surrounded by paper palms. Someone, perhaps a soldier on leave with his sweetheart, had removed a light bulb to have a little privacy. 16-year old bus boy Stanley Tomaszewski climbed up to replace the bulb, lighting a match so he could see what he was doing.

Cocoanut Grove, 2The decorations ignited immediately, fire racing so fast along the satin canopy, that wooden strips suspending it from the ceiling remained unscathed.

Waiters attempted to douse the fire with water, but it spread far too quickly. Lounge patrons were overcome so rapidly by toxic smoke, that some were later found dead in their seats, drinks still in their hands.

Flames raced up the stairway to the main level, burning the hair of people trying to escape. The orchestra was just beginning its evening show as a fireball leapt across the dance floor, spreading quickly through the Caricature Bar, and down a hallway to the Broadway Lounge. Inside of five minutes, flames had spread into the main hall and the entire nightclub was ablaze.

maxresdefaultToday, fire codes require revolving doors to be flanked by doors on either side, but that wasn’t the case in 1942. Desperate to escape, patrons packed the single revolving door, their bodies jamming it so tightly that firefighters later had to dismantle the entire frame.

The bodies of club guests piled up at locked exits, as other doors, opening inward, became useless in the crush of bodies. Firefighters later testified that 300 could have been saved, if only those doors had opened to the outside.

Ambulances, taxis, newspaper delivery trucks and private cars descended on Boston City Hospital’s emergency room, the injured, dead and dying arriving at a rate of one every eleven seconds. Dr. Stanley Levenson, just a year out of Harvard Medical School and down that night with food poisoning, got the call. “I was still in bed on Saturday night, when I got a call from Dr. Charles Lund, chief of surgery, and he told me that no matter how I felt, I had to get to ER immediately, something terrible had happened”.

Cocoanut Grove3The most striking story of survival that night, was that of 21-year old Coast Guardsman Clifford Johnson, who returned to the nightclub no fewer than four times in search of his date, Estelle Balkan. He didn’t know that she had safely escaped, and each time Johnson returned with another unconscious smoke victim in his arms. Johnson himself was on fire his last time out, when he collapsed onto the sidewalk, still ablaze.

Clifford Johnson
Clifford Johnson

Three other burn victims were taken to Mass General that night, with burns over 30% of their bodies.   Johnson alone survived the ordeal, despite third degree burns over 50% of his body. Much of that, was burned to the bone.  Johnson would suffer almost two years of excruciating medical procedures, including no fewer than 30,000 skin grafts in the first year alone.

I earn my living in the Commercial Furniture business.  I can tell you from experience that Cocoanut Grove effects Boston fire code regulations, to this day. 492 died in the conflagration, the deadliest nightclub fire in American history.

cocoanut grove4Barney Welansky was tried and convicted on 19 counts of manslaughter, and sentenced to 12-15 years. Maurice Tobin, by then Governor, released him after four, his body ravaged with cancer. Welansky died 9 weeks later. Stanley Tomaszewski was exonerated.  It wasn’t he who had placed all those flammable decorations, but the bus boy was treated like a Jonah, for the rest of his life.

Clifford Johnson would be 21 months in the hospital, after which he married his nurse and returned to his home state of Missouri, the first of his era to survive such severe burns. Ironically, Johnson would be killed in a car wreck in 1956, pinned beneath an overturned Jeep, and burned to death.


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November 20, 1820  The Real Moby Dick

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked.  This one hit the port side so hard that it shook the ship.

The whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819, the month when Herman Melville was born.  The 21 man crew expected to spend 2-3 years hunting sperm whales, filling the ship’s hold with oil before returning to split the profits of the voyage.

Whaleship at seaEssex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean.  They heard that the whaling grounds near Chile and Peru were exhausted, so they sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

They were there on November 20, 1820, with two of their three boats out hunting whales.  The lookout spotted a huge bull sperm whale, much larger than normal, estimated at 85 feet long and 80 tons.  He was behaving oddly, lying motionless on the surface with his head facing the ship.  In moments the whale began to move, picking up speed as he charged the ship.  Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked.  This one hit the port side so hard that it shook the ship.

Wreck of the whale ship Essex

The huge animal seemed dazed by the impact, floating to the surface and resting by the ship’s side.  He then turned and swam away for several hundred yards, before turning to resume his attack.  He came in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water.  Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward.  Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

Essex_photoCaptain George Pollard’s boat was the first to make it back, and he stared in disbelief.  “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”  he asked.  “We have been stove by a whale” came the reply.

No force on earth could save the stricken whale ship. The crew divided into groups of seven and boarded the three boats.  It wasn’t long before Essex sank out of sight and they were alone, stranded in 28′ open boats, and about as far from land as it was mathematically possible to be.

The whalers believed that cannibals inhabited the Marquesa islands, 1,200 miles to the west, so they headed south, parallel to the coast of South America.  Before their ordeal was over, they themselves would become the cannibals.

With good winds, they might reach the coast of Chile in 56 days.  They had taken enough rations to last 60, provided they were distributed at starvation levels, but most of it had been ruined by salt water.  There was a brief reprieve in December, when the three small boats landed on a small island in the Pitcairn chain.  There they were able to get their fill of birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass, but within a week the island was stripped clean.  They decided to move on, except for three who refused to get back in the boats.

EssexThey never knew that this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island, where survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty had managed to survive for the past 36 years.

After two months at sea, the boats had long separated from one another.  Starving men were beginning to die, and the survivors came to an unthinkable conclusion.  They would have to eat their own dead.

When those were gone, the survivors drew lots to see who would die, that the others might live.  Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin Owen Coffin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot.   Pollard protested, offering to take his place, but the boy declined. “No”, he said, “I like my lot as well as any other.”  Again, lots were drawn to see who would be Coffin’s executioner.  Owen’s friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot.

On February 18, the British whaleship Indian spotted a boat containing Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson.  It was 90 days after Essex’ sinking.  Five days later, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin pulled alongside another boat, to find Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell inside.  The pair was so far gone that they didn’t notice at first, gnawing on the bones of their comrades.

The three who were left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  The third whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island several years later, with four skeletons on board.

The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale, though it would not be the last.  The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both attacked by whales a year later, and the Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander were sunk by whales in 1850 and 1851.

31 years after the Essex sinking, a sailor turned novelist published his sixth volume, beginning it with the words, “Call me Ishmael”.

November 7, 1940 Galloping Gertie

The men who built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge used to suck lemons on the job site, to keep from becoming seasick. It was probably one of these “boomers” who first noticed how the bridge rippled in the wind. Someone  called it “Galloping Gertie”, and the name stuck.

The name “Galloping Gertie” was first used to describe a 900′ bridge over the Ohio River in Wheeling, West Virginia. Built in 1849, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at the time, until collapsing in a windstorm in May, 1854.

Ninety years later, the 5,939′ bridge over Puget Sound earned the same name.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge had been designed by one of the most respected bridge engineers of its time. Federal and state experts all approved the plans, when construction began in 1937. When finished, it was the third longest suspension bridge in the world.


The deck’s vertical wave motions, or “bounce”, were noted as early as May 1940, as workmen finished the bridge’s floor system. As with the 790’ John Hancock Tower in Boston, the bridge would literally twist in the wind. The solution was similar in both cases.  Engineers installed hydraulic buffers, pistons called “Tuned Mass Dampers,” to act as shock absorbers. The tactic worked for the John Hancock building, which, mercifully, no longer ejects 4’x11’, 500lb glass panels onto the street below.

The tactic made little to no improvement on the bridge.

historical16The men who built it used to suck lemons on the job site, to keep from becoming seasick. It was probably one of these “boomers” who first noticed how the bridge rippled in the wind. Someone  called it “Galloping Gertie”, and the name stuck.

Carol Peacock, a student at nearby Fife High School, sat down to do her homework on the evening of November 6, 1940. She was taking a journalism class.  Her assignment was to write an essay beginning with, “Just suppose . . .” She called her essay, “Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapses.” Nostradamus could not have called it better. The bridge came down the next day.

Leonard Coatsworth, a Tacoma News Tribune editor, entered the span some time before 11:00am on November 7, the last person to drive onto the bridge. “Just as I drove past the towers”, he said, “the bridge began to sway violently from side to side. Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car…I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb…Around me I could hear concrete cracking…The car itself began to slide from side to side of the roadway. On hands and knees most of the time, I crawled 500 yards or more to the towers…Toward the last, I risked rising to my feet and running a few yards at a time…Safely back at the toll plaza, I saw the bridge in its final collapse and saw my car plunge into the Narrows.”

collapse6The bridge was bucking so violently that at times, one sidewalk rose as high as 28’ above its opposite.

Frederick Bert Farquharson was a professor of civil engineering at the University of Washington. He’d been retained to help fix the bridge, and was on the span on the morning of the 7th. Professor Farquharson noticed “Tubby”, a black Cocker Spaniel, cowering in the back of Coatsworth’s abandoned car. He tried to rescue the terrified dog, but all he got was a bite on the hand. Driven by the desire to record the engineering science and delayed by the failed rescue attempt, Professor Farquharson was the last to leave the span. Tubby went down with the bridge, the only life lost in the incident.

The bridge remains at the bottom of Puget Sound to this day, one of the largest artificial reefs, in the world.

Photographer Howard Clifford and reporter Bert Brintnall covered the story for the Tacoma News Tribune. The pair had noticed a billboard ad that morning, for the Pacific National Bank. “As secure as the Narrows Bridge,” it read. They returned fewer than two hours after the collapse, wanting to photograph the billboard for their story. Workmen had already covered the sign with white paper.

Feature Image Credit:  By Barney Elliott; The Camera Shop – Screenshot taken from 16MM Kodachrome motion picture film by Barney Elliott., Fair use,