April 30, 1900 Two Minutes Late

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

Acts of heroism have a way of popping up, in the most unexpected places. Ordinary people rising to the occasion, in anything but ordinary circumstances.

Just recently, two teenage boys chased down a kidnapper on their bicycles, freeing a little girl from captivity.  The Poway, California Rabbi grabs hold of a gun in the hands of a demented killer, losing a finger and saving untold numbers of congregants, in the process.  An eight-month’s pregnant mother-to-be dives into the Australian surf, to save two drowning boys.

This is one of those stories.

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Jonathon Luther Jones lived near Cayce Kentucky as a boy, and the nickname stuck. For reasons which remain unclear, he preferred to spell it, “Casey”.

Casey Jones was a train man, working on the I.C.R.R., the Illinois Central Railroad.

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Jonathon Luther “Casey” Jones

One example of the man’s character comes to us from 1895, when Jones was thirty two. Outside Michigan City Mississippi, a group of children darted across the tracks, fewer than sixty yards from the speeding train.  Most made it across except one little girl, who froze in terror before the oncoming locomotive.

With fellow engineer Bob Stevenson hauling back on the emergency brakes and buying precious extra moments, Jones ran across the running boards and inched his way down the pilot, better known as the “cow catcher”.

This is no trick rider.  No circus acrobat.  Casey Jones worked on the railroad. Bracing himself with his legs, Jones reached out and scooped up the little girl, at the last possible moment. 

On this occasion, the man had every hope and expectation of remaining alive, and that he did.  Five years later, he’d perform his last act of heroism in the face of certain and violent, death.

Casey Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he performed well, receiving first a promotion to brakeman, and then to fireman. He met Mary Joanna (“Janie”) Brady around this time, whose father owned the boarding house, where Jones lived. The pair fell in love and married on November 11, 1886, buying a house in Jackson Alabama where the couple raised their three children. By all accounts the man was sober and devoted to his work, a dedicated family man.

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Several crews from the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) were down with yellow fever in the summer of 1887. Fireman Jones went to work for the IC the following year, firing a freight run between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

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Jones achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an engineer in 1891.  He was well  known, for being on time. Jones insisted he never “fall down” and get behind schedule. People learned to set their watches by his train whistle, knowing he would always “get her there on the advertised” (time).

Jones moved his family to Memphis in 1900, transferring to the “cannonball run” between Chicago and New Orleans. The run was a four train passenger relay, advertising the fastest travel times in the history of the American railroad. Experienced engineers were worried about the ambitious schedule and some even quit, but Jones saw the new itinerary as an opportunity for advancement.

How a steam locomotive, works

On this day in 1900, Engine #382 departed Memphis at 12:05am, ninety-five minutes behind schedule due to the late arrival of the first leg, of the relay.

The Memphis to Canton, Mississippi run was 190 miles long and normally took 4 hours, 50 minutes at an average speed of 39 MPH. 95 minutes was a lot of time to make up but #382 was a fast engine and traveling “light” that night, with only six cars.

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Fireman Simeon “Sim” T. Webb

Fireman Simeon Taylor “Sim” Webb was one of the best. He would have to be. This would be a record breaking run.

Jones hit the Johnson bar, throttling #382 up to 80 MPH despite sharp turns and visibility reduced by fog. There were two stops for water and a brief halt on a side track, to let another engine through. Despite all that, #382 made up most of that time by the 155-mile mark. On leaving the side track in Goodman, Mississippi, Jones was only five minutes behind the advertised arrival time of 4:05am.

Jones was well acquainted with those last 25 miles into Vaughn Mississippi.  There were few turns and the engineer throttled his engine up to breakneck speed. He  was thrilled with his time, saying “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!”

Unknown to Casey, there was a problem ahead. Three trains were in the station at Vaughn, with a combined length ten cars longer, than the main siding. Rail yard workers performed a “saw by” maneuver, backing #83 onto the main line and switching overlapping cars onto the “house track”. Then there was that problem with an air hose. Four cars were stranded on the main line.

#382 sped through the final curve at 75MPH, only two minutes behind schedule. Clinging to the side board, Sim Webb was the first to see the red lights, of the caboose. “Oh my Lord”, he yelled, “there’s something on the main line!”

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Jones didn’t have a prayer of stopping in time. He was moving too fast. He reversed throttle and slammed the air brakes into emergency stop, screaming “Jump Sim, jump!” Sim Webb jumped clear with only 300 feet to go as the piercing scream of the train’s whistle, rent the air.

Jones could have jumped himself. His ordering Webb to do so, demonstrates he understood the situation.  Casey Jones stayed on the train as “Ole 382” plowed through the red wooden caboose and three freight cars, before leaving the track. By the time of impact, Jones frantic efforts had slowed the engine to 35 miles per hour, saving his passengers from serious injury or death. Jones himself was the only fatality, his watch stopped at 3:52am.  He was only two minutes behind schedule.

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Passenger Adam Hauser of the New Orleans Times-Democrat was in a sleeper car, at the time of the wreck: “The passengers did not suffer” he said, “and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life”.

Legend has it that, when Jones’ body was removed, his dead hands still clutched the whistle cord, and the brake.

Casey Jones has achieved mythological status since that day, alongside the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Jones’ son Charles was 12 at the time of  his death at age 37, his daughter Helen, 10.  The  youngest, John Lloyd (“Casey Junior”) was 4.  Janie received two life insurance payments totaling $3,000 as Casey was “Double Heading” at that time, as a member of two unions.   she received no other compensation.  The Railroad Retirement Fund didn’t come about, until 1937.

Janie never had any thought of remarrying and lived the rest of her years, dressed in black.  She died on November 21, 1958 in Jackson Alabama, at the age of 92

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A Trivial Matter
In 1907, brakeman Jesus Garcia drove his flaming train away from the small mining town of Nacozari, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The train was carrying dynamite, and blew up,  Killing Garcia.  His quick actions had saved the town, where Jesus Garcia remains a hero, to this day.
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April 25, 1915 ANZAC Day

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire. 

Europe was unprepared for what was to come in September 1939.  Wags called the eight months ending in May 1940 the ‘Phoney War”. The “Sitzkreig”. The outbreak of the “Great War” was different in August 1914, as war exploded across the European landmass. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four-day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23 only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons. In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity over the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War.

A million men were transported by all sides to the ancient textile town of Ypres, “Leper” to the Dutch and “Wipers” to the Tommies, for the purpose of killing each other.

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75,000 men from all sides lost their lives in the month-long apocalypse at Ypres while, all along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

With stalemate on the western front in early 1915, Allied powers considered opening an offensive in another theater. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of the Central powers by this time, against whom Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas was asking for help in the Caucasus. A Naval expedition was decided upon to seize the Dardanelles, the narrow strait connecting the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara and taking Turkey out of the war.

Despite misgivings, naval bombardment opened on the Dardanelles on February 19, 1915. A month of French and British shelling failed to force the straits and Allied planners fell back on amphibious invasion.  The table was set for the eight month disaster known as the battle of Gallipoli.

489,000 French and Commonwealth troops were fed into the abyss, including some sixty five thousand Australians and New Zealand forces collectively known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. or ANZACs.

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire.  Commonwealth forces fought heroically, thousands of individual stories including the famous “Six Before Breakfast”, pre-dawn actions leading to as many Victoria Crosses.   Despite all of it, the landing was a fiasco, stranding thousands of men, vehicles and vast quantities of stores on the beach.

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The traffic jam, was horrendous.  With the water behind them red with blood, ANZAC forces attempted to force the high ground despite determined fire from Turkish forces under Mustafa (Atatürk) Kemal.

A bold strike designed to knock the Ottomans out of the war became a stalemate, the blood soaked campaign dragging on for eight months.

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By the end of 1915, Commonwealth forces suffered some 302,000 casualties.  While the Gallipoli campaign made little difference in the course of the war, the actions of the ANZACs left a powerful legacy.    In time, this date became that rarest of days, a solemn day of remembrance shared by two sovereign nations, a part of the national identity of both countries.

With the beginning of WWII, ANZAC Day became a day to commemorate the lives of Australians and New Zealanders lost in all wars, the meaning of the date broadened to include those killed in all military operations in which the two nations have been involved.

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Gallipoli Landing, April 1915

ANZAC Day was first commemorated at the Australian War Memorial in 1942 but, due to government orders preventing large public gatherings in case of Japanese air attack, this was a small affair with neither march nor memorial service.

For the wounded, the dead and the maimed of that day one hundred four years ago today, ANZAC Day remains an occasion for solemn remembrance, from that day to this.

April 24, 1916 The World is Mad

In the early days of the Great War, the Endurance expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton disappeared into the ice pack, within sight of the Antarctic continent. Theirs was a 497-day struggle for survival, re-emerging twenty months later to learn, the war wasn’t over. Millions were dead. Europe had gone mad. The world had gone mad.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may 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.

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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 across the continent, 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.

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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.

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H/T GreatWarPhotos.com

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.

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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 497 days.

zeppattwarsaw2hThe 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.

Endurance trapped in ice, 1916

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, with no way to know she had only six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

World War I. 7th May 1915. An illustration of the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by German U-boat U-20 off the old head of Kinsale, Ireland.

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 end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.  Six days later, Italy turned on her future ally and declared war on Germany.  At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit him like a hammer.  “The war isn’t over. Millions are dead. Europe is mad. The world is mad“.

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A Trivial Matter
“The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius), registered on July 21, 1983, at Antarctica’s Vostok station”. – H/T LiveScience.com

March 23, 1994 The Heroes of Green Ramp

“Ammunition was going off. I couldn’t tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire.” – Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry

It was a good day for a jump. March 23, 1994. The skies were clear with moderate winds of five to seven MPH, temperatures a comfortable mid-sixties.

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H/T History.army.mil

Some 500 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division were assembled around the parking area known as “Green Ramp”, part of a joint exercise between Fort Bragg North Carolina, and nearby Pope Air Force base.

There were two parachute drops scheduled that day. The sky above was filled with aircraft, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolts and C-130 aircraft, conducting training.

On the ground, paratroops of the First Brigade, 504th Infantry Regiment, and 505th Infantry Regiment prepared to board Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Lockheed C-141 Starlifter aircraft parked on Green Ramp, or practiced jumps from one of several concrete tail mock-ups or just waited, resting in a large personnel shed called the “PAX”, or surrounding lawns.

An F-16D Fighting Falcon was conducting a simulated flame-out on final approach to the runway, with two pilots at the stick. 300-feet above tree level, the giant four-engine turboprop military transport known as the C-130E Hercules, was making the same approach.

The Fighter’s nose struck the tail of the transport, severing the C-130E’s right elevator.  F-16 pilots applied full after burner trying to recover the aircraft, as its frame began to disintegrate. The transport was able to recover, veering off to circle the air field and assess the damage. Meanwhile both F-16 pilots ejected with the fighter still on afterburner, hurtling toward Green Ramp.

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H/T Fayettville Observer

The shattered wreckage of the F-16 hit the ground between two parked C-130s before striking the right wing of the C-141B Starlifter, puncturing 55,000 gallon fuel tanks. A great fireball of flaming wreckage some 75-feet in diameter ricocheted across the tarmac, hurtling toward 82nd Airborne personnel staging for that second jump.

“S. Sgt. Daniel E. Price of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, sacrificed his life to save a female soldier he had never met before. Spc. Estella Wingfield, an information systems operator with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 525th Military Intelligence Brigade, remembered:

He looked me in the eye, grabbed me by the shirt, threw me several feet in the air and jumped on top of me…. An instant later, I heard the blast, felt the extreme heat from the explosion and the debris falling on us…. After the explosion and the rounds stopped going off, he whispered in my ear, “Crawl out from underneath me.”” I did and took off running. History.army.mil

Captain Gerald K. Bebber, Chaplain to the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade chaplain, remembers he:

“heard the high pitched screech of a jet fighter airplane at open throttle from beyond the pack shed [sic] suddenly give way to a deep reverberating thud and massive explosion. I recognized the sound from my experience in battle in Desert Storm. As soon as I could think this, a great roaring rush of fire entered my sight above and to the left of the pack shed. It was at tree-top level, slanting down as it gushed into the mockup area at terrific speed…. The flame came though the tops of the trees that stood in a small open area beside the pack shed. In the torrent of flame I saw pieces of wreckage and machinery hurling along. As the torrent rushed in I could hear cries of alarm, curses, and someone yelling “run” from the mock-ups. The fire blast crackled as it blasted in, and at its sides it curled outward as it went forward. I was standing perhaps thirty feet beside the edge of the blast, and could see eddies of the flame curling out toward me. I turned and ran from the flame, to just beyond the right end of the pack shed, where . . . I no longer felt the intense heat, so I stopped. To my left, out on the aircraft ramp, now in my line of sight I could see a parked C-141 engulfed in flames. It was the left one of a pair of C-141s parked there”.

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H/T Fayetville Observer

Jump master Captain James B. Rich was conducting a pre-jump briefing by one of those concrete mock-ups, and remembers the “overwhelming understanding that there was no way in hell I could outrun the oncoming debris…” Captain Rich “felt fully exposed” as flaming chunks of white hot metal, rained down. It was like “heavy pipes clanging against each other, mixed with a handful of steel marbles thrown against a road sign“.

2d Battalion S. Sgt. Michael T. Kelley remembered nuclear event training and hit the ground as the fireball rolled over him. When he got up he was on fire. Sergeant Kelley dropped and rolled as a would-be rescuer jumped on his body, to put out the flames. A second beat back the fire with “a wrap of some kind” while a third came up with water. When the flames went out, Sgt. Kelly had severe burns over 70 per cent of his body, including the lower one-third of his face.

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Sgt. Gregory Cowper of the 2d Battalion, 505th Infantry, began to roll when the fire caught up with him. “Ammunition was going off”, he said, “I couldn’t tell where it was. I looked to my left and there was a man on fire. I looked to my right and there was a man on fire.

Rank held no distinction that day, Privates to Captains age eighteen to forty, pulling one another from the flames and shielding the wounded, with their bodies. Twenty three were killed outright, another eighty severely injured. One badly burned soldier survived nine agonizing months before succumbing, to his wounds.

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82d Airborne commander Major General William M. Steele, remembered:

“It was soldiers saving soldiers. Soldiers putting out fires on other soldiers; soldiers dragging soldiers out of fires; resuscitating; giving soldiers CPR; putting tourniquets on limbs that had been severed; putting out fires on their bodies, sometimes with their own hands. Anything they could do to care for their buddies that were more seriously injured they were doing. They can’t do that without knowing how. They responded the way they would in combat”.

The Green Ramp disaster of March 23, 1994 was the greatest single-day loss of life suffered by the 82nd Airborne division, since the Battle of the Bulge.

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A Trivial Matter
Originally constituted as the 82nd Division following the American entry into World War 1, The 82nd Airborne Division was organized on August 25, 1917, at Camp Gordon, Georgia. The “AA” on the arm patch stands for “All American”. Now based out of Fort Bragg North Carolina, the All Americans have participated in virtually every American conflict, of the last 100 years.

March 13, 1865 Train Wreck

Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War captured at Cold Harbor and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout, Maryland to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was delayed while guards located missing prisoners.  Then there was the wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

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Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags.  His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure of it. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Railroad Station and Post Office Lackawaxen, PA

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City.  Kent gave the All Clear at 2:45, the main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track stood between the two speeding locomotives.

The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility. Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck:

“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken.” The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. [Witnesses] saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

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51 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners escaped in the confusion.

ShoholaTrainWreckCaptured at Spotsylvania in early 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry private James Tyner was incarcerated at the Elmira camp at this time.  Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.

William was badly injured in the wreck, and survived only long enough to avoid being buried in a mass grave, in Shohola. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time.  James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers, farmers who laid down their tools and went to war for their home state of North Carolina, in 1861.

We’ll never know.  James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

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A Trivial Matter

There were more Northern-born Confederate generals in the Civil War, than Southern-born Union generals.  The last government to formally repeal ordinances of secession and rejoin the Union was the Village of Town Line, New York.  In 1945.

February 14, 1945 Firestorm

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path. 

The most destructive war in history entered its final, apocalyptic phase in January 1945, with another four months of hard fighting yet remaining before Allied forces could declare victory in Europe. In the west, the “Battle of the Bulge” was ended, the last great effort of German armed forces spent and driven back beyond original lines. In the east, the once mighty German military contracted in on itself, in the face of a massive Soviet advance.

Dozens of German divisions hurried east to meet the threat. Allied intelligence believed the war could be over in April, if the major cities to the east were destroyed. Dresden. Leipzig. Chemnitz. Letting these places stand to serve as bases for retreating German forces, could drag the war out until November.

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of the Air Staff, put the problem succinctly: “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”

With its baroque and rococo city center, the capital city of Dresden was long described as the “Jewel Box” of the Free State of Saxony, family seat to the Polish monarchs and royal residence to the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Dresden was the seventh-largest city in Germany in 1945, home to 127 medium-to-large sized factories supplying the German war machine, and the largest built-up area in the “thousand-year Reich”, yet to be bombed.

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Long described as “Florence on the Elbe” Dresden was considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a treasure of art and architecture.

For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience, of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained but forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star, he was forced to wear on his coat. It was now Victor’s task to hand out official letters, ordering those who remained to report for “deportation”. There wasn’t one among them, who didn’t understand what that meant.

Three hundred miles away, bad weather hampered operations for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).  The first wave in the fire bombing of Dresden, would be a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation.

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The first group of Lancaster bombers arrived in the skies over Dresden two hours before midnight, February 13. These were the pathfinders, their job to find the place and drop magnesium parachute flares, to light up the target. Then came the marker planes, Mosquito bombers whose job it was to drop 1,000-pound target indicators, their red glare providing something to aim at. Then came the first wave, 254 Lancaster bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosive ranging from 500-pounders to massive, 4,000-pound “blockbusters”. Next came 200,000 incendiary or “fire bombs”.

This thing was just getting started.

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The second wave came in the small hours of February 14, just as rescue operations, were getting underway.  By now thousands of fires were burning, with smoke rising 15,000 feet into the air.  You could see it from the air, for five hundred miles.

That’s when another 529 Lancasters, dropped another 1,800 tons of bombs.

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Lancaster bomber

The USAAF arrived over the target on the afternoon of February 14, the 317 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the “Mighty 8th” delivering another 771 tons, of bombs.

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path.  A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires.  Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and back into the flames.

Lothar Metzger was ten at the time.  He brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:

“It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them”.

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For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.

Official death tolls from the burned out city are estimated at 18,500 to 25,000. The real number will never be known.  Refugees and military forces in the tens of thousands were streaming through the area at this point in the war.  Estimates range as high as 200,000.  The number if true, is more than death tolls resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.

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360° panoramic view of Dresden, following allied firebombing.  H/T International Business Times
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February 9, 1942 Of Hoodlums and Heroes

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

As the Great War gave way to the Roaring Twenties, operators of the great ocean-going liners began to look at a new class of vessels.

The White Star Lines’ Britannic, Olympic and the doomed Titanic. Cunard’s Carpathia, Mauretania and the ill-fated Lusitania. The Red Star Line’s Finland, Kroonland, and Lapland. These were the veterans of the trans-Atlantic trade, built around enormous numbers of immigrants and the one-way steerage class voyage from Europe, to the United States.

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Normandie poster

As the US all but shut down immigration in the early 1920s, the shipping industry looked to a new class of super liner to serve an upper-crust tourist trade, particularly Americans traveling to Europe, to escape Prohibition.

The German-built Norddeutscher Lloyd company was first off the line with the SS Bremen and Europa. The British-made RMS Queen Mary was not far behind, but the Queen of this new class of super-liner, was the French-built Normandie.

SS Normandie was one-of-a-kind.  The first vessel laid in compliance with the 1929 SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea), she was enormous.  1,029-feet long and 119-feet wide and displacing 85,000 tons, she was the largest liner in the world. 1,975 berths offering seven classes of service, served by a crew of 1,300.

Despite worldwide depression, Normandie was launched in 1932, making her first Atlantic crossing, in 1935.

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Normandie under construction

War broke out in Europe in 1939.  When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Normandie was tied to a dock, in New York.  Under no circumstance would such a vessel be allowed to fall into Nazi hands.  SS Normandie was immediately placed under “protective custody” by the US Navy.

There was speculation in the press, that the liner would be converted to an aircraft carrier in the event of American entry into the war.  The Navy seized the liner in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but not for a carrier.  The most luxurious liner in the world would be converted, to a troop ship.

Work began within weeks on the renamed USS Lafayette.

normandie-6-3176-default-largeThe afternoon of February 9, 1942 was cold and clear, over the West 49th Street pier. Welder Clement Derrick was removing the last of four stanchions in the Grand Salon when sparks ignited bales of burlap, covering highly flammable life vests.

Within a half-hour, much of the great liner was engulfed in flames. Black, oily smoke filled the City skyline as spectators crowded Pier 88.

Squadrons of fire boats poured a deluge of water, more than the great liner could bear. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews attempted to board when she suddenly lurched several feet, to port. USS Lafayette was drowning in the water, meant to save her life.

The scene was a carnival, with food vendors and  hawkers. Skycraper windows were opened, to watch the grim spectacle.

USS Lafayette continued her slow roll as, unseen within her holds, shifting water picked up speed. In twelve hours, it was over. At 2:35am on February 10, she rolled over and died.

Miki Rosen was five at the time, coming by in the family car, to gawk at the scene: “My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn’t even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water.”

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USS Lafeyette, 1942

It wasn’t long before speculation turned to certainty. Sabotage. German spies were all over the waterfront, taking jobs as bartenders, stevedores and factory workers. Only a month earlier, 33 German agents were sentenced in a Brooklyn courtroom, to 300 years.  German U-Boats sank 20 allied vessels in January alone, a mere sixty miles off the New Jersey and Long Island shore.

main-qimg-5b28658362e63dfcf2abdc5a8709522fBBC broadcaster Alistaire Cooke, “the Twentieth Century’s de Tocqueville”, spoke of American seamen, torpedoed and picked up by a German submarine. The U-Boat commander came in and asked, in a perfect Brooklyn accent, if any were from the borough. “Maybe I worked with some o’ youse guys.  I was twelve years in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The FBI recreated Clement Derrick’s accident with the same dreadful result but, no matter.  By then, speculation had turned to “fact”.

Naval intelligence distrusted the official FBI version.  Hordes of uniformed personnel descended on the waterfront from Connecticut to New Jersey, to be met with a glowering brick wall of silence.  This was a rough and unaccustomed place, an underworld of sailors and gangsters,  fishermen and longshoremen.  A world of street toughs who’d long since lost any trust in uniforms, from meter maids to police officers.  Ivy-league Naval intelligence types got no information whatsoever.  Many were lucky, to escape without a beating.

The only authority in this world, was the Mob.

Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral Carl Espe remembered:  “The outcome of the war appeared extremely grave. In addition, there was the most serious concern over possible sabotage in the ports. It was necessary to use every possible means to prevent and forestall sabotage….” Someone on the docks was feeding the Nazis information, and only the mob had the power to hunt down the guilty party.  Policy makers fretted about doing business with the Mafia, while the Kriegsmarine U-Boats enjoyed the “Happy Time”.  

Could the Mafia even be trusted?  Vito Genovese fled New York to Italy back in 1937 to avoid a murder prosecution, where he became close friends with Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. So tight were the pair that the cagey gangster dispatched hit men to New York to murder newspaperman Carlo Tresca, a vocal critic of the fascist regime.

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Joseph “Socks” Lanza

Closer examination told a different story. Genovese was an opportunist, a double-crosser with no loyalty.  Most Sicilian gangsters were different, most of them refugees from savage Italian purges where Mafiosi were machine gunned, bombed and arrested, in droves. Thugs and gangsters yes, but almost to a man they hated the fascists with the white heat, of a thousand suns.

So it was, the United States Navy entered into one of the strangest relationships of WW2, an operation which would remain secret, until 1977. “Operation Underworld“.

The first mob boss to come on board was Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a hulking bulldozer of a man and undisputed lord of the Fulton fish market. Socks got his name because he’d “sock” anyone in the jaw, who disagreed with his pronouncements. A man with a criminal history going back to 1917, Joe Socks could order the fishing fleet from Maine to Florida to dump an entire catch to inflate prices, with a nod of his head. Fishermen failing to bribe the racketeer found their fish left rotting, on the docks. Continued disobedience resulted in arson, beatings, and death.

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If anyone could ferret out a Judas passing information to German intelligence it was Joe Socks, but how to contact a gangster, sworn to the code of Omerta?

Head of the New York Rackets Bureau, Murray Gurfein and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden met with Lanza in the office of the gangster’s attorney. Gurfein explained “It’s a matter of great urgency. Many of our ships are being sunk along the Atlantic coast. We suspect German U-boats are being refueled and getting fresh supplies off our coast …You can find out how and where the submarines are being refueled.”  Surprisingly, the Gangster jumped at the opportunity.

Socks provided union cards held for no-show jobs. Soon, naval intelligence agents were sailing aboard mackerel fleets from Newfoundland to Florida, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications forming a valuable first-line of defense, against the Nazi submarine menace.

Important as it was, Lanza’s fishing fleet wasn’t enough, and Socks himself was disliked by the other four New York crime families.

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Charles “Lucky” Luciano

The never-ending scrum of troop ships and merchant vessels crowding the New York waterfront was of life-and-death importance to the allied war effort. The only man who controlled it all, was in prison. Lucky Luciano.  The only man Luciano trusted, was the Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky.

Unlike the Italians, no one questioned Lansky’s patriotism.  He and his Jewish mob had attacked Nazi meetings all over the city, throwing some of them out of the windows.

The meeting was arranged and, on May 12, 1942, Luciano was quietly transferred from Dannemora prison to a country club by comparison, and promised parole at the war’s end. This in exchange for the mobster’s cooperation in defeating Nazi Germany.

Cooperate, he did. The word went out from Luciano’s prison cell, from the docks to the heart of the city. Soon, every hat check girl and bartender, every longshoreman and numbers runner and the guys who serviced the vending machines, became the eyes and ears of the United States Navy. From bathroom attendants to elevator operators, the American Nazi organization known as German American Bund couldn’t so much as think out loud, without someone listening in.

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

In the end, USS Lafayette would never sail under a US Flag.  She was a total loss, sold for scrap in 1946.  The government was as good as its word. On January 3, 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s sentence, on condition that he did not resist deportation. The most powerful mob boss in New York, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was deported to Naples.  Four years to the day from the death of the USS Lafayette.

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.