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.

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January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast. The table was set, for disaster.

ww1navybritish-shipbuildingmapbritishisles2Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

Forty vessels of the British Royal Navy departed Rosyth in the Scottish fjord at the Firth of Forth on January 31, bound for Scapa flow. They were the 5th Battle squadron with destroyer escort, the 2nd Battlecruiser squadron and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines, each led by a light cruiser.

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast.

While only an exercise, strict radio silence was observed, lest there be any Germans in the vicinity. Each vessel displayed a faint blue stern light, travelling 400-yards ahead of the next-in-line. Black-out shields restricted the lights’ visibility to one compass point left or right of the boats’ center line.   The table was set for disaster.

Though large for WW1-vintage submarines at over 300-feet, K-class subs were low to the water and slow, compared with the much larger surface vessels.  Compounding the problem, the unfortunately nicknamed”Kalamity Klass” was powered by steam, meaning that stacks had to be folded and closed, before the thing was ready to dive.  Only eighteen K-class submarines were ever built, one of which caused damage to a German U-boat, in a ramming attack.

Seems the K-class was more dangerous to its own people, than anyone else.

A half-hour into the cruise, the flagship HMS Courageous passed a tiny speck on the map called May Island and picked up speed. A pair of lights appeared in the darkness as the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed, possibly a pair of mine sweeping trawlers. The flotilla turned hard to port to avoid collision when the helm of the third-in-line K-14 jammed, and veered out of line. Both K-14 and the boat behind her, K-12 turned on their navigation lights as K-22, the next submarine in line, lost sight of the flotilla and collided with K-14, severing the bow and killing two men. Two stricken submarines now struggled to pull themselves apart while an entire fleet sped through the darkness, unaware of what was about to happen.

The destroyer HMS Ithuriel received a coded signal and turned to lend aid, doubling back and followed by the remainder of the 13th submarine flotilla and thus putting themselves on collision course with the outgoing 12th flotilla.

Unaware of the mess lying in her path, 12th flotilla escort HMS Fearless was traveling way too fast to change the outcome. Fearless went “hard astern” on sighting K-17 but too late, her bow knifing through the smaller vessel, sinking the sub within minutes with the loss of 47 men. Meanwhile, outgoing submarine K-4 heard the siren and came to a stop but not the trailing K-3 which hit her sister sub broadside, nearly cutting the vessel in half.

K-4 sank in minutes, with the loss of 55 crew.

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HMS Fearless

The number of near misses that night, can never be known. 104 men were dead before it was over, with the total loss of two K-class submarines. Four more sustained severe damage, along with the Scout Cruiser HMS Fearless.

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February five and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

The whole disaster and subsequent inquiry was kept quiet to avoid embarrassment, and deprive the German side of the propaganda bonanza. Full details were released only in 1994, long after the participants in this story, had passed away.

On January 31, 2002, a memorial cairn was erected in memory of the slain.  As it had been eighty four years earlier, there wasn’t a German to be found.  The “Battle of May Island” was no battle at all.  Only the black forlorn humor, of men at war.

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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.

January 26, 1972 Sole Survivor

A keyword search reveals seventy-two sole survivors, defined as the only survivor of a plane crash that killed ten or more passengers and crew.

With his father suffering tuberculosis and often hospitalized, Otis Ray Redding, Jr. quit school at the age of fifteen to help support the family. He worked at a gas station, but it was the occasional musical gig that got him noticed.  From Macon (Georgia) talent contests to local bands, Redding later joined Little Richard’s band “The Upsetters” when the singer abandoned rock & roll music, for gospel.

Redding began his musical career at a time of racial segregation, touring the “chitlin circuit”:  a string of venues hospitable to black musicians, comedians and entertainers throughout the American south, northeast and upper Midwest.  Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and others.

800px-otisreddingstatueRedding joined STAX Records in 1962, a portmanteau of the founding partners and siblings Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax).

The label’s use of a single studio and a small stable of musicians and songwriters produced a readily identifiable sound based on black gospel and rhythm & blues which came to be known as Southern soul, or Memphis soul.

Singer-songwriter-musician Otis Redding became Stax Records’ biggest star in the five years before the plane crash that took his life: the “Big O”, the “King of Soul”.

Musicians from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Janis Joplin and virtually every soul and R&B musician of the era have taken musical influence from Otis Redding. It was he who wrote the ballad R-E-S-P-E-C-T made famous by the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.

His initial recordings were mainly popular with black audiences, but Redding (and others) crossed the “color barrier”, performing at “white owned” venues like Whisky a Go Go in LA, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and venues throughout Paris, London and other European cities.

Redding’s iconic song and  #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.  Dock of the Bay was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

The song wasn’t intended to turn out the way it did.

Redding had taken strong influence from the Beatles, particularly the layered sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  He wanted to expand his musical footprint beyond the soul and R&B genre.  If you listen to the song – the seagulls, the sound of lapping waves – that’s what he was going for.  The “outro”, the twenty-five seconds’ whistling at the end, were nothing but a place holder, intended to be replaced by some yet-to-be-decided vocal effect in a second recording session, a few days later.

That second session was never meant to be.

The kid who once pumped gas to help support his family boarded his own Beechcraft H-18 aircraft on December 10, 1967, along with Bar-Kays guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, trumpet player Ben Cauley, drummer Carl Cunningham, their valet Matthew Kelly and the pilot, Richard Fraser.

The band had played two nights in Cleveland.  The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. The plane took off despite warnings of foul weather.  The show must go on. Ben Cauley remembers waking from a nap to see band-mate Phalon Jones look out a window and exclaim “Oh No!”  He then found himself alone, clutching a seat cushion in the 34-degree waters of Lake Monona.  He was the sole survivor.

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Bar-Kays trumpet player, Ben Cauley

A keyword search reveals seventy-two sole survivors, defined as the only survivor of a plane crash that killed ten or more passengers and crew.

Pilot error was ruled at fault for the wreck of Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 on September 3, 1997. The Tupolev Tu-134B-3 crashed at final approach at Phnom Penh Internatinal Airport in Cambodia, leaving Chanayuth Nim-anong the youngest on the list, at 14-months-old. The crash killed 66 passengers and crew including Taiwanese national Ho Suicheng, who was there to marry his fiancée, Cambodian Khuth Linda.  It was she who identified his body. Khuth went through with the wedding, as planned.  With his photograph.

Crew member Alexander Sizov is the oldest at 52, sole survivor of the charter plane crash of September 7, 2011 that wiped out forty-three members of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team along with Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon. At the time, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was a member of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Russia’s top ice hockey league.

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The old adage ‘only the good die young’ may be illustrated with Chinese national Huáng Yù, sole survivor of the hijacked Cathay Pacific aircraft Miss Macao in the 1948 crash that killed the other 27 people on board.  Huáng was the lead hijacker.  He not only escaped death, but prosecution, too.  No one could decide what jurisdiction to try him under.

Though they would never meet, the Beatles form a common bond between the Redding crash and another sole survivor, half a world away.

Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović grew up in the age of Beatlemania, and wanted nothing more than to learn English, and move to London. That she did for a time before moving to Stockholm, but the girl’s parents would have nothing of the drugs and sex of the Swedish capital. On returning to Belgrade, Vulović saw a friend in a stewardess uniform. That was it, she remembered: “I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I be an air hostess? I could go to London once a month’.” Vulović joined JAT, Yugoslavia’s national flag carrier and largest airline, in 1971.

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Vesna Vulović

JAT 367 flew from Stockholm to Belgrade with stopovers in Copenhagen and Zagreb, arrived in Denmark on January 25, 1972. Vulović wasn’t intended to be on the second leg scheduled for the following day, but JAT confused her for another flight attendant with the same name.

Croatian nationalists carried out 128 terrorist attacks against Yugoslav civilian and military targets between 1962 and 1982. JAT Flight 367 became one of them on this day in 1972, the briefcase bomb exploding at 33,330-feet and tearing the aircraft into three pieces.

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JAT DC-9 YU-AHL, sister ship of the aircraft involved H/T Wikipedia

Former WW2 medic Bruno Honke found Vulović screaming among the wreckage outside the Czechoslovak village of Srbská Kamenice, her turquoise uniform covered with blood, her 3-inch stiletto heels torn off by the force of the impact. Vulović herself has no recollection of the explosion, or the descent. She suffered a fractured skull with brain hemorrhage, two broken legs and three broken vertebrae. She would spend her next 27 days, in a coma. Two months later, she was offered a sedative for the flight back to Belgrade. She declined the injection, saying she had no memory of the crash. What was there to be afraid of?

Something of a Yugoslavian national hero, Vesna Vulović went back to work for JAT following sixteen months recuperation, albeit, with a limp. She wanted to go back to flying, but got a desk job, instead.  The Guinness Book of world Records officially recognized Vulović’s 1971 fall.  The title was officially awarded in 1985 in a special ceremony, personally bestowed by none other than Paul McCartney.

Feature image, top of page:  Otis Reddings aircraft is fished out of the frigid waters of Lake Monona, near Madison Wisconsin.  The band was four miles from their destination.

 

January 16, 2003 Columbia Disaster

The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane”, with a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October of that year, the lessons learned applied to the first space-worthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

o-columbia-shuttle-disaster-facebookSTS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida.  It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

It was the first, and (to-date) only manned maiden test flight of a new system in the American space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young, and piloted by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with external hydrogen fuel tanks painted white.  From STS-3 on, the external tank would be left unpainted, to save weight.

Initially, there were four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”.  A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members, traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.

Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank striking Columbia’s left wing, leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.

Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this one could be more serious, none was able to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even in the event of major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.

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December 2, 1988 ‘Atlantis’ mission narrowly missed repeting the Columbia disaster, four days later. “More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle’s belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal – a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna – was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through”. H/T Spaceflightnow.com

For Columbia, 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds of space travel came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003.  Over the California coast and traveling twenty-three times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000° Fahrenheit and more, when super-heated gases entered the wing’s interior.

231,000 feet below, mission control detected four unconnected sensors shut down on the left wing, with no explanation.   The first debris struck the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am.  The last communication from the crew came about a minute later.

Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am Eastern Standard Time.

Debris and human remains were found in 2,000 locations from the state of Louisiana, to Arkansas. The only survivors were a can full of worms, brought into space for study.

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“Mon Landscape” by Petr Ginz

Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Ramon is the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors and family member to several others, who didn’t live to tell the tale.  In their memory, Colonel Ramon reached out to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center, for a holocaust relic to bring with him into space.

Petr Ginz was incarcerated for a time in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he drew this picture.  A piece of teenage imagination:  the Earth as it may appear, from the moon.

Petr Ginz was destined to be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, though his drawing survived.  He was fourteen years old.  Colonel Ramon was given a copy,  a young boy’s drawing of a safer place.  This would accompany the astronaut, into space.

Today, the assorted debris from the Columbia disaster numbers some 84,000 pieces, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.  To the best of my knowledge, this drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

Afterward:

Andrew “Drew” Feustel is a car guy, with fond memories of restoring a ’67 Ford Mustang in the family garage in North suburban Detroit.

When he’s not fixing cars he’s an astronaut, and veteran of two space missions.  He was also for a time a colleague of Colonel Ramon.  The pair had several close friends, in common.

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The ‘car guy’ in space thing seems to have worked. NASA reports “The spacewalkers overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws and stuck handrails, four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments, new batteries, a new gyroscope and a new computer were installed. | NASA photo

In March 2018, Feustel left for his third spaceflight, this one a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.  Before he left, Rona Ramon, widow of the Israeli Astronaut, gave him another copy of Petr Ginz’ drawing.

The circle was closed.  This fruit of a doomed boy’s imagination once again broke the bonds of space. This time, to come home.

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January 15, 1919 Slower than Cold Molasses, in January

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

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

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters at an average 23.35 mph from a standing start, and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 markers, at an average 27.79 mph.

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

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

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated a large molasses storage tank at 529 Commercial Street, in the North End of Boston. Fifty feet tall and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons, about 14,000 tons of the sweet stuff, awaiting transfer to the Purity industrial alcohol distillation plant, in Cambridge.

It had been cold earlier in the month, but on January 15, it was a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

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If you were there at about 12:30, the first sound you might have heard was a rumble, like the sound of a distant train. The next sound was like that of a machine gun, as rivets popped and the two sides of the metal tower split apart.

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

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

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

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

firefighters-tried-to-wash-the-molasses-away-with-freshwater-but-would-later-find-that-briny-seawater-was-the-only-way-to-“cut”-the-hardened-substance.-paranormalsoup-300
“Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance”. H/T Historycollection.com

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

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

It was four days before the search was called off for additional victims. The total cleanup was estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

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

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

This was only the 6th or 7th time the tank had been filled to capacity, and rising temperatures almost surely helped to build up gas pressure inside the structure.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures being so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. The proverbial “cold molasses” had exploded it seemed, in January.  Newspapers speculated that there must be something more. A bomb, perhaps.

Newspapers would more profitably have resorted to their physics books. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even with no wind behind it.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park, featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and boccie courts. The Boston Duck Tours DUKW’s regularly visit the place with their amphibious vehicles, especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on its side.

molly molasses

Feature image, top of page:  H/T Boston Globe.

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.

January 11, 1693 The Wrath of God

“Then came an earthquake so horrible and ghastly that the soil undulated like the waves of a stormy sea, and the mountains danced as if drunk, and the city collapsed in one miserable moment killing more than a thousand people.” Eyewitness quoted by Stephen Tobriner: The Genesis of Noto: An Eighteenth-century Sicilian City

In his 1897 short story The Open Boat, Stephen Crane writes of the puniness of humanity, when bared and exposed to the wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.
“If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? 

On this day in 1693, those Seven Mad Gods got together, and unleashed the wrath of the ages.

ABWCWW Earth s CoreDeep in the ground beneath our feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer shell, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet. Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a liquid core of molten material, comprising approximately two-thirds the cross-section of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate the pressures within this outer core to be approximately 3.3 million times atmospheric pressure, generating temperatures of 10,800° Fahrenheit, a temperature comparable to the surface of the sun.

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction Zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

The planet is literally “eating’ itself.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and one of twenty regions of Italy, lies on the convergent boundary of two such pieces of the planet’s outer shell, where the African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate.  Over time, the forces built up along these subduction zones, are nothing short of Titanic.

Sicily is also home to the terrifying Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes, in the world.

The first foretaste of what was about to happen began at 21:00 local time, January 9, 1693. The earthquake, centered on the east Sicilian coast and felt as far away as the south of Italy and the island nation of Malta, had an estimated magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale, and a perceived intensity on the Mercali Intensity Scale of VIII – XI: Severe to Extreme. Mercali describes a Category XI Extreme earthquake:

Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly”.

This thing was only stretching and yawning.  Just getting out of bed.

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The main shock of January 11 lasted four minutes with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 and a very large area that reached X on the Mercali scale, and XI in the province of Syracuse.

The soil beneath our feet, ordinarily so substantial and unmoving, behaves like a liquid at times like this. Low density, sandy soils compress in response to applied loads while dense soils expand in volume or dilate. Saturated soils are like unto quicksand, as underground liquids are driven up to form miniature volcanoes called “sand boils, water spouting up from the ground in geysers, rising 30-feet and more.

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Sand boils resulting from the 2011 earthquake, in Christchurch

The catastrophic eruption of 1669 was well within living memory and reports describe minor eruptions on this day as well.  As if even a small volcanic eruption could be called “minor”.

Several large fractures opened in the earth, one 1,600-feet long and nearly seven-feet wide.

Meanwhile the ocean withdrew from the coast, as the Ionian Sea gathered itself, to strike. The initial withdrawal left the harbor dry at Augusta, damaging several Galleys owned by the Knights of Malta.   The tsunami when it came was at least eight feet in height and possibly as high as 26-feet, inundating an area nearly a mile from the shore.

The final death toll of as many as 60,000 is uncertain, unsurprising in light of the fact that whole regions were blotted out. 63% of the entire population was wiped out in Catania, 51% in Ragusa. Syracuse, Noto, Augusta, Modica – all lost between one-out-of-five, and one-in-three.

Reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe was so extensive, as to spawn a new and unique form of art and architecture, known as Sicilian Baroque.

la_cattedrale_di_noto_restaurata
The Cathedral of Noto is one of the many buildings constructed in Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693

Today, the colossal Mount Etna remains one of the most active volcanoes, on earth.  Sensors placed along the land and seaward flanks of the volcano reveal the alarming discovery that the volcano itself, is moving.  Mount Etna is sliding at a rate of an inch per year and sometimes more.  One eight-day period in 2008 showed a movement of two inches, raising concerns that Mount Etna may one day collapse into itself.

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in 57 deaths and inflation-adjusted property damage, of $3.3 Billion.  The US Geological Survey called the resulting collapse of the north face of the volcano “the largest debris avalanche on earth, in recorded history”.  Should such an event strike the Stratovolcano that is Mount Etna, the result would be felt from the Spanish coast to the shores of Israel, from North Africa to the French Riviera.

Given geologic time scales, such an event could happen next year, or ten thousand years from now.  No one knows.  We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

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Ruins of the Norman castle in Noto Antica

Featured image, top of page:  New life before the shattered ruins of the old city of Not (Noto Antica), destroyed on January 11, 1693.  The new city of Noto was built, eleven kilometers away