December 7, 1941 Last Voyage of the USS Oklahoma

Once the symbol of US military might she only fired her guns in anger, one time. December 7, 1941

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941.

353 aircraft approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes of the Imperial Japanese military.  Across Hickam Field they came and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

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Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died, even as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side in the first ten minutes.The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

A Japanese pilot took this photo during the attack.

“This photo shows the severity of the attack. The darker waters around the Nevada (left), West Virginia (center), and Oklahoma (right) are actually oil slicks from the fuel reserves on board each ship. The Oklahoma is already listing badly, as the edge of the port deck has already slipped underwater. It would completely capsize only a few minutes later (image NH 50472, courtesy of Naval Heritage & History Command)” H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.

Across the harbor, USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is now a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.

With the US now in the war repairs were prioritized. USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma Diver

Recovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives and yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3-inch cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days. Cables were first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day. It was the first time in over two years.

At last fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

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Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have all earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

The guns of the mighty USS Oklahoma once again see the light of day. March, 1943 H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay.

She would never arrive.

Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around when suddenly, these two giant tugs found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

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Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached. Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and the battleship sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks as the 409-ton tug bobbed to the surface, like the float on a child’s fishing line.

Christened on March 23, 1914, USS Oklahoma was one of the first two oil burners in US military service. Heavily armored, her armament was as powerful as any vessel in her class. A symbol of US military might who only fired her guns once, in anger. December 7, 1941. Now, “Okie” was stabbed in the back while she lay at rest, attacked and mortally wounded before she even knew her nation was at war. 

The causes leading to that final descent into darkness remain uncertain, her final resting pace, a mystery.   Some will will tell you her plates couldn’t hold.  The beating she took those six years earlier, was too much.   Those who served on her decks might tell you a different story. Perhaps this pride of the United States Navy knew her time had come. Maybe she just wanted to die at sea.

December 5, 1941 An Act of Will

Trapped and disoriented inside that black, upside down hell they waited and desperately hoped for the rescue, that would come too late. It is a searing act of will even to contemplate such a scene. What would it be then, to enter such a place as an act of free will?

December 5, 1941 was a Friday. The conflict destined to be known as World War 2 was still, “over there”. The United States was neutral, and at peace. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington and five heavy cruisers leave the US Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, unaware that only yesterday, Emperor Hirohito approved the attack to be carried out in two days.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when that first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, across Hickam Air Field and over the waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into the hull in the first ten minutes. Eight torpedoes crashed into her port side, each striking higher up as the Battleship slowly rolled over.

Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection that Monday making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumping overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out onto mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.Nine Japanese torpedoes struck Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged and another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most while still on the ground. 159 of those were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get to those trapped inside. 32 of them were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors lost their lives on board Oklahoma, either immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hull of that ship. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

It is a searing act of imagination, merely to contemplate those 17 days. Trapped and disoriented inside that black, upside down hell, waiting and desperately hoping for a rescue that would come, too late.

A searing act, merely of the imagination. What would it be the to enter such a place, as an act of free will?

Let’s rewind. To 1914.

Early attempts had failed to build a sea-level canal across the 50-mile isthmus of Panama. It was decided instead, the canal would be comprised of a system of locks. The giant crane barges Ajax and Hercules were ordered in 1913, to handle the locks and other large parts,for building the canal. The two cranes arrived in Cristóbal, Colón, Panama on December 7, 1914.

Ajax crane barge at work in the canal zone, 1914

Much of the world was at war at this time while the United States, remained neutral.

Henry Breault was born to be a sailor. At sixteen he enlisted in the British Royal Navy. For four years, the Connecticut-born Vermonter served under the White Ensign. When his four-year tour ended in 1921, he joined the US Navy.

In 1923, now-torpedoman First Class Henry Breault was assigned to the O-Class submarine USS O-5 (SS-66). On October 28, O-5 under the command of Lieutenant Harrison Avery was leading a column of submarines across Limon Bay, toward the canal entrance.

Water level here is 85 feet above sea level…Contractor’s Hill is on the left and Gold Hill is on the right.” H/T Wikipedia

The steamship SS Abangarez, owned by the United Fruit Company, was underway and headed for dock 6, at Cristobal. There were navigational errors and miscommunications and, at about 0630, Abangarez collided with the submarine, tearing a ten-foot opening on her starboard side.USS O-5

The main ballast tank was breached. O-5 was doomed. As the submarine rolled sharply to port and then to starboard, Avery gave the order to abandon ship. Breault was a few short steps to safety when he realized. Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown was still below, sleeping. As the bow was going under, Breault shut the deck hatch over his head, and went below.

Brown was awake by this time, but unaware of the order to abandon ship. The pair headed aft toward the control hatch, but it was too late. With the dying sub rapidly filling with water, Breault and Brown made their way to the torpedo room, and dogged the main hatch. Seconds later the battery shorted, and exploded. The two men were trapped under 42-feet of water with no food, no water and only a single flashlight, to pierce the stale air of that tiny, pitch black compartment. It was all over in about a minute.

Salvage efforts were underway almost immediately, from nearby submarine base Coco Solo. By 10:00, divers were on the bottom, examining the wreck. Divers hammered on the hull starting aft and working forward, in a search for survivors. On reaching the torpedo room they were answered, by the taps of a hammer.

Someone’s still alive in that thing.

There were no means of rescue in those days, save for physically lifting the submarine with pontoons, or crane. There were no pontoons within 2,000 miles but the giant crane barges Ajax and Hercules were in the canal zone, working to clear a landslide from Gaillard Cut. (Now known as the Culebra cut).“The Culebra Cut. An artificial valley along the Pacific Ocean to Gatun Lake (ahead) and eventually the Caribbean Sea.

A simple excavation now became a frantic effort to clear enough debris for Ajax, to squeeze herself through the cut.

Divers worked around the clock to dig a tunnel under the sub, through which to snake a cable. Sheppard J. Shreaves, supervisor of the Panama Canal’s salvage crew and himself a qualified diver, explained: “The O-5 lay upright in several feet of soft, oozing mud, and I began water jetting a trench under the bow. Sluicing through the ooze was easy; too easy, for it could cave in and bury me. … Swirling black mud engulfed me, I worked solely by feel and instinct. I had to be careful that I didn’t dredge too much from under the bow for fear the O-5 would crush down on me.”

Ajax arrived around midnight and by early morning the tunnel had been dug, the cables run and attached to Ajax’ hook. Cables strained as the lift began and then…disaster. The cable snapped.

Inside, the headaches were terrific from the pressure and the stale air but all around them, they could hear it. The scraping sounds could only mean one thing. Rescue was on the way.

Sheppard Shreaves and his team of exhausted divers were now in their suits for nearly 24 hours, working to snake a second set of cables under the bow. Again the strain, as Ajax brought up the slack. Again…disaster. The second set of cables snapped.

Midnight was approaching on the 29th when the third attempt began, this time with buoyancy added, by blowing air into the flooded engine room. O-5 broke the surface just after midnight. For the first time in 31 hours, two men were able to breathe fresh air. The pair were rushed to the base at Coco Solo for medical examination, and to decompress.

Henry Breault received the Medal of honor for what he did that day. Sheppard Shreaves received the Congressional Life Saving Medal, personally presented by Henry Breault and Lawrence Brown along with a gold engraved watch, a gift from the grateful submariners of Coco Solo.

Henry Breault presented the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge.

Henry Breault served 20 years with the US Navy and later became ill, with a heart condition. He passed away on December 5, 1941 at the age of 41, and went to his rest in St. Mary’s cemetery, in Putnam Connecticut. To this day the man remains the only enlisted submariner in history, to receive the Medal of Honor.

November 23, 1932 Holodomor

Holodomor:  A mass murder by deliberate act of government, of its own citizens.   “Death by hunger”, “killing by starvation”,  it is a compound of the Ukrainian word holod, or ‘hunger’; and mor, meaning’plague’.

In 1928, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding such as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

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Armed “dekulakization brigades” confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Nearly half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31 alone, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter.  Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

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Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Warm and well fed with Russian mistress comfortably ensconced in Moscow, French wife hidden away on the Riviera, the British born New York Times Times reporter-turned international playboy opined, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

Walter Duranty, New York Times

Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

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At the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under. How many died in total, is anyone’s guess. Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

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2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

Stalin denied to the world there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”. Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the New York Times.

Warm and well fed with Russian mistress comfortably ensconced in Moscow, French wife hidden away on the Riviera, the British born New York Times Times reporter-turned international playboy opined, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

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To this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed.

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Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union to see for herself.

To do so at all was an act of courage.  single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history.  Particularly when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

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Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in a world of Soviet propaganda and ignorant of the world as it was.

Duranty’s idea of “bon voyage” was the cynical offer, to write her obituary.Rhea Clyman

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside, as it really was.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens in Ukraine.

To read what Clyman wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  The moment of discovery:  “They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

A tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.  “We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….” 

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”  What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people starved to death, every day. Pitifully, many yet believed the government in Moscow was going to help. If only comrade Stalin knew…

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The Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley once explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev. A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.Holodomor memorial. The Holodomor was a man-made famine in the Ukrainian SSR between 1932 and 1933. During the famine, 2.4 – 7.5 millions of Ukrainians died of starvation.

Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected adults. I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor even means. We are a self-governing Republic. All 100 should be well acquainted with the term

November 18, 1978 Drinking the Koolaid

The Jonestown murder/suicide of November 18, 1978 produced the largest loss of civilian life in American history. Until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Those who knew him as a child remembered a “really weird kid“, obsessed with religion and death. He’d hold elaborate, pseudo-religious ceremonies at the house, mostly funerals for small animals. How Jim Jones got all those dead animals was a matter for dark speculation.

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This was depression-era rural Indiana, in the age of racial segregation. Father and son often clashed over issues of race. The two didn’t talk to each other for years one time, after the elder Jones refused to allow one of the younger Jones’ black friends, into the house.

Jim Jones was a bright student, graduating High School with honors in 1949. He was a voracious reader, studying the works of Stalin, Marx, Mao, Gandhi and Hitler and carefully noting the strengths and weaknesses, of each.

Jones married Marceline Baldwin in 1949 and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where he attended Indiana University and later Butler University night school, earning a degree in secondary education.

A long-standing interest in leftist politics heightened during this period, and Jones became a regular at Communist Party-USA meetings. There he’d rail against the McCarthy hearings, and the trials of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Jones recalled he later asked himself, “How can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.”

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“Reverend” Jim Jones got his start as a student pastor at the Sommerset Southside Methodist Church but soon left, over issues of segregation.  He was a Social Justice Warrior in the age of Jim Crow.

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The New York Times reported in 1953, “declaring that he was outraged at what he perceived as racial discrimination in his white congregation, Mr. Jones established his own church and pointedly opened it to all ethnic groups. To raise money, he imported monkeys and sold them door to door as pets.”

Jones witnessed a faith-healing service and came to understand the influence to be had, from such an event.  He arranged a massive convention in 1956, inviting the Oral Roberts of his day, as keynote speaker. Reverend William Branham did not disappoint.  Soon, Reverend Jones opened his own mission with an explicit focus on racial integration. 

Thus began the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ.

Jones’ integrationist politics did little to ingratiate himself in 1950s rural Indiana.  Mayor and commissioners alike asked him to tone it down, while he received wild applause at NAACP and Urban League conventions with speeches rising to a thundering crescendo:  “Let My People GO!!!”

Jones spoke in favor of Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea, branding the conflict a “war of liberation” and calling South Korea “a living example of all that socialism in the north has overcome.

Jim and Marcelline adopted three Korean orphans, beginning what would become a family of nine including their only biological child, Stephan Ghandi.  The couple adopted a black boy in 1961 and called him Jim Jr., the Jones’ “rainbow family” a reflection of the pastor’s congregation.

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An apocalyptic streak began to show, as Jones preached of nuclear annihilation. He traveled to Brazil for a time, in search of a safe place for the coming holocaust. He even gave it a date: July 15, 1967. On returning from Brazil, the “Father” spoke to the flock. The “children” would have to move. To northern California, to a new and perfect, socialist, Eden.

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Jim Jones preaching, 1971

For Jim Jones, religion was never more than a means to an end. ”Off the record” he once said in a recorded conversation, “I don’t believe in any loving God. Our people, I would say, are ninety percent atheist. Uh, we— we think Jesus Christ was a swinger…I must say, I felt somewhat hypocritical for the last years as I became uh, an atheist, uh, I have become uh, you— you feel uh, tainted, uh, by being in the church situation. But of course, everyone knows where I’m at. My bishop knows that I’m an atheist.

Faith healing.  The California days

Jones referred to himself as the reincarnation of Gandhi. Father Divine. Jesus, Gautama Buddha and Lenin. “What you need to believe in is what you can see…. If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. As you see me as your father, I’ll be your father, for those of you that don’t have a father…. If you see me as your savior, I’ll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”

The years in California were a time of rapid expansion from Temple Headquarters in San Francisco to locations up and down the “Golden State”.  Jones hobnobbed with the who’s who of Democratic politics, from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone to Presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Even First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

“If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”

California Assemblyman Willie Brown called Jones a combination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Mao Tse Tung. Harvey Milk wrote to Jones after one visit: “Rev Jim, It may take me many a day to come back down from the high that I reach today. I found something dear today. I found a sense of being that makes up for all the hours and energy placed in a fight. I found what you wanted me to find. I shall be back. For I can never leave.

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Humanitarian award from Pastor Cecil Williams, 1977” H/T Wikipedia

Meanwhile, Jones was building the perfect socialist utopia in the South American jungles of Guyana, formally known as the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project”.  Most simply called the place, “Jonestown”.

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff wrote in the summer of 1977, telling a grotesque tale of physical and sexual abuse, of brainwashing and emotional domination. Chronicle editors balked and Kilduff published the piece in the New West Magazine.

That was when Jones and his congregation left town and fled.  To Guyana.

A long standing drug addiction became more pronounced in Jonestown where the preacher spoke of the gospel of “Translation”, a weird crossing over from this life to some other, finer plane.

Some 68% of Jonestown faithful were black at this time, congregants who felt they got something from this place, they couldn’t get at home. Inclusion. Fulfillment. Acceptance. Whatever it was, the cult of Jonestown was mostly, a world of willing participants.

Mostly, but not entirely. Those who entered Jonestown were not allowed to leave. Those who did escape told outlandish tales of abuse: mental, physical and sexual.

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Jonestown compound, Guyana

Former members of the Temple formed a “Concerned Relatives” group in the Fall of 1977, to publicize conditions afflicting family members, still in the cult.

Concerned Relatives produced a packet of affidavits in April 1978, entitled “Accusation of Human Rights Violations by Rev. James Warren Jones“. Jones’ political support began to weaken as members of the press and Congress, took increasing interest.

California Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission that November, to see things for himself. The Congressional Delegation (CoDel) arrived at the Guyanese capital on November 15, with NBC camera crew and newspaper reporters, in tow.

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Congressman Ryan arrives at Jonestown

The delegation traveled by air and drove the last few miles by limo, to Jonestown. The visit of the 17th was cordial at first, with Jones himself hosting a reception in the central pavilion. Underlying menace soon came to the surface as a few Temple members expressed the desire, to leave with the delegation. Things went from bad to worse when temple member Don Sly attacked Congressman Ryan with a knife, the following day.

Ryan’s hurried exit with fifteen members of the Temple met no resistance, at first. The CoDel was boarding at the small strip in Port Kaituma, when Jones’ “Red Brigade” pulled up in a farm tractor, towing a trailer.   The new arrivals opened fire, killing Congressman Ryan and four others.  One of the supposed “defectors” produced a weapon, and wounded several more.

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NBC photographer Bob Brown took this shot, of the shooters

Back at the compound, Jones lost an already tenuous grasp on reality.

Fearing assault by parachute, lethal doses of cyanide were distributed along with grape “Flavor Aid” for 912 members of the People’s Temple. 276 of those, were children.

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This wasn’t the first time the Jonestown flock believed they were ingesting poison for The Cause. It was about to be the last.

Jones spoke with an odd lisp which seemed to grow more pronounced, at times of excitement. You can hear it in the 45 minute “death tape“ below, his words sometimes forming a perfect “S“ and at other times, lapsing into a soft “TH” or some combination, of the two.

You can hear it clearly, in the recording.  Heads up dear reader.  If you care to listen, it’s 45-minutes of tough sledding.

Jonestown “Death Tape”. November 18, 1978

Babies and children were brought up first, the poisonous punch poured down their throats. Then came the mothers., and then the others. Should any be reluctant to die there were guards there with guns and crossbows, to help them along.

Each person thus poisoned at the compound, took five minutes to die. When it was over some 918 souls lay dead, either at the compound, or the air strip.

The murder/suicide of November 18, 1978 produced the largest loss of civilian life in American history, until the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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“A lot of people are tired around here, but I’m not sure they’re ready to lie down, stretch out and fall asleep”. Jim Jones
Jones: How very much I’ve loved you. How very much I’ve tried, to give you the good life…We are sitting on a powder keg…I don’t think that’s what we wanted to do with our babies…No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down…If we can’t live in peace, then let us die in peace.
Christine [Miller]: Is it too late for Russia?
Jones: Here’s why it’s too late for Russia. They killed. They started to kill. That’s why it makes it too late for Russia. Otherwise I’d said, “Russia, you bet your life.” But it’s too late.
Unidentified Man: Is there any way if I go, that it’ll help?
Jones: No, you’re not going. You’re not going.
Crowd: No! No!
Jones: I haven’t seen anybody yet that didn’t die. And I’d like to choose my own kind of death for a change. I’m tired of being tormented to hell, that’s what I’m tired of.
Crowd: Right, right.
Jones: Tired of it.
Unidentified Man: It’s over, sister, it’s over … we’ve made that day … we made a beautiful day and let’s make it a beautiful day … that’s what I say.

September 11, 2001 Ogonowski

Twelve days a month John Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform to fly jumbo jets out of Logan Airport, but he always returned to the land he loved.

A great wave of immigrants came into the United States around the turn of the 20th century, 20 million Europeans or more making the long journey to become Americans.

Among these was the Ogonowski family, who emigrated from Poland to make their home in Massachusetts’ Merrimack Valley, along the New Hampshire line.

The earliest members of the family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well acclimated to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate. Four generations later the Ogonowski family still tilled the soil on their 150 acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.

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Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force.  During the war in Vietnam, the farmer-turned-pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.

Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There he met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to her friends. The two would later marry, and raise three daughters.

Twelve days a month Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform to fly jumbo jets out of Logan Airport, but he always returned to the land he loved.

Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into what used to be open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field” he would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.

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Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming as well.  The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.

That was the year when the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Southeast Asian immigrants from Lowell.

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It was a natural fit. Ogonowski felt a connection to these people, based on his time in Vietnam. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago had helped his twice-great grandfather.

Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. There was taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, and they would sell it into nearby immigrant communities and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.

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The program was a success.  Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.”

So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC.  It was September 11.

By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11.

He was one of the first to die, murdered in his cockpit by Islamist terrorist Mohammed Atta and his accomplices.

It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and mentor had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center.

The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined that John’s dream would not die.  Peg said it best:  “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.”

John Ogonowski had been working with the Land Trust to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34 acre farm in Dracut, previously slated to be developed into a golf course with housing.  Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress.  The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003, a living memorial to Captain John Ogonowski.  The pilot, and the farmer.

August 24, 79 Vesuvius

Imagine finding your head in a bag of concrete with someone pounding the sides, and you’re just trying to breathe. 

On February 5 in the year AD 62, an earthquake estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale shook the Bay of Naples, spawning a tsunami and leveling much of the coastal Italian towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding communities.

Though massively damaged, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples was a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society, with crowds of tourists and slaves adding to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople crowding the city’s bath houses, artisan shops, taverns and brothels.

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Reconstruction began almost immediately and continued for the next seventeen years.  Until that day, the world came to an end.

Long dormant and believed extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  The mountain erupted on August 24 in the year 79,  propelling a scorching plume of ash, pumice and super-heated volcanic gases so high as to be seen for hundreds of miles.

The Melbourne Museum has created this stunning, eight-minute animation of what the event may have looked like.

For the next eighteen hours the air was thick with hot, poisonous gases, as volcanic ash rained down with pumice stones the size of baseballs.  No one who stayed behind stood a chance, nor did countless animals, both wild and domestic.

Most were killed where they stood in the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust race outward at 400 MPH in the “base surge” phase, super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit, instantaneously converting bodily fluids, to steam.

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The victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ wrath left their imprints in the ash and rock which would be their tomb.  2,000 years later, remarkably life-like plaster casts, depict the final moments of these unfortunate men, women and children.

For those left alive, the suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon put and end to all that remains.  Imagine finding your head in a bag of concrete with someone pounding the sides, while you’re trying to breathe.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet and more of ash, rock and dust. Neither Herculaneum, Pompeii nor their surrounding communities would see the light of day, for nearly two thousand years.

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Today, we remember the Roman author, naturalist and military commander Gaius Plinius “Pliny’ Secundus for his work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). We see his work in the editorial model of the modern encyclopedia.

With the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum already destroyed, Pliny raced to the port of Stabiae some 4½km to the southwest, to rescue a friend and his family. The sixth and largest pyroclastic surge trapped his ship in port, killing the author and everyone in the vicinity. That we have an eyewitness to the event is thanks to two letters written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), Pliny’s nephew and a man he had helped to raise, from boyhood.

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Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Property owners and thieves returned over time to retrieve such valuables as statues. The words “house dug” can still be found, scrawled on the walls.  And then the place was forgotten, for fifteen hundred years.

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An underground channel was dug in 1562 to redirect waters from the river Samo, when workers ran into city walls.  The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and further excavation revealed any number of paintings and frescoes. But there was a problem.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex was invented in the British Isles, in 1963.

“…So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP…”

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Pompeian artwork ranges from the merely hedonistic, to the pornographic

The ancients seem to have been somewhat less, “uptight”.   Life in Pompeii was nothing if not hedonistic.  The place has been described by some, as the “red-light district” of antiquity.  I’m not sure about that, but the erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum were WAY too much for counter reformation-era sensibilities.  The place was quietly covered up and forgotten, for another two hundred years.

Pompeii was first excavated in earnest in 1748, but it took another hundred years for archaeologists’ findings to be cataloged, and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were left by the long since decomposed bodies of the doomed victims, of Vesuvius.

A technique was developed of injecting plaster.  Today we can see them in excruciating detail, exactly where they fell.  Men, women and children, their faces contorted in terror and pain, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left on the counter to cool.

Fun fact: A majority of Ancient Pompeiians had near-perfect teeth due to naturally occurring fluorine and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Today you can tour the lost city of Pompeii, from the baths to the forum, to the Lupanar Grande where the prostitutes of Pompeii once “entertained” clients.  Ongoing excavation is all but a race with time, between uncovering what remains, and preserving what is.  Walls surrounding the “House of the Moralist” collapsed in 2010, so-called because its wealthy wine merchant owners posted rules of behavior, for guests to follow: “Do not have lustful expressions and flirtatious eyes for another man’s wife“.

Heavy rains were blamed for the collapse of the Schola Armatorium in 2010, the House of the Gladiators.  Fierce recriminations have followed and doubt has been cast on local authorities’ abilities, to properly preserve what has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Be that as it may, 2,000-year-old buildings do not come along every day.  There is no replacement for antiquity.

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Vesuvius has erupted some three dozen ties since that day in 79, the last time in 1944. Small by comparison the 1944 eruption nevertheless killed 26 and destroyed the village of San Sebastiano, while damaging the tons of Terzigno, Pompei, Scafati, Angri, Nocera Inferiore, Nocera Superiore, Pagani, Poggiomarino and Cava.

Today some 600,000 live in the ‘Red Zone’, the eighteen towns and villages at the base of Mount Vesuvius. Volcanologists universally agree that the next eruption of the most dangerous volcano on the planet is not a mater of ‘If’, but ‘When’.

August 13, 3114BC The End of the World

National Geographic explains that 12/21/12 brings to a close not the end of time, but the end of the 12th Bak’tun, an almost 400-year period in the Mayan Long Count calendar. The world doesn’t end according to this explanation, it just “rolls over” to the year zero and starts over. Like the old cars used to do, when the odometer reached 100,000 miles.

Les Prophéties was published in 1555, a collection of 942 poetic quatrains predicting events in the future. The author was Michel de Nostredame, the French astrologer, physician and seer of the future best remembered by the Latinized form of his name, Nostradamus.

The seer once prophesied the end of the world in typically cryptic form. Or at least the following is attributed to Nostradamus:

“From the calm morning, the end will come
When of the dancing horse
The number of circles will be 9.”

But, what does that even mean?

That’s where the fun starts.

An emperor of the Ming dynasty of 1368 – 1644 China once referred to the Korean peninsula as, the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’. By late 2012 one particular YouTube video was closing in on a billion views. Nine zeros. A video featuring the Korean rapper Park Jae-sang better known as Psy and his peculiar “horsey” style of dance.

That’s right. The world ended in Gangnam Style. Don’t yell at me folks. I don’t make this stuff up.

Gangnam Style’s official video hit a billion views on December 21, 2012. The Korean rapper has since become the “King of YouTube” with over 4 billion views but that world coming to an end part? Not so much.

Psy’s video was one of the sillier bits of pop culture from that year but it wasn’t the only time the world came to an end, in 2012. It wasn’t even the only time…that day.

The world also came to an end on 12/21/12, according to the Mayan calendar. Remember that? It was another piece of pop culture silliness, the end of the world part, but not the calendar. The calendar itself is a very sophisticated mathematical construct.

According to linguist, anthropologist and Mayanist scholar Floyd Glenn Lounsbury and his “Lounsbury Correlation”, the Mayan Calendar dates some 5,136 years back to August 13, 3114 BC.  It’s a little tough to nail down a particular day when you’re looking that far back but this one will do, as well as any.

The ancient Mayans were the first to recognize the concept of zero, and worked extensively in a base 20 number system. They were skilled mathematicians and it shows, in their calendar. 

Long count glyphs

The Mayans used three separate calendars, each period represented by its own glyph.

The Long Count was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle, about 7,885 solar years.

The Haab was a civil calendar consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and one 5-day Uayeb, a nameless period rounding out the 365-day year.

The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes.  Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is uncertain, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though a Haab and Tzolkin date may be combined to specify one particular day within a 52-year cycle.

As for the end of the world part, National Geographic explains that 12/21/12 brings to a close not the end of time, but the end of the 12th Bak’tun, an almost 400-year period in the Mayan Long Count calendar.  The world doesn’t end, according to this explanation, it “rolls over” to the year zero and starts over. Just like the old cars used to do, when the odometer reached 100,000 miles.

It doesn’t really roll over to “zero”, either.  The base 20 numerical system means that 12/22/12 begins the next 400 year (actually 394.3 years) period to begin the 13th Bak’tun.  It will reset to zero at the end of the 20th Bak’tun, about 3,000 years from now.  Let me know how that turns out, would you?

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The Mayan calendar system became extinct in most areas after the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, though it continues in use in many modern communities in highland Guatemala and in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.

The table of Long Count units below illustrates the Mayan units of measurement.  A day is a K’in, there are 20 K’ins in a Winal, and so on. 

December 21,2012 then, the day it all came to an end according to the Mayan calendar, was Long Count Date 13.0.0.0.0, 13 baktun, 0 katun, 0 tun, 0 uinal,
0 k’in, Tzolk’in Date: 4 Ajaw, Haab Date: 3 K’ank’in, Lord of the Night: G9. 

Table of Long Count units

Get it?  Neither do I.

August 3, 1914 Apocalypse

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

In 1869, Germany had yet to come into its own as an independent nation. Forty-five years later she was one of the Great Powers, of Europe.

Great Powers, 1914

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of her historic adversary, the French government had by that time increased compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the German’s military of a much larger population.

Joseph Caillaux was a left wing politician, once Prime Minister of France and, by 1913, a cabinet minister under the more conservative administration of French President Raymond Poincare.

Never too discreet with his personal conduct, Caillaux paraded through public life with a succession of women, who were not Mrs Caillaux. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, Madame Raynouard had become the second Mrs Caillaux.

A relative pacifist, many on the French right considered Caillaux to be too “soft” on Germany. One of them was Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, who regularly excoriated the politician.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the paper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark.  Gaston Calmette was dead before the night was through.

Cailloux Affair

It was the crime of the century.  This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ever ask for. It was the OJ trial, version 1.0, and the French public was transfixed.

The British public was similarly distracted, by the latest in a series of Irish Home Rule crises.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 nations, 20 Parliamentary groups and 27 political parties, desperately needed to bring the Balkan peninsula into line following the June 28 assassination of the heir apparent to the dual monarchy. That individual Serbians were complicit in the assassination is beyond doubt but so many government records of the era have disappeared that, it’s impossible to determine official Serbian complicity. Nevertheless, Serbia had to be brought to heel.

Balkan Troubles

Having given Austria his personal assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of her Slavic ally, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany left on a summer cruise in the Norwegian fjords. The Kaiser’s being out of touch for those critical days that July has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in naval history.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd, little more that a bald pretext for war.  Czar Nicholas wired Vienna as late as the 27th proposing an international conference concerning Serbia, but to no avail. Austria responded that same day.  It was too late for such a proposal.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia the following day, the day on which Madame Caillaux was acquitted of the murder of Gaston Calmette, on the grounds of being a “crime of passion”.

As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia.  For Germany’s part, nothing was to be feared more than a two-front war with the “Russian Steamroller” to the east, and the French Republic to the west.  Germany invaded neutral Belgium in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which she sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the far larger Russian adversary.

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On August 3, 1914, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey announced before Parliament his government’s intention to defend Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Pre-planned timetables took over – France alone would have 3,781,000 military men under orders before the middle of August, arriving at the western front on 7,000 trains arriving as often as every eight minutes.

Declaration

This time there would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII.   Few could imagine a cataclysm to rock a century and beyond, a war in which many single day’s fighting would produce casualties equal to that of every war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  Fewer still understood on this date, one-hundred eight years ago, today.  The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, had arrived.

Sir Edward Grey

July 29, 1967 Ghosts of the Forrestal

With the life of the carrier at stake, tales of incredible courage became commonplace.


The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk in June 1967 with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, she stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the South China Sea, arriving on July 25.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of Navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-pound bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures. Think of an enormous sparkler.

Along with Mark 83s, ordnance resupply had included sixteen AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, Korean war era surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs scheduled for the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, as much as 50%, by weight.

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These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last ten years in the heat and humidity of Subic Bay depots.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys with their rusting shells leaking paraffin, and rotted packaging.  Some had production date stamps as early as 1953.

Some handlers feared the old bombs might spontaneously detonate from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign was the longest and most intense such effort in US Naval history.   Over the preceding four days, Forrestal had already launched 150 sorties against targets in North Vietnam.  Combat operations were outpacing production, using Mark 35s faster than they could be replaced.

When Forrestal met the ammunition ship Diamond Head on the 28th, the choice was to take on the Fat Boys, or cancel the second wave of attacks scheduled for the following day.

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In addition to the bombs, ground attack aircraft were armed with 5″ “Zuni” unguided rockets, carried four at a time in under-wing rocket packs.   Known for electrical malfunctions and accidental firing, standard Naval procedure required electrical pigtails to be connected, at the catapult.

Ordnance officers found this slowed the launch rate and deviated from standard procedure, connecting pigtails while aircraft were still, “in the pack”.  The table was now set for disaster.

At 10:50-am local time, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and rockets.  An electrical malfunction fired a Zuni rocket 100-feet across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crew member and piercing the 400-gallon external fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk, awaiting launch.

The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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During World War 2, virtually every American carrier crewmember was a trained firefighter.  Over time, this began to change. By 1967, the United States Navy had adopted the Japanese method at Midway, relying instead on specialized and highly trained damage control and fire fighting teams.

Damage Control Team #8 came into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boy bombs turning cherry red in the flames.  Farrier  was working without benefit of protective clothing. There had been no time to suit up.  Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1000-lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent the thing from cooking off as the rest of his team brought the conflagration under control.

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Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes of the fire.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 had all but ceased to exist.

Margins of survival were now become, split-second. Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Lieutenant Commander Fred White scrambled out of his own aircraft only a split-second later, but he was killed in that first explosion.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the explosions, office furniture thrown to the floor as much as five decks below.  Huge holes were torn into the flight deck while a cataract of flaming jet fuel, some 40,000 US gallons of the stuff, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

Ninety-one crew members were killed below decks, by explosion or fire.

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With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, sailors and marines fought heroically to bring the fire under control, though that sometimes made matters worse.  Without training or knowledge of fire fighting, hose teams sprayed seawater, some washing away retardant foam being used to smother the flames.

With the life of the carrier at stake, tales of incredible courage became commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The destroyer USS George K. MacKenzie plucked men out of the water as the destroyer USS Rupertus maneuvered alongside for 90 minutes, directing on-board fire hoses at burning flight and hangar decks.

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Throughout the afternoon, crew members rolled 250-pound and 500-pound bombs across the decks, and over the side.  The major fire on the flight deck was brought under control within four hours but fires burning below decks would not be declared out until 4:00am, the following day.

Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial records the names of 134 crewmen who died in the conflagration. Another 161 were seriously injured.  26 aircraft were destroyed and another 40, damaged.  Damage to the Forrestal itself exceeded $72 million, equivalent to over $415 million today.

image (13)Gary Childs of Paxton Massachusetts, my uncle, was one among hundreds of sailors and marines who fought to bring the fire under control.  He was below decks when the fire broke out, leaving moments before his quarters were engulfed in flames. Only by that slimmest of margins did he and any number of sailors aboard the USS Forrestal on this day in 1967, escape being #135.

July 19, 1916 The Red Zone

“The Zone Rouge is a 42,000-acre territory that, nearly a century after the conflict, has no human residents and only allows limited access”. – National Geographic

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.  Little more than a policing action, in the Balkans.  As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The early 20th century has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, and for good reason.   As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” advanced through July, 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton made the final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.   Despite the outbreak of war, 1st Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to proceed.  The “Endurance” expedition” departed British waters on August 8.

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.

Endurance was destined to be stuck in the ice, stranding the men of the Shackleton Expedition floating on pack ice, in open ocean.

As the unofficial Christmas Truce descended over the trenches of Europe, Shackleton’s expedition slowly picked their way through the ice floes of the Weddell Sea.

The disaster of WWI became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of her own.  The ship was frozen fast, with no hope of escape.  As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station.  Finally, camps were set up across the drifting ice.  On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

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In December 1915, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the river Somme.  In February, Erich von Falkenhayn began an offensive in Verdun designed to “bleed France white”. The Shackleton party was at this time camped on an ice pack, adrift in open ocean. 

The ice began to break up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats.  Five brutal days would come and go in those open boats, the last of 457 days spent at sea before finally reaching the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

The whaling station at South Georgia Island some 720 miles distant, was the nearest outpost of civilization. The only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 in a 20-foot lifeboat.  They shouldn’t have made it, but somehow did.  In hurricane-force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island came into view four weeks later.

Scaling those terrible cliffs alone was a survival epic, worthy of its own story. Somehow, not a man was lost. They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies.  The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.  At last, on May 20, 1916, the Shackleton expedition was saved.

Like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe emerged from the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, Shackleton asked for news on the war. How it had all ended.  The response came back as if every word of it, was a hammer blow.  

“The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

Preparatory bombardment for the Somme offensive began that June, 1,500 guns firing 1.7 million shells into a twelve-mile front.  27 shells for every foot of the front.  Allies went “over the top” on July 1, the single worst day in British military history.  19,240 British soldiers were killed in that single day, along with 1,590 French.  German losses numbered 10,000–12,000.  By July 19, 1916, the Somme offensive was just getting started.  The battle would last another 122 days.

Former battlefield at Dououmont. The sign reads “Danger Access Forbidden”

The toll exacted by the 1st World War was cataclysmic in human, economic and environmental terms.  After the war, hundreds of square miles along the north of France were identified, thusly:

“Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.

Vast quantities of human and animal remains permeate this “Zone Rouge”, an area saturated with unexploded shells and munitions of all sizes and types:  gas, high explosive, anti-personnel.  There are hand grenades and bombs, small arms and rusted ammunition, by the truckload.

Lochnagar Crater
Lochnagar bomb crater in the Somme Photo Credit Telegraph Newspaper: HENRY SAMUEL

Lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic and other toxins permeate the soil.  In two areas near Ypres and Woëvre, arsenic constitutes up to 17% of some soil samples.  The Red Zone is smaller today than it once was but, to this day, 99% of all plants still die in some of these places.

During World War 1 the two sides fired an estimated ton of explosives at each other, for every square meter of the western Front. As many as one in three shells failed to explode. The Ypres salient alone was believed to contain as many as 300 million unexploded shells at the war’s end. 87 years after the cessation of hostilities, one “Red Zone” survey uncovered up to 150 shells per 5,000 square meters in the top six inches of soil, alone.  

By means of comparison, an American football field covers 5,351.215 square meters.

Signs like this dot the landscape in parts of France and Belgium: “Village Destroyed”

100 years after WW1, more than 20 members of Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal (DOVO) were killed in 1998, alone.

In June 2016, head of the bomb disposal unit at Amiens Michel Colling, said: “Since the start of the year we’ve been called out 300 times to dispose of 25 tons of bombs.  As soon as you start turning the earth up”, Colling said, “you find them. At this rate, we have another 500 years to clear the area, so the work is far from over.

The rotor blades from farmers’ tractors sometimes set them off.   In June 2016, farmer Claude Samain plowed up a Lee-Enfield rifle. Last held in all probability by a British infantryman, the rifle was now seeing the sun for the first time, in 100 years. He placed it on a pile rusted old shells and ironworks. As a farm kid of the 1930s, Claude remembered turning up bodies in his fields.  ‘We find shells every time we turn the earth over for potatoes or sugar beet.” he explained.

French farmers call the stuff, récolte de fer. Iron harvest.

800px-Red_Zone_Map-fr
By derivative work: Tinodela (talk)Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg: Lamiot – Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4798391

That part about Claud Samain comes from a Mirror story published July 1, 2016 and written, by Andy Lines. “As Claude, 76, passed me the gun” Lines writes, “he smiled: “You Brits are so respectful of what happened here on the Somme. “Three coachloads of children arrive every single day to learn what happened 100 years ago – you never see any French children.””

Nor I would guess, any American children, and that’s a damned shame.

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