March 10, 2011 When I Fell from the Sky

Abraham Lincoln was neither the first nor the last to fall from a high place, and live to tell the tale.

In 1840, a young politician found himself in a legislative minority, opposed to a payment to the Illinois State Bank.  In order to prevent a quorum, a handful of Whigs attempted to leave the chamber.  Finding the door locked, our man stepped to a second-story window, and jumped out.  Abraham Lincoln would come to regret what he called his “window scrape”, but the future 16th President was far from the first person to fall from a high place.  Voluntarily, or otherwise.

The term is “Defenestrate”: to throw a person or thing, out of the window.

Jezebel, yeah that Jezebel, the unlovable Queen of Israel from the Bible, was executed by defenestration, in 842BC.

In 1618, three regents of the imperial crown were thrown from the window of the Prague castle, 70-feet from street level. Things hadn’t worked out so well 200 years earlier, when a burgomaster and 13 members of the Prague town council, were similarly defenestrated.

All three survived this time, thanks to the help of mythic angels, according to friends and supporters. Detractors weren’t quite so kind, attributing the trio’s survival to a pile of horseshit. Be that as it may, one of them became a noble thanks to the emperor, and received a title: Baron von Hohenfall. (“Baron of Highfall“). Honest. I couldn’t make up a thing like that.

Since the age of aircraft there are tales of survival, enough to make Baron Highfall’s adventures look like stepping from a curb.

The 2003 737 crash outside port Sudan airport killed 113 and left 2-year-old Mohammed el-Fateh Osman lying on a fallen tree, injured, but still alive.

In 2009, pilot error put Yemenia Flight 626 into aerodynamic stall over the Indian ocean. Alone among 153 passengers and crew, 14-year-old French schoolgirl Bahia Bakari found herself the sole survivor, clinging to wreckage and floating in pitch black heavy seas, for 13 hours.

Base jumper James Boole plunged 6000-feet landing on snow covered rocks in 2009 while filming another jumper, in Russia. “This is going to hurt a lot” he later recounted to the guardian newspaper, “or not at all”. Boole broke his back that time but he was at it again, a year later.

In December 1971, lighting struck LANSA Flight 508 over the Amazon rainforest, breaking the Lockheed Electra to pieces. 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke plunged 10,000 feet still strapped to her seat and survived despite deep gashes and a broken collarbone. Koepcke, the daughter of German scientists working in the Amazon, had grown up a “jungle child”. If you’re lost in the jungle her father would say, follow a stream. Water will always lead you to civilization. For ten exhausting days she trekked through knee-deep water, poking the ground ahead of her to scare away rays and dodging crocodiles.

With maggot infested wounds and nothing to live on but candy scrounged from the wreck, Juliane found her salvation on day 11 at the hands of remote fishermen. Following a period of recovery, she led search parties back to the scene of the crash. It was then that she learned, astonishingly, that her mother had also survived the crash only to succumb to her injuries, days later. Now Juliane Diller, she returned to Germany and followed her parents, into the physical sciences. Her autobiography came out on this day in 2011, if you want to learn more of her story. When I Fell from the Sky (German: Als ich vom Himmel fiel). That must be one hell of a story.

Julianne Koepcke Diller in 2019

In 1985, two sky divers became tangled during a 12,000-foot jump near Victoria Australia. Frank’s injuries were minor. Dave Hodgman wasn’t so lucky but still returned to jumping, within three months.

21 year old RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade found himself under attack by German aircraft on March 24, 1944. With his parachute burned away and his aircraft in a burning death spiral, Alkemade chose a quick death over being burned alive. At 18,000 feet. The tail gunner regained consciousness looking up from the snow, at the stars above. He lit a cigarette. With a sprained ankle, the airman was easily captured. German interrogators were so impressed with his story they gave him a certificate, attesting to his tale.

Joe Herman of the Royal Australian Air Force was blown out of his bomber, in 1944. Free falling through the night sky Herman grabbed wildly for anything he could get hold of. It happened to be the leg of fellow airman John Vivash. Herman hung on for dear life and returned the favor, hitting the ground first and breaking the fall, for his benefactor. Herman walked away with two broken ribs.

In 1943, American turret gunner Alan Magee was forced to jump from the B-17F Snap! Crackle! Pop!, four miles through the skies over France. He fell 22,000 feet, crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. On the ground, his German captors were astonished. With 28 shrapnel wounds, massive internal injuries and a right arm all but severed the man lived on, for another 61 years.

Turret gunner Alan Magee poses for the camera, halfway out of his “office”

Soviet Airforce Lieutenant Ivan Chisov bailed out of his Ilyushin Il-4 bomber, at 22,000 feet. He intended to freefall out of the combat zone so as not to be gunned down by vengeful German pilots, while dangling from his parachute. And a fine plan it was, too, until he lost consciousness, due to the altitude. Chisov hit the snowy embankment at somewhere between 120 and 150 miles per hour, breaking his pelvis and injuring his spine. He was flying again, three months later.

In January 1972, Croatian terrorists placed a briefcase bomb on JAT Air flight 367 from Stockholm, to Belgrade. The bomb exploded, breaking the aircraft into three pieces. Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulović survived the fall with a fractured skull and brain bleeding, two broken legs and three broken vertebra. Vulović passed the next 27 days in a coma and remembers nothing after greeting passengers, on the flight. When offered sedatives for her return flight to Belgrade, she declined the injection. With no memory of the crash, there was nothing to be afraid of.

At 33,330 feet, Vesna Vulović is listed in the Guinness book of world records, for surviving the highest fall.

JAT flight attendant Vesna Vulović

If you’re ever caught in such a situation, experts advise that you spread out your arms and legs to create as much drag, as possible. How one becomes “expert” in such a subject, remains unexplained. Let me know how it works out, if you ever give it a try. As for myself I think I might bend down if I was a little more flexible, and kiss my behind goodbye.

February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica. Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.


Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

Yonaguni

In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Fifteen-hundred to twenty-five hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 to 9-feet or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites containing just a single to four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated with remains then going through a secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  It’s the most dangerous archaeological site on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic failure of the rice crop.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

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The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

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On February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

February 10, 1258 The Fall of Baghdad

Imagine an army of circus riders, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad.

Following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate of greater Syria, the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur established a new capital on the banks of the Tigris River, occupied by a Persian village called Baghdad. Mansur’s grandson Harun al-Rashid subsidized the work of scientists, religious scholars, poets and artists who converged into the city. Books and manuscripts were written on paper, a new technology imported from China, and bound, in finest leathers. No fewer than 36 public libraries were built in addition to the grand library, the ‘house of Wisdom”. Baghdad became a center for learning in the medieval world, unusual for the time, most of its citizens, were literate.

Over the next 200 years, local conflicts reduced Abbasid control over much of the vast Islamic empire, to a mostly religious and ceremonial role. But for Baghdad itself, which continued to grow into the center of science, culture and philosophy western writers would later call, the Golden Age of Islam.

Meanwhile far to the east, a boy was born to the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins, of field mice. acts of violence would be met with retribution and response between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

By 1197, that boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia to become the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe. One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet. His name was Temujin, known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

Fun fact: Genghis Khan is often depicted with Asian features, though history fails to record of what the man actually looked like. He never let anyone paint his likeness. The Eurasian Steppe was a major crossroad before written history with genetic makeup as diverse, as any on the planet. There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes, or maybe blue. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongol conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors were one of the deadliest episodes, in world history. Between 1206 and 1405, victims are estimated to number between 20 and 57 million. This at a time when the world’s population, was around 450 million. In 1221, Mongol armies carried out one of the bloodiest massacres in history in the old city of Urgench, in modern Turkmenistan. An army of two tumens (20,000) was ordered to murder 24 people, per man. In 1241, five separate Mongol armies invaded Hungary, the main armies under Subutai and Batu Khan. When it was over a third to one-half of the Hungarian population, had ceased to exist.

Let it be said that Batu was also known as Sain Khan, Mongolian for “Good Khan”.

According to The Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan and his son and successor, Ögedei, ordered Chormaqan to attack Baghdad, in 1236. The general made it as far as Irbil about 200 miles from Baghdad, but the mongols would return. Just about, every year. Muslim armies were at times successful against such invasions and at other times, not. By 1241, the Caliph had had enough and began the annual payment of tribute.

That lasted five years. Baghdad sent emissaries to the coronation of Güyük Khan as khagan (Great Khan) in 1246 and that of Möngke Khan, in 1251. Güyük expected full submission and demanded the presence of Caliph Al-Musta’sim in Karakorum, the capital of the Mongolian empire.

Imagine an army of circus riders, armed a minimum of 60 arrows apiece. Laminate composite bows combined the compression of horn with the elongation of sinew to develop draw weights up to 160-pounds. Each was capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, even to the rear. Each rider has no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop to keep his horses fresh.  In an age when armies moved at a rate of low double-digits per day, these riders could cover 100 miles and more. 

Since 1092 the charismatic and reclusive Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors kept far more powerful adversaries in their place using a secretive, elite band of fida’in adherents to the Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam. Great figures Muslim and Christian alike feared the secretive Hashashin (assassins) of the Alamut valley. The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people. The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake. The message was clear. Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect. There would be no more such attempts on the General’s life.

The Grand Master of the Assassins even tried to assassinate Möngke Khan and the Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire, Kitbuqa Noyan. It was a bad idea.

In 1253, Noyan was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses. Möngke’s brother Hulagu conscripted one in every ten military age males in the entire empire and rode out in 1255, at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen. Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who opposed them.

Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment. Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

As Khan, Möngke wanted full submission from several Muslim states, including the caliphate. Hulagu sent word to Baghdad, demanding submission. Musta’sim must have gotten some bad advice. Convinced the Muslim world would rise up against the invader, the caliph sent word. They could all go back where they came from.

A force of some 120,000 Mongol, Turkic and Manchurian cavalry arrived on the outskirts of Baghdad on January 29, 1258. 1,000 Chinese siege engineers joined in along with a force of Armenian and Georgian Christians, bent on revenge for raids carried out against the homeland.

20,000 Muslim horsemen sent out to do battle were crushed while Mongol sappers breached dikes along the Tigris, trapping Abbasid forces outside the city.

The mongol army constructed a palisade and a ditch around the city. Seige engines and catapults pounded the walls. By February 5, Hulagu’s forces had seized much of the defenses. Al-Musta’sim attempted to parlay but it was too late for that. 3,000 of Baghdad’s “notables” then attempted to negotiate. Every one of them were slaughtered.

The city surrendered on February 10, 1258. Mongols held back at last entering the city, on February 13.

To the modern reader, the ‘bloodiest day in human history” conjures images of modern warfare. The industrialized warfare of the Somme. Stalingrad. The homicidal regimes of Adolf Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin. Maybe so but many events in this parade of horribles unfolded over weeks, or months, or years.

A million people live in Baghdad on February 28, 1258. The orgy of killing that began on February saw no fewer than 90,000 killed one at a time, with edged or pointed weapons. Some estimates run to several times that number.

Hulagu’s Nestorian Christian wife Dokuz Khatun persuaded him to spare Baghdad’s Christians. All others, men, women and children, were slaughtered. The largest collection of books on the planet were torn to shreds, their leather jackets used for sandals and pages thrown in the river. They say the Tigris ran red with the blood of the slain, and black with the ink from all those books.

This was all carried out in front of Caliph Al-Musta’sim. His family was murdered save for a son brought back to Mongolia and a daughter taken as concubine, to Hulagu.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

So many people died in the sack of Baghdad, there was no longer labor to maintain agricultural systems. Irrigation canals not destroyed in the assault, broke down and silted up. Generations would come and go before the city regained anything close, to its former population. That center of learning in the medieval world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, was gone forever.

February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

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U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

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The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

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A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.

February 5, 62AD End of the World

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water.


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.

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Massive though the damage had been, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples had long been a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society. Crowds of tourists and slaves bustled in and out of the city’s bath houses, artisans’ shops, taverns and brothels, adding their number to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople.

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water.

And yet, these are only “signs”, in hindsight. Pompeiians of 62AD didn’t even have a word for Volcano. That would come much later with the eruption of Mt. Etna. The word is derived from “Vulcan”. The Roman God of fire.

So it was reconstruction began and continued, for the next seventeen years.  Until that day the world, came to an end.

Long dormant and thought to be extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  Historians have long believed Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79AD but recently discovered graffiti referring to the calends of November more likely put the date, at October 17. 

The day dawned as any other, the first plumes of white smoke appearing, sometime around breakfast. By that afternoon the 4,203-foot stratovolcano was belching fire, 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 a stunning, eight-minute animation, of the event.

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.

Citizens tried to save themselves using tunics, as makeshift masks. Then came the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust raced outward at 400 miles-per-hour in the “base surge” phase carrying gases super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit. The bodily fluids of anyone left alive at this time burst instantly, into 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.

The suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon  put and end to all that remained.  Imagine putting your head in a bag of cement, with someone pounding the sides.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet or 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 Pliny’s 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.

This stuff was downright pornographic.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex wasn’t even until 1963, in the British Isles.

“…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 rather more uninhibited.   In fact, life in some quarters was nothing if not hedonistic.  Pompeii itself 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 organized, cataloged and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were in fact 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, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left out on the counter to cool.

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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“.

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

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water. 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.

February 4, 1936 A Damnable Travesty of Justice

“This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.” Walter Lippmann – New York World

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer began to feel soreness in her jaw. She was 23 at the time and too young to have her teeth falling out, yet that’s exactly what was happening. Fryer’s doctor was able to identify the problem, but he couldn’t explain it. The woman’s jawbones were so honeycombed with holes, they looked like moth eaten fabric.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the 88th element of the Periodic Table on December 21, 1898. This new and radioactive element was Radium, one of the ‘alkaline earth metals’. Marie curie would go on to become the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in 1906, and the only person of either sex to ever win two Nobels.

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From goldfish swallowing to pole sitting there have been some strange fads over the years, but none so strange as the radium craze, of 1904. Newspapers waxed rhapsodic about cities of the future, streets aglow in the light of radium lamps as smiling diners enjoyed luminescent cocktails, in restaurants.

While serious doctors had early successes killing cancer cells, quacks and charlatans sold radium creams, drinks and suppositories to cure everything from acne to warts.

An unseen benefit of the craze, at least for a time, was that demand for radium vastly outpaced actual production. Prices skyrocketed to $84,500 per gram by 1915, equivalent to $1.9 million today. Authorities warned consumers to be on the lookout for faux radium, while the business in fake radium products soared.

At the outset of World War 1, it didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of glow in the dark instruments. A number of companies stepped up to fill the need, perhaps none larger than US Radium and their glow-in-the-dark paint, “Undark”.

Hundreds of women worked in the company’s factories, hand painting the stuff on watches, gun sights and other instruments. Radioactivity levels were so small as to be harmless to users of these objects, but not so to the people who made them.

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Grace Fryer

The harmful effects of radiation were relatively well understood by 1917, though the information was kept from factory workers. Camel hair brushes tended to splay out with use and supervisors encouraged workers to sharpen brushes using their lips and tongues. The stuff was odorless and tasteless and some couldn’t resist the fun of painting nails and even teeth, with the luminous paint. The only side effects of all that radium they were told, would be rosy cheeks.

The active ingredient in Undark was a million times more active than Uranium, and company owners and scientists knew it. Company labs were equipped with lead screens, masks and tongs, while literally everything on the factory floor, glowed.

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In 1925, doctors began to suspect that Grace Fryer’s condition may be related to her previous employment in US Radium’s Orange, New Jersey factory. By that time she was seriously ill, yet Columbia University “Specialist” Frederick Flynn and a “Colleague” pronounced her to be in “fine health”. It was only later that the two were revealed to be company executives.

These US Radium guys must have been genuine, mustache twirling, villains. In the early 20s, company officials hired physiologist and Harvard Professor Cecil Drinker to report on working conditions. Drinker’s report detailed catastrophically dangerous working conditions, with virtually every factory employee suffering blood or bone conditions.

The report filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor omitted all of it, describing conditions in glowing terms (pun not intended), claiming that “every girl is in perfect condition”.

Reports of illness among other women came flooding in. In a tactic that may sound familiar today, US Radium took to assassinating the character of these women, claiming such symptoms resulted from syphilis.

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Attorney Raymond Berry filed suit on Fryer’s behalf in 1927, the lawsuit joined by four other dial painters seeking $250,000 apiece in damages. Soon, the newspapers were calling them “radium girls”. The health of all five plaintiffs was deteriorating rapidly, while one stratagem after another was used to delay proceedings. By their first courtroom appearance in January 1928, none could raise her arm to take the oath. Grace Fryer was altogether toothless by this time, unable to walk and requiring a back brace even to sit up.

Another dial painter, Amelia Maggia, had had to have her jaw removed in the last months of her life. Maggia’s cause of death was ruled as syphilis, but her dentist wasn’t buying it. Dr. Joseph Knef placed the jaw on a piece of dental film. The image resulting showed “absurd” levels of radiation.

The radium girls were far too sick to attend the next hearing in April when the judge ordered a continuation to September, an accommodation to several company witnesses “summering” in Europe.

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Walter Lippmann of the New York World called the proceedings a “damnable travesty of justice”. “There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, the reporter wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.”

Delay was a deliberate and sleazy tactic, and it worked. Plaintiffs accepted a settlement of $10,000 apiece, plus legal fees and a $600 annual annuity. The deal was mediated by Judge William Clarke, himself a US Radium stockholder. None of the women lived long enough to cash more than one or two annuity checks.

Marie Curie herself was dead by 1934, poisoned by radiation. With a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks remain “too hot to handle”, to this day.

Radium was synthesized for the first time two years later, on February 4, 1936. Presumably, factory workers were no longer encouraged to sharpen their brushes using lips and tongues.

January 30, 1889 If Only

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still…

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still. How might the 20th century have played out, for example, had it not been for that day in Sarajevo, in 1914.

Perhaps the tinderbox already building by 1914 would have been lit, on some other day. But what if? Maybe two World Wars never happened, after all. Adolf Hitler remained a mediocre artist living in a flop house, in Vienna. All China became a free market, and not just Taiwan. What if the cold war, communism and everything that stemmed from that malevolent ideology was nothing more than the unpublished, nightmare imaginings of some crazy novelist?

In the wake of World War 2, a bipolar structure emerged in the world political order and remained so, for 40 years.

America was a minor player in pre-WW1 affairs, a period about which Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck once explained: “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”

After the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, 1814-’15, the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia and Prussia met in Vienna to settle old issues and rebalance national boundaries in order to bring long-term peace, to Europe.

Austria declined over the next half-century leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, an accord between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ostensibly a constitutional union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least as many languages and divided, along no fewer than six religious lines.

After the 1889 suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef, the emperor’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ludwig’s death in 1896 left his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.

Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic missteps, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August there was no turning back. The “War to End all Wars” would shatter a generation, lay waste to a continent and erect the foundation, for the rest of the 20th century.

So, what about Rudolf and that “suicide”, in 1889. He was supposed to succeed Ludwig, not Ferdinand. What if the Emperor’s only son, had lived?

Political alliances came and went among the dynastic families of Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages.  On May 10, 1881, Crown Prince Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold, of Belgium.

Crown Prince Rudolf and his wife, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold II

A child was born in 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth, but the union soon soured. Rudolf began to drink and pursue women, not his wife. He wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII to annul the marriage. The formidable Franz Josef, would have none of that.

Three years later, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the Austrian village of Mayerling. In 1888, the 30-year old crown Prince met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie Freiin (Baroness) von Vetsera.

Marie Freiin von Vetsera preferred to go by the more fashionable Anglophile version of her name, Mary

On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the Crown Prince and the Baroness were discovered in the Mayerling hunting lodge, victims of an apparent suicide pact.

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Emperor Franz Josef went on to reign until 1916, one of the longest-serving monarchs of the 19th century.

Now without male heir, succession to the imperial throne passed first to the emperor’s younger brother Ludwig and later to Franz Ferdinand, best remembered for his assassination, in 1914.

Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolf’s mother, went into deep mourning.

She wore the colors of her grief, pearl gray and black, every day until her assassination at the hands of 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, in 1898.

132 years later we can only ponder. It may be the ultimate counterfactual. What if Crown Prince Rudolf had lived to succeed Franz Josef. Politically, the son was far more liberal, than his father. Rudolf would surely have held more conciliatory views toward the forces, tearing at the empire. The same could be said of Franz Ferdinand, so who knows. Perhaps a rock in a stream once moved, alters not the flow of events yet to come.

But maybe that fork in the road met on June 28, 1914, would have led to a road less traveled and perhaps, the history of the last century, never happened.

Afterward,

By special dispensation, the Vatican declared Rudolf to be in a state of “mental imbalance” as suicide would have precluded church burial. The Emperor ordered Mayerling transformed into a penitential convent and endowed a chantry ensuring that prayers would rise up daily, for the eternal rest of his only son.

Vetsera’s body was smuggled out in the dark of night and quietly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, her funeral so secret even her mother was forbidden to attend.

Stories of poison gave way to reports of murder-suicide. Rumors have surrounded the Mayerling incident, for 100 years. Such stories went unchallenged until 1946 when occupying Red Army troops dislodged the stone covering the crypt and opened Vetsera’s coffin, looking for jewels. Repairing the damage some nine years later the fathers of the monastery observed the small skull and noticed, the absence of bullet holes. Physician Gerd Holler examined the remains in 1959 and concurred. No bullet hole.

But Maria von Vetsera was shot by the Crown Prince who later took his own life. That was the story, right?

Stories came to life of defensive wounds. Of evidence the pair had been murdered, after all.

Obsessed with the tale, Linz furniture store owner Helmut Flatzelsteiner disturbed the remains yet again, in 1991. Rumors went wild but in the end, results were inconclusive. Flatzelsteiner paid the abbey €2,000, in restitution.

In 2015 a letter was found in a safe deposit box, in an Austrian bank. A suicide note from a young girl, to her mother

“Dear Mother
Please forgive me for what I’ve done
I could not resist love
In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland
I am happier in death than life”.

January 29, 1944 Worse than Separation

We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying


Desperate to avoid war with Nazi Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain convened in Munich in September, 1938 to resolve German claims on western Czechoslovakia. The “Sudetenland”.

Representatives of the Czech and Slovak peoples, were not invited.

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For the people of the modern Czech Republic, the Munich agreement was a grotesque betrayal. “O nás bez nás!” “About us, without us!”

On September 30, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London declaring “Peace in Our Time”.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany and bore the signatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier, as well as his own.

Winston Churchill was in the minority in 1938, in a continent haunted by the horrors of the “war to end all wars”. To Churchill, the Munich agreement was an act of cowardly appeasement.  Feeding the crocodile in hopes he will eat you last. For much of Great Britain, the sense of relief was palpable.

In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past.  Hitler had swallowed up Austria, only six months earlier.   British authorities divided the home islands into “risk zones” identified as “Evacuation,” “Neutral,” and “Reception.” 

In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning “Operation Pied Piper”. The evacuation of millions of their own children, should war come to the home islands.

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When Nazi Germany invaded Poland the following September, London mayor Herbert Morrison was at 10 Downing Street, meeting with Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson.  Morrison believed the time had come for Operation Pied Piper. 

Only a year to the day from the Prime Minister’s “Peace in our Time” declaration, Wilson demurred.  “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?”

Morrison was done with the Prime Minister’s dilatory response to Hitler’s aggression, practically snarling in his thick, East London accent “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?”

Thirty minutes later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation, had begun.

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Next weekend, the Superbowl champion Kansas City Chiefs will face off with the G.O.A.T (Greatest of all Time) 43-year-old Tom Brady, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The venue, Raymond James Stadium, holds a crowd of 65,618, expandable to 75,000.

In 1938, 45 times that number were mobilized in the first four days of the evacuation, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

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BBC History reported that, “within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address”.

Zeppelin raids had killed 1,500 civilians in London alone during the ‘Great War’.  Since then, governments had gotten so much better at killing each other’s citizens. 

As early as 1922, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had spoken of ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure.’  As many as 4,000,000 civilian casualties were expected in London alone.

BBC History describes the man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, as a “cold, inhuman character with little understanding of the emotional upheaval that might be created by evacuation”.

Children were labeled ‘like luggage’, and sent off with gas masks, toothbrushes and fresh socks & underwear. None of them knew to where, or for how long. What must That have sounded like.

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The evacuation of all that humanity ran relatively smoothly, considering.  James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association, recalls ‘We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying.’

Arrivals at the billeting areas, were another matter.  Many kids were shipped off to the wrong places, and rations were insufficient.  Geoffrey Barfoot, billeting officer in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, said ‘The trains were coming in thick and fast. It was soon obvious that we just didn’t have the bed space.’

Kids were lined up against walls and on stages, potential hosts invited to “take their pick”.

For many, the terrors and confusion of those first few days grew and flowered into love and friendships, to last a lifetime.  Some entered a hell on earth of physical or sexual abuse, or worse.

For the first time, “city kids” and country folks were finding out how the “other half” lived. Results were sometimes amusing.  One boy wrinkled his nose on seeing carrots pulled out of muddy fields, saying “Ours come in tins”.  Richard Singleton recalled the first time he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ for directions to the toilet.  “She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums.  She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.”

John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, had his rations stolen by his host family. He was horsewhipped for speaking out while they enjoyed his food and he was given nothing more than mashed potatoes. Terri McNeil was locked in a birdcage and left with a piece of bread and a bowl of water.

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In the 2003 BBC Radio documentary “Evacuation: The True Story,” clinical psychologist Steve Davis described the worst cases as, “little more than a pedophile’s charter.”

Eighty-odd years later, the words “I’ll take that one” are seared into the memories of more than a few.

Hundreds of evacuees were killed because of relocation, while en route or during stays at “safe havens”.  Two boys were killed on a Cornish beach, mined to defend against German amphibious assault.

No one had thought to put up a sign.

Irene Wells, age 8, was standing in a church doorway when she was crushed by an army truck.  One MP from the house of Commons said “There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas. Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated”.

When German air raids failed to materialize, many parents decided to bring the kids home.  By January 1940, almost half of evacuees were returned.

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Authorities produced posters urging parents to leave the kids where they were, and a good thing, too. The Blitz against London itself began on September 7. The city experienced the most devastating attack to-date on December 29, in a blanket fire-bombing that killed almost 3,600 civilians.

Sometimes, refugees from relatively safe locations were shipped into high-risk target areas. Hundreds of refugees from Gibraltar were sent into London, in the early days of the Blitz. None of them could have been happy to leave London Station, to see hundreds of locals pushing past them, hurrying to get out.

This story doesn’t only involve the British home islands, either.  American Companies like Hoover and Eastman Kodak took thousands of children in, from employees of British subsidiaries.  Thousands of English women and children were evacuated to Australia, following the Japanese attack on Singapore.

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By October 1940, the “Battle of Britain” had devolved into a mutually devastating battle of attrition, in which neither side was capable of striking the death blow. Hitler cast his gaze eastward the following June with a surprise attack on his “ally”, Josef Stalin.

“Operation Steinbock”, the Luftwaffe’s last large-scale strategic bombing campaign of the war against southern England, was carried out three years later.  285 German bombers attacked London on this day in 1944, in what the Brits called the “Baby Blitz”.

You’ve got to be some tough cookie to call 245 bombers, a Baby Blitz.

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Later in the war, the subsonic “Doodle Bug” or V1 “flying bomb” was replaced by the terrifying supersonic V2.  1,000 or more of these, the world’s first rocket, were unleashed against southern England, primarily London, killing or wounding 115,000. With a terminal velocity of 2,386mph, you never saw or heard this thing coming until the weapon had done its work.

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In the end, many family ‘reunions’ were as emotionally bruising as the original breakup.   Years had come and gone and new relationships had formed.  The war had turned biological family members into virtual strangers.

Richard Singleton remembers the day his mother came, to take him home to Liverpool.  “I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”

Douglas Wood tells a similar story.  “During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once,” he recalls. “On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognise me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”

The Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund, commissioned an examination of the psychological effects of the separation. After a 12-month study, Freud concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”

January 28, 1986 Space Truck

STS-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.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) came around 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, 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 was left unpainted, to save weight.

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

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.

Rescue and recovery operations were delayed for fifteen minutes, as debris rained from the sky.

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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 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 lived 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 would be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz though his drawing, survived.  He was 14 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.  For a time he was 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, it also home.

January 19, 1810 Cold Friday

“Tales of the killer weather event made their way into town histories, journals and court records long after it happened on January 19.. They told of the many people who froze to death while traveling along the highways. The wind blew down houses, barns and vast numbers of timber trees. Ships wrecked, cattle froze in their barns and old people died of hypothermia inside their homes. It was so cold pens wouldn’t write though they were right next to the fireplace”. – H/T New England Historical Society

I suspect it’s happened to all of us, particularly in the colder latitudes. You dress for the weather, (or think you do), later to find you got it wrong. Off you go to the office, to the store, and before you know it, it’s soaking wet. Or freezing cold. We’ve all been there, but what of an age before you had that nice warm car, to jump into?

In January 1810, several New England journalists recorded a temperature that dropped 100 degrees in 24 hours, from 67° Fahrenheit on Thursday the 18th, to -33° on Friday.

According to NASA, the average winter temperature at the North Pole, is -40°.

That was only the half of it. The weather forecasters of the day didn’t record wind chill but the howling gale that brought that cold with it, was a killer.

Henry David Thoreau’s mother remembered dishes frozen, as soon as they were washed. Reverend William Bentley wrote that people died, without going outside.

On the mild afternoon of January 18, 50-year-old Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Brooks of Woburn Massachusetts and his 45-year old cousin Benjamin, went into the forest to cut wood. The two were found frozen to death on Saturday.

HistoricIpswich.org writes of “people who froze to death while traveling along the highways. Houses, barns and vast numbers of timber trees were blown down or broken to pieces. Ships were wrecked, cattle froze in their barns and old people died of hypothermia in their homes. It was so cold pens wouldn’t write though they were right next to the fireplace“.

In Sanbornton New Hampshire, the wind tore the home of Jeremiah Ellsworth, to pieces. Ellsworth struggled into the maelstrom to the home of David Brown, seeking help. The howling wind literally tore the clothes off the backs of Ellsworth’s older children as Mrs. Ellsworth struggled to carry the baby, into the basement. Ellsworth made it to the neighbor’s house but, with his feet frozen, the man was unable to go on. Brown hooked up a horse and sleigh and drove back to the Ellsworth home. That’s when things went Seriously wrong. The sleigh was blown over not once, but twice. The second time it was torn apart, its contents, scattered. David Brown labored to carry the Ellsworth children the rest of the way. Mrs. Ellsworth was reduced to crawling. By the time she arrived at the Brown home she was unrecognizable. None of the three children survived.

On a happier note, Rebecca Ramsdell was a schoolgirl, in Henniker New Hampshire. James Bartlett was the teacher in those days, and made it a habit to award little medals, to children with exceptional attendance. Rebecca braved the cold that morning and walked a mile, to school. Bartlett gave her a medal, and she never forgot it. You can find a picture of Ms. Ramsdell at the Henniker Historical Society. She’s 100+ in that photo and she still had Mr. Bartlett’s medal.

H/T Henniker Historical Society

Locals spoke of the Cold Friday of 1810, for generations. Twenty years later, a New Hampshire court proceeding required a date. The answer wasn’t hard to remember. It had happened on Cold Friday.