September 11, 2001 The Great Rescue of 9/11

The “Miracle of Dunkirk” involved the evacuation of 338,226 stranded soldiers from the beaches of France, the largest waterborne evacuation up to that point, in history.  Seventeen years ago today, the boat lift rescue from the tip of Manhattan, was half again that large.

World War Two began with the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, in 1938. Within two years, every major power on the continent was either neutral, or subjugated to the Nazi regime.

France was all but occupied by May 1940.  The battered remnants of the French military fought a desperate delaying action while all that remained of French, English and Belgian military power in continental Europe, crowded the beaches in desperate flight from the Nazi war machine.

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The “Miracle of Dunkirk” involved the evacuation of 338,226 stranded soldiers from the beaches of France, the largest waterborne evacuation up to that point, in history.  Seventeen years ago today, the waterborne rescue off the tip of Manhattan, was half again that size.

9/11/2001

At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, five Islamist terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, instantly killing all on board and an undetermined number in the building itself.  At 9:03, another five terrorists crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.

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We now know that attacks would be carried out over the next few hours, against the Pentagon and a place called Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  At the time, there was no way to know that further atrocities wouldn’t be carried out, against New York.  The tunnels and bridges out of Manhattan were shut down almost immediately after the attack and the roads gridlocked, trapping hundreds of thousands of scared and disoriented civilians on the island.  Most wanted nothing more than to get out.

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From Here is New York collection: Gulnara Samoilova, Untitled, 2001. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

As first one tower collapsed and then the second, lower Manhattan became a witches brew of airborne chemicals, borne aloft in vast and impenetrable clouds of dangerous compounds and pulverized construction material.

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“Within one minute of the North Tower’s collapse, the mammoth cloud of thick dust engulfed most of the southern end of Manhattan”. H/T 911research.wtc7.net

As the dark, vile cloud swallowed the city and blotted out the sun, Mayor Rudy Giuliani came on the radio.  “If you are south of Canal Street” he said, “get out. Walk slowly and carefully.  If you can’t figure what else to do, just walk north.”

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Those who walked or ran to the north made their way through clouds of choking, toxic dust to the Brooklyn Bridge, about the only way out of Manhattan.

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The half-million or so who went south, soon found themselves cornered in the 25 acres of Battery Park, trapped with the Hudson River to their right, and the East River to their left.

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At first, a few nearby boats offered assistance.  Ferries, tugs and private craft.  The Coast Guard put out a radio call for anyone in the vicinity.  Dozens of tugboats were the first to answer.  Soon, hundreds of boats were racing to the scene.

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These were strangers helping strangers.  Virtually every vessel was captained by civilians.  For all any of them knew they were heading into a war zone, yet still, they came.  Hundreds of boats carried nearly 500,000 people out of that place to Ellis Island, Staten Island and New Jersey, equivalent to the entire population of Toledo, Ohio.

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The greatest marine rescue in history unfolded over a period of nine hours.   The Dunkirk boat-lift had taken nine days.

Coast Guard Admiral James Loy said it best.  “We grabbed the Staten Island Ferry, the tour boat that goes around the Statue of Liberty and anything else that floated.  And at the same time, we had rallied the wherewithal to take a half a million people, scared and frightened to death, through the Battery and off the southern tip of Manhattan.  That’s an extraordinary story.”

Afterward

The way I remember it, the wreckage of the World Trade Center burned for a hundred days.  With roads impassable and water mains broken, New York City fire boats pumped river water to firefighters at “Ground Zero”.  Other vessels were converted to floating cafeterias and first-aid stations.  Still others shuttled personnel in and out of lower Manhattan, for the better part of two years.

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2,996 innocent people lost their lives when those nineteen swine attacked us that day, more than the United States has since lost in seventeen years of war in Afghanistan. Among those were a stunning 412 emergency services personnel, those who ran TO the disaster, as the rest of the city ran away.  343 of them, were New York Fire. Sixty were Police Officers, from NYPD, New York Port Authority and New Jersey Police Departments. Eight were Paramedics. One was with the New York Fire patrol.

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Fred George, Ash Wednesday, Dusk, 9/12/01, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

6,000 more were injured.  10,000 children lost a parent or were orphaned, entirely.  The list of fatalities among first responders continues to build to this day, with cancer and other illness claiming a third again among this population, compared with any randomly selected group.

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The body of Father Mychal Judge is carried from the scene, the victim of countless unfortunates who chose to jump, rather than burn alive. Father Judge was killed while administering Last Rites.

One of countless stories to emerge from this day, concerns one of those many firefighters who lost his life, while doing his job. In a way, he’s one of the lucky ones. His family had a body they could bury, and not just a smear of DNA, left on a ledge.

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The night before the funeral, this guy’s wife and his buddies “stole” the body, casket and all, with the connivance of some people at the funeral home. They brought him to their favorite beach, and there they spent a last night together, drinking beer and telling stories. The next morning, they brought him back to the funeral home, as they had promised. Their loved one was buried that day, with full honors.

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Susanne P. Lee, Untitled, 2001. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

I don’t know this man’s name or that of his wife, and I’m not sure that it matters. The greater sense of this story, for me, is that of a short life, well lived.  A story of love, and friendship, and loyalty.

May we all be worthy of the friendship, of people such as these.

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Tip of the hat to insh.com (interesting shit), from which most of the photographs in this essay, were borrowed.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, a token of gratitude for the return of HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier. Excepting a brief period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the desk has been in the oval office or a private study in the White House, from that day to this.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

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Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few ships suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

e9b3482e7a0e242654668c20479b9fb4HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan, and refitted for Arctic exploration. Re-named Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  HMS Resolute found and rescued the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

resoluteice2Three of the HMS Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it, despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return.
Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

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The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, giving her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit, and Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented her to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.

Resolute, ReaganThe desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office.

FDR had a panel installed in the opening, since he was self conscious about his leg braces. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk, while his young son JFK, Jr., played under it.
Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House, after the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only time the desk has been out of the White House.

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office, where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, thus far, Donald J. Trump.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

August 26, 1883 Krakatoa

Roughly 90% of all earthquakes and 75% of potentially active volcanoes in the world, occur along a horseshoe shaped Ring of Fire, encircling the Pacific Ocean.

Within living memory, the “greatest generation” fought the most destructive war, in human history. Had any of them survived the experience, the parents and grandparents of that generation could’ve gazed into the abyss, at a force capable of breaking the very world, on which the great contest was won.

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H/T LiveScience.com

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

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

ABWCWW Earth s Core
ABWCWW Earth s Core

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

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

This movement in what we’d like to regard as Terra Firma, results in deep ocean trenches (the Aleutian Trench reaches depths of 25,194 feet) and mountain ranges such as the Andes along the border with Argentina and Chile, where towering peaks reach a height of over 22,500 feet or more.tectonic+plates+map

800px-Subduction-en.svgRoughly 90% of all earthquakes and 75% of potentially active volcanoes in the world, occur along a horseshoe shaped Ring of Fire, encircling the Pacific Ocean.

One hundred and thirty five years ago today, a mere blink of an eye in geologic time, the most destructive volcano in recorded history erupted along the western reaches of this ring of fire on the Indonesian island of Krakatau (Krakatoa).

Early seismic activity began several years before the 1883 eruption, with earthquakes felt as far away, as Australia. Steam began to vent in May of that year, from the northernmost of three cones comprising the island group of Krakatau. Explosions could be heard from as much as 99 miles away by the end of May, propelling thick clouds of ash to an estimated altitude of 20,000 feet, before activity died down in early June.

Eruptions at Krakatoa resumed around the 16th of June, and continued until the 24th. The violence of these ongoing eruptions caused tides in the area to be unusually high, while ships at anchor, had to be moored with heavy chains.

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

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Dutch topographical engineer Captain H. J. G. Ferzenaar investigated the Krakatoa islands on August 11, reporting three major ash columns and steam plumes from at least eleven other vents. All vegetation was extinct by this time, leaving only tree stumps, buried beneath nearly two feet of ash.

Eruptions intensified on August 25, while ships twelve miles away reported softball-sized pieces of hot pumice, raining down on their decks.  A small tsunami hit the shores of Java and Sumatra, twenty-five miles away.  Krakatoa entered its paroxysmal stage on August 26 followed by four prodigious explosions, the following day.

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Mount Mazama in the Cascade Range of Oregon, collapses into the magma chamber below. Crater Lake reaches a depth of 1,943 feet, the deepest freshwater body in the United States. H/T Wikipedia

The first explosion at 5:30am triggered a Tsunami of 98-feet or more, wiping out much of the island of Sumatra.  The second explosion at 6:44 triggered a second tsunami.  The third and largest explosion at 10:02 am was so violent it could be heard 1,930 miles away in Perth, in Western Australia.  On the Indian Ocean islands near Mauritius, 3,000 miles distant, the sound was mistaken for cannon fire, from a nearby ship.

It’s reported to have been the loudest sound in recorded history, equal to the explosive force of 200,000 tons of TNT, four times the explosive force of the Soviet Tsar Bomba explosion of October 30 1961, the most powerful thermonuclear weapon, ever detonated.

The colossal fourth and final explosion generated pressure waves racing outward from Krakatoa, at 675 mph. The sound was so loud as to be heard clearly from the United States to Great Britain, the pressure wave rounding the globe and returning to the volcano no fewer than 3½ times.

Barometric pressure gauges spiked 2½ inches of mercury, equivalent to 180 decibels, of sound pressure.  As a point of reference, short-term hearing damage can occur at 120, and the threshold for human pain, is 134.

Untold millions of tons of super heated ash rose fifty miles and more, into the air. Ships as far away as South Africa, were rocked by the series of tsunamis.

The combined effects of the explosions, tsunamis and the Pyroclastic Flow, the fast-moving air current of superheated gases and volcanic material capable of reaching ground speeds of 430 miles per hour, resulted in an official death toll of 36,417.  Some estimates put the number as high as 120,000.

When it was over, all but the bottom third of the island was gone, swallowed whole by the empty magma chamber, below. Fifty-six miles distant, the westernmost provinces of Java have been reclaimed by jungle and remain depopulated, to this day.

scream-16_6155Following the 1883 eruption, temperatures in the northern hemisphere fell by an average of 2.2°, Fahrenheit. Weather patterns were disrupted for years on end.

Particulate matter in the atmosphere refracted light worldwide resulting in glowing white clouds at night, and some of the most spectacular red sunsets, ever seen. Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream“, is thought to be an accurate depiction of the colors. Fire trucks were called out in Poughkeepsie and New York, for what many believed to be a raging fire.

In 1927, a new island emerged from the caldera left by the 1883 cataclysm.  Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatoa”) is currently the site of eruptive activity, one of 1,500 potentially active volcanoes, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS.gov).  Approximately five hundred of these were active, in historic times.

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Anak Krakatau, “Child of Krakatoa” in modern times

The ability to predict such an eruption, remains elusive.  Iceberg tremors, gas emissions, thermal monitoring and relative rates of ground deformation remain areas, for continued study. When Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980, USGS scientists were able to provide about three weeks warning.

Feature Image, top of page:  Anak Krakatau

August 10, 2010 An Awful Place

A chirpy little forecast on weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting max daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Amundsen’s mother wanted no such thing for her boy, and made him vow that he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died.  He kept his promise until that day.  After that, there would be no more school.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to the story, as much as he helped in its creation. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south latitude, precious stockpiles of food and equipment at 69-mile intervals on the way to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911, the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Robert Falcon Scott

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again at the time of the Amundsen expedition. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. Ninety-seven miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Weak ponies, poorly acclimated to the wretched conditions slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of its planned location at 80°.  His words would prove prophetic.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike his previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by a mere five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is palpable: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

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“Scott captures Dr Edward Wilson sketching on Beardmore Glacier during his final expedition to the Antarctic in 1912”. H/T Guardian.com

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Oates himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity was a threat and a burden to the team. The man left his tent for the last time and limped into the blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

331221e7257641dd320331d5341f2627--robert-falcon-scott-captain-scottNoble though it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.  In his final starved, frostbitten hours, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, Scott worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The specific meteorological conditions of those final days, went unrecorded.  A chirpy little forecast on http://www.weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting maximum daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found some eight months later, that last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

6303323d3bf163bd7706d70a5f6fc7bfThe last three survivors died eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, part of the expedition to find the doomed Scott party, survived similar conditions by some kind of miracle and wrote in The Worst Journey in the World, that his teeth chattered so violently, that some of them broke.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.  The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).

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Routes taken to the South Pole by Amundsen (Red) and Scott (Green)

On hearing of the fate of his erstwhile rival, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century of ice and snow have covered the bodies, the camp and the cross alike. Pressed ever downward by the weight of the snow and ice and creeping seaward with the glacier, the corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  Perhaps to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown future iceberg.

Feature image, top of page “Final call: From left-righy, Dr E. A. Wilson, Lt. H. R, Bowers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Petty Officer Taff Evans and Capt. L. E.G. Oates pose for a photo not long before they died on their way back from their trek“.  H/T Guardian.com

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

July 30, 1916 Black Tom

The explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

In the early months of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy largely swept the seas of the Kaiser’s surface ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, and more than a hundred German ships sought refuge in American harbors.

The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas, while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash, but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

British-blockadeTo the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral countries were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

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Black Tom Island, 1880

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

Guards discovered a series of small fires around 2:00am. Some tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation so massive as to be estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale. People were awakened from Maryland to Connecticut in what many thought was an earthquake. The Brooklyn Bridge shook and the walls of Jersey City’s municipal building were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

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Firefighters were unable to fight the fires until the bullets and shrapnel stopped flying. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan. Damage to the skirt and torch carried by the Statue of Liberty alone, came to over $2¼ million in 2017 dollars. To this day, the ladder to “Lady Liberty’s” torch, remains off limits to visitors.

The enormous vaulted ceiling of Ellis Island’s main hall, collapsed.  According to one Park officer, damage to the Ellis Island complex came to $500,000 “half the one million dollars it cost the government to build the facility.”

Wrecked_warehouses_and_scattered_debris_after_the_Black_Tom_Explosion,_1916Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.

The explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

Responsibility for the Black Tom explosion was never proven, conclusively. Early suspicions centered on accidental causes. Legal wranglings would climb the judicial ladder all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and continue well into the second World War. Anna Rushnak, an elderly Czechoslovak immigrant who ran a four-bits-a-night boarding house in Bayonne was thrown from her bed by the explosion, to find then-23-year-old Michael Kristoff sitting on the edge of his bed, mumbling “What I do? What I do?”

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Lehigh Valley Railroad pier, after the explosion

Kristoff, a Slovakian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, (Germany’s principle ally in WW1), was arrested by Bayonne Police and interrogated, and judged to be “insane but harmless.”

In 1922, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was buried in lawsuits, and looking to fix blame on a German act of sabotage. Kristoff came into the judicial spotlight once again, and located in an Albany jail where he was serving time for theft. Kristoff admitted working for the Germans “for a few weeks” back in 1916, but was released before the claim could be investigated. Kristoff was finally traced to a pauper’s grave in 1928 and there ends his story, yet that ‘insane but harmless’ label may be open to question. Papers carried on the body exhumed from that potter’s field were indeed those of Michael Kristoff, but the dental records didn’t match.

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“German Master Spy Franz Von Rintelen and his “pencil bomb” were responsible for acts of sabotage in the United States during World War I”. H/T Smithsonian

Meanwhile, suspicion fell on the German-born naturalized citizen Kurt Jahnke who ran sabotage operations for the German Admiralty out of bases in San Francisco and Mexico City, and his assistant, Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke. Witzke was arrested on February 1, 1918 in Nogales, Arizona and convicted by court martial. He was sentenced to death, though the war was over before sentence could be carried out. President Wilson later commuted the sentence, to life.

By 1923, most countries were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A report from Leavenworth prison shows Witzke heroically risking his life, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released. Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923, and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

The U.S.–German Peace Treaty of 1921 established the German-American Mixed Claims Commission, which declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had, in fact been responsible and awarded a judgement of $50 million.  The Nazi government refused to pay and the matter was finally settled in 1953, with a judgement of $95 million (including interest) against the Federal Republic of Germany. The final payment was made in 1979.

The Black Tom explosion and related acts of pro-German espionage resulted in the Federal Espionage Act signed into law in June 1917, creating, among its other provisions, a “Bureau of Investigation” under the United States Department of Justice.  Now, nothing remains of the Black Tom terminal or the largest foreign terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11, save for a plaque, as seen in the photograph below.  That, and the FBI.

Feature image, top of page: Shrapnel damage can be seen in this image of the Statue of Liberty
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View of the Statue of Liberty from the site of the Black Tom explosion
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July 24, 1915 A Curbside Shipwreck

Ironically, the additional weight of lifeboats added in the wake of the Titanic disaster of 1912, almost certainly doomed the steamship and 848 of her passengers and crew, to disaster.

SOLAS+Safety+Of+Life+At+Sea+An+international+maritime+safety+treaty.Following the “unsinkable” Titanic disaster of 1912, thirteen countries including Great Britain and the United States gathered to discuss implementation of life-saving measures at sea, such as radio communications, safety of navigation and ice patrol.  Among other measures, the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) treaty signed in January 1914 mandated that sufficient lifeboats be provided for every passenger and crew member on board, and that all on board be instructed on their use.

Anyone who’s been on a cruise vacation, knows what that sounds like.

The SS Eastland was a passenger steamship based in Chicago, used for tours of the inland waterways and Great Lakes areas around the city.  Eastland’s design made her top heavy from the beginning, and subject to listing. Embarking passengers would crowd along the rail to wave goodbye, several times having to be herded across the decks to reduce the list. One time, Eastland even began to take on water at the main gangplank.

Special passenger restrictions specifically  imposed on Eastland helped the problem until 1914, when the weight of additional lifeboats brought stability problems to a new level.  Ironically, the additional weight of those lifeboats almost certainly doomed the steamship and 848 of her passengers and crew, to disaster.

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On July 24, 1915, Eastland and two other Great Lakes passenger steamers, the Theodore Roosevelt and Petoskey, were chartered to take Western Electric employees to a picnic in Michigan City, Indiana. Eastland was docked on the south bank of the Chicago River, between Clark and LaSalle, near the current site of the Merchandise Mart. Passengers began boarding around 6:30am.  By 7:10 the ship had reached full capacity of 2,572 passengers.

A number of passengers went below decks to get out of the chill, but hundreds stayed out on the upper decks, excited about the day ahead. The port side list away from the dock, set in early in the boarding process, when crew members began to pump water into the starboard ballast tanks, to stabilize the ship.  Something interesting must have happened on the river at 7:28, causing a number of passengers to rush to the port side rail.

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Novelist Jack Woodford witnessed what happened next, describing the scene in his autobiography: “And then movement caught my eye. I looked across the river. As I watched in disoriented stupefaction a steamer large as an ocean liner slowly turned over on its side as though it were a whale going to take a nap. I didn’t believe a huge steamer had done this before my eyes, lashed to a dock, in perfectly calm water, in excellent weather, with no explosion, no fire, nothing. I thought I had gone crazy”.  Hundreds were trapped below decks, others were crushed under heavy bookcases, pianos and tables.

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Another vessel, the Kenosha, pulled alongside almost immediately.  Several passengers were able to jump directly onto her decks, others were rescued at the wharf, only 20′ away.  Hundreds were beyond saving.

Temporary morgues were set up in area buildings for identifying the dead; including what is now the sound stage for The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Studios, and the location of the Chicago Hard Rock Cafe.

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Easstland disaster location, today

Then-20-year-old George Halas was scheduled to be on the Eastland, but he was late and showed up after the capsize. 844 passengers and four crew members lost their lives in the disaster, but Eastland herself would have a second life. She was raised from the bottom, converted to a gun boat, and stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Reserve, re-christened USS Wilmette.

Wilmette saw no combat service in WWI, though she was given the task of sinking UC-97, a German U-Boat surrendered to the United States following WWI. Wilmette’s guns were manned by Gunner’s Mate J.O. Sabin, who had fired the first American shell in WWI, and Gunner’s Mate A.F. Anderson, the man who fired the first American torpedo of the war.

Wilmette would serve once again as a training ship in WWII, and sold for scrap on Halloween day, 1946.

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July 15, 1864 The Great Shohola Train Wreck

Note the pointed tops of the Confederate grave markers, different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal stones.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

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

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

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Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags.  His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed.

He might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

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

Only four miles of track now lay between the two speeding locomotives.

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The two trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility.

King and Fullers Cut
King and Fullers Cut

Engineer Samuel Hoit at the throttle of the coal train had time to jump clear, and survived the wreck.   Many of the others, never had a chance.

Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck:

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

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

Frank Evans, a guard on the train, describes the scene: “The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together.”

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

shohola2Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was a POW at this time, languishing in “Hellmira” – the fetid POW camp at Elmira, New York.  “The Andersonville of the Northern Union.”

Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.

William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid a mass grave alongside a train track, in Shohola. William Tyner was transported to Elmira where he died three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers were able to find one another, that one last time.  James Tyner was my own twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who went to war for North Carolina, in 1861.

We’ll never know.  James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before General Lee’s surrender, at Appomattox.  Of the four Tyner brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war.  He laid down his arms on the order of the man they called “Marse Robert”, and walked home to pick up the shattered bits of his life, in the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Family Plot
Memorial for the brothers Tyner is located on the old family farm, in North Carolina.  Note the pointed tops, which are different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal grave markers.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

“About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the war, accounting for almost 10% of all Civil War fatalities. During a period of 14 months in Camp Sumter, located near Andersonville, Georgia, 13,000 (28%) of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined there died. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, 10% of its Confederate prisoners died during one cold winter month; and Elmira Prison in New York state, with a death rate of 25%, very nearly equaled that of Andersonville”.  H/T Wikipedia

 

Afterward

Burial details worked throughout the night of July 15 until dawn of the following day. 

Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York.

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Last resting place of the brothers John and Michael Johnson, killed in the Great Shohola Trainwreck

The remaining POW dead and those about to die were buried alongside the track in a 75′ trench, placed four at a time in crude boxes fashioned from the wreckage.  Conventional caskets arrived overnight.  Individual graves were dug for the 17 Federal dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

As the years went by, memorial markers faded and then disappeared, altogether. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they had passed.  

11df509e6d89fc150e76c8192efc5975The “pumpkin flood“ of 1903 scoured the rail line, uncovering many of the dead and carrying away their mortal remains.  It must have been a sight – caskets moving with the flood, bobbing like so many fishing plugs, alongside countless numbers of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola were disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn national cemetery in Elmira, New York. Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker.

The names of the Union dead, face north. Those of the Confederate side, face south. To my knowledge, this is the only instance from the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave. 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.