April 14, 1912 A Penny, to Remember

Warm and dry in our rooms we can only wonder what went through the minds, of those lowering the lifeboats. Among them was Thomas Millar who must have wondered why. He had wanted to give little Tommy and Ruddock, a better life. He was about to leave his sons, orphans.

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Captain Edward Smith

The great ship left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, narrowly averting an accident only minutes into her maiden voyage. 

The largest liner in the world at this time, the bow wave of the RMS Titanic lifted the liners SS City of New York and Oceanic at their moorings.  Dropping into the trough, New York’s mooring cables snapped with a sound like a rifle shot as the vessel swung about, stern-first. The crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled frantically to bring New York under tow as Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith ordered starboard engines hard astern. Collision was averted, by a scant four feet.

The liner to the left is the Oceanic. The stern of the New York edges towards the Titanic” H/T http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org

The idea for this largest of all luxury liners came about in 1907, construction beginning on March 31, 1909 at the Harland and Wolff shipyards of Belfast, Ireland.

Thomas Millar

In its prime Harland and Wolff was the largest shipyard in the world with some 40,000 workmen tramping to work across the cobblestone paved streets, of Belfast.

Thomas Millar was one of those workers. The son of a sailor Millar grew up in the shadow of the great vessels of northern Ireland and all but destined, for the shipbuilding industry. First came the apprenticeship with Harland & Wolff and later work at Vickers of Barrow, Workman, Clark & Co. of Belfast before returning to work, at Harland & Wolff.

Along the way, “Tommy” married Jane “Jennie” Ruddock, the marriage producing two sons, Thomas born February 9, 1901 and William Ruddock born March 5, 1907.

Millar took pride in his work, assigned to help build the great engines of RMS Titanic and proud to take some small part in the technological wonder, of the age. At night Millar would tell the boys about his work, wanting to instill in them the same pride he felt, in seeing the great liner take form.

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One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

Disaster struck the family in January 1912 when Jennie died suddenly, of tuberculosis. With work now nearing completion on Titanic, the grieving father thought about a fresh start. He would improve his lot and that of his small family. So it was he left the dockyards to work, for the White Star Line. He would get himself settled and, when the time was right, he would reunite with his boys to pursue their new life. In America.

Thomas accepted work as assistant deck engineer for the White Star Line responsible for the upkeep of cranes, davits and the like. As things turned out he was assigned to the maiden voyage of the vessel he had helped to build. RMS Titanic.

With 16 transverse bulkheads Titanic could survive the breach, of as many as four. Shipbuilder Magazine dubbed the vessel “unsinkable”. The name was never officially sanctioned by her builders, but no matter. From that day, to this the name lives on, in the public imagination.

At last came the day. Time to leave. The work would be constant, and Thomas knew this was no place for children. He left the boys with his aunt Mary bidding the two, goodbye. “Be good to your aunt” he told the boys, “and try not to fight with your cousins”. He reached in his pocket and pulled out two new pennies. “Don’t spend these” he told his sons, “until we’re together again”.

Later that day the boys stood on the shores of Belfast Loch watching the liner, steam away. So tightly did each grip his penny the date imprinted into the palm of his small hand. 1912.

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The story from here, is familiar. On Sunday April 14, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Conditions were clear, calm and cold, just a few degrees above freezing. There had been warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but no ice was believed to pose a danger, to such a ship as Titanic. Captain Smith said it himself, that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge. Iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines in reverse, veering the ship to port. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision was averted. Below the surface, the starboard side ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

The ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear. The great ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The vessel was built for 64 wooden lifeboats but only carried, 16. Based as they were on ship size and not the number of passengers and crew, regulations required enough for 990. Titanic carried enough for 1,178.

There was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. And yet, many boats were launched only half-full. Confused and still sleepy in the midnight air many refused the small boats, reluctant to leave the “safety” of the 40,000-ton ship. In other cases so strictly did some adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that evacuation included women and children, only. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard. Lifeboat #1 rated for 60, contained 12.

Only 20 miles away the crewmen of the SS Californian saw distress rockets but dismissed them, as fireworks. Titanic’s wireless operator pleaded for help but the dits and dahs fell on deaf ears. Californian’s wireless operator, had gone to bed. 57 miles away the steamship Carpathia turned and dashed to the rescue but, too late.

In the hour and ½ it took to lower the lifeboats Titanic’s enormous propellers were visible above the water. Warm and dry in our rooms we can only wonder what went through the minds, of those lowering the lifeboats. Thomas Millawas one of those. Did he wonder in those last hours of his life…why? He had left to seek a better life for little Tommy and Ruddock. He was about to leave them orphans.

1,496 died that night of 2,223 passengers and crew. Mostly from hypothermia. Thomas Millar’s body if it was ever recovered, was never identified. Tommy and Ruddock never did spend those pennies. The coins remain treasured family heirlooms from that day to this. You can still see those two pennies if you like, on the streets of Belfast. There Thomas’ Great-Granddaughter Susie Millar directs “the original & ONLY Titanic themed tour in Belfast guided by the direct descendant of a crew member”. http://www.titanictours-belfast.co.uk/

March 23, 1994 A Good Day for a Jump

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

March 23, 1994 was a good day for a jump.. The skies were clear with moderate winds of 5 -7 MPH, temperatures a comfortable mid-sixties.

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H/T History.army.mil

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

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

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

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

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

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H/T Fayettville Observer

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

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

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

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

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

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H/T Fayetville Observer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 17, 1968 Pandora’s Box

“The god Prometheus stole fire from heaven to give to the human race, which originally consisted only of men. To punish humanity, the other gods created the first woman, the beautiful Pandora. As a gift, Zeus gave her a box, which she was told never to open. However, as soon as he was out of sight she took off the lid, and out swarmed all the troubles of the world, never to be recaptured. Only Hope was left in the box, stuck under the lid. Anything that looks ordinary but may produce unpredictable harmful results can thus be called a Pandora’s box”. – Merriam-Webster.com

On March 4, 2018, a father and daughter enjoyed a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. Two hours before sunset, the two took ill.  A passing doctor and nurse found the couple unresponsive, on a park bench.

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Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white.  The Skripals were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”

Like the Russian State Security operative turned defector Alexander Litvinenko before them, Sergei Skripal knew his former boss had a very long reach. In 2006, Litvinenko took ill on the streets of England, poisoned by the radioactive element Pollonium-210, slipped into his tea. Skripal it turns out was a former Russian military officer and double agent for British intelligence. Twelve years earlier Litvinenko suffered a long and terrible death. Skripal and his daughter recovered. The former spy is rumored to be living in New Zealand, under an assumed name.

British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian “diplomats” following the 2018 incident. While Vladimir Putin’s government vehemently denies the charge, the Skripal matter has been classified as an attempted assassination using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

The terrifying history of nerve agents began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides.  Dr. Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms. Within days the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed.

Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.

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Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un, in 2017.

Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death follows within minutes caused by asphyxiation, or cardiac arrest.

In the 1950s, British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon judged too dangerous for safe use and taken off the market. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.

In 1961, the American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war. The Soviet military developed an analog called VR in 1963 later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.

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Dugway Proving Ground

The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) compounds.

A 1994 the US GAO (General Accounting Office) reported:

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.

Skull Valley is a geologic formation bordering the Great Salt Lake Desert near Dugway, in the south of Utah. On March 17, 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.

The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”

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View of two farmers checking the corpses of dead sheep on a farm ranch near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. (Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) H/T Smithsonian.com

Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident.  Total sheep fatalities were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized.  With even a suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatsoever either for meat, or for wool.

Military Accidentally Ships Anthrax To Labs In Nine States

A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open as the test aircraft, gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.

Few nations possess stockpiles of nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it. The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation should any nation so attacked, possess the capability.

Today on the morning news we hear of “scum” and “insects” who must be “purged” from the Russian nation. These are the pronouncements of the dictator Vladimir Putin, words we haven’t heard since the days of the Third Reich or the terrible monstrosity of Stalin’s USSR, words directed this time at Putin’s own countrymen, objectors to the war of aggression being carried out even now, against their neighbors in Ukraine.

The nations of the world release statements but stand at bay, fearful of the horrors as yet locked away in the darkness, of Pandora’s box. Like the hideous three-headed dog Cerberus standing guard at the gates of hell we shrink in horror at that terrible and yet benign sounding term, NBC. We hold a wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on yet unable, to let go.

February 15, 1898 The Sorry State of Journalism

On Friday, the Durham investigation filed indictments alleging that Clinton campaign operatives fabricated evidence of Trump campaign and later Presidential “collusion”, with Russia. If true this is a scandal orders of magnitude greater than Watergate and yet the legacy media, are silent. Five news cycles have come and gone since that announcement. The sum total of coverage by CBS, ABC and NBC amounts to the cube root, of zero.

Yellow kid, Outcault_4th_ward_brownies

Mickey Dugan was born on February 17, 1895, on the wrong side of the tracks. A wise-cracking street urchin with a “sunny disposition”, Mickey was the kind of street kid you’d find in New York’s turn-of-the-century slums, maybe hawking newspapers. “Extra, Extra, read all about it!”

With his head shaved as if recently ridden of lice, Mickey was one of thousands of homeless street urchins roaming the back lots and tenements of the city, not as much an individual as an archetype. Mickey Dugan was a cartoon character, the child of artist and “Buster Brown” creator, Richard Outcault.

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Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” strip, one of the first regular Sunday newspaper cartoons in the country, became colorized in May of 1895. For the first time, Mickey Dugan’s oversized, hand-me-down nightshirt was depicted in yellow.  Soon, the character was simply known as “the Yellow kid”.

Outcault worked for Joseph Pulitzer in those days, owner of the New York World Newspaper. Archrival William Randolph Hearst hired the cartoonist away to work for Pulitzer’s cross-town competitor Journal American, but the pair soon received a lesson, in the law. There was no copyright protection on the Yellow kid. Before long, the character was simultaneously appearing in competing newspaper strips where he would remain, for over a year.

YellowKid

We hear a lot today about “fake news” but the sorry state of journalism, is hardly new.  Circulation wars were white hot at the turn of the last century. Competing newspapers used anything possible to get an edge. Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

The Yellow Kid character was gone by 1898 but he lived on in a way, in the style of newspaper reporting which came to be called “yellow journalism”.

After two wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States. From the Spanish perspective, Cuba was more of a province than a colony.  They were not about to relinquish a foot of territory. When the Cuban Rebellion of 1895 broke out, Spanish colonial administrator don Valeriano Weyler’s brutal repressions killed thousands in Cuban concentration camps.

In America, some saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and the United States’ own revolution of a hundred-odd years earlier. Fearing the economic repercussions of a drawn out conflict, shipping and other business interests put pressure on President McKinley to intervene. Meanwhile, the yellow papers kept the issue front page, whipping up popular fury with tales of the noble Cuban revolutionary and the barbaric Spaniard. There were even tales of American women publicly strip searched, by Spanish authorities.

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The armored cruiser USS Maine left Key West headed for Cuba in January 1898, to protect US interests and to emphasize the need for a quick resolution to the conflict. Anchored in Havana Harbor on February 15, a massive explosion of unknown origin rocked the Maine, sinking the cruiser within minutes and killing 268 of the 355 Americans on board.

The McKinley administration urged calm. Conditions in Cuba were bad enough, without front page headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine”, accompanied by sensationalized accounts of Spanish brutality. War became all but inevitable when US Navy findings were released that March, stating that the sinking had resulted from an external explosion.

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“Spanish Misrule,” Puck, 1890s, by Louis Dalrymple

The Spanish-American War began the following month, leading to the Philippine-American war.

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There is a story that illustrator Frederic Remington said there was no war brewing in Cuba. Hearst is supposed to have replied. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The story may be apocryphal. Newspapers then couldn’t tell us what to think any more than today, but the media most certainly controlled what the public was thinking ABOUT. 

For two years, Hearst and Pulitzer had clamored for war with Spain.  Both were happy to take credit, when war came. Beside that, the war was good for circulation. A week after the Spanish-American War began that April, Hearst’s American Journal ran the headline “How do you like the Journal’s war?”  Front page.  Above the fold.

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It’s been said you should never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. I disagree. I have broken that dictum myself and recommend the practice to anyone so inclined. For all the Wizard of Oz antics of the print and electronic media, there remains only the one man behind the curtain. Ask Jeffrey Zucker how that turns out.

President Reagan once said of the Soviet Union, “doveryai no proveryai” (trust, but verify). He might have said the same of an information industry whose business model it is, to rent an audience to a sponsor.

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In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the explosion aboard the USS Maine was likely caused by a fire which ignited ammunition stockpiles and not by Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

What to say to the families of the 20,603 dead, wounded and missing from the Spanish-American war? The media of the day were and remain to this day, a tower of indifference.

February 14, 1945 The Firebombing of Dresden

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

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

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

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

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

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

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

For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained a mere forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star he was forced to wear on his coat.

Now, the man witnessed notices for final “deportation” being delivered even to those last few. There wasn’t one who received such a notice who didn’t understand what it meant. Terrified that he might be next the process was interrupted by the coming firestorm. Three nights later Klemperer removed the yellow star, an act punishable by death at the time.

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

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

For those caught on the ground like scared rabbits in oncoming headlights, the horrors had only begun.

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

Then came another 529 Lancasters, dropping another 1,800 tons of bombs.

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Lancaster bomber

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

Fires enveloped the city by the tens of thousands growing into a great, howling firestorm. A shrieking, seemingly living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path.

A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires. Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and into the flames.

Lothar Metzger brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:

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

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

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

He was ten years old at the time.

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For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. On the 19th he joined a refugee column fleeing the inferno, for American held territory. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.

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

January 31, 1918 The Battle of May Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HMS Fearless

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

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

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February 5 and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

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

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

January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

January 15, 1919 Molly Molasses

In 1954 Roger Bannister became the first human being to break the four-minute mile. Today, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the fastest man who ever lived. It would come as a rude shock to both of those guys, that they are literally slower than cold molasses.  In January.

The fastest man alive today is the Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt. He may be the fastest man who ever lived. The average male aged 20 to 40 in reasonably good shape is capable of speeds, between 10 and 15 miles per hour. At the 2009 World Track and Field Championships, Bolt ran 100 meters from a standing start at an average 23.35 mph and the 20 meters between the 60 & 80 marks, at an average 27.79 mph.


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

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

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

In 1919, the Purity Distilling Company operated an enormous iron storage tank, in the North End of Boston. Six stories high and ninety feet wide, the tank held 2.32 million gallons of molasses, awaiting transformation to sweeteners, drinking liquor and alcohol based munitions.

It was cold that month but on January 15 the temperature reached a balmy 46°, up from the bitter low of 2° of the day before.

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If you were there that morning you would have heard sounds, not unlike the grumbling of some great, upset stomach. At 12:30 came a rumble, a sound like a distant train. Then came the staccato chatter of the machine gun, as iron rivets popped and the sides of the great tower split apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four days later the search was called off, for additional victims. The cleanup has been estimated at 87,000 man-hours.

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

This was only the 4th time the tank was filled to capacity and rising temperatures helped build up gas pressure, inside the structure. Subsequent analysis determined the thickness and quality of the iron itself was insufficient, to contain 14,000 tons of molasses.

molasses part of tank

With temperatures so cold, the rapid spread of all that molasses made no sense. Everyone knows what it is to turn over a jar of the stuff…and wait. Now, cold molasses had all but exploded. In January, no less. There must be something else. There HAD to be. Dark rumors spread outward like ripples, on a pond. Newspapers speculated. There must be some insidious cause, a bomb perhaps, planted by Italian anarchists. Or the work of German saboteurs.

The newspapermen of the age would have learned more if they’d cracked a physics textbook. In fluid dynamics, a “gravity current” describes the horizontal flow in a gravitational field, of a dense fluid into a fluid of lesser density. Like, say, a wall of molasses, into the surrounding air. The air around us is after all, a fluid. Think about the way cold air rushes through an open doorway into a warm room, even when there is no wind.

Harvard lecturer and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp explains that, as a non-Newtonian fluid, the flood would have advanced with terrifying rapidity behaving much the same as a mudslide, avalanche or lava flow. Sharp’s calculations confirm the initial flow could have indeed traveled as fast, as 35 miles per hour.

molasses flood, headline

Today, the site of the Great Molasses Flood is occupied by a recreational complex called Langone Park featuring a Little League ball field, a playground, and bocce courts. Boston Duck Tours regularly visit the place in amphibious vehicles, designed for land and water. Especially the dark brown one. The one with the name “Molly Molasses”, painted on the side.

January 14, 1967 The Cloud

“The Army disclosed yesterday that it secretly conducted 239 germ warfare tests in open air between 1949 and 1969, some tests releasing live but supposedly harmless microscope [SIC] “bugs” at Washington’s Greyhound bus terminal and National Airport as part of the experiment.” Washington Post, March 9, 1977

Hat tip Wall Street Journal

On October 11, 1950, Mr. Edward J. Nevin checked into Stanford hospital in San Francisco with a fever, respiratory and other symptoms. Doctors diagnosed the retired pipefitter, with pneumonia.

Ten other women and men checked into the same hospital at this time, all suffering with the same symptoms. Respiratory difficulty combined with kidney and/or urinary tract infections so rare as to prompt their publication in a prestigious medical journal.

The cause was believed to be exposure to the bacterium, Serratia marcescens. Mr. Nevin, 75, underwent prostate surgery causing S. marcescens to travel through his blood from the urinary tract, to his heart. Three weeks later, he was dead. The other ten recovered.

In 1981 the Nevin grandchildren sued the federal government for the death of their grandfather and the economic destruction wrought on their grandmother, the direct result of ruinously high medical expenses. The alleged cause of death was the deliberate poisoning of the entire city of San Francisco, by the United States Navy.

On January 14, 1967, the New York Times reported the United States Army was conducting secret germ warfare experiments, on its own citizens.

Turns out the San Francisco episode was part of a biowarfare experiment, called “Operation Sea-Spray”. Beginning on September 20, 1950 and continuing for seven days the US Navy sprayed massive amounts of two bacteria into the air believed to be harmless at the time, along with an iridescent agent, to aid with tracking. With cover and assistance from the famous San Francisco fog enough of this stuff was released into the atmosphere, that 43 tracking stations set up across the city determined that every one of the city’s 800,000 residents inhaled no fewer than 5,000 such particles.

Ten years later the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research held a series of hearings, on the matter. On March 9, 1977, the Washington Post reported: “The Army disclosed yesterday that it secretly conducted 239 germ warfare tests in open air between 1949 and 1969, some tests releasing live but supposedly harmless microscope [SIC] “bugs” at Washington’s Greyhound bus terminal and National Airport as part of the experiment…Washingtin [SIC] was one of five cities where the Army released simulated lethal germs i [SIC] public places. Other cities where the public served as unknowing guinea pigs were New York, San Francisco, Key West and panama City, Fla”.

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 22, 2001, “In New York, military researchers in 1966 spread Bacillus subtilis variant Niger, also believed to be harmless, in the subway system by dropping lightbulbs filled with the bacteria onto tracks in stations in midtown Manhattan. The bacteria were carried for miles throughout the subway system, leading Army officials to conclude in a January 1968 report: “Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic [disease-causing] agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death.””

The Post reported 27 instances of simulated germ warfare attacks on two tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a number of military installations including Fort Detrick, Maryland, Fort Belvoir, Virginia and the Marine training school at Quantico, Virginia.

The Post goes on to report that “Another 504 workers connected with biological warfare activities at Ft. Detrick, Dugway proving Ground and the Deseret test Center in Utah and the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas suffered infections, according to the Army’s count”. The Army went on to report that “three laboratorers at Fort Detrick died from diseases contracted in the 1950s and 1960s”.

I wasn’t aware that “laboratorers” is a word but the Washington Post seems to think it is.

Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground alone conducted “hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants” according to a 1994 report, by the GAO (US General Accounting Office). One such experiment resulted in 3,843 dead animals in an episode known as, the “Skull Valley Sheep Kill“. In the end as many as 6,400 were killed or humanely euthanized as even the rumor of nerve agents renders both the wool and the meat of such an animal, less than worthless. A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) agents, in 1969.

In the past, military spokesmen have argued that such tests are necessary. That NBC agents are readily available to state and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations and we must know how these agents behave, under real world conditions.

Perhaps they have a point. As does the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which tells us, “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

January 5, 1976 Killing Fields

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on it so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That’s but one story, among millions.  And those were the lucky ones.

For 700 years the Khmer Empire occupied much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was once home to the largest city in the world.  Until recently overrun by Jungle, the capital city of Angkor, whose original name was Yashodharapura (“Glory-bearing city”), was nearly the size of modern day Los Angeles, and home to roughly a million people.

Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains one of the largest religious monuments in the world.

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Temple Complex at Angkor Wat

During the 1950s, a group of some 200 middle-class Cambodian kids were educated at French Universities.  The greater part of that group formed a student organization of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

What began as a small leftist insurgency grew in power, thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmers” (Khmer Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmer Republic’s government of King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Lon Nol.  By early 1975, the Khmer Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.

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Even as the last, humiliating scenes of America’s war in neighboring Vietnam played themselves out in the capital of Saigon, Khmer Rouge forces captured the Cambodian capital at Phnom Penh, overthrowing the Khmer Republic and executing its officers.

This was to be “Democratic Kampuchea”, the name representing a local pronunciation of the word as it comes into English, as Cambodia.

The Kampuchean constitution, formally approved on January 5, 1976, theoretically vested power in a 250-member, directly elected “Kampuchean People’s Representative Assembly”.  In reality, the body met once in April, and never again.  Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, all power in the CPK (Communist Party of Kampuchea) belonged to “The Center”, a shadowy, nine-member standing committee of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, led by Prime Minister and Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar, better known as ‘Pol Pot’.

This nine-member “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah), meaning ‘The Organization’, ushered in one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, a four-year genocide remembered as the “Killing Fields”, of Cambodia.

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Khmer Rouge Uniforms

The “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people out of a population, of some 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian “Worker’s Paradise”.

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on it so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That’s but one story, among millions.  And those were the lucky ones.

The very embodiment of the ivory tower leftist intellectual, the Angkar was detached and incapable of connection with the masses.  Theirs was a radicalized ideology, heavily influenced by French communists and the writings of Lenin and Mao and heavily tinged with ideas of racial superiority.  Paradoxically, this was a creed altogether averse to an educated or merchant class and determined to use violence in pursuit of “class struggle”.

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The Khmer rouge set out to create a peasant’s utopia.  An agrarian, atheist state.  Among the first to go were the Buddhist monks, nearly 25,000 murdered most often with a rock, or club.  All religion was banned, repression of Christians and Muslims, extensive.

For generations, European colonists had exploited the mineral resources of “French Indochina”.  Now, abandoned mine shafts filled with the bones of the slain.

Whole cities were liquidated as “parasitic” and “corrupt”.  Shop owners, business people and educators.  Police officers, government employees and ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.  All were driven from their homes and murdered as “class enemies”.  Anyone who so much as wore eyeglasses or owned a wristwatch, was as good as dead.

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Today, the Tuol Sleng (“Hill of Poisonous Trees”) Genocide Museum occupies the former  Chao Ponhea Yat High School, operated during the Cambodian Genocide as Security Prison 21.  In its day, “S-21” held an estimated 20,000 people at one time or another – no one knows for sure.   Between 1976 and ’79, only seven adults survived this place.

The Khmer Rouge operated at least 150 such torture and execution facilities.

There, Khmer interrogators extracted “confessions” by torture.  After two to three months, victims would eagerly agree to anything, thousand-word “confessions” weaving true stories into outlandish tales of conspiracy with Vietnamese, KGB and CIA operatives.  Friends, families and acquaintances would be identified in such narratives as they in turn, were brought in for interrogation.

All were turned over to extermination centers, where squads of blank-eyed teenagers awaited with machetes, pick axes and iron bars.  Ammunition was too expensive.

The vast majority of victims were Cambodian, but not all.  488 Vietnamese passed through S-21, as did 31 Thai, one Laotian, an Arab, one Brit, four French, two Americans, a Canadian, a New Zealander, two Australians and an Indonesian. An unknown number of Indians and Pakistanis also passed through the facility.  Not a single foreigner lived, to tell the tale.

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One among some 20,000 mass grave sites, in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have executed over 1.38 million people in this way, with death by starvation, torture, overwork and disease accounting for some 2½ million more.  Twenty-five per cent, of the entire nation.

The last straw came on April 18, 1978, four miles over the border into Vietnamese territory.  Khmer Rouge troops took a page out of their own playbook, murdering 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in what came to be known as the Ba Chuc Massacre.

The New York Times reported:

“The Khmer Rouge then used the same formula for execution as in Cambodia. ‘They pointed their weapons and ordered us to come to a meeting with their superiors,’ said Nga, a dignified, soft-spoken woman.

She was forced toward the border with parents, siblings, husband and six children. Suddenly, their escorts began clubbing the children. Her youngest daughter was struck violently on the head three times and cried ‘Mother, Mother.’”

Four years earlier, North Vietnam had helped the Khmer Rouge take power.  Now the Vietnamese government staged a massive invasion of its erstwhile ally.  By January 7, 1979 it was over, the Khmer regime toppled and a new government installed in Phnom Penh.

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Cambodian journalist Dith Pran managed to escape the regime, one among millions swept up in the humanitarian disaster following the war in Vietnam and the genocide, in Cambodia.   It was he who coined the term, Killing Fields.

Justice was slow in coming.  Most senior Khmer officials would not be tried, until well into the twenty-first century.  Pol Pot died quietly in his bed, in 1998.

December 18, 1944 Typhoon

Hulls would creak and groan with the pounding and rivets popped. Captains in wheelhouses would order course headings, but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended course. Some ships rolled more than 70°. The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock, scooped tons of water onto its flight decks, 57-feet above the surface.


In September 1935, the Imperial Japanese Navy was caught in foul weather while conducting wargame maneuvers. By the 26th, the storm had reached Typhoon status.  The damage to the Japanese fleet was near catastrophic. Two large destroyers had their bows torn away by heavy seas. Several heavy cruisers suffered major structural damage.  Submarine tenders and light aircraft carriers developed serious cracks in their hulls. One minelayer required near total rebuild and virtually all fleet destroyers suffered damage to superstructures. 54 crewmen lost their lives.

Nine years later, it would be the turn of the American fleet.

The war in the Pacific was in its third year in December 1944. A comprehensive defeat only weeks earlier had dealt the Imperial Japanese war effort a mortal blow at Leyte Gulf, yet the war would slog on for the better part of another year.

Carrier Task Force 38 was a massive assembly of warships, a major element of the 3rd Fleet under the Command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.  In formation, TF-38 moved in three eight-mile diameter circles, each with an outer ring of destroyers, an inner ring of battleships and cruisers and a mixed core of 35,000-ton Essex class and smaller escort carriers. TF-38 was a massive force fielding eighty-six warships, all told.

By mid-December 1944, Task Force 38 was underway for three weeks, having just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines, suppressing enemy aircraft in support of American amphibious operations against Mindoro.  Ships were badly in need of re-supply.  A replenishment fleet, 35 ships in all, was sent to the nearest spot near Luzon still outside of Japanese fighter range. 

Rapid movement into previously enemy-held territory made it impossible to establish advance weather reporting.  By the time that Task Force meteorological service reports made it to ships in the operating area, weather reports were at least twelve hours old.

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Three days earlier, a barometric low pressure system had begun to form off Luzon, fed by the warm waters of the Philippine sea.  High tropospheric humidity fed and strengthened the disturbance as counter-clockwise winds began to develop around the low pressure center.  By the 18th, this once-small “tropical disturbance” had developed into a compact but powerful cyclone.

Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th as increasing winds and building seas made refueling increasingly difficult.  Refueling hoses were parted in several locations. Thick hawsers had to be cut to avoid collision as sustained winds built to 40 knots.  Believing the storm center to be 450 miles to his southeast, Admiral Halsey declined a return to base.  It would take too long and beside, and combat operations were scheduled to resume, two days later.  Halsey needed the carrier group refueled and on station, so it was decided.  Task Force 38 and the replenishment fleet would proceed to a second replenishment point, hoping to resume refueling operations on the morning of the 18th.

Cobra

Four times over the night of December 17-18, course was corrected in the search for calmer water.  Four times the ships of Task Force 38 and it’s attendant resupply ships turned each time moving closer to the eye of the storm.  2,200-ton destroyers pitched and rolled like corks, towering over the crest of 70-foot waves only to crash into the trough of the next, shuddering like cold dogs as decks struggled to shed thousands of tons of water.

Hulls creaked and groaned with the pounding. Rivets popped.  Captains in wheelhouses order course headings but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended direction.  Some ships rolled more than 70°.  The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock scooped tons of water onto its own flight decks, 57-feet up.

USS Cowpens during Typhoon Cobra

Typhoon Cobra reached peak ferocity between 1100 and 1400 with sustained winds of 100mph and gusts of up to 140.

The lighter destroyers got the worst of it, finding themselves “in irons” – broad side to the wind and rolling as much as 75° with no way to regain steering control.  Some managed to pump seawater into fuel tanks to increase stability, while others rolled and couldn’t recover, water cascading down smokestacks and disabling engines.

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146 aircraft were either wrecked or blown overboard.  The carrier USS Monterrey nearly went down in flames as loose aircraft crashed about on hanger decks and burst into flames.  One of those fighting fires aboard Monterrey was then-Lieutenant Gerald Ford, the former Michigan Wolverine center and future President of the United States.

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Many of the ships of TF-38 sustained damage to above-decks superstructure, knocking out radar equipment and crippling communications.

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790 Americans were killed by Typhoon Cobra:

USS Hull – with 70% fuel aboard, capsized and sunk with 202 men drowned. There were 62 survivors.
USS Monaghan – capsized and sunk with 256 men drowned. There were 6 survivors.
USS Spence – rudder jammed hard to starboard, capsized and sunk with 317 men drowned after hoses parted attempting to refuel from New Jersey because they had also disobeyed orders to ballast down directly from Admiral Halsey. There were 23 survivors.
USS Cowpens – hangar door torn open and RADAR, 20mm gun sponson, whaleboat, jeeps, tractors, kerry crane, and 8 aircraft lost overboard. One sailor lost.
USS Monterey – hangar deck fire killed three men and caused evacuation of boiler rooms requiring repairs at Bremerton Navy yard
USS Langley – damaged
USS Cabot – damaged
USS San Jacinto – hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts and sprinkling system causing widespread flooding. Damage repaired by USS Hector
USS Altamaha – hangar deck crane and aircraft broke loose and broke fire mains
USS Anzio – required major repair
USS Nehenta – damaged
USS Cape Esperance – flight deck fire required major repair
USS Kwajalein – lost steering control
USS Iowa – propeller shaft bent and lost a seaplane
USS Baltimore – required major repair
USS Miami – required major repair
USS Dewey – lost steering control, RADAR, the forward stack, and all power when salt water shorted main electrical switchboard
USS Aylwin – required major repair
USS Buchanan – required major repair
USS Dyson – required major repair
USS Hickox – required major repair
USS Maddox – damaged
USS Benham – required major repair
USS Donaldson – required major repair
USS Melvin R. Nawman – required major repair
USS Tabberer – lost foremast
USS Waterman – damaged
USS Nantahala – damaged
USS Jicarilla – damaged
USS Shasta – damaged “one deck collapsed, aircraft engines damaged, depth charges broke loose, damaged“

It could have been worse.  The destroyer escort USS Tabberer defied orders to return to port, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage conducting a 51-hour boxed search for survivors despite the egregious pounding being taken by his own vessel.  USS Tabberer plucked 55 swimmers from the water, survivors of the capsized destroyers Hull and Spence.

Cobra 7, Pittsburgh

Typhoon Cobra moved on overnight, December 19 dawning clear with brisk winds. Admiral Halsey ordered “All ships of the Task Force line up side-by-side at about ½ mile spacing and comb the 2800-square mile area” in which they’d been operating.  Carl M. Berntsen, SoM1/C aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven, recalled that “I saw the line of ships disappear over the horizon to starboard and to port”. The Destroyer USS Brown rescued six survivors from the Monaghan and another 13 from USS Hull.  18 more would be plucked from the water, 93 in all, by ships spread across fifty to sixty miles of open ocean.

When it was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz said typhoon Cobra “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”

Afterward

CARL MARTIN BERNTSEN PASSED AWAY ON OCTOBER 13TH, 2014 IN KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA. HE WOULD HAVE BEEN 94, THE FOLLOWING MONTH. I AM INDEBTED TO HIM AND HIS EXCELLENT ESSAY FOR THIS STORY.  VIRTUALLY ALL SHIPS OF TASK FORCE 38 WERE DAMAGED TO VARYINHG DEGREEs.

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