February 9, 1942 Of Hoodlums and Heroes

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

As the Great War gave way to the Roaring Twenties, operators of the great ocean-going liners began to look at a new class of vessels.

The White Star Lines’ Britannic, Olympic and the doomed Titanic. Cunard’s Carpathia, Mauretania and the ill-fated Lusitania. The Red Star Line’s Finland, Kroonland, and Lapland. These were the veterans of the trans-Atlantic trade, built around enormous numbers of immigrants and the one-way steerage class voyage from Europe, to the United States.

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Normandie poster

As the US all but shut down immigration in the early 1920s, the shipping industry looked to a new class of super liner to serve an upper-crust tourist trade, particularly Americans traveling to Europe, to escape Prohibition.

The German-built Norddeutscher Lloyd company was first off the line with the SS Bremen and Europa. The British-made RMS Queen Mary was not far behind, but the Queen of this new class of super-liner, was the French-built Normandie.

SS Normandie was one-of-a-kind.  The first vessel laid in compliance with the 1929 SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea), she was enormous.  1,029-feet long and 119-feet wide and displacing 85,000 tons, she was the largest liner in the world. 1,975 berths offering seven classes of service, served by a crew of 1,300.

Despite worldwide depression, Normandie was launched in 1932, making her first Atlantic crossing, in 1935.

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Normandie under construction

War broke out in Europe in 1939.  When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Normandie was tied to a dock, in New York.  Under no circumstance would such a vessel be allowed to fall into Nazi hands.  SS Normandie was immediately placed under “protective custody” by the US Navy.

There was speculation in the press, that the liner would be converted to an aircraft carrier in the event of American entry into the war.  The Navy seized the liner in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but not for a carrier.  The most luxurious liner in the world would be converted, to a troop ship.

Work began within weeks on the renamed USS Lafayette.

normandie-6-3176-default-largeThe afternoon of February 9, 1942 was cold and clear, over the West 49th Street pier. Welder Clement Derrick was removing the last of four stanchions in the Grand Salon when sparks ignited bales of burlap, covering highly flammable life vests.

Within a half-hour, much of the great liner was engulfed in flames. Black, oily smoke filled the City skyline as spectators crowded Pier 88.

Squadrons of fire boats poured a deluge of water, more than the great liner could bear. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews attempted to board when she suddenly lurched several feet, to port. USS Lafayette was drowning in the water, meant to save her life.

The scene was a carnival, with food vendors and  hawkers. Skycraper windows were opened, to watch the grim spectacle.

USS Lafayette continued her slow roll as, unseen within her holds, shifting water picked up speed. In twelve hours, it was over. At 2:35am on February 10, she rolled over and died.

Miki Rosen was five at the time, coming by in the family car, to gawk at the scene: “My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn’t even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water.”

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USS Lafeyette, 1942

It wasn’t long before speculation turned to certainty. Sabotage. German spies were all over the waterfront, taking jobs as bartenders, stevedores and factory workers. Only a month earlier, 33 German agents were sentenced in a Brooklyn courtroom, to 300 years.  German U-Boats sank 20 allied vessels in January alone, a mere sixty miles off the New Jersey and Long Island shore.

main-qimg-5b28658362e63dfcf2abdc5a8709522fBBC broadcaster Alistaire Cooke, “the Twentieth Century’s de Tocqueville”, spoke of American seamen, torpedoed and picked up by a German submarine. The U-Boat commander came in and asked, in a perfect Brooklyn accent, if any were from the borough. “Maybe I worked with some o’ youse guys.  I was twelve years in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The FBI recreated Clement Derrick’s accident with the same dreadful result but, no matter.  By then, speculation had turned to “fact”.

Naval intelligence distrusted the official FBI version.  Hordes of uniformed personnel descended on the waterfront from Connecticut to New Jersey, to be met with a glowering brick wall of silence.  This was a rough and unaccustomed place, an underworld of sailors and gangsters,  fishermen and longshoremen.  A world of street toughs who’d long since lost any trust in uniforms, from meter maids to police officers.  Ivy-league Naval intelligence types got no information whatsoever.  Many were lucky, to escape without a beating.

The only authority in this world, was the Mob.

Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral Carl Espe remembered:  “The outcome of the war appeared extremely grave. In addition, there was the most serious concern over possible sabotage in the ports. It was necessary to use every possible means to prevent and forestall sabotage….” Someone on the docks was feeding the Nazis information, and only the mob had the power to hunt down the guilty party.  Policy makers fretted about doing business with the Mafia, while the Kriegsmarine U-Boats enjoyed the “Happy Time”.  

Could the Mafia even be trusted?  Vito Genovese fled New York to Italy back in 1937 to avoid a murder prosecution, where he became close friends with Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. So tight were the pair that the cagey gangster dispatched hit men to New York to murder newspaperman Carlo Tresca, a vocal critic of the fascist regime.

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Joseph “Socks” Lanza

Closer examination told a different story. Genovese was an opportunist, a double-crosser with no loyalty.  Most Sicilian gangsters were different, most of them refugees from savage Italian purges where Mafiosi were machine gunned, bombed and arrested, in droves. Thugs and gangsters yes, but almost to a man they hated the fascists with the white heat, of a thousand suns.

So it was, the United States Navy entered into one of the strangest relationships of WW2, an operation which would remain secret, until 1977. “Operation Underworld“.

The first mob boss to come on board was Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a hulking bulldozer of a man and undisputed lord of the Fulton fish market. Socks got his name because he’d “sock” anyone in the jaw, who disagreed with his pronouncements. A man with a criminal history going back to 1917, Joe Socks could order the fishing fleet from Maine to Florida to dump an entire catch to inflate prices, with a nod of his head. Fishermen failing to bribe the racketeer found their fish left rotting, on the docks. Continued disobedience resulted in arson, beatings, and death.

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If anyone could ferret out a Judas passing information to German intelligence it was Joe Socks, but how to contact a gangster, sworn to the code of Omerta?

Head of the New York Rackets Bureau, Murray Gurfein and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden met with Lanza in the office of the gangster’s attorney. Gurfein explained “It’s a matter of great urgency. Many of our ships are being sunk along the Atlantic coast. We suspect German U-boats are being refueled and getting fresh supplies off our coast …You can find out how and where the submarines are being refueled.”  Surprisingly, the Gangster jumped at the opportunity.

Socks provided union cards held for no-show jobs. Soon, naval intelligence agents were sailing aboard mackerel fleets from Newfoundland to Florida, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications forming a valuable first-line of defense, against the Nazi submarine menace.

Important as it was, Lanza’s fishing fleet wasn’t enough, and Socks himself was disliked by the other four New York crime families.

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Charles “Lucky” Luciano

The never-ending scrum of troop ships and merchant vessels crowding the New York waterfront was of life-and-death importance to the allied war effort. The only man who controlled it all, was in prison. Lucky Luciano.  The only man Luciano trusted, was the Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky.

Unlike the Italians, no one questioned Lansky’s patriotism.  He and his Jewish mob had attacked Nazi meetings all over the city, throwing some of them out of the windows.

The meeting was arranged and, on May 12, 1942, Luciano was quietly transferred from Dannemora prison to a country club by comparison, and promised parole at the war’s end. This in exchange for the mobster’s cooperation in defeating Nazi Germany.

Cooperate, he did. The word went out from Luciano’s prison cell, from the docks to the heart of the city. Soon, every hat check girl and bartender, every longshoreman and numbers runner and the guys who serviced the vending machines, became the eyes and ears of the United States Navy. From bathroom attendants to elevator operators, the American Nazi organization known as German American Bund couldn’t so much as think out loud, without someone listening in.

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

In the end, USS Lafayette would never sail under a US Flag.  She was a total loss, sold for scrap in 1946.  The government was as good as its word. On January 3, 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s sentence, on condition that he did not resist deportation. The most powerful mob boss in New York, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was deported to Naples.  Four years to the day from the death of the USS Lafayette.

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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January 22, 1968 Operation Chrome Dome

“Always remember, the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be”.  

To anyone under the age of 40, the Cold War must seem a strange and incomprehensible period.  Many of us who lived through it, feel the same way.

The communist world emerging from the “Great War” comprised the former Czarist state of Russia alone, the 1924 constitution promising a “federation of peoples equal in rights”. Instead, the Soviet system delivered a murderous, top-down authoritarian ideology, best exemplified by the deliberate murder by starvation of millions of its own citizens in Ukraine, the Holodomor, under the guise of agricultural “collectivization”. Here, the Party controlled the state, the military, the press and the economy.

At their best, the western democracies of the “First World” operated on the basis of classical liberalism with two or more distinct political parties, a free press and rule of law.

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In the wake of WW2, the two governing ideologies were irreconcilable, splitting the alliance which had once defeated Nazi Germany. The most destructive war in history had barely come to a close in 1946, when the Soviet state set itself to gobbling up the formerly non-communist states of eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered the most famous oration of the era on March 5, declaring “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The leaders of non-communist parties were discredited and intimidated, subjected to show trials and even execution. Albania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany: all were taken, often forcibly, into the Soviet embrace.

As the “Cold War” descended across the land, United States and allied nations of the “Western Bloc” sought to “contain” Soviet expansionism, extending military and financial aid to the western democracies and creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO alliance). With the Soviet Berlin Blockade of 1948 – ’49, the US Air Force together with the RAF and Royal Australian Air Force delivered 2,333,478 tons of freight in nearly a third of a million sorties. Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered the better part of the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

The United States’ monopoly on the most destructive weapon system in history came to an end on August 29, 1949, with the ‘RDS-1’ explosion at the Semipalatinsk test site in modern-day Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union had the atomic bomb.

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Today, the anti-communist tactics of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy are reviled as excessive, as indeed some of them were. Yet, the Top Secret cable decryption program known as Venona and declassified only in 1995, revealed extensive Soviet espionage activities at Los Alamos National Laboratories, the State Department, Treasury, Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and even the White House.

The 1950s were a time of escalating tensions and sometimes calamity:  the war in Korea, the “Space Race”, the beginning of American intervention in Vietnam.  The Cuban Revolution of 1959.  The exodus from Soviet-controlled East Germany to the west resulted in a “brain drain” of some 20% of the population, culminating in the “Berlin Crisis” of 1961.  First it was barbed wire and then a wall, complete with guard towers and mine fields.  Nobody else was getting out.

In 1957 – ’58, both American and Soviet authorities planned in a show of force, to Nuke the Moon.

United States Air Force General and Strategic Air Command (SAC) commander General Thomas Sarsfield Power introduced Operation Chrome Dome, placing thermonuclear weapons on permanent air patrol to provide a rapid “first strike” or retaliatory “second strike” in the event of nuclear war.

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1964 Operation Chrome Dome Map from Sheppard Air Force Base, TX – H/T Wikipedia

Missions initially departed Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and flew across the United States and over New England, refueling over the Atlantic before heading north toward Soviet air space. Three separate missions were being flown by 1966, one East over the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, another north to Baffin Bay, and the third over Alaska.  12 missions per day, 365 days a year.

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The Department of Defense has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components, which do not involve the immediate risk of nuclear war. They’re called “Broken Arrows“.

Broken Arrows include accidental or unexplained nuclear or non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon, the loss of such a weapon and the release of nuclear radiation resulting in public hazard, actual or potential. There have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents since 1950. As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.

Major “Kong” rides the bomb in the dark, 1964 comedy by Stanle Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

Five such incidents are associated with Operation Chrome Dome:

• On January 24, 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 39 nuclear weapons broke up in mid-air, dropping its payload in the area of Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five men bailed out and landed safely. One bailed out but did not survive the landing. Two more died in the crash.
• Two months later, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two nuclear weapons departed Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento before experiencing uncontrolled decompression. Forced to fly at a lower altitude and unable to meet its refueling aircraft, the bomber ran out of gas and crashed outside of Yuba City, California. The air crew safely bailed out, but a fireman was killed and several injured in an accident, while en-route to the scene.
• In 1964, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying two Mark 53s was returning from Massachusetts to Georgia in heavy winter weather. Severe turbulence tore off a vertical stabilizer and the bomber crashed on the Stonewell Green farm, Near Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. Radar Bombardier Major Robert Townley was unable to bail out, and died in the crash. Navigator Major Robert Lee and tail gunner TSgt Melvin Wooten succumbed to injuries and hypothermia, on the ground. Only pilot Major Thomas McCormick and co-pilot Captain Parker Peedin, survived.
• On January 17, 1966, a B-52G bomber collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refueling at 31,000-feet, over the Mediterranean. The tanker ignited, killing all four crew members. The bomber broke apart, killing three of seven.
• On January 21, 1968, a B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs over Baffin Bay developed an uncontrolled cabin fire, forcing seven crew to bail out. Six ejected safely. Co-pilot Leonard Svitenko gave up his ejection seat when the third pilot took over, and sustained fatal head injuries while bailing out from a lower hatch. The bomber crashed on sea ice over 770-feet of water in North Star Bay in Greenland, a territory under Danish jurisdiction. Conventional explosives detonated in the crash, dispersing radioactive material, for miles.

For days, the only way to the crash site, was by dog sled. With average daytime temperatures of -25° and 80-MPH winds, “Project Crested Ice” was better known by those who were there as “Dr. Freezelove”.  The cleanup involved 562 American and Danish personnel, removing twenty-seven 25,000-gallon containers of contaminated snow and ice.

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The Thule Air Base accident became an international incident, resulting in termination of Operation Chrome Dome on January 22, 1968.  From that day to this, the next thermonuclear war will have to start from the ground.

At the height of the Cold war, civil defense film character Bert the Turtle advised  school children to “Duck and Cover”.  Kids across the nation were shown this film, I was one of them.  “Always remember“, says the narrator.,”the flash of an atomic bomb can come at any time, no matter where you may be“.

Probably explains a lot, about my generation.

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.

October 15, 1917 Mata Hari

Historians differ whether she passed on intelligence or merely gossip, a courtesan and middle-aged debutante, and convenient excuse for French failures in the face of the German war machine. 

mata-daughterMargaretha Geertruida Zelle, “M’greet” to family and friends, was born in the Netherlands on August 7, 1876, the eldest of four children.

Adam Zelle, Margaretha’s father, was once a prosperous hat merchant.  By 1891, a series of bad investments had cost him his fortune.  He left the family, never to return.  Mother Antje Zelle, died.  Margaretha and her three brothers were broken up, and sent to live with relatives.  She was fifteen.

As a young woman, Margaretha answered a newspaper ad placed by Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, then stationed in the Dutch East Indies, in modern day Indonesia.

Becoming a “mail order bride” must have seemed like the way to financial security.  Strikingly beautiful with raven hair and olive skin, she sent him a photograph, of herself.  Despite a twenty-one year age difference, the couple was wed on July 11, 1895.  She was not yet nineteen.

The marriage produced a daughter, and a son.  MacLeod was a drunk and frequently flew into rages, over the attentions his young wife received from other officers.  The boy was killed in 1899, poisoned by a household worker for reasons which remain unclear.  The marriage was dead by the early 1900s and MacLeod fled, taking the couple’s daughter with him.  The divorce became final, in 1905.

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Zelle-MacLeod moved to Paris becoming mistress to a French diplomat, who encouraged her to support herself, as an exotic dancer.  She took the name: “Mata Hari”, Indonesian for “sun” (literally, “eye of the day”), in Sanskrit.

mata-hari2All things “Oriental” were all the rage in early 1900s Paris.  Mata Hari played the more exotic aspects of her background to the hilt, projecting a bold and in-your-face sexuality that was unique and provocative for her time.

She claimed to be a Java princess of priestly Hindu birth, immersed since childhood in the sacred art of Indian dance.

One Vienna reporter described Mata Hari as “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” Her face, he wrote, “makes a strange foreign impression.” Another writer described her performance as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.”

Carefree and thoroughly uninhibited, Mata Hari was photographed in the nude or the next thing to it on many occasions, becoming the long-time mistress of the millionaire Lyon industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet.

Mata_Hari_postcardThe world stood still at the beginning of World War I, but not Mata Hari.  Her dancing days were over by 1914, but her neutral Dutch citizenship allowed her to move about without restriction.  But not without a price. Mata Hari’s sexual conquests knew no border, naively including officers and government officials of every nationality, and both sides of the Great War.

Rumors of espionage followed and she was taken to Scotland Yard for interrogation in 1916, but later released.

That year, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative assignment to spy for France, from army captain Georges Ladoux.

She would seduce her way into the German High Command but the Germans suspected as much and set her up, releasing a cable labeling Mata Hari, as a German double agent.

She was arrested again on February 13, 1917, in her room at the Hotel Elysee Palace, in what is now the banking giant HSBC’s French headquarters. She was kept in a rat infested prison as the case was prepared against her, all the while writing to the Dutch Consul in Paris, proclaiming her innocence. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else”, she wrote. “I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself”.

In a bombshell confession which probably sealed her fate, Mata Hari admitted during interrogations by Captain Pierre Bouchardon, that a German diplomat had paid her 20,000 francs.  She said the money meant nothing, that she saw it as compensation for furs and other clothing lost on a train, while she was being hassled by German border guards.  “A courtesan, I admit it. A spy, never!” she insisted. “I have always lived for love and pleasure.”

matahariMata Hari’s elderly defense attorney and former lover Edouard Clunet, never really had a chance. He couldn’t cross examine the prosecution’s witnesses, or even directly question his own.

The trial took place during a string of French military defeats.  Spies both real and imagined, were convenient scapegoats.  By some accounts, Captain Ladoux even tampered with evidence, to put her case in the worst possible light.

The conviction was a foregone conclusion. The military tribunal took forty-five minutes to reach a verdict of guilty.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917.  Legend has it, that she blew them a kiss.  She was 41.

British reporter Henry Wales described the execution, based on an eyewitness account:

“Unbound and refusing a blindfold, Mata Hari stood alone to face her firing squad.  After the shots rang out, Wales reported that “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” An NCO walked up to her body, pulled out his revolver, and shot her in the head to make sure she was dead”.

MataHari

German documents unsealed in the 1970s hint that Mata Hari may have been a German spy, but many disagree with that conclusion.  Historians differ whether she passed on intelligence or merely gossip, a courtesan and middle-aged debutante, and convenient excuse for French failures in the face of the German war machine.  The whole truth may never be known but, the real-life exotic dancer who later became a lethal double agent, is a story that’s hard to resist.

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.

September 29, 1780 André

In an age before radio or television, John André was a fun and interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.

In an age before radio or television, John André was a fun and interesting guy to be around. A gifted story teller with a great sense of humor, Major André was a favorite of Colonial Loyalist society.  He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.

John André was a British Major at the time of the American Revolution, taking part in his army’s occupations of New York and Philadelphia.  He was also, a spy.

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Portrait drawn by Major John André, 1776

Peggy Shippen was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia Tory and, for a time, enjoyed a dating relationship with Major André.  Following the French entry into the war on the American side, British General William Howe removed his command from Philadelphia, including Major André.

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Peggy Shippen

In 1778, Peggy Shippen met an important officer in the Patriot cause, a hero of Valcour Island, and the Battle of Saratoga.  On April 8, 1779, the couple was married in the Shippen townhouse on Fourth Street   The relationship provided the connection between the British spy and a man who could have gone into history among the top tier of American founding fathers, had he not switched sides.  Peggy Shippen’s new husband, was General Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was Commandant of West Point at the time, the future location of one of our great military academies. At the time, West Point was a strategic fortification on high ground overlooking the Hudson River. The British capture of West Point would have split the colonies in half.

John André struck a bargain with Benedict Arnold which would turn a Hero of the Revolution into a name synonymous with “Traitor”. Arnold would receive £20,000, equivalent to over a million dollars today, in exchange for which he would give up West Point.

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General Benedict Arnold

Major André sailed up the Hudson River in the Sloop of War HMS Vulture on September 20, 1780. Dressed in civilian clothes, he was returning to his lines on the 23rd. Six papers written in Arnold’s hand were hidden in his sock when three members of the New York militia:  John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart stopped him.  Paulding was wearing a Hessian overcoat, and André thought they were Tories. “Gentlemen”, he said, “I hope you belong to our party”. “What party”, came the response and André replied “The lower (British) party”. “We do”, they said, to which André announced himself to be a British officer who must not be detained. That was as far as he went.

The discovery of these papers brought Benedict Arnold’s treachery to light.  Unaware that General Arnold himself was the culprit, Lt. Col. John Jameson dispatched letters to General George Washington and Benedict Arnold, warning the two of the plot.   Washington was literally on the way to a breakfast meeting with Arnold, when the General received the note.  Thus forewarned, Arnold slipped out a side door and escaped to a British ship, waiting nearby.

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John André was tried and sentenced to death as a spy, and jailed on September 29. He asked if he could write a letter to General Washington. In it he asked not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad, considered to be a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.

General Washington believed that Arnold’s crimes were far more egregious than those of John André, and he was impressed with the man’s bravery.  Washington wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, asking for an exchange of prisoners.

Having received no reply by October 2, Washington wrote in his General Order of the day, “That Major André General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death. “The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”

John André was hanged in Tappan New York on October 2, 1780.  He was 31.

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During his nine-month stay in Philadelphia, John André lived in Ben Franklin’s home, while the British army occupied the city. As they were packing to leave, Swiss born Pierre Du Simitiere came to say goodbye. He was shocked to find such a fine Gentleman as André, looting the Franklin residence. The man had always been known for extravagant courtesy, and this was completely out of character. He was packing books, musical instruments, scientific apparatus, and an oil portrait of Franklin, offering no defense or even explanation, in response to Simitiere’s protests.

Portrait of Ben TNLong afterward, in the early 20th century, the descendants of Major-General Lord Charles Grey returned the painting to the United States, indicating that André had probably looted Franklin’s home under orders from General Grey, himself. A Gentleman always, it would explain the man’s inability to defend his own actions. Today, that oil portrait of Benjamin Franklin hangs in the White House.

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.

September 10, 1776 One Life to Lose

The young Patriot, untrained and unskilled in the ways of deception, placed his trust where it did not belong.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, the Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut, fought for the Patriot side. Five of them helped to fight the battles at Lexington and Concord. The youngest and most famous brother was home in New London at the time, finishing the terms of his teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit would participate in the siege of Boston, Hale himself joining George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

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General Howe appeared at Staten Island on June 29 with a fleet of 45 ships. By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank of General. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying that there was no one there by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing it to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”. Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson. A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons. Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

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Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that his adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at his convenience.

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled and oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still in camp.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th. The Patriot army, had vanished.

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Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the cause of Liberty, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded. Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington was desperate for information on the movements of his adversary.  Washington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  One volunteer stepped up, on September 10. His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out the same day, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”. The young Patriot, untrained and unskilled in the ways of deception, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Nathan Hale

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War. Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

Hale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side. Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

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Hercules Mulligan

The Irish tailor Hercules Mulligan had far greater success reporting on British goings-on, and twice saved General Washington himself, from capture.   This Patriot who converted Alexander Hamilton from Tory to Patriot.  The secret member of the Sons of Liberty who, for seven years worked behind enemy lines.  Yet today, we barely remember the man’s name.. Hercules Mulligan earned the right to be remembered, as a hero of American history.  His will be a story for another day.

Nathan Hale, the schoolteacher-turned-spy who placed his trust where it didn’t belong,  was brought to the gallows on September 22, 1776, and hanged. He was 21. CIA.gov describes him as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan_Hale_Statue_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency_(1)There was no official record taken of Nathan Hale’s last words, yet we know from eyewitness statement, that the man died with the same clear-eyed personal courage, with which he had lived.

British Captain John Montresor was present at the hanging, and spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day, under flag of truce.  He gave the following account:

“‘On the morning of his execution, my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

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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June 29, 1944 Chameleon

A liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases, Fritz Duquesne once feigned paralysis for seven months in prison, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to escape.  Frederick Burnham, a real-life Indiana Jones and the inspiration for the Boy Scouts of America, described Duquesne as “the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives.“

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, massive immigration into the United States put increasing strain on the nation’s food supply.  The meat shortage became particularly acute, to the point where policy makers considered importing exotic species of animals, to augment the nation’s food supply.

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Hippo Ranching, in America

In 1910, the United States Congress defeated by one vote, a measure to introduce African hippopotami into the American food supply.  Supporters of the measure envisioned great herds of free-range hippos, filling swamps, rivers and bayous from the Atchafalaya basin to the Okefenokee Swamp, to the Florida Everglades.

As the “American Hippo” bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two mortal enemies who’d spent years in the African bush, trying to kill each other.

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Frederick Russell Burnham

Major Frederick Russell Burnham was a freelance scout and American adventurer. The “King of Scouts’, Burnham was a “man totally without fear,” a real-life Indiana Jones and the inspiration for the Boy Scouts of America.  This is the guy who should have been in the Dos Equis beer commercials.  One contemporary described the man as the “most complete human being who ever lived“.

Burnham’s fellow hippo salesman and would-be murderer was Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne.  A Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, Duquesne was a smooth talking guerrilla fighter, an adrenaline junkie and self-styled “Black Panther”, who once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  A liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases, Duquesne once feigned paralysis for seven months in prison, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to escape.  Burnham himself described him as “the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives.“

During the second Anglo-Boer war of 1899 – 1902,  several large shipments of gold totaling  1.5 million pounds were removed from the central bank in Pretoria, and sent to the Netherlands for the use of exiled president Paul Kruger and other Boer exiles fleeing the Transvaal.

4822438Fritz Duquesne  was in charge of moving one of those shipments across the bushveld of Portuguese East Africa, when some kind of argument broke out.  When it was over, only two wounded Boers were left alive, along with Duquesne himself and a few tottys (native porters).  Duquesne ordered the tottys to hide the gold, burn the wagons and kill the survivors.  He then rode off on an ox, having given the rest to the porters.

Duquesne was captured and escaped several times during this period, before infiltrating the British army as an officer, in 1901.  It was in this capacity that he found his parents’ farm in Nylstroom, destroyed under Marshall Horatio Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy. His sister had been raped and killed, he learned, and his mother was dying in a British concentration camp. Historian Art Ronnie remarked that, “the fate of his country and of his family would breed in him an all-consuming hatred of England.”  Biographer Clement Wood echoed the sentiment, calling Duquesne: “a walking living breathing searing killing destroying torch of hate.”

Duquesne was found out during a plot to assassinate Kitchener, narrowly avoiding execution by swimming away from the “impossible, hopeless, and impregnable prison” of Bermuda.  A week later, the Black Panther was stowed away on a boat to Baltimore.

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British recruiting poster of WW1, featuring Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener

During this period, Duquesne became involved with the Hippo program, becoming safari guide and personal shooting instructor to President Theodore Roosevelt, himself.

Naturalized an American citizen in 1913, Duquesne became a German spy the following year, as war broke out in Europe.  “Captain Frederick Fredericks”, was sent to Brazil under the guise of “doing scientific research on rubber plants,”  but the real-life German agent for Naval Intelligence’ real job was to disrupt the shipping, of countries at war with Germany.   That twenty-two British merchant ships randomly exploded during this period, is no coincidence.

British MI5 discovered the German agent, using the aliases George Fordam and Piet Niacud (‘Duquesne’, pronounced backward). ‘Niacud” disappeared once again, placing an article in an Argentine newspaper reporting his own murder at the hands of Amazon natives.

The “Man with 1,000 aliases” picture (l) as himself ( during 2nd Boer War, ca 1901), in German uniform sometime around 1914-’16, and (r), as Australian “Captain Claude Stoughton”, from a WW1 war bond drive.

Reappearing once more in New York and using the aliases George Fordam and Frederick Fredericks, Duquesne filed insurance claims for the loss of “films” and “mineral samples” lost in the vessels which he himself sank, off the coast of Brazil. The insurance companies were reluctant to pay and launched their own investigations, while “Fredericks” disappeared once again, re-emerging as the Russian Duke ‘Boris Zakrevsky’ and joining Lord Kitchener on HMS Hampshire in Scotland.

HMS Hampshire sank on June 5, 1916 with heavy loss of life, including that of Kitchener himself. History records the Devonshire-class armored cruiser as having struck a mine.  Some believe the spy had succeeded after all those years, calling in the submarine strike and sinking the Hampshire, killing the Field Marshall before rowing away in a life boat. There were only twelve survivors.

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Fritz Duquesne, in younger days

A former-day Forrest Gump with a knack for always being in all the right places, Fritz emerged in 1916 as “Captain Claude Stoughton” of the Western Australian Light Horse regiment, a man who claimed to have been “bayoneted three times, gassed four times, and stuck once with a hook”. As Captain Stoughton, Duquesne would regale New York audiences with hair-raising tales of his war exploits, promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds and making patriotic speeches on behalf of the Red Cross and other organizations.

The insurance fraud caught up with him November 1917, when letters in his possession implicated him in the earlier sabotage, in Brazil. American authorities agreed to extradite Duquesne to Great Britain for “murder on the high seas, arson, faking Admiralty documents and conspiring against the Crown.”

Keeping this guy in prison, though, was like nailing an eel to a jello tree. This was when he faked his paralysis, enduring the needle pokes and prods of skeptical doctors until even they became convinced of his infirmity.

As the Nazi party came to power in the early 1930s, this “Destroying Torch of Hate” for all things British, once again took up the German cause.

Six months before the United States entered World War 2, a large pro-Nazi spy ring was discovered, operating in America. Thirty-three German agents were placed in key jobs around the United States, one opening a restaurant, another working at an airline and others working as delivery men and messengers. The FBI struck on June 29, 1941, arresting all thirty three spies on charges of espionage.  At the center of it all, was none other than Frederick “Fritz” J. Duquesne.

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Duquesne Spy Ring

To this day, the Duquesne Spy Ring remains the largest espionage case in United States history, which ended in convictions. Six days after the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, three women and thirty men were convicted of sending secret information on U.S. weapons and shipping movements, to Nazi Germany. Less than a month later, the group was sentenced to a combined total of over 300 years in prison.

Duquesne himself was sentenced to 18 years.  This time, he didn’t get out. The “Man who killed Kitchener” was released fourteen years later, due to failing physical and mental health. Fritz Duquesne died on May 24, 1956, at the City Hospital on Welfare Island. His last known speech took place two years earlier, at the Adventurers’ Club of New York. The title of the lecture, was “My Life – in and out of Prison”.

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.