June 7, 1942 The Alcan Highway

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts. 

Discussions concerning a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas.

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Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

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Dawson Creek, 1942

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, hostile, wilderness.

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

06162017_HighwayRadios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

alcan-hwyTent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day.  Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

Alaska Highway Black Soldiers

That October, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. Sims slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

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A gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.

Alaska-Hwy-historyNPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

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

If you are so inclined, there’s nothing like a visit to the place where history happened, to make the story come alive.

“Today in History” will be suspended for a time, following the passing of the man for whom I am namesake: Lieutenant Colonel (retired), Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr.

I have a few new articles tee’d up to post automatically. If you’re interested, please sign up on the right, to receive email notifications when they come out.

Thank you for your interest.

Rick Long, Jr.

Long Family "Blue/Gray Ramble", Gettysburg, 2012
The Patriarch explains the story of John Burns, the civilian old timer who came out to help fight back the invasion of his town. He fought with the Union forces on the second day and then, having been “nicked” three times by three bullets, he quietly went back to his farm to await the end of the battle. Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble”, Gettysburg,
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Walking with the Rebel side of the family. Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble”, 32nd North Carolina, Culp’s Hill
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Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble, Petersburg Campaign
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Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble, Spotsylvania

 

 

Featured image, top:  Rick Long, Sr., remembering the 17th PA Cavalry Regiment at Gettysburg, with which our ancestor served as Blacksmith.

Photography by my son and Rick Sr.’s grandson Daniel Christopher Long, an apple who didn’t fall far from the tree.

January 9, 1493 Mermaid

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone standing against them.  The conquered peoples described the period differently.  Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said “They make a desert and call it peace”.

catalan-atlas-depicting-marco-polo-traveling-to-the-east-during-the-pax-mongolica (1)

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century.  The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east.  Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes.  It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end.  Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century.  After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible.   Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

flat-earth

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth.  Otherwise, the cats would have pushed everything over the edge, by now.

The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong.  In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands.  He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China).  Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

mermaidColumbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486.  At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492.  The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months.  Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”.  “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology.  These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

ManateeColumbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder.  These marine herbivores measure 10’ to 13′ from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive.  A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s possible that Mr. Smith needed to get out a little more.

 

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December 5, 1914 Shackleton Expedition

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. “The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”.  As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.  Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

Shackleton 5

The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island.  It was December 5.Shackleton 12

The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent.  The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for another 497 days.

The disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.Shackleton 7

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, not knowing that she only had six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would one day end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean, as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”.  The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.Shackleton 10

The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat, James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

Shackleton 9The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20.  They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting their long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.

At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit like a hammer. The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad“.

 

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 the same. 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 23, 1806 Lewis and Clark

More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile Indians, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, fur trapper Toussant Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and his wife Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

Minister to France and future President Thomas Jefferson began to express interest in an expedition to the Pacific Northwest, as early as the 1780s.

As President, Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition to the Pacific, two years into his first term. He understood that the fledgling United States would have a better claim to the Pacific Northwest if the team gathered data on plants and animals, but Jefferson’s primary interest in the mission, was trade.

Today we take coast-to-coast travel for granted, it seems odd to think how strange and unknown were the more remote parts of our own country.   Though extraordinarily well read and one of the brightest men of his generation, (Jefferson once cut out 901 bible verses from which he assembled his own “Jefferson Bible”, translating the volume into Greek, Latin, French and back to English, “just for fun”), President Jefferson legitimately believed that herds of Wooly Mammoth roamed the western reaches of the nation. Carte_Lewis-Clark_Expedition-en

Jefferson wanted to find an all-water route to the Pacific for the conduct of business. The President commissioned the Corps of Discovery expedition in 1803, naming Army Captain Meriwether Lewis expedition leader.

The two men had known one another since Lewis was a boy, having long since developed a relationship of mentor and protégé.  At this time Lewis was working as personal secretary to the President.  Tough, intellectually gifted and resourceful, Lewis received a crash course in the natural sciences from the President himself, before being sent off to Philadelphia to brush up on medicine, botany and celestial navigation.

Lewis selected William Clark as his second in command, due to the man’s exceptional skills as a frontiersman. It would prove to be an excellent choice.

Lewis_and_clark, SeamanMost of 1803 was spent in planning and preparation, Lewis and Clark joining forces near Louisville that October. After wintering in the Indiana territory base camp in modern day Illinois, the 33-man expedition departed on May 14, 1804, accompanied by “Seaman”, a “Dogg of the Newfoundland breed”.

Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Territory, as it became an official part of the United States. Borders were still hazy at the time, and Spanish authorities suspected that the expedition would encroach on their territory in the southwest. They had good reason to think so, Thomas Jefferson believed the same.

Corps of Discovery members couldn’t know that General James Wilkinson, one of the most duplicitous, avaricious, and corrupt individuals of the age, was reporting their every move to his paymaster, the Spanish King Charles IV.

Over the course of the expedition, the tiny group was hunted by no fewer than four Spanish expeditions with as many as 600 soldiers, mercenaries and Comanche guides, each intending to make the Corps of Discovery vanish without a trace.

Lewis_and_clark-expeditionDiscovery established friendly relations with at least 24 indigenous tribes, without whose help they may have become lost or starved in the wilderness.  Most were more than impressed with Lewis’ state-of-the-art pneumatic rifle, which could silently fire up to 20 rounds after being pumped full of compressed air.

Not all Indian tribes were friendly, there were several run-ins with a group the Americans called “Teton-wan Sioux”. The Sioux were no joke. On one occasion, a group of four who had separated from the main expedition fled 100 miles in a single day from these people, before they felt it was safe to stop.

Lewis and Clark’s memoirs describe similar encounters with a large and especially ferocious species of bear, the Grizzly, an animal which more than once had expedition members climbing trees with a notable sense of urgency.

It was at the winter camp of 1804-5 that they met a French fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his young wife (or slave – she might have been a little of both), Sacagawea. They seemed to have thought Charbonneau a shady character, but they liked the young Indian girl, and her linguistic skills would prove useful. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa while Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile Indians, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

It was at this camp that Sacagawea gave birth to a son, whom she and Charbonneau named Jean Baptiste. The family stayed with the expedition, proving to be incredibly valuable to the group. They met many Indian bands along the way, whom Sacagawea’s presence quickly put at ease. War bands never traveled with women, especially not with one carrying an infant. One such band was a group of Shoshone led by Chief Cameahwait, who turned out to be none other than Sacagawea’s own brother. It must have been quite a reunion, they hadn’t seen one another since her kidnap by the Hidatsa, back in 1800.

Lewis_and_clark, first glimpseThe Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, and set out their second winter camp in modern-day Oregon.

They returned through a cut in the Rocky Mountains which Sacagawea remembered from her childhood, the modern day Bozeman Pass, arriving at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806.   For Sacagawea, Charbonneau and Jean Baptiste, this was the end of the trip.

Lewis and Clark arrived in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery having met their objectives. They had reached the western coast and returned, though they did not find a continuous water route to the Pacific. The expedition created maps along the way, establishing legal claim to the land, while describing 178 previously unknown plants and 122 unknown animals, and establishing diplomatic and trade relations with at least two dozen indigenous nations.

Despite being heavily armed, most members were required to defend themselves only once, that in a running gun battle with a band of Blackfeet, on the way home.

The expedition suffered only one fatality when Sergeant Charles Floyd succumbed to what appears to have been appendicitis.  Though not seriously wounded, a humiliated Lewis had to spend several weeks face-down in a canoe, when one of the enlisted guys mistook his rump for that of an elk, and shot it.

Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds to the chest and head on October 11, 1809.  Historians differ as to whether it was murder or suicide, though most believe his death to have been the latter.  It would not have been his first such attempt.

York_Statue
York

Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lizette on December 22, 1812, and died a few months later at the age of 25. Eight months later, William Clark legally adopted her two children. Clark is recorded as having brought the boy up and educating him in St. Louis, before sending him to Europe with a German prince at the age of 18. I was unable to determine with any certainty, whether Lizette survived infancy.

Among the two-dozen plus officers and enlisted men on Discovery was William Clark’s African slave “York”, who accompanied the expedition from beginning to end.  Though not an official member of the Corps of Discovery, York’s hunting skills made him a valuable member of the expedition.  Indigenous tribes were fascinated by the first black man any of them had ever seen.  The Arikara people of North Dakota believed him to hold spiritual powers, calling the tall man “Big Medicine”.

Though a slave, York seems to have earned a degree of respect from expedition members.  At least two geographic features were named after the man.   Both York and Sacagawea had a vote on the placement of the 1805-’06 winter camp, prompting historian Stephen E. Ambrose to speculate that this may have been the first time in American history, that a black man and a woman were given the vote.

Accounts differ as to what became of him.  Some say Clark freed the man, others say that York was unwilling to return to a life of slavery, following 2½ years of liberty.  A black man who claimed to have been he was discovered ten or twelve years later, a tribal elder living with his four wives among the Crow, in north-central Wyoming.

Thomas Berger, author of the fictional Dances with Wolves, writes about a particularly dark skinned strain among the Indians, which many believe to have descended from York.

What became of Seaman the dog is unknown. Having accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition from the very beginning, the last journal reference to him was written in July, two months before the journey’s end.

May 23 1928  Crash of the Airship Italia

The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried 20 personnel, a payload of 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, and the expedition mascot, a Fox Terrier named Titina.

Stolp, Landung des Nordpol-Luftschiffes "Italia"

Her mission was to explore the ice cap surrounding the North Pole, operating out of an expedition base in Ny-Ålesund, one of four permanent settlements on Spitsbergen Island in the Kingdom of Norway.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in near perfect weather conditions and unlimited visibility, the craft covering 4,000 km (2,500 miles) and setting the stage for the third and final trip departing on May 23.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen. Though wind conditions prevented them from dropping scientists onto the ice sheet, survival packs and the inflatable raft they brought along for the purpose would turn out to be providential.

Trouble started almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds as they headed south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Umberto Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle made the task difficult. The airship’s control cabin hit the jagged ice seconds later, smashing open and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier onto the ice.

Now relieved of the weight of the gondola, the envelope of the ship began to rise again with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a remarkable display of calm under pressure. As the airship’s italia-crashenvelope floated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino started to throw everything he could get his hands on down to the men on the ice. These were the supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death. Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Nine survivors and one fatality were left stranded on the ice.  They immediately began to go through their supplies. They found a radio and fashioned a mast from the debris, and set up a tent after coloring it red using the dye contained in several flares.

The tale of the Italia rescue is a story in itself, as would-be rescuers themselves became stranded or disappeared into the arctic circle, never to be seen again.

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while flying on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Bureaucratic intransigence, equipment failure and a lack of coordination would hamper rescue efforts.  It would be more than 49 days before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers would be found. The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia, is unknown.

April 14, 1958 Laika

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids. “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

Baker
“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

Laika
Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11lb mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

sputnik-2-launched-a-month-later-and-carried-the-first-living-animal-a-dog-named-laika-into-space
Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that onlyLaika and capsule allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

Mach2Sputnik2In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.Atomic_Robo_Last_Stop_Sputnik_Poster2

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

Afterward

belka-strelka-2As a dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript, to this thoroughly depressing story.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960, and returned safely to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies, fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in

Charlie, Pushinka
Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  Nikita Khrushchev gave “Pushinka”, one of the puppies, to President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies.  Pups that JFK jokingly referred to as “pupniks”.  Pushinka’s descendants are still living, to this day.

kennedy-dog-pushinka-puppies
Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn