June 30, 1917 A Bit of Comfort

Imagine if you will a world of trench warfare. A world of mud and rats where instant and violent death is an ever-present possibility. A world of lice and disease and the stink of millions of men in the open, both dead and alive. A world capable of producing psychological trauma on an industrial scale. Now imagine just for a moment, a bit of home made comfort steps into that world.

For a variety of reasons, the eastern front of the “War to end all Wars” was a war of movement. Not so in the West.  As early as October 1914, combatants burrowed into the ground like animals sheltering from what Private Ernst Jünger would come to call, the ‘Storm of Steel’.

Conditions in the trenches and dugouts must have defied description. You would have smelled the trenches long before you could see them. The collective funk of a million men and more, enduring the troglodyte existence of men who live in holes. Little but verminous scars in the earth teaming with rats and lice and swarming with flies. Time and again the shells churned up and pulverized the soil, the water and the shattered remnants of once-great forests, along with the bodies of the slain.

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By the time the United States entered the ‘War to end all Wars’ in April, 1917, millions had endured three years of this existence. The first 14,000 Americans arrived ‘over there’ in June, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) forming on July 5. American troops fought the military forces of Imperial Germany alongside their British and French allies, others joining Italian forces in the struggle against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules, alive.

Captain Alexander Stewart wrote “Most of the night was spent digging men out of the mud. The only way was to put duck boards on each side of him and work at one leg: poking and pulling until the suction was relieved. Then a strong pull by three or four men would get one leg out, and work would begin on the other…He who had a corpse to stand or sit on, was lucky”.

Sir Launcelot Kiggell broke down in tears, on first seeing the horror of Paschendaele, . “Good God”, he said. “Did we really send men to fight in That?”

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Unseen and unnoticed in times of such dread calamity, are the humanitarian workers. Those who tend to the physical and spiritual requirements and the countless small comforts, of those so afflicted.

Within days of the American declaration of war, Evangeline Booth, National Commander of the Salvation Army, responded, saying “The Salvationist stands ready, trained in all necessary qualifications in every phase of humanitarian work, and the last man will stand by the President for execution of his orders”.

These people are so much more than that donation truck, and the bell ringers we see behind the red kettles, every December.

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Lieutenant Colonel William S. Barker of the Salvation Army left New York with Adjutant Bertram Rodda on June 30, 1917, to survey the situation. It wasn’t long before his not-so surprising request came back in a cable from France. Send ‘Lassies’.

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A small group of carefully selected female officers was sent to France on August 22. That first party comprised six men, three women and a married couple. Within fifteen months their number had expanded by a factor of 400.

In December 1917, a plea for a million dollars went out to support the humanitarian work of the Salvation Army, the YMCA, YWCA, War Camp Community Service, National Catholic War Council, Jewish Welfare Board, the American Library Association and others. This “United War Work Campaign” raised $170 million in private donations, equivalent to $27.6 billion, today.

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‘Hutments’ were formed all over the front, many right out at the front lines.  There were canteen services.  Religious observances of all denominations were held in these facilities. Concert performances were given, clothing mended and words of kindness  offered in response to all manner of personal problems.  On one occasion, the Loyal Order of Moose conducted a member initiation. Pies and cakes were baked in crude ovens and lemonade served to hot and thirsty troops.

Of all these corporal works of mercy, the ones best remembered by the ‘doughboys’ themselves, were the doughnuts.

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Helen Purviance, sent to France in 1917 with the American 1st Division, seems to have been first with the idea. An ensign with the Salvation Army, Purviance and fellow ensign Margaret Sheldon first formed the dough by hand, later using a wine bottle in lieu of a rolling pin. Having no doughnut cutter at the time, dough was shaped and twisted into crullers, fried seven at a time in a lard-filled helmet, on a pot-bellied wood stove.

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The work was grueling. The women worked well into the night that first day, serving all of 150 hand-made doughnuts. “I was literally on my knees,” Purviance recalled, but it was easier than bending down all day, on that tiny wood stove. It didn’t seem to matter. Men stood in line for hours, patiently waiting in the mud and the rain of that world of misery, for their own little piece of warm, home-cooked heaven.

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Techniques gradually improved and it certainly helped, when these there was a real pan to cook in. These ladies were soon turning out 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts a day. An elderly French blacksmith made Purviance a doughnut cutter, out of a condensed milk can and a camphor-ice tube, attached to a wooden block.

Before long the pleasant aroma of hot doughnuts could be detected, wafting all over the dugouts and trenches of the western front.  Salvation Army volunteers and others made apple pies and all manner of other goodies, but the name that stuck, was “Doughnut Lassies”.

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June 2, 2017 – Salvation Army employees Cheryl Freismuth (l) and Susan Klyk (c) celebrate the 100th anniversary of the “Doughnut Lassies” of WW1 with student Catie McDougall (r). H/T The Detroit News

One New York Times correspondent wrote in 1918 “When I landed in France I didn’t think so much of the Salvation Army; after two weeks with the Americans at the front I take my hat off… [W]hen the memoirs of this war come to be written the doughnuts and apple pies of the Salvation Army are going to take their place in history”.

Contrary to popular myth the doughnut was not invented in WW1. Neither was the name for soldiers of the Great War although millions of “doughboys” returned from ‘over there’ requesting wives, mothers sweethearts and local bakeries make their newfound favorite confection. Russian émigré Adolph Levitt invented the first doughnut machine in 1920. The round cake with the hole in the middle, has never looked back.

If you’re interested, the Doughnut Lassies’ original WW1 recipe may be found, HERE. Let me know how they come out.

May 10, 1940 And What of the Mouse?

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.  Often such parents, usually women, are shunned by neighbors and even family.  “War children” may experience even worse subjected to ostracism, bullying, and more.

Much is written of what takes place, when politicians send nations to war. Few take note of the innocents. The proverbial mice wishing only to go about their business while all about them, is chaos.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

African Proverb

On the Eastern Front of World War 2, combat between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union rose to proportions of apocalyptic race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of that war.  Four out of every five German soldiers who died in all World War 2, died on the ‘Ostfront’.

While precise numbers are impossible to ascertain, an estimated several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million German females from 8 to 80 were raped by Red Army soldiers. Some, as many as 60 or 70 times according to historian, William Hitchcock.. Austrian women were no different nor even Soviet women, released from work camps. 

“The front-line Russian troops who did the fighting – as a woman, you didn’t have to be afraid of them. They shot every man they saw, even old men and young boys, but they left the women alone. It was the ones who came afterwards, the second echelon, who were the worst. They did all the raping and plundering. They stripped homes of every single possession, right down to the toilets”.

Anonymous German woman, living in Berlin

British military historian Antony Beevor concludes that 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, alone. Female deaths in connection with such rapes in Germany and the butchered abortion attempts which followed, are estimated at 240,000. 4,148 Red Army soldiers were punished for such atrocities.

The only survivors of 150 Polish people who walked from Lodz, Poland to Berlin Huddle in blankets, on December 14, 1945. They are waiting by a railway track hoping to be picked up by a British army train and given help. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

When Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas complained about rapes in Yugoslavia, Stalin replied that he should “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.”

Small surprise when Stalin’s own Chief of the Secret Police Lavrentiy Beria, was a serial rapist.

Displaced persons cross a bridge on the River Elbe at Tangermunde, which was blown up by the Germans, to escape the chaos behind German lines caused by the approach of the advancing Russians on May 1, 1945. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

In his 2007 book Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe in World War II, Northern Kentucky University sociology and criminology professor J. Robert Lilly reports that 11,040 rapes were carried out by US servicemen.

In 1959, journalist Marta Hillers wrote what was then an anonymous memoir of the weeks between April 22 and June, 1945. In it, Hillers describes being gang raped by Red Army soldiers before forming a relationship with a Soviet officer, for her own protection. Marta Hillers died in 2001. Seven years later, her account was retold in the German feature film, Eine Frau in Berlin. (A Woman in Berlin).

German woman walks by Soviet troops in a scene from the 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin

Propaganda banners and posters appeared all over the Soviet-occupation zone and later East Germany, proclaiming the heroism of those who had smashed the Nazi war machine and paved the way to Soviet-German friendship. The plight of tens of thousands of “Russian children”, mostly fatherless, was taboo.

All these decades later, former East German Jan Gregor can still remember the day his mother told him that she was “made pregnant by force”.

An estimated 100,000 “Amerasian” children were born to Asian mothers and U.S. servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and war in Vietnam. 

Some 37,000 children were fathered by American soldiers with German and Austrian women in the 10 years following the German surrender. Locals disapproved of such relations, not only because these Americans had recently been their enemies, but also because such children often became “wards of the state” in local economies already impoverished, by war.  The “brown children” of black GIs and German mothers were particularly difficult to adopt out in what was heretofore a racially homogeneous culture.  Many were adopted by American couples and families of African ancestry, back in the States.

Military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the neutral Scandinavian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell in a day. Norwegian armed resistance ceased within two months, when civil rule passed to the Reichskommissariat Norwegen (Reich Commissariat of Norway).  The neutral Scandinavian countries remained under Wehrmacht occupation, for the next five years.

Sometimes, relationships formed between German occupying troops and native women.  The racially obsessed Nazi regime was happy to encourage such relations, particularly in Norway, where local women were considered to be of pure, “Aryan” ancestry.  Some such relationships were consensual.  Many were anything but.  Some 10,000 to 12,000 children were born to Norwegian women and German fathers, the most famous being Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA, who fled Norway after the war for fear of reprisals.

For nearly a thousand years, the administration of Iceland was all but indistinguishable from that of Denmark and Norway.  The Act of Union established Iceland as a fully sovereign state in 1918, an independent country in a personal union through a common monarch, with the Kingdom of Denmark. 

Following the allied withdrawal from Dunkirk, every nation on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. Alarmed at the possibility of German military presence to their north, British authorities invited the neutral nation Iceland to join the war as “as a belligerent and an ally,” following the collapse of Denmark. That invitation, was rejected.

On this day in 1940, the United Kingdom invaded Iceland, an initial force of 746 British Royal Marines disembarking at the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. 

The British invasion of Iceland never resembled the “shooting war” in Europe.  The government complained that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and demanded compensation, but principle opposition took the form of hordes of civilians, who crowded in to see what was happening.  Icelandic public opinion was sharply divided at the invasion and subsequent occupation.  Many described it all as the “blessað stríðið“, the “Lovely War”, the building of a roads, hospitals, harbors, airfields and bridges across the nation a boon to the Icelandic economy.  Others resented the occupation, which rose to half the native male population.

Sexual relationships between foreign troops and local women were severely frowned upon. Such women often accused of being traitors, even prostitutes. 

In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated “The Situation”.  Upset that foreign troops were “taking away” women from friends and family, police investigated over 500 women for sexual with soldiers and determined, most had been consensual.  Two facilities opened to house such women in 1942 but both closed, within a year. Two-hundred fifty-five ástandsbörn (‘children of the situation’) were born of such relationships.  332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.

It has been said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday Joe and the Nigel, the Fritz, Pierre and the Ivan down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding, and the dying.  It may well be added. It’s usually left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.

May 9, 1914 Mother’s Day

In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So strict was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity.  For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.

The earliest discernible Mother’s day comes down to us from 1200-700BC, descending from the Phrygian rituals of modern day Turkey and Armenia. “Cybele” was the great Phrygian goddess of nature, mother of the Gods, of humanity, and of all the beasts of the natural world, her cult spreading throughout Eastern Greece with colonists from Asia Minor.

Much of ancient Greece looked to the Minoan Goddess Rhea, daughter of the Earth Goddess Gaia and the Sky God Uranus, mother of the Gods of Olympus. Over time the two became closely associated with the Roman Magna Mater, each developing her own cult following and worshipped through the period of the Roman Empire.

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In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival, strictly forbidden to Roman men. So inflexible was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity.  For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.

In the sixteenth century, it became popular for Protestants and Catholics alike to return to their “mother church” whether that be the church in which they were baptized, the local parish church, or the nearest cathedral. Anyone who did so was said to have gone “a-mothering”. Domestic servants were given the day off and this “Mothering Sunday”, the 4th Sunday in Lent, was often the only time when whole families could get together. Children would gather wild flowers along the way, to give to their own mothers or to leave in the church. Over time the day became more secular but the tradition of gift giving continued.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis
Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis was a social activist in mid-19th century western Virginia.  Pregnant with her sixth child in 1858, she and other women formed “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs”, to combat the health and sanitary conditions which were leading at that time to catastrophic levels of infant mortality.  Jarvis herself gave birth between eleven and thirteen times in a seventeen year period.  Only four would live to adulthood.

Jarvis had no patience for the sectional differences that led the nation to Civil War, or which led her own locality to secede and form the state of West Virginia in order to rejoin the Union.  Jarvis refused to support a measure to divide the Methodist church into northern and southern branches.  She would help Union and Confederate soldier alike if she could.  It was she alone who offered a prayer when others refused for Thornsbury Bailey Brown, the first Union soldier killed in the vicinity.

Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis

Following Jarvis’ death in 1905, her daughter Anna conceived of Mother’s Day as a way to honor her legacy, and to pay respect for the sacrifices all mothers make on behalf of their children.

Obtaining financial backing from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, thousands attended the first Mother’s Day event at Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia.

Anna Jarvis resolved that Mother’s Day be added to the national calendar, and a massive letter writing campaign ensued. On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure declaring the second Sunday of May, to be Mother’s Day.

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Anna Jarvis believed Mother’s Day to be a time of personal celebration, a time when families would gather to love and honor their mother.

In the early days she had worked with the floral industry to help raise the profile of Mother’s Day. By 1920 she had come to resent what she saw as the commercialization of the day.  Greeting cards seemed a pale substitute for the hand written personal notes she envisioned. Jarvis protested a Philadelphia candy maker’s convention in 1923, deriding confectioners, florists and even charities as “profiteers”. Carnations had by this time become symbolic of Mother’s Day. Jarvis resented that they were being sold at fundraisers.  She protested at a meeting of the American War Mothers in 1925 where women were selling carnations, and got herself arrested for disturbing the peace.

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Soon she was launching an endless series of lawsuits against those she felt had used the name of “Mother’s Day”, in vain.

During the last years of her life, Anna Jarvis lobbied the government to take her creation off the calendar, gathering signatures door-to-door to get the holiday rescinded. The effort was obviously unsuccessful.  The mother of mother’s day died childless in a sanitarium in 1948, her personal fortune squandered on legal fees.

Today, some variation of Mother’s Day is observed from the Arab world to the United Kingdom. In the United States, Mother’s Day is one of the most commercially successful days of the year for flower and greeting card sales, and the biggest day of the year for long-distance phone calls. Church attendance is the third highest of the year behind only Christmas and Easter. Many churchgoers celebrate the day with carnations:  colored if the mother is still living and white, if she has passed on.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

April 15, 1889 Damien of Moloka’i

“I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work I am perfectly resigned to my lot”. Saint Damien of Molokai

It’s one of the oldest diseases in recorded history, the first written reference coming down to us, from 600BC. Ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Middle Eastern sources wrote about the condition as did the Roman naturalist Pliny the elder, in the first century.

Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae. Left untreated the condition produces skin ulcers, damage to peripheral nerves & upper respiratory tract, and muscular weakness. Everyday injuries go unnoticed due to numbness and lead to infection. Advanced cases result in severe disfigurement, crippling and/or the physical loss of hands, feet & facial features, and, finally, blindness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a death rate among leprosy sufferers four times that of the general population.

First discovered by Norwegian physician G.H. Armauer Hansen in 1873, M. leprae is the first bacterium identified as the causative agent of disease, in humans. Today, Leprosy is curable with multidrug therapy (MDT). The world saw 208,619 new cases in 2018, 185 of which occurred, in the United States.

The horrors of the condition and resulting social stigmas, are plain for anyone to see. Today, sufferers fear loss of jobs, separation of familial and other connections and social isolation. Though not as widespread as commonly believed, victims of “Hansen’s disease” were historically sent off to quarantine in asylums and “leper colonies” from which few, ever returned.

In the 19th century, Mycobacterium leprae came to the Hawaiian islands.

According to research, long-distance explorers first came to the Hawaiian islands around the year 300. For the next 500 years, settlers arrived from French Polynesia, Tahiti, Tuamotus and the Samoan Islands. Other research indicates a shorter timeframe, settlement occurring between 1219 and 1266. Be that as it may the Hawaiian islands were first unified in 1810 to become the Kingdom of Hawai’i, under King Kamehameha the Great. Captain James Cook made the first known European contact in 1778 followed by waves of others both European, and American.

King Kamehameha statue, stands in front of Aliiolani Hale (the judiciary building), Honolulu, Oahu

According to archaeological evidence, indigenous peoples occupied the Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, for more than 900 years. Before first contact with Europeans their numbers are estimated, between 1,000 and 2,700, . Following the arrival of Captain Cook and others, Eurasian diseases decimated native populations. By 1853 only were 140 natives were left on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

Overhead view of the Kalaupapa peninsula

Leprosy first arrived on the Hawaiian islands around 1830, believed to be carried by Chinese laborers. The disease was incurable at that time, the first effective treatment didn’t come around, until the1940s.

By 1865, sugar planters were concerned about the labor supply. The Kingdom passed a measure to remove the Kānaka Maoli, Native Hawaiian inhabitants occupying the peninsula, in preparation for a leper colony.

The first such isolation settlement was established at Kalawao on the windward side of the peninsula and then on Kalaupapa, itself.

Even after a year of family disruption brought about by government response to Covid-19 the catastrophe of such a policy, is hard to process. In native Hawaiian tradition, Aloha ʻĀina means not only “Love of the Land” but a deep sense of connection, to all living things. For the descendants of those forcibly removed from the ʻĀina as well as those “lost” to Kalaupapa the wounds remain open, to this day.

By 1890, 1,100 ‘lepers’ lived in this remote, inhospitable place, prisoners of their own deteriorating bodies and a greater culture who loathed, and feared them.

Over the years some 8,500 unfortunates would come to live in this place, the last one, in 1969.

Rudolph Wilhelm Meyer set out from his native Germany in search of the California gold rush. He made it as far as Molokaʻi. By 1866, Meyer was a father and husband to Kalama Waha, settled on the steep cliffs above Kalaupapa. As the peninsula became a leper colony, Meyer became supply agent to the colony and liaison to those few healthy individuals, willing to work there.

Mostly, those were Belgian missionary priests from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the first of whom was Father Damien, who served there from 1873 until his death, in 1889.

Fr. Damien in 1873 before sailing, for Hawai’i

Father Damien arrived at the isolated settlement at Kalaupapa on May 10, 1873. At that time there were 600 lepers. He spoke to the assembled unfortunates as “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”

After the Fr. Damien’s death of leprosy, commentators complained of contemporary accounts diminishing the work of native Hawaiians, some of whom served prominent roles on the island. While such are accounts are likely true enough there is no diminishing what the man did there.

For 16 years, father Damien lived and worked among the lepers of Molokaʻi. He ate with them, from the same bowls. He smoked with them, from the same pipe.

While the government had no desire to make this place a penal colony, outside support was slim to none. And this was no isolated population of yeoman farmers, these people were sickened and made weak by this most dreadful of medical conditions, many barely able to care for themselves.

Damien was not only a priest and teacher, he pitched in painting houses, organizing farms and building roads, hospitals and churches. He dressed the wounds of the stricken, built their coffins, dug graves and lived with the lepers, as equals. Six months after his arrival at Kalawao he wrote to his brother, Pamphile, in Europe: “…I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”

Father Damien and sister Marianne Cope have both received Roman Catholic Sainthood, for their actins on Molokaʻi

One day, it happened. In December 1884, he accidentally put his foot in scalding water. It was so hot that his skin blistered and peeled but he didn’t feel a thing. Father Damien was now himself, a leper.

Despite the illness destroying his body, Damien worked even harder in the last years of his life. He completed several building projects and improved orphanages, all while aiding his fellow lepers in their treatments and medical baths and spreading the Catholic faith. King David Kalākaua bestowed on the priest the honor of “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua.” When Crown Princess Lydia Liliʻuokalani arrived to present the medal she was said to be too distraught and heartbroken at the sight of those poor people, to even speak.

Princess Liliʻuokalani spoke of her experience bringing the plight of Father Damien and his flock, to the eyes of the world. European and American protestants sent money to help with the work. The Church of England sent food, medicine and supplies. It is believed that Fr. Damien never wore his medal but he went to his grave, with it by his side.

Japanese leprologist Masanao Goto arrived to treat the lepers of Molokaʻi with medical baths, moderate exercise and friction applied to parts, benumbed by disease. Goto’s treatments were popular with his patients but, in the end, there was little hope. Four volunteers arrived in the end to aid the ailing missionary including sister Marianne Cope, a woman who would one day join Father Damien, in Roman Catholic sainthood.

Father Damien on his deathbed, 1889

By February 1889, the end was near. With his foot in bandages and an arm in a sling, his other leg dragging uselessly behind, Damien went to his death bed on March 23. Father Damien died of leprosy at 8:00am on April 15, 1889. He was 49. The entire colony turned out the following day as the Belgian missionary was laid to rest beside the same pandamus tree under which he had slept those sixteen years earlier, on his first night in Molokaʻi.

In John 15:13, the King James Bible teaches that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Today, I wonder how many know the name of Father Damien, of Molokaʻi . Or the faith which would bring a person to willingly submit to the literal rot, of such a hideous condition.

Let Mahatma Ghandi, himself no stranger to the horrors of leprosy, have the last word on that subject: “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who, after the example of Fr. Damien, have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism“.

Feature image, top of page: Kalaupapa leper colony in 1905

March 17, 1901 Vincent

Artists who became famous only in death read like a who’s who of painters including Monet, Gaugin, Cezanne and more but none so tragic, as Vincent van Gogh.

Herman Melville wrote more than 90 books and short stories in his 72 years. He was no stranger to some small fame but it was only after death that the man’s magnum opus Moby Dick, came to be seen as one of the finest works of literature, ever written. Edgar Allen Poe struggled as a writer. The Raven was sold for only $9 during his lifetime. Now a towering figure in the literary world his fame too, would only come after death. Shy and introverted in life, Emily Dickinson published only 8 poems during her lifetime. Her remaining body of work she hid carefully away, some 1,800 poems coming only to light, after she was gone.

Such a list could be long and includes the likes of Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau and Jane Austen. Artists who became famous only in death contain a who’s who of painters including Monet, Gaugin, Cezanne and more but none so tragic, as Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent Willem Van Gogh was born and died on March 30, 1852, a stillbirth. The artist with the same name was born one year later, to the day. Confusingly, the church register even assigned the infant the same number, as his dead brother. Vincent van Gogh, #29. It wasn’t unusual in those days for grieving parents to give the same name, as a child who had died. What it’s like to grow up a replacement, to visit a grave marked with your own name and birthdate minus a year, is something the rest of us can only guess at.

Vincent was close with his brother Theodorus, all but inseparable.

A successful Dutch art dealer, “Theo” had an important impact on the world of French and Dutch art. It is thanks to Theo van Gogh and his financial and emotional support of his older brother, that we’re able to enjoy much of the artist’s work.

Four years his junior it was Theo who encouraged his brother to paint, in the first place. Vincent could always draw but he didn’t pick up a brush, until he was 27.

Van Gogh began to write letters in 1872, an average of one every ten days. Vincent would continue this practice for the rest of his life, some 903 in all. His sister Wil was a frequent recipient as were the artists Paul Gauguin, Anthon van Rappard and Émile Bernard, but none so much as his brother Theo. 663 of these letters are known to survive including this 1885 note describing the artist’s first masterpiece, “The Potato Eaters”. It is through these letters we know much of the life, of Vincent van Gogh.

2,300 years ago, Aristotle spoke of the confluence of Greatness, and mental illness. Even now that place where genius meets darkness, is imperfectly understood. Definitive diagnoses of historical figures are elusive and yet, history abounds with stories pointing toward mental illness in some of the great figures of the past. Michelangelo displayed signs of autism, as did Isaac Newton. The famous “scream” painting by Edvard Munch may be autobiographical of a man prone, to panic attacks. Ludwig von Beethoven suffered mood swings likely amounting to bipolar disorder as did Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent tried his hand at dealing art but suffered depression during visits to London. There followed a period as Christian missionary in the south of Belgium before, feeling ill and depressed, van Gogh moved in with his parents. Theo, always the source of encouragement and support both financial and emotional convinced his brother, to take up the brush.

Vincent van Gogh had but ten years to live when he started to paint. In that time the man produced 2,100 artworks including 860 oil paintings, most of those, in the last two years of his life. First there were the dark colors of the “Dutch period” seen in peasant scenes, portraits and still life.

The Potato Eaters painted in April 1885 in Nuenen, Netherlands

Vincent moved to Paris in 1886 where he met members of the avant-garde art world, including Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. These were the iconoclasts, the radicals, the unorthodox who opened a whole new vision. Here we see the burst of bright colors and bold brush strokes for which Vincent is now known.

This too was a period of depression, of mental instability and psychotic episodes. The confrontation ending Vincent’s friendship with Paul Gaugin culminated in van Gogh cutting off his own ear, with a razor.

Thus began a period of mental decline, ending in Vincent’s suicide. A period spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, of heavy drinking, poor diet and declining health. One day, this tortured soul would be recognized as one of the finest artists who ever lived. For now he was just another madman, a failure in work, and in life.

Fun Fact: Following the self-mutilation episode in which Vincent removed his own ear, van Gogh spent time in an asylum outside Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in France. There he was fond of painting outdoors where he painted olive groves, and other pastoral scenes. If you look very closely just to the right of this 1889 portrait you will find the remains of a dead grasshopper, blown by the wind and trapped in wet paint. There no signs of struggle, indicating the insect was deceased before hitting the canvas. As for the Master he either didn’t notice, or did not care.

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For the man, the last two years were a downward spiral from which there would be no return. For Vincent’s art this was the most productive, the most brilliant period of a short career.

Theo alone understood his brother. His talent. His madness. For Vincent, Theo was the only person he could open up to. Vincent received a never-ending stream of letters from his brother, words of love, of encouragement, and always the painting supplies, and the money. Theo received a stream of letters in return with day-to-day news, plans for upcoming works but all the while, it wasn’t enough.

Around this time, Vincent set out on foot to visit the French naturalist Jules Breton, a walk of some 80 kilometers. Unlike van Gogh, Breton achieved considerable success, in his lifetime. Perhaps Vincent was intimidated by the high walls. The large estates. Nobody knows. After all that he turned and walked home. The man he intended to visit never knew he was there.

In Paris, Theo fell in love with one Johanna Bonger. The couple was married on April 17, 1889. Ten months later came a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. The name was intended to honor his brother but, to Vincent, who knows? Perhaps in his madness the replacement felt that he himself, was now replaced. Theo had always been there with money, with painting materials and words of encouragement but to Vincent, he himself was nothing but a burden on a brother, now responsible for a family of three.

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In May of 1890, Vincent moved to a small attic room in the village of Ouvers-sur-Oisne. To be closer to Theo, and to Dr Paul Gachet, the quack homeopathic doctor Vincent himself described as “iller than I am, it seemed to me, or let’s say just as much.” On July 27, 1890, Vincent left his small apartment for the countryside. This time he carried no paints or brushes. Sick in body and mind and bereft of the Christian faith which had once bouyed his thoughts, Vincent had nothing to believe in anymore but his paintings and those, he couldn’t sell. No one knows where Vincent shot himself. The 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. One bullet. In the stomach or the chest, depending on which version you happen to read. He managed to stagger back to his lodgings, lit up his pipe and lay down in his bed, to die. Gachet was called but the bullet, was too deep.

Wheatfield, with crows.

Infection began to set in as Theo was called and rushed to catch a train, to be there. Vincent van Gogh died in the arms of the brother to whom a last, unposted letter was found in his pocket. In it, Vincent describes a recently finished painting, called Wheatfield with crows. The letter said it depicted “vast fields of wheat beneath troubled skies,” adding “I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”

Theo van Gogh was destroyed over his brother’s death both physically, and mentally. A sharp decline ended six months later with his own death, at the age of 33. The cause of death was dementia paralytica caused by “heredity, chronic disease, overwork, sadness.” He was buried in Utrecht and later exhumed at the request of his widow to be re-interred, next to his brother

As for Johanna herself, she inherited the vast bulk of her brother-in-law’s paintings and drawings and spent the rest of her life, promoting his work.

On March 17, 1901, eleven years after his death, 71 van Gogh paintings were shown at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, in Paris. A failure in life, Vincent’s work now hit the art world, like an electric shock. Today some of the artist’s works number among the most expensive paintings, ever sold.

Post script: Theo’s great-grandson, also called Theo van Gogh, was a Dutch film and television director, producer, actor and author. Working from a script provided by Somali-born Dutch-American activist, feminist and former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, van Gogh produced a ten-minute short film called Submission, concerning the plight of women in Islam. Both van Gogh and Hirsi Ali received death threats to which Theo responded “nobody kills the village idiot”. He often used that term in describing himself. On November 2, 2004, Islamist Mohammed Bouyeri shot and stabbed the director while bicycling to work, leaving a note pinned with a knife to his dead chest, containing threats against Jews, the west, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 29, 1944 Worse than Separation

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one had thought to put up a sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 21, 1865 More than a Uniform

Those left behind perform a quiet kind service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.

When Civil War broke out in April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 90-day troops, to put down the rebellion. Kentucky refused. Governor Beriah Magoffin responded that Kentucky would send no soldiers “for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister southern states.” In a letter written that September, President Lincoln described the importance of his home state to the war effort. “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game…Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us and the job on our hands is too large for us…..” The place was equally important on the Confederate side. Had Kentucky seceded, rebel troops would be positioned to strike at will toward Ohio, Indiana or Illinois.

That October, commander of Union forces in Kentucky William Tecumseh Sherman told Secretary of War Simon Cameron he needed 60,000 men to defend the territory, and 200,000 to go on the offensive. Outraged, Cameron called Sherman’s request “insane” and removed the general, from command. One Ohio newspaper opined that Sherman had lost his mind.

Humiliated, Sherman wrote to his brother, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children...”

General Ulysses Grant saw not insanity in general Sherman, but cold competence. In 1862, Grant reassigned Sherman to Paducah, Kentucky.

Later in the war, Sherman defended Grant about a (possibly unfair) accusation of being drunk on duty. “General Grant is a great general”. Sherman began. “He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

The story may be found in any number of books. Books about war, about soldiers, but what of the man, inside the uniform. The man called to leave his family, to do a job. And what of the family left behind and the bonds of affection forced to stretch across a nation, or an ocean. That book with so much to say about combat, has less to say about the man behind the soldier, that man’s place in the family unit and even less about the loved ones, left behind.

I’ve seen the story played out by my mother, two sisters-in-law and a daughter. The soldier, usually a “he”, leaves home in service to his country. Those left behind do their best to carry on without the help of a partner, all the while keeping their worst fears locked away in a dark closet of imagination. Those left behind perform a quiet kind of service to the rest of us, a service shared by the whole family without so much as outside recognition.

The long siege of Vicksburg was over in 1863 following the Union victory of July 4. The city of Vicksburg wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.

Making camp on the Big Black River near Bovina Mississippi, Sherman made headquarters in the home of Reverend James Fox. Thinking it would be a good time to reunite with his family, Sherman sent for his wife, Ellen and the couple’s four children: Minnie [12], Lizzie [11], Willy [9] and Tom [7].

Sherman himself had become fatherless at 9 and adopted by one Thomas Ewing of Lancaster, Ohio.

“I have a healthy camp,” Sherman wrote to Ewing, father of Sherman’s former step-sister and now-wife Eleanor “Ellen” Ewing Sherman. “I have no fear of yellow or other fevers.”

What an adventure it was for the children, especially Willy. Living in tents and hanging around with Union soldiers.

The 13th Infantry made him an honorary sergeant, teaching the boy the manual of arms and including him in guard details, drills and parades. The boy would accompany his father on inspection tours of the Army. What a lark. The experience of a lifetime.

Sherman’s confidence about yellow fever was based on that which was known, in 1863. Thirty years later, science would understand the illness to be mosquito-borne and not spread by human contact.

The family boarded the steamboat Atlantic that September, to begin the trek back home to Ohio. Willy didn’t look well. The boy was uncharacteristically quiet, his cheeks flushed. Surgeon E. O. F. Roler was summoned to examine him and came back with a dreadful diagnosis. Yellow fever.

The prognosis was grim. Fewer than 1,000 soldiers died in battle during the 8-month war Spanish American war in Cuba, in 1898. More than 5,000 died of disease, most of those from yellow fever.

Willy’s condition worsened. Arriving in Memphis, the boy was taken to the Hotel Gayoso, that October. Fading in and out of consciousness, he was given last rites on October 3. Willy told the priest he was willing to die if it was God’s will, but he didn’t want to leave his parents. With tears streaming down the cheeks of his mother and father, Willy reached and out, and touched their faces. And then he was gone.

Shattered, Ellen and her remaining children boarded a steamer to Ohio, three days later. The General went back to Mississippi. He had a war to fight.

On October 6, Sherman wrote to Ellen, from Gayoso: “I have got up early this morning to steal a short period in which to write you, but I can hardly trust myself. Sleeping, waking, every-where I see poor little Willy. … I will always deplore my want of judgement in taking my family to so fatal a climate at so critical a period of the year….To it must be traced the loss of that child on whose future I had based all the ambition I ever had.

This from a man who had written only two year earlier, “I do think I should have committed suicide were it not for my children”.

Ellen, a devout and practicing Catholic, fell back on her faith. General Sherman fell into depression, despair, and self-reproach.

So great was the General’s grief that he never forgave himself, for bringing his family to that place.

A year before his death in 1891, Sherman left detailed instructions about his last rest in that St. Louis cemetery, “alongside my faithful wife and idolized soldier boy.”

The grief, the self-reproach, it all but crushed him. Sherman wrote to Admiral David Porter:  “I lost recently my little boy by sickness incurred during his visit to my camp on Big Black. He was my pride and hope of life, and his loss has taken from me the great incentive to excel, and now I must work on purely and exclusively for love of country and professional pride.”

Some historians blame the savagery of Sherman’s attack on Meridian Mississippi, the cruelty of his assault on Atlanta and the “March to the Sea” on a form of madness, brought on by the loss of his precious boy.

In the Summer of 1864, three Union armies of the newly appointed division of the Mississippi under William Tecumseh Sherman were advancing, on Atlanta. Meanwhile back home in Lancaster, Ellen was about to give birth to another child. A baby boy, named Charley.

Let the couple’s letters tell the story and imagine if you will your own troubles, set against the backdrop of civil war.

Big Shanty, GA June 12, 1864: Dearest Ellen, I have received Phil’s dispatch announcing the birth to us, of another son. I’m glad you’re over the terrible labor, and hope it’s the last you will have to endure. Of course, I’m pleased to know the sex of the child, as he must succeed to the place left vacant, by Willy. Though I fear we will never be able to lavish on anyone, the love we bore for him. I am ever yours, W.T. Sherman

Lancaster Ohio, July 7, 1864: Dearest Cump, For the first time since I went to bed the night of the 10th of June I am able to sit up, and hold my pen.  I’d been sick all that day. About 1 o’clock I sent for the doctor.  At 20 minutes past two the baby was born with a cry, loud enough to disturb the neighborhood.  Like Tommy he was born with a caul over his face which the doctor had to remove, before his cry came forth.  I must thank God I am spared to my children, and not murmur at the trials he sends me.  As ever, Ellen

Headquarters, Military division of Mississippi, In the field near Chattahoochee, July 9, 1864:  Dearest Ellen, it is now two months since I left Chattanooga, and I think during all this time I have but one letter from you.  I fear you have been more ill than I supposed.  The enemy and the Chattahoochee lie between us, and intense heat prevails, but I think I shall succeed.  At all events you know, I never turn back.  Give my love to your father and all the young folks.  Yours ever, WT Sherman

Lancaster Ohio July 16, 1864: Dearest Cump, I have been ill indeed, in great danger of death, and left weak.  Charley thrives, grows and fattens, and is very strong and healthy.  The children dote on him, particularly Tommy and Lizzie.  Tommy asked me how long babies wore long dresses and when I told him six or eight months he begged me to put pantaloons on Charlie then.  He walks with him in his arms and watches him and plays with him and sings 20 times a day.  He is so glad the baby is not a girl.  I  have not told you how very strongly he resembles you in form, face and shape of head.  The likeness is  striking and I am delighted to see it.  All are well, and send love to dear Papa. Ever your affectionate, Ellen

Lancaster Ohio September 17, 1864: Saturday morning:  Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cold, settled on his lungs.  May Willy’s pure spirit be your guide to his happy home in heaven is the hourly prayer of your truly affectionate, Ellen

Cincinnati Ohio September 22, 1864: it seems as if I were never to have another letter from you, dearest Cump

Cincinnati Ohio September 25, 1864: Sunday evening:  Dearest Cump, the baby has a very bad cough and I feel so uneasy.

Lancaster Ohio, November 8, 1864: Dearest Cump, Dear Willy’s picture has just been brought, and now stands framed in my room. We need this to keep him fresh in the minds and the hearts of all the children for all must love and know and talk of their holy brother, until by God‘s grace we join him in his heavenly home. The baby has such a severe cold, which has taken such a firm hold on his lungs that I greatly fear, he will never get over it, and that it will end in consumption. Ever your truly affectionate, Ellen.

Obituary, Charles Celestine Sherman, New York Times, December 25, Christmas Day, 1864: Died at South Bend Indiana on Sunday, December 4, 1864, of pneumonia. Charles Celestine, infant son of Major General WT and Ellen E. Sherman, aged 5 months and 23 days

South Bend Indiana, December  29, 1864: Dearest Cump, long before this, you have seen in the papers the notice, of the dear baby’s death.  God grant that his prayers and Willy’s may ensure my perseverance and obtain for you the gift of faith.  Ellen E. Sherman

Military Division Mississippi in the field, January 5, 1865: Dearest Ellen I have written several times to you and the children. yesterday I got your letter of December 23 and realized the deep pain and anguish through which you have passed, and the pain and sickness of the little baby I never saw.  All spoke of him as so bright and fair that I had hoped he would be spared to us, to fill the great void in our hearts left by Willy. But it is otherwise decreed, and we must submit.  I have seen death in such quantity and in such forms that it no longer startles me.  But with you, it is different.  Yours, WT Sherman 

Two weeks after that last letter from Ellen, General Sherman was in Savannah, preparing to march north into South Carolina. It began to rain on January 17, the heaviest rainfall in 20 years. January 21 came and went with no respite. Not until the end of the month did the rain cease to fall. The misery of that camp in Savannah and of General Sherman’s mental state, can only be guessed at.

The coming assault on the seat of secession would be worse than Sherman’s march to the sea.

Margie Bearss, wife of Vicksburg Military Park historian Edwin Bearss is herself an accomplished historian, a fellow of the National Military Collectors and Historians association, author of Sherman’s Forgotten Campaign in Meridien Mississippi and known for her work in support of the Grand Gulf Military Park in Mississippi, and the USS Cairo, now in the Vicksburg military Park. Bearss once mused, “Did perhaps the death of Willy start a chain reaction of fires and desolation in Mississippi that the winds of more than a century have not entirely hidden? Did Sherman hold Mississippi ‘that sickly region’ responsible for his death? Who knows. Yet, we do know that between the end of the Vicksburg Campaign and the beginning of the Meridian Expedition, only a few months’ time, his concept of warfare changed and he began his own version of the ‘total war’ for which he became well-known.

December 27, 1897 Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Perhaps the little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead. Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real.

In the summer of 1897, the 25th President of the United States William McKinley, had barely moved into the White House. The nation’s first subway opened in the city of Boston while, in Seattle, the Klondike gold rush was just getting underway. Thomas Edison was granted a patent for an early projector called a Kinetoscope. Mark Twain penned a rebuttal as only Mark Twain could, to his own obituary in the pages of the New York Journal: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

(Left: Laura Virginia O’Hanlon. around 1895)

One day there came the Dread Question asked by eight-year-olds the world over and answered by fathers since the dawn of time: “Go ask your mother”.

Just kidding. This was the Other dread question. The Santa Claus question.

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Perhaps the little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead. Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real.

He was coroner’s assistant, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. She was 8-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon.

Dr. O’Hanlon neither sent his little girl to ask her mother nor did he try to answer, himself. He suggested she write the New York Sun newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun”, he said, “it’s so.”

So it is a little girl’s note made its way across the city to the New York Sun, to the desk of Edward Page Mitchell. The hard core science fiction buff will remember Mitchell for tales about time travel, invisibility and man-computing-machine cyborgs long before the likes of H.G. Wells ever thought about such things but on this day, the editor and sometimes author had a job to do.

Mitchell believed the letter was worthy of reply and brought the assignment to copy writer Francis “Frank” Pharcellus Church.

It was a curious choice.

Church was not the dilettante, partisan idler who’d style himself today, as “journalist”. This was a hard-bitten News Man of the old school, a cynic, street reporter, atheist and former Civil War correspondent who’d seen it all and didn’t believe the half of it.

Picture Perry White, the irascible editor-in-chief of the fictional Daily Planet newspaper in the old Superman series, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Frank Church. You can almost hear the walrus-mustachioed old curmudgeon grumbling across the ages on the way back to his desk, a little girl’s note in his hand. “Why me”?

The old grump didn’t even want his name associated with the reply.

The New York Sun published Church’s reply on September 21, 1897.

Dear Editor, I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.

Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

Church’s friends, family and colleagues scarcely knew the man had it in him. You can almost imagine the excitement of a little girl, scouring the pages of The Sun for two months to find nothing and then…THAT. Through the rest of that Christmas season to this day and on for the rest of her 81 years she would never forget, that reply.

Frank Church’s letter would become the most widely reprinted editorial in the history of the English language albeit anonymously until the year of his death, in 1906. According to New York Sun internal policies, that’s when Church was finally revealed as responding editor and author of that timeless response.

Virginia went on to marry one Edward Douglas in 1910, a man who stuck around just long enough to abandon her with the couple’s first child, as yet unborn. Not exactly a credit to his sex, that one.

Perhaps the childlike sense of delight in that newspaper column is what helped the young mother through her darkest hours. Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas went on to devote her life’s work to children.   Following Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctorate degrees at Hunter, Columbia and Fordham University, O’Hanlon went on to become a lifelong teacher, assistant principal and finally principal.

Virginia’s childhood home is now a school called The Studio School offering an academic scholarship, called the Virginia O’Hanlon.

In 1932, The Sun’s response was adapted to a cantata, the only known newspaper editorial ever set to classical music.  The 1989 film Prancer contained a fictional editorial entitled “Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia“.
Every year at Christmas, Virginia’s letter and Frank’s response are read aloud at a Yule log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College.

In a 1960 appearance on the Perry Como Show, Virginia told the host her letter has been “answered for me thousands of times.”

Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas kept the name of her long-since absconded husband for the rest of her life, according to the custom of the day. She passed away on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81.

She received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her long life and never failed to pen a personal reply, including a copy of Church’s column. She was quite sickly toward the end but, throughout countless interviews over the course of her 81 years she’d always credit the Sun’s editorial with changing her life, for the better.

Perhaps it was that Christmas Spirit or whatever you’d like to call it, which most of us have learned to experience, but one time a year. For Virginia O’Hanlon that sense of warmth, of generosity and kindness to be found at the bottom of all human hearts but one time a year, never really seems to have gone away.

So, may all the cynics come to understand, at this Christmas season and beyond. Yes, Virginia, there really IS a Santa Claus.

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

2BAF80BC00000578-3211358-image-a-42_1440616862244
Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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