April 1, 1961 Wonder Drug

Despite documented cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, scientists believed no drug could pass the placental barrier, passing from mother to unborn child. Within three years, the new compound was licensed to 14 pharmaceutical companies under 37 different trade names and sold in 46 countries.

In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding in the Socratic dialogue “The Republic”, introducing a “guardian class” to watch over over his ideal society.

In the 19th century, the British statistician Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying them to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called this his theory of “Eugenics”.

Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when countries from Brazil to Japan adopted policies regarding the involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients.

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1935 Sterilization map. H/T PBS.org

In the United States, 30 states passed legislation at the height of the movement, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

The race to perfect worldwide “genetic hygiene” reached its zenith with the “sterilization law” enacted in Nazi Germany on July 14, 1933. The German measure borrowed heavily from the statutes of American educator and Eugenics Record Office (ERO) Director Harry H. Laughlin, taking such measures a step further by allowing compulsory sterilization of any citizen displaying one of a long list of supposed genetic disorders, not just those confined to institutions.

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Two-Step Thalidomide Synthesis

In the wake of World War II, West German authorities were loath to apply such strict congenital examination. Pathologist Franz Büchner would go on to propagate his theories of Teratology, stating that healthy nutrition and behavior of expecting mothers was more important for the health of the child, than genetic considerations. The idea would prove to be a disastrous oversight.

The German company Chemie Grünenthal (now Grünenthal GmbH) was established to address the urgent need for antibiotics. and other pharmaceuticals. In 1953, company scientists developed a two-step procedure for synthesizing a new molecule. The compound underwent rodent testing and further revision, the new drug “Thalidomide” introduced in 1956, as a sedative.

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Life Magazine

Researchers at Chemie Grünenthal found the drug an effective remedy for vomiting and nausea, an important remedy for morning sickness in expectant mothers. It was a “wonder drug”, a cure for ailments from insomnia to coughs and colds, claiming to cure “anxiety…gastritis, and tension”.

Despite documented cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, scientists believed no drug could pass the placental barrier, passing from mother to unborn child. Within three years, the new compound was licensed to 14 pharmaceutical companies under 37 different trade names and sold in 46 countries.

Thalidomide acceptance was far from universal. Regulatory authorities in East Germany refused approval. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied widespread marketing and distribution though large quantities were released, for testing.  Approximately 875 people were involved in such trials, including a number of pregnant women.

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Phillipa Bradbourne, a Thalidomide baby born without arms. 1963. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The drug first arrived in Canada on this day in 1961. Several variants entered the Canadian market, the most common sold under the name, Talimol. Within two months, pharmaceutical companies were warning physicians of the risk of birth defects. Canadian authorities banned all variants within a year, instructing physicians to destroy stockpiles.

The first birth defects began to appear around 1958, peripheral nerve palsies or Phocomelia, a malformation or entire absence of arms and/or legs, hands & feet.  Some cases showed malformation of eyes, ears and internal organs, others born with no anus and no genitals and doomed to die.  Some five to seven thousand children were born with such birth defects in West Germany alone, four-in-ten of whom, survived.  Worldwide, some 10,000 “Thalidomide babies” were born with such defects, half of whom survived infancy.  An estimated 123,000 others miscarried, or were stillborn.

“Today, fewer than 3,000 are still alive. In Britain, it’s about 470. Among the nearly 50 countries affected are Japan (approximately 300 survivors), Canada and Sweden (both more than 100), and Australia (45). Spain’s government only recently acknowledged the drug was ever distributed there. No-one knows how many Spanish survivors there are. It could be hundreds”. H/T BBC

Despite such egregious side effects, Thalidomide remains in use today, albeit under conditions of strict birth control.  Thalidomide is in fact a “wonder drug” for the treatment of certain skin conditions related to leprosy, and is useful for treatments relating to HIV, Crohn’s Disease and certain cancers.

Sadly, Brazilian strictures are not so severe, leading to the birth of a whole new generation of “thalidomiders”, as adult survivors call themselves.  Research has uncovered circumstantial evidence connecting Thalidomide’s origins to Dr. Otto Ambros, the “Devil’s Chemist”,  alleging Dr. Ambros helped develop the nerve agent sarin, while experimenting on thalidomide as an antidote on concentration camp inmates.

Eight years ago, German survivors’ marked the fifty-year mark, in the Thalidomide debacle. Spokesman Gernot Stracke quipped:

“On 26 November – 50 years on – we, the German survivors, will march, waddle, limp or roll in wheelchairs from the Brandenburg Gate to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin.  To celebrate that we are still alive, and to remember those who never lived”.

Feature image, top of page:  Survivors tell tales of frequent falls leading to scores of stitches as the armless and legless attempt navigation with contraptions like the British prosthesis, on the left.  Right, young German girl uses crude boxing glove-like prostheses, in place of hands.  H/T Life Magazine.

 

A Trivial Matter
In the United States, federal regulator Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey denied no fewer than six applications to bring Thalidomide to market, on the basis of insufficient testing.  Thanks to her stubborn refusal, such cases were held to seventeen in this country, a fact which earned Dr. Kelsey a Presidential award for distinguished service from the federal government.
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March 31, 2005 Arlington Ladies

The job of the Arlington Ladies is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Linda Willey of the Air Force Ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris yet littered the cemetery. Paula McKinley of the Navy Ladies still chokes up, over the hug of a ten-year old girl who had just lost both parents. Margaret Mensch speaks of the heartbreak of burying one of her own young escorts after he was killed in Afghanistan, in 2009.

The first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864. Two more joined Christman that day, the trickle soon turning into a flood. By the end of the war between the states, that number was 17,000 and rising.

In modern times, an average week will see 80 to 100 burials in the 612 acres of Arlington.

1200px-SMA_Dunway_Burial_at_Arlington_National_Cemetery_2008Fourteen years ago, a news release from the Department of Defense reported “Private First Class Michael A. Arciola, 20, of Elmsford, New York, died February 15, 2005, in Al Ramadi, Iraq, from injuries sustained from enemy small arms fire. Arciola was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Casey, Korea”.

Private Arciola joined a quarter-million buried in our nation’s most hallowed ground on March 31. Two hundred or more mourners attended his funeral, a tribute befitting the tragedy of the loss of one so young.

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Sixteen others were buried that same Friday. Most were considerably older. Some brought only a dozen or so mourners. Others had no friends or family members whatsoever, on-hand to say goodbye.

Save for a volunteer, from the Arlington Ladies.

In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and the general’s wife Gladys, regularly attended funeral services at Arlington National cemetery.

nn_lho_arlington_ladies_180102_1920x1080.nbcnews-fp-1200-630Sometimes, a military chaplain was the only one present at these services. Both Vandenbergs felt that a member of the Air Force family should be present at these funerals.  Gladys began to invite other officer’s wives. Over time, a group of women from the Officer’s Wives Club were formed for the purpose.

In 1973, General Creighton Abrams’ wife Julia did the same for the Army, forming a group calling themselves “Arlington Ladies”. Groups of Navy and Coast guard wives followed suit, in 1985 and 2006.

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Traditionally, the Marine Corps Commandant sends an official representative of the Corps to all Marine funerals.  The Marine Corps Arlington Ladies were formed in 2016.

Arlington Ladies’ Chairman Margaret Mensch explained “We’ve been accused of being professional mourners, but that isn’t true. I fight that perception all the time. What we’re doing is paying homage to Soldiers who have given their lives for our country.”

arlington_lady_joayn_bahr_at_funeral_es_053011The casual visitor cannot help but being struck with the solemnity of such an occasion. Air Force Ladies’ Chairman Sue Ellen Lansell spoke of one service where the only other guest was “one elderly gentlemen who stood at the curb and would not come to the grave site. He was from the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D. C. One soldier walked up to invite him closer, but he said no, he was not family”.

The organization was traditionally formed of current or former military wives. Today their number includes daughters and even one “Arlington Gentleman”. 46 years ago they came alone, or in pairs. Today, 145 or so volunteers from four military branches are a recognized part of all funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, their motto: “No Soldier will ever be buried alone.”

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The volunteer arrives with a military escort from the Navy or the United States Army 3rd Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard”. The horse-drawn caisson arrives from the old post chapel, carrying the flag draped casket. Joining the procession, she will quietly walk to the burial site, her arm inside that of her escort. A few words are spoken over the deceased, followed by the three-volley salute. Off in the distance, a solitary bugler sounds Taps.

The folded flag is presented to the grieving widow, or next of kin. Only then will she break her silence, stepping forward with a word of condolence and two cards: one from the service branch Chief of Staff and his wife and a second, from herself.

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Joyce Johnson buried her husband Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Johnson in 2001, a victim of the Islamist terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Johnson remembers the Arlington Ladies’ volunteer as “a touchingly, human presence in a sea of starched uniforms and salutes”. Three years later, Joyce Johnson paid it forward, and became one herself.

Any given funeral may be that of a young military service member killed in service to the nation, or a veteran of Korea or WWII, who spent his last days in the old soldier’s home. It could be a four-star General or a Private. It matters not a whit.

“We’re not professional mourners. We’re here because we’re representing the Air Force family and because, one day, our families are going to be sitting there in that chair”. – Sandra Griffin, Air Force volunteer, Arlington Ladies

Individual volunteers attend about five funerals a day, sometimes as many as eight. As with the Tomb of the Unknown sentinels who hold their vigil heedless of weather, funeral services pay no mind, to weather conditions. The funeral will proceed on the date and time scheduled irrespective of rain, snow or heat. Regardless of weather, an Arlington Lady Will be in attendance.

The job of the Arlington Ladies is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Linda Willey of the Air Force Ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris yet littered the cemetery. Paula McKinley of the Navy Ladies still chokes up, over the hug of a ten-year old girl who had just lost both parents. Margaret Mensch speaks of the heartbreak of burying one of her own young escorts after he was killed in Afghanistan, in 2009.

Barbara Benson was herself a soldier, an Army flight nurse during WWII. She is the longest serving Arlington Lady. “I always try to add something personal”, Benson said, “especially for a much older woman. I always ask how long they were married. They like to tell you they were married 50 or 60 years…I don’t know how to say it really, I guess because I identify with Soldiers. That was my life for 31 years, so it just seems like the natural thing to do.”

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Elinore Riedel was chairman of the Air Force Ladies during the War in Vietnam, when none of the other military branches had women representatives. “Most of the funerals were for young men,” she said. “I saw little boys running little airplanes over their father’s coffins. It is a gripping thing, and it makes you realize the awful sacrifices people made. Not only those who died, but those left behind.”

Mrs. Reidel is a minister’s daughter, who grew up watching her father serve those in need. “It doesn’t matter whether you know a person or not”, she said, “whether you will ever see them again. It calls upon the best in all of us to respond to someone in deep despair. I call it grace…I honestly feel we all need more grace in our lives.”

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23-year veteran of the United States Air Force Sandra Griffin, now serves as an Arlington Lady.
This “Today in History” is dedicated to the man for whom I am namesake. United States Army Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr., 2/25/37 – 3/31/18. Rest In Peace, Dad. You left us too soon.

March 26, 1958 How can they Hate me, when they don’t even Know me

“In a real sense we must all live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools”. – Reverend martin Luther King, Jr.

Daryl Davis is an American R & B musician, a master of Delta & Chicago Blues and the boogie-woogie style, on piano. The man can sing too, well enough to perform with the likes of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee Lewis and BB King.

“Both Pinetop Perkins and Johnnie Johnson, considered to be the greatest Blues & Boogie Woogie and Blues and Rock’n’Roll pianists respectively, both have claimed DARYL as their godson”. – daryldavis.com/musician-biography/

Davis has acted on stage, film and television. He’s a Christian, a writer, an activist and lecturer, who’s spent the last thirty years befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan and. Oh…Did I mention, he’s black?

Daryl Davis was born this day in 1958, the son of a State Department foreign service officer.  His first ten years were spent in the world of foreign diplomats where children of every race and nationality were schooled together.  This was a world of easy integration, not so the world he entered on returning to the United states, at age ten.

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As a member of an all-white Cub Scout troop in the racially backward Boston suburb of Belmont Massachusetts (you thought I was going to say “Selma”), Davis speaks of being struck with rocks and bottles thrown by the crowd, until encircled by members of the troop.

Lest anyone object to my characterizing the “Liberal” bastion of Massachusetts as “racially backward”, the affront to common decency below was photographed in Boston in 1976, nineteen years after President Dwight Eisenhower sent Federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas.

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“The Soiling of Old Glory is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by Stanley Forman during the Boston busing crisis in 1976” – H/T Wikipedia

Any fool can mistrust and even dislike those unlike himself.  Most fools do.  At ten years old, Daryl Davis understood as much and asked his father about the cub scout incident.  The conversation led to a lifelong impression in Davis’ mind, that it made no sense.  How can they Hate me, when the don’t even Know me.

Davis’ career as an activist began in a “white” bar in Frederick, Maryland, in 1983. Davis was playing Country & Western music when a white man commented, he’d never “heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis“. Davis explained “Jerry Lee learned to play from black blues and boogie woogie piano players and he’s a friend of mine.” The patron was skeptical and, over drinks, admitted to being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Eventually, the pair became friends, a relationship which would guide Daryl to leaders of the KKK.

3258E1E800000578-3499658-image-m-11_1458344520932Years later, Davis decided to write a book, answering the question that had dogged him, all those years: ‘Why do you hate me when you know nothing about me?’ That question had never been answered from my youth.” To satisfy his own curiosity, Davis reached out to Roger Kelly, Imperial Wizard of the KKK in Maryland. Let him tell the story:

“My secretary called him, and I told her, ‘do not tell Roger Kelly I’m black. Just tell him I am writing a book on the Klan.’ I wanted her to call because she’s white. I knew enough about the mentality of the Klan that they would never think a white woman would work for a black man. She called him and he didn’t ask what color I was, so we arranged to meet at a motel”.

The human brain is an awesome thing, the mind a strange and impenetrable place. Weighing in at about 3-pounds, the organ is comprised of some 86 billion neurons, each made of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit data over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper.

20170629_daryl_davis_015_custom-b6e5c20f962425b2d795ba585f3cc5e5943ef0f0-s300-c85There are roughly a quadrillion such synapses in any given brain, meaning any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe.

The possessors of such organs are themselves, strange and impenetrable beings.  Some among us are impervious to new information. We all know the kind. Others are capable of the most gut-wrenching honesty, of challenging even the most deeply held beliefs in the face of new information.

When Confederate Major General Patrick Cleburne, the “Stonewall of the West” made the “Monstrous proposal” of arming slaves in the waning days of the Civil War, General and former Georgia Governor Howell Cobb gave us the faintest glimpse through that keyhole: “You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make a soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

“And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”

Roger Kelly himself was a man, capable of looking through that keyhole.  What he saw didn’t make sense to him either.  Kelly arrived with an armed bodyguard, himself armed and wearing military-style fatigues.  That first meeting must have been as tense as two cats in a wet sack.  In time, the man’s views began to soften.  Later on, Davis invited Kelly to be godfather, to his daughter.  Kelly left the Klan and gave his outfit to Davis, who kept the robes in hopes of one day showing them in a “Museum of the Klan”.

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Davis claims to have befriended over 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan.  He claims direct responsibility for 40 to 60 of them leaving and indirectly, another 200. Davis believes Klansmen hold misconceptions about blacks based on brainwashing and unfamiliarity.  He wrote of one such conversation in his 1998 book, Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan:

One Klansman informed Davis, “All black people have a gene in them that makes them violent “.  Davis responded, ‘You know, it’s a fact that all white people have within them a gene that makes them serial killers. Name me three black serial killers.’ He could not do it. I said ‘you have the gene. It’s just latent.’ He said, ‘Well that’s stupid.’ I said, ‘It’s just as stupid as what you said to me.’ He was very quiet after that and I know it was sinking in.”

The man left the Klan several months later, giving Davis his robes.  They were the first he ever received.

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In an age of political race baiters and racial arsonists, (they’re a dime-a-dozen on TV), Daryl Davis is a man with the strength of character, the intellectual curiosity and the physical courage to challenge long-held stereotypes that many among us, hold about one another.

The man is a living tribute to the idea that if we just ignore the crazies, the rest of us can figure out how to get along.

 

Afterward
The documentary film Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America debuted on the PBS TV series Independent Lens, in 2016. Frank Ancona, Imperial Wizard of the Missouri-based Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was depicted at the opening and close of the documentary. Ancona was shot and killed in his bed on February 11, 2017, two days before the airing of the film.  Ancona’s wife and step-son have been charged in the murder.
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Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Frank Ancona
“In a real sense we must all live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools”. – Reverend martin Luther King, Jr.

March 17, 1968 Skull Valley Sheep Kill

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”. – GAO report, 1994

The father-daughter pair had just finished a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. The two took ill two hours before sunset.  A passing doctor and nurse found the couple on a park bench.

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

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Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Though Vladimir Putin’s Russia vehemently denies the charge, the incident has been classified as an attempted assassination carried out against the former spy and his daughter, using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dugway Proving Ground

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

A 1994 GAO (US General Accounting Office) reports:

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

On this day in 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.  The animals had been grazing in the Skull Valley area, some 27 miles from the proving ground.

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

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

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

Military Accidentally Ships Anthrax To Labs In Nine StatesA report which remained classified for thirty years, blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

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

Today, few nations possess stockpiles of  nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it.  The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation, should any nation so attacked, posses the capability.  So it is the nations of the world hold the proverbial wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on, and unable to let go.

February 15, 2005 Arlington Ladies

The organization was traditionally formed of current or former military wives. Today their number includes daughters and even one “Arlington Gentleman”. 46 years ago they came alone, or in pairs. Today, 145 or so volunteers from four military branches are a recognized part of all funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, their motto:  “No Soldier will ever be buried alone.”

The first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864. Two more joined Christman that day, the trickle soon turning into a flood. By the end of the war between the states, that number was 17,000 and rising.

In modern times, an average week will see 80 to 100 burials in the 612 acres of Arlington.

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Fourteen years ago, a news release from the Department of Defense reported “Private First Class Michael A. Arciola, 20, of Elmsford, New York, died February 15, 2005, in Al Ramadi, Iraq, from injuries sustained from enemy small arms fire. Arciola was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Casey, Korea”.

Private Arciola joined a quarter-million buried in our nation’s most hallowed ground on March 31. Two hundred or more mourners attended his funeral, a tribute befitting the tragedy of the loss of one so young.

Sixteen others were buried that same Friday.  Most were considerably older. Some brought only a dozen or so mourners.  Others had no friends or family members whatsoever, on-hand to say goodbye.

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In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and the general’s wife Gladys, regularly attended funeral services at Arlington National cemetery.

Sometimes, a military chaplain was the only one present at these services. Both felt that a member of the Air Force family should be present at these funerals, and Gladys began to invite other officer’s wives. Over time, a group of women from the Officer’s Wives Club were formed for the purpose.

In 1973, General Creighton Abram’s wife Julia did the same for the Army, forming a group calling themselves “Arlington Ladies”. Groups of Navy and Coast guard wives followed suit, in 1985 and 2006. Traditionally, the Marine Corps Commandant sends an official representative of the Corps to all Marine funerals.

The Marine Corps Arlington Ladies were formed in 2016.

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Arlington Ladies’ Chairman Margaret Mensch explained “We’ve been accused of being professional mourners, but that isn’t true. I fight that perception all the time. What we’re doing is paying homage to Soldiers who have given their lives for our country.”

The casual visitor can’t help but be struck with the respect, of such an occasion.  Air Force Ladies’ Chairman Sue Ellen Lansell spoke of one service where the only other guest was “one elderly gentlemen who stood at the curb and would not come to the grave site. He was from the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D. C. One soldier walked up to invite him closer, but he said no, he was not family”.

The organization was traditionally formed of current or former military wives. Today their number includes daughters and even one “Arlington Gentleman”. 46 years ago they came alone, or in pairs. Today, 145 or so volunteers from four military branches are a recognized part of all funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, their motto:  “No Soldier will ever be buried alone.”

The volunteer arrives with a military escort from the Navy or the United States Army 3rd Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard”. The horse-drawn caisson arrives from the old post chapel, carrying the flag draped casket. Joining the procession, she will quietly walk to the burial site, her arm inside that of her escort. A few words are spoken over the deceased, followed by the three-volley salute. Somewhere, a solitary bugler sounds Taps.

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The folded flag is presented to the grieving widow, or next of kin. Only then will she break her silence, stepping forward with a word of condolence and two cards: one from the service branch Chief of Staff and his wife, and a second from herself.

Joyce Johnson buried her husband Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Johnson in 2001, a victim of the Islamist terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Johnson remembers the Arlington Ladies’ volunteer as “a touchingly, human presence in a sea of starched uniforms and salutes”. Three years later, Joyce Johnson paid it forward, and became one herself.

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Any given funeral may be that of a young military service member killed in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a veteran of Korea or WWII, who spent his last days in the old soldier’s home. It could be a four-star General or a Private. It doesn’t matter.

Individual volunteers attend about five funerals a day, sometimes as many as eight. As with the Tomb of the Unknown sentinels who keep their guard heedless of weather, funeral services disregard weather conditions. The funeral will proceed on the date and time scheduled regardless of rain, snow or heat. Regardless of weather, an Arlington Lady Will be in attendance.

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Their job is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Linda Willey of the Air Force ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris still littered the cemetery. Paula McKinley of the Navy Ladies still chokes up, over the hug of a ten-year old who had just lost both her parents. Margaret Mensch speaks of the heartbreak of burying one of her own young escorts, after he was killed in Afghanistan, in 2009.

Offering condolences
Army Arlington Lady Anne Lennox with letters of condolence for the widow of Brigadier General Henry G. Watson.

Barbara Benson was herself a soldier, an Army flight nurse during WWII. She is the longest serving Arlington Lady. “I always try to add something personal”, Benson said, “especially for a much older woman. I always ask how long they were married. They like to tell you they were married 50 or 60 years…I don’t know how to say it really, I guess because I identify with Soldiers. That was my life for 31 years, so it just seems like the natural thing to do.”

Elinore Riedel was chairman of the Air Force Ladies during the War in Vietnam, when none of the other military branches had women representatives. “Most of the funerals were for young men,” she said. “I saw little boys running little airplanes over their father’s coffins. It is a gripping thing, and it makes you realize the awful sacrifices people made. Not only those who died, but those left behind.”

Mrs. Reidel is a minister’s daughter, who grew up watching her father serve those in need. “It doesn’t matter whether you know a person or not”, she said, “whether you will ever see them again. It calls upon the best in all of us to respond to someone in deep despair. I call it grace…I honestly feel we all need more grace in our lives.”

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They are so few and so young, who pick up the tab on behalf of the rest of us.

Feature image, top of page: Sandra Griffin, Ladies of Arlington

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December 25, 1914 A Truce to end all Wars

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

The start of the “Great War” twenty-five years earlier, was different.  Had you been alive in August 1914, you would have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi. The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

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First Battle of the Marne, September 1914 H/T Britannica

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

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Russian soldiers, WW1, H/T BBC

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives. All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called a “Storm of Steel”.

775px-Stabilization_of_Western_Front_WWIOn the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year. The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear. The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks. That evening, English soldiers heard singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht…Silent Night.

The Tommies saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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Christmas day truce of 1914 published 1915 London illustrated news

The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land and calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries. Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.

Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

o-TRUCE-facebookCaptain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of Christmas 1914, lasting in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

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A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

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Ypres, Christmas Truce, Hat tip http://www.Bitaboutbritain.com. Thanks, Mike.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them.

German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible. Yet, there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season. Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

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Pvt. Ronald MacKinnon, H/T National Post

Even so, evidence exists of a small Christmas truce in 1916, though little is known of it. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Man He Killed 
by Thomas Hardy

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

The Duke Of Cambridge Visits Staffordshire & Birmingham
Christmas truce memorial, National Arboretum, Staffordshire, England
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.

December 22, 1944 The Forgotten Angel of 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. 

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

Battle of the BulgeThe 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.

BastogneHistorian 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.

NursesAugusta 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.

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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 buildingAugusta 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, ChiwyAugusta 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.

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Chiwy and KingAlbert 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

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.