June 15, 1904 Earth’s Purest Children, Young and Fair

The all but forgotten disaster of June 15 1904 stole the lives of 1,021 innocents, mostly women and children. No one could know it at the time but the flaming wreck of the General Slocum would kill their community, as well.

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world save for Berlin, and Vienna.

General Slocum token

It was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300 or so children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

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The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered.”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island just off the Bronx’ shore, as the wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into a holocaust.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion and then jumped overboard with her newborn, to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

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Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye. His feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

General Slocum Casualties

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned this day in 1904.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history. Only 321 lived to tell the tale.

Six month old Adella Liebenow was the youngest survivor of the disaster. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial to the calamity which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters were among the unidentified dead.

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Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There followed more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-close community as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them anymore, in this place.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

The East Village Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library was originally bilingual, with half its collection in German and the other half, in English.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9-foot stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside these words:

“They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

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Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

June 11, 1775 Bad Little Falls

“Of balsam & blueberries, lobsters & lighthouses, puffins & whale watching, sunsets over the bay…”. Thus does its own website describe the tiny downeast town of Machias Maine. It’s not the kind of place where you’d expect the first naval combat, of the American Revolution.

Five hours and 15 minutes drive from Boston, the small town of Machias sports a campus for the University of Maine, a municipal airport and, even today, a year-round population barely exceeding 2,000. In the Passamaquoddy tongue, the name translates into “bad little falls”, a reference the river running through the place.

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Machias-area residents who discussed downtown revitalization Tuesday evening said the Bad Little falls was the town’s most distinctive element. (KATHERINE CASSIDY PHOTO)

It’s not a spot where you’d expect the first naval combat of the American Revolution.

In 1775, the modern state of Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Machias itself, a small fishing village on the “Downeast” New England coast was a thorn in the British side, since the earliest days of the Revolution.   That February, a local pilot intentionally grounded the coastal patrol schooner HMS Halifax, in Machias Bay.  The place also served as a base from which privateers preyed on British merchant shipping.

Machias by JFW des Barres

In April, a British foray from the occupied city of Boston culminated in the Battle at Lexington Green.  While the King’s troops held the ground in the wake of the early morning skirmish, the decision of the afternoon’s battle at nearby Concord was quite different.  The colonial’s response to this incursion of “Regulars” was that of a swarming beehive, resulting in a Patriot victory and a British retreat under fire, all the way back to Boston.

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Boston was all but an island in those days, connected to the mainland only by a narrow “neck” of land.  A Patriot force some 20,000 strong took positions in the days and weeks that followed, blocking the city and trapping four regiments of British troops, about 4,000 men, inside of the city.

For General Thomas Gage in charge of all those troops, the best hope for resupply was by water.

Concerned lest they fall into rebel hands, Royal Navy Admiral Samuel Graves wanted the guns from the wreck of the Halifax.  Gage needed lumber as well, with which to build barracks.  So it was the wealthy merchant and Tory loyalist Ichabod Jones was enlisted to help, blissfully unaware of the dim view in which his activities were held by fellow colonials.

Jones arrived at Machias on June 2 aboard the merchant ships Unity and Polly, under guard of the armed schooner HMS Margaretta commanded by Midshipman James Moore.  They had come to trade food for lumber but the townspeople were split, and voted against doing business with Jones.  This provoked a threat from the Margaretta, which moved into range to bombard the town.  The action resulted in a second vote and the trade was approved, but Jones’ response was ham-fisted.   The merchant would only do business, with those who had voted with him in the first place.

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HMS Margaretta

Local militia leader Colonel Benjamin Foster conceived a plan to seize the merchant. He saw his opportunity on June 11, when Jones and Moore were in church.  They almost had the pair too, but Jones saw some twenty men approaching, and fled for the woods.  Moore was able to get back to the Margaretta, but events soon spun out of control.

The following day Colonel Foster and his brother, a man with the delightful name of Wooden Foster, seized the Unity.  A group of thirty began to construct breastworks to serve as protection, while others commandeered the coastal packet Falmouth.   There was about to be a fight.

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A group of Machias men approached Margaretta from the land and demanded her surrender, but Moore lifted anchor and sailed off in attempt to recover the Polly.  A turn of his stern through a brisk wind resulted in a boom and gaff breaking away from the mainsail, crippling the vessel’s navigability. Unity gave chase followed by Falmouth.

Musket fire was exchanged from both sides and hand grenades thrown onto the decks of the Unity.   Margaretta was soon boarded from both sides, the fighting hand to hand.

So began the “Lexington of the Sea”. The little-known episode was the first naval battle of the American Revolution, and ended in victory for the Patriot side.  Four Royal Navy seamen were killed outright and another ten wounded including Moore himself. He received a musket ball to the chest and died, the following day.

Patriot losses amounted to ten killed and another three wounded.

HMS Margaretta served the remainder of the Revolution as the renamed Machias Liberty.  British payback came on October 18 when Falmouth, the modern-site of Falmouth Maine and not to be confused with Falmouth Massachusetts, was burned to the ground.

British forces attempted a second assault on Machias, with an amphibious landing of 1,000 troops over the 13th – 14th of August, 1777.  The attempt was beaten back by local militia aided by Passamaquoddy and Penobscot allies, with both sides claiming victory.  The nearby village of Castine would be occupied in 1779 as would Machias itself during the War of 1812.  On both occasions, captured territories were re-dubbed the Crown Colony of “New Ireland”, a refuge for Loyalists and a base for future military operations.

The Crown Colonies of New Ireland survived for four years in the first instance and eight months in the second.  The failed Penobscot expedition of 1779 to retake the colony would result in the most catastrophic defeat suffered by American Naval forces until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 162 years later, but that must be a story for another day.

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Britain defending New Ireland from the Penobscot Expedition by Dominic Serres

May 20, 1845 The Lost Franklin Expedition

HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice.

Since the fall of Constantinople when the Ottoman Empire blocked overland trade routes to the east, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.  

The idea of a northern sea route has been around at least since the second century world maps of the Greco-Roman geographer, Ptolemy. Five years after Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”, John Cabot became the first European to explore the fabled “Northwest Passage”. Cabot made landfall in the Canadian Maritime sometime in June 1497 and, like Columbus, mistakenly believed he had reached the Asian shore.

A year later, King James VII authorized a much larger expedition of five ships and 200 men. Cabot’s expedition is believed to have been caught in a severe storm in the North Atlantic. None were ever heard from, again.

Jacques Cartier departed France in 1534 in search of a faster route to Asia. Three such expeditions failed to discover the great river to the west.

In 1539, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa departed the Pacific coast of Mexico for what the Spanish called, the Strait of Anián. Ulloa is credited with proving that Baja California is a peninsula and not an island but he too came back, empty handed.

Henry Hudson’s explorations paved the way to Dutch settlement in New York but the river that bears his name, proved to be a dead end. Another attempt in 1610 saw Hudson’s expedition stuck in the ice, in Hudson Bay. The ice melted with the Spring of 1611 when the crew mutinied, setting Cabot and a few loyalists adrift in a small boat. The mutineers returned to England. Cabot and the others, vanished.

The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

By the 19th century, European explorers looked to the north. To the Arctic. On this day in 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin departed England with a crew of 134 men aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage.

HMS Terror. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice. Inside, a steam heating system kept sailors insulated from the arctic cold.

Two months later, the vessels were spotted at the entrance of Baffin Bay. They were never seen again.

Three years later, a rescue expedition set out at the urging of lady Franklin and others, in search of the lost expedition. Three expeditions really, one overland and one each approaching from the north Atlantic, and Pacific. Some tantalizing clues emerged over the following decade. Three graves discovered on Beechy Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago . A note and then another, discovered under stone cairns. The weathered bones bearing knife marks raising questions, about cannibalism.

American vessels joined with those of British searchers. The search became all but a crusade for a time but nothing turned up, beyond the occasional clue. No member of the Franklin expedition was ever seen again. Not at least, by European eyes.

Anthropologists believe the Thule people split from related groups called Aleuts and from Siberian migrants some 4,000 years ago, displacing the paleo-eskimo culture called the Tuniit. The “Inuit” people further split around the year 1000 and moved east, across the Arctic.

The techniques by which a human being survives and even thrives in such an inhospitable place, the histories, these are the Qaujimajatuqangit, the knowledge of the Inuit, told and retold in stories going back thousands of years.

Inuit historian Louie Kamookak, explains:

“Inuit had no written system of language… History was passed down through oral history, which meant telling and retelling stories. During the long winter days and nights it was usually the elders who would tell stories.”

Hat Tip Louis Kamookak

169 years after HMS Erebus and Terror disappeared the Qaujimajatuqangit of the Netsilik Inuit of King William Island led to their discovery.

In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus, in an area identified in Inuit oral history. She lay in a mere 36-feet of water, a good sixty miles from where she was believed to be. Two years later, Inuit knowledge led to the wreck of HMS Terror.

Afterward

In 1852, searchers aboard HMS Resolute discovered the long suffering crew of HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice while searching for the lost Franklin expedition, three years earlier.

HMS Investigator is shown on the north coast of Baring Island in the Arctic in this 1851 drawing. The ships commanded by Sir John Franklin in his doomed 19th-century search for the Northwest Passage will have to overwinter wherever they are at least one more time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Public Archives of Canada

Resolute herself became trapped in the ice, the following year. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of rescue. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechy Island over the Spring and summer of 1854.

In 1855, the American whale ship George Henry discovered the Resolute drifting in pack ice, some 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen sailed Resolute back to Groton Connecticut, arriving on Christmas eve.

The late 1850s was a difficult time for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13, 1859. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until 1879 when she was retired, and broken up. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. In 1880, the British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes. A token of appreciation for HMS Resolute’s return, a quarter-century earlier.

The Resolute Desk has remained in the White House from that day to this, excepting the Truman renovations and 11 years following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when it was moved to the Smithsonian. President George H.W. Bush moved it into the residence office, in the White House. Aside from that, the Resolute desk has remained in the oval office from the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, to that of Joe Biden.

April 27, 1865 SS Sultana

At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

In April 1865, the Civil War was all but over.  General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th.  President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed, on the 26th.  Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole depots.

The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and pick up a promised load of passengers.

With a bulging seam on her boiler, the ship’s mechanic wanted to cut it out and install a new plate, easily three day’s work.  Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers.  He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch and he wanted it done, in a day.

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The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted troops home, and $10 apiece for officers.  Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal.  Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers and they’d both walk away, with a pocketful of cash.

As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity.  Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.

The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load.  Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24 with 2,427 passengers.  More than six times her legal limit of 376.

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This animation gives a sense of the size, of Sultana’s boilers

Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River.  She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds.  Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.

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SS Sultana was equipped with four such boilers, mounted from side-to-side.  Massively top heavy, water would run from left to right as she lurched from side to side, water then flashing to steam and creating enormous surges in pressure

The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current.  Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.

At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

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Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze.  Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river.  Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning, or hypothermia.

Seven hours later the drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana, sank to the bottom.  The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocahontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.  700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure.  Bodies continued to wash ashore, for months.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole. Like they never even happened. Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in American history, though her memory was swept away in the tide of events, that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

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Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable.  One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat.  It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned.  It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.

Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer.  The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own.  Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster.  Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010
Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2010

The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months later, the air forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Naval anchorage, at Pearl Harbor.

April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

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Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

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German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

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U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

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The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

u-864-wreck

A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.

February 7, 1917 The Road to War

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  No one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so there was war.  By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

wwi-submarine

On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

lusitania-sinking

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans.  100 of the dead, were children. .

The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

lusitania-warning
Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53.  American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry.  Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.  

Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw.  The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

January 14, 1969 Fire at Sea

For every multi-ton flying fuel tank hurtling from bow-mounted catapults bristling with armaments, a controlled crash landing of that same aircraft, takes place in the stern. Combine all that chaos with a heaping helping of Murphy’s law and the table is set, for disaster.

From the WW1-era launch of the first modern aircraft carrier to the present day, the carrier sailor has literally lived and worked, surrounded by the means of his own destruction.

In March 1953, a Corsair fighter off the coast of Korea landed on the decks of USS Oriskany, with a bomb still attached. The thing fell off and exploded, piercing the wingtip tanks of several F9F-5 Panthers, spilling flaming fuel across the decks. That time, fire crews were able to put out the fire, before the flames reached ordnance lockers. Loss of life was limited to two sailors killed and another fifteen, wounded. A decade later, the “Mighty O” wouldn’t get off, so lightly.

USS Oriskany

Oriskany began her second tour off the Vietnam coast in July, 1966. The carrier’s five fighter squadrons launched nearly 8,000 sorties in the first four months, a pace taxing to man and machine, alike.

On October 26, apprentice seamen George James, 18, and James Sider, 17, were ordered to stow 117 parachute flares. Untrained and unsupervised, Sider snagged a lanyard , and accidentally set one off. Panicked, blinded by the brilliant light of white phosphorus, Sider tossed the flare into the storage locker.

The bin already contained some 650 flares and 2¾-inch air-launched rockets, each carrying a 6-pound warhead. Temperatures inside the locker soared to 4,500° Fahrenheit and the main hatch exploded as steel bulkheads began to sag and buckle.

Water is worse than useless against a magnesium fire. Anyone who’s seen the Hindenburg tape understands why. Water breaks down to oxygen and hydrogen at temperatures over 3,000°, literally transforming into fuel, for the inferno.

Magnesium fires burn as hot as 5,600°, Fahrenheit. As a point of reference, volcanic lava ranges from 1,470° to 2,190°.

As helicopters burned and ammunition cooked off, the courage of individual firemen is scarcely to be believed. Literally surrounded by bombs staged for loading, firemen trained water hoses to cool these monsters even as their paint blistered, and fuze inlets began to smoke.

Oriskany fire, October 1966

Had the bombs gone off, the probable result would be the death of the carrier itself.

Down below, murderous heat and noxious fumes killed men where they stood. Lt. Cmdr. Marvin Reynolds wrapped a wet blanket around himself and fumbled in the darkness, for the wrench to open his porthole. “If you let this wrench slip and lose it in the smoke” he thought, “you’ve bought the farm.” Reynolds managed to open his porthole, holding his head out the small opening until a sailor passed him a breathing mask, and fire hose.

In the end, firemen could do little but hose the edge of the fire, while the inferno burned itself out. 44 men were killed and another 156, injured. So much water was pumped onboard that scuba teams were required, to rescue men trapped on lower decks.

8 months later, USS Forrestal met a similar fate. This one is personal as a close family member, was involved.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign against North Vietnam reached an intensity unrivaled, in US Naval history.

USS Forrestal, departing San Francisco bay.

Combat operations were literally outpacing ordnance resupply, which soon included AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, left over from the war in Korea.  Handlers feared these old bombs might spontaneously explode from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of Navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures, like a huge sparkler.

The problem was, the old ordnance was thinner-skinned than the modern bombs, and armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful too, as much as 50%, by weight.

On the morning of July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and “Zuni” unguided rockets. 

An electrical malfunction fired a rocket across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crew member and piercing the 400-gallon fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

800px-USS_Forrestal_A-4_Skyhawk_burning.png

During WW2, virtually all carrier sailors were trained to fight fires. That all changed by the Vietnam era in favor of small, highly trained teams of fire fighters. Damage Control came into action immediately, as Team #8 Chief Gerald Farrier spotted a Fat Boy bomb turning cherry red, in the flames.  Without protective clothing, Farrier held a fire extinguisher on the 1000-pound bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold, but composition B proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 had all but ceased to exist.

There were nine major explosions on deck during the first five minutes.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the blasts. Office furniture was thrown to the floor, five decks below.  Huge holes were torn through the flight deck while 40,000 gallons of flaming jet fuel, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

USS_Forrestal_fire_1_1967

Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Seconds later, Lieutenant Commander Fred White wasn’t so lucky.

With the life of the carrier itself at stake, tales of incredible courage, were commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The fire burned until 4:00 the next morning. 21 of the 73 aircraft on board were destroyed and another 40, damaged. 134 crewmen died in the conflagration. Another 161 received non-fatal injuries. It was the worst loss of life on a US Navy vessel, since World War 2.

They say bad luck comes in threes. On this day in 1969, the nuclear carrier USS Enterprise finished the list.

Since the age of the Wright brothers, aircraft designers have often left out the excess weight of starters and batteries. Early piston engines were startd by hand and, in the jet age, gas turbines often use auxiliary starters powered by gas or other combustible material.

On the morning of January 14, 1969, USS Enterprise was training 70-miles off Hawaii, preparing for her 4th tour of Vietnam. Her flight deck was crowded with F-4 Phantoms and A-7 Corsair II bombers, each loaded with Zuni rocket pods and 500-pound Mk-82 bombs. At 8:18am, an MD-3A “Huffer” aircraft engine starter was parked near the wing of an F4 Phantom, its exhaust a mere 24-inches from a rocket pod.

The 15-pound warhead on a Zuni rocket, goes off at 358° Fahrenheit. A Huffer exhaust burns between 362° and 590°. For a minute and 18 seconds, no fewer than four crew members were aware of the problem. None took steps to fix it and each, paid the ultimate price.

In the flash of an eye the exploding rocket ruptured several nearby fuel tanks as fuel vaporized and immediately, burst into flames. That’s when all hell, broke loose. The nearest 15 aircraft carried a combined fuel load of 15,000 gallons with a combined armament of 30 500-pound bombs and 40 Zuni rockets. 18 massive explosions went off in close succession, tearing great holes in 2½-inch deck armor.

Men and machines were tossed by each explosion, “like dust”. Three bombs went off at once opening a 22-foot hole in the deck, damaging a nearby tanker and spilling burning fuel, six floors below.

Knocked unconscious in the initial blast, Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank Neumayer of Fighter Squadron VF-96 awoke to find his goggles melting and his clothing, on fire. “The roar of the fire was just horrendous,” he later said. “It just blotted out any other sound. The stench… was horrible.” He managed to crawl to the catwalk below just as 2 500-pound bombs went off, not 30-feet from his previous position. Neumayer lost his left leg in the blast and twice received last rites, but survived.

The Destroyers USS Bainbridge and Rodgers came alongside, to lend their hoses. Helicopters arrived within two hours from Pearl Harbor, to medevac the wounded. Within three hours the last flames, were out.

The USS Enterprise fire resulted in the death of 34 men and another 341 non-fatal injuries. The fire resulted in a redesign of the Huffer starter and repair costs equivalent to $912 million, today. No formal inquiry was ever held, to determine fault. Everyone plausibly to blame for the catastrophe, had been among the first to die.

December 30, 1863 Bermuda and the Confederacy

“As a consequence of the naval blockade, Bermuda — along with the Bahamas and Cuba — became a centre of Confederate commerce. A steady stream of fast-running ships from the South clandestinely skirted the Union blockade, passing through St. George’s carrying cotton from Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina for English manufacturers; they made the return journeys freighted with European armaments. Bermuda was both a transhipment point where cotton was directly exchanged for British weapons warehoused here and a refuelling depot for Confederate blockade runners making transatlantic runs.” – Hat tip BerNews.com


South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. The CSA needed manufactured goods as well, goods no longer available from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.

For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.

slide_18President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic coastline and Gulf of Mexico, up into the lower Mississippi River.

Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds succeeded. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.

runnerbritanniawilm

Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston, Wilmington and other ports while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage.  Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.

North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.

The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception was the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer which ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground, attempting to escape threatening weather. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination, to this day.

shipwreck-in-bermuda
The blockade runner “Nola” was known at various times as Montana, Gloria, and Paramount.

President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death, in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade.  Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.

“The British colonial government monitored both sides to try to maintain strict neutrality, but only the latent threat of the powerful Royal Navy fleet based at Bermuda kept the belligerents from open warfare within British boundaries”. – Hat tip BerNews.com

Bermuda-National-Trust-Museum

Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George, leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.

Once the office of Confederate Commercial Agent John Tory Bourne and Confederate Shipping Agent Major Norman Walker, today the Bermuda National Trust Museum tells the story of the island’s history, including Bermuda’s role in the American Civil War. The museum’s guide book explains: “The opportunities for Bermudians to profit from blockade running were boundless. Ships needed coal and provisions. Crews required lodging, food and entertainment between runs. Cargoes had to be unloaded, stored and reloaded, while crews and cargoes had to be ferried to ships lying at anchor. Bermudian pilots guided the ships through the reefs; those with skills as mates, carpenters, firemen and ordinary seamen signed on as crew. The Civil War proved to be the road to riches.

[http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-us-cs/csa-sh/csash-ag/advance.htm DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY — NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER WASHINGTON NAVY YARD WASHINGTON DC] Sepia wash drawing by R.G. Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, and visited the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten married women living in Bermuda, were widows.

It occurred to me. All those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda.  The possibility that followed soon morphed into probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace paternity back to the Confederate States of America.

Bonnie Blue
‘The ‘Bonnie Blue’ flies over bonnie St George’s’ H/T Royal Gazette

December 10, 1917 A Gift of Gratitude

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston. A gift of gratitude, between two peoples.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, and the bonds between two peoples.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of the third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

Nova Scotia, ca 1900

The Norwegian vessel Imo left her mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

SS Imo

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running herself aground.

That’s when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

The ferocity of the blast literally tore Mont Blanc’s cannon from its mount and bent the barrel.

Mont Blanc’s Cannon

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light on the morning of December 7 revealed an apocalyptic scene of devastation, some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast as a blizzard descended over Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts’ Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax, a sum equivalent to some $665,000 today.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train to arrive on the scene.

Halifax Herald

There was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  An enormous Christmas tree.

In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston.  A gift of gratitude, between two peoples. More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

A monument was unveiled on Boston Commons on November 30, 2017, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

2020 tree

This year’s tree stands 48-feet tall tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax explosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.

The trip was a little different this year as the border remains closed, due to COVID restrictions. The 2020 tree arrived by ship in Portland Maine to continue the journey south, by road.

For a small Canadian province, the annual gift is no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

The 2020 tree lighting ceremony on December 3 was, like so many things in this year of years, virtual. There were televised remarks from Mayor Marty Walsh and Karen Casey, Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia, accompanied by Santa Claus and a squadron of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The switch was thrown and and a live audience of…nobody…enjoyed the ceremonial lighting of the tree.

Thank you, Xi Jinping. You have brought so much warmth into our lives.

BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 5: Fireworks explode around the Christmas tree on Boston Common at the conclusion of the festivities at the 78th annual tree lighting at the Boston Common on Dec. 5, 2019. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 2016, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word the following year, on the centennial anniversary of the Halifax catastrophe. “We had massive deaths and injuries”, he said. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”