May 21, 1944 That Other Disaster, at Pearl Harbor

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

Between June and November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and Army conducted Operation Forager with support from the United States Navy, an offensive intended to dislodge Imperial Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed during the last two years of WW2, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

In May 1944, the Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  Seventy-four years ago today, twenty-nine Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers, loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

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LST in Sicily

LST-353 exploded shortly after three in the afternoon, causing an incendiary chain reaction down the line of LSTs. 200 men were blown into the water in the first few minutes, in explosions powerful enough to knock vehicles on their sides. Eleven buildings on the shore were destroyed altogether and another nine, damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway, due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs began to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs, others were abandoned and left adrift and burning, before sinking in the channel.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires continued to burn for the next twenty-four hours.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines, but the idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was killed. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe that a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded, others that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack of two years earlier.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

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The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later, during salvage operations for a sunken LST.

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Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

On February 17, 1945, two divers were using jet nozzles to tunnel under a sunken LST, when the steel wreckage above them caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled with jagged pieces of steel, the pair was trapped under 40′ of water and another 20′ of mud.  There seemed no chance of survival, when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg went into the water.

Working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  Hammerberg reached the first man after hours of exhausting labor, freeing his lines and enabling the man to reach the surface.

Let Owen Hammerberg’s Medal of Honor citation, the one he would not live to read, tell what happened next.

Cmoh_army“…Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades…”.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in WW2 and the last person ever, to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

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.

May 15, 1718 Rapid Fire

The lightly armed merchant vessel of the 18th century was ill equipped to oppose the swarming attack of a hundred or more pirates.  Enter history’s first, machine gun.

A story comes to us from the Revolution, of a battle near Boonesborough, Kentucky. A British officer dared to poke his head out from behind a tree. A split-second later he was dead, a lead ball in his head. It was a near-miraculous shot for the day, nearly 250-yards distant from the shooter. The man with the rifle was Daniel Boone.  The weapon was his famous Kentucky long rife.

It was a good thing that the man could shoot that weapon, because it took about a minute to load, aim and fire.  The smooth-bore weapons of the age were a little quicker. A skilled shooter could could get off 3 rounds per minute, but aimed fire was all but impossible at any kind of distance.

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Kentucky Long Rifle

Military tactics on land evolved toward massed firepower.  When large groups of men fired at one another, something was going to get hit.  Defending yourself at sea, was another matter.

Long before the revolt in Great Britain’s American colony, European navies abandoned oar-powered vessels in favor of sailing ships carrying tons of powerful cannon.  Not so the corsairs of the North African coast.

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Ottoman privateer Murat Reis, the Elder

 

The “Barbary pirates” of the Ottoman provinces of Algeria, Tunisia & Tripolitania and the independent sultanate of Morocco favored small, fast galleys, powered by combinations of sail and oar and carrying a hundred or more fighting men armed with flintlock, axe and cutlass.

Barbary navies never formed battle fleets, and would flee at the sight of European frigates.  These people were looking for lightly armed merchantmen.  They came to take hostages for the Arab slave markets.

The Arab slave trade was never racialized in the way of trans-Atlantic, chattel slavery.  Black Africans and white Europeans alike, were fair game.  Some historians assert that as many as 17 million entered the Arab slave markets, from Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Africa and Europe.

It was the enslaved mercenary armies of the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt and Syria, the Mamālīk (singular Mamlūk), who expelled the last Christian armies from the Levant in 1302, ending the era of the Crusades. For five-hundred years, elite slave armies called “Janissaries” formed the bulwark of Ottoman power from southeastern Europe to western Asia and north Africa.

Ohio State University history Professor Robert Davis estimates that Barbary corsairs captured as many as 1 – 1¼ million Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries alone, kidnapped from seaside villages along the Mediterranean coast, England, and as far away as the Netherlands, Ireland and Iceland. Some 700 Americans were held in conditions of slavery in North Africa, between the period of the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

The lightly armed merchant vessel of the 18th century was ill equipped to oppose the swarming attack of a hundred or more pirates.  Enter history’s first machine gun.

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The “Puckle Gun”, patented this day in 1718

James Puckle (1667–1724) was a British inventor, barrister and author. The Puckle Gun, also called the “defence gun”, was a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock fitted with a revolving cylinder.  At a time when a trained shooter could load and fire no more than three times per minute, James Puckle’s weapon was capable of  nine.

The Puckle gun was intended for naval use, to prevent the boarding of ships at sea.  There were two variations, the first intended for use against Christian adversaries.  This one fired round balls. The second version was considered to be the more lethal of the two and fired square bullets, intended for use against Muslim Turks. According to the patent, square bullets would persuade the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilization”. The weapon could also fire shot, with each discharge containing up to sixteen musket balls.

Among investors, there was little interest in the Puckle Gun, and the weapon never gained wide acceptance. Before the era of mass production,  gunsmiths had trouble reliably producing its small, complicated parts. One newspaper quipped that the gun “only wounded those who hold shares therein”.

In time, humankind would become much more adept at killing itself. Dr. Richard Gatling invented his multi-barrel, crank fired “Gatling Gun” in 1861, writing that his creation would reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease. With a rate of fire of up to 900 rounds per minute in the .30 caliber model, Gatling’s gun was popular from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Anglo-Zulu war of two years later, and the “Rough Riders” assault up San Juan Hill.

American-British inventor Hiram Maxim invented the first true “machine gun” in 1884, by harnessing  the weapon’s recoil.  The Hiram gun was a favorite of colonial wars from 1886–1914, and variants entered the trenches of WW1.

It would take about a hot minute with the search engine of your choice, to realize that the practice of Muslim slavery, primarily (though not exclusively) at the expense of black Africans, continues to this day.

May 7, 1915 Lusitania

American public opinion was outraged at the loss of life in a war in which the United States was neutral. Imperial Germany, for her part, maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

By Spring of 1915, WWI had already devolved into the slugfest of trench warfare that would bleed nation states white and destroy empires. Imperial Germany had held off of unrestricted submarine warfare, believing the tactic would bring the United States into the war against them. Yet this war could not be won on the battlefield alone. They had to make it a war on commerce, to choke of their adversary’s lifeline. Besides, the German view was that ostensibly peaceful shipping was being used to ferry war supplies to the allies, which were going on to kill Germans on the battlefield.

Lusitania warningGermany adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 18, 1915. The German embassy took out ads in American newspapers, warning that ships sailing into the war zone, did so at their own risk. That didn’t seem to bother anyone as they boarded RMS Lusitania.

Lusitania was the largest and fastest ship afloat when she was christened in 1904. They called her the “Greyhound of the Seas”, in 1915 she could still outrun almost anything big enough to pose a threat. Lusitania left New York for her 202nd trans-Atlantic crossing on May 1, 1915, carrying 1,959 passengers and crew, 159 of whom were Americans.

All ships heading for Great Britain at this time were instructed to travel at full speed in zigzag patterns, and to be on the lookout for U-boats, but fog forced Captain William Turner to slow down as Lusitania rounded the south coast of Ireland on May 7.

The German U-boat U-20 commanded by Captain Walther Schwieger had targeted Lusitania by early afternoon.  At 1:40pm the U-boat fired a single torpedo. The weapon struck Lusitania on her starboard side. Some believe a second explosion was caused by the ignition of ammunition hidden in the cargo hold, others say that coal dust had ignited. Whatever the cause, there is near universal agreement that a second explosion rocked the ship. The damage from this second explosion was catastrophic.

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Lusitania quickly began to list, and sank in 18 minutes. There had been enough lifeboats for all the passengers, but the severe list prevented most of them from being launched. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died, including 128 Americans. 100 of the Americans, were children.

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American public opinion was outraged at the loss of life in a war in which the United States was neutral. Imperial Germany, for her part, 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.

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In what’s been called his “too proud to fight” speech three days later, President Woodrow Wilson said “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right”.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, and American entry into WWI was averted. The final provocation to war came in January 1917, when the “Zimmermann Telegram” came to light. A communication from the German Foreign Minister to his ambassador in Mexico, the Zimmerman telegram proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico in the event of war with the United States, in exchange for “an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

Zimmerman noteUnrestricted submarine warfare was resumed the same month. In February a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California off the Irish coast, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew. President Wilson asked for a declaration of war in a speech to a joint session of Congress on April 2. From the text of the speech, it seems the Germans were right. It was the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare which provoked the United States to enter the war against Germany, which it did when Congress declared war on April 6.

The German view that Lusitania carried contraband ammunition was vindicated as well, but at the time that was far into their future. Decades later, formerly secret British papers revealed the presence of contraband ammunition in the holds of the passenger liner. Divers explored the wreck in 2008, located under 300′ of water off the Head of Kinsale. On board, they found four million US made Remington .303 bullets, stored in unrefrigerated compartments in crates marked “butter”, “lobster” and “eggs”.

Lusitania, ammunition

A personal postscript to this story:  On several occasions, my folks hired an elderly Irish woman to babysit my brothers and me when we were kids, back in the ’60s.   As a little girl, Mrs. Crozier was living in Kinsale, back in 1915. Like the rest of her village, she ran out to the cliffs that morning to watch the great liner sink.  It was only nine miles off the coast and could be seen, clearly.  She must have thought I was a strange kid, but I couldn’t get enough of that story.

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.

April 27, 1865 Sultana

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly 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.

In April 1865, the Civil War was all but ended.  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 camps.

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 to pick up a promised load of passengers.

The mechanic wanted to cut a bulging seam out of the boiler 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 guys 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.

The temporary boiler patch exploded at 2:00am on April 27, detonating two more boilers 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.

The drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana sank to the bottom, seven hours later.  The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas 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 would continue to wash ashore, for months.

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly 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 before the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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.

March 4, 1942 Pearl Harbor, Version 2.0

If successful, this would be an endurance mission, one of the longest bombing raids ever attempted, and carried out entirely without fighter escort.  The mission was designated “Operation K”, and scheduled for March 4, 1942.

On December 7, 1941, forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States’ Pacific naval Anchorage, at Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress the following day, requesting a declaration that, since the attack, a state of war had existied between the United States, and Japan. Three days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, reciprocated by an American declaration against Nazi Germany, and their Italian allies. A two-years long conflict in Europe, had become a World War.

450px-Operation_K.svgIn the months that followed, the United States ramped up its war capacity, significantly.  Realizing this but having little information, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) determined to visit Pearl Harbor once again, to have a look around.

For the IJN, this was an opportunity to test the new Kawanishi H8K1 “Emily” flying boat, an amphibious bomber designed to carry out long distance bombing raids. So it was that a second, albeit smaller attack was launched against Pearl Harbor.

The IJN plan was complex.  This, the first Kawanishi H8K1 operation in Japanese military service, involved a small formation of flying boats to be sent to Wotje Atoll in the Marshall Islands, from there to stage the long-range attack.  The five flying boats would be loaded with four 550lb bombs apiece and flown to French Frigate Shoals northwest of Oahu, there to rendezvous with three Japanese submarines, waiting to refuel them.  Ten miles south of Oahu, the 356’ diesel-powered submarine I-23 was to hold watch over the operation, reporting weather and acting as “lifeguard” in case any aircraft had to ditch in the ocean.

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“A Kawanishi H8K1 of the 802nd Kokutai is lifted out of the water onto the decks of the HIJMS Akitsushima, 1942, off Shortland Island”. H/T fly.historicwings.com, for this image

After refueling, the bomber – reconnaissance mission would approach Pearl Harbor and attack the “10-10 dock”, so-called because it was 1,010 feet long and a key naval asset for the US Pacific Fleet.

If successful, this would be an endurance mission, one of the longest bombing raids ever attempted, and carried out entirely without fighter escort.  The mission was designated “Operation K”, and scheduled for March 4, 1942.

As it turned out, the raid was a “comedy of errors”, on both sides.

Things began to go wrong, almost from the beginning.  I-23 vanished.  To this day nobody knows where the submarine went. American forces reported several engagements with possible subs during this time frame.  Maybe one of those depth charges did its job.  It is equally possible that, unknown to the Imperial Japanese Navy, I-23 was involved in an accident, lost at sea with all hands.

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As it was, only two of the new flying boats were ready for the operation, the lead plane (Y-71) flown by Lieutenant Hisao Hashizume, and his “wingman” Ensign Shosuke Sasao flying the second aircraft, Y-72.

The staging and refueling parts of the operation were carried out but, absent weather intelligence from the missing I-23, the two-aircraft bombing formation was ignorant of weather conditions over the target.  As it was, a thick cloud cover woud leave the Japanese pilots all but blind.

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Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, USN

On the American side, Captain Joseph J. Rochefort, USN, worked in the Combat Intelligence Unit, tasked with intercepting enemy communications and breaking Japanese codes.  US code breakers had intercepted and decoded Japanese radio communications prior to the attack of four months earlier, but urgent warnings were ignored by naval authorities at Pearl Harbor.

Once again, Rochefort’s team did its job and urgent warnings were sent to Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) and to Com-14.  Incredibly, these warnings too, fell on deaf ears.  Rochefort was incredulous.  Years later, he would describe his reaction, at the time “I just threw up my hands and said it might be a good idea to remind everybody concerned that this nation was at war.”

American radar stations on Kauai picked up and tracked the incoming aircraft, but that same cloud cover prevented defenders from spotting them.  Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters were scrambled to search for the attackers, while Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats were sent to look for non-existent Japanese aircraft carriers, assumed to have launched the two bombers.

Meanwhile, the two Japanese pilots became confused, and separated.  Hashizume dropped his bombs on the side of Mt. Tantalus, about 1,000 ft. from nearby Roosevelt High School.  Hashizume’s bombs left craters 6-10 ft deep and 20-30 ft across on the side of the extinct volcano.  Sasao is presumed to have dropped his bombs, over the ocean.

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President Theodore Roosevelt High School, Honolulu

A Los Angeles radio station reported “considerable damage to Pearl Harbor”, with 30 dead sailors and civilians, and 70 wounded.  Japanese military authorities took the broadcast to heart, and considered the operation to have been a great success.  Talk about ‘fake news’.  As it was, the damage was limited to those craters on Mt. Tantalus, and shattered windows at Roosevelt High.

The United States Army and the US Navy blamed each other for the explosions, each accusing the other of jettisoning munitions over the volcano.

The IJN planned another such armed reconnaissance mission for the 6th or 7th of March, but rescheduled for the 10th because of damage to Hashizume’s aircraft, and the exhaustion of air crew.  The second raid was carried out on March 10, but Hashizume was shot down and killed near Midway atoll, by Brewster F2A “Buffalo” fighters.

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The results of the second Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, carried out on March 4, 1942, were limited to four craters on the side of an extinct volcano.

A follow-up to Operation K was scheduled for May 30, but by that time, US military intelligence had gotten wise to the IJN meet-up point.  Japanese submarines arriving at French Frigate Shoals found the place mined, and swarming with American warships.

In the end, the Imperial Japanese Navy was unable to observe US Navy activity, or to keep track of American aircraft carriers.  Days later, this blindness would have a catastrophic effect on the Japanese war effort, at a place called Midway.

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

March 2, 1977 Heeere’s Johnny

The world’s longest running talk show began in 1954, when Steve Allen sat down at his piano on September 27.  This show is gonna go on… forever”, Allen quipped.  So far, he seems to have gotten that right.

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Johnny Carson, Navy portrait

With Jack Parr about to sign off the “Tonight Show” for the last time, NBC executives were anxious to find a replacement.  Bob Newhart, Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, and Joey Bishop all declined the opportunity, when a United States Navy veteran, amateur magician and amateur boxer with a 10/0 record agreed to take the job.

Back when late-night comedians were expected to be funny, Johnny Carson had misgivings, believing himself unequal to the task of producing 90 minutes of fresh content, every day.

A series of guest hosts followed including Merv Griffin, Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Jerry Lewis and Groucho Marx, as Carson finished out the last six months of a contract with ABC.  Despite his apprehensions, Carson started the new gig on October 1, 1962.

No sooner had NBC announced that Johnny Carson would be joining “The Tonight Show,” than the national press gaggle came after him, looking for interviews. Paradoxically, the future “King of late night comedy” was averse to publicity.  Carson resisted at first, but finally relented, providing a list of answers to which journalists could apply any question they pleased:

  • “Yes, I did”.
  • “Not a bit of truth in that rumor”.
  • “Only twice in my life, both times on Saturday”.
  • “I can do either, but prefer the first”.
  • “NO”.
  • “Kumquats”.
  • “I can’t answer that question”.
  • “Toads and tarantulas”.
  • “Turkestan, Denmark, Chile, and the Komandorskie Islands”.
  • “As often as possible, but I’m not very good at it yet”.
  • “I need much more practice”.
  • “It happened to some old friends of mine, and it’s a story I’ll never forget”.
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Ed McMahon

A Marine Corps aviator and flight instructor from Lowell, Massachusetts joined Carson from that first show, back in 1962.   The Marine earned his carrier landing qualifications around the time the atomic bomb ended the war in the Pacific, and went on to fly 85 combat missions in Korea, earning six air medals and retiring with the rank of Colonel in 1966.   His name was Ed McMahon.

In those days, the Tonight Show was a whopping 105 minutes long.  Groucho Marx delivered a fifteen-minute monologue before introducing the host for that first program.  After that and for years afterward, the monologue segment fell to McMahon himself.

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Groucho Marx introducing the new host of the Tonight Show, October 1, 1962

When the Tonight Show first aired, everyone on the set including Carson himself, smoked.  The “Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act” was introduced in Congress in 1969.  Ironically, it was President Richard Nixon, an avid pipe smoker who lit up as many as eight bowls a day, who signed the measure into law on April 1, 1970.   The measure included a permanent ban on television cigarette advertising, scheduled to take effect ac1dd1ea41e71a3d44fe61af45173ba5--johnny-carson-tonight-showJanuary 2, the following year.  The last cigarette ad in the history of American television was a Virginia Slims ad, broadcast at 11:59p.m., January 1, 1971, on the Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson.  Smoking on-air became a thing of the past sometime in the mid-80s, but that cigarette box remained on Carson’s desk until his final episode, in 1992.  You’ve come a long way, baby.

For NBC, the Tonight Show was a cash cow.  Many years the program grossed over $100 million, accounting for 15-20% of the profits earned by the entire network.  Carson threatened to walk in 1980, ending up with a deal unprecedented in the history of American broadcasting: $5 million a year and series commitments estimated at $50 million.  Just as important, show content would no longer belong to the network, but to Carson himself.

hqdefault (1)Carson began taking Mondays off in 1972, when the show moved from New York to California.  There followed a period of rotating guest hosts, including George Carlin and Joan Rivers, who became permanent guest host between 1983 and 1986.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was a late-night fixture through seven US Presidents: John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George HW Bush.  Nearly every American over the age of 30 and some younger will remember the opening, “Heeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”.  There was the opening monologue, and the imaginary golf swing.  “Carnac the Magnificent”, holding the envelope to his head, reciting the punchline to the joke sealed inside.  “Saucepan… Who was Peter Pan’s wino brother?”  When a joke bombed, there was the comedic curse.  “May a bloated yak change the temperature of your jacuzzi!”

download (16)Jay Leno appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for the first time on March 2, 1977.  He would frequently guest, and served as permanent host from May 1992 to May 2009.

Five years after Carson’s final show, 10,000 taped episodes were moved to a salt mine in Kansas, to protect them from deterioration. There they remain, 54 stories underground, where the average temperature is 68° Fahrenheit, with a uniform 40% humidity.

Excepting Conan O’Brien’s eight months in 2010, Leno remained permanent host of the Tonight Show until February 2014, recording more episodes (4,610) than even Carson himself, with 4,531. Saturday Night live veteran Jimmy Fallon took over the reins in February 2014, where he remains to this day.

The world’s longest running talk show began in 1954, when Steve Allen sat down at his piano on September 27.  This show is gonna go on… forever”, Allen quipped.  So far, he seems to have gotten that right.

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February 17, 1864  My life Preserver

Author and adventurer Clive Cussler found the sub in 1995, buried in silt under 32′ of water. 

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Civil War-era cartoon depicts Winfield Scott’s “Great Snake”

In the 1850s, the economy of the southern United States was mostly agrarian.  When civil war broke out in 1861, the Confederate states depended to a greater degree on imported manufactured goods, compared with the more industrialized states to the north.  For the Union, there was strategic advantage in cutting off this flow of manufactured goods.  So it was the “Anaconda Plan” was initiated, to choke off traffic to southern ports and harbors.

Few in the Confederacy understood the need to keep southern ports open, as well as the planter, legislator, and southern patriot Horace Lawson Hunley.

In 1861, Hunley joined forces with James McClintock and Baxter Watson to design and build a secret Super Weapon for the Confederacy.  A submarine.  The trio completed construction on its first effort, the Pioneer, that same year in New Orleans.  The team went on to build two more submarines in Mobile, Alabama:  the American Diver, and the last and most successful creation, the “Fishboat“, later renamed HL Hunley.

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An oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, “Submarine Torpedo Boat H.L. Hunley, Dec. 6, 1863”

After a short sea trial in Mobile, the Hunley was put on a train and shipped up to Charleston, South Carolina, to help break the blockade.  Arriving on August 12, 1863, she was 40′ long by 4′ wide, displacing about 7½ tons.  She was designed for a crew of 8, with 7 operating a hand crank and the 8th steering the boat.

A test run on August 29 ended in disaster, when Skipper John A. Payne accidentally stepped on the lever controlling the diving planes, with the hatches open.  Payne and two others escaped, but the other five crew members went to the bottom.

confederatesA second crew tested the submarine on October 15, this one including Horace Hunley himself.  The submarine conducted a mock attack but failed to surface afterward, this time drowning all 8 crew members.

Despite those two disastrous test runs, there was no shortage of volunteers.  Once again, the Hunley was fished up from the bottom.

The original plan was to tow a floating mine called a “torpedo”, with a contact fuse.  They would dive beneath their victim and surface on the other side, pulling the torpedo into the side of the target.

images (21)Tide and current conditions in Charleston proved very different from those in Mobile.  On several test runs, the torpedo floated out ahead of the sub.  That wouldn’t do, so a spar was fashioned and mounted to the bow.  At the end of the spar was a 137lb waterproof cask of powder, attached to a harpoon-like device with which Hunley would ram its target.

Hunley made her first live attack run four miles outside of Charleston Harbor, on the night of February 17, 1864. Lieutenant George Dixon and a crew of seven attacked USS Housatonic, a 1,240 ton steam powered sloop of war, embedding the spar torpedo into Housatonic’s hull.  It must have been a sight to see.  The torpedo ignited a 4,000 lb store of black powder in the hull of the ship, exploding with a deafening roar and a towering column of flame that lit up the night.

Housatonic was gone in three minutes, killing five sailors.  What happened next, is a mystery.  The first successful attack sub in history, vanished.  The Hunley crew would not be seen again, for 136 years.

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Forensic facial reconstructions techniques bring back the faces of the last crew of HL Hunley

Author and adventurer Clive Cussler found the sub in 1995, buried in silt under 32′ of water.  A painstaking, five year effort was launched to bring Hunley to the surface, and on August 8, 2000, HL Hunley returned to the light of day.  The sub was moved to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in the Charleston Navy Yard, and submerged in 55,000 gallons of chilled, fresh water, where scientists and historians worked on unlocking its secrets.

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There was an old rumor that Lt. Dixon left a girlfriend in Mobile, Alabama, a woman named Queenie Bennett.  She had given him a $20 gold piece, a good luck charm and token of her affection.  Dixon was shot in the hip at Shiloh, the story goes, a wound that should have killed him.  If the bullet hadn’t struck the gold piece in his pocket.

No one knew if the story was true, until excavation started inside the sub.  Senior Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen found the coin, next to the remains of George E. Dixon.  “Some people may think this is a stroke of luck,” she said, “but perhaps it’s something else. They tell me that Lt. Dixon was a lady’s man, perhaps he winked at us yesterday to remind us that he still is”.

140214143335-07-hl-hunley-coin-horizontal-large-galleryOn the coin, clearly showing signs of having been struck by a bullet, are inscribed these words:

Shiloh

April 6, 1862

My life Preserver

G.E.D.

 

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.