December 24, 1814 I’ll have the Miss Piggott Special

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Infamous “crimps” like James “Shanghai” Kelly were happy to help, with both problems.

In modern times, governments have employed various strategies to meet the personnel needs of national armed services. Recruiting methods range from voluntary to compulsory service, and even a lottery or other form of draft, in times of national emergency.

During the age of sail, vast numbers of skilled and unskilled seamen alike, were required to meet the needs of naval vessels at sea. Governments resorted to more straightforward methods of meeting manpower requirements, namely, kidnapping.

Such involuntary service or “impressment”, was first made legal during Elizabethan times, but the practice dates back to the 13th century.

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“Press gangs” would patrol waterfronts looking for vagrants, raiding taverns and even pouncing on unsuspecting victims in their beds. Prints from the time show armed gangs barging into weddings and hauling away the groom. I can’t imagine the bride was too pleased but, good news. In 1835 the practice was limited to a single impressment per man with a maximum term of impressment, of five years.

Such “pressing” often took place at sea, where armed gangs would board merchant ships and take what they needed, sometimes leaving victims without sufficient hands to take them safely back to port.

Such methods were essential to the strength of the British Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often targets. The British Navy impressed over 15,000 American sailors alone, between 1793 and 1812.

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The American public was outraged and there were calls for war in 1807, when HMS Leopard overtook the USS Chesapeake, kidnapping three American-born sailors and one British deserter, leaving another three dead and 18 wounded.

This time, American retaliation took the form of an embargo. Five years later, continued impressment of American seamen would be a casus belli for the war of 1812, a conflict ended with the Treaty of Ghent signed this day, in 1814.

Crimping 1

Outside of the British Royal Navy, the practice of kidnapping men to serve as shipboard labor was known as “crimping”. Low wages combined with the gold rushes of the 19th century left the waterfront painfully short of manpower, skilled and unskilled. “Boarding Masters” had the job of putting together ship’s crews, and were paid for each recruit. There was strong incentive to produce as many able bodies, as possible. Unwilling men were “shanghaied” by means of trickery, intimidation or violence, most often rendered unconscious and delivered to waiting ships, for a fee.

Crimps made $9,500 or more per year in the 1890s, equivalent to over a quarter-million, today. The practice flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. You also didn’t want to be caught out alone and drunk, in east coast port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Today the area from North Beach to Jackson Square in San Francisco, is ‘Frisco’s’ Chinatown. During the Gold Rush era this was the infamous Barbary Coast, a raucous red-light district of taverns and whorehouses where fewer left, than than ever came in.

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Happy to help with both problems James “Shanghai” Kelly kept several bars and a boarding house on the Barbary Coast. This character once shanghai’d 100 guys, in a single evening.

In the early 1870s, Kelly rented the paddleboat Goliath and widely publicized a free booze cruise, to celebrate his birthday. Bartenders drugged unwitting revelers with opium-laced whiskey, and then offloaded them to waiting ships. Shanghai Kelly’s biggest concern was returning after such a public event, with an empty boat. His luck held, when another paddle wheel steamer, the Yankee Blade, struck a rock and began to sink. Goliath rescued everyone on board, and continued the party. Nobody back at the waterfront, noticed a thing.

The Laurel & Hardy short film “Live Ghost” (1934) is about the practice, of crimping

Joseph “Bunko” Kelley was another infamous crimp, also working out of the San Francisco waterfront. The “King of Crimps”, Kelley once set a record rounding up 50 guys in three hours. The Bunko name stuck, when Kelley delivered one crewman for $50, who turned out to be a cigar store Indian. In 1893, Kelley delivered 22 guys who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid, from a local mortuary. He sold them all for $52 apiece though most of them were dead, a fact to which the ship’s captain only became wise, after returning to sea.

Crimping 3, Bunko Kelley
James “Bunko” Kelley

The “Shanghai tunnels” of Portland run through the Old Town/Chinatown section to the main business district, connecting the basements of hotels and taverns to the waterfront at the Willamette River. The tunnels themselves are real enough, though their history is shrouded in mystery. Originally constructed to move goods from the Willamette waterfront to basement storage areas, the number of unconscious bodies hustled down the dark chambers of the Portland Underground”, remains unknown. There are those who will tell you, the practice continued well into the WW2 period.

State and federal legislatures passed measures to curb the practice after the Civil War, but crimping didn’t go away easily. In their heyday, the owners of sailor’s boarding houses had endless supplies of manpower, fanning out across polling places to “vote early and often”.

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San Francisco political bosses William T. Higgins, (R) and Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley (D) were both notable crimps, and well positioned to look after their political interests. Notorious crimps such as Joseph “Frenchy” Franklin and George Lewis were elected to the California state legislature. There was no better spot from which to ensure that no legislation would interfere with such a lucrative trade.

A brief list of infamous crimps includes Andy “Shanghai Canuck” Maloney of Vancouver, Anna Gomes of San Francisco, New Bedford’s own “Shanghai Joe” and Tom Codd the “Shanghai Prince”. William “Billy” Gohl, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” of Aberdeen Washington, also happened to be, a serial killer.

In the 1860s and 70s, one “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. This “ferocious old harridan” would maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door and serve them her “Miss Piggott Special,” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with either laudanum, or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall to the waiting mattress, below.

(From left) Colonel Jack Gamble, Miss Piggott and Sam Roberts of the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday June 18, 2014. (photo by Beck Diefenbach / Madam Tussauds)

Imagine the hangover the next morning, to wake up and find you’re now at sea, bound for somewhere in the far east. Regulars knew about the trap door and avoided that thing at all costs, knowing that anyone going over there, was “fair game”.

Widespread adoption of steam power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did as much to curb shanghaiing as did any legislative effort. Without acres of canvas to furl and unfurl, the need for unskilled labor was greatly diminished. The “Seaman’s Act of 1915”, sometimes called the “magna carta of sailor’s rights,” ended the practice for good.

You might want to do yourself a favor, though, if you’re ever at Miss Piggott’s place. Look out for that trap door.

December 18, 1944 Typhoon

Hulls would creak and groan with the pounding and rivets popped. Captains in wheelhouses would order course headings, but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended course. Some ships rolled more than 70°. The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock, scooped tons of water onto its flight decks, 57-feet above the surface.


In September 1935, the Imperial Japanese Navy was caught in foul weather while conducting wargame maneuvers. By the 26th, the storm had reached Typhoon status.  The damage to the Japanese fleet was near catastrophic. Two large destroyers had their bows torn away by heavy seas. Several heavy cruisers suffered major structural damage.  Submarine tenders and light aircraft carriers developed serious cracks in their hulls. One minelayer required near total rebuild and virtually all fleet destroyers suffered damage to superstructures. 54 crewmen lost their lives.

Nine years later, it would be the turn of the American fleet.

The war in the Pacific was in its third year in December 1944. A comprehensive defeat only weeks earlier had dealt the Imperial Japanese war effort a mortal blow at Leyte Gulf, yet the war would slog on for the better part of another year.

Carrier Task Force 38 was a massive assembly of warships, a major element of the 3rd Fleet under the Command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.  In formation, TF-38 moved in three eight-mile diameter circles, each with an outer ring of destroyers, an inner ring of battleships and cruisers and a mixed core of 35,000-ton Essex class and smaller escort carriers. TF-38 was a massive force fielding eighty-six warships, all told.

By mid-December 1944, Task Force 38 was underway for three weeks, having just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields in the Philippines, suppressing enemy aircraft in support of American amphibious operations against Mindoro.  Ships were badly in need of re-supply.  A replenishment fleet, 35 ships in all, was sent to the nearest spot near Luzon still outside of Japanese fighter range. 

Rapid movement into previously enemy-held territory made it impossible to establish advance weather reporting.  By the time that Task Force meteorological service reports made it to ships in the operating area, weather reports were at least twelve hours old.

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Three days earlier, a barometric low pressure system had begun to form off Luzon, fed by the warm waters of the Philippine sea.  High tropospheric humidity fed and strengthened the disturbance as counter-clockwise winds began to develop around the low pressure center.  By the 18th, this once-small “tropical disturbance” had developed into a compact but powerful cyclone.

Replenishment operations began the morning of the 17th as increasing winds and building seas made refueling increasingly difficult.  Refueling hoses were parted in several locations. Thick hawsers had to be cut to avoid collision as sustained winds built to 40 knots.  Believing the storm center to be 450 miles to his southeast, Admiral Halsey declined a return to base.  It would take too long and beside, and combat operations were scheduled to resume, two days later.  Halsey needed the carrier group refueled and on station, so it was decided.  Task Force 38 and the replenishment fleet would proceed to a second replenishment point, hoping to resume refueling operations on the morning of the 18th.

Cobra

Four times over the night of December 17-18, course was corrected in the search for calmer water.  Four times the ships of Task Force 38 and it’s attendant resupply ships turned each time moving closer to the eye of the storm.  2,200-ton destroyers pitched and rolled like corks, towering over the crest of 70-foot waves only to crash into the trough of the next, shuddering like cold dogs as decks struggled to shed thousands of tons of water.

Hulls creaked and groaned with the pounding. Rivets popped.  Captains in wheelhouses order course headings but helmsmen could do no better than 50° to either side of the intended direction.  Some ships rolled more than 70°.  The 888-ft carrier USS Hancock scooped tons of water onto its own flight decks, 57-feet up.

USS Cowpens during Typhoon Cobra

Typhoon Cobra reached peak ferocity between 1100 and 1400 with sustained winds of 100mph and gusts of up to 140.

The lighter destroyers got the worst of it, finding themselves “in irons” – broad side to the wind and rolling as much as 75° with no way to regain steering control.  Some managed to pump seawater into fuel tanks to increase stability, while others rolled and couldn’t recover, water cascading down smokestacks and disabling engines.

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146 aircraft were either wrecked or blown overboard.  The carrier USS Monterrey nearly went down in flames as loose aircraft crashed about on hanger decks and burst into flames.  One of those fighting fires aboard Monterrey was then-Lieutenant Gerald Ford, the former Michigan Wolverine center and future President of the United States.

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Many of the ships of TF-38 sustained damage to above-decks superstructure, knocking out radar equipment and crippling communications.

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790 Americans were killed by Typhoon Cobra:

USS Hull – with 70% fuel aboard, capsized and sunk with 202 men drowned. There were 62 survivors.
USS Monaghan – capsized and sunk with 256 men drowned. There were 6 survivors.
USS Spence – rudder jammed hard to starboard, capsized and sunk with 317 men drowned after hoses parted attempting to refuel from New Jersey because they had also disobeyed orders to ballast down directly from Admiral Halsey. There were 23 survivors.
USS Cowpens – hangar door torn open and RADAR, 20mm gun sponson, whaleboat, jeeps, tractors, kerry crane, and 8 aircraft lost overboard. One sailor lost.
USS Monterey – hangar deck fire killed three men and caused evacuation of boiler rooms requiring repairs at Bremerton Navy yard
USS Langley – damaged
USS Cabot – damaged
USS San Jacinto – hangar deck planes broke loose and destroyed air intakes, vent ducts and sprinkling system causing widespread flooding. Damage repaired by USS Hector
USS Altamaha – hangar deck crane and aircraft broke loose and broke fire mains
USS Anzio – required major repair
USS Nehenta – damaged
USS Cape Esperance – flight deck fire required major repair
USS Kwajalein – lost steering control
USS Iowa – propeller shaft bent and lost a seaplane
USS Baltimore – required major repair
USS Miami – required major repair
USS Dewey – lost steering control, RADAR, the forward stack, and all power when salt water shorted main electrical switchboard
USS Aylwin – required major repair
USS Buchanan – required major repair
USS Dyson – required major repair
USS Hickox – required major repair
USS Maddox – damaged
USS Benham – required major repair
USS Donaldson – required major repair
USS Melvin R. Nawman – required major repair
USS Tabberer – lost foremast
USS Waterman – damaged
USS Nantahala – damaged
USS Jicarilla – damaged
USS Shasta – damaged “one deck collapsed, aircraft engines damaged, depth charges broke loose, damaged“

It could have been worse.  The destroyer escort USS Tabberer defied orders to return to port, Lieutenant Commander Henry Lee Plage conducting a 51-hour boxed search for survivors despite the egregious pounding being taken by his own vessel.  USS Tabberer plucked 55 swimmers from the water, survivors of the capsized destroyers Hull and Spence.

Cobra 7, Pittsburgh

Typhoon Cobra moved on overnight, December 19 dawning clear with brisk winds. Admiral Halsey ordered “All ships of the Task Force line up side-by-side at about ½ mile spacing and comb the 2800-square mile area” in which they’d been operating.  Carl M. Berntsen, SoM1/C aboard the destroyer USS DeHaven, recalled that “I saw the line of ships disappear over the horizon to starboard and to port”. The Destroyer USS Brown rescued six survivors from the Monaghan and another 13 from USS Hull.  18 more would be plucked from the water, 93 in all, by ships spread across fifty to sixty miles of open ocean.

When it was over, Admiral Chester Nimitz said typhoon Cobra “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action.”

Afterward

CARL MARTIN BERNTSEN PASSED AWAY ON OCTOBER 13TH, 2014 IN KITTY HAWK, NORTH CAROLINA. HE WOULD HAVE BEEN 94, THE FOLLOWING MONTH. I AM INDEBTED TO HIM AND HIS EXCELLENT ESSAY FOR THIS STORY.  VIRTUALLY ALL SHIPS OF TASK FORCE 38 WERE DAMAGED TO VARYINHG DEGREEs.

November 1, 1945 X-Day

For years, everyone believed that semi-submersible craft in Fall River must have been a kamikaze vessel, from World War 2. The story that funny little boat had to tell was very different. The tale of a history, that never was.

If you’re ever in southeastern Massachusetts, be sure to visit Battleship Cove in Fall River, the largest collection of World War 2 naval craft, in the world. The Battleship Cove museum sports some sixty exhibits, preserving the naval heritage of these iconic vessels and the veterans who served them.

To inspect battle damage visible to this day on the decks of USS Massachusetts is to realize United States armed forces once exchanged shots in anger with our French ally, at a place called Casablanca. The attack sub USS Lionfish once performed “lifeguard duty”, the rescue of downed fliers, off the coast of Japan. Her captain was Lieutenant Commander Edward D. Spruance, son of Admiral Raymond Spruance who commanded US naval forces during one of the most significant naval battles of the Pacific, the battle of the Philippine Sea.

To walk aboard USS Massachusetts or USS Lionfish, is to experience a side of WW2, fast disappearing from living memory.

Battleship Cove

Walk among the wooden-hulled PT boats of the Pacific war, and there you will find a strange little craft. One of three planned for and only two, ever built. Closed at the top and semi-submersible, a Japanese kamikaze boat perhaps, designed for suicide missions against allied warships. Museum management believed just that and mislabeled the display, for years.

The other it turns out is on display at Central Intelligence headquarters, at Langley, Virginia. Years later a retired CIA employee visiting Battleship cove spotted the error. CIA files declassified in 2011 added detail to a very different story, from that of Japanese suicide vessels.  To the tale of a history, that never was.

On August 2, 1939, Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd delivered a letter which would change history, to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Written in consultation with fellow Hungarian physicists Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner and signed by Albert Einstein, the letter warned that Nazi Germany was working to develop atomic weapons, and urged the American government to develop a nuclear program of its own.  Immediately, if not sooner.

The Einstein–Szilárd letter spawned the super-secret Manhattan project, culminating in the atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, and ending the war in the Pacific in August, 1945.

At the time, precious few were aware of even the possibility of such a weapon.  Fewer still, the existence of a program dedicated to building one.  Vice President Harry Truman, second only to the Commander in Chief himself, was entirely ignorant of the Manhattan project and only read in following the death of the President in April, 1945.

Female students with the Kokumin Giyū Sentōtai, the Volunteer Fighting Corps, prepare for the Allied projected invasion

The battle for the Japanese home islands was expected to be a fight like no other. Casualties of a million or more were expected, and for good reason. Japanese soldiers fought with such fanaticism, that hundreds continued to resist, years after the war was ended. The last holdout wouldn’t lay down his arms until 1974. 29 years, 3 months, and 16 days after the war had ended.

Such frenzied resistance would not be isolated to Japanese military forces, either. Japanese government propaganda warned of “American devils raping and devouring Japanese women and children.” American GIs looked on in horror in 1944, as hundreds if not thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians hurled themselves to their death, at Laderan Banadero and “Banzai Cliff” on the northern Mariana island of Saipan. One correspondent wrote with admiration of such mass suicides, praising “the finest act of the Shōwa period”… “the pride of Japanese women.”

This is what their government, had taught these people to believe.

Plans for the final defeat of the Imperial Japanese Empire all but wrote themselves, phase one launched from the south against the main island of Kyūshū, and using the recently captured island of Okinawa, as staging area.  Phase two was the planned invasion of the Kantō Plain toward Tokyo, on the island of Honshu.

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Operation Downfall

The story of the D-Day invasion begins with deception, a massive head fake intended to draw German defenders away from intended landing zones. “Operation Downfall” offered no such opportunities, for deceit. Geography dictated the method of attack, and everybody knew it. Virtually everything left of Japanese military might would be assembled for the all-out defense of Kyūshū, against what would be the largest amphibious invasion, in history.

This was to be a full frontal assault with no subterfuge and nowhere, to hide.

American military planners ordered half a million Purple Hearts, in preparation for the final invasion of the Japanese home islands. To this day, military forces have yet to use them all. As of 2003 some 120,000 Purple Heart medals still remained, in inventory.

The whole thing would begin on “X-Day”.  November 1, 1945.

Which brings us back to that funny-looking boat, in Fall River. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the modern CIA, built two of these semi-submersibles. The vessel was called “Gimik”, part of a top-secret operation code named “NAPKO”.

GIMIK, underway

Ten teams were envisioned varying from five to a single individual. 55 Korean-Americans and Korean prisoners freed from Japanese prison labor camps were trained to infiltrate Japanese occupied Korea and possibly Japan itself, to collect intelligence and carry out sabotage against military targets in advance of Operation Downfall. None were aware even of the existence of the other teams lest any, were to fall into Japanese hands.

The GIMIK craft were built by John Trumpy and sons yacht yard of Annapolis Maryland, builders of the presidential yacht, Sequoia

Operated by a single OSS officer with two Korean operatives and up to 1,000-pounds of equipment secured inside, the GIMIK craft would be their means of insertion. 19-feet long and built of plywood to avoid radar and sonar detection, the snorkel was wrapped in steel wool to confound discovery. The craft were to be delivered on theater via submarine in large metal boxes called “coffins’. After insertion, the vessels would go fully submerged and anchor to the bottom where they were equipped to operate, for up to four weeks.

Operated by a single OSS officer with two Korean operatives and up to 1,000-pounds of equipment secured inside, the GIMIK craft would be their means of insertion. 19-feet long and built of plywood to avoid radar and sonar detection, the snorkel was wrapped in steel wool to confound discovery. The craft were to be delivered on theater via submarine in large metal boxes called “coffins’. After insertion, the vessels would go fully submerged and anchor to the bottom where they were equipped to operate, for up to four weeks.

The NAPKO operation was conceived and run by OSS Colonel Carl Eifler, who hope to have as many as seven teams, operational. Tactical focus would then be placed on those best positioned, for ultimate success. As it turned out only two teams were ever ready, for the operational stage.

“Code-named ‘Kinec’ and ‘Charo.’ Both were very similar in concept, differing primarily in intended points of penetration and operating areas. Kinec envisioned landing five agents at Chemulpo Bay, about 20 miles outside Seoul on the country’s west coast; Charo was focused on Pyongyang following penetration via Wonsan and utilized three, rather than five, Korean agents. Typical of NAPKO missions, the teams were to carry minimal equipment and supplies: 100,000 yen, a radio, appropriate clothing for passing as locals, and a Japanese-manufactured shovel for burying the team’s equipment after landing.”

Hat tip former Special Forces NCO Steve Balestrieri, writing for SOFREP.com

The mission was extremely dangerous for obvious reasons.  Training was carried out during the summer of 1945 on Catalina Island, off the California coast.  The two boats, nicknamed “Gizmos”, were tested at night against the US Naval base in Los Angeles. Even this part was dangerous, since no one was told about the trials. Should such a vessel be detected entering the American installation, it would be treated as an enemy vessel, and destroyed.

In the end, the Gizmo teams never left American waters.  Several such tests were carried out without detection, leading to a scheduled departure date of August 26, 1945.  It was never meant to be.

A parallel and equally secret plan to end the war literally burst on the scene on August 6, 1945.  The war would be over, in another nine days.

August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

Once hopelessly caught in arctic ice the British vessel HMS Resolute was returned to her majesty Queen Victoria’s government and now serves as a desk for virtually every US President from Rutherford B. Hayes, to Joseph R. Biden.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers have searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“ better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, the intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two vessels became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Ship

Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few hulls suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan and refitted for Arctic exploration. Renamed Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  What HMS Resolute Did find was the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

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Three of the Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853 including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August, of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return. Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

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The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s 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. Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from the 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 President Rutherford B. Hayes the gift, of a large partner’s desk. A token of gratitude for the return of the HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier.

The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President from that day, to this. Every president from Hayes through Hoover used the desk either in the White House Green Room, the president’s study or working office. FDR moved the desk into the oval office where he had a panel installed in the opening, as he was self conscious about his leg braces.

There was a brief period of climate controlled storage during the Truman era as the White House went through major renovation. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk back, into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk while a young JFK, Jr., played underneath.

Stanley Tretick’s October 2, 1963 photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. playing in the kneehole of the Resolute desk

Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House following the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only other time the desk has been out of the White House.

Resolute, Reagan

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump and, as of this article, Joe Biden.

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.

Slocum-ablaze

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.

Youngest_Slocum_Survivor

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.”

General_Slocum_Memorial

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.

BoilerBlue
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.

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