May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. They immediately awakened Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, a WWI-era entertainer, and a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia. He was a dwarf. Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz. Three of those grew to normal height, the other seven were dwarves.

Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other, and live for one another”.

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The dwarves were talented musicians, performing a variety show throughout the ’30s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”. They toured Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia with their normal height siblings serving as road crew, until being swept up by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19th, 1944 and, accustomed to celebrity, one began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened, knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed, and what he called “blood” (family) experiments. The “Angel of Death”was delighted, “I now have work for 20 years”.

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The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a 15-month old boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, insisting that they were close relatives. A total of 22 people.

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  They were kept alive for further use and, as bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters for them.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than torture rituals.  The three skeletons displayed of their dwarf predecessors, an ever-present reminder of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was drawn until they would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.

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On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform. Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele gave a speech, and then the audience was invited onstage to poke and prod the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where a family of twelve lived to tell the tale.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found it ruined, though they did find a stash of gold coins where they had left it, buried for safekeeping before the war.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512bafThere was no future for them in this place.  Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned. The family emigrated to Israel in May 1949, resuming their musical tour and performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never faced justice. He fled to South America after the war, and suffered a stroke while swimming in 1979.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska, “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

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 12, 1975  The Mayaguez Incident

For a century, French colonial rulers had looted the mineral wealth of Cambodia, leaving a countryside riddled with mines.  After four years of Communist rule, those mines were filled with bones.

Between AD790 and 1431, the Khmere Empire founded by Prince Jayavarman II occupied much of what today includes Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was in its day, home to the largest city in the world.

Until recently overrun by Jungle, the capital city of Angkor, whose original name was Yashodharapura (“Glory-bearing city”), was nearly the size of modern day Los Angeles, and home to a million people.  Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains the largest religious monument in the world.

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Temple complex at Angkor Wat

During the 1950s, a group of some 200 middle-class Cambodian kids were educated at French Universities.  The greater part of them formed a student group of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

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Flag of Democratic Kampuchea

What began as a small leftist insurgency in Cambodia, grew in power thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmeres” (Khmere Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmere Republic government of Norodom Sihanouk and Lon Nol.

By early 1975, the Khmere Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.  The Khmere Rouge captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, overthrowing the government and executing its officers.

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Pol Pot

Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, the Communist Party of (the newly re-christened) “Kampuchea” (CPK) was led by a secretive, eight-member group of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, calling itself the the “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah, translating as ‘The Organization’).

The Khmere Rouge and the Angkar, led by Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar (better known as ‘Pol Pot’), set to work creating an agrarian peasant’s utopia by exterminating political opponents in “Democratic Kampuchea”, including monks, teachers and business owners.  Anyone possessing so much as a whiff of an education, a pair of eyeglasses even, was deemed an “enemy of the people” and clubbed to death on the spot.

For a century, French colonial rulers had looted the mineral wealth of Cambodia, leaving a countryside riddled with mines.  After four years of Communist rule, those mines were filled with bones.

p1140644At the height of its depravity, the Khmere Rouge smashed the heads of infants and children against Chankiri (Killing) Trees so that they “wouldn’t grow up and take revenge for their parents’ deaths”. Soldiers laughed as they carried out these grim executions.  Failure to do so would have shown sympathy, making the killer him/herself, a target.

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As the war in neighboring Vietnam drew a close, the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia remained part of an unknown and terrible future.   Representatives of the United States, North & South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed the Paris Peace Treaty in January, 1973. The last Americans airlifted out of Saigon on April 30, 1975 as the capital fell to Communist forces.

9820114_origOn May 12, the American flagged container ship SS Mayaguez passed the coast of Cambodia bound for Sattahip, in southwest Thailand.  At 2:18pm, two fast patrol craft of the Khmere Rouge approached the vessel, firing machine guns and then rocket-propelled grenades across its bows.

Captain Charles Miller ordered Mayaguez to a stop, but not before broadcasting SOS and Mayday messages.   39 Americans were now hostages of the Khmere Rouge.  Some of the most savage killers, of the 20th century.

time - mayaguezThe cargo vessel was being towed to Kompong Som on the Cambodian mainland, as word of the incident reached the White House.  A government made to look weak and indecisive by what President Ford himself called the “humiliating withdrawal” of only days earlier, could ill afford another drawn-out hostage drama, similar to that of the USS Pueblo.  Massive force would be brought to bear against the Khmere Rouge, and time was of the essence.

Two destroyers and an aircraft carrier were ordered to proceed at full speed to the Gulf of Thailand, along with a contingent of Air Force fighters, bombers, and helicopters. A Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft located Mayaguez anchored off Kho-Tang Island, 40 miles from the Cambodian mainland.

At least some of the Mayaguez crew were (mistakenly)  believed to be held on the island. Air force units air lifted a battalion-sized Marine rescue team to rescue the crew.  Meanwhile, the destroyer USS Holt was ordered to seize the Mayaguez, as the aircraft carrier Coral Sea launched bombing strikes against military targets in Cambodia.

usmckohtangExpecting only light resistance, US forces were met with savage force on May 15, from a heavily armed contingent of some 150-200 Khmere Rouge. Three of the nine helicopters participating in the operation were shot down, and another four too heavily heavily damaged to continue

US bombing raids accomplished their purpose on the Cambodian mainland. A fishing boat soon approached the destroyer USS Wilson under flag of truce.  Onboard were the 39 crewmen of the Mayaguez.

The situation was different on Kho-Tang Island. US forces were ordered to withdraw, as Khmere Rouge commanders pressed the attack. Air Force helicopter crews and Marine riflemen moved through heavy fire throughout the 15th, their defensive perimeter becoming smaller with the departure of every over-loaded chopper.

mayagtowThe cost of the Mayaguez Incident, officially the last battle of the Vietnam war, was heavy.  Eighteen Marines, Airmen and Navy corpsmen were killed or missing in the assault and evacuation of Kho-Tang Island.  Another twenty-three were killed in a helicopter crash.  The last of 230 Marines would not get out until well after dark.

No United States Marine would leave one of their own behind, either dead or alive. Not intentionally, but such discipline was impossible in the chaos of that night.  LCpl Joseph Hargrove, Pfc Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall formed a machine gun team, guarding the right flank of the evacuation as darkness fell.

The team was last seen by Sgt. Carl Anderson Jr.. Later reports described the three as being out of ammunition and “scared”.  Anderson ordered the three to evacuate and they were preparing to do so, when last seen. Navy SEALs and Marines asked permission to go back and attempt a rescue, but permission was denied.

The government in Washington, touted the operation as a victory.

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From left, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pvt. Danny Marshall H/T Stars and Stripes, for this image

Joseph Nelson Hargrove turned twenty-four, the day he was last seen on that beach. In 2012, Khmere Rouge commander Em Son told Stars & Stripes that Hargrove was captured a week later, trying to steal food. He was shot and killed the following day, while attempting to escape. Gary Hall and Danny Marshall were captured a short time later, brought to the mainland and beaten to death by the Khmere Rouge.  Both were 18.

In 2011, Khmer Rouge platoon commander Mao Run claimed to have killed a US service man with a grenade, several days after the battle. Alone and exhausted, this may have been a fourth man left behind alive. The name of this man and the details of his final days, remain uncertain.

The last official battle of the War in Vietnam, etched the last 41 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.

This is a long clip – about 28 minutes – but well worth watching.

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May 6, 1951 A Shepherd in Combat Boots

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.  He was 35.

Emil Joseph Kapaun was the son of Czech immigrants, a farm kid who grew up in 1920s Kansas. Graduating from Pilsen High, class of 1930, he spent much of the 30s in theological seminary, becoming an ordained priest of the Roman Catholic faith on June 9, 1940.

download (64)Kapaun served as military chaplain toward the end of WWII, before leaving the army in 1946, and rejoining in 1948.

Father Kapaun was ordered to Korea a month after the North invaded the South, joining the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Bliss.

His unit entered combat at the Pusan perimeter, moving steadily northward through the summer and fall of 1950. Kapaun would minister to the dead and dying, performing baptisms, hearing first confessions, offering Holy Communion and celebrating Mass from an improvised altar set up on the hood of a jeep.

Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September that year, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

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A single regiment was attacked by the 39th Chinese Corps on November 1, and completely overrun the following day. For the 8th Cav., the battle of Unsan was one of the most devastating defeats of the Korean War. Father Kapaun was ordered to evade, an order he defied. He was performing last rites for a dying soldier, when he was seized by Chinese communist forces.

Prisoners were force marched 87 miles to a Communist POW camp near Pyoktong, in North Korea. Conditions in the camp were gruesome. 1st Lt. Michael Dowe was among the prisoners, it’s through him that we know much of what happened there. Dowe later described Father Kapaun trading his watch for a blanket, only to cut it up to fashion socks for the feet of fellow prisoners.

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Father Kapaun would risk his life, sneaking into the fields around the prison compound to look for something to eat. He would always bring it back to the communal pot.

Chinese Communist guards would taunt him during daily indoctrination sessions, “Where is your god now?” Before and after these sessions, he would move through the camp, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Kapaun would slip in behind every work detail, cleaning latrines while other prisoners argued over who’d get the job. He’d wash the filthy laundry of those made weak and incontinent with dysentery.

Screen shot 2012-04-30 at 6.50.19 AMStarving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun led Easter services in April, 1951. He was incapacitated a short time later. Chinese guards carried him off to a “hospital” – a fetid, stinking part of the camp known to prisoners as the “Death House”, from which few ever returned. “If I don’t come back”, he said, “tell my Bishop that I died a happy death.”

In the end, Father Kapaun was too weak to lift the plate holding the meager ration the guards had left for him. US Army records report that Fr. Kapaun died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951.

His fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on the 23rd, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.

Scores of men credit their survival to Chaplain Kapaun. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented Kapaun’s family with the Medal of Honor, posthumous, for his heroism at Unsan. The New York Times reported that April, “The chaplain “calmly walked through withering enemy fire” and hand-to-hand combat to provide medical aid, comforting words or the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded, the citation said. When he saw a Chinese soldier about to execute a wounded comrade, Sgt. First Class Herbert A. Miller, he rushed to push the gun away. Mr. Miller, now 88, was at the White House for the ceremony with other veterans, former prisoners of war and members of the Kapaun family”.

Cmoh_armyPope John Paul II named Father Kapaun a “Servant of God” in 1993, the first step toward Roman Catholic Sainthood. On November 9, 2015, the Catholic Diocese of Wichita submitted a 1,066 page report on the life of Chaplain Kapaun, to the Roman Curia at the Vatican. A team of six historians reviewed the case for beatification. On June 21, 2016, the committee unanimously approved the petition. At the time I write this, Father Emil Joseph Kapaun’s supporters continue working to have him declared a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church, for his lifesaving ministrations at Pyoktong.

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 2, 1779 Mary Silliman’s War

Much is written about the history of warfare.  The strategy, the tactics, and the means of supply which make it all happen.  Far less has been written about a subject, equally important, if not more so.  The very real service to the nation, provided by the loved ones, most often the women, when the warriors leave their homes.

Sometime around 1980, Commandant of the United States Marine Corps General Robert H. Barrow captured the nature of the art of the warrior:  “Amateurs think about tactics”, he wrote, “but professionals think about logistics.”  Lieutenant General Tommy Franks, Commander of the 7th Corps during Operation Desert Storm, was more to the point:  “Forget logistics, you lose.”

Much is written about the history of warfare.  The strategy, the tactics, and the means of supply which make it all happen.  Far less has been written about a subject, equally important, if not more so.  The very real service to the nation, provided by the loved ones, most often the women, when the warriors leave their homes.

Mary Fish Noyes Silliman
Mary Fish Noyes Silliman

In the early days of the American Revolution, Gold Selleck Silliman served as a Colonel in the Connecticut militia, later promoted to Brigadier General.  Silliman patrolled the southwestern border of Connecticut, where proximity to British-occupied New York was a constant source of danger.  Silliman fought with the New York campaign of 1776 and opposed the British landing in Danbury, the following year.

Mary (Fish) Noyes, the widow of John Noyes, was a strong, independent woman, of good pioneer stock.  She had to be.  In an age when women rarely involved themselves in the “business” side of the household, Mary’s first husband died intestate, leaving her executrix of the estate, and head of household.

Image21Gold Selleck Silliman, himself a widower, merged his household with that of Mary on May 24, 1775, in a marriage described as “rooted in lasting friendship, deep affection, and mutual respect”.  The two would have two children together, who survived into adulthood:   Gold Selleck (called Sellek) born in October 1777, and Benjamin, born in August 1779.

Understanding that the coming Revolution could take her second husband from her as well, Mary acquainted herself with Gold’s business affairs, as well as the workings of the farm.  Throughout this phase of the war, Mary Silliman ran the family farm, entertained militia officers, housed refugees of war violence, managed the labor of several slaves and that of her adult stepson, drew accounts and collected rent on her late first husband’s properties, all while her husband was away, leading the state militia.

Before the war, Gold Silliman served as Attorney for the Crown.  He returned to civil life in 1777 following the Battle of Ridgefield, becoming state’s attorney.

On May 2, 1779, nine Tories ostensibly under orders from General Henry Clinton, set out in a whale boat from Lloyd’s Neck on Long Island, rowing across Long Island sound and onto the Connecticut shore.  One of them, a carpenter, had worked on the Silliman home and knew it well.  Eight of them beat down the door in the dead of night, kidnapping Silliman and Billy,  Gold’s son by his first marriage.  Mary Silliman, six-months pregnant at the time, could do little but look on in horror.

Lloyd's Neck
Lloyd’s Neck, Long Island

The two captives were taken to Oyster Bay in New York and finally to Flatbush, and held hostage at a New York farmhouse.  Patriot forces having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, the two Sillimans languished in captivity for seven months.

Mary Silliman wrote letters to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, to no avail.  At last, heavily pregnant, she set out for the headquarters of General George Washington himself.  An aide responded that…sorry…had Silliman been kidnapped while wearing the uniform, efforts could be made to intercede.  As it was, the captive was a civilian.  He was on his own.

Mary was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, after the woman was brutally raped during a lighting raid in which English forces burned family buildings and crops, along with much of Ridgefield.  All the while, Mary herself wanted nothing more than the return of her husband, and to become “the living mother of a living child”.

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From the film:  Mary Silliman’s War

With all other options exhausted, Mary contracted the services of one David Hawley, a full-time Naval Captain and part-time privateer.  Hawley staged a daring raid of his own, rowing across the sound and kidnapping a man suitable for exchange with Gold Silliman, in the person of Chief Justice Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

British authorities balked at the exchange and the stalemate dragged on for months.  In the end, Mary Silliman got her wish, becoming the living mother of a living child that August.  Gold Selleck and Billy Silliman were exchanged the following May, for Judge Jones.

The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells a story of non-combatants in the American Revolution.  The pregnant mothers and farm wives, as well as Silliman’s own negotiations for her husband’s release, by his Loyalist captors.  The film is outstanding, the history straight-up and unadulterated with pop culture nonsense, as far as I can tell.  The film is available for download, I found it for nine bucks.  It was nine dollars, well spent.

Feature image, top of page:  Silliman house, ca. 1890

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.

April 3, 1946 Death March

Mario “Motts” Tonelli hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the ’42 season, but it wasn’t meant to be. The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

The game was November 27, 1937.  Late in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame was tied 6-6 with Southern California. The “Fighting Irish” needed a miracle. Notre Dame fullback #58 Mario Tonelli took the hand-off deep in Notre Dame territory and ran the ball 70 yards back before being tackled. Seconds later, the 5’11”, 195lb Tonelli, scored the game winning touchdown.

In some ways, Mario Tonelli himself was the miracle. At the age of 6, “Motts” Tonelli had been burned over 80% of his body, when a trash compactor toppled over on him. Mario’s immigrant father Celi, a laborer from a northern Italian marble quarry, refused to believe the doctor who said his son would never walk again. Fixing four wheels to a door, the elder Tonelli taught his first American-born son to move about with his arms. By 1935, Mario Tonelli was a football, basketball and track star at Chicago’s DePaul Academy.

TonelliAfter a year coaching at Providence College in 1939 and a year playing professional football for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940, Tonelli joined the Army in early 1941, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila.

Tonelli hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the ’42 season, but it wasn’t meant to be. The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

Bataan1Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

bataanOn April 9, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65 mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic. They would beat the marchers and bayonet those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks  swerved out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

Exhausted, sunburned and aching with thirst, Tonelli still refused when a Japanese soldier demanded his Notre Dame class ring. As the guard reached for his sword, a nearby prisoner shouted “Give it to him. It’s not worth dying for”.

Mario Tonelli RingMinutes later, a Japanese officer appeared, speaking perfect English. “Did one of my men take something from you?” “Yes”, Tonelli replied. “My school ring”. “Here,” said the officer, pressing the ring into his hand. “Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time”. Tonelli was speechless. “I was educated in America”, the officer said. “At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you”.

Nearly 700 Americans and over 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan death march. For the survivors, the ordeal was only the beginning. For 2½ years, Tonelli suffered starvation, disease and endless beatings in the squalid prison camps known as O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, and Davao. Tonelli kept his ring throughout, buried in a soap dish. He’d take it out from time to time to remind himself:  life used to be better than this. It gave him something to hope for.

tonelli2The hellish 60-day journey aboard the filthy, cramped merchant vessel began in late 1944, destined for slave labor camps in mainland Japan. Tonelli was barely 100 pounds on arrival, his body ravaged by malaria and intestinal parasites. He was barely half the man who once played fullback at Notre Dame Stadium, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park.

Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he once wore on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

An American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.

Mario Tonelli always hoped to meet the officer who’d returned his ring, but it wasn’t meant to be. He probably didn’t survive the war. Tonelli still had that ring when he passed away, in 2003.

Last year, nearly 10,000 gathered in New Mexico, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Bataan death march. 7,200 retired and active duty military personnel and civilians gathered to run the 26.2 “Death March” through the hilly desert terrain of the White Sands Missile Range, a race described by DoD.mil as “one of the toughest marathon-length events in the U.S.”

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Bataan Death March survivor retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Harold Bergbower, 97, shakes hands with 2018 Bataan Memorial Death March participants at the race’s finish line. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Bruce Petitt

Ed Broadnax of El Paso, Texas, ran the course in full uniform, boots and 45-pound backpack. “As a veteran who served 26 years in the US Army and deployed three times to combat and experienced the horrors of war, I feel pain for the men and women who suffered intensely under the deadly Japanese Imperial Forces, as they were marched through the Philippine jungle. This is what drives me to run in their honor.”

Hundreds of others walked a 14.2 mile course, including Bataan Death March survivor Ben Skardon, who turned 100 last July.  Mr. Skardon walked 8½.  “The word hero doesn’t apply to me, at all”, Skardon said.  “As I said in my talk, ‘no greater love hath any man, than to lay down his life for his friends’.  That’s in the bible”.

Seven survivors of the Death March of 1942, turned out for the March 31, 2017 event.   The 2018 edition held on March 25, had one fewer.

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January 27, 1945 Cabanatuan

The Japanese atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  Seventy-three years ago, the place was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.

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1942 was a dreadful year for the allied war effort in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for ten to twenty-five thousand.

pows-cabanatuan20,000 died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

Cabanatuan-prisoncamp-report_555Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.

2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor, where prisoners waited to die.

A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

Palawan_Massacre_POW_Burial_Site_1945On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers of the Japanese 14th Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire, machine gunning or clubbing any who tried to escape the flames.   Some thirty to forty managed to escape the killing zone, only to be hunted down and murdered, one by one.  Eleven managed to escape the slaughter, and lived to tell the tale.  139 were burned, clubbed or machine gunned to death.

The atrocity at Palawan sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci of the United States Army’s elite 6th Ranger Battalion selected Captain Robert Prince to plan the rescue. “We couldn’t rehearse this”, Prince said. “Anything of this nature, you’d ordinarily want to practice it over and over for weeks in advance. Get more information, build models, and discuss all of the contingencies. Work out all of the kinks. We didn’t have time for any of that. It was now, or not”.

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6th Ranger Battalion Capt. Robert Prince

On the evening of January 27, 1945, a 14-man advance team formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the “Alamo Scouts”, separated into two groups and began the 30-mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan.

The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, serving as guides and helping in the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.  Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison.  As many as 7,000 more were deployed, just a few miles away.

On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.

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Filipino Guerilla fighters of Captain Juan Pajota

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out in the open.  They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers were killed in the raid, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  One prisoner died in the arms of a Ranger, before leaving the gate.  Another died of illness on the long trip back.  464 American soldiers were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

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Carabao cart, similar to the ones used after the raid on Cabanatuan

Edwin Rose was a civilian, a purser on a ship plying the Singapore – Hong Kong run, when the war broke out.  He was caught in Manila and spent 929 days in captivity.  One of the longest-held POWs of the war in the Pacific. Rose awoke the night of the raid, and “heard all the shooting”.  He “knew the Americans had arrived” but he rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking they were there to stay. On awakening the following morning, Rose found he had “Cabanatuan all my own.”

POWs_celebrateHe dressed and shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Edwin Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, the Americans among them representing virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
  • Captain John Dugan, Milton
  • 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
  • Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
  • Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
  • Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
  • Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
  • USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
  • USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin, Danvers
  • USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham

I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.  These guys have earned the right to be remembered.

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