July 15, 1864 The Great Shohola Train Wreck

Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold that eastbound coal train, until West #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen.  He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45 on this day in 1864. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola. Only four miles now separated the two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout prison in Maryland, to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.  “Hellmira”.

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“Jupiter 1864 train engine, typical of the type of engine used during the Civil War Era”. Tip of the hat to http://www.civilwaralbum.com/misc11/shohola1.htm, for this image

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was running late. First delayed while guards located missing prisoners, then there was that interminable wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola, Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags. His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed.

Duff Kent had one job that day, and that was to hold the eastbound coal train, until #171 passed Shohola station. It didn’t happen.  He may have been drunk, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

shohola stationErie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City. Kent gave the all clear at 2:45. The main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track stood between two speeding, 30-ton steam locomotives.

The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a pass blasted out of solid rock and named after the prime engineering contractor. The section of track followed a blind curve with only 50-feet visibility.

Engineer Samuel Hoitt was at the throttle of #237. Hoitt would survive, having just enough time to jump before the moment of impact. One man in the lead car on #171 was thrown clear. He too would live. There were no other survivors among the 37 men on that car.

On the 100th anniversary of the wreck, historian Joseph C. Boyd described what happened next.  Let him pick up the story:

ShoholaTrainWreck“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken. The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. Witnesses saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

Pinned by cordwood against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. Frank Evans, one of the guards, remembered: “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

Evans describes the scene. “I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily-laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in air, face to face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end. The engineer and fireman, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!. The front car of our train was jammed into a space of less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of those were also heaped together…Taken all in all, that wreck was a scene of horror such as few, even in the thick of battle, are ever doomed to be a witness of.”

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King and Fuller’s Cut

Estimates of Confederate dead are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 51 killed on the spot or dying within the first 24 hours. Others put the number as high as 60 to 72. 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners appear to have escaped in the confusion.

Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was in the Elmira camp at this time. Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171. He was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid the 76′ trackside trench outside of Shohola. William Tyner died three days later in Elmira, never having regained consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other, that one last time. James Tyner was my Grandfather twice removed, one of four brothers who went to war for what each saw as his nation, in 1861.

We’ll never know. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865.  Twenty-seven days later, General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Family Plot.jpg
Note the shape of the stones themselves. Union tombstones from the Civil War era have rounded tops. Those marking Confederate graves are pointed at the top. It’s been said the pointed top was there to prevent “Yankees” from sitting on Confederate headstones. This photo taken in the family cemetery, in the “Sand Hills” of North Carolina.

Best,

Rick

Afterward
Two Confederate soldiers, the brothers John and Michael Johnson, died overnight and were buried in the Congregational church yard across the Delaware river, in Barryville, New York. The remaining POWs killed immediately or shortly thereafter were buried in a common grave that night, alongside the track. Individual graves were dug for the 17 Union dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

shohola6lgAs the years went by, signs of all those graves were erased. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie Railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they passed.

The “pumpkin flood” of 1903 scoured the rail line uncovering many of the dead, carrying away at least some of their mortal remains, along with thousands of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola we’re disinterred and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, in Elmira, New York.  Site of the largest mixed mass grave, of the Civil War era.

April 9, 1942 Angels of Bataan and Corregidor

77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.

Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, invading first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in 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.  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.

Death March

Some 75,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered on April 9, abandoning the Bataan peninsula to begin a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity.  Starving and sick with any number of tropical diseases, Japanese guards were sadistic in the 100-degree tropical sun.  Marchers were beaten, decapitated or shot at random and bayoneted, if too weak to walk. Japanese tank drivers swerved out of the way to run over those who had fallen and were 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.

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Margaret Utinsky

The American nurse Margaret Elizabeth (Doolin) Rowley came to the Philippines the late 1920s, a twenty-something widow and single mother to her young son, Charles. There she met and fell in love with John “Jack” Utinsky, a former Army Captain working as a civil engineer. The couple was married in 1934, and settled down to a life in Manila.

As the likelihood of war came to the far east, the US military ordered American wives out of the Philippines. Utinsky refused and took an apartment in Manila, while Jack went to work on the Bataan peninsula.

Margaret was forced aboard the last ship to leave as Japanese troops occupied Manila on January 2, 1942, but sneaked off the ship and returned to her apartment. Years later, Margaret Utinsky wrote in her book, “Miss U”:

Miss_u_book_cover“To go into an internment camp seemed like the sensible thing to do, but for the life of me I could not see what use I would be to myself or to anyone else cooped up there. … For from the moment the inconceivable thing happened and the Japanese arrived, there was just one thought in my mind—to find Jack.”

The weeks came and went while Margaret remained undiscovered.  She ventured out in mid-March and sought help from the priests of Malate Convent, there using contacts to gain false identity papers as Rena Utinsky, a fictional nurse from the non-belligerent state of Lithuania.

On the eve of the American surrender, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright ordered all military and civilian nurses off the Bataan peninsula, and onto the island of Corregidor.

77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured a month later with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.

Angels of Bataan and Corregidor
“Known as the “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor,” the group of army nurse continues to hold the distinction of not losing a single member during their three years in internment”. H/T FoxNews.com

The group was sent to Santo Tomas prison camp in July, joining a group of Navy nurses who had been there, for six months.

Conditions were horrendous in these camps, with disease, starvation and cartoonish levels of violence from sadistic guards.  Up to and including summary execution.  Army nurse Mary Bernice Brown-Menzie entered into captivity weighing 130-pounds in 1942.  By the time of her liberation in February, 1945, she weighed 75.

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Mary Bernice Brown

Brown wrote in her diary of one prisoner who was tied up for three days and nights in the burning sun before being shot in the back, and left to die.  ““Whether he died instantly or wounded and bleeding lived on until he finally died, we will never know.  But this cruel, heartless and brutal treatment filled us all with deep grief and sorrow.”

Carlos and Tina Makabali Jose talk about their mother, Adelaida Garcia Makabali, a nurse in Bataan and Corregidor. H/T BataanLegacy.org
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Adelaida Garcia, H/T Fox News Channel

Margaret Utinsky used her false identity papers to secure a position with the Red Cross by this time, and went to Bataan looking for Jack.  Dismayed by conditions among survivors of the Death march, Utinsky began to do little things for the thousands of prisoners of Camp O’Donnell.  Money.  Quinine.  A little medicine.

Learning that Jack was dead, Utinsky became part of a small clandestine network, determined to do what they could for American POWs and Filipino resistance movements.  Code named “Miss U”,  she joined with 22-year-old Filipina hairdresser Naomi Flores (code name “looter”), American club owner Claire “High Pockets” Maybelle Snyder, a number of Filipino priests and a Spaniard named Ramon Amusategui.

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WW2 propaganda poster

Suspected of aiding POWs, Utinsky was arrested and brought to Fort Santiago prison. There she was sexually assaulted and tortured, for thirty-two days. When confronted with that ship’s passenger log showing her real name, she claimed she had lied in order to secure work as a nurse. Imagine being beaten, and then beaten again, and again. For thirty two days. When that failed to gain a confession, her jailers decapitated five Filipino prisoners, in front of her cell. Another night, an American POW was tied to the bars of her cell and beaten so savagely that chunks of his flesh, wound up in her hair. Even beating the man to death in front of her was not enough, and she was thrown into a dungeon.  For four days, without food or water.

Corns-bible
“This New Testament was given to US Army nurse 2nd Lt. Edith Corns by Army Chaplain Perry O. Wilcox on 16 April 1942, while both were stationed on Corregidor. Shortly thereafter, the island was surrendered. Corns spent the remainder of the war in the Santo Tomas prison camp until it was liberated by an intrepid raid in February 1945 during the Battle of Manila. She was able to hold onto the New Testament for comfort throughout her imprisonment”. H/T National WW2 Museum, of New Orleans

She was finally released, provided she sign a statement attesting to her “good treatment”.
Utinsky was six weeks in hospital, recovering from the ordeal. Doctors wanted to amputate a leg infected with gangrene but she refused. The place was teeming with Japanese spies. She feared what she might give up, while under the influence of gas. In the end, the gangrene was cut out, without benefit of anesthesia.

Amusategui was found out and executed.  Flores and Utinsky took refuge in the mountains, working with guerrilla groups for the remainder for the war.   By the time it was over, Utinsky had lost 45 pounds, 35 percent of her body weight, and lost an inch in height.  Her face was aged twenty-five years and her once auburn hair, turned white.

Back in the camps, POWs fashioned nurse’s uniforms made from khaki, under the leadership of Veteran Army Captain Maude Davison.   Despite themselves suffering from disease and starvation, each was expected to finish her shifts, providing what care they could for the “The Battling Bastards of Bataan.”

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Army Lieutenant Alice Zwicker of Maine tells of catching sparrows to eat during three years of captivity. You can read about her story in “The Life of a World War II Army Nurse in the War Zone and at Home”, by Walter MacDougall

It was the same for Navy nurses, led by Lieutenant Laura Cobb.  In 1943, these women  volunteered for transfer to Los Baños.  The work gave them purpose.  A reason to live.

Following the December 14, 1944 massacre at Palawan, United States Army Rangers and their Filipino allies staged a daring raid on Cabanatuan on January 27 and Camp O’Donnell, three days later.  Santo Tomas was liberated on February 3, 1945 along with nearby Bilibid Prison and Los Baños on February 23.

Emaciated, tormented by tropical disease and without a day’s survival training between them, every one of the 66 Army nurses, eleven Navy nurses and one Nurse Anesthetist:   Angels of Bataan and Corregidor lived to tell the tale and continued to perform their nurse’s duties, to the end.

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On the inside, most would have told you the men they cared for were the heroes of this story.  They never sought recognition.  After the war, many of those men credited their survival to the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.  It was they who sought the recognition these women so richly deserved.

Today, none of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor are believed to survive. Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Cantrell is an historian with the US Army Nurse’s Corps “They were a tough bunch,” Cantrell said in an interview with Soldier’s Magazine. “They had a mission. They were surviving for the boys … and each other. That does give you a bit of added strength.”

 

MAMA JULIE

Without order and work we will never survive.
This camp is guarded, you see, by Japanese
but we run it ourselves. And I was the one
(though many take credit) who labelled the quinine
Soda Bicarbonate so it wouldn’t be taken
and the one who said we’d care for the internees
imprisoned with us: Aussies, Brits, French —
other enemies of the Rising Sun, men, women,
children, all of them civilians. In khaki clothes
we’ve made by hand, we work our shifts.
No days off for heat waves or monsoon.
Only the bedridden are excused. These girls
are unprepared, call me Battle-Axe, but I know
how to whip them into shape. No whining.
No complaints We may be short on emetine
or anesthetic and have no reserves of insulin,
but what we do isn’t free choice. It’s a higher calling.

From ANGELS OF BATAAN, Susan Terris (Pudding House
Publications, 1999)

A Trivial Matter
Some 76,000 prisoners of war (66,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans) began the Bataan death march in April 1942. There are no precise numbers of those killed over those 65-miles. Estimates of the dead range from 2,500 Filipinos and 500 Americans, to 30 per cent of the entire force.

April 3, 1946 Death March

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 had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

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 #58 Mario “Motts” 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”, 195-pound fullback scored the game winning touchdown.

Tonelli (1)In some ways, Mario Tonelli himself was the miracle. Years earlier at the age of 6, he’d 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.

After 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.

He’d hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the 1942 season, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7, 1941. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

pearl-harbor-4
“A view of Pearl Harbor looking southwest from the hills towards the north. Taken during the Japanese raid, with anti-aircraft shell bursts overhead. Large column of smoke in lower center is from USS Arizona”. – H/T fstoppers.com

Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of World War Two, 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.

bataan-death-march-route-mapOn 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. Some would beat the marchers at random, or bayonet those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of the 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”.

Minutes 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”.

prisoners-tied-up

Nearly 700 Americans and more than 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan death march. For the survivors, the ordeal was only beginning. For 2½ years Tonelli suffered starvation, disease and endless beatings in the squalid prison camps known as O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.  He was later transferred to Davo Penal Colony (“Dapecol”), in Panabo City.   Of an estimated 2,009 to enter Dapecol between October 1942- June 1944, only 805 survived the war.

Throughout the ordeal, Tonelli kept his ring.  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.

Death March

The 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 had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

mario-tonelli-ringAn 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.  Mario “Motts” Tonelli passed away in 2003, at the age of eighty-six.  He still had that ring.

 

Afterward

In 1989, ROTC students at New Mexico State University held a memorial “Death March”.  Since 1992, the Army installation at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces has been host to the memorial. It’s two events, really, participants competing in “heavy” and “light” division wearing full uniform with rucksack or full running gear. Marchers in both divisions compete over a full marathon course of 26.2 miles of hilly desert terrain, or a shorter 14.2 mile course.

Two weeks ago, 8,631 registered participants gathered from fifty states and a dozen nations, to commemorate the Battle of Bataan and the death march, 77 years ago.

Five actual survivors were in attendance for the opening ceremony, wrapped in blankets to ward off the pre-dawn cold.  They were Harold Bergbower, age 98.  James Bollich, age 97.  Valdemar DeHerrera, age 99.  Paul Kerchum, age 99.  Ben Skardon, age 101.

Mister Skardon actually marched in the March 17, 2019 event, covering three miles at the head of Skardon’s Brigade”.

The day began with a symbolic roll call.  Most of the names were met with silence. Twelve more than the same event, last year.

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“At 101 years old, Ben Skardon, center, is the oldest living Bataan Death March survivor to attend the memorial event at White Sands Missile Range. This year, he led “Ben’s Brigade” in an 3-mile march through the course on Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Photo: Kaitlin Englund/For the Sun-News)” H/T Ruidoso News
A Trivial Matter
Japanese guards made prisoners roast for hours the scorching Filipino sun, a torture known as “the sun treatment.” With little food and no water, Filipino civilians tried to throw food at the marchers. Most who did this were killed on the spot, by Japanese soldiers.

 

March 30, 1945 We’re All Jews Here

“We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out”.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”. – Martin Niemöller

last_great_act_of_defiance1Before the age of the internet meme,  office jokes and bits of folk wisdom were passed around and copied and copied again.  There was one, “The Last great of Defiance“, which will live for all time as my favorite.  The picture speaks for itself.  I had one on the wall, for years.

This is one of those stories.

The last great effort of German arms burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming for the vital port at Antwerp.

Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein“, (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) was a tactical surprise for the Wehrmacht, as allied forces were driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American forces in World War 2, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving some 610,000 GIs.

malmed1Prisoners were swept up by the thousands, and faced an uncertain future.  In Malmedy, Belgium, seventy-five captured Americans were marched into an open field and machine gunned by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), a part of 6th Panzer Army.

On December 16, the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the racially segregated US Army put up an heroic defense outside the town of Wereth, Belgium, using their 155mm guns to delay the German advance. Desperately outnumbered, the 333rd was overrun the following day, groups of men scattering to escape as best they could. Eleven soldiers made their way to the home of Mathias Langer, the Mayor of Wereth.

To shelter allied troops under German occupation was to risk summary execution. Despite the obvious risk to their own lives, Matthias and his wife Maria took these men in and attempted to hide them, in their home. When German troops arrived, the eleven surrendered rather than risk the lives of their benefactors.

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Movie poster for the 2011 film, “The Wereth Eleven”

The prisoners were marched out of sight and murdered, every one of them. The Wereth 11 were lost in the confusion of the Bulge, their bodies hidden under the snow until Spring melt. Their story was lost to history, for the next fifty years.

Nazi atrocities were not limited to Allied troops.  By some accounts, more civilians were killed during the Battle of the Bulge than the last four years.  When the fighting was over, more than 115 bodies were found in the towns of Ster and Parfondruy, alone.

For Master Sargent Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds, the war ended on December 19, swept up with hundreds of American troops and taken prisoner.  These were the lucky ones, escaping those first white-hot moments of capture to be sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  He was later transferred to another camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.  At 24, M/Sgt Roddie Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer at Stalag IX-A, responsible for 1,275 American POWs.

The Wehrmacht had harsh anti-Jew policies and kept Jewish POWs in strict segregation.  In the East, Russian Jewish POWs were sent directly to extermination camps.  The future was more uncertain for Jewish POWs, in the west.  Many were worked to death in slave labor camps.

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On January 27, the first day at Stalag IX-A, commandant Siegmann ordered Edmonds: All American Jews were to identify themselves, at the following day’s assembly.  The word went out to all five barracks:  “We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out“.

The following morning, 1,275 POWs presented themselves.  Every. Single. Man.

Siegmann was perplexed.  “They can’t all be Jews!”  As senior NCO, Edmonds spoke for the group.  “We’re all Jews here“.  The Nazi commandant was apoplectic, pressing a Luger into Edmonds’ forehead.  This is your last chance.

Edmonds gave his name, rank and serial number, and then said:  ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.'”  Siegmann was incandescent, white with rage, but the moment had passed.  He was beaten.

The 1,275 American POWs held at Stalag IX-A were liberated this day in 1945, including some 200 Jews.

Roddie Edmonds was again recruited for the war in Korea.  He never told his family about any of it.

Chris Edmonds is the Pastor at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Following his father’s death in 1985, Chris’ mother gave him his father’s  war diary, where he found a brief mention of this story.  Chris scoured the news for more information, around the time Richard Nixon was looking for his post-Presidential home.  As it happened, Nixon bought his posh, upper-east side home from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York Lawyer who mentioned in passing, he owed his life to Roddie Edmonds.

So it was, this story came to light.  In 2015, Edmonds was honored as “Righteous among the Nations”, the first American soldier, so honored.  It’s the highest honor bestowed by the state of Israel, on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.  President Barack Obama recognized Edmonds heroism in a 2016 speech before the Israeli embassy.  The United States Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal in 2017.  As I write this, Pastor Edmonds and the Jewish veterans saved by M/Sgt Edmonds are pushing for the Knoxville, Tennessee native to receive the Medal of Honor.

Pastor Edmonds says he always looked up to his father, the man had always been, his hero.  “I just didn’t know he had a cape in his closet“.

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March 2, 1942  The Great Escape

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.

Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp in the province of Lower Silesia, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 United States Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

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A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike.  Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

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Roger Bushell, (right), the Cambridge-educated son of British parents, was born and brought up in South Africa. Bushell was the inspiration for the film character “Bartlett”, played by Richard Attenborough

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty. Roger Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in the history of World War Two. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

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The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty individuals. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with two hundred.

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.

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The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Of fifteen hundred prisoners in the compound, six hundred were involved in the attempt.  200 “penguins” made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, sacks sewn from the legs of long underpants, disposing of soil.  The tunnels were some kind of engineering marvel.  30′ down to avoid seismic detection equipment, and only two-feet square, the three tunnels extended outward for the length of a football field and more.

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Prisoners rigged an electric lighting system and shored up the tunnel sides, using bedboards

Penguins were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” planned exit-point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

Flight Lieutenant Nathaniel Flekser reflected on his own experience: “How lucky I really was dawned on me when I later met RAF prisoners who were shot down while on bombing missions over Germany. They were attacked by angry civilians, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, and packed into cattle cars. One crew was thrown into a furnace.” H/T warfarehistory.com

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  March 24-25, 1944.

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German soldier demonstrates trolley system used to transport soil for dispersal

Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point, none were left in camp.

The great escape was doomed, nearly from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse required repair.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  When guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground, it was all over.

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German crawls out of tunnel entrance, following discovery

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller made it back to England via Sweden.  Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok made it to Gibraltar.   Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were actually carried out.

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General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  They were 22 Brits (including Bushell), 6 Canadians, 6 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 Norwegians, 2 New Zealanders, and one man each from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, and Lithuania.  All but seven were RAF airmen.

Nebe himself was later implicated in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed on this day in 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while awaiting a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the German surrender.

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Dick Churchill, last surviving veteran of the “Great Escape”, died on February 12, 2019.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, Churchill said he was fairly certain he’d been spared execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The last surviving veteran of the daring escape which inspired the 1963 movie died at his home near Crediton, Devon, England, on February 12.  Five weeks ago.  Dick Churchill was ninety-nine years old.

 

A Trivial Matter
Rumors that Stalag Luft III’s American POWs were to be moved to another compound sped up work on Tom, raising German suspicions and leading to the tunnel’s discovery in September 1943. The tunnel was blown up using dynamite, causing a nearby guard tower to sink into the hole. The discovery was bad news for the Kriegies, but no end of amusement from watching how much work went into rebuilding that tower.

March 13, 1865 Train Wreck

Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

The wood burning steam locomotive #171 left Jersey City, New Jersey on July 15, 1864, pulling 17 passenger and freight cars. On board were 833 Confederate Prisoners of War captured at Cold Harbor and 128 Union guards, heading from Point Lookout, Maryland to the Union prison camp in Elmira, New York.

Engine #171 was an “extra” that day, running behind a scheduled train numbered West #23. West #23 displayed warning flags giving the second train right of way, but #171 was delayed while guards located missing prisoners.  Then there was the wait for the drawbridge. By the time #171 reached Port Jervis, Pennsylvania, the train was four hours behind schedule.

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Telegraph operator Douglas “Duff” Kent was on duty at the Lackawaxen Junction station, near Shohola Pennsylvania. Kent had seen West #23 pass through that morning with the “extra” flags.  His job was to hold eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the second train passed. Kent might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure of it. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Railroad Station and Post Office Lackawaxen, PA

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30 pm pulling 50 coal cars, loaded for Jersey City.  Kent gave the All Clear at 2:45, the main switch was opened, and Erie #237 joined the single track heading east out of Shohola.

Only four miles of track stood between the two speeding locomotives.

The trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility. Historian Joseph C. Boyd described what followed on the 100th anniversary of the wreck:

“[T]he wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm, where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened. The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken.” The troop train’s forward boxcar had been compacted and within the remaining mass were the remains of 37 men”. [Witnesses] saw “headless trunks, mangled between the telescoped cars” and “bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams.”

Pinned against the split boiler plate and slowly scalded to death, engineer William Ingram lived long enough to speak with would-be rescuers. “With his last breath he warned away all who went near to try and aid him, declaring that there was danger of the boiler exploding and killing them.”

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51 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards were killed on the spot, or died within a day of the wreck. 5 prisoners escaped in the confusion.

ShoholaTrainWreckCaptured at Spotsylvania in early 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry private James Tyner was incarcerated at the Elmira camp at this time.  Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.

William was badly injured in the wreck, and survived only long enough to avoid being buried in a mass grave, in Shohola. He died in Elmira three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers saw each other that one last time.  James Tyner was my twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers, farmers who laid down their tools and went to war for their home state of North Carolina, in 1861.

We’ll never know.  James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865, 27 days before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Of the four brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war, laying down his arms when the man they called “Marse Robert” surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, to walk home to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Family Plot

A Trivial Matter

There were more Northern-born Confederate generals in the Civil War, than Southern-born Union generals.  The last government to formally repeal ordinances of secession and rejoin the Union was the Village of Town Line, New York.  In 1945.

March 2, 1864 A POW story

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

In the early days of the Civil War, the government in Washington refused to recognize the Confederate states’ government, believing any such recognition would amount to legitimizing an illegal entity.  The Union refused formal agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners. Following the capture of over a thousand federal troops at the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas), a joint resolution in Congress called for President Lincoln to establish a prisoner exchange agreement.

In July 1862, Union Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill met under flag of truce to draw up an exchange formula, regarding the return of prisoners. The “Dix-Hill Cartel” determined that Confederate and Union Army soldiers were exchanged at a prescribed rate:  captives of equivalent ranks were exchanged as equals.  Corporals and Sergeants were worth two privates.  Lieutenants were four and Colonels fifteen, all the way up to Commanding General, equivalent to sixty private soldiers.  Similar exchange rates were established for Naval personnel.

My twice-great grandfather, Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th Pennsylvania Infantry,  was paroled in such an exchange.

President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation of September 1862 not only freed those enslaved in Confederate territories, but also provided for the enlistment of black soldiers.  The government in Richmond responded that such would be regarded as runaway slaves and not soldiers.  Their white officers would be treated as criminals, for inciting servile insurrection.

The policy was made clear in July 1863, following the Union defeat at Fort Wagner, an action depicted in the 1989 film, Glory.  The Dix-Hill protocol was formally abandoned on July 30.  Neither side was ready for the tide of humanity, about to come.

The US Army began construction the following month on the Rock Island Prison, built on an Island between Davenport Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois. In time, Rock Island would become one of the most infamous POW camps of the north, housing some 12,000 Confederate prisoners, seventeen per cent of whom, died in captivity.

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On this day in 1864, the first prisoners had barely moved into the most notorious POW camp of the Civil War, the first Federal soldiers arriving on February 28.

The pictures at the top of this page were taken at Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville.  Conditions in this place defy description. Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg of the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, entered this hell hole on May 2:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then”.

Over 45,000 Union troops would pass through the verminous open sewer known as Andersonville. Nearly 13,000 died there.

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Andersonville

Now all but forgotten, the ‘Eighty acres of Hell’ located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago was home to some forty thousand Confederate POWs between 1862 and 1865, seventeen per cent of whom, never left.  No southern soldier was equipped for the winters at Camp Douglas, nor the filth, or the disease. Nearby Oak Woods Cemetery is home to the largest mass grave, in the western hemisphere.

Union and Confederate governments established 150 such camps between 1861 and 1865, makeshift installations of rickety wooden buildings and primitive sewage systems, often little more than tent cities.   Some 347,000 human beings languished in these places, victims of catastrophically poor hygiene, harsh summary justice, starvation, disease and swarming vermin.

The training depot designated camp Rathbun near Elmira New York became the most notorious camp in the north, in 1864.  12,213 Confederate prisoners were held there, often three men to a tent.  Nearly 25% of them died there, only slightly less, than Andersonville.   The death rate in “Hellmira” was double that of any other camp in the north.

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“Hellmira”

Historians debate the degree to which such brutality resulted from deliberate mistreatment, or economic necessity.

The Union had more experience being a “country” at this time, with well established banking systems and means of commerce and transportation.  For the south, the war was an economic catastrophe.  The Union blockade starved southern ports of even the basic necessities from the beginning, while farmers abandoned fields to take up arms. Most of the fighting of the Civil War took place on southern soil, destroying incalculable acres of rich farm lands.

The capital at Richmond saw bread riots as early as 1862.  Southern Armies subsisted on corn meal and peanuts.  The Confederate government responded by printing currency, about a billion dollars worth.  By 1864, a Confederate dollar was worth 5¢ in gold.  Southern inflation exceeded 9000%, by 1865.

Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried and executed after the war, only one of two men to be hanged for war crimes.  Captain Wirz appeared at trial reclined on a couch, advanced gangrene preventing him from sitting up.  To some, the man was a scapegoat. A victim of circumstances beyond his control. To others he is a demon, personally responsible for the hell of Andersonville prison.  I make no pretense of answering such a question.  The subject is capable of inciting white-hot passion, from that day to this.

Family Plot
Family cemetery, Scotland County, North Carolina.  Note the peaked tops of Confederate stones.  It’s said they were shaped that way, so no Yankee could sit on them.

On a personal note:

There are many good reasons to study history, among which is an understanding of where we come from.  How do we know where we’re going, if we don’t understand where we’ve been.

Should our ancestors be towering historical figures or merely those who played a part, the principle applies on the micro, as well as a larger scale.

Among those farmers who laid down their tools were the four Tyner brothers of North Carolina:  James, William, Nicholas and Benjamin.  My twice-great Grandfather, Private James Tyner, 52nd North Carolina Infantry, was captured at Spotsylvania Courthouse and imprisoned at “Hellmira”.  He died in captivity on March 13, 1865, less than a month before General Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Nicholas alone survived the war, to return to the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Corporal Jacob Deppen of the 128th PA Infantry re-enlisted with the Army of the James, after his parole.  He and Nicholas Tyner would lay down their weapons at Appomattox, former enemies turned countrymen, if they could only figure out how to do it.

William Christian Long was Blacksmith to the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and survived the war.  His name may be found on the Pennsylvania monument, at Gettysburg.

Archibald Blue of Drowning Creek North Carolina wanted no part of what he saw as a “rich man’s war” and ordered his five sons away.  He was murdered for his politics in 1865.  The killer was never found.

Four men, each of whom played a part in the most destructive war, in American history.  Without any of these four, I wouldn’t be here to tell their story.

Rick Long