December 14, 1944 Palawan Massacre

The bones of Americans captured at Bataan and Corregidor and burned alive at Palawan, were discovered soon after liberation.  Most were huddled together where they had died, trying to escape the flames.

The United States was 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.

On April 9, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, only to be herded off on 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 would swerve 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, some 700 Americans and more than 10,000 Filipinos perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

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Palawan Massacre POW Burial Site, 1945

That August, 346 men were sent 350-miles north to Palawan Island, on the western perimeter of the Sulu sea. The prisoners of “camp 10-A” were expected to build an airfield for their Japanese captors, hauling and crushing coral gravel by hand and pouring concrete, seven days a week.

The daily food ration was nothing more than a handful of wormy Cambodian rice and a thin soup made from boiling camote vines, a type of local sweet potato. Prisoners unable to work had even this thin ration, cut by 30 per cent.

The abuses these men received at the hands of the kempeitai, the Japanese army’s military police and intelligence unit, were unremitting, and savage. Prisoners were beaten with pick handles, kicked and slapped on a daily basis. Anyone who attempted to escape, was summarily executed.

Caught stealing food, six American POWs were tied to coconut trees and whipped with wire and then beaten with a wooden club, 3-inches in diameter. The six were then forced to stand at attention while a guard beat them unconscious, only to be revived to undergo further beatings. One Japanese private named Nishitani broke the left arms of two Americans with an iron bar, for taking green papayas off a tree.

Radioman 1st Class Joseph Barta described the Japanese guards at Palawan, as “the meanest bastards who ever walked the earth”.

Medical care was non-existent. One Marine, Pfc Glen McDole of Des Moines Iowa, was forced to endure an appendectomy with no anesthesia, and no infection fighting drugs.

The war was going badly for the Japanese, by late 1944.  US forces under General Douglas MacArthur landed at Leyte, that October. Morale soared for the 150 American prisoners remaining at Palawan, when a single Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber sank two enemy ships and damaged several aircraft. More Liberators returned on October 28 and destroyed 60 enemy aircraft on the ground, as treatment of the prisoners grew even worse.

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By early December, Allied aircraft were a near-constant presence overhead. Deliverance must have seemed imminent to the 150 American prisoners left on Palawan island, but it wasn’t meant to be. On December 14, some fifty to sixty soldiers under the leadership of 1st Lt. Yoshikazu Sato, prisoners called him the Buzzard, doused the remaining prisoners with gasoline and set them on fire. One hundred and thirty-nine were burned to death, or clubbed, or machine gunned as they tried to get away. The sound of screams were punctuated with shouts and laughter, from the guards.

Some closed to hand-to-hand combat with their tormentors and even managed to kill a few, but most never had a chance. Lieutenant Carl Mango of the U.S. Army Medical Corps ran toward the Japanese with his clothes on fire, pleading with them to use some sense. He too, was machine-gunned.

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Palawan Massacre Memorial Marker for the American victims of December 14, 1944, Palawan Philippines

Thirty or forty managed to escape the kill zone, only to be hunted down, and murdered. From his hiding place on the beach, Eugene Nielsen of the 59th Coast Artillery observed several begging to be shot in the head, only to be bayoneted in the stomach and left to an agonizing death, by laughing guards. Erving August Evans of Nielsen’s unit stood up and said “All right, you Jap bastards, here I am and don’t miss me“.  He was shot, and his body set alight.

The killing went on until well after dark yet, somehow, some were able to escape detection and managed to swim the 5-mile bay to be picked up by friendly Filipino guerrillas, and taken to U.S. Rangers.   Rufus Smith was badly bitten on the left arm and shoulder by a shark, but manged to reach the other side.  USMC Pfc Donald Martyn reached the opposite side and turned in a direction opposite the others, and was never seen again.Glen McDole, the marine who survived the appendectomy, hid in a garbage dump, and witnessed one marine repeatedly poked with bayonets. Bleeding profusely, the man begged to be shot, only to have first one foot doused with gasoline and set on fire and then the other and finally, a hand. At last, his five or six tormentors tired of this game and he too, was set alight.

One Japanese soldier recorded the atrocity in a diary, later found in the camp:

“December 15–Due to the sudden change of situation, 150 prisoners of war were executed. Although they were prisoners of war, they truly died a pitiful death. The prisoners who worked in the repair shop really worked hard. From today on I will not hear the familiar greeting, ‘Good morning, sergeant major.’ January 9–After a long absence, I visited the motor vehicle repair shop. Today, the shop is a lonely place. The prisoners of war who were assisting in repair work are now just white bones on the beach washed by the waves. Furthermore, there are numerous corpses in the nearby garage and the smell is unbearable. It gives me the creeps”.

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Eugene Nielsen’s testimony sparked a series of POW rescues by American forces in 1945, including the raid on Cabanatuan of January 30, the surprise attack at Santo Tomas on February 3, 1945, the raid of Bilibid Prison on February 4 and the assault at Los Baños on February 23.  Starving prisoners were so emaciated, that Rangers were able to carry them out, two at a time.

The bones of Americans captured at Bataan and Corregidor and burned alive at Palawan, were discovered soon after.  Most were huddled together where they had died, trying to escape the flames.

Sixteen Japanese soldiers were tried and convicted of the massacre in August 1948 and several sentenced to death.  All were later released, in a general amnesty.

Of 146 enlisted men and four officers held in the Palawan prison camp, eleven survived the massacre of December 14, 1944.   Glen McDole was one of them.  Author Bob Wilbanks wrote a book if you’re interested, a biography really, entitled:  Last Man Out: Glenn McDole, USMC, Survivor of the Palawan Massacre in World War II.

In 1952, 123 of the 139 victims of the Palawan massacre were buried in a common grave.  They came from forty-two states and the Philippines, reverently interred in a mass burial site in Section 85 at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, near St. Louis, Missouri. Today, their graves are visited by those who remember.  And by the deer, grazing among the stones most evenings, as the sun drops out of sight. It is the largest such group burial, at Jefferson Barracks.

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How many such massacres were carried out with no one left alive to tell the tale, remains anyone’s guess.

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.
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November 19, 1864 Lincoln’s Avenger

Women’s groups, tent meetings and Sunday schools clamored to hear from “Lincoln’s avenger”, but his speeches were wandering and incoherent.  Nobody ever clamored to hear the man speak, a second time.  

Thomas Corbett was born in London England in 1832, immigrating with his family to the United States at age 7, and settling in Troy, New York.  There he apprenticed to a hat maker, a profession he would hold off and on for the rest of his life.

19th century hat makers used an orange colored mercury solution to treat fur, and to make felt in a process called “carroting”.  Mercury attacks the nervous system, causing drooling, hair loss, a lurching gait, difficulty in speaking, “brain fog” and a convulsive shaking called “hatter’s shakes”.

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Felt hat

There were plenty of “Mad hatters,” in Lewis Carroll’s time, long before Alice’s Wonderland.  Danbury Connecticut was once the hat making capital of the world, with 56 factories producing five million hats a year.  By the time of the Civil War, mercury poisoning had reduced countless numbers of factory workers, to physical wrecks.  Everybody knew the “Danbury shakes”.

Erethism mercurialis or “Mad hatter’s Disease”, goes a long way to understanding Thomas Corbett.

As a young man, Corbett married.  It nearly broke him to lose his young wife in childbirth.  He moved to Boston and continued to work as a hatter, but heavy drinking left him unable to keep a job for long and eventually, homeless.  One night, Corbett was confronted by a street preacher, who changed his life.

He immediately quit drinking and became fanatically, religious.  He was “the Glory to God man,” growing his hair long to emulate Jesus.  The “local eccentric’ who took up his own street ministry and changed his name to “Boston” after the city of his re-birth.

“God has called on you to preach, my son, about four blocks, that way”.

Corbett was propositioned by two prostitutes in 1858, while walking home from a church meeting. Deeply troubled by his own temptation, he returned to his boardinghouse room and took up the Gospel, according to Matthew: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee….and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake“.  He knew what he needed to do.  He castrated himself, with a pair of scissors.  Then he ate dinner and went to a prayer meeting before seeking medical attention.

boston-c-300x208In the first months of the Civil War, Boston Corbett enlisted as a private in the 12th Regiment of the New York state militia. Eccentric behavior quickly got him into trouble. He would carry a bible with him at all times, reading passages aloud and holding unauthorized prayer meetings.  He would argue with superior officers, once reprimanding Colonel Daniel Butterfield for using profane language and using the Lord’s name, in vain. That got him a stay in the guardhouse, where he continued to argue.

Corbett decided an arbitrary date, on which his enlistment would end.  When that day arrived, he laid down his gun at midnight, and walked away.  That got him court-martialled and sentenced to be shot, but the sentence was reduced. He was discharged in August, 1863, and re-enlisted the same month.

Harper’s Weekly of May 13, 1865 described the annoying habit of adding “er” to his words, as in “O Lord-er, hear-er our prayerer.” His shrill, sharp voice would shout out “Amen,” and “Glory to God,” whenever anything pleased him. He was often thrown in the guard-house, with a knapsack full of bricks as punishment. There he would be, Testament in hand, “preaching temperance, and calling upon his wild companions to “seek the Lord.””

Boston CorbettOn June 24, 1864, fifteen members of Corbett’s company were hemmed in and captured, by Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s men in Culpeper Virginia.

They were sent to the notorious prison camp in Andersonville Georgia, where he escaped once, but the bloodhounds put an end to that.  Only two, ever returned.  Starved and skeletal, his body wracked with scurvy, Boston Corbett was paroled on November 19, 1864.

Following the Lincoln assassination, a twelve-day manhunt led to the farm of Richard Henry Garrett near Port Royal, Virginia. The life of John Wilkes Booth came to an end in a burning tobacco barn in the pre-dawn hours of April 26, the bullet fired through a crack in the boards and entering his spine, just below the point where his own bullet had entered the President’s head.

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Thomas “Boston” Corbett

The paralyzed, dying man was dragged from the barn, and onto the porch of the Garrett farmhouse. In his dying moments he asked that his hands be lifted where he could see them.  John Wilkes Booth uttered his last words. “Useless. Useless”.

In his report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger recommended that Sergeant Boston Corbett be punished for disobeying orders that Booth be taken alive, stating that Corbett had fired “without order, pretext or excuse.”

Corbett was treated like a conquering hero, despite Conger’s recommendation.  He returned to making hats after the war, returning first to Boston and then to Danbury and finally, Camden New Jersey.  He could never hold a job for long.  Frequent pauses to pray for co-workers, did little to endear him to supervisors.

Women’s groups, tent meetings and Sunday schools clamored to hear from “Lincoln’s avenger”, but his speeches were wandering and incoherent.  Nobody ever clamored to hear the man speak, a second time.

Corbett became increasingly paranoid over time, convinced that important men in Washington, were out to “get him”.  Hate mail directed to Wilkes Booth’s killer, didn’t help.  At a Blue & Gray reunion in 1878, Corbett pulled a gun on several former soldiers, during an argument over whether Booth still lived.  He was hustled off before he could fire, but this was only one of several such episodes.

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Example of a dugout house, this one in New Mexico

He moved to Kansas in 1878 and built a dugout home, and tried his hand at homesteading.  That didn’t work out, either.

Corbett received an invalid’s pension in 1880 and the Grand Army of the Republic made him a doorman to the Kansas state legislature, seven years later.  The man’s mental status was questionable before the war and put beyond dispute in 1887, when he entered the legislative chamber, with two loaded revolvers.  Lawmakers dove for the exits and hid behind garbage cans and doors, as Corbett shot up the Kansas House of Representatives.  Two guns, twelve bullets.  It was a miracle that no one was hit.

The following day, a judge declared Corbett to be out of his mind, and remanded him to the Topeka Asylum for the Insane.  On May 26, 1888, Corbett was marching along a road with other inmates, when he spotted a horse, tied to a post.  Corbett dashed from the line and jumped into the saddle, and rode off into history.

Boston Corbett is believed to have died in the Great Hinckley Fire on September 1, 1894, a conflagration which killed more than 400 and destroyed over 200,000 acres of Minnesota pine forest, but there is no proof.  The fate of the man who shot the man who shot Abraham Lincoln, remains unknown.

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.

November 9, 2013 A Rare and Vintage Cognac

On November 9, 2013, a 117 year-old bottle of rare, vintage cognac was cracked open, and enjoyed among a company of heroes.  If there is a more magnificent act of tribute, I cannot at this moment think of what it might be.

On November 9, 2013, there occurred a gathering of four.  A tribute to fallen heroes. These four were themselves heroes, and worthy of tribute.  This was to be their last such gathering.

This story begins on April 18, 1942, when a flight of sixteen Mitchell B25 medium bombers took off from the deck of the carrier, USS Hornet.   It was a retaliatory raid on Imperial Japan, planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the United States Army Air Forces.  It was payback for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, seven months earlier.  A demonstration that the Japanese home islands, were not immune from destruction.

Launching such massive aircraft from the decks of a carrier had never been attempted, and there were no means of bringing them back.  With extra gas tanks installed and machine guns removed to save the weight, this was to be a one-way mission, into territory occupied by a savage adversary.

Doolittle Signatures

Fearing that mission security had been breached, the bomb run was forced to launch 200 miles before the intended departure spot.  The range made fighter escort impossible, and left the bombers themselves with only the slimmest margin of error.

Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo was inspecting military bases, at the time of the raid. One B-25 came so close he could see the pilot, though the American bomber never fired a shot.

After dropping their bombs, fifteen continued west, toward Japanese occupied China.  Unbeknownst at the time, carburetors bench-marked and calibrated for low level flight had been replaced in flight #8, which now had no chance of making it to the mainland.  Twelve crash landed in the coastal provinces.  Three more, ditched at sea.  Pilot Captain Edward York pointed flight 8 toward Vladivostok, where he hoped to refuel.  The pilot and crew were instead taken into captivity, and held for thirteen months.

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Crew 3 Engineer-Gunner Corporal Leland Dale Faktor died in the fall after bailing out and Staff Sergeant Bombardier William Dieter and Sergeant Engineer-Gunner Donald Fitzmaurice bailed out of aircraft # 6 off the China coast, and drowned.

The heroism of the indigenous people at this point, is a little-known part of this story.  The massive sweep across the eastern coastal provinces, the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign, cost the lives of 250,000 Chinese.  A quarter-million murdered by Japanese soldiers, in the hunt for Doolittle’s raiders.  How many could have betrayed the Americans and refused, will never be known.

Amazingly, only eight were captured, among the seventy-seven survivors.

First Lieutenant Pilot “Bill” Farrow and Sergeant Engineer-Gunner Harold Spatz, both of Crew 16, and First Lieutenant Pilot Dean Edward Hallmark of Crew 6 were caught by the Japanese and executed by firing squad on October 15, 1942.  Crew 6 Co-Pilot First Lieutenant Robert John Meder died in a Japanese prison camp, on December 11, 1943.  Most of the 80 who began the mission, survived the war.

Thirteen targets were attacked, including an oil tank farm, a steel mill, and an aircraft carrier then under construction.. Fifty were killed and another 400 injured, but the mission had a decisive psychological effect.  Japan withdrew its powerful aircraft carrier force to protect the home islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto attacked Midway, thinking it to have been the jump-off point for the raid. Described by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”, the battle of Midway would be a major strategic defeat for Imperial Japan.

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Ryozo Asano, left, spokesman for a group of diversified Japanese family enterprises called the Zaibatsu, inspects the wreckage of his Tokyo steel plant

Every year since the late 1940s, the surviving Doolittle raiders have held a reunion.  In 1959, the city of Tucson presented them with 80 silver goblets, each engraved with a name. They are on display at the National Museum of the Air Force, in Dayton Ohio.

With those goblets is a fine bottle of vintage Cognac.  1896, the year Jimmy Doolittle was born. There’s been a bargain among the survivors that, one day, the last two would open that bottle, and toast their comrades.

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In 2013 they changed their bargain.  Just a little. Jimmy Doolittle himself passed away in 1993. Twenty years later, 76 goblets had been turned over, each signifying a man who had passed on.  Now, there were only four.

  1. Lieutenant Colonel Richard E. Cole* of Dayton Ohio was co-pilot of crew No. 1.  Remained in China after the Tokyo Raid until June 1943, and served in the China-Burma-India Theater from October, 1943 until June, 1944. Relieved from active duty in January, 1947 but returned to active duty in August 1947.
  2. Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Hite* of Odell Texas was co-pilot of crew No. 16. Captured by the Japanese and held prisoner for forty months, he watched his weight drop to eighty pounds.
  3. Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Saylor* of Brusett Montana was engineer-gunner of crew No. 15.   Served throughout the duration of WW2 until March 1945, both Stateside, and overseas.  Accepted a commission in October 1947 and served as Aircraft Maintenance Officer at bases in Iowa, Washington, Labrador and England.
  4. Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher* of Bridger Montana was engineer-gunner of crew No. 7.  Served in England and Africa after the Tokyo raid until June 1944, and discharged in July 1945.
*H/T, http://www.doolittleraider.com

These four agreed that they would gather one last time.  It would be these four men who would finally open that bottle.

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Robert Hite, 93, was too frail to travel in 2013.  Wally Hite, stood in for his father.

On November 9, 2013, a 117 year-old bottle of rare, vintage cognac was cracked open, and enjoyed among a company of heroes.  If there is a more magnificent act of tribute, I cannot at this moment think of what it might be.

On April 18, 2015, Richard Cole and David Thatcher fulfilled their original bargain, as the last surviving members of the Doolittle raid.  Staff Sergeant Thatcher passed away on June 23, 2016, at the age of 94.  As I write this, only one of those eighty goblets remains upright.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole, co-pilot to mission leader Jimmy Doolittle himself, is 103.  He is the only living man on the planet, who has earned the right to open that rare and vintage cognac.

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.

November 2, 1950  The Shepherd wore Combat Boots

Chaplain Kapaun once lost his Mass kit to enemy fire. He earned a Bronze Star in September of 1950, when he ran through intense enemy fire to rescue a wounded soldier. His was no rear-echelon ministry.

Kapaun5Emil 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.

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.

He 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.

Kapaun2A 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 prisoners.

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.

Kapaun4Chinese 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.

Starving, suffering from a blood clot in his leg and a severe eye infection, Father Kapaun defied his communist captors to lead 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.”

Kapaun1In the end, he was too weak to lift the plate that held the meager meal the guards left for him. US Army records report that he died of pneumonia on May 6, 1951, but his fellow prisoners will tell you that he died on May 23, of malnutrition and starvation. He was 35.
Scores of men credit their own survival in that place, 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”.

Pope 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.

The Medal at Last
In this photo provided by Col. Raymond A. Skeehan, Father Emil Kapaun celebrates Mass using the hood of his jeep as an altar, as his assistant, Patrick J. Schuler, kneels in prayer in Korea on Oct. 7, 1950, less than a month before Kapaun was taken prisoner. Kapaun died in a prisoner of war camp on May 23, 1951, his body wracked by pneumonia and dysentery. (AP Photo/Col. Raymond A. Skeehan via The Wichita Eagle)

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the committee of cardinals which makes recommendations concerning sainthood to the Pope, have taken the position that Kapaun would not be declared a martyr, a step which would have greatly accelerated the Pilsen, Kansas native toward sainthood.  Fellow prisoners and Korean War veterans have argued passionately, (I personally know one of them) that Kapaun was killed by Chinese Army prison guards, for standing up for his faith.  Vatican officials counter that no one actually saw Kapaun die.  Witnesses only saw the Father being carried away and, ever watchful over the credibility of its own sainthood investigations, the matter continues under Church review.

Wichita Bishop Carl Kemme believes that full canonization will not take place until 2020, at the earliest.

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October 29, 1963 Rocky

With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy. The effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

originalHumbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the oldest of five sons born to Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of the Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky” to his friends), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Cavalry in South Korea, then with the 3rd US Infantry – the “Old Guard”.

Rocky attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

versace1He did his tour, and voluntarily signed up for another six months.  By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his service.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.  He had already received his acceptance letter, from the Maryknoll order.

Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam.

It was a bright and shining future, one which was never meant to be.

Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) force of South Vietnamese troops remove a Viet Cong (VC) command post in the Mekong Delta.  It was unusual that anyone would volunteer for such a mission, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”.  This was a daring mission in a very dangerous place.

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In happier times, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace pins insignia on the uniform of his son, Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace

On October 29, an overwhelming force of Viet Cong ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit.  Under siege and suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived, too late to alter the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For most of the following two years, a 2’x3’x6’ bamboo cage would be their home.  On nights when their netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, it looked like they were wearing socks.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said to audience laughter, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.

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In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them, if only they’d asked.  His brother could not be broken.  Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, but that only made him try harder.

Fluent in French, Vietnamese and English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him to within an inch of his life.

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Incessant torture and repeated isolation in solitary confinement did nothing to shut him up.  Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear him blow up their Communist propaganda in their own language.

For five months in 1964, reports came back through intelligence circles, of one particular prisoner. Paraded in chains before local villagers, with hair turned snow white and face swollen and yellowed with jaundice. With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy.

pg1verThe effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

In the end, Versace was isolated from the rest of the prison population, as a dangerous influence.  He responded by singing at the top of his lungs, the lyrics of popular songs of the day replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  Rocky was last heard belting out “God Bless America”, at the top of his lungs.

Humbert Roque Versace was murdered by his North Vietnamese captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Rocky’s remains were never recovered.  The headstone bearing his name in the Memorial section MG-108 at Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.  The memory of his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing in the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, and on Panel 1E, line 33, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

vietnam-memorial

This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort culminating in a posthumous Silver Star.  In 2002, the Defense Authorization Act approved by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, awarded Versace the Medal of Honor.

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the President of the United States awarded the Medal of Honor to United States Army Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.  Dr. Stephen Versace stood in to receive the award, on behalf of his brother.  It was the first time the nation’s highest honor for military valor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Rockys Statue_Plaza1
This statue of Medal of Honor recipient and Ranger Hall of Fame inductee Captain “Rocky” Versace stands in a plaza bearing his name in Alexandria, Virginia. With him are the likenesses of two Vietnamese children, along with sixty-seven gold stars, each representing one of the 67 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Alexandria who were KIA or MIA, in the war in Vietnam.
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.

September 2, 1945 Unit 731

To perform even the most cursory examination of WW2 is to walk among a catalog of atrocities, unimaginable to the modern reader. As if the very nightmare pits of hell had opened and unleashed horrors, unthinkable even to the blackest visions of the perverted and depraved. A true reckoning of the horrors of that war, is capable of producing psychological damage.

As Western historians tell the tale of WW2, the deadliest conflict in history began in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The United States joined the conflagration two years later, following the sneak attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan.

To perform even the most cursory examination of WW2 is to walk among a catalog of atrocities, unimaginable to the modern reader. As if the very nightmare pits of hell had opened and unleashed horrors, unthinkable even to the blackest visions of the perverted and depraved. A true reckoning of the horrors of that war, is capable of producing psychological damage.

auschwits-birkenau
Auschwitz-Birkenau

The mountains of gold teeth, of eyeglasses and hair and children’s shoes, testify in mute witness to the systematic extermination of eleven million souls in the gas chambers and ovens of the “Master Race”.  The Untermenschen:  The Jews.  The Roma (“gypsies”).  The physically and mentally disabled.  The Poles and other Slavic races, Jehovah‘s Witnesses, homosexuals, and members of political opposition groups.

Mass graves and savage reprisals by Nazi death squads for the imaginary “collective guilt” of civil populations. The vicious brutality inflicted upon the diseased and starving captives of the countless prison camps, of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere“.

JapanesePowCamps-WWII-front
“Imperial Japanese-run prisoner-of-war camps within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere known during World War II from 1941 to 1945”. H/T Wikipedia

The tales are widely told and deservedly so.  Never should such atrocities be forgotten, any more than the cataclysmic fire bombing campaigns of entire cities, nor the nuclear annihilation which brought this whole ghastly conflagration, to a close.

Yet, of 100 randomly selected adults, how many are aware of “Unit 731″ and the other “medical experimentation” centers of the Kempetai, possibly the most hideous episode in this entire parade of horribles?

Shiro-ishii
General Shirō Ishii, Commandant of Unit 731

In the East, the war which began in 1939 dates back to 1931, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria beginning on September 18.

The invasion followed the Mukden incident, an entirely staged “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose, to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors eight years later, almost to the day.

The puppet state of Manchukuo now joined most of the Korean peninsula under Japanese subjugation.  This and subsequent invasions and the famine and civil wars which ensued, killed more people during this eight-year period, than the modern populations of Canada and Australia.  Combined.

The covert biological and chemical warfare research program conducted by Unit 731 began operations two years before the European war, during the “second Sino-Japanese War” of 1937-’45. Originally set up by the Kempeitai military police arm of the Imperial Japanese army, Unit 731 was taken over and commanded until the end of the war by General Shirō Ishii, a combat medic officer of the Kwantung Army.

Thousands of so-called “logs” (“Maruta”, in Japanese) were brought through the 150 buildings comprising Unit 731, and smaller facilities known as Unit 100 and Unit 516.  They were men, women and children, captives subjected to unspeakable acts of barbarity, in the name of medical “science”.   70% of Unit 731’s victims were ethnic Chinese, but the list includes Soviet, Mongolian and Korean nationals and possibly European, American and Australian POWs, as well.

unit-731-frostbite
Frostbite “experiment”

One example of the work there, is physiologist Yoshimura Hisato’s interest in hypothermia. The arms and legs of prisoners were submerged in ice or exposed to sub-zero winter cold until frozen solid, with ice accumulated on skin. Limbs were judged “ready” when they made a sound like a wooden board, when struck with a cane. Re-warming methods were carried out, from exposure to open fire to dousing in hot water. Sometimes the subject was simply left alone, to see how long a person’s own blood took to warm up the now-destroyed limbs.

germ-warfare
“Japanese personnel in protective suits carry a stretcher through Yiwu, China during Unit 731’s germ warfare tests. June 1942”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Human beings were intentionally infected with diseases such as cholera, anthrax or venereal disease, or nerve, chemical and biological warfare agents of every description. Then, as always, the live dissections, and examination of the prisoner’s organs.

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“Germ” warfare experiment, being carried out at Unit 731

Female prisoners were subjected to rape and forced pregnancy, to test the “vertical transmission” of all of it, from mother to child.

Unit 731 museum
Unit 731 Museum, Harbin. “A permanent lab of the Troop No.731 to research the formation, therapy and prevention of frostbite. Before 1939, the troop did frostbite experiments generally in the fields.” Credit Samuel Kim, China Chronicles

Such “medical experiments” were carried out with no regard for the subjects’ survival.  In fact, live dissections were performed on fully aware and un-anesthetized victims, unless they were merely buried alive.  Such humane measures as unconsciousness, were thought to skew the “data”.  Not a single prisoner assigned to Unit 731, survived.  Not one.

Photographs may be found on-line if you wish, of the vivisection of live and fully conscious human beings.  I didn’t go there.   The images I decided to show, are bad enough.

Unit 731 prisoners were herded together onto firing ranges, to measure the damage done by weapons from swords to the Nambu 8mm pistol, to machine guns or bayonets and grenades.  Even flame throwers.

Bubonic plague-infected fleas were bred in laboratories at Unit 731 and Unit 1644, and spread by low flying aircraft in the coastal city of Ningbo and Changde in the Province of Hunan. Chinese civilians killed in outbreaks of bubonic plague, number thirty thousand or more.

children-researchers
“Unit 731 researchers conduct bacteriological experiments with captive child subjects in Nongan County of northeast China’s Jilin Province. November 1940”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Throughout the eight years of its existence, 1937 -1945, Unit 731 and its counterparts received generous support from the Japanese government.

On this day in 1945, Representatives of the Imperial Japanese government signed the formal instrument of surrender aboard the “Mighty Mo”, the Iowa-class battleship USS Missouri, ending World War 2 in the Pacific.

douglas-macarthur-and-hsu-yungchang-P
September 2, 1945

After the war, Unit 731 records were burned and researchers resumed civilian lives, as if nothing had happened. Many went back to faculty positions. Like “Operation Paperclip”, the combined British – American effort to scour the German talent pool for scientists and technicians of every sort, Japanese researchers were given immunity from prosecution, in exchange for what they knew.

Shirō Ishii was arrested by US occupation authorities after the war, and managed to negotiate immunity, in exchange for their full disclosure of germ warfare data based on human experimentation. On May 6 1947, General Douglas MacArthur wrote to Washington that “additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence.”

After that, Ishii all but stepped off the pages of history.

Building_on_the_site_of_the_Harbin_bioweapon_facility_of_Unit_731
Today, the former Unit 731 bioweapon facility at Harbin is open to the public, as a war crimes museum

Cambridge University history lecturer Richard Drayton claims that he showed up in Maryland, to advise on bioweapons. Some sources place him on the Korean peninsula in 1951, still others claim he never left Japan where he died of throat cancer, at the age of 67.

In April of this year, the National Archives of Japan disclosed for the first time, a full list of the 3,607 people who worked for Unit 731. The Japanese government has yet to apologize for its acts of barbarity, nor is it likely to, anytime soon.  No more than the government in China, is likely to forget.

harbin-facility
Unit 731 facility, in Harbin

July 15, 1864 The Great Shohola Train Wreck

Note the pointed tops of the Confederate grave markers, different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal stones.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

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, Maryland to the Federal 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.

shohola station

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.

He might have been drunk that day, but nobody’s sure. He disappeared the following day, never to be seen again.

Erie Engine #237 arrived at Lackawaxen at 2:30pm 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 now lay between the two speeding locomotives.

ShoholaWreckPA

The two trains met head-on at “King and Fuller’s Cut”, a section of track following a blind curve with only 50’ of visibility.

King and Fullers Cut
King and Fullers Cut

Engineer Samuel Hoit at the throttle of the coal train had time to jump clear, and survived the wreck.   Many of the others, never had a chance.

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.”

Frank Evans, a guard on the train, describes the scene: “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.”

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

shohola2Captured at Spotsylvania early in 1864, 52nd North Carolina Infantry soldier James Tyner was a POW at this time, languishing in “Hellmira” – the fetid POW camp at Elmira, New York.  “The Andersonville of the Northern Union.”

Tyner’s brother William was one of the prisoners on board #171.

William was badly injured in the wreck, surviving only long enough to avoid a mass grave alongside a train track, in Shohola. William Tyner was transported to Elmira where he died three days later, never regaining consciousness.

I’ve always wondered if the brothers were able to find one another, that one last time.  James Tyner was my own twice-great Grandfather, one of four brothers who went to war for 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 Tyner brothers, Nicholas alone survived the war.  He laid down his arms on the order of the man they called “Marse Robert”, and walked home to pick up the shattered bits of his life, in the Sand Hills of North Carolina.

Family Plot
Memorial for the brothers Tyner is located on the old family farm, in North Carolina.  Note the pointed tops, which are different from the arc-shapes at the top of Federal grave markers.  Rumor has it that the point was there to “stick it” to any Yankee, dumb enough to sit on a Confederate gravestone.  No Rebel would ever be so disrespectful.

“About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the war, accounting for almost 10% of all Civil War fatalities. During a period of 14 months in Camp Sumter, located near Andersonville, Georgia, 13,000 (28%) of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined there died. At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, 10% of its Confederate prisoners died during one cold winter month; and Elmira Prison in New York state, with a death rate of 25%, very nearly equaled that of Andersonville”.  H/T Wikipedia

 

Afterward

Burial details worked throughout the night of July 15 until dawn of the following day. 

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.

shohola6lg
Last resting place of the brothers John and Michael Johnson, killed in the Great Shohola Trainwreck

The remaining POW dead and those about to die were buried alongside the track in a 75′ trench, placed four at a time in crude boxes fashioned from the wreckage.  Conventional caskets arrived overnight.  Individual graves were dug for the 17 Federal dead, and they too were laid alongside the track.

As the years went by, memorial markers faded and then disappeared, altogether. Hundreds of trains carried thousands of passengers up and down the Erie railroad, ignorant of the burial ground through which they had passed.  

11df509e6d89fc150e76c8192efc5975The “pumpkin flood“ of 1903 scoured the rail line, uncovering many of the dead and carrying away their mortal remains.  It must have been a sight – caskets moving with the flood, bobbing like so many fishing plugs, alongside countless numbers of that year’s pumpkin crop.

On June 11, 1911, the forgotten dead of Shohola were disinterred, and reburied in mass graves in the Woodlawn national cemetery in Elmira, New York. Two brass plaques bear the names of the dead, mounted to opposite sides of a common stone marker.

The names of the Union dead, face north. Those of the Confederate side, face south. To my knowledge, this is the only instance from the Civil War era, in which Union and Confederate share a common grave. 

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.