September 11, 2001 Fallen Angel

2,977 innocents died this day in 2001, not counting the beasts responsible for the slaughter. They’re not worth counting. Over ten thousand children were orphaned, in whole or in part. This is a story of one of those fallen angels. They have earned the right to be remembered.

At the turn of the 20th century, a great wave of immigrants came to the United States, 20 million Europeans and more, making the long journey to become Americans.

Among those vast multitudes came the Ogonowski family, emigrating from Poland and making a new home in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, along the New Hampshire line.

Those early members of the Ogonowski family received invaluable assistance from Yankee farmers, well accustomed to growing conditions in the harsh New England climate.  Generations later, the family still tilled the soil of the 150-acre “White Gate Farm” in Dracut, Massachusetts.

Ogonowski 2Graduating from UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Alexander Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force.  During the war in Vietnam, this farmer-turned military pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, often returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard that giant, C-141 transport aircraft.

Ogonowski left the Air Force with the rank of Captain, becoming a commercial pilot and joining American Airlines in 1978. There John  met Margaret, a flight attendant, “Peggy” to friends and family. The two would later marry and raise a family of three daughters, Laura, Caroline, and Mary Catherine.

Twelve days a month, Ogonowski would leave the farm in his Captain’s uniform, flying jumbo jets out of Logan Airport.  When he was finished , he would always return to the land he loved.

Family farming is not what it used to be, as suburban development and subdivisions creep into formerly open spaces. “When you plant a building on a field”, John would say, “it’s the last crop that will ever grow there”.

Ogonowski 4John Ogonowski helped to create the Dracut Land Trust in 1998, working to conserve the growing town’s agricultural heritage. He worked to bring more people into farming, as well.  The bumper sticker on his truck read “There is no farming without farmers”.

That was the year the farm Service Agency in Westford came looking for open agricultural land, for Cambodian immigrants from Lowell.

“This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both”. – Margaret “Peggy” Ogonowski

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It was a natural fit.  Ogonowski felt a connection with these people, based on his time in Southeast Asia. He would help them, here putting up a shed, there getting a greenhouse in order or putting up irrigation. He would help these immigrants, just as those Yankee farmers of long ago, had helped his ancestors.

Cambodian farmers learned to grow their native vegetables in an unfamiliar climate. They would lease small plots, growing water spinach, lemon grass, pigweed, Asian basil, and Asian squash. They raised taro and Laotian mint, coconut amaranth, pickling spices, pea tendrils and more. It was the food they grew up with, the food they knew.  They would sell their produce into nearby immigrant communities, and to the high-end restaurants of Boston.

mrkimcilantroThe program was a great success.  Ogonowski told The Boston Globe in 1999, “These guys are putting more care and attention into their one acre than most Yankee farmers put into their entire 100 acres.

So it was that, with the fall harvest of 2001, Cambodian immigrants found themselves among the pumpkins and the hay of a New England farm, putting on a special lunch spread for visiting agricultural officials from Washington, DC.  It was September 11.

By now you know that John Ogonowski was flying that day, Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11. He may have been the first to die, attacked from behind and murdered in his cockpit by Islamist terrorist Mohammed Atta and his accomplices.

It’s a new perspective on a now-familiar story, to think of the shock and the grief of those refugees from the killing fields of Pol Pot, on hearing the news that their friend and benefactor had been hijacked and murdered, his body flown into a New York skyscraper.

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The White Gate Farm was closed for a week, but the Ogonowski family was determined.  John’s dream would not die.  Peg said it best:  “This is what he was all about. He flew airplanes, he loved flying, and that provided all the money, but this is what he lived for. He was a very lucky man, he had both a vocation and an avocation and he loved them both.

9-11 as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge

John Ogonowski was working with the Land Trust at the time of his death, in an effort  to raise $760,000 to purchase a 34-acre farm in Dracut, slated for development.  Federal funds were raised with help from two members of Congress.  The “Captain John Ogonowski Memorial Preservation Farmland” project was dedicated in 2003.  A living memorial to one day that changed the world.   And to John Alexander Ogonowski.  Pilot.  Farmer.  Fallen angel.

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Loyalty

Another tale to emerge from that hideous day concerns one of the many first responders who rushed to the inferno, and never returned. This man was one of the lucky ones, in a way.  This firefighter’s family would have a body to bury.

The night before the funeral, the firefighter’s wife and his buddies “stole” the body, casket and all, with the connivance of the folks at the funeral home.  They brought him to the beach, where they spent that last night with a case of beer, laughing together, crying, and sharing stories. The next morning, they brought him back to the funeral home as promised, and their loved one was buried with honors.

I don’t know this man’s name or that of his wife, but that part matters more to those precious few.  For the rest of us, this is a story of a short life well lived, a story of love and friendship and loyalty.

May we all be so fortunate, to be blessed with friends such as these.

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September 1, 911 The Royal “We”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

A story comes down from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland intoned: “We are not amused“.

VictoriaThe story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub” concerning a Queen whose name wasn’t ‘Victoria’ at all but Alexandrina Victoria, after her godfather Tsar Alexander I.

Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster.  At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” never was given to public displays of mirth.  The Queen’s lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, the lives of the Royals of history may seem very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula, so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae (“Little Boots“), the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father, famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to do as much.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm, never mind.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

There are those who contend the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island
Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, attacked Paris in early 911. By July, the “Normans” were holding the nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

Rollo the Walker
Rollo “The Walker”

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

Mitochondrial_DNA
Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match up with the living descendants of the King.

The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.

Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.  Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there is no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but, if I were, my money’s on all those old guys, staying in the ground

August 31, 1959 Sergeant Reckless

Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard the weapon go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t bother to look up. She was happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

A Recoilless Rifle is a type of lightweight tube artillery.  Kind of a bazooka, really, only the Recoilless fires modified shells rather than rockets.  Think of a portable cannon, excepte the back blast of these shells compensates for the mule’s kick which would otherwise be expected from such a weapon, making the rifle “recoilless”.

While that reduces projectile range, reduced gas pressures permit a thinner-walled barrel, resulting in a weapon light enough to be served by a 2 to 3-man crew, and shoulder fired by a single infantryman.

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The “RCLR” weapon system has provided the punch of artillery to mobile troop formations since the early days of WWII, including Airborne, Special Forces and Mountain units.

The problem arises when combat operations consume ammunition faster than the supply chain can replace it. Mountainous terrain makes the situation worse. Even today in the more mountainous regions of Afghanistan, there are times when the best transportation system, is horsepower.

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Ah Chim-hai was a chestnut mare of mixed Mongolian and Thoroughbred lineage, a race horse at a track in Seoul, South Korea, her name translating as “Flame of the Morning”.
Lieutenant Eric Pedersen of the recoilless rifle platoon, anti-tank company of the 5th Marine Regiment, needed a pack animal to carry the weapon’s 24-lb shells up Korean mountain passes. In October 1952, Pederson received permission from regimental commander Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, to buy a horse.

Lt. Pederson and stable boy Kim Huk-moon agreed on a price of $250, which Pederson paid with his own money.  Kim cried on watching his “Flame” leave the stable, but the sale had a higher purpose.  The boy’s sister had stepped on a land mine, and badly needed a prosthetic leg.

The Marines called the new recruit “Reckless” – a nod to the weapon system she was intended to serve, and to the fighting spirit of the 5th Marines.

Pederson wrote to his wife in California to send a pack saddle, while Gunnery Sergeant Joseph Latham and Private First Class Monroe Coleman provided for her care and training.

Navy Hospitalman First Class George “Doc” Mitchell provided most of Reckless’ medical care.  Latham taught her battlefield skills: how to step over communication wires, when to lie down under fire, how to avoid becoming entangled in barbed wire. She learned to run for cover at the cry of “Incoming!”

The platoon built Reckless a bunker and fenced off a pasture, but soon she was allowed to roam freely throughout the camp. She’d enter tents at will, sometimes spending the night if it was cold.

Reckless would eat just about anything: bacon, mashed potatoes, shredded wheat.  She loved scrambled eggs.  Just about anything else a Marine wasn’t watching closely enough. Reckless even ate her horse blanket once, and she loved a beer. Mitchell had to warn his fellow Marines against giving her more than two Cokes a day, which she’d drink out of a helmet. Once, she ate $30 worth of winning poker chips.

General Randolph McCall Pate, a veteran of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Korea, served as the 21st Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1956 – ’59.  Pate wrote: “I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades. She was constantly the center of attraction and was fully aware of her importance. If she failed to receive the attention she felt her due, she would deliberately walk into a group of Marines and, in effect, enter the conversation. It was obvious the Marines loved her.”  Reckless was a Marine.

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Reckless “went straight up” the first time she heard an RCLR go off, despite being loaded down with six shells. All four feet left the ground and she came down trembling with fear, but Coleman was able to soothe her. The second time she snorted. By the fourth she didn’t bother to look up.  She was happily munching on a discarded helmet liner.

Recoilless rifle tactics call for fire teams to fire four or five rounds, and then relocate before the enemy can shoot back. Reckless usually learned the route after one or two trips, often traveling alone to deliver supplies on the way up, and evacuate wounded on the way down.

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In February 1953, Captain Dick Kurth and his Fox Company were fighting for a hill called “Detroit”. Reckless made 24 trips by herself, carrying a total 3,500lbs of ammunition over 20 miles.

She made 51 solo trips that March, during the battle for Outpost Vegas. Reckless carried 9,000lbs of ammunition in a single day, over 35 miles of open rice paddies and steep hills. At times, artillery exploded around her at the rate of 500 rounds per minute. She was wounded twice during the battle. That night, she was too exhausted to do anything but hang her head while they rubbed her down.

Reckless was the first horse in Marine Corps history to participate in an amphibious landing. She was wounded twice, and later awarded two Purple Hearts and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Her name appears on Presidential Unit citations from the United States and the Republic of Korea.

On August 31, 1959, Reckless was promoted to Staff Sergeant in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton. 1,900 of her 5th Marine comrades attended, as did two of her sons, “Fearless” and “Dauntless”.  A third, “Chesty”, was unavailable to attend.

General Pate wrote: “In my career I have seen many animals that have been adopted by Marines, but never in all my experience have I seen one which won the hearts of so many as did. . .Reckless.”

 

Life Magazine published a collector’s edition in 1997, listing 100 heroes from American history. Alongside the names of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Sally Ride and Abraham Lincoln, was that of a small Mongolian race horse. Sergeant Reckless.

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August 27, 1896 The Shortest War in History

The episode went into history as the Anglo-Zanzibar War.  The whole thing lasted 38 minutes.  Less time than it took me to write this story.

The late 19th century was period of friendly but competing relations between Imperial Germany and Great Britain in Colonial East Africa, as each vied for control of territory and trade rights.

In 1886, Sultan Khalifah granted rights to the land of Kenya to Great Britain, and that of Tanganyika, modern day Tanzaniya, to Germany. The Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty between Britain and Germany officially demarcated each nation’s sphere of influence in East Africa, in the process ceding Germany’s rights in the island nation of Zanzibar to the United Kingdom.

The agreement effectively ended the slave trade in much of East Africa, upsetting many among the Arab ruling classes who profited handsomely by this lucrative trade.

The shortest war in history began with the unexpected death and probable assassination of Sultan Hamad of Zanzibar, who died suddenly on August 25, 1896.

Many suspected Hamad’s 29-year-old nephew Khalid bin Bargash of the assassination, as he took up residence in his uncle’s palace complex.

Anglo-Zanzibar_war_mapBritish authorities demanded that Khalid order his forces to stand down and leave the palace. Instead, the new Sultan called up his personal security and barricaded himself inside.

Several English warships arrived on the 26th, as a cable was sent to Lord Salisbury that afternoon, requesting authorization to use force if necessary.

The reply came back from Her Majesty’s government: “You are authorized to adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary, and will be supported in your action by Her Majesty’s Government.”

Then followed one of the great examples in recorded history, of government covering its behind at someone else’s expense: “Do not, however, attempt to take any action which you are not certain of being able to accomplish successfully”.AngloZanzibarWar(1)

At 8:30 on the morning of August 27th, a message came from Khalid: “We have no intention of hauling down our flag and we do not believe you would open fire on us”.

Diplomatic Consul Basil Cave replied “We do not want to open fire, but unless you do as you are told we shall certainly do so”.

No further messages being forthcoming, General Lloyd Mathews ordered his ships to commence bombarding the palace complex at 9:00am, East Africa time.

Her Majesty’s ships Raccoon, Thrush and Sparrow opened fire at 9:02, Thrush’s first shot disabling an Arab 12-pounder cannon.  

In all, 500 shells, 4,100 machine gun rounds and 1,000 rifle rounds were expended against the palace complex.  By 9:40, the weapons of the 3,000 palace defenders, servants and slaves, had gone silent. The palace and attached harem were burning, the Sultan’s flag cut down.  The order was given to cease fire.

One Reuters news correspondent reported the Sultan had “fled at the first shot with all the leading Arabs, who left their slaves and followers to carry on the fighting”.

The episode went into history as the Anglo-Zanzibar War.  The whole thing lasted 38 minutes.  Less time than it took me to write this story.

August 18, 1942 Ghosts of the Butaritari

The old man spoke no English, save for a single song memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American 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.

That April, 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,  beating marchers at random and bayoneting 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, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

The Imperial Japanese Navy asserted control over much of the region in 1941, installing troop garrisons in the Marshall Island chain and across the ‘biogeographical region’ known as Oceana.

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WWF Map of the biogeographic region ‘Oceana

The “Island hopping strategy” used to wrest control of the Pacific islands from the Japanese would prove successful in the end but, in 1942, the Americans had much to learn about this style of warfare.

Today, the island Republic of Kiribati comprises 32 atolls and reef islands, located near the equator in the central Pacific, among a widely scattered group of federated states known as Micronesia. Home to just over 110,000 permanent residents, about half of these live on Tarawa Atoll.  At the opposite end of this small archipelago is Butaritari, once known as Makin Island.

marine-raiders-about-to-deployA few minutes past 00:00 (midnight) on August 17, 1942, 211 United States Marine Corps raiders designated Task Group 7.15 (TG 7.15) disembarked from the submarines Argonaut and Nautilus, and boarded inflatable rubber boats for the landing on Makin Island. The raid was among the first major American offensive ground combat operations of WW2, with the objectives of destroying Japanese installations, taking prisoners to gain intelligence on the Gilbert Islands region, and to divert Japanese reinforcement from allied landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

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Makin Island as seen by Nautilus

High surf and the failure of several outboard engines confused the night landing.  Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson in charge of the raid, decided to land all his men on one beach instead of two as originally planned, but not everyone got the word. At 5:15, a 12-man squad led by Lt. Oscar Peatross found itself isolated and alone but, undeterred by the lack of support, began to move inland in search of the enemy. Meanwhile, the balance of TG 7.15 advanced inland from the landing, encountering strong resistance from Japanese snipers and machine guns.

Two Bansai charges turned out to be a tactical mistake for Japanese forces. Meanwhile, Peatross and his small force of 12 found themselves behind the Japanese machine gun team engaging their fellow Marines.  Peatross’ unit killed eight enemy soldiers along with garrison commander Sgt. Major Kanemitsu, knocked out a machine gun and destroyed several enemy radios, while suffering three dead and two wounded of their own.

Unable to contact Carlson, what remained of Peatross’ small band withdrew to the submarines, as originally planned.  That was about the last thing that went according to plan.

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View of Makin Island from USS Nautilus, waiting to withdraw Marine Corps raiding force

At 13:30, twelve Japanese aircraft arrived over Makin, including two “flying boats”, carrying reinforcements for the Japanese garrison. Ten aircraft bombed and strafed as the flying boats attempted to land, but both were destroyed in a hail of machine gun and anti-tank fire.

The raiders began to withdraw at 19:30, but surf conditions were far stronger than expected. Ninety-three men managed to struggle back to the waiting submarines, but eleven out of eighteen boats were forced to turn back. Despite hours of heroic effort, exhausted survivors struggled back to the beach, most now without their weapons or equipment.

Wet, dispirited and unarmed, seventy-two exhausted men were now left alone on the island, including only 20 fully-armed Marines originally left behind, to cover the withdrawal.

Many survivors got out with little but their underclothes, and a few souvenirs

A Japanese messenger was dispatched to the enemy commander with offer to surrender, but this man was shot by other Marines, unaware of his purpose.  A rescue boat was dispatched on the morning of the 18th to stretch a rescue line out to the island. The craft was attacked and destroyed by enemy aircraft.  Both subs had to crash dive for the bottom where each was forced to wait out the day. Meanwhile, exhausted survivors fashioned a raft from three remaining rubber boats and a few native canoes, and battled the four miles out of Makin Lagoon, back to the waiting subs. The last survivor was withdrawn at fifty-two minutes before midnight, on August 18.

The raid annihilated the Japanese garrison on Makin Island, but failed in its other major objectives.  In the end, Marines asked the island people to bury their dead.  There was no time.  Casualties at the time were recorded as eighteen killed and 12 missing in action.

The war in the Pacific continued for another three years, but the Butaritari people never forgot the barbarity of the Japanese occupier.  Nor did they forget the Marines who had given their lives, in the attempt to throw out the occupier.

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Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson holds a souvenir with his second-in-command from the Makin Island raid, James Roosevelt.  The President’s son. 

Neither it turns out, had one Butaritari elder who, as a teenager, had helped give nineteen dead Marines a warrior’s last due.  In December 1999, representatives of the Marine Corps once again came to Butaritari island, this time not with weapons, but with caskets.

The old Butaritari man spoke no English, save for a single song memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

August 3, 1908 The Old Man of La Chappelle

This wasn’t an “old man” by our standards.  The skeleton is currently estimated to have been that of a man between 25 and 40 years, demonstrating the Hobbesian adage that life was indeed once “Nasty, Brutish and Short”.

In the 17th century, German Reformed Church teacher and hymn writer Joachim Neander enjoyed hiking a certain valley outside of Düsseldorf.  Neander found the beauty of nature inspirational, clearing the writer’s mind and inspiring verses like “See how God this rolling globe/swathes with beauty as a robe…Forests, fields, and living things/each its Master’s glory sings.”

The theologian contracted tuberculosis and died in his thirtieth year but lived on in a way, in the valley which came to bear his name.  Some 200 years later and three years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, workers quarrying Neander Valley limestone discovered an unusual skull.  This was no ordinary head, elongated and nearly chinless as it was, with heavy ridges over the eyes.  Heavy bones found alongside fitted together, albeit oddly.

From top, clockwise:  a) Neander Valley by Friedrich Wilhelm Schreiner, oil on cardboard, 1855, b) original bones discovered the following year, and c)Artist’s conception of what he looked like, H/T Artist: Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions

Archaeological science had much to learn in 1856.  Perhaps future historians and scientists will look back at our time, and say the same of us.  At the time, even to discern fossils from ordinary rock was beyond the ability of many scientists. One common method involved licking the fossil. It was believed if the thing had animal material, it would stick to your tongue.

Despite such misconceptions, scholars of the day had no shortage of theories. This was a lost Cossack, a bowlegged rider suffering from rickets, a painful condition resulting in weak and misshapen bones. To some, the life of pain resulting from such a condition made perfect sense, the bony eye ridges resulting from perpetually furrowed brow.

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British geologist William King suspected something different. Something more radical. This was no aberrant human being nor even a lost ancestor. This was a member of a long lost alternate humanity.   An extinct but parallel species to our own.  King published a paper in 1864 hypothesizing his idea of an evolutionary dead end, naming the long lost species after the poet who had once wandered the valley in which it was discovered. He called it Homo Neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.

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“Neanderthal sculptures, named Nana and Flint, at the Gibraltar Museum”. H/T Jaap Scheeren, New York Times

Having no context from which to draw conclusions, King fell back on the pseudo science of phrenology to describe Neanderthal man, along with preconceptions of “primitive” and “savage” races. The image of a stupid and grunting brute emerged from this analysis. King opined that “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute.” Today we may look at such thinking as itself savage and primitive, but applying modern ideas to earlier times is a dangerous undertaking. Ideas of Eugenics survived well after King’s time, and into the modern era.

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The Old Man of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints reconstructed burial in the Musée de l’Homme de Néandertal, France

On this day in 1908, the brothers Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie found the most complete Neanderthal skeleton to date in a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France.  This skeleton includes the skull, jaw, most of the vertebrae and several ribs, along with most of the long bones of the arms and legs, plus a number of smaller bones from the hands and feet.

French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule studied the remains and envisioned a brutish, hairy and gorilla-like beast with opposable toes and bent spine, walking on bowed legs with bent knees.  Boule’s reconstruction was influential. Decades later, scientists and popular culture viewed Neanderthal as bent and stupid brutes. Boule got it wrong that time but, to his credit, he was one of the first to recognize Piltdown Man as a paleoanthropological hoax.

Subsequent analysis of the “Old Man of La Chappelle” revealed not the bent-over beast of Boule’s imagination, but a fully erect biped, bent with advanced osteoarthritis.

What’s more, massive tooth loss and lack of mobility revealed that this specimen could neither hunt nor scavenge with ease, and would have had great difficulty in chewing his food. This and the unmolested state of the skeleton compared with animal bones found nearby suggest a man greatly cared for by his contemporaries, as well as deliberate burial of the body.

This wasn’t even an “old man” by our standards.  The skeleton is currently estimated to have been that of a man between 25 and 40 years, demonstrating the Hobbesian adage that life was indeed once “Nasty, Brutish and Short”.

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Today, to call someone “Neanderthal” is to insult him as a stupid savage.  It appears our cousin was nothing of the sort.

The hyoid bone at the floor of the mouth serves as a connecting-point for the tongue and other musculature, giving humans the ability to speak. A delicate structure is likely to be lost in most fossilized remains, the first Neanderthal hyoid was only discovered in 1989.

An international team of researchers analysed this fossil Neanderthal bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modeling and, it turns out yes.  Neanderthal could not only speak, but was capable of highly complex speech not unlike our own, though his voice was likely high and grating.  Certainly not the base grunting commonly associated with “cave-men”.img_1054neanderthalsm

Shorter in stature and more powerfully built than Cro-Magnon, our direct ancestor and all but indistinguishable from ourselves, Neanderthal bodies were suited to the ice age of the early and middle Paleolithic era.

Neanderthal emerged on the Eurasian landmass between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Possessed of a brain only slightly smaller than Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals walked upright, formed and used simple tools and controlled fire.  They buried their own dead, at least sometimes, and some researchers theorize they built boats and sailed the Mediterranean.  Imperfectly formed tools and weapons found alongside more sophisticated specimens suggest he educated his children.

He might even fit in if you brought him back today, provided you dressed him right.

Despite all that, Neanderthal man is an evolutionary dead end and not our ancestor, though he did “coexist” for a time, with our Cro-Magnon forebears.  It’s possible if not probable the two bred together and produced children, though this was likely your random hookup rather than the result of long-term cohabitation.

Modern DNA analysis suggests the two species even shared some genetic disorders, such as psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and a variety of auto-immune conditions such as Lupus.

image_1481e-NeanderthalResearch suggests that we ourselves carry Neanderthal genes, those among us of Eurasian ancestry.  These genes may have changed our immune systems leaving us vulnerable to diseases such diabetes and cancer.

The idea is not as strange as it sounds. Recently, Sir Richard Branson was in the news, claiming to have looked into his family ancestry. Forty generations back, it turns out that Branson is related to Charlemagne.  That’s no big deal according to Genetecist Adam Rutherford. Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Rutherford explained that “Literally every person in Europe is directly descended from Charlemagne. Literally, not metaphorically. You have a direct lineage which leads to Charlemagne,” adding “Looking around this room, every single one of you … is directly descended between 21 and 24 generations from Edward III.”

The only difference between celebrities and the rest of us it seems, is the means to prove it.

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Hundreds of generations have come and gone, since our cousin trod the earth.  Perhaps calling someone ‘Neanderthal’ isn’t such an insult, after all.  That might be one of them, peering back from our bathroom mirror.

July 20, 1969   Sick of Space

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

It’s hard to turn on the TV this week, without hearing about Apollo 11.  Fifty years ago, those famous words spoken by the first human being, to set foot on the moon.  “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind“.

The moon landing of July 20, 1969 was the culmination of tens of millions of man-hours, a twelve-years long space race with the Soviet Union, five dead astronauts and the young President who had dared them to do it, himself shot through the head some six years earlier.

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

Ten years earlier,  NASA needed to know what happened to the human body in space.  The Soviet space program was halted for nearly a year, so sick was the #2 (human) “traveler in the cosmos”.  Astronauts would be subjected to weightlessness, G-forces beyond imagination and constant rotation.  A world where up is down and down is up and the delicate sensors of the middle ear cry out, Enough!

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The vertigo and the nausea of motion sickness has played its part, from the earliest days of human history.  The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about it.  The Roman philosopher Seneca writes of the misery of a long voyage in which ‘he could bring nothing more up’.  The lyric poet Horace writes of seasickness as a great social leveler, in which wealth is no protection and the rich man suffers just as much as the poor man.  The sea-going military exploits of Julius Caesar are replete with tales of vomiting legionaries and seasick horses.

To the Great good fortune of the Protestant England of 1588, the terrifying Armada sent by Spanish King Phillip II to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an Army general with little to no experience at sea. Sidonia suffered such severe seasickness that this, combined with a stroke of exceptionally bad luck, destroyed the Spanish Armada and paved the way to the next three hundred years in which “Britannia Ruled the Waves”.

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Were you to catch the early space travelers in a candid moment, many are the tales of less-than-heroic moments, spent wiping the product of space sickness from the interiors of craft from the Gemini program to the Space Shuttle.

From the beginning, scientists needed to understand the mechanisms of space sickness.  So it was that, in the mid-twentieth century, NASA happened upon a group of space pioneers, you’ve likely never heard of.  What better group with which to study motion sickness, than those literally immune to it.  The profoundly hearing impaired made deaf by spinal meningitis and without a functioning vestibular system, that delicate inner ear structure which gives us sense of balance.

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Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 as a grammar school for the deaf and blind and remains to this day, the world’s premier institution for the higher education of the deaf and hearing impaired.  In 1961, researchers with the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine paid a visit.  Hundreds of faculty and students were tested and a handful selected, for further tests.  There were parabolic flights.  Some were suspended for days, in swinging cages.

One group was deliberately taken into a severe storm off the coast of Nova Scotia, an outing former students remember as a lark, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.  Researchers didn’t enjoy the trip quite so much, passing the voyage in a state of green and gut-wrenching decrepitude.

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Gallaudet Eleven

Eleven Gallaudet students were selected as early as 1958, to spin for nearly two weeks in a room-sized centrifuge.  Though it was hard work, participants viewed the study as an adventure.  One remembers his experience as a way to serve his country, since he’d never be allowed to join the military.

Today, their names are all but forgotten.  Barron Gulak.  Harry Larson.  David Myers and others.  The forgotten pioneers of those early days of the American space program, without whom the first astronauts may well have viewed the moon landing, from the bottom of a barf bag.

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Featured image, top of page: “Space Sickness”. Hat tip graphic designer Douglas Noe (aka “Robotrake”), and society6.com