January 23, 1960 Into the Abyss

If you could somehow pull up Mt. Everest by the roots and sink the thing in Challenger Deep, (this is the largest mountain on the planet we’re talking about), you would still have swim down 1.2 miles, to get to the summit.

Most of us experience the ocean as a day at the beach, a boat ride, or a moment spent on one end of a fishing line.

The global ocean divided into five major basins: the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic. Covering 70 percent and more of the planet and taken together, the oceans contain 97% of all the water on planet earth.

And yet the exploration of all that water has never added up to more than 20 percent.

For most dive organizations, the recommended maximum for novice divers is 20 meters (65 feet). A weird form of intoxication sets in called nitrogen narcosis, around 30 meters (98 feet). Divers have been known to remove their own mouthpiece and offer it to fish, with tragic if not predictable results. Dives beyond 130 feet enter the world of “technical” diving involving specialized training, sophisticated gas mixtures and extended decompression timetables. The oxygen we rely on for life literally becomes toxic, around 190 feet.

On September 17, 1947, French Navy diver Maurice Fargues attempted a new depth record, off the coast of Toulon. Descending down a weighted line, Fargues signed his name on slates placed at ten meter intervals. At the three minute mark, the line showed no sign of movement. The diver was ordered pulled up. Maurice Fargues, a diver so accomplished he had literally saved the life of Jacques Cousteau only a year earlier, was the first diver to die using an aqualung. His final signature on the last tablet, at 390 feet.

The man had barely scratched the surface.

Maurice Fargues prepares for what would prove to be, his final dive

For oceanographers, all that water is divided into slices. The top or epiplagic Zone descends from 50 to 656 feet, depending on clarity of the water. Here, phytoplankton convert sunlight to energy forming the first step in a food chain, supporting some 90 percent of all life in the oceans. 95 percent of all photosynthesis in the oceans occur in the epiplagic or photic zone.

The mesopelagic or “twilight zone” receives a scant 1% of all sunlight. Temperatures descend as salinity increases while the weight of all that water above, increases. Beyond that, lies the abyss.

Far below that the earth’s mantle is quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates. Over millions of years these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. The longest mountain range in the world as an example, runs roughly down the center of the Atlantic ocean.

The Atlantic basin features deep trenches as well, sites of tectonic fracture and divergence. Far deeper than those are the Pacific subduction zones where forces equal and opposite to those forming the mid-Atlantic ridge, collide. One plate moves under another and down into the mantle forming deep oceanic ridges, the deepest of which is the Mariana Trench, near Guam. The average depth is 36,037, ± 82 feet, dropping off to a maximum depth of 35,856 feet to a small valley at the south end of the trench, called Challenger Deep.

If you could somehow pull up Mt. Everest by the roots and sink the thing in Challenger Deep, (this is the largest mountain on the planet we’re talking about), you would still have swim down 1.2 miles, to get to the summit.

The air around us is a liquid with a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. It’s pressing down on you right now but you don’t feel it, because your internal fluid pressures, push back. A column of salt water exerts the same pressure at 10 meters, or 33 feet.

To consider the crushing weight of all that water, consider this. The bite force of an American Grizzly is 1,200 psi. The Nile Crocodile, 5,000. The pressure in Challenger Deep is equal to 1,150 atmospheres. Over 16,000 pounds per square inch.

The problems with reaching such a depth are enormous. WW2 era German submarines collapsed between 660 and 900 feet, with the loss of all hands. The modern American Sea Wolf class of nuclear submarine is said to have a crush depth, of 2,400 feet.

In the early 1930s, Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard experimented with high altitude balloons to explore the upper atmosphere.

The result was a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola capable of ascending to great heights, without the use of a pressure suit.

Within a few years the man’s interests had shifted, to deep water exploration.

Knowing that air and water are both fluid environments, Piccard modified his high altitude cockpit into a steel gondola, for deep sea exploration. By 1937 he’d built his first bathyscaphe.

“A huge yellow balloon soared skyward, a few weeks ago, from Augsberg, Germany. Instead of a basket, it trailed an air-thin black-and-silver aluminum ball. Within [the contraption] Prof. Auguste Piccard, physicist, and Charles Kipfer aimed to explore the air 50,000 feet up. Seventeen hours later, after being given up for dead, they returned safely from an estimated height of more than 52,000 feet, almost ten miles, shattering every aircraft altitude record.” – Popular Science, August, 1931

Piccard’s work was interrupted by World War 2 but resumed, in 1945. He built a large steel tank and filled it with low-density non-compressible fluid, to maintain buoyancy. Gasoline, it turned out, would do nicely. Underneath was the capsule designed to accommodate one person at sea-level pressure while outside, PSI mounted into the thousands of atmospheres.

Auguste Piccard

The craft, with modifications from the French Navy, achieved depths of 13,701 feet. In 1952, Piccard was invited to Trieste Italy, to begin work on an improved bathyscaphe. In 1953, Auguste and and his son Jacques brought the Trieste to 10,335 feet.

Designed to be free of tethers, Trieste was fitted with two electric motors of 2 HP each, capable of propelling the craft at a speed of 1.2mph over a few miles, and changing direction. After several years in the Mediterranean, the US Navy acquired Trieste in 1958. Project Nekton was proposed the same year, code name for a gondola upgrade involving three test dives and culminating in a descent to the greatest depth of the world’s oceans. The Challenger Deep.

Trieste received a larger gasoline float and bigger tubs with more iron ballast. With help from the Krupp Iron Works of Germany, she was fitted with a stronger sphere with five inches of solid steel and weighing in at 5 tons.

Piccard and Walsh aboard Trieste, January 23, 1960

The cockpit was accessible, only by an upper hallway which was then filled with gasoline. The only way to exit was to pump out the gas and blow out the rest, with compressed air. On this day in 1960, US submarine commander Lieutenant Don Walsh joined Jacques Piccard in that hallway, climbing into the sphere and closing the hatch. The dive began at 0823.

The bathyscaphe Trieste, on the surface

Trieste stopped her descent several times, each one a new thermocline bringing with it a colder layer of water and neutral buoyancy, for the submersible. Walsh and Piccard discussed the problem and elected to gamble, ejecting some of that buoyant gasoline. By 650 feet those problems had come to an end.

By 1,500 feet, the darkness was complete. The pair decided to change their clothes, wet with spray from a stormy beginning. With a cockpit temperature of 40° Fahrenheit, it was a welcome change.

Looking out the plexiglass window, the depths between 2,200 feet and 20,000 seemed extraordinarily empty. At 14,000 feet the pair was now in uncharted territory. No one had ever been this deep. At 26,000 feet, descent was slowed to two feet per second. At 30,000 feet, one.

At 1256 Walsh and Piccard could see the bottom, on the viewfinder. 300 feet to go. Not knowing if the phone would work at this depth, Walsh picked up. “This is Trieste on the bottom, Challenger Deep. Six three zero zero fathoms. Over.” The response came back weak, but clear. “Everything O.K. Six three zero zero fathoms?” Walsh responded “This is Charley” (seaman-speak, for ‘OK’. “We will surface at 1700 hours”.

The feat was akin to the first flight into space. No human had ever reached such depths. Since then only five later expeditions have reached that remote and desolate spot. While unmanned submersibles have since visited Challenger Deep, Piccard and Walsh’ descent of January 23, 1960 was the first and last manned voyage, to the bottom of the world.

Computerized rendering shows Trieste at the bottom, January 23, 1960 H/T National Geographic

“After the 1960 expedition the Trieste was taken by the US Navy and used off the coast of San Diego, California for research purposes. In April 1963 it was taken to New London Connecticut to assist in finding the lost submarine USS Thresher. In August 1963 it found the Threshers remains 1,400 fathoms (2,560 meters) below the surface. Soon after this mission was completed the Trieste was retired and some of its components were used in building the new Trieste II. Trieste is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard”. 

H/T Forgotten History

December 25, 1897 Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

“Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

In the summer of 1897, 25th President of the United States William McKinley, had barely moved into the White House. The nation’s first subway opened in the city of Boston while, in Seattle, the Klondike gold rush was just getting underway. Thomas Edison received the patent for an early projector called a Kinetoscope. Mark Twain penned a rebuttal as only Mark Twain could to his own obituary in the pages of the New York Journal: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Then one day there came the Dread Question asked by eight-year-olds the world over, and answered by fathers since the dawn of time: “Go ask your mother”.

Just kidding. Not that one – the Other dread question. The Santa Claus question.

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Possibly, that little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead.

“Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real”.

He was coroner’s assistant, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. She was his daughter, 8-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon.

Dr. O’Hanlon neither sent his little girl to ask her mother, nor did he try to answer himself. He suggested she write to the New York Sun newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun”, he said, “it’s so.”

So it is a little girl’s note made its way across the city to the New York Sun, to the desk of Edward Page Mitchell. The hard core science fiction buff will remember Mitchell for tales about time travel, invisibility and man-computing-machine cyborgs long before the likes of H.G. Wells ever thought about such things but on this day, the editor and sometimes author had a job to do.

Mitchell believed the letter was worthy of reply. He brought the assignment to copy writer Francis “Frank” Pharcellus Church.

It was an unlikely choice.

Church was not the dilettante, partisan idler who’d style himself today, as “journalist”. This was a hard-bitten News Man of the old school, a cynic, street reporter, atheist and former Civil War correspondent who’d seen it all and didn’t believe the half of it.

Picture Perry White, the irascible editor-in-chief of the fictional Daily Planet newspaper in the old Superman series, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Frank Church. You can almost hear the walrus-mustachioed old curmudgeon grumbling across the ages as he returned to his desk, a little girl’s note in his hand.

“Why me”?

The old grouch didn’t even want his name associated with the reply.

The New York Sun published Church’s response on September 21, 1897.

Dear Editor, I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.

Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

Frank Church’s friends, family and colleagues scarcely knew the man had it in him. You can almost imagine the excitement of a little girl, scouring the pages of The Sun for two months to find nothing and then…THAT. Through the rest of that Christmas season of 1897 and on for the rest of her life, Virginia O’Hanlon would never forget that reply.

Frank Church’s letter went on to become the most widely reprinted editorial in the history of the English language albeit anonymously until the year he died, in 1906. According to New York Sun internal policies, that’s when Church was finally revealed as responding editor and author of that timeless response.

Virginia went on to marry one Edward Douglas in 1910, a man who stuck around just long enough to abandon her with the couple’s first child, as yet unborn. Not exactly a credit to his sex, that one.

Perhaps the childlike sense of delight in that newspaper column is what helped the young mother through her darkest hours. Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas went on to devote her life’s work to children.   Following Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctorate degrees at Hunter, Columbia and Fordham University, O’Hanlon went on to become a lifelong teacher, assistant principal and finally principal.

Virginia’s childhood home is now The Studio School offering an academic scholarship, named after Virginia O’Hanlon.

In 1932, The Sun’s response was adapted to a cantata, the only known newspaper editorial ever set to classical music.  The 1989 film Prancer contained a fictional editorial entitled “Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia“.
Every year at Christmas, Virginia’s letter and Frank’s response are read aloud at a Yule log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College.

In a 1960 appearance on the Perry Como Show, Virginia told the host her letter has been “answered for me thousands of times.”

Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas kept the name of her long-since absconded husband for the rest of her life, according to the custom of the day. She passed away on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81.

Throughout her long life she received a steady stream of mail about her letter and never failed to pen a personal reply, including a copy of Church’s column. Virginia grew sickly toward the end of her life but, throughout countless interviews over the course of her 81 years she’d always credit the Sun’s editorial with changing her life. For the better.

Perhaps it was the Christmas Spirit or whatever you’d like to call it, that most of us have learned to experience but one time a year. For Virginia O’Hanlon that sense of warmth, of generosity and kindness to be found at the bottom of all human hearts, never really went away.

So, let the cynics and the curmudgeons come to understand on this Christmas day and beyond. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus.

December 24, 1942 The Padre of Guadalcanal

1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.

Since 1775, a military chaplain is an officer who ministers to the spiritual needs of uniformed personnel and their families, and also civilians, working for the military. At first exclusively Christian, chaplains have long since come to represent every faith and denomination while honoring the rights of others, to their own faith traditions.

The first female military chaplain was officially commissioned, in 1973. During World War 2 theirs was a world exclusive to men.

Chaplains are found everywhere there are armed services, up to and including front lines. During the war in Korea, Father Emil Kapaun was captured by Chinese communists while performing last rights, for a dying soldier. This Shepherd in Combat Boots literally spent himself in service to his fellow POWs and died in a North Korean prison camp. In 2013 President Barack Obama awarded Fr. Kapaun the Medal of honor for his life saving ministrations, near Pyoktong.

This stained glass window at the Pentagon remembers the Four Chaplains drowned with the sinking of the USS Dorchester, in 1943.

Many chaplains have been decorated for bravery. In the United Kingdom, five chaplains have received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for gallantry in the line of duty. Nine have received the US’ Medal of Honor.

The Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism was specifically created to recognize the service of military chaplains, killed in the line of duty. To date this special decoration has been awarded only once, to the famous Four Chaplains who gave away their own life jackets, knowing they were about to be drowned.

During World War 2, US Army and Marine Corps chaplains experienced the third highest loss ratio of the war behind infantry, and Army Air Corps.

Sunday, December 7, 1941 dawned bright and clear on the Pacific naval anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Father Aloysius Schmitt was just beginning mass on board USS Oklahoma when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes, slammed home. The attack caused immediate flooding in multiple compartments as Oklahoma began her slow roll, to capsize. Below decks, Fr. Schmitt desperately helped push one sailor after another out of a small porthole, even as the compartment filled with water. 429 crewmen lost their lives on board Oklahoma that morning including Fr. Schmitt, drowned in the desperate act of saving others.

Celebrating mass on Iwo Jima, 1945

The Empire of Japan was all but unstoppable during the early months of WW2. The first major allied offensive began on August 7, 1942, with the objective of taking the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida. Some 60,000 men would participate in the 6-month offensive, primarily United States Marines.

Near constant counter-attacks and artillery bombardments joined with tropical disease to make life on this mosquito infested jungle island…a living hell. Fully two-thirds of casualties in those early months resulted from malaria, and other tropical disease. All the while, Marines were forced to subsist on captured food rations of worm and maggot infested rice so paltry that even these already-thin children of the depression lost some 40-odd pounds…per man.

The national museum of WW2 museum website describes one such bombardment over the night of October 14:

“At 0133 hours, the battlewagons opened fire and for the next 83 minutes hurled 970 heavy naval shells at Henderson Field and the surrounding area. Two-ton shells as large as a Volkswagen Beetle smashed into the Marine positions, shaking everything from dental fillings to the emotions of the men themselves. The explosions sucked air from lungs and the concussion blew over trees and collapsed coconut log dugouts with ease. Men were buried alive in what they thought were safe shelters. While physical casualties were light as a result of the battleship shelling, mental casualties were high. Men emerged from their dugouts shaking violently, eyes wide, ears bleeding, unable to hear anything or see straight. Blast concussion rendered many men helpless and disoriented for hours and even days after an attack. Veterans of the Tenaru River and Bloody Ridge battles—who had stared death directly in the face—all recalled the night of October 14 to be the most frightening night of the entire campaign”.

Ordained as a priest on May 22, 1930, Father Frederic Gehring spent 1933 to 1939 laboring on missions to China enduring bandits, Chinese communists and Japanese occupation. One time under aerial strafing in 1938, Fr. Gehring ran out waving a large American flag to show Japanese fighter pilots this was a mission, of the then-neutral United States. Father Gehring was pleased when the pilots did in fact fly away. Until someone at the mission informed him. It was probably because they had run out of bullets.

The United States declared war on the Empire of Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day Father Frederic enlisted as Navy chaplain. In September 1942 he joined the 1st Marine Division, the “Old Breed”, on Guadalcanal.

“Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours”.

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey

1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.

That’s Father Gehring with his hat on, next to Barney Ross. The names of the parrots if any, have been lost to history.

Gehring routinely held masses so close to the fighting, Marines came to believe he would hold a mass in hell. So long as he could get his jeep there.

The Padre’s work wasn’t just on the lines where men were injured and dying but sometimes, behind enemy lines. With the help of Solomon Island natives, Fr. Gehring went deeply into enemy held territory no fewer than three times to rescue trapped missionaries on the island, mostly Marist priests and Sisters. By the time he was done 28 had been extracted, from Japanese occupied territory.

For this feat Father Gehring received the Legion of Merit from the President of the United States, the first Navy chaplain so decorated.

One day, islanders found a young Chinese girl at the bottom of a ditch. Only five or six years old and sick with malaria she’d been beaten and bayonetted by Japanese soldiers, and left for dead. The imprint of a rifle butt was clearly visible on her smashed skull. The examining physician said she wouldn’t make it through the night and yet, she did.

How a little girl apparently orphaned wound up that far from home, is a tale unto itself. As is the way an old China hand named Frederic Gehring nursed her to health in an active combat zone, along with the help of battle hardened Marines.

If such a feat was a small miracle, Christmas mass that year on Guadalcanal was not, though there may have been a wee bit of chuckling, divine intervention. With his first tent blown to bits by enemy artillery, some 700 Marines gathered at the new chapel tent on December 24, for Christmas mass.

In a world of hard men Barney Ross stood out, as a man not to be trifled with. An Orthodox Jewish kid from the streets of Chicago, Ross was a professional prize fighter, and three time champion. It was inevitable that the boxer and the priest from Brooklyn, would hit it off. they were two peas in a pod. Earlier that month, Ross and a group of Marines found themselves surrounded. The only man not wounded, Ross kept up a hail of gunfire and grenades keeping an unknown number of Japanese at bay. All…night…long. By morning, the only other man left alive was a single wounded Marine. Ross tossed the man on his back and carried him back to base.

So back to that Christmas mass…Ross had ambled up to the Padre and asked “who plays”, pointing to a small pump organ. Gehring was himself an accomplished violinist, but the answer was…no one knew how to play that thing.

Except…for Barney Ross.

So it is a Jewish kid from Chicago joined in on Catholic mass that night, learning the Christian canon by ear as 700 marines, hummed along. He ended the concert with a rousing rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” in Yiddish no less, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Columnist Jimmy Breslin recalled: “There was a Jewish kid playing an organ and singing in Yiddish about his mama and a Catholic priest standing next to him with a violin trying to help it sound nice, and all around there were guys who came from every religion and some of them didn’t even have one, but they were all crying and thinking about the same thing.”

Many years later, Gehring typed up a paragraph reflecting on the war and that Christmas, in Guadalcanal. For years he would insert the piece in his Christmas cards of which he sent and received, many: “Our heroes, who gave their lives for their country and now lay beneath the white crosses that mark their final place, do not see the dark clouds of war hovering overhead in various parts of the world. The peace they fought and died for seems but temporary.”

In time that little Chinese girl who wasn’t supposed to make it through the night…did. Fr. Gehring called her Patsy Lee. In 1950, he brought her home to the US. Ms. Lee went to school and became a nurse. She met a man, and they married. Later on, Gehring even helped her find her own mother. Gehring himself tells the story of that little girl if you want to learn more in his 1962 memoir, “Child of Miracles”.

Fr. Frederic Gehring died in 1998, at the age of 95. Let his New York Times obituary, have the last word on this man of faith: “At Father Gehring’s funeral on Thursday at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Philadelphia, where he was ordained in 1930, she was there as was a Marine honor guard, reminders of a time when Guadalcanal was a name to reckon with and a little girl was a miracle of war”.

§§§§§

Chaplain deaths while on active duty (hat tip Wikipedia)
Death during service (combat and non-combat):

American Revolution: 25
War of 1812: 1
Mexican–American War: 1
Civil War
Union: 117
Confederacy: 41
World War I: 23
World War II: 182
Korean War: 13
Vietnam War: 15
Iraq and Afghan Wars: 1 (as of September 2010)

December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic: “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation. Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

Only hours from now, families will gather from far and near, around the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in that silver tray the golden brown, delicious, roast hippopotamus.

Wait…Uhh…What?

water-hyacinth-eichornia-crassipes
Water Hyacinth

The World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair of 1884 began its second week on December 23. Located in New Orleans, Louisiana that year, among its many wonders was the never-before seen Eichornia crassipes, a gift from the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, with yellow spots accentuating the petals of delicate purple and blue flowers floating across tranquil ponds on a mat of thick, green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans and remain viable, for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals and costs a fortune, to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food. Especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  Lake Bacon.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed H.R. 23621 in 1910, otherwise known as the “American Hippo” bill. Broussard’s proposed legislation enjoyed enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times, alike.   One Agricultural official estimated that a free-range hippo herd could produce up to a million tons of meat, every year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

Hippo Steak

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, those things are dangerous.

hippo-crocodile_1887702i

The adult bull hippopotamus is skittish, extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  Heaven help anyone caught between a cow and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little less than the top speed of Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, and he’s “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To keyword search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to be rewarded with the knowledge that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal in Africa.

p-hippo-1_1467398c

Be that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

Back to Broussard’s bill, what could be better than taking care of two problems at once?  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to East Texas would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be averted.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham

Frederick Russell Burnham argued for four years for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Forget the Dos Equis guy. Frederick Burnham really was the real-life “most interesting man in the world“.

Fritz Duquesne? Well that’s another story. Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, just so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Destined to become a German spy it is he who lends his name to the infamous Duquesne Spy Ring, of World War 2. 

Frederick Burnham described Duquesne, his mortal adversary:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

During the 2nd Boer war, these two men had sworn to kill each other.  Now in 1910 the pair became partners in a mission to bring hippopotamus, to the American dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching wouldn’t work along the Gulf coast.  Decades ago, Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar introduced four hippos to the Columbian interior. Today, officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Back to the American Hippo bill. Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote, but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what was already taking shape. Factory farms and confinement operations came to replace free ranges while the massive use of antibiotics replaced even the notion of balanced biological systems.

in-1910-President-Roosevelt-supported-a-bill-that-would-have-released-hippopotamuses-into-Louisiana-to-eat-an-invasive-plant-species-and-to-provide-delicious-hippo-bacon-to-hungry-Americ

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today we contend with all manner of antibiotic-resistant “Superbugs”. The Louisiana department of wildlife and fisheries maintains no fewer than 85 separate aquatic vegetation control plans, aimed at the water hyacinth.

The effluent from factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

13453_gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-image-credit-noaa
Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

As for that once golden future, Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if we could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when that hippo came out of the oven.

December 20, 1943 Fishing Buddies

“You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

franz-stigler

At the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. For the Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge. Payback for the death of his brother August, earlier in the war. But Stigler was no Nazi. This was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills.

On December 20, 1943, the fighter pilot needed one more for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber lumbered overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

b17pilotcharlesbrown

Up above, 21-year-old Charles Brown was at the throttle of that B17, an aircraft dubbed “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen was a success, but the pilot and crew paid a heavy price for it. Their airplane had been savaged by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail ripped off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded. The tail gunner was dead, his frozen blood forming icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.

The aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men could look into each other’s eyes.

Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” came the reply. This had been Brown’s first mission. He was sure it was about to be his last.

Before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had said “Honor is everything here.  If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”. Stigler must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified US airmen inside the B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

ye-olde-pub-christmas-b-17
Tail Gunner, Ye Olde Pub

The German had to do something. The Nazis would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and then peeled away.

Ye Olde Pub made it, crossing 250 miles of the frozen North Sea before final landing in Norfolk.

brown-and-stigler

More than 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada. Brown took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter.

It said that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ Stigler saw the ad and the two men met once again in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said at that first meeting, “like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

fishing-buddies

The two became close friends and occasional fishing buddies. Each man passed on in 2008, about six months apart. Stigler was 92, Brown, 87.

Their story is told in a book called “A Higher Call”, if you want to know more about it. In their obituaries, each was mentioned as the other man’s “special brother”.

December 19, 1843 A Christmas Carol

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts and our favorite Christmas specials, on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas. And of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

Wait … What?

“I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

Charles Dickens

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; all were behind the young author when he came to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan underwent a unique, mutual education, a half-century later.  He also visited a school for neglected boys, in Boylston.  He must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison since he later wrote, “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

That February, the author took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked in those plants.  Once again, Dickens seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  He spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked there, no doubt comparing them with the degraded conditions then plaguing the teeming slums and of London.

lowell-offering-cover

When he left he brought with him a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls. He later described the volume as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read those same 400 pages Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half following Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read the same pages.

The research following research was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“DICKENS AND MASSACHUSETTS
THE LASTING LEGACY OF THE COMMONWEALTH VISITS
HOW MASSACHUSETTS SHAPED DICKENS’S VIEW OF AMERICA”
EDITED BY DIANA C. ARCHIBALD AND JOEL J. BRATTIN
PUBLISHED MAY 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 173 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

December 17, 1843 A Christmas Card

Henry was astounded to see the volume of personal mail, particularly around the Christmas season. But there was a problem. Failure to reply to a handwritten letter was considered impolite, but this was more than he could handle.

With Christmas fast approaching, families all over are decorating trees, hanging lights and wrapping gifts. Short days from now children will scan the skies for a glimpse of Santa and his sleigh full of toys.

Americans alone are expected to mail some 1.6 Billion Christmas cards this year, but cards weren’t always so popular. There was a time in fact, when there were none at all. So let’s grab a hot chocolate & go back for a little fun history. To 1843 and the guy responsible, for the first Christmas card.

In 1812 England, mailing a letter was complicated. One sheet of paper mailed from London to Edinburgh cost 1 shilling, 1 penny. Two pages were twice that and so on. Simple you say and fair enough, but that was pricey. Adding to the complication, postage changed based on distance traveled. Not only that but the cost might be paid by the sender, or the recipient. People would write two sets of letters on one sheet to save money, two or more “crossed letters” written perpendicularly, to save money. Something had to change.

Crossed letter from Caroline Weston to Deborah Weston; Friday, March 3, 1837

Discussions of a uniform postage based on weight began as early as 1837. Sir Rowland Hill argued in favor of a one penny rate, asserting that vastly higher mail volume resulting would more than offset offset any reduction in revenues.

With the ultimate goal of a single penny’s postage per half-ounce letter, the first change occurred on December 5, 1839. Postage could be paid by sender or recipient without penalty, at a standardized rate of four pennies. Letters were hand stamped (usually) in black if paid by the sender, or red if paid by the recipient. The age of the four penny post, had come.

The new system proved overwhelmingly popular. The penny post came to be on January 10, 1840.

The first adhesive postage stamp in history came to be on May 1. The envy of philatelists from that day to this day, the “Penny Black” featured the profile of Queen Victoria and cost 240 pence per sheet of 240, a shilling per row and – you guessed it – a penny apiece.

Fun fact: the image used was one of Queen Victoria, at age 15. The stamp remained in use throughout the Victorian age, Britain’s longest reigning monarch save only, for Queen Elizabeth II.

Rowland hill had argued that, if mailing a letter was cheaper, then more people would do it. He was right. So it is the one-time home of Sir Rowland Hill, K.C.B bears a Blue plaque, in recognition.

Sir Henry Cole now comes into this story, as the man who founded the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and a man instrumental in assisting Rowland Hill’s efforts to reform the British postal system.

Sir Henry was astounded to see the volume of personal mail, particularly around the Christmas season. But there was a problem. Failure to reply to a handwritten letter was considered impolite, but this was more than he could handle.

Cole had an idea. An easily reproduced Christmas message, one that could be easily personalized. He asked artist friend John Callcott Horsley to come up with an idea.

Horsley came back with a triptych (a three panel illustration). The center panel depicted three generations of the Cole family in Christmas celebration. The side two showed charitable acts on behalf of the poor, one dispensing food and the other, clothing. The banner beneath it all read “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you”.

Today, news aggregator Globalnewswire.com forecasts global greeting card sales to reach $13.4 Billion US with the Christmas segment accounting for a third. All of it started on this day in 1843 when Henry Cole, founder of London’s V&A Museum, commissioned printing of the 1st Christmas card.

December 7, 1941 Last Voyage of the USS Oklahoma

Once the symbol of US military might she only fired her guns in anger, one time. December 7, 1941

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941.

353 aircraft approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes of the Imperial Japanese military.  Across Hickam Field they came and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

_oahu

Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died, even as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side in the first ten minutes.The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

A Japanese pilot took this photo during the attack.

“This photo shows the severity of the attack. The darker waters around the Nevada (left), West Virginia (center), and Oklahoma (right) are actually oil slicks from the fuel reserves on board each ship. The Oklahoma is already listing badly, as the edge of the port deck has already slipped underwater. It would completely capsize only a few minutes later (image NH 50472, courtesy of Naval Heritage & History Command)” H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.

Across the harbor, USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is now a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.

With the US now in the war repairs were prioritized. USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma Diver

Recovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives and yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3-inch cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days. Cables were first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day. It was the first time in over two years.

At last fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

9781591147244

Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have all earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

The guns of the mighty USS Oklahoma once again see the light of day. March, 1943 H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay.

She would never arrive.

Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around when suddenly, these two giant tugs found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

the-tug-boat-hercules-william-havle

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached. Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and the battleship sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks as the 409-ton tug bobbed to the surface, like the float on a child’s fishing line.

Christened on March 23, 1914, USS Oklahoma was one of the first two oil burners in US military service. Heavily armored, her armament was as powerful as any vessel in her class. A symbol of US military might who only fired her guns once, in anger. December 7, 1941. Now, “Okie” was stabbed in the back while she lay at rest, attacked and mortally wounded before she even knew her nation was at war. 

The causes leading to that final descent into darkness remain uncertain, her final resting pace, a mystery.   Some will will tell you her plates couldn’t hold.  The beating she took those six years earlier, was too much.   Those who served on her decks might tell you a different story. Perhaps this pride of the United States Navy knew her time had come. Maybe she just wanted to die at sea.

December 6, 1768 A Madman’s Dictionary

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. The outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishment known as the Scottish Enlightenment produced among other works the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published on December 6, 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Webster’s dictionary began with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’. It was a novel concept at a time when the very thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was new and unfamiliar.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so strange as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it to life. 

No, really. From an insane asylum, no less.

oed-volumes
Oxford English Dictionary

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857.

The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off, by about sixty years.  Five years into the project the team had made it all the way up, to “ant“.

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving with the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know.  Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive before the horrified eyes of comrade and foe alike, the poor unfortunate sufferers too broken to move.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

William Chester Minor

At one point, Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions. The Irish were coming to ‘get him’. He Knew they were.

In his paranoid delusions, the faceless form of man would slither out of the attic at night and watch Minor as he slept, in his hands a tray of metal biscuits, slathered in poison. The Fenian Brotherhood was out to Get him. He could almost hear their dark whispered conversations, on gaslit streets.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka), Minor was comfortable with the idea of foreign travel as a means of dealing with difficulty. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

Minor’s tormentors followed. He would lie in his bed at night frozen with fear and each night, his tormenter would return. Regular visits to Scotland Yard would result in little more than polite thanks, and a few useless notes scribbled on paper. Dr. Minor would have to deal with this himself. He took to sleeping with a loaded Colt .38, beneath his pillow.

On February 17, 1862, Minor woke to find the shadow of a man, standing over him. The apparition dove for the window and Minor followed him, into the street.

It was 2:00 in the morning and hardly anyone was out, save for one man. George Merrett was a father of 6 with a pregnant wife, who worked at the Red Lion Brewery, as a coal stoker. He was walking to work. 

Broadmoor-outside
Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Minor’s nighttime apparitions were nothing but the paranoid delusions, of a broken mind. The three or four bullets he fired at a man walking to work, were very real. George Merrett was dead before the police got there.

Minor was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known” to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms instead of the usual one.

Minor would acquire books, so many over time that one room was converted to a library. 

Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of his books.  The pair became friends and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

murray-at-work-scriptorium
Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, in 1901.  In his cell.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn the man he was searching for, was an inmate.

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out what remained, of his mind.    He believed he was being kidnapped and spirited away to Istanbul where he was sexually abused and forced to commit such abuse, himself.  His submissions came to an end. Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor deported back to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which the man emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small and inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only a single individual is credited with more entries in the greatest reference work in the history of the English language than this one murderer, working from a cell in a mental institution.

December 5, 1941 An Act of Will

Trapped and disoriented inside that black, upside down hell they waited and desperately hoped for the rescue, that would come too late. It is a searing act of will even to contemplate such a scene. What would it be then, to enter such a place as an act of free will?

December 5, 1941 was a Friday. The conflict destined to be known as World War 2 was still, “over there”. The United States was neutral, and at peace. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington and five heavy cruisers leave the US Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, unaware that only yesterday, Emperor Hirohito approved the attack to be carried out in two days.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when that first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, across Hickam Air Field and over the waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into the hull in the first ten minutes. Eight torpedoes crashed into her port side, each striking higher up as the Battleship slowly rolled over.

Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection that Monday making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumping overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out onto mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.Nine Japanese torpedoes struck Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged and another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most while still on the ground. 159 of those were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get to those trapped inside. 32 of them were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors lost their lives on board Oklahoma, either immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hull of that ship. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

It is a searing act of imagination, merely to contemplate those 17 days. Trapped and disoriented inside that black, upside down hell, waiting and desperately hoping for a rescue that would come, too late.

A searing act, merely of the imagination. What would it be the to enter such a place, as an act of free will?

Let’s rewind. To 1914.

Early attempts had failed to build a sea-level canal across the 50-mile isthmus of Panama. It was decided instead, the canal would be comprised of a system of locks. The giant crane barges Ajax and Hercules were ordered in 1913, to handle the locks and other large parts,for building the canal. The two cranes arrived in Cristóbal, Colón, Panama on December 7, 1914.

Ajax crane barge at work in the canal zone, 1914

Much of the world was at war at this time while the United States, remained neutral.

Henry Breault was born to be a sailor. At sixteen he enlisted in the British Royal Navy. For four years, the Connecticut-born Vermonter served under the White Ensign. When his four-year tour ended in 1921, he joined the US Navy.

In 1923, now-torpedoman First Class Henry Breault was assigned to the O-Class submarine USS O-5 (SS-66). On October 28, O-5 under the command of Lieutenant Harrison Avery was leading a column of submarines across Limon Bay, toward the canal entrance.

Water level here is 85 feet above sea level…Contractor’s Hill is on the left and Gold Hill is on the right.” H/T Wikipedia

The steamship SS Abangarez, owned by the United Fruit Company, was underway and headed for dock 6, at Cristobal. There were navigational errors and miscommunications and, at about 0630, Abangarez collided with the submarine, tearing a ten-foot opening on her starboard side.USS O-5

The main ballast tank was breached. O-5 was doomed. As the submarine rolled sharply to port and then to starboard, Avery gave the order to abandon ship. Breault was a few short steps to safety when he realized. Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown was still below, sleeping. As the bow was going under, Breault shut the deck hatch over his head, and went below.

Brown was awake by this time, but unaware of the order to abandon ship. The pair headed aft toward the control hatch, but it was too late. With the dying sub rapidly filling with water, Breault and Brown made their way to the torpedo room, and dogged the main hatch. Seconds later the battery shorted, and exploded. The two men were trapped under 42-feet of water with no food, no water and only a single flashlight, to pierce the stale air of that tiny, pitch black compartment. It was all over in about a minute.

Salvage efforts were underway almost immediately, from nearby submarine base Coco Solo. By 10:00, divers were on the bottom, examining the wreck. Divers hammered on the hull starting aft and working forward, in a search for survivors. On reaching the torpedo room they were answered, by the taps of a hammer.

Someone’s still alive in that thing.

There were no means of rescue in those days, save for physically lifting the submarine with pontoons, or crane. There were no pontoons within 2,000 miles but the giant crane barges Ajax and Hercules were in the canal zone, working to clear a landslide from Gaillard Cut. (Now known as the Culebra cut).“The Culebra Cut. An artificial valley along the Pacific Ocean to Gatun Lake (ahead) and eventually the Caribbean Sea.

A simple excavation now became a frantic effort to clear enough debris for Ajax, to squeeze herself through the cut.

Divers worked around the clock to dig a tunnel under the sub, through which to snake a cable. Sheppard J. Shreaves, supervisor of the Panama Canal’s salvage crew and himself a qualified diver, explained: “The O-5 lay upright in several feet of soft, oozing mud, and I began water jetting a trench under the bow. Sluicing through the ooze was easy; too easy, for it could cave in and bury me. … Swirling black mud engulfed me, I worked solely by feel and instinct. I had to be careful that I didn’t dredge too much from under the bow for fear the O-5 would crush down on me.”

Ajax arrived around midnight and by early morning the tunnel had been dug, the cables run and attached to Ajax’ hook. Cables strained as the lift began and then…disaster. The cable snapped.

Inside, the headaches were terrific from the pressure and the stale air but all around them, they could hear it. The scraping sounds could only mean one thing. Rescue was on the way.

Sheppard Shreaves and his team of exhausted divers were now in their suits for nearly 24 hours, working to snake a second set of cables under the bow. Again the strain, as Ajax brought up the slack. Again…disaster. The second set of cables snapped.

Midnight was approaching on the 29th when the third attempt began, this time with buoyancy added, by blowing air into the flooded engine room. O-5 broke the surface just after midnight. For the first time in 31 hours, two men were able to breathe fresh air. The pair were rushed to the base at Coco Solo for medical examination, and to decompress.

Henry Breault received the Medal of honor for what he did that day. Sheppard Shreaves received the Congressional Life Saving Medal, personally presented by Henry Breault and Lawrence Brown along with a gold engraved watch, a gift from the grateful submariners of Coco Solo.

Henry Breault presented the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge.

Henry Breault served 20 years with the US Navy and later became ill, with a heart condition. He passed away on December 5, 1941 at the age of 41, and went to his rest in St. Mary’s cemetery, in Putnam Connecticut. To this day the man remains the only enlisted submariner in history, to receive the Medal of Honor.

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