February 22, 1943 The White Rose

White Rose survivor Jürgen Wittenstein described what it was like for ordinary Germans to live in Nazi Germany:

The government—or rather, the party—controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology.

— George J. Wittenstein, M.D., “Memories of the White Rose”, 1979

With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP) lost no time in consolidating power. Two days later, the 876-member democratically elected deliberative body, the “Reichstag”, was dissolved.

The National Socialists never did call themselves “Nazis”. That was a derogatory term coined by opponents, long before the party came to power. Throughout the 1930s, it became increasingly dangerous to speak ill of the Nazi party. One such was the Württemberg politician Robert Scholl who criticised the ruling party before, during and after World War 2. Scholl was one of the lucky ones, he lived to tell the story, but not without spending some of that time, behind bars.

Robert and Magdalena (Müller) Scholl had six children together, four girls and two boys. The older of the two brothers, Hans Fritz joined the Hitler youth, against the express will of his father.

He even held a leadership position in the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend (“German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth”), a section of the Hitler Youth aimed at indoctrinating boys, 10-14.

In 1935, Hans was selected to carry the flag at the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, one of three standard-bearers, from Ulm.

He joined the Reich Labor Service for two years before beginning medical school, in Munich. During a semester break, Scholl was drafted as a medic in the French campaign. Back at school, Scholl began to meet teachers and students, critical of the regime. Theirs was a Christian-ethical world view. One of them was Alexander Schmorrell.

Hugo Schmorell was a German-born doctor, living and working in Russia. He married Natalia Vedenskaya, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. Alexander Schmorell was born to the couple in Orenberg Russia and baptised, in the Russian Orthodox church.

Hugo remarried after Natalia died of typhus, this time to a German woman who, like himself, grew up in Russia. Alexander grew up bilingual, able to speak German and Russian, as a native.

The family moved to Weimar Germany following the Russian Revolution. In later interrogations by the Gestapo, Alexander described himself as a German-Russian Tsarist who hated Bolsheviks.

In the Nazi mindset, slavs are part of the great horde of Untermenschen, people considered racially or socially, inferior. Alexander believed no such thing about himself. He was proud of both his German and his Russian sides.

In religion class, Schmorell displayed a stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others, crossing himself right-to-left in the manner of the Russian church, and not left to right. Alexander joined the Scharnhorst youth as a boy, mostly for the love of horseback riding. Once the organization was absorbed into the Hitler Youth movement he gradually stopped attending. Like Scholl, Schmorell joined the Wehrmacht, participating in the Anschluss and eventual invasion, of Czechoslovakia.

In 1941, Scholl and Schmorrell were drafted as medical auxiliaries, for service in the east. There the two witnessed the dark underbelly of the regime in whose service, they risked their lives. The Warsaw ghetto. The savage treatment of Russian prisoners. The deportations and dark rumors of extermination centers.

With the naivety of youth, Scholl and Schmorrell wanted better. Back in school the pair discussed this with Kurt Huber, professor of music and a vocal anti-Nazi. By June 1942, the pair started to write pamphlets, calling themselves, the “White Rose”.

“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?”— 1st leaflet of the White Rose

During later gestapo interrogations, Scholl gave differing stories as to the origin of the name. A poem of the same name by the German poet, Clemens Brentano. A work by the Cuban poet, José Martí. Perhaps it was nothing more than the purity of the white rose, in the face of evil. Or maybe Scholl meant to throw his tormenters off the scent of Josef Söhngen, the anti-Nazi bookseller who had helped them, in so many ways.

Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”— 2nd leaflet of the White Rose.

The group added members and supporters. Willi Graf who, unlike the founding members hated the Hitler Youth movement, from the beginning. Christoph Probst whose step-mother was Jewish and considered the Nuremberg laws an affront to human dignity. Hans’ sister Sophie who joined, despite her older brother’s protests. Like her brother, Sophie detested what the Nazis stood for.

“Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eliminate this system?”— 3rd leaflet of the White Rose

Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen was critical of the Nazi movement from the beginning, denouncing Hitler’s “Worship of Race” as early as 1934.

Galen excoriated the Nazi euthanization program from the Catholic pulpits of Münster and across the German empire, condemning “the innocent and defenceless mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent”.

Bishop Galen’s sermons were seminal in the formation of the White Rose. One of his sermons formed the basis for the first pamphlet.

Hand copied leaflets were inserted into phone books or mailed directly, to teachers and students.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Hitler’s “Blood Judge” Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”. Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In reality, this perversion of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, in the hundreds. This video gives a pretty good idea of “justice” meted out, in Roland Feisler’s court.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope. Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful German opposition party came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna, including the White Rose. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders as Universities had long been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology.

On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl arrived on campus with a suitcase full of pamphlets. This was their 6th. Hurriedly moving through the campus the Scholls left stacks of leaflets, outside full lecture halls:

Memorial to the “Weiße Rose” in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

“…Fellow Fighters in the Resistance! Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!…”Excerpt from pamphlet 6

Their task complete, the pair realized they still had a few. From the upper floor of the atrium, Sophie tossed them into the air and watched them flutter to the ground. It was reckless and stupid, an action witnessed by custodian Jakob Schmid who promptly called the police.

The Scholl siblings were quickly arrested. Hans had on his person the draft, of another pamphlet: #7, written by Christoph Probst. He tried to eat it but the Gestapo was too fast. Probst was arrested within hours, eighty more over the following days. On February 22, 1943, all three were tried before judge Feisler’s People’s Court. All three were sentenced to death and executed by guillotine, the same day.

Es lebe die Freiheit! (Let Freedom live!)— Hans Scholl’s last words before his execution

Graf, Schmorrell, Huber and 11 others were tried on April 13. All three received the same sentence: death by decapitation. All but one of the others received prison sentences, between 6 months and 10 years.

The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

Despite the execution of the group’s leaders, the White Rose had the last word. That last pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany and copied, by the allies. Millions of copies rained down from the sky, dropped, by allied bombers.

Today, the “People’s Court” of the schweinhund Feisler is a district court, in Munich. That’s it, at the top of this page.

LLieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr

Lieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr was a war widow at 29 when she joined the White Rose, hiding pamphlets in an apartment closet and helping to make stencils, for graffiti. In 2013 she gave an interview for BBC Worldwide, three months before she died. She was 99.

Lieselotte was arrested and interrogated for a month by the Gestapo, and released. She thinks they’d hoped she would lead them, to fellow conspirators.

In 2012, Lilo’s friend Alexander Schmorell was awarded sainthood by the Russian Orthodox church.

She thinks it’s all too amusing. “He would have laughed out loud” she said, “if he had known. He wasn’t a saint. He was just a normal person.”

February 20, 1280 Divine Wind

For Japan the Kamikaze of the 13th century became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

Sometime around the year 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the nature of peace, Roman style. The Pax Romana. “They make a desert and call it peace“.

So it was with the Pax Mongolica, a time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute.

Mongolian horsemen ride in formation during the opening ceremony of the annual Naadam festival in the town of Arvaikheer, some 400 km (250 miles) west of Ulan Bator, July 9, 2006. This year’s festival is bigger than ever, as Mongolia celebrates 800 years since Genghis Khan united the nation. Celebrations around the country will culminate in a national festival in the capital on July 11. REUTERS/Nir Elias (MONGOLIA)

Never mind the pyramid of skulls over there. The Mongol conquests lasted 199 years and killed an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, of the entire planet.

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, capable of hitting a bird in flight.

The Mongol bow was a laminate of horn and tendon around a bamboo core, the “push/pull” of the two materials producing draw weights of 80 to 160 pounds depending on the physical strength of its user. Deadly accurate aimed shots were possible at 200 meters, over twice the length of an NFL football field. Ballistic fire rained down at 500 meters, equivalent to the height of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, plus another football field. Stirrups allowed riders to fire in any direction including to the rear. The feigned retreat was a favored tactic. God help anyone rash enough, to pursue.

The warrior Esungge was the Jim Thorpe or the Michael Jordan of his day, this nephew of Genghis Khan possessed of legendary strength and skill, as an archer. In a 1225 gathering of Mongol dignitaries, Esungge struck a target at 400 meters.

Riders had a minimum of 3-4 small, fast horses, able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep them fresh. 

In a day and age when the movement of armies was limited to +/- 30 miles per day, Mongol warriors could cover 100 miles and more.  Even as the first rumors arrived concerning the approach of this horde, there in the distance appeared the guidons of the lead riders. The apocalypse was right outside your door.

First came Börte, the first and favorite wife of Temüjin, kidnapped when her husband was only 19. By raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and accomplishing her rescue, Temüjin proved his military mettle. Next came the civil war which he won, based on two innovations. First, Temüjin promoted people based on merit, rather than family connections. The great Mongol general Jebe steps onto the pages of history not as a favorite, but as the enemy who put an arrow in Temüjin’s neck, at the Battle of the 13 Sides.

The Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun first came to international notice as Börte in the 2007 Oscar nominated Russian film, Mongol.

Next, the leader of the Mongols welcomed the lower classes among conquered peoples while the wealthy and powerful among them ended up destitute, or dead.

After founding an empire, Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, an honorary title possible ascending from the Turkic “tengiz” or sea, and Khan, meaning “Supreme Leader”. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons went to war on a scale never before seen in human history.

Genghis, went after the dynasty of the western Xia first and then the Jin dynasty, in the north of China. Once considered little more than a nuisance on the outskirts of civilization, the Mongol horde had now subjugated a nation of 25 million.

H/T ancient.eu, original image by bkkbrad

In 25 years the Mongols conquered more territory than Rome had managed to conquer, in 400 years. By the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific ocean to the Caspian sea. Ten million square miles, equal to the entire African continent. More than all of North America, Central America and all the islands of the Caribbean, combined.

Before he died, Genghis instructed his empire be divided into four Khanates, each to be ruled by one of his four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui. Genghis was buried in a secret location near the sacred mountain at Burkan Kuldun. Ögedei sacrificed 40 slave girls and 40 horses to lead his father into the next world. In 1228 the kurultai, the political and military council governing ancient Mongol and Turkic politics, elected Ögedei Supreme Leader.

Fun fact: Ögedei was the third son of Genghis, hand selected by the Great Khan to be his successor and Supreme Leader of the Mongol empire. He was also, a drunk. Chastised for his drinking by his brother Chagatai, Ögedei offered to have a supervisor keep an eye on how much he drank, and agreed to keep his consumption to a specified number of cups per day. After that the Great Khan would always drink his favorite sauce, from a very large cup.

Ögedei is credited with creating a system of taxation of the peoples conquered by his father, and establishing the first capital of the Mongol empire, at Karakorum. Later capital cities would include Daidu (Beijing) and Xanadu, whose name would live on in a mediocre 1980 film by the same name, starring Olivia Newton-John.

Somehow I wonder if Kublai Khan would have recognized his summer capital in that film, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

In 1231, Ögedei launched the first of what would be seven invasions of Goryeo, the ancient proto-state we now know as Korea.

Mongol armies under the Great Khan Ögedei raided west from Afghanistan to Iran, sacking the great cities of the Bulgars and the Rus and reaching as far as Hungary and Poland. Kiev, Krakow, Buda and Pest were all sacked, and looted. The first scouts reached as far as Bohemia and Vienna. The horde was poised to sweep through all Europe when the Great Khan died in 1241, most likely during one of the drinking binges for which the Great Khan was famous.

According to the Law of Yassa, they all turned back for Karakorum and the selection, of a new Khan.

Fun fact: Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world converting to Christianity in the 4th century following the death of Christ. At the time of the apocalyptic 12th century invasion by Mongols, Georgia was preparing to join the 5th Crusade to retake Jerusalem. Census numbers taken by the Mongols themselves indicated Georgia’s ability to raise 4½ tumens, or 45,000 troops. Today we can only guess at how 45,000 troops may have affected the outcome.

There followed a period of short-lived Khans followed by regents, usually the wives or mothers of past or future khans. The tale of female domination in this world run by men is a story in itself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story. Again.

The 4th Khagan (Supreme ruler) of the Mongol Empire Möngke conquered Iraq and Syria, putting an end to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 set off a civil war between two brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan. Kublai emerged victorious in 1264 over his younger brother Ariq Böke. He went on to subjugate the Song of the south of China, unifying that nation under one rule for the first time since the 9th century.

Kublai Khan, Khagan of the Mongol Empire and self styled emperor of the Yuan dynasty sits atop a throne carried by four elephants in this 18th century engraving. H/T Wikipedia

Korea, ravaged by 39 years of the Mongolian menace with barely a wooden structure left standing, capitulated and became a tributary state. It was the apex of the Mongol empire, a landmass now extending from the Sea of Japan to the shores of Turkmenistan.

In three generations the Mongols now ran the second largest empire in history, second only to that of Great Britain. Nearly 18% of dry land on the entire planet was under Mongol rule when Kublai, the self-styled Yuan emperor, set his sights on Japan.

In 1266 Kublai demanded that Japan too, become a vassal state. He sent emissaries with a letter. It is hard to find more entitlement, more arrogance and more menace, in so few words.

Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol Emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly… Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this…Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”

The overture was ignored by Shogun Shikken (regent) Hōjō Tokimune and by Emperor Kameyama as was a second, two years later. Subsequent Korean emissaries and Mongol ambassadors weren’t even allowed to land.

The first invasion fleet arrived on Tsushima Island on November 4, 1274. Both sides wildly overestimated the strength of the other. Modern estimates put Japanese defenders at 4,000 to 6,000 over the next few days, the Yuan invading force at roughly 22,000 Mongol, Han, Jurchen and Korean soldiers and another 8,000 Korean sailors.

80 mounted samurai and their retinues stood in the way of that initial landing. The outcome was never in doubt but the small garrison sold their lives dearly. one samurai called Sukesada is said to have cut down 25 invaders in single combat. Results were much the same at Iki Island and Hakata Bay. Gunpowder bombs were hurled at defenders confusing samurai and terrifying horses. Such weapons had never before been seen outside of China but modern shipwreck excavations, have confirmed their existence. Stoneware bombs stuffed with gunpowder and scrap iron.

Defenders retreated to Mizuki, the ancient earthwork moat fort where all expected a final stand, but it never happened.

Back on the ships, three Yuan generals discussed what to do next. Liu Fuxiang, shot in the face by the samurai Shōni Kagesuke, believed the troops were exhausted, and needed to rest. Holdon wanted to press the attack but Hong Dagu agreed with Liu. Most of the invaders left that night, and then it happened. The Divine Wind of Retribution. The Kamikaze.

Portion of the “Mongol Scroll”, Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion of Japan.’ Commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, 1293

The typhoon rising out of the east drove the Yuan fleet, dashing some onto the rocks and sinking others to the bottom. Anyone caught on the beach was executed on the spot save for Song Chinese who were believed to be there, against their will. The Mongol vessels, river craft without keel, struggled to make way. In the end some 200 ships were lost. 14,000 men departing with the invading force, never came home.

The power of the Khan depended on legends of invincibility. Such a defeat could be easily afforded, but not tolerated. There followed a period of intense diplomacy as the Khagan dealt with the troublesome Song. On September 1275, Kublai Khan sent five more emissaries to Kyūshū. These weren’t about to be sent home without an answer and so they received their response. Tokimune had them all beheaded, by sword. Five more came in 1279, with the same result.

Then came the ultimatum from the Great Khan himself. A letter. On February 20, 1281, the Japanese Imperial Court ordered all temples and shrines to pray for victory, in the second Mongol invasion.

It was the largest amphibious invasion in history until the 20th century assault on Normandy. Miles of defensive wall had been built in places, over 9-feet tall. Spikes (left) prevented Mongol vessels from approaching the shore.

A northern fleet departed Korea with 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers. The southern fleet sailed from China with an overwhelming force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 soldiers. The onslaught from Korea arrived in June, once again overwhelming the mid-channel islands at Tsushima and Iki.

This time, the formidable defenses along the shore at Hakata Bay held the invader. Invader and defender fought along the waterline, sometimes In the surf but defenses, held. Fleets of small vessels with a dozen warriors apiece swarmed among the Mongol fleet, setting fires and bringing the fight, to the enemy. These small boats accomplished little militarily but Mongol captains responded, chaining their ships together to better defend themselves.

The southern fleet arrived in August, the combined forces moving east to attack Takashima. For weeks, defenders kept the invader from getting a foothold, but no one can resist such overwhelming numbers. Not for long.

Then as before, came the Divine Wind. The Kamikaze. Unexpected in this early season and shocking in its intensity, the typhoon lashed the western shores of the home islands on August 15. Small Japanese vessels were able to seek shelter. Sturdier Korean ships were able to shelter in open water but, the makeshift Chinese fleet, never had a chance. A third of the northern fleet and over half of the southern, was destroyed. Those lucky enough to make it to land were executed, on the beach. A carpet of bodies and wreckage floated so densely on the surf, it seemed one could walk on water.

Kublai Khan never recovered. Nor did the Mongol empire. With all that manpower, all that wealth at the bottom of the ocean, the Great Khan turned first to corrupt financial advisors and later to gluttony, and alcohol. Military orders became increasingly irrational. Orders for a third invasion of Japan, that never materialized. Invasions of Vietnam and Java turned to debacle. With the deaths of his favorite wife and heir apparent, Kublai withdrew from affairs of government and died in 1294, fat, alcoholic and afflicted by gout.

For Japan the Kamikaze became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980

February 19, 1945 Crocodiles of Ramree

To the human participants in this story, this is a tale of four weeks’ combat over a marginally important, tropical island. For the apex predator of the mangrove swamp, it was little more than a dinner bell.


Five hundred feet off the coast of Myanmar, formerly Burma, across the Bay of Bengal from the Indian sub-continent, there lies the island of Ramree, about a third the size of New York’s Long Island.

In 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army aided by Thai forces and Burmese insurgents drove the British Empire and Chinese forces out of Burma, occupying much of the Burmese peninsula and with it, Ramree island. In January 1945, the allies came to take it back.

356-Squadron-RAF-after-bombing-Japanese-positions-on-Ramree-Island
RAF 356 Squadron after bombing Japanese positions on Ramree Island

The battle started out with Operation Matador on January 14, an amphibious assault designed to capture the strategic port of Kyaupyu, and it’s nearby airfield.

By early February, a mixed force of British Royal Marines and Indian allies dislodged a force of some 980 Japanese defenders, who abandoned their base and marched inland to join a larger regiment of Japanese soldiers across the island.

ramree-island2On February 7, the 71st Infantry and supporting tanks reached Ramree town where they found determined Japanese resistance. The town fell in two days. Naval forces blockaded small tributaries called “chaungs”, which retreating Japanese used in their flight to the mainland. A Japanese air raid damaged an allied destroyer on the 11th as a flotilla of small craft crossed the strait, to rescue survivors of the garrison. By February 17, Japanese resistance had come to an end.

The route took the retreating Japanese across 10 miles of marsh and mangrove swamp. Bogged down and trapped in the mire, the soldiers found themselves cut off and surrounded, alone with the snakes, the mosquitoes and the scorpions, of Ramree island.

Throughout the four-week battle for Ramree Island, the allied blockade inflicted heavy casualties on Japanese forces.  The thousand men cut off in the swamp, had more immediate concerns.

article-2013816-0CF9D84B00000578-348_468x559
:Lured by a tour guide dangling kangaroo meat from a pole, the 18ft, two-ton monster was, er, snapped by photographer Katrina Bridgeford, who was on the Adelaide River cruise with her family”. Tip of the Hat for this image, to the UK Daily Mail Note the missing right arm on this monster was probably eaten by one of his own kind.

NationalGeographic.com describes the Japanese’ problem, the nightmare predator,  Crocodylus porosus. The saltwater crocodile:  “Earth’s largest living crocodilian—and, some say, the animal most likely to eat a human—is the saltwater or estuarine crocodile. Average-size males reach 17 feet and 1,000 pounds, but specimens 23 feet long and weighing 2,200 pounds are not uncommon.

Opportunistic predators, they lurk patiently beneath the surface near the water’s edge, waiting for potential prey to stop for a sip of water. They’ll feed on anything they can get their teeth into including water buffalo, monkeys, wild boar and even sharks. Without warning, they explode from the water with a thrash of their powerful tails, grasp their victim, and drag it back in, holding it under until the animal drowns.

ramree-island

British naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright participated in the battle for Ramree, and gave the following account in his book, Wildlife Sketches Near and Far, published in 1962:

“That night [February 19, 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [marine launch] crews ever experienced. The crocodiles, alerted by the din of warfare and the smell of blood, gathered among the mangroves, lying with their eyes above water, watchfully alert for their next meal. With the ebb of the tide, the crocodiles moved in on the dead, wounded, and uninjured men who had become mired in the mud.

The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left…Of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive”.

map_cpor_800b
Current Distribution – Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)

The actual numbers will never be known. Skeptics question how so many of these beasts could support themselves in such a small space but, consider this:  Saltwater crocodiles are excellent swimmers and are regularly spotted miles out to sea.  Individuals have even been discovered in the relatively frigid Sea of Japan – thousands of miles from their native habitat.  In 2016, Australian Rangers counted 120 “salties” in a 6-kilometer (3.7 mile) stretch of the East Alligator River, in the Northern Territory.

To the human participants in this story, this is a tale of four weeks’ combat over a marginally important, tropical island.  For the apex predator of the mangrove swamp, it was little more than a dinner bell.

56714641-saltwater-crocodile-is-pictured-at-the-australian.jpg.CROP.promo-large2

February 17, 1915 American Volunteers in WW1

“When men who have no obligation to fight, who could not possibly be criticized if they did not fight, yet nevertheless decide, upon their own individual initiative, to risk their lives in defense of a cause that they hold to be dear, then we are in the presence of true heroism” – General Henri Gouraud

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic stumbles, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August, there was no turning back. There would be no “Phony War” this time, no “Sitzkreig”, as wags were wont to call the early days of World War 2. The coming storm crashed across the continent like a clap of thunder.

Britain went to war with a professional army of 750,000 men, small by European standards. 8 million men were conscripted or recruited over the next four years, nearly half coming from outside the UK. They came from all over the British empire and beyond. Over 300 Americans volunteered with the Royal Flying Corps in WW1 as did Jamaican William Robinson Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain, but no power so enjoyed the support of foreign volunteers, as France.

Foreign mercenary soldiers have a long history with the French military. Philip VI led 15,000 Italian soldiers against Edward III, in 1346. Napoleon had 60,000 Swiss Guard under contract of the Schweizergarten, in Vienna. King Louis Philippe formed the French Foreign Legion on March 9, 1831.

“American volunteers in the French Foreign Legion cross the Place de L’Opera Paris on August 25, 1914, headed for Rouen” H/T americansatwarinforeignforces.com

The United States was still neutral in the beginning, over two years away from joining the fray. The influx of American volunteers, began almost immediately. They came to join the French Foreign Legion, to drive for the ambulance corps and, later, to fly.

Interestingly, the central powers made limited use of foreign conscripts or recruits. There was the occasional foreign colonial in German units, soldiers of Chinese or African descent. Several Americans volunteered to fly for the Imperial German Flying Corps. Though nominally allied with czarist Russia, longstanding animosities led some Fins to volunteer with the Imperial German army. Irish Republicans took opportunity to attempt an independent Irish Republic and Germany was happy to assist but it was der Löwe von Afrika (Lion of Africa) General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who famously led 11,000 to 12,000 African Askari troops in the only successful invasion into a part of the British empire of all of WW1.

With only a handful of generations come and gone between our time and that of the Great War, WW1 holds a prominent place in modern conceptions of “recent” history. Similarly, the WW1 generation held the Revolution in close regard, the events of the last century and one-half foundational to their own time. Americans were keenly aware in 1914 of the pivotal role played by France, in American independence. Kiffin and Paul Rockwell are but two examples of Americans who left comfortable lives to serve “over there” as a debt of gratitude, to the likes of the Count of Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing famously quipped on arriving on French soil, “Lafayette, we are here”.

The French Foreign Legion operated two regiments at this time comprised of six battalions of 1,000 men each and headquartered in north Africa. The need for manpower was acute. Two-thirds were of German or Austrian background and therefore of suspect loyalty.

Thousands of Americans volunteered for WW1 service in the Legion, notables among their number including composer and songwriter Cole porter, Eugene Jacques Bullard, who would go on to become the first black American fighter pilot in history, William Wellman, director of the 1927 film Wings and winner of the Best Picture award at the first Academy Awards ceremony and poet Alan Seeger (left), author of “I have a rendezvous with death” and uncle of the folk artist and social activist, Pete Seeger.

William Moll served his five years with the Foreign Legion and returned home to Chicago. He became filthy rich and died, in 1937. Imagine the reading of that will. All those eager relatives and the man left every dime of it, to the French Foreign Legion.

Some Foreign Legion units experienced close to 100% casualties.

Alan Seeger met his rendezvous with death at the Somme, in 1916. Fellow Legion soldier Rif Baer described his last moments: “His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.” Even then, lying mortally wounded in no man’s land Seeger cheered on his passing comrades as the life ebbed out of him.

Not legally “Americans” at this time but members of their own sovereign nations, no fewer than 4,000 Indians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in 1914. Some 15,000 native Americans from many tribal affiliations enlisted with the American Expeditionary Force where members of the Choctaw, Cherokee and Cree nations learned to talk in code, early forerunners of the famous Navajo code talkers, of WW2.

The Battle of the Frontiers, a series of clashes between August 7 and September 6, 1914 brought no fewer than 2.7 million combatants together producing casualties on both sides, of some 664,000. The motor inventory of entire nations public and private, seemed inadequate to transport the cataract of wounded to places of medical care.

Members of expatriate American business community and embassy employees rushed in to assist in early association with the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, in Paris.

US Ambassador Myron Herrick and his wife Carolyn (“Kitty”) were instrumental in the early stages of the war as were wealthy donors such as the Vanderbilts, in early association with the American Hospital, founded four years earlier. As German armies crashed through Belgium and raced to capture Paris, the government fled for Bordeaux. Herrick stayed defiantly in Paris. “Paris belongs not only to France,” he said, “it belongs to the world!”

Three distinct ambulance corps would evolve over time involving no fewer than 3,500 American volunteers. Notable among ther number include the authors Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett who all but invented the hard-boiled crime novel.

Edward “Eddie” Mandell Stone lived in France when the war broke out and enlisted, with Foreign Legion, 2nd Regiment, Battalion C.

A member of a machine-gun section, Eddie (right) was mortally wounded on February 17, 1915 and taken to the Military Hospital at Romilly. He died of his wounds on February 27 becoming the first American combatant to die, in the ‘War to end all wars”.

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons. He wouldn’t live to see the article in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed. He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor. He died three days later, at the age of 29.

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery (left) flew for both the Aéronautique Militaire and for the US Army Air Service and is sometimes listed as an Ace, in both. All but 1 of Lufbery’s 17 victories came as a French pilot. Raoul Lufbery was thrown from his aircraft and killed on May 19, 1918.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.   Germany expressed dismay over the very existence of such a unit, complaining that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Escadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core of 38 American volunteers in the beginning, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were two unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

William Thaw with unit mascot mascots, Whiskey and Soda. ca 1916

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

William Graves Sharp took office in December 1914 and served as Ambassador the remainder of the war, but never seemed to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, Myron Herrick. Ambassador Herrick returned to Paris in 1921 and remained, until 1929. Herrick greeted Richard Lindberg in 1927 and stood throughout the long funeral ceremonies, for Ferdinand Foch.

It is there the ambassador was believed to have contracted the illness, that would take his life. Now forgotten in his home country, Myron Herrick is well remembered in his adopted nation of France.

Today you can walk through the gardens of Paris’ Place des États-Unis, down the slope from Bartholdi’s sculpture where Lafayette forever shakes hands, with Washington. Up from the monument for American Volunteers in the Great War is the bust of Myron Herrick.

The once governor of Ohio and forgotten diplomat who refused to be moved when everyone around him, ran.

February 16, 1961 Mountain Home

As the most destructive war in human history unfolded between Nazi and Germany and Soviet Russia, an apocalypse known simply as the Ostfront, two more children were born in the wild. Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia, in 1943. The Lykovs missed World War 2 entirely without the slightest idea, of the outside world.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international belt line of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, a vast, unexplored wilderness more than half again, the size of the continental United States. With snows lasting until May and resuming in September, there are no nearby oceans or seas to moderate temperature. Extremes are capable of summertime highs over 100° Fahrenheit (40c) to a wintertime low of -80° (-62c).

For all its size the region is all but unpopulated. Outside of a few towns the Siberian Taiga is home to no more than a few thousand. Siberia is also the source of vast Russian wealth in the form of oil, gas and minerals. In a wilderness capable of swallowing whole phalanxes of explorers there is hardly a district which hasn’t been overflown, at least once.

Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft cross huge tracts of arboreal forest carrying prospectors, workers and surveyors to and from remote backwoods camps.

So it was in 1978, the chopper descending with its team of geologists. Looking for a place to land near some unnamed tributary of the Abakan river, that trackless waterway with a name derived from the Khakas word, for “bear’s blood”. Treetops swayed in the propwash as the pilot peered downward, looking for a place to put down. And then he saw it. 100 miles from the Mongolian border and a good 150 miles from the nearest settlement. If those weren’t signs of human habitation, they sure looked like it.

Circling back, the pilot took another pass. And another. The Soviet government had no record of anyone living out here but, there it was. The clearing, 6,000 feet up the mountainside. The long furrows of a large garden. Someone had been growing here, for a very long time.

The Lykovs’ homestead seen from a Soviet reconnaissance plane, 1980. H/T Smithsonian

Ten miles away a four-person team of geologists, was there to explore for iron ore. The scientists thought they’d check it out. Packing what small gifts they could think of the team set out to investigate. The Russian writer, traveler and ecologist Vasily Peskov had once written, “It’s less dangerous to run across a wild animal (in these parts) than a stranger.” Geologist Galina Pismenskaya knew as much, and packed a gun.

As the four approached the spot described by the helicopter crew, there began to be signs. A worn path. A log laid across a stream. A rough shed filled with birchbark containers, with potatoes.

Pismenskaya describes what came next:

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove. H/T Smithsonian

“…beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.

The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’

The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

From the inside, the old man’s shanty was like something medieval. Dark, cramped and filthy, this was a single room under a roof propped up by sagging joists and a bare dirt floor covered with potato peelings, and pine nuts. Most astonishing of all this forest hovel out of a Grimm’s fairy tale turned out to be home, for a family of 5.

 As eyes adjusted to the darkness the intruders spotted two women. Hysterical, quietly sobbing with terrified eyes and sinking to the floor, one of them praying, over and over. ‘This is for our sins, our sins. This is for our sins, our sins. This is for our’ 

Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia. H/T Smithsonian

This wasn’t working. The four scientists quickly backed out and regrouped at a spot, a few yards away. Sitting down to eat they waited. A half-hour later the door once again, creaked open. Wary but curious like some wild thing the three emerged, and sat down with their visitors. There were small offerings, jam, tea, and bread, but always the same response. A shaking of the head and waving of the hand. “We are not allowed that“.

The old man spoke haltingly. The two sisters spoke to one another, in a manner which sounded like some kind of “blurred cooing”.

The story that emerged that day and over several more visits became more astonishing, by the minute. The old man, his name was Karp Lykov, was part of an old, fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the time, of Czar Peter the great. Things went from bad to worse following the Russian Revolution, for the “Old Believers”. As the atheist Bolsheviks took power, countless numbers of Old Believers had fled into the wilderness, to escape persecution. Sometime in the 1930s a communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother while Karp knelt beside him, working.

Dmitry (left) and Savin in the Siberian summer H/T Smithsonian

The Lykov family numbered 4 in 1936: Karp, his wife Akulina, a boy nine-year-old Savin, and Natalia, who was only two. Karp Lykov had to do something. The family scooped up some seeds and a few possessions and fled, into the forest. Over the years the family moved ever deeper, into the Taiga.

As the most destructive war in human history unfolded between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, an apocalypse known simply as the Ostfront, two more children were born in the wild. Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia, in 1943. The Lykovs missed World War 2 entirely without the slightest idea, of the outside world.

Life in the Taiga stood forever, at the brink of starvation. Roots, grass, potato tops. Every year the family meeting, whether to eat or save some of what they had, for seed. Dmitri grew hard, hunting barefoot in winter and possessed of preternatural stamina, capable of running wild animals to exhaustion and killing them, with his bare hands. With neither bow nor firearm, this was their only meat.

It snowed in June in 1961, killing their vegetables and setting the course, for famine. That was the year Akulina starved to death, preferring that her children eat. A single grain of rye managed to survive which the family guarded day and night, lest some wild animal eat their only hope.

A Russian press photo of Karp Lykov (second left) with Dmitry and Agafia, accompanied by a Soviet geologist. H/T Smithsonian

Imagine. 42 years in that place without so much as a glimpse, into civilization. Nobody meant for it to happen but it was the outside world, which finally destroyed them.

Karp tried to keep it all, on the outside. The only gift he would accept was salt but, over time, the younger Lykovs gave in. Here a knife and fork and there an electric flashlight. None of them could take their eyes off the television, at the geologist’s camp.

The family went into decline. In the fall of 1981, three of the Lykov children died within days of each other. Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, probably as the result of their harsh change in diet. Dmitri, the consummate outdoorsman who knew the Taiga in all her moods, succumbed to pneumonia, probably begun as an infection contracted from one of his new friends.

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered. H/T Smithsonian

They tried to call him a helicopter but Dmitry would not leave his family. “We are not allowed that,” he murmured, just before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.”

The geologists tried to persuade Karp and Agafia to come out of the wilderness, to rejoin those of their relatives who had survived the purges, of the Stalin regime. The answer was always, “no”.

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988. 27 years to the day from his wife, Akulina. Agafia buried him with the help of the geologists, on the mountainside, and then returned home.

Nothing lasts forever . There came that day when the visitors had to take their leave. One of the geologists, a driller named Yerofei Sedov, remembered: I looked back to wave at Agafia. She was standing by the river break like a statue. She wasn’t crying. She nodded: ‘Go on, go on.’ We went another kilometer and I looked back. She was still standing there.

Much of this tale comes from a 2013 article, in Smithsonian magazine. That’s where I got most of these images. At that time Agafia Lykova lived and perhaps yet lives, now approaching eighty, this child of the Taiga living alone, high above the Abakan.

The Lykovs’ graves. Today only Agafia survives of the family of six, living alone in the taiga. H/T Smithsonian

February 15, 1946 ENIAC

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

In the age of sail, naval combat was “muzzle to muzzle”. Before 1800 most such actions took place at ranges between 60 and 150 feet (18 – 46 m).

USS Constitution in combat during the War of 1812

The Civil War Battle of Cherbourg in 1864 pitting the Mohican-class sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge against the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, opened at 3,000 feet (910m).

Battle of Cherbourg, 1864

In 1884 the invention of the steam turbine produced speeds in naval vessels, never before dreamed of. By the turn of the 20th century, rifled guns of vastly larger size hurled explosive ammunition over the horizon. Enormously complex fire control solutions had to be calculated for range, movement of both vessels, elevation, the yaw of the firing ship, meteorological conditions, even the ambient temperature in powder magazines.

The projectile in flight is subject to forces such as gravity, drag, wind and air pressure and, at longer ranges, even latitude and rotation of the planet. Any given salvo may be accurately fired at a moving target only to fall harmlessly, several ship lengths behind. With the other guy shooting back, there isn’t always another chance to get it right.

Battle of Jutland, WW1

On land, artillery fire control solutions are nearly as complex and all of it, pertains only to a single gun. What is to be done then, about training all the guns on a warship, against a single target. What about a whole fleet?

Over time, increasingly accurate solutions were devised but, by World War 2, the race for fire control supremacy had outstripped the old ways. The penalty for failure was the difference, between life and death.

Extreme slow motion image, of air patterns around a bullet, in supersonic flight

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

The iPhone 5s has 1,300 times the computing power, of the Apollo moon lander.

A wonder for its time, IBM PC processors could address up to 64k at a time, within the computer’s (max) 1 mb memory. The 80286 based PC/AT released three years later sported a 20mb internal hard drive. Today, 128 bucks at Walmart will get you 4 Gigabytes of memory and a 160 gig, hard drive.

Back to artillery. The idea of a calculating machine was anything, but new. The abacus has been around for 3,000 years. The hand operated Antikythera analog computer dredged up from the ocean bottom in 1901, may go back as far as 205 BC. The 12th century “castle clock” invented by the Muslim polymath Ismail al-Jazari may be the world’s first programmable computer, capable of showing local time, lunar and solar orbits and even adjusting for length of day at certain times of the year.

Modern recreation of the ancient Antikythera mechanism

The US Army commissioned a study for a giant electronic “brain” to calculate firing tables back on May 31, 1943. Work began with Johns Hopkins physicist John Mauchly with chief engineer John Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

It took a year for the team to design the machine and another 18 months to build it. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was officially powered up in November, 1945.

The one thing those ancient machines have in common, is they were all hardware. “Software”, as it was known to programmers of the 1940s, had instructions written directly into the machine, in binary code.

The war was over in December 1945 but the military still had work for ENIAC to do. The first real-world calculations were performed On December 10.

ENIAC was formally dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania on February 15, 1946. Risible though the machine may be by modern standards, ENIAC was a wonder of science and technology, for its time. The press dubbed the thing, a “Giant Brain”. A trajectory taking 20 hours to calculate by humans took 30 seconds. One ENIAC was the computational equal, of 2,400 humans.

What the press didn’t know, was behind the scenes. In the early days of the war, the Moore School of Engineering worked with the Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) where a team of 100 “human computers” were trained to hand-calculate firing tables for artillery shells. With so many men off to war and programming seen at that time as “clerical work” the BRL hired, mostly women.

These were the “Top Secret Rosies”, the female “computers”, of WW2. When the ENIAC project began six of them came over, as programmers.

Marlyn Wescoff [left] and Ruth Lichterman were two of the female programmers of ENIAC. H/T Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Projects involved design for the hydrogen bomb, weather predictions, cosmic-ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies and wind-tunnel design.

ENIAC began as a room-sized modular computer comprised of individual panels, to perform different functions. Numbers were sent back & forth on buses, called trays. At its height ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and something like 5 million hand soldered joints occupying 1,800 square feet. The machine consumed 150 kilowatts of electricity. Rumor had it when ENIAC was switched on the lights in all Philadelphia, dimmed.

All things must come to an end. ENIAC, once a wonder of science and technology was already obsolete, by 1956. At its height, the machine weighed in at 25 tons and performed 5,000 calculations, per second. Weighing in at 4.55 ounces the iPhone 6, performs 25 Billion calculations per second.

Today the electronic descendants of ENIAC perform tasks of increasing, even mind boggling complexity. Mapping the human genome. Climate research. Exploration, for oil and gas.

Before long top-of-the line mainframe computers were performing at a rate not in the thousands of instructions per second but MIPS. Millions of instructions per second. The first supercomputer arrived in 1965 with so much horsepower as to require a whole new unit of measure: FLOPS “floating-point operations per second”.

The term wasn’t in use during ENIAC’s day but, if it was, that bad boy was chunkin’ along, at 500 FLOPS. Supercomputer performance metrics have since climbed the metric decadic system, bending vocabularies to new and hitherto unimagined heights. KiloFLOPS was eclipsed by megaFLOPS and gigaFLOPS and continued ever onward. The “tera” prefix (Trillion) gave way to the dizzying petaFLOP, or one one quadrillion: a thousand trillion floating point line operations, per second.

“The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer “Intrepid” at Argonne National Laboratory runs 164,000 processor cores using normal data center air conditioning, grouped in 40 racks/cabinets connected by a high-speed 3-D torus network”. H/T Wikipedia

In April 2020 the distributed computing network folding@home acheived computing performance of one exaFLOPS. Unless you’re in interplanetary space I can’t think of another use, for such a number. Unless we’re talking about the federal debt.

As of January 2021 no single machine has scaled such heights, but they’re working on it. One exaFLOPS. A quintillion floating point line operations, per second. The estimated speed at the neural level, of the human brain.

February 12, 1554 No Sadder Spot on Earth

The “Nine Day Queen” ​experienced the swiftest rise and fall of any Monarch, in the history of the English crown. She never wanted any of it, but it didn’t matter. The ambitions of others would cost the teenage Lady Jane, her head.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing a challenge to Church authority to the Wittenberg Palace Church, in 1517. In all probability, it never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the One Church at this time. This was an academic work, mailed to Archbishop Albrecht and offered for scholarly disputation.

Luther’s “95 theses” rocked the Christian world and may be counted among the most important documents in world history, alongside the Cylinder of the Persian King Cyrus, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of independence.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages.

The European “Wars of Religion” spawned by the Protestant Reformation raged across Europe for a hundred years. Other issues were involved as well – territorial ambitions, revolution, Great Power conflicts, but fault lines pulling at the Christian world, were never far from the surface. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the French Revolution, in 1789. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-’48 laid waste to Germany and killed a third of its population, a death rate twice that of World War I.

The Protestant Reformation spread across Europe reaching its greatest geographic extent in the latter half of the 16th century. In England, the schism began with Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII, of England. Desperate for a male heir, Henry sought divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused an annulment. Before it was over King Henry VIII had established the church of England with himself, at its head.

Henry died in 1547 leaving his son by Jane Seymour, the nine year old Edward Tudor, King. Next in order of succession came Edward’s half-sister by Catherine of Aragon Mary Tudor, followed by his half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Despite breaking with the church in Rome, Henry never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine, or ceremony. Henry, the first English monarch raised as a Protestant, dispensed with clerical celibacy and the Mass, and required services to be conducted, in English.

Despite her title, Henry’s cousin Jane had little use for the goings on at the royal court. “Lady” Jane Grey would rather read a book. Pretty, smart and well educated, she was the daughter of Henry’s younger sister and as such, in line for the crown.

At nine Jane was sent to live with Henry’s widow, Katherine Parr.

There exists among us a type of person, with an insatiable need to control the lives of others. People who desire power, above all things. Call it a personality defect or a psychological condition, that’s up to you, but one thing is certain. History is replete with such individuals at all times and in all political stations. All too often, these are the people who Become, history.

Books have been written about the scheming, the grasping for power behind the scenes, of the royal throne. Such machinations are beyond the scope of this essay but this story is chock full of such individuals, not the least of whom were John Dudley, duke of Northumberland and Jane’s own father, Henry.

In 1551, Henry Grey was created 1st duke of Suffolk. With pre-teen Henry on the throne Dudley, duke of Northumberland, exercised enormous power behind the scenes. In May 1553, Suffolk and Dudley arrange of their two children: Lady Jane to Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley.

Edward ruled until the ripe old age of fifteen and fell ill from some lung condition, possibly tuberculosis. Knowing he was dying, Edward and his council drew up a “Devise for the Succession” to prevent the return of Catholic rule.

Lady Jane was devoutly Protestant. Edward bypassed his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth to name Jane Grey, his rightful heir. At fifteen, this quiet teenage girl who’d rather read a book became the Great Hope of Protestant England.

King Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 his death kept quiet, for four days. Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland on July 10, her husband Guildford, the Duke of Clarence. Jane fainted on learning she was Queen. She later said she accepted the crown, only with reluctance.

Lady Jane being asked to take the throne as imagined by artist, Robert Smirke

To the devoutly Catholic Mary Tudor, the future “Bloody Mary”, the line of succession was clear. She herself was named in the Parliamentary act of 1544. She was next according to Henry’s private papers. Mary Tudor was not about to be denied what was rightfully hers.

It is said that success has many fathers but failure, is an orphan. Dudley set out with a body of troops, to capture the would be Queen as the privy council, personal advisors to the crown, now declared support for Mary. With the rug pulled out from under him Dudley’s support, evaporated. Even Henry Grey, Jane’s father, switched his support to Mary.

Queen for only nine days, Jane was deposed on July, 19, 1553. The only English monarch in 500 years without so much, as a portrait. Now simply “Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford”, she was imprisoned in the Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) apartments at the Tower of London, Guildford in the Beauchamp Tower.

Mary rode triumphantly into London on August 3, accompanied by her half sister Elizabeth and a procession of over 800 dignitaries.

Jane was charged with high treason as was Guildford and several associates. The trial began on November 3 with no doubt, as to how it would end. Just turned 17 in October the “nine days’ Queen” was convicted of high treason and sentenced to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases”.

Even yet, there was reason to believe that Jane might be spared. What happened next sealed the teenager’s fate.

Once crowned, Mary I wasn’t about to be succeeded by her younger (Protestant) half sister, Elizabeth. She turned her attention to finding a mate. Mary needed to produce an heir. The House of commons petitioned that the new Queen select an English mate, but she chose Prince Philip of Spain.

The marriage was controversial. English patriots opposed the match, not wanting Britain relegated to a mere dependency, of the Habsburgs. English Protestants feared Catholic rule.

Mary I, Queen of England

There followed a series of uprisings in opposition to the marriage, called after the rebel politician Thomas Wyatt. The so-called Wyatt’s Rebellion explicitly opposed the marriage but carried with it the implication, of an intent to overthrow the Queen. There were even dark rumors, of assassination.

Jane’s father joined in the rebellion as did two of his brothers. For the government, this was the last straw. The Bishop of Winchester persuaded the Queen that Jane was a risk and would continue to be so, due to her influence over Protestant rebels. Her execution and that of her husband were scheduled for February 9.

Three days were allowed for the former Queen to save her life, and convert to Catholicism. Mary even sent her chaplain John Feckenham to “save her soul”.

Jane politely declined to convert but she soon made friends, with Feckenham. She even invited him to her own execution.

On the morning of February 12, 1554, Jane watched out the window as her husband, was wheeled off in a cart. With the words “Oh Guildford” she watched the return of his body and his head, each wrapped in separate white sheets.

Then came the sound of footsteps. At her door.

Brought to the scaffold, Jane began to speak. “Good people, I am come hither to die” concluding, “I do wash my hands thereof in innocence“. The law made her a traitor but all she had done, was accept the positi0n.

She recited Psalm 51 (Have mercy upon me, O God) in English and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid. As was customary the executioner asked for forgiveness. That she gave, adding “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” She then asked “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” She was referring to her head. “No Madame”, came the reply. Lady Jane applied her own mask and reached out groping, for the block. In that she received help. Outstretching her arms, she spoke. Jesus’ last words, as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The slender neck was parted, with a stroke.

There was no funeral. No stone to mark the grave. Lady Jane was simply buried, along with her husband in the parish church of the Tower of London. Saint Peter ad Vincula. (“St. Peter in chains”). She is the last of five beheaded females buried in the chancel area, along with Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady Rochford and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Three hundred years later the essayist Thomas Babington wrote in memoriam, of those who rest, at St. Peter ad Vincula:

“In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s, with genius and virtue…but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame…”.

Church graveyard at St. Peter ad Vincula

February 4, 1936 A Damnable Travesty of Justice

“This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.” Walter Lippmann – New York World

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer began to feel soreness in her jaw. She was 23 at the time and too young to have her teeth falling out, yet that’s exactly what was happening. Fryer’s doctor was able to identify the problem, but he couldn’t explain it. The woman’s jawbones were so honeycombed with holes, they looked like moth eaten fabric.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the 88th element of the Periodic Table on December 21, 1898. This new and radioactive element was Radium, one of the ‘alkaline earth metals’. Marie curie would go on to become the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in 1906, and the only person of either sex to ever win two Nobels.

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From goldfish swallowing to pole sitting there have been some strange fads over the years, but none so strange as the radium craze, of 1904. Newspapers waxed rhapsodic about cities of the future, streets aglow in the light of radium lamps as smiling diners enjoyed luminescent cocktails, in restaurants.

While serious doctors had early successes killing cancer cells, quacks and charlatans sold radium creams, drinks and suppositories to cure everything from acne to warts.

An unseen benefit of the craze, at least for a time, was that demand for radium vastly outpaced actual production. Prices skyrocketed to $84,500 per gram by 1915, equivalent to $1.9 million today. Authorities warned consumers to be on the lookout for faux radium, while the business in fake radium products soared.

At the outset of World War 1, it didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of glow in the dark instruments. A number of companies stepped up to fill the need, perhaps none larger than US Radium and their glow-in-the-dark paint, “Undark”.

Hundreds of women worked in the company’s factories, hand painting the stuff on watches, gun sights and other instruments. Radioactivity levels were so small as to be harmless to users of these objects, but not so to the people who made them.

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Grace Fryer

The harmful effects of radiation were relatively well understood by 1917, though the information was kept from factory workers. Camel hair brushes tended to splay out with use and supervisors encouraged workers to sharpen brushes using their lips and tongues. The stuff was odorless and tasteless and some couldn’t resist the fun of painting nails and even teeth, with the luminous paint. The only side effects of all that radium they were told, would be rosy cheeks.

The active ingredient in Undark was a million times more active than Uranium, and company owners and scientists knew it. Company labs were equipped with lead screens, masks and tongs, while literally everything on the factory floor, glowed.

radium-girls

In 1925, doctors began to suspect that Grace Fryer’s condition may be related to her previous employment in US Radium’s Orange, New Jersey factory. By that time she was seriously ill, yet Columbia University “Specialist” Frederick Flynn and a “Colleague” pronounced her to be in “fine health”. It was only later that the two were revealed to be company executives.

These US Radium guys must have been genuine, mustache twirling, villains. In the early 20s, company officials hired physiologist and Harvard Professor Cecil Drinker to report on working conditions. Drinker’s report detailed catastrophically dangerous working conditions, with virtually every factory employee suffering blood or bone conditions.

The report filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor omitted all of it, describing conditions in glowing terms (pun not intended), claiming that “every girl is in perfect condition”.

Reports of illness among other women came flooding in. In a tactic that may sound familiar today, US Radium took to assassinating the character of these women, claiming such symptoms resulted from syphilis.

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Attorney Raymond Berry filed suit on Fryer’s behalf in 1927, the lawsuit joined by four other dial painters seeking $250,000 apiece in damages. Soon, the newspapers were calling them “radium girls”. The health of all five plaintiffs was deteriorating rapidly, while one stratagem after another was used to delay proceedings. By their first courtroom appearance in January 1928, none could raise her arm to take the oath. Grace Fryer was altogether toothless by this time, unable to walk and requiring a back brace even to sit up.

Another dial painter, Amelia Maggia, had had to have her jaw removed in the last months of her life. Maggia’s cause of death was ruled as syphilis, but her dentist wasn’t buying it. Dr. Joseph Knef placed the jaw on a piece of dental film. The image resulting showed “absurd” levels of radiation.

The radium girls were far too sick to attend the next hearing in April when the judge ordered a continuation to September, an accommodation to several company witnesses “summering” in Europe.

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Walter Lippmann of the New York World called the proceedings a “damnable travesty of justice”. “There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, the reporter wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.”

Delay was a deliberate and sleazy tactic, and it worked. Plaintiffs accepted a settlement of $10,000 apiece, plus legal fees and a $600 annual annuity. The deal was mediated by Judge William Clarke, himself a US Radium stockholder. None of the women lived long enough to cash more than one or two annuity checks.

Marie Curie herself was dead by 1934, poisoned by radiation. With a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks remain “too hot to handle”, to this day.

Radium was synthesized for the first time two years later, on February 4, 1936. Presumably, factory workers were no longer encouraged to sharpen their brushes using lips and tongues.

February 1, 1790 A Republic, if you can Keep it

Good judgement it’s been said, comes from experience. And experience? That comes from bad judgement.

Article III of the United States Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish”. There is no mention of the number of justices.

The first Congress passed the Federal Judiciary Act on September 24, 1789, specifying a six-justice Supreme Court. That same day President George Washington appointed John Jay of New York as chief justice along with associate justices John Rutledge of South Carolina, William Cushing of Massachusetts, John Blair of Virginia, Robert Harrison of Maryland and James Wilson of Pennsylvania.

Two days later the Senate confirmed all six. The Supreme Court of the United States sat for the first time in the Royal Exchange Building on New York City’s Broad Street on February 1, 1790.

Twelve years later, the presidency of John Adams was coming to an end. As a Federalist, Adams was pleased to throw a speed bump in the path of incoming Democratic-Republican, Thomas Jefferson. To that end, Adams appointed the infamous “midnight judges” in the last hours of his administration: 16 Federalist Circuit Court judges and 42 Federalist Justices of the Peace.

The incoming Jefferson administration sought to block the appointments. Jefferson ordered then-Secretary of State James Madison to hold those commissions as yet undelivered, thus invalidating the appointments. One appointee, William Marbury, sued.

The case advanced all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled in Marbury v. Madison, the provision of the Judiciary Act enabling Marbury to bring his claim, was unconstitutional.  Marbury lost his case but the principle of judicial review, the idea that the court would preside God-like over laws passed by their co-equal branch, remains the law of the land from that day to this.

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Over time, SCOTUS has proven itself to be as imperfect as any other institution.

In the early days of the Great Depression, Federal agricultural officials conceived the hare brained idea that artificially introducing scarcity would increase prices and therefore wages, in the agricultural sector. Six million hogs were destroyed in 1933. Not harvested, just destroyed and burned or plowed into the ground. 470,000 cattle were shot in Nebraska alone. Vast quantities of milk were poured down sewers, all at a time of national depression and widespread malnutrition.

With the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, Washington began to impose production quotas on the nation’s farmers. Ohio farmer Roscoe Filburne was ordered to grow 223 bushels of wheat during the 1941 season. He grew 462.

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Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution permits Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. That’s it but, on this flimsy basis, the Federal Government took Roscoe Filburne to court.

The farmer argued the federal government had nothing to say as any “surplus” stayed on his farm, feeding the Filburne family and their chickens. Lower Courts sided with the farmer. The government appealed all the way to the Supreme Court arguing that, by withholding his surplus from the market, Filburne was effecting interstate market conditions, thereby putting him under federal government jurisdiction.

Intimidated by the Roosevelt administration’s aggressive and illegal “court packing scheme“, SCOTUS decided the Wickard v. Filburne case, against the farmer. Ever since that time, what you don’t do can be held against you by the government, in a court of law. Get it? Neither do I.

Kelo v. City of New London ruled one private party’s judicial theft of another’s was a valid use of the takings clause. Two dozen Connecticut families were evicted and forced out of their homes. Their houses were bulldozed, neatly kept yards overgrown with weeds and left a dumping ground and home, for feral cats. Small matter to those homeowners the proposed “redevelopment” of their neighborhood, never happened.

In the entire history of the court there have only been 115 justices. 

Some among those 115 have been magnificent human beings. Some of them were cranks. There have been instances of diminished capacity ranging from confusion to outright insanity. One justice spent part of his term in a debtor’s prison. Another killed a man. There have been open racists and anti-Semites.

There is no official portrait of the 1924 court because Justice James C. McReynolds wouldn’t stand next to Louis Brandeis, the court’s first Jewish Justice. One Justice was known to chase flight attendants around his quarters while another spent his time in chambers, watching soap operas.

There’s the former Klan lawyer turned Justice who took a single phrase from a private letter of Thomas Jefferson, “separation of church and state”, and transformed the constitutional freedom OF religion into an entirely made up freedom FROM religion.

Separation-of-Church-and-State

The Supreme Court reinforced chattel slavery with the Dred Scott decision. The Korematsu ruling gave us the forced incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent. Buck v. Bell gave Americans the “gift” of forced sterilization and Stenberg v. Carhartt enshrined the constitutional “right” to the unthinkable “procedure” known as partial birth abortion. Hammer v. Dagenhart supported the practice of children, put to work in the nation’s mines and factories.

From “Separate but Equal” to the “rights” of terrorists, SCOTUS’ rulings are final, infallible and sometimes, imbecilic.

Chief Justice John Roberts once said “remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.”

He who invented a new definition of taxation enshrining the “Affordable Care Act” as the law of the land.

The constitution invests state legislatures with sole authority to determine state voting regulations. Yet recently, we had election officials and state courts changing key states’ voting rules while SCOTUS declined to intervene. Is there any wonder why half a nation questions the validity of that election?

Just don’t say it out loud or you’ll be de-platformed, or worse.

Today a man barely a week in office convenes a commission to recommend Supreme Court “reforms”, up to and including exhuming Roosevelt’s court packing scheme. It’s not hard to guess how that will turn out. Because it never really was about transparency, fairness or even democracy, was it. Just the raw exercise of power.

January 31, 1846 Milwaukee Bridge War

The skirmishes lasted, for weeks. No one was killed during the Milwaukee bridge War of 1845 though combatants on both sides, were injured. In the end even the hotheads had to admit it. The only path forward lay in unification.

Solomon Juneau was a fur trader.  Like the cousin who went before him to found Juneau, Alaska, Solomon left his home in Quebec and wound up in Wisconsin, settling on the east side of the Milwaukee River.  That was 1818.  The east side of the river would come to be known as “Juneau’s side” and later,”Juneautown”.

Byron Kilbourn was born in Connecticut, the son of a Colonel in the War of 1812 and later member of Congress from the state of Ohio.  Kilbourn left the family home in Ohio and traveled to Green Bay where he worked as a government surveyor.

By the 1830’s, Solomon Juneau knew that times were changing. As his fur trade diminished, Juneau turned to real estate. By the time Byron Kilbourn showed up on the other side with his surveying instruments, Juneau’s settlement was a small but thriving town.

Like Juneau, Kilbourne saw the commercial potential of the area.  This spot on the Milwaukee River could be a port city he thought, serving Lake Michigan and beyond, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The land Kilbourn staked out on the west side belonged at that time, to the Potawatomi.  There followed accusations of sleazy deals and fudged land surveys.  Kilbourn soon emerged from land court with title to the area, around the time that politician and trader George H Walker settled his own parcel to the south at what would be known as, Walker’s Point.

Kilbourn’s side of the river became “Kilbourntown” and grew as quickly as Juneautown on the opposite side. 

Competition developed and deepened between the two sides as Kilbourn and his supporters did everything they could to isolate Juneautown.  You can see the animosity to this day in the way the street grids on opposite sides, fail to meet.

In 1840, the Wisconsin territorial legislature directed that a drawbridge be built across the Milwaukee river. 

That first bridge was built across Chestnut street now Juneau, with Solomon Juneau’s support. Kilbourn and his people built their own bridge, across the Menominee.

By 1845, there were five. That May, a schooner damaged the Spring Street bridge in Kilbourn’s west ward. West warders were furious and blamed Juneau for the damage. Kilbourn supporters retaliated, dropping the west end of the Chestnut Street bridge into the river.  East warders loaded a cannon with clock weights and aimed it at Kilbourn’s home but held off on learning the man had just lost a daughter.

Bridges favored by both sides were destroyed. Those caught on the “wrong” side were chased down and beaten. By June, bridge work was being done under armed guard.

The skirmishes lasted, for weeks. No one was killed during the Milwaukee bridge War of 1845 though combatants on both sides, were injured. In the end even the hotheads had to admit it.  The only path forward lay in unification.   Juneautown and Kilbourntown joined with Walker’s Point to the south, the three towns unifying to form the city of Milwaukee Wisconsin on January 31, 1846.  

Juneau was elected the city’s first mayor.

Solomon Juneau later founded the Milwaukee Sentinel, today the oldest continuously operating business in Wisconsin.  Six Menominee chiefs served as pallbearers at his funeral, in 1855.

Byron Kilbourne went on to found Kilbourn City in 1857, now known, as Wisconsin Dells. Allegations of sleaze seemed to follow him, wherever he went.  Kilbourne went on to serve as president of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad from 1849-’52 until the railroad’s board of directors fired him for mismanagement and fraud.

The railroad he chartered in 1852 to compete with his former employer was ruined following a scandal alleging the use of railroad bonds to bribe state officials.  He fled to Florida to relieve his “arthritis” and passed away in Jacksonville, in 1870.

For 128 years, Milwaukee historic preservation types labored to reunite the city’s three founders in Wisconsin soil.  Historic Milwaukee, Inc. returned Kilbourne’s remains to Wisconsin in 1998 where he rejoined the city’s co-founders, in the Forest Home Cemetery.

Happy birthday, Milwaukee.