March 2, 1942  The Great Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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German soldier demonstrates trolley system used to transport soil for dispersal

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

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

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German crawls out of tunnel entrance, following discovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Trivial Matter
Rumors that Stalag Luft III’s American POWs were to be moved to another compound sped up work on Tom, raising German suspicions and leading to the tunnel’s discovery in September 1943. The tunnel was blown up using dynamite, causing a nearby guard tower to sink into the hole. The discovery was bad news for the Kriegies, but no end of amusement from watching how much work went into rebuilding that tower.
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March 20 1870 The Lion of Africa

The Lion of Africa, the German officer and conquering hero of WW1, who once told the upstart Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by 1914.

general-paul-von-lettow-vorbeckAt the outset of the “Great War”, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

Stationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the famous Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerrilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

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To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with combat-related injuries.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

Askari-on-MarchAt one point in the battle for Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true.  This guy held his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.

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Lettow-Vorbeck surrendering his forces to the British at Abercorn, as drawn by an African artist. H/T Wikipedia

Returning home after the war, Vorbeck was greeted as a conquering hero.  Of all German commanders in World War One, “der Löwe von Afrika” (the Lion of Africa) alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k yourself.” Describing the interview afterward, Lettow’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.

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Following such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His two sons killed in service to the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

letvorIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

 

massaquoiA Trivial Matter
Following years of colonial, military and diplomatic interaction, romantic relationships between Germans and Africans, were inevitable. Though rare as hen’s teeth, Adolf Hitler’s Reich included the children of such relationships. One such was Hans J. Massaquoi, a self-described “kinky-haired, brown-skinned, eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blonde and blue-eyed kids filled with patriotism”. Though prohibited from joining by racial “purity” laws, the eight-year-old Hans was entirely caught up in the excitement of the Hitler Youth.
Mr. Massaquoi tells his unusual and fascinating story in Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.

March 19, 1227 The Catapocalypse

The effect of the papal Bull, was as a commandment.  “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live”.

In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, whose fleas would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others. High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.

In some cases, bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood system as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran as high as 98%-100%.

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H/T Historythings.com

Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas which came with them.

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

This was the experience of individual sufferers.  So, what allowed the pandemic to spread with such rapidity?

The story begins one-hundred years earlier.  On this day in 1227, eighty-year-old Cardinal Ugolino di Conti was elected Supreme Pontiff, taking the name Pope Gregory IX.  Gregory’s papal ordination came at a time of spreading heresy, the earliest reverberations of what came to be known some three hundred years late, as the Protestant Reformation.

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Pope Gregory IX, H/T Historythings.com

The Waldenses, founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo, claimed that individuals could commune with directly with God. Other sects such as the Cathars followed similar beliefs. Such heresies challenged the authority of the One True Church, and could not be left unchecked.

Today, Gregory is best remembered for his organization of Canon law, the formalization of practices later forming the basis of the medieval inquisition. At the time, a more immediate problem was the rise of what were seen as satanic cults.

The German priest and nobleman Conrad of Marburg was an early leader in the persecution of heretics, claiming to have rooted out a number of Luciferian cults around the cities of Mainz and Hildesheim. The first Bull of the new papacy, the Vox in Rama, beseeched the bishops to come to Conrad’s aid, and went on to describe in some detail, the depraved rituals of such cults.

The devil at the center of it all was a shadowy figure, half man and half cat.

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A witch and her cat. Weird Tales, Vol 36. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

From the mists of antiquity, the cat was worshiped as some kind of deity. The Vox reshaped the European view to where cats were now seen, as agents of hell.  The French theologian Alain de Lille piled on, falsely claiming the Cathar sect took its name from the animal and not the real source, the Greek katharoi or ‘pious ones’.

The effect was as a commandment.  “Thou shalt not suffer a cat, to live“.

The orgy of cruelty which followed, makes for some tough reading.  Cats were hurled from high cathedrals and set on fire, ritually tortured or summarily stomped or clubbed, to death.

In Denmark, the festival of Fastelavn held at the start of Lent, held that Spring would not come until evil, was banished from the land. Black cats were ritually beaten to death, to purge evil spirits. Cat killing became a folk practice all over Europe. During the festival of cats or Kattenstoet held in the Belgian city of Ypres, the custom was to hurl cats from the belfry of local churches, before setting them on fire. The hideous practice carried on until 1817 with live cats and continues to this day, only now, they’re stuffed.

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So it is that nature’s most efficient hunter of rodents was all but exterminated from the land, paving the way for the rat-borne apocalypse, to come.

One-third of the world’s population died in the rat-borne plague of 1347-’52.  It’s as if  over two billion were to sicken and die, today.

Feature image, top of page:  Hat tip historythings.com

 

A Trivial Matter
The term ‘Black Death’ was not adopted until some time later. For years, the plague was known as “the Pestilence” or simply “the Great Mortality”.

March 18, 1837 Big Steve

The Presidential election of 1884 was as close as any in history and Republicans made hay with the Halpin scandal.  “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa”?

Born this day in 1837, Stephen G. “Big Steve” Cleveland was 33 the day he left his practice of law to become Sheriff of Erie County, in western New York.

As Sheriff, Cleveland was responsible for carrying out the sentence of death, either with his own hands, or by that of a deputy. For this, the hangman was paid a fee of ten dollars.

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Stephen G. Cleveland in an undated photograph

Sheriff Cleveland took care of this job himself, personally releasing the trap door on September 6, 1872 and hanging one Patrick Morrissey, who’d been convicted of stabbing his mother to death in a drunken rage. He executed another convicted murderer six months later, hanging John Gaffeny on February 14, 1873.

The fees for these and other services were surprisingly lucrative, amounting to $40,000 over a two year term, equivalent to $836,556, today.

A lifelong Democrat, Cleveland had a reputation for ‘shooting straight” at a time of rampant political corruption, by both parties.

Elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1871, Cleveland was called upon to approve a street cleaning contract awarded to the highest bidder. The difference between high and low bids came to the considerable sum of $100,000, a pot of money which could be expected to find its way back to the politicians who’d approved it.

This sort of graft had long been a feature of political life in New York, but not now. Mayor Cleveland vetoed the measure, describing the scheme “as the culmination of a most bare-faced, impudent, and shameless scheme to betray the interests of the people, and to worse than squander the public money“.

This reputation for honesty propelled Big Steve’s political career from the Mayoralty of Buffalo to the Governor’s mansion, in New York.

Maria Halpin
Maria Halpin

Talk about corruption. Five years earlier, one New York city alderman’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall machine fleeced New York taxpayers to the tune of $25 to $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as an astonishing $200 million, equivalent to a jaw-dropping $2.8 Billion, today. As Governor, Cleveland earned the ire of the city’s Tammany Hall machine, with eight vetoes in his first two months in office.

In 1884, the “Buffalo Hangman” found himself Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Boston Globe columnist and political commentator Jeff Jacoby notes that “Not since George Washington had a candidate for President been so renowned for his rectitude.”

Despite all that rectitude, the candidate was not without skeletons in his closet. One was a relationship with one Maria Crofts Halpin which produced a son, named Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

Halpin insisted to the end of her days, that she’d been raped. Big Steve claimed she was crazy and overly generous with her affections, accepting paternity only as a way of doing right by an old girlfriend. Cleveland did manage to get the woman involuntarily committed, for a time, and the boy taken away to be raised in anonymity, by his adoptive family.

Ma, Ma, Where's my Pa
1884 political cartoon asks “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa”

The Presidential election of 1884 was as close as any in history and Republicans made hay with the Halpin scandal.  “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa“?

Despite all of it, Stephen Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by one quarter of one per cent, and an electoral college victory of 219-192, leading to the rejoinder “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Gone to the White House, ha ha ha“.

Fun fact:  The only former executioner ever elected President of the United States, Grover Cleveland is best remembered for being the only President to ever serve two non-consecutive terms.  The 22nd and 24th President of the United States was also, something of a medical miracle.

President Grover Cleveland was inaugurated for the second time in the midst of a disastrous recession known as the Panic of 1893.  The nation suffered vast unemployment, with hundreds of businesses closing down.  The railroad industry was devastated.  With Americans struggling everywhere, many looked to the new President to provide hope and a new direction.

Early in his second term, the President noticed a bumpy and rapidly growing patch, on the roof of his mouth.   White House physician Dr. Robert Maitland O’Reilly took one look and pronounced:  “It’s a bad looking tenant, and I would have it evicted immediately”.

The health of the famously rotund, cigar chomping President was already a matter of public concern. Cleveland feared a cancer diagnosis would set off a panic.  The tumor would have to be removed and the whole procedure, kept secret.

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The only answer to the prying eyes of the press was to do it on the move, and there could be no scar.  President Cleveland  announced a four-day vacation aboard a friend’s yacht, a cruise through Long Island Sound to Buzzard’s Bay and on to the President’s summer home, on Cape Cod.

A surgical team of six boarded the yacht in disguise.  On July 1, 1893, the President was strapped into a chair and anesthetized, with ether.  The tumor was removed in a ninety minute procedure, along with the entire left side of the upper jaw, and five teeth.  For all that, there was no external incision.  The President’s life was saved, the trademark mustache undisturbed.

The operation remained secret until 1917, nine years after the death of the former President.  A medical miracle for the time, the President’s surgery is studied, to this day.

 

A Trivial Matter
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to call the official residence, the “White House.” Prior to that, the building was called the Executive Mansion or the President’s House.

March 17, 1968 Skull Valley Sheep Kill

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”. – GAO report, 1994

The father-daughter pair had just finished a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. The two took ill two hours before sunset.  A passing doctor and nurse found the couple on a park bench.

Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white.  Sergei and Yulia Skripal were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”

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Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Though Vladimir Putin’s Russia vehemently denies the charge, the incident has been classified as an attempted assassination carried out against the former spy and his daughter, using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

The terrifying history of “Nerve “Agents” began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides.  Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms, the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed, days later.

Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.

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Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un. in 2017.

Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death by asphyxiation or cardiac arrest follows within minutes.

British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate compounds in the 1950s, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon taken off the market, as it was too dangerous for safe use. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States  in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.

The American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war in 1961. The Russian military developed an analog of VX called VR in 1963, later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.

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Dugway Proving Ground

The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical compounds.

A 1994 GAO (US General Accounting Office) reports:

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.

On this day in 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.  The animals had been grazing in the Skull Valley area, some 27 miles from the proving ground.

The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”

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View of two farmers checking the corpses of dead sheep on a farm ranch near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. (Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) H/T Smithsonian.com

Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident.  Total sheep deaths were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized.  With even the suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatever, either for their meat, or for wool.

Military Accidentally Ships Anthrax To Labs In Nine StatesA report which remained classified for thirty years, blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.

Today, few nations possess stockpiles of  nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it.  The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation, should any nation so attacked, posses the capability.  So it is the nations of the world hold the proverbial wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on, and unable to let go.

March 6, 2006 There’s an RPG in Me

Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown.  Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station.  Three surgical staff.  All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.

Paktika Province is a wild and lawless region in the east of Afghanistan, a border crossroads with the west of Pakistan and home to a number of Taliban and Al Qaeda units. An article from Time magazine describes the U.S. base:

“The U.S. firebase looks like a Wild West cavalry fort, ringed with coils of razor wire. A U.S. flag ripples above the 3-ft.-thick mud walls, and in the watchtower a guard scans the expanse of forested ridges, rising to 9,000 ft., that mark the border. When there’s trouble, it usually comes from that direction.”

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Channing Moss, second from right

The morning of Thursday, March 16, 2006 dawned bright and clear, as a force rode out from the 10th Mountain Division.  Their mission was to seek out a remote mountain village, and meet with village elders. They were twenty-four American soldiers in five Humvees and a handful of Afghan National troops, riding a pickup truck.

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Paktika is a trackless wilderness of ragged hillsides and wadis, seasonal riverbeds flowing southwest from the mountains of Sar Hawza, to the north.  The land appears custom made for an ambush, with dangerous high spots in nearly every direction.

Gunfire broke out from above, some four hours into the mission.  First small arms, then came the rocket-propelled grenades.  One gunner, twenty-three-year-old Private Channing Moss, remembered it sounded like rattling spoons.

RPGs were soon raining down.  The pickup exploded, killing two Afghan soldiers.  The rest scrambled to get out of the “kill zone”, as three rocket propelled grenades struck Private Moss’ Humvee.  Staff Sergeant Eric Wynn, 33, felt one slice through his face.  Channing Moss, standing with his upper body out of the Humvee, felt something and smelled smoke.  He looked down to see it was himself.  He was smoking.

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RPG ammunition, found on the outskirts of Basra

A rocket propelled grenade is exactly what it sounds like, a weapon roughly the size of a baseball bat, propelled at the speed of a bullet.  Standing as he was, Channing Moss had taken one of these things in the hip, leaving nothing but the fins, sticking out of his body.  The weapon inside of him was capable of turning everyone in the vehicle into a “pink mist”.

What happened next, is beyond belief. When every human instinct says “get the hell away from that thing”, Moss had a whole team by his side, throughout the ordeal. Company medic Spc. Jared Angell, 23, working to stabilize that thing for transportation. Lieutenant Billy Mariani came over once the fighting had died down: “I grabbed his hand and I just said, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re gonna get you out of here.'” Badly wounded himself, Wynn held his own face together while reporting casualties over the radio, and holding Moss’ hand.

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Private Channing Moss

The MEDEVAC crew arrived escorted by an Apache attack helicopter, they knew what they were dealing with. Army regulations say it’s too dangerous to carry such a human bomb. It could take out every man on the chopper and blow the bird out of the sky: four MEDEVAC crew members, and three wounded soldiers.

Pilot CW2 Jorge Correa spoke with his team: “I asked my crew, you know, ‘Are you guys comfortable with this?  Because I wasn’t gonna put my crew in jeopardy if they weren’t comfortable with it.”  Co-pilot Jeremy Smith recalled the moment:  “We all said, ‘Yeah, let’s get him on board and let’s get outta here.'”

It was the same thing, back at the aid station.  Explosives expert Staff Sgt. Dan Brown.  Two surgeons, Major John Oh and Major Kevin Kirk and the whole team at the aid station.  Three surgical staff.  All did their jobs knowing that, at any instant, the whole team could be vaporized.

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Channing Moss was well beyond the “golden hour” with expectations of survival, growing dim.  The man’s heart actually stopped and the surgeons administered epinephrine, knowing that physical heart massage could detonate the ordnance still inside the man’s body.

Private Moss survived, despite massive injury to his body.  There were four more surgeries back at Walter Reed and an endless hell of physical therapy as the man progressed from bed to wheel chair to crutches, to a cane.  Moss had a Purple Heart coming and then some and refused to receive it, until he could stand on his own two legs and walk to receive his medal, himself.

Explosives expert Dan Brown spoke for the whole team, I think, in explaining what they had done:  “He was American, he was a solider, he was a brother and he was one of us. And there was nothing gonna stop us from doing what we knew what we had to do … We knew we did right. In that screwed up world we did something right.

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Channing Moss and his wife Lorena, reunited with Majors Oh and Kirk

A Trivial Matter

While rare, unexploded ordnance has been lodged inside living human bodies on no fewer than thirty six occasions between WW2 and the modern era, requiring surgical removal.  All but four, survived.

March 15, 1783 A Pair of Spectacles

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.

The great rebellion effectively came to an end in October 1781 with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though no one knew it at that time.  Eight years after the “shot heard round the world“, the American Revolution had slowed to a standoff.

King George III remained personally in favor of prosecuting the war even after the Patriot victory at Yorktown, while opinion in Parliament, was split.  Across the water, some 26,000 British troops remained in occupation in Charleston, Savannah and New York, backed up be a mighty fleet.

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The Americans’ greatest ally departed in 1782, never to return.  With state finances already prostrate with debt, l’Ancien régime (French: “the old order”) would be overthrown by its own revolution inside the next ten years, the French King Louis XVI and Queen Consort Marie Antoinette executed, by guillotine.

Negotiations carried on for nearly three years in Paris while, an hour’s drive north by modern highway from the British occupation of New York, the Continental Army waited at Newburgh.

France wasn’t the only one, ruined by this war.  The American Revolution debilitated the finances of all three principle belligerents, none more so than the new-born American Republic, itself.  In fact, the fledgling United States nearly died on this day in 1783, by the very hands which had given them birth.

The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in March 1781, provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. In theory, Congress possessed the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency.  In practice, these powers were limited to a national body with no authority to enforce its will on the states.

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In 1780, Congress promised Continental officers a lifetime pension, equal to half-pay upon discharge.  The government in Philadelphia attempted to amend the Articles, to allow a new import duty or “impost”.  States were divided against the measure.  Two years later, the cupboard was bare.  Continental soldiers weren’t being paid at all.   

It wasn’t even possible to borrow.  That required evidence, of an income stream.

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.  At the outset of war, these guys left homes and fields and families, to risk their lives on behalf of the dream of Liberty.  Many among their number, had given all in service to that dream.

There was little to do during those long winter months of 1782-’83, but wait.  Each with his own financial hardship waiting at home, every man worried that his promised compensation, would not come.  The rumor mill worked overtime:  The Army would be disbanded.  The promised pensions would remain, unfunded.

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The vague unease of rumor turned to a fury of near certainty through the late winter months, as one overture after another met with defeat, in Congress.  On March 10, an unsigned letter believed to have been written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, urged unspecified action against the Continental Congress.  Another called for a meeting on the morning of March 11.  Events were building toward armed insurrection.  A coup d’état.

General George Washington reacted quickly, objecting in his General Orders of March 11 to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of such a meeting.  Washington specified the morning of March 15 for an officer’s meeting and requested a report, implying that he himself, would not be present.

The mood was one of surprise and anger when the Commander-in-Chief himself walked into the room, hard men pushed past the point of patience, and now determined to take action.  The General urged patience in a brief and impassioned speech remembered as the Newburgh address.

Washington’s words may as well have fallen on deaf ears.  There was little of the usual deference, in this room.

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Reconstructed Temple at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, where the critical meeting took place on March 15, 1783

The future President of the United States then produced a letter from a member of Congress, to read to his officers. The content is unimportant. George Washington gazed on the letter in his hands without speaking and, fumbling in his pocket, came up with a pair of reading glasses. These were new.  Few men in the room even knew the man required glasses.

Washington spoke:

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.

The words were as a physical blow, on the men assembled in that room.  Obstinate and unheeding mere moments before, the realization dawned on all at once.  This man had been at their head and by their sides.  Washington had personally endured every bit of the hardship, as these men bent on mutiny.

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There was hardly a dry eye in the place.  The moment was broken for all time.  Bent on mutiny a mere moment before, the cream of the continental army now determined, to wait.  This Republic to which we owe so much may have died before it was born, two hundred thirty-six years ago on this day.  All but for one magnificent man with an actor’s sense of timing.  And a new pair of spectacles.

 

A Trivial Matter
At age twenty-six, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children: Jacky and Patsy. The Father of the Nation never had any children of his own. At 6 feet, 3½ inches and 200-pounds, George Washington towered above his fellow Continental soldier, with an average height of 5-feet, 8-inches in height.