October 21, 1921 The Unknown Soldier

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me”.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked, “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans“.

The Chancellor got his damn fool thing on a side street in Sarajevo, when a tubercular 19-year old leveled his revolver and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife on June 28, 1914.

In another time and place, such an event may have led to limited conflict. A policing action, in the Balkans.  Instead, mutually entangling alliances brought mobilization timetables into effect, dictating the movement of men and equipment according to precise and predetermined schedules.

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German troops, leaving for the front

The hippie subculture of the 1960s produced an antiwar slogan based on the title of a McCall’s Magazine article by Charlotte E. Keyes. “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came.”  In 1914, the coming war Had to happen.  If only because everyone was there.

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The cataclysm could have been averted, as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had brought events past the point of no return. By the time it was over a generation was shattered, a continent destroyed and a new century, set on a difficult and dangerous course. Some 40 million were killed in the Great War, either that or maimed or simply,…vanished. 

It was a mind bending number, equivalent to the entire population in 1900 of either France, or the United Kingdom. Equal to the combined populations of the bottom two-thirds of every nation on the planet.  Every woman, man, puppy, boy and girl.

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The United States entered the conflict in 1917, suffering casualties of 320,518 in only a few short months.

The idea of honoring the unknown dead from the “War to end all Wars” originated in Europe. Reverend David Railton remembered a rough cross from somewhere on the western front, with the words written in pencil:  “An Unknown British Soldier”.

In November 1916, an officer of the French war memorial association Le Souvenir Français proposed a national-level recognition for the unknown dead of the Great War.  Across the English Channel, Reverend Railton proposed the same.

The two nations performed ceremonies on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920. 

La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was simultaneously consecrated under the Arc de Triomphe with the actual burial taking place, the following January.

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Left to Right:  Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu. lArc de Triomphe, Paris.

That was the year, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring her own, unknown dead.

Four unidentified bodies were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries and carefully examined, lest there be any clues to identity. The four were then transported to the Hôtel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne, and placed in a makeshift chapel.

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Six soldiers were invited to act as pallbearers, each man a highly decorated and respected member of his own unit. 

Outside the chapel, Major Harbold of the Graves Registration Office handed a large spray of pink and white roses to twice-wounded Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  It was he who would perform the final selection.

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me“.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

The body was transferred to a black casket bearing the inscription:  “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War”.

The casket passed from French soil on October 25, 1921. Up the gangplank to the the protected cruiser USS Olympia, even as the band segueued from La Marseilles, to the Star Spangled Banner.

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Flags at half-mast with stern bedecked with flowers, Commodore George Dewey’s former flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9, 1921.

There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.

On November 11, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed upon this unknown soldier of the Great War, the nation’s highest military decorations.  The Medal of Honor.  The Distinguished Service Cross.

Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed each in turn, his nation’s highest military decoration.  The Croix de Guerre of Belgium.  The English Victoria Cross. Le Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre of France.  The Italian Gold Medal for Bravery. The Romanian Virtutes Militara.  The Czechoslavak War Cross.  The Polish Virtuti Militari.

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With three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the ceremony was brought to a close and the 12-ton marble cap placed over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The west facing side bears this inscription:

“Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God”

Two years later, a civilian guard was placed at the tomb of the unknown.  A permanent Military guard took its place in 1926 and there remains, to this day.

In 1956, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown dead of WW2 and the American war in Korea. Selection and interment of these Unknowns took place in 1958.

The Unknown from the American war in Vietnam was selected on May 17, 1984, but wouldn’t remain unknown, for long.

Advances in mitochondrial DNA led to the exhumation and identification of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri, shot down near An Lộc, in 1972.

The Tomb of the Unknown from the Vietnam conflict remains empty.  It is unlikely any future war is capable of producing a truly “Unknown”.

Sharing Today in History:

So it is through bitter cold and scorching heat, through hurricanes and blizzards and irrespective of day or night or whether Arlington is open or closed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands under guard.

This Guard of Honor is performed by a carefully selected elite body of the 3rd Infantry Division.  The “Old Guard”.  In service since 1784, the Tomb Guard is part of the longest-serving active infantry unit in the United States military.

Since the 14th-century, the cannon salute signified the recognition of a sovereign state and a peaceful intent, among nations.  The 21-gun salute is the highest military honor, a nation can bestow.   The Tomb Sentinel who “walks the mat” walks precisely 21 steps down the 63-foot black mat laid across the Tomb of the Unknown, signifying that 21-gun salute.   The Guard then turns east to face the Tomb, pauses another 21-seconds, before beginning the return walk of 21-steps.

The Tomb Sentinel will continue in this manner for a half-hour, one hour or two depending on the time of day, and the season of the year.  If you have witnessed the Changing of the Guard, you are not likely to forget it.  My brother and I were once privileged to experience the moment, in the company of an Honor Flight of World War 2 veterans. If you’ve never seen the ceremony, I recommend the experience.

Back in 1919, AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France were adamantly opposed to the treaty, at Versailles. Germany had been defeated they argued, but not Beaten. Without destroying the German war machine on its own soil, Pershing believed the two nations would once again find themselves at war. Marshall Foch agreed, reading the treaty with the remark: “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!

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He got that wrong.  By 36 days.

October 23, 1983 Honor and Remembrance

“Let Peace Take Root”
The Cedar of Lebanon tree grows in living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attack and all victims of terrorism throughout the world.
Dedicated during the first memorial ceremony for these victims.

Given by: No Greater Love
October 23, 1984
A time of remembrance


The Oxford English Dictionary defines Monument as “A statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event”.

Our nation’s most hallowed ground is itself, such a monument; Memorial Avenue extending across the Potomac connecting Arlington House, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with the Lincoln Memorial at the opposite end symbolizing the immutable bond, between North and South.

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Approach Arlington at night and the eternal flame marking the grave of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy may be seen on the hillside, as if some faraway beacon of light.

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A list of memorials at Arlington National Cemetery reads like a history of the nation itself.

The Argonne Cross commemorates the honored dead of the “War to end all Wars” in 1917-1918, some 2,100 of whom were re-interred in Section 18, following the war.

The Battle of the Bulge memorial reads, “To World War II American Soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge- The greatest Land Battle in the history of the United States Army”.

The Beirut Memorial honors 241 American service members killed in the October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, twenty-one of whom went to their final rest, at Arlington National Cemetery.  The inscription reads:

“Let Peace Take Root”

This Cedar of Lebanon tree grows in living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attack and all victims of terrorism throughout the world.
Dedicated during the first memorial ceremony for these victims.

Given by: No Greater Love
October 23, 1984
A time of remembrance

Beirut memorial
“This Cedar of Lebanon tree grows in living memory of the Americans killed in the Beirut terrorist attack and all victims of terrorism throughout the world. Dedicated during the first memorial ceremony for these victims”.

On Chaplain Hill stands four memorials bearing the name of of a military Chaplain, who laid down his lives in each of wars. The Cenotaph, (an empty tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person or group whose remains lie elsewhere) bears this inscription: “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends.

Written there are the names of the only two chaplains to be awarded the Medal of Honor: Major Charles Joseph Watters, killed in Vietnam while rendering aid to fallen comrades, and Captain Emil Joseph Kapaun, the “Shepherd in Combat Boots” who remains to this day, in some unmarked North Korean grave.

Emil Kapaun

I have barely scratched the surface of the Cs. Altogether there are 28 major and 142 minor memorials and monuments at Arlington, to say nothing of 400,000+ military grave sites, stretching across the landscape. Each of them across the 624 acres of Arlington, equivalent to 472 football fields, is dedicated to a person, place or event which has earned the right to be remembered.

It has long seemed to this writer that, irrespective of political persuasion, a free citizen of a Constitutional Republic cannot cast an informed ballot, cannot know where he wants his country to go, without an understanding of where it’s been. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit Arlington National Cemetery recently, I highly recommend the trip. Leave yourself plenty of time to take it all in. It would be hard to find more heritage, tradition and history, in any other single place.

October 19, 1864 When the Civil War came to Vermont

The St. Albans raid of October 19 1864 formed the northernmost land action of a Confederate force, as well as a final impetus toward the uniting of our northern neighbor.

The name of Vermont conjures many things, the forested landscapes, ski slopes, maple syrup and mountain trout brooks. The first state to be admitted into the union formed by the 13 former colonies, the 14th state existed for as many years as an independent Republic, a distinction shared with only three other states: Texas, Hawaii and California.

Fun Fact: For a time, western districts of Florida also formed their own sovereign state: the Republic of West Florida. If you ever want to get a Texan going, ask them about the Original Lone Star Republic“.

In the late 18th century, lands granted by the governor of New Hampshire led the colony into conflict with the neighboring province of New York.  Conflict escalated over jurisdiction and appeals were made to the King, as the New York Supreme Court invalidated the “New Hampshire grants”. 

Infuriated residents of the future Vermont Republic including Ethan Allen and his “Green Mountain Boys”, rose up in anger.  On March 13, 1775, two Westminster Vermont natives were killed by British Colonial officials.  Today we remember the event as the “Westminster Massacre”.

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The New Hampshire Grants region petitioned Congress for entry into the American union as a state independent of New York in 1776″ – H/T, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Hampshire_Grants

The battles at Lexington and Concord broke out a month later, ushering in a Revolution and eclipsing events to the north.  New York consented to admitting the “Republic of Vermont” into the union in 1790, ceding all claims on the New Hampshire land grants in exchange for a payment of $30,000.  Vermont was admitted as the 14th state on March 4, 1791, the first state so admitted following adoption of the federal Constitution.

Organized in 1785, the city of St. Albans forms the county seat of Franklin County, Vermont.  15 miles from the northern border and located on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect for a Civil War story.

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St. Albans Vermont, 1864

The Confederate States of America maintained government operations north of the border, from the earliest days of the Civil War.  Toronto was a logical relay point for communications with Great Britain, from which the Confederate government unsuccessfully sought to gain support.

Secondly, the future Canadian nation provided a safe haven for prisoners of war, escaped from Union camps.

Former member of Congress and prominent Ohio “Peace Democrat” Clement Vallandigham fled the United States to Canada in 1863, proposing to detach the states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio from the Union in exchange for sufficient numbers of Confederate troops, to enforce the separation.  Vallandigham’s five-state “Northwestern Confederacy” would include Kentucky and Missouri, breaking the Union into three pieces.  Surely that would compel Washington to sue for peace.

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In April 1864, President Jefferson Davis dispatched former Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson, ex-Alabama Senator Clement Clay, and veteran Confederate spy Captain Thomas Henry Hines to Toronto, with the mission of raising hell in the North.

This was no small undertaking. A sizeable minority of Peace Democrats calling themselves “Copperheads” were already in vehement opposition to the war.  So much so that General Ambrose Burnside declared in his General Order No. 38, that “The habit of declaring sympathy for the enemy will not be allowed in this” (Ohio) “department. Persons committing such offenses will be at once arrested with a view of being tried. . .or sent beyond our lines into the lines of their friends. It must be understood that treason, expressed or implied, will not be tolerated in this department“.

Hines and fellow Confederates worked closely with Copperhead organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of the American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, to foment uprisings in the upper Midwest.

In the late Spring and early Summer of 1864, residents of Maine may have noted an influx of “artists”, sketching the coastline.  No fewer than fifty in number, these nature lovers were in fact Confederate topographers, sent to map the Maine coastline.

Rebels on the great Lakes

The Confederate invasion of Maine never materialized, thanks in large measure to counter-espionage efforts by Union agents.

J.Q. Howard, the U.S. Consul in St. John, New Brunswick, informed Governor Samuel Cony in July, of a Confederate party preparing to land on the Maine coast.

The invasion failed to materialize, but three men declaring themselves to be Confederates were captured on Main Street in Calais, preparing to rob a bank.

Disenchanted Rebel Francis Jones confessed to taking part in the Maine plot, revealing information leading to the capture of several Confederate weapons caches in the North, along with operatives in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.

Captain Hines planned an early June uprising in the Northwest, timed to coincide with a raid planned by General John Hunt Morgan.  Another uprising was planned for August 29, timed with the 1864 Democratic Convention in Chicago.   The conspirators’ actions never lived up to the heat of their rhetoric, and both operations fizzled.   A lot of these guys were more talk than action, yet Captain Hines continued to send enthusiastic predictions of success, back to his handlers in Richmond.

“Canada” itself was a loose confederation of independent provinces in 1864. At the September 1, Charlottetown Conference, politicians from the United Province of Canada and Britain’s Maritime colonies discussed a possible union.

The Toronto operation tried political methods as well, supporting Democrat James Robinson’s campaign for governor of Illinois.  If elected they believed, Robinson would turn over the state’s militia and arsenal to the Sons of Liberty.  They would never know.  Robinson lost the election.

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Bennett Henderson Young

All this fomenting cost money, and lots of it.  In October 1864, the Toronto operation came south to St. Albans, to make a withdrawal.

Today, St. Albans is a quiet town of 6,869.  In 1864 the town was quite wealthy, home to manufacturing and repair facilities for railroad locomotives.  Located on a busy rail line, St. Albans was also home to four banks.

Nicholasville, Kentucky native Bennett Henderson Young was a member of the Confederate 8th Kentucky Cavalry, captured during Morgan’s 1863 raid into Ohio.  By January, Young escaped captivity and fled to Canada. On October 10, Bennett crossed the Canadian border with two others, taking a room at the Tremont House, in St. Albans.  The trio claimed they had come for a “sporting vacation”.

Small groups filtered into St. Albans in the following days, quietly taking rooms across the town.  There were 21 altogether, former POWs and cavalrymen, hand selected by Young for their daring and resourcefulness.

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On October 19, 1864, the group sprang into action.  Splitting into four groups and declaring themselves Confederate soldiers, the groups simultaneously robbed three of St. Albans’ four banks while eight or nine held the townspeople at gunpoint, on the village green.  One resident was killed before it was over and another wounded. Young ordered his troops to burn the town, but bottles of “Greek Fire” carried for the purpose, failed to ignite.  Only one barn was burned down and the group got away with a total of $208,000, and all the horses they could muster. It was the northernmost Confederate action by land, of the Civil War.

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The group was arrested on crossing the border and held in Montreal.  The Lincoln administration sought extradition but Canadian courts decided otherwise, ruling that the raiders were under military orders at the time and neutral Canada could not extradite them to America.  The $88,000 found with the raiders, was returned.

American sensibilities were outraged. At least, those in the north. The Chicago Tribune urged the Northern states to invade, to “…take Canada by the throat and throttle her as a St. Bernard would a poodle pup.” President Abraham Lincoln announced that our neighbors to the north would now be required to produce passports, to travel south. The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 abolishing duties on cross-border imports, was abolished.

StAlbansRaid, memoriaized

33 delegates were in Quebec City at this time, deadlocked over the Maritime Provinces’ objections to the proceedings.

Upper Canadian politician John A Macdonald declared, “For the sake of securing peace to ourselves and our posterity we must make ourselves powerful…The great security for peace is to convince the world of our strength by being united.” MacDonald, the only member of the Quebec Conference with a background in constitutional law drafted 50 of the 72 resolutions, emerging from the meeting.

So it is a Confederate robbery of a Vermont bank provided the final impetus, toward a united Canada. The dominion of Canada was established on July 1, 1867.

The million dollars the Confederate government sank into its Canadian office, probably did more harm than good.  Those resources could have been put to better use, but we have the advantage of hindsight.  Neither Captain Hines nor Jefferson Davis could know how their story would turn out.  In the end, both men fell victim to that greatest of human weaknesses: of believing to be true, that which they wanted to believe.

Hurricane Ian

One day Hurricane Ian will become “history”.  For now, kindly permit me this personal tale.

This was Mom’s place before and after the Long brothers arrived, to rebuild.

The sights would break your heart.  This is a middle income retirement community already victim of a January tornado, now literally torn to bits. Some folks will never be back.  They have nothing to return to.

I have to say though after a week there, a disaster like Hurricae Ian brought out the best in most everyone I met.

FEMA and state agencies, Salvation Army, all did an amazing job but it wasn’t just the large organizations.

Struggling with a 200-pound generator two different guys stopped their trucks, to help me out.  Church and civic groups, even private individuals from the Northeast to Texas came to pitch in. There were squadrons of utility trucks and caravans of semi rigs.  It seemed the cavalry was riding to the rescue.

Everyday Home Depot, Publix and Winn Dixie employees worked brutal hours to bring folks the necessities even though they themselves had messes to deal with, back at home.

After a week in the hurricane zone I could tell you stories, and they all amount to this. There is more that’s right with the world than the Evening News would have you believe.

September 25, 2022 Gold Star Mothers and Families

If you see a Gold Star Banner this weekend or someone wearing a Gold Star Pin, don’t pass by. Say hello. Ask for the name of the daughter or the son who gave their all in the defense of this nation. And then say it. Say their name out loud. For they may be gone but they are never truly dead. Until we have forgotten their names.

Suppose you were to stop 100 randomly selected individuals and ask them:  

Of all the conflicts in American military history, which single battle accounts for the greatest loss of life“.  

I suppose you’d get a few Gettysburgs in there, and maybe an Antietam or two.  The Battle of the Bulge would come up and there’s bound to be a Tarawa or an Iwo Jima.  Maybe a Normandy.  I wonder how many would answer, Meuse-Argonne.

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The United States arrived late to the Great War, entering the conflict in April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson asked permission of the Congress, for a “War to end all wars”.  American troop levels “over there” remained small throughout the rest of 1917, as the formerly neutral nation of  fifty million ramped up to a war footing.

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US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

The trickle turned to a flood in 1918, as French ports were expanded to handle their numbers.  The American Merchant Marine was insufficient to handle the influx and received help from French and British vessels.  By August, every one of what was then forty-eight states had sent armed forces, amounting to nearly 1½ million American troops in France.

After four years of unrelenting war, French and British manpower was staggered, the two economies, nearing collapse.  Imperial Russia DID collapse dissolving into not one but two revolutions, freeing tens of thousands of German troops from the east, to the western front.  The American Expeditionary Force was arriving none too soon.

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“Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions. , 1918”, H/T Wikipedia

Following successful allied offensives at Amiens and Albert, Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to take overall command of an offensive, intended to cut off the German 2nd Army. Some 400,000 troops were moved into the Verdun sector of northeastern France.  It was to be the largest AEF operation of World War I. With a half-hour to go before midnight on September 25, 2,700 guns opened up in a six hour bombardment against German positions in the Argonne Forest, along the Meuse River.

Montfaucon American Monument, World War I, France
Butte de Montfaucon, today

Some 10,000 German troops were killed or incapacitated by mustard and phosgene gas another 30,000 plus, taken prisoner.  The Allied offensive advanced six miles into enemy territory, but bogged down in the wild woodlands and stony mountainsides of the Argonne Forest.

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Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

The Allied drive broke down on German strong points like the hilltop monastery at Montfaucon and others, and fortified positions of the German “defense in depth”.

Pershing called off the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 30, as supplies and reinforcements backed up in what can only be termed the Mother of All Traffic Jams.

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Fighting resumed four days later resulting in some of the most famous episodes of WW1 including the “Lost Battalion” of Major Charles White Whittlesey, and the single-handed capture of 132 prisoners by Corporal (later Sergeant), Alvin York.

The Meuse-Argonne offensive would last forty-seven days, resulting in the death of 26,277 American troops.  More than any other battle in American military history.  Another 95,786 were seriously wounded.

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Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

Grace Darling Siebold was prominent in Republican political circles, a personal friend to the wife of the future president, Calvin Coolidge. Grace’s son George was a 23-year-old realtor when the United States entered the war in April, 1917. Mother and son alike were enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. George enlisted to serve during the first few days.

George Siebold found civilian life, dull. Life in military aviation was anything but. Only the daring flew the rickety, unreliable aircraft of World War 1. It was said you knew the pilots not by the goggles and scarves they wore but rather the slings and the crutches. George got his wish. He would train outside of Toronto to fly for the Royal Flying Corps out of British Canada. He married his sweetheart Kathryn and shipped, out the following day.

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Gold Star Mother’s Monument At The Putnam County (NY) Veteran Memorial Park, photograph by James Connor

George sent frequent letters home to his newlywed wife Kathryn and to his mother, Grace. Grace focused on volunteer efforts visiting the wounded in hospital and helping to found American War Mothers forming a mutual support network and organizing hospital visits. George sailed the North Atlantic in January 1918, writing home how the troop ship in front of his took a torpedo, and sank. Once in France he joined the 148th aero squadron, a unit of American flyers serving under British officers. He wrote letters every week, with tales dogfights, crashed enemy aircraft and even a citation he received from the British government, for distinguished service.

Then in September, the letters stopped. A week went by and then a second, and a third. Grace searched the hospital wards for her son and finally reached out to the War Department. She was told the government didn’t “keep tabs” on those under British command.

There’s a story that Grace Siebold received a box on Christmas eve. The label read “Effects of deceased officer 1st Lieutenant George Vaughn Siebold, attached to the 148th Aero Squadron, British Royal Flying Corps”. The story isn’t entirely true the box arrived in October. Two weeks later, the war was over.

“Grief” she later explained “if self-contained, is self-destructive.” Grace continued to work with wounded veterans and reached out to other mothers of the fallen, providing consolation and the opportunity to take up the cause, just as Grace herself had done.

With two sons “over there” US Army Captain Robert L. Queissner created what is now called the “service flag” depicting a blue star, for every family member in the military during times of hostilities . If that service member was killed the blue star was replaced, with a gold star.

President Woodrow Wilson is believed to have coined the term, “Gold Star Mother”. In May of that year, Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, that such women wear black bands on the left arm bearing a gilt star for every family member who had given his life, on behalf of the nation.

A friend who lost her son Mark in Fallujah, calls it that most exclusive of clubs, no one ever wanted to join.

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Founded by Grace Siebold, American Gold Star Mothers Inc was established in 1929. In 1936, a joint resolution of congress designated the last Sunday in September Gold Star Mothers Day. President Franklin Roosevelt noted that “the American mother is the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.” “We honor ourselves and the mothers of America” he said, “when we revere and give emphasis to the home as the fountainhead of the state.”

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, requesting that the president “issue a proclamation calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings, and the people of the United States to display the flag and hold appropriate meetings at homes, churches, or other suitable places, on Gold Star Mother’s Day as a public expression of the love, sorrow, and reverence of the people for Gold Star Mothers”.

“Gold Star Mothers, who suffered the loss of a son or daughter killed while serving in the military, joined thousands at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a Veterans Day ceremony and the 15th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Nov. 11, 2008. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carde”

April 5 is set aside as Gold Star Spouse’s Day.

Recently, Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joseph Biden have signed such proclamations. President Obama expanded the occasion to Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.

At first a distinction reserved only for those mothers who had lost sons and daughters in WW1, that now includes a long list of conflicts, fought over the last 100 years.  Today there are some 470,000 gold star families in this nation, of some 320 million. They are so few who pick up this heaviest of tabs, on behalf of the rest of us.

So, if you see a Gold Star Banner this weekend or someone wearing a Gold Star Pin, don’t pass by. Say hello. Ask for the name of the daughter or the son who gave their all in the defense of this nation. And then say it. Say their name out loud. For they may be gone but they are never truly dead. Until we forget their names.

September 20, 451 Attila the Hun

“He was a man born into the world to shake the nations, the scourge of all lands, which in some way terrified all mankind by the dreadful rumours noised abroad concerning him.” The Origin and Deeds of the Getae [Goths]

In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west.  That much is well known but the “why”, less so.  What would a people so fearsome as to bring down an empire, have to flee from?

The Roman Empire was split in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments.  Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Empire in 402 and would remain so until the final collapse, in 476.  1,200 miles to the east Constantinople, destined to become modern day Istanbul, ruled the Byzantine Empire.

Attila Bronze

Vast populations moved westward from Germania during the early fifth century, and into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths, and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest:  that would come later.

These tribes were fleeing the Huns:  a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.

Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west, to Turkey and most of Ukraine in the east. The Huns were nomads, mounted warriors whose main weapons were the bow and javelin. Huns frequently acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.

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Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered.  To the Huns this was tribute, tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described the Roman-Hun problem, succinctly:  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

Relations were strained between the two powers in the time of the Hunnic King, Rugila.

Attila

Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople the following year, giving him time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included building the first sea wall, the formidable Theodosian Wall.

The city would be forced to defend this structure a thousand years later in the Islamic conquest of 1453, but that must be a story for another day.

The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.

Bleda died sometime in 445, possibly murdered by his brother, leaving Attila sole King of the Huns.  Relations with the Western Roman Empire were relatively friendly at this time.  That changed in 450 when Emperor Valentinian’s sister Justa Grata Honoria attempted to flee a forced marriage to the former consul, Herculanus.  Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to King Attila, asking the Hunnic king to intervene on her behalf.  She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity.

Attila took the ring to be an offer of marriage.

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Valentinian was furious with his sister.  Only the influence of the siblings’ mother Galla Placidia convinced the emperor to exile his sister rather than have her put to death. Meanwhile, frantic letters were scribbled off and dispatched to King Attila, explaining that it was all just a misunderstanding.

The king of the Huns wasn’t buying it. He sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his.  Attila demanded delivery of his “bride” along with half the empire, as dowry.

In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong, though that number is probably exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army in opposition, while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg. Trier and Metz fell in quick succession, followed by Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.

The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped Attila’s army at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons.   Some sources date the Battle of Chalons to June 20, 451, others, September 20.  Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation.  Sources may be found to support the conclusion that it was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory, as you choose.

Appearing to be a Pyrrhic victory, Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire, in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul but the military capacity of Roman and Visigoth both, was destroyed.

The Hunnic Empire itself was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals at the Battle of Nedau, in 454.

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“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI (en:Project Gutenberg e-text). Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885). img url: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/1/9/5/11951/11951-h/images/135.jpg

Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.

Attila died the following year at a wedding feast celebrating his marriage to the beautiful young Ostrogoth, Ildico.  The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor from a massive nosebleed, or possibly esophageal bleeding. 

The eastern Roman and Greek historian Priscus wrote: “Shortly before he died, he took in marriage a very beautiful girl named Ildico, after countless other wives, as was the custom of his race. He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war. On the following day, when a great part of the morning was spent, the royal attendants suspected some ill and, after a great uproar, broke in the doors. There they found the death of Attila accomplished by an effusion of blood, without any wound, and the girl with downcast face weeping beneath her veil“.

Morte di Attila, a fanciful depiction of the death of Attila by the Hungarian artist, Ferenc Paczka

The Hunnic Empire died along with Attila the Hun as he choked to death, on his own blood.

September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

A child was born on this day in 1906.  He was John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British employees of the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time and returned to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving in Burma with the Manchester Regiment before leaving the military, ten years later.

Churchill worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with an occasional career as male model, and a couple appearances in motion pictures.  From there he may have faded into obscurity (unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation), with the same last name.  Then came World War II, when John Churchill earned the name, “Mad Jack”.

It was around this time that Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era, but Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.  He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, becoming quite good at it.  Good enough to represent his country in the world archery championship in Oslo, in 1939.

Jack-Churchill

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland.  Part of the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out its sergeant with a broadhead arrow.  No one could have been more surprised than that German himself: How the hell did I get an ARROW in my chest?

Such were the dying thoughts of the only combatant in all World War 2 to be felled, by an English longbow.

Jack Churchill (far right) leads a training exercise, sword in hand, from a Eureka boat in Inveraray. H/T warhistoryonline.com

Soon thereafter, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe.  The only way back in was via those same beaches. 

We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault:  invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches.  Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy.  In all that time there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, armed with bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, that Scottish broadsword at his side .

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“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore.  He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Mad Jack could be seen at the Catania (Sicily) and Salerno landings of 1943, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword one time in confused hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order.  Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad.   “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained.  “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…”  It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

He later trudged back to town, to collect his sword.  Encountering a lost American squad Churchill informed the NCO they were headed, toward German lines. The soldier refused to change direction so Churchill took his leave, saying, he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German held, Yugoslavian island of Brac.  He was leading a Commando raid at the time, coordinating with a unit of Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans.  Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622 when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself.  He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, requiring the instant execution of captured commandos. Churchill and his men escaped execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks only to the human decency of one Wehrmacht Captain named Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.”

After the war Churchill paid back Thuener’s act of kindness, keeping him out of the clutches of the merciless Red Army. But I digress.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, and later sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany.  There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped in September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain before walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

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following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Mad Jack was sent off to Burma. He was bitterly disappointed by the swift end of the war in the Pacific, brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he complained, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing.  Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

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Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Mad Jack Churchill remained an eccentric, even in his later years.   He loved sailing radio controlled model warships on the Thames. Little brought him more apparent joy than to horrify fellow train passengers, opening the window and hurling his briefcase into the darkness.

No one ever suspected that he threw it into the garden of his own back yard.  It saved him the trouble of carrying the thing home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard bearing regimental colors, and mailed it to a friend.

On the back o, Mad Jack Churchill had written fifteen words:

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

September 4, 1886 Geronimo

One of eight brothers and sisters, the boy was called by the singularly forgettable name of “Goyahkla” meaning,, “one who yawns”.  Those who faced the man in combat knew him to be anything but, forgettable.

He was born on June 16, 1829 to the Chiricahua Apache, in the Mexican-occupied territory of Bedonkoheland, in modern-day New Mexico. One of eight brothers and sisters, he was called by the singularly forgettable name “Goyahkla”, translating as “one who yawns”.

Geronimo, younger

Much has been written of the conflict between Natives and American settlers, but that story has little to compare with the level of distrust and mutual butchery which took place between Mexico and the Apache.

First contact between the Crown of Castile and the roving bands of Apache they called Querechos, took place in the Texas panhandle, in 1541.

Initial relations were friendly, but 17th century Spanish slave raids were met by Apache attacks on Spanish and Pueblo settlements, in New Mexico

By 1685, several bands of Apache were in open conflict with the polity which, in 1821, would become known as the United States of Mexico.  Attacks and counter attacks were commonplace, as Presidios – Spanish fortresses – dotted the landscape of Sonora, Chihuahua and Fronteras. 5,000 Mexicans died in Apache raids between 1820 and 1835 alone.

Over 100 Mexican settlements were destroyed in that time.  The Mexican government placed a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835, the year that Goyahkla turned 6.

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Goyahkla married Alope of the Nedni-Chiricahua band of Apache when he was 17.  Together they had three children. On March 6, 1858, a company of 400 Mexican soldiers led by Colonel Jose Maria Carrasco attacked the native camp as the men were in town, trading. Goyahkla came back to find his wife, children, and his mother, murdered. 

He swore that he would hate the Mexicans for the rest of his life.

Chief Mangas Coloradas sent him to Cochise’ band to help exact retribution on the Mexicans.  It was here that Goyahkla earned a name that was anything but forgettable.

Ignoring a hail of bullets, he repeatedly attacked the soldiers with a knife, killing so many that they began to call out to Saint Jerome for protection. The Spanish name for the 4th century Saint was often the last word to leave their lips: “Geronimo”.

Geronimo Portrait

In 1873, the Mexican government and the Apache came to peace terms at one point, near Casa Grande. Terms had already been agreed upon when Mexican soldiers plied the Apaches with Mezcal.  Soon, soldiers began murdering intoxicated Indians, killing 20 and capturing many more before the survivors fled into the mountains.

Geronimo would marry eight more times, but most of his life was spent at war with Mexico, and later with the United States. According to National Geographic, he and his band of 16 warriors slaughtered 500 to 600 Mexicans in their last five months alone.

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By the end of his military career, Geronimo was “the worst Indian who ever lived”, according to the white settlers. He and his band of 38 men, women and children evaded thousands of Mexican and US soldiers.  Geronimo was captured on this day in 1886, by Civil War veteran and Westminster, Massachusetts native, General Nelson Miles. With the capture of Geronimo, the last of the major US-Indian wars had come to an end.

Geronimo became a celebrity in his old age, marching in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905.  He converted to Christianity and appeared in county fairs and Wild West shows around the country.

Geronimo in old age

In his 1909 memoirs, Geronimo wrote of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair:  “I am glad I went to the Fair. I saw many interesting things and learned much of the white people. They are a very kind and peaceful people. During all the time I was at the Fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often”.

Geronimo was thrown from a horse in February 1909 and contracted pneumonia after a long, cold night on the ground. He confessed on his deathbed that he regretted his decision to surrender. His last words were to his nephew, when he said “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive”.

August 29, 1893 Nothing to See Here

To this day there remains no clear standard as to what’s in the public interest to know, and where lies the individual’s right, president or not, to a modicum of privacy.

“Rare photograph of Roosevelt in a wheelchair, with Ruthie Bie and Fala (1941)” – H/T Wikipedia

In the summer of 1921, a 39-year old Franklin Delano Roosevelt was enjoying some family vacation time at Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine. On August 10 he complained of fever and chills, and took to bed. The condition persisted for weeks. Four Physicians attended the future president of the United States, the diagnosis, poliomyelitis.

Roosevelt would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, able to stand only for brief and painful moments with the help of leg braces. During four elected terms the press went to great lengths to deemphasize if not hide altogether, the president’s disability.

On October 2, 1919, a near fatal stroke left President Woodrow Wilson incapacitated, unable to speak or move. First Lady Edith Wilson jealously guarded her husband’s condition from the press and the president’s opponents, blocking access and screening presidential paperwork. Sometimes she even signed her husband’s name, without his knowledge or consent. Edith denied usurping the presidency to herself but claimed instead to be acting only as “Steward”.

If you were around in 1978 you may remember the cringeworthy media coverage of Jimmy Carter’s hemorrhoids, raising the question of what’s in the legitimate public interest and what if any right does a president have to any sense of personal dignity, let alone privacy.

Fun fact:  The only former executioner ever elected President of the United States, Stephen 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 Cleveland was inaugurated for the second time in the midst of the Panic of 1893, the worst economic downturn in American history, until the great depression. The nation suffered vast unemployment with hundreds of businesses closing down.  The railroad industry was devastated.  With a nation struggling, 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, so there could be no scar.  President Cleveland  announced a four-day vacation aboard the private yacht Oneida, a cruise through Long Island Sound to Buzzard’s Bay and on to the President’s summer home called Gray Gables, on Cape Cod.

What followed is enough to amaze an oral surgeon and make the rest of us squirm. On July 1, 1893, the President was strapped to a chair and anesthetized with ether.  The tumor extended through the president’s hard palate and upper jaw and nearly to his left eye. A surgical team of six removed nearly the entire left side of the upper jaw along with the tumor, and five teeth.  The operation had taken ninety minutes and there was no external incision. It was all done through the President’s mouth. The trademark mustache remained undisturbed. Later on the president was fitted with a rubber prosthesis restoring Cleveland’s speech, and facial disfigurement.

The procedure was carried out in strict secrecy but didn’t remain that way, for long. On August 29, 1893, reporter Elisha Jay Edwards of the Philadelphia Press broke the story of a presidential surgery too bizarre to be true. White house staff denied the story, and launched a coordinated smear campaign against the journalist. Even the steward on board the Oneida stuck the story, declaring the president never missed a meal on that summer cruise. Other newspapers piled on denouncing Edwards as a “liar” and a “disgrace to journalism”.

A medical miracle for its time, what really transpired onboard the Oneida remained secret until 1917, nine years after Cleveland’s death. 

One of the foremost newspapermen of the age Elisha Edwards was ruined and struggled even to find work, for the next fifteen years. The man wouldn’t see his reputation restored for 24 years.

To this day there remains no clear standard as to what’s in the public interest to know, and where lies the individual’s right, president or not, to a modicum of privacy.

August 24, 79 Vesuvius

Imagine finding your head in a bag of concrete with someone pounding the sides, and you’re just trying to breathe. 

On February 5 in the year AD 62, an earthquake estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale shook the Bay of Naples, spawning a tsunami and leveling much of the coastal Italian towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding communities.

Though massively damaged, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples was a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society, with crowds of tourists and slaves adding to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople crowding the city’s bath houses, artisan shops, taverns and brothels.

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Reconstruction began almost immediately and continued for the next seventeen years.  Until that day, the world came to an end.

Long dormant and believed extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  The mountain erupted on August 24 in the year 79,  propelling a scorching plume of ash, pumice and super-heated volcanic gases so high as to be seen for hundreds of miles.

The Melbourne Museum has created this stunning, eight-minute animation of what the event may have looked like.

For the next eighteen hours the air was thick with hot, poisonous gases, as volcanic ash rained down with pumice stones the size of baseballs.  No one who stayed behind stood a chance, nor did countless animals, both wild and domestic.

Most were killed where they stood in the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust race outward at 400 MPH in the “base surge” phase, super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit, instantaneously converting bodily fluids, to steam.

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The victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ wrath left their imprints in the ash and rock which would be their tomb.  2,000 years later, remarkably life-like plaster casts, depict the final moments of these unfortunate men, women and children.

For those left alive, the suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon put and end to all that remains.  Imagine finding your head in a bag of concrete with someone pounding the sides, while you’re trying to breathe.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet and more of ash, rock and dust. Neither Herculaneum, Pompeii nor their surrounding communities would see the light of day, for nearly two thousand years.

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Today, we remember the Roman author, naturalist and military commander Gaius Plinius “Pliny’ Secundus for his work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). We see his work in the editorial model of the modern encyclopedia.

With the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum already destroyed, Pliny raced to the port of Stabiae some 4½km to the southwest, to rescue a friend and his family. The sixth and largest pyroclastic surge trapped his ship in port, killing the author and everyone in the vicinity. That we have an eyewitness to the event is thanks to two letters written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), Pliny’s nephew and a man he had helped to raise, from boyhood.

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Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Property owners and thieves returned over time to retrieve such valuables as statues. The words “house dug” can still be found, scrawled on the walls.  And then the place was forgotten, for fifteen hundred years.

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An underground channel was dug in 1562 to redirect waters from the river Samo, when workers ran into city walls.  The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and further excavation revealed any number of paintings and frescoes. But there was a problem.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex was invented in the British Isles, in 1963.

“…So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP…”

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Pompeian artwork ranges from the merely hedonistic, to the pornographic

The ancients seem to have been somewhat less, “uptight”.   Life in Pompeii was nothing if not hedonistic.  The place has been described by some, as the “red-light district” of antiquity.  I’m not sure about that, but the erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum were WAY too much for counter reformation-era sensibilities.  The place was quietly covered up and forgotten, for another two hundred years.

Pompeii was first excavated in earnest in 1748, but it took another hundred years for archaeologists’ findings to be cataloged, and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were left by the long since decomposed bodies of the doomed victims, of Vesuvius.

A technique was developed of injecting plaster.  Today we can see them in excruciating detail, exactly where they fell.  Men, women and children, their faces contorted in terror and pain, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left on the counter to cool.

Fun fact: A majority of Ancient Pompeiians had near-perfect teeth due to naturally occurring fluorine and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Today you can tour the lost city of Pompeii, from the baths to the forum, to the Lupanar Grande where the prostitutes of Pompeii once “entertained” clients.  Ongoing excavation is all but a race with time, between uncovering what remains, and preserving what is.  Walls surrounding the “House of the Moralist” collapsed in 2010, so-called because its wealthy wine merchant owners posted rules of behavior, for guests to follow: “Do not have lustful expressions and flirtatious eyes for another man’s wife“.

Heavy rains were blamed for the collapse of the Schola Armatorium in 2010, the House of the Gladiators.  Fierce recriminations have followed and doubt has been cast on local authorities’ abilities, to properly preserve what has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. Be that as it may, 2,000-year-old buildings do not come along every day.  There is no replacement for antiquity.

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Vesuvius has erupted some three dozen ties since that day in 79, the last time in 1944. Small by comparison the 1944 eruption nevertheless killed 26 and destroyed the village of San Sebastiano, while damaging the tons of Terzigno, Pompei, Scafati, Angri, Nocera Inferiore, Nocera Superiore, Pagani, Poggiomarino and Cava.

Today some 600,000 live in the ‘Red Zone’, the eighteen towns and villages at the base of Mount Vesuvius. Volcanologists universally agree that the next eruption of the most dangerous volcano on the planet is not a mater of ‘If’, but ‘When’.

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