October 8, 1981 Nub City

“To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City, watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.”

Midway between the Red Hills of Alabama and the Emerald Coast of Florida, the pioneer town of Vernon was once home to a major Indian settlement.   Named for the Virginia home of the “Father of our Country”, the small town is located at the center of Washington County in the Florida panhandle.

Now a destination for canoe and kayak enthusiasts, nearby Holmes Creek was once a shipping route to Bonifay and other neighboring towns.  The town was reasonably prosperous once, but then the steamboats stopped running, and the sawmill closed.  The young ones went to college and never came back, or just up  & moved away.

Forty years ago, documentary filmmaker Erroll Morris went to Vernon to make a picture, about insurance fraud in the Florida panhandle.

The film was released on this day in 1981, entitled “Vernon Florida”.   Insurance companies called the place “Nub City”.  That was supposed to be the name of the film.  Except, folks who blow their own limbs off for insurance money, don’t appreciate being asked about it.  Particularly not on camera.

nub-city-farmerUmm. What?!

Morris described the problem, in a later interview:

“I knocked on the door of a double-amputee, who was missing an arm and a leg on opposite sides of the body—the preferred technique, so that you could use a crutch. His buff son-in-law, a Marine, beat me up. I decided whatever I was doing was really, really stupid and dangerous”.

Turns out that, in the late fifties and early sixties, two-thirds of all loss-of-limb accident claims to the American insurance industry, came from the Florida panhandle.  At the center of all that, was a little town of 700.  Vernon, Florida.

The founding member of the “nub club” may have joined by accident.  Or maybe he looked at his hand at a time of faltering small-town economics, and wondered.  How much will that thing earn, compared with an insurance policy.  By the mid-sixties, no fewer than fifty Vernon residents had lost a hand or foot or both, in hunting or farming “accidents”.

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Some would saw or hack off body parts, but most preferred the simplicity, of a shotgun blast.  Insurance policies were often taken out in the days or even hours, before dismemberment.

You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, for people who would do such a thing. One guy maimed his foot while trying to protect his chickens. Another tried to shoot a hawk and took off his own hand. I’m still trying to figure out how that worked.  One farmer “mistook” his own foot for a squirrel and, you guessed it. Some “accidents” involved both firearms and motor vehicles. One mishap involved a tractor and a loaded rifle. That one took off two body parts.

Many took out multiple policies.  One guy bought so many that the premiums came to more than his income.  Thomas Lake of the St. Petersburg Times, tells the story:

“There was another man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 companies,” said Murray Armstrong, an insurance official for Liberty National. “He was a farmer and ordinarily drove around the farm in his stick shift pickup. This day – the day of the accident – he drove his wife’s automatic transmission car and he lost his left foot. If he’d been driving his pickup, he’d have had to use that foot for the clutch. He also had a tourniquet in his pocket. We asked why he had it and he said, ‘Snakes. In case of snake bite.’ He’d taken out so much insurance he was paying premiums that cost more than his income. He wasn’t poor, either. Middle class. He collected more than $1 million from all the companies. It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot.”

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Insurance companies were quick to get wise and took several claimants, to court. Juries refused to believe that anyone would do such a thing.  Not one member of the nub club was ever convicted, of fraud. Insurance companies sent an investigator named John Healy to Vernon, to look around. The report he sent back came as a surprise, to precisely no one: “To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City,” he wrote, “watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.

Skyrocketing premiums failed to put an end to the practice of self-mutilation.  Eventually, companies just stopped writing such policies in the panhandle, and the decade-long string of “misfortunes”, came to an end.

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Twenty years later, a blurb in the New Yorker sent film maker Errol Morris south to Vernon, to shoot a film about insurance fraud.  What he ended up with, was a disjointed narrative tale, of small town eccentrics.  Apparently, death threats did a lot to effect the film maker’s change in direction.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.

Following the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was massively expanded under Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”. 1516 – ’17 saw a 70% expansion of Ottoman landmass, with the subjugation of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Suleiman_featuredSelim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, a man who, at his height, ruled over some fifteen to twenty million, at a time when the entire world contained fewer than 500 million

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony, over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula. The “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation to the Sultan.

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Roxelana, the harem slave who rose to be “Queen” of the Ottoman Empire

This, the second such conflict between Venice and the Ottomans, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian possessions of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.  Roxelana is unique in Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over affairs of Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of her son Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and his brother Bayezid, engineered between himself and his father.

The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic and, surrounded by Ottoman territory, had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying between 80,000 – 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force marched inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace, in the city.

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By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

At this point, Famagusta’s defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with 1,500 cannon. The defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, begged him to surrender.

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Walled citadel of Famagusta, in North Cypress

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas all lives and property were forfeit, in a city taken by storm. Terms of safe passage were agreed upon, yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell. A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was killed.  Bragadin was skinned alive in the public square and the stuffed with straw, reinvested with his military insignia, and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion.   Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed in the end and put to death.  Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571, bought a coalition of Catholic maritime states, time in which to defend themselves.

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.  The Europeans were outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, compared with a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels, and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

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What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience.  The Christians possessed 1,815 guns, to fewer than half than number for the Ottoman fleet.

Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  the Ottoman fleet was crushed over five hours of combat, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

The Spanish novel Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than any book in western history, save for the holy bible.  Author Miguel de Cervantes participated in the battle at the age of 23, receiving three gunshot wounds and losing his left hand.

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Cervantes

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion in the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph amounted to little:

“You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 6, 1945 The Curse of the Billy Goat

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the curse of the Bambino.  Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren, and sometimes even great-greats, and still the drought wore on. It was 86 years, the third-longest World Series championship drought in Major League Baseball history.

Long suffering fans of the Chicago White Sox endured the second-longest such championship dearth, following the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.  For 88 years, that mournful cry came down through the ages:  “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.

curse-of-the-billy-goatYet, the suffering inflicted by the curse of the Black Sox and that of the Bambino, pales in comparison with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.  And they say it’s the fault of a Billy goat.

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field. Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.  Really.

Now, goats don’t smell any sweeter than most other livestock, save for the male in rut.  This part of the animals fertility cycle happens in the fall for many breeds and, while it’s pure speculation, the oft-repeated expression “smells like a goat”, comes to mind.  There are different versions of the story, but they all end with the pair being ejected, and Billy casting a curse. “Them Cubs“, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more“.

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Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Billy Sianis was right. The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series. They’ve been losing ever since.

Sam-and-Bill-Sianis-owners-of-Chicago-s-Billy-Goat-Tavern-2015Billy Sianis himself is gone now, but they brought his nephew Sam onto the field with a goat in 1984, to help break the curse.  They did it again in 1989, 1994 and 1998, and always the same result.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August of 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings. Chicago manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named Virgil Homer to Houston, during the division championship series. They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

Ol’ Virgil got them through that series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the NL championship. It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6. Chicago was ahead in the series, when lifelong Cubbies fan Steve Bartman reached down and deflected a ball that should have easily been caught by Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou. The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning, while Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

cubsFor fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across the statue of Harry Caray.

Five fans set out on foot with a goat from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  “Crack the Curse” was supposed to do it.  These guys walked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field. The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but the curse of the Billy goat remained serene, and unbreakable.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

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2015 was the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac. In September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in A Bag”. The goat was gone. Surely that would work. The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was the NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run. Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), but he wasn’t the first.

1913MilwaukeeBrewers_goatThe cookies pictured above were baked in 2016, and that might’ve finally done it.  That’s right.  The Mother of all Droughts came to a halt in extra innings of game seven, following a 17-minute rain delay.  At long last, Steve Bartman could emerge from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by his own World Series ring. The ghost of Billy Sianis’ goat, may finally rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I discovered that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, called Fatima. Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 5, 1968 Magic Carpet Ride

Steppenwolf gave us 22 albums, and we all know them in one way or another. Yet, the lead singer’s escape from the horrors of the Iron Curtain, is all but unknown.

Joachim Fritz Krauledat was born in Tilsit, East Prussia on April 12, 1944, a region later absorbed into the Soviet Union. The boy never met his father Fritz, a German soldier killed on the Eastern Front of WWII.

JohnKayYoungElsbeth had to flee with her infant son in the harsh winter of 1945, as the oncoming Soviet Red Army destroyed all in its path. The two would escape the Iron Curtain once again in 1948, this time in a dangerous nighttime dash which the then-four year old remembers, to this day.

They settled for a time in Hannover, West Germany, barely avoiding the communist noose as it closed around their former home in the east.

Krauledat was an indifferent student, due to poor eyesight. He’s legally blind and extremely light-sensitive, forced to wear dark glasses since the age of three.  An eye condition called achromatopsia left him entirely color blind, seeing the world in shades of black and white and gray.

The boy became interested in music, listening over the British Forces Broadcasting Service and the US Armed Forces Radio before his family moved to Canada, in 1958.

Joachim never became a Canadian citizen. He spent the next seven years practicing his music, performing as a folk and blues singer throughout North America. He joined a blues rock and folk group called “The Sparrow” in 1965, becoming part of the rock music scene in Yorkville, Toronto and later San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

born-to-be-wild1By this time, Joachim Krauledat had taken to calling himself John Kay.  The band added a couple new members in 1967, changing their name to a character from a Herman Hesse novel.  “Steppenwolf”.

Steppenwolf became one of the world’s foremost rock bands, with standards like “The Pusher”, and “Monster”, releasing “Magic Carpet Ride” on this day in 1968. They gave us the term “Heavy Metal” with their rock anthem “Born to Be Wild”, but that didn’t refer to the music. “Heavy Metal Thunder” referred to large, loud, motorcycles.

Steppenwolf toured for over 40 years. There isn’t a Baby Boomer alive (or many of our kids), who wouldn’t read this and come away with one of their songs in his head. They’ve sold over 25 million records and licensed their songs in over 50 motion pictures. The music is iconic, from the sound track of the 1969 “Easy Rider” film to their last performance on July 24, 2010, at the three day HullabaLOU music festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

s1Steppenwolf gave us 22 albums, and we all know them in one way or another. Yet, the lead singer’s escape from the horrors of the Iron Curtain, is all but unknown. That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the Rest of the Story.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 4, 1918 First Division Rags

The Big Red One marched down Broadway in 1928, part of the First Division’s 10th anniversary WW1 reunion.  The French street dog who had lost an eye in their service, in the lead.

Private James Donovan was AWOL. He had overstayed his leave in the French town of Montremere, and the ‘Great War’, awaited.

When the MPs found him, Donovan knew he had to think fast. He reached down and grabbed a stray dog, explaining to the two policemen that he was part of a search party, sent out to find the Division Mascot.

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It was a small dog, possibly a Cairn Terrier mix, about twenty-five pounds. He looked like a pile of rags, and that’s what they called him. The dog had gotten Donovan out of a jam, now he would become the division mascot, for real. Rags was now part of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

Instead of “shaking hands”, Donovan taught the dog a sort of doggie “salute”. Rags would appear at the flag pole for Retreat for years after the war, lifting his paw and holding it by his head. Every time the flag was lowered and the bugle played, there was that small terrier, saluting with the assembled troops.

The dog learned to imitate the men around him, who would drop to the ground and hug it tightly during artillery barrages. He would hug the ground with his paws spread out, soon the doughboys noticed him doing it before any of them knew they were under fire. Rags’ acute and sensitive hearing became an early warning system, telling them that shells were incoming, well before anyone heard them.

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Rags was disdainful of doggie tricks, he was more interested in Doing something.  In the hell of life in the trenches, barbed wire was often all that stood between safety and enemy attack.  Wire emplacements were frequent targets for bombardment, and a break in the wire represented a potentially lethal weak point in the lines.  Somehow, Rags could find these breaks in the wire, and often led men into the darkness, to effect repairs.

Thousands of dogs, horses and pigeons were “enlisted” in the first world war, with a number of tasks.  The French trained specialized “chiens sanitaire” to seek out the dead and wounded, and bring back small bits of uniform so that aid could be delivered, or the body recovered.  Somehow, Rags figured this job out, for himself.  Once he found a dead runner, and recovered the note the man had died, trying to deliver.  Not only was his body found, but that note enabled the rescue of an officer, cut off and surrounded by Germans.

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Donovan’s job was hazardous. He was out on the front lines, stringing communications wire between advancing infantry and supporting field artillery. Runners were used to carry messages until the wire was laid, but these were frequently wounded, killed or they couldn’t get through the shell holes and barbed wire.

Donovan trained Rags to carry messages attached to his collar. On this day in 1918, British and French forces were engaged in heavy fighting from St. Quentin to Cambrai. French and Americans in the Champagne region advanced as far as the Arnes, as the American attack ground on, west of the River Meuse. Around this time, Rags was given a message from the 26th Infantry Regiment for the 7th Field Artillery. The small dog completing his mission, resulting in an artillery barrage and leading to the capture of the Very-Epinonville Road.

An important objective had been taken, with minimal loss of life to the American side.

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The terrier’s greatest trial came five days later, during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. The small dog ran through falling bombs and poison gas to deliver his message. Gassed and partially blinded, shell splinters damaged his right paw, eye and ear. Rags survived and, so far as I know, got his message where it needed to be.

Rags survived the deadliest battle in American military history, with the loss of an eye.  Now-Sergeant James Donovan, wasn’t so lucky.  He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

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Rags recovered quickly, but Donovan did not.  He was transferred to the hospital ship in Brest, as Rags was forced to look on, from the docks.  Animals were thought to carry disease and were strictly forbidden from hospital ships.  Those animals who were smuggled on board, were typically chloroformed and thrown overboard.

Nevertheless, Rags was smuggled on board to be with his “Battle Buddy”.  How many entered into the conspiracy of silence in his defense, can never be known.

The pair made it back to United States, and to the Fort Sheridan base hospital near Chicago, where medical staff specialized in gas cases. It was here that Rags was given a collar and tag, identifying him as “1st Division Rags”.  Donovan died of his injuries, in early 1919.  Rags moved into the base fire house becoming “post dog”, until being adopted by Major Raymond W. Hardenbergh, his wife and two daughters, in 1920.

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The Big Red One marched down Broadway in 1928, part of the First Division’s 10th anniversary WW1 reunion.  The French street dog who had lost an eye in their service, in the lead.

Rags lived out the last of his years in Maryland. A long life it was, too, the dog lived until 1934, remaining with the 1st Infantry Division, for all his 20 years.  On March 22, 1934, the 16-paragraph obituary in the New York Times began: “Rags, Dog Veteran of War, Is Dead at 20; Terrier That Lost Eye in Service is Honored.”

Canadian writer Grant Hayter-Menzies has written a book about 1st Division Rags, from which I have drawn some of these details. The book is entitled From Stray Dog to World War I Hero: The Paris Terrier Who Joined the First Division.  Eleven-minute audio from a fascinating CBC interview, may be found HERE.

Hat tip to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, from whose website I have drawn most of these images.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 3, 1944 Angel from a Foxhole

Once, the small dog was able to perform a task in minutes, which would have otherwise taken an entire airstrip out of service for three days, and exposed a construction battalion to enemy fire.

The first dog may have approached some campfire, long before recorded history. It may have been hurt or it maybe it was looking for a morsel. Dogs have been by our side ever since.

Over history, the unique attributes of Canis Familiaris have often served in times of war. Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts dogs at work in multiple capacities. The ancient Greeks used dogs against Persian invaders at the Battle of Marathon.

_73412601_2001-877_smithsonian_stubby_with_robert_pro_photoThe European allies and Imperial Germany had about 20,000 dogs working a variety of jobs in WWI. Though the United States didn’t have an official “War Dog” program in those days, a Staffordshire Terrier mix called “Sgt. Stubby” was smuggled “over there” with an AEF unit training out of New Haven, Connecticut.

Stubby is credited with saving an unknown number of lives, his keen sense of hearing giving his companions early warning of incoming artillery rounds.

Once, Stubby even caught a German spy who had been creeping around, mapping allied trenches. It must have been a very bad day for that particular Bosch, to be discovered spinning in circles, a 50-pound, muscular terrier affixed to his arse.

The US War Dogs program was developed between the World Wars, and dogs have served in every conflict, since.  My own son in law Nate served in Afghanistan with “Zino”, a five-year old German Shepherd and Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD), trained to detect as many as 64 explosive compounds.

The littlest war dog first appeared in the jungles of New Guinea, when an American soldier spotted a “golden head” poking out of an abandoned foxhole. It was all of 4-pounds, a seven-inch tall, Yorkshire Terrier.  At the time, nobody had the foggiest notion of how the tiny dog had gotten there. The soldier brought her back to camp and sold her to a comrade for £2 Australian, about $6.44.  He was Corporal William Wynne, who named her “Smoky”.

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Smoky lived a soldier’s life for the next eighteen months, traveling about in a rucksack and learning to parachute from trees.  At first, soldiers thought she might have belonged to the Japanese side, but they brought her to a POW camp and quickly learned that she understood neither Japanese nor English commands.

The little dog flew 12 air/sea rescue and photo reconnaissance missions, secured in Wynne’s backpack. She survived 150 air raids and a typhoon, often giving soldiers early warning of incoming fire.  Wynne credited Smoky with saving his life one time, on an LST transport ship.  It was around October 3, 1944 off Morotai, when the Japanese submarine RO-41 sank the American destroyer escort, USS Shelton.  The decks around them were shaking from anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, when Smoky guided Wynne to duck at the moment an incoming shell struck, killing 8 men standing next to them. She was his “angel from a foxhole.”

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Once, the small dog was able to perform a task in minutes, a job which would have otherwise taken an airstrip out of service for three days, and expose a construction battalion to enemy fire. The air field at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, was crucial to the Allied war effort.  The signal corps needed to run a teletype communication wire across the field.  To do so in the conventional manner would have taken days, and put the airfield out of operation.  Except, there was one possible workaround.

A 70-foot, 8” drain pipe half filled with dirt, already crossed under the air strip

Wynne credits the dog with enabling the airfield to remain open, saving 40 aircraft and 250 ground crew from exposure to Japanese fire.  Let him tell the story:

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“I tied a string to Smoky’s collar and ran to the other end of the culvert . . . (Smoky) made a few steps in and then ran back. `Come, Smoky,’ I said sharply, and she started through again. When she was about 10 feet in, the string caught up and she looked over her shoulder as much as to say `what’s holding us up there?’ The string loosened from the snag and she came on again. By now the dust was rising from the shuffle of her paws as she crawled through the dirt and mold and I could no longer see her. I called and pleaded, not knowing for certain whether she was coming or not. At last, about 20 feet away, I saw two little amber eyes and heard a faint whimpering sound . . . at 15 feet away, she broke into a run. We were so happy at Smoky’s success that we patted and praised her for a full five minutes”.

o-SMOKEY7-570Smoky toured all over the world after the war, appearing in over 42 television programs and licking faces & performing tricks for thousands at veteran’s hospitals.  In June 1945, Smoky toured the 120th General Hospital in Manila, visiting with wounded GIs from the Battle of Luzon. She’s been called “the first published post-traumatic stress canine”, and credited with expanding interest in what had hitherto been an obscure breed.

The Littlest Wardog died in her sleep in February 1957 at the age of fourteen, and buried in a .30 caliber ammunition box.  Years later,a  life-size a bronze sculpture of Smoky sitting in a GI helmet was installed over her final resting place in Rocky River Ohio, setting atop a two-ton blue granite base.

Bill Wynne was 90 years old in 2012, when he was “flabbergasted” to be approached by Australian authorities. They explained that an Australian army nurse had purchased the dog from a Queen Street pet store, and became separated in the jungles of New Guinea. sixty-eight years later, the Australian delegation had come to award his dog, a medal.

f88e3abeaa339b1ed4c15d9adbc1387b71c69549A memorial statue was unveiled on December 12 of that year, at the Australian War Memorial at the Queensland Wacol Animal Care Campus in Brisbane.

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On December 11, 2015, the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) awarded Smoky the Purple Cross.  According to the press release, the award was “established in 1993 to recognize the deeds of animals that have shown outstanding service to humans, particularly where they have demonstrated exceptional courage, by risking their own safety or life, to save a person from injury or death. Since its inception, only nine animals have been awarded the prestigious award”.

“Yorkie Doodle Dandy” by Bill Wynne, tells the story of the dog Animal Planet has called, the first therapy dog. Originally published in 1996 by Wynnesome Press, the book is currently in its 5th edition, by Top Dog Enterprises, LLC.

As a personal aside, Nate and Zino were separated after their tour in Afghanistan. They were reunited in 2014, when the dog came to live with Nate and our daughter Carolyn in their home in Savannah. Last fall, Sheryl and I traveled to Houston with a friend, to celebrate our anniversary at the “Redneck Country Club”.  2,000 miles from home and completely by chance, who do we meet but the trainer who taught Zino to be a TEDD in the first place. Small world.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 2, 1918 Lost Battalion

Lieutenant James Leak compared those six days lost in the Ardennes with the 1836 siege of the Alamo, and the legendary 300, at Thermopylae.

The Argonne Forest is a long strip of wild woodland and stony mountainside in northeastern France, a hunting preserve since the earliest days of the Bourbon Kings.  For most of WWI, the Argonne remained behind German lines.  On October 2, 1918, nine companies of the US 77th “Metropolitan Division” came to take part of it back.

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Major Charles White Whittlesey

Their objective was the Charlevaux ravine and a road & railroad on the other side, cutting off German communications in the sector.  As heavy fighting drew to a close on the first day, the men found a way up hill 198 and began to dig in for the night.

Major Charles White Whittlesey, commanding, thought that things were too quiet that first night.  Orders called for them to be supported by two American units on their right and a French force on their left/  That night, the voices drifting in from the darkness, were speaking German.

They had come up against a heavily defended double trench line and, unknown at the time, allied forces to their left and right had been cut off and stalled. The Metropolitan Division was alone, and surrounded.

The fighting was near constant on day two, with no chance of getting a runner through.   Whittlesey dispatched a message by carrier pigeon, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.”  The last thing that German forces wanted was for an enemy messenger to get through, and the bird went down in a hail of German bullets.

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Cher Ami

Whittlesey grabbed another pigeon and wrote “Men are suffering.  Can support be sent?”/  That second bird would be shot down as well.

On day three, the “lost battalion” came under fire from its own artillery.  Whittlesey grabbed his third and last carrier pigeon, “Cher Ami”, and frantically wrote out his message.

German gunfire exploded from the high ridges above them as this bird, too, fluttered to the ground.  Soon she was up again, flying out of sight despite the hail of bullets.  She arrived in her coop 65 minutes later, shot through the breast and blind in one eye.  The message, hanging by a single tendon from a leg all but shot off, read:  “WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT”.

Drops of food and supplies were attempted from the air, but they all ended up in German hands.

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By October 7, food and ammunition were running out.  554 had entered the Ardennes five days earlier, now fifty per cent were either dead, or wounded.  Water was available from a nearby stream, but only at the cost of exposure to German fire.  Bandages had to be removed from the dead in order to treat the wounded. Medicine was completely out and men were falling ill.  Even so, survivors continued to fight off German attacks from all sides.

Out of the forest emerged a blindfolded American prisoner, carrying a white flag.  He’d been sent with a message, from the German commander:

The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions. Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead [the bearer] as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer.

Though he later denied it, Whittlesey’s response was remembered as “You go to hell!”.  White sheets placed to help allied aircraft find their position were pulled in, lest they be mistaken for flags of surrender.  The meaning was unmistakable.  When they were finally relieved the following day, only 194 were fit to walk out on their own.

The Meuse-Argonne offensive of which it was part would last forty seven days, and account for the greatest single-battle loss of life, in American military history.

Edward Leslie Grant attended Dean Academy in his home town of Franklin, Massachusetts, and later graduated from Harvard University.  “Harvard” Eddie Grant became a Major League ballplayer, playing utility infielder for the Cleveland Indians as early as 1905.

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“Harvard Eddie” Grant

Grant delighted in aggravating his fellow infielders, calling the ball with the grammatically correct “I have it”, instead of the customary “I got it”.

Grant played for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds, before retiring from the New York Giants and opening a Law Office in Boston. He was one of the first men to enlist when the US entered WWI in 1917, becoming a Captain in the 77th Infantry Division, A.E.F.

Sixty former ballplayers were killed during the Great War, including nine former Major League players, twenty-six minor players, three negro leaguers and a number who played college, semi-pro and amateur. Another four played in the Australian League. Harvard Eddie Grant was killed leading a search for the Lost Battalion on October 5, the first Major League ball player to be killed in the Great War.

Eddie Grant was honored on Memorial Day, 1921, as representatives of the US Armed Forces and Major League Baseball joined with his sisters to unveil a plaque in center field at the Polo Grounds. From that day until the park closed in 1957, a wreath was solemnly placed at the foot of that plaque after the first game of every double header.  He is memorialized by the Edward L. Grant Highway in The Bronx, and by Grant Field at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts.

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Major Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, and Captain Nelson Holderman all received the Medal of Honor for their actions atop hill 198.  Whittlesey was further honored as a pallbearer at the interment ceremony for the Unknown Soldier, but his experience weighed heavily on him.

In what is believed to have been a suicide, Charles White Whittlesey disappeared from the SS Toloa bound for Havana in 1921, leaving instructions in his stateroom as to what to do with his bags.  Whittlesey’s cenotaph is located at Pittsfield Cemetery in his home town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It is an ‘IMO’ marker (In Memory Only).  His body was never found.

In prepared remarks before a gathering at Abilene Christian College in 1938, Lieutenant James Leak compared those six days lost in the Ardennes with the 1836 siege of the Alamo, and the legendary 300, at Thermopylae.   “[T]he “Lost Battalion””, he said, “is entirely a misnomer…it was not “Lost”. We knew exactly where we were, and went to the exact position to which we had been ordered“.

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Monument to the Lost Battalion
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.