December 14, 1862  Angel of Marye’s Heights

No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862. 

One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War began on December 11, 1862, when nearly 200,000 combatants collided in the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

rappa5The Union crossing of the Rappahannock was intended to be a surprise, depending on pontoons coming down from Washington to meet up with General Ambrose Burnside’s Union army in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.

The army of the Potomac arrived on November 19, with no sign of pontoons.  When they finally arrived, heavy snows slowed military operations for an additional week.  Lt. General James Longstreet and Lt. General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson had more than enough time to prepare defenses.

Burnside’s crossing began on the morning of December 11, as engineer battalions constructed bridges in the face of determined Confederate fire. Several groups of soldiers had to row across the river, the battle then moving through the streets and buildings of Fredericksburg as Union and Confederate troops fought the first urban combat of the Civil War.

On the morning of the 13th, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces occupied a seven-mile-long curving line, with the five divisions of Longstreet’s Corps on the left along Marye’s Heights, west of town.  Fighting began on both ends of the Confederate position, more or less simultaneously.  George Meade had some early successes against Stonewall Jackson’s dug-in positions on the right, but requested reinforcements never arrived.  By the end of the day, the old farmer’s expression “slaughter pen”, had taken on a whole new meaning.

Marye's HeightsIn contrast to the swampy approaches on the Confederate right, 5,000 soldiers under James Longstreet looked out from behind the stone wall on Marye’s Heights to an open plain, crossed from left to right by a mill run, 5′ deep, 15′ wide and filled with 3′ of freezing water.

Confederate artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander looked out on that field, and said “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”.  Alexander was right.  For six hours, the Union army threw one attack after another against the rebels behind the wall.  Fourteen assaults, in all.  As the sun went down on the evening of December 13, the ground below Marye’s Heights was carpeted with the mangled, dead and dying bodies of Union soldiers.

The Army of the Potomac suffered over 13,000 casualties, about two-thirds of them in front of that wall.  Lee’s army, by comparison, suffered around 4,500 losses.  Watching the great Confederate victory unfold from his hilltop command post, Robert E. Lee said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

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Sergeant Richard Kirkland

Union ambulance corps had all they could do to remove their wounded from the plains, but dared not enter within the Confederate’s range of fire in front of that wall.  All through the night of the 13-14th, the moans of mangled and dying Union soldiers could be heard along the heights.

I don’t doubt that some Confederate soldiers reveled in all that carnage, but I’m sure that the moans and cries of agony were difficult for most of them to hear.  There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t understand that, but for the grace of God, that could be himself.

For Sergeant Richard Kirkland, Company G, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, it wasn’t good enough to sit and listen.  He could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water”.  Kirkland left his position and made his way to General Joseph Kershaw’s headquarters, asking permission to help.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Richard Kirkland took as many canteens as he could carry, and stepped into the no man’s land between two watching armies.  No one fired, nor even moved.  Sgt. Kirkland worked his way alone from one wounded man to the next, straightening out a shattered leg here, there spreading out an overcoat, always with a quiet word of encouragement and a drink of water.

Angel of Marye's Heights

Kirkland was out there for no less than 1½ hours.  Alone in no man’s land, he never left until he had helped every fallen soldier, Federal and Confederate, on that part of the battlefield.

General Kershaw later gave this account:  “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.”

Richard Kirkland would not survive the war.  He met his end while leading an infantry charge the following September, at a place called Chickamauga. No one will ever know how many lives were saved by his courage, and his kindness, this day in 1862.

Richard Rowland Kirkland will forever remain, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.

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December 13, 1942 Ship’s Cook

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

Similar to the Base Exchange system serving American military personnel, the British Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) is the UK-government organization operating clubs, bars, shops and supermarkets in service to British armed forces, as well as naval canteen services (NCS) on board Royal Navy ships.

NAAFI personnel serving on ships are assigned to duty stations and wear uniforms, while technically remaining civilians.

Tommy Brown was fifteen when he lied about his age, enlisting in the NAAFI and assigned as canteen assistant to the “P-class” destroyer, HMS Petard.

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HMS Petard

On October 30, 1942, Petard joined three other destroyers and a squadron of Vickers Wellesley light bombers off the coast of Port Said Egypt, in a 16-hour hunt for the German “Unterseeboot”, U–559.

Hours of depth charge attacks were rewarded when the crippled U-559 came to the surface, the 4-inch guns of HMS Petard, permanently ending the career of the German sub.

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U-559

The crew abandoned ship, but not before opening the boat’s seacocks.   Water was pouring into the submarine as Lieutenant Francis Anthony Blair Fasson and Able Seaman Colin Grazier dived into the water and swam to the submarine, with junior canteen assistant Tommy Brown close behind.

With U-559 sinking fast, Fasson and Grazier made their way into the captain’s cabin.   Finding a set of keys, Fasson opened a drawer, to discover a number of documents, including two sets of code books.

With one hand on the conning ladder and the other clutching those documents, Brown made three trips up and down through the hatch, to Petard’s whaler.

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U-185 sinking, after American depth charging

In the final moments, the ship’s cook called for his shipmates to get out of the boat. Brown himself was dragged under, but managed to kick free and come to the surface.  Colin Grazier and Francis Fasson, went down with the German sub.

The episode brought Brown to the attention of the authorities, ending his posting aboard Petard when his true age became known.  He was not discharged from the NAAFI, and later returned to sea on board the light cruiser, HMS Belfast.

In 1945, now-Leading Seaman Tommy Brown was home on shore leave, when fire broke out at the family home in South Shields.  He died while trying to rescue his 4-year-old sister Maureen, and was buried with full military honors in Tynemouth cemetery.

Fasson and Grazier were awarded the George Cross, the second-highest award in the United Kingdom system of honors.  Since he was a civilian due to his NAAFI employment, Brown was awarded the George Medal.

355b2-442_doenitz_paukenschlagFor German U-boat commanders, the period between the fall of France and the American entry into WW2 was known as “Die Glückliche Zeit” – “The Happy Time” – in the North Sea and North Atlantic.  From July through October 1940 alone, 282 Allied ships were sunk on the approaches to Ireland, for a combined loss of 1.5 million tons of merchant shipping.

Tommy Brown’s Mediterranean episode took place in 1942, in the midst of the “Second Happy Time”, a period known among German submarine commanders as the “American shooting season”. U-boats inflicted massive damage during this period, sinking 609 ships totaling 3.1 million tons with the loss of thousands of lives, against a cost of only 22 U-boats.

USMM.org reports that the United States Merchant Marine service suffered a higher percentage of fatalities at 3.9%, than any American service branch in WW2.

Bletchley ParkEarly versions of the German “Enigma” code were broken as early as 1932, thanks to cryptanalysts of the Polish Cipher Bureau, and French spy Hans Thilo Schmidt.  French and British military intelligence were read into Polish decryption techniques in 1939, these methods later improved upon by the British code breakers of Bletchley Park.

Vast numbers of messages were intercepted and decoded from Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe sources through the Allied intelligence project “Ultra”, shortening the war by at least a year, and possibly two.

The Kriegsmarine was a different story.  Maniacally concerned with security, Admiral Karl Dönitz introduced a third-generation enigma machine (M4) into the submarine service around May 1941, a system so secret that neither Wehrmacht nor Luftwaffe, were aware of its existence.

The system requires identical cipher machines at both ends of the transmission and took a while to put into place, with German subs being spread around the world.

M4All M4 machines were distributed by early 1942.  On February 2, German submarine communications went dark.  For code breakers at Bletchley Park, the blackout was sudden and complete.  For a period of nine months, Allies had not the slightest idea of what the German submarine service was up to.  The result was catastrophic.

U-559 documents were rushed back to England, arriving at Bletchley Park on November 24, allowing cryptanalysts to attack the “Triton” key used within the U-boat service.  It would not be long, before the U-boats themselves were under attack.

The M4 code was broken by December 13, when the first of a steady stream of intercepts arrived at the Admiralty Operational Intelligence Office, giving the positions of 12 U-boats.

The UK Guardian newspaper wrote: “The naval historian Ralph Erskine thinks that, without the (M4) breakthrough, the Normandy invasion would have been delayed by at least a year, and that between 500,000 and 750,000 tons of allied shipping were saved in December 1942 and January 1943 alone”.

Tommy Brown never knew what was in those documents.  The entire enterprise would remain Top Secret, until decades after he died.

Winston Churchill later wrote, that the actions of the crew of HMS Petard were “crucial to the outcome of the war”.

Untold numbers of lives that could have been lost.  But for the actions, of a sixteen-year-old ship’s cook.

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December 12, 1937  The Road to Pearl Harbor

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

USS Panay was a flat bottomed river craft, built in Shanghai as part of the Asiatic fleet and charged with protecting American lives and property on the Yangtze River, near Nanking.

crew02Japanese forces invaded China in the summer of 1937, advancing on Nanking as American citizens evacuated the city.  The last of them boarded Panay on December 11:  five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians.

Japanese air forces received word the morning of December 12, 1937, that Chinese forces were being evacuated on several large steamers and a number of junks, about 12 miles north of the city.

Anchored a short way upstream along with several Chinese oil tankers, Panay came under bombing and strafing attack that morning, sinking mid-river with three men killed.  43 sailors and five civilians were wounded.  Two newsreel cameramen were on board at the time, and captured part of the attack.

The American ambassador to Japan at the time was Joseph C. Grew, a man who was more than old enough to remember how the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor brought the US into war with Spain, in 1898.  Grew hoped to avoid a similar outcome following the Panay sinking, though Japanese authorities were less than helpful.

US cryptographers uncovered information shortly after the attack, indicating that aircraft were operating under orders.  The Japanese government continued to insist that the attack had been accidental.

images (13)The matter was officially settled four months later, with an official apology and an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 paid to the US government.

The “accidental attack” narrative appears to be a safe story which both sides pretended to accept, but it seems a little hard to believe.   HMS Ladybird had been fired on that same morning by Japanese shore batteries, and the attack was followed a month later by the “Allison incident”, in which the American consul in Nanking, John M. Allison, was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier.

Added to the fact that American property was being looted by Japanese forces, it seems clear that relations between the two governments at that time, were toxic.

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

Letters came from citizens of all ages and walks of life, from doctors and professors to school children.  The wives of high ranking Japanese officials apologized to Grew’s wife without the knowledge of their husbands, while ten Japanese men describing themselves as retired US Navy sailors living in Yokohama, sent a check for $87.19.

A typical letter read: “Dear Friend! This is a short letter, but we want to tell you how sorry we are for the mistake our airplane made. We want you to forgive us I am little and do not understand very well, but I know they did not mean it. I feel so sorry for those who were hurt and killed. I am studying here at St. Margarets school which was built by many American friends. I am studying English. But I am only thirteen and cannot write very well. All my school-mates are sorry like myself and wish you to forgive our country. To-morrow is X-Mas, May it be merry, I hope the time will come when everybody can be friends. I wish you a Happy New Year. Good-bye.”

The two governments never did patch things up. What’s been called the “Rape of Nanking”, began the day after the Panay incident.  On December 13, Japanese forces smashed into the city of 600,000, murdering fully half of the inhabitants.  Newsreel footage may be found of live prisoners being used for bayonet practice, being mowed down by machine guns, or doused with accelerant and burnt alive.

The US placed an embargo on September 1940, prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel, in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of northern French Indochina:  modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

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Japan occupied southern Indochina by the summer of 1941, as the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands retaliated by freezing Japanese assets.

Throughout that summer and fall, Japan tried to negotiate a settlement to lift the embargo on terms which allowed them to keep newly captured territory, while at the same time preparing for war.

General Hideki Tojo, future Prime Minister, secretly set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept settlement without war.

Air and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese government attacked the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, about a week later.

December 10, 1917 Oh, Christmas Tree…

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, 100 years ago, today.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

The Norwegian vessel Imo left its mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running itself aground.

That was when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light the morning of December 7 revealed some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone. President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train on the scene.

Halifax HeraldThere was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  A very large Christmas tree.

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In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.Halifax Tree Sendoff

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the people of Boston.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

events3406This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

This year’s tree stands 53′ tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax exlosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.download

For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

On November 30, a monument was unveiled on Boston Commons, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word this year, at the tree lighting ceremony. “We had massive deaths and injuries,” McNeil said of the 1917 catastrophe. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”

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December 7, 1942 The Ship that Wouldn’t Die

Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”.  No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.  The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178.  Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom.  Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed. 188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground.  All eight battleships then in harbor were damaged.

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USS Oklahoma

Four torpedoes slammed into USS Oklahoma, capsizing the Nevada-class battleship and trapping hundreds within the overturned hull.  Frantic around-the-clock rescue efforts delivered 32.  Bulkhead markings later revealed that at least some of the sailors aboard the doomed battleship lived another seventeen days.  Seventeen days alone in that black, upside down hell, they died waiting for the rescue that came too late. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Harvard-educated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the unwilling architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, writing home to a correspondent “I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices”.  Yamamoto well understood the consequences of the actions taken by his government, confiding to his diary. “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.”

Isoroku_YamamotoFor Imperial Japan, Yamamoto’s worst nightmare would prove correct.  In terms of GDP, the Tokyo government had attacked an adversary, nearly six times its own size.  The Japanese economy reached its high point in 1942 and declined steadily throughout the war years, while that of the United States exploded at a rate unseen in human history.

1942 started out grimly in the Pacific, with Americans and their Filipino allies besieged in Bataan and Corregidor, and Commonwealth forces hurled from the Malayan peninsula.  The Kriegsmarine celebrated the “Second Happy Time”, as German submarine commanders called it the “American shooting season”.  Yet, at the home front, 1942 saw massive industrial mobilization.

The backbone of American naval power during this period was the Essex-class aircraft carrier, remaining so until the supercarriers of the 60s and 70s.  Twenty-four Essex class carriers were completed during WW2, including USS Franklin, her hull laid down seventy-five years ago, today, one year after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  December 7, 1942.

USS Franklin, 1
Essex-class carrier, USS Franklin

“Big Ben” was launched ten months later at Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia, and commissioned on January 31, 1944.

For the remainder of 1944, Franklin’s engagements read like a timeline of the war, South of the Japanese home islands. The Bonin archipelago. Mariana Islands. Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, Haha Jima, Leyte, Guam and the Palau Islands.

By late 1944, a series of defeats had left the Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and groundcrew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, USS Reno was hit by the deliberate crash of a Japanese airplane.   The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers, against a carrier task force including USS Franklin.  Arima was killed and part of a plane hit Franklin.

It’s not clear that this was a suicide attack, but Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.   Official Japanese accounts bear little resemblance to the actual event, but Arima was officially given credit for the first kamikaze attack, of World War II.

By war’s end, this “divine wind” tactic would end the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 naval personnel.

On October 30, Franklin was attacked by a three-plane squadron of enemy bombers, bent on a suicide mission. One plummeted off her starboard side while a second hit the flight deck, crashing through to the gallery deck, killing 56 and wounding 60.   The third discharged it’s bombs nearly missing Franklin, before diving into the flight deck of the nearby Belleau Wood.  It was a harbinger of things to come.

Both carriers withdrew to Ulithi Atoll for temporary repairs of battle damage, and Franklin proceeded to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, for more permanent repairs.

Early in the following spring, Franklin rendezvoused with Task Force 58, joining in strikes against the Japanese home islands.

On the morning of March 19, 1945, Franklin turned into the early dawn wind preparing to launch aircraft, while up on the bridge, Commander Stephen Jurika was writing in his log.  On the hangar deck, chow lines snaked their way between 12″ wide “Tiny Tim” rockets on ordnance carts, while Messmen plopped the morning’s breakfast onto steel trays.

At 7:05, Commander Jurika heard a message from the carrier Hancock.  “Enemy plane closing on you…one coming toward you!”  Franklin’s Combat Information Center (CIC) picked up the enemy bomber at a range of twelve miles, but lost it in the clutter of Task Force 58’s morning launch.

Franklin 2

At 7:07, Commander Jurika saw the Japanese dive bomber sweep over his head, dropping two 500-pound bombs on Franklin.  The first ripped through 3-inch armor to the hangar deck, as the second exploded two decks below. Great sheets of flame enveloped the flight deck, as the 32-ton forward elevator literally rose into the air.  5 bombers, 14 torpedo bombers and 12 fighters were engulfed in the inferno, between them carrying 36,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 30 tons of bombs and rockets.

From the other ships of TF 58, Franklin appeared to be engulfed in flames.  With firefighters working fore and aft and Franklin making 24 knots, an aft gas line ruptured, igniting bombs, rockets, and a 40mm ready-service magazine. This second explosion literally lifted Franklin and spun her to starboard, as a 400′ sheet of flame towered over the carrier.  Franklin was listing at 13°, with radar and CIC, gone.  The flight deck was ruptured in a dozen places.  In ready room #51, eleven of twelve aviators of the famed “Black Sheep Squadron”, were dead.

Franklin 6

12′ Tiny Tim rockets flew screaming across the decks in every direction, as entire aircraft engines, propellers attached, flew through the air.  Each time firefighters dropped to the deck, and then went back at it.

Commander Jurika felt as if the carrier was a rat, being shaken by an angry cat.

The destroyers Miller and Hickox moved within several hundred feet, aiming their hoses at the damaged ship. A Mitsubishi Zero fighter was reported diving on the carrier at 7:41, but determined flak batteries, brought it down.

Franklin 4

Six minutes later, the light cruiser Santa Fe moved up, hurling life jackets and floater nets into the water to help swimmers.  Task Group 58.2 commander Rear Admiral Ralph Davison departed Franklin for the destroyer Miller, telling Captain Leslie Gehres, “Captain, I think there’s no hope. I think you should consider abandoning ship — those fires seem to be out of control”.

Ensign William Hayler later said “I was not sure whether I was entering Dante’s Inferno or crossing the River Styx”

A mile-high column of thick, greasy smoke rose from the carrier, as signalmen blinkered a message to Santa Fe: “We have lost steering control. Can you send fire hoses? Can you send for sea tugs?” Santa Fe blinkered back, asking if Franklin’s magazines were flooded.  “We believe the magazines are flooded, Big Ben replied. “Am not sure”. No one knew at the time, that the water valves were on, but the pipes had split. Hundreds of tons of explosives stored in the aft magazines, were dry.

Franklin 3Lieutenant Commander Joseph O’Callahan, a Jesuit priest from Boston and former Holy Cross track star was a Chaplain aboard the Franklin.  O’Callahan was everywhere, hurling bombs overboard and administering last rites, shouting encouragement and fighting fires.   Father O’Callahan would be the only Chaplain of WW2, to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

At 10am, Santa Fe signaled the carrier Bunker Hill: “Franklin now dead in water. Fires causing explosions. Have got a few men off. Fires still blazing badly…whether Franklin can be saved or not is still doubtful”.  Boards and ladders stretched between the cruiser and the carrier, evacuating the wounded.  Gehres ordered 800 off Franklin onto Santa Fe, as thirty sailors hacked at the starboard anchor with files, steel cutters and acetylene torches, dumping the anchor and using the 540′ chain as a towline, to the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser, USS Pittsburgh.  Others passed hot shells hand to hand, and dumping them overboard.

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Chaplain O’Callahan administers last rites

Another dive bomber attacked at 12:40, dropping its 500-pounder close enough to shake the carrier, while a motley crew of laundrymen and ship’s buglers manning the last operational 40mm AA guns, dropped the “Judy” into the water.

By 15:45, Franklin was under tow at 7 knots. That night she was able to make way under her own power.  No lights shone that night, but for the faint red glow of still burning fires.  The few Franklin crew remaining would continue to fight off additional dive bombers and put out fires, through the 31st.

832 were dead and another 300 wounded, one-third of the crew. Commander Joe Taylor found a typewriter and wrote the plan of the day, to which he added this headline, “Big Ben Bombed, Battered, Bruised and Bent But Not Broken”.  No ship in history had taken such a beating, and survived.

 

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December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girlThe Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field.  Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 lbs.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said that the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books hurled into its waters, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad, range from 90,000 to one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

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In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Golden Horde never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for the pyramids of skulls he left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute.  A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

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The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries under Mongol control.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black DeathThe Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as chieftains fell to squabbling over bloodlines.

The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), in the 1550s.

The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his fist.  Genghis Khan.

 

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December 4, 1966  War Dogs of Vietnam

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

There are times when two highly trained individuals are able to function at a level higher than the sum of their parts.  Professional athletes like NFL linemen and NHL forwards are two examples.  Another is often the partnership formed between law enforcement officers.

On the battlefield, few assets are more powerful than a well equipped and highly trained soldier. Unless we’re pairing that soldier with a Military Working Dog.

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

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“Nemo”, born in October 1962, entered the United States Air Force as a sentry dog in 1964, at the age of 1½ years.  After an 8-week training course at Lackland AFB Sentry Dog Training School in San Antonio, Texas, the 85-pound German Shepard was assigned to Airman Leonard Bryant Jr., and sent to Fairchild Air Base in Washington for duty with Strategic Air Command.

The pair was transferred to the Republic of South Vietnam with a group of other dog teams, and assigned to the 377th Security Police Squadron, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.  Six months later, Bryant rotated back to the States, and Nemo was paired with 22-year-old Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg.

Early on the morning of December 4, 60 Vietcong guerrillas emerged from the jungle, setting off a near-simultaneous alarm from several sentry dogs on perimeter patrol.

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Three dogs, Rebel, Cubby and Toby, were killed with their handlers in a hail of bullets.  Several other handlers were wounded, including one who was able to maintain contact with the enemy, notifying Central Security Control of their location and direction of travel.

Thanks to the early warning, a machine gun team was ready and waiting when 13 infiltrators approached the main aircraft parking ramp.  None of them lived to tell the story.  Security forces quickly deployed around the perimeter, driving some infiltrators off and others into hiding.  Daylight patrols reported that all VC infiltrators were gone, either killed or captured, but they had made a big mistake.  They should have brought the dogs with them.

nemo-house

That night, Thorneburg and Nemo were out on patrol near an old Vietnamese graveyard, about ¼ mile from the air base’ runways.  Nemo alerted on something.  Before Thorneburg could radio for backup, that something started shooting.  Thorneburg released the dog and charged in shooting, killing one Vietcong before being shot in the shoulder.  Nemo was badly wounded, shot in the face, the bullet entering below his eye and exiting his mouth.  Ignoring the injury, Nemo attacked the four enemy soldiers hiding in the brush, giving his partner time to call for reinforcements.

Reichenbach, Major, 2Four additional Vietcong were discovered hiding underground, as quick reaction teams scoured the area.  They found Nemo and Thornburg, both seriously wounded, together on the ground.  Both would survive, though Thorneburg was shot a second time, while returning to base.

I’m sure that individual dog handlers were as good to their dogs as they knew how to be, during the Vietnam era.  That’s a guess, but having an MWD handler in the family, I think it’s a good one.  The Department of Defense bureaucracy was another matter.

Roughly 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam, leading patrols through the dense jungle terrain.  Overall, these animals are credited with saving close to 10,000 lives.

When Marine Corps handler Steve Reichenbach arrived in country in 1966, he was paired with a cream colored Great Dane-German Shepherd mix.  “Major”, whose previous handler had been killed only weeks before, was an excellent match for Reichenbach, both being “mellow, relaxed, even-keeled types” who bonded, almost immediately.

Reichenbach, Major
Marine dog handler Steve Reichenbach with his dog, Major, on a patrol north of Danang in late 1966. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF STEPHEN K. REICHENBACH, with a tip of the hat to National Geographic

At 90 pounds, Major’s size alone seemed to intimidate the enemy, often leading VC to trip off ambushes, too early.

A land mine exploded on the Marine’s last day in country, killing four and wounding six.  Though badly wounded, Reichenbach would survive the war.  Major was unhurt, but he wasn’t so lucky.  The last the pair saw of one another, was in the medevac chopper.  Major still had Reichenbach’s blood on his fur, when he was paired with his next handler.  The marine never saw his “battle buddy” after that, but later heard the dog had succumbed to some tropical disease.

Nemo on the PlaneThe vast majority of MWDs who served in Vietnam, were left behind as “surplus equipment”.  Left to succumb to tropical disease, to be euthanized by the South Vietnamese Army, or worse.  Nemo was one of the few lucky ones.  He came home.

MWD Nemo was officially recognized for having saved the life of his handler, and preventing further destruction of life and property.   He was given the best of veterinary care and, on June 23, 1967, USAF Headquarters directed that he be returned to the United States.  The first sentry dog officially retired from active service.

The C124 Globemaster touched down at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, on July 22, 1967.  Nemo lived out the seven years remaining to him in a permanent retirement kennel at the DoD Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base.

 

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