December 7, 1941 Last Voyage of the USS Oklahoma

Once the symbol of US military might she only fired her guns in anger, one time. December 7, 1941

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941.

353 aircraft approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes of the Imperial Japanese military.  Across Hickam Field they came and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

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Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died, even as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side in the first ten minutes.The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

A Japanese pilot took this photo during the attack.

“This photo shows the severity of the attack. The darker waters around the Nevada (left), West Virginia (center), and Oklahoma (right) are actually oil slicks from the fuel reserves on board each ship. The Oklahoma is already listing badly, as the edge of the port deck has already slipped underwater. It would completely capsize only a few minutes later (image NH 50472, courtesy of Naval Heritage & History Command)” H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.

Across the harbor, USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is now a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.

With the US now in the war repairs were prioritized. USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma Diver

Recovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives and yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3-inch cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days. Cables were first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day. It was the first time in over two years.

At last fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

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Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have all earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

The guns of the mighty USS Oklahoma once again see the light of day. March, 1943 H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay.

She would never arrive.

Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around when suddenly, these two giant tugs found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

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Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached. Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and the battleship sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks as the 409-ton tug bobbed to the surface, like the float on a child’s fishing line.

Christened on March 23, 1914, USS Oklahoma was one of the first two oil burners in US military service. Heavily armored, her armament was as powerful as any vessel in her class. A symbol of US military might who only fired her guns once, in anger. December 7, 1941. Now, “Okie” was stabbed in the back while she lay at rest, attacked and mortally wounded before she even knew her nation was at war. 

The causes leading to that final descent into darkness remain uncertain, her final resting pace, a mystery.   Some will will tell you her plates couldn’t hold.  The beating she took those six years earlier, was too much.   Those who served on her decks might tell you a different story. Perhaps this pride of the United States Navy knew her time had come. Maybe she just wanted to die at sea.

November 11, 1918 The 11th Hour

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  A policing action, in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe, into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the European continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

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Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out, in pieces.

Many single day’s fighting during the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

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Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the trenches during the New Year of 1917-’18, you may have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Those who fought the “Great War”, were not always human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire to be twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, and live to the ripe old age of 33.First division Rags

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First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw, yet still, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during heavy bombardment from German guns, while frantically building a protective rock wall around himself, and his comrades.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden, to become mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries, to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, these were never given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet they served, some nine million making the supreme sacrifice by decision, other than their own.

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front, with riots at home and mutiny in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

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A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old German politician Matthias Erzberger.

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The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned out of a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in the same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

The German delegation was shocked at the words that came out of Foch’s mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

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Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of thirty-four demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.

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By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front.  Foch informed Ertzberger that he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  Even so, the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th, as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over, in a few hours?The last six hours

Many continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until only minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

One-hundred years ago today, all sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the signing of the armistice, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent.  Yet, such bias was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had already broken up with him, and he’d recently been busted in rank, after writing home complaining about conditions at the front.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland, was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

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After eight months on the front lines of France, Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, Foch said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

A personal note:

PFC Norman Franklin Long was wounded during the Great War, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963, only hours before his namesake and my brother Norm, was born.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve of 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery. 

Lt. Col. Richard B “Rick” Long Sr. served during the Vietnam era and earned his eternal rest at the Sandhills Veteran’s Cemetery, in North Carolina.

Rest in peace Grampa, Dad, you left us too soon.

Norm and my other brother Dave went on to serve over 50 years between them and both retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Respect and gratitude for your service, gentlemen.

November 8, 1965 The 8th of November

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

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On November 8, 1965, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade was halfway through a one-year term of service, in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters occupied positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving the Americans out.

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There was little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

The Vietcong were well aware of American superiority when it came to artillery and air cover.  The VC strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”.

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Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.

Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, near hill 65.  Let the man’s citation tell his part of the story:

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For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Specialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

Medal of honor citation

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle.  Many more were wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later and repatriated, in 2007.

The country music duo Big and Rich wrote a musical tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

October 26, 1918 Speaking in Code

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

Between 1942 and 1945, “code talkers” of the Navajo Nation took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps. From Guadalcanal to Tarawa, Peleliu to Iwo Jima, Navajo code talkers served with all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater, of World War 2.

Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker.  The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII.  Japanese code breakers never got close.

The history of the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII is relatively well known.  A number of books have been written about the subject.  Less well known is the code talk emerging from World War 1, based on the language of the Choctaw.

The government of the Choctaw Nation will tell you that they were the first native code talkers who ever served in the United States military.

Late in 1917, Colonel A. W. Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment.  This was a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

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By now the Allies had learned the hard way, that many among the German adversary spoke excellent English.  German code breakers had intercepted and broken several English-based codes. 

Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying.  If he didn’t understand their conversation he thought, no German could possibly have a clue.

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector.  One captured German officer avowed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success.  We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry.  Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and runner, many of whom were themselves Native Americans.

The Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase.  When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”.  Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

The Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII.  At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, described what he did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma.  The last was a native Chickasaw. 

Youngest of the group was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War.  Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was 16 the day he enlisted.

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Joseph Oklahombi

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language.    

Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed.  Oklahombi’s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded by French Marshall Philippe Pétain, tells the story:  “Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades“.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that some 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. 

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

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October 21, 1921 The Unknown Soldier

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

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

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

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

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German troops, leaving for the front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing Today in History:

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

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

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

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

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

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He got that wrong.  By 36 days.

September 25, 2022 Gold Star Mothers and Families

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

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

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

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

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

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US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

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

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

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

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

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Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 10, 1813 We Have Met the Enemy, and They are Ours

The war of 1812 was fought in a series of land and sea battles along three fronts: The Atlantic Ocean & East Coast, the Southern States, and the Great Lakes & Canadian Frontier.


In June 1812, neither the United States nor the British Empire were prepared for war. Most of the British war machine was busy with a “Little Corporal” whose “Waterloo” lay two years into in an uncertain future.  

The Fledgling United States had only just disbanded the National Bank and now had no means of paying for war, while private northeastern bankers were reluctant to provide financing.

Support for the War of 1812 was bitterly divided, between the Democratic-Republicans of President James Madison, and the Federalist strongholds of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  Of the six New England states, New Hampshire alone complied with President Madison’s requests for state militia.

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William Charles certoon, satirizing Thomas Pickering and the radical secessionist movement discussed at the Hartford Convention. H/T Smithsonian Magazine, for the image

It may have been the most unpopular war in United States’ history.  Much of New England threatened to secede, their position bolstered by the sack of Washington in August, 1814.

New England may have followed through with secession following the Hartford Convention of 1814, had not the Federalist position been made risible by future President Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

Hartford Convention delegates ended with a formal report, resolutions from which would resurface decades later in a doctrine we know as nullification.

Opposition to America’s first declared war was vehement, and often bloody.  Four days after it began, the office of the Baltimore Federal Republican newspaper was burned to the ground by an angry mob, infuriated by the anti-war editorials of Alexander Contee Hanson.

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Tip of the hat to historiograffiti, for this image

Hanson reopened his paper a month later, shielded by Revolutionary War veterans James Lingan and “Lighthorse Harry Lee”, father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee. The armed protection did him little good. Another mob formed within hours, this time torturing and severely beating Hanson, Lignan and Lee, before leaving them for dead.

James Lignan died of his injuries. Hanson recovered and went on to serve in the House of Representatives. Lee survived the beating but remained partially blind from hot wax poured into his eyes by the mob.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake claimed 200 years later, that, “Our city has a long history of peaceful demonstrations.”  With all due respect to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore has been known as “Mobtown”, for at least that long.

The war of 1812 was fought in a series of land and sea battles along three fronts: The Atlantic Ocean & East Coast, the Southern States, and the Great Lakes & Canadian Frontier.

The British Navy had virtually unchallenged control of the Great Lakes in 1812, with several warships already on station. The only American warship on Lake Erie was the brig USS Adams, pinned down in Detroit and not yet fitted for service.

War of 1812

Detroit fell almost immediately and remained in British hands for over a year. The Adams was captured along with the town and renamed “HMS Detroit”.

Meanwhile, Americans captured an English brig, the Caledonia, and acquired three civilian vessels, the schooners Somers and Ohio and the sloop-rigged Trippe. All four were converted into warships, which Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry had towed by oxen up the Niagara River. The operation which took six days. Once in Lake Erie they sailed down the coast to Presque Isle, on the Pennsylvania coast.

Chesapeake Bay and Pittsburgh foundries produced guns and fittings, while two more warships were ordered built at Presque Isle. Meanwhile, Perry drafted 50 experienced sailors from USS Constitution, then undergoing refit in Boston Harbor.

Presque Isle, Pennsylvania
Presque Isle, Pennsylvania

The American squadron was almost complete by mid-July, but there was a problem. The sand bar at the mouth of Presque Isle Bay is only 5-feet deep. This sand bar kept the British blockade at bay, with a little help from 2,000 Pennsylvania militia and several shore batteries. Once ready though, American ships had to contend with the same obstacle.

British Commander Robert Heriot Barclay was forced to lift his blockade on July 29, due to a supply shortage and bad weather. Perry immediately began the exhausting process of moving his vessels across the sandbar. Guns had to be removed, the larger boats raised between “camels”:  barges lashed together and emptied of ballast to lift the ships high in the water. When Barclay returned four days later, he found the Americans had nearly completed the task.

What followed was one of history’s great head fakes. Naval warfare in the age of sail was typically conducted by two parallel lines of ships, pounding one another with cannon until one side could no longer take the punishment. Perry’s largest brigs were unready when the British fleet returned, yet the American gunboats formed into line of battle so quickly and with such confidence, that Barclay withdrew to await completion of HMS Detroit.

Put-In-Bay

Perry’s fleet established anchorage at Put-in-Bay on the Ohio coast. It was there that Barclay’s fleet came for them on September 10.

Battle lines converged outside the harbor shortly after 11:00am. Perry’s flagship USS Lawrence took a savage beating, the longer guns of HMS Detroit having 20 minutes to do their work before Lawrence could effectively reply.

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Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, painted 1865, shows Oliver Hazard Perry transferring from Lawrence to Niagara

HMS Queen Charlotte added her gunfire to that of Detroit. Soon the American flagship was a wreck, with 80% casualties. Perry transferred his flag and rowed to the USS Niagara half a mile away, the brig being almost unscathed in the action, up to this point.

Damaged masts and rigging on the British side resulted in collision between Detroit and Queen Charlotte. They were still snarled up as Niagara broke through the British line, pounding them with broadsides from 18 32-pounder carronades and two 12-pounder long guns. Smaller English ships attempted to flee but were quickly overtaken.

U.S. Brig Niagara
Brig USS Niagara, 2013

That afternoon American and English vessels, the latter now prizes of war, were anchored with hasty repairs already underway. Oliver Hazard Perry took an old envelope and scrawled his now famous message to future President William Henry Harrison. “Dear General, We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry“.

Niagara remains in service to this day, a Coast Guard sail trainer and outdoor exhibit for the Erie Maritime Museum.  One of the last surviving ships, from the War of 1812.

September 8, (est) 480BC The Battle of Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill where the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

In 490BC, the Persian King Darius I sent an amphibious expedition into the Aegean, only to be defeated by a far smaller force of Athenians at the Bay of Marathon.

As Achaemenid Emperor, leader of the most powerful state of his time, King Darius I was sovereign over 21 million square miles and more.  He had more to deal with than a handful of malcontents in the Peloponnese.  At the moment, Darius had an Egyptian revolt to put down, but the “King of Kings’” would be back.  He had a score to settle with the Greeks.   King Darius died before he was through, so it was that the Persian King Xerxes would return to finish what his father had begun, ten years before.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  De facto military leaders of the Greek alliance, the Spartans were then celebrating the religious festival of Carneia.  Lacedaemonian law forbade military activity at this time, the same reason the Spartans had shown up late at Marathon, ten years earlier.  

Spartan leaders went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for advice.

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The Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi was a seer, usually selected from among epileptics, as the Greeks believed seizures were evidence that the sufferer was in touch with the Gods. A careful ritual was observed, before the Priestess would speak.  First she would bathe in the Castalian Spring, before drinking from another stream. A priest would then pour ice water over a goat, to determine the presence of Apollo. The goat’s shivering was understood to indicate that the God was present, and that he had invested his powers in the Oracle. If the signs were fortuitous, the Oracle would then inhale the gas emitted from a chasm near the temple.  With volcanic gasses rising from the ground beneath her, the “Pythia” would then mount to the Tripod.  Only then would she speak.

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Oracle at the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

“Hear your fate”, said the oracle, “O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces.  Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons, or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles. For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him, strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus, and will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”

For King Leonidas of Sparta, the meaning was clear.  He himself would have to die to fulfill the Oracle’s prophesy.

Leonidas gathered a small blocking force of 300 Spartan Peers, all of them “Sires”. This was understood to be a suicide mission. Leonidas wanted only those warriors who would leave behind, a son.

Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC, but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  Thermopylae.

Thermopylae topo

The 300 marched out at the head of an allied army of 7,000, to meet a Persian horde modern estimates put at 100,000 to 150,000. A native of Trachis told the Spartan General Dienekes, that Persian archers were so numerous their arrows would block out the sun. “Good”, replied the general. “Then we shall fight in the shade”.

When the overwhelming Persian army demanded the Spartans lay down their arms, Leonidas’ response was short and sweet.  “Molon Labe”, he said.  Come and get them.

The two armies collided on or about the 8th of September, 480BC.  Thermopylae, a mountain pass delineated by the Phocian Wall on one side and the Aegean Sea on the other, measured the width of two carts abreast, negating the Persian numerical advantage. Great piles of Persian dead choked the pass by the end of the 9th. Nothing that Xerxes could throw at the Greek heavy infantry could break their phalanx.

A traitor to his people then rose among the local population, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

Thermopylae

Knowing he was betrayed and would soon be surrounded, Leonidas sent most of the allied soldiers away.  They would be needed for the battle yet to come.

On day three, King Leonidas was left with his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans.  True to form, the Theban band defected en masse to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity.  Still, the hordes of Xerxes were unable to break through the Greek line, even on two fronts.  They backed off and rained down arrows from a distance, until no Greek was left standing.

Artemisium devolved into a meaningless stalemate, and yet the Greek alliance had demonstrated itself more than capable of standing up to the mightiest empire of its time.   Athens, lacking the manpower to fight simultaneously on land and at sea, abandoned their city to be burned to the ground.  The regrouped Greek Navy crushed the Persians at Salamis.  The last Persian invader was driven off the Greek mainland the following August, following Greek victory at a place called Plataea.

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill where the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

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August 25, 1830 A Scrap of Paper

The story of how a night at the opera led to two world wars.

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars once belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. A Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

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The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic and mostly French speaking, in contrast with the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north. 

Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant. Meanwhile high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, La Muette was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29, 1828.   During one performance a riot broke out during a particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland). 

It was August 25, 1830.

Soon the melee was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Meanwhile Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

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Leopold I, 1st King of the Belgians

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence. Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

By this instrument Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation led by Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands had formally recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In 1914, Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight.  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the slow-moving behemoth, of Imperial Russia.  The only obstacles were the neutral states of Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Believing Great Britain would remain on the sidelines, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4, beginning a great sweep through Belgian territory into France. The government of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German assumptions were grievously mistaken.  Great Britain declared war within hours of the German invasion.

A regional squabble begun that June with the assassination of an Archduke would plunge the world into war, in August. Two world wars, really, with a 20-year break to grow a new generation, in-between.

August 19, 1812 Single Combat

On the afternoon of August 19, 1812 Constitution spotted a large frigate to leeward, some 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. She was that same 38 gun frigate HMS Guerriere, from the earlier pursuit. This time there would be no flight. There was about to be a fight.

When the United States first won independence from Britain in 1783, the young nation soon learned that freedom had some disadvantages. One big one being that America had lost its protector, at sea.

British and French vessels alike harassed American merchant shipping, often kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve in their own navies.

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Barbary pirates were a problem for Mediterranean and Atlantic shipping alike, harassing American shipping as early as 1785. 

In 1793 alone these brigands captured 11 American vessels holding the ships and crew, for ransom.

Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, appropriating funds to build a fleet of 6 three-masted, heavy frigates for the United States Navy. The act included a clause halting construction, in the event of a peace treaty with Algiers.   No such treaty was ever concluded.

Named by George Washington himself and launched October 21, 1797, USS Constitution was one of these six. With hull made from the wood of 2,000 Georgia live oak trees, she was built in the Edmund Hartt shipyard of Boston, Massachusetts.

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Constitution’s first duties involved the “quasi-war” with France, but this was not the France who helped the US win the war for independence. The French monarchy was swallowed up by this time in a revolution of its own, radical leftists calling themselves “Jacobins” sending the Bourbon King and his Queen Consort Marie Antoinette, to the guillotine. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and Hero of the American Revolution, languished in an Austrian prison.

The French Monarchy would be restored one day, but not before a certain Corsican Corporal rose to the rank of Emperor to meet his Waterloo, fighting (and winning) more battles than Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal, combined.  But I digress.

The Barbary pirates were paid “tribute” during this time to keep quiet, but that ended in 1800.  Yusuf Karamanli, Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 from the incoming Jefferson administration. Jefferson refused and Constitution joined in the Barbary Wars in 1803, a conflict memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.”

USS_Constitution_underway, turning

In July 1812, Constitution put to sea off the coast of New Jersey intending to join the five ship squadron of Commodore John Rodgers. Spotting sail over the night of July 17 and thinking that they had found their rendezvous, Constitution was soon disabused of that notion. Lookouts reported 4 British warships heading west and a 5th, the 38-gun frigate, HMS Guerriere, heading straight for her.

The 64-gun ship of the line HMS Africa soon joined the chase along with the frigates Shannon, Aeolus and Belvidera. That soon to be famous “iron” hull would be useless in a 5 to 1 fight.

With light winds that sometimes died down altogether Constitution dropped her boats, to tow the ship. Captain Philip Broke followed suit ordering the boats of his entire fleet to join in, towing HMS Shannon. Captain Isaac Hull ordered nine tons of drinking water pumped overboard but still, her pursuers closed the distance. First Lieutenant Charles Morris suggested “kedging“, where Constitution’s boats were rowed out to drop small “kedge anchors”. Sailors would then haul the frigate up the anchor chain. British ships imitated the tactic but the fire of Constitution’s aft guns kept the adversary at bay.  Before it was over this slow motion race for survival lasted 57 hours, in the July heat.

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Constitution sailed for Boston to replenish drinking water supplies after this episode and returned to sea on August 2, to raid British shipping off the coast of Halifax. Meanwhile Broke detached Guerriere to return to Halifax, for a much needed refit.

On the afternoon of August 19, 1812 Constitution spotted a large frigate to leeward, some 400 miles off the coast of Halifax. She was that same 38 gun frigate HMS Guerriere, from the earlier pursuit. This time there would be no flight. There was about to be a fight.

Aboard Guerriere Captain James Richard Dacres was holding the American merchant Captain William Orne, captive. Dacres asked the American who this might be and Orne replied she was without doubt, American. The British captain remarked he’d be “made for life” to be the first to capture an American frigate.

Both vessels shortened to ‘fighting sail’, preparing for action. Watching a ball bounce harmlessly off Constitution’s 21” thick oak hull, one American sailor exclaimed “Huzzah! her sides are made of iron!” The two ships closed to “half a pistol shot” range and pounded each other with broadsides the Constitution to starboard and Guerriere, to port.

The larger guns and thicker hull of USS Constitution took their toll and Guerrier’s mizzenmast fell, as Constitution turned to deliver another broadside. Guerrier’s bowsprit became snarled in Constitution’s rigging and now the two ships were locked together, slowly rotating clockwise and exchanging fire, at point-blank range. Boarding parties were made ready but heavy seas prevented anything but musket shot. Soon the aft cabin was ablaze on the American ship but the English, were taking a pounding.

Like prize fighters locked in a clinch the two ships finally parted as Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast, snapped off at the deck. Her “power plant” thus crippled Dacres ordered sail set on the bowsprit as Constitution ran downwind, repairing rigging before once again, turning to the battle.

In twenty minutes Guerriere was reduced to an unsalvageable hulk. Ten American sailors were discovered afterward, “pressed” into service aboard the British frigate. Captain Dacres had allowed them to remain below decks, rather than fight their countrymen. Dacres was escorted aboard Constitution where Hull refused his sword, saying that he could not take the sword of a man who had fought so gallantly.

Captain Hull wanted to tow the hulk into port as a prize, but she was beyond salvage. Guerriere was burned to the waterline. With shot embedded in her lower masts Constitution returned to port, unable to continue her cruise. Captain Dacres returned to England to stand court-martial, for the loss of his ship.

Isaac Hull could have joined the likes of John Paul Jones, David Farragut and Chester Nimitz as naval heroes of the young nation, but he would never again hold a fighting command. His brother had died and Hull was duty bound to support his widowed sister-in-law, and her children. Permission was asked and granted, that he switch commands with Captain William Bainbridge. Bainbridge would go on to a long an illustrious career at sea and service, under six presidents. Hull served out his career as commander of the Boston Navy Yard.

USS Constitution is still in service today, the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel, still afloat. She went into dry dock for major overhaul in October 2014 and re-floated in July, 2017.  Freshly restored and re-fitted, Old Ironsides can be boarded at your convenience at Charlestown harbor. But this time, you needn’t bring a musket.

Old Ironsides, Drydock
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