July 9, 1943 The Most Decorated K9, of WW2

“Chips, a German shepherd, collie, husky mix, was the most famous and decorated sentry dog in World War II, one of 10,425 dogs that saw service in the Quartermaster Corps’ new “K-9 Corps.” Prior to the K-9 Corps, dogs such as Admiral Wags on the carrier Lexington and World War I canine hero Sgt. Stubby were mascots and had no official function in America’s military.” H/T Defense Media Network

By the last year of the “Great War”, French, British and Belgian armed forces employed some 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans, 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

US Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. Chips was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  Six weeks of land combat followed in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.

During the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox.  Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.   

Platoon commander Captain Edward Parr recommended Chips for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine gun nest and causing surrender of its crew.”

He helped to capture ten more later that same day.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart but his awards, were later revoked.  At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars.  One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. In 1990, Disney made a TV movie based on his life.  It’s called “Chips, the War Dog”.

June 9, 1772 The Road to Revolution

The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. She was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water on the 9th of June, when she ran aground. What followed was one of the earliest acts of rebellion, of the American Revolution.

The Seven Years’ War of 1756-’63 was in many ways a world war, experienced in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.  The cost to the British crown was staggering. Parliament wanted their colonies in America to pay for their share of it. The war had been fought for their benefit after all, had it not?

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In the 1760s, several measures were taken to collect these revenues. In one 12-month period, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Declaratory Act, and deputized the Royal Navy’s Sea Officers to help enforce customs laws in colonial ports.

American colonists hated these measures.  For decades now, the colonies had been left to run their own affairs.  Many of them bristled at the heavy handed measures now being taken by revenue and customs agents. In Rhode Island, the Sugar Act of 1764 was particularly egregious as the distillation of rum from molasses, was a main industry. Rhode Islanders took control of Fort George on Goat Islands and fired several cannon shots at the HMS St. John.  The Royal Navy vessel managed to escape harm as did her aggressors, with the approach of the 21-gun HMS Squirrel.

Ten years later, the first distinctly American flag in history unfurled some 27 miles up the road in in Taunton, Massachusetts. Even now the “Liberty and Union” flag proclaimed the desire for autonomy…and union. Liberty and Union but that first open act of rebellion, was already ten years in the past.

Back in 1769, colonists burned the customs ship H.M.S. Liberty in Newport harbor.  In a few short months, the “Boston Massacre” would unfold before the Custom House, on King Street.

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The customs schooner H.M.S. Gaspée sailed into Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island in early 1772, to aid with customs enforcement and collections. On June 9 she was chasing the packet boat Hannah through shallow water when she ran aground near the modern-day Gaspée Point, near the town of Warwick.

Local Sons of Liberty met that afternoon at Sabin Tavern opposite Fenner’s Wharf, from which the daily packet ship sailed to Newport Harbor. There the co-conspirators concocted a plot. They would set fire to the Gaspée, and spent the evening hours casting bullets for the enterprise.

They rowed out to the ship at dawn the next morning. There was a brief scuffle in which Lieutenant William Dudingston was shot and wounded. The vessel was then looted, and burned to the waterline.

Earlier attacks on British shipping had been dealt with lightly, but the Crown was not going to ignore the destruction of its own military vessels. Treason charges were prepared. Planning commenced to try the perpetrators in England, but the crown was never able to make the case.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that nobody saw anything.

Lexington Reenactors

A few days later, a visiting minister in Boston, John Allen, used the Gaspée incident in a 2nd Baptist Church sermon. His sermon was printed seven times in four colonial cities, one of the most widely read pamphlets in Colonial British America.

The King’s “Tea Act” would lead to the Boston Tea Party the following year.  The blizzard of regulations that came down in 1774, the “Intolerable Acts”, would pave the way to the April Battles at  Lexington & Concord and the conflict at a place called Bunker Hill, that June.

One eighth of all the British officers to die of wounds in the American Revolution fell that day, on a nearby hill owned by Ephraim Breed. The fuse had been lit, to an American Revolution.  This flame was not to be put out, easily.

May 15, 1997 Bombies

If I asked you about the most heavily bombed nation in history, who would you guess. Japan or Germany during World War 2? Iran or Iraq? You might be surprised who it is. It is none of those.

Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos. To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred specimens each.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union.

The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

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The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military “reunification”, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bombs.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of World War 2 making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

There were all types of bombs from 3,000-pound monsters to smaller “big bombs” weighing hundreds of pounds to “cluster munitions”, canisters designed to open in flight showering the earth with 670 “bomblets” the size of a tennis ball packed with explosives and pellets.  It’s estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode. 80 million of them, the locals call them “bombies”, set to go off with the weight of a foot, a wheel or the touch of a garden hoe and every one packing a killing radius, of 30 meters.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

On February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

On May 14–15, 1997, the Lao Veterans of America and others held a two day series of events honoring the contributions of ethnic Hmong and others to the American war effort, formally dedicating the Laos Memorial, at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a stunning reversal of policy, an acknowledgement of a “secret war”, the existence of which which had been denied, for years.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

Today, Laos is a mostly agricultural economy with rice accounting for 80% of arable land. Other crops include corn, cotton, fruit, mung beans, peanuts, soybeans, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and opium. Increasingly, highland farmers are turning to coffee, a more profitable crop bringing with it the expectation, that the farmer will be able to educate his children.

Profitable yes, but not without risk. The CIA’s “secret war” in Laos has been over for near a half-century. To this day cluster submunitions and other UXO kill and maim dozens, every year.

May 14, 1915 Canary Girls

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls’ gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Since the age of antiquity, heavy weapons have tilted the scales of battlefield strategy. The first catapult was developed in Syracuse, in 339 BC. The Roman catapult of the 1st century BC hurled 14-pound stone balls against fixed fortifications. The age of gunpowder brought new and ghastly capabilities to artillery. In 1453, the terrifying siege guns Mehmed II faced the walls of Constantinople, hurling 150-pound missiles from barrels, wide enough to swallow a grown man.

Monument to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, Edirne, East Thrace, Turkey

Such weapons were slow to reload and sometimes, unreliable. Mehmed’s monsters took a full three hours to fire. Seven years later, King James II of Scotland was killed when his own gun, exploded.

This experimental three-shot cannon belonging to Henry VIII burst, with predictable results for anyone standing nearby.

By the Napoleonic wars, artillery caused more battlefield casualties than any other weapon system.

At that time such weapons were virtually always, loaded at the muzzle. The first breech loaders came about in the 14th century but it would take another 500 years, before precision manufacturing made such weapons reliable, and plentiful.

Breech loading vastly increased rate-of-fire capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought new and hideous capabilities to what Josef Stalin would come to call, the “God of War’.

Heretofore, the massive recoil of such weapons required a period of time to re-set, re-aim and reload. In the 1890s, French soldier Joseph Albert DePort solved that problem with a damping system enabling the barrel to recoil, leaving the gun in place. Recoilless weapons could now be equipped with shields keeping gun crews as close as possible while smokeless powder meant that gunners could clearly see what they were shooting at.

By World War 1, trained crews serving a French 75 could fire once every two seconds. Massed artillery fired with such horrifying rapidity as to resemble the sound, of drums.

This clip is five minutes long. Imagine finding yourself under “drumfire”, for days on end.

While guns of this type were aimed by lines of sight, howitzers fired missiles in high parabolic trajectories to fall on the heads, of the unlucky.

The great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) once said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. So it was in the tiny Belgian city of Ypres where the German war of movement met with weapons of the industrial revolution.

A million men were brought to this place, to kill each other. The first Battle for Ypres, there would be others, brought together more firepower than entire wars of an earlier age. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.

British 18-pounder

The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. The three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece. Soldiers on all sides dug frantically into the ground, to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger called, the “Storm of Steel”.

First drum fire in the war, in the Champagne, Lasted 75 hours, from Sept. 22 to 25. Was directed against 20 Miles of the German Front. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The French alone expended 2,155,862 shells during the Anglo-French offensive called the second battle of Artois, fought May 9 through June 18, 1915, a fruitless effort to capitalize on German defenses, weakened by the diversion of troops to the eastern front. The objective, to flatten the German “Bulge” in the Artois-Arras sector.

Immediately to the French left, the British 6th army under Sir John French was to advance on May 9 in support of the French offensive, taking the villages of Aubers, Fromelles and Le Maisnil and the elevation known as Aubers Ridge.

The battle of Aubers was an unmitigated disaster. The man-killing shrapnel rounds so valued by pre-war strategists were as nothing, against fortified German earthworks. No ground was taken, no tactical advantage gained despite British losses, ten times that on the German side.

War correspondent Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to The Times, complaining of the lack of high-explosive shells. On May 14 The Times headline read: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”. The article placed blame squarely on the government of Herbert Asquith who had stated as recently as April 20, that the army had sufficient ammunition.

“We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”.

The Times, May 14, 1915

For British politics at home, the information fell as a bombshell, precipitating a scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915.

Governments were slow at first to understand the prodigious appetites, of this war. Fixed trench lines led to new rail construction capable of providing cataracts of munitions, to front lines. The problem came from a munitions industry, unable to supply such demands.

Men shipped off to the war by the millions leaving jobs vacant and families at home, without income. Women represented a vast pool of untapped labor. Despite social taboos against women working outside the home, wives, sisters and mothers came flooding into the workplace.

By the end of the war some three million women joined the workforce a third of whom, worked in munitions factories.

Ever conscious of husbands, sons and sweethearts at the front, women worked grueling hours under dangerous conditions. “Munitionettes” manufactured cordite propellants and trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives, hand filling projectiles from individual bullets to giant shells.

At the front, the war was an all-devouring monster consuming men and munitions at rates unimagined, in earlier conflicts. During the first two weeks of the 3rd Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, British, Australian and Canadian artillery fired 4,283,550 shells at their German adversary.

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls” gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Nothing could be done and the yellow tended to fade over time but not a very different yellow, caused by toxic jaundice.

The work was well paid but exhausting, often seven days a week. Grueling 14-hour shifts led to girls as young as 14 coming into the workforce, but it wasn’t enough. “History of Yesterday” writes that two women on average died every week from toxic chemicals, and workplace accidents. One 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory №6 near Chilwell caused the death of 130 women.

The modern reader can scarcely imagine the crushing burdens of these women caring for families at home and ever conscious of sons, brothers and sweethearts, struggling to survive in this all consuming war.

The canary colored hair and skin would fade in time, but not the long term health effects of daily exposure to toxic substances. It didn’t matter. Twenty years later another generation would do it, all over again.

May 12, 1864 A Mighty Oak

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

According to legend, the infant Temujin was born sometime between 1155 and 1162 with a blood clot clutched in his fist, the size of a knucklebone. Mongol folklore holds such a sign to be prophetic. That one day the child would grow to be a great leader. Today we remember the young boy Temujin as the great and terrible chieftain, Genghis Khan.

Around that time some 6,500 miles to the west, an acorn sprouted from the soil in a place we now call Wyllys Hyll in Hartford, Connecticut. Through countless summers and frigid winters the sapling grew and transformed to become a mighty oak tree. Dutch explorer Adrian Block described the tree in a log, written in 1614. Twenty years later, local natives spoke with Samuel Wyllys, an early settler who had cleared the ground around it. Tribal elders spoke of this oak and its ceremonial planting, all those centuries before. They pleaded with Wyllys to preserve the great tree.

“It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ears, then is the time to put the seed into the ground”.

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Hat Tip to photographer Robert Fawcett for this image, of a mighty oak

In 1662 Governor John Winthrop won from King Charles II a charter, legitimizing the settlements of Connecticut and establishing the colonists’ right, of self-rule. Twenty five years later, King James II wanted the New England and New York colonies integrated under central authority and sought to rescind, the charter. Sir Edmund Andros, hand selected to rule over this “Dominion of New England” marched on Hartford at the head of an armed force to seize the charter.

The next part fades into legend but the story is, that Governor Robert Treat and a group of colonists sat glaring across the table at Andros, and a group of his allies. The charter lay between them, on a table. The debate raged for hours when, somehow, the lights went out. On relighting the candles only moments later King Charles’ charter, was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth had snatched up the parchment and stashed it in a hollow, in that great old tree.

Fun Fact: The timber from 2,000 southern live oak trees was harvested in Georgia and used to construct the hulls of USS Constitution and five other US Navy frigates, constructed under the Naval Act of 1794. Today, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest commissioned warship on the planet, still afloat.

Despite all that the politicians folded and Andros made his appointments, but colonists never did vote to submit. With the Spring of 1689 came news of the Glorious Revolution, in England. King James had fled to France and Edmund Andros was arrested. So it is the New England colonies held and kept their independence. The “Charter Oak” depicted at the top of this page remains to this day, a part of our colonial history.

The majestic old tree blew over in a storm in 1856 when firearms manufacturer Samuel Colt sent a marching band to play funeral dirges, over its fallen timbers.

Live Oaks line the entrance to the Wormsloe Plantation, in Savannah, Georgia

From the frigid forests of the north to the beaches of our southern coasts some 90 species of oak tree stand as part of our personal memories, and our American history. The Water Oak shading the Brown Chapel African Methodist Church in Selma Alabama, where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “We Shall Overcome” speech before setting out on a 50-mile march, to Montgomery. The Overcup Oak beside the birthplace of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. As a child, Helen Keller once climbed the branches of a 100-year-old Water Oak.

Descendants of these trees and hundreds more stand today at our nation’s most hallowed ground at Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington National Cemetery and Arboreta

Not far away, the Smithsonian owns another oak or, more accurately, the stump of a tree hewn to the ground, by gunfire.

Our ancestors were still English colonists when this particular acorn first reached toward the warmth, of the sun. On this day in 1864 that sapling stood in a quiet meadow in Spotsylvania Virginia, itself a mighty oak some 22-inches, in diameter.

The 16th President of the United States once said of general Ulysses Grant “I need this man. He fights”. A succession of Generals had failed in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln, but not Grant. You knock him down and he’ll dust off, and keep coming at you.

Following a terrible draw at the Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s army disengaged from that of Robert E. Lee and moved southeast, hoping to draw the Confederates into battle under more favorable conditions. It was a race to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Elements of Lee’s forces won the race and began to entrench. Off and on fighting began on May 8 and lasted, through May 21.

On May 12 some 1,200 Confederate troops waited in that once quiet meadow, sheltered behind an earthwork and timber revetment shaped, like a mule’s shoe. At the center stood that majestic oak. Some 5,000 Union troops assaulted the position from the Army of the Potomac. Some of the most savage and sustained fighting of the Civil War raged on all sides, of that tree. When it was over some twenty hours later that mighty oak, was no more. The tree was felled by small arms fire at a place we remember, as the “Bloody Angle’.

Both sides declared victory at Spotsylvania Courthouse and the war moved on. To places called Yellow Tavern (May 11), Meadow Bridge (May 12), North Anna (May 23–26), and others. By late June, Lee was forced into the nightmare position of defending the Confederate Capital, at Richmond.

Taken together Grant’s “Overland Campaign” carried out over those six bloody weeks in May and June resulted in some of the highest casualties, of the Civil War. Casualties crippling to Federal troops but in the end mortal, to the cause of southern independence.

Overland map, May and June, 1864

The modern mind is left only to contemplate, perhaps over the image of that tree stump. To imagine, what it all sounded like. What it all looked like. What it all smelled like.

That tree stump is all that remains of the apocalypse of May 12, of an oak tree surrounded by the cataclysm of Civil War and carried out inside a meadow, shaped like a mule’s shoe.

H/T Smithsonian, for this image of a once majestic oak tree. Felled, one bullet at a time, near a place called Spotsylvania.

Afterward

Many among us trace our personal ancestry, through the Civil War. For 52nd North Carolina infantry soldier James Tyner, the war came to an end in Spotsylvania Court House.

Tyner was captured and moved to the Federal prison camp in Elmira New York known as “Hellmira”.

There my own twice-great grandfather would spend the rest of the war, or most of it. James Tyner died in captivity on March 13, 1865. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant only twenty-seven days later, at a place called Appomattox.

May 10, 1940 And What of the Mouse?

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.  Often such parents, usually women, are shunned by neighbors and even family.  “War children” may experience even worse subjected to ostracism, bullying, and more.

Much is written of what takes place, when politicians send nations to war. Few take note of the innocents. The proverbial mice wishing only to go about their business while all about them, is chaos.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

African Proverb

On the Eastern Front of World War 2, combat between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union rose to proportions of apocalyptic race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of that war.  Four out of every five German soldiers who died in all World War 2, died on the ‘Ostfront’.

While precise numbers are impossible to ascertain, an estimated several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million German females from 8 to 80 were raped by Red Army soldiers. Some, as many as 60 or 70 times according to historian, William Hitchcock.. Austrian women were no different nor even Soviet women, released from work camps. 

“The front-line Russian troops who did the fighting – as a woman, you didn’t have to be afraid of them. They shot every man they saw, even old men and young boys, but they left the women alone. It was the ones who came afterwards, the second echelon, who were the worst. They did all the raping and plundering. They stripped homes of every single possession, right down to the toilets”.

Anonymous German woman, living in Berlin

British military historian Antony Beevor concludes that 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, alone. Female deaths in connection with such rapes in Germany and the butchered abortion attempts which followed, are estimated at 240,000. 4,148 Red Army soldiers were punished for such atrocities.

The only survivors of 150 Polish people who walked from Lodz, Poland to Berlin Huddle in blankets, on December 14, 1945. They are waiting by a railway track hoping to be picked up by a British army train and given help. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

When Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas complained about rapes in Yugoslavia, Stalin replied that he should “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.”

Small surprise when Stalin’s own Chief of the Secret Police Lavrentiy Beria, was a serial rapist.

Displaced persons cross a bridge on the River Elbe at Tangermunde, which was blown up by the Germans, to escape the chaos behind German lines caused by the approach of the advancing Russians on May 1, 1945. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

In his 2007 book Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe in World War II, Northern Kentucky University sociology and criminology professor J. Robert Lilly reports that 11,040 rapes were carried out by US servicemen.

In 1959, journalist Marta Hillers wrote what was then an anonymous memoir of the weeks between April 22 and June, 1945. In it, Hillers describes being gang raped by Red Army soldiers before forming a relationship with a Soviet officer, for her own protection. Marta Hillers died in 2001. Seven years later, her account was retold in the German feature film, Eine Frau in Berlin. (A Woman in Berlin).

German woman walks by Soviet troops in a scene from the 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin

Propaganda banners and posters appeared all over the Soviet-occupation zone and later East Germany, proclaiming the heroism of those who had smashed the Nazi war machine and paved the way to Soviet-German friendship. The plight of tens of thousands of “Russian children”, mostly fatherless, was taboo.

All these decades later, former East German Jan Gregor can still remember the day his mother told him that she was “made pregnant by force”.

An estimated 100,000 “Amerasian” children were born to Asian mothers and U.S. servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and war in Vietnam. 

Some 37,000 children were fathered by American soldiers with German and Austrian women in the 10 years following the German surrender. Locals disapproved of such relations, not only because these Americans had recently been their enemies, but also because such children often became “wards of the state” in local economies already impoverished, by war.  The “brown children” of black GIs and German mothers were particularly difficult to adopt out in what was heretofore a racially homogeneous culture.  Many were adopted by American couples and families of African ancestry, back in the States.

Military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the neutral Scandinavian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell in a day. Norwegian armed resistance ceased within two months, when civil rule passed to the Reichskommissariat Norwegen (Reich Commissariat of Norway).  The neutral Scandinavian countries remained under Wehrmacht occupation, for the next five years.

Sometimes, relationships formed between German occupying troops and native women.  The racially obsessed Nazi regime was happy to encourage such relations, particularly in Norway, where local women were considered to be of pure, “Aryan” ancestry.  Some such relationships were consensual.  Many were anything but.  Some 10,000 to 12,000 children were born to Norwegian women and German fathers, the most famous being Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA, who fled Norway after the war for fear of reprisals.

For nearly a thousand years, the administration of Iceland was all but indistinguishable from that of Denmark and Norway.  The Act of Union established Iceland as a fully sovereign state in 1918, an independent country in a personal union through a common monarch, with the Kingdom of Denmark. 

Following the allied withdrawal from Dunkirk, every nation on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. Alarmed at the possibility of German military presence to their north, British authorities invited the neutral nation Iceland to join the war as “as a belligerent and an ally,” following the collapse of Denmark. That invitation, was rejected.

On this day in 1940, the United Kingdom invaded Iceland, an initial force of 746 British Royal Marines disembarking at the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. 

The British invasion of Iceland never resembled the “shooting war” in Europe.  The government complained that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and demanded compensation, but principle opposition took the form of hordes of civilians, who crowded in to see what was happening.  Icelandic public opinion was sharply divided at the invasion and subsequent occupation.  Many described it all as the “blessað stríðið“, the “Lovely War”, the building of a roads, hospitals, harbors, airfields and bridges across the nation a boon to the Icelandic economy.  Others resented the occupation, which rose to half the native male population.

Sexual relationships between foreign troops and local women were severely frowned upon. Such women often accused of being traitors, even prostitutes. 

In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated “The Situation”.  Upset that foreign troops were “taking away” women from friends and family, police investigated over 500 women for sexual with soldiers and determined, most had been consensual.  Two facilities opened to house such women in 1942 but both closed, within a year. Two-hundred fifty-five ástandsbörn (‘children of the situation’) were born of such relationships.  332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.

It has been said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday Joe and the Nigel, the Fritz, Pierre and the Ivan down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding, and the dying.  It may well be added. It’s usually left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.

May 5, 1945 Changing Sides

On this day in 1945, a motley group of civilians joined forces with American GIs and a handful of Wehrmacht soldiers to fight the fanatics, of the Nazi SS.

According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States second only, to heart disease. The #3 leading cancer afflicts the lungs, and bronchi.

In 1878 a scant 1 percent of all malignant tumors occurred in the lungs. Mass production and mass marketing of cigarettes, changed all that. By 1918, that number had increased to one in ten.

The American Cancer Society first published studies confirming the link between lung cancer and smoking nearly a decade after World War 2. British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll was knighted in 1971 for similar research but the earliest such work, occurred in Nazi Germany.

German physician Fritz Lickint first wrote in 1929 of the connection between smoking, and lung cancer. Ten years later German scientist Franz Müller presented the first epidemiological study linking tobacco use, and cancer.

When Nazis came to power, the new government would tolerate no threat to the health of the Aryan “master race”. Hitler himself quit a two pack a day habit back in 1919. Benito Mussolini quit smoking and drinking, in his 20s. For the fascist states anti-smoking, became a crusade.  By the start of WWII der Führer had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone among his inner circle, who quit the habit. 

“Brother national socialist, do you know that your Fuhrer is against smoking and thinks that every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and omissions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs?”

Adolf Hitler

In 1942, Itter Castle became headquarters for the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”.

Schloss Itter (Itter Castle) in July 1979. Photo by S.J. Morgan.

Itter Castle appeared in the land records of the Austrian Tyrol as early as 1240.  When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Schloss Itter was first leased and later requisitioned outright by the German government for unspecified “Official use”.

Nazi anti-smoking Propaganda
Nazi anti-tobacco propaganda

By April 1943, Itter became a prison for individuals of value to the Reich.  Among these were the tennis player Jean Borotra and former French Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud.  Former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were interned in Schloss Itter as was Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the elder sister of Charles de Gaulle. 

A number of Eastern Europeans were likewise imprisoned at Itter, mostly employed in maintenance and other menial work around the castle.

In the early weeks of 1945, the 23rd Tank Battalion of the American 12th Armored Division fought its way across France, through Germany and into the Austrian Tyrol.  27 year-old 1st Lieutenant John “Jack” Lee Jr. was leading the three tank “Company B’, spearheading the drive into Kufstein and on to Munich.  The unit had just fought a pitched battle at a German roadblock before clearing the town.  With lead elements of the 36th Infantry moving in to take possession on May 4, Lee’s unit could finally take a rest.

3 May 45 French and Belgian soldiers as well as civilians shake the hands and greet Yanks entering Innsbruck 824th TD

Back at Itter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, Eduard Weiter, had fled his command and made his way to the safety of Itter Castle.  Weiter was murderedon may 2 by an unnamed SS officer, for insufficient devotion to the cause.  Fearing for his own life, Itter commanding officer Sebastian Wimmer fled the Castle on May 4, followed by his guards.  The now-former prisoners of Schloss Itter were alone for now but the presence of SS units in the area made it imperative. They had to do…something. 

By this time, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl and a few of his soldiers had changed sides, joining the Austrian resistance in Wörgl against roving bands of SS fanatics, then in possession of the town.

While his fellow prisoners broke into the weapons room and armed themselves with pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, Zoonimir Cuckovic, AKA “André”, purloined a bicycle and went looking for help.

André’s mad bicycle ride resulted in the one of the strangest rescues in military history. Lieutenant Lee tapped eight volunteers and two tanks, his own “Besotten Jenny” and Lt. Wallace Holbrook’s “Boche Buster.”  Riding atop the two Shermans were six members of the all–black Company D, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, a couple crews from the 142nd Infantry Regiment and the Wehrmacht’s own Josef Gangl with a Kübelwagen full of German soldiers, bringing up the rear.

Kübelwagen

It was late afternoon as the convoy left for Castle Itter.  Leaving Boche Buster and a few Infantry to guard the largest bridge into town, what remained of the convoy fought its way through its last SS roadblock in the early evening, roaring across the last bridge and lurching to a stop in front of Itter’s gate as night began to fall. 

Inside of Itter prisoners looked on, in dismay.  They had expected a column of American tanks and a heavily armed infantry force.  What they had here, was a single tank with seven Americans, and a truckload of armed Germans.

The castle’s defenders came under attack almost at once, by harrying forces sent to assess their strength and to probe the fortress for weakness.  Lee ordered French prisoners to hide inside but they refused, remaining outside and fighting alongside American and German soldiers.  Frantic calls for reinforcements resulted in two more German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance member arriving overnight, but that would be all.

ittercdamage

The Totenkopf, or “Death’s head” units was the SS organization responsible for concentration camp administration for the Third Reich and some of the most fanatical soldiers of WWII.  Even at this late date SS units were putting up fierce resistance across northern Austria.  On the morning of May 5 100 to150 of them, attacked Schloss Itter.   Fighting was furious around the castle, the one Sherman providing machine-gun fire support until being destroyed by a German 88mm gun.  By early afternoon Lee was able to get a desperate plea for reinforcements through to the 142nd Infantry, before being cut off. 

Aware that he’d been unable to give complete information on the enemy’s troop strength and disposition, Lee accepted a gallant offer of assistance from the resident tennis pro, Jean Borotra.

Jean_Borotra

Literally vaulting over the castle wall, the tennis star ran through a gauntlet of SS strongpoints and ambushes to deliver his message, before donning an American uniform to help fight through to the castle’s defenders.  The relief force arrived around 4pm, even as defenders were firing their last ammunition.

100 SS were captured.  Lee later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.  Josef Gangl was killed by a sniper while attempting to move Prime Minister Reynaud, out of harm’s way. 

So ended the first and only battle in which Americans and Germans fought, side by side. Representatives of Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender, two days later. Today, there’s a street in Wörgl, which bears the name of Josef Gangl. 

Paul Reynaud didn’t like Jack Lee, remembering the American Lieutenant as “crude in both looks and manners”.  “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies”, he sniffed, “Europe is in for a hard time”.  How very…French…of him.  All that and he never did get to learn the lyrics, of the Horst Wessel song.

May 3, 1915 Lest we Forget

“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields”. – John McCrae

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.
Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. Based on his age and training, McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting that lasted more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment, please, what this looked like, what this smelled like, in color.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance the following day, just north of Ypres, he composed this verse.  He called the poem, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember John McCrae’s composition as:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen and, over a long career, worked in nearly every part of the peach state’s education system.

In 1918, Michael was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal she came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  Two days before the armistice.

49a1160c9141869ce025a820a599ef56--flanders-field-lest-we-forget

John McCrae was in a grave of his own by this time having succumbed to pneumonia, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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Since that time, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in all wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. A reminder that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic should ever forget where we come from. Nor the price paid by our ancestors, to get us to this place.

April 24, 1915 Armenian Genocide

“The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.” – Enver Pasha

In the waning years of the 13th century, Osman Gazi led a relentless conflict against the Byzantine empire centered in Constantinople, for control of western Anatolia in modern day Turkey.

In 1453 the empire founded by Osman I captured Constantinople itself, seat of the Byzantine Empire and now known as Istanbul.

At the height of its power in 1683, the Ottoman Empire under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent ruled over an area spanning three continents. From the shores of north Africa to the gates of Vienna, east to the modern Russian Federation state, of Georgia. Nearly 4% the landmass of the entire planet, was under Ottoman rule.

In the early 19th century, the Ottoman empire entered a period of decline. Serbia went to war for independence from the Sultan in 1804, followed closely by Greece, Crete, Bulgaria and others.

As yet one of the Great Powers of the Eurasian landmass, the Ottoman Empire was now “the Sick Man of Europe”. By mid-century, many minority populations were pushing for independence.

Punch cartoon dated November 28, 1896, caricatures the weakend state of the Ottomans, under Sultan Abdul Hamid II

One such were the Armenians, an ancient people living in the region for some 2,000 years. Mostly Christian, Armenians were among the earliest to adopt the new faith as their own having done so, even before Rome itself.

Mid-19th century reforms such the repeal of the “Jizya”, the tax on “unbelievers,” brought about a measure of equality. Even so, non-Muslims remained second-class citizens. Without the right to testify at trial, for all intents and purposes it was open season on Armenian Christians and other religious minorities. In some locales, such treatment rose to the level of officially sanctioned public policy. By 1860, Armenians began to push for greater rights.

Where his subjects saw the righteous quest for equal rights the Sultan saw, insurrection.

Obsessed with personal loyalty to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II once told a reporter that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear” for their impudence. The Hamidian massacres begun in 1894 and lasting until 1897 killed between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians, leaving in their wake, 50,000 orphaned children.

It was but a prelude of what was to come.

“An Armenian woman and her children who were refugees of the massacres and sought help from missionaries by walking great distances.” H/T Wikipedia

In military planning, a “decapitation strike” is an action, designed to remove the leadership of an opposing government or group. The Ottoman pogrom began with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians of the Empire, of leadership.

The order came down from Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha on April 24, 1915. “Red Sunday”. By the end of the day an estimated 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals were arrested, in Istanbul. By the end of May, their number reached 2,345. Most, were eventually murdered.

“Some of the Armenian intellectuals who were detained, deported, and killed in 1915:
1st row: Krikor Zohrab, Daniel Varoujan, Rupen Zartarian, Ardashes Harutiunian, Siamanto
2nd row: Ruben Sevak, Dikran Chökürian, Diran Kelekian, Tlgadintsi, and Erukhan” – H/T Wikipedia

The “Tehcir” Law of May 29, a term derived from an Ottoman Turkish word signifying “deportation” or “forced displacement”, authorized the forced removal within the empire, of such detainees.

When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact. . . . I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.

US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr.

Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert. Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and summary execution. By the early 1920s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Turkish historian Taner Akçam has examined military and court records, parliamentary minutes, letters, and eyewitness reports to write what may be The definitive history of the whole episode entitled, A Shameful Act, The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. In it, Akçam writes of:

“…the looting and murder in Armenian towns by Kurds and Circassians, improprieties during tax collection, criminal behavior by government officials and the refusal to accept Christians as witnesses in trial.”

Taner Akçam

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler

To this day it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times declined to use the term, until 2004.

In April 2019, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

April 22, 1918 The Red Baron

“I started shooting when I was much too far away. That was merely a trick of mine. I did not mean so much as to hit him as to frighten him, and I succeeded in catching him. He began flying curves and this enabled me to draw near”. – Manfred von Richthofen

Early in the “Great War”, Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen was a cavalry scout, serving with the 1st Regiment of Uhlans Kaiser Alexander III in the Verdun sector. As the war of movement ended and armies dug into the ground, cavalry quickly became obsolete. Leutnant Richtofen served as a messenger over the winter of 1914-15, but there was no glory in crawling through the mud of shell holes and trenches. He applied to the fledgling Air Corps, writing to his superiors, “My dear Excellency! I have not gone to war to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose.”

Manfred_von_Richthofen

Following four months of training, Richtofen began his flying career as an observer, taking photographs of Russian troop positions on the eastern front.

After transferring to Belgium and becoming bombardier, Manfred’s first air-to-air kill occurred in late 1915, while acting as observer and rear gunner on a two seat reconnaissance plane. The French pusher bi-plane went down over unfriendly territory and couldn’t be confirmed, so the victory was never counted. Neither was his second kill, when Richtofen shot down a French Nieuport fighter from an Albatross C.III bomber. This one also went down over enemy territory, and could not be confirmed.

Richtofen had his first official victory on September 17, 1916, after being transferred to a fighter squadron. He ordered a silver cup to mark the occasion, engraved with the date and make of the aircraft he had shot down, a British F.E. 2B. Tom Rees of the British Royal Flying Corps, has the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim, of the Red Baron.

Before it was over, there would be many more.

Richtofen got his 5th kill to become an ace on October 16, 1916, and the coveted “Blue Max” medal for his 16th, the following January. He shot down 22 enemy aircraft in April alone, four of those in a single day. He was Germany’s leading living ace, fast becoming the most famous pilot of his day. German propagandists spread the rumor that the Allies intended to award the Victoria Cross to the man who shot him down.

Fokker Triplane

Ever aware of his own celebrity, von Richtofen took to painting the wings of his aircraft blood red, after the colors of his old Uhlan regiment. It was only later that he had the whole thing painted. Friend and foe alike knew him as “the Red Knight”, “the Red Devil”, “Le Petit Rouge” and the name that finally stuck, “the Red Baron”.

Like Ted Williams, who was said to be able to count the stitches on a fastball, Richtofen was blessed with exceptional eyesight. Gifted with lightning fast reflexes, he became the top ace of the war. In an age when it was exceptional to score even a few air combat victories, Richtofen accumulated sixty engraved silver cups before the metal became unavailable in war ravaged Germany. Even then he was far from done.

Fun Fact: While Snoopy, that ultimate “dogfighter” has done much to cement the Fokker Dr.1 Triplane in the public imagination, Richthofen only scored his last 19 kills while flying his famous red triplane. Three quarters of his victories were won in different makes of the Albatross and Halberstadt D.II. By May 1918 the Dr.1 was generally considered, obsolete.

By way of comparison, the highest scoring Allied ace of the Great War was Frenchman René Fonck, with 75 confirmed victories. The highest scoring fighter pilot from the British Empire was Canadian Billy Bishop, who was officially credited with 72. The Red Baron had 80.

If I should come out of this war alive, I will have more luck than brains.

Manfred von Richtofen

Richthofen sustained a serious head wound on July 6 1917, causing severe disorientation and temporary partial blindness. He returned to duty after October 23, but many believed his injury caused lasting damage, leading to his eventual death.

Red Baron, last flight

Richthofen chased the rookie Canadian pilot Wilfred “Wop” May behind the lines on April 21, 1918, when he found himself under attack. With a squadron of Sopwith Camels firing from above and anti-aircraft gunners on the ground, he was shot once through the chest with a .303 round. He managed to force land in a beet field and died, just as the first Allied soldiers were arriving.. He was still wearing his pajamas, under his flight suit.

Red Baron Crash Site

The RAF credited Canadian Pilot Captain Roy Brown with shooting down the Red Baron, but the angle of the wound suggests that the bullet was fired from the ground. A 2003 PBS documentary demonstrated that Sergeant Cedric Popkin was the person most likely to have killed Richthofen, while a 2002 Discovery Channel documentary suggests that it was Gunner W. J. “Snowy” Evans, a Lewis machine gunner with the Royal Australian Artillery. It may never be known with absolute certainty, who killed the Red Baron.

British Third Squadron officers served as pallbearers while other ranks from the squadron acted as a guard of honor for the Red Baron’s funeral on April 22, 1918. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with these words, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe”.