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

August 15, 1942 Too Young the Hero

At the age of twelve, Calvin Leon Graham became the youngest man to serve in US military forces, in World War 2

Calvin Leon Graham was a child of the Great Depression, a poor East Texas farm kid born April 3, 1930, the youngest of seven.

By the time Japanese military planners were outlining the surprise attack on the American anchorage at Pearl Harbor, the boy’s mother was widowed and remarried. The man was by all accounts mean and abusive of his step-children. By sixth grade, Calvin had moved out along with an older brother, living in a cheap rooming house and supporting himself selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school.

The boys’ mother continued to visit, sometimes only to sign their report cards at the end of a semester.

CalvinLGraham

Being around newspapers allowed the boy to keep up on events overseas, “I didn’t like Hitler to start with“, he once told a reporter. By age eleven, some of Graham’s cousins had been killed in the war. The boy wanted to fight back.

He began to shave, believing that his facial hair would come in faster and thicker that way (it didn’t). He practiced, “talking deep”.

In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent” he later said, “but they preferred 17“. Graham forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp, telling his mother he was going to see some relatives for a while.

On this day in 1942, Calvin Leon Graham showed up at a Houston recruiting office, dressed in his older brother’s clothes. All five-foot-two inches of him, and 125 pounds. He was twelve years old.

Graham was less concerned with the recruiting officer spotting that forged signature, than he was with the dentist. With good reason. This was a man with a finely tuned BS detector. “When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17“. At last, the boy played his trump card, informing the dentist that the last two boys were fourteen and fifteen, and he had already let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go“.

During the World War 2 era, it wasn’t unusual for boys to lie about their age in order to enlist. Ray Jackson joined the United States Marine Corps at 16, and founded a group for underage military veterans in 1991, “to assure all underage veterans that there will be no retribution from the government because of their fraudulent enlistment“. Smithsonian.com reports the organization lists over 1,200 active members.  Twenty-six of them are women.

The boy was sent to boot camp in San Diego and on to Pearl Harbor six weeks later, and assigned to the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota.

When South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia and cleared the Panama Canal, “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific.” Under the command of Captain Thomas Leigh Gatch, the battleship was brimming with “green boys” –  cocky, inexperienced new recruits, full of fight and eager for payback against the Japanese empire.

August 15, 1942 Baby Vet

During the October battle for the Santa Cruz islands, South Dakota was credited with downing 26 Japanese aircraft, while taking a direct hit to the #1 gun turret.

Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as that 500-pounder came in, striking the main gun turret.  The impact threw the skipper off his feet and severed his jugular vein, permanently injuring ligaments in the man’s arms. Quick-thinking quartermasters saved the unconscious captain’s life. Sailors later asked him, why he hadn’t ducked. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship“, he said, “to flop for a Japanese bomb“.

Before the action was over, the South Dakota’s guns had fired 890 rounds of 5-inch, 4,000 rounds of 40mm, 3,000 rounds of 1.1-inch and 52,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition. One of those gunners was twelve-year-old Calvin Graham.

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The USS South Dakota engages a Japanese torpedo bomber during the Battle of Santa Cruz October 26, 1942. Photo: US Navy

Over the November 14 night battle for Guadalcanal, USS South Dakota came under attack from three Japanese warships, receiving no fewer than forty-seven hits. With her radio communications out and radar demolished, the battleship lost track of the complicated tactical situation. Calvin Graham was manning his 40mm gun when shrapnel tore through his mouth and jaw, tearing out his front teeth. Another hit burned the boy severely and threw him off his feet, and down three stories of superstructure.

Despite his injuries, Graham did what he could to take care of his fellow sailors:

“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night. It was a long night. It aged me… I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead”.

USS South Dakota was so beat up during the confused night action, that the Japanese believed her to be sunk.  Eventually, she would limp back for repairs. Not wanting the enemy to know too much, she was stripped of her insignia.

USS South Dakota would complete her WW2 service as “Battleship X”, but that must be a story for another day.

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Graham received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions, but these distinctions were short-lived. His mother learned what the boy had been up to and informed the Navy of his real age. Graham was thrown in the brig for lying about his age and held for nearly three months, released only when his sister threatened to go to the media. He was stripped of his medals and dishonorably discharged from the military. At thirteen, Calvin Graham was a “Baby Vet”, no longer fitting in at school and rejected by the nation he had served.

If only our politicians could expect such stern justice.

Graham soon chose the life of an adult, marrying and fathering a child at the age of fourteen, and working as a welder.  He was divorced by seventeen and enlisted in the Marine Corps. A fall from a pier broke his back three years later, ending his military career for good and leaving him selling magazine subscriptions for a living.

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For the rest of his life, Calvin Graham fought for a clean service record, and for restoration of medical benefits. President Jimmy Carter personally approved an honorable discharge in 1978. All Graham’s medals were reinstated, save for his Purple Heart. He was awarded $337 in back pay but denied medical benefits, save for the disability status conferred by the loss of his teeth, back in WW2.

Graham came to public notice in 1988 with the made-for-TV movie Too Young the Hero starring Rick Schroder, prompting government review of his case.  Graham earned $50,000 for rights to his story but half went to two agents and another 20% to the writer of a book, which was never published.  Graham and his wife received only $15,000 out of which an ever insensate government, took its share.

Calvin Graham, Medals
Calvin Leon Graham, Military Awards
1st Row: Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”
2nd Row: Purple Heart Medal, Navy Unit Commendation with service star, American Campaign Medal
3rd Row: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two service stars, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation granting Graham full disability benefits and increasing back pay to $4,917, and allowing $18,000 for medical expenses incurred during his military service. Lamentably, many old medical bills were permanently lost. Some of his doctors had died. Graham received only $2,100 reimbursement for past medical expenses.

Calvin Leon Graham died at his home in Fort Worth Texas in 1992, a victim of heart failure.  He was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas.  Graham’s Purple Heart was reinstated two years later and awarded to his widow by Secretary of the Navy John Dalton. Fifty-two years after the actions resulting in its award.

Calvin-Leon-Graham-grave

August 2, 216BC An Uneven Fight

The Battle of Cannae is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.

There were two great powers in the Mediterranean region of 264BC:  the Romans on the Italian peninsula and Carthage, a North African maritime power settled by Phoenician travelers some 800 years earlier, in modern day Tunisia.

A dispute in Sicily that year led to war between the two powers, ending in Roman victory in 241BC and a vanquished Carthage being stripped of her Navy.

Hamilcar Barca was a great general of this, the first “Punic” war, the name deriving from the Latin word for Phoenician. Barca made his then 12-year-old son Hannibal swear undying hatred for the Romans.

Hannibal crossing the Alps 4

At the age of 20, Hannibal Barca set out on what would become the second Punic war.  It was late Spring, 218BC, when Hannibal left the Iberian outpost of “New Carthage”, now the Spanish city of Cartagena. Crossing into hostile Gaul (France) at the head of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry and 37 war elephants, Hannibal arrived at the Rhône River in September.

Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing almost half his force before entering Italy that December.

Hannibal crossing the Alps

What followed was a series of crushing defeats for Rome. First at the Battle of Trebia, then Lake Trasimene, Hannibal’s army laid waste to the Italian peninsula.

There was almost no family in all of Rome that didn’t lose one or more members in the swath of destruction brought down by Hannibal and his Carthaginian army.

At this point, Rome took the extreme step of appointing one man, absolute dictator of the Roman Republic.  His name was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus.  Rather than joining the Carthaginians in pitched battle, Fabius sought to wear them down in a series of “hit & run” and “scorched earth” tactics.

Fabius was right.  His tactics were a military success and bought the Republic time in which to rebuild its military, but they were a political flop.  The Roman psyche would accept nothing short of pitched battle.  In six months, Fabius “Cunctator” (“the Delayer”) was replaced by the co-consuls Gaius Terentius Varro, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus.

cannae_battle_formation

In the co-consul system, Varro would be supreme commander of the army on one day, and Paullus the next.  Knowing full well how this system worked and wanting to draw the more aggressive Varro into pitched battle, Hannibal sprung his trap on a day when Varro was in command.

The Battle of Cannae, fought this day in 216 BC, is studied by historians and military tacticians to this day. A Roman army, estimated at 86,000 Roman and allied troops, was drawn in and enveloped by Hannibal’s far smaller force. Squeezed into a pocket so tightly they could barely raise their weapons, the Legions were attacked from all sides.

Unable to function as a disciplined unit, as many as 75,000 Romans were hacked to death, equivalent to the seating capacity of the New York Mets’ Citi Field and Harvard Stadium, combined.

Another 10,000, were captured.  Among the dead was a current Consul, the most powerful elected official in the Roman Republic as well as both consuls, from the previous year.

80 senators, nearly a third of the entire Roman Senate, were wiped out in single day.

There was now no military force left between Hannibal and Rome itself.  Most powers would have admitted defeat, and sued for peace.  Not Rome.  Unable to defeat the Carthaginians in open battle, Rome returned to Fabian tactics, harassing the foe and wearing them down in an endless series of scorched earth and guerrilla tactics.

For 16 years, Hannibal remained undefeated on Italian soil while his political adversaries at home, never once sent him reinforcement. He was finally recalled to Carthage to defend his homeland against Roman attacks in North Africa and Spain.  Hannibal was defeated by his own tactics at the Battle of Zama, the second Punic War ending in 201BC.

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Hannibal, Louvre Museum.

Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but some in Rome wouldn’t let it go. Misbehaving Italian children were threatened that Hannibal would come and get them if they weren’t good.  Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, ended his every speech, “Carthago delenda est”, “Carthage must be destroyed“.

The third Punic War saw the Romans attack Carthage itself. After three years of siege, the city fell in 146BC. Thousands were slaughtered, as many as 70,000 sold into slavery. Though the salting of fields is probably a later embellishment to the story, the city was sacked, then burned to the ground. Utterly destroyed.

Hannibal himself had grown elderly by 181-183BC, fleeing from one town to the next to escape his Roman pursuers.  Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, Hannibal committed suicide by poison sometime that same year. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too weighty a task, to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

July 31, 1917 Passchendaele

“My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet

The “War to end all Wars” exploded across the European continent in the summer of 1914, devolving into the stalemate of trench warfare, by October.

The ‘Great War’ became Total War, the following year.  1915 saw the first use of asphyxiating gas, first at Bolimow in Poland, and later (and more famously) near the Belgian village of Ypres.  Ottoman deportation of its Armenian minority led to the systematic extermination of an ethnic minority, resulting in the death of ¾ of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Empire at that time. For the first time and far from the last an unsuspecting world heard the term, genocide‘.

Battle-of-Passchendaele
Battle of Passchendaele

Kaiser Wilhelm responded to the Royal Navy’s near-stranglehold on surface shipping with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the first zeppelin raids were carried out against the British mainland.  German forces adopted a defensive strategy on the western front, developing the most sophisticated defensive capabilities of the war and determined to “bleed France white”, while concentrating on defeating Czarist Russia.

Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command that September, following catastrophic losses in Galicia and Poland.  Austro-German offensives resulted in 1.4 million Russian casualties by September with another 750,000 captured, spurring a “Great Retreat” of Russian forces in the east and resulting in political and social unrest which would topple the Imperial government, fewer than two years later.   In December 1915, British and ANZAC forces broke off a meaningless stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning the evacuation of some 83,000 survivors.  The disastrous offensive produced some 250,000 casualties.  The Gallipoli campaign was remembered as a great Ottoman victory, a defining moment in Turkish history.  For now, Turkish troops held their fire in the face of the allied withdrawal, happy to see them leave.

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Passchendaele, 1917

A single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 could produce more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined. Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded while vast stretches of the Western European countryside were literally torn to pieces.

1917 saw the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and a German invitation to bring Mexico into the war, against the United States.  As expected, these policies brought America into the war on the allied side.  The President who won re-election for being ‘too proud to fight’ asked for a congressional declaration of war, that April.

Sealed Train

Massive French losses stemming from the failed Nivelle offensive of that same month (French casualties were fully ten times what was expected) combined with irrational expectations that American forces would materialize on the western front led to massive unrest in the French lines.  Fully one-half of all French forces on the western front mutinied.  It’s one of the great miracles of WW1 that the German side never knew, else the conflict may have ended, very differently.

The sealed train carrying the plague bacillus of communism had already entered the Russian body politic.  Nicholas II, Emperor of all Russia, was overthrown and murdered that July, along with his wife, children, servants and a few loyal friends, and their dogs.

This was the situation in July 1917.

third-battle-of-ypres-passchendaele-ww1-007For eighteen months, British miners worked to dig tunnels under Messines Ridge, the German defensive works laid out around the Belgian town of Ypres.  Nearly a million pounds of high explosive were placed in some 2,000′ of tunnels, dug 100′ deep.  10,000 German soldiers ceased to exist at 3:10am local time on June 7, in a blast that could be heard as far away, as London.

Buoyed by this success and eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, General Sir Douglas Haig planned an assault from the British-held Ypres salient, near the village of Passchendaele.

general

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, as did the French Chief of the General Staff, General Ferdinand Foch, both preferring to await the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Historians have argued the wisdom of the move, ever since.

The third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The next 105 days would be fought under some of the most hideous conditions, of the entire war.

In the ten days leading up to the attack, some 3,000 guns fired an estimated 4½ million shells into German lines, pulverizing whole forests and smashing water control structures in the lowland plains.  Several days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall, in thirty years.

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German pillbox, following capture by Canadian soldiers.

Conditions defy description. Time and again the clay soil, the water, the shattered remnants of once-great forests and the bodies of the slain were churned up and pulverized by shellfire.  You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived and fought in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze, capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules.  Most of the offensive took place across a broad plain formerly crisscrossed with canals, but now a great, sucking mire in which the only solid ground seemed to be German positions, from which machine guns cut down sodden commonwealth soldiers, as with a scythe.

Soldiers begged for their friends to shoot them, rather than being left to sink in that muck. One sank up to his neck and slowly went stark raving mad, as he died of thirst. British soldier Charles Miles wrote “It was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on.”

Passchendaele, aerial
Passchendaele, before and after the offensive. H/T Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

In 105 days of this hell, Commonwealth forces lost 275,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The German side another 200,000.  90,000 bodies were never identified.  42,000 were never recovered and remain there, to this day.  All for five miles of mud and a village barely recognizable, following capture.

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?! 

The soldier-turned war poet Siegfried Sassoon reveals the bitterness of the average “Joe Squaddy”, sent by his government to fight and die, at Passchendaele.  The story is told in the first person by a dead man, in all the bitterness of which a poet decorated for bravery and later shot in the head by his own side, is capable.  It’s called:

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,  
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—  
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,  
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell  
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.  

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,  
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:  
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;  
‘In proud and glorious memory’… that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:  
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.  
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…  
What greater glory could a man desire?

July 25, 1944 Doodlebug

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.


In the early morning hours of June 13, 1944, a member of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) spotted a bright yellow glow in the early morning darkness. The sentry was on the lookout for such a sight and immediately informed his superiors. The code word, “diver”.

The yellow glow went out within moments and plummeted to the earth, landing in the village of Swanscombe, some 20 miles east of the Tower of London. Other such devices were soon falling from the sky with terrible exclusive force. Cuckfield, West Sussex, London and Sevenoaks, in Kent. This time only six people died in a place called Bethnal Green. There would be more.

Most V1 rockets were launched from a simple rail system, others taken aloft attached to host aircraft

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.

Nazi Germany aimed as many as 10,492 of these Doodlebug rockets against England. Some 6,000 were killed in London alone, with another 18,000 serious injuries. The subsonic Doodlebug was an effective terror weapon but, bad as it was to be the target of one of these things, the “low and slow” trajectory and the weapon’s short range lacked the strategic punch Nazi Germany needed to win the war.

The next generation V2 missile was a different story.  The V2 ushered in the era of the ballistic missile and Nazi Germany was the first off the starting line.

The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148 pound payload at 5 times the speed of sound over a 236-mile range. While you could hear the V1 coming and seek shelter, victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack, until the weapon had exploded.

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Hitler said, “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”

Allies were anxious to get their hands on this new secret weapon. In early 1944 they had their chance when a V2 crashed into a muddy bank of the Bug River in Nazi-occupied Poland, without exploding. The Polish underground was waiting for such an opportunity and quickly descended on the rocket, disguising it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the weapon, Germans conducted a week long aerial and ground search for the V2, but failed find it under all that camouflage.

Polish Partisans preparing for battle_WW2
Polish Partisans preparing for battle, WW2

The search came to an end after what must have seemed an eternity, when partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.

The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lt Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness at a secret air strip near Tarnow.

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Home Army intelligence on V1 & V2

The V2 chassis and several technical experts were loaded on board, but it was all too much.  The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field – the port wheel stuck fast in the mud.  Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench.  Nothing worked.

Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so the hydraulic leads supplying the brake, were cut. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. Two attempts failed to get the aircraft off the ground, and Culliford was thinking about blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence.  There could only be one more attempt.

The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try.  The last of the partisans scattered into the night, even as the headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen, approaching in the early morning darkness.

18lfbi20zpunyjpgThere would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight through Nazi-controlled air space and an emergency landing with no brakes, before those V2 rocket components finally made it to England.

Today, few remember the names of these heroes, struggling in the dark to defeat the forces of Tyranny.  We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazis remained in sole possession of the game changing super weapons, of WWII

July 19, 1916 The Red Zone

“The Zone Rouge is a 42,000-acre territory that, nearly a century after the conflict, has no human residents and only allows limited access”. – National Geographic

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  Little more than a policing action, in the Balkans.  As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

The early 20th century has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”, and for good reason.   As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” advanced through July, 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton made the final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic.   Despite the outbreak of war, 1st Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to proceed.  The “Endurance” expedition” departed British waters on August 8.

The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September.  The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

Endurance was destined to be stuck in the ice, stranding the men of the Shackleton Expedition floating on pack ice, in open ocean.

As the unofficial Christmas Truce descended over the trenches of Europe, Shackleton’s expedition slowly picked their way through the ice floes of the Weddell Sea.

The disaster of WWI became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of her own.  The ship was frozen fast, with no hope of escape.  As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station.  Finally, camps were set up across the drifting ice.  On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

shackleton_stamps

In December 1915, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the river Somme.  In February, Erich von Falkenhayn began an offensive in Verdun designed to “bleed France white”. The Shackleton party was at this time camped on an ice pack, adrift in open ocean. 

The ice began to break up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats.  Five brutal days would come and go in those open boats, the last of 457 days spent at sea before finally reaching the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

The whaling station at South Georgia Island some 720 miles distant, was the nearest outpost of civilization. The only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 in a 20-foot lifeboat.  They shouldn’t have made it, but somehow did.  In hurricane-force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island came into view four weeks later.

Scaling those terrible cliffs alone was a survival epic, worthy of its own story. Somehow, not a man was lost. They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, saltwater-soaked sealskin clothing rotting from their bodies.  The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.  At last, on May 20, 1916, the Shackleton expedition was saved.

Like a latter-day Robinson Crusoe emerged from the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, Shackleton asked for news on the war. How it had all ended.  The response came back as if every word of it, was a hammer blow.  

“The war isn’t over.  Millions are dead.  Europe is mad.  The world is mad”.

Preparatory bombardment for the Somme offensive began that June, 1,500 guns firing 1.7 million shells into a twelve-mile front.  27 shells for every foot of the front.  Allies went “over the top” on July 1, the single worst day in British military history.  19,240 British soldiers were killed in that single day, along with 1,590 French.  German losses numbered 10,000–12,000.  By July 19, 1916, the Somme offensive was just getting started.  The battle would last another 122 days.

Former battlefield at Dououmont. The sign reads “Danger Access Forbidden”

The toll exacted by the 1st World War was cataclysmic in human, economic and environmental terms.  After the war, hundreds of square miles along the north of France were identified, thusly:

“Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible”.

Vast quantities of human and animal remains permeate this “Zone Rouge”, an area saturated with unexploded shells and munitions of all sizes and types:  gas, high explosive, anti-personnel.  There are hand grenades and bombs, small arms and rusted ammunition, by the truckload.

Lochnagar Crater
Lochnagar bomb crater in the Somme Photo Credit Telegraph Newspaper: HENRY SAMUEL

Lead, mercury, chlorine, arsenic and other toxins permeate the soil.  In two areas near Ypres and Woëvre, arsenic constitutes up to 17% of some soil samples.  The Red Zone is smaller today than it once was but, to this day, 99% of all plants still die in some of these places.

During World War 1 the two sides fired an estimated ton of explosives at each other, for every square meter of the western Front. As many as one in three shells failed to explode. The Ypres salient alone was believed to contain as many as 300 million unexploded shells at the war’s end. 87 years after the cessation of hostilities, one “Red Zone” survey uncovered up to 150 shells per 5,000 square meters in the top six inches of soil, alone.  

By means of comparison, an American football field covers 5,351.215 square meters.

Signs like this dot the landscape in parts of France and Belgium: “Village Destroyed”

100 years after WW1, more than 20 members of Belgian Explosive Ordnance Disposal (DOVO) were killed in 1998, alone.

In June 2016, head of the bomb disposal unit at Amiens Michel Colling, said: “Since the start of the year we’ve been called out 300 times to dispose of 25 tons of bombs.  As soon as you start turning the earth up”, Colling said, “you find them. At this rate, we have another 500 years to clear the area, so the work is far from over.

The rotor blades from farmers’ tractors sometimes set them off.   In June 2016, farmer Claude Samain plowed up a Lee-Enfield rifle. Last held in all probability by a British infantryman, the rifle was now seeing the sun for the first time, in 100 years. He placed it on a pile rusted old shells and ironworks. As a farm kid of the 1930s, Claude remembered turning up bodies in his fields.  ‘We find shells every time we turn the earth over for potatoes or sugar beet.” he explained.

French farmers call the stuff, récolte de fer. Iron harvest.

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By derivative work: Tinodela (talk)Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg: Lamiot – Zone_rougeRed_Zone_Map.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4798391

That part about Claud Samain comes from a Mirror story published July 1, 2016 and written, by Andy Lines. “As Claude, 76, passed me the gun” Lines writes, “he smiled: “You Brits are so respectful of what happened here on the Somme. “Three coachloads of children arrive every single day to learn what happened 100 years ago – you never see any French children.””

Nor I would guess, any American children, and that’s a damned shame.

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