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.

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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.

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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”.

April 12, 1861 A Lady’s Thimble

Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

South Carolina seceded from the United States on December 20, 1860, leaving state government officials to consider themselves, a sovereign nation. Six days later, United States Army Major Robert Anderson quietly moved his small garrison from the Revolution-era Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to the yet to be completed Fort Sumter, a brick fortification at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

Moultrie

President James Buchanan attempted to reinforce and resupply Anderson via the unarmed merchant vessel, “Star of the West”. Shore batteries opened up on the effort on January 9, effectively trapping Anderson and his garrison inside the only federal property in the vicinity.

For the newly founded Confederate States of America, the presence of an armed federal force at the mouth of Charleston harbor could not be tolerated. Secessionists debated whether the problem was that of South Carolina or the national government, in Mobile.

Meanwhile, the Federal government refused to recognize the Confederacy, as independent states.  It was a standoff. Both sides needed the support of border states, and neither wanted to be seen as the aggressor.

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Fort Sumter

Political opinion was so sharply divided at that time, that brothers literally wound up fighting against brothers.  By the time the war got going, every seceding state but South Carolina sent regiments to fight for the Union and even that state, contributed troops to the Union war effort.  A surprising number of northern soldiers resigned commissions and fought for the south including Barre, Massachusetts native Daniel Ruggles, Ohio Quaker Bushrod Johnson and New York native Samuel Cooper, to name a few.  

Fun fact: When South Carolina seceded that December the world waited to see, who would be next. With her January 9th departure from the federal union Mississippi was the next state to actually leave, though not the next to talk about it. That honor went not to a southern state but a northern city called New York on January 7, 1861.   Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the Common Council, requesting New York assert its independence as a “free city” by “disrupt[ing] the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master” (the federal government).

Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (I love that name) was placed in charge of Charleston in March and immediately began to strengthen the batteries surrounding the harbor.

Battle-Sumter

Fort Sumter was designed for a garrison of 650 in service to 130 guns, most of them pointed outward, positioned to defend the harbor against threats from the sea. In April 1861 there were only 60 guns, too much for Major Anderson’s 85-man garrison, nearly half of whom were non-combatants, mostly workmen and musicians.

When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, the resupply of Fort Sumter became the first crisis for the new administration. Lincoln notified South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens he was sending supply ships, resulting in Beauregard’s ultimatum:  the Federal garrison was to evacuate immediately, or Confederate batteries would open fire.

Major Anderson lacking the appropriate response, shore batteries opened fire at 4:30 am on April 12, 4003 guns firing in counter-clockwise rotation. Abner Doubleday, Federal 2nd in command and the man erroneously credited with the invention of baseball, later wrote “The crashing of the shot, the bursting of the shells, the falling of the walls, and the roar of the flames, made a pandemonium of the fort.”

Two years later at Gettysburg, Norman Jonathan Hall would lose over 200 men in furious fighting at a critical breach near the ”copse of trees”.  One day, a brass plaque would mark the spot as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  On this day, Lieutenant Hall raced through flames to rescue the colors, after a direct hit on the main flagpole knocked the flag to the ground.  His eyebrows were permanently burned off of his face, but Hall and two artillerymen were able to jury-rig the pole so, once again, Old Glory flew over Fort Sumter.

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The Confederate flag flies over Fort Sumter, 1861

Over 34 hours, thousands of shells were fired at Fort Sumter. Though vastly outgunned federal forces, fired back. For all that, the only casualty was a Confederate mule.

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The only fatalities in the whole mess occurred after the federal surrender, on April 13. One gun misfired performing a 100-gun salute while lowering the flag, mortally wounding privates Daniel Hough and Edward Galloway.

The following day, Colonel Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army.

Charleston, 1861

The Civil War had begun but few understood the kind of demons, now unleashed. Robert Rhett, the rabble rousing editor of the Charleston Mercury Newspaper, offered to personally eat the bodies of all those slain in the coming conflict. Never one to be outdone, former Senator James Chesnut, Jr. said “a lady’s thimble will hold all the blood that will be shed,” promising to personally drink any that might be spilled.

The war between the states would lay waste to a generation and end the lives of more Americans than the Revolution, World War 1, World War 2 and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Combined.

April 8, 1942 In the Zone

Rodman was no stranger to the brutal twists and the horrors of war. Nearly half his comrades were killed, fighting in the Philippines. The survivor’s guilt. What the man saw during WW2 changed his life, forever.

Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable during the years leading to World War 2, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. The US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines all fell, in quick succession.

On January 7, 1942 Japanese forces attacked the Bataan peninsula in the central Luzon region, of the Philippines. The prize was nothing short of the finest natural harbor in the Asian Pacific, Manila Bay, the Bataan Peninsula forming the lee shore and the heavily fortified island of Corregidor, the “Gibraltar of the East”, standing at the mouth.  Before the Japanese invasion was to succeed, Bataan and Corregidor must be destroyed.

In early December, the Far East Air Force (FEAF) outside Luzon possessed more aircraft than the Hawaiian Department, defending Pearl Harbor. In the event of hostilities with Japan, “War Plan Orange” (WPO-3) called for superior air power, covering the strategic retreat across Manila Bay to the Bataan peninsula, buying time for US Naval assets to sail for the Philippines. 

In reality, the flower of American naval power in the pacific, lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Eight hours after the attack on Oahu, a devastating raid on Clark Field outside of Luzon left 102 aircraft damaged, or destroyed. Army chief of staff general George C. Marshall later remarked to a reporter: “I just don’t know how MacArthur happened to let his planes get caught on the ground.”

General Douglas MacArthur abandoned Corregidor on March 12, departing the “Alamo of the Pacific” with trademark dramatic flair: “I shall return”.  Some 90,000 American and Filipino troops were on their own, left without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the onslaught of the Japanese 14th Army.

Starving, battered by wounds and decimated by all manner of tropical disease and parasite, the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought on until they could do no more. 

War correspondent Frank Hewlett was the last reporter to leave Corregidor, before it all collapsed. It was he who coined the phrase “Angels of Bataan“, to describe the women who stayed behind to be taken into captivity, to care for the sick and wounded. Hewlett wrote this tribute to the doomed defenders of that place:

Battling Bastards of Bataan

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn
Nobody gives a damn.

by Frank Hewlett 1942

Allied war planners turned their attention to defeating Adolf Hitler.

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the river gunboat USS Mindanao earned the distinction of taking prisoner the sole survivor of the midget submarine attacks carried out that day, Kazuo Sakamaki. Now short on fuel, Mindanao was reduced to harassing shore artillery and covering small boats evacuating soldiers, from the beaches. On April 8, 1942, Mindanao Executive Officer David Nash confided to his diary: “This has been a hectic day. It looks like the beginning of the end. The planes get nearer each day and this evening the word was received to get up steam and standby to get underway. Meanwhile Ft. Mills started shooting across our heads toward the Bataan lines. All night long our forces were obviously destroying equipment. It looks like evacuation from the Peninsula”.

Bataan fell the following day, some 75,000 American and Filipino fighters beginning a 65-mile, five-day trek into captivity known as the Bataan Death March. Lieutenant Nash was taken prisoner, surviving a captivity many did not to pass the remainder of the war at Bilibid, Davao, Dapecol and the infamous Cabanatuan prison camps.

With a commanding position over Pacific shipping routes, holding the Philippine archipelago was critical for Japanese war strategy. Capturing the islands was important to the US by the same logic with the added reason, this was a personal point of pride for General Douglas MacArthur. Two years almost to the day from that ignominious departure, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered MacArthur to come up with a plan to take the place back. Luzon would come first with the invasion of Leyte in the north, slated for early 1945.

That summer, US 3rd fleet operations revealed Japanese defenses were weaker than expected. The invasion was moved forward to October. Before it was over, the Battle of Leyte would trigger the greatest naval battle, of World War 2.

With deep-water approaches and sandy beaches, Leyte Island is tailor-made for amphibious assault. Preliminary operations for the invasion began on October 17. MacArthur made his grand entrance on the 20th announcing to the 900,000 residents of the island: “People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.”

The fighting for Leyte was long and bloody involving 323,000 American troops and Filipino guerrillas. Day and night through mountains, swamps and jungles, by the time it was over some 50,000 Japanese combat troops were destroyed. Organized resistance ended on Christmas day. By the New Year there was little left, but isolated stragglers.

Not many can find humor in such a place as that. Private Melvin Levy was one who could. A member of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division, that November, Levy and his comrades were fighting as infantry. He was part of the 511th‘s demolition platoon, nicknamed the “Death Squad” for its high casualty rate.

The C-47 came in low that day, but this wasn’t your normal bombing run. The plane was armed with “biscuit bombs”, crates of food and provisions intended to resupply the 511th regiment. With a comedian’s sense of timing, Levy was holding court before an enthralled group of soldiers, resting under a palm tree. Laughter filled the air as Private Levy delivered the punchline and asked his best friend Rodman, for a cigarette. Rodman took the one out of his mouth and handed it over before turning, for the pack. The biscuit bomb came in at 200 miles per hour, tearing Levy’s head from his shoulders, where he stood.

As the only other Jewish guy in the unit, Rodman presided over Levy’s funeral, the following day. He spoke a few words and placed a star of David, on Levy’s grave.

Nearly half his comrades were killed, fighting in the Philippines. Rodman himself was wounded twice and finished the war, in occupied Japan. He was no stranger to the brutal twists and the horrors of war. The survivor’s guilt. What the man saw during WW2 changed him, forever. The human wreckage wrought by the atomic bomb, the fire bombing, the results of the aerial mining of Japanese harbors literally code-named, “Operation Starvation”.

Rodman Edward Serling had opened a door, never to be closed. A door unlocked, with the key of imagination. Beyond that door is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into, the Twilight Zone.

March 29, 1973 Vietnam War Veterans Day

The recognition and gratitude due those who honorably served in an unpopular war, is long overdue.

From the late 19th century, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam was governed as a French Colonial territory.  “French Indo-China” came to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese after the fall of France, at the onset of WWII.  There arose a nationalist-communist army during this period, dedicated to throwing out the Japanese occupier.  It called itself the “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, or “Viet Minh”.

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France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat ending World War 2, but soon faced the same opposition from the army of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap.

What began as a low level rural insurgency later became a full-scale modern war when Communist China entered the fray, in 1949.

The disastrous defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 led to French withdrawal from Vietnam, the Geneva Convention partitioning the country into the communist “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the north, and the State of Vietnam in the south led by Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Communist forces of the north continued to terrorize Vietnamese patriots in north and south alike, with aid and support from communist China and the Soviet Union.

The student of history understands that nothing happens in a vacuum.  US foreign policy is no exception. International Communism had attempted to assert itself since the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871 and found its first major success with the collapse of czarist Russia, in 1917.

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US policy makers feared a “domino” effect, and with good cause. The 15 core nations of the Soviet bloc were soon followed by Eastern Europe as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia fell each in their turn, into the Soviet sphere of influence. Germany was partitioned into Communist and free-enterprise spheres after WWII, followed by China, North Korea and on across Southeast Asia.

Communism is no benign ideology, morally equivalent to the free market west.  Current estimates of citizens murdered by Communist party ideology in the Soviet Union alone, range between 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

Agree or disagree with policy makers of the time that’s your business, but theirs was a logical thought process. US aid and support for South Vietnam increased as a way to “stem the tide” of international communism, at the same time when French support pulled back. By the late 1950s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the “National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam” (“NLF”, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem supported village leaders.  President John F. Kennedy responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.download (38)The war in Vietnam pitted as many as 1.8 million allied forces from South Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand, against about a half million from North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

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Even then it wasn’t over. Communist forces violated cease-fire agreements before they were even signed. Some 7,000 US civilian Department of Defense employees stayed behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting an ongoing and ultimately futile war against communist North Vietnam.

The last, humiliating scenes of the war played themselves out on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 29 – 30, 1975, as those able to escape boarded helicopters, while communist forces closed around the South Vietnamese capital.

The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia followed between 1975 – ‘79, when the “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

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Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of the alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family into a single diamond, and bite down on that stone so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth.  Forced to flee for your life and those of your young ones, you take to the open ocean in a small boat. 

All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.

That is but one story among more than three million “boat people”.  Three million from a combined population of 56 million, fleeing the Communist onslaught in hopes of temporary asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia or China.

They were the Sino-Vietnamese Hoa, and Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Ethnic Laotians, Iu Mien, Hmong and other highland peoples of Laos.  The 30 or so Degar (Montagnard) tribes of the Central Highlands, so many of whom had been our steadfast allies in the late war.  Over 2.5 million of them were resettled, more than half to the United States.  The other half went mostly to Canada, Europe and South Pacific nations.

A half-million were repatriated, voluntarily or involuntarily.  Hundreds of thousands vanished in the attempt to flee, never to be seen again. Vietnam_war_early_years (31)The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979 – ’80, but reverberated into the 21st century.

Graduating UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force, during the war in Vietnam.  The pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, South Carolina to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.

Today, we remember Ogonowski as Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11, one of thousands murdered by Islamist terrorists on September 11, 2001. 

When he wasn’t flying jumbo jets, John Ogonowski was a farmer.  Until being murdered in his own cockpit, John mentored Cambodian refugees turned farmers on his Dracut, Massachusetts “White Gate Farm“, helping a fresh wave of immigrants grow familiar crops in an unfamiliar climate.  Just as those old Yankees had once mentored his Polish immigrant ancestors, generations before.

The wall

Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served with every service branch in Vietnam, mostly German Shepherds and Dobermans but many breeds were accepted into service.

It is estimated that 4,900 dogs served between 1964 and 1975. Detailed records were kept only after 1968, documenting 3,747.

A scant 204 dogs ever left during the ten-year period. Some remained in the Pacific while others returned to the United States. Not one ever returned to civil life. An estimated 350 dogs were killed in action as were 263 handlers.  Many more were wounded. As to the rest, many were euthanized, or left with ARVN units or simply abandoned, as “surplus equipment”.

There would be no war dog adoption law until 2000 when WWII Marine War Dog Platoon Leader and Veterinarian Dr. William Putney made it happen, with assistance from Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.

The day it opened in 1982 there were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall,  Over the years, the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall. As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307.

Vietnam MemorialIn the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war in Vietnam.  We feel the political repercussions, to this day.  I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Even then I remember that searing sense of humiliation and disgrace, at the behavior of some fellow Americans.

Those Eyes

In 2012, President Barack Obama declared a one-time occasion proclaiming March 29 National Vietnam War Veterans Day and calling on “all Americans to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

In 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) co-sponsored a measure to declare March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day from that day forward, to honor US service members who served in the war in southeast Asia. The measure passed the United States Senate on February 3 and the House of Representatives on March 21. President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on March 28 designating the following day and every March 29 henceforward, Vietnam Veteran’s Day.

The recognition and gratitude due those who honorably served in an unpopular war, was long overdue.

Vietnam Veterans Day Tweet

February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

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U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

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The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

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A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.

February 7, 1917 The Road to War

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  No one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so there was war.  By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

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On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

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As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans.  100 of the dead, were children. .

The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

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Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53.  American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry.  Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.  

Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw.  The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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