February 25, 1944 Soldier Bear

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

The most destructive war in history began on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces invaded from the north, south and west, following an SS-concocted false flag operation known as the Gleiwitz incident. The Soviet Union, then allied with Nazi Germany, invaded from the east on September 17, according to a secret provision of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Polish forces fought back with stunning bravery, horse cavalry riding to meet German tanks, but little Poland never had a chance. German and Soviet forces were in full control of Polish territory by October 6.

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France and Great Britain declared war in support of their Polish ally on September 3, but effective relief came too little, too late. In the end, some 65,000 Polish troops were killed in the fighting, compared with 16,000 Germans. 420,000 became prisoners of the Reich and a quarter-million more, of the USSR. In April 1942, some 22,000 Polish officers were murdered in the forests of Katyń, an atrocity carried out by Soviet troops but blamed at the time, on German soldiers.

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Scene from the 2007 Polish film, “Katyń”

Some 120,000 Polish troops escaped via neutral Romania, another 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania. The second Polish Republic was dead, but Polish soldiers made some of the most heroic contributions to the allied war effort. Polish units fought from North Africa to Italy, to the north of Europe. Polish pilots and air crews made some of the largest contributions of any non-British nationality, to the Battle of Britain.  As the first light of dawn broke over the age of the inter-continental ballistic missile, Polish partisans captured the first V2 rocket, that supersonic and potentially game-changing super weapon of the Third Reich.

V2The doors to the Soviet Gulags opened after June 22, 1941, following Hitler’s surprise invasion of his Soviet “Ally”. While tens of thousands of free Poles worked their way to the assistance of France and Great Britain, these former POWs became the core of the Polish II Corps, numbering some 100,000 soldiers by 1945.

Around the time of the Katyń massacre, Polish troops of the newly formed “Anders Army” were passing through Hamedān Iran, in the company of thousands of civilians fleeing Soviet territory. A Kurdish boy was keeping a bear cub at that time, a Syrian brown bear whose mother had been shot, by hunters. Eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz was smitten with the animal, prompting Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy him. The young bear spent three months in a Polish refugee camp before being handed over to the 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. The soldiers called him Wojtek (“VOY-tek”), the diminutive form of “Wojciech”, meaning “Happy Warrior”.

wojtek5Wojtek was small in the beginning, yet to be weaned from his mother’s milk and having trouble swallowing.  Soldiers fed him condensed milk from an old vodka bottle, leading to honey or syrup and marmalade and whole fruit.

From Iraq through Syria and on to Palestine and Egypt, Wojtek moved with the 22nd Company. He loved to wrestle and learned by imitating, marching alongside on his hind legs, and learning to smoke. As he grew larger, soldiers rewarded Wojtek with a beer, which soon became his favorite libation.

With the Italian armistice of September 3, 1943, Allied planners hoped to occupy the Italian peninsula with minimal bloodshed.  It wasn’t meant to be.  The Italian campaign was embarked on its eighth month on this day in 1944, with another three months yet to go.  No campaign in all the West of Europe, cost the lives of more infantry, on both sides.

I personally have an uncle among them, killed in the fighting around Anzio.

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The shattered ruins of Monte Cassino cost the Allied side 55,000 casualties, to 20,000 Germans. H/T Life Magazine

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company joined a British transport out of Egypt, bound for the Italian peninsula.  Regulations prohibited mascot animals from troop ships.  So it was that Wojtek was officially enlisted as a soldier with his own serial number and paybook, and given the rank of Private.

Twenty divisions of Allied troops were engaged against the fortified strong points at Monte Cassino and the Gustav line, in terrain that would have challenged the talents of a mountain goat. On May 18, the Polish flag was raised over the shattered ruins, followed by the Union Jack. The former abbey had cost the Allies 55,000 casualties.

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“Polish soldiers carry ammunition to the front lines just before the capture of the abbey”. H/T Wikipedia

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company helped provide ammunition during the battle for Monte Cassino, the men carrying 100-pound crates of shells and stacking them on trucks.  Wojtek was quick to imitate and, though a mere stripling of a bear at 200-pounds, could carry a crate by himself, which would’ve taken four men.  He never dropped a single one.800px-Wojtek_soldier_bear.svg

Wojtek’s actions earned him a promotion to the rank of Corporal, his image becoming the official emblem of the 22nd Company.

Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire, Scotland after the war, along with the 22nd Company. There he became a local celebrity, and honorary member of the Polish-Scottish association.

Following full demobilization in 1947, Wojtek was given over to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. Journalists and former Polish soldiers would visit from time to time.  Some would toss him a cigarette which he would eat, not having anyone to light it for him. At the time of his death in 1963, the former soldier bear weighed in at 490-lbs.

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

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Monument to Wojtek in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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February 20, 1945 Falling on Grenades: the Indestructible Jack Lucas

On one training jump, both parachutes failed.  Somehow, Lucas fell 3,500-feet and sustained only minor injuries. According to his team leader, “Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground”.

In the days and weeks following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, enlistment and recruiting offices across the nation were flooded with volunteers. Birmingham Alabama saw 600 men in the first few hours, alone. In Boston, lines snaked out the door as men waited for hours, to volunteer.

But for his age, Jack Lucas would have been right there with them.

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At 5’8″ and a muscular 180-pounds, Jacklyn Harrell “Jack” Lucas was big for his age. On August 8, 1942, Lucas forged his mother’s signature on parental consent papers and claimed to be seventeen, enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. He was fourteen years old.

A year later, a letter to a girlfriend from V Amphibious Corps at Pearl Harbor, revealed his true age of fifteen. Military censors had Lucas removed from his combat unit and nearly sent him home, but Jack was vehement.  He was assigned to driving a truck, but this was a problem.  Being in the “rear with the gear” was not his idea of military service.  Lucas got into so many fights he was court-martialed, sentenced to five months of breaking rocks, given nothing but bread & water.

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Iwo Jima

Lucas was released from the brig in January 1945, when he deserted his post, stowing away on the transport USS Deuel to get closer to the action.  He turned himself in on February 8, volunteering to fight.  Jack turned seventeen on February fourteen.  Six days later, he got his wish.

February 20 was day two of the five-week battle for Iwo Jima, some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific war, in WW2.   Advancing toward a Japanese airstrip under heavy fire, Lucas and three Marines took shelter in a trench, only to realize there were eleven Japanese soldiers, barely feet away. He managed to shoot two when his rifle jammed, looking down as that first grenade, came over the parapet.

Without a moment’s thought, Lucas dove over his fellow Marine and onto the grenade, as another fell by his side.  Let his Medal of Honor citation, pick up the story:

381“Quick to act when the lives of the small group were endangered by two grenades which landed directly in front of them, Private First Class Lucas unhesitatingly hurled himself over his comrades upon one grenade and pulled the other one under him, absorbing the whole blasting force of the explosions in his own body in order to shield his companions from the concussion and murderous flying fragments”.

Only when a second company moved through the area, did someone realize he was still alive.

Six days later, Jack Lucas’ deserter classification was removed from his record.  In time, all seventeen of his military convictions were overturned.  He’d endure twenty-one surgeries and even then, no fewer than two hundred pieces of metal remained in his body, some the size of .22-caliber bullets.

Jack Lucas was ruled unfit for duty and discharged on September 18, 1945.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry S Truman, on October 5, at seventeen the youngest recipient of the nation’s highest award for military valor, since the Civil War.

The man had more than earned the name “indestructible”, but wait.  There’s more.

Lucas earned a business degree and returned to military service at age thirty-one, this time with the 82nd Airborne, of the United States Army.  On one training jump, both parachutes failed.  Somehow, Lucas fell 3,500-feet and sustained only minor injuries. According to his team leader, “Jack was the last one out of the plane and the first one on the ground“.

Two weeks later, he was back to jumping out of perfectly good aircraft.

Jacklyn Lucas, older

Lucas was married several times in civil life, including to one woman, who attempted to have him killed.  He later wrote his autobiography with help from writer D.K. Drum, appropriately entitled, “Indestructible”.

 

The USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) is a Wasp-class amphibious assault vessel, commissioned in 2001. When her keel was laid, Jack Lucas placed his Medal of Honor citation inside her hull, where it remains, to this day.

On August 3, 2006, sixteen living Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipients including Jack Lucas were presented the Medal of Honor flag by Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael Hagee, in front of over a thousand family, friends, and fellow Marines. Lucas commented, “To have these young men here in our presence — it just rejuvenates this old heart of mine. I love the Corps even more knowing that my country is defended by such fine young people.”

Jacklyn Lucas

The Indestructible Jacklyn Lucas died of Leukemia on June 5, 2008.  He was eighty years old.  On September 18, 2016, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced plans to build a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. DDG-125 is expected to be commissioned in 2023, to be named in his honor, the USS Jack H. Lucas.

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Artist’s depiction, USS Jack H Lucas
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

February 18, 1817 The Awful Tragedy, of Friends at War

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced each other, this time across the field of battle.   Gettysburg.

Armistead is a prominent name in Virginia.  The family goes back to colonial days.  Five Armistead brothers fought in the war of 1812. Major George Armistead commanded Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner.

Major Armistead became an uncle this day in 1817, to Lewis Addison Armistead, the first of eight children born to General Walker Keith and Elizabeth Stanley Armistead.

“Lothario” or “Lo” to his friends, Armistead followed the family footsteps, attending the Military Academy at West Point.  He never graduated.  Some say he had to resign after breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet and future Confederate General, Jubal Early.  Others say it was due to academic difficulties, particularly French class.

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Lewis Addison Armistead

Be that as it may, Armistead’s influential father gained him a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission awarded in 1839, about the time his former classmates, received theirs.

Armistead’s field combat experience reads like a time-line of the age:  cited three times for heroism in the Mexican-American War, wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, going on to serve in the Mohave War and the Battle of the Colorado River.

Stellar though his military career was, the man’s personal life was a series of disasters.  Armistead survived two wives and two daughters, only to lose the family farm in a fire.  All while fighting a severe case of Erysipelas, a painful and debilitating Streptococcal skin infection known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire”.

The act of conjugating the “Be” verb changed after the Civil War.  Before, it was the United States “are”.  Afterward, it became the United States “is”, and not for no reason.  This was a time when Patriotic Americans felt every bit the attachment to states, as to the nation itself.

Though often plagued with doubt, fellow Americans took sides on the eve of the Civil War.  Even brothers.   Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, Armistead wanted no part of secession, but followed his state when the break became inevitable.

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Winfield Scott Hancock

Pennsylvania native Winfield Scott Hancock went the other direction, staying with the Union.  Years later, “Hancock the Superb” would be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, narrowly losing to Republican James A. Garfield.

At a time of rampant political corruption, Hancock was noted for personal integrity.  Though himself a Republican, President Rutherford B. Hayes spoke in terms of admiration:

“[I]f…we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”

Neither Armistead nor Hancock were politicians, nor the sort of hotheads responsible for starting the war.  These were professional soldiers, serving together and developing a close personal friendship, as early as 1844.  On final parting on the eve of Civil War, Armistead made Hancock the gift of a new Major’s uniform.

Three years came and went before the old friends once again faced each other, this time across the field of battle.   Gettysburg.

Robert E. Lee intended to break the Federal will to fight at Gettysburg, before moving on to threaten the Union capital, in Washington DC.  ‘Marse Robert” attacked his adversary’s right on that first day, looking for a soft spot in the line. On day two, he went after the left.  On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Lee came straight up the middle.

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A Union perspective, from Cemetery ridge

Armistead and Hancock looked out across the same field as gray and butternut soldiers formed up along seminary ridge.  The action began with the largest bombardment in the history of the western hemisphere, the mighty crash of 170 guns spread over a two-mile front.  The attack lasted for an hour, most shells flying harmlessly over the Union line and exploding, in the rear.  One shell disturbed the lunchtime mess of that “damn old goggle-eyed snapping turtle” George Gordon Meade, cutting one orderly in half and sending much of the senior staff, diving for cover.

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The eighty guns of the Union line responded at first, before going silent, one by one.  In the smoke and confusion, it was easy to believe they were put out of action, but no.  These would be held, until the final assault.

The action has gone into history as “Pickett’s Charge”, though that’s a misnomer.  Major General George Pickett commanded only one of  three Divisions taking part in the assault, under Corps Commander Lieutenant General James Longstreet.

The pace was almost leisurely as Pickett’s, Trimble’s and Pettigrew’s gray and butternut soldiers stepped out of the forest, and over the stone wall.  Twelve to fifteen thousand men crossing abreast, bayonets glinting in the sun, banners rippling in the breeze.  One Yankee soldier described the scene as “an ocean of men sweeping upon us.”

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You can’t escape the sense of history, if you’ve ever crossed that field. Stepping off Seminary Ridge with nearly a mile to go, you are awe struck by the mental image of thousands of blue clad soldiers, awaiting your advance.  First come the shells, exploding and tearing jagged holes, where men used to be.  Halfway across and just coming into small arms range, you can’t help a sense of relief as you step across a low spot and your objective, the “copse of trees”, drops out of sight.  If you can’t see them they can’t shoot at you.  Then you look to your right and realize that cannon would be firing down the length of your lines from Little Round Top, as would those on Cemetery Hill, to your left.

Rising out of the draw you are now in full sight of Union infantry.  You hear the tearing fabric sound of rifle fire, exploding across the stone wall ahead.  Cannon have converted to canister by now, thousands of projectiles transforming federal artillery into giant shotguns.  You quicken your pace as your lines are torn apart from the front and sides. Fences hold in some spots along the Emmitsburg Road.  Hundreds of your comrades are bunched up in the attempt to climb over, mowed down where they stand.

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Canister shot, Gettysburg

Finally you are over, closing at a dead run.  Seeing his colors cut down, Armistead put his hat atop his sword, holding it high and bellowing above the roar of the guns “Come on, boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me!”

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Eight months before, Federal troops were cut down like grass in that frozen December, attacking the Rebel-held stone wall at Fredericksburg.  So numerous were the multitudes of dying and maimed as to inspire the Angel of Marye’s Heights, one of the great acts of mercy, in the history of war.

Now on this hot July day, came the payback.  All along the Union line, the chant arose to a roar, resounding above the din of battle:  “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”

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Alonzo Cushing

The savagery of that desperate struggle, can only be imagined.  With a shell fragment entering his shoulder and exiting his back and holding his own intestines with a free hand, Brevet Major Alonzo Cushing directed battery fire into the face of the oncoming adversary, until the bullet entered his mouth and exited the back of his skull.

150 years later, the 22-year-old received the Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded by President Barack Obama.

The “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” marks the point between the corner of a stone wall and that copse of trees, the farthest the shattered remnants of Longstreet’s assault would ever get.  Lewis Armistead made it over that wall before being shot down, falling beside the wheels of a Union cannon.

One day, the nation would reunite.  The two old friends, never did.  As Armistead sat bleeding in the grass, he was approached by Major Henry Bingham, of Hancock’s staff.  Hancock was himself wounded by this time, the bullet striking his saddle pommel and entering his thigh, along with shards of wood and a bent saddle nail.

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Armistead was grieved at hearing the news.  Bingham received the General’s personal effects, with instructions they be brought to his old friend. To Almira (“Allie”) Hancock, the General’s wife, Armistead gave a wrapped bible and his personal prayer book, bearing the inscription ”Trust In God And Fear Nothing”.

There are those who debate the meaning of Lewis Armistead’s last message, though the words seem clear enough: “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.”

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From the film, Gettysburg’

Feature image, top of page:  “The Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial is on the south side of Gettysburg in the National Cemetery Annex off Taneytown Road at the intersection with Steinwehr Avenue. (39.8210° N, 77.23177° W)” H/T Gettysburg.stonesentinels.com

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 17, 1895 Yellow Journalism

Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing papers using anything possible to get an edge. Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

YellowKidMickey Dugan was “born” on February 17, 1895, a wise-cracking street urchin from the wrong side of the tracks.  “Generous to a fault” with a “sunny disposition” Mickey was the kind of street kid you’d find in New York’s turn-of-the-century slums, maybe hawking newspapers. “Extra, Extra, read all about it!”

With his head shaved as if recently ridden of lice, Mickey was one of thousands of homeless urchins roaming the back lots and tenements of the city, not so much an individual as an archetype. Mickey Dugan was a cartoon character, the child of artist and “Buster Brown” creator, Richard Outcault.

Outcault’s “Hogan’s Alley” strip, one of the first regular Sunday newspaper cartoons in the country, became colorized by May of 1895. For the first time Mickey Dugan’s oversize, hand-me-down nightshirt was depicted in yellow.  Readers soon forgot his name.  He was simply “the Yellow kid”.

000789.1LOutcault worked for Joseph Pulitzer in those days, owner of the New York World Newspaper. Arch rival William Randolph Hearst hired the cartoonist away to work for Pulitzer’s cross-town competitor Journal American, but the pair soon learned that there was no copyright protection on the Yellow Kid. Soon the character was simultaneously appearing in both competing newspaper strips, where he would remain for over a year.

Circulation wars were white hot in those days, competing papers using anything possible to get an edge.  Real-life street urchins hawked lurid headlines, heavy on scandal-mongering and light on verifiable fact. Whatever it took, to increase circulation.

The Yellow Kid ceased to be of interest by 1898, but he lived on in a way, in the style of newspaper reporting which came to be known as “yellow journalism”.

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After two wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States. From the Spanish perspective, Cuba was more of a province than a colony, they were not about to relinquish a foot of territory. When the Cuban Rebellion of 1895 broke out, don Valeriano Weyler’s brutal repressions killed hundreds of thousands in Cuban concentration camps.

In America, some saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, in their own revolution of a hundred-odd years earlier. Fearing the economic repercussions of a drawn out conflict, shipping and other business interests put pressure on President McKinley to intervene. Meanwhile, the yellow papers kept the issue front page, whipping up popular fury with tales of the noble Cuban revolutionary and the barbaric Spaniard. There were even tales of American women being publicly strip searched by Spanish authorities.

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USS Maine

The armored cruiser USS Maine left Key West headed for Cuba in January 1898, to protect US interests and to emphasize the need for a quick resolution to the conflict. Anchored in Havana Harbor on February 15, a massive explosion of unknown origin rocked the Maine, sinking the cruiser within minutes and killing 266 of the 355 Americans on board.

The McKinley administration urged calm. Conditions in Cuba were bad enough, but front page headlines like “Spanish Murderers” and “Remember the Maine” accompanied sensationalized accounts of Spanish brutality. War became all but inevitable when US Navy findings were released that March, stating that an external explosion had doomed the Maine.

MaineThe Spanish-American War began the following month, directly resulting in the Philippine-American war.

There is a story, that illustrator Frederic Remington said there was no war brewing in Cuba. Hearst is supposed to have replied. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The story may be apocryphal. The media can’t tell us what to think, but they can certainly control what we think ABOUT. Hearst and Pulitzer had clamored for two years for war with Spain, and they were happy to take credit when it came. Besides, it was good for circulation. A week after the Spanish-American War began in April, Hearst’s American Journal ran the headline “How do you like the Journal’s war?” Front page, above the fold.

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War Propaganda

It’s been said that you should never pick a fight with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. I disagree. I have broken that dictum myself and recommend the practice to anyone so inclined. For all the Wizard of Oz antics of the print and electronic media, there remains only the one man behind the curtain. President Reagan once said of the Soviet Union, “doveryai no proveryai” (trust, but verify). He might have said the same of an information industry whose business model it is, to rent an audience to a sponsor.

In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire which ignited its ammunition stocks, not by Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

Small consolation it was to 3,289 Americans and an estimated 90,000 Spaniards, killed in “the Journal’s war”. Nor to the loved ones, they left behind.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 16, 1973 Cherry

“I spent 702 days in solitary confinement…At one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.” Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

Fred Vann Cherry was born March 24, 1928, the child of poor Virginia dirt farmers.  Cherry had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up in the Jim Crow-era, but he stuck to his studies.  As a boy, Cherry attended racially segregated public schools in Suffolk Virginia, later attending the historically all-black Virginia Union University, and the United States Air Force Aviation Cadet Training Program.

An Air Force fighter pilot, Cherry flew 52 combat missions over North Korea, before going on to serve during the Cold War period, and the American war in Vietnam.

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Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

On October 22, 1965, then-Major Cherry’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire, fifteen miles north of Hanoi.  “The plane exploded and I ejected at about 400 feet at over 600 miles an hourIn the process of ejection, I broke my left ankle, my left wrist, and crushed my left shoulder. I was captured immediately upon landing by Vietnamese militia and civilians.”

Any fool can judge a man by the color of his skin.  Most fools, do.  Fred Cherry’s North Vietnamese captors were no exception.  The first American of African ancestry to fall into the hands of these people, Cherry was told things could go easier.  If only he spoke out about racial discrimination, in the United States.

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Porter Halyburton

When that failed to produce the propaganda victory they wanted, jailers assigned Cherry a cellmate, the self-described “southern white boy”, Naval aviator Porter Halyburton.

I guess they thought if they had a Southern white boy taking care of a black man, it would be the worst place for both of us,” Halyburton told the Washington Post. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Halyburton looked after his injured cellmate, changing the dressings on his infected wounds, feeding him, bathing him and watching over him. “He said I saved his life, and he saved my life. . . . Taking care of my friend gave my life some meaning that it had not had before.

For eight months, the two men lived in a series of putrid, stinking cells, 10-by-10-foot compartments with nothing to sleep on but filthy straw mats, or the floor.

I was so inspired by Fred’s toughness,” Halyburton said. “He had grown up in the racial South [and] undergone a lot of discrimination and hardship. But he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country. It inspired me, and it inspired a lot of others.”

The two cellmates were separated in 1966, in what Halyburton remembers as “one of the saddest days of my life.”   Cherry recalled “I spent 702 days in solitary confinementAt one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.”

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Fred Cherry speaks to the press on February 16, 1973, following 2,671 days in captivity

The pair didn’t see each other again until 1973, when the two met at the military hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines following release from captivity.

Colonel Cherry and Commander Halyburton gave a number of joint talks at military institutions and colleges, and toured in 2004 to promote a book about their story, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch.

Fred Cherry died on this day in 2016 at the age of 87, forty-three years to the day, from the news conference photographed above.  The Washington Post remembered in his obituary, what Colonel Cherry wrote in a 1999 collection of POW stories:

 “I was always taught to love and respect others and forgive those who mistreat, scorn or persecute me. . . . [This] allowed me overcome the damages of discrimination, Jim Crow, and the social and economic barriers associated with growing up a poor dirt farmer. . . . My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right.”

It’s an inspiring message.  One worth remembering.

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Former POW and U.S. Air Force Colonel Fred Vann Cherry waves to the public and press there to greet the plane load of former POWs flown in from Clark Air Base. Colonel Cherry was released by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi February 12, 1973.
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February 14, 1945 Firestorm

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path. 

The most destructive war in history entered its final, apocalyptic phase in January 1945, with another four months of hard fighting yet remaining before Allied forces could declare victory in Europe. In the west, the “Battle of the Bulge” was ended, the last great effort of German armed forces spent and driven back beyond original lines. In the east, the once mighty German military contracted in on itself, in the face of a massive Soviet advance.

Dozens of German divisions hurried east to meet the threat. Allied intelligence believed the war could be over in April, if the major cities to the east were destroyed. Dresden. Leipzig. Chemnitz. Letting these places stand to serve as bases for retreating German forces, could drag the war out until November.

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of the Air Staff, put the problem succinctly: “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”

With its baroque and rococo city center, the capital city of Dresden was long described as the “Jewel Box” of the Free State of Saxony, family seat to the Polish monarchs and royal residence to the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Dresden was the seventh-largest city in Germany in 1945, home to 127 medium-to-large sized factories supplying the German war machine, and the largest built-up area in the “thousand-year Reich”, yet to be bombed.

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Long described as “Florence on the Elbe” Dresden was considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, a treasure of art and architecture.

For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience, of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained but forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star, he was forced to wear on his coat. It was now Victor’s task to hand out official letters, ordering those who remained to report for “deportation”. There wasn’t one among them, who didn’t understand what that meant.

Three hundred miles away, bad weather hampered operations for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).  The first wave in the fire bombing of Dresden, would be a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation.

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The first group of Lancaster bombers arrived in the skies over Dresden two hours before midnight, February 13. These were the pathfinders, their job to find the place and drop magnesium parachute flares, to light up the target. Then came the marker planes, Mosquito bombers whose job it was to drop 1,000-pound target indicators, their red glare providing something to aim at. Then came the first wave, 254 Lancaster bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosive ranging from 500-pounders to massive, 4,000-pound “blockbusters”. Next came 200,000 incendiary or “fire bombs”.

This thing was just getting started.

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The second wave came in the small hours of February 14, just as rescue operations, were getting underway.  By now thousands of fires were burning, with smoke rising 15,000 feet into the air.  You could see it from the air, for five hundred miles.

That’s when another 529 Lancasters, dropped another 1,800 tons of bombs.

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Lancaster bomber

The USAAF arrived over the target on the afternoon of February 14, the 317 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the “Mighty 8th” delivering another 771 tons, of bombs.

Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm.  A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path.  A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires.  Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and back into the flames.

Lothar Metzger was ten at the time.  He brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:

“It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them”.

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For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.

Official death tolls from the burned out city are estimated at 18,500 to 25,000. The real number will never be known.  Refugees and military forces in the tens of thousands were streaming through the area at this point in the war.  Estimates range as high as 200,000.  The number if true, is more than death tolls resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.

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360° panoramic view of Dresden, following allied firebombing.  H/T International Business Times
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February 11, 1462 Son of the Dragon

When a group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, the Prince ordered the turbans nailed to their heads.

Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time out of mind, has been around since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.  Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript included “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”. He nearly kept one of them too, until stumbling into the real-life story of Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and front-line warrior, against the Jihad of his day.

bram-stoker-draculaIn modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “The Devil”. In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”.

Stoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL“. In a time and place remembered for brutality, Vlad “the Impaler” Țepeș stands out for extraordinary cruelty. There are tales that Țepeș disemboweled his own mistress. That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries. Some 24,000 of them. That he dined among forests of victims, spitted on poles. That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.

In 1436, Vlad II Dracul became Voivode (prince) of Wallachia, a region in modern-day Romania situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains. The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists“), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

order-of-the-dragonA crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe and Christian forces pushed back..
A weakened political position left Vlad II no choice but to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, in the form of an annual Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and a contribution of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as Janissaries, the elite slave army at the center of Ottoman power.

Vlad was taken hostage by the Sultan in 1442 along with his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu. The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time and the boys became skilled horsemen and warriors.  While Radu went over to the Turkish side, Vlad hated captivity and developed an incandescent hate for his captors. It would last him all of his days.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II set his sights on the invasion of all Europe.

Vlad III gained the Wallachian throne three years later and immediately stopped all tribute to Sultan Mehmed II, by now risen to 10,000 ducats a year and 1,000 boys. When a group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, the Prince ordered the turbans nailed to their heads.

Vlad, Ottoman EnvoysVlad now consolidated power as his reputation for savagery, grew. According to stories circulated after his death, hundreds of disloyal Boyars (nobles) and their allies met their end, impaled on spikes.

The conqueror of Constantinople now amassed power of his own, setting his sights on campaigns against Anatolia, the Greek Empire of Trebizond and the White Sheep Turkomans of Uzun Hasan. Throughout this period, Romanian control of the Danube remained a thorn in his side.

Pope Pius II declared a new Crusade against the Ottoman in 1460, but Vlad Țepeș was the only European leader to show any enthusiasm. The Hungarian General and Ţepeş’ only ally Mihály Szilágyi was captured by the Turks, his men were tortured to death and Szilágyi himself sawed in half.

vlad-tepes--i101077Țepeș invaded the Ottoman Empire the following year. In a letter to Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus dated February 11, 1462, Țepeș wrote: “I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with him (Sultan Mehmet II)”.

The Sultan invaded Wallachia at the head of a massive army, only to find a “forest of the impaled”. The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen long and seven stades wide“.

To give a sense of scale to such a horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena.

Vlad DraculaOutnumbered five-to-one, Ţepeş carried out a scorched earth policy, poisoning the waters, diverting small rivers to create marshes and digging traps covered with timber and leaves. He would send sick people among the Turks, suffering lethal diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and bubonic plague.

From his years in captivity, Ţepeş understood Ottoman language and customs as well as the Turks themselves. Absolutely fearless, he would disguise himself as a Turk and freely walk about their encampments.

On June 17, 1462, the Son of the Dragon launched a night attack on the Ottoman camp near the capital city of Târgoviște, in an effort to assassinate Mehmed himself. Knowing that the Sultan forbade his men from leaving their tents at night, a force of some 7,000 to 10,000 horsemen fell on Mehmed’s camp three hours after sunset. The skirmish lasted all night until 4 the next morning, killing untold numbers of Turks, their horses and camels. Ţepeş himself aimed for the Sultan’s tent, but mistook it for that of two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha.

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The Battle With Torches by Romanian painter Theodor Aman, depicting the The Night Attack of Târgovişte,

Mehmed II “The Conqueror” survived the Night Attack at Târgovişte. In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would twice be deposed only to regain the throne but never able to defeat his vastly more powerful adversary.

In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would be twice deposed only to regain power. Unable to defeat his more powerful adversary, Vlad was exiled for several years in Hungary, spending much of that time in prison.

Heaven help the unsuspecting rodent who fell into his hands, in that wretched cell.

Vlad

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.