January 1, 45BC Happy New Year

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

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Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

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In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”

Happy New Year, from Mr & Mrs Cape Cod Curmudgeon, Rick & Sheryl.

November 29, 1918 A Medical Mystery

Further study is needed but, perversely, such study is only possible given more cases of the disease. For now, the lethal pandemic of 1915 – 1924 remains one of the great medical mysteries. An epidemiological conundrum, locked away in a nightmare closet of forgotten memory.

The Great War was in its third year in 1917, with another year to go. Before they had numbers, this was the most cataclysmic war in living memory, destroying the lives of some thirty-six million on all sides and leaving untold millions more, maimed.

In March of the following year, a new batch of trainees cycled through Fort Riley in Kansas, fresh recruits destined for the “War to End All Wars”. On reporting for breakfast one morning, none could know that an enemy lurked among them, more lethal than the war itself.

Private Albert Gitchell was coming down with cold-like symptoms: sore throat, fever and headache. Never mind breakfast. Pvt. Gitchell was headed for the base hospital.  More than one-hundred reported sick by noon, with similar symptoms.

file-20180109-36019-q61srvOrdinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15 to 34-year-olds twenty times higher in 1918, than in previous years.

The young and healthy immune system of the victims, were what killed them.

The armistice was a bare two weeks in the past on November 29, 1918.  Formal peace negotiations would occupy the whole of 1919.

History has a way of swallowing some events, whole. Like they never happened. The Spanish flu afflicted some five hundred million worldwide, killing an estimated fifty to one hundred million.  Two to three times the number killed by the war itself and yet, the story was overshadowed by the end of the war.

Small wonder it is then, that such an event would itself eclipse a pandemic far smaller but in some ways more terrifying, than the worldwide calamity of the Spanish flu. To this day, nobody knows where this enemy came from. Or where it left to, when it went away.

In 1915, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Constantin von Economo described the signs and symptoms of a strange new condition which came to be called Von Economo’s Disease. The illness was labeled Encephalitis Lethargica, literally “Inflammation of the brain which makes you tired”.

“We are dealing with a kind of sleeping sickness, having an unusually prolonged course. The first symptoms are usually acute, with headaches and malaise. Then a state of somnolence appears, often associated with active delirium from which the patient can be awakened easily. He is able to give appropriate answers and to comprehend the situation. This delirious somnolence can lead to death, rapidly, or over the course of a few weeks. On the other hand, it can persist unchanged for weeks or even months with periods lasting bouts of days or even longer, of fluctuation of the depth of unconsciousness extending from simple sleepiness to deepest stupor or coma,” Die Encephalitis lethargica, Constantin von Economo, 1917

Encephalitis Lethargica is also known by the deceptively benign name of “Sleepy Sickness”. Von Economo distinguished three phases of the illness. Symptoms of the somnolent-ophthalmoplegic include paralysis of the cranial nerves, leading to expressionless faces and involuntary eye movements, with overwhelming sleepiness leading to coma. Fully one-third of E.L. sufferers died during this phase, of respiratory failure. The hyperkinetic form manifested itself with restlessness and motor disturbances leading to facial contortion, anxious mental state and an inability to sleep, often leading to death by exhaustion.

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Dr. Constantin von Economou top left, described the plight of E.L. sufferers, in 1917

The amyostatic-akinetic form frequently resulted in a chronic state resembling Parkinson’s disease, called Postencephalitic Parkinsonism.

Autopsies revealed this third phase to result from localized neurodegeneration of the Substantia Nigra, the basal ganglia structure of the mid-brain which plays a role in reward and associative learning as well as bodily movement. Unknown to the sufferer, this neurodegeneration takes place over an interval of a few days to thirty years, consigning the sufferer to a trance-like state in which the patient is rendered speechless and motionless, fully aware but, for all intents and purposes, a statue.

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Substantia Nigra

The 1973 non-fiction book Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, describes what that looks like:

“They would be conscious and aware – yet not fully awake; they would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite, affect or desire; they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies”.

It is hard to imagine a more terrifying condition.   Worldwide, Encephalitis Lethargica afflicted some five million between 1915 and 1924.  The disease preyed mostly on young victims, between 15 and 35.  Early symptoms include high fever, headache, fatigue and runny nose. Sufferers would take to bed believing it to be nothing more than a severe cold, or flu. Meanwhile, the unknown enemy within quietly spread to the brain.

j8zjvpoiOne-third of sufferers died in the acute phase, a higher mortality rate than the Spanish flu of 1918-’19.  Many of those who survived never returned to pre-disease states of “aliveness” and lived out the rest of their lives institutionalized, literal prisoners of their own bodies.  Living paperweights.

A bare 14% emerged from the condition, with no lasting effect.

140297_patient_from_20s_300_24-7-98_grab.jpgProfessor John Sydney Oxford is an English virologist, a leading expert on influenza, the 1918 Spanish Influenza, and HIV/AIDS. Few have done more in the modern era, to understand Encephalitis Lethargica: “I certainly do think that whatever caused it could strike again. And until we know what caused it we won’t be able to prevent it happening again.”

Doctors Russell Dale and Andrew Church discussed 20 new cases in 2004, published in the Oxford University medical journal Brain. The two hypothesize infection leading to a massive auto-immune response, possibly brought on by an unusual Streptococcus bacterium.

Further study is needed but, perversely, such study is only possible given more cases of the disease. For now, the lethal pandemic of 1915 – 1924 remains one of the great medical mysteries. An epidemiological conundrum, locked away in a nightmare closet of forgotten memory.

We can only hope it stays that way.

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November 17, 1558 Strange Beauty Secrets

The archaeological record suggests humans have been coloring their lips, for 4,000 years.

Popular ideas of what is beautiful have changed with time and place, but strange beauty secrets are as old as history itself.

Live-Persian-Miniature-Painting-12.jpgIn ancient Greece, blond hair was perceived as beautiful, probably because it was unusual. Women would lighten their hair using a mixture of ashes, olive oil & water, and sometimes arsenic.

Cleopatra used a lipstick of mashed up beetle guts and powdered her eyes with the dried excrement, of crocodiles.  She would bathe daily in the sour milk of donkeys, 700 of the animals kept on-hand, for the purpose.

The stuff was supposed to have smoothed out wrinkles and just might have worked too.  Soured lactose turns to lactic acid, capable of removing the top layer of skin.  The Greek princess-turned Egyptian Pharoah all but owned the hearts of the most powerful men of the age, but at a cost.  Burning your own skin off seems a tough way to go.

cleopatra-last-queen-egypt-main.jpgThe 12th century Queen Isabeau of France likewise favored the sour donkey milk routine, followed up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars.

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Empress Elisabeth of Austria, considered by many to be the most beautiful woman, on earth

History remembers Empress Elisabeth of Austria for helping to bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in 1867.  Less well known is the woman’s obsessive dedication to her own youthful figure and exceptional beauty.

Elisabeth would crush strawberries over her face, neck and hands, followed by a bath in warm olive oil.  She would sleep in a mask lined with raw veal.

Elisabeth emphasized her already slender figure by “tight-lacing” a leather corset, a practice which infuriated the mother-in-law who regarded the queen’s duty, as being perpetually pregnant.

Even after four pregnancies, on her death at age 60 at the hands of an Italian anarchist, the woman’s waist measured 18½”-19 inches.

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“Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

During the Heian period in Japan, 794 to 1185AD, a woman’s beauty was judged by the length of her hair. The ideal was considered to be about two feet below her waist.

The Hungarian “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory who lived from August 7, 1560 – August 21, 1614, may be the most prolific female serial killer in history, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins, to keep herself looking young.

Erzsébet’s four cohorts were convicted in the murder of 80, while the Countess herself was neither tried nor convicted due to her exalted rank. She was simply thrown into a cell on her arrest in December, 1610 and there left to die, four years later.

On a less macabre note, Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either.  Novelist George Sands liked to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

Nofretete_Neues_Museum.jpgNefertiti ruled as Egyptian Queen ca. 1351–1334 BC, the Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhenaten, predecessor to the great Tutankhamun. Nefertiti , her name translates as “The Beautiful Woman has Come”, would shave herself hairless from head to foot, donning a wig and lining her eyes with Egyptian kohl, a substance derived from lead. In case that wasn’t enough, Nefertiti would color her lips with a combination of seaweed and bromine nitrate, a plant-derived toxin so powerful, some believe the stuff to be the origin of the phrase, “the kiss of death”.

Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was crowned this day, November 17, 1588.  As queen, Elizabeth followed a path taken by women for thousands of years, sporting the high forehead and daubing her face with a powder makeup called ceruse. High lead content made the practice deadly enough, but women would top it off with a rouge containing mercury, leading to an untold number of birth defects and miscarriages. It’s all but certain the combination of lead and mercury led to her complete loss of hair.  Small wonder she was the “Virgin Queen”.

Virgin Queen.jpgThe European quest for the perfect, porcelain complexion lasted well into the 19th century, for which some women ate clay.  The ladies of the French Court obsessed over flawless, alabaster skin, until the end of the 18th century. They would fake it with thick layers of white powder, made from white lead, or talcum powder, or pulverized bone.  Whatever they could get hold of. Combined with wax, whale blubber, deer fat or vegetable oil, the stuff had a nice, greasy consistency that stayed where they put it.

ots32styherapghk5a1539c073789Meanwhile, African women of antiquity favored lavender oil for its distinctive feminine scent and a red tea called Rooibos to keep skin looking young and supple. With its naturally high levels of zinc and vitamin D2, the stuff was an important defense against the hot African sun.

Marie Antoinette washed up with “Eau Cosmetique de Pigeon”, the stuff bearing the promise right there on the  label,  that every bottle contained no fewer than “eight pigeons stewed.”

55b1b8d611d27aa735b1fd0267fc1f33.jpgHers was a time of big hair, when hair was piled high on top of the head, powdered and augmented with the hair of servants and the fur of pets. The do was often adorned with fabric, ribbons or fruit, sometimes holding props like birdcages complete with stuffed birds and even miniature frigates, under sail.

It wasn’t just women’s hair, either. Fashionable European men of the 18th century wore wigs made of both animal and human hair, a practice that soon spread across the water and into North America.

The wealthy wore longer wigs, often powdered and curled while those who couldn’t afford them wore shorter versions, usually styled into a braided ponytail.

custer (1).jpgGeorge Edward Pickett, he of the famous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, was acclaimed for his oiled and perfumed locks.  The “Boy General”, the youngest Civil War General in the Union Army, would anoint his hair with cinnamon oil.  A lock of George Armstrong Custer’s hair recently sold at auction, for $12,500.

Well into the 20th century, women and men alike chose between slicking their hair down with a greasy brilliantine, or spraying it with shellac dissolved in an admixture of water and alcohol.

Weird beauty tips are easy to find on-line.  Some say that Preparation H under the eyes reduces puffiness (I hear it works).  Hot pepper sauce applied to the roots of the hair will help it grow, (the jury’s out on this one). Some believe that urine works as an astringent to clear up acne, (it doesn’t), and rubbing your face with a potato dries up oily skin (that one’s false as well).

MIrrorTheme.jpgToday we look on past practices as bizarre, but maybe we shouldn’t. If those people from the past were to peer into their own future, they’d see spray tanning, teeth bleaching, and Brazilian bikini wax. They’d see people injecting the neurotoxic output of Clostridium Botulinum into their faces, and sticking metal objects through all manner of body parts.

You have to wonder what our own future will bring. Not even Nostradamus could have foretold tattooed grandmothers.

Ancient Beauty

 

November 11, 1921 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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

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

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

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

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German troops, leaving for the front

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

The cataclysm could have been averted, as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had brought events past the point of no return. By the time it was over a generation was shattered, a continent destroyed and a new century, set on a difficult and dangerous course.ruins.jpgSome 40 million were killed in the Great War, either that or maimed or simply, vanished.  It was a mind bending number, equivalent to the entire population in 1900 of either France, or the United Kingdom. Equal to the combined populations of the bottom two-thirds of every nation on the planet.  Every woman, man, puppy, boy and girl.

The United States entered the conflict in 1917, suffering casualties of 320,518 in only a few short months.world-war-i-100-year-anniversary-american-entry-legacy-1The idea of honoring the unknown dead from the “War to end all Wars” originated in Europe. Reverend David Railton remembered a rough cross from somewhere on the western front, with the words written in pencil:  “An Unknown British Soldier”.

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

The two nations performed ceremonies on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was simultaneously consecrated under the Arc de Triomphe with the actual burial taking place, the following January.

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

That was the year, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring her own, unknown dead. Four unidentified bodies were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries and carefully examined, lest there be any clues to identity. The four were then transported to the Hôtel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne, and placed in a makeshift chapel.

Six soldiers were invited to act as pallbearers, each man a highly decorated and respected member of his own unit.  Outside the chapel, Major Harbold of the Graves Registration Office handed a large spray of pink and white roses to twice-wounded Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  It was he who would perform the final selection.9664b-10-24-selection2bof2bworld2bwar2bi2bunknown2bsoldierPassing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me“.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

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

Flags at half-mast with stern bedecked with flowers, Commodore George Dewey’s former flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9, 1921. There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.Unknown_Soldier_at_the_Washington_Navy_Yard.jpgOn November 11, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed upon this unknown soldier of the Great War, the nation’s highest military decorations.  The Medal of Honor.  The Distinguished Service Cross.

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

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

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

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

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

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United States Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tomb Sentinel will continue in this manner for a half-hour, one hour or two depending on the time of day, and the season of the year.  If you have witnessed the Changing of the Guard, you are not likely to forget it.  My brother and I were once privileged to experience the moment, in the company of an Honor Flight of WW2 veterans. If you’ve never seen the ceremony, I recommend the experience.

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

He got that wrong.  By 36 days._MG_0016_1466631465932.jpg

April 22, 1915 From Trench Warfare to Modern Chemotherapy

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground. 

According to Greek mythology, the malevolent centaur Nessus attempted to force himself upon Deianeira, wife of Hercules (Herakles).  Seeing this from across a river, Hercules shot Nessus with an arrow, poisoned by the venom of the Hydra.  In a final act of malice, the dying centaur convinced Deianeira his blood would make her husband, faithful for life.  Deianeira foolishly believed him, coming to realize her error only as her husband lay dying by the tainted blood of his victim.

Bauer_-_Hercules_Nessus_DeianiraBoth sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt, in AD178.

The French were first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War: August, 1914.

1D7Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915 at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised a new and fresh hell, unimaginable to contemporary and modern reader, alike.

Gas

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

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Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the apocalyptic race war pitting the Teuton against the Slavic states of the Soviet Union – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

Animals in World War1

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937.  

“ I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”. – Franklin D Roosevelt, in a letter to the United States Senate

None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.

main-qimg-6cec6b7ffb5cac17681e9f4e14d99d61-cGreat Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting retaliation should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

dog_gas_masks_02The Geneva Protocols on 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

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For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM, when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

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43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Mustard_Gas-_Sketch_to_Illustrate_the_Effect_of_Mustard_Gas_on_Horses_Art.IWMART4942.jpgDeath comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to suffer chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode remained shrouded in secrecy.

At the time, the chemical disaster at Bari was all but unknown.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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Dr. Alexander identified mustard as the responsible agent.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells. Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells.  Like cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma.

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

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Dr. Sidney Farber, regarded by many as the “Father of Modern Chemotherapy”

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society estimates that there were 7,377,100 male cancer survivors in the United States as of January 1, 2016 and another 8,156,120, females.

 

A Trivial Matter
German chemist Albert Niemann discovered cocaine in 1859, and went on to document the poison effects of sulphur mustard around the time of the American Civil War. In 1913, British and German civilian researchers were accidentally exposed to mustard and had to be hospitalized. The German military obtained notes about the incident and promptly went about weaponizing the stuff.

April 16, 73 Masada

The siege of the mountaintop fortress of Masada ended this day in 73.  Two women and five children who had taken shelter in a water pipe, alone remained to tell the tale.

Built under the reign of King Solomon in the 10th century BC, Solomon’s Temple was the first holy temple in ancient Jerusalem.  According to Rabbinic sources the temple stood on part of the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Zion for 410 years, before being sacked and burned to the ground by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BC.

solomons-templeSo important is this event to the Jewish people that it is commemorated still as the bitterest day of the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and mourning known as Tisha B’Av.

A second temple was built on the site in 516BC, and expanded during the reign of Herod the Great. This second temple stood until the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70AD, according to Jewish tradition falling on the same day as the first temple.

The first Roman involvement with the Kingdom of Judea came in 67BC.  The client Kingdom of the Herodian Dynasty became a Roman Province in the year 6AD.

Long standing religious disputes erupted into a full scale Jewish revolt in 66. Thousands of Jews were executed in Jerusalem and the second temple plundered, resulting in the Battle of Beth Horon in which a Syrian Legion was destroyed by Jewish rebels. The future emperor Vespasian appointed his son Titus as second in command, entering Judea in 67 at the head of four legions of Roman troops.

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“Depiction of the Roman triumph celebrating the Sack of Jerusalem on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The procession features the Menorah and other vessels taken from the Second Temple”. H/T Wikipedia

A three year off and on siege followed, with Vespasian being recalled to Rome in 69 to become Emperor. The Great Jewish Revolt was now Titus’ war.

The Jewish historian Josephus acted as intermediary throughout much of the siege, though his impartiality has been questioned since he was both friend and adviser to Titus.   Josephus entered the city at one point to negotiate but later fled, wounded by an arrow in a surprise attack which very nearly caught Titus himself.

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The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, Oil on canvas by David Roberts, 1850

A brutal siege of Jerusalem followed through most of the year 70, in which Jewish Zealots burned their own food supply, forcing defenders to “Fight to the End”.  During the final stages, Zealots following John of Giscala still held the Temple, while a splinter group called the Sicarii (literally, “Dagger Men”), led by Simon Bar Giora held the upper part of the city.

The Second Temple, one of the last fortified bastions of the rebellion, was destroyed on Tisha B’Av, July 29 or 30, 70AD. By September 7 the Roman army under Titus had fully occupied and plundered all of Jerusalem.

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Mountain fortress of Masada. Note the siege ramp to the right, by which the besieging force gained access to the top. The Romans built that.

The first Jewish-Roman war would last for three more years, culminating in the Roman siege of the mountaintop fortress of Masada.

Masada rises nearly fifteen-hundred feet above the dead sea, occupying the 18-acre plateau of a mountain described by modern Arabs as al-Sabba. “The Accursed”.

The rhomboid-shaped mesa was briefly settled around the time of the first temple (ca. 900BC), and fortified during the Hasmonean Dynasty of ancient Judaea. The plateau ends in steep cliffs falling some 1,300 feet to the east and about 300-feet on the western side. Already a natural fortress, Herod the Great equipped the place with a 13-foot wall some 1,300-feet in length, a barracks, armory and a cistern holding 200,000 gallons of water.

4d6e5b7865f7fe3f65d6c897db1ed696Masada remained the last remnant of Jewish rule in Palestine in 70, following the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the second temple.  A defending force of fewer than 1,000 (including women and children) held out for nearly two years as the 15,000-strong legions of General Flavius Silva placed stone upon stone, building the sloping ramp of earth and stone seen above.

In the end, Zealot defenders led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, never had a chance.  Preferring death to enslavement, Josephus tells us of their drawing lots, each man bearing his throat to his comrade until there remained only one.

Mountaintop excavations in 1955-’56 and resumed in 1963-’66 support this version of the end, pottery shards bearing inscribed names, in Hebrew.

It was all over on this day in 73.  Two women and five children who had taken shelter in a water pipe, alone remained to tell the tale.

There would be two more Jewish-Roman wars:  Kitos War (115–117), sometimes called the “Rebellion of the Exile”, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 through 135. The wars had a cataclysmic impact on the Jewish people, the resulting diaspora transforming a major Eastern Mediterranean population to a scattered and persecuted minority.

The Jewish people would not reestablish a major presence in the Levant until the State of Israel was constituted, in 1948.

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Old City of Jerusalem

February 1, 1901 The End of Memory

The people he sought were over 101, one was 113. It could not have been easy, beginning with the phone call to next of kin. There is no delicate way to ask the question, “Is he still with us?” Most times, the answer was “no”.

last-of-the-doughboysThe Forgotten World War

In 2003, author Richard Rubin set out to interview the last surviving veterans of the Great War, the “War to End All Wars”.  World War One.

The people he sought were over 101, one was 113. It could not have been easy, beginning with the phone call to next of kin. There is no delicate way to ask the question, “Is he still with us?” Most times, the answer was “no”.

Sometimes, it was “yes”, and Rubin would ask for an interview. The memories his subjects sought to bring back were 80 years old and more.  Some spoke haltingly, and with difficulty.  Others were fountains of information, as clear and lucid as if the memories of which they spoke, were only  yesterday.

Rubin writes “Quite a few of them told me that they were telling me things that they hadn’t talked about in 50, 60, 70 years. I asked a few of them why not, and the surprising response often was that nobody had asked.”

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Anthony Pierro at 107

Anthony Pierro of Swampscott, Massachusetts, served in Battery E of the 320th Field Artillery and fought in several of the major battles of 1918, including Oise-Aisne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne.

Pierro recalled his time in Bordeaux, as the best time of the war. “The girls used to say, ‘upstairs, two dollars.’” Pierro’s nephew Rick interrupted the interview. “But you didn’t go upstairs.”  Although possibly unexpected, Uncle Anthony’s response was a classic.  “I didn’t have the two dollars”.

Reuben Law of Carson City, Nevada remembered a troop convoy broken up by a German U-Boat, while his own transport was swept up in the murderous Flu pandemic of 1918.

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Hildegarde Schan

They’re not all men, either. 107-year-old Hildegarde Schan of Plymouth, Massachusetts speaks of caring for the wounded.

Howard Ramsey started a new burial ground in France, we now know as theMeuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

“So I remember one night”, Ramsey said, “It was cold, and we had no blankets, or nothing like that. We had to sleep, we slept in the cemetery, because we could sleep between the two graves, and keep the wind off of us, see?”

Arthur Fiala of Kewaunee, Wisconsin remembered traveling across France in a boxcar marked “40-8″, (40 men or eight horses).

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Arthur Fiala

There was J. Laurence Moffitt of Orleans, Massachusetts. Today, we see the “Yankee Division” on highway signs. At 106, this man was the last surviving member of his outfit, with a memory so clear that he could recall every number from every fighting unit of the 26th Division.

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George Briant

George Briant was caught in an open field with his battery, as German planes dropped bombs from the sky.  Briant thinks he was hit by every one of them, too.  After several months in the hospital, he begged to go back to the front.  On the last night of the war, November 10, 1918, Briant came upon the bodies of several men who had just been shelled.

“Such fine, handsome, healthy young men”, he said, “to be killed on the last night of the war.  I cried for their parents. I mean it’s a terrible, terrible thing to lose anyone you love in a war, but imagine knowing precisely when that war ends, and then knowing that your loved one died just hours before that moment.

Rubin interviewed dozens of these men, and a handful of women. Their stories are linked HERE if you care to watch.  I highly recommend it.  Their words are more powerful than anything I can offer.

The Last Doughboy

Frank Woodruff Buckles, born Wood Buckles, is one of them. Born this day in 1901, Buckles enlisted with the First Fort Riley Casualty Detachment, trained for trench casualty retrieval and ambulance operations.  He was sixteen.

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Frank Woodruff Buckles, S/N 15577

The unit set sail from Hoboken New jersey in December 1917 aboard HMS Carpathia, a vessel made famous by the Titanic rescue, five years earlier.

Woodruff never saw combat but he saw lots of Germans, with a Prisoner-of War escort company.  Returning home in January 1920 aboard USS Pocahontas, Buckles was paid $143.90, including a $60 bonus.

Buckles was a civilian in 1940, working for the White Star Lines and WR Grace shipping companies. His work took him to the Philippines, where he remained after the outbreak of WWII. He was helping to resupply U.S. troops when captured by Japanese forces in January 1942, imprisoned for thirty-nine months as a civilian prisoner in the Santo Tomas and Los Baños prison camps.  He was rescued by the 11th Airborne Division on February 23, 1945, on the day he was to be executed.

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“I found out afterwards when I read up on my history that some of the things that I did were quite important”.

Buckles married Audrey Mayo of Pleasanton, California in 1946, and returned from whence he had come.  Back to the land, back to the Gap View Farm near Charles Town, West Virginia in January 1954, to farm the land his ancestors worked, back in 1732.

Audrey Mayo Buckles lived to ninety-eight and passed away on June 7, 1999.  Frank continued to work the farm until 106, and still drove his tractor.  For the last four years of his life he lived with his daughter Susannah near Charles Town, West Virginia.

Once asked his secret to a long life, Buckles responded, “When you start to die, don’t”.

On December 3, 2009, Frank Buckles became the oldest person ever to testify before the United States Congress, where he campaigned for a memorial to honor the 4.7 million Americans who served in the War to End All Wars.

“We still do not have a national memorial in Washington, D.C. to honor the Americans who sacrificed with their lives during World War I. On this eve of Veterans Day, I call upon the American people and the world to help me in asking our elected officials to pass the law for a memorial to World War I in our nation’s capital. These are difficult times, and we are not asking for anything elaborate. What is fitting and right is a memorial that can take its place among those commemorating the other great conflicts of the past century. On this 92nd anniversary of the armistice, it is time to move forward with honor, gratitude, and resolve”.

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The United States came late to the Great War, not fully trained, equipped and mobilized until well into the last year.  Even so, fully 204,000 Americans were wounded in those last few months.  116,516 never came home from a war in which, for all intents and purposes, the US fought a bare five months.

Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away on February 27, 2011 at the age of 110, and went to his rest in Arlington National Cemetery.  The last of the Doughboys, the only remaining American veteran of WWI, the last living memory of the war to end all wars, was gone.

Concurrent resolutions were proposed in the US House of Representatives and Senate for Buckles to lie in state, in the Capitol rotunda. For reasons still unclear, the plan was blocked by Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  Neither Boehner nor Reid would elaborate, proposing instead a ceremony in the Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.  The President of the United States attended his funeral.

Reporter Paul Duggan of The Washington Post described the occasion:

“The hallowed ritual at grave No. 34-581 was not a farewell to one man alone. A reverent crowd of the powerful and the ordinary—President Obama and Vice President Biden, laborers and store clerks, heads bowed—came to salute Buckles’s deceased generation, the vanished millions of soldiers and sailors he came to symbolize in the end”.

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Afterward

Sixteen million Americans joined with allies the world over to defeat the Axis Powers of WW2.  They were the children of Frank Buckles’ generation, sent to complete what their parents had begun.  Seventy years later, 939,332 remained alive.  They’ve been called the “Greatest Generation”.  Today, we lose them at a rate of 362, per day.

If Department of Veterans Affairs actuarial projections are any indication, the Frank Buckles of his generation, the last living veteran of WW2, can be expected to pass from among us in 2044.

That such an event should pass from living memory, is a loss beyond measure.

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Feature image, top of page:  Frank Buckles, age 107
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