November 24, 1962 Kilroy Was Here

Kilroy was Here became a protective talisman, a good-luck symbol expected to provide good juju, for the American GI.  Soldiers began to write the graffiti on newly captured areas and landings.  Kilroy was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived.  He was still there when you left.

The Fore River Shipyard began operations in 1883 in Braintree, Massachusetts, moving to its current location on the Weymouth Fore River on Quincy Point, in 1901.  The yard was purchased by Bethlehem Steel in 1913, and operated under the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation.

Most of the ships built at Fore River were intended for the United States Navy, including early submarines built for Electric Boat, the Battleship USS Massachusetts, and the Navy’s first carrier, the USS Lexington. In the inter-war years, non-US Navy customers included the United States Merchant Marine, the Argentine Navy, the Royal Navy of Great Britain and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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USS Salem CA-139 museum ship, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy

The Navy Act of 1938 mandated a 20% increase in American Naval strength. Much of that increase came through Fore River. The Shipyard employed 17,000 personnel the day Imperial Japan invaded the American Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor. That number increased to 32,000 by 1943 with a payroll equivalent to $9.69 Billion, in today’s dollars.

Kilroy-3Necessity became the mother of invention, and the needs of war led to prodigious increases in speed.  No sooner was USS Massachusetts launched, than the keel of USS Vincennes, began to be laid. By the end of the war, Fore River had completed ninety-two vessels of eleven different classes.

Builders at the yard were paid by the number of rivets installed. Riveters would mark the end of their shift with a chalk mark, but dishonest co-workers could erase their marks, marking a new spot a few places back on the same seam.

Shipyard inspector James Kilroy ended the practice, writing “Kilroy was Here”, next to each chalk mark.

With hulls leaving the yard so fast there was no time to paint the interiors, Kilroy’s name achieved mythic proportions. The man literally seemed to be everywhere, his name written in every cramped and sealed space in the United States Navy.

For the troops inside of those vessels, Kilroy always seemed to have “been there”, first.  This was a symbol, an assurance that this particular troop ship, was well and truly sealed.

Kilroy was Here became a protective talisman, a good-luck symbol expected to provide good juju, for the American GI.  Soldiers began to write the graffiti on newly captured areas and landings.  Kilroy was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived.  He was still there when you left.

Kilroy-6German Intelligence believed Kilroy to be some kind of  “super spook”, able to go anywhere he pleased and to leave, without a trace.

The challenge became, who could put the Kilroy graffiti in the most difficult and surprising place.

I’ve never been there, but I I understand there’s a Kilroy, at the top of  Mt. Everest.  The cartoon was scribbled in the dust of the moon.  There’s one on the Statue of Liberty and another on the underside of the Arch of Triumph, in Paris.  There’s on the great Wall, in China.

The World War 2 Memorial in Washington, DC could hardly have been complete without a Kilroy, engraved in granite.  If you look closely enough, you’ll find two of them.DSC07960 (1)

Under-water Demolition (UDT) teams, predecessors to the United States Navy SEALs, swam ashore on Japanese-held Pacific islands, preparing the way for amphibious invasions.  More than once, UDT divers found that Kilroy had already been there, the silly cartoon nose scribbled on makeshift signs, and even enemy pillboxes.

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, “Who is Kilroy?”Trumanstalin

Ask a Brit and he will tell you “Mr. Chad” came first, cartoonist George Chatterton’s response to war rationing.  “Wot, no tea”?

kilroy_no_spamThe cartoon appeared in every theater of the war, but few knew the mythical Kilroy’s true identity.

In 1946, the Transit Company of America held a contest, asking the “real” Kilroy to come forward.

Nearly forty guys showed up to claim the prize, a real trolley car.  Doubtless they all felt they had legitimate claims, but James Kilroy brought a few riveters and some shipyard officials along, to vouch for his authenticity.  That was it.

That Christmas the Kilroy kids, all nine of them, had the coolest playhouse in all of Massachusetts.

trolleycarJames Kilroy went on to serve as Boston City Councillor and member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, from Halifax.  Surely there is a doodle, somewhere in the “Great & General Court” up there in Boston, to inform the passer-by.  Kilroy was here.

James Kilroy passed away on this day, November 24, 1962, at the age of sixty.

November 22, 1942 Malign Governance

Taken individually, either power possessed the potential to destroy the world order.  The mind can only ponder the great good fortune of we who would be free, that these malign governments turned to destroying each other.

In the 18th century, the Founding Fathers gave us a Republic, centered on individual liberty, delegated and diffuse authority and checks & balances. Unique in world history, it was a governing model, based on an idea.

In this election year of peace and prosperity, news media and candidates alike speak of “Socialism”.  A top down ideology where individual liberty is subsumed by the collective, and cosmic chance is all that separates benign governance, from authoritarianism.

Two of the worst such ideologies rose up in the wake of the War to end all Wars.  One a murderous, authoritarian, collectivist ideology with international aspirations and class obsessions. The other a murderous, authoritarian, and collectivist ideology with nationalist aspirations and ethnic obsessions.

symbol-combo-1506965295.jpgTaken individually, either power possessed the potential to destroy the world order.  The mind can only ponder the great good fortune of we who would be free, that these malign governments turned to destroying each other.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began in 1938. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or occupied.  Great Britain alone escaped Nazi invasion, as the shattered defenders of the island nation fled the beaches of Dunkirk.

The National Socialist “Thousand-year Reich” was allied for a time with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August, 1939.

We in the west understand World War 2 in terms of European and Pacific “Theaters”.  Yet the most shattering conflict of this most destructive war in history unfolded not in those places, but the Eastern Front, between the two former allies.

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“Valhalla in flames, in an 1894 depiction by Max Brückner, one of the original set designers for the opera”. H/T Wikipedia

This was a Race war, Slav against Teuton.  The Ragnarök of Norse mythology.  The all-destroying Götterdämmerung of Wagnerian opera.  Of an estimated 70–85 million deaths attributed to World War II, approximately 30 million occurred on the Eastern Front.  95% of all Wehrmacht casualties between 1941 and 1944, took place on the “Ostfront”.  The former allies fought out the most ferocious battle of that bloodiest theater of the war, in the streets and the sewers of Stalingrad.

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Soviet soldiers on the offensive against German troops during the Battle of Stalingrad, February 1943. Zelma/RIA Novosti archive, image no. 44732 (CC BY-SA3.0)

Wilfred von Richtofen, cousin of the famous “Red Baron” of WWI, opened up with his heavy bombers on August 23rd, dropping over 1,000 tons of high explosive on Stalingrad.

Most of the cattle, grain and rail cars surrounding the city were shipped out, in advance of the German assault.  Government propagandists boasted of the “harvest victory”, and yet most of Stalingrad’s civilian residents remained, leaving the city short of food.  Making matters worse, the Luftwaffe bombed Volga River shipping, sinking 32 vessels and crippling another 9 in the narrow waterway.  The most vital link in the city’s supply chain, was cut off.  

In the beginning, Soviet defense suffered extreme manpower shortages.  One part of the early defense fell to the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, a primarily female unit comprised of young volunteers with little training and the wrong weapons to engage ground targets. These women were all alone at this point with no support from other units, yet they traded shot for shot with the German 16th Panzer Division until all 37 AA guns had been wiped out or overrun. When it was over, 16th Panzer soldiers were amazed to learn, they had been fighting women.

1077th

Stalingrad was quickly reduced to rubble, with the German 6th Army controlling 90% of the city.  Still, the the Soviet defense held on.  General Vasily Chuikov commanding the weak 62nd army well understand the overwhelming power of the Blitzkreig and insisted on “Hugging the Enemy”, to nullify German air power.

With backs to the Volga, they fought for the very sewers of the city, men and women alike reduced to a primitive level of existence. The Germans called it “Rattenkrieg”. “War of the Rats”.  One German infantryman wrote home to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

As many as 80,000 Red Army soldiers lay dead by the middle of October, 1942. Counting German losses and civilian deaths, the battle cost a quarter million lives up to this point. And it was barely halfway over.Stalingrad

Ice floes in the Volga further cut off supplies.  Defenders were reduced to cannibalism as a massive Soviet counter-attack assembled on the German’s exposed left flank.

By November, General Georgy Zhukov had assembled over a million fresh troops and three Air Armies, for the assault on Stalingrad.  1,500 tanks and 2,500 heavy guns arrived fresh from the factory, many departing with paint, still wet.

The rumble of artillery, the “Great Soviet God of War” could be heard across the steppe as the Soviet counter-attack commenced in a blinding snowstorm on November 19, 1942.

German General Friedrich von Paulus sent a telegram to Adolf Hitler, requesting permission to withdraw.  The response from the Fuhrer:  the 6th Army should fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet.”  Von Paulus send a second telegram on the 22nd.  The 6th Army was surrounded.  stalingrad1

German forward movement came to an end on the Eastern Front in February, 1943, when 91,000 freezing, wounded, sick and starving Germans surrendered to the Red Army.

Even then, thousands of troops refused to lay down arms and continued to fight from the cellars and the sewers, holding on until early March.

Disease, death marches, cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition all took their toll on the prisoners.  Nearly 110,000 went into captivity following the Battle of Stalingrad.  Fewer than 6,000 lived to return to Germany.

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German soldiers, Battle of Stalingrad, January 1943 H/T Britannica.com

Nigh on 80 years later, my fellow Americans face one of history’s “hinge” moments.  Do we choose the self-governance of We the People, with all of its many warts and short-comings.   Or do we abandon self-government to cosmic chance, and the rule of a self-interested, few.

October 8, 1942, Once!

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft and refused to fly on such a “broken down crate”.

Harl-Pease-croppedThe Municipal Airport in Portsmouth New Hampshire opened in the 1930s, expanding in 1951 to become a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. The name was changed to Pease Air Force Base in 1957, in honor of Harl Pease, Jr., recipient of the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism that led to his death in World War II.

The Japanese war machine seemed unstoppable in the early months of the war. In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.

Harl PeaseUnited States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was ordered to lead three battered B-17 Flying Fortresses to Del Monte field in Mindanao, to evacuate General Douglas MacArthur, his family and staff, to Australia. One of the aircraft was forced to abort early, while the other developed engine trouble and crashed. Pease alone was able to land his Fortress, despite inoperative wheel brakes and used ration tins covering bullet holes.

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft and refused to fly on such a “broken down crate”. The General would wait two more days before making his famous exit, saying, “I shall return”.

Harl Pease wasn’t supposed to go on the “maximum effort” mission against Rabaul, since his aircraft was down for repairs. But he was determined.  Pease and a few volunteers grabbed an old trainer aircraft on August 7, too beat up for combat service. Its engines needed overhaul, some armament had been dismounted, and the electric fuel-transfer pump had been scavenged for parts. Pease had a fuel tank installed in the bomb bay and a hand pump was rigged to transfer fuel. In fewer than three hours, he and his crew were on their way.

Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells what happened next:

Cmoh_army (1)“When 1 engine of the bombardment airplane of which he was pilot failed during a bombing mission over New Guinea, Capt. Pease was forced to return to a base in Australia. Knowing that all available airplanes of his group were to participate the next day in an attack on an enemy-held airdrome near Rabaul, New Britain, although he was not scheduled to take part in this mission, Capt. Pease selected the most serviceable airplane at this base and prepared it for combat, knowing that it had been found and declared unserviceable for combat missions. With the members of his combat crew, who volunteered to accompany him, he rejoined his squadron at Port Moresby, New Guinea, at 1 a.m. on 7 August, after having flown almost continuously since early the preceding morning. With only 3 hours’ rest, he took off with his squadron for the attack. Throughout the long flight to Rabaul, New Britain, he managed by skillful flying of his unserviceable airplane to maintain his position in the group. When the formation was intercepted by about 30 enemy fighter airplanes before reaching the target, Capt. Pease, on the wing which bore the brunt of the hostile attack, by gallant action and the accurate shooting by his crew, succeeded in destroying several Zeros before dropping his bombs on the hostile base as planned, this in spite of continuous enemy attacks. The fight with the enemy pursuit lasted 25 minutes until the group dived into cloud cover. After leaving the target, Capt. Pease’s aircraft fell behind the balance of the group due to unknown difficulties as a result of the combat, and was unable to reach this cover before the enemy pursuit succeeded in igniting 1 of his bomb bay tanks. He was seen to drop the flaming tank. It is believed that Capt. Pease’s airplane and crew were subsequently shot down in flames, as they did not return to their base. In voluntarily performing this mission Capt. Pease contributed materially to the success of the group, and displayed high devotion to duty, valor, and complete contempt for personal danger. His undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit”.

Pease was presumed lost until the capture of one Father George Lepping, who found Captain Pease and one of his airmen, languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even among some of his Japanese guards. “You, you ah, Captain Boeing?“, they would say. Pease would stand up straight and say, “Me, me Captain Boeing.”

Japanese officers were a different story.  They would beat the prisoners savagely on any provocation, or none at all.

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Army Air Corps Capt. Harl Pease Jr. Photo courtesy of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society

On October 8, 1942, Captain Harl Pease, Jr. was taken into the jungle along with three other Americans and two Australian prisoners. They were given picks and shovels and forced to dig their own graves.  And then each was beheaded, by sword. Captain -Pease was 26.

Many years later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away.  His family found his war diary. The old man had been a soldier once, one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.

The diary tells of a respect this man held for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten nearly senseless, his arms tied so tightly that his elbows touched behind his back, Captain Pease was driven to his knees in the last moments of his life. Knowing he was about to die, Harl Pease uttered the most searing insult possible against an expert swordsman and self-styled “samurai”.  Particularly one with such a helpless victim. It was the single word, in Japanese. “Once!“.

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August 18, 1942 Ghosts of the Butaritari

The old man spoke no English, save for a single song memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the early months of WWII, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler, first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

That April, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic,  beating marchers at random and bayoneting those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of their way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

The Imperial Japanese Navy asserted control over much of the region in 1941, installing troop garrisons in the Marshall Island chain and across the ‘biogeographical region’ known as Oceana.

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WWF Map of the biogeographic region ‘Oceana

The “Island hopping strategy” used to wrest control of the Pacific islands from the Japanese would prove successful in the end but, in 1942, the Americans had much to learn about this style of warfare.

Today, the island Republic of Kiribati comprises 32 atolls and reef islands, located near the equator in the central Pacific, among a widely scattered group of federated states known as Micronesia. Home to just over 110,000 permanent residents, about half of these live on Tarawa Atoll.  At the opposite end of this small archipelago is Butaritari, once known as Makin Island.

marine-raiders-about-to-deployA few minutes past 00:00 (midnight) on August 17, 1942, 211 United States Marine Corps raiders designated Task Group 7.15 (TG 7.15) disembarked from the submarines Argonaut and Nautilus, and boarded inflatable rubber boats for the landing on Makin Island. The raid was among the first major American offensive ground combat operations of WW2, with the objectives of destroying Japanese installations, taking prisoners to gain intelligence on the Gilbert Islands region, and to divert Japanese reinforcement from allied landings at Guadalcanal and Tulagi.

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Makin Island as seen by Nautilus

High surf and the failure of several outboard engines confused the night landing.  Lt. Colonel Evans Carlson in charge of the raid, decided to land all his men on one beach instead of two as originally planned, but not everyone got the word. At 5:15, a 12-man squad led by Lt. Oscar Peatross found itself isolated and alone but, undeterred by the lack of support, began to move inland in search of the enemy. Meanwhile, the balance of TG 7.15 advanced inland from the landing, encountering strong resistance from Japanese snipers and machine guns.

Two Bansai charges turned out to be a tactical mistake for Japanese forces. Meanwhile, Peatross and his small force of 12 found themselves behind the Japanese machine gun team engaging their fellow Marines.  Peatross’ unit killed eight enemy soldiers along with garrison commander Sgt. Major Kanemitsu, knocked out a machine gun and destroyed several enemy radios, while suffering three dead and two wounded of their own.

Unable to contact Carlson, what remained of Peatross’ small band withdrew to the submarines, as originally planned.  That was about the last thing that went according to plan.

Makin Island Burning
View of Makin Island from USS Nautilus, waiting to withdraw Marine Corps raiding force

At 13:30, twelve Japanese aircraft arrived over Makin, including two “flying boats”, carrying reinforcements for the Japanese garrison. Ten aircraft bombed and strafed as the flying boats attempted to land, but both were destroyed in a hail of machine gun and anti-tank fire.

The raiders began to withdraw at 19:30, but surf conditions were far stronger than expected. Ninety-three men managed to struggle back to the waiting submarines, but eleven out of eighteen boats were forced to turn back. Despite hours of heroic effort, exhausted survivors struggled back to the beach, most now without their weapons or equipment.

Wet, dispirited and unarmed, seventy-two exhausted men were now left alone on the island, including only 20 fully-armed Marines originally left behind, to cover the withdrawal.

Many survivors got out with little but their underclothes, and a few souvenirs

A Japanese messenger was dispatched to the enemy commander with offer to surrender, but this man was shot by other Marines, unaware of his purpose.  A rescue boat was dispatched on the morning of the 18th to stretch a rescue line out to the island. The craft was attacked and destroyed by enemy aircraft.  Both subs had to crash dive for the bottom where each was forced to wait out the day. Meanwhile, exhausted survivors fashioned a raft from three remaining rubber boats and a few native canoes, and battled the four miles out of Makin Lagoon, back to the waiting subs. The last survivor was withdrawn at fifty-two minutes before midnight, on August 18.

The raid annihilated the Japanese garrison on Makin Island, but failed in its other major objectives.  In the end, Marines asked the island people to bury their dead.  There was no time.  Casualties at the time were recorded as eighteen killed and 12 missing in action.

The war in the Pacific continued for another three years, but the Butaritari people never forgot the barbarity of the Japanese occupier.  Nor did they forget the Marines who had given their lives, in the attempt to throw out the occupier.

Captured Flag
Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson holds a souvenir with his second-in-command from the Makin Island raid, James Roosevelt.  The President’s son. 

Neither it turns out, had one Butaritari elder who, as a teenager, had helped give nineteen dead Marines a warrior’s last due.  In December 1999, representatives of the Marine Corps once again came to Butaritari island, this time not with weapons, but with caskets.

The old Butaritari man spoke no English, save for a single song memorized during those two days back in 1942, taught him by those United States Marines:   “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…”

May 4, 1943 Death by Chocolate

In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of real chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off this thing, you might wonder in the last moments of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

In a Spanish dictionary, the word “Bobo” translates as “stupid…daft…naive”. The slang form “bubie” describes a dummy. A dunce. The word came into English sometime around 1590 and spelled “booby”, meaning a slow or stupid person.

In a military context, a booby trap is designed to kill or maim the person who activates a trigger. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you’ll get) were tucked into backpacks, bamboo sticks or simply hung by their tails, a living trap for the unwary GI.

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Punji stakes were often smeared with human excrement, resulting in hideous infection to the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle, before the fragmentation grenade goes off. Often, the first of his comrades running to the aid of his now shattered body hits the trip wire, setting off a secondary and far larger explosive.

Not to be outdone, the operation code-named “Project Eldest Son” involved CIA and American Green Berets sabotaging rifle and machine gun rounds, in a way that blew the face off the careless Vietcong shooter.

German forces were masters of the booby trap in the waning days of WW1 and WW2. A thin piece of fishing line, connecting the swing of a door with a hidden grenade at your feet. A flushing toilet explodes and kills or maims everyone in the building. The wine bottle over in the corner may be perfectly harmless, but the chair you move to get to it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped upon or moved in any way, can be rigged to mutilate the unwary, or kill. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities. Would the “Joe Squaddy” entering the room care if that painting on the wall was askew? Very possibly not but the “officer and a gentleman” may be moved to straighten the thing out at the cost of his hands, or maybe his life.

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

In the strange and malignant world of Adolf Hitler, the German and British people had much in common.  Are we not all “Anglo-Saxons”?  The two peoples need not make war, he thought, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been a true leader of world-historical proportion, during the darkest days of the war.  To take the man out, just might cripple one of Hitler’s most virulent adversaries.

In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of real chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off this thing, you might wonder in the last moments of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

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So it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister, by booby trapped chocolate placed in a war cabinet meeting room.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there were times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

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The lives of millions, or perhaps only one.  German agents operating inside the United Kingdom were discovered by British spies, the information sent to MI5 senior intelligence chief, Lord Victor Rothschild.

Lord Rothschild, a scientist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family immediately grasped the importance of the information.  On this day in 1943, Rothschild typed a letter to illustrator Laurence Fish.  The letter, marked “secret”, begins:

“Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate…”

The letter went on to describe the mechanism and included a crude sketch, requesting the artist bring the thing, to life.

Laurence Fish went on to be a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his posters, “Laurence”.  Dozens of wartime drawings were quietly forgotten and left in a drawer, for seventy years.

Hitler’s bomb makers devised all manner of havoc, from booby trapped mess tins to time-delay fuses, meant to destroy shipping, at sea.   In 2015, members of the Rothschild family were cleaning out the house, and discovered a trove of Fish’s work.

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The artist is gone now but his work lives on.  Fish’s illustrations are now in the hands of his widow Jean, an archivist and former journalist living in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.  Perhaps to be shown one day, in some public archive or museum.

Taken together, Laurence fish’s illustrations represent a precise and hand drawn record of an all but forgotten part of the most destructive war, in history.

 

Feature image, top of page:  Booby trapped “Bangers & Mash” tin,  compliments of Herr Hitler’s bomb makers.  H/T IrishTimes.com

April 27, 1941 The Guinea Pig Club

The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

The attraction of taking flight in time of war is unmistakable.  For a lad of nineteen, twenty, twenty one, he is a latter-day knight at the prime of his life, mounting his steed of steel to do battle with evil.  Life seems indestructible and without end at that age, except, reality is shockingly different.  Of a group of 100 RAF airmen in the early phase of World War Two, a mere twenty escaped being killed, captured or incinerated alive.

Guinea-Pig-Club

Flying Officer Desmond “Des” O’Connell was just nineteen when he joined the British Royal Air Force, in 1938.

O’Connell was assigned to RAF Limavady in the north of Ireland in the early months of World War Two, around the time the Capital Battleship Bismarck cleared the Kiel Canal and emerged into the Baltic Sea. On this day in 1941, Desmond O’Connell and six other flyers were assigned to find and take out the German warship.

The twin engine Whitworth Mark V ‘Whitley’ medium bomber never had a chance, overloaded as it was with extra crew, tanks full of fuel and bombs. The aircraft struggled to gain altitude and clipped the mountains outside of Limavady before striking the ground, and breaking apart.

Desmond O’Connell miraculously survived as did the rest of the crew, but his ordeal had just begun.  Soaked with fuel and suffering a skull fracture, he was crawling on his hands and knees when the fire caught up.   He remembers peering through the flames at his hands, as pieces came off of his gloves.  But those weren’t gloves.  The flesh was burning from his hands.

Archibald Hector McIndoe took to medicine at an early age, earning the first New Zealand fellowship to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, at only 24. Dr. McIndoe moved to London in 1930 and, unable to find work, joined in private practice with his great uncle, fellow Kiwi Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery by this time, made famous through his work in the Great War as “The Man who Fixed Faces“.

Dr. McIndoe was a talented surgeon:  confident, precise, and quick on his feet.  Under Harold Gillies’ direction, Archibald McIndoe became a leading figure in the field of plastic surgery.

With the outbreak of WW2, Dr. McIndoe took a position at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he headed up a center for plastic and maxillofacial surgery. A trickle of patients from the “Phoney War” period soon turned to a flood, during the Battle of Britain.

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The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

Dr. McIndoe treated no fewer than 649 of these men, not only Brits but Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.  There were Americans and French, Czechs and Poles.  Each man required dozens and sometimes hundreds of surgeries over agonizing years.  Sausage-like constructions of living flesh called “tubed pedicles” were “waltzed” up from remote donor sites on patient’s own bodies, to replace body parts consumed by the war.

Tube-pedicles

To be rendered hideous and unsightly in service to one’s nation, a subject of horrified stares, is more than most can bear.  McIndoe understood as much and his treatment methods threw convention, out the window.  Inmates were treated not as patients or objects of pity, but as men.  They wore not the ‘jammies or those degrading hospital johnnys with their asses hanging out but their own clothing, and even uniforms.  They had parties and socialized.  Those who were able went “out on the town”.  They were the “Guinea Pig Club”, they socialized, threw parties.  More than a few relationships were formed with nurses, many ended in marriage.

“Others met women from East Grinstead, a place the ‘guinea pigs’ referred to as ‘the town that never stared’”. H/T nzhistory.govt.nz

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Dr. McIndoe was knighted in 1947 and passed away at only fifty nine, but his work lives on in the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), and the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) for which he once served, as president.  The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961, and continues to conduct research into new methods of wound management, to this day.

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The Guinea Pig Club turned seventy-five years old in 2016.  Most of those early RAF members are gone now, but the organization lives on.  Today, new members come from places like the Falkland islands.  And Iraq.  And Afghanistan.

 

Feature image, top of page:  A scene from the 2012 play “The Guinea Pig Club”, depicts the agonies of WW2-era RAF airmen, treated for severe burns

 

A Trivial Matter
“Until the spring of 1944, the priority for manpower in the UK was not the navy, RAF, army, or even the merchant navy, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the war, Britain alone built 132,500 aircraft, a staggering achievement – especially when considering that Fighter Command in the battle of Britain never had more than 750 fighters”. H/T HistoryExtra.com

April 26, 1937 Guernica

The time and place is unknown to history but the question must have come up, in some lost and forgotten conference. What would it take, to bomb a city.  To Hell.  On that day, people of the former Basque capital of Guernica became guinea pigs.  Unsuspecting victims of a cold blooded and beastly experiment, mere data points in a future World War.

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-’39 pitted a left leaning alliance of Anarchists, Marxists and the Republican government of President Manuel Azaña against a Rightist coalition of Nationalists, Monarchists and Catholics originally under the leadership of José Sanjurjo and later led by General Francisco Franco.

Among nations, only Mexico and the Soviet Union openly supported the Republicans while Nationalists received aid and support from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Estado Novo regime of Portuguese Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar and volunteers of the Romanian Iron Guard.

Posters of the Spanish Civil War

Many among the International Left saw this as the authentic front line against International fascism. As many as 40,000 poured into the conflict claiming to represent 53 nations such as the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the Canadian Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion and even groups of Germans and Italians of the Garibaldi Battalion.

For Nazi Germany, this was a dress rehearsal. An opportunity to try out new weapons and tactics for the larger war, to come. Adolf Hitler sent the multi-tasking Condor Legion, combining units of the Luftwaffe and the Heer, the Army component of the German Wehrmacht.

The time and place is unknown to history but the question must have come up, in some lost and forgotten conference. What would it take, to bomb a city.  To Hell.  On that day, people of the Spanish town of Guernica became guinea pigs.  Unsuspecting victims of a cold blooded and beastly experiment, mere data points in a future World War.

Many years later, German air chief Hermann Goering testified at his trial for war crimes:

“The Spanish Civil War gave me an opportunity to put my young air force to the test, and a means for my men to gain experience.” – Hermann Goering

Guernica was a market town in the northern “Basque” region of Spain, a place where local farmers and village people come in from the countryside, to conduct business.  Monday, April 26 was Market day, with an estimated 10,000 in the former Basque capital.

Noel Monks was an Australian reporter, covering the war for the London Daily Express. The German bombers first appeared on this day in 1936, some eighteen miles outside Guernica.

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Monks and a driver named Anton were on a dusty road that afternoon when six Heinkel 52 fighters came in fast and low, directly at them. The pair leapt out of the car and into the mud of a bomb hole, as machine gun bullets tore into the road. “When the Heinkels departed”, Monks wrote, “out of ammunition I presumed, Anton and I ran back to our car. Nearby a military car was burning fiercely. All we could do was drag two riddled bodies to the side of the road. I was trembling all over now, in the grip of the first real fear I’d ever experienced.”

Guernica, Ruinen

Let Monks pick up the story. He was the first correspondent into the burning city:

“We were still a good ten miles away when I saw the reflection of Guernica’s flames in the sky. As we drew nearer, on both sides of the road, men, women and children were sitting, dazed. I saw a priest in one group. I stopped the car and went up to him. ‘What I happened, Father?’ I asked. His face was blackened, his clothes in tatters. He couldn’t talk. He just pointed to the flames, still about four miles away, then whispered: ‘Aviones. . . bombas’. . . mucho, mucho.’

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Luftwaffe Incendiary Bomb, circa 1937

I was the first correspondent to reach Guernica, and was immediately pressed into service by some Basque soldiers collecting charred bodies that the flames had passed over. Some of the soldiers were sobbing like children. There were flames and-smoke and grit, and the smell of burning human flesh was nauseating. Houses were collapsing into the inferno.

In the Plaza, surrounded almost by a wall of fire, were about a hundred refugees. They were wailing and weeping and rocking to and fro. One middle-aged man spoke English. He told me: ‘At four, before the-market closed, many aeroplanes came. They dropped bombs. Some came low and shot bullets into the streets. Father Aroriategui was wonderful. He prayed with the people in the Plaza while the bombs fell.’..

Five separate raids struck Guernica that day, each in their turn.

…The only things left standing were a church, a sacred Tree, symbol of the Basque people, and, just outside the town, a small munitions factory. There hadn’t been a single anti-aircraft gun in the town. It had been mainly a fire raid.

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Estimates of that time count the number of dead as high as 1,700.  Monks wrote of “…A sight that haunted me for weeks was the charred bodies of several women and children huddled together in what had been the cellar of a house. It had been a refugio.”

Later estimates put the number between 170 and 300, not counting the 592 dead registered in the hospital, in Bilbao.

First came the propagandists.  A fog of lies, blanketing the ground.  Monks received this cable, from his office in London:  “Berlin denies Guernica bombing. Franco says he had no planes up yesterday owing fog. (Nationalist General) Queipo de Llano says Reds dynamited Guernica during retreat.”

As much as 74% of Guernica was destroyed in the raids.  There were the cold calculations.  The ratios.  How many buildings destroyed per ton of bombs.  How many lives.

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed his famous work in June of that year, the oil painting in Gray, Black and White depicting what it is like to be under attack from the air, perhaps the most powerful piece of anti-war art, in history.

For those left on the ground of Guernica, there was little doubt.  The bombing raids of the age were more than capable of wiping entire cities, off of the map.

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso in Amsterdam being hung in the Municipal Museum 12th July 1956. H/TKeystone Hulton Archive Getty Images

 

A Trivial Matter
There were few “good guys” in the Spanish Civil War and those there were, must have been quickly disillusioned. Nationalists murdered an estimated 150,000 prisoners of war and civilians over the course of the three year conflict, plus another 20,000 following their victory, in 1939. An estimated 49,000 were murdered at the hands of the Republicans. Hat tip, History.com