June 10, 1944 Ghost Village

The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-four years ago today.  It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

On D+4 after the Normandy invasion of WW2, the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS was passing through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” had been ordered to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

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Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly unaware of their own confusion between the two villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population of the village was there, plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding their bicycles at the wrong place, and the wrong time.

Oradour-sur-Glane-ChurchThe women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town.  The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds, where the machine guns were already set up.

The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 3Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church, and gunned down 247 women and 205 children as they tried to escape.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some pea bushes where she hid until next morning.

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby who’d been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the “old” village remain as it is;  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malignity of collective punishment.

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Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but that came to naught.  Within days, Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre, had been killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

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And on.  And on.  And on.

Oradour-sur-Glane-StreetsFrench President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-four years ago today.  It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: “Down this road, on Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 5a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

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June 7, 1942 The Alcan Highway

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts. 

Discussions concerning a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam and Wake Island fell to Imperial Japanese forces , making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable.

Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas.

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Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began in March as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

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Dawson Creek, 1942

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, hostile, wilderness.

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

06162017_HighwayRadios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

alcan-hwyTent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day.  Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

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That October, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. Sims slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

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A gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.

Alaska-Hwy-historyNPR ran an interview about this story back in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

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

May 28, 1919 From SS to Green Beret

So it is that the name of the elite warrior who had served under three flags, a man who once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS, is engraved on that stone in Arlington, along with those of the South Vietnamese warriors with whom he once served.

There is a surprise or two, hidden among the 400,000+ grave sites, at Arlington National Cemetery.  Did you know, for instance, that 4,000 former slaves went to their final rest there?  Arlington is the only cemetery in the world, to hold American servicemen from every war in US history.  Three graves contain the remains of enemy combatants, from WW2.  Among them all there may no greater curiosity, than the grave of a Green Beret, interred with the remains of three South Vietnamese soldiers.  Unless it’s to learn that that same guy, once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS.

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In May 1941, the geopolitical map of the Eurasian continent could be drawn in two colors, the spheres of influence of governments headed by two of the great monsters of the 20th century:  Josef  Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler.

The Republic of Finland, the 8th largest nation on the European landmass with a population equal to that of Minnesota, suffered military defeat during the “Winter War” of a year earlier, a 105-days long David vs. Goliath contest fought against the Soviet Union.

The two dictators were allies at this time according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed two years earlier.  That state of affairs ceased the following month, with ‘Operation Barbarossa’, Hitler’s surprise attack on his erstwhile ally.

Finland never signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and stated that it would fight the Soviets only insofar as to redress territorial losses suffered during the Winter War. Adolf Hitler saw the distinction as irrelevant and regarded the Nordic republic as an ally.  To Hitler, Finland would become just another part of the war on the Eastern Front.  To Finnish patriots, the uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany and the continued struggle with the Soviet Union, would be known as the “Continuation War’.

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Lauri Törni (center) stands among other soldiers near Lake Tolvajärvi in Russia, date unknown

Lauri Alan Törni was such a patriot, born this day in 1919 in Finland’s Viipuri Province. Törni fought the Soviet Union during the Winter War and the Continuation War, rising to the rank of Captain and earning the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s equivalent to the British Victoria Cross, or the American Medal of Honor. An elite and highly effective guerrilla fighter, Törni trained with the Nazi SS in Austria. Such a menace was this man to Stalin’s war effort, that the Soviets placed a bounty on his head of three million Finnish marks, equivalent to $650,000. There is no record of such a bounty on any other Finnish soldier.

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Törni in Waffen-SS uniform, 1941

The Continuation War came to an end in September 1944, but Törni still had scores to settle with the Communists.  He joined forces with a German unit fighting Soviet troops near Schwerin, Germany, and surrendered to British and American forces in the last stages of WW2.

Törni escaped the British POW camp and returned to Finland, only to be arrested on charges of treason for having joined the German army.  There would be a six-year prison sentence and one more escape, before the Presidential pardon in 1948.

Traveling under alias as a Swedish seaman, Törni jumped overboard in the Gulf of Mexico, swimming ashore near Mobile, Alabama and claiming political asylum. He was granted citizenship in 1953 by special act of congress, and adopted the more “Americanized” name of Larry Thorne, joining the United States Army the following year.

thorne1Thorne was soon headed to Special Forces, the elite warrior becoming an instructor of skiing, mountaineering, survival and guerrilla tactics.

Thorne attended airborne school and earned the silver wings of a Green Beret. He went through Officer Candidate School and received his commission as a 1st Lieutenant, rising to the rank of Captain in just three years.

Larry Thorne had a reputation for physical toughness, even amidst such an elite organization as the Green Berets. Now in his mid-forties, he could physically out-perform many men half his age.

images3UCTLQOHAs part of the 10th Special Forces Group, Thorne served in a search-and-rescue capacity in West Germany, earning a reputation for courage in operations to recover bodies and classified documents, following a plane in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

Captain Thorne was sent to Vietnam in 1963, assigned to operate Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camps at Châu Lăng and later Tịnh Biên. Thorne earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor during one particularly ferocious attack on Tịnh Biên, an episode author Robin Moore wrote about in his best-selling paperback, The Green Berets.

On October 18, 1965, Larry Thorne was leading a covert mission against a Viet Cong stronghold in Laos when his helicopter crashed, killing all on board.  He was 46.  Captain Thorne was posthumously promoted to the rank of major and awarded the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross.  Let the citation tell his story:

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If the patrol were immediately confronted by a superior force, Major Thorne would land and extricate the patrol under fire. This was done with total disregard for the inherent dangers and with selfless concern for the ground forces. In so doing, he exposed himself to extreme personal danger which ultimately led to his disappearance and the loss of his aircraft. He had, however, guaranteed the safe introduction of the patrol into the area, the successful accomplishment of this mission and had positioned himself to react to any immediate calls for assistance from the patrol“.

The crash site of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force CH-34 helicopter was discovered in 1999.   Thorne’s remains were found, intermingled with those of Lieutenant Bao Tung Nguyen, First Lieutenant The Long Phan, and Sergeant Vam Lanh Bui.  Major Thorne was identified by dental records.

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Thorne’s family in Finland said let him be buried in America, because that was the choice that he made.  The four were buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, the way they had died. Together.

So it is that the name of the elite warrior who had served under three flags, a man who once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS, is engraved on that stone in Arlington, along with those of the South Vietnamese warriors with whom he once served.

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

May 27, 1940 The Miracle of Dunkirk

By day 9 of the evacuation, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  For those, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” ended on June 4.  For approximately 40,000 British and another 40,000 French soldiers left behind in the confusion, a special kind of hell had just begun. 

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

319154The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but British armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.

In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24.  Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, and let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of the adversary. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard for miles, for boats to ferry its people off of the beach.

dunkirk1Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume the advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.

The Evacuation of DunkirkLarger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.

dunkirk2A thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent strandings. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

dunkirkevacuation7,669 were evacuated on the first full day of the evacuation, May 27, and none too soon.  The following day, members of the SS Totenkopf Division marched 100 captured members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment off to a pit, and machine gunned the lot of them.  A group of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were captured that same day, herded into a barn and murdered with grenades.

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Troops wait in the rubble of Dunkirk, for rescue

By day 9 of the evacuation, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  For those, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” ended on June 4.  For approximately 40,000 British and another 40,000 French soldiers left behind in the confusion, a special kind of hell had just begun.

dunkirk troops, 1940Most light equipment and virtually all heavy equipment had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a military fighting force that would live to fight on.

Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.

On the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for the “stay behind” mission, expected to follow. With German invasion all but imminent, their mission was to go underground and disrupt and destabilize the invaders, in any way they could. These were to be the British Resistance, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret that, the man was to be garroted in case of invasion, to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.  Many were issued suicide pills in case of capture yet, thanks to these men and women, Great Britain was the only nation of the WW2 era to have a fully operational resistance, BEFORE occupation.

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Participants in these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families what they were doing, or where they were.  They generally passed themselves off as Home Guard, a home defense organisation operated by the British Army.  Bob Millard, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 91, said they were given 3 weeks’ rations.  Even Josephine, Millard’s wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about the auxiliaries until their reunion, in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.

Another under-recognized group from the period are the young men conscripted to serve in the coal mines of the United Kingdom.  One in ten conscripts of the time received not a uniform, but the hard hat and steel-toed boot of the coal miner.  Often maligned as “Conchies” (conscientious objectors) or worse, these were held in service for as long as two years after the war, condemned to live the life of the Troglodyte with no expectation of peacetime jobs being held for them, as for those who served in uniform.

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“Bevin Boys” of WW2

These “Bevin Boys”, so-called after Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin, would wait decades for recognition of their contribution to the war effort, full acceptance coming only as the result of a speech given by Queen Elizabeth II, fifty years after VE Day.

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the conflicts of the 20th century. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes an ever-decreasing number of Home Guard and the Bevin Boys, without whom the war effort would have ground to a halt.

In 2013, five short years ago, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.  Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving“.

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Memorial to wartime ‘Bevin Boys’ unveiled in Staffordshire

May 21, 1944 That Other Disaster, at Pearl Harbor

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

Between June and November 1944, forces of the United States Marine Corps and Army conducted Operation Forager with support from the United States Navy, an offensive intended to dislodge Imperial Japanese forces from the Mariana Islands and the island nation of Palau.

Part of the island-hopping strategy employed during the last two years of WW2, Operation Forager followed the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and had as its objective the neutralization of Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support for the Allied drive to retake the Philippines, and to provide bases for strategic bombing raids against the Japanese home islands.

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A NASA image of Pearl Harbor. The disaster occurred in West Loch which is to the left side of the photo, where the water is lighter in color.

In May 1944, the Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor was a rush of activity, building up for the planned invasion.  Seventy-four years ago today, twenty-nine Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) were tied beam-to-beam on six piers, loading munitions, high octane gasoline and other equipment.

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LST in Sicily

LST-353 exploded shortly after three in the afternoon, causing an incendiary chain reaction down the line of LSTs. 200 men were blown into the water in the first few minutes, in explosions powerful enough to knock vehicles on their sides. Eleven buildings on the shore were destroyed altogether and another nine, damaged.

Firefighting efforts were slow to get underway, due to the heat and the inexperience of many of the crew. Some LSTs began to move away under their own power or with the assistance of tugs, others were abandoned and left adrift and burning, before sinking in the channel.

Burning gasoline spread across the water and ignited other ships, left unharmed by the initial explosions. Fires continued to burn for the next twenty-four hours.

Casualty figures are surprisingly inexact. Most sources report 163 personnel killed in the incident and another 396, wounded. Some sources put the number of dead as high as 392.  Eleven tugboats were damaged while engaged in fire control efforts.  Six LSTs were sunk, two already carrying smaller, fully loaded Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) lashed to their decks.  Several others were heavily damaged and/or run aground.

A press blackout was ordered immediately after the incident, and military personnel were ordered not to talk. A Naval Board of Inquiry was opened the following day. The disaster at West Loch was initially believed to be caused by Japanese submarines, but the idea was dismissed due to the shallow depth of the harbor, and the presence of anti-submarine nets.

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The wreckage of the LST 480 following the West Loch Disaster.

The precise cause of the accident remained elusive, as everyone near the initial explosion was killed. Army stevedores were unloading mortar ammunition at the time, using an elevator just fifteen feet from 80 drums of fuel. Some believe that a mortar round was accidentally dropped and exploded, others that fuel vapors were ignited by a cigarette or welder’s torch.

Subsequent salvage and removal efforts on the West Loch brought up the remains of a Japanese midget submarine, now believed to be the fifth such sub used in the attack of two years earlier.

Details of the West Loch disaster would remain classified until 1960, explaining why the incident is so little known, today.

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The last fatality from the disaster at West Loch occurred nine months later, during salvage operations for a sunken LST.

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Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg

On February 17, 1945, two divers were using jet nozzles to tunnel under a sunken LST, when the steel wreckage above them caved in. Buried alive with lifelines and air hoses hopelessly tangled with jagged pieces of steel, the pair was trapped under 40′ of water and another 20′ of mud.  There seemed no chance of survival, when fellow Navy diver Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg went into the water.

Working in the swirling mud and pitch blackness beneath the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the diver worked desperately to wash another tunnel under the sunken LST.  Hammerberg reached the first man after hours of exhausting labor, freeing his lines and enabling the man to reach the surface.

Let Owen Hammerberg’s Medal of Honor citation, the one he would not live to read, tell what happened next.

Cmoh_army“…Venturing still farther under the buried hulk, he held tenaciously to his purpose, reaching a place immediately above the other man just as another cave-in occurred and a heavy piece of steel pinned him crosswise over his shipmate in a position which protected the man beneath from further injury while placing the full brunt of terrific pressure on himself. Although he succumbed in agony 18 hours after he had gone to the aid of his fellow divers, Hammerberg, by his cool judgment, unfaltering professional skill and consistent disregard of all personal danger in the face of tremendous odds, had contributed effectively to the saving of his 2 comrades…”.

Navy diver and Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Owen Francis Patrick Hammerberg was the only service member in WW2 and the last person ever, to receive the Medal of Honor as the result of heroism performed outside of combat.

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

May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. They immediately awakened Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, a WWI-era entertainer, and a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia. He was a dwarf. Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz. Three of those grew to normal height, the other seven were dwarves.

Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other, and live for one another”.

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The dwarves were talented musicians, performing a variety show throughout the ’30s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”. They toured Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia with their normal height siblings serving as road crew, until being swept up by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19th, 1944 and, accustomed to celebrity, one began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened, knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed, and what he called “blood” (family) experiments. The “Angel of Death”was delighted, “I now have work for 20 years”.

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The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a 15-month old boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, insisting that they were close relatives. A total of 22 people.

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  They were kept alive for further use and, as bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters for them.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than torture rituals.  The three skeletons displayed of their dwarf predecessors, an ever-present reminder of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was drawn until they would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.

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On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform. Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele gave a speech, and then the audience was invited onstage to poke and prod the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where a family of twelve lived to tell the tale.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found it ruined, though they did find a stash of gold coins where they had left it, buried for safekeeping before the war.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512bafThere was no future for them in this place.  Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned. The family emigrated to Israel in May 1949, resuming their musical tour and performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never faced justice. He fled to South America after the war, and suffered a stroke while swimming in 1979.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska, “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

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

May 10, 1940 Children of the Situation

It is often said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday John and the Nigel, the Fritz and the Pierre down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding and the dying.  It might well be added, that it is left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.

Little is written in times of war, about the Innocents. The proverbial mice trying to go about their business, amidst the combat of elephants. What then is to be made of the innocent who exists, only as the result of that war?

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child by a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.  Often, such parents (usually women) are shunned by neighbors and even family.  “War children” are ostracized and bullied, or worse.

0816794dc6f218e5e56c1b3a489b439f--rare-photos-old-photosFollowing liberation, French women were beaten and humiliated in the streets, their heads shaved, for being “collaborators” with their German occupiers.

On the Eastern Front of WW2, combat between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had long taken on shades of a race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of that war.  Soviet soldiers committed prodigious numbers of rapes on German and Austrian women, and even Soviet women released from work camps.  Historian Geoffrey Roberts writes that 70,000–100,000 such rapes took place in Vienna, alone.

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Post-WW2 Occupation Zones

Propaganda banners and posters appeared all over the Soviet-occupation zone and later East Germany, proclaiming the heroism of those who had smashed the Nazi war machine and paved the way to Soviet-German friendship.  The plight of tens of thousands of the mostly fatherless “Russian children”,  was taboo.

s-l640Sixty-five years later, Jan Gregor of the East German state of Brandenburg, can still remember the day his mother told him that she’d been “made pregnant by force”.  He was five, at the time.

An estimated 100,000 “Amerasian” children were born to Asian mothers and US servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and war in Vietnam.

37,000 or more children were fathered by American soldiers and German & Austrian women in the 10 years following the German surrender.  Food and sex became principle units of  currency in a growing black market.  Cigarettes were widely referred to as “frau bait.”

Locals disapproved of such relations, not only because Americans had recently been their enemies, but also because such children often became “wards of the state” in local economies severely impoverished by war.

The situation for children fathered by black GIs called Negermischlinge (“Negro half-breeds”) was particularly difficult, in what was then a nearly-racially homogeneous society.  Even in cases where the father wanted to marry the mother of his child, Army policy prohibited interracial marriages, until 1948.  Some were eventually adopted by African-American couples and families in the United States.  The plight of black German-speaking children trying to get by in post-war America, is a tale that is yet to be told.

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Lebensborn Birth House

Military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the Scandinavian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell in a day and Norwegian armed resistance ceased within two months, when civil rule passed to the Reichskommissariat Norwegen (Reich Commissariat of Norway).

The neutral Scandinavian countries remained under Wehrmacht occupation, for the following five years.

Sometimes, relationships formed between German occupying forces and native women.  The racially obsessed Nazi regime was happy to encourage such relations, particularly in Norway, where local women were considered to be of pure, “Aryan” stock.

“Lebensborn”, the SS-initiated, state-supported association whose goal it was to raise the birth rate of the “Master Race” began on December 12, 1935.  The first such Birth House outside of German soil opened in Norway, within a year of the invasion.

Some such relationships were consensual.  Many were anything but.  Some 10,000 to 12,000 children were born of Norwegian women and German fathers, the most famous being Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad of ABBA, who was forced to flee Norway after the war for fear of reprisals.

For nearly a thousand years, the administration of Iceland was all but indistinguishable from that of Denmark and Norway.  An Act of Union established Iceland as a fully sovereign state in 1918, an independent country in a Personal Union through a common monarch, with the Kingdom of Denmark.

iceland-location-map

Alarmed at the possibility of a German military presence in Iceland, British authorities invited the neutral nation to join the war as “as a belligerent and an ally,” following the collapse of Denmark. The invitation was rejected, and the UK invaded Iceland on May 10, an initial force of 746 British Royal Marines disembarking at the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík.

The British invasion of Iceland never resembled the “shooting war” in Europe.  The government complained that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and demanded compensation, but principle opposition took the form of hordes of civilians, crowding in to see what was going on.  Many locals learned they had been invaded, only on seeing a single British aircraft – at that time the only airplane in Iceland.

Wife's grandfatherIcelandic public opinion was sharply divided at the invasion and subsequent occupation.  Some described this as the “blessað stríðið”, the “Lovely War”, and celebrated the building of roads, hospitals, harbors, airfields and bridges as a boon to the local economy.  Many resented the occupation, which in some years equaled 50% of the native male population.

Sexual relationships between foreign troops and local women were severely frowned upon, such women often subjected to what might indelicately be described as “slut-shaming”.  In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated “The Situation”.  Upset that foreign troops were “taking away” women from friends and family. Police investigated over 500 women for sexual relations with soldiers.  Most were determined to be consensual.  Two facilities opened to house such women in 1942, but closed within a year.

Two-hundred fifty-five ástandsbörn (“Children of the Situation”) were born of such relationships.  332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.

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WWII landing craft – Mjóifjorður, Iceland

It is often said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday John and the Nigel, the Fritz and the Pierre down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding and the dying.  It might well be added, that it is left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.

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