December 24, 1942 The Padre of Guadalcanal

1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.

Since 1775, a military chaplain is an officer who ministers to the spiritual needs of uniformed personnel and their families, and also civilians, working for the military. At first exclusively Christian, chaplains have long since come to represent every faith and denomination while honoring the rights of others, to their own faith traditions.

The first female military chaplain was officially commissioned, in 1973. During World War 2 theirs was a world exclusive to men.

Chaplains are found everywhere there are armed services, up to and including front lines. During the war in Korea, Father Emil Kapaun was captured by Chinese communists while performing last rights, for a dying soldier. This Shepherd in Combat Boots literally spent himself in service to his fellow POWs and died in a North Korean prison camp. In 2013 President Barack Obama awarded Fr. Kapaun the Medal of honor for his life saving ministrations, near Pyoktong.

This stained glass window at the Pentagon remembers the Four Chaplains drowned with the sinking of the USS Dorchester, in 1943.

Many chaplains have been decorated for bravery. In the United Kingdom, five chaplains have received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for gallantry in the line of duty. Nine have received the US’ Medal of Honor.

The Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism was specifically created to recognize the service of military chaplains, killed in the line of duty. To date this special decoration has been awarded only once, to the famous Four Chaplains who gave away their own life jackets, knowing they were about to be drowned.

During World War 2, US Army and Marine Corps chaplains experienced the third highest loss ratio of the war behind infantry, and Army Air Corps.

Sunday, December 7, 1941 dawned bright and clear on the Pacific naval anchorage in Pearl Harbor. Father Aloysius Schmitt was just beginning mass on board USS Oklahoma when the first of nine Japanese torpedoes, slammed home. The attack caused immediate flooding in multiple compartments as Oklahoma began her slow roll, to capsize. Below decks, Fr. Schmitt desperately helped push one sailor after another out of a small porthole, even as the compartment filled with water. 429 crewmen lost their lives on board Oklahoma that morning including Fr. Schmitt, drowned in the desperate act of saving others.

Celebrating mass on Iwo Jima, 1945

The Empire of Japan was all but unstoppable during the early months of WW2. The first major allied offensive began on August 7, 1942, with the objective of taking the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida. Some 60,000 men would participate in the 6-month offensive, primarily United States Marines.

Near constant counter-attacks and artillery bombardments joined with tropical disease to make life on this mosquito infested jungle island…a living hell. Fully two-thirds of casualties in those early months resulted from malaria, and other tropical disease. All the while, Marines were forced to subsist on captured food rations of worm and maggot infested rice so paltry that even these already-thin children of the depression lost some 40-odd pounds…per man.

The national museum of WW2 museum website describes one such bombardment over the night of October 14:

“At 0133 hours, the battlewagons opened fire and for the next 83 minutes hurled 970 heavy naval shells at Henderson Field and the surrounding area. Two-ton shells as large as a Volkswagen Beetle smashed into the Marine positions, shaking everything from dental fillings to the emotions of the men themselves. The explosions sucked air from lungs and the concussion blew over trees and collapsed coconut log dugouts with ease. Men were buried alive in what they thought were safe shelters. While physical casualties were light as a result of the battleship shelling, mental casualties were high. Men emerged from their dugouts shaking violently, eyes wide, ears bleeding, unable to hear anything or see straight. Blast concussion rendered many men helpless and disoriented for hours and even days after an attack. Veterans of the Tenaru River and Bloody Ridge battles—who had stared death directly in the face—all recalled the night of October 14 to be the most frightening night of the entire campaign”.

Ordained as a priest on May 22, 1930, Father Frederic Gehring spent 1933 to 1939 laboring on missions to China enduring bandits, Chinese communists and Japanese occupation. One time under aerial strafing in 1938, Fr. Gehring ran out waving a large American flag to show Japanese fighter pilots this was a mission, of the then-neutral United States. Father Gehring was pleased when the pilots did in fact fly away. Until someone at the mission informed him. It was probably because they had run out of bullets.

The United States declared war on the Empire of Japan the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day Father Frederic enlisted as Navy chaplain. In September 1942 he joined the 1st Marine Division, the “Old Breed”, on Guadalcanal.

“Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours”.

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey

1st division Marines soon learned that, to “Padre” Gehring, this was no rear echelon ministry. During a particularly intense fire fight, one Marine dove for a foxhole only to find the Padre, already there. On spotting the crucifix around his neck the Marine asked, “Padre, what are you doing here?”. Where else would I be?”, came the reply.

That’s Father Gehring with his hat on, next to Barney Ross. The names of the parrots if any, have been lost to history.

Gehring routinely held masses so close to the fighting, Marines came to believe he would hold a mass in hell. So long as he could get his jeep there.

The Padre’s work wasn’t just on the lines where men were injured and dying but sometimes, behind enemy lines. With the help of Solomon Island natives, Fr. Gehring went deeply into enemy held territory no fewer than three times to rescue trapped missionaries on the island, mostly Marist priests and Sisters. By the time he was done 28 had been extracted, from Japanese occupied territory.

For this feat Father Gehring received the Legion of Merit from the President of the United States, the first Navy chaplain so decorated.

One day, islanders found a young Chinese girl at the bottom of a ditch. Only five or six years old and sick with malaria she’d been beaten and bayonetted by Japanese soldiers, and left for dead. The imprint of a rifle butt was clearly visible on her smashed skull. The examining physician said she wouldn’t make it through the night and yet, she did.

How a little girl apparently orphaned wound up that far from home, is a tale unto itself. As is the way an old China hand named Frederic Gehring nursed her to health in an active combat zone, along with the help of battle hardened Marines.

If such a feat was a small miracle, Christmas mass that year on Guadalcanal was not, though there may have been a wee bit of chuckling, divine intervention. With his first tent blown to bits by enemy artillery, some 700 Marines gathered at the new chapel tent on December 24, for Christmas mass.

In a world of hard men Barney Ross stood out, as a man not to be trifled with. An Orthodox Jewish kid from the streets of Chicago, Ross was a professional prize fighter, and three time champion. It was inevitable that the boxer and the priest from Brooklyn, would hit it off. they were two peas in a pod. Earlier that month, Ross and a group of Marines found themselves surrounded. The only man not wounded, Ross kept up a hail of gunfire and grenades keeping an unknown number of Japanese at bay. All…night…long. By morning, the only other man left alive was a single wounded Marine. Ross tossed the man on his back and carried him back to base.

So back to that Christmas mass…Ross had ambled up to the Padre and asked “who plays”, pointing to a small pump organ. Gehring was himself an accomplished violinist, but the answer was…no one knew how to play that thing.

Except…for Barney Ross.

So it is a Jewish kid from Chicago joined in on Catholic mass that night, learning the Christian canon by ear as 700 marines, hummed along. He ended the concert with a rousing rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” in Yiddish no less, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

Columnist Jimmy Breslin recalled: “There was a Jewish kid playing an organ and singing in Yiddish about his mama and a Catholic priest standing next to him with a violin trying to help it sound nice, and all around there were guys who came from every religion and some of them didn’t even have one, but they were all crying and thinking about the same thing.”

Many years later, Gehring typed up a paragraph reflecting on the war and that Christmas, in Guadalcanal. For years he would insert the piece in his Christmas cards of which he sent and received, many: “Our heroes, who gave their lives for their country and now lay beneath the white crosses that mark their final place, do not see the dark clouds of war hovering overhead in various parts of the world. The peace they fought and died for seems but temporary.”

In time that little Chinese girl who wasn’t supposed to make it through the night…did. Fr. Gehring called her Patsy Lee. In 1950, he brought her home to the US. Ms. Lee went to school and became a nurse. She met a man, and they married. Later on, Gehring even helped her find her own mother. Gehring himself tells the story of that little girl if you want to learn more in his 1962 memoir, “Child of Miracles”.

Fr. Frederic Gehring died in 1998, at the age of 95. Let his New York Times obituary, have the last word on this man of faith: “At Father Gehring’s funeral on Thursday at St. Vincent’s Seminary in Philadelphia, where he was ordained in 1930, she was there as was a Marine honor guard, reminders of a time when Guadalcanal was a name to reckon with and a little girl was a miracle of war”.

§§§§§

Chaplain deaths while on active duty (hat tip Wikipedia)
Death during service (combat and non-combat):

American Revolution: 25
War of 1812: 1
Mexican–American War: 1
Civil War
Union: 117
Confederacy: 41
World War I: 23
World War II: 182
Korean War: 13
Vietnam War: 15
Iraq and Afghan Wars: 1 (as of September 2010)

December 8, 1941 Game Day

They were college kids, out to enjoy a few days in paradise, and, the game they loved. What could be better than that?

In the closing weeks of the 1941 college football season, the San Jose Spartans and the Willamette Bearcats of Oregon, went on the road. They were kids, out to enjoy a few days in paradise and a chance to play, the game they loved. What could be better than that?

The two teams departed November 27 aboard the SS Lurline along with an entourage of fans, dignitaries and coaching staff. Willamette first met the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii on Saturday, December 6, falling by a score of 20-6. The Warriors were then scheduled to play San Jose State on December 13 followed by a Spartans- Bearcats matchup, on the 16th.

An outing like this was once in a lifetime. An unforgettable trip and so it was, just not for the reason anyone expected.

On December 7, 1941, a great sucker punch came out of the southeast. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Air Field and the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, lying at peace in the early morning sunshine of a quiet Sunday morning. The sneak attack carried out 81 years ago destroyed more American lives than any foreign enemy attack on American soil until the Islamist terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

The President of the United States addressed a joint session of Congress on December 8, requesting a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

Back on the mainland, the families of players now stranded in Hawaii, received no word. There were no communications. None could know with certainty, that brothers and sons were alive or dead. Hawaii was locked down under Martial Law.

Meanwhile, the visiting teams were mobilized to perform wartime duties. San Jose state players were sent to work with Federal authorities and Honolulu police to round up Japanese, Italian and German citizens, and to enforce wartime blackout orders. Willamette players were assigned World War 1-vintage Springfield rifles and tin hats, and ordered to string barbed wire on the beaches.

If you’ve heard of Punahou High School it probably involves the school’s most famous alumnus, the former US President Barack Obama. 81 years ago today all hell was about to break loose, at Punahou high.

United States Army Corps of Engineers troops began to appear at the Punahou gates at 1:00am on December 8. By 5:00am, Dole Hall Cafeteria Manager Nina “Peggy” Brown was ordered to prepare breakfast, for 750 men. For the next ten days Willamette players stood 24-hour guard, around the school.

Many players had never so much as handled a gun. Now in the darkness every shadow carried the menace, of an enemy soldier. Wild gunfire would break out at the sound of a stealthy invader which turned out to be nothing, but a falling coconut. Shirley McKay Hadley was a Willamette student in 1941 accompanied by her father, then serving as state Senator. Many years later she joked about it all: “They were lucky they didn’t shoot each other.”

Female members of the entourage were assigned nursing duties. Spartan Guard Ken Stranger delivered a baby, on December 7.

On December 19, players received notice. With only two hours to spare it was time to go. The civilian liner SS President Coolidge was commandeered to transport gravely wounded service members. This would be the kids’ ride home as well complete with Naval escort, a defense against Japanese submarine attack.

Seven San Jose players stayed behind and joined the Honolulu police force , for which each was paid $166 a month. Willamette coach Roy “Spec” Keene refused to let any of his players stay behind since none had been able to speak with their parents, first.

Nearly every member of both squads went on to fight for the nation. Willamette Guard Kenneth Bailey was killed over Bari Italy in 1943 and awarded the Purple Heart, posthumously.

Bill McWilliams served 27 years in the United States Air Force, as a fighter bomber pilot. He’s written a book about 12 of these guys who went on to fight the conflict, of the “Greatest Generation”.

The book came out in 2019 and it’s still in print, if you’re interested. It looks like one hell of a story.

Andy Rogers played for the Willamette squad and went on to serve for the duration of the war, with the 3rd division of the United States Marine Corps. Mr. Rogers is 99 today and lives in Napa Valley, California. The only living member of either traveling squad who would have played that day, in the game that never was.

December 7, 1941 Last Voyage of the USS Oklahoma

Once the symbol of US military might she only fired her guns in anger, one time. December 7, 1941

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941.

353 aircraft approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes of the Imperial Japanese military.  Across Hickam Field they came and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.

_oahu

Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died, even as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

HT John F DeVirgilio for this graphic
Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side in the first ten minutes.The last moments of USS Oklahoma.  H/T John F DeVirgilio for this graphic

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

A Japanese pilot took this photo during the attack.

“This photo shows the severity of the attack. The darker waters around the Nevada (left), West Virginia (center), and Oklahoma (right) are actually oil slicks from the fuel reserves on board each ship. The Oklahoma is already listing badly, as the edge of the port deck has already slipped underwater. It would completely capsize only a few minutes later (image NH 50472, courtesy of Naval Heritage & History Command)” H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. 32 were delivered from certain death.

14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.

Across the harbor, USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is now a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.

With the US now in the war repairs were prioritized. USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. She, and her dead, would have to wait.

Oklahoma Diver

Recovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943.  With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.

The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Several divers lost their lives and yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.

21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of the Oklahoma, 3-inch cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.

Two pull configurations were used over 74 days. Cables were first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day. It was the first time in over two years.

At last fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.

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Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.

CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading.  Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself.  They have all earned the right to be remembered.

Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.

Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.

The guns of the mighty USS Oklahoma once again see the light of day. March, 1943 H/T Oklahoma Historical Society

Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.

The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay.

She would never arrive.

Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around when suddenly, these two giant tugs found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.

the-tug-boat-hercules-william-havle

Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached. Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and the battleship sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks as the 409-ton tug bobbed to the surface, like the float on a child’s fishing line.

Christened on March 23, 1914, USS Oklahoma was one of the first two oil burners in US military service. Heavily armored, her armament was as powerful as any vessel in her class. A symbol of US military might who only fired her guns once, in anger. December 7, 1941. Now, “Okie” was stabbed in the back while she lay at rest, attacked and mortally wounded before she even knew her nation was at war. 

The causes leading to that final descent into darkness remain uncertain, her final resting pace, a mystery.   Some will will tell you her plates couldn’t hold.  The beating she took those six years earlier, was too much.   Those who served on her decks might tell you a different story. Perhaps this pride of the United States Navy knew her time had come. Maybe she just wanted to die at sea.

December 2, 1943 The Surprising Origins of Chemotherapy

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on the earlier discoveries of others. The concept is encapsulated in the words of Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

In ancient Greek mythology, Hercules poisoned arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both 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” produced by the burning of toxic vegetation, used to disperse a peasant revolt in AD178.

“Soul-hunting fog”.

Yikes

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

Imperial 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 World War 1.  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.

WW1 gas attack in Flanders

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

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.

Japanese, Gas Artillery

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”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – 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”.

russian-soldier-in-a-rubber-gas-mask-on-the-eastern-front-russia-during-K07NJ9

None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of 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.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy. 

General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated in 1937, by President Franklin Roosevelt: “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, 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”.

The Geneva Protocols of 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 she be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

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.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

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 some 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

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.

bari_burning-ships

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 a garlic odor as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact results in redness and itching at first, 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.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is permanently altered, often resulting in cancer and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing of December 2, 1943.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of them were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode was shrouded in secrecy and remains to this day, one of the lesser-known chapters of World War 2.

At the time, the chemical disaster at Bari was of uncertain nature.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo had been 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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It was Dr. Alexander who figured out the responsible agent was mustard, and where the stuff had come from.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent went most heavily after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells.

Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other types of 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. 

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, based on previous discoveries. The concept is remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

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

To some, the 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 much.  Once a virtual death sentence, the American Cancer Society today estimates that one in 30 alive today are currently undergoing treatment or have done so, in the past.

October 29, 1921 Here’s to that Dogface Cartoonist

Mauldin told the story of the common soldier, usually at the rate of six per week. His medium was the cartoon.

Born on October 29, 1921 in New Mexico and brought up in Arizona, William Henry “Bill” Mauldin was part of what Tom Brokaw once called, the “Greatest Generation”.

When the United States entetef World War 2, He enlisted in the 45th Infantry Division.  Mauldin was a talented artist, trained at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. So it was he volunteered to work for the unit’s newspaper, as a cartoonist.

As a sergeant of the 45th Division’s press corps and later for Stars & Stripes, Mauldin took part in the invasion of Sicily and later Italian campaign.  He was given his own jeep and allowed to go wherever he pleased, which was usually out in front.   

Mauldin told the story of the common soldier, usually at the rate of six per week. His medium was the cartoon.

Bill Mauldin's Army 2

Mauldin developed two infantry characters and called them “Willie and Joe” and told the story, through their eyes.  He became extremely popular within the enlisted ranks, as much of his humor poked fun at the “spit & polish” of the officer corps.  He even lampooned General George Patton one time, for insisting that his men be clean shaven all the time.  Even in combat.

Patton summoned the cartoonist to his to “throw his ass in jail” for “spreading dissent”. Commander in Chief Dwight Eisenhower himself set Old Blood and Guts straight telling Patton, to leave the man alone.  According to the Supreme Allied Commander, Mauldin’s cartoons gave the soldiers an outlet for their frustrations. He was good for morale.

Bill Mauldin's Army 3

Mauldin later told an interviewer, “I always admired Patton. Oh, sure, the stupid bastard was crazy. He was insane. He thought he was living in the Dark Ages. Soldiers were peasants to him. I didn’t like that attitude, but I certainly respected his theories and the techniques he used to get his men out of their foxholes”.

His was no rear echelon assignment.  Mauldin’s fellow soldier-cartoonist, Gregor Duncan, was killed in Anzio in May 1944.  Mauldin himself was wounded in a German mortar attack near Monte Cassino.  By the end of the war he had received the Army’s Legion of Merit for his drawings.

Mauldin tried to revive Willy & Joe after the war, but found they didn’t assimilate well into civilian life.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz was himself a veteran of World War II. Schulz paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle in his strip but more than any other, he paid tribute to Willy & Joe. Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times over the years.  Always on Veterans Day.

Bill Mauldin passed away on January 22, 2003, killed by a bathtub scalding exacerbated by complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Bill Mauldin drew Willie & Joe for last time in 1998, for inclusion in Schulz’ Veteran’s Day Peanuts strip.  Schulz had long described Mauldin as his hero.

He signed that final strip Schulz, as always, to which he added “and my Hero“.  Bill Mauldin’s signature, appears underneath.

My favorite book, as a kid.

September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

A child was born on this day in 1906.  He was John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British employees of the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time and returned to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving in Burma with the Manchester Regiment before leaving the military, ten years later.

Churchill worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with an occasional career as male model, and a couple appearances in motion pictures.  From there he may have faded into obscurity (unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation), with the same last name.  Then came World War II, when John Churchill earned the name, “Mad Jack”.

It was around this time that Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era, but Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.  He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, becoming quite good at it.  Good enough to represent his country in the world archery championship in Oslo, in 1939.

Jack-Churchill

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland.  Part of the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out its sergeant with a broadhead arrow.  No one could have been more surprised than that German himself: How the hell did I get an ARROW in my chest?

Such were the dying thoughts of the only combatant in all World War 2 to be felled, by an English longbow.

Jack Churchill (far right) leads a training exercise, sword in hand, from a Eureka boat in Inveraray. H/T warhistoryonline.com

Soon thereafter, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe.  The only way back in was via those same beaches. 

We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault:  invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches.  Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy.  In all that time there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, armed with bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, that Scottish broadsword at his side .

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“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore.  He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Mad Jack could be seen at the Catania (Sicily) and Salerno landings of 1943, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword one time in confused hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order.  Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad.   “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained.  “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…”  It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

He later trudged back to town, to collect his sword.  Encountering a lost American squad Churchill informed the NCO they were headed, toward German lines. The soldier refused to change direction so Churchill took his leave, saying, he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German held, Yugoslavian island of Brac.  He was leading a Commando raid at the time, coordinating with a unit of Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans.  Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622 when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself.  He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, requiring the instant execution of captured commandos. Churchill and his men escaped execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks only to the human decency of one Wehrmacht Captain named Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.”

After the war Churchill paid back Thuener’s act of kindness, keeping him out of the clutches of the merciless Red Army. But I digress.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, and later sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany.  There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped in September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain before walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

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following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Mad Jack was sent off to Burma. He was bitterly disappointed by the swift end of the war in the Pacific, brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he complained, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing.  Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

Tidal Bore
Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Mad Jack Churchill remained an eccentric, even in his later years.   He loved sailing radio controlled model warships on the Thames. Little brought him more apparent joy than to horrify fellow train passengers, opening the window and hurling his briefcase into the darkness.

No one ever suspected that he threw it into the garden of his own back yard.  It saved him the trouble of carrying the thing home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard bearing regimental colors, and mailed it to a friend.

On the back o, Mad Jack Churchill had written fifteen words:

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

September 12, 1940 A Different Perspective

History has no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940 with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzer columns had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

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The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people shocked and prostrate in the wake of surrender, that June.  All those years their government had told them, the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot Line was more than a match for the German military.

The country had fallen in six weeks.

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On June 18, Charles DeGaulle addressed the French nation from his exile in Great Britain, exhorting his countrymen to fight on.  Resist.  The idea caught on quickly in occupied regions.

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the southern part of “La Métropole” that July, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Resistance against this new government in Vichy was slower to form.  This was, after all a French government, and French attitudes took a decidedly anti-English turn with the July 3 British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir.

Before long, Vichy’s collaborationist policies hardened French attitudes against itself. The French Resistance was born.

Sometime around this period a tree fell unseen near the French village of Montignac.  On September 12, 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking his black & white mongrel dog “Robot”, in the woods.  Coming upon the downed tree, the pair noticed a deep hole had opened up, where the tree had once stood.  Stories differ as to which of the two went down the hole first, but it soon became clear.  Marcel Ravidat and his dog had discovered more than just a hole in the ground.

The boy returned to the site with three buddies: Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.

History has no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.  Here, four teenagers in Nazi occupied France had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

Lascaux 1The Lascaux Caves are located in the Dordogne region, in Southwestern France.  Some 17,000 years ago, upper Paleolithic artists mixed mineral pigments such as iron oxide (ochre), haematite, and goethite, suspending pigments in animal fat, clay or the calcium-rich groundwater of the caves themselves.  Shading and depth were added with charcoal.

Colors were swabbed or blotted onto surfaces.  There is no evidence of brushwork.  Sometimes, pigments were placed in a hollow tube, and blown onto the wall.  Where the cave rock is softer, images are engraved.

The color, size, quality and quantity of the images at Lascaux, are astonishing.  Abbé Breuil, a Catholic priest and the first expert to examine its walls, called it the “Sistine chapel of prehistory”.

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The artist or artists who created such images, nearly 2,000 of them occupying some 37 chambers, would have been recognizable as modern humans.  Living as they did some 5,000 years before the Holocene Glacial Retreat, (yes, they had “climate change” back then), these cave-dwellers were pre-agricultural, subsisting on what they could find, or what they could kill.

More than 900 images are recognizable as animals. 605 of them have been precisely identified. Hundreds of pictures depict horses, stag, cattle, lions and bison.  Other subjects appear with less frequency.  There are seven cats, a bird, a bear, a wooly rhinoceros, and one human.

Lascaux

The purpose served by these images is unclear.  Perhaps they tell stories of past hunts, or maybe they were used to call up the spirits for a successful hunt.  At least one professor of art and archaeology postulates that the dot and lattice patterns overlying many of these paintings may reflect trance visions, similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.

36 animals occupy the “Great Hall of Bulls”, including a single black Auroch specimen measuring some 17-feet, the largest such image ever discovered in cave art.  One semi-spherical chamber, the “Apse”, is covered from the floor to its 8-foot 9-inch vaulted ceiling with overlapping, entangled drawings and engravings, demonstrating that these people erected scaffolding to create such work.

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The Lascaux caves were used by the French Resistance for weapons storage during the war, and opened to the public in 1948.  It would prove to be a mistake.

The underground environment had been stable for all those thousands of years.  Now the light, the air circulation, and exhalations of thousands of visitors every day, were irreparably changing the cave environment.  By the 1950s, colors had noticeably changed and faded.  Crystals and lichens began to grow on the walls, black and white molds grew quickly throughout the cave complex.

The cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings restored and a monitoring system installed.  To this day molds, lichens and crystallized minerals bedevil the art of the Lascaux caves.  Only a handful of scientific experts are now permitted access to the site, and that’s only for a few days per month.  Some of the most eminent preservation specialists on the planet continue to wrestle with the problem.

The prehistory buff can find a lot to like in the Vézère region of France.  The valley has 147 prehistoric sites, 15 of them listed as Unesco World Heritage sites.

“Lascaux II” opened in 1983, an exact replica of the Hall of the Bulls and the “Painted Gallery” areas at the original, educating and informing the public without further harm to the original.

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Inside the museum that houses Lascaux 4 (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

An 800 square meter mobile “Lascaux 3” began a world tour in 2012, a series of five reproductions bringing a taste of the original, to visitors from around the world.  Most recently, the €57 million ($68 million), multi-media Lascaux IV opened last December, 8,500 square meters of high-tech exhibit space where each visitor is free to explore four exhibition rooms, equipped with an electronic compagnon de visite, a tablet-like device which looks like it’s been flaked and formed out of slate, Fred Flintstone style.

If you would permit me personal note, years ago, the Long family convened our annual “Blue Gray Ramble” at the Petersburg battlefield, in Virginia.  There’s a cut running parallel to the battle lines there, not far from the crater.  The ravine is 12 feet deep in places, narrowing downward to a hard, dry stream bed.

Working our way down the bottom of the cut, my son Dan discovered an archaeologist’s dream of fossils:  Gastropods, scallop shells, copepods and shark’s teeth.  The denizens of a long forgotten sea, cast in stone and exposed on the light of a Civil War battlefield.

We were there that weekend to discover history. What we found brought a new and unexpected perspective.

August 25, 1830 A Scrap of Paper

The story of how a night at the opera led to two world wars.

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars once belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. A Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

la muette

The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic and mostly French speaking, in contrast with the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north. 

Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant. Meanwhile high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, La Muette was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29, 1828.   During one performance a riot broke out during a particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland). 

It was August 25, 1830.

Soon the melee was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Meanwhile Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

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Leopold I, 1st King of the Belgians

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence. Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

By this instrument Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation led by Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands had formally recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In 1914, Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight.  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the slow-moving behemoth, of Imperial Russia.  The only obstacles were the neutral states of Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Believing Great Britain would remain on the sidelines, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4, beginning a great sweep through Belgian territory into France. The government of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German assumptions were grievously mistaken.  Great Britain declared war within hours of the German invasion.

A regional squabble begun that June with the assassination of an Archduke would plunge the world into war, in August. Two world wars, really, with a 20-year break to grow a new generation, in-between.

August 15, 1942 Too Young the Hero

At the age of twelve, Calvin Leon Graham became the youngest man to serve in US military forces, in World War 2

Calvin Leon Graham was a child of the Great Depression, a poor East Texas farm kid born April 3, 1930, the youngest of seven.

By the time Japanese military planners were outlining the surprise attack on the American anchorage at Pearl Harbor, the boy’s mother was widowed and remarried. The man was by all accounts mean and abusive of his step-children. By sixth grade, Calvin had moved out along with an older brother, living in a cheap rooming house and supporting himself selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school.

The boys’ mother continued to visit, sometimes only to sign their report cards at the end of a semester.

CalvinLGraham

Being around newspapers allowed the boy to keep up on events overseas, “I didn’t like Hitler to start with“, he once told a reporter. By age eleven, some of Graham’s cousins had been killed in the war. The boy wanted to fight back.

He began to shave, believing that his facial hair would come in faster and thicker that way (it didn’t). He practiced, “talking deep”.

In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent” he later said, “but they preferred 17“. Graham forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp, telling his mother he was going to see some relatives for a while.

On this day in 1942, Calvin Leon Graham showed up at a Houston recruiting office, dressed in his older brother’s clothes. All five-foot-two inches of him, and 125 pounds. He was twelve years old.

Graham was less concerned with the recruiting officer spotting that forged signature, than he was with the dentist. With good reason. This was a man with a finely tuned BS detector. “When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17“. At last, the boy played his trump card, informing the dentist that the last two boys were fourteen and fifteen, and he had already let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go“.

During the World War 2 era, it wasn’t unusual for boys to lie about their age in order to enlist. Ray Jackson joined the United States Marine Corps at 16, and founded a group for underage military veterans in 1991, “to assure all underage veterans that there will be no retribution from the government because of their fraudulent enlistment“. Smithsonian.com reports the organization lists over 1,200 active members.  Twenty-six of them are women.

The boy was sent to boot camp in San Diego and on to Pearl Harbor six weeks later, and assigned to the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota.

When South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia and cleared the Panama Canal, “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific.” Under the command of Captain Thomas Leigh Gatch, the battleship was brimming with “green boys” –  cocky, inexperienced new recruits, full of fight and eager for payback against the Japanese empire.

August 15, 1942 Baby Vet

During the October battle for the Santa Cruz islands, South Dakota was credited with downing 26 Japanese aircraft, while taking a direct hit to the #1 gun turret.

Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as that 500-pounder came in, striking the main gun turret.  The impact threw the skipper off his feet and severed his jugular vein, permanently injuring ligaments in the man’s arms. Quick-thinking quartermasters saved the unconscious captain’s life. Sailors later asked him, why he hadn’t ducked. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship“, he said, “to flop for a Japanese bomb“.

Before the action was over, the South Dakota’s guns had fired 890 rounds of 5-inch, 4,000 rounds of 40mm, 3,000 rounds of 1.1-inch and 52,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition. One of those gunners was twelve-year-old Calvin Graham.

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The USS South Dakota engages a Japanese torpedo bomber during the Battle of Santa Cruz October 26, 1942. Photo: US Navy

Over the November 14 night battle for Guadalcanal, USS South Dakota came under attack from three Japanese warships, receiving no fewer than forty-seven hits. With her radio communications out and radar demolished, the battleship lost track of the complicated tactical situation. Calvin Graham was manning his 40mm gun when shrapnel tore through his mouth and jaw, tearing out his front teeth. Another hit burned the boy severely and threw him off his feet, and down three stories of superstructure.

Despite his injuries, Graham did what he could to take care of his fellow sailors:

“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night. It was a long night. It aged me… I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead”.

USS South Dakota was so beat up during the confused night action, that the Japanese believed her to be sunk.  Eventually, she would limp back for repairs. Not wanting the enemy to know too much, she was stripped of her insignia.

USS South Dakota would complete her WW2 service as “Battleship X”, but that must be a story for another day.

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Graham received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions, but these distinctions were short-lived. His mother learned what the boy had been up to and informed the Navy of his real age. Graham was thrown in the brig for lying about his age and held for nearly three months, released only when his sister threatened to go to the media. He was stripped of his medals and dishonorably discharged from the military. At thirteen, Calvin Graham was a “Baby Vet”, no longer fitting in at school and rejected by the nation he had served.

If only our politicians could expect such stern justice.

Graham soon chose the life of an adult, marrying and fathering a child at the age of fourteen, and working as a welder.  He was divorced by seventeen and enlisted in the Marine Corps. A fall from a pier broke his back three years later, ending his military career for good and leaving him selling magazine subscriptions for a living.

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For the rest of his life, Calvin Graham fought for a clean service record, and for restoration of medical benefits. President Jimmy Carter personally approved an honorable discharge in 1978. All Graham’s medals were reinstated, save for his Purple Heart. He was awarded $337 in back pay but denied medical benefits, save for the disability status conferred by the loss of his teeth, back in WW2.

Graham came to public notice in 1988 with the made-for-TV movie Too Young the Hero starring Rick Schroder, prompting government review of his case.  Graham earned $50,000 for rights to his story but half went to two agents and another 20% to the writer of a book, which was never published.  Graham and his wife received only $15,000 out of which an ever insensate government, took its share.

Calvin Graham, Medals
Calvin Leon Graham, Military Awards
1st Row: Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”
2nd Row: Purple Heart Medal, Navy Unit Commendation with service star, American Campaign Medal
3rd Row: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two service stars, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation granting Graham full disability benefits and increasing back pay to $4,917, and allowing $18,000 for medical expenses incurred during his military service. Lamentably, many old medical bills were permanently lost. Some of his doctors had died. Graham received only $2,100 reimbursement for past medical expenses.

Calvin Leon Graham died at his home in Fort Worth Texas in 1992, a victim of heart failure.  He was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas.  Graham’s Purple Heart was reinstated two years later and awarded to his widow by Secretary of the Navy John Dalton. Fifty-two years after the actions resulting in its award.

Calvin-Leon-Graham-grave

August 9, 1945 Destroyer of Worlds

Shigeaki Mori was 8 when he became Hibakusha, or “explosion affected person”. As a man, Mori-san came to believe the families of Allied POWs killed in Hiroshima possessed a connection through the nuclear blasts, to their Japanese counterparts. Mori’s “Secret History of the American Soldiers Killed by the Atomic Bombs”, tells the story of those soldiers, one of whom was John A. Long, Jr. of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

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Trinity Test Fireball

The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these were the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, on witnessing the world’s first successful nuclear test.

The project began with a letter from physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”.  The “Trinity” test culminated in the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equal to the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

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The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.

President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, Harry Truman immediately sworn in, as the new President. Ten days later he was fully briefed on the Manhattan project, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. To deploy an atomic bomb.

The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy” as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named for the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant.  Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.

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Fat Man

Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar” was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.

Three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.

Kokura was the primary target on this day in 1945, but local weather reduced visibility.  Bockscar crisscrossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop.  Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, while Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on Japanese fighter direction radio bands.

In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.

The 10,000-pound, 10-foot 8-inch weapon was released at 28,900-feet.  43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650-feet, a circle of 64 detonators simultaneously exploded, compacting a plutonium ball and combining separate hearts of beryllium and polonium thus ejecting hordes of neutrons into the supercritical mass. Nuclei within countless fuel atoms were thus split in a cascading effect known as induced nuclear fission, exploding outward with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000.  70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.

Nazi Germany was in fact working on a nuclear weapon, though the program never made it past the experimental stage. That one critical failure put the Third Reich behind in the arms race. How different would the world be today had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas, painted on their sides.

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