March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.
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March 9, 1974 The Last Holdout

Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki set out, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”.

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Ford Island Burning

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178.  Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom.  Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed.

188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground.  All eight battleships then in harbor, were damaged.

The following day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war.  Little did anyone know.  The war with Imperial Japan would rage for 33 years.

Wait.  What!?

Alright, not really. Representatives of the Empire of Japan signed the instruments of surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, formally ending the war in the Pacific.

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Except, some were so isolated from the chain of command, they never got the message.  Others believed it to be a ruse.  So steeped were these guys in the warrior code of bushido, it was impossible to believe their leaders had accepted dishonorable surrender.  Still others were true believers, fanatically dedicated to the mythical “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.  Never mind those mass graves, over there.

Whatever it was, WW2 came and then left without them.  For thousands, the war went on.

On June 7, 1944, the largest gyokusai (honorable suicide) of World War 2 exploded from three sides against United States Army and Marine Corps troops, on Saipan.  Some five thousand Japanese emerged shrieking from caves and hiding places, in the largest Banzai Charge of WW2. Savage fighting was hand to hand, the tide of humanity overrunning American forward positions and penetrating miles, into the rear. One rear-echelon regimental headquarters was overwhelmed.

Bonsai chargeThe struggle raged for fifteen hours.  In terms of American casualties, the Battle for Saipan was the third costliest battle of the Pacific war, after Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Some 4,300 Japanese troops were killed in the Bonsai charge of June 7.  William O’Brien of Troy, New York, Benjamin Lewis Salomon of Milwaukee Wisconsin and Thomas Alexander Baker of Troy New York all earned the Medal of Honor. Posthumously.

Following the Battle of Saipan, Captain Sakae Ōba led a small band of survivors in guerrilla actions against American troops.  The small group couldn’t know, the fleet of Japanese ships expected to bring relief from the Philippines was destroyed in the largest naval action of the war, in Leyte Gulf.   And so they fought on, 47 men raiding by night, and taking pot shots, from a distance.  When medical supplies ran out, Ōba cannily inserted the weak and infirm into American POW stockades, taking with him a like number among the strongest.  He was “the fox”:  so clever was this guy at evading capture.

Photographs were dropped after the war, depicting the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pictures Ōba deemed to be fakes.  When Americans set up outdoor movie theaters in the fields of Saipan, none could know.  Captain Sakae Ōba sat in the (way) back seat.

Captain Ōba’s band held out, for 512 days.

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Captain Sakae Ōba surrenders his sword to Lieutenant Colonel Howard G. Kirgi

20 Imperial Japanese Army personnel emerged from a tunnel on Corregidor, surrendering to an American serviceman.  Navy Lieutenant Hideo Horiuchi was arrested by on August 13, 1946, while recovering from wounds received in a battle with Dutch troops.

Lieutenant Ei Yamaguchi led 33 soldiers in an attack on an American Marine Corps detachment on Peleliu in March, 1947. Reinforcements were sent in, including a Japanese admiral who finally convinced these guys the war was over. The group surrendered in April, 1947.

• On May 12, 1948, two Japanese soldiers surrendered to civilian policemen in Guam.
• Two machine gunners from the Imperial Japanese Navy surrendered on Iwo Jima on January 6, 1949.
• Several went on to fight for the Viet Minh against French Imperial troops, in Indochina.
• Seaman Noburo Kinoshita hanged himself in the Luzon jungle in 1955, rather than “return to Japan in defeat.”

Private Bunzō Minagawa and Sergeant Masashi Itō held out for sixteen years on the American territory of Guam.  Minagawa described the experience:

“We ate roots, worms, grass, and grasshoppers. It’s no use telling you because you wouldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine such a life. We were sleeping every night in the rain on the ground“.

The pair surrendered in May 1960, rotted uniforms hanging in tatters from from their bodies. Shoichi Yokoi also served under Itō.  Corporal Yokoi evaded capture, for another twelve years.

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A cleaned-up and no doubt sweeter smelling Masashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa in hospital, following capture

In June 1941, 36 soldiers and sailors survived the sinking of 3 Japanese supply ships off Anatahan, swimming ashore on the tiny speck of an island in the Marianas chain.

Anatahan island had two occupants at the time, the Japanese head of a coconut plantation, and his wife.  Kikuichiro Higa “disappeared” under mysterious circumstances while his wife Kazuko, became the object of affection for thirty-six starving castaways.

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Japanese ship sinking under allied attack

Kazuko, a “lantern jawed” woman the Japan Times “charitably described” as “handsome’, “married” Kikuichiro Higa as protection, from the rest. Higa was soon shot and Kazuko’s third “husband”, had his throat slit. For six years, a dwindling number of starving waifs vied for the affections of the island’s only female.

Over the years, one erstwhile beau was stabbed, thirteen times.

After twelve murders and countless assaults and fist fights, “The Queen Bee of Anahatan Island” returned to Japan in 1951. Press adulation was short lived.  Kazuku Higa fell into a life of prostitution and died in abject poverty at age 51, while working as garbage collector.

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The media highly glamorized (and highly sexualized) the dismal story of 36 soldiers and sailors and one civilian woman stranded on Anahatan Island

After the war, 2nd Lieutenant Hirō Onoda took to the mountains of Lubang Island along with Private Yūichi Akatsu, Corporal Shōichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka, carrying out guerrilla raids and engaging in shootouts with local police.  Akatsu left the other three in 1949, and surrendered six months later.  Shimada was killed by a search party in 1954.  Kozuka was shot and killed by local police in 1972, while burning rice collected by farmers.

Two years later, Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki set out, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order“.  On February 20, 1974, the pair met.  Suzuki nearly got himself shot for his troubles, but he was quick.  “Onoda-san”, he said, “the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” Years later, Onada himself described the encounter:  “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…

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Hirō Onoda – CNN

I am a soldier and remain true to my duties.” Onada would surrender when ordered to do so by a superior officer.  Not before. Suzuki returned to Japan and located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who was now working in a book store. The pair flew to Lubang, where Taniguchi issued the following orders:

“In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff’s Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer. When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives”.

Thus properly relieved of duty, Onada surrendered, turning over his sword, his rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and a number of hand grenades along with the dagger his mother had given him.  To kill himself, should he ever be captured.  It was March 9, 1974.

Private Teruo Nakamura, born Attun Palalin to the aboriginal Amis people native to the island nation of Taiwan, was the last confirmed holdout of WW2.  Nakamura, who spoke neither Japanese nor Mandarin, was discovered by the Indonesian Air Force on Morotai.  He surrendered to a search patrol on December 18, 1974.

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Teruo Nakamura

Twenty-nine years, three months, and sixteen days after the Japanese instrument of surrender, World War Two was finally over.

Afterward

51D9hvd+N+L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)As a member of the Japanese Army, Hirō Onada received back pay and a pension equal to $160,000(US), equivalent to $850,000, today.  Not so, Teuro Nakamura. As a member of a colonial army, Nakamura’s thirty-years service to the former Japanese Empire got him $1,186(US) and a trip back to Taiwan where he died of lung cancer, in 1979.

Private 1st Class James Donald “Don” Jones of Eastland County, Texas was a veteran of Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Tinian and helped defeat the great bonsai charge of Saipan, in 1944.  Curious about his own history, Don Jones met with Captain Ōba in 1980, and returned the former geography teacher, his sword.  You can read Private Jones’ story in his own words, if you like.  It’s available from $16.93, in hard cover.

A Trivial Matter

On March 16, 1631, the first recorded fire in the city of Boston burned the home of Thomas Sharp to the ground.  Thatch roofs and wooden chimneys were outlawed, not long after.

February 22, 1943 The Mighty Atom

With eighteen in the plaintiffs dock and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

Yosselle “Joseph” Greenstein was born on January 2, 1893, the son of the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland. A small, sickly child with chronic asthma, doctors believed he suffered from the same tuberculosis, which had killed his father.

“Joe” tried sneaking into the Issakoff Brother’s Circus at fourteen, receiving a savage beating for his trouble, left bleeding and barely conscious in a muddy alley.

The circus’ strongman “Champion Volanko” saw the poor, scrawny kid trying to crawl home, and took pity.  Volanko brought the boy into his trailer and, as the two talked, became impressed with his determination. This was an old-school strength athlete, capable of performing a military press with baskets full of women, in each hand. He offered to teach the boy his techniques.  So it was that Joe Greenstein ran away with a traveling circus.

Eighteen months later, he was a changed man.  Greenstein took up wrestling and married, while still a teenager.

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“Home at last by Moshe Maimon. The house’s occupants return when it is safe, to find the house thoroughly looted. A rabbi is saying Kaddish for a member of the household who was killed”. H/T Wikipedia

In those days, Poland was a nation in name only, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian Empire.  Tsarist Russia was engulfed in a paroxysm of anti-Jewish violence in the pre-war years, riots resulting in death and injury, by the tens of thousands.  The New York Times reported on one such “pogrom”, in 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish…The cry “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city…Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

This place had nothing for a young Jewish family.  Joseph and Leah Greenstein emigrated to the United States and made a home in Galveston Texas.

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Jack Johnson

Joe worked on the docks and oil fields of Galveston, or  laying railroad tracks and pounding spikes, by hand.  He was wrestling professionally by this time under the name “Kid Greenstein”, and good at it, too.  He met Jack Johnson who taught him some fighting techniques, the first black athlete to break the color barrier to become the heavyweight champion of the world, in 1908.

A local Texas man became obsessed with Leah Greenstein in 1914 and shot her husband, between the eyes.  The bullet struck with enough force to flatten against his forehead, but did not penetrate.  Joe left the hospital that same day, convinced his physical conditioning and mental discipline, had saved his life.

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Joseph Greenstein, the Mighty Atom

Thus began the career of one of the greatest strongmen, in history.  He was “The Mighty Atom”, able to break up to three chains, by expanding his chest.  Only 5’4″-inches tall, he could bend horseshoes and drive nails with his bare hands.  He could pull a fire truck with his hair, and change a tire with no tools. Not even a jack.

On September 29, 1928 the headlines read “The Mighty Atom – Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” He had held an aircraft on the ground with his hair – the feat was documented by Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”.

In 1936, a dispute with six dock workers, led to a brawl.  The story ran in all the New York papers – “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” party in 1933, some German Americans formed groups, patterned after the Nazi Party in Germany.  These people had few connections to the “Thousand-Year Reich” and received little support from the broader German American community, yet they wore uniforms and toted swastikas and preached the same hate for the Jews, as the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.  The most notorious of these, was the “German American Bund”.

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“German American Bund Camp youth salute Hindenburg in Griggstown, New Jersey”. H/T rarehistoricphotos.com

Though the claim was believed to be exaggerated, Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) estimated German-American Bund membership, at 430,000, in 1938.

The Mighty Atom was in New York that year when he passed a building, about to host a Nazi rally.  One sign high on the wall read “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”.  Yosselle Greenstein had left that garbage behind in the old country.  He wasn’t about to tolerate it here.

He bought a ladder, and climbed up and tore the thing down.  Twenty streamed out of the building, bent on beating the man into giblets.  When it was over, eighteen had been sent to the hospital.

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Pulling a fire truck, Mighty Atom style

A few weeks later, the combatants were in court.  Eighteen in the plaintiffs dock, and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

War descended over Europe and with it the systematic extermination of the infirm.  The Jew.  The Roma.  The “Untermenschen“.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Judge-President Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”.  Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  In reality, this mockery of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, by the hundreds.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope.  Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

This video give a good idea about “justice” in Roland Feisler’s court.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful opposition came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders, as Universities had been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology. The “White Rose” would rise in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, producing leaflets, handbills and anti-Nazi graffiti from the earliest days of 1943.

These too were found out, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst made to stand trial before judge Feisler’s Court on February 22, 1943. All were sentenced to death and guillotined the same day. The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

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Back at home, Joseph Greenstein performed for war bond drives, always without compensation.  The Mighty Atom continued to perform feats of strength well into his eighties, and taught fighting techniques to the New York Police department, Israeli Defence Force and others.

The Mighty Atom portraitDuring his last public performance given before a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1977, the Mighty Atom wore a leather vest, emblazoned with a golden star of David.

When he was through, Greenstein took a moment to wish his great-grandchild a happy first birthday.

The man could still bend horseshoes and drive nails with his hands.

The mighty Atom succumbed to cancer on October 8, 1977.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In 2014, Joe’s son Mike appeared on America’s Got Talent. pulling a 3500-pound car with his teeth and wearing a T-shirt promoting “Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).  He was 93.

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

February 20, 1945 Falling on Grenades: the Indestructible Jack Lucas

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

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

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

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

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

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Iwo Jima

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacklyn Lucas, older

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

 

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

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

Jacklyn Lucas

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

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

 

February 14, 1945 Firestorm

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

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

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

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German military equipment lies broken in Czechoslovakia, 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

This thing was just getting started.

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

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

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Lancaster bomber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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360° panoramic view of Dresden, following allied firebombing.  H/T International Business Times
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February 9, 1942 Of Hoodlums and Heroes

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

As the Great War gave way to the Roaring Twenties, operators of the great ocean-going liners began to look at a new class of vessels.

The White Star Lines’ Britannic, Olympic and the doomed Titanic. Cunard’s Carpathia, Mauretania and the ill-fated Lusitania. The Red Star Line’s Finland, Kroonland, and Lapland. These were the veterans of the trans-Atlantic trade, built around enormous numbers of immigrants and the one-way steerage class voyage from Europe, to the United States.

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Normandie poster

As the US all but shut down immigration in the early 1920s, the shipping industry looked to a new class of super liner to serve an upper-crust tourist trade, particularly Americans traveling to Europe, to escape Prohibition.

The German-built Norddeutscher Lloyd company was first off the line with the SS Bremen and Europa. The British-made RMS Queen Mary was not far behind, but the Queen of this new class of super-liner, was the French-built Normandie.

SS Normandie was one-of-a-kind.  The first vessel laid in compliance with the 1929 SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea), she was enormous.  1,029-feet long and 119-feet wide and displacing 85,000 tons, she was the largest liner in the world. 1,975 berths offering seven classes of service, served by a crew of 1,300.

Despite worldwide depression, Normandie was launched in 1932, making her first Atlantic crossing, in 1935.

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Normandie under construction

War broke out in Europe in 1939.  When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Normandie was tied to a dock, in New York.  Under no circumstance would such a vessel be allowed to fall into Nazi hands.  SS Normandie was immediately placed under “protective custody” by the US Navy.

There was speculation in the press, that the liner would be converted to an aircraft carrier in the event of American entry into the war.  The Navy seized the liner in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but not for a carrier.  The most luxurious liner in the world would be converted, to a troop ship.

Work began within weeks on the renamed USS Lafayette.

normandie-6-3176-default-largeThe afternoon of February 9, 1942 was cold and clear, over the West 49th Street pier. Welder Clement Derrick was removing the last of four stanchions in the Grand Salon when sparks ignited bales of burlap, covering highly flammable life vests.

Within a half-hour, much of the great liner was engulfed in flames. Black, oily smoke filled the City skyline as spectators crowded Pier 88.

Squadrons of fire boats poured a deluge of water, more than the great liner could bear. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews attempted to board when she suddenly lurched several feet, to port. USS Lafayette was drowning in the water, meant to save her life.

The scene was a carnival, with food vendors and  hawkers. Skycraper windows were opened, to watch the grim spectacle.

USS Lafayette continued her slow roll as, unseen within her holds, shifting water picked up speed. In twelve hours, it was over. At 2:35am on February 10, she rolled over and died.

Miki Rosen was five at the time, coming by in the family car, to gawk at the scene: “My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn’t even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water.”

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USS Lafeyette, 1942

It wasn’t long before speculation turned to certainty. Sabotage. German spies were all over the waterfront, taking jobs as bartenders, stevedores and factory workers. Only a month earlier, 33 German agents were sentenced in a Brooklyn courtroom, to 300 years.  German U-Boats sank 20 allied vessels in January alone, a mere sixty miles off the New Jersey and Long Island shore.

main-qimg-5b28658362e63dfcf2abdc5a8709522fBBC broadcaster Alistaire Cooke, “the Twentieth Century’s de Tocqueville”, spoke of American seamen, torpedoed and picked up by a German submarine. The U-Boat commander came in and asked, in a perfect Brooklyn accent, if any were from the borough. “Maybe I worked with some o’ youse guys.  I was twelve years in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The FBI recreated Clement Derrick’s accident with the same dreadful result but, no matter.  By then, speculation had turned to “fact”.

Naval intelligence distrusted the official FBI version.  Hordes of uniformed personnel descended on the waterfront from Connecticut to New Jersey, to be met with a glowering brick wall of silence.  This was a rough and unaccustomed place, an underworld of sailors and gangsters,  fishermen and longshoremen.  A world of street toughs who’d long since lost any trust in uniforms, from meter maids to police officers.  Ivy-league Naval intelligence types got no information whatsoever.  Many were lucky, to escape without a beating.

The only authority in this world, was the Mob.

Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral Carl Espe remembered:  “The outcome of the war appeared extremely grave. In addition, there was the most serious concern over possible sabotage in the ports. It was necessary to use every possible means to prevent and forestall sabotage….” Someone on the docks was feeding the Nazis information, and only the mob had the power to hunt down the guilty party.  Policy makers fretted about doing business with the Mafia, while the Kriegsmarine U-Boats enjoyed the “Happy Time”.  

Could the Mafia even be trusted?  Vito Genovese fled New York to Italy back in 1937 to avoid a murder prosecution, where he became close friends with Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. So tight were the pair that the cagey gangster dispatched hit men to New York to murder newspaperman Carlo Tresca, a vocal critic of the fascist regime.

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Joseph “Socks” Lanza

Closer examination told a different story. Genovese was an opportunist, a double-crosser with no loyalty.  Most Sicilian gangsters were different, most of them refugees from savage Italian purges where Mafiosi were machine gunned, bombed and arrested, in droves. Thugs and gangsters yes, but almost to a man they hated the fascists with the white heat, of a thousand suns.

So it was, the United States Navy entered into one of the strangest relationships of WW2, an operation which would remain secret, until 1977. “Operation Underworld“.

The first mob boss to come on board was Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a hulking bulldozer of a man and undisputed lord of the Fulton fish market. Socks got his name because he’d “sock” anyone in the jaw, who disagreed with his pronouncements. A man with a criminal history going back to 1917, Joe Socks could order the fishing fleet from Maine to Florida to dump an entire catch to inflate prices, with a nod of his head. Fishermen failing to bribe the racketeer found their fish left rotting, on the docks. Continued disobedience resulted in arson, beatings, and death.

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If anyone could ferret out a Judas passing information to German intelligence it was Joe Socks, but how to contact a gangster, sworn to the code of Omerta?

Head of the New York Rackets Bureau, Murray Gurfein and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden met with Lanza in the office of the gangster’s attorney. Gurfein explained “It’s a matter of great urgency. Many of our ships are being sunk along the Atlantic coast. We suspect German U-boats are being refueled and getting fresh supplies off our coast …You can find out how and where the submarines are being refueled.”  Surprisingly, the Gangster jumped at the opportunity.

Socks provided union cards held for no-show jobs. Soon, naval intelligence agents were sailing aboard mackerel fleets from Newfoundland to Florida, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications forming a valuable first-line of defense, against the Nazi submarine menace.

Important as it was, Lanza’s fishing fleet wasn’t enough, and Socks himself was disliked by the other four New York crime families.

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Charles “Lucky” Luciano

The never-ending scrum of troop ships and merchant vessels crowding the New York waterfront was of life-and-death importance to the allied war effort. The only man who controlled it all, was in prison. Lucky Luciano.  The only man Luciano trusted, was the Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky.

Unlike the Italians, no one questioned Lansky’s patriotism.  He and his Jewish mob had attacked Nazi meetings all over the city, throwing some of them out of the windows.

The meeting was arranged and, on May 12, 1942, Luciano was quietly transferred from Dannemora prison to a country club by comparison, and promised parole at the war’s end. This in exchange for the mobster’s cooperation in defeating Nazi Germany.

Cooperate, he did. The word went out from Luciano’s prison cell, from the docks to the heart of the city. Soon, every hat check girl and bartender, every longshoreman and numbers runner and the guys who serviced the vending machines, became the eyes and ears of the United States Navy. From bathroom attendants to elevator operators, the American Nazi organization known as German American Bund couldn’t so much as think out loud, without someone listening in.

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

In the end, USS Lafayette would never sail under a US Flag.  She was a total loss, sold for scrap in 1946.  The government was as good as its word. On January 3, 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s sentence, on condition that he did not resist deportation. The most powerful mob boss in New York, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was deported to Naples.  Four years to the day from the death of the USS Lafayette.

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

February 8, 1943 The Gift of Valor

The Swedish-American poet Carl Sandburg once wrote “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.” 

e4fe77529e36fb9999c1c4e195929129For six hundred years, the Balkan states of Southeastern and Central Europe were conquered and unwilling subjects of foreign powers. First the Ottoman, and then the Austro-Hungarian Empires.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the dream of a single state for ethnic Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had been around for some two hundred years.

The spark that started WW1 and literally changed the world was struck by the “Black Hand”, a secret society dedicated to Serbian liberation, no matter what.

The dream of sovereignty took form and shape in the wake of WW1, the six constituent republics of the Socialist Republic (SR) of Bosnia and Herzegovina, SR Croatia, SR Macedonia, SR Montenegro, SR Serbia, and SR Slovenia merging to form the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”.  A creation of the treaty ending the Great War, the place was referred to as the “Versailles State“, for the first ten years. The name was officially changed to Yugoslavia in 1929, literally translating as the “Land of all South Slavic peoples“.

tumblr_mzl45prz011stxu8xo2_500Lepa Svetozara Radić was born into this world on December 19, 1925.

From her earliest student days, Lepa Radić was known for dedication and hard work, a smart and serious girl, dedicated and reading well above grade level.

Radić developed strong left-of-center political views, taking influence from uncle Vladeta Radić, a strong proponent of the labor movement.

By that age when young teenage girls are thinking of other things, Radić had joined the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia (SKOJ). By the time she turned fifteen in 1941, she was a member of the Yugoslavian Communist Party.

As World War 2 enveloped the continent, a group of disaffected Yugoslav Army Air Force officers plotted to overthrow the government in Belgrade. The Cvetković government signed the Vienna protocol on March 25, 1941, signalling its intention to join the Tri-Partite pact of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. The bloodless coup d’état of two days later overthrew the Prince Regency of Paul Karađorđević, installing the pro-western, seventeen-year-old King Peter II, with encouragement and support from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Adolf Hitler was apoplectic, taking personal offense at the coup d’état.  Der Fuhrer had no interest in waiting to see if the new government would declare loyalty.  Hitler summoned his military advisers the same day, determined “to destroy Yugoslavia militarily and as a state” and to do so “with pitiless harshness.

The Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia was overwhelming, simultaneously launched from bases in Germany, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.  The Yugoslav state never had a chance.  It was all over, in eleven days.

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The invasion was over in April, but not the Resistance.

With the German stranglehold in tight control of the towns and roadways, a Serbian resistance was quick to form in the wild mountains of the war torn nation.  Two of them really:  the Chetniks, dedicated to support of the Royal government in exile and the ferociously pro-Communist Partisans, under the leadership of Josip Broz “Tito.”

For the Radić family, there was no question of loyalty.  Lepa’s father Svetor and uncles Voja and Vladeta joined the Partisans in July, leading to the arrest of the entire family by the Ustashe, the fascist Nazi-puppet government of Yugoslavia.

lepa_radic_i_nemci__1502623485_44934-e1502623544936-780x300Resistance fighters freed the Radić family in weeks. That December, Lepa and her sister Dara officially joined the Partisans.

Though only fifteen, Lepa Radić was as fierce in her opposition to the Nazis, as any Partisan. She volunteered for the front lines, joining the 7th Partisan company of the 2nd Krajiski Detachment, transporting wounded and defenseless from the battlefield. Did I mention, she was fifteen years old.

1190617_lepa-radic_ls-sLepa was found out in February 1943, coordinating the rescue of 150 women and children attempting to flee the Nazis. She fired everything she had at attacking SS forces, but never had a chance. Lepa Radić was captured and sentenced to death by hanging, tortured for three days to extract information on Yugoslavian Resistance.

She gave up the cube root of zero.

She was brought to a hastily constructed gallows on February 8, 1943, and hanged in full view of the public.

Lepa_Radić_hangedMoments before her execution with the rope around her neck, Radić was offered a pardon. All she had to do, was give up the names of her Partisan comrades.

“I am not a traitor of my people”, she said. “Those whom you are asking about will reveal themselves when they have succeeded in wiping out all you evildoers, to the last man.”

Those were her last words.

The Swedish-American poet Carl Sandburg once wrote “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”

Were I ever to be half so egregiously tested, I hope I would prove myself half the man, as that seventeen-year-old girl.

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.