April 23, 1982 Where the Weird, Go Pro

From “Robert” the evil doll of Fort East Martello to the wild chickens who roam the streets, where conch fritters are considered a food group and history is literally built on salvaging shipwrecks, we’re talking about Key West Florida, where the “Weird go Pro”.

On December 5, 1937, bar owner Joe Russell faced an increase in rent. From three dollars a week to a whopping four bucks. Lucky for Joe, the former Victoria Restaurant owned by one Juan Farto (I didn’t make that up), was available. That night, everyone in the place picked up his drink, and his chair, and “moved the bar” across the street.

None other than Ernest Hemingway pitched in, (yeah, That Ernest Hemingway), helping himself to the urinal. “I’ve pissed enough of my money into this thing to pay for it‘ he said, bringing the thing home to his wife Pauline, who converted it to a fountain. The peacocks who once roamed “Papa” Hemingway’s yard are gone now but the fountain’s still there, not far from “Sloppy Joe’s Bar” on the corner of Greene and Duval Street.

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Papa Hemingway’s fountain

Where else but Duval Street could you watch a “bed race”, pulled by men and women in Wonder Woman outfits, or men in grass skirts. Where Times Square drops a ball to ring in the New year and Miami drops an orange, while Sloppy Joe’s drops a six-foot conch.

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Duval Street Bed Races, July 2015. H/t CBS, Miami

Even the above-ground cemetery is “off the beaten path”.   Inscriptions on headstones include “I told you I was sick“. One long-suffering wife got to write this one, for a philandering husband: “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight“.

From “Robert” the evil doll of Fort East Martello to the wild chickens who roam the streets, where conch fritters are considered a food group and history is literally built on salvaging shipwrecks, we’re talking about Key West Florida, where the “Weird go Pro”.

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Oh.  Did I tell you the place seceded?  Really.  It’s the “Conch Republic”, now.

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Except for the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and Coast Guard installations in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, most of the economic activity in the Florida Keys, comes from tourism. It’s no wonder that, when the federal government shuts down the only road into the Keys, the locals are going to get cranky.

In April 1982, the Mariel boat lift was a mere two years in the past, and very much in the public memory.

spidey1991-editThe United States had a border in those days, which the Federal government attempted to enforce.

On April 18, Border Patrol set up a roadblock in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, shutting down US Route 1, the only road in and out of the Florida Keys.  Originally intended to intercept illegals entering the country, the roadblock soon morphed into a hunt for illegal drugs, as well.

Cars waited for hours, in lines stretching 19 miles. Predictably, the attitude of Federal officials was one of towering indifference. Not so local business owners. Robert Kerstein wrote in his Key West on the Edge — Inventing the Conch Republic, “No one in Key West doubted that drugs were trafficked widely in the Keys by road and by boat. But tourism’s boosters had little tolerance for interruptions to their business.”

poster1Dennis Wardlow, then-Mayor of Key West, contacted the chief of police, the Monroe County sheriff, his State Representative and then-Governor Bob Graham, demanding the roadblock’s removal. With none of the above having any knowledge of the barrier and lacking the authority to pull it down, Wardlow contacted INS directly. When the Border Patrol told him it was “none of his business,” the Mayor’s response could best be summed up in the words of Bugs Bunny: “Of course you know, this means war!

Suffering a blizzard of hotel cancellations, this “attack on Key West’s sovereignty” could not stand. On April 22, Mayor Wardlow, local attorney & pilot David Horan and Old Town Trolley Tours operator Ed Swift flew to Miami seeking legal remedy. When District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue an injunction, the Key West delegation took to the courthouse steps.

“What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, asked the assembled media. Swift leaned over and whispered into the Mayor’s ear, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede!” “We are going to go home and secede!”, said Wardlow, and that’s what they did.

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Over the next 24 hours, secessionist co-conspirators worked feverishly to form a new government, filling cabinet positions such as “Secretary of Underwater Affairs” and “Minister of Nutrition”.

logo-navy2On April 23, with federal agents on scene to monitor the proceedings, a crowd gathered before the old customs building. Mayor Wardlow and a gaggle of allies mounted the back of a flatbed truck, to read the proclamation of secession. “We serve notice on the government in Washington”, Wardlow began, “to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people, may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats“.

With that, Mayor Wardlow declared “war” on the United States.  The “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” broke out in the harbor, when the Schooner Western Union commanded by Captain John Kraus, attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters and toilet paper.  Diligence fought back with water hoses, as the new “Prime Minister” broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a Navy uniform.

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Naval History was forever changed on this day, as the “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” raged across the waters of Key West
Pandemonium broke out as onlookers launched stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personnel. One minute after declaring his “verbal shot” at the Federal government, Mayor Wardlow surrendered to a nearby Naval officer, demanding a billion dollars in “foreign aid” in compensation for “the long federal siege.”

conch-republic-passportsApparently, that’s what it takes to get the attention of a Federal government bureaucrat. The roadblock lifted.  The restaurants, stores and hotels of the Keys soon filled with tourists and, once again, happiness smiled upon the land.  Key West never got its “foreign aid”, but secessionist leaders never received so much as a letter, saying they couldn’t leave the Union, either.

ConchRepublicSpecialForcesSo it is that the micro-nation of Key West celebrates its independence, every April 23. The “Conch Republic’ issues its own passports, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “We seceded where others failed”.

And if the Federal government ever comes back to mess with the sovereign nation of Key West, it had best be prepared to deal with the Conch Republic’s very own “Special Forces”, the motto for which is “Sanctus Merda”.  “Holy Shit”.

Tip of the hat to

“Conch Republic Military Forces, The Official Site of the Conch Republic Military” for the “Conch Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  Lyrics by First Sea Lord, Admiral Finbar Gittelman, October 14, 2012 © Finbar Gittelman

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sunshine and the sea
Right here upon our islands, where we love to live so free 
But in April 1982, the peace was not to be 
And we went rolling on

CHORUS
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
From Key to shining Key

They were setting up a check point, tween the mainland and the Keys 
They had put a US Border, where it shouldn’t ‘oughta’ be 
So that’s when we seceded, and declared our sovereignty 
And the fun had just begun

(CHORUS)

We went forth into the harbor and a cutter we did spy 
And we sailed up along side her and we took her by surprise 
We hoisted up our battle flag, so proudly and so high 
And we went sailing on

(CHORUS)

The water and Conch fritters and the Cuban bread did fly 
Our bombers, they were raining toilet paper from the sky 
Our cannons they did thunder to proclaim our victory 
And we fought bravely on

(CHORUS)

We have faced the silly forces of misguided zealotry 
We have stood up to their foolishness for all the world to see 
And we’ve showed the other nations what America can be From
Key to shining Key

(CHORUS)

Feature image, top of page:  Hat Tip Captain Tony’s Saloon, http://www.capttonyssaloon.com/

 

A Trivial Matter
The 39th Annual Hemingway® Look-Alike contest will be held at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, July 18-21, 2019. Contestants are invited to apply at http://www.sloppyjoes.com/papa-look-alike-contest/
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April 22, 1915 From Trench Warfare to Modern Chemotherapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas

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

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

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

Animals in World War1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

April 21, 2019 The Easter Bunny

Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring.  And rabbits.

In Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on Good Friday, arising from the dead two days later to reveal himself to his disciples, before finally ascending to heaven.

So where did the Easter Bunny come from?

Madonna-of-the-Rabbit-by-Titian
“Titian’s painting The Madonna of the Rabbit depicts this relationship. Mary holds the rabbit in the foreground, signifying both her virginity and fertility. The rabbit is white to convey her purity and innocence.” H/T Ancient-Origins.net

Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring.  And rabbits.

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Hat tip Ancient-Origins.net for this image

It’s small wonder that the latter symbolized fertility.  A female Hare, called a “Jill” has a 42-day gestation period, and is capable of conceiving while still pregnant.  Kriss Kringle and an egg laying Easter Hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” came to America in the 1700s, with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Children would make nests of clothing and blankets, in which the creature could lay its colored eggs. This is the origin of the Easter basket.

Hares and rabbits are different species of the same family, like sheep and goats. Until the 18th century, rabbits were called Coneys, after the Latin “cuniculus”. The word has all but disappeared from American English vernacular, its only use today relates to Coney Island, in New York.  It was around that time that the diminutive, fuzzier “bunny” came to replace the Easter Hare.

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The Three Hares – A Curiosity Worth Regarding by Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman

More recently, the discovery of a Medieval “Three Hares” motif in a minor cathedral in Devon England led archaeologist and historian Tom Greeves, art history researcher Sue Andrew and documentary photographer Chris Chapman on a trans-continental odyssey, from Great Britain across the Eurasian landmass, to discover the origins of the enigmatic symbol.

The design depicts three hares in a triangle, each possessed of one ear and making in all, six.  The image appears in tapestry, architecture and/or precious objects emanating from at least four of the world’s great faith traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, cropping up from English cathedrals to Italian monasteries, German synagogues, Iranian metalwork and Russian reliquary caskets to Buddhist cave temples in North West China.

The three hares image may have spread across the 4,000-mile “Spice Road” during the  “Pax Mongolica” period of the 13th and 14th centuries, in which it was said  “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

For Greeves, Andrew and Chapman, three decades of work has culminated in The Three Hares, a Curiosity Worth Regarding, a volume I have personally added to my must read list.

Hat tip Three Hares Project 2018 and Chris Chapman photography, to whom these images are copyrighted  http://www.chrischapmanphotography.co.uk

History gives us one tale concerning rabbits having nothing whatever to do with Easter, but it’s  too good not to tell here.

download (34)The story involves no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte.  In July 1807, Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Tilsit, ending the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia. As a means of celebration, Napoleon suggested a rabbit hunt, and ordered Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier, to make it happen.

Berthier put together an outdoor luncheon, inviting the highest brass from the French military. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s men ranged far and wide, collecting rabbits for the hunt. As many as 3,000 of them.

Napoleon arrived at one side of a grassy field with his beaters and gun bearers, with all those caged rabbits lined up on the other side. Rabbits and Hares are predictably shy and retiring creatures, but Berthier’s soldiers had found it easier to pilfer domesticated rabbits instead of flushing out the wild variety, and these things were hungry.

The hunt was supposed to begin when all those cages opened but, instead of scattering, a swarm of rabbits thought it was dinner time and pelted straight across the field.

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H/T wearethemighty.com

The most powerful man in the world thought it was funny at first, until all those rabbits started coming up his legs. Coachmen cracked bullwhips and men grabbed sticks.  There was shooting and shouting and pandemonium, everywhere.  Still, the bunny horde came on.

French General and diarist Baron Paul Thiébault was there, let him tell the story:

“The intrepid rabbits turned to the Emperor’s flank, attacked him frantically in the rear, refused to quit their hold, piled themselves up between his legs till they made him stagger, and forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field”.

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H/T Warner Bros., Napoleon Bunny-Part

Napoleon retreated to his carriage, but the onslaught, continued. Historian David Chandler picks up the story:

“With a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”

The tide of bunnies continued the advance, some even got into the carriage.  The bunny blitz finally ebbed away, only as the Royal Conveyance drove out of sight.

So it is that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a General who fought and won more battles than Hannibal Barca, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great, combined, was defeated and driven out of town…

By bunnies.

Featured image, top of page: The Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral, Germany. Photo source: Public Domain. H/T ancient-origins.net

 

A Trivial Matter
According to WomansDay.com, Americans are expected to spend over $2 Billion on Cadbury eggs, jelly beans and other Easter candies, this year. Peeps, the number one seller (sorry Cadbury), came out in 1953 when each one was extruded, from a pastry tube. In those days, Peeps took twenty-seven hours to set. These days’ they’re ready to eat in about six minutes.

April 20, 1949 Ship’s Cat

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon. 

Mankind first crossed the line from hunter-gatherer to farmer, some ten thousand years ago. The earliest civilization known mainly for agricultural subsistence is the naturally well-watered region around Jericho, circa 8000BC. From that day to this, grain stockpiles and domesticated livestock have attracted vermin.  With that came the wild ancestor of the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus.

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From the earliest times when man took to the sea, food stores were an attractive free ride, for rodents.

Rats reach sexual maturity in as little as four to five weeks and complete the act of procreation, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 8 to 14 “kittens” and run as high, as 21. With an average gestation period of only 21 to 23 days, rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.

Left uncontrolled, rats and mice can destroy ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from the earliest days, first controlling damage to pantries, ropes and woodwork and, in more modern times, electrical wiring.  To say nothing, of rat-borne disease.

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Not without reason, are cats seen as good luck at sea. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, able to detect even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the cat’s behavior, often the first sign of foul weather ahead.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) is believed to descend from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to the Scandinavian peninsula from the modern-day United Kingdom, sometime in the first millennium.

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Norwegian Forest Cat

“Simon” was found in 1948, one of countless and nameless cats roaming the dockyards of Stonecutter’s Island, in Hong Kong. He was about a year old at that time, a sickly little waif, smuggled on board the HMS Amethyst by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, George Hickinbottom. Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats, and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather in that time and place.  Happily, the job of ship’s cat was open at that time, however (says Hickinbottom), ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

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Simon, the Amethyst cat

Simon quickly earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s cap.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.  On this day in 1949 and only a hundred miles upriver, Amethyst came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

yi4Amethyst returned fire but it wasn’t long before she was disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, mortally wounding Commander Skinner and badly injuring the ship’s cat.

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate and some managed to swim to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months turned to a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was brought to the sick bay, where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his body and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was not expected to make it through the night.

Simon-HMS-Amethyst

As the weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rat known as Mao Tse-tung.

peopleThe Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained heavy damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War One, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, it is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon.

Simon returned to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon did not survive his war wounds, after all.  Required to be placed in quarantine like any animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to complications of his injuries and died on November 28, 1949.

Able_Seacat_Simon

Hundreds attended Simon’s funeral at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in east London, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. These words were inscribed on the stone, which marks his grave:

IN
MEMORY OF
“SIMON”
SERVED IN
H.M.S. AMETHYST
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
AUGUST 1949
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER

    

A Trivial Matter
“Oskar” was plucked from the ocean on May 27, 1941 by sailors from HMS Cossack, following the sinking of the German Battleship, Bismarck. So named from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’, code for “Man Overboard”, Oskar became ship’s cat aboard the British warship until October 27 when a German torpedo blew off the forward one-third of the destroyer, killing 159 sailors. Oskar survived this disaster as well, making his way to land and thence to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and dubbed “Unsinkable Sam”. The mighty carrier was herself sunk by a German torpedo on November 14, leaving Unsinkable Sam “angry but quite unharmed” clinging to a plank, in open ocean. World War Two would would rage for another four years, but not this particular ship’s cat. A superstitious lot, no sailor wanted any part of a shipmate who’d been through three wrecks. Sam was transferred first to the Governor of Gibraltar and then back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his days, at the “Home for Sailors”, in Belfast.
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April 19, 1775 Lexington and Concord

The conflict that afternoon at the Old North Bridge in Concord was the first instance of the American Revolution, when colonists fired to deadly effect on British regulars.

The column of British soldiers moved out from Boston in the late night hours of April 18, with the mission of confiscating the American arsenal at Concord and  capturing the Patriot leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, known to be hiding in Lexington.

Patriots had been preparing for such an event.  Sexton Robert John Newman and Captain John Pulling carried two lanterns to the steeple of the Old North church, signaling the Regulars were crossing the Charles River to Cambridge.

Dr. Joseph Warren ordered Paul Revere and Samuel Dawes to ride out and warn surrounding villages and towns, the two soon joined by a third rider, Samuel Prescott. Prescott alone would make it as far as Concord, though hundreds of riders would fan out across the countryside before the night was through.

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The column arrived in Lexington with the first moments of sunrise on April 19, bayonets gleaming in the early morning light.  Armed with a sorry assortment of weapons, colonial militia poured out of Buckman Tavern and fanned out across the town square.   Some weapons were hand made by village gunsmiths and blacksmiths, some decades old, but all were in good working order.   Taking positions across the village green to block the soldiers’ line of march, eighty “minutemen” turned and faced seven hundred of the most powerful military, on the planet.

Words were exchanged and no one knows who fired the first shot.  When it was over, eight Lexington men lay dead or dying, another ten wounded. One British soldier was wounded.

If you’ve never see the dawn reenactment of the Battle of Lexington, I highly recommend it.  It’s a regular feature of the Patriot’s Day festivities around the city of Boston, and well worth getting up early.  Hat tip Gethin Coolbaugh for this film of the 2018 event

Vastly outnumbered, the militia soon gave way as word spread and militia gathered from Concord to Cambridge.   The King’s Regulars never did find the weapons for which they had come, nor did they find Adams or Hancock.  There had been too much warning for that.

Regulars clashed with colonial subjects two more times that day, first at Concord Bridge and then in a running fight at a point in the road called “The Bloody Angle”.  Finally, hearing that militia was coming from as far away as Worcester, the column turned to the east and began their return march to Boston.

Hat tip DiscerningHistory.com, for this brief video on the Battle of Concord Bridge.

Some British soldiers marched 35 miles over those two days, their final retreat coming under increasing attack from militia members firing from behind stone walls, buildings and trees.

One taking up such a firing position was Samuel Whittemore of Menotomy Village, now Arlington Massachusetts. At eighty years old, he was the oldest known combatant of the Revolution.

Whittemore took his position by the road armed with his ancient musket, two dueling pistols and the old cutlass captured years earlier from a French officer whom he had once explained had “died suddenly”.

Waiting until the last possible moment, Whittemore rose and fired his musket at the oncoming Redcoats.  One shot, one kill. Several charged him from only feet away as he drew his pistols.  Two more shots, one dead and one mortally wounded. He had barely drawn his sword when they were on him, a .69 caliber ball fired almost point blank tearing part of his face off, as the butt of a rifle smashed down on his head. Whittemore tried to fend off the bayonet strokes with his sword but he didn’t have a chance.  He was run through thirteen times before he lay still.  One for each American colony.

Hat tip, The History Guy, for this presentation on Sam Whittemore. The ages given vary slightly from that engraved on his memorial but, age 78 or 80 at the time of this story, it seems a small matter.

The people who came out of their homes to clean up the mess afterward found Whittemore, up on one knee and trying to reload his old musket.

Doctor Nathaniel Tufts treated the old man’s wounds as best he could, but felt there was nothing anyone could do. Sam Whittemore was taken home to die in the company of his loved ones, and that’s what he did.  Eighteen years later, at the age of ninety-eight.

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A Trivial Matter
Just after midnight, April 19, 1775 , William Dawes, Dr. Samuel Prescott and Paul Revere were intercepted by a British patrol, just outside of Lexington. Prescott and Dawes bolted but Revere was captured, held through the small hours and interrogated. Revere was finally released, without his horse. The “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, humiliatingly ended on foot.  Revere arrived in Lexington just in time to witness the last moments on Lexington Green.  The conflict that afternoon at the Old North Bridge in Concord was the first instance of the American Revolution, when colonists fired to deadly effect on British regulars. In the 1837 classic “Concord Hymn”, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson called it the “shot heard round the world”.

April 18, 1945 Hoosier Vagabond

This was no rear-echelon scribe. Ernie Pyle was right out front with the infantry and the tankers, the Marines and the soldiers who fought and bled and died to put the murderous and totalitarian regimes of the 1940’s, on the garbage pile of history.

Earnest “Ernie” Taylor Pyle was born at the turn of the century, the only child of a tenant farmer and his wife, from the Vermilion County of rural Indiana. The boy disliked life on the farm, and looked for a life of adventure. Following high school graduation, Pyle enlisted in the US Naval Reserve, beginning training at the University of Illinois at Champaign–Urbana.

The Great War came to an end before he completed training, and Pyle enrolled at Indiana University.  He  wanted to write, it was in his blood, but IU offered no degree in journalism. He majored in economics and took every journalism course he could find, while writing for the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student.

539e30fa4ce853f5a8a0b0bc8beeb765During his junior year, Pyle and a few fraternity brothers dropped out for a year, to follow the IU baseball. The 1922 trip across the Pacific brought the group to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and Japan, leaving the the young writer with a lifelong love of travel, and exploration.

Ernie Pyle met Geraldine Elizabeth “Jerry” Siebolds at a Halloween party in 1923, the year he moved to Washington to work for the Washington Daily News. Two years later, the couple were wed.

The year before the “Mother Road” became part of the national highway system, Ernie and Jerry Pyle quit their jobs to begin an epic, 9,000 mile trip across the United States.  In a Ford Model T, no less.

Though never himself a pilot, Pyle flew some 100,000 miles as a passenger between 1928-’32, writing one of the earliest and best-known aviation columns, in the nation. No less a figure than Amelia Earhart once said “Any aviator who didn’t know Pyle was a nobody.”

He wrote in an easy, conversational style, the way of the story teller.  Scripps-Howard newspapers editor-in-chief of G.B. (“Deac”) Parker found in his articles “a sort of Mark Twain quality and they knocked my eyes right out.”

Ernie Pyle went to work for himself in 1935, driving from South America to Canada with Jerry, “That Girl who rides with me,” writing human interest stories. His column appeared six days a week in Scripps-Howard newspapers, published under the name “Hoosier Vagabond”.

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The series continued until 1942, two years after Pyle began the most famous part of his career. The part for which he would give his life.

Ernie Pyle initially went to London in 1940 to cover the Battle of Britain, later becoming war correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspapers.

Pyle’s travels read like a summary of the war itself: from North Africa to Europe, to the Asiatic-Pacific theater. Ernie Pyle traveled with the U.S. military during the North African Campaign, the Italian campaign, and the Sicily landing.  He went where they went, slept where they slept and ate what they ate.

He landed on an LST-353 with American troops on D-Day,  writing from Omaha Beach:

“The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many”.

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Pyle returned to the United States in the Fall of 1943 and again in 1944, badly in need of rest and recuperation from the stress of combat. This was no rear-echelon scribe. Ernie Pyle was right out front with the infantry and the tankers, the Marines and the soldiers who fought and bled and died to put the murderous and totalitarian regimes of the 1940’s, on the garbage pile of history.

l_if7lf662014101220AMWhat Bill Mauldin was with his cartoon characters “Willy and Joe”, Ernie Pyle was to the written word.  He was free to go anywhere and speak to anyone, from the commander-in-chief to the lowliest private soldier.  Harry Truman himself once said “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told.  He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

Exhausted, repeatedly hospitalized with “war neurosis” and subject to epic drinking binges, Ernie Pyle reluctantly accepted his final assignment in 1945, to cover the Battle of Okinawa. Somehow, he knew this would be his last. Before landing, Pyle wrote to his friend Paige Cavanaugh, and playwright Robert E. Sherwood, predicting his own death.

pyle1On April 17, 1945, the war correspondent landed with the U.S. Army’s 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th “Liberty Patch” Division on the island of Ie Shima.  The small island northwest of Okinawa had been captured by this time, but was by no means clear of enemy soldiers.

On this day in 1945, Ernie Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper.  Traveling by jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge and three other officers of the 305th, the vehicle came under fire from a Japanese machine gunner. All five dove for cover, in a ditch. Let Colonel Coolidge take the story from here:

“A little later Pyle and I raised up to look around. Another burst hit the road over our heads … I looked at Ernie and saw he had been hit.”

The bullet entered the left temple, just below his helmet. Ernie Pyle was dead before his body hit the ground.

080203-ernie-pyle-hlg-1p.grid-6x2The best loved reporter of the second World War was buried wearing that helmet, between the remains of an infantry private and a combat engineer.

The men of the 77th Infantry Division erected a monument which stands to this day, inscribed with these words: “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.” Half a world away, General Eisenhower echoed those same sentiments: “The GIs in Europe––and that means all of us––have lost one of our best and most understanding friends.”

 

A Trivial Matter
Ernie Pyle rejected an offer to cover the D-Day landing from General Omar Bradley’s command ship, electing instead to wade ashore with the troops, on Omaha Beach.

April 17, 1945 Kamikaze

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a human bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

By the end of 1944, a series of naval defeats had left the Imperial Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and ground crew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, the Atlanta class light cruiser USS Reno was hit by a Japanese aircraft in what many believed to be a deliberate crash.  The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers against a carrier task force.  Arima was killed and part of one bomber hit the USS Franklin, the Essex-class carrier known as “Big Ben”.

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17-year-old Corporal Yukio Araki (holding the puppy) died the following day in a suicide attack near Okinawa. H/T Wikipedia

Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.  Whether this was a deliberate “kamikaze” attack remains uncertain.  The tactic was anything but the following week, during the battle of Leyte Gulf.  Japanese aviators were deliberately flying their aircraft, into allied warships.

By the end of the war, this “divine wind” would destroy the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 American naval personnel.

American Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, the first allied landing on Japanese territory. It was a savage contest against a dug-in adversary, a 36-day battle costing the lives of 6,381 Americans and nearly 20,000 Japanese.

The table was set for the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war.

On April 1, Easter Sunday, 185,000 troops of the US Army and Marine Corps were pitted in the 85-day battle for Okinawa, against 130,000 defenders of the Japanese 32nd Army and civilian conscripts.  Both sides understood, the war would be won or lost in this place.

While Kamikaze attacks were near-commonplace following the October battle for Leyte Gulf, these one-way suicide missions became a major part of defense for the first time in the battle for Okinawa.  Some 1,500 Kamikaze aircraft participated in the battle for Okinawa, resulting in US 5th Fleet losses of 4,900 men killed or drowned, and another 4,800 wounded.  36 ships were sunk and another 368 damaged.  763 aircraft, were lost.

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Kamikaze, taking off

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a flying bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

On April 16, 1945, the Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey was assigned to radar picket duty, thirty miles north of Okinawa. At 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of blips at 17,000 yards, too numerous to count and approaching fast.  165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft were coming in, from the north

The Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber appeared near the destroyer at 8:30. This was a reconnaissance mission and, fired upon, the Val jettisoned her bombs, and departed. Four more D3As were soon to follow, tearing out of the sky in a steep dive toward USS Laffey. 20mm AA fire destroyed two while the other two crashed into the sea. Within seconds, a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber made a strafing run from the port beam while another approached on a bomb run, from the starboard side. These were also destroyed but, close enough to wound three gunners, with shrapnel. The flames had barely been brought under control when another Val crashed into the ship’s 40mm gun mounts, killing three sailors while another struck a glancing blow, spewing aviation fuel from a damaged engine.

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Immediately after, another D3A came in strafing from the stern, impacting a 5″ gun mount and disintegrating in a great column of fire as its bomb detonated a powder magazine. Another Val came in within seconds, crashing into the burning gun mount while yet another scored a direct hit, jamming Laffey’s rudder to port and killing several men. Within minutes, another Val and yet another Judy, had hit the port side.

It was all in the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, four FM2 Wildcats followed by twelve Vought F4U Corsair fighters from the escort carrier Shamrock Bay waded into the Kamikazes attacking Laffey, destroying several before being forced to return, low on fuel and out of ammunition.

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By the time it was over, some fifty Kamikazes were involved with the action. USS Laffey suffered six Kamikaze crashes, four direct bomb hits and strafing fire that killed 32 and wounded another 71. Lieutenant Frank Manson, assistant communications officer, asked Commander Frederick Becton if he thought they should abandon ship. Becton snapped “No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire.” He didn’t hear the comment, from a nearby lookout: “And if I can find one man to fire it.”

For USS Laffey, the war was over.  She was taken under tow the following day, April 17, and anchored near Okinawa.  She would not emerge from dry dock, until September.

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Today, the WW2 destroyer is a museum ship, anchored at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  A bronze plaque inside the ship is inscribed with the Presidential Unit Citation, received for that day off the coast of Okinawa:

For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY sent up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.

For the President,
James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

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The Battle for Okinawa
“The Battle of Okinawa was an intense 82-day campaign involving more than 287,000 US and 130,000 Japanese troops. It was considered the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, and more than 90,000 men died from both sides, along with almost 100,000 civilian casualties. During this conflict, Kamikazes inflicted the greatest damage ever sustained by the US Navy in a single battle, killing almost 5,000 men. All told, Kamikazes sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others during the entire war”. H/T Listverse.com