December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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.

December 9, 1854 Into the Valley of Death

Raglan must have looked on in horror as the scene unfolded below. Instead of turning right and climbing the Causeway slopes, nearly 700 horsemen first walked, then trotted and finally charged, straight down the valley. Into the Russian guns. Into one of the Great disasters, of military history.


The Crimean war was in its second year in 1854, pitting an alliance including Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against the Russian armies of Czar Nicholas I.

The Battle of Balaclava opened shortly after 5:00am on October 25, 1854, when a squadron of Russian Cossack Cavalry advanced under cover of darkness. The Cossacks were followed by a host of Uhlans, their Polish light cavalry allies, against several dug-in positions occupied by Ottoman Turks. The Turks fought stubbornly, sustaining 25% casualties before finally being forced to withdraw.

George_Bingham,_3rd_Earl_of_Lucan

For a time, the Russian advance was held only by the red coated 93rd Highland Regiment, a desperate defense remembered as the “Thin Red Line”.

Finally, the Russians were driven back by the British Heavy Brigade, led by George Bingham (left), 3rd Earl of Lucan, a man otherwise known to history for the brutality inflicted on tenants in Mayo, during the Irish potato famine.

The light cavalry of the age consisted of lightly armed and armored troops mounted on small, fast horses, usually wielding cutlass or spear. They’re a raiding force, good at reconnaissance, screening, and skirmishing. The “Heavies”, on the other hand, are mounted on huge, powerful chargers, both rider and horse heavily armored. They are the shock force of the army.

Cardigan

Lucan’s subordinate was James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan (right), in command of the Light Brigade.

There could not have been two worse field commanders.

Though possessed of physical courage, both men were prideful, mean spirited and petty. What’s worse, they were brothers-in-law, and each man detested the other, thoroughly.

raglan

Field Marshal Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan (left), was in overall command of the allied armies. Raglan occupied a high spot where he could see the battle unfolding before him, but didn’t seem to realize that his subordinates below couldn’t see what he could see. Spotting a small Russian detachment trying to get away with captured cannon, Raglan issued an order to Lucan, in overall command of his Cavalry. “Lord Raglan wishes the Cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns.” As Staff Officer Louis Nolan left to deliver the message, Raglan shouted “Tell Lord Lucan the cavalry is to attack immediately“.

The Light Brigade was well suited to such a task, but the men below had no idea what Raglan meant by such a poorly worded order. The only guns they could see were dug in Russian artillery a mile away, at the other end of the valley. When Nolan brought the order, Lucan demanded to know what guns. With a contemptuous sweep of his arm, Nolan pointed down the valley.   “There, sir, are your guns“.

The order that came down from Lucan to Cardigan called for a suicide mission, even for heavy cavalry. The “Lights” were being ordered to ride a mile down an open valley, with enemy cannon and riflemen lining both sides, into the muzzles of dug in, well sighted, heavy artillery.

Nose to nose and glaring, neither man blinked in the contest of wills. In the end, Cardigan did as ordered. 674 horsemen of the Light Brigade mounted up, drew their swords, and rode into the valley of death.

Louis Nolan should have gone back to Raglan but rode out instead, in front of the Light Brigade. He was almost certainly trying to redirect the charge and could have saved the day, but it wasn’t meant to be. Louis Nolan, the only man in position to change history that day, was the first man killed in the raid.

Private James Wightman of the 17th Lancers, describes Nolan’s last moments.  “I saw the shell explode of which a fragment struck him. From his raised sword-hand dropped the sword. The arm remained upraised and rigid, but all the other limbs so curled in on the contorted trunk as by a spasm, that we wondered how for the moment the huddled form kept the saddle. The weird shriek and the awful face haunt me now to this day, the first horror of that ride of horrors“.

Crimean-War-Russian-Artillery-Battery
Russian Artillery Battery of the Crimean War

Raglan must have looked on in horror at the scene unfolding below. Instead of turning right and climbing the Causeway slopes, nearly 700 horsemen first walked, then trotted and finally charged, straight down the valley. Into the Russian guns. Into one of the Great disasters, of military history.

Captain Thomas Hutton of the 4th Light Dragoons said “A child might have seen the trap that was laid for us. Every private dragoon did“.

Charge, Russian Perspective
Charge of the Light Brigade, from the Russian perspective.

It took the Lights a full seven minutes to reach the Russian guns. Cannon fire tore great gaps out of their lines the whole time, first from the sides and then from the front. Shattered remnants of the Light Brigade actually managed to overrun the Russian guns, but had no means of holding them. Survivors milled about for a time, and then back they came, blown and bleeding horses carrying mangled men back through another gauntlet of fire.

Captain Nolan’s horse carried his dead, broken body all the way down, and all the way back.

Louis Nolan
Death of Captain Nolan or The Charger of Captain Nolan … by Thomas Jones Barker (1855)

When it was over 110 men were dead, 130 wounded and 58 missing or captured. 335 horses were dead or so grievously wounded as to be euthanized, upon their return. 40% losses in an action that had lasted 20 minutes.

Cardigan and Lucan each pointed the finger of blame at the other, for the rest of their lives. Both laid blame for the disaster on Nolan, who wasn’t there to defend himself.

The Battle of Balaclava is mostly forgotten today, but for a stanza in the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem: The Charge of the Light Brigade:

“…Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die…”

first published on December 9, 1854.

“…Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell,
Rode the six hundred…”

Aftermath-of-the-Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade
Aftermath

The Crimean War itself may be remembered as a waste of blood and treasure, for all it accomplished. But for the efforts of one woman, who all but invented the modern profession of nursing. The soldiers knew her as “The Lady with the Lamp” for her late night rounds of compassion, caring for the wounded.

History remembers this “Ministering Angel”, as Florence Nightingale.

November 27, 1942. Vanquished, but Unbeaten

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

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

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-France

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of the country, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain. Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime. Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2

With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers. This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

Scuttled, 1

In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening reached French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon. Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops. By any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

Under orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulon

Finally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more. German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet. Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light. Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from her superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp. In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed. 39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks. The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded that day. 78 years ago, today. The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable. How many lives may have been lost, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power. But for the obstinate bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten foe.

February 3, 1959 The Day the Music Died

There’s a popular story that the 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza was called “American Pie”, but the story is a myth. The single engine airplane bore only the tail number: N3794N.

Jiles Richardson was a Texas DJ in 1958, the year he found recording success of his own with a song called “Chantilly Lace”.

Richie Valenzuela was only 16 when Del-Fi Records producer Bob Keane discovered the singer in California. “Donna”, a song he had written for his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig, was on the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, right alongside the 45’s “B” side, an old Mexican standard turned Rock & Roll tune called “La Bamba”. By 1958, Valenzuela was one of the hottest young recording artists of his time.

Charles Hardin Holley, “Buddy” to his friends and family, learned guitar, four-string banjo and lap steel guitar from his older brothers, Travis and Larry. The boy took to music at an early age, winning his first talent contest at age five.   One music critic would describe the Lubbock Texas native as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.” Contemporary and later musicians claiming inspiration from Holley’s work include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello.download (98)58 years ago, his name changed as the result of a misspelling in a recording contract, Buddy Holly was headliner of the “The Winter Dance Party Tour”. Richardson, performing as the “Big Bopper” and Valenzuela, professionally known as Ritchie Valens, were on the tour, along with Dion and the Belmonts, Holly’s friend from Lubbock and fellow musician Waylon Jennings, and a young Owasso, Oklahoma Rockabilly musician and former “Crickets” band member, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation named Tommy Allsup.

The musical tour included 24 cities in 3 weeks, a grueling schedule under the best of circumstances.  This were anything but the best of circumstances. The tour bus had no heat.  A three-week winter bus tour of the upper Midwest is no place to be without heat. It was so cold that Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite in his feet and left the tour in Clear Lake, Iowa.download (96)Holly was sick of it, and decided to charter a plane for himself and some of his guys. At least that would give them time to do laundry before the next performance.

Dwyer Flying Service got the charter with a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, at $36 per person. There’s a popular story that the four-seater aircraft was called “American Pie”, but the story is a myth. The single engine airplane bore only the tail number: N3794N.

Richardson was running a fever at the time, so Waylon Jennings gave up his seat so the Big Bopper could ride in comfort. Allsup and Valens flipped a coin for the last seat, the coin landing heads up. Ritchie Valens had won the coin toss.

On learning that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, Holly said “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.” Jennings replied “Well, I hope your plane crashes.” It was just a good ribbing between friends.  None could know that Jennings’ joke, would come true.  The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

HighFlight-TheMusicDied6N3794N left the ground in a snowstorm, shortly after 1:00am on February 3. The pilot, Roger Peterson, may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation.  He may have become disoriented in near-whiteout conditions. One wing hit the ground in a cornfield outside of Clear Lake and the aircraft corkscrewed into the ground, throwing the three musicians clear of the plane. There was no fire, barely a sound.  Just a small aircraft swallowed whole, by a snow covered cornfield.

The bodies would lie in that field until late in the afternoon.

The show would go on. Needing to fill in at the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, they found a 15 year old talent across the state line in Fargo, and so began the musical career of Bobby Vee.

download (97)A boy named Don McLean heard about the plane crash while doing his morning paper route. One day, the future singer/songwriter would pen the words “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver”.

Allsup returned to Odessa, resuming his musical career and opening a club in Dallas, in 1979. He called the place, “Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon”.  A nod to the “lost” coin toss that had saved his life.

Distraught, Buddy Holly’s widow miscarried their only child, shortly after the wreck.  His last song reached #1 on the UK charts on April 24, 1959, the first posthumous release ever to do so.  In the US the song charted at 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.  It would be Buddy Holly’s last top 20 hit in the nation.

The name of the song, was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”

Inscribed on Ritchie Valens’ gravestone are the words, “Come On, Let’s Go.”

The last surviving member of Buddy Holly’s 1959 tour band passed away at the age of  85.  Tommy Allsup was a big fan of Western Swing, and member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  Tommy’s son Austin is himself a singer/songwriter, that’s him in the picture.  Austin received messages of condolence on the passing of his father, including one from Ritchie Valens’ sister. “I told her in my message back“, he said “now my dad and Ritchie can finally finish the tour they started 58 years ago.”

Tommy Allsup
Hat Tip Texashillcountry.com for this image, and for the anecdote told above

 

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.

October 30, 1773 Hannah’s Rock

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII. The appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble, third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Empire, who ruled the lands of South Asia from modern-day Afghanistan to Kashmir and south to the Deccan plateau of South India.

Sha-Jahan-and-Mumtaz-Mahal-600x600As Empress consort and beloved by the Emperor above all his wives, Arjumand was better known by the title “Mumtaz Mahal”, translating from the Persian as “the exalted one of the palace”.   Jahan called her ‘Malika-i-Jahan’.  She was his “Queen of the World”.

The labor and delivery of a daughter, the couple’s 14th child was a terrible trial for the Empress Consort, a 30-hour ordeal resulting in postpartum hemorrhage leading to  her death on June 17, 1631.

The Emperor went into secluded mourning, emerging a year later with his back bent, his beard turned white.  There followed a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable to the Queen of the World.

This was no ordinary building, this grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor.  The English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”  Today the palace is known among the 7 “Modern Wonders of the World” or simply, the Taj Mahal.

taj-mahal-visitor-limits.jpg

The “Pillarization” of northern European society constituted a separation along religious and political lines, so strict that many individuals had little to no contact, with people outside their own pillar.  19th century Belgian society divided along three such cohorts,  segregating itself largely along Catholic, Protestant and Social-Democratic strata.

The worst days of the South African Apartheid system had nothing over the European society of the age, when it came to social segregation.  Pillars possessed their own institutions: universities, hospitals and social organizations. Each even had its own news apparatus.

The romance between Colonel J.W.C van Gorkum of the Dutch Cavalry and Lady J.C.P.H van Aefferden was a social outrage. The 22-year old noblewoman was a Catholic.  33-year old Colonel van Gorkum was a Protestant and not a part of the nobility.  The couple’s marriage in 1842 was the scandal of Roermond but, despite all that taboo, theirs was a happy marriage lasting 38-years.

The Colonel died in 1880 and was buried next to the wall, separating the Catholic and Protestant parts of the cemetery.  Van Gorkum’s Lady died some eight years later, wishing to be buried next to her husband. Such a thing was impossible.  She would be buried opposite the wall in the Catholic part of the cemetery, as close as she could get to her beloved husband.

Such was The Law for this time and place, but neither custom nor law said anything about a little creative stonework.  So it is the couple joins hands in death as in life, together and inseparable, for all eternity.

Oud-Kerkhof-graves-with-hands2.jpg
 Oud Kerkhof cemetery in Hasselt, Belgium

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

MCDCLEO-FE002-H-jpg_160608

Few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair, of the unfortunate Hannah Robinson.

Hannah Robinson was one of the most beautiful women in all Colonial Rhode Island, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Narragansett planter Rowland and Anstis (Gardiner) Robinson. Years later during the time of the American Revolution, the opulent Robinson mansion entertained the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

As a young girl, Hannah had nary a care in the world and spent countless hours on a large rock, enjoying the view overlooking Narragansett Bay.

Hannah_Robinson_Tower
The view as it looks today, from Hannah Robinson tower

When she grew older, Hannah attended Madame Osborn’s finishing school in Newport. There she fell in love with the French and Dancing instructor Pierre Simond, the son of an old family of French Huguenot ancestry who liked to go by the name, Peter Simon.

The degree to which the penniless Simond reciprocated the young woman’s feelings is difficult to know, but Hannah fell hard.

Peter took a position as private tutor to one of the Robinison cousins, a short two miles away.  It wasn’t long before Simond was secretly visiting Hannah, at home. He’d hide out in a large cabinet in Hannah’s room.  The pair called it the “Friendly Cupboard”.  At night, Simond would hide out in a large lilac bush where the couple would talk for hours, and exchange letters.  Anstil was quick to get wise but she never let on, to her husband.

Then came the night Rowland spied the white paper, fluttering to the ground. He rushed to the lilac and beat at the bush with a stick, until there emerged a ragged French teacher.  After that, Rowland kept his eldest on a very short leash.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  If Hannah Robinson was stubborn, she came by it honestly.  In a rare moment of weakness, Rowland allowed Hannah and young sister Mary to attend a ball at Smith’s Castle some ten miles up the road, accompanied by a black “servant” called “Prince” who really was, it turns out, an African prince.

So it was, the trap was sprung.

Smith's_castle_2018
Smith’s Castle house, one of the oldest homes, in Rhode Island, is now a National Historic Landmark

The trio came to a place on horseback, where there awaited a carriage.  Peter’s carriage.  Mary cried and Prince begged her not to go but, to no avail.  This was the couple’s elopement.  Hannah would have it no other way.

Rowland was apoplectic and cut off his daughter, from her allowance.  The happy couple moved to Providence, but Dad proved to be right.  Now penniless, Simon soon lost interest in his young wife and left her.  Sometimes for days on end.  Others for weeks at a time.

Hannah’s health went into a steep decline.  Not even the little dog sent by her mother, nor her childhood maid – a woman also named Hannah, could bring back her spirits.  The young woman wasted away in Providence as, just 35-miles to the south, Mary contracted tuberculosis, and died.  Anstis’ health, failed.

Rowland Robinson would come to relent, but too late.  Hannah’s health was destroyed.  The fast sloop from Providence delivered a sickly shadow of her former self.

The four strong servants carrying the litter were asked to stop by the rock, where Hannah had passed all those happy hours as a girl.  Watching the bay.  She picked a flower.  “Everlasting Life”.

Life-Everlasting
Everlasting Life

A sad reunion followed between the two women, the sick mother and the sick daughter.  Anstis would recover and live to see a Revolution bring Independence to the American colonies.  Not so the unfortunate daughter.  Hannah Robinson died at home on this day in 1773.  She was 27.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built an observation tower in 1938, at the place where Hannah used to watch the Bay.  At four stories in height the thing was used for coastal watch, during World War 2.  The tower was rebuilt in 1988, using timbers from the original construction.

You can climb the Hannah Robinson tower to this day if you want, there in North Kingstown, not far from the rock where that little girl spent a happy childhood.  Watching the bay, all those many years ago.

wooden-tower

Hannah Robinson Tower, North Kingstown Rhode Island

 

 

 

October 14, 1987 Well of Darkness

3309 Tanner Drive quickly became, a circus.  Television trucks arrived, to cover the ordeal.   Baby Jessica’s rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil, from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China. Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union. Telephone linemen installed extra lines, to handle the traffic. 

baby-jessica-11.jpgJessica McClure Morales is 33-years old.  A typical West Texas Mom, with two kids and a dog.  Her life is normal in every way.  She’s a teacher’s aide.  Her husband Danny, works for a piping supply outfit.

Thirty-two years ago, Jessica McClure’s day was anything but normal.

October 14, 1987 began like any other, just an eighteen-month-old baby girl, playing in the back yard of an Aunt.  That old well pipe shouldn’t have been left open, but what harm could it do. Standing there only three inches above the grass, the thing was only eight inches wide.

And then the baby disappeared.  Down the well.

My command of the language fails to produce a word, adequate to describe the horror that young mother must have felt, looking down that pipe.

wellMidland, Texas first responders quickly devised a plan. A second shaft would be dug, parallel to the well.  Then it was left only to bore a tunnel, until rescuers reached the baby.  The operation would be over, by dinnertime.

Except, the rescue proved far more difficult than first imagined. The tools first brought on-scene, were inadequate to get through the hard rock surrounding the well.  What should have taken minutes, was turning to hours.

3309 Tanner Drive quickly became, a circus.  Television trucks arrived, to cover the ordeal.   Baby Jessica’s rescue was carried from the Netherlands to Brazil, from Germany to Hong Kong and mainland China. Well wishers called in to local television stations, from the Soviet Union. Telephone linemen installed extra lines, to handle the traffic.

"Baby Jessica" McClure Rescue
Local and national news reporters watch from ladders overlooking a fenceline as rescue crews attempt to free Jessica McClure. (October 1987)

The whole world it seemed, held its breath.

Midland police officer Andy Glasscock spent much of those fifty-eight hours on his belly next to that hole, concentrating on every sound to come up from the well.   Hard-eyed veteran though he was, the man could be brought to tears at the sound of that little voice, drifting up from deep in that hole in the ground…”Mama“.  “How does a kitten go?” Officer Glasscock would ask, into the darkness.  The little voice would respond…”Meow“.

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Supporters wait outside the barricade line as workers attempt to rescue Jessica from the well. (October 1987)

Watching the evening news, it’s sometimes easy to believe the world is going to hell.  It’s not.  What we saw for those fifty-eight hours was the True heroism and fundamental decency of every-day women and men.  Fathers, sons and brothers, straining each fiber and sinew, inching closer to the bottom of that well.  Mothers sisters and wives, pitching in and doing whatever it was, that needed to be done.  We’d see it again in a New York Minute, should circumstances require it.

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Rescue crews worked through the night to pump warm air into the well where Jessica had become trapped (October 1987)

You could watch it happen, around the clock. Many of us did. I remember it.  Each man would dig until he’d drop, and then another guy would take his place. These were out-of-work oil field workers and everyday guys. Mining engineers and paramedics. The work was frenetic, desperate, and at the same time, agonizingly slow.

Anyone who’s used a jackhammer, knows it’s not a tool designed to be used, sideways. Even so, these guys tried.  A waterjet became a vital part of the rescue, a new and unproven technology, in 1987.

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Jessica’s father Chip McClure speaks to a cadre of reporters. (October 1987)

The sun went down that Wednesday and rose the following day and then set again.  Still, the nightmare dragged on.

A microphone was lowered down, so doctors could hear that baby girl breathe. She would cry.  Sometimes she would sing. A small voice drifting up from that hole in the ground.  The words of “Winnie the Pooh”.

billresclThese were good signs. A baby could neither sing nor cry, if she could not breathe.

The final tunneling phase of the operation could only be described, as a claustrophobic nightmare. An unimaginable ordeal. Midland Fire Department paramedic Robert O’Donnell was chosen because of his tall, wiry frame. Slathered all over with K-Y jelly and stuffed into a space so tight it was hard to breathe, O’Donnell inched his way through that black hole that Thursday night and into the small hours of Friday morning until finally, he touched her leg.

The agony of those minutes dragging on to hours, can only be imagined. What O’Donnell was trying to do, could not be done.  In the end, the paramedic was forced to back out of the hole, one agonizing inch at a time, defeated. Empty handed.  As men went back to work enlarging the tunnel, the paramedic sat on a curb, and wept.

On the second attempt, O’Donnell was able wrestle the baby out of that tiny space, handing her to fellow paramedic Steve Forbes, who carried her to safety.

Jessica McClure rescueBaby Jessica came out of that well with her face deeply scarred and toes black with gangrene, for lack of blood flow.  She required fifteen surgeries before her ordeal was over, but she was alive.

nintchdbpict000307656606 (1)The story has a happy ending for baby Jessica.  Not so, for many others.  The New York Times wrote:

“The little girl’s parents moved her out of town, to a three-bedroom house that they never could have afforded before she was rescued, to hide from the world that embraced them so hard they couldn’t breathe. Eventually, they were divorced. Others who helped to save the child — O’Donnell was just the most visible of hundreds — found themselves drinking, or in marriage counseling, or in legal tangles, all because of the fickle, seductive, burning spotlight”.

baby-jessica-17175736-1-402President Ronald Reagan quipped, “Everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” Baby Jessica appeared with her teenage parents Reba and Chip on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, to talk about the incident. Scott Shaw of the Odessa American won the Pulitzer prize for The photograph. ABC made a television movie:  Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure. USA Today ranked her 22nd on a list of “25 lives of indelible impact.”  Everyone in the story became famous. Until they weren’t.

For paramedic Robert O’Donnell, the nightmare never ended.  Already claustrophobic, those hours spent alone in a black hole so tight as to all but prevent breath, were pure agony.   The failure and that agonizing inchworm’s crawl out of that hole, empty handed.  The ultimate success.   The fame and celebrity.  The Oprah show.  The relentless pursuit, of media.  “For a year afterward everyone wanted a piece of him” said his older brother, Ricky. “Then all of a sudden one day it seemed like everyone dropped him.”

"Baby Jessica" McClure Rescue
Lee High Rebelettes hold up a sign during halftime of the Lee-Odessa Permian football game showing their support for Jessica. (October 1987)

The Paramedic had rescued lots of people but, somehow, his life stopped in 1987. Transfixed in the bright lights and the fame of those last fifteen minutes of The Rescue.  Everywhere he went, he was “The man who Saved Baby Jessica™”.

Post-traumatic stress is a strange and incomprehensible thing.  The next seven years were a downward spiral.  There were marital problems.  That humiliating episode with that made-for-TV movie.  The whole family watching to see his part, but no one bothered to tell them.  The scene had been cut.  The 11-year career with the Midland Fire Department, collapsing amidst allegations of prescription drug abuse.  Divorce.

22272348_124421455985In April 1995, O’Donnell’s mother noticed the missing shotgun at the family ranch, in Stanton Texas.  The 410 buckshot, loaded with larger pellets intended for bigger game, or self defense.  They found the body some 20-miles away, slumped over the wheel of the new Ford pickup.  This was no accident.  You don’t put a barrel that long into your mouth, without meaning to.

Those of us of a certain age remember the baby Jessica episode, well.  I suspect Robert O’Donnell’s story is less well known, and that’s a shame.  The man is an American hero.  He has earned the right to be remembered.

 

October 11, 1776 Buying Time. The Battle of Valcour Island

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time.  Congress was alarmed at the potential of a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to his left leg. Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan captured, along with some 400 fellow Patriots.

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The nightmare took on a life of its own in the String of 1776, with the massive reinforcement of Quebec.   10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army were driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

The continental Congress was correct about the British intention of splitting the colonies. General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial Governor of Quebec, set about doing so, almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed nearly every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775: the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge. Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence and moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

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There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake. 120 miles to the south, colonials were doing the same.

The Americans possessed a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.  Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.  In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Skenesborough Sawmill.jpgHermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.

200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was this duty that workmen were paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns.  There was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

It is not widely known, that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort. Notwithstanding, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, which almost brought their work to a halt.

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776. In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54-foot Gondolas (gunboats), and four 72-foot′ Galleys. Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, there to be fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

download - 2019-10-11T070000.649.jpgAs the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage. The element of surprise was going to be critical. Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, where he was hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.

Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark.  Both sides did some damage. On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each. In the end, the larger ships and more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

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Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase.

One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else, too damaged to go on, abandoned. The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods. Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

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On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle. Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving her for the last time, flag still flying.

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British forces would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.
The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it. Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter.

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as turncoat.  A traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his infant nation, another year in which to fight.

 

Afterward

221 years later, maritime surveyors from the Survey Team of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum located the last vessel left unaccounted for, from the October 11, 1776 Battle of Valcour Island.  With mast yet standing and her bow gun at the ready, the wreck lies upright at a depth inaccessible to recreational divers, protected and preserved by the cold, dark, fresh waters of Lake Champlain.

Over the next two years, careful examination of source documents eliminated one patriot gunboat after another from consideration as the identity of the “missing gunboat”. In the end, the Pristine wreck was identified as the Spitfire, sister ship to Benedict Arnold’s seven other 54-foot gunboats constructed over the Summer of 1776, in the wilderness of Skenesborough.

Today, the Spitfire site is protected by the Sunken Military Craft Act, providing that “No person may possess, disturb, remove, or injure” any part of this precious underwater shrine, to our shared American history.

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Painting of the Spitfire by Ernie Haas.  Hat tip https://www.lcmm.org/explore/shipwrecks/revolutionary-war-gunboat-spitfire/

 

October 8, 1942, Once!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 4, 1943 Death by Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

May 3, 1915 In Flanders Fields

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, McCrae enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. He had the option of joining the medical corps based on his age and training, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This would be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic battle lasting over two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment, what this looked like in color.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. He composed this poem the next day while sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance, just north of Ypres.  McCrae called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”.  Today, the composition is better remembered as:

In Flanders Fields

Moina Michael: We Shall Keep the FaithIn Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen and, over a long career, worked in nearly every part of the state’s education system.

In 1918, Michael was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal, she came across McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  Two days before the armistice.

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Dr. McCrae had succumbed to pneumonia by this time, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), at Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part.

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Moina MichaelOh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life in the “Great War.  The “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, a war where the death toll from a single day’s fighting could exceed that of every war of the preceding one hundred years.

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Since that time, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance of the lives lost in all wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. A reminder that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic, should ever forget where we come from. Nor the prices paid by our ancestors, to get us here.

 

Did You Know?
In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were used as offerings to the dead.