December 2, 1943 Pearl Harbor of the Mediterranean

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. 

Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the hydra monster. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poison arrows, according to Homer’s Iliad, and Odyssey.   Alexander the Great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe the arsenic-laced “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt in 178 A.D.Gas Masks

France was first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces, in August 1914.

Imperial Germany was the first to seriously study chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, 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.

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Mustard gas poster, WW2

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, and a death toll of 91,198.

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 chemical and biological experiments conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas on no fewer than 375 occasions, during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, alone.

A 1936 intercept from Emperor Haile Selassie describes a gas attack, during the Italian colonial war on Ethiopia:  “Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes, and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. To systematically kill all living creatures, to more surely poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare”.

Nazi Germany is reported to have had about 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western-front adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle with the Soviet Union – was a different story.   Chemical weapons were used against Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers, 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”.

Mustard gas experimentNone of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice Nazi Germany’s chemical stockpile.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.

Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, lewisite, phosgene and Paris green, waiting for the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons during the invasion of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said that he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British Isles.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated in 1937, by President Franklin Roosevelt:  “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

Yet, by 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians, with a budget in excess of $1 billion.

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

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Bari Harbor, as it appears today.  Tip of the hat to Google Maps, for this image.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey left port in Baltimore, arriving in Oran, Algeria, and taking on 2,000 M47A1 bombs, each containing 60-70 pounds of sulfur mustard.  Ship’s manifest labeled the cargo, “HS”.  Hot Stuff.  Following inspection by an officer of the 7th chemical ordnance company, the John Harvey sailed into the straits of Otranto, arriving at the southern Italian port of Bari on November 26.

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Liberty ship at sea

Bari was crammed with ships waiting to be unloaded,  packed so tightly that they touched when the wind shifted.  It would be days before stevedores could even get to John Harvey. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities about his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. A week later, SS John Harvey was still waiting.

For Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army. 105 Junkers JU 88 bombers came out of the East on December 2, the attack opening at 7:25 PM and lasting an hour.

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Bari Harbor attack, December 2, 1943

The port at Bari was an easy target that night.  With the battle of Monte Cassino little more than a month away, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree, to facilitate the unloading of supplies.  Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, sending a sheet of burning petrol across the harbor and igniting those ships left unscathed.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed, including John Harvey.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a malignant vapor cloud drifted across the port and into the city of 250,000.

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Mustard gas victim. Image credit, Smithsonian magazine.

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract.  The stuff attacks every cell type with which it comes in contact.

First comes the pungent smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching on exposed areas, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on the skin.

The victim is literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.  Victims experience blindness, cough, shortness of breath and sinus pain.  Digestive tract symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

Death comes in days or weeks, and survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in cancer and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote to mustard gas.  The CDC reports the only treatment to be “supportive care”.

A thousand or more died outright in the conflagration at Bari, or in the days and weeks to come.  No one knows for sure.  The entire episode was shrouded in secrecy.

Today, the seventh circle of the seventh circle of Hell is covered and hidden by a tidy acronym known as NBC (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical), but the monster is never far from the surface. For now, we are left only to hope that that nightmare demon, remains buried where it lies.

Gas mask, horseDuring the trials at Nuremburg, interrogators asked Hermann Göring why the Nazi military hadn’t used poison gas stockpiles.  The Wehrmacht, Göring explained, depended on horse-drawn transport, to move supplies to combat units.  German scientists were unable to devise a gas mask, good enough to protect and still allow a horse to pull a cart.  For this reason, the Nazis had limited use for gas under most field conditions.

World War 2, the most horrific conflagration in human history, could have been so much worse.  But for the want of a mask, for a horse.

 

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November 24, 1962 Kilroy was Here

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, in Russian, “Who is Kilroy?”

The Fore River Shipyard began operations in 1883 in Braintree, Massachusetts, moving to its current location on the Weymouth Fore River on Quincy Point, in 1901. In 1913, the yard was purchased by Bethlehem Steel, and operated under the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation.

Most ships at Fore River were built for the United States Navy, including early submarines built for Electric Boat, the Battleship USS Massachusetts, and the Navy’s first carrier, the USS Lexington. In the years before WW2, non-US Navy customers included the United States Merchant Marine, the Argentine Navy, the Royal Navy of Great Britain, and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

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USS Salem CA-139 museum ship, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy

The Navy Act of 1938 mandated a 20% increase in American Naval strength. Much of that increase came through Fore River. The Shipyard employed 17,000 the day that Imperial Japan invaded the American Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor. That number increased to 32,000 by 1943, with a payroll equivalent to $9.69 Billion, in today’s dollars.

Kilroy-3Necessity became the mother of invention, and the needs of war led to prodigious increases in speed.  No sooner was USS Massachusetts launched, than the keel of USS Vincennes began to be laid. By the end of the war, Fore River had completed ninety-two vessels of eleven different classes.

Builders at the yard were paid by the number of rivets installed. Riveters would mark the end of their shift with a chalk mark, but dishonest co-workers could erase their marks, marking a new spot a few places back on the same seam.

Shipyard inspector James Kilroy ended the practice, writing “Kilroy was Here”, next to each chalk mark.

With hulls leaving the yard so fast there was no time to paint the interiors, Kilroy’s name achieved mythic proportions. The man literally seemed to be everywhere, his name written in every cramped and sealed space in the United States Navy.

For the troops inside of those ships, Kilroy always seemed to have “been there”, first.

Kilroy-1Kilroy was Here became a kind of protective talisman, and soldiers began to write it on newly captured areas and landings.  He was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era.  The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived, and he was still there when you left.

Germans thought Kilroy was some kind of  “super spook”, able to go anywhere he liked, with ease.

Kilroy-6The challenge became, who could put the Kilroy graffiti in the most difficult and surprising place.  I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard that Kilroy occupies the top of  Mt. Everest.  His likeness is scribbled in the dust of the moon.  There’s one on the Statue of Liberty, and another on the underside of the Arc of Triumph, in Paris.  There are two of them engraved in the granite of the WW2 Memorial, in Washington, DC.

Under Water Demolition teams, the guys who later became US Navy SEALs, swam ashore on Japanese-held Pacific islands, preparing the way for amphibious landings.  More than once, UDT divers found that Kilroy had already been there, the silly cartoon nose scribbled on makeshift signs, and even enemy pillboxes.

When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use.  Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, in Russian, “Who is Kilroy?”

kilroy_no_spamA Brit will tell you that “Mr. Chad” came first, cartoonist George Chatterton’s response to war rationing.  “Wot, no tea”?

The cartoon appeared in every theater of the war, but few knew the mythical Kilroy’s true identity.

In 1946, the Transit Company of America held a contest, asking the “real” Kilroy to come forward.  Close to forty guys showed up to claim the prize, a real trolley car.  Doubtless they all felt they had legitimate claims, but James Kilroy brought a few riveters and some shipyard officials along, to prove his authenticity.  That was it.

That Christmas the Kilroy kids, all nine of them, got the coolest playhouse in all of Boston.

James Kilroy went on to serve as Boston City Council member and member of the Massachusetts house of Representatives before passing away on this day, November 24, 1962.

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Boston American, December 23, 1946 Image thanks to Kilroy grandson, Brian Fitzgerald

Feature image:  Kilroy, engraved on the granite of the WWII Memorial, Washington DC.

November 21, 1942 The Alcan Highway

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

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

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

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

Priorities were changing for both the United States and Canada.

alcan-highway

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed.  Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had only 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas. Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

Alcan Lake

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

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

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

Alcan BridgeThe project had a new sense of urgency in June, when Japanese forces landed on Kiska and Attu Islands, in the Aleutian chain. Adding to that urgency was that there is no more than an eight month construction window, before the return of the deadly Alaskan winter.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rockies had not even been identified yet.

Radios didn’t work across the Rockies and there was only erratic mail and passenger service on the Yukon Southern airline, a run that locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. It was faster for construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to their assigned locations was one thing, moving 11,000 pieces of construction equipment, to say nothing of the supplies needed by man and machine, was another.

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

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

On October 25, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line, when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. He slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

Sims, Jalufka

They celebrated the route’s completion at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942, though the “highway” remained unusable by most vehicles, until 1943.

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

November 19, 1904 Another Man’s Shoes

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.

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 have been times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

One such was Iacob Somme, a Norwegian who was caught, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, for his role in sabotaging the Nazi heavy water plant in Telemark, in 1943. We can only imagine a world in which Nazi Germany was the first to build a nuclear bomb.  We might thank this man that that world remains entirely imaginary.

Sven SommeAnother such man was his brother Sven, born this day, November 19, 1904.

Like his brother Iacob, Sven Somme joined the Norwegian Resistance to fight the Nazis who had occupied his country since 1940. He photographed strategic German military bases using a covert camera, sending tiny maps, photographs and intelligence reports to the Allies hidden under the stamps on letters.

In 1944, Somme was caught taking pictures of a German U-boat base on the island of Otteroy. Guards saw the sun glint off the camera’s lens, and they came running. Sven tried hiding the tiny camera under a rock, but the Germans quickly found it and he was put in cuffs.

That night, Somme managed to slip his handcuffs and creep past his sleeping guard. What followed was a two months-long race between life and death.

Sven Somme, treeThe Norwegian had barely an hour’s head start, and the Nazis couldn’t let this guy get away. He knew too much. Somme was pursued through streams and ravines as he worked his way into the mountains.

He wore a pair of beat up dress shoes and certainly would have succumbed to frostbite in the mountains, had he not been taken in for a time by a friendly family. He couldn’t stay for long, but this family’s 19-year-old son Andre gave him the pair of mountain boots that saved his life.

Somme would wade through icy streams to avoid leaving tracks in the snow, or leap from one tree to another, a technique he had learned as a kid. He trekked 200 miles through the mountains in this manner, dodging bears and wolves, all the while being pursued by 900 German soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

news-graphics-2007-_655294aSomme finally made it to neutral Sweden, where he was taken to England. There he met the exiled King of Norway, and the woman who would one day become his wife and mother of his three daughters, an English woman named Primrose.

Sven Somme passed away in 1961 after a fight with cancer.  Primrose died not long after. It was only in going through her things after she passed, that the three girls discovered their father’s history. The photographs, the letters, even an arrest warrant written out in German and Norwegian.

Somme had written a memoir about his escape, calling it “Another Man’s Shoes”. In 2004, his daughters used the book to retrace their father’s epic flight across the mountains. They even met the family who had sheltered him and, to their amazement, they still had his old shoes. The book is still in print as far as I know.  It has a forward by his daughter Ellie, describing their emotional meeting with the family who had sheltered her father.

It must be one hell of a story.

October 8, 1942 “Once!” 

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!”.

The Municipal Airport in Portsmouth NH was 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 part of the war.  In 1942, that machine was advancing on the Philippines.

United States Army Air Corps Captain Harl Pease 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 planes 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.

Harlan Pease
Captain Harl Pease, Jr.

MacArthur was horrified at the sight of that beat up aircraft, and refused to put his wife and son on board. The family would wait two more days before MacArthur made 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. Harl 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.Cmoh_army

Captain Pease’ Medal of Honor citation tells the story: “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 Father George Lepping was captured, finding him and one of his airmen languishing in a Japanese POW camp. Captain Pease was well respected by the other POWs, and even 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.

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 25.

Decades later, an elderly Japanese veteran passed away, and his family found his war diary.  This man had been one of the guards ordered along, on the day of Pease’ murder.

Pease_planeThe diary tells of a respect this man had for “Captain Boeing”. Beaten almost 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!“.

October 3, 1944 The Littlest War Dog

The decks around them were shaking from anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, when Smoky guided Wynne to duck at the moment an incoming shell struck, killing 8 men standing next to them. She was his “angel from a foxhole.”

The first dog may have approached some campfire, long before recorded history.  It may have been hurt or it maybe it was looking for a morsel.  Dogs have been by our side ever since.

Over history, the unique attributes of Canis Familiaris have often served in times of war.  Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts dogs at work in multiple capacities.  The ancient Greeks used dogs against Persian invaders at the Battle of Marathon.

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Sergeant Stubby

The European allies and Imperial Germany had about 20,000 dogs working a variety of jobs in WWI. Though the United States didn’t have an official “War Dog” program in those days, a Staffordshire Terrier mix called “Sgt. Stubby” was smuggled “over there” with an AEF unit training out of New Haven, Connecticut. Stubby is credited with saving an unknown number of lives, his keen sense of hearing giving his companions early warning of incoming artillery rounds. Once, he even caught a German spy who had been creeping around, mapping allied trenches. It must have been a bad day at the office for that particular Bosch, when he was discovered with a 50lb terrier hanging from his behind.

The US War Dogs program was developed between the World Wars, and dogs have served in every conflict since. My son in law Nate served in Afghanistan with a five-year old German Shepherd named Zino, a Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD), trained to detect as many as 64 explosive compounds.

The littlest War Dog first appeared in the jungles of New Guinea, when an American soldier spotted a “golden head” poking out of an abandoned foxhole.  It was a 4lb, 7″ tall Yorkshire Terrier.  At the time, nobody had any idea how she had gotten there. The soldier brought her back to camp and sold her for $6.44 to Corporal William Wynne, who named her “Smoky”.  For the next two years, Smoky lived a soldier’s life.

They first thought she might have belonged to the Japanese, but they brought her to a POW camp and quickly learned that she understood neither Japanese nor English commands.

The little dog flew 12 air/sea rescue and photo reconnaissance missions, secured in Wynne’s backpack. She survived 150 air raids and a typhoon, often giving him early warning of incoming fire. Wynne credited Smoky with saving his life one time, on an LST transport ship. The decks around them were shaking from anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, when Smoky guided Wynne to duck at the moment an incoming shell struck, killing 8 men standing next to them. She was his “angel from a foxhole.”

Smoky-CulvertOnce, the small dog was able to perform a task in minutes that otherwise would have taken an airstrip out of service for three days, and exposed an entire construction battalion to enemy fire. The air field at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, was crucial to the Allied war effort, and the signal corps needed to run a telegraph wire across the field. A 70′ long, 8” pipe crossed underneath the air strip, half filled with dirt.

Wynne recalled the story: “I tied a string to Smoky’s collar and ran to the other end of the culvert . . . (Smoky) made a few steps in and then ran back. `Come, Smoky,’ I said sharply, and she started through again. When she was about 10 feet in, the string caught up and she looked over her shoulder as much as to say `what’s holding us up there?’ The string loosened from the snag and she came on again. By now the dust was rising from the shuffle of her paws as she crawled through the dirt and mold and I could no longer see her. I called and pleaded, not knowing for certain whether she was coming or not. At last, about 20 feet away, I saw two little amber eyes and heard a faint whimpering sound . . . at 15 feet away, she broke into a run. We were so happy at Smoky’s success that we patted and praised her for a full five minutes”.

Smoky-Therapy DogSmoky toured all over the world after the war, appearing in over 42 television programs and entertaining thousands at veteran’s hospitals. In June 1945, Smoky toured the 120th General Hospital in Manila, visiting with wounded GIs from the Battle of Luzon.  She’s considered to be the first therapy dog, and credited with expanding interest in what had hitherto been an obscure breed.

Smoky died in her sleep in February 1957, at about 14, and was buried in a .30 caliber ammunition box. A bronze life-size sculpture of Smoky sitting in a GI helmet was installed over her final resting place almost fifty years later, where it sits atop a two-ton blue granite base.

Smoky-MemorialBill Wynne was 90 years old in 2012, when he was “flabbergasted” to be approached by Australian authorities. They explained that an Australian army nurse had purchased the dog from a Queen Street pet store, becoming separated in the jungles of New Guinea. 68 years later, the Australians had come to award his dog a medal.

 

As a personal aside, Nate and Zino were separated after their tour in Afghanistan.  They were reunited in 2014, when the dog came to live with Nate and our daughter Carolyn in their home in Savannah.  Last fall, Sheryl and I went with a friend to Houston, to celebrate our anniversary at the “Redneck Country Club”.  2,000 miles from home and completely by chance, who do we meet but the trainer who taught Zino to be a TEDD in the first place.  Small world.

August 14, 1945 A Kiss in Times Square

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Alfred Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.

The most destructive war in history ended this day in 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan.

It was morning on the East Coast.  President Harry Truman had not yet received the formal surrender. The White House official announcement was still hours away, but rumors had been flying since the early morning hours.

Born and raised in Austria, Greta Zimmer was 16 in 1939. Seeing the war bearing down on them, Greta’s parents sent her and her two sisters to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Six years later she was a dental assistant, working at the Manhattan office of Dr. J. L. Berke.

Greta’s lunch break came just after 1:00 that day.  Patients had been coming into the office all morning with rumors that the war was over. She set out for Times Square, knowing that the lit and moving type on the Times news zipper would give her the latest news.

Mendonsa, Zimmer
George Mendonsa, Greta Zimmer-Friedman

Petty Officer 1st Class George Mendonsa was on his last day of shore leave, spending the day with his new girlfriend, Rita Petry. They had heard the rumors too, but right now they were enjoying their last day together. The war could wait until tomorrow.

The couple went to a movie at Radio City Music Hall, but the film was interrupted by a theater employee who turned on the lights, announcing that the war was over. Leaving the theater, the couple joined the tide of humanity moving toward Times Square. The pair stopped at the Childs Restaurant on 7th Ave & 49th, where bartenders were pouring anything they could get hands on into waiting glasses.  Revelers were scooping them up as fast as the glasses were filled.

Mendonsa’s alcohol-powered walk/run from the restaurant left Rita trailing behind, but neither one seemed to mind. Times Square was going wild.

The sailor from the USS Sullivans had seen bloodshed. He’d been there on May 11, as kamikaze planes smashed into the USS Bunker Hill.  Explosions and fires killed 346 sailors that day.  43 of their bodies would never be found. Mendonsa had helped to pull the survivors, some of them hideously burned, out of the water. He had watched while Navy nurses tended to the injured and the dying.

When the sailor spotted Greta Zimmer, the dental assistant was dressed the same way.  To him, she must have seemed like one of those white-clad angels of mercy from those earlier months.

kiss-in-times-square-leica-2Reporters from the AP, NY Times, NY Daily News and others descended on Times Square to record the spontaneous celebration.

As a German Jew in the 1930s, Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed the coming storm. He had photographed Benito Mussolini’s first meeting with Adolf Hitler in Venice in 1934. Now he and his Leica Illa rangefinder camera worked for Life Magazine, heading to Times Square in search of “The Picture”.

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.Times Square Kiss

The image of the sailor kissing the nurse would become as famous as Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, but not until years later.

The German made camera which took the iconic image recently went to auction at the Westlicht auction house in Vienna, where it was expected to sell for $30,000. The winning bid was almost $150,000.

After the war, Greta Zimmer learned that both of her parents had died in the camps. She later married and made her home in Frederick, Maryland.  Greta Zimmer Friedman never returned to Austria, and passed away last September, at the age of 92.

George Mendonsa and Rita Petry later married. George never saw the famous photograph until 1980.  At first he wasn’t sure he recognized himself.  Today, framed copies of it hang on the wall of their Rhode Island home.

MendonsaThis year, the couple celebrates their 68th wedding anniversary.  Rita says she wasn’t angry that her husband kissed another woman on their first date.  She points out that she can been seen grinning in the background of the famous picture.  She will admit, however, ‘In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.’