June 10, 1944 Ghost Village

The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-four years ago today.  It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

On D+4 after the Normandy invasion of WW2, the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS was passing through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” had been ordered to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

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Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly unaware of their own confusion between the two villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population of the village was there, plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding their bicycles at the wrong place, and the wrong time.

Oradour-sur-Glane-ChurchThe women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town.  The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds, where the machine guns were already set up.

The Germans aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before the SS lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 3Nazi soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church, and gunned down 247 women and 205 children as they tried to escape.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some pea bushes where she hid until next morning.

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby who’d been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the “old” village remain as it is;  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malignity of collective punishment.

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Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but that came to naught.  Within days, Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre, had been killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

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And on.  And on.  And on.

Oradour-sur-Glane-StreetsFrench President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-four years ago today.  It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: “Down this road, on Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 5a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

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June 7, 1942 The Alcan Highway

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts. 

Discussions concerning 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 concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

In the days following the surprise 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.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory, an area four times the size of Texas.

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Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

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.”

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Dawson Creek, 1942

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

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island, murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

06162017_HighwayRadios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

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

Engines 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 which 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.

Alaska Highway Black Soldiers

That October, 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. Sims 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.

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A gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.

Alaska-Hwy-historyNPR 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.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

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June 6, 1944 Dress Rehearsal

Unable to wear their lifebelts correctly due to the large backpacks they wore, many men placed them around their waists. That only turned them upside down and that’s how they died, thrashing in the water with their legs above the waves.

The largest amphibious assault in history began seventy-four years ago today, on the northern coast of France.  British and Canadian forces came ashore at beaches code-named Gold, Juno and Sword.  Americans faced light opposition at Utah Beach, while heavy resistance at Omaha Beach resulted in over 2,000 American casualties.

By end of day, some 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Within a week that number had risen to 326,000 troops, over 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of equipment.

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The first phase of Operation Overlord, code named ‘Neptune’, achieved its stunning success as the result of lessons learned from the largest amphibious training exercise of WW2, the six phases of “Operation Fabius”, itself following the unmitigated disaster of a training exercise that killed more Americans, than the actual landing at Utah beach.

Slapton is a village and civil parish in the River Meadows of Devon County, where the southwest coast of England meets the English Channel.  Archaeological evidence suggests human habitation from at least the bronze age.  The “Domesday Book”, the recorded manuscript of the “Great Survey” of England and Wales completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror, names the place as “Sladone”, with a population of 200.

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Slapton Sands

In late 1943, the place was home to 750 families, some of whom had never so much as left their village.  Some 3,000 locals were evacuated with their livestock to make way for “Operation Tiger”, a full-scale rehearsal for the landing scheduled for the following spring.

Thousands of US military personnel were moved into the region during the winter of 1943-’44. The area was mined and bounded with barbed wire, and patrolled by sentries.  Secrecy was so tight, that even those in surrounding villages, had no idea of what was happening.

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Exercise Tiger was scheduled to begin on April 22, covering all aspects of the “Force U” landing on Utah beach and culminating in a live-fire beach landing at Slapton Sands at first light on April 27.

Nine large tank landing ships (LSTs) shoved off with 30,000 troops on the evening of the 26th, simulating the overnight channel crossing. Live ammunition was used in the exercise, to harden troops off to the sights, sounds and smells of actual battle. Naval bombardment was to commence 50 minutes before H-Hour, however delays resulted in landing forces coming under direct naval bombardment. An unknown number were killed in this “friendly fire” incident. Fleet rumors put the number as high as 450.

Two Royal Navy Corvettes, HMS Azalea and Scimitar, were to guard the exercise from German “Schnellboots” (what the Allies called “E-Boats”), the fast-attack craft based out of Cherbourg.

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HMS Scimitar withdrew for repairs following a collision with an LST on the 27th. In the early morning darkness of the following day, the single corvette was leading 8 LSTs carrying vehicles and combat engineers of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade through Lyme Bay, when the convoy was spotted by a nine vessel S-Boat patrol.

8 LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) in single-file didn’t have a chance against fast-attack craft capable of 55mph.  LST-531 was torpedoed and sunk in minutes, killing 424 Army and Navy personnel. LST-507 suffered the same fate, with the loss of 202. LST-289 was severely damaged and grounded in flames, with the loss of 123. LST-511 was damaged in yet another friendly fire incident. Unable to wear their lifebelts correctly due to the large backpacks they wore, many men placed them around their waists. That only turned them upside down and that’s how they drowned, thrashing in the water with their legs above the waves. Dale Rodman, who survived the sinking of LST-507, said “The worst memory I have is setting off in the lifeboat away from the sinking ship and watching bodies float by.”

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LST (Landing Ship, Tank 289: “Severely damaged by a German E-Boat torpedo attack off Slapton Sands, England, 28 April 1944, during Operation Tiger, the rehearsal for the Normandy invasion”.  H/T ExerciseTiger.org.uk

Survivors were sworn to secrecy due to official embarrassment, and the possibility of revealing the real invasion, scheduled for June.  Ten officers with high level clearance were killed in the incident, but no one knew that for sure until their bodies were recovered.  The D-Day invasion was nearly called off, because any of them could have been captured alive, revealing secrets during German interrogation and torture.

There remains a surprising amount of confusion, concerning the final death toll. Estimates range from 639 to 946, nearly five times the number killed in the actual Utah Beach landing.  Some or all of the personnel from that damaged LST may have been aboard the other 8 on the 28th, and log books went down along with everything else.  Many of the remains were never found.

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The number of dead would surely have been higher, had not Captain John Doyle disobeyed orders and turned his LST-515 around, plucking 134 men from the frigid water.

Today, the Exercise Tiger disaster is mostly forgotten.  Some have charged official cover-up, though information from SHAEF press releases appeared in the August edition of Stars & Stripes.  At least three books describe the event.  It seems more likely that the immediate need for secrecy and subsequent D-Day invasion swallowed the Tiger disaster, whole.  History has a way of doing that.

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Exercise Tiger Memorial, Slapton

Some of Slapton’s residents came home to rebuild their lives after the war, but many never returned.  In the early ’70s, Devon resident and civilian Ken Small discovered an artifact of the Tiger exercise, while beachcombing on Slapton Sands.  With little to no help from either the American or British governments, Small purchased rights from the American Government to a submerged Sherman tank from the 70th Tank Battalion. The tank was raised in 1984 with help from local residents and dive shops, and now stands as a memorial to Exercise Tiger.  Not far from the monument to villagers, who never came home.

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A plaque was erected at Arlington National Cemetery in 1995, inscribed with the words “Exercise Tiger Memorial”. A 5,000-pound stern anchor bears silent witness to the disaster in Mexico, Missouri.

In 2012, a granite memorial was erected at Utah Beach, engraved with the words in French and English: “In memory of the 946 American servicemen who died in the night of 27 April 1944 off the coast of Slapton Sands (G.B.) during exercise Tiger the rehearsals for the D-Day landing on Utah Beach“.

In 1988, volunteers from the Army Brotherhood of Tankers repaired, repainted and re-stenciled an M4 Sherman tank, installing a mirror image of the Slapton memorial at Fort Taber Park in the south-coastal working class city of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford veteran’s agent Christopher Gomes lost his right leg during the Iraq War, in 2008.  Gomes was succinct that Memorial Day 2016, when he spoke of this difficult chapter in British/American military history.  “People only die”, he said, “when they are forgotten about″.

Left – Memorial Day 2018:  WW2 Navy combat veteran Vincent Riccardi, Exercise Tiger’s oldest survivor, salutes his fallen comrades at Fort Taber Park in New Bedford, Massachusetts. H/T South Coast Today
Right – The M4 Sherman Tank Tank at the Fort Taber – Fort Rodman Military Museum at Fort Taber Park in New Bedford mirrors the one built to the fallen at Slapton Sands, Devon, England.

 

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H/T “Ghosts of time” for this image, Today and Now.

 

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May 27, 1940 The Miracle of Dunkirk

By day 9 of the evacuation, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  For those, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” ended on June 4.  For approximately 40,000 British and another 40,000 French soldiers left behind in the confusion, a special kind of hell had just begun. 

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

319154The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but British armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.

In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24.  Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, and let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of the adversary. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard for miles, for boats to ferry its people off of the beach.

dunkirk1Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume the advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.

The Evacuation of DunkirkLarger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.

dunkirk2A thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent strandings. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

dunkirkevacuation7,669 were evacuated on the first full day of the evacuation, May 27, and none too soon.  The following day, members of the SS Totenkopf Division marched 100 captured members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment off to a pit, and machine gunned the lot of them.  A group of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were captured that same day, herded into a barn and murdered with grenades.

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Troops wait in the rubble of Dunkirk, for rescue

By day 9 of the evacuation, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  For those, the “Miracle of Dunkirk” ended on June 4.  For approximately 40,000 British and another 40,000 French soldiers left behind in the confusion, a special kind of hell had just begun.

dunkirk troops, 1940Most light equipment and virtually all heavy equipment had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a military fighting force that would live to fight on.

Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.

On the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for the “stay behind” mission, expected to follow. With German invasion all but imminent, their mission was to go underground and disrupt and destabilize the invaders, in any way they could. These were to be the British Resistance, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret that, the man was to be garroted in case of invasion, to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.  Many were issued suicide pills in case of capture yet, thanks to these men and women, Great Britain was the only nation of the WW2 era to have a fully operational resistance, BEFORE occupation.

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Participants in these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families what they were doing, or where they were.  They generally passed themselves off as Home Guard, a home defense organisation operated by the British Army.  Bob Millard, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 91, said they were given 3 weeks’ rations.  Even Josephine, Millard’s wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about the auxiliaries until their reunion, in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.

Another under-recognized group from the period are the young men conscripted to serve in the coal mines of the United Kingdom.  One in ten conscripts of the time received not a uniform, but the hard hat and steel-toed boot of the coal miner.  Often maligned as “Conchies” (conscientious objectors) or worse, these were held in service for as long as two years after the war, condemned to live the life of the Troglodyte with no expectation of peacetime jobs being held for them, as for those who served in uniform.

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“Bevin Boys” of WW2

These “Bevin Boys”, so-called after Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin, would wait decades for recognition of their contribution to the war effort, full acceptance coming only as the result of a speech given by Queen Elizabeth II, fifty years after VE Day.

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in the conflicts of the 20th century. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes an ever-decreasing number of Home Guard and the Bevin Boys, without whom the war effort would have ground to a halt.

In 2013, five short years ago, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.  Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving“.

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Memorial to wartime ‘Bevin Boys’ unveiled in Staffordshire

May 19, 1944 The Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. They immediately awakened Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”.

Shimson Eizik Ovitz was a Romanian rabbi, a WWI-era entertainer, and a man afflicted with pseudoachondroplasia. He was a dwarf. Ovitz fathered 10 children by two normal sized wives:  Brana Fruchter and Batia Bertha Husz. Three of those grew to normal height, the other seven were dwarves.

Batia gave the kids a piece of advice that stuck with them, all their lives: “through thick and thin” she said, “never separate. Stick together, guard each other, and live for one another”.

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The dwarves were talented musicians, performing a variety show throughout the ’30s and early ’40s as the “Lilliput Troupe”. They toured Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia with their normal height siblings serving as road crew, until being swept up by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz.

The train arrived around midnight on May 19th, 1944 and, accustomed to celebrity, one began to give out autographed cards. The family would soon be disabused of any notions of celebrity.

Not even concentration camp guards could resist the irony of seven dwarves. Dr. Josef Mengele was immediately awakened, knowing of his perverse fascination with the malformed, and what he called “blood” (family) experiments. The “Angel of Death”was delighted, “I now have work for 20 years”.

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The ten siblings were spared from the gas chamber that night, along with two more family members, a 15-month old boy and a 58-year old woman. Families of their handyman and a neighbor were also spared, insisting that they were close relatives. A total of 22 people.

The family was housed in horrific conditions, yet seven dwarves didn’t come along every day.  They were kept alive for further use and, as bad as it was, the food and clothing was better than that received by most camp inmates. Mengele even allowed them to keep their hair, and arranged special living quarters for them.

The bizarre and hideous “experiments” Mengele performed in the name of “science” were little more than torture rituals.  The three skeletons displayed of their dwarf predecessors, an ever-present reminder of what could be.  Boiling water was poured into their ears followed by freezing.  Eyelashes and teeth were pulled without anesthesia.  Blood was drawn until they would throw up and pass out, only to be revived to have more blood drawn.

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On one occasion, the Angel of Death told the family they were “going to a beautiful place”. Terrified, the siblings were given makeup, and told to dress themselves. Brought to a nearby theater and placed onstage, the family must have thought they’d be asked to perform. Instead, Mengele ordered them to undress, leaving all seven naked before a room full of SS men.  Mengele gave a speech, and then the audience was invited onstage to poke and prod the humiliated family.

One day of fresh horrors ended to reveal the next, and still they lived.  It was unusual for even two or three siblings to survive the Auschwitz death camp.  I don’t believe there was another instance where a family of twelve lived to tell the tale.

Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.

Traveling by foot to their Transylvanian home village of Rozavlea, the family found it ruined, though they did find a stash of gold coins where they had left it, buried for safekeeping before the war.

ba132f2b89040eef0fb0b59e29512bafThere was no future for them in this place.  Only 50 of the 650 Jewish inhabitants of the village ever returned. The family emigrated to Israel in May 1949, resuming their musical tour and performing until the group retired in 1955.

Josef Mengele never faced justice. He fled to South America after the war, and suffered a stroke while swimming in 1979.  The cause of death for one of the great monsters of history, was accidental drowning.

The youngest and last of the Ovitz dwarves, Piroska, “Perla” to her friends, passed away two days before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. She spoke for the whole family, I think, when she said “I was saved by the grace of the devil”.

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.

May 5, 1945 Church Picnic

284 Japanese balloon bombs are known to have completed the Pacific crossing to the United States, Mexico and Canada. Experts estimate as many as 1,000 may have made it.

Following the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in 1883, weather watchers described an eastbound, upper atmospheric air current described as the “equatorial smoke stream”.

In the 1920s, Japanese meteorologist Wasaburo Oishi tracked these upper level winds from a site near Mount Fuji, using pilot balloons. Oishi doomed his work to international obscurity when he published his findings in Esperanto. Inside Japan, there were those who took note, filing away this new-found knowledge of what we now call the “Jet Stream”.

In the latter half of WWII, Imperial Japanese military planners conceived the fūsen bakudan or “fire balloon”, a hydrogen filled balloon device designed to ride the jet stream, using sand ballast and a valve system to navigate the weapon system onto the North American continent.

BalloonBomb-1bWith sandbags, explosives, and the device which made the thing work, the total payload was about a thousand pounds on liftoff. The first such device was released on November 3, 1944, beginning the crossing to the west coast of North America. 9,300 such balloons were released with military payloads, between late 1944 and April, 1945.

Such a long-range attack would not be duplicated until the 1982 Falklands War, and was near unimaginable at the time.

JB41In 1945, intercontinental weapons were more in the realm of science fiction. As these devices began to appear, American authorities theorized that they originated with submarine-based beach assaults, German POW camps, and even the internment camps into which the Roosevelt administration herded Japanese Americans.

These “washi” paper balloons flew at high altitude and surprisingly quickly, completing the Pacific crossing in three days. Balloons landed from Alaska to Northern Mexico, and as far east as Detroit. Fighter aircraft shot down fewer than 20.

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A P-38 Lightning fighter shot one down near Santa Rosa, California, while Yerington, Nevada cowboys cut one up to make hay tarps. Pieces of balloon were found in the streets of Los Angeles. A prospector near Elko Nevada delivered one to local authorities, on the back of a donkey.

Among US units assigned to fight fire balloons was the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, which suffered one fatality and 22 injuries fighting fires.

One of the last balloons came down on March 10 near Hanford Washington, shorting out power lines supplying electricity for Manhattan Project nuclear reactor cooling pumps. The war in the Pacific could have ended very differently, had not backup safety devices restored power, almost immediately.

Colonel Sigmund Poole, head of the U.S. Geological Survey military geology unit, asked, “Where’d the damned sand come from?” Microscopic analysis of sand ballast identified diatoms and other microscopic sea life. This and the mineral content of the sand itself proved to be definitive. This stuff could only have come from the home islands of Japan, more specifically, one or two beaches on the island of Honshu.

world-war-ii-balloonAmerican authorities were alarmed. Anti-personnel and incendiary bombs were relatively low grade threats. Not so the biological weapons Japanese military authorities were known to be developing at the infamous Unit 731, in northern China.

284 of these weapons are known to have completed the Pacific crossing to the United States, Mexico and Canada. Experts estimate as many as 1,000 may have made it.

Balloon Bomb Route

Sightings were reported in seventeen US states. Pilots were ordered to shoot them down on sight, but many devices escaped detection, altogether.

In an effort to deny valuable intelligence to their Japanese adversary, US military and government authorities did everything they could to keep these “Fire Bombs” out of the media. Even though such secrecy put Americans at risk.

Japanese Authorities reported that the bombs were hitting key targets, thousands were dead or injured, and American morale was low.

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Archie & Elsie mitchell

On the morning of May 5, 1945, Pastor Archie Mitchell and his wife Elsie took their Sunday school class of five on a picnic to a forest area near Bly, Oregon. Elsie and the kids came upon a large balloon with a strange looking device attached to it, as Pastor Mitchell parked the car. There was no way they could have known, what they had found was a Japanese weapon of war. The device exploded, killing all six, instantly.

Several such devices exploded, igniting wildfires in the forests of California, Oregon and Washington, but the site near Bly is the only one known to have resulted in American casualties.

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Shrapnel Tree – Mitchell Monument, Bly, Oregon

Today there is a small picnic area located in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, in Lake County, Oregon. It’s maintained by the US Forest Service, memorialized as the Mitchell Recreation Area and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A small stone marker points the way to a shrapnel scarred tree.

Mitchell_Monument;_August_12,_2013

A second memorial bears these words, cast in bronze: The “only place on the American continent where death resulted from enemy action during World War II”. There are six names above those words, those of five children and their teacher, who was pregnant at the time. Elsie Mitchell, age 26. Edward Engen, age 13. Jay Gifford, age 13. Joan Patzke, age 13. Dick Patzke, age 14. Sherman Shoemaker, age 11.

 

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April 9, 1940 “Evacuation Day”

Norway was out of the war, but not necessarily out of the fight.   A Nazi officer passed an old woman on the street, who complained at his rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized and scurried off.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be regarded as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1, left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not necessarily out of the fight.   A Nazi officer passed an old woman on the street, who complained at his rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized and scurried off.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

A Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

The Norwegian secret army, known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

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Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but still-unknown dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted God-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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“Croton oil (Crotonis oleum) is an oil prepared from the seeds of Croton tiglium, a tree belonging to the order Euphorbiales and family Euphorbiaceae, and native or cultivated in India and the Malay Archipelago. Small doses taken internally cause diarrhea. Externally, the oil can cause irritation and swelling. Croton oil is used in some chemical peels, due to its caustic exfoliating effects it has on the skin”. H/T, Wikipedia

Norwegian resistance fighters, as dedicated as they were, still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of these guys were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

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German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of Croton oil.

From midget submarines such as the Biber, Hai, Molch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort.  In the North Atlantic, the battle raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Except for the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like, when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

Feature image, top of page:  “Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

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