September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

A child was born on this day in 1906.  He was John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British employees of the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time and returned to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving in Burma with the Manchester Regiment before leaving the military, ten years later.

Churchill worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with an occasional career as male model, and a couple appearances in motion pictures.  From there he may have faded into obscurity (unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation), with the same last name.  Then came World War II, when John Churchill earned the name, “Mad Jack”.

It was around this time that Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era, but Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.  He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, becoming quite good at it.  Good enough to represent his country in the world archery championship in Oslo, in 1939.

Jack-Churchill

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland.  Part of the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out its sergeant with a broadhead arrow.  No one could have been more surprised than that German himself: How the hell did I get an ARROW in my chest?

Such were the dying thoughts of the only combatant in all World War 2 to be felled, by an English longbow.

Jack Churchill (far right) leads a training exercise, sword in hand, from a Eureka boat in Inveraray. H/T warhistoryonline.com

Soon thereafter, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe.  The only way back in was via those same beaches. 

We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault:  invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches.  Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy.  In all that time there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, armed with bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, that Scottish broadsword at his side .

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“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore.  He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Mad Jack could be seen at the Catania (Sicily) and Salerno landings of 1943, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword one time in confused hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order.  Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad.   “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained.  “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…”  It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

He later trudged back to town, to collect his sword.  Encountering a lost American squad Churchill informed the NCO they were headed, toward German lines. The soldier refused to change direction so Churchill took his leave, saying, he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German held, Yugoslavian island of Brac.  He was leading a Commando raid at the time, coordinating with a unit of Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans.  Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622 when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself.  He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, requiring the instant execution of captured commandos. Churchill and his men escaped execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks only to the human decency of one Wehrmacht Captain named Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.”

After the war Churchill paid back Thuener’s act of kindness, keeping him out of the clutches of the merciless Red Army. But I digress.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, and later sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany.  There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped in September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain before walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

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following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Mad Jack was sent off to Burma. He was bitterly disappointed by the swift end of the war in the Pacific, brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he complained, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing.  Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

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Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Mad Jack Churchill remained an eccentric, even in his later years.   He loved sailing radio controlled model warships on the Thames. Little brought him more apparent joy than to horrify fellow train passengers, opening the window and hurling his briefcase into the darkness.

No one ever suspected that he threw it into the garden of his own back yard.  It saved him the trouble of carrying the thing home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard bearing regimental colors, and mailed it to a friend.

On the back o, Mad Jack Churchill had written fifteen words:

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

August 25, 1830 A Scrap of Paper

The story of how a night at the opera led to two world wars.

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars once belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. A Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

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The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic and mostly French speaking, in contrast with the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north. 

Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant. Meanwhile high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, La Muette was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29, 1828.   During one performance a riot broke out during a particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland). 

It was August 25, 1830.

Soon the melee was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Meanwhile Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

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Leopold I, 1st King of the Belgians

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence. Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

By this instrument Great Britain, Austria, France, the German Confederation led by Prussia, Russia and the Netherlands had formally recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In 1914, Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight.  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the slow-moving behemoth, of Imperial Russia.  The only obstacles were the neutral states of Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Believing Great Britain would remain on the sidelines, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Belgium on August 4, beginning a great sweep through Belgian territory into France. The government of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German assumptions were grievously mistaken.  Great Britain declared war within hours of the German invasion.

A regional squabble begun that June with the assassination of an Archduke would plunge the world into war, in August. Two world wars, really, with a 20-year break to grow a new generation, in-between.

August 15, 1942 Too Young the Hero

At the age of twelve, Calvin Leon Graham became the youngest man to serve in US military forces, in World War 2

Calvin Leon Graham was a child of the Great Depression, a poor East Texas farm kid born April 3, 1930, the youngest of seven.

By the time Japanese military planners were outlining the surprise attack on the American anchorage at Pearl Harbor, the boy’s mother was widowed and remarried. The man was by all accounts mean and abusive of his step-children. By sixth grade, Calvin had moved out along with an older brother, living in a cheap rooming house and supporting himself selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school.

The boys’ mother continued to visit, sometimes only to sign their report cards at the end of a semester.

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Being around newspapers allowed the boy to keep up on events overseas, “I didn’t like Hitler to start with“, he once told a reporter. By age eleven, some of Graham’s cousins had been killed in the war. The boy wanted to fight back.

He began to shave, believing that his facial hair would come in faster and thicker that way (it didn’t). He practiced, “talking deep”.

In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent” he later said, “but they preferred 17“. Graham forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp, telling his mother he was going to see some relatives for a while.

On this day in 1942, Calvin Leon Graham showed up at a Houston recruiting office, dressed in his older brother’s clothes. All five-foot-two inches of him, and 125 pounds. He was twelve years old.

Graham was less concerned with the recruiting officer spotting that forged signature, than he was with the dentist. With good reason. This was a man with a finely tuned BS detector. “When the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17“. At last, the boy played his trump card, informing the dentist that the last two boys were fourteen and fifteen, and he had already let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go“.

During the World War 2 era, it wasn’t unusual for boys to lie about their age in order to enlist. Ray Jackson joined the United States Marine Corps at 16, and founded a group for underage military veterans in 1991, “to assure all underage veterans that there will be no retribution from the government because of their fraudulent enlistment“. Smithsonian.com reports the organization lists over 1,200 active members.  Twenty-six of them are women.

The boy was sent to boot camp in San Diego and on to Pearl Harbor six weeks later, and assigned to the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota.

When South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia and cleared the Panama Canal, “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific.” Under the command of Captain Thomas Leigh Gatch, the battleship was brimming with “green boys” –  cocky, inexperienced new recruits, full of fight and eager for payback against the Japanese empire.

August 15, 1942 Baby Vet

During the October battle for the Santa Cruz islands, South Dakota was credited with downing 26 Japanese aircraft, while taking a direct hit to the #1 gun turret.

Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as that 500-pounder came in, striking the main gun turret.  The impact threw the skipper off his feet and severed his jugular vein, permanently injuring ligaments in the man’s arms. Quick-thinking quartermasters saved the unconscious captain’s life. Sailors later asked him, why he hadn’t ducked. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship“, he said, “to flop for a Japanese bomb“.

Before the action was over, the South Dakota’s guns had fired 890 rounds of 5-inch, 4,000 rounds of 40mm, 3,000 rounds of 1.1-inch and 52,000 rounds of 20mm ammunition. One of those gunners was twelve-year-old Calvin Graham.

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The USS South Dakota engages a Japanese torpedo bomber during the Battle of Santa Cruz October 26, 1942. Photo: US Navy

Over the November 14 night battle for Guadalcanal, USS South Dakota came under attack from three Japanese warships, receiving no fewer than forty-seven hits. With her radio communications out and radar demolished, the battleship lost track of the complicated tactical situation. Calvin Graham was manning his 40mm gun when shrapnel tore through his mouth and jaw, tearing out his front teeth. Another hit burned the boy severely and threw him off his feet, and down three stories of superstructure.

Despite his injuries, Graham did what he could to take care of his fellow sailors:

“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night. It was a long night. It aged me… I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead”.

USS South Dakota was so beat up during the confused night action, that the Japanese believed her to be sunk.  Eventually, she would limp back for repairs. Not wanting the enemy to know too much, she was stripped of her insignia.

USS South Dakota would complete her WW2 service as “Battleship X”, but that must be a story for another day.

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Graham received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his actions, but these distinctions were short-lived. His mother learned what the boy had been up to and informed the Navy of his real age. Graham was thrown in the brig for lying about his age and held for nearly three months, released only when his sister threatened to go to the media. He was stripped of his medals and dishonorably discharged from the military. At thirteen, Calvin Graham was a “Baby Vet”, no longer fitting in at school and rejected by the nation he had served.

If only our politicians could expect such stern justice.

Graham soon chose the life of an adult, marrying and fathering a child at the age of fourteen, and working as a welder.  He was divorced by seventeen and enlisted in the Marine Corps. A fall from a pier broke his back three years later, ending his military career for good and leaving him selling magazine subscriptions for a living.

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For the rest of his life, Calvin Graham fought for a clean service record, and for restoration of medical benefits. President Jimmy Carter personally approved an honorable discharge in 1978. All Graham’s medals were reinstated, save for his Purple Heart. He was awarded $337 in back pay but denied medical benefits, save for the disability status conferred by the loss of his teeth, back in WW2.

Graham came to public notice in 1988 with the made-for-TV movie Too Young the Hero starring Rick Schroder, prompting government review of his case.  Graham earned $50,000 for rights to his story but half went to two agents and another 20% to the writer of a book, which was never published.  Graham and his wife received only $15,000 out of which an ever insensate government, took its share.

Calvin Graham, Medals
Calvin Leon Graham, Military Awards
1st Row: Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”
2nd Row: Purple Heart Medal, Navy Unit Commendation with service star, American Campaign Medal
3rd Row: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two service stars, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation granting Graham full disability benefits and increasing back pay to $4,917, and allowing $18,000 for medical expenses incurred during his military service. Lamentably, many old medical bills were permanently lost. Some of his doctors had died. Graham received only $2,100 reimbursement for past medical expenses.

Calvin Leon Graham died at his home in Fort Worth Texas in 1992, a victim of heart failure.  He was buried at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Fort Worth, Texas.  Graham’s Purple Heart was reinstated two years later and awarded to his widow by Secretary of the Navy John Dalton. Fifty-two years after the actions resulting in its award.

Calvin-Leon-Graham-grave

August 9, 1945 Destroyer of Worlds

Shigeaki Mori was 8 when he became Hibakusha, or “explosion affected person”. As a man, Mori-san came to believe the families of Allied POWs killed in Hiroshima possessed a connection through the nuclear blasts, to their Japanese counterparts. Mori’s “Secret History of the American Soldiers Killed by the Atomic Bombs”, tells the story of those soldiers, one of whom was John A. Long, Jr. of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds“.

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Trinity Test Fireball

The line comes from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic Mohandas Gandhi described as his “spiritual dictionary”. On July 16, 1945, these were the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, on witnessing the world’s first successful nuclear test.

The project began with a letter from physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Nazi Germany may have been working to develop a secret “Super Weapon”.  The “Trinity” test culminated in the explosion of the “Gadget” in the Jornada del Muerto desert, equal to the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

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The Manhattan Project, the program to develop the Atomic Bomb, was so secret that even Vice President Harry Truman was unaware of its existence.

President Roosevelt passed away on April 14, Harry Truman immediately sworn in, as the new President. Ten days later he was fully briefed on the Manhattan project, writing in his diary that night that the US was perfecting an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world”.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, but the war in the Pacific theater, ground on. By August, Truman faced the most difficult decision ever faced by an American President. To deploy an atomic bomb.

The morality of President Truman’s decision has been argued ever since. In the end, it was decided that to drop the bomb would end the war faster with less loss of life on both sides, compared with the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

So it was that the second nuclear detonation in history took place on August 6 over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. “Little Boy” as the bomb was called, was delivered by the B29 Superfortress “Enola Gay”, named for the mother of United States Army Air Forces pilot Lieutenant Colonel Paul Tibbets. 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized in an instant.  Another 100,000 later died from injuries and the delayed effects of radiation.

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Fat Man

Even then the Japanese Government refused to surrender. ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb carried by the B29 “Bockscar” was dropped on Nagasaki, on August 9.

Three cities originally considered for this second strike included Kokura, Kyoto and Niigata. Kyoto was withdrawn from consideration due to its religious significance. Niigata was taken out of consideration due to the distance involved.

Kokura was the primary target on this day in 1945, but local weather reduced visibility.  Bockscar crisscrossed the city for the next 50 minutes, but the bombardier was unable to see well enough to make the drop.  Japanese anti-aircraft fire became more intense with every run, while Second Lieutenant Jacob Beser reported activity on Japanese fighter direction radio bands.

In the end, 393rd Bombardment Squadron Commander Major Charles Sweeney bypassed the city and chose the secondary target, the major shipbuilding center and military port city of Nagasaki.

The 10,000-pound, 10-foot 8-inch weapon was released at 28,900-feet.  43 seconds later at an altitude of 1,650-feet, a circle of 64 detonators simultaneously exploded, compacting a plutonium ball and combining separate hearts of beryllium and polonium thus ejecting hordes of neutrons into the supercritical mass. Nuclei within countless fuel atoms were thus split in a cascading effect known as induced nuclear fission, exploding outward with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT.

In the early 1960s, the Nagasaki Prefectural Office put the death count resulting from this day, at 87,000.  70% of the city’s industrial zone was destroyed.

Japan surrendered unconditionally on the 14th of August, ending the most destructive war in history.

Nazi Germany was in fact working on a nuclear weapon, though the program never made it past the experimental stage. That one critical failure put the Third Reich behind in the arms race. How different would the world be today had Little Boy and Fat Man had swastikas, painted on their sides.

August 5, 1942 Born a Teacher

What can you say about a man offered freedom, who chose instead to die with the children left under his care.

Janusz Korczak was a children’s author and pediatrician, a teacher and lifelong learner. A student of pedagogy, Korczak was particularly interested in the art and science of education, and how children learn.

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Born Henryk Goldszmit into the Warsaw family of Józef Goldszmit, in 1878 or ’79 (sources vary), Korczak was the pen name by which the physician wrote his children’s books.

Henryk was an exceptional student, of above-average intelligence. His father fell ill when the boy was only eleven or twelve and was admitted into a mental hospital where he died, six years later. As the family’s situation worsened, the boy would tutor other students, to help with household finances.

Goldszmit was a Polish Jew, though not particularly religious, who never believed in forcing religion on children.

He wrote his first book in 1896, a satirical tome on child-rearing, called Węzeł gordyjski (The Gordian Knot). He adopted the pen name Janusz Korczak two years later, writing for the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Literary Contest.

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Korczak wrote for several Polish language newspapers while studying medicine at the University of Warsaw, becoming a pediatrician in 1904. Always the writer, Korczak received literary recognition in 1905 with his book Child of the Drawing Room (Dziecko salonu), while serving as medical officer during the Russo-Japanese war.

He went to Berlin to study in 1907-’08 and worked at the Orphan’s Society in 1909, where he met Stefania “Stefa” Wilczyńska, an educator who would become his associate and close collaborator.

In the years before the Great War, Korczak ran an orphanage of his own design hiring Wilczyńska, as his assistant. There he formed a kind of quasi-Republic for Jewish orphans, complete with its own small parliament, court, and newspaper. The man was a born educator.

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In early modern European Royalty, 15th – 18th century, a “whipping boy” was the friend and constant companion to the boy prince or King, whose job it was to get his ass kicked, for the prince’s transgressions. The Lord was not the be struck by a social inferior. It was believed that, to watch his buddy get whipped for his own misdeeds would have the same instructional effect, as the beating itself.

The extent of the custom is open to debate and it may be a myth altogether, but one thing is certain.  Poland has been described as the “whipping boy of Europe”, for good reason.

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The Polish nation, the sixth largest in all Europe, was sectioned and partitioned for over a century, by Austrian, Prussian, and Russian imperial powers. Korczak volunteered for military service in 1914, serving as military doctor during WW1 and the series of Polish border wars between 1919-’21.

The “Second Polish Republic” emerging from all this in 1922 was roughly two-thirds Polish, the rest a kaleidoscope of ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities.  Relations were anything but harmonious between ethnic Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others, and most especially Poland’s Jewish minority, the largest in pre-WW2 Europe.

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Silver Cross of the Polonia Restituta

Janusz Korczak returned to his life’s work in 1921 of providing for the children of this Jewish community, all the while writing no fewer than thirteen children’s books along with another seven on pedagogy, and other subjects.

In the inter-war years, Korczak put together a children’s newspaper, the Mały Przegląd (Little Review), as a weekly supplement to the daily Polish-Jewish newspaper, Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).

Korczak had his own radio program promoting the rights of children, to whom he was known as Pan Doktor (“Mr. Doctor”) or Stary Doktor (“Old Doctor”).

The Polish government awarded “Old Doctor” the Polonia Restituta in 1933, a state order bestowed on individuals for outstanding achievements in the fields of education, science and other civic accomplishments.

Yearly visits to Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity partitioned from the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and future Jewish state of Israel, led to anti-Semitic crosscurrents in the Polish press, and gradual estrangement from non-Jewish orphanages.

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The second Republic’s brief period of independence came to an end in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland.  Korczak volunteered once again but was refused, due to his age.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Wehrmacht are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Poland never had a chance against the Nazi war machine, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on, two weeks later.

As an independent nation-state the Sovereign Republic of Poland was dead, though Polish air crews went on to make the largest contribution to the Battle of Britain, among the United Kingdom’s thirteen non-British defenders and allies.  Polish Resistance made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, throughout WW2.

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By the following year, Warsaw had become the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.  The Jews of Poland were herded into the city, barely existing on meager rations while awaiting the death squads of the SS.  Old Doctor and his orphans were forced into the Ghetto, in 1939.

Korczak had around 200 under his care on this day in 1942, when soldiers of the Gross-Aktion (Great Action) Warsaw, came to “resettle” them, to the east.

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The Pianist, by Władysław Szpilman

The extermination camp at Treblinka, was waiting.

Polish-Jewish composer and musician Władysław Szpilman, one of precious few survivors of the Jewish ghetto, describes the scene in his 1946 memoir, The Pianist:

“He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man…”

Eyewitness Joshua Perle states that:  Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child… A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.

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At the Umschlagplatz, the rail-side assembly area on the way to Treblinka, an SS officer recognized Korczak and called him aside.  The children’s author was offered sanctuary on the “Aryan side” but he refused, saying that he would stay with his children.  Stary Doktor was offered deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp instead. Again, he refused.

The man who declined freedom to die with the orphans in his care was last seen boarding the train to Treblinka on August 5. All 200 were murdered the following day.

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Janusz Korczak memorial stone, Treblinka

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried the little bundle in his hand”.

Mary Berg, The Diary

July 26, 1945 Blood in the Water

Naval Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to USS Indianapolis.  A random patrol aircraft discovered men floating in open ocean. The last survivor was plucked from the water well past half-dead following nearly five days in the water.


The Portland class heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis set out on her secret mission July 16, 1945, under the command of Captain Charles Butler McVay III.  What very few knew at that time, “Indie” was delivering “Little Boy” to the Pacific island of Tinian, the atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima.

USS Indianapolis (CA-35) underway September 27, 1939

Indianapolis made her delivery on July 26, arriving at Guam two days later and then heading for Leyte to take part in the planned invasion of Japan. She was expected to arrive on the 31st.

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I-58

The Japanese submarine I-58, Captain Mochitsura Hashimoto commanding, fired a spread of six torpedoes at the cruiser, two striking Indianapolis’ starboard bow at fourteen minutes past midnight on Monday, July 30. The damage was massive.  Within 12 minutes, the 584-ft, 9,950-ton vessel had rolled over, gone straight up by the stern, and sunk beneath the waves.

Approximately 300 of Indianapolis’ 1,196-member crew were killed outright, leaving nearly 900 treading water. Many had no life jackets.  There had been no time, and there were few life boats.

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Caribbean Reef sharks circling the sailors in reenactment scene after USS Indianapolis had been sunk by Japanese submarine. As seen on OCEAN OF FEAR: WORST SHARK ATTACK EVER. H/T photographer: Tim Calver

The ordeal faced by the survivors, is beyond description.  Alone and stranded in open ocean, these guys treaded water for four days, hoping and praying for the rescue that did not come.

Shark attacks began on the first day, and never let up. Kapok-filled life vests became waterlogged and sank after 48 hours, becoming worse than useless. Exhaustion, hypothermia, and severe sunburn took their toll as the hours turned into days. Some men went insane and began to attack their shipmates, while others found the thirst so unbearable that they drank seawater, setting off a biological chain reaction which killed them within a few hours. Some simply swam away, following some spectral vision that only he could see. Through it all, random individuals would suddenly rise up screaming from the ocean, then to disappear forever, as the sharks claimed another victim.

Naval Command had not the slightest idea of what happened to Indianapolis, nor why she didn’t show up on the 31st.  A random patrol aircraft passing the area that Thursday afternoon, that finally discovered men floating in open ocean. The last Indianapolis survivor was plucked from the ocean Friday afternoon, well past half-dead after nearly five days in the water. Of the 900 or so who survived the sinking, only 316 remained alive at the end of the ordeal.

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Mochitsura Hashimoto

The Navy had committed multiple errors, from denying McVay’s requested escort to informing him that his route was safe, even when the surface operations officer knew there were at least two Japanese submarines, operating in the area.

No captain in the history of the United States Navy was subjected to court-martial for losing a ship sunk by an act of war.  The United States Navy lost over 350 ships to combat operations during WW2.  It didn’t matter.  On this occasion, someone was going to pay.

A hastily convened court of inquiry was held in Guam on August 13, leading to McVay’s court-martial. There was evidence that the Navy itself had put the ship in harm’s way.  When prosecutors flew the I-58 commander in to testify, Hashimoto swore that zigzagging would have made no difference. The Japanese Commander even became part of a later effort to exonerate McVay, but to no avail. Charles Butler McVay III was convicted of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag“, his career ruined.

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Charles Butler McVay, III

McVay had wide support among Indianapolis’ survivors, but opinion was by no means unanimous. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays would come and go and there was always some piece of hate mail, blaming him for the death of a loved one. One Christmas missive read “Merry Christmas! Our family’s holiday would be a lot merrier if you hadn’t killed my son”.

McVay began to doubt himself.  By 1968 he must have felt the weight of Indianapolis’ dead, like a great stone upon his shoulders.

On November 6, 1968, Charles Butler McVay III sat down on his front porch in Litchfield Connecticut, took out his Navy revolver, and shot himself.  He was cremated, his ashes scattered at sea.

It would take more than 20 years for exonerating evidence to be declassified.

Afterward:
Hunter Alan Scott was eleven and living in Pensacola when he saw the movie “Jaws”, in 1996. The boy was fascinated by the movie’s brief mention of Indianapolis’ shark attacks. The following year, Scott created his 8th grade “National History Day” project on the USS Indianapolis sinking. The boy interviewed nearly 150 survivors and reviewed 800 documents.  The more he read, the more he became convinced that Captain McVay was innocent of the charges for which he’d been convicted.

Scott’s National History Day project went up to the state finals, but was rejected because he had used the wrong type of notebook to organize the material.

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He couldn’t let it end there. Scott began to attend Indianapolis survivors’ reunions, at their invitation, and helped to gain a commitment in 1997 from then-Representative Joe Scarborough that he would introduce a bill in Congress to exonerate McVay the following year.

Senator Bob Smith of NH joined Scarborough in a joint resolution.  Hunter Scott and several Indianapolis survivors were invited to testify before Senator John Warner and the Senate Armed Services committee on September 14, 1999.

Holding a dog tag in his hand, Scott testified “This is Captain McVay’s dog tag from when he was a cadet at the Naval Academy. As you can see, it has his thumbprint on the back. I carry this as a reminder of my mission in the memory of a man who ended his own life in 1968. I carry this dog tag to remind me that only in the United States can one person make a difference no matter what the age. I carry this dog tag to remind me of the privilege and responsibility that I have to carry forward the torch of honor passed to me by the men of the USS Indianapolis”.

The United States Congress passed a resolution in 2000, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 30, exonerating Charles Butler McVay III of the charges which had led to his court martial, humiliation and suicide.

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Some of Indianapolis’ crew, before her sinking.

The record cannot not be expunged.  Congress has rules against even considering bills altering military records, and there is no means by which to reverse a court-martial.  It’s never happened.  Yet Captain McVay was exonerated, something that the Indianapolis survivors had tried to accomplish without success.  Until the intervention of a 12-year-old boy.  Who said one person can’t make a difference?

Today, only 3 of  Indianapolis’ survivors remain alive.  The wreck of the “Indy” was discovered in August 2017, in 18,000-feet of water.  Leader of the civilian expedition which located the wreck, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen commented ”To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling”.

July 25, 1944 Doodlebug

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.


In the early morning hours of June 13, 1944, a member of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) spotted a bright yellow glow in the early morning darkness. The sentry was on the lookout for such a sight and immediately informed his superiors. The code word, “diver”.

The yellow glow went out within moments and plummeted to the earth, landing in the village of Swanscombe, some 20 miles east of the Tower of London. Other such devices were soon falling from the sky with terrible exclusive force. Cuckfield, West Sussex, London and Sevenoaks, in Kent. This time only six people died in a place called Bethnal Green. There would be more.

Most V1 rockets were launched from a simple rail system, others taken aloft attached to host aircraft

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.

Nazi Germany aimed as many as 10,492 of these Doodlebug rockets against England. Some 6,000 were killed in London alone, with another 18,000 serious injuries. The subsonic Doodlebug was an effective terror weapon but, bad as it was to be the target of one of these things, the “low and slow” trajectory and the weapon’s short range lacked the strategic punch Nazi Germany needed to win the war.

The next generation V2 missile was a different story.  The V2 ushered in the era of the ballistic missile and Nazi Germany was the first off the starting line.

The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148 pound payload at 5 times the speed of sound over a 236-mile range. While you could hear the V1 coming and seek shelter, victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack, until the weapon had exploded.

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Hitler said, “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”

Allies were anxious to get their hands on this new secret weapon. In early 1944 they had their chance when a V2 crashed into a muddy bank of the Bug River in Nazi-occupied Poland, without exploding. The Polish underground was waiting for such an opportunity and quickly descended on the rocket, disguising it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the weapon, Germans conducted a week long aerial and ground search for the V2, but failed find it under all that camouflage.

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Polish Partisans preparing for battle, WW2

The search came to an end after what must have seemed an eternity, when partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.

The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lt Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness at a secret air strip near Tarnow.

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Home Army intelligence on V1 & V2

The V2 chassis and several technical experts were loaded on board, but it was all too much.  The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field – the port wheel stuck fast in the mud.  Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench.  Nothing worked.

Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so the hydraulic leads supplying the brake, were cut. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. Two attempts failed to get the aircraft off the ground, and Culliford was thinking about blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence.  There could only be one more attempt.

The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try.  The last of the partisans scattered into the night, even as the headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen, approaching in the early morning darkness.

18lfbi20zpunyjpgThere would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight through Nazi-controlled air space and an emergency landing with no brakes, before those V2 rocket components finally made it to England.

Today, few remember the names of these heroes, struggling in the dark to defeat the forces of Tyranny.  We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazis remained in sole possession of the game changing super weapons, of WWII

July 14, 1933 Willy Hitler, USN

Drafted into the Navy, the induction officer asked his name.  The reply came back, “Hitler”. “Glad to see you Hitler,” the officer replied, “My name’s Hess.”

Suppose for a moment that Gallup or Ipsos were to conduct a survey, naming the top ten bad guys in history. One name on the top of such a list, would be that of the Nazi party leader, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler himself wouldn’t have the term, “Nazi”. That was bitter insult, coined long before the rise of the Nazi party. Hitler himself used the term, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei for the National Socialist German Workers ‘ Party or NSDAP for short.

Be this guy

Alois Johann was born on June 7, 1837 to the 42-year-old unmarried peasant woman, Maria Schicklgruber.  The boy’s father was known to her, but the priest wrote “illegitimate” on the baptismal certificate. So it was the boy took the surname Schicklgruber, after his mother.

Johann Georg Hiedler married Maria when Alois was five.  By age ten, the boy was sent to live with Heidler’s brother, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler. Three years later, Alois  Schicklgruber moved to Vienna where he worked as a cobbler’s apprentice, finally becoming a low level civil servant in the Austrian Finance Ministry.

There are plenty of variations on the Hiedler family surname. ‘Hiedler’ apparently derives from an Austro-Bavarian dialect, meaning one who lives by a Hiedl, or underground spring. Other derivations come from the German Hutte (hut), as in “one who lives in a hut”.  Be that as it may, the variations appear to have been interchangeable.  Common variations included Hitler, Hiedler, Hüttler, Hytler, and Hittler.

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There are plenty of tales regarding the man’s paternity, but none are any more than that. Alois Schicklgruber ‘legitimized’ himself in 1877, adopting a variant on the name of his stepfather and calling himself ‘Hitler”.

Historian Alan Bullock has described Alois Hitler as “hard, unsympathetic and short-tempered”. He seems to have had a problem with marital fidelity, as well. Alois was thirty-six when he married Anna Glasl-Hörer, the 50-year-old, invalid daughter of a customs official. By age 43, he was carrying on with the 19-year-old servant girl, Franziska “Fanni” Matzelsberger, with whom he had an illegitimate son, Alois Jr.

Alois Sr. was for all intents and purposes ‘married’ to the Matzelsberger girl for the next two years, while his lawful wife Anna, sickened and died. Hitler, 45, married Matzelsberger, age 21 in May, 1883. The couple’s second child Angela, was born two months later.

Sixteen-year-old Klara Pölzl moved in years earlier as household servant, and no woman was going to do to the new Mrs. Hitler, that which she herself had done to another woman.  Frau Hitler demanded that the “servant girl” be sent away but Pölzl would return the following year, as she too sickened and died.

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Adolf Hitler as an infant

Pölzl was by this time pregnant with the first of the couple’s four children, but there was a problem. There are many candidates for Alois (Schicklgruber) Hitler’s biological father. If Hitler’s step-father was in fact his real sire as implied by the name change, that made Klara Pölzl his first cousin once removed, at least by law. The couple was too close to marry.

Alois petitioned the church for a humanitarian waiver. The waiver was granted and Klara Pölzl became the third Frau Hitler in January 1885. The couple welcomed little Gustav into the world, four months later.

The future leader of the National Socialist Party was born four years later, by that time the only child born to his mother Klara.  Her first three children Gustav, Ida and Otto, all died in childhood.

Alois Hitler, Sr. seems to have been a thoroughly unlikable man, lording it over neighbors and brutalizing his own family. Historian Robert Waite notes that, “Even one of his closest friends admitted that Alois was ‘awfully rough’ with his wife and ‘hardly ever spoke a word to her at home’.” The man would berate Klara and children alike and apparently beat them, on a regular basis.  Alois Jr. left home never to return, following a violent argument with his father. The elder Alois swore that he would never give the boy a single mark of inheritance, over what the law required. The youngest, Adolf, grew up a frail and sickly child, doted on by his mother and often at the center of violent rages by his father.

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Alois Hitler

Alois tried to browbeat his youngest into following him, into the civil service. The boy feared and detested his father, and wanted nothing to do with him.  Adolf Hitler would follow the path which would bring him to that list of the great monsters of the 20th century, as his brother Alois Jr., made his own way in the world.

Some apples don’t fall far from the tree. Alois Hitler Jr. went to Ireland, where he met Bridget Dowling at the Dublin Horse Show. Nothing more than a poor kitchen porter at the Shelbourne Hotel, Hitler managed to convince her that he was, in fact, a wealthy hotelier, touring Europe. The couple eloped to London in June 1910. Bridget’s father William threatened to bring Hitler up on charges of kidnapping, and only relented when Bridget pleaded with him to stop.

It was a decision she would come to regret.

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Dowling-Hitler

The couple had their only child in 1911, William Patrick Hitler. Alois left home in Liverpool in May 1914 to establish himself in the safety razor business.  He had become violent by this time and begun to beat the boy.  Bridget refused to go with William’s father and ended up, raising the boy alone.

War descended over Europe in 1914, when the elder Hitler met and (bigamously) married his second wife, Hedwig Heidemann.

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Heinz Hitler was captured by Soviet Forces in 1942, and tortured to death

Alois’ second marriage  produced a son, Heinz, who went on to become a committed Nazi. In 1933, William moved to Germany, in an effort to take advantage of his uncle’s rise to power.  He got a job at an Opel factory and later worked as a car salesman, but  badgered his uncle for a better job. At last, he threatened to sell embarrassing family stories to the newspapers, if Uncle Adolf didn’t do something to improve his “personal circumstances”.

Ironically, Nazi party regulations precluded Adolf Hitler himself from proving his own “Aryan Purity”, based on his father’s unknown paternity.  For years, Hitler was dogged by hushed speculation about “Jewish blood”.  Quiet rumor became front-page headline this day in 1933, when Austrian newspapers published reports that the German Chancellor, sworn enemy of all things Jewish was himself, a Jew.  That same day, July 14, all political parties but the Nazi party, were banned from Germany.

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Pharmacists Mate William Patrick Hitler

Der Führer of the fledgling thousand-year Reich promised his nephew a “high ranking post” in 1938, in exchange for renunciation of his British citizenship. Suspecting a trap, the younger Hitler fled Germany, traveling to the United States in 1939. William Patrick Hitler petitioned President Roosevelt for permission to join the American side which he received, in 1944.

Drafted into the Navy, the induction officer asked his name.  The reply came back, “Hitler”. “Glad to see you Hitler,” the officer replied, “My name’s Hess.”

William Patrick Hitler served honorably for the duration of the war, holding the rank of Pharmacists Mate (a designation later changed to Hospital Corpsman) and earning a purple heart in the process.    The infamous dictator’s half-brother Heinz was captured by Soviet forces in 1942, and tortured to death. Their infamous uncle took his own life in 1945 and died, childless.

July 14, 1987 The Other Hitler

The younger Hitler’s childhood home in Liverpool was destroyed in the last air raid of the Liverpool Blitz, in 1942.Alexander

Wishing to live a life of anonymity, “Willy” Hitler changed his name to William Patrick  Stuart-Houston at the end of the war, and married fellow German emigre Phyllis Jean-Jacques in 1947.  The couple made a home in Patchogue, New York and raised four sons: Alexander Adolf (b. 1949), Louis (b. 1951), Howard Ronald (1957–1989), and Brian William (b. 1965).

William Patrick Stuart-Houston, nephew to one of the worst dictators in history, fought with honor on the side of his uncle’s mortal enemy and died July 14, 1987.

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Alexander

None of Willy and Phyllis’ four sons ever produced an heir. Much has been made of a pact to end the Hitler line. Alexander Adolf Stuart-Houston became an American social worker, and always dismissed such speculation. There was no such agreement among the last four boys in the family.  It’s just the way things turned out.

June 12, 1942 A Night at the Beach

Much has been written about the eight central characters in this story. These individuals have been described by contemporary and subsequent sources alike, as Saboteurs, Nazis and Spies. Certainly to call them such, fed into the political expectations of the day. Yet their country had chosen them for this mission based on unique qualifications, separate and apart from whatever devotion they felt for the fatherland, or the Nazi party. It may be that these guys deserve every evil name that’s been heaped on them. Or maybe they were just eight guys who got caught up between two nations at war. It’s an interesting story. You decide.

The German submarine U-202 commanded by Hans Linder came to the surface on the night of June 12 at Amagansett, New York, near Montauk Point. An inflatable emerged from the hatch and rowed to shore at what is now Atlantic Ave beach, in Long Island. Four figures stepped onto the beach wearing German military uniforms.  If they’d been captured at this point every one of them wanted to be treated as enemy combatants, instead of spies.

Pastorius

This was “Operation Pastorius”, a mission was to sabotage American economic targets and damage defense production. Targets included hydroelectric plants, train bridges and factories. The four had nearly $175,000 in cash, some good liquor and enough explosives to last them two years or more.

German plans began to unravel as they buried their uniforms and explosives in the sand.  21-year old Coast Guardsman John Cullen was a “sand pounder”.  Armed only with a flashlight and a flare gun, Cullen had the unglamorous duty of patrolling the beaches, looking for suspicious activity.

It was “so foggy that I couldn’t see my shoes” Cullen said, when a solitary figure came out of the dunes.  He was George John Davis he said, a fisherman run ashore.  But something seemed wrong and Cullen’s suspicions were heightened, when another figure came out of the darkness.  This one was shouting something in German, when “Davis” spun around and shouted, “You damn fool!  Go back to the others!”

With standing orders to kill anyone who confronted them during the landing, Davis hissed, “Do you have a mother? A father?  Well, I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.”

It was Cullen’s lucky day.  “Davis’” real name was Georg John Dasch.  He was no Nazi. He’d been a waiter and dishwasher before the war, who’d come to the attention of the German High Command because he had lived for a time, in the United States.   “Forget about this, take this money, and go have a good time” he said, handing over a wad of bills.   $260 richer, John Cullen sprinted two miles directly to the Coast guard station.

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Seaman John Cullen, left, received the Legion of Merit from Rear Adm. Stanley V. Parker for his service in WW2

Before long the beach was swarming with Coast Guardsmen. A dawn broke it was easy to see something heavy had been dragged, across the sand. Within minutes boxes were found containing Nazi uniforms.

Four days later, U-584 deposited a second team of four at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, south of Jacksonville. As with the first, this second group had lived and worked in the United States, and were fluent in English.  Two of the eight were US citizens.

Georg Dasch had a secret.  He had no intention of carrying out his mission.  He summoned Ernst Peter Burger to an upper-level hotel room.  Gesturing toward an open window Dasch said  “You and I are going to have a talk, and if we disagree, only one of us will walk out that door—the other will fly out this window.”

Pastorius-Plaque

Burger turned out to be a naturalized US citizen who’d spent 17 months in a concentration camp.  He hated the Nazis as much as Dasch. Then and there, the two of them decided to defect.

Dasch tested the waters. Convinced the FBI was infiltrated with Nazi agents, he telephoned the New York field office.  Put on hold with the call transferred several times, Dasch was horrified to have the agent who finally listened to him, quietly hang up the phone.  Had he reached a German mole?  Had the call been traced?

Dasch had no way of knowing, he’d been transferred to the ‘nut desk’.  The FBI thought he was a clown.

Finally, Dasch went to the FBI office in Washington DC, only to be treated like a nut job.  Until he dumped $84,000 cash on Assistant Director D.M. Ladd’s desk, a sum equivalent to about a million dollars, today.  Dasch was interrogated for hours, and happily gave up everything he knew.  Targets, German war production, he spilled it all, even a handkerchief with the names of local contacts, written in invisible ink.  He couldn’t have been a very good spy, though.  He forgot how to reveal the names.

All eight were in custody, within two weeks.

J. Edgar Hoover announced the German plot on June 27, but his version had little resemblance to that of Dasch and Burger.  As with the brief he had given President Roosevelt, Hoover praised the magnificent work of FBI detectives and the Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction which led Assistant Director Ladd to that $84,000.  Dasch and Burger’s role in the investigation was conveniently left out, as was the fact that the money had all but bounced Mr. Ladd off the head.

Neither Dasch nor Burger expected to be thrown in a cell, but agents assured them it was a formality.  Meanwhile, a credulous and adoring media speculated on how Hoover’s FBI had done it all.  Did America have spies inside the Gestapo?  German High Command?  Were they seriously that good?

Attorneys for the defense wanted a civilian trial, but President Roosevelt wrote to Attorney General Francis Biddle: “Surely they are as guilty as it is possible to be and it seems to me that the death penalty is almost obligatory”. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the decision “Ex parte Quirin” became and remains precedent to this day, for the way unlawful combatants are tried.  All eight would appear before a military tribunal.

Whether any of the eight were the menace they were made out to be, remains unclear.  German High Command had selected all eight based on past connections with the United States, and ordering them to attack what they may have regarded as their adopted country.  Several were arrested in gambling establishments, others in houses of prostitution.  One had resumed a relationship with an old girlfriend and the pair was planning to marry.  Not the behavior patterns you might expect from “Nazi saboteurs”.

Pastorius-Sentinel

The trial was held before a closed-door military tribunal in the Department of Justice building in Washington, the first such trial since the Civil War. All eight defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death.  It was only on reading trial transcripts, that Roosevelt learned the rest of the story.  The President commuted Burger’s sentence to life and Dasch’s to 30 years, based on their cooperation with the prosecution. The other six were executed by electric chair on August 8, in alphabetical order.

Bodies of the six men executed are transported by ambulance, under armed guard.

After the war, Burger and Dasch’s trial transcripts were released to the public, over the strenuous objections of J. Edgar Hoover.  In 1948, President Harry S. Truman bowed to political pressure, granting the men executive clemency and deporting them both to the American zone of occupied Germany.  The pair found themselves men without a country hated as spies in America, and traitors in Germany.

The reader may decide, whether Hoover and Roosevelt operated from base and venal political motives, or whether the pair was playing 4-D chess.  Be that as it may, Hitler rebuked Admiral Canaris, and seems to have bought into Hoover’s version of FBI invincibility.  There would be no further missions of this type, save for one in November 1944, when two spies were landed on the coast of Maine to gather information on the Manhattan project.

Georg Dasch campaigned for the rest of his life, to be allowed to return to what he described as his adopted country.  Ernst Burger died in Germany in 1975, Dasch in 1992.  The pardon Hoover promised both men over a half-century earlier, never materialized.

Neither Dasch nor Burger could have dreamed of what they would become, in the popular imagination.

June 10, 1944 Ghost Village

Down this road, on a 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”.

It was D+4 in the invasion of Normandy. The 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Das Reich”) had orders to stop the Allied advance. They were passing through the Limousin region in west central France when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that Waffen-SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held captive, by French Resistance forces in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

June 10, 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane

Forget for a moment the idiocy of our age and incontinent use of the term, “Nazi”. The people who committed the atrocity at Oradour-sur-Glane are like unto beasts and not to compared with anyone, from the modern world. May it come to pass that we never see their kind, again.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Streets

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off the nearby village of Oradour-sur-Glane, unaware they had confused the place with another village. Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square to have identity papers examined. The entire population of the village was there plus another 6, unfortunates caught riding their bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Women and children were locked in a village church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a nearby barn where machine guns were already set up.

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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.

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

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642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane age one week to 90 years, were murdered in just a few hours. The village was razed to the ground.

After the war a new village was built on a nearby location, and given the same name. President Charles de Gaulle ordered the original site to remain as is; a memorial to the cruelty of collective punishment and the savagery committed in countless places, by the Waffen-SS: the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki, 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. And on, and on, and on.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Hardware

In 1999, French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour”. The village stands today as the Nazis left it, 78 years ago today.

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

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The story was featured in the 1974 British television series “The World at War”, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. The first and final episodes of the program began with these words:

Down this road, on a 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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