April 3, 1946 Death March

Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

The game was November 27, 1937.  Late in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame was tied 6-6 with Southern California. The “Fighting Irish” needed a miracle. Notre Dame #58 Mario “Motts” Tonelli took the hand-off deep in Notre Dame territory and ran the ball 70 yards back before being tackled. Seconds later, the 5’11”, 195-pound fullback scored the game winning touchdown.

Tonelli (1)In some ways, Mario Tonelli himself was the miracle. Years earlier at the age of 6, he’d been burned over 80% of his body, when a trash compactor toppled over on him. Mario’s immigrant father Celi, a laborer from a northern Italian marble quarry, refused to believe the doctor who said his son would never walk again. Fixing four wheels to a door, the elder Tonelli taught his first American-born son to move about with his arms.

By 1935, Mario Tonelli was a football, basketball and track star at Chicago’s DePaul Academy.

After a year coaching at Providence College in 1939 and a year playing professional football for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940, Tonelli joined the Army in early 1941, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila.

He’d hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the 1942 season, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7, 1941. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

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“A view of Pearl Harbor looking southwest from the hills towards the north. Taken during the Japanese raid, with anti-aircraft shell bursts overhead. Large column of smoke in lower center is from USS Arizona”. – H/T fstoppers.com

Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of World War Two, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

bataan-death-march-route-mapOn April 9, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65 mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic. Some would beat the marchers at random, or bayonet those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of the way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

Exhausted, sunburned and aching with thirst, Tonelli still refused when a Japanese soldier demanded his Notre Dame class ring. As the guard reached for his sword, a nearby prisoner shouted “Give it to him. It’s not worth dying for”.

Minutes later, a Japanese officer appeared, speaking perfect English. “Did one of my men take something from you?” “Yes”, Tonelli replied. “My school ring”. “Here,” said the officer, pressing the ring into his hand. “Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time”. Tonelli was speechless. “I was educated in America”, the officer said. “At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you”.

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Nearly 700 Americans and more than 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan death march. For the survivors, the ordeal was only beginning. For 2½ years Tonelli suffered starvation, disease and endless beatings in the squalid prison camps known as O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.  He was later transferred to Davo Penal Colony (“Dapecol”), in Panabo City.   Of an estimated 2,009 to enter Dapecol between October 1942- June 1944, only 805 survived the war.

Throughout the ordeal, Tonelli kept his ring.  Buried in a soap dish.  He’d take it out from time to time to remind himself.  Life used to be better than this. It gave him something to hope for.

Death March

The hellish 60-day journey aboard the filthy, cramped merchant vessel began in late 1944, destined for slave labor camps in mainland Japan. Tonelli was barely 100 pounds on arrival, his body ravaged by malaria and intestinal parasites. He was barely half the man who once played fullback at Notre Dame Stadium, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park.

Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

mario-tonelli-ringAn American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.

Mario Tonelli always hoped to meet the officer who’d returned his ring, but it wasn’t meant to be. He probably didn’t survive the war.  Mario “Motts” Tonelli passed away in 2003, at the age of eighty-six.  He still had that ring.

 

Afterward

In 1989, ROTC students at New Mexico State University held a memorial “Death March”.  Since 1992, the Army installation at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces has been host to the memorial. It’s two events, really, participants competing in “heavy” and “light” division wearing full uniform with rucksack or full running gear. Marchers in both divisions compete over a full marathon course of 26.2 miles of hilly desert terrain, or a shorter 14.2 mile course.

Two weeks ago, 8,631 registered participants gathered from fifty states and a dozen nations, to commemorate the Battle of Bataan and the death march, 77 years ago.

Five actual survivors were in attendance for the opening ceremony, wrapped in blankets to ward off the pre-dawn cold.  They were Harold Bergbower, age 98.  James Bollich, age 97.  Valdemar DeHerrera, age 99.  Paul Kerchum, age 99.  Ben Skardon, age 101.

Mister Skardon actually marched in the March 17, 2019 event, covering three miles at the head of Skardon’s Brigade”.

The day began with a symbolic roll call.  Most of the names were met with silence. Twelve more than the same event, last year.

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“At 101 years old, Ben Skardon, center, is the oldest living Bataan Death March survivor to attend the memorial event at White Sands Missile Range. This year, he led “Ben’s Brigade” in an 3-mile march through the course on Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Photo: Kaitlin Englund/For the Sun-News)” H/T Ruidoso News
A Trivial Matter
Japanese guards made prisoners roast for hours the scorching Filipino sun, a torture known as “the sun treatment.” With little food and no water, Filipino civilians tried to throw food at the marchers. Most who did this were killed on the spot, by Japanese soldiers.

 

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March 30, 1945 We’re All Jews Here

“We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out”.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”. – Martin Niemöller

last_great_act_of_defiance1Before the age of the internet meme,  office jokes and bits of folk wisdom were passed around and copied and copied again.  There was one, “The Last great of Defiance“, which will live for all time as my favorite.  The picture speaks for itself.  I had one on the wall, for years.

This is one of those stories.

The last great effort of German arms burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming for the vital port at Antwerp.

Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein“, (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) was a tactical surprise for the Wehrmacht, as allied forces were driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American forces in World War 2, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving some 610,000 GIs.

malmed1Prisoners were swept up by the thousands, and faced an uncertain future.  In Malmedy, Belgium, seventy-five captured Americans were marched into an open field and machine gunned by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), a part of 6th Panzer Army.

On December 16, the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the racially segregated US Army put up an heroic defense outside the town of Wereth, Belgium, using their 155mm guns to delay the German advance. Desperately outnumbered, the 333rd was overrun the following day, groups of men scattering to escape as best they could. Eleven soldiers made their way to the home of Mathias Langer, the Mayor of Wereth.

To shelter allied troops under German occupation was to risk summary execution. Despite the obvious risk to their own lives, Matthias and his wife Maria took these men in and attempted to hide them, in their home. When German troops arrived, the eleven surrendered rather than risk the lives of their benefactors.

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Movie poster for the 2011 film, “The Wereth Eleven”

The prisoners were marched out of sight and murdered, every one of them. The Wereth 11 were lost in the confusion of the Bulge, their bodies hidden under the snow until Spring melt. Their story was lost to history, for the next fifty years.

Nazi atrocities were not limited to Allied troops.  By some accounts, more civilians were killed during the Battle of the Bulge than the last four years.  When the fighting was over, more than 115 bodies were found in the towns of Ster and Parfondruy, alone.

For Master Sargent Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds, the war ended on December 19, swept up with hundreds of American troops and taken prisoner.  These were the lucky ones, escaping those first white-hot moments of capture to be sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  He was later transferred to another camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.  At 24, M/Sgt Roddie Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer at Stalag IX-A, responsible for 1,275 American POWs.

The Wehrmacht had harsh anti-Jew policies and kept Jewish POWs in strict segregation.  In the East, Russian Jewish POWs were sent directly to extermination camps.  The future was more uncertain for Jewish POWs, in the west.  Many were worked to death in slave labor camps.

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On January 27, the first day at Stalag IX-A, commandant Siegmann ordered Edmonds: All American Jews were to identify themselves, at the following day’s assembly.  The word went out to all five barracks:  “We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out“.

The following morning, 1,275 POWs presented themselves.  Every. Single. Man.

Siegmann was perplexed.  “They can’t all be Jews!”  As senior NCO, Edmonds spoke for the group.  “We’re all Jews here“.  The Nazi commandant was apoplectic, pressing a Luger into Edmonds’ forehead.  This is your last chance.

Edmonds gave his name, rank and serial number, and then said:  ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.'”  Siegmann was incandescent, white with rage, but the moment had passed.  He was beaten.

The 1,275 American POWs held at Stalag IX-A were liberated this day in 1945, including some 200 Jews.

Roddie Edmonds was again recruited for the war in Korea.  He never told his family about any of it.

Chris Edmonds is the Pastor at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Following his father’s death in 1985, Chris’ mother gave him his father’s  war diary, where he found a brief mention of this story.  Chris scoured the news for more information, around the time Richard Nixon was looking for his post-Presidential home.  As it happened, Nixon bought his posh, upper-east side home from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York Lawyer who mentioned in passing, he owed his life to Roddie Edmonds.

So it was, this story came to light.  In 2015, Edmonds was honored as “Righteous among the Nations”, the first American soldier, so honored.  It’s the highest honor bestowed by the state of Israel, on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.  President Barack Obama recognized Edmonds heroism in a 2016 speech before the Israeli embassy.  The United States Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal in 2017.  As I write this, Pastor Edmonds and the Jewish veterans saved by M/Sgt Edmonds are pushing for the Knoxville, Tennessee native to receive the Medal of Honor.

Pastor Edmonds says he always looked up to his father, the man had always been, his hero.  “I just didn’t know he had a cape in his closet“.

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March 2, 1942  The Great Escape

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.

Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp in the province of Lower Silesia, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 United States Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

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A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike.  Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

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Roger Bushell, (right), the Cambridge-educated son of British parents, was born and brought up in South Africa. Bushell was the inspiration for the film character “Bartlett”, played by Richard Attenborough

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty. Roger Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in the history of World War Two. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

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The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty individuals. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with two hundred.

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.

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The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Of fifteen hundred prisoners in the compound, six hundred were involved in the attempt.  200 “penguins” made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, sacks sewn from the legs of long underpants, disposing of soil.  The tunnels were some kind of engineering marvel.  30′ down to avoid seismic detection equipment, and only two-feet square, the three tunnels extended outward for the length of a football field and more.

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Prisoners rigged an electric lighting system and shored up the tunnel sides, using bedboards

Penguins were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” planned exit-point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

Flight Lieutenant Nathaniel Flekser reflected on his own experience: “How lucky I really was dawned on me when I later met RAF prisoners who were shot down while on bombing missions over Germany. They were attacked by angry civilians, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, and packed into cattle cars. One crew was thrown into a furnace.” H/T warfarehistory.com

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  March 24-25, 1944.

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German soldier demonstrates trolley system used to transport soil for dispersal

Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point, none were left in camp.

The great escape was doomed, nearly from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse required repair.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  When guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground, it was all over.

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German crawls out of tunnel entrance, following discovery

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller made it back to England via Sweden.  Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok made it to Gibraltar.   Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were actually carried out.

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General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  They were 22 Brits (including Bushell), 6 Canadians, 6 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 Norwegians, 2 New Zealanders, and one man each from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, and Lithuania.  All but seven were RAF airmen.

Nebe himself was later implicated in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed on this day in 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while awaiting a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the German surrender.

Dick Churchill
Dick Churchill, last surviving veteran of the “Great Escape”, died on February 12, 2019.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, Churchill said he was fairly certain he’d been spared execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The last surviving veteran of the daring escape which inspired the 1963 movie died at his home near Crediton, Devon, England, on February 12.  Five weeks ago.  Dick Churchill was ninety-nine years old.

 

A Trivial Matter
Rumors that Stalag Luft III’s American POWs were to be moved to another compound sped up work on Tom, raising German suspicions and leading to the tunnel’s discovery in September 1943. The tunnel was blown up using dynamite, causing a nearby guard tower to sink into the hole. The discovery was bad news for the Kriegies, but no end of amusement from watching how much work went into rebuilding that tower.

March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.

March 9, 1974 The Last Holdout

Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki set out, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order”.

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Ford Island Burning

On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese air forces attacked the US Pacific Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.

The attack killed 2,335 and wounded another 1,178.  Four battleships and two other vessels were sunk to the bottom.  Thirteen other ships were damaged or destroyed.

188 aircraft were destroyed and another 159 damaged, most while still on the ground.  All eight battleships then in harbor, were damaged.

The following day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war.  Little did anyone know.  The war with Imperial Japan would rage for 33 years.

Wait.  What!?

Alright, not really. Representatives of the Empire of Japan signed the instruments of surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, formally ending the war in the Pacific.

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Except, some were so isolated from the chain of command, they never got the message.  Others believed it to be a ruse.  So steeped were these guys in the warrior code of bushido, it was impossible to believe their leaders had accepted dishonorable surrender.  Still others were true believers, fanatically dedicated to the mythical “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”.  Never mind those mass graves, over there.

Whatever it was, WW2 came and then left without them.  For thousands, the war went on.

On June 7, 1944, the largest gyokusai (honorable suicide) of World War 2 exploded from three sides against United States Army and Marine Corps troops, on Saipan.  Some five thousand Japanese emerged shrieking from caves and hiding places, in the largest Banzai Charge of WW2. Savage fighting was hand to hand, the tide of humanity overrunning American forward positions and penetrating miles, into the rear. One rear-echelon regimental headquarters was overwhelmed.

Bonsai chargeThe struggle raged for fifteen hours.  In terms of American casualties, the Battle for Saipan was the third costliest battle of the Pacific war, after Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Some 4,300 Japanese troops were killed in the Bonsai charge of June 7.  William O’Brien of Troy, New York, Benjamin Lewis Salomon of Milwaukee Wisconsin and Thomas Alexander Baker of Troy New York all earned the Medal of Honor. Posthumously.

Following the Battle of Saipan, Captain Sakae Ōba led a small band of survivors in guerrilla actions against American troops.  The small group couldn’t know, the fleet of Japanese ships expected to bring relief from the Philippines was destroyed in the largest naval action of the war, in Leyte Gulf.   And so they fought on, 47 men raiding by night, and taking pot shots, from a distance.  When medical supplies ran out, Ōba cannily inserted the weak and infirm into American POW stockades, taking with him a like number among the strongest.  He was “the fox”:  so clever was this guy at evading capture.

Photographs were dropped after the war, depicting the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pictures Ōba deemed to be fakes.  When Americans set up outdoor movie theaters in the fields of Saipan, none could know.  Captain Sakae Ōba sat in the (way) back seat.

Captain Ōba’s band held out, for 512 days.

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Captain Sakae Ōba surrenders his sword to Lieutenant Colonel Howard G. Kirgi

20 Imperial Japanese Army personnel emerged from a tunnel on Corregidor, surrendering to an American serviceman.  Navy Lieutenant Hideo Horiuchi was arrested by on August 13, 1946, while recovering from wounds received in a battle with Dutch troops.

Lieutenant Ei Yamaguchi led 33 soldiers in an attack on an American Marine Corps detachment on Peleliu in March, 1947. Reinforcements were sent in, including a Japanese admiral who finally convinced these guys the war was over. The group surrendered in April, 1947.

• On May 12, 1948, two Japanese soldiers surrendered to civilian policemen in Guam.
• Two machine gunners from the Imperial Japanese Navy surrendered on Iwo Jima on January 6, 1949.
• Several went on to fight for the Viet Minh against French Imperial troops, in Indochina.
• Seaman Noburo Kinoshita hanged himself in the Luzon jungle in 1955, rather than “return to Japan in defeat.”

Private Bunzō Minagawa and Sergeant Masashi Itō held out for sixteen years on the American territory of Guam.  Minagawa described the experience:

“We ate roots, worms, grass, and grasshoppers. It’s no use telling you because you wouldn’t believe it. You can’t imagine such a life. We were sleeping every night in the rain on the ground“.

The pair surrendered in May 1960, rotted uniforms hanging in tatters from from their bodies. Shoichi Yokoi also served under Itō.  Corporal Yokoi evaded capture, for another twelve years.

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A cleaned-up and no doubt sweeter smelling Masashi Ito and Bunzo Minagawa in hospital, following capture

In June 1941, 36 soldiers and sailors survived the sinking of 3 Japanese supply ships off Anatahan, swimming ashore on the tiny speck of an island in the Marianas chain.

Anatahan island had two occupants at the time, the Japanese head of a coconut plantation, and his wife.  Kikuichiro Higa “disappeared” under mysterious circumstances while his wife Kazuko, became the object of affection for thirty-six starving castaways.

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Japanese ship sinking under allied attack

Kazuko, a “lantern jawed” woman the Japan Times “charitably described” as “handsome’, “married” Kikuichiro Higa as protection, from the rest. Higa was soon shot and Kazuko’s third “husband”, had his throat slit. For six years, a dwindling number of starving waifs vied for the affections of the island’s only female.

Over the years, one erstwhile beau was stabbed, thirteen times.

After twelve murders and countless assaults and fist fights, “The Queen Bee of Anahatan Island” returned to Japan in 1951. Press adulation was short lived.  Kazuku Higa fell into a life of prostitution and died in abject poverty at age 51, while working as garbage collector.

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The media highly glamorized (and highly sexualized) the dismal story of 36 soldiers and sailors and one civilian woman stranded on Anahatan Island

After the war, 2nd Lieutenant Hirō Onoda took to the mountains of Lubang Island along with Private Yūichi Akatsu, Corporal Shōichi Shimada and Private First Class Kinshichi Kozuka, carrying out guerrilla raids and engaging in shootouts with local police.  Akatsu left the other three in 1949, and surrendered six months later.  Shimada was killed by a search party in 1954.  Kozuka was shot and killed by local police in 1972, while burning rice collected by farmers.

Two years later, Japanese explorer and adventurer Norio Suzuki set out, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a wild panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order“.  On February 20, 1974, the pair met.  Suzuki nearly got himself shot for his troubles, but he was quick.  “Onoda-san”, he said, “the emperor and the people of Japan are worried about you.” Years later, Onada himself described the encounter:  “This hippie boy Suzuki came to the island to listen to the feelings of a Japanese soldier. Suzuki asked me why I would not come out…

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Hirō Onoda – CNN

I am a soldier and remain true to my duties.” Onada would surrender when ordered to do so by a superior officer.  Not before. Suzuki returned to Japan and located Onoda’s commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, who was now working in a book store. The pair flew to Lubang, where Taniguchi issued the following orders:

“In accordance with the Imperial command, the Fourteenth Area Army has ceased all combat activity.
In accordance with military Headquarters Command No. A-2003, the Special Squadron of Staff’s Headquarters is relieved of all military duties.
Units and individuals under the command of Special Squadron are to cease military activities and operations immediately and place themselves under the command of the nearest superior officer. When no officer can be found, they are to communicate with the American or Philippine forces and follow their directives”.

Thus properly relieved of duty, Onada surrendered, turning over his sword, his rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and a number of hand grenades along with the dagger his mother had given him.  To kill himself, should he ever be captured.  It was March 9, 1974.

Private Teruo Nakamura, born Attun Palalin to the aboriginal Amis people native to the island nation of Taiwan, was the last confirmed holdout of WW2.  Nakamura, who spoke neither Japanese nor Mandarin, was discovered by the Indonesian Air Force on Morotai.  He surrendered to a search patrol on December 18, 1974.

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Teruo Nakamura

Twenty-nine years, three months, and sixteen days after the Japanese instrument of surrender, World War Two was finally over.

Afterward

51D9hvd+N+L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)As a member of the Japanese Army, Hirō Onada received back pay and a pension equal to $160,000(US), equivalent to $850,000, today.  Not so, Teuro Nakamura. As a member of a colonial army, Nakamura’s thirty-years service to the former Japanese Empire got him $1,186(US) and a trip back to Taiwan where he died of lung cancer, in 1979.

Private 1st Class James Donald “Don” Jones of Eastland County, Texas was a veteran of Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Tinian and helped defeat the great bonsai charge of Saipan, in 1944.  Curious about his own history, Don Jones met with Captain Ōba in 1980, and returned the former geography teacher, his sword.  You can read Private Jones’ story in his own words, if you like.  It’s available from $16.93, in hard cover.

A Trivial Matter

On March 16, 1631, the first recorded fire in the city of Boston burned the home of Thomas Sharp to the ground.  Thatch roofs and wooden chimneys were outlawed, not long after.

February 25, 1944 Soldier Bear

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

The most destructive war in history began on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces invaded from the north, south and west, following an SS-concocted false flag operation known as the Gleiwitz incident. The Soviet Union, then allied with Nazi Germany, invaded from the east on September 17, according to a secret provision of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Polish forces fought back with stunning bravery, horse cavalry riding to meet German tanks, but little Poland never had a chance. German and Soviet forces were in full control of Polish territory by October 6.

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France and Great Britain declared war in support of their Polish ally on September 3, but effective relief came too little, too late. In the end, some 65,000 Polish troops were killed in the fighting, compared with 16,000 Germans. 420,000 became prisoners of the Reich and a quarter-million more, of the USSR. In April 1942, some 22,000 Polish officers were murdered in the forests of Katyń, an atrocity carried out by Soviet troops but blamed at the time, on German soldiers.

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Scene from the 2007 Polish film, “Katyń”

Some 120,000 Polish troops escaped via neutral Romania, another 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania. The second Polish Republic was dead, but Polish soldiers made some of the most heroic contributions to the allied war effort. Polish units fought from North Africa to Italy, to the north of Europe. Polish pilots and air crews made some of the largest contributions of any non-British nationality, to the Battle of Britain.  As the first light of dawn broke over the age of the inter-continental ballistic missile, Polish partisans captured the first V2 rocket, that supersonic and potentially game-changing super weapon of the Third Reich.

V2The doors to the Soviet Gulags opened after June 22, 1941, following Hitler’s surprise invasion of his Soviet “Ally”. While tens of thousands of free Poles worked their way to the assistance of France and Great Britain, these former POWs became the core of the Polish II Corps, numbering some 100,000 soldiers by 1945.

Around the time of the Katyń massacre, Polish troops of the newly formed “Anders Army” were passing through Hamedān Iran, in the company of thousands of civilians fleeing Soviet territory. A Kurdish boy was keeping a bear cub at that time, a Syrian brown bear whose mother had been shot, by hunters. Eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz was smitten with the animal, prompting Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy him. The young bear spent three months in a Polish refugee camp before being handed over to the 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. The soldiers called him Wojtek (“VOY-tek”), the diminutive form of “Wojciech”, meaning “Happy Warrior”.

wojtek5Wojtek was small in the beginning, yet to be weaned from his mother’s milk and having trouble swallowing.  Soldiers fed him condensed milk from an old vodka bottle, leading to honey or syrup and marmalade and whole fruit.

From Iraq through Syria and on to Palestine and Egypt, Wojtek moved with the 22nd Company. He loved to wrestle and learned by imitating, marching alongside on his hind legs, and learning to smoke. As he grew larger, soldiers rewarded Wojtek with a beer, which soon became his favorite libation.

With the Italian armistice of September 3, 1943, Allied planners hoped to occupy the Italian peninsula with minimal bloodshed.  It wasn’t meant to be.  The Italian campaign was embarked on its eighth month on this day in 1944, with another three months yet to go.  No campaign in all the West of Europe, cost the lives of more infantry, on both sides.

I personally have an uncle among them, killed in the fighting around Anzio.

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The shattered ruins of Monte Cassino cost the Allied side 55,000 casualties, to 20,000 Germans. H/T Life Magazine

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company joined a British transport out of Egypt, bound for the Italian peninsula.  Regulations prohibited mascot animals from troop ships.  So it was that Wojtek was officially enlisted as a soldier with his own serial number and paybook, and given the rank of Private.

Twenty divisions of Allied troops were engaged against the fortified strong points at Monte Cassino and the Gustav line, in terrain that would have challenged the talents of a mountain goat. On May 18, the Polish flag was raised over the shattered ruins, followed by the Union Jack. The former abbey had cost the Allies 55,000 casualties.

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“Polish soldiers carry ammunition to the front lines just before the capture of the abbey”. H/T Wikipedia

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company helped provide ammunition during the battle for Monte Cassino, the men carrying 100-pound crates of shells and stacking them on trucks.  Wojtek was quick to imitate and, though a mere stripling of a bear at 200-pounds, could carry a crate by himself, which would’ve taken four men.  He never dropped a single one.800px-Wojtek_soldier_bear.svg

Wojtek’s actions earned him a promotion to the rank of Corporal, his image becoming the official emblem of the 22nd Company.

Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire, Scotland after the war, along with the 22nd Company. There he became a local celebrity, and honorary member of the Polish-Scottish association.

Following full demobilization in 1947, Wojtek was given over to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. Journalists and former Polish soldiers would visit from time to time.  Some would toss him a cigarette which he would eat, not having anyone to light it for him. At the time of his death in 1963, the former soldier bear weighed in at 490-lbs.

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

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Monument to Wojtek in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
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.

February 22, 1943 The Mighty Atom

With eighteen in the plaintiffs dock and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

Yosselle “Joseph” Greenstein was born on January 2, 1893, the son of the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland. A small, sickly child with chronic asthma, doctors believed he suffered from the same tuberculosis, which had killed his father.

“Joe” tried sneaking into the Issakoff Brother’s Circus at fourteen, receiving a savage beating for his trouble, left bleeding and barely conscious in a muddy alley.

The circus’ strongman “Champion Volanko” saw the poor, scrawny kid trying to crawl home, and took pity.  Volanko brought the boy into his trailer and, as the two talked, became impressed with his determination. This was an old-school strength athlete, capable of performing a military press with baskets full of women, in each hand. He offered to teach the boy his techniques.  So it was that Joe Greenstein ran away with a traveling circus.

Eighteen months later, he was a changed man.  Greenstein took up wrestling and married, while still a teenager.

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“Home at last by Moshe Maimon. The house’s occupants return when it is safe, to find the house thoroughly looted. A rabbi is saying Kaddish for a member of the household who was killed”. H/T Wikipedia

In those days, Poland was a nation in name only, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian Empire.  Tsarist Russia was engulfed in a paroxysm of anti-Jewish violence in the pre-war years, riots resulting in death and injury, by the tens of thousands.  The New York Times reported on one such “pogrom”, in 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish…The cry “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city…Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

This place had nothing for a young Jewish family.  Joseph and Leah Greenstein emigrated to the United States and made a home in Galveston Texas.

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Jack Johnson

Joe worked on the docks and oil fields of Galveston, or  laying railroad tracks and pounding spikes, by hand.  He was wrestling professionally by this time under the name “Kid Greenstein”, and good at it, too.  He met Jack Johnson who taught him some fighting techniques, the first black athlete to break the color barrier to become the heavyweight champion of the world, in 1908.

A local Texas man became obsessed with Leah Greenstein in 1914 and shot her husband, between the eyes.  The bullet struck with enough force to flatten against his forehead, but did not penetrate.  Joe left the hospital that same day, convinced his physical conditioning and mental discipline, had saved his life.

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Joseph Greenstein, the Mighty Atom

Thus began the career of one of the greatest strongmen, in history.  He was “The Mighty Atom”, able to break up to three chains, by expanding his chest.  Only 5’4″-inches tall, he could bend horseshoes and drive nails with his bare hands.  He could pull a fire truck with his hair, and change a tire with no tools. Not even a jack.

On September 29, 1928 the headlines read “The Mighty Atom – Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” He had held an aircraft on the ground with his hair – the feat was documented by Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”.

In 1936, a dispute with six dock workers, led to a brawl.  The story ran in all the New York papers – “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” party in 1933, some German Americans formed groups, patterned after the Nazi Party in Germany.  These people had few connections to the “Thousand-Year Reich” and received little support from the broader German American community, yet they wore uniforms and toted swastikas and preached the same hate for the Jews, as the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.  The most notorious of these, was the “German American Bund”.

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“German American Bund Camp youth salute Hindenburg in Griggstown, New Jersey”. H/T rarehistoricphotos.com

Though the claim was believed to be exaggerated, Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) estimated German-American Bund membership, at 430,000, in 1938.

The Mighty Atom was in New York that year when he passed a building, about to host a Nazi rally.  One sign high on the wall read “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”.  Yosselle Greenstein had left that garbage behind in the old country.  He wasn’t about to tolerate it here.

He bought a ladder, and climbed up and tore the thing down.  Twenty streamed out of the building, bent on beating the man into giblets.  When it was over, eighteen had been sent to the hospital.

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Pulling a fire truck, Mighty Atom style

A few weeks later, the combatants were in court.  Eighteen in the plaintiffs dock, and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

War descended over Europe and with it the systematic extermination of the infirm.  The Jew.  The Roma.  The “Untermenschen“.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Judge-President Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”.  Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  In reality, this mockery of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, by the hundreds.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope.  Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

This video give a good idea about “justice” in Roland Feisler’s court.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful opposition came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders, as Universities had been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology. The “White Rose” would rise in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, producing leaflets, handbills and anti-Nazi graffiti from the earliest days of 1943.

These too were found out, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst made to stand trial before judge Feisler’s Court on February 22, 1943. All were sentenced to death and guillotined the same day. The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

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Back at home, Joseph Greenstein performed for war bond drives, always without compensation.  The Mighty Atom continued to perform feats of strength well into his eighties, and taught fighting techniques to the New York Police department, Israeli Defence Force and others.

The Mighty Atom portraitDuring his last public performance given before a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1977, the Mighty Atom wore a leather vest, emblazoned with a golden star of David.

When he was through, Greenstein took a moment to wish his great-grandchild a happy first birthday.

The man could still bend horseshoes and drive nails with his hands.

The mighty Atom succumbed to cancer on October 8, 1977.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In 2014, Joe’s son Mike appeared on America’s Got Talent. pulling a 3500-pound car with his teeth and wearing a T-shirt promoting “Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).  He was 93.

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.