Archive for September, 2008

I first heard of Babi Yar when watching the mini-series War and Remembrance back in the 1980’s.  As a teenager, it was a particularly difficult portion for me to watch because of the violence it portrayed, but producer Dan Curtis was determined to remain as true as possible to the events that transpired while still maintaining the decency required to show it on television.

The year was 1941, and Germany was steamrolling over the Soviet Union on its way to Moscow.  Hundreds of miles to the South, progress was a little slower, so Adolf Hitler diverted forces from the North to help even out the front lines.  With the added boost in personnel and armor, the Wehrmacht was rolling again, surrounding a large Russian contingent in the city of Kiev.  After desperate fighting, the city fell on September 19th.

Shortly after the takeover, several buildings occupied by the Germans were blown up.  Though later it would be shown that the NKVD (Russian security) forces were responsible, for the Germans (as we have seen before) it was an opportunity for revenge, this time on a grand scale.  All Jews in Kiev were informed that they would need to assemble near the city cemetary for deportation.  Any refusing to do so would be shot.

And so, on September 29, 1941, they gathered…by the thousands.  And the Germans deported them in groups…to Babi Yar, a large ravine in the northern suburbs of Kiev.  There they were stripped of their possessions, stripped of the theirs clothes, lined up on the edge of the ravine, and machine-gunned.  This obscene act would be repeated hundreds of times and, during the two days, nearly 34,000 Jewish men, women, and children would be slaughtered.

When it was finished, the Germans gathered up the valuables, gathered up the clothes, covered the bodies with dirt, and left.  Over the next 18 months, an estimated 70,000+ additional people would meet their end here.  And then in 1943, when the war began to turn against Germany, all the corpses would be dug up and burned by the Germans in an effort to hide their deeds.

As we have said before, the war between Germany and Russia was a no-holds-barred, nothing-is-sacred conflict.  And for the Jewish people, caught between German hatred and Russian indifference, the events at Babi Yar were just the beginning of the nightmare.

Recommended Reading: The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945

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On the eve of September 28, 1941, Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams had a tough decision to make.  It was the night before the final day of the season…one of the most memorable seasons in baseball history.  A young Yankee star named Joe Dimaggio had gotten a hit in 56 straight games.  Dick Wakefield had received an unbelievable $52,000 to play for the Tigers.  Jimmie Foxx had driven in 100 runs…for the 13th consecutive year.  A pitcher named Feller won 25 games.  And batting helmets made their first appearance.

And then there was Williams, whose season was one for the ages.  Heading into the final day of play, Williams’ average sat at .39955, which rounds to .400, quite possibly the most coveted number in all of baseball.  Two hits per five official at-bats.  An average not seen in more than a decade.  And here was Ted, right on the cusp.  His coach gave him the option to sit out the final day to protect .400, but that wasn’t really Williams’ style.

So Ted Williams took the risk and played on September 28th, which happened to be a double-header for the Red Sox.  And all he did was go 6-for-8, finishing the season with a .406 batting average.  And Ted did more than hit for average, he hit 37 homeruns, drove in 120 runs, and walked an astounding 147 times…at the tender age of 22.  But that year’s MVP award went to Dimaggio, as his 56-game hitting streak won the day for the voters.

The magic plateau of .400 has been approached a handful of times since ’41 (George Brett’s .390 in 1980, Rod Carew’s .388 in 1977, and, more recently, Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in the strike-killed 1994 season), but it hasn’t been eclipsed.  It’s hard to say whether it will ever be reached again.  Baseball’s expansion in the 90’s has allowed gobs of mediocre pitching in both leagues to fatten averages and statistics of hitters who, 25 years ago, would not likely have been playing.  Still, “2 hits per 5 ab’s” is (obviously) nearly impossible to maintain through a 162-game schedule.

Ted Williams said that he would like someone else to hit .400, just so people would stop bothering him about it.  But Ted’s accomplishment on this day in 1941 is so special, and the game of baseball has changed so much in nearly 70 years.  I just can’t see anyone duplicating Williams’ feat any time soon.  And so Williams must remain alone on the batting-average pinnacle…for the time being.

Recommended Reading: The Science of Hitting – How to hit, from the man himself.

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On September 27, 1940, the Axis Powers were officially created when Germany, Japan, and Italy signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin.  Set to last for 10 years, the Pact contained several articles.  First, Japan recognized that Germany and Italy were in charge of things in Europe, while Germany and Italy submitted to Japan in East Asia and the Pacific.  It also stated that each country was allowed to acquire the territory needed to maintain peace (sounds strange, right?), and that each member should economically, politically, and militarily support the acquisition efforts of the others. 

The Tripartite Pact also addressed the Soviet Union…with good reason.  If you recall, Germany and Japan had already signed the Anti-Comintern Pact back in 1936.  Simply put, the two countries agreed that Communism was evil and that neither country would enter into any kind of treaty with the Communist Soviet Union.  Fast-forward to 1939.  Germany, in setting up Poland for occupation, signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Russia, which caused some consternation in Japan, who was involved in on-again, off-again territorial disputes with the Soviets and wanted to focus more on deteriorating relations with the United States.

As a result, the Tripartite Pact contained language stating that this Pact in no way affected any member’s current relationship with Russia.  So, Japan and Russia could stay mad at each other, and Russia and Germany could be friends (for the time being), and Japan wouldn’t have to be mad at Germany…one of those high-school-girls-type alliances if ever there was one.

Over the course of next several years, other countries would join the Pact.  Today’s History Lesson has already directly addressed two of those:  Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.  Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia would be added in November, and Croatia would join in 1941.

Recommended Reading: Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941

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It was almost too unbelievable to fathom.  Wait, it was too unbelievable to fathom.  He stared at his computer screen in shock and horror amid the alarms sounding from the computer system in front of him.  After all these years of speculation, pontification, bluster, and angry back-and-forth rhetoric, it was happening.  The beginning of the end.  Armageddon.  Worldwide cataclysm.  Or was it?

As the clock passed the midnight hour of September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was in the middle of yet another mundane night shift, monitoring his computers.  Holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the computers he watched were in a bunker…near Moscow…in the Soviet Union.  And those computers listened to Soviet satellites that were watching for the telltale ignition plumes that indicated missile launches from the United States or from her ballistic missile submarines.

Well, after years of nothing, the warning bells pealed.  A launch from the U.S. had been detected, and Petrov probably jumped at the sound.  With his mind racing, Petrov focused on the basics:  Soviet doctrine.  It taught that a U.S. attack would not be a “decapitation” strike with a solitary missile, but an all-out attack with many.  And frankly, the computer system had been a little “glitchy” lately.  So the detection of a single missile could only be a computer-processing error.  Whew!!!

But then things got ugly quickly.  Another missile launch was detected.  Then another.  Then a fourth.  And a fifth!!  Now what to do?!?  The Soviets were still bearing the incredible sting of world condemnation for shooting down that Korean jet just 3 weeks prior.  Was that the final straw for the West?!?  The “Start” button in front of Petrov was flashing, and pushing it would initiate the process of a massive Soviet nuclear response.  But still, Petrov wasn’t sure.  Was it a horrible computer failure, or was it the real thing?  Waiting for Soviet radar to detect the incoming missiles would be to wait too long.

It was a calm Sunday evening in the United States, and in a Soviet bunker, complete and utter destruction was a finger-push away.  Stanislav Petrov’s gut told him it was a mistake, even though all available evidence was to the contrary.  So Petrov, going against his orders, did nothing and waited for the ground to begin rumbling, the searing heat, and inevitable death…which never came.

Petrov’s superiors didn’t expressly punish Petrov for disobeying doctrine, but neither did they reward him, as doing so would have shown the faults in the Soviet detection systems, bringing certain consequences on themselves.  Still, Petrov’s career was largely over and he would be retired in short order.  It wouldn’t be until the fall of the Soviet Union and the publication of his superiors’ memoirs that Stanislav’s deeds would become known…to a very appreciative world.

NOTE: I thought I’d try a different look to the site…hope you like it.  A special thanks to my co-worker Beth for her outstanding work on the new graphic.  I think it’s terrific!!

Recommended Reading: Stanislav Petrov Averts a Worldwide Nuclear War – Not wanting to use photos without permission, go to this site for even more details…and pictures of Petrov.

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There were several other topics I was planning to do for today (Devil’s Tower or maybe the creation of the Attorney General’s office),  but they’ll just have to wait.  I decided to put them aside when I saw that Theodor Geisel had passed away on September 24, 1991.   Geisel’s name probably means little to you, though the teaster photo likely gives the gig away.  But Geisel’s middle name is legendary.  Its mention brings instant recognition, takes many of us back to our childhoods, and conjures up some of our earliest memories.  That name is…Seuss.

Yep, Geisel is none other than the immortal Dr. Seuss.  And like my other favorite doctor, Dr. Science, Seuss wasn’t a real doctor, though his intentions were to study for a doctorate of Philosophy.  But advanced degree or no, Seuss has provided children (and not a few adults) with some of the most entertaining books ever.

It’s hard to really describe a Seuss book, simply because they’re so completely different from any other children’s book.  Most books tell a simple story, so there’s a plot, and flow, and at least a little character development.  And some of Seuss’ books do that a little…I’m thinking of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (one of Seuss’ first books).  They’re books that move toward an end.  But many others simply have no real point at all.  They bob and weave from idea to idea and from topic to topic in a most precarious way.  Plot?  Forget about it.  Characters?  Who cares, they’re creatures that don’t even exist anyway.

But in a way, those are the perfect books for children.  They’re silly, they have creatures with fantastic names, they’re beautifully illustrated, and they defy any kind of categorization…except as “classics for children”.

Seuss wrote dozens of books in his lifetime, many of them enormously popular.  You’ve probably read some of them (or at least looked at the dazzling artwork).  The Cat in the Hat is, quite possibly, the most popular children’s book of all time.  If it isn’t, Green Eggs and Ham wouldn’t be far from the top.  The 500 Hats… was a favorite of mine (I always loved it when, after about 400 hats or so, the feathers started appearing), I’ve read Hop on Pop, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Mr. Brown Can Moo!  Can You?, and If I Ran the Circus.

But my favorite Dr. Seuss book is, without question, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The story is so simple, the rhyming is so clever, and as a children’s tale, it takes a light-hearted approach to an important lesson that every child needs to know:  you don’t have to have lots of stuff (or even anything at all) to be happy.

Of course, Boris Karloff’s narration of the Grinch cartoon is superb, and I watch the video version every single year around Christmas (“Why, the Grinch even took the last can of Who-hash!“)…my wife bought me the DVD.

So, while Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss left us on this day, he left us with an astounding collection of terrific books that children will enjoy for generations to come.

Recommended Reading: How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Read this Dr. Seuss classic.  It might take you 15 minutes or so.

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Yep, it’s Tommy Lasorda’s birthday.  In baseball circles, his name is legendary and, as the long-time coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he compiled a list of awards and achievements that certifies his status.

Born on September 22, 1927, Tommy had a fairly successful minor league career, but his stint as a pitcher at the top level was short and pretty unmemorable, with just a handful of appearances in the mid-50’s and no victories.  But once his playing days were over, Lasorda kind of hit his prime, one that would last 30+ years.  Once again, he enjoyed tremendous success in the Dodgers’ minor-league organization, only this time as a coach.  A string of championships in the late 60’s and early 70’s got him noticed and, by 1973, he was a coach aside the legendary Walter Alston.

When Alston retired after the 1976 season, Lasorda took over…and the rest is baseball history.  1,599 wins, two World Series championships (over the Yankees in 1981 and the Kirk Gibson-inspired 1988 win over the A’s), numerous pennants, and Division championships all give evidence to his greatness as a manager.

But even more than that, the thing I remember so clearly are the number of young players that came up and flourished in his dugouts.  It seemed that every year during the 80’s and 90’s, the Dodgers always, always, always had a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate.  Guys like Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Sax, Eric Karros, and certain-Hall-of-Famer Mike Piazza displayed not only the Dodger organization’s ability to find quality talent, but also Lasorda’s penchant for plugging them in at just the perfect time and allowing them to blossom.

Tommy retired from coaching during the 1996 season, nearly 20 years after taking the helm, and his tremendous success (he was named Manager-of-the-Year 5 times by one group or another) gained him entrance to baseball’s Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.  He continues to work for the Dodgers, even at 81, and he remains an important ambassador for the sport.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one thing for which I remember Tommy Lasorda the most:  The Baseball Bunch.  A really cheesy baseball show for kids that ran on Saturday mornings for a couple years back in the 80’s, The Baseball Bunch starred Johnny Bench, (I think) the San Diego Chicken, and Lasorda as the mystical, magical Dugout Wizard, who told kids, “The Umpire is ALWAYS right.”


Happy Birthday, Tommy Lasorda!!

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It started simply enough, but has become a worldwide sensation.  It was meant to be a story for the author’s son, but millions upon millions of adults have embraced it.  It’s popularity led the publishers to ask for a sequel, and what resulted was one of the most important works of fiction ever created.  But such was the power in the phrase – “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – written on a scrap of paper, that could so affect literary history.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s story of Bilbo Baggins, has all the elements that a child (and maybe a grown-up) requires in an adventure story.  There are strange races of people (hobbits, elves, dwarves, trolls, and goblins), there is a wizard, and mountains, and secret doors, and maps, a key, and a magic ring.

But above all else, there is a quest.  Bilbo Baggins is thrust into the middle of an adventure he desperately wants to avoid.  And throughout the pages of the book, we watch as Bilbo is transformed from a sort of bumbling fraidy-cat to the leader of an expedition, as the adventures he and the dwarves encounter serve to refine our hero.  So by story’s end, Mr. Baggins is no longer the homebody hobbit who passes out at the mere mention of death, but a bold adventurer who faces his fears and is willing to walk into the dragon’s den.

I think my first exposure to Tolkien was watching the Rankin-Bass cartoon production of The Hobbit back when I was 12…maybe 13 years old.  It’s a decent rendition, though I think Glenn Yarborough’s singing is atrocious.  My first reading of the book was not long after.  I read it every year, usually in August, and my count of readings now approaches 30.  But I still love the tale.

A couple of interesting things: my uncle built an earth home years ago, and his mailbox was custom-painted with “Middle Earth” on it.  My younger brother proposed to his wife while reading the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” to her.  He got to the Bilbo’s question (“What have I got in my pocket?”) and, well, you know…

The greatest value “The Hobbit” has is that its popularity made the publication of The Lord of the Rings a reality.  And while the 3-volume sequel required that Tolkien alter certain aspects of Bilbo’s story, it still remains the same classic adventure story today that it was when those first 1,500 books rolled off the presses on September 21, 1937 (the original cover is shown above).  And if you can find one of those original copies…

Recommended Reading:  The Hobbit – I just finished what I think is my 28th or 29th reading last month, so pick up a copy and go for it!

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The 50 years that span 1860-1910 were especially tough ones for U.S. Presidents.  The Civil War was catastrophic.  Reconstruction was painful and expensive.  The mending of a fractured Union was difficult.  The end of slavery represented (at least for the South) a real paradigm shift in labor laws.  And the beginning of an entirely new Industrial Revolution presented vast new challenges.  But on top of that, Presidents kept getting assassinated, which probably made the job even less desirable.  Lincoln in 1865.  McKinley in 1901.  And the subject of Today’s (rather brief) History Lesson:  President James Garfield.

President Garfield took the oath of office in March of 1881, but barely got his feet wet as Commander-in-Chief before calamity struck.  On July 2nd, while on his way to deliver a speech at his alma mater (Williams College), he was gunned down by Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. railroad station.  And unlike the killers of Lincoln and McKinley, who carried out their deeds for ideological reasons, Guiteau’s actions were much less noble (as if shooting any President could be considered “noble”).  He was upset because he had been denied a government position as U.S. consul in Paris, a job he had asked for numerous times and had no qualification to hold.

Like McKinley’s assassination, two bullets hit Garfield, and one did most of the damage.  Like McKinley, doctors could not find the 2nd bullet, which (almost like McKinley) had lodged in his spine.  Like McKinley, it would be the rudimentary (compared to today) medical conditions that would lead to the infections that took the President’s life.  But unlike McKinley (who lived just 8 days following his shooting), President Garfield would suffer from his wounds for 80 days before succumbing on September 19, 1881.

In a rather strange turn of events, part of Charles Guiteau’s trial defense contended that the doctors were Garfield’s real killers, and the President’s death was on their heads due to poor medical care.  Fortunately, the jury didn’t buy it, and Guiteau was executed by hanging (probably with an unsanitary rope) the following June.

President James Garfield tenure, at just over 6 months, was the 2nd shortest (to date) in U.S. history.  Only William Henry Harrison, who got sick on Inaguration Day and died a month later, served a shorter term.

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Let’s jump back to Peleliu for a couple minutes, partly because this island war is so unknown compared with other Pacific battles, but also because I want to touch on the exploits of Arthur Jackson, a 19-year old Private First Class (PFC) from Portland, OR.

The 7th Marine Regiment (of which Jackson was a member) had been given their orders for September 18, 1944:  drive the Japanese from Ngarmoked, a small island-esque peninsula at the very southern end of Peleliu.  The orders also included the directive to bypass small pockets of resistance and go for the big kills, because more Marines would be following to mop up.  But it hadn’t taken much time on this blood-stained island for the men to realize that leaving even single enemies alive (and at your back) was a recipe for disaster.  But orders were orders, and it didn’t take long for dozens of troops to be confronted with deadly crossfires (from the front and rear).

Until Jackson took the initiative.  Trapped between a network of pillboxes in front and gunfire from the rear, the football player/track star flanked the first fortification, then crawled to the gun slit.  Jumping up, he poured an entire magazine from his BAR into it.  He then grabbed thermite grenades and tossed them in, followed by three TNT charges.  The pillbox exploded in a mass of fire, heat, and chunks of concrete.  Inside, all thirty-five enemy soldiers lay dead.

With the rest of his platoon now somewhat freed to provide covering fire, Arthur Jackson continued his exploits, single-handedly knocking out another eleven strongpoints.  When it was over, Jackson’s buddies celebrated like he’d scored the game’s winning touchdown.

Jackson, careful to give due credit, simply said, “Afterward, I was so exhausted I just fell down, and the only thing I wanted to do was go to sleep.  The action I was involved in was just one small part of what happened on Peleliu that day, and the only reason I was able to do some things was because I got a lot of help from my buddies.  I never considered myself a…hero.  I was just a good Marine, trying to do what any other good Marine would’ve done under the same circumstances.”

The military disagreed, and awarded Arthur Jackson the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award that can be given by the United States.  Jackson’s award is all the more meaningful because he is one of the very few soldiers alive to receive it.

Peleliu would eventually be conquered, but it took the exploits of Jackson, and thousands of others, to make it happen.

Recommended Reading: To the Far Side of Hell: The Battle for Peleliu 1944 – Another in my collection and a worthy read.

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For two and a half weeks, the German army had been swarming over Poland.  Since the start of the invasion on September 1, 1939, Poland had only offered the weakest resistance to their enemy’s armies and air force.  And just when the Poles thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

On September 17, 1939, the Soviets attacked from the east.  With well over half a million troops, the Red Army surged into Poland, in keeping with their secret agreement made with Germany back on the 23rd of August.  Russian dictator Joseph Stalin called the action a “liberation”, but for thousands and thousands of Poles, it was anything but that.

Stalin had determined in his mind that all traces of Poland would cease to exist.  And because he no longer viewed Poland as an entity, niceties such as the Geneva Convention and concern for the citizens had no meaning.  So as the army moved westward, behind them came the NKVD with their lists of names.  Polish law enforcement officers, public and government officials, professors and scientists, and military personnel were all rounded up (like those shown above).  Nearly all of them would be executed.

And as with the German invasion, the Soviet invasion of Poland would be met with stern condemnation from Great Britain and France (both of whom had made military guarantees to Poland), but nothing else.

In all pratical ways, Poland was gone.

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It’s an itty-bitty island.  If “nowhere” was a place, this would be just about in the middle.  Its name is strange and initally hard to pronounce.  But for the survivors of the battle fought over this 13-square-mile chunk of coral, the memories are black.

Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the battle for Peleliu (pell-li-loo) make it one of the most controversial battles fought in the Second World War.  In 1944, the Japanese military was falling backwards towards Japan and the U.S. was preparing to retake the Philippine Islands.  General Douglas MacArthur believed strongly that Peleliu, one of the most heavily defended islands in the area, needed to be neutralized to protect his right flank.  Admiral Chester Nimitz also believed the island needed to be taken, but moreso because he favored it in his plans to drive the Japanese from Taiwan.

But then the Navy attacked the island in March of 1944 with carrier aircraft to great success.  Nearly all the aircraft parked there were destroyed, along with much of the infrastructure and the runways.  Peleliu became, for all intents and purposes, a toothless giant…a powerful garrison that posed very little long-range threat.

By mid-summer, Nimitz had begun to question the necessity of taking Peleliu, but MacArthur held firm.  President Roosevelt, hearing both plans, sided with MacArthur making good on his promise to return to the Philippines…and Peleliu.  And so the 1st Marine Division departed and, on September 12th, the U.S. Navy began its three-day pre-invasion bombardment.  But after the shelling stopped on the 13th, Rear Admiral Oldendorf said there would be no third day of bombardment, because the battleships, cruisers, and dive-bombers had run out of targets.

In fact, the Japanese emplacements were so well-dug and well-fortified (coral is extremely tough) that the U.S. Navy inflicted little or no damage on anything.  And while the 1st Marine Division maintained a force larger than the roughly 11,000 defending Japanese, fewer than 10,000 would make the initial landings.

So, when the Marines hit the beaches on September 15, 1944, they were fighting more troops who were on higher ground and had far better protection…and were nearly untouched after enduring everything the Navy could hurl at them.  Marine General William Rupertus predicted a battle lasting three or four days.  Oh, how wrong he would be!!  Soldier-for-soldier, Peleliu would be the bloodiest battle in the Pacific War.

Recommended Reading: Brotherhood of Heroes – Sloan’s book on Peleliu, much like his recent work on Okinawa, is terrific.

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Estes Park was great.  Rocky Mountain National Park was great.  River Spruce Cabins were absolutely wonderful and I highly recommend them.  Anyways, we got home later than I anticipated (13-hour drives are long regardless of direction), so I’m further behind than I thought I’d be.  We might be playing catch-up for a day or two, because there are a couple things I really wanted to cover.

If you recall, President McKinley had been shot on September 6, 1901 in Buffalo, New York.  Doctors had tried unsuccessfully to locate the 2nd bullet that struck him and, fearing infection, simply closed his wounds.  McKinley remained in Buffalo and appeared to be getting stronger.  But the bullet in the President’s body was still causing damage, despite its lack of motion.

On the 12th, the President actually felt well enough to eat, but within hours of his breakfast, his condition had taken a serious turn.  It turns out that gangrene had formed around his wounds, and it would be the deadly infection that would take McKinley’s life early in the morning of September 14, 1901.

The President was buried at his home in Canton, OhioLeon Czolgosz, his assassin, was executed in the electric chair later in the year, and the beautiful Temple of Music was torn down when the Pan-American Exposition ended.

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The German invasion of Poland was, for Great Britain and France, the final straw.  Having experienced three years of Hitler’s “spiel-and-steal” tactics, the Western Allies had drawn a line in the sand and told the German dictator that his next military move would bring action.  So on September 1, 1939, when the Luftwaffe starting bombing the socks off Poland and the Wehrmacht’s tanks chased the horses of the Polish military all over the countryside, action was taken.

Sort of.

France and Great Britain declared war on Germany…on September 3rd.  And their actions consisted of that declaration…and that’s about it.  But to their defense, there was little they could do.  The inequality in forces meant that Germany was overrunning Poland so quickly that there was no time for Allied troops to assemble, disembark, land in Poland, and make any kind of difference whatsoever.  Furthermore, that little treaty with the Soviet Union, signed only a couple weeks prior, meant that moves against Germany could also involve the Soviets…a precarious situation.

So Great Britain and France stayed on the sidelines.  On September 10, 1939, Canada joined the fray and declared war on Germany.  As the nation with the longest tenure of calling the Crown its sovereign, Canada had some sense of duty to support Great Britain, even though, like the U.S., The Great Depression had badly hurt the country’s economy.  As it would turn out, Canada’s industry and production would receive a huge boon from the War, but that was hard to predict at the time.

Clever Canada waited until the 10th to declare war, in part because as a neutral, they were able to complete the purchase of millions of dollars in war material from the also-neutral United States.  So when they sailed for “over there”, they arrived equipped and ready for battle.

Initial Canadian forces were limited to just a single division.  But over time, participation would grow substantially.  Over the course of the War, more than 1 million Canadians would serve.  Nearly 100,000 would be killed or wounded in action in such places as Hong Kong, Dieppe, Normandy, Sicily, and Italy.  In other words, they served and died in nearly every theater and major Allied operation of the War.

NOTE: Well, we’re off again for a few days.  Since I wrote about Lawn Lake back in July, I’ve been angling to get to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It’s a happy occasion that we’re heading out there early tomorrow morning.  I’ll be back Monday afternoon, and I’ll have try to have something ready to go.

Recommended Reading: Maple Leaf against the AXIS: Canada’s Second World War

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Sicily had been secured by the Allies in August of 1943.  Thanks to some bold decisions by American commanders, the Germans had realized pretty quickly that holding the island off the boot of Italy just wasn’t practical…or safe.  So, once General Patton had swung his tanks northwest and overrun Palermo, Axis troops headed toward Messina and a “vacation” on the Italian coast.  Had Montgomery’s forces been able to move north and east more quickly, a goodly number of the enemy may have been trapped.  But such as it was…

The next logical target was Italy and, on September 9, 1943, Allied forces landed at Salerno (just south of Naples) and at Taranto (inside the heel of Italy’s boot).  The landings overall were helped somewhat by the announcement the previous day that the Italians were quitting the War, thereby breaking the long-standing Pact of Steel.  The landings at Taranto were further helped by the fact that the Germans simply weren’t there in very large numbers.

Forces landing directly at Salerno and to the west of the city also faired well, meeting little resistance and capturing their objectives rather quickly.

The beaches to the south and east of Salerno, on the other hand, proved a significant challenge.  General Mark Clark, in overall command of the invasion, had decided to try and surprise the enemy.  So the landings in the early morning were made without any naval or aerial bombardment.  Unfortunately, the enemy wasn’t the least bit surprised, and when British and American troops started coming ashore, the Germans were waiting for them.

Stiff German counterattacks inflicted heavy casualties but, fortunately, General Clark didn’t hold back the big guns once the enemy rounds started falling.  Naval gunfire and bombs were able to stave off the German Panzers and, by day’s end, the Allies had a beachhead…a tenuous beachhead to be sure, but the Allies were in Italy to stay.

Recommended Reading: The Day of Battle

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September 8, 1944 marks the first time the Germans fired their V2 rockets in anger.  Labelled as one of the Third Reich’s “Miracle” weapons, it actually had (along with the Me-262 jet fighter) as much potential as any of the systems that an increasingly “detached from reality” Fuhrer saw in action.

The V2 was also the first man-made object to gain orbit, reaching an altitude of more than 50 miles.  And it’s high supersonic speed made it a pretty good terror weapon, because it couldn’t be heard until the moment of impact.  Racing through space at almost a mile a second, friction and heat slowed its descent, but it could still smack the earth at nearly 1,800 miles per hour.

The rocket even had some rudimentary forms of guidance, with pitch motors attempting to guide the rocket through its minute of powered flight.  Later rockets would attempt to ride radio waves to their targets (not too terribly dissimilar from the way our laser-guided bombs work), but ultimately, the V2 was a largely unguided ballistic missile…and one that wasn’t terribly accurate.

The first rocket was fired at Paris, France and only did a little damage.  But 2 more, fired at London in the late afternoon of September 8th, succeeded in killing several people.  All in all, more than 6,000 V2’s were produced…about half of them were fired.  And of those, each killed an average of one or two people, so while they scared the daylights out of the citizenry, they caused relatively few casualties.

And the Allies, in some sense, were more than happy to let the Germans fire V2’s, as each rocket cost as much as one of the Me-262 fighters or several front-line tanks.  The destruction that the Luftwaffe could have done with 6,000 additional aircraft is hard to imagine.  The same applies to the Wehrmacht had Germany invested in more (and better) tanks.

To top it all off, Germany lost the war, and the Allies swooped in, took all the scientists and unfired missiles, and used them as the foundation for their own ballistic missile programs.  So, a pretty decent program for the Allies, a pretty lousy program for the guys that built it.

Recommended Reading: Hitler’s Terror Weapons: From Doodlebug to Nuclear Warheads

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On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York.  The magnificent concert hall, built especially for the Pan-American Exposition currently in progress was, for its time, an architectural and technological marvel.  It was also the place for President McKinley’s “meet-and-greet” with the public, having just been elected to his second term and riding a wave of substantial popularity.

In the crowd was the young Leon Czolgosz.  Born in Michigan of Polish immigrants, Leon’s factory jobs brought him first-hand experience with the struggles between the wealthy businessmen and the poor laborer.  After watching workers go on strike and seeing the (sometimes violent) outcomes, Czolgosz came to believe that there was great financial injustice in America, and many of the radical newspapers and magazines Leon chose to read fed his suspicions.

The assassination of King Umberto I in 1900 was a watershed event for Leon, as the assassin spoke of killing the King for the sake of the powerless and poor common man.  The American worker had found his method of striking out against the American version of that Italian inequality, and so he decided to try to duplicate his “hero”‘s feat as closely as possible.

As Leon moved through the receiving line and approached the President, he carefully removed a revolver (the same type used in the Umberto killing) from his pocket and covered it with a hanky.  He reached the front of the line…

President McKinley had been shaking hands with well-wishers for only a few minutes, but it was going well.  He now faced a man whose hand appeared to have been injured, because it was bandaged.  McKinley reached his hand out, smiled…and received 2 bullets in exchange.   The first bounced off his ribs with no damage, but second went almost completely through him, perforating his stomach, kidney, and pancreas.

Leon was immediately captured and beaten nearly to a bloody pulp by the now-enraged crowd.  Doctors were unable to find the bullet lodged in the President and, fearing infection, closed his wounds.  President McKinley’s condition would immediately start improving and he appeared to have survived the attempt on his life.

To be continued…

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A couple of months had gone by since the British had passed The Intolerable Acts, and the colonists had not been idle.  The Acts, among other things, closed the port of Boston until the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party had been paid for, took away the ability of the Massachusetts government to make political appointments, and gave British soldiers the rights of public housing.  These measures incensed the colonists, particularly those already pushing for a break from the British.

So what to do?  A meeting was needed to discuss a united reaction.  But, unlike today, where a meeting would simply be scheduled and notifications emailed to those invited, all correspondence had to be written by hand, then edited, then approved, then sent in the mail…which went by horse or ship.  Since responses were often weeks in coming, it’s no surprise that something like the First Continental Congress took a few months to organize.

But it got done, thanks in great part to the Committees of Correspondence.  These were organized groups of people in each colony that coordinated all political messages and communication between the other colonies…a Revolutionary-era email group that kept all the talking points straight.  Their good work insured that, on September 5, 1774, a total of 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies (the Province of Georgia sent none) gathered in Philadelphia, just as planned.

And for the next 50 days, they would discuss, debate, and argue the British actions and how they, as British Colonies, should respond.

Recommended Reading: American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

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Without a doubt, the most important treaty in the history of America was the treaty that finally established the existence of a free and independent America.  The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, officially ended the American Revolution and recognized the Thirteen Colonies as autonomous states.

“Revolutionary” fighting had ended on colonial soil in 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown.  But it’s important to note that, in 1781, the British didn’t consider the war lost…or even over.  They had plans to continue the conflict, but they were fighting the French elsewhere, and things were going badly enough that the British felt that peace with America would actually weaken the Franco-American alliance.  So the British presented a treaty proposal to Benjamin Franklin recognizing the colonies as independent, which somewhat upset our ally.

But then successes by the British Navy in the Mediterranean weakened the French position to the point that the French fell into agreement with the treaty as well.  It’s somewhat ironic that the French and British signed the treaty due to their weakened positions relative to each other as much as they did because of American strength.  But sign they did, as did our representatives in Paris: John Jay (who co-authored The Federalist Papers), John Adams (who became our 1st VP and 2nd President), and Benjamin Franklin (who spent the war in France as our Ambassador).

The birth of America, first begun more than seven years prior, was now complete.

Recommended Reading: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

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If you had asked the German officials, they would have said something like, “Polish militants attacked us without provocation and we were forced to respond.”  If you would have asked the leadership in Warsaw, they probably would have responded with something like, “Yeah, right.  The Nazi-Soviet Pact trapped us between two colossal enemies, so our answer was to attack the strongest of the two.  Yeah, right!!”

If you would have flown over the German-Polish border the night before the Germans launched their attack, what you saw may well have blown your mind.  Fully 85% of Germany’s military was prepared for attack.  The numbers are staggering:  1.6 million men, more than 65,000 artillery pieces and 4,000 tanks, and 2,000 aircraft.  The Poles were hopelessly outnumbered:  2-to-1 in men, 2-to-1 in artillery, more than 4-to-1 in tanks, and nearly 5-to-1 in airplanes.  Germany was poised to make a military statement, and Poland was the tablet on which it would be written.

And that’s precisely what happened on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and commenced the Second World War in Europe (keep in mind that Japan and China had already been fighting on the Chinese mainland for years).  France and Great Britain would declare war on Germany two days later (which also “formally” began the Second World War), but by then it was already too late to send any forces that could stem the German onslaught.

The War was on…

Recommended Reading: Panzer Leader

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