Archive for March, 2009

Secretary of State William Seward was a genius.  I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but in retrospect, his push for the purchase of Alaska from Russia was a masterstroke for the United States.  People scoffed at the idea of yet another huge land purchase, despite its ridiculously cheap price of $.02 per acre.  “Seward’s Folly” they called it.  Some reasoned that the vast territory acquired in the preceding 60 years had yet to be properly populated.

The massive Louisiana Territory (1804), the Annexation of Texas (1845), the Oregon Territory (1846), and the lands from the Mexican Cession (1848) had created the landmass that would ultimately comprise the “lower 48” states.   The Alaska territory was a frozen wasteland…and it wasn’t even connected.

But Alaska was so cheap!  The Russians, who owned the territory, wanted to get out of the “Russian America” business, primarily because right next door was the rival British Columbia and, should a war break out, the land would be easily lost.  And Britain clearly didn’t want to pay for Alaska when the Russians had asked them about it.  So rather than risk losing it for nothing, why not sell it for something?

For the American government, their justification also had to do with the British.  The Russians had been a Union ally during the Civil War, while the British had clearly not been.  So the purchase would help the Russians while simultaneously giving the British an American presence on two sides of British Columbia.

And so, in March of 1867, the negotiations began.  They concluded when the treaty was signed at 4am on March 30, 1867.  The final price was $7,200,000…a tidy sum in those days of Reconstruction.  The territory would be officially passed to the U.S. in October.  And still the criticism would be heard about “Seward’s Icebox”, but over time, one could say that it was an investment well-made.

Within 25 years, gold had been discovered and the Klondike Gold Rush was on.  During World War II (when Russia was an ally and a Lend-Lease partner), supplies were flown in to Alaska from the States, and then flown from there by Russian pilots to aid in their war against Germany.  And after the War (when Russia was no longer an ally), Alaska stood as a barrier of defense to Russian aggression.

And of course, there was that little place called Prudhoe Bay where, in 1968 (just 100 years after The Alaska Purchase), a massive oil reserve was discovered.

William Seward was chided for suggesting the U.S. purchase the no-man’s land of snow and ice from Russia.  And he was berated for actually carrying through with it.  But if those same folks were alive today, their silence would be deafening.

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In 1950, Sam Newfield directed the movie Radar Secret Service.  In it, radar plays a front-and-center role in breaking up a crime ring.  Of course, radar was still a relatively new invention, to the point that the technology depicted in the movie bore no real resemblence to actual radar.  But even in its infancy, it somehow managed to out-act all the human characters.

Radar has talent.

The Battle of Cape Matapan is a lesser known naval engagement that took place between the British and Italians in 1941 in the Mediterranean Sea, but it was essentially radar (or the lack of it) that made the difference.

Intelligence intercepts tipped off the British to the fact that an Italian battle fleet was heading out to harass Allied convoys in the Mediterranean, so they sent a larger force in response.  The first part of the battle saw the British pretty much just stay out of range of the Italians but, on the evening of March 28th, they moved in.

This wasn’t 1950, but even rudimentary radar in the early 40’s gave a distinct advantage to those that possessed it.  The British had it on some of their ships, the Italians did not.  Using their advantage and the cover of night, the British closed to within 2 miles of the enemy before opening fire.  For battleships, cruisers, and even small-gunned destroyers, 2 miles is considered point-blank range.

And in very short order, the Italians got a whooping.  When morning broke on March 29, 1941, they had lost 3 heavy cruisers, a pair of destroyers, and the lone battleship was damaged.  More than 2,300 sailors were lost.  The ledger’s other side showed the British suffering very light damage to a couple cruisers and losing one torpedo bomber and its 3-man crew.

But more than the loss of the battle (fought to the west of the Grecian port Cape Matapan and to the west of Crete), the Italians had largely lost control of the Mediterranean Sea and allowed the British to concentrate on countering the German buildup in North Africa.

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Tokashiki is another of the (mostly) unknown Kerama islands that lie in very close proximity to Okinawa.  And like Kerama Retto, which we discussed yesterday, there’s a story that I think is worth relating.  Kerama Retto was all about its fleet of suicide boats.  The U.S. Army discovered them and, having destroyed them, took away a potential weapon that could have been used against the Navy’s landing forces.  Tokashiki had suicide boats lying in wait as well but, unlike Kerama Retto, it wasn’t the U.S. that destroyed them.

It was the Japanese themselves.

The Japanese soldiers on this small island had been training for their first (and last) mission for a long time…some for several years.  And they’d been on Tokashiki for nearly a year, waiting for the command to execute their missions (and, by extension, themselves).  But when the U.S. Fleet arrived, they were further north than Japanese planners had anticipated, rendering the suicide boats far less effective.  So when the order came, it was not an order to attack, but rather to scuttle their boats.  The men were shocked and angry, but orders were orders, and orders were meant to be obeyed.  The boats were sunk.

On March 27, 1945, U.S. forces landed on Tokashiki and fought a few skirmishes with the enemy, who were mostly armed with pistols and a few hand grenades.  But for the most part, U.S. and Japanese forces were merely bystanders for one of the most grisly aspects of the entire Okinawan campaign…a tragedy that wasn’t endured by either of the opposing forces.

It was the native residents themselves.

As the Japanese retreated from the area, the citizens of Tokashiki began to blow themselves up with hand grenades.  Over the next several days, nearly 400 civilians would commit suicide.  There is some debate as to the cause.  Some writers say the acts were spontaneous acts of self-immolation, but others disagree.  They say the Japanese had left hand grenades with the people, while at the same time telling them stories (ranging from merely false to ridiculous), about how U.S. soldiers would slaughter the men, rape the women, and eat the children.  And these poor people, having never seen the invading men before, had no inkling that what they were being told was rubbish.

But Tokashiki’s 400 civilian deaths were a mere drop in the bucket, as the 3-month conflict on Okinawa would see thousands and thousands of civilians, their minds filled with the same dread-laced stories, commit suicide in similar fashion.

Recommended Reading: Retribution

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In the spring of 1945, the U.S. Navy was preparing for what it thought would be the second-to-last (and second-worst) battle of the Pacific War.  Over the last 30 months, the pushing back of the Imperial Japanese Navy and its armies had been successful, but it had been accomplished at tremendous cost.  Places like Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima had all been purchased with Marine and Army blood…lots of it.

And now, Okinawa loomed large on the horizon.  Situated less than 500 miles from the Japanese mainland, it was set to be a massive staging area for the last (and worst) battle of the Pacific War…the invasion of Japan.  Two Marine divisions and two Army divisions had been tasked with making the initial landings on Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyus and home to more than 100,000 enemy soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians.  The invasion date (called “Love Day”) was set for April 1st, which boasted the unusual confluence of both April Fool’s Day and Easter.

But Okinawa wasn’t the only target.  Other, smaller islands in the vicinity were also marked for occupation, as enemy soliders and guns had a nasty way of showing up on them.  One such island was Kerama Retto.

Located a dozen miles to the southwest of Okinawa, Kerama Retto was occupied on March 26, 1945, by elements of the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division.  As they fanned out across the island, they discovered a series of caves with hundreds of boats.  Upon further inspection, they realized that this seemingly worthless mission had taken on tremendous importance.

The boats were actually floating bombs.  Loaded with explosives, they would have been used in suicide attacks against Navy vessels approaching Okinawa.  Their small size and relatively high manueverability would have made them difficult to hit.  And hundreds of them launched at once had the potential to cause tremendous carnage, not only to the ships, but especially to the lightly-armored and lightly-defended landing craft.

The boats, subsequently destroyed by the Army, put paid to a potentially devastating tool of destruction in the Japanese arsenal.  Unfortunately, the enemy still had others available.

Recommended Reading: Retribution – Max Hastings is one of the finest historical writers around.  Many of his published works are in my library…they should be in yours, too.

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Sometimes we find ourselves up against a home-repair challenge.  Well, maybe I use the word “we” too loosely.  I should just speak for myself.  For me, if the challenge involves much more than shutting off the lights, closing the garage door, or emptying the dishwasher, I’m in trouble.  I’m not a handy-man in the slightest.  If you’re like me (and I know I am), you probably wear one of those WWMD bracelets.  Then, when faced with a leaky faucet, cracked drywall, or a broken door-handle, you simply look at your bracelet and ask, “What Would MacGyver Do?”.

Today’s History Lesson takes us to eastern Germany (modern-day Poland) for a story that would impress even Angus MacGyver.  We mentioned Stalag Luft III just a month ago, and we’re headed back there.  This large prison camp housed more than 10,000 inmates, all of them from various air forces.  In early 1943, captivity (and probably prison food) got the best of some of them, and they hatched an elaborate escape plan.

Three tunnels would be dug that went out of the camp below the walls.  But this was prison, and it was 1943, and it was 45 years before they could get any ideas from characters played by Richard Dean Anderson.  So they improvised on their own.

The Red Cross supplied powdered milk in tin cans, which were fashioned into tools, buckets, air ducts…yeah, they built air ducts.  To push the air, they made air pumps out of those tin cans, parts from the prison beds, and whatever else they could find.  They pumped air through the tin-can ducting so the guys digging could breathe and keep their candles lit…candles?  Yep, but they didn’t get them at Hallmark.  At chow time, they skimmed the fat off their soup into (you guessed it) those little tins, let it solidify, then made wicks out of string.  Eventually, electricity and lights were run.

The three tunnels dug (named “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”) were 30 feet below ground and several hundred feet long, so a lot of dirt and sand had to be moved, and hiding all that fill was a challenge.  So they filled socks with the material and hit them in their pants.  As they milled about the camp and worked their gardens, the dirt would fall out from their pants.

Eventually the decision was made to fill up “Dick” with the dirt from the others and “Tom” was later discovered.  But work on “Harry” continued for more than a year.  Then it was a matter of waiting for the right (in other words, moonless) time.  And that time was March 24, 1944.

In the complete darkess, 76 men made their escape.  But the tunnel was a little shorter than planned, coming up just short of the woods near the camp.  The 77th man was discovered as he emerged, and the gig was up.  A massive manhunt succeeded in capturing all but 3 of the escapees, and 50 of them were executed.

Despite its tragic conclusion, the story of the escape is totally engaging.  The movie The Great Escape captures much of what the prisoners accomplished in this most ingenius of escape attempts.  But movies tend to exaggerate, so books are usually better sources.

Recommended Reading: The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III – There are numerous great sources available…this is just one.  Nova (a show on PBS) also did a pretty good documentary on the escape.  Also, check out this little website…pretty clever.

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The early months of 1933, while culminating in a long national nightmare for Germany, probably seemed like a fairy-tale ride to destiny for Adolf Hitler.  As January ended, a tired and ailing President Paul von Hindenburg had named Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

And then the wheels began to turn.  First, the new Chancellor dissolved the Reichstag (Germany’s governing body) and called for new elections (to be held the first week in March).  Then, in a complete and utter coincidence, the Reichstag building caught fire just a week after Hitler’s appointment.  Hitler conveniently blamed the fire on the Communists, suspended habeas corpus, and began arresting Communist Party officials, removing them from play in the upcoming elections.

When the March 5th election counts were tallied, Hitler was still unable to win a clear majority (though a coalition with the Nationalist Party gave him a slim “on-paper” majority).  But Hitler was smart enough to know that reliance on a second party for passing legislation gave that weaker party tremendous power…power he wanted.

So he had his cabinet draw up what became the Enabling Act, an incredibly powerful tool which allowed Hitler (and his cabinet) to create and pass legislation, including changing Germany’s constitution, without the Reichstag’s consent.  But how to get this little gem of a law past the Reichstag?  Out came those wheels again.

The Catholic-led Centre Party agreed to support the measure when Chancellor Hitler made promises to them…promises he, of course, never kept.  Which left two other groups.  Most Social Democrats (the SPD Party) and Communists were expected to vote against the deal.  As mentioned, many of the Communists were now out of the picture and the Social Democrats didn’t have the votes to carry the day.  But the SPD had another weapon.  If they refused to show up for the vote, the Reichstag wouldn’t have the quorum required to even vote in the first place.  So can we see those wheels a third time?

The Reichstag President, some guy named Hermann Goering, changed the rules, giving himself the power to declare any deputy “absent without excuse” as present.  You know, this is a lot like Calvinball…just make the rules up as you go.  Anyways, the SPD Party was now cornered, and with the SA (Hitler’s merry band of enforcers, commonly referred to as “thugs”) standing outside the chambers, and the outcome was inevitable.

On March 23, 1933, the votes were cast, and the Enabling Act squeaked through by a 441-to-94 margin.  The Reichstag had just voted itself out of relevance in Germany and, in 2 months, the German Republic had become a totalitarian state under the man destined to become one of history’s greatest tyrants.

Recommended Reading: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany

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On the evening of March 22, 1990, Dr. Gerald Bull got out of a car in Brussels, Belgium and headed back to his apartment. 

Born in Ontario, Canada, Bull had, as a child, endured a series of unfortunate events that saw his parents’ fortune wiped out by the Great Depression, the death of his mother and his aunt, and the inability of his father to properly care for the children.

But Gerald Bull was an overcomer with a great mind, so much so that he received his Ph.D. at just 23 years of age.  He had developed a keen interest in aerodynamics, which got him hired by a Canadian-British consortium doing work in ballistics and artillery.  It soon became apparent that the somewhat unique goal of creating a gun that could launch artillery shells and ultimately satellites into orbit was his passion.

As Bull rode the elevator, he may have thought back on the long road that brought him here.

In the age of rapidly advancing rocketry, there wasn’t a great need for “space-capable” artillery, and funding was scarce.  So Bull took his knowledge and applied it directly to improving artillery pieces.  In particular, his work with 155mm howitzers created some of the longest-range, most accurate guns ever fired.  Unguided shells could travel well over 30 miles and land within 30′ of their targets.

Eventually moving to Belgium in the early 1980’s, his prowess with guns landed him continued work with South Africa (which had already purchased his designs and used them to great effect against Angola in the 70’s).  It also gained him employment from China and…Iraq.  Bull had never lost his dream of creating a “supergun” (a gun to launch satellites into orbit), and in Saddam Hussein he found the perfect combination of interest and money.  By convincing Hussein that “real” world powers had space programs, and showing designs of an immense gun more than 450′ in length (Hussein loved all things oversized, outlandish or no), the Iraqi leader was sold.

Of course, Saddam Hussein had other ideas for the gun (called Project Babylon), like firing conventional and chemical weapons at his enemies, particularly Israel.  But the gun’s immense size meant it was immoble, and the Israeli government, kept well-informed of the project by its spies, was content to let the gun be built, knowing it could be targeted and destroyed rapidly.

Things took a different turn when Saddam Hussein pulled Bull aside and asked if, oh-by-the-way, he could help them with their Scud missile program as part of a quid-pro-quo for the supergun funding.  Working on improved missile nosecone designs represented a far greater, far grimmer threat than a giant fixed artillery piece, but Gerald Bull, finally able to build his dream, ignored warnings sent to him about the missile work and dove right in. 

Gerald Bull got out of the elevator and walked toward his apartment.  From the shadows another shadow stepped, holding a silenced pistol.  Three shots were fired into the back of Gerald Bull and, after he fell, two more into his head for good measure.  Gerald Bull was dead.

No arrests were ever made in Bull’s assassination.  Speculation runs wild as to who killed the father of the supergun.  Was it the Israelis, the ultimate target of the Scuds?  Was it the Americans, just months from watching Hussein overrun Kuwait?  Was it the Iranians, still angry over the bitter struggle with Iraq in the 80’s?  Or was it Iraq itself, on orders from a fanatical President Hussein, scared of secrets being leaked?

We’ll probably never know for sure.

Recommended Reading:  Arms and the Man:  Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq and the Supergun – Lowther’s book is completely fascinating.  If you can find a copy, grab it.  Otherwise, do an Internet search.  Conspiracy loves a theory, and plenty exist, many with very informative detail.

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Hello Neighbor.

He was a man that never raised his voiced.  He was never hurried, never harried, and never so busy that he couldn’t drop by the neighborhood for a half hour on PBS.  Fred Rogers was the single most gentle TV personality that has ever graced (or will grace) the screen.

Mr. Rogers.  And Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Just saying the name is relaxing.  I think of that little town with the little cars in the opening (and closing) sequence we followed up to the house.  Then Mr. Rogers would come through the door, take off his coat and put on a sweater (every one of which was knitted by his mother).  Then he’d sit on that bench, and replace his shoes with some slipper/sneakers, all the while singing the famous “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” ditty we all know by heart.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, there was no “fire and brimstone” in the man.  He loved everyone.  There have always been rumors (completely untrue) that Fred was a highly-decorated sniper in the Vietnam War and wore long sleeves to hide the tattoos.  But Rogers killed nothing but bad feelings and had no time for painting his body as he was too busy helping millions and millions of children draw on the canvases of their little minds.

Rogers was a strict vegetarian, a dietary decision that likely had to with his demeanor.  He worked fiendishly (the only time that word is appropriate for the man) to keep his weight at 143 pounds…why?  Because each number represented the number of letters in “I Love You”…1-4-3.  My weight doesn’t spell “I Love You”, but it does spell “It…”…well, never mind.

And Mr. Rogers was loved as much as he loved.  The story is told of Rogers’ car (an old Chevy Impala or Caprice) that was stolen while parked at the TV station.  When the police report was filed, every TV and newspaper ran the story.  Forty-eight hours later, the car was back with a note that read, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.”

And then the show’s 30 minutes was done, and Mr. Rogers, who had not stopped smiling the entire time, would remind us that it was a good feeling to know we were alive, and that he’d be back when the day was new, and he’d have more ideas for you, and you’d have things to talk about.


Fred Rogers, born on March 20, 1928.  A man who largely hated television, but got into television to do something different…something better, for children.  And when thieves return a stolen car with a written apology, I’m guessing that he was successful.

Happy Birthday, Fred Rogers!!

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In the early morning hours of March 19, 1945, the USS Franklin was launching planes.  That was something she had done times uncounted before during her 18 months of service, but this time was a bit different.  The Essex-class aircraft carrier was launching planes to attack Japan, specifically Honshu and Kobe Harbor.  This meant that the Franklin was deep in enemy waters.  In fact, located less than 50 miles from the mainland, it was the closest approach to Japan that any U.S. carrier dared attempt.

Shortly after the airspace was cleared, another plane came flying through the cloud cover…a Japanese plane.  I’m guessing that a patrol plane spotted the carrier planes and was sort of able to “back-trace” their flight paths to the source.  But I’m not guessing that the Franklin was discovered, and the plane that found her was carrying a pair of 500-pound bombs, which she proceeded to plant in the carrier, to devastating effect.

One bomb hit right in the middle of the flight deck, while the other hit the decks near the rear.  Both were armor-piercing bombs (designed for ship attack, not the lightly-armored flight deck of a carrier), so they plowed into the Franklin’s internals before detonating.  Massive explosions rocked the carrier as fuel and ammunition cooked off in the intense heat.  Many of the men remembered the damage their vessel had received in Leyte Gulf just 5 months before, but this was way worse.

Those not killed by explosions and fire (or blown overboard by them) began feverishly trying to salvage the Franklin, which was dead in the water, listing heavily, unable to communicate, and a raging inferno.  And, miraculously, they were able to get the fires under control and eventually extinguished.  Sailors in the water were rescued by escort ships and the USS Franklin was able to be towed out of harm’s way.

By the time the stricken ship reached safe harbor in the Caroline Islands (the first stage of her long journey to New York), she was running under her own power.  But the cost of the attacks and subsequent salvage was high.  More than 700 sailors had been killed and several hundred more had been wounded.

The USS Franklin would not fight again in World War II, but there were many other vessels of the U.S. Navy that would feel the same kinds of impact and destruction in the Pacific War’s final 6 months.

Recommended Reading: Inferno: The Epic Life and Death Struggle of the USS Franklin in World War II

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We switched Internet providers at the house last Friday, and it’s taken me a while to get all the computers to see the magic that is the Internet again.  It turns out the DSL modem and the hub talk on the same channel, so I had to switch the hub to another channel.  A bunch of time to find the solution…1 minute to make the change and see the happy result.  Yay for that!!

Ok, on to something historical…and it’ll be brief because the whole computer thing took too long.  I want to mention the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen again.  Devoted readers (and those that click the upcoming link in the text) will remember that we spoke at some length on the capture of the bridge last year.  As the last bridge still standing on the Rhine River, it was a tremendously valuable commodity for the Allied forces racing through Germany in the Spring of 1945.

And once the Bridge had been captured (intact) by the Allies on March 7th, it became valuable to the Germans…as a target.  In fact, its destruction became a top priority for the Germans.  And so they bombed with their airplanes.  And they bombed with their longer-range artillery pieces.  And they bombed with their V-2 rockets.  For nine days, like the Big Bad Wolf, they huffed and they puffed and they could not blow the bridge down.

Until March 17, 1945, they couldn’t.  On the 17th, the Germans launched an attack with a dozen V-2 rockets.  The V-2’s weren’t all that accurate, but their high velocity meant they packed a tremendous punch.  And the rockets came ripping into the area and hit buildings, the Rhine, pretty much everything but the intended target.

But the bridge had been a target for 10 days, the damage that was done needed to be repaired.  And as engineers worked that afternoon to fix things up…it was then that the Ludendorff Bridge breathed its last and became one with the Rhine it spanned, killing 28 engineers and injuring nearly 100 others.  Some point to the concussions from the V-2 impacts around Remagen as the final straw, but the Germans had tried to blow the bridge even before U.S. forces captured it.  Combined with all the other attacks, I suppose there’s only so much a bridge can take before it snaps.

By then, however, pontoon bridges had been built that paralleled the one that fell, so the damage done did little damage to the Allied war effort.  The inevitable demise of the German war machine would continue unabated.

Recommended Reading: One More River: The Rhine Crossings of 1945

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March 16, 1912 marks the passing of Lawrence Oates.  This relatively unknown explorer was a member of the ill-fated Scott Expedition to the South Pole, which we briefly mentioned back in December when discussing Roald Amundsen.  Amundsen’s discovery of the bottom of the Earth was accompanied by a successful return and an incredible story to tell, but those with Scott faced a much grimmer outcome.

The Scott Expedition indeed reached the South Pole on January 18, 1912.  But having discovered the tent and note left by Amundsen the month before, there was little to do but make the disappointing return trip.  Now it’s reasonable to assume that Antarctic weather conditions are brutal all year round.  But Scott’s group encountered weather that was terrible even by Antarctic standards, with “unseasonably cold” temperatures of -40°F and blizzards, bringing progress to a crawl.  In mid-February, the first of the five men died from injuries sustained when falling down a crevasse.

From there, progress slowed further as the extremely poor weather continued, and as poor health began to rear its ugly head.  Oates, a wounded veteran of the Boer Wars and no stranger to hardship, suffered through badly frostbitten feet, which really slowed him down.  He began to realize that he was endangering the team, which wasn’t progressing fast enough to keep up with rate of food consumption.  On several occasions, he told his 3 companions to simply leave him behind, which they steadfastly refused to do.

The crisis point came on the March 15th, when poor Lawrence said he could go no further, but still his companions remained.  In the morning of the 16th, Oates took matters into his own hands.  Robert Scott himself describes it best when he wrote:

He took pride thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way he met his death.  We can testify to his bravery.  He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint… He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning yesterday.  It was blowing a blizzard.  He said ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’  He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

And so the passing came of Lawrence Oates, who sacrificed himself in the hope that others would survive.  But even that was not to be.  Advancing another 20 miles, the remaining three men would be trapped by yet another ferocious blizzard, just 11 miles from one of their food depots, and would perish in their tents on the 29th.

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Ok, I’ve been gone for a couple days.  As I mentioned the other day, my grandmother celebrated her birthday, the 95th of her life.  It was pretty special to be able to travel up to see her, and to see my other grandmother as well.  So needless to say, I’m a little behind, as it’s now the 15th.  But there’s a topic from yesterday that I want to touch briefly.

Last month, Denny’s decided to give a free Grand Slam breakfast to everybody who came in for one.  It was a tremendous success, with lines that were miles long (ok, not quite that long) and people who camped out overnight in February temperatures to claim a spot.

But grand slams go way back…they’ve been a part of baseball parlance since the 9-player sport was started more than a hundred years ago.  And in World War II, the military had their version, and it’s our topic of conversation for today.

In 1942, the British Royal Air Force tested and used a series of large conventional bombs, designed to blow up underground or heavily reinforced structures.  Starting at 8,000 pounds, the devices grew to 12,000 pounds the following year.  But an even bigger, badder bomb was in developement.

Called the Grand Slam, it weighed 22,000 pounds, was more than 25 feet tall (note the guy to the left of the photo), and had to be dropped from a heavily modified Avro Lancaster bomber.  And since these were extremely specialized missions, only one squadron would do.  Known as “The Dambuster Squadron” (for their missions against German dams in 1943), No. 617 Squadron was the most experienced group of flyers for the job.

The first “Grand Slam” mission was carried out on March 14, 1945.  The target was the strategically important railroad viaduct in Bielefeld, Germany.  The size of the bomb and its explosion meant that a direct hit wasn’t necessary, and “close enough” was more than enough to knock down more than 300 feet of the viaduct, rendering it completely useless.

The Grand Slams would be used several times in the War’s final months on hard-to-penetrate targets like submarine pens or against targets like the Bielefeld viaduct where a strong proximity concussion was necessary.

But these devices cost way more than “free” at Denny’s.

Recommended Activity:  Visit Denny’s and enjoy a “Slam” Breakfast in honor of the biggest of all slams.

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The 1980s were pretty bleak for Braves fans.  There was the miracle year of 1982, when the Braves started the season with thirteen straight wins and never really looked back.  Though they lost to St. Louis in the playoffs, the incredible run after so much badness gave fans hope for the future.  But it was pretty much a false hope.

1983 saw the Braves finish three games behind the Dodgers, and the slide back to the bottom had begun.  Then management made one of its worst decisions ever, trading two quality players (Brett Butler and Brook Jacoby) for Len Barker, a pitcher from the American League that didn’t pan out, but whose uber-slow delivery was great when you needed a nap.

By 1985, it was like ’82 and ’83 had never happened, and the Braves were again firmly ensconced in the cellar, where they would remain until 1991.  But in the dark decade of constant defeat, there was one bright light.

Dale Murphy.

Born in Portland, Oregon on March 12, 1956, Murphy arrived at baseball’s top level as a catcher…and not a particularly good one.  But his terrific arm and deceptively good speed made him a natural for centerfield, where the mid-20s youngster blossomed.  He won the National League’s MVP award in 1982 and ’83, was a 7-time All-Star, and a 5-time Gold Glover.

In his prime years (1982-87), Dale was one of the most (if not the most) feared hitters in all of baseball.  His power to all fields was prodigious, he could hit for a reasonable average, he could steal bases, and his defense was outstanding.  In an era when 25 homers a year was a lot, the Braves centerfielder was in a class largely by himself.

But what really set Dale Murphy apart had little to do with his baseball prowess.  He was a class act.  Not in any kind of superficial, I-act-like-this-because-I’m-in-front-of-the-camera way, but through-and-through class.  Dale didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t smoke, and didn’t swear.  He was a deeply religious, devoted family man (with eight children) who didn’t slap his wife around behind closed doors and didn’t cheat on her when he wasn’t home.

There were no tattoos, no temper tantrums, and no tabloid pictorals.  There were no rumors, no heresay, no innuendo, and no raised eyebrows.  Dale Murphy was (and still is) just as plain-white-vanilla good as a person could be.

“The Murph” was my first real baseball hero.  As a baseball player myself, I tried to mimic his batting stance and his swing.  As an outfielder (I didn’t pitch until high-school ball), I watched how he played his position and tried to copy that, too.  And as a man, I’d like to hope that somebody respects me as much as I respected him.

Baseball’s ultimate prize, enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, has eluded Dale Murphy.  Murph’s career numbers are borderline Hall-worthy and look, by today’s standards, little better than average.  But today’s game is different than 20 years ago, as expansion has watered down pitching staffs to the point of mediocrity and hitters feast on minor-league pitchers throwing at the major-league level.  What we can safely assume is that Dale cares little about whether he’s given entrance or not.  His (lack of) ego simply doesn’t demand it.

But more than a few people, including myself, believe that Dale Murphy’s character, demeanor, and integrity should count for something, particularly with greats like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and now even Alex Rodriguez under the shadow of performance-enhancing substances.  If players who cheat are Hall-eligible (some have been, and some could be), surely Dale Murphy, one of baseball’s most upright players, deserves a bronzed bust, too.

Happy Birthday, Dale Murphy!!

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Late in the evening of March 11, 1942, a small boat slipped away from the shores of Corregidor.  This small, tadpole-shaped island was strategically placed right in the middle of the entrance to Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands, so watercraft were not unusual.  But this was an unusual watercraft.

It was a PT boat.

The PT (or “Patrol Torpedo”) boat was designed pretty much as lightweight, high-speed attack boat…you could think of it as “the water-based F-16” (though that’s a pretty cheesy analogy).  They were very manueverable (compared to larger vessels), small, hard to hit, and packed a wallop.  Carrying a cannon, twin .50-caliber machine guns, and a brace of torpedoes, they could be devastating in the right hands at night.  And this particular example, PT-41, was no exception.  But PT-41 wasn’t attacking anyone…it was escaping with a very important passenger.

That passenger was General Douglas MacArthur.

Back in December of 1941, the Japanese had invaded the Philippines.  Though at a clear numerical disadvantage, they enjoyed such a superiority in training and equipment and by March of 1942, they were well on their way to victory.  MacArthur, a General in the U.S. Army and a Field Marshal in the Philippine Army, had seen his forces overwhelmed.  And as the enemy made its way down the southwest side of Luzon towards Manila, the General’s headquarters, located on Corregidor, was threatened.

It was at that point that President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to Australia and out of harm’s way.  After giving brief thought to resigning his commission in order to stay, the General packed up his wife, his son, and a few military personnel.  Turning over command to General Jonathan Wainwright, MacArthur put out to sea under the cover of darkness and departed.  Upon arrival in Australia, he would utter his famous line “I shall return.”

But for General Wainwright, it was almost as though his boss had never left.  MacArthur’s desire to be in charge caused him to try to micro-manage Wainwright’s situation from thousands of miles away, and a hopeless situation got no better being run from afar.  Ultimately, U.S. forces would be forced to surrender at Bataan the following month (against MacArthur’s wishes), and the rock of Corregidor would fall in early May, and it would be three years before General MacArthur could make good on his promises.

And another birthday shout-out is required today.  My grandmother turns 95!!  Happy Birthday, Grandma!!

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On the last day of April in 1803, the United States pretty much doubled in size as Robert Livingston and future-President James Monroe put pen to paper in Paris and completed the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.  The acquisition, the largest single territorial expansion in the history of the country, was the culmination of several years of work and intense debate.

Originally, then-President Thomas Jefferson had asked the French about purchasing just New Orleans.  The French leader, expansionist-minded Napoleon Bonaparte, had been formulating designs on an empire in North America for some time.  But the failure of his brother-in-law’s attempt to take Saint-Dominique (modern-day Haiti) caused him to rethink his plans.  In addition, the idea of unloading the territory to the United States had merit because it would create yet another potential rival to Britain…and Napoleon was all in favor of that.

So rather than simply selling a city, he sold a bunch of wilderness.  The United States got a vast new territory with tons of opportunity.  President Jefferson, though highly concerned about the Constitutionality of the purchase and faced with a lot of opposition in Congress, ended up with an Midwest-sized feather in his cap, bought for pennies an acre.  France got an infusion of cash, an elimination of debts it owed the U.S., and smaller house-keeping bills.

And on March 10, 1804 (almost a year after the official documents were signed),  the Louisiana Territory was formally transferred to the United States at a ceremony held in St. Louis, through which the Lewis and Clark Expedition had passed just six months prior.

Recommended Reading:  Undaunted Courage:  Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West – Ambrose at his best.  An absolute must-read.

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The title of Today’s History Lesson may give you the impression that we’re headed to the Bible for a discussion of Christianity’s greatest missionary.  His writings are known world-wide, his travels were extensive, and the effects of his life are still being felt.  All of these serve to make Paul worthy of print, but unfortunately, there really aren’t any solid dates to grab onto.  So it’s really hard to lock down a “this-day-in-history” topic about this most famous of Apostles.

But there’s another Paul we can discuss with more specificity.  He was also a missionary of sorts, a pioneer in his field.  His life, which spanned nearly a century, also affected millions (including me), and continues to do so.  And while I won’t pretend to know this Paul’s theological positions or worldviews, there’s little doubt that he understood “sound” doctrine.

I’m referring, of course, to Paul Klipsch.  If you’re an audiophile, his name is instantly recognizable as the founder of one of the world’s most famous and enduring lines of loudspeakers.  Born in Elkhart, Indiana on March 9, 1904, Klipsch was an engineering wizard who, while in the Army, began working on loudspeaker designs.  At the time, theaters and concert halls had the best speaker setups, but they were colossal horn systems, not at all suited to a home.

Paul Klispch’s idea was to fold the horn and use a room’s corner as an extension of the speaker and, in 1945, the Klipschorn was born.  And the Klipschorn still lives today, which is a tribute to the long-standing quality and consistent ability of the speaker to deliver.  Many of Klipsch’s other speakers, like the La Scala and the Belle Klipsch, were also horn-loaded.  Later designs used more traditional cone drivers for the bass end of things, but continued to use horns for their midrange and tweeter sections.

Klipsch speakers were (and still are) among the most efficient ever made, able to generate sound levels well over 100 dB with just one watt of power.  The founder often lamented that what the audio world really needed was a high-quality 5-watt amplifier.

Paul Klipsch was a bit of an eccentric genius.  Numerous stories exist of his antics…I’ll repeat one taken from the company website:  Klipsch co-workers tell and retell the famous story of Klipsch stripping down to his skivvies and turning up the temperature in his office to broiling so that he could dissect a calculator to discover why its manufacturer said it wouldn’t work in extreme temperatures. (Klipsch, incidentally, found the answer and wrote the company’s president to tell him how to fix the problem.)

I don’t own any Klipsch speakers today, but I’ve owned three models in the recent past.  The first set, a pair of KG 5.2’s, were absolutely perfect for my apartment.  Something about the living room’s acoustics made them really rip.  I sold those to my older brother (and kind of miss them), replacing them with a pair of Quartets, a smoother speaker from Klipsch’s Heritage line, purchased from a guy upgrading to Cornwalls.

The Quartets left a year later when Klipsch had a limited run of Forte II 3-way speakers in the mid 1990s.  They had all the hitting power of the 5.2’s, with the smooth delivery of the Quartets.  I kept those for 7 or 8 years and replaced them only when my new apartment proved too small for them.

Numerous speaker companies have come and gone over the years (including the one that created the speakers I now own), but Klipsch soldiers on, building on the foundation started by its own “apostle” Paul.

Happy Birthday, Paul Klipsch!!

I need to add another “Happy Birthday!!” to my younger brother, whose middle name also happens to be “Paul”.

Recommended Reading:  www.klipsch.com – Read about the founder, then peruse their speakers.

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Almost a year ago, we talked about how Adolf Hitler took one of his first baby-steps towards bringing back Germany’s military greatness.  In direct violation of the Versailles Treaty, he created an army, a navy, and an air force.  He then waited for a response from Britain and France…a response that never came.

With the ringing in of the New Year, Hitler set his sights on his next conquest…the Rhineland.  As you might guess, the Rhineland is that area on either side of the Rhine River, which flows through Germany.  After WWI, the Versailles Treaty stipulated that it be completely demilitarized, at least for the Germans.  The French and British were supposed to guard it until 1935, at which point they would also depart, leaving the area a permanent DMZ.  The French and British had actually left early (in 1930), and for five years all was quiet.

But Hitler had gotten away with building a military, and now it was time to test the next boundary.  Against the better judgment of his military leaders, he decided that next “step” would be to use his forces in some kind of aggressive behavior.

And so, as the sun rose on March 7, 1936, three battalions of soldiers from the army he wasn’t supposed to have (and some airplanes from the air force he wasn’t supposed to have, either) entered the Rhineland, drove to the Rhine River, and actually crossed it to the west side.

And then the French responded, massing troops on the border.  The German military held its collective breath, as did the Chancellor.  If the French moved in, there was no way three battalions would stand any chance at all.  Furthermore, a retreat would be humiliating for the German leadership.

But the French did not move further…because of money.  Military leaders presented their plan to remove the Germans, and its cost was more than France could afford with its very poor economy.  It’s quite possible that the French also lacked the stomach for a confrontation with Germany, but they definitely lacked the funds.

So the Germans stayed, and another bluff, the first of several, went unchallenged.  And Adolf Hitler looked like a genius yet again.

Recommended Reading: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

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In all of our discussions of World War II, we’ve spent precious little time in North Africa.  And unfortunately, that’s been somewhat intentional, because I’m not well-versed in that theater.  But I’ve been doing more reading on the subject, hoping to find some gray matter than can absorb the information.  Let’s see how I’m doing.

The Allied landings in North Africa in November of 1942, accomplished with relative ease, had given way to a collection of missteps, errors in judgement, and some poor decision-making.  But as we’ve said before, this was the U.S. Army’s first large-scale land action of the war.  Indeed, it was the first real warfare since its brief involvement in World War I.  So a good bit of “rust in the war machine” was understandable.

Furthermore, the Allies in general, and the Americans in particular, operated from an extremely long supply chain, stretching thousands of miles from Africa to the American coasts.  But in spite of that, it was the ability of the Allies to re-supply their forces that made as much of a difference as the actual fighting itself.  And American soldiers and officers could learn very quickly.

By March of 1943, the campaign in North Africa had turned in the Allies’ favor.  The November goals of capturing Tunis and Bizerte were now looking attainable.  German and Italian forces, meanwhile, were reduced to fighting delaying actions and launching counterattacks, not so much in an attempt for victory, but more to delay the inevitable.

Operation Capri was one such initiative.  Begun in the early morning hours of March 6, 1943, it was centered around the town of Medenine in southeast Tunisia and was an attempt to stop the British, who had been moving steadily westward since their stunning victory at El Alamein in early November.  It failed miserably.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, now in poor health from two years of criss-crossing the African terrain, had not been very involved in the planning of this counter-offensive, and it was plainly evident.  The British had placed their artillery pieces and tanks well, and pounded the weakened Panzers to mush.  Even the Luftwaffe’s presence made no difference.  The attack faltered very quickly and, by day’s end, was pretty much over.  The Germans had not only lost dozens of tanks and any real hope of maintaining a presence on African soil, they had lost Rommel as well.

The Field Marshal was recalled to Germany just four days later, mostly due to his health, and would not return to the desert again.  The fighting would continue for another two months, primarily with lots of small skirmishes like Capri.  But North Africa, from the German view of things, was lost.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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Let’s take to the basketball courts again today, though the occasion is a sad one.

In the late 1980s, the basketball world was blessed with one of the most entertaining teams to ever play the game: Loyola Marymount University.  Coached by Paul Westhead, the team’s philosophy (at least from my side of the television) was simple:  run the other team to the point of exhaustion.  And it was a blast to watch.  Their offense featured…well…they didn’t really have a set offense.  I watched one game where, if I recall, Loyola’s average time of possession was nine seconds.  Find a clock with a seconds hand and count off nine seconds.  That’s how long it took Loyola to move the ball up the court and take a shot.

It wasn’t a basketball game…it was a track meet with a ball on a basketball court.  Needless to say, it led to some incredibly high scores.  In fact, the five highest-scoring games in NCAA history have this team as one of the competitors.  And the team?  Well, everyone could run, that’s for sure.  And everyone could score, there’s little doubt about that.  I recall the tournament game (against Michigan, I believe) where Jeff Fryer camped out beyond the 3-point arc and drained shot after shot after shot.  But at the scoring center were Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers.

Teammates and friends from high school, Kimble and Gathers presented a one-two scoring punch that was absolutely devastating to opponents.  It’s truly rare to have one player on a team average 30 points a game.  Loyola’s 1989-90 regular season featured two.  And the scores of the games were (and still are) laughable.  The fewest points they scored during the regular season was 91, in the first game of the season (against eventual National Champion UNLV).  After that they were an unstoppable steamroller.  On ten occasions, they scored 130 points or more.  Look at the numbers here and be staggered.

They cruised into the WCC Tournament, destroying Gonzaga in the first game.  The next night, March 4, 1990, they took the court against Portland…and there tragedy struck.  It’s a clip many of us have seen numerous times on TV.  Midway through the first half, with Loyola well on their way to another blowout, Hank Gathers scored on a beautiful alley-oop dunk.  As he turned to head up the court, he stumbled and collapsed…and didn’t get back up.

Though Hank Gathers was known as a kid with big heart, he also had a heart condition.  It had been diagnosed the year before, but Gathers (either on his own or convinced by others) hadn’t been taking his medication properly because of how it affected his game.

He was rushed to the local hospital, but Hank Gathers was dead at just 23 years old.  Loyola Marymount would continue its season in honor of Hank (you might remember Bo Kimble’s left-handed free throws), and would reach the Elite 8 before being defeated (again, by UNLV).  But one of basketball’s premier talents was gone.

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The decision to leave Guadalcanal was, for the Japanese, a difficult one to make.  As we have seen, the Japanese military realized it couldn’t hold the island because it couldn’t re-supply the island.  Still, the warrior mentality of “no retreat” was tough to overcome.  Fortunately, their “out” came in the cause of reinforcing New Guinea.  So troops were removed from Guadalcanal, and those waiting to go to Guadalcanal were redirected.

More than 6,000 soldiers of the Japanese 51st Division were packed into six transports, which set out from Rabaul on the evening of February 28, 1943.  Rabaul sits on the northeast corner of New Britain Island and was one of Japan’s strongest Pacific fortresses.  But once in open waters, the transports would be exposed to enemy aircraft based at Port Moresby (which the Japanese had failed to capture the year before), Papua, and other bases.  So the convoy was protected by a crack team of eight destroyers and a bevy of fighter aircraft.  The convoy passed through the Bismarck Sea, with the goal of rounding New Britain’s western tip, turning south, and landing at Lae (here’s a map of the movements).

The convoy was spotted by U.S. scout planes on March 1st, but cloud cover protected the convoy until the 2nd, when the Battle of the Bismarck Sea got under way.  B-17’s hit the convoy first, fatally hitting one of the transports.  It stayed afloat just long enough to offload 8-900 surviving soldiers onto two of the destroyers, which sped ahead and dropped them off at Lae.  They would be the only soldiers to reach their destination.

March 3, 1943 saw most of the action as the convoy turned south into the Vitiaz Strait, less than 100 miles from their goal.  It was then that the Americans and Australians struck…and struck hard.  WWII-era bombers were generally not that accurate (particularly against ships), but this was a remarkable exception, as 75% of the bombs from the first wave of bombers hit home.  A fuel ship was obliterated by a direct hit.  The transports were hit one after the other, as were the defending destroyers.  When the Japanese Zero’s swept in, they were met by P-38 Lightnings, P-40 Warhawks (of Flying Tigers fame), and P-39 Airacobras.

By mid-afternoon, the majority of the fighting was over.  Seven of the eight transports were gone (the eighth was dead in the water and would be sunk that night).  Two destroyers were sunk and two more were also dead in the water (to be sunk the next day in the Battle’s final action), and at least half the Japanese aircraft had been shot down.  More than half of the 6,000 soldiers headed for Lae were killed, and any survivors were scooped up and taken back to Rabaul.  U.S. losses amounted to 2 bombers and 3 fighters.

The Japanese lost Guadalcanal because they couldn’t keep their troops supplied.  The Battle of the Bismarck Sea prevented a large reinforcement of New Guinea.  Seven months later, the Japanese would lose New Guinea.  Coincidence?

Recommended Reading: Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific – A more technical look at the South Pacific than what you’re probably used to, but still valuable.

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