Archive for May, 2009

Last summer, we looked at the devastating effects of flooding when we discussed the failure of the Lawn Lake Dam in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Three people were killed, millions of dollars in property was destroyed, and the Park was left indelibly marked.  But that failure, occurring at 11,000′ above sea level, was actually pretty small in both size and effect when compared with the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

On May 30, 1889, torrential rains fell over western Pennsylvania.  In a 24-hour period, the area received as much as 10″ inches of rain.  Most of us know that those kinds of rains cause instant flooding, as rivers and streams simply cannot handle that kind of run-off and the rain falls too quickly to be absorbed into the ground.  This storm was no exception.  Towns like South Fork and Johnstown, Pennsylvania were simply swamped with water that, in places, ran 10 feet deep.  But worse was to come…much worse.

Fourteen miles upstream sat the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, an exclusive resort area.  Purchased 10 years prior, it had been developed into a refuge for Pittsburgh’s wealthiest residents.  The centerpiece of the resort was Lake Conemaugh, a man-made lake held in place by the South Fork Dam…until May 31, 1889.

Nearly a foot of rain from all over western Pennsylvania overwhelmed the lake’s supporting dam and, despite efforts to relieve the pressure, the South Fork Dam failed just after 3:00pm.  When we discussed Lawn Lake, we said that 218 million gallons poured down the mountain toward Estes Park.  The South Fork Dam released an estimated 4.8 billion gallons of water.  That’s 22 gallons of water for every gallon that left Lawn Lake.  And what’s more, 4.8 billion gallons of water poured into an area that was already heavily flooded.

The first town of South Fork, because it sat on higher ground, was spared the worst.  The next town, Mineral Point, was razed to bare rock.  An hour after the dam collapsed, this new flood, carrying with it part of bridges, huge rocks, trees, an homes from upstream, slammed into Johnstown with waves up to 60 feet high and speeds of 40 miles per hour.

The town became a seething death trap of water, mud, and debris.  Of course, none of us was alive to witness the event or see the aftermath, but the photos that remain show utter destruction.  There has never been an exact count of the lives lost, but more than 2,200 is sure.  The cleanup efforts lasted for years.

Johnstown, PA, has certainly seen its share of terrible flooding in the years since 1889.  But mentioning “the Johnstown Flood” in knowledgeable company brings just one event into focus.

Recommended Reading:  The Johnstown Flood – Another of McCullough’s fabulous works.  The guy simply cannot produce bad literature.

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The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in early May of 1942, ended with one U.S. carrier (the USS Lexington) permanently water-logged and the USS Yorktown wounded.  She had managed to steer clear of nearly all her attackers, but one was able to hit her with a bomb that caused heavy damage below decks.

Experts estimated that the Yorktown would require several months of repair time.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy didn’t have several months…it didn’t even have one month.  Every available ship was needed for the inevitable encounter coming at (or around) Midway.  The Japanese were heading there with a staggering array of firepower, and the U.S. had to respond, or risk losing not only Midway, but Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands as well.

There were only three carriers available to the Navy in the Pacific, one of which, the Yorktown, now wasn’t able to launch or land planes.  The other two, Hornet and Enterprise, had already departed for Midway when the Yorktown arrived at Pearl on May 27th.  Three months of work had to be completed in a lot less time than three months.

Repair crews set to it.  Working night and day for three days, hundreds and hundreds of men made the ship “plane-worthy” again.  There was no way to get the ship back to good-as-new condition, but they completed enough of the repairs required to conduct air operations.

At the last possible moment, with the torches still glowing and sparks still flying, the Yorktown set sail on May 30, 1942.  Thought by the Japanese to have been sunk in the Coral Sea, the Yorktown would help provide quite a surprise for the Japanese just a few days later.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

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A couple of days ago, we discovered that, early on in the Second World War, the British had been able to decipher some of Germany’s coded message traffic.  A couple of days ago, we also learned that the British Expeditionary Force (or “BEF”) was about to be trapped in the northwest corner of France.  Combined with the French forces still fighting, the Germans were looking at a prize package worth nearly 400,000…men.

It’s impossible to know for sure, because history provides crystal-clear hindsight, but the capture or destruction of these men would have made it very difficult for Britain to continue in the war.  Maybe they would have fought on, but again, we’ll never know.  We do know that Operation Dynamo, the attempt to rescue those trapped men, was put into action with “hope for the best”, while British leadership prepared for a complete military disaster.

On the other side, the German armor which had proven so devastating in the last 3 weeks, had halted beginning on the 24th of May to consolidate their lines and conserve their forces for other operations.  So destruction of the BEF had been initally given to the Luftwaffe and the infantry, which was less effective.  On the 25th, the BEF’s commander, General Gort, knew his forces were doomed, and the decision was made to try and evacuate.  He retreated to Dunkirk and waited while, back in England, ships set sail.

May 27, 1940 was a day of movement for each side.  For the Germans, the decision was made to start up the armored Panzer Divisions again.  But their progress was hampered by less favorable terrain and solid defenses that had been given three days to dig in.  On the British side, the first of what would become a flood of boats and ships arrived, returning to the home island with more than 7,500 troops.

But that was barely a start.  With hundreds of thousands of troops trapped and even more enemy forces pounding away and closing in, the situation was still bleak for those trying to escape to England.

Recommended Reading: The Second World War – Keegan is, without question, one of the very best.

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Andrew Johnson took over as President of the United States when President Lincoln was assassinated.  And because Lincoln had been killed so early in his 2nd term, President Johnson ended up serving nearly a full term.  But, as many of you know, he came within an eyelash of being removed from office.

When Johnson became President, he also became the head of the existing Cabinet, which included Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War.  It didn’t take long for the two to discover their differences, as both had opposing ideas about how the post-Civil-War Reconstruction should be carried out.  And so Johnson sought to remove him from his position.

However, the Tenure of Office Act stood in his way.  This bill had been vetoed by President Johnson, but Congress had overridden the veto in March of 1867.  The Tenure of Office Act denied the President the power to remove a Cabinet member, appointed by a previous President and approved by Congress, without Congressional permission.  Got it?  Johnson said the law hamstrung the President and was unconstitutional.  And frankly, Congress (who didn’t get along with the President anyway) had passed the measure simply to protect Lincoln’s cabinet.

President Johnson thumbed his nose at the ruling and sacked Secretary Stanton in August of 1867 anyways.  Stanton refused to leave.  When Johnson tried to appoint a new Secretary at the beginning of the next Congressional session, the House took action and impeached him on February 24, 1868 with a 3-count charge.

The President was acquitted of the 1st count on May 16th, but the three-month trial would come down to a nail-biting vote on the final two counts on this day in history…May 26, 1868.  The Senate needed 36 votes to convict and, when the counts were tallied, 35 votes had been received.  Andrew Johnson was acquitted on all counts, each by the same 35-19 vote.

Subsequent Supreme Court rulings would show that President Johnson’s position on the Tenure of Office Act was correct.  Congress had plenty of reasons to dislike Andrew Johnson, and history has come up with many as well.  But the firing of Secretary of War Stanton probably shouldn’t be one of them.

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The Japanese Navy in May of 1942 was still largely unbloodied.  And it was not because they had simply avoided battle.  Rather, they had pretty much stomped any enemy that had dared oppose them.  Even the “setback” in the Coral Sea couldn’t really be looked on as a defeat.  After all, while the Japanese had lost a carrier and some airplanes, they were still the overwhelming power in the Pacific.  And the Americans had lost the USS Lexington, leaving them with just three aircraft carriers (a fourth, the USS Saratoga, had just finished repairs but was in San Diego being re-outfitted).

And now the focus was on Island AF.  You wondering where that is?  Island AF is actually Midway Island in Japanese code-speak.  The Japanese used an assortment of coding systems for their various organizations, but JN-25 was the one used by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  It was the most important and also the most secure of all Japanese ciphers.  And therefore, it was the biggest target of U.S. codebreakers.

And U.S. codebreakers had cracked much of it.  In fact, “Island AF” was part of the U.S. scheme as well.  The messages deciphered by U.S. intelligence mentioned “Island AF” on numerous occasions, and it was suspected the reference was to Midway.  So the U.S. Navy phoned the guys on Midway and told them to send an uncoded message back stating they were low on fresh water.  It was done and, not long after, the U.S. intercepted and deciphered a Japanese message about “Island AF” being short of water.  The U.S. had their answer.  From this they learned that Midway was the subject of intense Japanese interest.

But the Japanese were also aware that their codes could be compromised, so they periodically changed them.  They had done so in the weeks leading up to attack on Pearl Harbor, which greatly assisted in the success of that operation.  And now, six months had passed and another major operation (Midway) was looming.  It was time for another change.

But it’s possible that Japanese success over the first half of 1942 bred a little over-confidence in the Navy.  On May 25, 1942, the Japanese significantly changed their JN-25 coding structure and ciphers, which meant U.S. codebreakers had to start their jobs all over again.  But the change occurred right after they had broadcast their full operating plan for the attacks on Midway.  And so the plans (or at least parts of it) fell right into the hands of the U.S. Navy.

For the Japanese, the change from JN-25b to JN-25c meant they would achieve surprise when they occupied Guadalcanal in July of 1942.  But their attempt to take Midway would end in disaster.

Recommended Reading: Incredible Victory – The Battle of Midway

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Most people that are fans of history weren’t just born that way.  It might be true that students who are passionate about the past have some predisposition wired in to their makeups.  But I think it’s one of those things that needs a spark, or a gentle push, to come to life.  It may be the stories of a father or grandfather.  Or possibly a friend’s dad has a collection of photos from “the War” (whichever war it happens to be).  Or maybe, a teacher inspires the “historical” gene to become dominant.  A teacher…

Hal Lyness was born in Portland, OR on May 24, 1925 and raised in Tacoma.  I don’t know for sure, but it’s quite possible that Hal’s love of history sprouted early on, because it was his passion which became that spark for hundreds of students that passed through his classroom doors.  For nearly 35 years, he fascinated students in the central Iowa town where I grew up with his tremendous knowledge of days long past.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those students, and I can safely say that, while Hal taught more classes than just history, he didn’t teach history because there was no one else available.  He (the teacher) was also a student of the subject, and it’s reported that his voracious appetite for reading consumed more than 100 books a year.

His wife Betty, whom he married in 1948, said her husband would give her a history lesson about every state to which they ventured.  And if her studies were anything like what we got as students in class, she was probably as captivated by what he said as we were.  Mr. Lyness made history current.  He made events of yesterday interesting, relevant, important…essential.

And he was demanding.  He teaching was rigorous and his exams were often very challenging.  And though we all knew that ahead of time, we still wanted to among those few sitting in the desks of his classroom.  Students would fill notebook after notebook with information, and hand cramps were as common as the ubiquitous eraser debris.

When exams were returned, we waited with baited breath for our own, anxious to see not only the score, but the comment he would put with it…in red ink as I recall with that spidery-fine handwriting.  I was a solid student, but I remember vividly an exam on which I received a C+…his single-word comment at the top was “What?!?”  I didn’t get another “anything-below-an-A” again.  But that was Mr. Lyness…you worked hard in his class because you wanted to…and frankly, the excellence of his teaching really deserved nothing but your best efforts in return.

Hal was easily one of the most loved educators in my school…and he probably knew that.  But it never affected him…I don’t think there was an ounce of ego in the man.  Instead, there was a ton of pride.  Pride in his work and pride in his students.

And there were the quirky things, too.  His refusal to use any pencil but a #2 Dixon Ticonderoga.  His absolutely orderly desk.  His writing on the chalkboard, done with such care and precision that one would have thought the class was about caligraphy.  And of course, his manner of dress.

His wardrobe is famously remembered as “bordering-on-outlandish”.  Bright colors, pants that were too short, ties that were too wide, and suspenders.  But while the day’s attire was cause for constant conversation among his students, it was never disrespectful.  One just didn’t say negative things about Hal Lyness.

And years later, if one of his now-grown-up students ventured through the halls and appeared in the doorway (even during classtime), Hal immediately stopped, ran to the door with hands extended and a broad smile on his face.  He’d remember your name and things about you.  Maybe that’s because your own history was as important to Hal as the history he taught you.

There are hundreds of stories about the man, and they could compose a tome of considerable size, but these are some of the things I remember most.

Hal Lyness went to bed with Betty on January’s final night in 2009…and didn’t wake up.  As I sat in a packed church and listened to his son give a great eulogy about his father, it struck me that Hal had become part of the thing he seemed to love the most…after his wife, his family, and hundreds and hundreds of students.

Mr. Lyness is now an historical figure.  But like all great men of history, he won’t be forgotten.

Happy Birthday, Hal Lyness!!

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I’ve been..well…just about everywhere other than here the last couple days.  I started writing a piece about encryption and Enigma yesterday, but couldn’t really conclude it.  I suppose its the fickle side of inspiration and its corresponding creative juices.

But it’s a new evening, things are flowing a little better and, coincidentally, today’s topic is also about encryption…and Enigma.

By May 23, 1940, the German invasion of the Low Countries (begun just two weeks prior) was beginning to look like a rout.  Fighting in the Netherlands had already ended (for the most part) and Belgium was teetering.  And in France, poor organization and a real lack of support from the populace was putting paid to any chance they had of stopping the onslaught.

And for the British Expeditionary Force (the BEF) fighting along side the French and Belgians, May 23rd was a day that things were going to get worse.  Which is where Enigma comes in.  Enigma was the encryption machine (and corresponding system) the Germans used to code all their message traffic.  The system was really advanced for the day.  So advanced, in fact, that its users believed it to be unbreakable.

But not only were Enigma ciphers breakable, they had been broken.  In fact, my not-finished “lesson” from yesterday concerned the British breaking the Luftwaffe’s Red Key Cipher, which they did on May 22, 1940.

But that good news would be tempered by the message the British deciphered the next day.  General Walther von Brauchitsch sent orders to Army Groups A & B and told them to turn north.  The British intercepted the message, decoded it, and realized their time on the European continent was over.  That turn north was designed to trap the BEF and force them to capitulate, and the loss of several hundred thousand British soldiers would be catastrophic.

The British went to the drawing board and (very quickly) came with Operation Dynamo, an attempt to rescue their forces (and as many French forces as possible).  But the logistics were daunting, and the British had yet to reach the coast where a rescue could even be attempted.  That intercepted message revealed the precipice over which the British dangled, and there was strong doubt that they could be rescued.  It would be a near-run thing, and we’ll visit this developing situation again in a couple days.

Recommended Reading: The Enigma War

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It’s late, and I’m pretty tired, so this is going to have to be really short.

We’ve already spoken a couple times about the Nazi Party’s Final Solution and all of the terrible things that happened because of it.  We’ve talked of Wannsee, where the Final Solution was actually “unveiled” to German leadership.  And we’ve talked a bit of the death camps.

There was Treblinka, which opened in July of 1942.  And there was Auschwitz – if not the greatest killing machine, certainly the most famous.  This camp, outside of Oswiecim, Poland was captured intact in late January of 1945 by the Russians heading west.  The thousands of remaining inmates had incredible stories to tell.  But even Auschwitz had fairly humble beginnings.

It started as a series of Polish barracks that were modified to house prisoners.  In May of 1940, 300 Jews were acquired by the SS from nearby Oswiecim, and were tasked with working on the future camp sites.  And while SS guards would oversee the camp, there would need to be additional control over those that would ultimately arrive.

So Camp Commandant Rudolf Hoess made a trip to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp in Germany that housed mostly German political prisoners and malcontents.  It was from these that Hoess picked 30 men to be supervisors in Auschwitz.  While still prisoners themselves, they would act as an extension of the SS guard, and had the permission to exact immediate punishments on other non-compliant prisoners.

These 30 men arrived on May 20, 1940, were given serial numbers 1-30, and constituted the very first in a very long line of prisoners that would pass through the gates of Auschwitz between then and 1945’s liberation.

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A diadem is a type of crown.  According to Webster’s dictionary, it’s a royal headband.  I’m no linguist, but the dictionary tells me the word originates from a Greek or Latin word that means “to fasten” or “to bind”.  So it’s probably somewhat appropriate that the offensive launched by General Harold Alexander on May 11, 1944 was given that name.  Operation Diadem was designed to, once and for all, break the Gustav Line that had held up Allied troops in Italy for months, while “binding up” the German forces that held it.  And, as we saw a year it ago, it succeeded in breaking through, though not without cost, which we also saw, specifically in the case of Max Brand.

But of course, one part of the Gustav Line stood out.  The abbey of Monte Cassino, or rather, what was left of the abbey, had become one the toughest fortifications along the entire line of strongpoints.  And the Allies were partly to blame for that.

Back in February of 1944, U.S. and British forces had decided (incorrectly) that Monte Cassino, blessed with a commanding view of the valley around Cassino Town, was being occupied by enemy soldiers and artillery pieces.  They also decided (incorrectly) that bombing the abbey would not only kill the Germans there, but would also make an assault on it that much easier.

So on the 15th of February, the abbey was heavily bombed, which succeeded in killing numerous not-Germans that were there, but none of the Germans that weren’t.  Then the surviving not-Germans left, and the Germans that weren’t there suddenly were, and had a perfect redoubt to boot.  And for next 3 months, assault after assault would crash against the remains of the abbey (which continued to be bombed and shelled as well), only to be repulsed with heavy loss.  All told, the casualties suffered in the four major attacks on Monte Cassino neared six figures, most of them suffered by General Mark Clark’s U.S. 5th Army.

But Operation Diadem helped to change all that, as the massive wave of 28 divisions overwhelmed defenses all along the line.  Had the Germans stayed and defended the ruined monastery, they would have been quickly surrounded.  And so they pulled back, leaving only those soldiers too weakened or wounded to evacuate.  And on May 18, 1944, a Polish reconnassaince regiment arrived on-scene, found it abandoned, and raised the regimental colors on the…well…diadem of the monastery, using a makeshift flagpole (shown above).  Monte Cassino (that beautiful pile of rubble) was now in Allied hands.

Recommended Reading:  The Day of Battle

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Nearly a year ago, we took a look at the Alien and Sedition Acts which were put into effect in 1798.  We noted the Sedition Act in particular, which made writing false or malicious things about the government a crime, punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both.  While clearly a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, it remained in effect for nearly 3 years until it expired.

But somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t the last time such legislation made it through the halls of Congress and under the President’s pen.  On May 16, 1918 (nearly 120 years after the first Sedition Act), the Sedition Act of 1918 was passed.

There were some similarities between this Act and the one signed in 1798.  Like the first, the Act of 1918 was part of a larger piece of legislation, the Espionage Act of 1917.  Second, it made profane and disloyal speech about America, the Flag, and the armed forces a crime.  Both Acts were passed during a time of conflict – an undeclared war with France in the 18th Century and the First World War in the 20th – when it was believed that war protests and anti-war activity would undermine the war effort.  And both were actually supported by Congress and the public.

There were also some differences between the two.  While both Sedition Acts were signed by their respective Presidents into law, President John Adams had not requested nor endorsed the one passed in 1798 (though he happily signed it), while President Woodrow Wilson pushed aggressively for the one passed in 1918.  Also, while many newspapers were outraged in the 18th Century (primarily because they were the Act’s ultimate targets), they largely supported the 1918 measure, as it focused more on “subversive” activity and war protests.

Both Sedition Acts were would end up being used in a partisan manner, which probably comes as a surprise to almost no one.  And thankfully, both ended.  The Sedition Act of 1798 expired in 1801.  And the Sedition Act of 1918 was repealed by Congress in 1820.

Recommended Reading: Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism

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When I was growing up, I heard the phrase “Shoot first, ask questions later” an awful lot on Hogan’s Heroes.  It was always accompanied with the background audience laughter, because the “audience” and I all knew that it was pretty much an empty threat when it came from Colonel Klink or Sergeant Schultz.

But for the citizens of Rotterdam in 1940, the phrase wouldn’t have been nearly as funny.  On May 10th of that year, a force of more than 130 divisions, all German, slammed into Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.  These nations, all traditionally neutral in times of conflict, were the pathway that German forces were using to get to their main target:  France.

And they all had very little wherewithal to withstand the Wehrmacht, which pretty much chewed them up and spit them out.  Except for Rotterdam.  Located on the southwest coast of the Netherlands (and today one of the world’s busiest ports), these makers of delicious letters and other dainties had, for 3 days, proven to be war-equals with the enemies arrayed against them.

But Adolf Hitler wasn’t into Dutch treats at the moment, and had a schedule to keep.  So early on the morning of May 14, 1940, he ordered his on-the-scene commander, General Hans Schmidt, to inform Colonel Scharroo (the leader of the Dutch garrison) that Rotterdam would be bombed in the early afternoon if he didn’t surrender the city.

Negotiations began and continued throughout the morning, while Luftwaffe bombers took to the skies in preparation for an attack.  Just before the designated attack time of 1:20pm, Colonel Scharroo’s negotiator was granted a 2-hour extension from the Germans.  But on the way back to his camp, nearly 100 bombers arrived.

It gets a bit fuzzy at this point.  The Germans fired red flares into the sky, which they claim were a signal to bomber crews that the raid was off for now.  Others claim, with good evidence, that red flares fired by Germans were generally used to mark friendly troop locations so they wouldn’t be bombed.  Furthermore, not all the bombers dropped their bombs, so it’s pretty apparent there was some confusion with the Germans.  But what is for sure is that Rotterdam’s 2-hour reprieve last just a few minutes.

The heart of the city took the brunt of the attacks and, as the photo above shows, the damage was extensive.  Nearly 1,000 people were killed and many thousands more lost everything.  The Germans had given a similar ultimatum to the city of Utrecht, but the Dutch, figuring that deadlines meant little to the enemy, decided that enough was enough.

Six hours later, Dutch armed forces laid down their arms, and the Netherlands formally capitulated the next day.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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That’s how General Alexander concluded the message sent to his boss, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at 1:16pm on May 13, 1943.  The North African campaign, fought over a 6-month period, was finally over.  But the cost had been high for the Allies.  More than 6,000 British soldiers had been killed, along with more than 9,500 French and nearly 3,000 American soldiers.  Total casualties (wounded, missing, or captured) would top the 70,000 mark.

On the Axis side of the ledger, determining numbers is more difficult, as the loser in a war rarely gets a chance to number the fallen, and the victors rarely take the time.  12,000 Italian and German dead is probably the low-end of the estimates with another 40-50,000 wounded.  Numbers of captured were huge, as thousands laid down their arms in Bizerte and Tunis.  In addition, the 5th Panzer Army, which we left last week on the Cape Bon Peninsula, surrendered as well.  A total prisoner count of 300,000 is probably about right, as the photo above (of a German POW camp near Mateur) seems to bear out.

And for U.S. troops, their first fighting experience had been hard, but valuable.  Rick Atkinson, in his book An Army At Dawn (which I’ve recommended numerous times) writes, “Four U.S. divisions now had combat experience in five variants of Euro-Mediterranean warfare:  expeditionary, amphibious, mountain, desert, and urban.  Troops had learned the importance of terrain, of combined arms, of aggressive patrolling, of stealth, of massed armor.  They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned, and to fight on.”

The U.S. Army was now a fighting machine and, what’s more, they had fought against the vaunted Wehrmacht, and come out on the better end.  The North African landscape was dotted with burned-out tanks and artillery pieces, remnants of shattered aircraft, and not a few human remains.  Towns had been destroyed and the landscapes marred.

Decades later, unexploded bombs, mines, and artillery shells were (and are) being dug up at the rate of dozens per month.  But nobody was fighting in North Africa, and Adolf Hitler’s double-disasters in North Africa’s desert and in Stalingrad’s frozen streets meant 1943 was the beginning of the end for him and his aspirations.

Many of the men believed they would be sent home.  But many others looked to the northwest, just as their German counterparts had done the week before.  But the Germans had looked that direction with hope and longing for a rescuer from the Allied trap.  Allied soldiers looked that way with the somber knowledge that more Germans were waiting.

Sicily was next, with Italy not far behind.

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If you mention the CSS Virginia around a bunch of computer nerds (like me), they’re liable to get all excited, albeit for the wrong reasons.  They’ll probably suppose that it’s a new-fangled add-on that will make development of Cascading Style Sheets easier and more enjoyable.  You can easily crush their hopes with a two-part response.  First, tell them that nothing exists that will ever make CSS easier or more enjoyable.

If the angry mob doesn’t immediately pummel you to death with their pocket protectors, or maybe write some software that exiles you to Katmandu, you can deliver the second part of the response…Today’s History Lesson.

The CSS Virginia was a Confederate States Ship.  Yep, the Confederacy had a navy.  Now maybe one or two of the nerds is listening.  Then mention that, before it was the Virginia, it was called the Merrimack…the USS Merrimack…as in United States Ship.  Tell the nerds that the Confederate government took the ship from the Union.  Better yet, say the Conderates “pirated” the ship, because piracy is a big deal in computer circles.  By now, you should have a small, but captive, audience.

When Virginia left the Union in 1861, Union forces were ordered to destroy the naval base at Portsmouth before departing.  Included in that destruction was the destruction of the frigate Merrimack, so she was torched.  But she sank before being completely burned out, and was subsequently raised by the Confederates to clear the harbor for operations.  So the whole “piracy” thing is a bit of a stretch.

But then it was discovered that the Merrimack’s hull and running gear was still serviceable.  So it was chopped and channeled, given a louvered hood and thrush pipes,…well, not really.  But it was highly modified, covered with heavy armor plating, and converted to an ironclad.  Tell the computer guys that the Confederates didn’t just patch the old ship, they did a ground-up rewrite of the code and gave it a new name.

And then the CSS Virginia was released, and fought that famous battle with its northern counterpart, the USS Monitor, in March of 1862, which pretty much ended in a draw.  And that was the last time the Virginia would fire her guns in anger.  Union forces moved back into Virginia (the state) and occupied Norfolk on May 10th.  The CSS Virginia, still undergoing repairs, was not ready for ocean travel, and had too deep a draft to move up-river.

So, in computer parlance, the Confederates crashed their own hard drives.  In historical language, the guns were removed, and on May 11, 1862, she was filled with explosives and set afire.  And this time, the damage was complete.  The fire reached the powder magazines and blew the CSS Virginia apart.

Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1

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The sound of the gavel that ended the First Continental Congress in October of 1774 was still ringing through the streets of Philadelphia when it was replaced by gunfire in the streets of Lexington and Concord the following April.  The push for independence was gaining momentum among the people and, as the opposition to “overseas oversight” became stronger, less savory elements in the Colonies were becoming more brazen and more violent in their actions against those that sided with England.

Caught in the middle were a significant group of colonists that wanted independence, but believed that such a venture would certainly lead to an unwinnable war against an unbeatable British army and navy.  And once this certainly-bloody, but short-lived, conflict was over, additional blood from those deemed traitors would flow through the streets of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and dozens of other places.

It was against this volatile backdrop of diverse opinions that the men of the First Continental Congress met again for what would become the Second Continental Congress.  All meetings have “action items”, and one of those from the first meeting was to meet again.  The date set was May 10, 1775 and their meetings opened, once again, in Philadelphia.

And though they didn’t know it at the time, this group of 56 men would meet almost continually for the next six years…that’s one long congressional session.  In 1775, they would discuss items like peace initiatives with the British Crown while simultaneously creating a Continental Army.  But as the relationship with the Crown disintegrated, issues like maintaining and funding an army and getting out of town (when Philadelphia fell to the British) would be added to the agenda.

There were a few new faces in the meeting hall.  John Hancock, who would become the Congress’ President, was there.  The stately Benjamin Franklin was also present, though events would see him (and eventually John Adams) sent to France.  And current President Peyton Randolph would be called back to Virginia, and his place was taken by a young man named Jefferson…Thomas Jefferson.

All told, 12 of the 13 Colonies were represented (just like at the first gathering).  But Georgia would remain without true delegates only until July.  And for the next six years, these men would work as a one-house government to hold together a fragile rebellion against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent.

Recommended Reading: John Adams

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In October of 1935, Italian forces had launched an attack against the African country of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).  Intrepid readers will remember that Italy already controlled neighboring Eritrea and a piece of Abyssinia called Italian Somaliland.

And though the Italian military wasn’t nearly as modern as that of, say, Germany, it was still a quantum leap ahead of the army it faced in Africa in 1935.  The Abyssinian army of half-a-million men had no armored vehicles and no air force to speak of, just a handful of artillery pieces, a few guns and rifles, and spears.

But still, with their massive advantages in men (800,000) and weapons of war, Italian progress was slow, even lethargic.  General Emilio De Bono was encouraged to pick up the pace and even promoted to the rank of Marshal.  But still the “dawdling” continued, and by December, De Bono was out in favor of Marshal Pietro Badoglio.

And then an Abyssinian offensive in the north began pushing the Italians back.  It was then that the Italians turned to gas.  The day after Christmas, they loaded their artillery pieces with unconventional shells, firing shells with mustard gas and phosgene.  Their opposition had no answer, and no defense, for chemical agents that rained down on them, killing them by the thousands.

And from here on out, Italian gas attacks played a significant role in the campaign’s outcome.  It was fired from shells.  It was sprayed “insecticide-style” from airplanes onto military and civilian targets alike.  Even Red Cross tents, hospitals, and ambulances were no respite, as gas attacks were carried out on them as well.

Resistance crumbled throughout the spring of 1936.  On May 2nd, Abyssinian leader Haile Selassie fled the country, and three days later, Badoglio and his forces marched into the capital of Addis Ababa.  On May 9, 1936, the annexation was completed, and Abyssinia was merged with Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to form a single entity:  Italian East Africa.

This conflict, as much as anything, proved that the League of Nations was a complete farce.  Both Italy and Abyssinia were members, but somehow the League was powerless to prevent Italy’s aggression.  Nor could it protect Abyssinia from Italy and its clearly-illegal gas attacks.

Recommended Reading: The Italian Invasion of Abyssinia 1935-36, Vol. 309

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Meanwhile, in North Africa…

Yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve said anything about it, but Allied forces (predominantly U.S. and British) had been working for six months to expel the German and Italian forces from the northern coasts of Africa.  Opposing armies and navies had worked at the end of extremely long supply lines trying to outfit and feed their soldiers.

At the same time, U.S. soldiers and their commanders had been doing a lot of “under-fire” training…making decisions, making mistakes, regrouping, and trying again.  Tremendous frustration and repeated defeat had given way to a more cohesive, more effective machine that was fighting an ever-weakening foe.

And as April gave way to May, the Allied goals of capturing Tunis and Bizerte had become a reality, as they had moved to within shouting distance of both targets.  The Germans, who had seen their stream of supplies reduced to a trickle, were now only fighting to prolong the inevitable.

Early in the morning of May 6, 1943, the final Allied offensive in North Africa began.  Simply called Operation Strike, it called for the American II Corps to make for the port of Bizerte.  In the meantime, the British First Army, located 30 miles south, was bearing down on Tunis.  The British Eighth Army, still further south, acted as a diversion in order to tie up as much of the German 5th Panzer Army as possible.

The Germans collapsed and, on May  7, 1943, both Bizerte and Tunis traded hands.  The German 5th Panzer Army, the only cohesive enemy force left on the continent, had been pushed back to the Cape Bon Peninsula.  I’m guessing that many a German soldier looked longingly to the northeast, toward Sicily, hoping for a Dunkirk-style miracle that wouldn’t be coming.

It would take another week to finalize things, but the Axis presence in North Africa was finished.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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Herbert Morrison’s words, choked with emotion, still echo from the field in Lakehurst, New Jersey.  And 72 years later, the photo (taken by a member of the U.S. Navy) is not only instantly recognizable, it’s one of the most famous pictures ever taken.  And both Morrison’s audio, which was being recorded for radio station WLS in Chicago, and the video shot of the Hindenburg airship explosion and crash have served to make it one of the most well-known disasters in history.

To me, there are two (rather simplistic) things that make this such a remarkable event.  The first is how quickly the Hindenburg burned.  When watching the video, it seems to only take about 30 seconds for the airship to become completely engulfed in flame.  Keep in mind that the Hindenburg was the largest aircraft of any kind ever built.  It was only 80 feet shorter than the RMS Titanic.  You know, the huge ocean liner.  It was massive.

But a couple of things made this aerial ocean liner very flammable.  One was hydrogen gas.  The Hindenburg was designed to fly with the help of helium.  But in the 1930’s, helium was extremely expensive and available only from the United States, who wasn’t exporting it.  Hydrogen, by comparison, was cheap and readily available.  But those of you that know your Periodic Table know that hydrogen is on the left side with the more volatile elements, while helium is one of the Noble Gases, and way more stable.

Furthermore, the skin of the airship was coated with materials to protect the sensitive gas bags.  But that material was also volatile and, when exposed to high heat, caused thermite reactions.  So you have a flammable fuel being protected by flammable skin…a recipe for disaster.  And when the spark sparked (and to this day, no one knows for sure what caused it) at 7:25pm on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg went from a tranquil airship to a raging inferno of exploding gas and exploding skin in a matter of moments.

The second thing I find so surprising is that there were any survivors at all.  In fact, only 35 of the 97 passengers were killed…a tragedy, no doubt.  But when you watch that thing burn, you marvel that anyone made it out.  Some jumped to safety while others simply rode it to the ground and made their miraculous escapes.

Airships were kind of “the rage” in the 1930’s.  They were luxurious, smooth, and comfortable.  But it only took about a minute’s worth of time on a May night in Lakehurst to put an end to all that.

Recommended Viewing:  The Hindenburg airship disaster – Video footage combined with Morrison’s dialogue.

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In the early hours of  May 5, 1942, things were still looking pretty good for the Japanese military.  New conquests included the Dutch East Indies, Malaysia, Singapore, and the northern coasts of New Guinea.  The Philippines was largely occupied as well, and Joe Stilwell and his men were packing their bags in Burma.  The Imperial Japanese Navy enjoyed success wherever it fought.

Yeah, there were occasional setbacks.  The invasion of Port Moresby had been delayed for a couple months.  Corregidor was proving a tougher nut to crack than originally estimated.  And there were those bombers that made a bit of noise over Tokyo in mid-April.  But Doolittle’s raiders did little more than scare the populace and, frankly, Japanese forces had broken down Corregidor’s defenses to the point that Homma’s troops were planning a landing and occupation…tonight.  So all was looking pretty good.

It was time for phase two of operations.  Those included pushing Australia and India out of the war as well as diminishing the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Pacific.  So Port Moresby was back on the table and, in fact, on this glorious May 5th morning, an invasion fleet was heading there now.

Also on the map was Midway Island.  The atoll was small, basically big enough for an airstrip, a few guns, and some fuel tanks.  But after the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Pacific fleet was a mess.  Commander-in-Chief Isoroku Yamamoto believed that occupying Midway would give them a base of operations from which they could actually expel the U.S. Navy from Pearl Harbor, thereby taking control of the Pacific.

So he and his staff created an intricate plan that would draw the remnants of the U.S. fleet into a killing field of Japanese firepower.  A decoy force would head towards Alaska with another force headed towards Midway.  When the fleet responded to that second force, a third (and more powerful) fleet would swoop in and deal the killing blow.  Yamamoto polished up the ideas and sent them to his superiors…and waited.

And it was on this morning, May 5, when Corregidor was falling, and Port Moresby was as good as occupied, and everything was going right, that Imperial General Headquarters issued “Navy Order No. 18”.  It ordered Admiral Yamamoto to carry out his plan to occupy Midway Island and the western Aleutians with help from the Army.

“Navy Order No. 18” turned out to be one of the most pivotal orders of war, but not for the Japanese Navy.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

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We’ll keep it brief today.  Usually actors and actresses start their careers with bit parts or bigger parts in no-name B movies.  Eventually they gain some experience and move on to bigger and more important roles.  Some become superstars, and the movies for which they’re known bear little resemblance to the ones that started their careers.


But some have taken a different route, and it’s possible that Pia Zadora could be considered such an actress.  Her most famous movie was probably the first one in which she starred.  At just 8 years of age, Zadora (who was born Pia Alfreda Schipani on May 4, 1954) was cast in one of the most famous low-budget movies of all time:  Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

In the role of a cute-as-a-button Martian named Girmar, she spent too much time watching earth programs, wishing she could have fun and experience the joys of childhood.  Furthermore, she earned extra lines (and maybe a few extra bucks) singing the “opening credit sequence” song, a horrific ditty called “Hooray for Santy Claus”.  And from there, the movie pretty much went downhill…

…which made it perfect for the guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000.  In 1991, they brought new fame to Zadora by making Santa Claus Conquers the Martians the 21st episode of their 3rd season.

Zadora would go on to act in numerous other movies, achieving modest success, including winning a Golden Globe.  She would also try her hand at music.  But her first movie is considered by some to be her most recogniable.

Happy Birthday, Pia Zadora!!

Recommended Viewing:  Santa Claus Conquers the Martians – Of course…an absolute must-see!!

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With the death of Adolf Hitler on 1945’s last day of April, the mass exodus from the massive underground bunker below the bombed out Chancellery began in earnest.  Those left with the German dictator professed their unwavering loyalty and commitment to him, but when he downed his final cocktail of cyanide (with a bullet chaser), it was as though the mice on the ship finally realized the waves were lapping the bow and the “exodus of self-preservation” began.

Some, like Joseph Goebbels, who was appointed by Hitler as the new Chancellor, chose the option of joining their now-dead leader by becoming…well…dead.  Others, like Martin Bormann, promoted to the Nazi Party’s General Secretary, chose to chance it above ground.

And then Bormann seemingly disappeared.  He exited the Chancellery with two companions, one of whom survived to say that Bormann had died.  But the lack of a body and the fact that many Nazi officials made their escapes to South America led to all kinds of speculation.

Bormann’s long-time chauffeur saw him in Berlin.  He was seen in South America years later.  He was back in Europe with a modified face.  He was a Russian spy now living in the Soviet Union.  He was piloting a UFO with Amelia Earhart.

It got to the point that serious investigations were re-opened to figure out what really happened to the man, but even those proved suspect.  Ladislas Farago, a journalist and author of some pretty solid works, wrote a book showing evidence that Martin Bormann that he had survived the war and that he was alive and well in Argentina.

And then in 1972, 27 years later, a crew of construction workers solved the mystery when they dug up Bormann’s remains…in Germany…with bits of glass in his teeth.  And the puzzle finally came together.

After leaving the Chancellery, Bormann and his companion encountered a Russian patrol early in the morning on May 2, 1945.  But rather than, as a Russian spy, running to meet his secret compatriots, he quickly bit his cyanide capsule and, seconds later, became just another dead Nazi officer laying on the ground.

Recommended Reading: The Game of the Foxes – I mentioned Farago, so here’s the book that’s on my shelf.  It’s all about German espionage in the U.S. and England.  Is it 100% accurate?…well, that’s open to a bit of debate.

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