We’ve all seen the movie where a well-funded group of terrorists makes a threat against the U.S. government then all hell breaks loose until one man or woman steps up and saves the day by defeating the bad guys. These films often make our defensive capabilities appear powerless versus these fictional villains.
Although these storylines are entertaining, our government’s ability to protect us goes well beyond some smart computer hacker, especially in the event of a nuclear war.
The nuclear war strategy of the U.S. relies upon its capacity to communicate with and control its nuclear forces under the most hazardous of conditions. For close to 30 years, this vital defense plan was laid in the hands of 11 different converted EC-135Cs code-named “Looking Glass.”
Operation Looking Glass was introduced by the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Command on Feb. 3, 1961. It was prepared to take over all operational control of nuclear forces if the ground-based command centers were destroyed or rendered unusable.
If that devastating nuclear event occurred, the general officer serving as the Airborne Emergency Action Officer (AEAO) aboard the “Looking Glass” would be required by law to assume the authority of the National Command Authority and directly command execution during a nuclear attack.
To avoid any potential enemy threat from jamming the unique aircraft’s signal, the specialized planes came equipped with high-frequency antennas located on the wings. Along with the AEAO, a crew consisting of approximately 15-20 airmen would man their solitary post for several hours a day.
Since its maiden flight in 1961, there has always been a “Looking Glass” plane flying somewhere above the United States in case of an emergency, 24-hours a day.
On June 1, 1992, Operation Looking Glass was grounded from service and replaced.
Check out the video below to witness just how special this flying beast was to national security.
Maybe the greatest thing about the French Foreign Legion for many of its enlistees is the ability to get an entirely new life upon joining. At least back in the days following World War II, you could. This meant anyone escaping their old life could earn anonymity and a new, French life after a few years of service.
In the years following World War II, this also meant it was (potentially) full of war criminals. For Eliahu Itzkovitz, a Romanian Jew, there was only one war criminal he cared about, and that criminal did join the foreign legion. Itzkovitz was not about to let him get away with his crimes.
Itzkovitz was born to Jewish parents in Chișinău, which is today the capital of Moldova but in his time was in the Kingdom of Romania. When World War II broke out, Romania’s King Carol II opted to maintain his country’s neutrality, but the stars weren’t aligning for Carol and his traditional allies. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from continental Europe and the fall of France in 1940 led to opposition to that policy.
Romania’s king turned to Nazi Germany to secure its borders, but the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact ceded Romanian territory to the Soviet Union and King Carol II was powerless to do anything about it. He was soon deposed in a Fascist coup that led the new power to join the Axis pact in 1940.
Jewish people in Romania began to meet the same fate as others in Nazi-dominated Europe. They were herded into concentration camps, ghettos or were outright murdered in pogroms by Romanian and German soldiers. Eliahu Itzkovitz and his family were deported to a concentration camp in their native Moldavia.
It was in this prison that young Eliahu Itzkovitz watched a prison camp guard named Stănescu murder his parents. The young boy vowed to get revenge on Stănescu. HIs demand for vengeance helped him survive the war, but when he was liberated by the Soviet Union, he couldn’t find the guard.
He returned to Romania looking for Stănescu while still a young man. He tracked down a location where he thought he would find his parents’ murder in 1947, but found only the man’s son. Itzkovitz stabbed his son with a butcher knife. He was caught and sentenced to a juvenile prison. Upon his release, the now-communist government of Romania allowed him to emigrate to Israel.
Now an orphan living in the Jewish homeland, he joined the Israeli Defence Forces, determined to never let something like the Holocaust orphan any more Jewish children. Itzkovitz joined a paratrooper brigade a year after joining the IDF. It was here he learned how and where Stănescu managed to escape the Soviet troops in 1945 – he had moved into the French occupation zone of Germany and joined the French Foreign Legion.
Itzkovitz came up with a plan to exact his revenge. First, he transferred to the Israeli Navy, where he was stationed in Haifa. Eventually, he was sent to the Italian port of Genoa on a supply mission. Once back in Europe, he deserted from the Navy and joined the Foreign Legion himself.
While undergoing basic training in Algeria, he learned that his prey had been sent to French Indochina with the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment, where he was a noncommissioned officer and a squad leader. Itzkovitz volunteered for that same regiment and ended up in Indochina, in Stănescu’s unit. Itzkovitz didn’t strike right away – he waited for the perfect moment.
The day he long waited for finally arrived on a 1958 patrol near the Vietnamese city of Bac Ninh. Itzkovitz finally confronted the guard that killed his parents in the Holocaust and killed him. He served out the rest of his enlistment with the Foreign Legion. Afterwards, he returned to Paris to face the music for deserting the Israeli Navy.
The IDF court-martialed Itzkovitz and sentenced him to one year in prison.
If you wanted to visit the carrier the Doolittle Raiders flew from, the USS Hornet (CV 8), you need to go to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Specifically, the place to look is near the Santa Cruz Islands, where a major naval battle was fought 74 years ago. It is notable for being the last time the United States lost a fleet carrier.
So, what made Santa Cruz such a big deal? Partly it was because the Japanese were desperately trying to take Henderson Field, and felt they had a chance to do so. They had pushed the United States Navy to the limit after the battles of Savo Island and the Eastern Solomons. A submarine had also put USS Wasp (CV 7) on the bottom with a devastating salvo of torpedoes that also sank a destroyer and damaged USS North Carolina (BB 55).
Admiral Chester Nimitz had sent Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, who had just recovered from dermatitis that caused him to miss the Battle of Midway. Halsey decided to hit the Japanese Fleet first. The orders: “Attack – Repeat Attack!”
American planes damaged the carriers Shokaku and Zuiho, as well as the heavy cruiser Chikuma. The destroyer USS Porter (DD 356) took a hit from a torpedo fired by the Japanese submarine I-21 (although some sources claim the damage was from a freak incident involving a torpedo from a crashed TBF Avenger). USS Enterprise took two bomb hits, but was still in the fight, and would later retire from the scene after surviving two more attacks.
USS Hornet was hit by three bombs, two suicide planes, and two torpedoes in the first attack. Despite that damage, she was mostly repaired by eleven in the morning. However, that afternoon, a second strike put another torpedo into the 20,000-ton carrier. Halsey ordered the Hornet scuttled.
USS Mustin (DD 413) and USS Anderson (DD 411) put three torpedoes and over 400 five-inch shells into the Hornet before they had to retreat in the face of a substantial Japanese surface force. USS Hornet would not go down until the Japanese destroyers Akigumo and Makigumo put four Long Lance torpedoes into her hull.
All in all, Hornet took ten torpedoes, two suicide planes, and three bombs before she went down. Her sister ship, USS Yorktown (CV 5) had taken three bombs and four torpedoes before she went down at Midway, having also survived two bomb hits at the Battle of the Coral Sea that had not been completely repaired.
The lessons of the losses of USS Yorktown and USS Hornet would pay their own dividends. The United States would only lose one light carrier, USS Princeton (CVL 23), and six escort carriers for the rest of the war. Carriers like USS Franklin (CV 13) and USS Bunker Hill (CV 17) would survive severe damage in 1945, while USS Enterprise (CVN 65) and USS Forrestal (CV 59) would survive frightful fires during the Vietnam War.
When the Japanese attacked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they did so in a coordinated effort that spanned across the Pacific.
Having been weakened by sanctions imposed by the United States, the Japanese sought to deliver a crushing blow to the U.S. and its allies, claiming much of the territory in the East and leaving little means for resistance.
These are the five battles that occurred simultaneously (though on December 8 because they were across the international date line) as the attack on Pearl Harbor, effectively beginning the war in the Pacific:
1. Battle of Guam
Along with the air attacks at Pearl Harbor the Japanese also began air raids against the island of Guam on the morning of December 8, 1941. Two days later an oversized Japanese invasion force landed on the island. After quickly defeating the local Insular Guard force, the Japanese moved on to the under-strength Marine Corps detachment led by Lt. Col. William MacNulty. After a brief resistance, the Marines were ordered to surrender by the islands governor. However, six men from the U.S. Navy fled into the jungle in hopes of evading capture. Five were eventually captured and executed but one, George Ray Tweed, managed to hold out with the help of the local Chamorro tribe for over two and a half years until U.S. forces retook the island in 1944. To the locals he represented the hope of an American return to the island. When the Americans returned he was able to signal a nearby destroyer and pass on valuable targeting information.
2. Battle of Wake Island
When the Japanese first launched their air attacks on Wake Island, they caught the U.S. off guard and managed to destroy precious aircraft on the ground. However, when the Japanese invasion came on Dec. 11, 1941, the Americans were ready and threw back the initial Japanese landing attempt. The Japanese proceeded to lay siege to the island. Aerial bombardment continued but Wake Island became a bright spot in the Pacific as American forces were pushed back elsewhere. The media dubbed it the “Alamo of the Pacific.” Eventually, on Dec. 23, 1941, the Japanese launched another assault on the island. Again the defenders put up a staunch resistance. With no more flyable planes, the Marine aviators — as well as civilians trapped on the island — joined in the fight. Capt. Henry Elrod would become the first Marine aviator to earn the Medal of Honor for his actions there. Despite the intrepid defense, the island was surrendered. The defenders joined the others across the Pacific in their brutal treatment by the Japanese.
3. Battle of the Philippines
When the first Japanese forces hit the islands north of Luzon, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, brought out of retirement for just such an occasion, had over 31,000 American and Philippine troops under his command. These forces put up a determined resistance throughout December, but on Christmas Eve MacArthur called for a fighting withdrawal to the Bataan Peninsula. Once his forces were consolidated on Bataan and the harbor islands of Manila Bay, they dug in to make a final stand against the Japanese onslaught. For several months they held out until shortages of all necessary war supplies dwindled.
The survivors were rounded up and subjected to the brutal Bataan Death March on their way to POW Camps. A lucky few were able to withdraw to Corregidor. A defensive force centered on the 4th Marine Regiment and, augmented by numerous artillery units numbering 11,000 men, prepared to defend Corregidor from the Japanese. That attack came on May 5, 1942. The next day Gen. Wainwright, in the face of overwhelming odds and no prospects of relief, decided to surrender the American forces in the Philippines.
4. Battle of Hong Kong
The Americans were not the only targets of the Japanese and so at 8:00 a.m. local time, Japanese forces from mainland China attacked the British Commonwealth forces defending Hong Kong. British, Canadian, and Indian troops manned defensive positions but were woefully undermanned.
Initial attempts to stop the Japanese at the Gin Drinker’s Line, a defensive line to the north of Hong Kong island, were unsuccessful due to a lack of manpower. The defenders also lacked the experience of the Japanese troops that were attacking. Within three days, the defenders had withdrawn from the mainland portion of the colony and set up defenses on the island of Hong Kong.
The Japanese quickly followed and, after British refusal to surrender, attacked across Victoria Harbor on Dec. 19. Less than a week later, on Christmas day 1941, the British surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese. The survivors endured numerous atrocities at the hands of the Japanese.
5. Malayan Campaign and the Battle of Singapore
Another British target of the Japanese was Singapore for its important strategic location and because it was a strong base for British resistance. In order to capture Singapore, the Japanese launched the Malayan Campaign on Dec. 8, 1941. On the first day of the campaign the Japanese also launched the first aerial bombardment against Singapore.
In an attempt to intercept the Japanese invasion force, the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese aircraft. This left very little in the means of naval power for the British fleet in Singapore.
On land the Commonwealth forces fared no better. The Japanese stormed down the peninsula, forcing the defenders back towards Singapore. By the end of January 1942 the entire peninsula had fallen and the British set in to defend Singapore. The Japanese launched their assault on Singapore on Feb. 8, 1942. Some 85,000 troops stood ready to defend the city but could only hold out for a week before capitulating. This ended British resistance in the Pacific area.
The British lost nearly 140,000 men — the vast majority of whom were captured — in the campaign. As with the fighting elsewhere, the campaign was marked by Japanese cruelty.
In 2002, the U.S. military tapped Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper to lead the red opposing forces of the most expensive, expansive military exercise in history. He was put in command of an inferior Middle Eastern-inspired military force. His mission was to go against the full might of the American armed forces. In the first two days, he sank an entire carrier battle group.
The exercise was called Millennium Challenge 2002. It was designed by the Joint Forces Command over the course of two years. It had 13,500 participants, numerous live and simulated training sites, and was supposed to pit an Iran-like Middle Eastern country against the U.S. military, which would be fielding advanced technology it didn’t plan to implement until five years later.
The war game would begin with a forced-entry exercise that included the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Marine Division.
When the Blue Forces issued a surrender ultimatum, Van Riper, commanding the Red Forces, turned them down. Since the Bush Doctrine of the period included preemptive strikes against perceived enemies, Van Riper knew the Blue Forces would be cominfor him. And they did.
But the three-star general didn’t spend 41 years in the Marine Corps by being timid. As soon as the Navy was beyond the point of no return, he hit them and hit them hard. Missiles from land-based units, civilian boats, and low-flying planes tore through the fleet as explosive-ladened speedboats decimated the Navy using suicide tactics. His code to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer.
How did 19 ships and some 20,000 U.S. troops end up at the bottom of the Persian Gulf? It started with the OPFOR leadership. Van Riper was the epitome of the salty Marine Corps general officer. He was a 41-year veteran, both enlisted and commissioned, serving everywhere from Vietnam to Desert Storm. Van Riper attended the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, The College of Naval Command and Staff, Army War College, and the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools.
In fact, the three-star general had been retired for some five years by the time he led the Red Forces of Millennium Challenge. He was an old-school Marine capable of some old-school tactics and has insisted that technology cannot replace human intuition and study of the basic nature of war, which he called a “terrible, uncertain, chaotic, bloody business.”
When Van Riper told the story of Millennium Challenge to journalist Malcolm Gladwell, he said the Blue Forces were stuck in their own mode of thinking. Their vastly superior technology included advanced intelligence matrices and an Operational Net Assessment that told them where the OPFOR vulnerabilities were and what Van Riper was most likely to do next out of a range of possible scenarios. They relied heavily on that. When the Blue took out Red’s microwave towers and fiber optics, they expected his forces to use satellite and cell phones that could be monitored.
Not a chance. Van Riper instead used motorcycle couriers, messages hidden in prayers, and even coded lighting systems on his airfields — tactics employed during World War II.
“I struck first,” he said in “ Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” written by Gladwell in 2005. “We did all the calculations on how many cruise missiles their ships could handle, so we simply launched more than that.”
In fact, Van Riper hated the kind of analytical decision making the Blue Forces were doing. He believed it took far too long. His resistance plan included ways of getting his people to make good decisions using rapid cognition and analog but reliable communications.
The other commanders involved called foul, complaining that a real OPFOR would never use the tactics Van Riper used — except Van Riper’s flotilla used boats and explosives like those used against the USS Cole in 2000.
“And I said ‘nobody would have thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade Center,'” Van Riper said in reply. “But nobody [in the exercise] seemed interested.”
In the end, the Blue Forces were all respawned and Van Riper was prevented from making moves to counter the Blue Forces’ landing. He had no radar and wasn’t allowed to shoot down incoming aircraft he would have otherwise accurately targeted. The rest of the exercise was scripted to let the Blue Force land and win. Van Riper walked out when he realized his commands were being ignored by the exercise planners. The fix was in.
The three-star wrote a 21-page critique of the exercise that was immediately classified. Van Riper spoke out against the rigged game anyway.
“Nothing was learned from this,” he told the Guardian in 2002. “A culture not willing to think hard and test itself does not augur well for the future.”
In 1939, Congress authorized the construction of the USS Wisconsin. The build began at the Philadelphia Naval Yard in 1941. The United States was still doing everything she could to avoid being involved in the war in Europe, but preparing nonetheless. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor eleven months later would change everything.
The world was now at war for the second time and the USS Wisconsin would join the fight.
In 1943 on the second anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, the USS Wisconsin launched. She was commissioned on April 16, 1944. She left Norfolk, VA, and began her work. A few months later, the USS Wisconsin earned her first star in battle by supporting carriers during Leyte Operation: Luzon Attacks. She would go on to prove her seaworthiness by surviving a typhoon that took out three ships.
In January of 1945 while heavily armed, she escorted fast carriers who completed air strikes against Formosa, Luzon. By supporting these strikes, she earned her second battle star. Shortly after that she was assigned to the 5th Fleet. She went on to assist in the strike against Tokyo, which was a cover for the eventual invasion of Iwo Jima.
Under the cover of terrible weather, the USS Wisconsin supported landing operations for Iwo Jima, earning her third battle star. She would earn her fourth in an operation against Okinawa. Following that, she showed her might by keeping the enemy at bay with her powerful weapons and taking down three enemy planes. The USS Wisconsin earned a fifth star after operations against Japan. After putting in over 100,000 miles at sea since joining the fleet, she dropped her anchor in Tokyo Bay. She was vital to the support of the Pacific naval operations for World War II and earned her rest. She was inactivated in 1948 and decommissioned. It wouldn’t last long.
The USS Wisconsin rejoined the fleet in 1951 to assist in the Korean War operations. Following that war, she was placed out of commission yet again in 1958, and sat idle for 28 years until she was needed once more. She would go on to support operations in the Gulf War in 1991. Throughout her six months there, she played an absolute vital role in restoring Kuwait. She was decommissioned for the third and final time — she definitely earned her retirement.
The USS Wisconsin now sits in Norfolk, VA open to the public as a museum.
Emir Abdelkader was born the son of a respected military leader who had helped harass French occupiers in Algeria. As might be expected, young Emir continued his father’s war against the French in a conflict that had religious overtones since, you know, the Algerians were mostly Muslim and the French predominantly Christian. But when he rode forth to save Christians from angry mobs in 1860, France conferred on him its top military honors, the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Emir Abdelkader as a military leader in the late 1830s.
Further successes on the battlefield and in negotiations gave him control of more land and pushed most French forces back to a few ports. His success on the battlefield in service of Algerian independence led to him being dubbed the “George Washington of Algeria.”
But Abdelkader was unable to defeat the larger and better equipped French military forever. A renewed French campaign in 1840 slowly ground down Abdelkader and his supporters and, in 1847, he surrendered to a French general and the duc d’Aumale, the French king’s son.
But his story was not over. He was a prolific writer and was widely respected in the region and across the world. So, when political violence erupted into a summer civil war in 1860, Abdelkader’s calls for calm incited some popular support for peace.
A statue of Emir Abdelkader in Algeria.
(Mouh2jijel, CC BY-SA 3.0)
But the violence did continue and spilled into Damascus, now the capital of Syria. Abdelkader rode forth with his guard and supporters and personally rounded up Christians and took them back to his compound where he and his men guarded them. He put a bounty out for the safe delivery of any Christians to him and his men. And, he sent guards to escort local Christian leaders and officials back to safety.
His efforts were credited at the time with saving thousands, and he had hundreds of Christians at a time sheltered under his protection.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses American paratroopers prior to D-Day. (Wikimedia Commons).
Dwight Eisenhower, West Point’s most famous alum, went through his own R-day in 1911. Even though the general and, later, president, will forever be associated with the Academy, a closer review of the history shows Eisenhower and West Point weren’t a perfect match. Here are five facts about Dwight Eisenhower’s time at West Point you might not know.
1. West Point wasn’t Eisenhower’s first choice.
It’s true. The academy that features a statue of Eisenhower, a leadership development program named for him and a theatre named after him, wasn’t Eisenhower’s first choice. Eisenhower initially preferred the Naval Academy. That makes sense because when Eisenhower was evaluating schools in 1910-1911, the U.S. demonstrated its military power through the Navy. Alas, Eisenhower, 20 at the time of his application, was too old for the Naval Academy, so he gave West Point a try. After some effort, Eisenhower was accepted, and he arrived at West Point on July 14, 1911.
2. Eisenhower was forced to join the “awkward squad” in his first weeks at West Point.
When students arrive at West Point, they are called plebes and hazing quickly begins. Upperclassmen at West Point initiate new students into the Army culture through rigorous physical and emotional tests known as the “beast barracks,” which involve a great deal of drilling. Having grown up in a rough-and-tumble farming town in Kansas, Eisenhower had no problem with the physical end of the ordeal. But he just could not catch onto the marching tempo and was forced to join similarly challenged plebes in the “awkward squad” until he could get the timing right.
3. Eisenhower didn’t like the hazing at West Point.
Eisenhower didn’t enjoy the beast barracks and did all he could to undermine the system of hazing. Years later he described the cadet instructors as “obnoxious and pestiferous.” Later in his plebe year, Eisenhower and a fellow cadet broke a minor rule. As punishment, an upperclassman ordered them to report in “full-dress coat.” Eisenhower took the order literally and showed up sans pants, an act of defiance that drove his tormenter mad. Years later Eisenhower savored how that upperclassman let out “the cry of a cougar.” Eisenhower recalled later in life that when he was an upperclassman, he shamed a cadet over a job the young man had held. After that incident, Eisenhower resolved to no longer harass plebes. Eisenhower was no bully.
4. Eisenhower broke the rules at West Point — a lot.
Eisenhower constantly broke the rules and regulations at West Point. The list of his demerits runs nearly 10 pages. Biographer Carlo D’Este writes that Eisenhower “seemed to relish every opportunity to outwit an instructor or upperclassman.” Eisenhower’s willful disregard for the rules pertaining to dancing, for example, brought him to the attention of the commandant. Eisenhower ignored an order not to, in his words, “whirl” a professor’s daughter during a dance. His willfulness led the commandant to demote him, confine him to barracks and order him to walk 22 laps.
5. Eisenhower was almost denied a commission at the end of his schooling at West Point.
Academics at West Point in the early 20th century did not encourage independent thinking. Instead, lessons involved what Michael E. Haskew called “mind-numbing rote memorization.” That approach led Eisenhower to devote his energies to football, a sport he had played in high school. Two weeks after competing against the legendary, Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe, Eisenhower suffered a major knee injury. That injury and others almost led an Army doctor to recommend that the future general be allowed to graduate but not receive a commission.
Eisenhower said he was fine with that and thought about a life in Argentina. When the doctor suggested he be commissioned in the Coast Artillery, Eisenhower objected, so West Point officials eventually settled on a commission in the infantry. Eisenhower graduated in 1915 and was deployed to the Mexican border, one of the least sought-after deployments in that era. In his first few years, Eisenhower’s requests to see combat in World War I were repeatedly denied, and he was pressured to coach football. Only through dogged persistence was he able to build a career for himself outside the confines of stateside training.
Ultimately, the best parts of college for Eisenhower were the lessons he learned about leadership and the friends he made among his classmates. Those classmates, collectively known as the “class the stars fell on,” eventually rose high in the ranks and formed a cadre of allies Eisenhower would call upon later. Eisenhower sharpened his skills as a leader and realized that humiliating people did not motivate them. The obligations of service – duty, honor, country – so ingrained over those West Point years inspired Eisenhower throughout his military career, highlighted by his command of the D-Day invasion, and a political career that concluded with two terms as President of the United States.
Karuika asks: Who was the first person to figure out what dinosaur bones were?
From around 250 to 66 million years ago various dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Today the only dinosaurs left are birds, which are coelurosauria theropods — funny enough the same sub-group Tyrannosauruses belong to. (Think about that the next time you’re enjoying a McDinosaur sandwich or scrambling up some dinosaur eggs for breakfast.)
Beyond their avian progeny, all that mostly remains of these once dominate creatures are fossilized bones, footprints, and poop. While many dinosaurs were actually quite small, some were comparatively massive, bringing us to the question of the hour — what did people first think when they pulled huge dinosaur bones out of the earth?
To begin with, it is generally thought humans have been discovering dinosaur bones about as long as we’ve been humaning. And it appears that at least some of the giant creatures of ancient legend likely stemmed from the discovery of dinosaur bones and fossils, and the subsequent attempts of ancient peoples to explain what they were.
For example, 4th century BC Chinese historian Chang Qu reported the discovery of massive “dragon bones” in the region of Wuchen. At the time and indeed for many centuries after (including some still today), the Chinese felt that these bones had potent healing powers, resulting in many of them being ground down to be drunk in a special elixirs.
As for the exact medicinal purposes, in the 2nd century AD Shennong Bencaojing, it states,
Dragon bone… mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts; it also treats cough and counterflow of qi, diarrhea and dysentery with pus and blood, vaginal discharge, hardness and binding in the abdomen, and fright epilepsy in children. Dragon teeth mainly treats epilepsy, madness, manic running about, binding qi below the heart, inability to catch one’s breath, and various kinds of spasms. It kills spiritual disrupters. Protracted taking may make the body light, enable one to communicate with the spirit light, and lengthen one’s life span.
While fossilized bones may not actually make such an effective cure-all, all things considered, the classic depictions of dragons and our modern understanding of what certain dinosaurs looked like are actually in the ballpark of accurate.
Moving over to the ancient Greeks, they are also believed to have stumbled across massive dinosaur bones and similarly assumed they came from long-dead giant creatures, in some cases seeming to think they came from giant human-like creatures.
Moving up to that better documented history, in the 16th through 19th centuries, the idea that the Earth was only about six thousand years old was firmly entrenched in the Western world, leading to these fossils creating a major puzzle for the scientists studying them. Even Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition found a dinosaur bone in Billings Montana, but in his case, he decided it must have come from a massive fish, which was a common way they were explained away given that no creatures that then walked the earth seemed to match up.
The various ideas thrown around around during these centuries were described by Robert Plot in his 1677 Natural History of Oxfordshire:
[are] the Stones we find in the Forms of Shell-fish, be Lapides sui generis [fossils], naturally produced by some extraordinary plastic virtue, latent in the Earth or Quarries where they are found? Or, [do] they rather owe their Form and Figuration to the Shells of the Fishes they represent, brought to the places where they are now found by a Deluge, Earth-quake, or some other such means, and there being filled with Mud, Clay, and petrifying Juices, have in tract of time been turned into Stones, as we now find them, still retaining the same Shape in the whole, with the same Lineations, Sutures, Eminencies, Cavities, Orifices, Points, that they had whilst they were Shells?
Plot goes on to explain the idea behind the “plastic virtue” hypothesis was that the fossils were some form of salt crystals that had by some unknown process formed and grown in the ground and just happened to resemble bones.
Triceratops mounted skeleton at Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
However, Plot argues against this then popular notion stating,
Come we next to such [stones] as concern the … Members of the Body: Amongst which, I have one… that has exactly the Figure of the lowermost part of the Thigh-Bone of a Man or at least of some other Animal…a little above the Sinus, where it seems to have been broken off, shewing the marrow within of a shining Spar-like Substance of its true Colour and Figure, in the hollow of the Bone…
After comparing the bone to an elephant’s, he decided it could not have come from one of them. He instead concluded,
It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days
Thus, much like is thought to have happened with certain ancient peoples, he decided some of these bones must have come from giant humans of the past. During Plot’s era, the Bible’s mention of such giants was often put put forth as evidence, such as in Numbers where it states,
The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim… and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.
Though the bone Plot was describing has since been lost to history, he left detailed drawings, from which it’s thought to have come from the lower part of the femur of a Megalosaurus (literally, Great Lizard).
Modern restoration of Megalosaurus.
But before it was called the Megalosaurus, it had a rather more humorous name. You see, in 1763 a physician called Richard Brookes studying Plot’s drawings dubbed it “Scrotum Humanum” because he thought it looked like a set of petrified testicles. (To be clear, Brookes knew it wasn’t a fossil of a giant scrotum, but nevertheless decided to name it thus because apparently men of all eras of human history can’t help but make genital jokes at every opportunity.)
While hilarious, in the 20th century, this posed a problem for the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature when it eventually came time to formally classify the Megalosaurus as such. The problem was, of course, that Brookes had named it first.
Eventually the ICZN decided that since nobody after Brookes had called it Scrotum Humanum, even though he was the first to name it, that name could safely be deemed invalid. Thus Megalosaurus won out, which is unfortunate because discussion of the rather large Scrotum Humanum would have provided great companion jokes to ones about Uranus in science classes the world over.
Moving swiftly on, humanity continued to have little clear idea of what dinosaurs were until William Buckland’s work on the aforementioned Megalosaurus in 1824.
As for the word “dinosaur” itself, this wouldn’t be coined until 1842 when British scientist Sir Richard Owen noted that the few dinosaur fossils that had been scientifically studied at that point all shared several characteristics. For the curious, those species were the Megalosaurus, Hylaeosaurus and Iguanodon. He further concluded that the fossils could not have come from any creature that currently roamed the Earth and thus came up with a new name — dinosaur, meaning “terrible/powerful/wondrous lizards”.
Of course, it should be noted that despite being knighted for his life’s work in 1883, Owen was renowned for stealing other people’s ideas and calling them his own, in at least one case even after having previously ridiculed the person he stole the ideas from — paleontologist Gideon Mantell. In several instances, Owen would attempt to take credit for some of Mantell’s pioneering work on the Iguanodon, while downplaying Mantell’s contributions in the process.
paleontologist Gideon Mantell.
To add insult to injury, it is speculated that the much more distinguished Owen actively worked to stop some of Mantell’s work and papers from getting published.
To further illustrate Owen’s character and rivalry with Mantell, after near financial ruin in 1838, his wife leaving him in 1839, and his daughter dying in 1840, Mantell would become crippled after a fall from a carriage on October 11, 1841. Previous to the accident, he had frequently suffered from leg and back pain, but the source of it was dismissed as likely due to the long hours of work he put in and the like. Things got worse when a coach he was on crashed, shortly before which Mantell leapt from it. In the aftermath, his former pain became extreme and he ceased to be able to use his legs properly. As he writes, “I cannot stoop, or use any exertion without producing loss of sensation and power in the limbs… and could I choose my destiny, I would gladly leave this weary pilgrimage.” He later laments in his journal, “my long probation of suffering will be terminated by a painful and lingering death.”
What does any of that have to do with Owen? To add insult to injury, after Mantell died from an opium overdose taken to help relieve some of his constant and extreme pain, several obituaries were published of Mantell, all glowing — except one…
This one was anonymously written, though analyses of the writing style and general tone left few among the local scientific community with any doubt of who had written it.
In it, Owen starts off praising Mantell, stating, “On Wednesday evening last, at the age of about 63 or 64, died the renowned geologist, Gideon Algernon Mantell…” It goes on to note how Mantell’s memoir on the Iguanodon saw him the recipient of the prestigious Royal Medal. Of course, later in the article, Owen claims Mantell’s work for which he won that medal was actually stolen from others, including himself:
The history of the fossil reptile for the discovery of which Dr. Mantell’s name will be longest recollected in science, is a remarkable instance of this. Few who have become acquainted with the Iguanodon, by the perusal of the Medals of Creation would suspect that to Covier we owe the first recognition of its reptilian character, to Clift the first perception of the resemblance of its teeth to those of the Iguano, to Conybear its name, and to Owen its true affinities among reptiles, and the correction of the error respecting its build and alleged horn…
The article then goes on to outline Dr. Mantell’s supposed various failings as a scientist such as his “reluctance to the revelation of a truth when it dispossessed him of a pretty illustration”, as well as accusing him of once again stealing people’s work:
To touch lightly on other weaknesses of this enthusiastic diffuser of geological knowledge… we must also notice that a consciousness of the intrinsic want of exact scientific, and especially anatomical, knowledge, which compelled him privately to have recourse to those possessing it… produced extreme susceptibility of any doubt expressed of the accuracy or originality of that which he advanced; and in his popular summaries of geological facts, he was too apt to forget the sources of information which he had acknowledge in his original memoirs.
It finally concludes as it started — on a compliment, “Dr. Mantell has, however, done much after his kind for the advancement of geology, and certainly more than any man living to bring it into attractive popular notice.”
It’s commonly stated from here that, out of spite, Owen also had a piece of Mantell’s deformed spine pickled and put on a shelf in the Hunterian Museum in London where Owen was the curator. However, while this was done, the examination and study of his spine was done at the behest of Mantell himself.
British scientist Sir Richard Owen.
Thus, an autopsy was performed and an examination of Mantell’s spine showed he had a rather severe and, at least at the time, peculiar case of scoliosis. As to what was so interesting about this case, one of the physicians involved, Dr. William Adams, states, it was discovered “that the severest degree of deformity of the spine may exist internally, without the usual indications in respect of the deviation of the spinous processes externally.”
In other words, in other such cases, it was clear the spine was not straight from visual observation of the person’s back where a curve could be observed. Mantell’s spine, however, exhibited severe scoliosis, but in such a way that upon external examination methods of the day where the person was lying down or standing up, it otherwise appeared straight.
To Adam’s knowledge, such a thing had never been observed before, but if Mantell had this particular brand of scoliosis, surely many others did as well. But how to detect it. Mulling over the problem inspired Dr. Adams to come up with a method to make such a deformity visible with external examination, thus giving the world the Adam’s forward bend test which many a school student even today has no doubt recollections of being subjected to periodically.
Going back to Owen, as to why he seems to have hated Mantell so much, this isn’t fully clear, though it may have simply been Mantell’s work sometimes resulted in showing Owen’s to be incorrect in various assumptions, jealousy of a scientist he deemed inferior to himself, or it could just be that Owen was a bit of a dick. As noted by famed biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, “[I]t is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred Owen is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries, with Mantell as arch-hater. The truth is, [Owen] is the superior of most, and does not conceal that he knows it, and it must be confessed that he does some very ill-natured tricks now and then.”
Of course, if you steal other people’s work long enough, eventually you’ll get caught, especially when you’re one of the world’s leading scientists in your field. Owen’s misstep occurred when he was awarded the prestigious Royal Medal from the Royal Society for his supposedly pioneering discovery and analyses of belemnites, which he called the Belemnites owenii, after himself and gave no credit to anyone else for the ideas in the paper. It turns out, however, four years previous he’d attended a Geological Society get together in which an amateur scientist by the name of Chaning Pearce gave a lecture and published a paper on that very same creature…
While Owen was allowed to keep his medal even after it was revealed he’d stolen the work of Pearce, the rumors that he’d similarly “borrowed” other ideas without credit and this subsequent proof resulted in the loss of much of his former academic prestige. Things didn’t improve over the following years and Owen was eventually given the boot from the Royal Society in 1862 despite his long and rather distinguished career.
While he would never again do any scientific work of significance, his post plagiarist career did prove to be a huge boon for those who enjoy museums. You see, up until this point, museums were not places readily open to the public, and to get access, you usually needed to be an academic. They were places for research, not for random plebeians to gawk at things.
After losing any shred of respect from his peers, he eventually devoted his energies into his role as the superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum. Among other things, as superintendent, he pushed for and helped develop London’s now famed Natural History Museum, London. He also instituted a number of changes such as encouraging the general public to come visit the museum at their leisure, devoted the majority of the displays for public use, had labels and descriptions added below each display explaining what each was of so anybody, not just the educated, could understand what they were looking at, etc. Many among the scientific community fought against these changes, but he did it anyway, giving us the modern idea of a museum in the process.
In any event, after Owen, Mantell’s, and their contemporaries’ work finally revealed these long extinct creatures for what they were, interest in dinosaurs exploded resulting in what has come to be known as the “Bone Wars” between rival paleontologists in the 1890s which got so heated, some paleontologists literally resorted to dynamiting mines to beat their rivals in discoveries.
The most famous such rivals were Othniel Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale and Edward Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
While the pair started out friendly, even choosing to name species after one another, they eventually became bitter enemies, and when they weren’t doing everything in their power to find dinosaur bones as fast as possible, they were writing and giving talks insulting one another’s work, attempting to get each other’s funding canceled, stealing discoveries from one another or, when not possible, trying to destroy the other’s work. In the end, the product of this rivalry was the discovery of a whopping 142 different species of dinosaurs. (For the record, Marsh discovered 86 and Cope 56.)
Before ending, any discussion of this wild west era of dinosaur bone hunting and scholarship would be remiss without noting the unsung hero of it all — Mary Anning, who is credited with finding many of the fossils used by other scientists for “their” discoveries like of the long-extinct Ichthyosaur, Plesiosaurus (in fact finding the first complete Plesiosaurus), and the flying Pterosaur.
Anning was also noted to be popularly consulted by scientists the world over for her expertise in identifying types of dinosaurs from their bones and various insights she had on them, with many world renowned scientists actually choosing to make the journey to her little shop in person where she sold these bones in Dorset England.
Almost completely uneducated formally and having grown up relatively poor, with her father dying when she was 11, Anning’s expertise came from literally a lifetime of practice, as her family lived near the cliffs near Lyme Regis and from a little girl she helped dig out bones and sell them in their shop.
Portrait of Mary Anning.
Without access to a formal scientific education, she eventually took to dissecting many modern animals to learn more about anatomy. She also was an insatiable reader of every scientific paper she could get her hands on related to geology, palaeontology and animals. In many cases, unable to afford to buy copies of the papers, she’d simply borrow them from others and then meticulously copy them herself, with reportedly astoundingly exact replication of technical illustrations.
On that note, Lady Harriet Silvester would describe Anning in 1824,
The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved… It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.
Despite finding some of the best known specimens of these creatures and risking her life on a daily basis during her hunt for fossils around the dangerous cliffs, Anning got little public credit for her discoveries owing to a number of factors including that she was a woman, from a dissenting religious sect against the Church of England, and otherwise, as noted, had no real formal education. So it was quite easy for scientists to take any ideas she had and the bones she dug up and claim all of it as their own discovery. As Anning herself would lament, “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
A companion of hers, Anna Inney, would go on to state, “these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”
That said, given the esteem she was regarded among many scientists, some of them did desire she be given credit for her contributions, such as famed Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz who was one of many to visit Anning’s shop and to pick her brain about various things, ultimately crediting her in his book Studies of Fossil Fish.
Further praising her work a few years later was an article in The Bristol Mirror, stating,
This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections …
Of the dangers of her work, Anning once wrote to a friend, Charlotte Murchison, in 1833,
Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.
Beyond academic credit, in one lean stretch where Anning’s family was unable to find any new fossils and they had to start selling off all their worldy possessions just to eat and keep a roof over their heads, one of their best customers, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, decided to auction off many of the bones he’d bought from them and instead of keeping the money, gave it to Anning’s family.
Of this, in a letter to the Gideon Mantell, Birch stated the auction was,
for the benefit of the poor woman… who… in truth found almost all the fine things which have been submitted to scientific investigation … I may never again possess what I am about to part with, yet in doing it I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the money will be well applied.
Beyond the approximately £400 this brought in (about £48,000 today), this also significantly raised the awareness among the scientific community of the family’s contributions to this particular branch of science.
Further, when she lost her life savings apparently after being swindled by a conman in 1835, the aforementioned William Buckland managed to convince the British government and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to give her a pension of £25 per year (about £3,000 today) in recognition of her work’s importance to science.
On top of this, when she was dying of breast cancer in the 1840s and couldn’t continue on in her work as before, the Geological Society provided additional financial support to make sure she was taken care of.
After her death, they also commemorated a stained-glass window in 1850 in her memory with the inscription:
This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.
The president of the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche, would also write a eulogy for her, which stated in part,
I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge…
This was the first eulogy for a woman the society had ever published, and the first time such a eulogy had been given for a non-fellow.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
When a revolution starts, there eventually comes a time for everyone to start picking sides. For the southern colonies in the American Revolution, the time to choose came in 1776. Both loyalist and patriot armies began recruiting drives for soldiers to fight for their respective goals – would the colonies free themselves from tyranny or would the unruly Americans be put in their place?
In the months that followed the revolution’s start, the British hoped to recruit brave Scotsmen who were still loyal to the crown in North Carolina. The patriots weren’t going to just let that happen.
After the shooting battles at Lexington and Concord touched off the powder keg that would eventually become the United States of America, patriot and loyalist leaders scrambled to shore up their supporters, whether they were providing money, arms, or soldiers. In 1776, almost a full year after the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” North Carolina’s governor raised a militia of loyalist Scotsmen to join a force of British regulars in the Carolinas, then led by Gen. Henry Clinton. They were successful in raising the men, but the local committee of correspondence – the patriot shadow government and intelligence network – got wind of the plan and was determined to prevent the two groups from linking up.
North Carolina’s loyalist governor managed to raise an army of about 6,000 strong, which was no small feat. This militia force was supposed to meet 2,000 regulars and then march to the sea in preparation for fighting the patriots. But when the British didn’t make the rendezvous, loyalists began to desert the army rather than fight patriot militias every step of the way.
When the Committee of Correspondence got wind of the loyalist plans, they put a similar plan of theirs to work. The Continental Congress raised a force of Continental Army regulars while North Carolina raised forces of patriot militia – each in a hurry. Their goal was to meet the mixed British force before it could reach the coast. After some maneuvering, the two met at Moore’s Creek Bridge, a battle across a creek the British tried to avoid.
For both sides, that meant a war council to determine if fighting in that place was really the best course of action. They both decided that it was, but the patriots took it a step further. After night fell, they sabotaged and greased up the bridge, coating it with a layer of lard that the Scottish loyalist militia wouldn’t soon forget – those who would survive, anyway.
The Scottish troops approached the bridge and decided to identify themselves in the mists of the early morning. The only reply they received was a patriot sentry firing a shot to warn the patriot army that the British were on the move. The battle was on for the patriots, and the Scottish snipers’ leadership also decided this was the time and place. A force of 100 or more swordsmen hopped off their mounts and rushed the bridge.
When the Scots got within 30 paces of the bridge, a body of colonials hiding behind earthworks on the other side opened up on the loyalists, ripping through formations and devastating the army’s ranks. The leaders of the swordsman militia were torn to shreds by the musket fire, and the Scotsmen retreated in a hurry. The entire army dissipated and broke, never fighting another battle.
Even if the Scottish conscripts actually made their way to the Atlantic coast, there would have been no reinforcements to meet them. The British forces that were supposed to link up with them didn’t even make it to the Carolinas until May of 1776, a full three months later. As for the Scottish loyalists in North Carolina, their support was only vocal from that point forward. Never again would they answer the call to arms for the British.
When America threw its weight behind the Allies in World War I, optimistic politicians and the writers of the day predicted that, soon, tens of thousands of top-tier planes would pour from American factories to the front lines, blackening the skies over the “Huns.” In reality, American aviation was too-far behind the combatants to catch up, and so American pilots took to the air with French castoffs that gave them diarrhea and nausea, obscured their vision, and would lose its wings during combat.
A pilot in his Nieuport 28 fighter aircraft.
(San Diego Air and Space Museum)
World War I plane designs relied on a small selection of engines, and most of them were lubricated with castor oil. As the war wore on and the oil was in short supply, Germany did turn to substitutes. But most engines, especially the rotary designs that gave a better power-to-weight ratio crucial for flight, actually burnt castor oil that escaped in the exhaust.
America’s top ace of the war, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, was famous around the aerodrome for often running around the corners of buildings after he landed so he could vomit from a combination of airsickness and castor oil exposure. He eventually got control of his stomach and could fly confidently, but it was a significant distraction for a long time.
But the bigger problem for early American pilots was that the U.S. had to buy French planes, and France kept their best models for their own pilots. So America got planes like the Nieuport 28. The manufacturers had little time to test designs before they had to press them into production and service, and the 28 had one of the worst flaws imaginable.
In rigorous aerial flight, if U.S. pilots took a common but aggressive aerial maneuver, their top wings could break away.
American pilot Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker with his Nieuport 28 in World War I.
Yup. They would lose their literal, physical wings.
It was a biplane design, meaning that it had two sets of wings, one above the other. That upper set of wings was attached with a thin spar. It would break if subjected to significant strain.
And World War I pilots attempting to escape a fight gone bad would often trade altitude for speed and distance. They did this by diving a short distance and then pulling up hard. The plane would gain speed during the fall, and the aviator could hopefully get away before the pursuer could get a bead and fire.
But the weak upper wings of the Nieuport 28 couldn’t always take the sudden force of the pull up after the dive, and so an upper wing would snap during the pull up. So the pilot, already in a dire situation, would suddenly have less lift and it would be unequal across the wings, sending the pilot into a spinning fall.
The Spad XIII didn’t have the drawbacks of the Nieuport 28, but it also had a worse power-to-weight ratio and maneuverability.
(San Diego Air and Space Museum)
Despite these handicaps, American aviators proved themselves faster learners and braver than their allies had expected, leading to a grudging respect from the other pilots.
And, eventually, America would get access to the Spad XIII, an aircraft about as quick as the Nieuport 28 but without the weak wings. But, by that point, not everyone wanted to give up the Nieuport. That was partially because the Nieuport had great handling at high speed as long as the pilot knew how to nurse the engine and not exceed the tolerances for the wings.
The Spad XIII was a little more reliable and stable in normal flight, but some American pilots felt like they couldn’t maneuver as tightly in the new planes, and they actually fought to keep the Nieuport 28s.
After graduating high school, Robert Simanek joined the Marine Corps and, soon after, set sail for Korea with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. Serving as a rifleman at the time, Simanek carried the massive and very powerful Browning Automatic Rifle. While “in-country,” the young Marine was also tasked with being the platoon’s radioman — pulling a double-duty.
On Aug. 17, 1952, Simanek’s squad was out patrolling through various outposts slightly north of Seoul.
Unfortunately, the squad made a wrong turn, and the occupying Chinese forces were patiently waiting for the 12-man team.
Almost immediately, the squad came under heavy enemy gunfire, causing Simanek to seek cover in a nearby trench line along with other Marines.
After sustaining a few casualties, Simanek maneuvered left and ran into two Chinese officers who were, oddly enough, just having a conversation. To his surprise, the enemy had no idea that the young Marine had spotted them. So, Simanek took them both out with a few squeezes of his trigger.
Now, gaining momentum, Simanek quickly maneuvered through the enemy-infested area until two grenades landed near his feet. He kicked one of the frags away but ran out of time to relocate the second.
The young rifleman shielded his fellow brothers by covering the exploding grenade with his own body. Somehow, the tough-as-nails Marine survived. Simanek was able to instruct the other wounded Marines nearby to head back to the rear — he’d provide cover for them. He crawled on his hands and knees prepared to fight before a rescue squad showed up, much to his relief.
The courageous Marine was medevaced from the area. A year later, Simanek was informed that we would receive the Medal of honor for his bravery and selflessness.
On Oct. 27, 1953, Simanek was awarded the precious metal by President Eisenhower.
Ukrainian photographer Oleksandr Ranchukov, who died last year, primarily made a name for himself shooting architecture, and his pictures of buildings and urban spaces have appeared in several academic publications. But he also liked to take his camera out onto the streets of his native Kyiv and other cities to pursue his own gritty brand of street photography.
As he took many of these photos in the 1980s, his bleak black-and-white images provide a record of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union that stands in stark contrast to that which was portrayed in the official propaganda of that era.
In a recent essay on his work, fellow photographer and art critic Oleksandr Lyapin said Ranchukov primarily saw himself as a chronicler of his times and hoped his images would “complement the story of the sad end of the U.S.S.R., the dull streets of the city showing its decay…”
According to photographer and critic Oleksandr Lyapin, Ranchukov wanted to capture for younger generations “the faces of Soviet people — in a way very different from how they are presented on posters.”
People at a stall in Kyiv drink kvass, a fermented beverage made from bread, which is still a popular summer drink in many former Soviet republics.
“Ranchukov was a street photographer, but he had almost no interest in the aesthetics of street photography,” Lyapin said. Instead, he simply “painted the picture of Soviet everyday life — dull and inexpressive, even dead: identical gray streets, unsightly clothes, street vendors, puddles, and dirt.”
Many of Ranchukov’s photographs capture aspects of Kyiv life that have since disappeared forever, such as this cobbler’s kiosk in Zhytniy Market, which was once a familiar sight to generations.
A woman in a Kyiv alleyway walks past a poster proclaiming, “Glory to the Communist Party!”
Needless to say, conditions for street photography were not ideal in the somewhat paranoid milieu of the U.S.S.R., which is probably why Ranchukov relied mainly on the Soviet-era Kiev 4 camerafor most of his city shots. According to Lyapin, this “quiet but very accurate” device meant that Ranchukov was often able to photograph people without being noticed, thus ensuring a natural, realistic depiction of Soviet streets.
In addition to capturing what one critic has called the “gloomy dignity” of Soviet life, Ranchukov was also on hand to record the dramatic changes that occurred on the streets of Kyiv as the Soviet system rapidly collapsed. Indeed, his shots showing the advent of capitalism in his native city rank among his most striking images.
Curious residents inspect an American automobile on the streets of Kyiv.
A man in Kyiv reacts as people line up outside a shop selling American jeans.
Not surprisingly, for most of his career, there wasn’t much official appetite for Ranchukov’s warts-and-all approach to street photography and it wasn’t until the latter days of perestroika that he and other like-minded photographers were allowed to exhibit their depictions of city streets.
Nonetheless, even in such relatively relaxed times, these photographs’ unflinching look at Soviet life caused consternation among the authorities, and one of their first exhibitions in Kyiv was shut down after just one day by scandalized KGB and Communist Party apparatchiks.
Oleksandr Ranchukov (1943-2019)
Although these images didn’t go down well with Soviet bureaucrats, they obviously struck a chord with ordinary Kyiv residents, and crowds of people lined up to see them when the exhibition reopened at another location sometime later.
One of those who visited the Ranchukov exhibition in 1989 was a Canadian exchange student named Chrystia Freeland, who later became a prominent journalist and politician and is now her country’s deputy prime minister.
Describing Ranchukov as a “brilliant and prolific documentary photographer,” Freeland was instrumental in getting his images and those of some of his peers to the editors of The Independent newspaper in London, who “were hugely impressed by his work, and promptly published it.”
People form a line to buy herring in Kyiv.
“I was deeply moved by his ability to reveal the reality of life in Ukraine — the country’s people, places, and streets,” she told RFE/RL in an e-mail. “In capturing a key moment in Ukrainian history, often at personal risk, Oleksandr laid the groundwork for future Ukrainian photographers and artists to bring their work to the world stage. “
Unlike his architecture photography, Oleksandr Ranchukov’s portraits of Soviet street life have never been published in book form. You can view other Ranchukov images and find out more about his life and work here.