Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

There’s no truer way to describe it: Life in the trenches of WWI was absolute hell. If an enemy bullet, artillery shell, or gas canister didn’t kill you, the cesspool of diseases that formed in the puddles at the bottom of the trenches surely would. To make matters worse, the damp, dingy, and dirty environment made for the perfect breeding ground for rats that would carry and spread deadly diseases.

Placing and maintaining rat traps was impractical in such an austere environment, so there was really only one way to deal with the infestation. This particular deterrent also provided a huge boost to morale in an otherwise bleak battlefield. We’re talking, of course, about trench cats.


Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
Things are just slightly better when you have a kitty.
(Imperial War Museum)

Throughout the trench systems that ran along the Western Front of WWI, there were an estimated 500,000 cats. Primarily, they were there to cull the rodent population, but as you can imagine, many troops would find comfort in caring for the kitties.

The cats also served at mascots for many of the units fighting in the trenches. Troops would share parts of their rations with the cats who, in turn, would stick around for the food and attention. The cats would mostly crowd around troops’ living quarters, giving them something to play with between conflicts.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
(National Archives)

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the cats, though. Many more troops loved and cared for the cats in between battles and made them part of their unit. Like this Army Air Corps kitty, who’s name was Spark Plug.

As heart-wrenching as it was, cats were also very susceptible to the near-odorless and near-invisible toxic gas used against the Allies. This means that cats would feel the effects of the gas attacks almost immediately. Like canaries in mine shafts, their reaction to the gas would alert nearby troops, who would then rush to put on their gear and get to safety. It’s unknown how many cats died due to chemical warfare, but their losses saved countless GI lives.

The cats were also able to freely cross no man’s land. During the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, many soldiers wished for peace and friendship between the troops of warring factions. So, they would tie messages around the collars of some of the free-roaming kitties and the message would get across to the enemy fortifications.

Unfortunately, not everyone thought such communication was to be taken lightly. One cat by the name of Felix was caught by French officers and put in front of a tribunal. This cat, trying to carry messages of peace and love in exchange for treats, was found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
Lt. Lekeux and Pitouchi would remain best friends long after the war.
(Belgian Historical Archives)​
 

The cats were known to be fiercely loyal to the troops with whom they served. One Belgian officer and scout, Lt. Lekeux of the 3rd Regiment of Artillery, came across a liter of kittens whose mother had perished before the young could open their eyes. Lekeux nursed the kittens back to health, but unfortunately only one survived — he named the cat Pitoutchi.

The cat followed the lieutenant everywhere he went and jumped on his shoulders whenever the trenches were too wet. One night, as Lt. Lekeux was scouting out the German position and drawing their location on a map, German troops almost spotted him. Alerted by some noise, the troops surrounded the artillery crater in which Lekeux took cover. He was trapped; the Germans were sure to shoot him if he fled or bayonet him if they found him in there.

Suddenly, Pitoutchi jumped from Lt. Lekeux’s shoulder and dashed out of cover. The Germans spotted the little kitten and opened fire, but his cat’s reflexes proved too quick. The Germans attributed the noise they heard to Pitoutchi and gave up searching.

This gave Lekeux the window he needed to mount an escape, with the maps and Pitouchi in hand.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the toolkit spies carried in their butts

Spies have had all sorts of great tools and gadgets, from self-inflating blow-up dolls during the Cold War to special listening devices deployed around the world today. But perhaps one of the most surprising devices was the rectal toolkit issued to some CIA officers deployed into Soviet-era Europe.


A CIA-Issued Rectal Tool Kit For Spies

www.youtube.com

As more and more CIA officers were sent into dangerous places in Europe, including the democratic enclave of West Berlin, the dark times called for dark solutions that could be stored in a dark place — a place so dark the sun don’t shine.

Talkin’ about butts. The CIA turned to officers’ butts.

There was a high chance that CIA officers and assets could and would be jailed by secret police, even if it was just on suspicion of being aligned with the U.S. or other western countries. So, the CIA wanted to give these people the best possible chance of escaping custody. But since assets would likely be strip searched, there was really only a couple places left to hide the tools.

And so the large capsule was created, filled with tiny tools that would help officers pick locks and cut through fine materials. The exact tools and materials used varied between different “rectal toolkits,” but all of them were made with materials that were thought unlikely to splinter. They were also very carefully made to prevent leaks that would allow, uh, outside materials into the capsule.

If an officer were captured, he would go through the search, hopefully retain his toolkit, and then fish it out after the guards had left. Not exactly the moment that anyone dreams about when joining an espionage service, but still way better suffering a prolonged hostile interrogation.

Searches of the CIA history archives have not shown a specific case where a U.S. asset fished out this toolkit and used it to make good their escape, so it’s not clear if it saved any specific person’s life or government secrets from Soviet spies.

MIGHTY HISTORY

One woman wrote 25,000 letters for wounded soldiers who couldn’t

In 1917, the horrors of World War I were something entirely new to the world. “The War to End All Wars” inflicted horrible casualties and painful deaths in a way no one had ever seen before in the history of warfare. Mechanized vehicles, poison gas, trench-clearing shotguns, and even the constant mud and water that filled the trenches took its toll on the men who fought the war.

Many of those wounded and dying from the new weapons of war found themselves laying next to Red Cross volunteer May Bradford, who would write what for many of her patients, was the last words they would ever say to their loved ones.


Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

Even those who survived were altered forever by the new weapons of war.

For those that were dying, Bradford recorded their last words. For those that were too injured to write, she informed their families of their loved one’s situation. For those who were simply illiterate, she was happy to take care of them too. She was part of the French No. 26 General Hospital, near Etaples, France during the war. She was there following her surgeon husband, Sir John Bradford.

She had been there for the entire war, watching the dying and wounded roll in and out of the clinics and field hospitals. She immediately took up the mantle of “hospital letter writer” for anyone who might want or need her services. Over the course of Britain’s time in the war, she wrote more than 25,000 letters, averaging 12 or more every day for four and a half years.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

Bradford later wrote a book of her experiences.

Rather than wear the traditional uniform of the scores of Red Cross volunteers at English aid stations around the world, Lady Bradford wore her usual clothes, which were usually an impeccably clean and neat dress, which made the men in her care feel less like they were in a hospital with a nurse and more like they were dictating a letter with an old friend.

In her relatively short time as a letter writer for the sick, injured, and mortally wounded, Bradford experienced firsthand the horrors of the First World War – and experienced the emotional rollercoaster of fighting that war secondhand.

MIGHTY HISTORY

What it’s like to survive an atomic bomb

On September 2, 1945, World War II was officially over. Many celebrated August 15th as the end of the war when Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced Imperial Japan’s surrender, but it took two more weeks before the surrender was formally signed. This is long enough for younger generations to have no memory of the catastrophic war, but there are still people alive today who experienced it firsthand.

On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Just three days later, a second detonated over Nagasaki. In total, more than 200,000 people were killed by the explosions, with thousands more experiencing long-term effects. Those who survived will never forget the experience. So what is it really like to be hit by a nuclear weapon and live? Let’s find out.


It starts out with a flash.

When an atomic bomb detonates, it goes through predictable stages. Nuclear bombs work by setting off a rapid chain reaction. Uranium undergoes the process of fission, which releases an almost incomprehensible amount of energy. About 35% of this energy is released as thermal radiation. Because thermal radiation travels at roughly the speed of light, a bright flash is the first thing one experiences after a nuclear bomb is dropped. We’re talking blinding. The initial flash is so bright, it can cause temporary blindness. Even closing your eyes isn’t complete protection. Larger nuclear weapons, which do exist in present-day, could cause flash blindness in people over 50 miles away.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
Effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. View from the top of the Red Cross Hospital looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

The blinding light is accompanied by intense heat.

It’s not called thermal radiation for nothing. After the blinding flash, there’s a blast of intense heat. At the direct site of the explosion, the temperature can hit over 300K degrees C, visible as a massive fireball. At this temperature, which is about 300 times hotter than the temperature used for cremation, humans are instantaneously turned from people into basic elements. Just about everything within a 1-mile radius of the city of Hiroshima was completely flattened. The farther you are from the blast, the more likely you are to survive, but you’re unlikely to escape completely unscathed. First-degree burns can occur up to 6.8 miles away. Get just 2 miles closer and you’re at risk for life-threatening third-degree burns.

Wearing white might reduce effects.

Donning a wedding dress won’t save you if you’re in the middle of the blast, but it might help if you’re a few miles away. White clothing reflects some of the thermal energy while dark clothes absorb it, so you may be a little better off if you’re wearing light-colored clothing than if charcoal is your favorite color.

If you’re further away, pressure waves can still get you.

When a nuclear bomb explodes, it releases light and heat energy, but it also pushes air away from the initial explosion site with a tremendous amount of force. This creates a change in air pressure so intense that the wind can collapse buildings and crush most objects in its path. Within a half-mile of the blast, wind speeds can get as high as 470 mph. While you could potentially survive the force itself, the buildings around you most likely would not.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
Atomic bombing of Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). (Wikimedia Commons)

The world around you will resemble a scene from a horror film.

Shockingly, survival close to ground zero is possible. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dropped, some people were sheltered by the sturdy walls of banks or basements. The reports of those who did survive paint a very dark picture. Your hair is likely to be literally fried, and your clothes charred to rags. The people who were outside at the time of the blast are either severely burned or dead- with some of the deceased catching fire in the streets. Farther from the explosion, more people will lie injured or dead from glass and other projectiles. Human shadows are marked permanently on the ground and any walls left standing.

If you survive, you may feel the side-effects for the rest of your life.

Radiation poisoning caused a significant number of deaths in the weeks following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The effects of radiation are varied, ranging from milder symptoms like gastrointestinal distress, fever, headaches, and hair loss to death. Because radiation can cause a drop in the number of blood cells produced, wounds heal more slowly than normal. Even after you recover, your risk of cancer and other illnesses usually associated with age will be heightened.

A terrifying image, but an important lesson.

While the end of a war is always a reason to rejoice, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost at the hands of fellow mankind was an atrocity. The survivors have memories darker than most of us can imagine. Disturbingly, we now have the power to create an explosion larger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The largest bomb ever tested was the 50 megaton Tsar bomb, which released the equivalent energy of over 3,300 Hiroshima bombs.

Fortunately, our international agreements should prevent such catastrophic warfare from ever taking place. To learn more about what it was really like to experience a nuclear explosion, Time interviewed survivors who can tell you the real story.

 

MIGHTY HISTORY

Three decades later: Was the Gulf War worth it?

Twenty-nine years ago, on Jan. 16, 1991, the United States led the massive offensive coalition Operation Desert Storm, during the Persian Gulf War. The forces of this coalition were made up of 32 different countries, all combining efforts to stop and remove Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait the year prior.


There were over 900,000 coalition troops; 540,000 of them were American.

The U.S. began its invasion with air attacks that would decimate Iraq’s air defenses, taking out communications, weapons and oil refineries. Then, a covert and classified bombing mission began, known as Operation Senior Surprise. Its airmen were known as the Secret Squirrels.

Seven B-52G Stratofortresses took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in La., flying around 14,000 round-trip miles to launch 35 missiles at strategic locations in Iraq. They would require air refueling over the Atlantic, but all made it home safely. At the time, it was a world record for the longest bombing mission.

The world watched live on TV with CNN broadcasting around-the-clock coverage. General Norman Schwarzkopf and General Colin Powell would go on to become household names in America as citizens watched the war unfold in real-time.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

The battle would intensify when the massive U.S. led ground offense began. Troops on foot would begin the “100-hour ground battle” on Feb. 24, 1991. This attack would lead to a liberated Kuwait in just under four days.

On Feb. 28, 1991, a cease-fire was officially declared, and Iraq pledged to honor future peace terms. One of the terms was that Saddam Hussein would get rid of all weapons of mass destruction. He would go on to refuse weapons inspectors admittance.

The Gulf War was a test in American diplomacy, with President Bush remembering the lessons of the Cold War. The war was backed by public and congressional support when that diplomacy failed. President Bush appeared to struggle greatly over going to war, even writing a letter to his children on New Year’s Eve of 1990 about the decision. It would go on to become the end of this kind of warfare and the beginning of a new era.

The United States lost 382 troops in the Gulf War, and the Department of Defense estimated that it cost the United States billion dollars. The costs to those who served during the conflict were far greater.

Troops returning from the gulf war began getting sick; 250,000 of them.

The illness was called Gulf War Syndrome. A very wide range of chronic symptoms have been reported, including cognitive problems, respiratory disorders, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia, rashes and digestive problems. The troops were exposed to dangerous pesticides, and the pills given to them to protect against nerve agents would be proven to be part of the cause.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

The intent of the United States getting involved in the middle east conflict was to prevent Saddam Hussein from gaining control of Kuwait’s oil, which would have led him to having 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves. This would have greatly impacted not just the United States, but many other countries who depend on oil for their way of life. However, it led to the U.S. becoming even more entangled in foreign politics, which would lead to more war, not less.

The Gulf War didn’t prevent the uprisings in Iraq, and we would end up right back there a decade later, losing another 6,967 troops as of 2019. This time we would attack without congressional approval and the support of the other surrounding Arab nations. We would not have the U.N. Resolution in our pocket or local support.

Nineteen years later, we are still at war. The lessons in the Persian Gulf War seem to have been forgotten. Twenty-nine years after the cease-fire was declared, it begs the question – was it worth it?

MIGHTY HISTORY

These Nazis cracked codes like wishbones

The German Kriegsmarine was once one of the most feared military forces on Earth, particularly the U-boat fleet. While the German surface fleet was smaller and weaker than the navies of its opponents, the “wolf packs” patrolled beneath the waves, shattering Allied convoys and robbing Germany’s enemies of needed men and materiel.


Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

A German sailor works on U-boat communications.

(Marz Dietrich)

But the U-boats didn’t do this on their own. One of the most successful code-breaking efforts in the war was that of the Beobachtung Dienst, the Observation Service, of German naval intelligence.

The German service focused its efforts on decoding the signals used by the major Allied navies — Great Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union — as well as traffic analysis and radio direction finding. With these three efforts combined, they could often read Allied communications. When they couldn’t, the traffic analysis and radio direction finding made them great guessers at where convoys would be.

B-Dienst peaked in World War II at 5,000 personnel focused on cracking the increasingly complex codes made possible by mechanical computers. The head of the English-language section, the one focused on the U.S. and U.K., was Wilhelm Tranow, a former radioman who earned a reputation in World War I for figuring out British codes and passing them up the chain.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

German U-boats could get actionable intel from their intelligence services just a few hours after the signals were intercepted.

(DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

A lean but effective infrastructure grew around Tranow and his team. At their best, the team was able to intercept communications between Allied elements and pass actionable intelligence to U-boat captains within a few hours. Their efforts allowed Germany to read up to 80 percent of British communications that were intercepted. For most of the war, they were reading at least a third of all intercepted communications.

Allied merchant marine and navy personnel were rightly afraid of U-boat attacks, but they seem to have underestimated how large a role the B-Dienst and other German intelligence services played. This led them to make errors that made the already-capable B-Dienst even more effective.

First, Allied communications contained more data than was strictly necessary. The chatter between ships as they headed out could often give German interceptors the number of ships in a convoy, its assembly point, its anticipated speed and heading, where it would meet up with stragglers, and how many escorts it had.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

A destroyer, the USS Fiske, sinks after being struck by a German U-boat torpedo.

(U.S. Navy)

This allowed B-Dienst to identify the most vulnerable convoys and guess where and when the convoy would move into wolf-pack territory.

Nearly as damaging, the British would sometimes send out the same communications using different codes. When the British were using some codes the Germans didn’t know, these repeated messages end up becoming a Rosetta Stone-like windfall for the intercepting Nazis. They could identify the patterns in the two codes and use breakthroughs in one to translate the other, then use the translations to break that code entirely.

When the Allies weren’t repeating entire messages, they were sending messages created with templates. These templates, which repeated the same header and closer on each transmission, gave the Germans a consistent starting point. From there, they could suss out how the code worked.

All of this was compounded by a tendency of the British in particular and the Allied forces in general to be slow in changing codes.

So, it took the British months after they learned that the Germans had broken the Naval Code and Naval Cypher to change their codes. The change was made in August 1940 and was applied to communications between the U.S. and Royal navies in June 1941.

But with the other missteps allowing the B-Dienst to get glimmers of how the code worked, the code was basically useless by the end of 1942.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

German U-boats in World War I had to hunt for their targets. Their World War II counterparts still hunted, but frequently benefited from their great intelligence services.

(Painting by William Stower, The Sinking of the Linda Blanche)

This had real and devastating effects for Allied naval forces who were attempting to pass through U-boat territory as secretly as possible. 875 Allied ships were lost in 1941 and 1,664 sank in 1942, nearly choking the British Isles below survivable levels.

But, despite the B-Dienst success, the Battle of the Atlantic started to shift in favor of the Allies in 1942, mostly thanks to increases in naval forces and advanced technology like radar and sonar becoming more prevalent. Destroyers were more widely deployed and could more quickly pinpoint and attack the U-boats.

New anti-submarine planes, weapons like the “Hedgehog,” and better tactics led to the “Black May” of 1943 when the Allies sank approximately one quarter of all U-boats. The German ships were largely withdrawn from the Atlantic, and convoys could finally move with some degree of security.

Articles

This is how an outnumbered Navy hero earned the Medal of Honor for protecting Guadalcanal

In the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 1942, Vice Adm. William Halsey had a sleepless night. A major Japanese force was steaming towards Henderson Field bent on a massive bombardment.


Halsey had sent two small groups of ships under the overall command of Rear Adm. Daniel Judson Callaghan to stop them.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Callaghan’s force faced long odds. He had two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers (two of which had been optimized for the anti-aircraft role), and eight destroyers. The opposing force had two fast battleships, a light cruiser, and 14 destroyers.

In essence, Halsey knew he had probably sent Callaghan and many of the sailors under him to their deaths.

Only as the seconds turned into minutes, and the minutes turned into hours, one thing was obvious: Henderson Field had not come under attack.

Dawn would soon reveal that one of the fast battleships, the Hiei, was crippled, while American sailors on two cruisers — the USS Atlanta (CL 51) and USS Portland (CA 33) — were fighting to save their ships.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
The Japanese fast battleship Haruna. (Photo from Wikimedia)

Reports trickled in. Four destroyers sunk, Callaghan and Rear Adm. Norman Scott, the hero of the Battle of Cape Esperance, were dead.

Later, when commanders sorted out what happened, it turned out Callaghan had – whether by accident or design – gotten his force intermingled with the Japanese bombardment group. When he ordered, “Odd ships fire to port, even ships fire to starboard,” he touched off a melee that scattered both forces across Ironbottom Sound.

At one point during the maelstrom Callaghan’s flagship, the USS San Francisco (CA 38), got within 2,500 yards of the battleship Hiei, and put a shell into her steering compartment. By the time the fight was over, the Japanese had exhausted most of their ammunition, and it was too close to dawn to reassemble their forces, hit Henderson Field and escape American air power.

Rear Adm. Hiroaki Abe instead ordered a retreat, leaving Hiei to its fate.

In the aftermath of the battle, Hiei would be sunk by air strikes launched from the USS Enterprise (CV 6) and Henderson Field. The USS Juneau (CL 52), damaged during the battle, would be sunk by a Japanese submarine. The officer in charge of the surviving vessels, Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover, would inexplicably fail to look for survivors, leaving over a hundred men behind. Only three would be rescued.

The Japanese tried to bombard Henderson Field again two days later, but this time the Kirishima met up with two battleships, the USS Washington (BB 56) and USS South Dakota (BB 57), with four destroyers under the command of Rear Adm. Willis Augustus Lee. Even though the Japanese put USS South Dakota out of action and sank or damaged the four destroyers, the USS Washington was able to fatally damage the Kirishima.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
The USS Callaghan in 1987. (Photo from Wikimedia)

Callaghan would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on Nov, 13, 1942, one of five presented for actions in that battle (the others were to Norman Scott, Lt. Cmdr. Bruce McCandless, Lt. Cmdr. Herbert Schonland, and Bosun’s Mate 1st Class Reinhardt Keppler). The Navy later named two ships for Adm. Callaghan. The first USS Callaghan (DD 792) would be sunk by a kamikaze attack while on radar picket duty off Okinawa in 1945. The second USS Callaghan (DDG 994) saw 20 years of service with the United States Navy until she was sold to Taiwan.

Articles

How the Battle of the Bulge would have gone if GIs had the Javelin

Let’s face some harsh reality, folks. While we won World War II in the European Theater, infantry anti-tank weapons were not one of the big reasons why. The sad fact of the matter is that the M1 and M9 bazookas were…well…GlobalSecurity.org notes that they “could not penetrate the heavy front armor of the German tanks.”


Suppose, though, that the GIs had perhaps the most modern anti-tank missile in the world. One that could reach out and touch the German tanks at a much safer range for the anti-tank specialists. In other words, imagine they had the FGM-148 Javelin. How might the Battle of the Bulge changed?

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
U.S. Army soldiers with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division shoot the Javelin, an anti-tank weapon. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Patrick Kirby, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division)

Let’s look at the Javelin to understand how the battle would change. According to militaryfactory.com, the Javelin uses imaging infra-red guidance. By contrast, the bazooka rounds were unguided. This meant that the Javelin missiles have a much better chance of hitting their targets.

The Javelin also has longer range, a little over a mile and a half, compared to the bazooka’s two-tenths of a mile, allowing the anti-tank teams to move out of the way — or reload.

But how would World War II GIs have used the Javelin? While some infantry units might have these missiles, it is far more likely that they would have been used for blocking and delaying the armored thrusts. The best vehicle for that purpose would have been the classic Jeep.

According to militaryfactory.com, this vehicle could carry a driver and four troops. Or, a two-man Javelin team and, say, six to eight of the 33-pound missiles and a 14-pound launch unit. A section of two vehicles could easily be expected to take out a company of German tanks.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
Photo: Wikimedia

Their most likely use would be in ambushes, using hit and run tactics to weaken German units and to buy time for reinforcements of heavy units (like Patton’s Third Army) to prepare a devastating counter attack.

But its sheer effectiveness may even have ended that battle much sooner simply because the initial attacks would likely have been blunted — and the German tanks would have required infantry to move ahead to clear likely ambush sites, and that would have made it impossible to achieve the objective of capturing Antwerp.

That said, while tactically this alternate Battle of the Bulge would have been a quicker win for the Allies, strategically German resources might not have been depleted so badly. This would mean a longer war and potentially more casualties — and the first atomic bomb may have been dropped on a city in Germany, not Japan.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is what it was like to be marooned in the age of sail

Marooned. Left on a sandbar or other island in the middle of nowhere with just a little food, water, and a loaded pistol to end your suffering. In the world of pirates, it was a punishment for breaking the pirates’ code – and was usually fatal. But the real-life Robinson Crusoe survived his marooning and lived to tell the tale of life on an island in the middle of nowhere, completely alone.


Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

Not a Wilson in sight.

Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish sailor with William Dampier’s second expedition to circumnavigate the globe while privateering; legally pirating Spanish ships. Selkirik was aboard a 16-gun ship named Cinque Ports, a ship that was rather unseaworthy. When Selkirk repeatedly complained to Dampier and the captain of the Cinque Ports, the men decided to maroon him on an island off the coast of Chile.

Selkirk didn’t die there, however. While the Cinque Ports later sunk with almost a total loss of her crew, Selkirk survived and was rescued by English privateer Woodes Rogers… four years later. All that for wanting to make repairs to the ship – a ship he was right about needing repairs. The crew that did survive the ships founding off of Colombia were captured by the Spanish and imprisoned.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

Which, historically, does not end well.

The islander spent much of his time at first at the shoreline, scanning for ships and eating seafood. But eventually, the sounds of mating sea lions drove him further inland. Despite suffering from crippling loneliness, he managed to domesticate the island’s wild goats and cultivate the local vegetation. He was eventually attacked by the island’s wild rat population, but simply domesticated feral cats to stave off the attackers. He even built two huts from the trees that grew pepper plants.

He soon began to hunt by hand and spear, as his gunpowder was in limited supply anyway. He also began to make new clothes from the skins of his goats. The only ships that stopped on his island were Spanish. Not only did he not get a rescue, he had to hide lest the men torture and imprison him. But eventually, he was rescued by British seamen.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI

Which, historically, does not end well.

The British sailors were astonished at the life Selkirk made for himself. He had survived an accidental fall from a cliff, learned to hunt and clean the wild animals of the island, and was the picture of physical fitness. Selkirk was even able to address the ships’ illnesses and clear its sailors of scurvy. Selkirk was able to maintain his sanity because the captain of the Cinque Points left him a bible to read and entertain himself. By the time the English came for him, he was still of sound mind, able to command a prize ship and even returned to privateering against the Spanish.

Selkirk was even one of Daniel Defoe’s inspirations for the title character of Robinson Crusoe. The story of the marooned sailor just goes to show no matter how tough things might seem, a little perseverance might see you through. Alexander Selkirk became a national hero while the people who marooned him died tragically, despite his warnings.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The US and Indian Navies fought a fake battle you didn’t hear about

In the Bay of Bengal, the United States Navy and the Indian Navy went head-to-head.


Sort of.

According to DefenceLovers.In, the modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov) and its air group of MiG-29K Fulcrums took on the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and Air Wing 11, mainly composed of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, in a joint training exercise that should leave Russia, with similar aircraft in its force, indirectly warned.

The Indian Fulcrums and the American Hornets took turns maintaining a combat air patrol over a ship while the other side practiced anti-ship strikes.

 

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
MiG-29K of INAS 303 prepares to catch the wire aboard the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya in 2014 | Indian Navy

 

“The MiG-29s that were flying off the Vikramaditya and the FA-18 Super Hornets flying off Nimitz made approaches to the opposite flight decks, got up in the air and got to do some dog fighting as well, which was pretty overwhelming,” Rear Admiral William D. Byrne, Jr., the commanding officer of the Nimitz carrier strike group, told the Indian site.

India bought the Vikramaditya in 2004, and commissioned the ship in 2013 after over nine years of refitting. The Vikramaditya is armed with four AK-630 Gatling guns, and can also fire Barak surface-to-air missiles, using launchers cannibalized from a retired frigate, It carries up to 26 MiG-29K Fulcrums and 10 helicopters. Russian Navy MiG-29Ks saw some action over Syria during the Admiral Kuznetsov’s deployment to the Mediterranean in 2016, but one was lost in a splash landing.

 

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Knighthawks of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 136 lands on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Anthony N. Hilkowski/Released)

When serving with Russia as the Baku (later re-named Admiral Gorshkov after the fall of the Soviet Union), the Vikramaditya was a modified Kiev-class carrier armed with 12 SS-N-12 “Sandbox” missiles and 24 8-round SA-N-9 “Gauntlet” launchers, along with two 100mm guns, eight AK-630 Gatling guns, and two quintuple 533mm torpedo tube mounts. It carried a dozen Yak-38 Forgers and as many as 20 anti-submarine helicopters.

By comparison, Air Wing 11 on board USS Nimitz included four squadrons of F/A-18C, F/A-18E, or F/A-18F multi-role fighters, along with E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning planes, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes, and MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters.

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This German soldier received the same wounds in the same town as his father did 30 years earlier

In late 1944, German Pvt. Paul-Alfred Stoob was one of the many German troops quickly retreating from Allied forces. During his withdrawal, he was hit with fire from a Sherman tank and wounded in his head and leg. When he finally made it home to Germany, he learned that his father was also wounded in his head and leg in the exact same town in World War I.


Stoob was a Panther tank driver taking part in the general German withdrawal in 1944 before the Battle of the Bulge temporarily halted Germany’s loss in territory. After the Panther was destroyed by Allied fire, Stoob and the rest of his crew stole a truck and headed east towards Belgium.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
A World War II Panther tank in a museum. (Photo: Stahlkocher CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to his story in Stephen E. Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Beaches of Normandy to the Surrender of Germany,” Stoob and his crew were struggling to find food and supplies during their escape.

They managed to scrape together bread and some eggs before lucking out and discovering a stash of delicacies abandoned by a German headquarters unit. Only a short time after they filled their truck with the fresh food, an American Sherman crew spotted them and opened fire. Stoob was hit in the head and leg, but still tried to escape.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
The Sherman tank wasn’t known for its firepower, but it could easily deal with a few German dismounts. (Photo: U.S.Army)

He made for a nearby cemetery and attempted to use the gravestones as cover for his escape. Before he could get away, a French priest begged for him to stop and then went and got an American medic to tend to his wounds.

Stoob spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in the U.S. and didn’t make it home until 1947. That was when he learned that his father, a veteran of World War I, had been wounded in the same unnamed village in 1914, exactly 30 years before his son.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
Then Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. stands with Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of President Theodore Roosevelt and a Medal of Honor recipient who invaded two countries with his son because #squadgoals. (Photo: U.S. Army)

They weren’t the only father-son duo to bond over the course of the world wars. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. served with his brothers in World War I and then invaded North Africa and Normandy in World War II with his own son, Capt. Quentin Roosevelt II. Both Roosevelts were decorated for valor in the operations and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his role in the D-Day invasion.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This failed nuclear engine might be able to power your city

During the Cold War, the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission (which was later folded into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) set out to create an all-new nuclear reactor that not only would be more efficient than the reactors we have today, but would propel aircraft in flight for up to 15,000 miles without stopping.


That would’ve allowed for a bomber that could fly from California to Moscow and back with enough miles left to grab ice cream in Greenland on the way home.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
The Air Force’s experimental nuclear reactor is flown in an NB-36 airplane. (Photo: Convair)

Starting in 1946, the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program aimed to make the idea a reality. A physicist named Alvin Weinberg helped lead the reactor development. Though he had previously invented and championed the liquid-water reactor that provides almost all nuclear power today, he thought LWRs were wrong for the airplane.

The LWRs are kept relatively cool at 572 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot, but not hot enough to superheat air for jet engines. The LWR design is also less efficient, relying on solid fuels which can only be about 3 percent consumed before the fuel must be changed out.

Instead, Weinberg turned to a design that got kicked around during the Manhattan Project, the molten salt reactor, or “MSR.”

In an MSR, the nuclear material is dissolved into superheated salts. They’re heated so high that they become a liquid, then that heat is maintained because of the continuing nuclear reaction inside the molten salts.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
The Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment-3 was the option selected by the Aircraft Reactor Propulsion Program to turn reactor power into jet propulsion for an aircraft. (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy)

 

In the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program’s final design, air traveled through a compressor and then through the reactor, picking up the reactor’s heat. The immense heat of the reactor, generally about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, caused the air to rapidly expand and jet out the back of the plane, generating thrust.

The Air Force did fly with a different reactor on a modified B-36 bomber, but only to test the plane’s nuclear shielding for protecting the crew. During the tests, it was still powered by conventional jet engines.

President John F. Kennedy’s administration canceled the nuclear aircraft program in 1961 and sent the funds to the space race. But some scientists want to bring the reactor back, this time as a powerplant on the Earth’s surface for the generation of electricity.

Molten-salt reactors are much more efficient than LWRs and typically produce waste that is more stable and takes less time to become safe for handling — we’re talking hundreds of years instead of thousands.

And while the MSR in the B-36 was fueled by uranium, future MSRs could use thorium, a more stable fuel that is also very plentiful. Thorium is present in nearly any sample of dirt on the planet and is commonly extracted in rare Earth mining and discarded as waste. Or, MSRs could use uranium depleted in LWRs.

Either way, a bunch of waste products could be converted into plentiful energy thanks to a failed nuclear engine from the Cold War. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works is teasing a nuclear fusion reactor. If it works, it could fulfill the 15,000-mile promise of the Aircraft Reactor Propulsion Program.

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Ancient nomads protect Genghis Khan’s tomb to this day

Inside Northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, one people have guarded the secrets and spirit of Genghis Khan for the past 800 years. They are the Darkhad, a group of nomadic warriors who have spent generations protecting the area where the Great Khan was laid to rest – but even they don’t know where that is.


It is said that Khan’s funeral procession murdered everyone it came across. After the slaves finished burying his remains, soldiers escorting the train killed the slaves. Upon the soldiers’ return, they too were killed to keep anyone from knowing the Khan’s final resting place.

It’s also said the Darkhad were given the order to protect this area some 37 generations ago, slaughtering the curious and the grave robber alike. They and their families have been there ever since.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
But you’re probably cool. Go give it a try.

 

A lot of things have happened to this region in the 800 years since. There were three Chinese imperial dynasties, two opium wars, and a Boxer Rebellion, not to mention the slaughter suffered by the Chinese people at the hands of the invading Japanese during World War II and the endless suffering caused by the first decades of Chinese Communism.

During the Soviet Era, however, the Mongolian People’s Republic, backed by the Soviet Union, kept the area restricted and the Darkhad people briefly took a back seat to satellite technology.

Why cats were the perfect companions in the trenches of WWI
A Darkhad shaman performing a ritual in Inner Mongolia’s Darkhad Valley. (Screen capture from YouTube)

 

These days, of course, no one will kill the curious traveler (or even the archaeologist) for entering the area and searching for the Great Khan’s tomb. But the Darkhad, now some 16,000 strong, continue to guard the living spirit of Genghis Khan in relics related to him. They were housed in eight white yurts passed on from father to son, emblems of the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people. It was the Darkhad who protected the yurts from the emperors, the Japanese, the Chinese Nationalists, and the Chinese Communists.

In 1956, the Communists constructed the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, to be a permanent home for the Khan-related relics. The Mausoleum is open to the public, but does not include the remains of the Mongols’ “Son of Heaven.”


Feature image: William Purdom/ Wikimedia Commons

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