Alright, that headline is a bit misleading. The knights were depicted fighting giant snails. But the mystery remains – why? And were snails really that big back then?
Apparently, it’s a common sight in English scrolls dating from the 13th and 14th centuries: armored knights engaging in medieval combat with giant snails. Medievalists at the British Library began to wonder the same things we all are – WHY.
Two reasons might explain the ubiquitous depictions (but not fully). The first is that the snails are the enemy of the person writing the manuscripts. Many famous families and villains could have fit the bill. The only problem is that this doesn’t explain why the knights are always losing to the villain. If this was propaganda, shouldn’t the good guy win?
Another reason is that it could be a depiction of the common folk rising against an unwilling aristocracy. These slimy creatures from the garden weren’t welcome guests in the manor houses and castles of the Middle Ages. Neither were peasants.
There’s no way it could be a depiction of actual knights fighting real giant snails, right?
There were, in fact, snails as large (perhaps larger) than humans. But not in the middle ages. Fossils of Pachydiscus Seppenradensis – giant cephalopods – have been found in temperate climates from the USA and across Europe. This puts the snails in the area where they could have fought medieval knights, but the timing doesn’t work out.
Fossil records date Parapuzosia back to the early-to-late Cretaceous period of Earth’s history. This means these snails walked with dinosaurs like the Ankylosaurus and some species of dinosaur bipeds.
As far as history is concerned, knights couldn’t have been fighting giant snails because snails just didn’t grow that big back in the middle ages. Not even close. These days, the max size a “giant” snail grows can still fit in your hand.
So if they’re not fighting actual giant snails, what’s up with all the imagery of knights fighting giant snails?
If you have the answer, I’m sure the British Library would be interested in knowing.
Future-President Harry S. Truman was a hero in World War I who technically broke orders when, as a captain, he ordered his men to fire out of sector during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, eliminating German artillery batteries and observers in order to protect U.S. troops. But his first battle saw his men break ranks until Truman, shaking from fear, rallied them back to their guns.
The fight came in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. Truman had recently been promoted to captain and given command of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery Regiment. His battery was known as a smart, athletic, but undisciplined lot. He managed to wrangle influence over them.
But he was still untested in battle when his battery moved into position Aug. 29, 1918, and began their bombardment of German positions. The battery’s four 75mm guns sent rounds downrange, and it was great—at first. As Pvt. Vere Leigh later said, “We were firing away and having a hell of a good time doing it until they began to fire back.”
Truman had been in command for less than two months, and his men began to melt away under the cover of rain and darkness. Rumors that the German shells contained gas agents sent the men scrambling to get masks on themselves and their horses.
In all this chaos, it was easy for the artillerymen, especially the support troops, to run into the woods and rocks of the area. Truman was afraid himself and had to struggle to remain in place. He would later write to his wife, “My greatest satisfaction is that my legs didn’t succeed in carrying me away, although they were very anxious to do it.”
Truman was on his horse, trying to keep his unit organized and in place until he rode into a shell crater and tumbled with his horse to the ground. A soldier had to help get him out from under the horse, and Truman watched the fleeing men around him and had to decide whether to run as well.
But he did hold position, and he began insulting and cajoling his troops to get them back on the guns. “I got up and called them everything I knew,” he said. The language was surprising coming from the relatively small and bespectacled captain, but it worked. Gun crews began shifting back to their weapons, other troops got horses back in line in case the battery needed to move, and American rounds screeched through the air to thunder home in German positions.
Most of his men, of course, refused to admit if they ran. So the men began referring to it as the “Battle of Who Ran.”
Truman’s poise under fire helped endear him to the men, even if he had secretly been terrified. This would later help them stick together in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive when Truman ordered them to kill German artillery batteries and observers that were technically out of the division’s sector. Truman got in trouble for firing out of sector, but he protected his men and the armored units of Lt. Col. George S. Patton Jr. that Battery D was supporting.
Seems like the behavior should’ve been expected from the guy who managed to wrangle Battery D into a unit that would stand and fight.
Warriors throughout history have always been a superstitious breed. Regardless of race, religion or creed, the heavenly bodies dancing in the stars have inspired or discouraged armies locked in conflict. The cosmic dance of objects in the sky was a prelude to death, war and disease. Scientifically, we now know that what causes these phenomena, but in the ancient world, they very much influenced history.
1. Meteorite strike during the battle of Phrygia
The Third Mithridatic War (73–63 BC) was the last of the Mithridatic Wars trilogy. Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus (say that three times fast) prepared for a major battle at Phrygia. Roman soldiers marched with the general directly against Mithridates’ army. Lucius gambled that if he was able to win the battle, regardless of the fact that he was outnumbered, he could dictate future battles by taking the initiative now.
When both armies met on the field of battle, a meteor in the shape of a hog’s head struck the ground between the forces. Stunned and probably scared they angered some god, both sides decided the bloodless battle was a draw.
2. Battle of Halys
During the Lydo-Median war (585 BC) the two armies of Medes and the Lydians met along the Halys river. This was poised to be another historic, decisive battle that would determine the fate of the war. However, a solar eclipse interrupted the battle. This time both armies were scared straight and negotiated peace, unlike the previous example of Phrygia.
…just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.
Herodotus, The History of Herodotus
3. The Battle of Isandlwana
On January 22, 1879, 1,200 British troops faced off against 12,000 at the battle of Isandlwana. The purpose of the war was to expand the British Empire and secure labor for the diamond fields of South Africa. Previously, Lord Chelmsford demanded Cetshwayo, the Zulu king, to demilitarize, submit, and pay reparations for “insults” against the crown. These terms were meant to be turned down by design, to give Chelmsford his casus belli to invade.
Although the British troops had better equipment, they underestimated the enemy’s desire to fight. Normal standard operating procedures, such as reconnaissance, were ignored. Their supply chains lacked proper execution and they did not make any fortifications to their camp. The Zulus saw an opportunity to attack a British camp at Isandlwana. They divided their army into two columns. The first column attacked head on. The second split in two to form a pincer attack. The second column maneuvered around the flanks and rear. The British force was routed.
The infantry withdrew to the hills and fought to the last man. The mounted troops were the only ones to get away by crossing a nearby river to safety. The final two officers, Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, were shot down by the enemy. During the final moments of their last stand, a total eclipse shrouded the battlefield.
When news reached London that Britain’s reputation was in peril, they sent a formidable force to save face. At this point, the Zulu nation was only a blip on the Crown’s radar and they had not decided on how, or if, they should incorporate it into the empire. Ironically, King Cetshwayo’s victory doomed his people to the full force of the British war machine. The eclipse symbolically marked, even briefly, a time when the sun set on the colonial British Empire.
4. Halley’s comet inspired Genghis Khan
After Khan conquered the known world (from the Mongol perspective), Halley’s Comet allegedly appeared in the sky. In the year 1222, Genghis Khan claimed Halley’s comet as his personal star because he believed it guided him West. To date, the Mongol Empire is the largest empire in history, due to the mass murder of millions of people that may or may not have happened due to a comet.
5. Battle of the Milvian Bridge
A critical point in Roman history is the division of the empire between East and West. The Empire was at risk of collapse due to constant civil wars, corruption, and outside forces. Constantine, on his rise to power, had a vision the night before the battle of Milvian Bridge. He experienced “a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, ‘Conquer by this.’ ” One of the most important figures in Christianity found a sign from heaven that declared God was on his side. He would inspire his troops and win the battle. Constantine converted but was officially baptized at the end of his life because of his responsibilities of running his new empire.
Constantine made Christianity the main religion of Rome, and created Constantinople, which became the most powerful city in the world.
The Air Force Pararescue community lives according to the motto, “These Things We Do, That Others May Live.” There may be none who lived that motto more fully than Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger who was killed in action in March, 1966, after intentionally placing himself in harm’s way to rescue infantryman pinned down by snipers, mortars, and machine gun fire.
For his valor, he became the first enlisted airman to receive the Medal of Honor.
A1C William Pitsenbarger
Pitsenbarger, or “Pits,” as he was known, first tried to join the military as a Green Beret when he was 17, but his parents prevailed upon him to wait until after high school. In 1962, he became a graduate and answered the call — this time, with the Air Force instead of the Army. As a pararescuemen, he would be responsible for grabbing downed airmen and others from contested and enemy-held areas around the world. Becoming a PJ was no easy feat, and it wasn’t a job for the timid.
After completing SCUBA training with the Navy, paratrooper training with the Army, and survival and medical training with the Air Force, he was ready to go to work. Before his deployment to Vietnam, he was called upon to help rescue two hunters stuck in the California wilderness. After rappelling down a sheer cliff face to reach them, he and another pararescueman encountered an angry bear. Pits charged the bear, yelling and screaming, chasing it off. It was immediately clear that he was cut out for this kind of work.
Pitsenbarger finally got orders overseas — to Okinawa, Japan. Wanting to go where his help was needed most, he requested to go to Vietnam instead, and his request was approved. Before shipping out, his parents later said that they were sure they would never see him alive again. Sadly, they were right.
In Vietnam, Pits proved himself an exceptionally capable medical and rescue professional. He helped treat lepers at a colony in Vietnam, escorted singer Mary Martin during a USO tour, and inserted into a burning minefield to rescue a South Vietnamese soldier who had lost a foot trying to stomp out a grass fire. For the minefield rescue, Pitsenbarger was awarded the Airman’s Medal.
A1C Pitsenbarger receiving the Airman’s Medal in Vietnam.
But Pitsenbarger’s most consequential moments came in 1966. On April 11, three companies of the Big Red One, the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, were engaged in a risky sweep across two provinces in search of Viet Cong units. Charlie Company was on one end of the formation and realized too late that it had drifted from the others — and was exposed to sniper fire.
Company leadership realized they were in danger and set up a defensive perimeter, but they were already outnumbered and surrounded. The North Vietnamese triggered their attack, sending mortar and sniper fire ripping through the American formation. The other companies attempted to come to their aid, but mounting casualties quickly made it clear that Charlie Company needed a rescue.
The Air Force sent two rescue helicopters to begin getting the wounded out. The first flight was challenging but, for a jungle firefight in Vietnam, fairly uneventful. Both helicopters took the first flight of wounded to a nearby hospital and doubled back for more. Once back in the field, it became clear to Pits that the Army soldiers no longer had the manpower necessary to hold back the attacks, treat the wounded, and put them on litters for extraction. He volunteered to insert into the jungle and help out.
The pilot reluctantly agreed to the risky request, and Pits began sending men up to the two helicopters despite bursts of fierce mortar and machine gun fire. Pitsenbarger was responsible for getting nine wounded men out in three flights, refusing his own extraction each time, before ground fire nearly downed one of the helicopters and forced them to leave.
Poster art for ‘The Last Full Measure’ depicting Pitsenbarger’s rescue in Vietnam.
On the ground, Pits continuously exposed himself to enemy fire to recover rifles and ammunition from the dead to redistribute to the living. He was wounded at least twice before he reached his final position. He had given away his pistol to a soldier too wounded to use any other weapon, and so Pits used one of the recovered rifles to resist a North Vietnamese advance until he was hit again — this time fatally.
The Army fought on through the night, relying on danger close artillery and airstrikes to survive the night. When the Air Force was able to get rescue helicopters back in the next morning, an Army captain told the next pararescueman on the ground what had happened to Pits.
Charlie Company had 134 men when the battle started. 106 of them were wounded or killed in the fighting, but Pits had gotten an extra nine of them out and kept others alive overnight.
Five months later, on Sept. 22, 1966, the Air Force presented the Air Force Cross to Pitsenbarger’s parents. It was the first awarding of the Air Force Cross to an enlisted airman for service in Vietnam. After decades of campaigning from the men he saved from what seemed like certain demise, Pitsenbarger’s citation was finally upgraded to the Medal of Honor. Pitsenbarger is the first enlisted airman to receive such an award.
Now, Pits’ story is headed to the big screen. The Last Full Measure is scheduled to release on Jan. 24, 2020. Be sure to watch the trailer below and secure your tickets to honor this true American hero.
THE LAST FULL MEASURE Official Trailer (2020) Samuel L. Jackson, Sebastian Stan Movie HD
In the early days of the Cold War, the United States was working on developing advanced surface-to-air missiles to intercept Soviet bombers. The first and only missile for a while that fit the Air Force’s bill was dubbed the “Bomarc.”
According to Designation-Systems.net, the missile was first called the XF-99, as the Air Force was trying to pass it off as an unmanned fighter. Eventually, the Air Force switched to calling the Bomarc the IM-99.
The system made its first flight in 1952, but development was a long process, with the IM-99A becoming operational in September 1959. The IM-99A had a range of 250 miles, a top speed of Mach 2.8, and could carry either a 1,000-pound high-explosive warhead or a 10-kiloton W40 warhead.
The IM-99A had a problem, though – its liquid fuel needed to be loaded into the booster before launch, a process that took about two minutes. The fueling was not exactly a safe process, and the fuel itself wasn’t entirely stable. So, the Air Force developed a version with a solid booster. The IM-99B would end up being a quantum leap in capability. Its speed increased to Mach 3, it had a range of 440 miles, and only carried the nuclear warhead.
The Bomarc also has the distinction of making Canada a nuclear power. Well, sort of. Canada bought two squadrons’ worth of the missiles, replacing the CF-105 Arrow interceptor. Canada’s Bomarcs did have the nuclear warhead, operated under a dual-key arrangement similar to that used by West Germany’s Pershing I missiles.
The Bomarc, though, soon grew obsolete, and by the end of 1972 they were retired. However, the Bomarc would end up sharing the same fate as many old fighters, as many of the missiles were eventually used as target drones since their speed and high-altitude capability helped them simulate heavy Russian anti-ship missiles like the AS-4 Kitchen and AS-6 Kingfish.
Over 700 Bomarcs were produced. Not a bad run at all for this missile.
The Niagara River’s famously beautiful Horseshoe Falls is truly a wonderful sight. But if you look upriver before the falls, you might notice a rusted out hulk of a scow that looks like it’s been sitting on the river for a century.
That’s because it has been.
Two workers from the Buffalo, New York were doing a regular day’s work of dredging silt from the mouth of a canal that diverted the river to hydraulic power generators when they suddenly broke loose from the tugboat and began to float toward the falls.
Not many people survive going over Niagara Falls and those who do call it a “miracle.” But in 1918, the number of people who survived was two, the first being a 62-year-schoolteacher who went over in a wooden barrel.
Going over Niagara Falls will drop your body 187 feet into the rocks and water. You might get to the bottom of the river and not make it back up. If your body survived the impact, the freezing water would give you 15 minutes to get out before you began suffering from hypothermia.
The scow was beached on a sand berm when the tugboat came to release it and bring it back to shore. As the towing commenced, the rope between the boats snapped and sent the scow hurtling toward the falls. Luckily, it ran aground on some rocks in the river, 650 feet from oblivion.
Unable to reach the men by boat, Canadian firefighters were able to get a lifeline to its two crewmembers as the U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched to rescue them. The Coast Guard was able to get a lifeline to the iron dredging boat and the two men climbed to safety. The entire rescue operation took 17 hours due to tangled lines.
It was Canadian World War I veteran William “Red” Hill Sr. who climbed out to untangle the lifelines throughout the night. He’d only been back from the war for four days when he made the rescue.
Unsure of what to do with the iron hull, not knowing who would pay for a costly dismantling operation or if it was even worth the risk and effort, the Coast Guard did what anyone with a little common sense would do: leave it there.
The scow sat on the rocky shoal that miraculously saved its two crewmen for more than a hundred years. In 2019, a powerful storm raised the water levels of the river and freed the scow from the shoals.
The rusting iron mass shifted from the rocks and floated closer to Horseshoe Falls, flipping onto its side 50 meters closer.
In the years since the 1918 accident, around 5,000 bodies have been found at the bottom of Horseshoe Falls, either suicides or as stunts to survive the trip. An estimated 25% of those daredevil attempts end in death.
One of those daredevils was William “Red” Hill, Jr., the son of the valiant rescuer of the two men trapped on the scow. In an effort to honor his daredevil father, the younger Hill went over the falls in a barrel, dying in the attempt.
One was Mel Blanc. You never saw him. But you probably heard him. He was the voice of Bugs Bunny. Well, Bugs did his part for the war effort in some cartoons, including one that Warner Brothers pulled due to offensive stereotypes of the Japanese. America’s favorite “wascally wabbit” is an honorary Marine as a result of his service on the screen.
But Blanc did more than just entertain. He also helped train some of the soldiers who were putting it all out there. Specifically, he helped train the gunners on heavy bombers. The B-17 Flying Fortresses had a lot of gun positions. Some of the ten-man crew manning them had other jobs (like the bombardier, the navigator, and the radio operator). Others just had to shoot.
No matter what, though, they needed to know how to aim their guns so that some Nazi or Japanese fighter didn’t shoot their bomber down. In a 14-minute film, Blanc portrays a waist gunner on one Flying Fortress who starts out with some bad habits. Over that course of time, the trainees were given a crash course and the bare essentials needed to know how to aim their machine gun.
Many are still struggling to determine the safest way to go back to school in the fall. But one suggestion to take the curriculum outdoors is compelling for some people—and the idea has an interesting history. A recent article from the New York Times highlights how, in 1907, two Rhode Island doctors, Ellen Stone and Mary Packard, implemented a plan that would let kids go to school during a major tuberculosis outbreak.
Following a trend that took wind in Germany, the doctors paved the way for open-air classrooms in the state. They converted a brick building into being more public health-conscious by installing large windows on each side and keeping them open for the whole day. Remarkably, none of the children became sick, although they did endure open-air classes during freezing New England winters. Shortly, 65 schools soon implemented a similar plan, or simply held classes outside within the first two years of Dr. Stone and Packard’s successful plan.
Regardless of your opinion on how, and if, schools should open up, the story does have compelling implications for what early education could one day look like, even post-pandemic. And that’s because, as The Times points out, studies have shown that many children might be more likely to pay attention to what they’re learning if they’re outside, particularly for science and gym classes. That makes sense, because who wouldn’t prefer to learn about photosynthesis outdoors, looking at flowers and trees with the sun shining down, compared to simply studying a chalkboard or textbook cooped up inside? And since kids should exercise anyway, why not make it into a game on the playground?
We know that it’s more difficult to transmit the coronavirus outside, and as schools, districts, and families struggle to figure out their plans for the fall, this history lesson about outdoor teaching might be worth noting?
The C-130 Hercules is easily one of the longest-serving series of military aircraft in the world, having first made its appearance in the mid-1950s.
Though the Herc, as it’s popularly known, doesn’t really look anything like the high-performance ultra-nimble fighters and trainers modern aerobatic teams use today, you might be surprised to hear that the U.S. Air Force once upon a time had a C-130 demonstration team of its own!
Built as a replacement for the Air Force’s WWII-era C-47 Skytrains, C-46 Commandos, and the slightly newer C-119 Flying Boxcar, the C-130 was designed to transport troops, jeeps, and machinery in and out of combat zones, landing on unimproved fields and dirt strips should runways be inaccessible.
The first of the Hercs to enter service with the USAF were known as the C-130A.
By early 1957, a number of C-130As were sent to Campbell Army Air Field in Kentucky where they would be taking platoons of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division up for a series of coordinated airdrops.
The weather had something else to say about these plans, however, and they were cancelled when high winds rendered the drop zone too dangerous for the exercise.
Instead of wasting a prime opportunity to log flight hours on their brand new Hercs, the four aircraft commanders assigned to each plane — Captains Jim Aiken, Gene Chaney, Bill Hatfield, and David Moore — decided to fire up the planes and go for a flight.
All four pilots came from the 774th Troop Carrier Squadron, aka “The Green Weasels.”
After spending some time practicing flying in close proximity, the four decided to drop down low above Campbell in tight formation, roaring over the base to the glee of soldiers below. After a few passes, the Hercs landed, only to be given another chance at perfecting their formation routine again just a few days later, thanks to poor weather.
Upon returning to the former home of the 774th — Ardmore AFB, OK — the four pilots quickly worked together to develop an idea inspired by their antics at Campbell.
Like the Air Force’s Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels, they too could form a demonstration team to show off the incredible capabilities of the C-130 and the airmanship of some of the service’s finest pilots.
Over the course of 1957, Aiken, Chaney, Hatfield and Moore, practiced their show routine when time permitted, flying with precision at extremely small distances of separation between the aircraft.
In 1958, the four got wind of a ceremony requiring a flyover at Ardmore, and with their wing commander’s approval, broke away from a parade of 36 Hercs, flying in a diamond pattern low over the airfield, and culminating in a bomb-burst breakaway.
Their act was met with horror and indignation from many Air Force officers on hand to witness the ceremony, but a considerable number of brass — many with political power within the branch — were impressed enough to allow the four pilots to perform as a team from there on out.
First known as the Thunderweasels, a play on the Thunderbirds demo team and their own Green Weasels unit, these four pilots were moved to Stewart AFB, TN, where they began practicing a 20-minute show routine to be later performed at shows across the country.
The team proved to be a big hit and a huge publicity bonus for Lockheed.
By the end of 1959, the team had adopted a new name, The Four Horsemen, alluding to their four-ship flight, though some say it was a reference to the University of Notre Dame’s 1924 Rose Bowl champion football squad.
The Horsemen went on to fly a dozen official shows that year, and a number of unofficial flyovers and demonstrations in-between.
The team’s existence was slowly but surely threatened throughout 1959.
Lockheed had already developed the C-130B, a more fuel-efficient long range improvement on the A model, and the Air Force needed as many operational Hercs to be made available as they could muster.
What the B model made up for with range and efficiency, it lost with its handling, making it a dangerous proposition for close-formation flights.
In the spring of 1960, three years after they flew their first impromptu show over Fort Campbell, the Four Horsemen were disbanded, never to fly another demonstration.
Aiken, Chaney and Hatfield remained with the Air Force while Moore moved on, entering the civilian world not long after the team was broken up.
It’s highly unlikely that anything like the Four Horsemen will ever exist ever again, and today, the only C-130 demo still flying is the Blue Angel’s Fat Albert, a Marine Corps-crewed blue, white, and gold Herc that flies a solo routine at airshows across North America.
While spies typically try to hide as much of their communication as possible, there is one method of intelligence communication that is literally broadcasted so that everyone for thousands of miles around can listen in to the messages, but no one else can understand the message.
The Secret Radio Stations Used to Communicate with Spies
These were known as “numbers stations,” an apt name since they exist solely to broadcast number sequences to spies operating in the area. Governments dispatch their spies with books of codes, and then the numbers broadcasted are used with these books to assemble messages years after the spy was dispatched.
These are typically done with “one-time pad” encryption where the message cannot be cracked without the book of numbers. The list of numbers is compared to a single line of numbers in the book, and comparing the numbers will give the spy the message intended for them. But, importantly, each line in the book is used a single time.
So, someone listening in cannot piece together messages through careful listening or tracking, only through stealing the book, if they can find it. So, governments can broadcast their numbers in the clear, usually from a radio station bordering the country they are spying in, without worry.
America has suffered spies that listened to these stations, like Ana B. Montes, one of the highest ranked spies in U.S. history. But we’ve also used the method ourselves especially during the Cold War. Our allies in Britain had done so, running a station in Cyprus for years.
Some spies during the Cold War, including some from the U.S. and Britain, were captured with their code books intact. America had its own numbers coup in the 1980s when it turned a source in the Soviet Government that fed them the codes used to instruct communists in the U.S. at the time.
To listen in yourself, you need to live in range of a broadcasting station and to have a “shortwave” radio, a receiver that listens to high-frequency signals. Few places still track the broadcasts.
There’s just something about two people in a fistfight that’s irresistible to watch. We can’t look away. There’s something about the sound of a sliding barstool, the rising tide of voices shouting, and the sudden rush of action in one spot that is just pure entertainment.
But there shouldn’t be any reason to stop and watch two soldiers fistfight in the middle of war.
That’s why it’s surprising that it actually happened. And all the onlookers were Americans – it was during the Civil War.
In May 1864, Union and Confederate armies clashed in a dense wooded area known as “The Wilderness” over the course of three days. More than 120,000 Yankees fought some 65,000 Rebels to an ultimately inconclusive result. Both sides took tens of thousands of killed and wounded, and the Union Army of the Potomac pushed further into Virginia.
Before anyone knew the outcome of the battle, however, one small skirmish captured everyone’s attention, Union and Confederate.
In the middle of the Wilderness, between the two armies’ centers, was a clearing called Saunders Field. Being the only real clearing in the area between two opposing armies meant that it was full of artillery shells and the holes made by those shells, along with bullets. Just tons of and tons of bullets.
As the two sides clashed near a gully in the field, a Union soldier hid there to avoid being captured by the enemy. Then a Confederate soldier threw himself into the gully to avoid the hail of Union bullets coming toward him. They were the only two in the gully and didn’t even see one another.
Until they did see one another. And then they started “bantering” to one another.
Eventually the two had enough of one another and decided to take it outside…of the gully. They stepped into the road for a good ol’ fashioned “fist and skull fight.” Whoever won would take the other as prisoner.
They were halfway between both sides of the battle, in full view of everyone in each opposing army. And the men in each of those armies stopped fighting the Civil War to watch a fistfight. All the other soldiers even ran up to get a better view of the fight.
Did I mention the Civil War stopped to watch this fight?
The account, written by a cavalryman of the Virginia Infantry, doesn’t mention how long the fight lasted, only that “Johnny [Reb] soon had the Yank down.” The Union soldier, true to his word, surrendered. They both returned to the gully, fighting resumed, and the man was taken back to Confederate lines.
The Black Samurai, despite sounding like a name that’d be more at home in a movie or a comic book than the real world, is a genuine nickname given to a mysterious man from feudal Japan, otherwise known only as Yasuke.
The rank of samurai was, of course, considered one of great prestige and it came with a number of perks including a salary, land, a stipend of rice, servants and the ability to kill commoners who offended them without consequence. In regards to that last one, kiri-sute gomen (literally: authorization to cut and leave) was a right granted to samurai that allowed them to kill anyone of a lower rank (even other samurai of lower rank) for any perceived slight against their honor. While this has little to do with the story of Yasuke, we couldn’t not mention the fact that samurai had the ability to basically murder people without consequence, so long as a given set of restrictions was honored, such as doctors and midwives were exempt to a certain extent, that the blow had to come directly after the affront and not later, a witness to the slight was required for proof a slight was in fact made, etc. etc. But in the general case, samurai were of such high standing that dishonoring one in front of a witness was a great way to end one’s life.
Given the highly regarded position samurai enjoyed, it was seldom an honor doled out to foreigners and, as such, there are less than a dozen confirmed examples of a person outside of feudal Japan being allowed to call themselves samurai. Amongst this select group of foreigners, Yasuke not only stands out for being speculated to have been the first, but also because he was the only one who was black.
Little is known about Yasuke’s past, so little in fact that we know neither where he was born nor his original name. It’s mostly agreed that Yasuke hailed from somewhere in Africa, though which area exactly has never been conclusively established, with Mozambique mentioned most in accounts of his life. This is thanks to the Histoire Ecclesiastique Des Isles Et Royaumes Du Japon written in 1627 by one Francois Solier where he claims Yasuke was from that region. However, it’s not clear what his own source for that information was and he wrote it almost a half century after the last known direct documented evidence of Yasuke.
Whatever the case, originally believed to have been a slave captured sometime in the 1570s by the Portuguese, Yasuke was bought by and became the servant of an Italian Jesuit and missionary called Alessandro Valignano. Valignano was famed for his insistence that missionaries to Japan become fluent with the language, requiring a full two years of study in Japanese, which helped his group stand out and be more successful than others. As for Yasuke, he travelled with and served Valignano for several years until the pair made port in Japan around 1579.
Upon arriving in Japan, as you might expect Yasuke immediately became a subject of intrigue and curiosity, both because of his apparently extremely dark skin and his intimidating stature. Variously described as being between 6 feet 2 inches and 6 feet 5 inches tall, Yasuke towered over the Japanese populace of the period, with males only averaging about 5 feet tall at the time. Beyond his height, he is said to have possessed a powerful, chiselled physique. According to legend, Yasuke’s very presence inspired both terror and curiosity in locals to such an extent that several people were supposedly crushed to death in an attempt to make their way through a large crowd that had gathered to see him. Other stories tell of people breaking down the doors of the places Yasuke was staying just to catch a glimpse.
Whether any of that is true or not, sometime in 1581 while visiting Japan’s capital, Yasuke came to the attention of a man who is considered one of the people ultimately responsible for the unification of Japan, famed Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga apparently insisted on meeting the mysterious dark-skinned stranger who was causing such a commotion in his city. Upon meeting Yasuke, according to an account by Jesuit Luis Frois, Nobunaga apparently ordered Yaskue to be roughly scrubbed with brushes to prove that his dark skin was real and not artificially done with ash, charcoal, or the like.
It’s from this first meeting that one of the only known accounts of Yasuke’s appearance comes from, with this fateful meeting documented in the Lord Nobunaga Chronicle:
On the 23rd of the 2nd month March 23, 1581, a black page (“kuro-bōzu”) came from the Christian countries. He looked about 26, 24 or 25 by Western count or 27 years old; his entire body was black like that of an ox. The man was healthy and good-looking. Moreover, his strength was greater than that of 10 men…. Nobunaga’s nephew gave him a sum of money at this first meeting.
Presumably thanks to Valignano requiring missionaries to Japan to learn Japanese, it appears at this point he also required it of Yasuke, as Nobunaga was said to have greatly enjoyed conversing with Yasuke and was intrigued to learn about his homeland. He ended up liking Yasuke so much that he eventually took him as his own, or rather officially Valignano gifted him to the warlord.
Nobunaga, who was known to have a fondness for other cultures, which is in part why he was allowing Christian missionaries to operate in the area, gave his newly found confidant the name Yasuke. Although technically still a slave in the sense that he had to serve Nobunaga, Yasuke quickly rose in stature in the eyes of Nobunaga, with Yasuke ultimately given a house, salary, and servants of his own. During his rise, he apparently served as Nobunaga’s weapon bearer and bodyguard and was otherwise seemingly treated as an equal by his peers. Yasuke was also eventually given a katana from Nobunaga, apparently conferring the title of samurai upon him as only samurai were permitted to carry such a weapon at the time. It’s also noteworthy that he wore the traditional armor of the samurai when in battle. Yasuke also had the frequent extreme honor of dining with Nobunaga, something few others were allowed to do.
Yasuke’s time with Nobunaga was cut short, however, when the warlord was betrayed by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, a year later in 1582. In a nutshell, Nobunaga was at the Honnō-ji temple in Kyoto, taking with him only a contingent of 30 pages and guards. For reasons unknown, though perhaps just a simple power grab, Mitsuhide chose to betray Nobunaga at this point, surrounding the temple and attacking. Yasuke is known to have been there and fought alongside Nobunaga, but ultimately when defeat was imminent as the temple burned around them, Nobunaga chose to commit ritual suicide rather than be captured.
Legend has it, whether true or not isn’t known, that one of Nobunaga’s last acts was to order Yasuke to carry Nobunaga’s head and sword to his son and heir, Oda Nobutada.
Whether he actually did this or not, it is known Yasuke managed to escape and joined Nobutada who himself was under attack at the time by a separate contingent of Mitsuhide’s soldiers at nearby Nijō Castle.
Nobunaga’s son was eventually defeated, committed ritual suicide, and Yasuke was captured by Mitsuhide’s men. Apparently unsure what to do with the foreign samurai, or even whether they should consider him a true samurai or not despite that he wielded the sword and wore the traditional armor, they chose not to kill him and instead left it to Mitsuhide to tell them what to do.
In the end, while there is some contention, it would seem Mitsuhide decided to dishonor Yasuke by not allowing him to commit ritual suicide and instead had him returned to the Jesuits. Whether Mitsuhide did this out of pity or contempt for Yasuke is a matter of contention, though it’s noteworthy that there was little in the way of racism towards black people in Japan at the time because so few black people ever visited the country anyway.
From here, as unlikely as it’s going to sound, Yasuke, the giant, Japanese speaking black, now ronin, samurai who supposedly caused crushing crowds wherever he went, disappeared from history, even in the Jesuit’s own accounts. This has led some to speculate that he did not stay with the Jesuits and even some speculation that, if becoming a samurai wasn’t enough, that he became a pirate after this, meaning his moniker could have potentially been not just The Black Samurai, but the ultimate in badass nicknames- The Black Pirate Samurai, though there is unfortunately no hard documented evidence that he actually became a pirate.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Even as World War II was wrapping up and Allied soldiers occupied much of Western Europe, the British Special Operations Executive was still devising plans to kill Adolf Hitler in Germany and bring the war to a swift end.
Many different options were considered, including bombing his personal train, sabotaging railway stations, and even poisoning Hitler’s water or food, but all those were deemed too complex to ensure success.
The planners decided it would be best and easiest to kill the Fuhrer at the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain chalet in southern Germany.
While interviewing German prisoners taken from the Allied invasion of Europe, the SOE discovered one of the defender of the Nazi’s Fortress Europe was once a member of Hitler’s personal bodyguard, stationed at the Berghof.
The former guard’s testimony revealed a distinct weakness in the German dictator’s morning routines while staying at the chalet. When he was staying at the Berghof, the Nazis flew a Nazi flag from the top of the house, which could be seen from Berchtesgaden, the town nearby. Every morning around 10am, he would take a 20 minute walk, always alone, out of sight of the guard houses.
British officials decided this would be the best place to plan for an assassination attempt, as they could confirm that Hitler was at the Berghof before launching the final phases of the operation, then infiltrate the grounds and do the job.
Another captured German also revealed that his uncle was a local in the town and was vehemently anti-Hitler and could thus be recruited to aid the commandos. Once there, the British considered a few weapons that might be used to ensure Hitler’s demise (including the use of a bazooka) but they settled on a skilled sniper to do the job.
The Special Operations Executive devised a plan that would see German-speaking Poles and a British sniper parachute into Salzburg and be driven to Berchtesgaden by the uncle.
Once in Berchtesgaden and disguised as German troops and carrying Wehrmacht rifles, the commandos would make their way to the Berghof grounds and wait for Hitler’s morning stroll. It would be there they take out the Fuhrer and make their way back to Berchtesgaden.
Although the plan had the backing of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it was ultimately abandoned for a few reasons. The first and most important is that all the Allied intelligence services considered Hitler so terrible at military strategy that they feared someone more competent would take his place and prolong the war.
They also worried about the ramifications of the Hitler Mythology. While it was widely known among Allied leaders (and probably German leadership) that Hitler was a poor strategist, it wasn’t really known among the Fuhrer’s most fervent supporters. Planners worried that killing Hitler would leave behind a mythos similar to the end of World War I – that if Hitler had survived the war, Germany would have won. They worried such an occurrence would lead to another war.
Finally, they didn’t want to make a martyr of Hitler and thus National Socialism as an ideology. The plan was ultimately scrapped due to the divisions of opinion it caused in the British military and intelligence leadership.
The plan, originally scheduled for July 14, 1944 didn’t happen and a fully alive Hitler left the Berghof for the last time that day, never to return.