Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first? - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Since the dawn of humanity, people have been as competitive as hell. We want to be the best. The first. While most of the world has already been explored today, the tallest peaks, darkest caves, and iciest tundras were once undiscovered mysteries, and humans were obsessed with discovering every corner. Before the 1900s, the North Pole was one of those untouched corners. All early attempts failed, upping the allure of the so-called top of the world. 

In 1909, that changed. First, US Navy engineer Robert Peary claimed to have reached the pole on April 6th of that year. But shortly after, an American explorer named Frederick Albert Cook declared he had actually reached the pole first, nearly a year prior. So who was right? 

The Race for the North Pole Was Cutthroat and Controversial

The North Pole is both barely habitable and intensely difficult to reach. Situated in the moddle of the Arctic Ocean, accessing the pole is impossible without first traversing treacherous, unpredictable sea ice. Every attempt before the 20th century fell flat. William Edward Parry, a British Naval officer, tried but didn’t even get close. An American explorer named Charles Hall tried and failed in 1871. Over two decades later, a pair of Norwegian explorers, Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen and Fridtjof Nansen, got painfully close before having to return home defeated. An Italian explorer got marginally farther before giving up as well. 

Then came Peary and Cook. They began as friends, but their differences were pointed. Peary was born in 1856, and he was deadset on achieving fame. His expeditions, like most, relied heavily on the assistance of the locals in each region he explored, but he treated them more like chess pieces than friends. He went as far as to dig up graves to sell to New York’s Museum of Natural History. Cook, born nearly a decade later in 1865, was an ambitious, young doctor with a more modern approach. He was genuinely interest in the lives of indigenous peoples, diving into their culture and learning their languages. 

The two traveled together to Greenland once, but Cook turned down a second invitation. Peary wanted him to sign a contract preventing any accounts of the expidition from being published before Peary did it first. Left with a bad taste in his mouth, Cook broke contact with Peary for several years. They were reunited when Peary was lost in the Arctic and Cook was called upon to rescue him. Rescue him he did, treating him for scurvy and several other conditions. On a later expedition to Greenland, Peary badly broke his leg and Cook stepped in once again to treat his injury. Still, the two were very different men. Instead of colleagues, they were competitors. 

Peary, one of the last imperialistic explorers, would have died for fame. 

In a message to his mother about his longing to conquer the elusive North Pole, he wrote, “My last trip brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world….I will be foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will….Remember, mother, I must have fame.”

Peary did travel to the Arctic once more, but whether or not he made it all the way to the pole is highly disputed. According to him, he made it to the North Pole on April 6th, 1909, but he straight up refused to share any definitive proof. According to a later review conducted in 1989 by the US National Geographic Society, the photos Peary took suggest that he did make it within eight kilometers of the official North Pole. 

Even with this supposed endorsement, the truth of his claims remained controversial. Firstly, no one else on the expedition had the navigational skills to confirm or deny Peary’s reports. They did, however, mention multiple, agonizingly long detours, while Peary claimed to take a direct route. Secondly, even on his own expedition, he may not have been the first to arrive at the pole. He was joined by four Inuit men and his assistant, a black man named Matthew Henson. Henson was a skilled explorer of his own right, adventuring in the Arctic alongside Peary on seven different occasions. 

Yet Peary considered himself to be superior to Henson, and was unwilling to share the credit with him. In fact, he intended to abandon Henson to reach the Pole first on his owe. He lost track of the distance, however, and according to Henson, he was livid that five others shared “his” glorious North Pole victory. He later took all the credit, and it wasn’t until Henson published a book in 1947 that he began receiving recognition for his achievements. 

Whether they truly made it to the pole or not, their unopposed rule of polar discovery didn’t go unopposed for long. 

Cook claimed that he reached the pole nearly a year earlier, but his evidence was unconvincing. 

The daring Doctor Cook was just as keen on finding the far north as Peary was. After a Mount Denali expedition that was also shrouded in suspicion, Cook headed straight for the Arctic. He set off from Annoatok, a settlement in Greenland, February, 1908. He claimed to have arrived at the pole on April 21st, yet he didn’t make it back to Annoatok until the next spring, nearly starving along the way. 

In total, they were gone for 14 months, and it remains unclear where they ended up. Cook was never able to produce convincing navigational records. According to him, he left the records in a box along with some of his other belongings at Annoatok. There, an American hunter, Harry Whitney, attempted to load the box onto Peary’s ship, the Roosevelt, Peary forbid it. The contents of that box were never seen again. 

By December 1909, experts at the University of Copenhagen determined that Cook’s records were insufficient to prove he had reached the pole. Some researchers have noted that Cook’s account of the journey, which he tracked in a diary, describes the landscape with remarkable accuracy. If he didn’t reach the pole, how could he have known what it looked like? 

Whoever got there first, both men were intrepid adventurers who paved the way for later, less disputable expeditions. 

north pole
Personnel at an Antarctic Base, circa 1946-47. Back Row:(left to right) Dustin; Cox; Dr. Paul A. Siple; Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN; and Boyd Kneeling: (left to right) Morency; Shirley; Amory H. Waite: Richardson; and Wiener U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

The true “first man to the North Pole” is nearly impossible to determine, but many have followed in their footsteps. About 60 years later, American Ralph Plaisted, along with three companions, were the first to reach the pole without a shred of controversy…by snowmobile, in 1968! Other adventurers have succeeded as well, by plane, submarine, and on their own two feet. I wonder which murderous wasteland will explorers fight over next. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

How one pilot became Santa Claus to the kids of West Berlin

After the Second World War ended, Germany was split in two. The Allies took control over Western Germany while the communists shrouded the eastern half behind the Iron Curtain. Berlin, Germany’s capital, was also famously split in two. The city is nestled deep into the heart of Eastern Germany, leaving the West Germans living there to fend for themselves in a war-torn city without supplies.

Starting in June of 1948, the communists tried their best to cut West Berlin off from the outside world. In what was later dubbed the “Berlin Blockade,” the Soviets shut down all railway, road, and canal access to Western citizens. Just as quickly, allied humanitarian missions were carried out to get food and supplies to the starving people of West Berlin. Between June 24th, 1948, and September 30th of the following year, 278,228 air missions, collectively called “Operation Vittles,” delivered over 2,326,406 tons of supplies to keep the city alive.

But one man, Lt. Gail Halvorsen, went behind his commander’s back to deliver a little extra and help raise the children’s spirits. His personal mission was dubbed Operation Little Vittles.


Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

For this, the kids gave him the exceedingly clever nickname, “Uncle Wiggle Wings.”

(National Archives)

Lt. Gail Halvorsen arrived in Germany in July, 1948, and was given orders to fly one of the C-54 Skymasters into the city to ferry supplies. On his day off, he decided to walk around the airfield with a camera to get a couple good shots of aircraft taking off and landing. When he made it to the fence at the end of the runway, he noticed that a group of children were gathered to watch the planes.

They asked him all sorts of questions about the planes and their mission and, as a demonstration of good faith, he gave them the two sticks of gum he had in his pocket. The impoverished kids divvied the two sticks, splitting it evenly amongst the large gathering — they didn’t fight over who got the biggest piece. In fact, it was said that the kid missed candy so much that just smelling the wrapper was good enough.

Halvorsen was heartbroken. He promised the children that he’d return with more. He told them that he’d always “wiggle his wings” when he was flying overhead with candy.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Among all the fan mail and shipments of candy, Halvorsen also received plenty of marriage proposals from the ladies back home. Take notes, fellas.

(National Archives)

The very next day, he tied a bunch of candy to handkerchief parachutes and tossed it out of his plane to the kids waiting below as he took off. Halvorsen continued to do this every single day and, as he did, the daily gathering of kids grew larger.

His commanding officer, Lieutenant General William H. Tunner, heard of what he was doing and was reportedly upset. It wasn’t until every newspaper in the region (and back home) started reporting on the heroics of “Uncle Wiggly Wings” or “The Chocolate Flier” that the general officially allow Halvorsen to continue.

Soon enough, people began sending candy to Halvorsen’s unit. Folks back in the States started sending candy by the box, large candy makers donated to Halvorsen’s cause, and the West German children shared the bounty amongst themselves.

As Christmas, 1948, drew nearer, Halvorsen knew he’d have to do something big. By this point, candy makers had supplied him with 18 tons of candy and another 3 tons was given by private donors. In a single night, instead of tossing it to the kids gathered by the runway’s end, Halvorsen spread it across the entire city.

For one night, the spirit of Christmas was brought to the people of West Berlin. The kindness of Lt. Halvorsen, his crew, and the innumerable candy donors would never be forgotten.

To more on this story, listen to the silky smooth narration of Tom Brokaw below.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How World War I chemical weapons led to a cancer treatment

The grisliest images in the history of warfare are often related to chemical weapons. Images of soldiers and civilians alike blinded and/or covered in blisters highlight the barbarity of chemical weapon attacks and nowhere was this more apparent than during World War I. But even the most terrible wounds of the Great War had a silver lining: doctors were able to find the first effective treatment for an equally horrible disease.

Beware: some of the images of mustard gas can be disturbing.


Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

No joke.

The history of cancer treatment was as slow a progression as the disease often is. Cancer is a disease older than humanity itself, as even dinosaurs suffered from it. From the earliest days of recorded medical history, doctors have come up with a variety of bizarre treatments for it. Ground coral, lead, and even the lungs of foxes were used as treatment for the disease. Only in the 1800s did surgeons start recommending the removal of cancer tissue if possible.

Even then, the surgeries were often harsh, brutal, and without anesthetics. Then came World War I and the many, many new and innovative ways to kill and be killed on the battlefields.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Back then, no one knew it was part one of two.

Mustard gas is a blister agent that can cause blindness as well as burning and blistering skin and internal organs. Mustard blisters in the throat can seal the airway, making the victim unable to breathe. The agent can also cause pneumonia-like symptoms in the lungs, causing a painful death by slow drowning. The worst part for battlefield medicine was that the effects of mustard gas could often not be fully developed for hours, filling up first aid tents and treatment wards.

Even if it didn’t kill its victims quickly, they could feel the effects of the mustard gas attack for the rest of their lives, as the gas scars their physical body as well as their mind. And remember that World War I troops only had gas masks; there was no full body chem warfare suit during World War I.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Nurses treating World War I troops in the field.

After the war, mustard gas was studied extensively so that militaries could better utilize it on the battlefields and protect their troops against it. In the process of doing that, doctors noticed the bodies of men killed by the gas had lower white blood cell counts. This created enough interest for doctors to take a deeper look. By World War II, researchers were looking into the marrow of the deceased doughboys, where they made an important discovery: the mustard altered cell development in the bone marrow.

Cancer researchers used this information for their own devices. They isolated nitrogen mustard from the deadly gas mix and used the new substance on cancerous lymph notes and found that it would actually shrink cancers.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Doctors isolating nitrogen mustard.

The discovery led to a whole new generation of targeted cancer treatments that were much less barbaric and seemingly random than the centuries of treatments that came before. These chemicals targeted cells that divided at a faster rate than other cells, and eventually chemotherapy.

“Normal fast-reproducing cells usually resume production after chemotherapy is finished, but cancer cells, which have weaker DNA, tend not to.” said Dr. Toni Storm-Dickerson, a breast surgical oncologist. “Chemotherapy has really changed the system of how we fight disease.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is the only Victoria Cross recipient to survive earning the second medal

The United Kingdom’s highest award for valor in combat, the Victoria Cross, is notoriously difficult to earn. It is awarded for “conspicuous bravery… pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.”

The prestigious Victoria Cross award.

Like the United States’ Medal of Honor, not many survive earning their nation’s highest honor. Even more rare is earning two of such medals. Since the Victoria Cross was introduced in 1857, some 1,358 medals have been awarded. Only three recipients have been awarded two. 

Only one of them survived earning his second. 

Charles Upham during his time of service. He would later go on to earn a Victoria Cross.

Charles Upham enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces in 1939 at the age of 30. He was a seasoned soldier, a non-commissioned officer in New Zealand’s home army, then known as the “Territorial Force.” He signed on to the expeditionary army as a private, but his skills as a soldier soon saw him retain his previous rank of sergeant. 

By July 1940, he was headed for Egypt and was placed in an officer’s training unit. The New Zealander’s first action in World War II was to reinforce the Greek Army in the face of an imminent Nazi invasion. That invasion came on Apr. 6, 1941, which forced the Kiwis to withdraw to the island of Crete. 

It was on Crete that Upham earned his first Victoria Cross. The Battle of Crete was unique in the history of warfare in that it was led by a massive force of Nazi paratroopers. The British controlled the seas around Crete, but the Nazi luftwaffe maintained air superiority. The Nazis captured the island’s most important areas and soon they were reinforced by airlifted supplies and weapons. The British and Commonwealth forces would soon have to retreat to Egypt. 

But first, 2nd Lt. Upham and his men were going to make the Nazi pay for evey inch of Crete they could. 

In three separate actions, Upham destroyed four machine gun positions (often at close range), removed wounded men from the battlefield, and led his men to relieve a surrounded allied unit. Over the course of a week, he took out more than 70 enemy troops while wounded, exhausted, and suffering from dysentery. For this, he was awarded his first Victoria Cross. 

He and his men retreated to Egypt, where he recovered and recuperated. He saw combat again in 1942, at Minqar Qaim and at the First Battle of El-Alamein, where he would earn his second Victoria Cross.

Here, the British and Commonwealth forces would fight the Nazis under Erwin Rommel to a draw. Now a Captain, Upham was leading a company of New Zealanders on El Ruweisat Ridge. They were part of the reserve force but soon lost communications with the headquarters. Not knowing what was happening, Upham himself went to assess the situation. 

He found enemy machine gunners, which he was able to evade. Most importantly, he reestablished communications. 

His unit was ordered to take their objectives at dawn on the second day of fighting, but found it was more heavily defended than they’d anticipated. His company was pitted against four machine gun nests and four tanks. Upham led the company in a flanking maneuver against the Nazi strongpoints. 

Upham destroyed one of the enemy tanks on his own, taking a bullet to the arm for his trouble. That bullet broke his arm at the elbow. He then moved forward to cover the retreat of some of his men who had been cut off by an enemy counterattack. As they enemy retook the objective, he fought back as his men reconsolidated. One would think he had already earned a second Victoria Cross, but he wasn’t finished.

After being patched up at an aid post, he rejoined his unit, which again began to take heavy artillery fire, wounding him again. This time his position was overrun and he was captured. Only six men from his unit survived the battle. 

Superior officers in Upham’s chain of command recommended him for another Victoria Cross for not only his actions at El-Alamein, but also his previous engagement at Minqar Qaim. Instead they rolled both events into the same recommendation to present to King George Vi. 

Charles Upham in his later years after earning two Victoria crosses.
Upham in 1984.

The New Zealander recovered from his wounds and spent most of the rest of the war in POW camps, where he became known as an extreme escape risk. He eventually found himself in Colditz Castle, a prison for enemy officers from which escape was notoriously difficult.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The legend of Ed Loder: Boston Fire Department’s most decorated firefighter

The call rang out in the firehouse of Rescue Company 1 reporting a jumper at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Ed Loder, a 41-year-old firefighter with 20 years on the job, threw on his gear and pulled himself into the driver’s seat of their fire engine. The sirens wailed as they sped down the narrow city streets of Back Bay, an affluent neighborhood in Boston. Loder steered the rig in front of the hotel, jumped out, and was handed a set of binoculars from the hazmat truck.

Against the dark sky he located a distressed woman on the 16th floor, sitting with her feet dangling over the ledge of a windowsill. A negotiation team of the Boston Police Department pleaded with the woman from inside the hotel room, but she wasn’t complying. Loder soon joined the other firefighters on the roof.


“We could look over the edge of the roof and see her, but she couldn’t see us because she wasn’t looking up,” Loder told Coffee or Die Magazine in a recent interview. “She was looking in the room and talking to the cops.”

The woman had a razor in her hand. This rescue wasn’t going to be easy.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Boston firefighter Ed Loder talking to other firefighters on the ground while a building is ablaze. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

While other firefighters searched for a viable anchor point, Loder tugged ropes through the carabiner on his bumblebee suit. The nearby ductwork was unusable, but a window through an electrical structure on the roof was perfect. Loder tied in his line.

Their plan was to have the police distract the woman long enough for Loder to complete the rescue.

“They got her attention and the minute she looked inside of the room, I went off the roof,” Loder told Coffee or Die. “When I went off the parapet I naturally swung and kicked her in the side and she went into the room.”

The police officers immediately jumped on top of her and placed handcuffs around her wrists to prevent her from harming herself or anyone else. Loder, however, was left swinging outside and hollered for one of the officers to pull him in too.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

A newspaper clipping about the incident at the Ritz-Carlton, showing Boston firefighter Ed Loder after he made a daring rescue of a suicidal woman. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

The Boston Globe would describe the heroic nighttime rescue that occurred on May 30, 1990, as “Mission Impossible.” Bill Brett, a Globe photographer, was a witness alongside 300 other spectators on the ground. “I never expected someone to come down and knock her in the window,” Brett said. “He drops down, and boom, she’s inside! Down where I was, everybody cheered; the crowd clapped and yelled; it was unbelievable, like a movie.”

For this action, the Board of Merit awarded Loder the Walter Scott Medal for Valor, the second highest in the fire service. But as he puts it, it was just another day on the job at Rescue Company 1.

The War Years

Ed Loder grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had long admired the World War II veterans who took jobs with the fire department down the street from his home. In fact, he wanted to be them.

The Boston Fire Department is rich with tradition and history that date all the way back to 1631. America’s first publicly funded fire department saw numerous innovations over the next handful of centuries. The first leather fire hoses were imported from England in 1799; all fire engines were equipped with aerial ladders by 1876; and radios were installed in all fireboats, cars, and rescue companies by 1925.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

A train collision that occurred in the Back Bay of Boston in 1990. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

In 1970, when 21-year-old Fire Fighter Edward Loder was appointed to Ladder Company 2 in East Boston, the Boston Fire Department was in the midst of the “War Years.” Between 1963 and 1983, there was at least one major fire every 13.6 hours. On average, a fire company reacted to as many as five to 10 fires in one tour of duty. Loder joined the fire service to be in on the action, and like the majority of other sparkies rising through the ranks, that’s exactly what he got.

Over the next decade, Loder responded to a variety of emergency situations as a part of Ladder Company 2, and later Ladder Company 15 in the Back Bay. He was there for a big oil farm fire in Orient Heights and a ship fire from Bethlehem Steel, but the most memorable for him was the 1800 Club, partly owned by former Red Sox player Ken Harrelson. The entertainment complex along the waterfront burned to the ground, with an estimated loss of id=”listicle-2648495230″ million.

Even some calls he didn’t participate in had an impact. After ending his shift on the morning of June 17, 1972, Loder and his wife went out in the afternoon, only to be stopped by a familiar face.

“We ran into this cop that I knew and he said to me, ‘What are you doing here?'” Loder remembered. “He had this look on his face that I’d never seen before.”

The seven-story Hotel Vendome had caught fire and collapsed on top of Ladder Company 15’s truck. Nine firefighters were inside the hotel, and tragically, all nine lost their lives.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Boston firefighter Ed Loder, kneeling second to left from Pickles, the “Dandy Drillers” Dalmatian. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

The following year he responded to the worst plane crash in Boston’s history. Delta Airlines Flight 723 hit a seawall while trying to land at Logan International Airport. All 89 passengers and crew were killed.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘Geez, is this what the fire service is all about?’ It didn’t bother me in a way, but it was like a shock and awe after a little bit, and you adapted to it,” Loder said. “I said, ‘I don’t think there is anything else on this job that I could come across that’s probably going to bother me.'”

The days and nights spent on the job weren’t all tragic or intense. Every October throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Boston Fire Department raised awareness through Fire Prevention Week with a squad dubbed the “Dandy Drillers” performing high-wire aerial exercises around the city.

“We took two 100-foot aerial ladders, we put them together at the tips, we tied them together up at the top, and hung a 150-foot piece of rope down the middle of it,” Loder told Coffee or Die. “I used to do the upside-down no-hands exercise. We had platforms attached to these aerial ladders probably 20 feet in the air, and we’d jump off of that into the life nets. We would also have 10 guys on each ladder that would hook into the ladder and lean out with no hands. I understand it was the only type of thing in the country.”

Boston City Hospital Rescue

After 12 or 13 years with various companies, Loder transferred to Rescue Company 1, where his reputation grew to legendary status. At one rescue, a deranged man was on the roof of Boston City Hospital. The man had hurled several brick-sized boulders at pedestrians standing on the sidewalk and at cars driving by on Massachusetts Avenue.

“If you come out, I’m gonna jump,” the man told the cops as they tried to talk him off the ledge.

Ladder Company 15, Loder’s old team, had arrived just as Rescue Company 1 pulled up to the scene. “Throw your aerial up on the side of the building,” Loder told them. “That way there if they chase him over here, he will see the aerial and he’ll go back.”

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Boston firefighter Ed Loder, right, was awarded the Walter Scott Medal for Valor and four Roll of Merit awards, including one for a water rescue in the Charles River. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

Loder took charge and ordered Ladder Company 17 to be posted on the other side to sandwich the man in between.

In the meantime, Loder went up the aerial ladder to get a better view of the rooftop and the distraught man.

“I’m gonna jump,” the man said once more.

“I looked at him and said, ‘What are you gonna do that for, you’re going to make a mess down there if you jump,'” Loder said.

The man ran to the edge only a few feet from where Loder was positioned. “We’ve been here for an hour playing with you — it’s lunch time, I’m hungry and want to go get a sandwich. How about you go inside the hospital and get something to eat?”

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

A screenshot from the Boston Globe newspaper showing Boston firefighter Ed Loder holding a man by his shirt with his fingertips while suspended 100 feet in the air.

“Fuck you,” the man hollered, as he climbed over the side and proceeded down a conduit pipe attached to the hospital building.

Arm by arm, the man took off his coat, threw it to the ground, and said for the final time, “I’m jumping!”

From the side of the aerial ladder, Loder reached out with both his arms and grabbed the man by his shirt. Dangling 100 feet in the air, Loder screamed at the aerial operator to lower the ladder.

“Instead of lowering the aerial, he hits the rotation on the turntable and slams me and the guy in the side of the building,” Loder said, explaining that the operator likely panicked during the split-second action. “He dropped the aerial down to maybe 10 to 15 feet off another roof that was there, and I let him go. I couldn’t hang on to him anymore.”

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Paul Christian, left, Boston fire commissioner between 2001 and 2006, and Ed Loder wearing Liar’s Club golf shirts. Photo by Matt Fratus/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Liar’s Club

A row of cars with the doors ripped off and the metal frames crumpled are remnants of a previous fire academy training class. There in the parking lot sits a small and unassuming office trailer known as The Liar’s Club. Since 1968, retired Boston firefighters have been meeting here every Wednesday morning to share stories, reminisce, and — sometimes — tell a few lies.

Driving up to the Liar’s Club in Loder’s pickup, we didn’t get very far before the first young fire captain approached the driver’s-side window, wanting to shake Loder’s hand. With some 43 years on the job, Loder is the most decorated firefighter in Boston Fire’s nearly 400-year history. Not that he boasts about the glory.

Inside, beyond the coffee and donuts, an old retiree says, “You know he’s one of the most decorated in the fire service?” while Loder rolls his eyes in the background.

In the back room, nicknamed “Division 2” in homage to the two districts between which the city is split, I listen as Paul Christian, the former Boston fire commissioner, shares a story about the old days.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

An infamous photograph snapped by a Boston newspaper photographer of Ed Loder wearing Sperrys on the job. Photo courtesy of Ed Loder.

“Today they have to put bunker gear on, put the boots on, put the hood on, put this on, put that on, get up on the truck, put their seatbelts on,” Christian said, in reference to the new OSHA regulations. “When I came on the fire department, you had to run to the piece [fire truck] while you jumped on with your coat while you’re going down the street. You’re putting on your belt, and the best you could do was kick your shoes off and put your boots on.”

Sometimes they forgot — and a Boston news photographer was there to snap the picture to prove it. “I get a call from headquarters and they wanted to know who the guy was with the Sperrys on,” Loder said and laughed. “Of course everybody said that nobody knew nothing, but it was me.”

Loder just celebrated his 72nd birthday and continues to give back to the fire service, teaching classes to the next generation. All the medals and the accolades later, Loder maintains that he was just doing his job.

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.


MIGHTY HISTORY

This police detective is looking for an uncle who went MIA over occupied France

Tom McCaslin is a police detective in Omaha, Neb. and his coldest case is turning 75 in 2019. It’s the search for his uncle, Staff Sgt. Thomas J. McCaslin, one of eight crew members of a bomber that was shot down over Nazi-occupied France on June 22, 1944.

All these decades later, his nephew is hunting for his remains in order to bring the bomber crewman back home while four of his 12 siblings are still alive.


Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Top row, from left: Lt. Col. Don Weiss, Lt. David Meserow, Lt. Axel Slustrop. Bottom row: Staff Sgt. John H. Canty,, S/Sgt. Tom McCaslin, T/Sgt. Clement Monaco. All but Monaco were aboard the B-26 when it was shot down.

Their B-26 Marauder was shot down by Nazi flak while supporting the Allied push inland. As the British Second Army fought the German Panzergruppe West in the streets of below, the crew of the B-26 tried in vain to stay aloft. They went down anyway, and that was the last anyone ever heard of them. Well, most of them, anyway. The first was found in 1946, buried after the crash by locals. The remains of the bird’s four officers were discovered in 1986 by a farmer in his fields. They were taken to the American cemetery at Normandy. Another, the enlisted top tail gunner, was found by an amateur historian who also found the man’s dog tag.

That leaves two – and one of those is Thomas J. McCaslin, the Marauder’s bottom turret gunner. McCaslin’s nephew is looking for his uncle and the other crewman.

“If there’s a lead to follow, I’ll keep looking into it,” McCaslin told the Hartford Courant.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Det. Tom McCaslin of Omaha, Neb.

McCaslin’s mission has led him to talk to both the historian and the farmer who found the previous remains. He has also obtained numerous documents about the B-26 mission. It was one of 36 planes to fly over a chateau being used as a headquarters building by the Nazi SS. As the bomber began to make its run and open the doors, a flak burst cut the plane in two and sent it careening to earth. No one was able to bail out. In 40 seconds, it was all over, leaving those eight men among the 73,000 who would be unaccounted for during the war. McCaslin even has aerial recon photos of the crash site taken right after the crash.

McCaslin and his detective skills are largely responsible for the 2018 discovery of Staff Sgt. John Canty’s remains. His work persuaded French authorities to further search the field where his dog tag was found. Canty was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. From interviewing relic hunters to requesting documents, McCaslin has worked tirelessly to track down the entire crew since the discovery of the first remains – which he only learned about through a newspaper.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

The B-26 Marauder.

Detective McCaslin and his family have all worked the case tirelessly for years. As a family, they have hounded government agencies in an effort to step up the recovery of his uncle and another unaccounted-for airman from his crew. All hope is not lost. McCaslin is currently waiting for the DNA identification of some finger bones found in the area. He even has an eyewitness to the battle who reports that she saw parachutes as a young girl.

“The stuff they’ve uncovered is incredible,” says Jed Henry, a journalist and independent researcher who has become an advocate for families of missing service members from World War II. “To have the intelligence to sort through it, and the tenacity — and to care about it. … I’ve never seen a family that has gotten into this as much as they have.”

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

“My uncle joined (the military) in 1942, and we never saw him again,” Tom McCaslin said. “If there’s a chance to find him, we should do it.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why Saddam Hussein’s fedayeen troops wore Darth Vader helmets

In 1995, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established his own Fedayeen corps, an irregular unit designed to protect the Ba’athist regime and Hussein himself. As of the 2003 invasion, they numbered 30,000 to 40,000 and their uniforms were more than a little unique, sporting an all-black combat uniform, black ski masks, and a familiar-looking helmet.


Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Yes, Saddam’s Fedayeen, Arabic for “Men of Sacrifice,” wore enormous Darth Vader helmets. Their commander, Hussein’s son Uday, was a huge Star Wars fan. The above picture is an actual example from the Imperial War Museum in Britain.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Other Middle Eastern personalities had their Fedayeen forces, notably Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but neither of those had the Sci-fi panache of the Fedayeen Saddam. Founded in 1995, the irregular Iraqi guard unit was Saddam Hussein’s personal militia.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
I hope it’s 102 degrees in this photo.

Members were recruited into the Fedayeen Saddam as young as age 16. They received no specialty training or heavy weapons and were not members of the regular Iraqi military. So, as awesome as watching a fighting Darth Vader in “Rogue One” was, their Iraqi Doppelgängers were not so awesome.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
You wish, Uday.

In reality, they were mainly used to stop smuggling in Iraq, and then later became the smugglers, extortionists, torture, and whatever else the Husseins had them do. It was all good as long as they didn’t shake down government officials.

Though U.S. military planners knew about the existence of the Fedayeen Saddam before the 2003 invasion, they weren’t sure what they would be used for once the shooting started. The best estimate was as guerrilla fighters behind U.S. lines, which they generally did in urban areas. It was the Fedayeen Saddam who ambushed U.S. Marines in Nasiriyah under a flag of surrender in 2003.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
Which no doubt made surrender sooooo much easier for their buddies.

Even after the regular army and Republican Guard forces crumbled away, the Fedayeen Saddam harassed U.S. troops through April 2003. Uday and Qusay famously found their end with a few members of the Fedayeen Saddam that same year.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
That helmet serves no other purpose than to make this unintentionally hilarious.

MIGHTY HISTORY

How the Finns stopped the Soviets with this polka song

There’s a subsection of YouTube dedicated to playing the same song on repeat, over and over again, for hours at a time. Parents think it’s just a part of raising children when they have to listen to the same kids’ song, over and over again, for days at a time. Both of these cases have nothing on the five months of playing the exact same polka song over 1,500 times, continuously, as the Soviets retreated from Finland during the Continuation War.


As the Finns recaptured the city of Vyborg from the Soviets, they would have to travel across land saturated with mines left behind by the Soviets.  When the Finns chased out Soviet soldiers, the Soviets retreated to safety, the mines detonated and devastated the Finns. There were so many mines left that civilians, even after reclaiming the city, were still forbidden to reenter their homes.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
…if they still had one. (Photo via War Archive)

This was until an unexploded mine and the radio equipment next to it was brought to Jouko Pohjanpalo, credited as being the “father of Finnish radio” for his work establishing the Finnish radio field. Jouko tinkered with the explosives and the associated radio device and discovered that it operated at the frequency 715 kHz. Inside the radio receiver were three tuning forks. When a certain three-note sequence was sent over the radio and all three forks vibrated — boom.

Now all they needed to do was send out a signal to jam the sequence. They needed something fast with a lot of chords that wouldn’t also set off the mines. So, they played Säkkijärven Polkka by Viljo “Vili” Vesterinen. It was an immensely popular song at the time and many Finns associated it with great national pride, similar to how Americans feel today hearing America, F*ck Yeah!

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

And so began Operation: Säkkijärvi Polkka. The Finns blasted the song at 715 kHz so the mines wouldn’t explode and they continued to fight. The Soviets learned what was going on and changed the radio frequency for their mines. Because the Soviets didn’t change the mines, just the frequency, the Finns played the song on repeat on every frequency the mines could possibly operate on. Out of the one thousand or so mines in the city, only 12 went off.

In a press interview years later, Jouko told them,

In the crowds and the homeland, the operation received a legendary reputation because of its mystery. Säkkijärvi’s polka went together about 1,500 times. All kinds of rumors circulated about somebody crazy enough to have emitted it on every radio station.

To hear the majestic polka song that helped win a war, check out the video below.

(Dallape30 | YouTube)

MIGHTY HISTORY

This British soldier escaped from Dunkirk by stealing a car

Imagine the tension of being a British soldier waiting to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk as the Nazi Wehrmacht closed in around you and your mates. Now imagine somehow being left behind after all 340,000 of your fellow troops were led back to Britain.

That’s what happened to then-20-year-old James May, a British Tommy, left behind on the beach. Luckily, he survived the Nazi onslaught and would eventually return to France’s beaches four years later – on D-Day.


May joined the service in 1940, after World War II broke out. He enlisted to become a driver with the 13-division strong British Expeditionary Force in France. The British mission on continental Europe in the early days of the war did not go well. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, the French and British declared war almost immediately. Just as fast, the British Expeditionary Force began arriving in France.

By June, 1940, they were all being evacuated by any British subject who had a boat that could float. Most of them, anyway.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

The effort to rescue the trapped Allied troops was dubbed “Operation Dynamo” and was a mission to pick up distressed British, French, and Belgian troops waiting on the beaches at Dunkirk. By May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany had captured all of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. They were already in control of much of Northern France and had the Allied forces on the ropes.

As the Nazis moved to push the Allies into the sea, British citizens and Royal Navy ships mounted the massive impromptu rescue effort, pulling any troops they could fit in their craft, and ferrying them back across the channel. Not everyone survived the wait on the beaches, as they were constantly harassed by the Nazi luftwaffe and threatened by German ground forces.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

British troops waiting for evacuation on the beaches of Dunkirk.

In Dynamo, the British expected to be able to save some 30,000 to 45,000 troops who would then defend the British home islands. Using a still-unknown number of “little ships” piloted by civilians, they managed to save ten times that number. It truly was a miracle.

But James May and six of his fellow soldiers were somehow left behind. They did what any quick-thinking, resourceful bunch of soldiers would do in a lawless area with an determined enemy bearing down on them: They stole a car and beat it.

In their own, smaller version of the Miracle at Dunkirk, the group managed to drive out of the war zone in their stolen vehicle, evading the Wehrmacht for a full six days before finding a boat and captain that would ferry them home to England.

He was stationed in Northern Ireland for much of the war but he had his chance to hit the beach of France once more, and again as a driver. This time, however, he was driving a British DUKW amphibious vehicle, landing British troops in the battle to crack the walls of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

MIGHTY HISTORY

A massive Nazi wolfpack slaughtered a convoy for 7 days

Atlantic convoy operations could be terrifying for any Merchant Mariners and Navy sailors assigned to cross the treacherous waters, but the desperation of SC 107 in 1942 is on a whole other order of magnitude. The 42 ships were spotted Oct. 30, 1942, and spent the next week struggling to survive as half their number were consumed by 16 U-boats.


Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

The HMS Edinburgh survives extreme torpedo damage from a German sub attack.

(Imperial War Museum)

SC 107 was filled with ships sailing from the Canadian city of Sydney in Nova Scotia to the United Kingdom. It was a slow convoy, filled with ships thought capable of sustaining 7 knots but incapable of holding the 9 knots of faster convoys on the same route.

These would normally be heavily guarded, but Canada and America had shifted as many ships as possible to North Africa to support landings there. So the convoy was lightly guarded with just a destroyer and three corvettes assigned to travel all the way across with it. On October 30, U-boat pack Violet, Veilchen, spotted the juicy, underdefended target.

The pack was deployed in a patrol line with 13 boats ready for combat, and those boats were able to summon three more that would join the hunt from the west. These 16 German combatants prepared to slaughter their way through the Allied convoy.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Allied bombers helped sink two German U-boats at the start of the fight over SC 107, but the convoy soon moved out of their range.

(U.S. Air Force)

The German radio traffic tipped off the convoy that it was about to come under attack, and its escort deployed to protect it. Luckily, this first contact came within range of the Western Local Escort, ships assigned to protect convoys near the Canadian and American coasts as the convoys were still forming and starting east.

So the thin escort was buttressed by the British destroyer HMS Walker and Canadian destroyer HMS Columbia. This made for three destroyers and a few smaller escorts. They worked together with land-based planes and bombers to smack the submarines down, hard. Two German U-boats were sunk, and another sub attack was interrupted. On October 31, two submarines were driven off.

But, by November 1, the Western Local ships were at the edge of their range and had to turn back. The convoy was, so far, unharmed. But it was 42 ships protected by only five ships, only one of which was a destroyer. And 13 German boats were out for blood.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

German submarines were equipped with deck guns that allowed them to slaughter undefended convoys, but they used their massive torpedoes to kill convoys when surface combatants were in the water.

(Imperial War Museums)

The escorts spent the first hours performing desperate passes around the convoy to keep the U-boats at bay, but after midnight the subs made their move. They attacked the escort ships. One U-boat made it past the escorts and hit a ship with a torpedo. First blood opened the floodgates. After the first ship was finished off, another seven were hit and destroyed by simultaneous attacks from multiple U-boats.

Four submarines succeeded in sinking enemy ships that first night, and three others had taken shots. The next day, November 2, a new escort corvette joined the convoy, but it couldn’t stop the sinking of a ninth convoy ship. Another destroyer was added to the bleeding convoy.

On November 3, 10 submarines made attempted attacks, resulting in the sinking of one tanker. As night fell, the subs hit four more ships and sank them, including the “commodore ship,” where the top merchant mariner of the fleet sailed and commanded.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

The USS Schenck was one of the destroyers sent to protect SC 107 from further attacks on November 4.

(U.S. Navy)

One of the ships hit was a large ammo ship filled with munitions. Approximately 30 minutes after it was attacked, the fires resulted in a massive explosion that shook the waters, damaged nearby ships, and likely sank the German boat U-132.

Now near Iceland, ships laden with rescued survivors broke north for Iceland to disembark those still alive while the rest of the convoy continued east. The U.S. Navy dispatched two destroyers to guard the convoy, but SC 107 would lose one more ship in the closing hours of November 4.

The next day, November 5, the convoy reached the range of anti-submarine planes and those, combined with the increased naval escort, finally drove off the German vessels. But 15 ships were already sunk and more damaged. Even counting the probable loss of U-132, Germany sacrificed three submarines in this pursuit.

The tables were, slowly, shifting in the Atlantic, though. The technological and industrial might of the U.S. was allowing more and more vessels to hit the waters with radar and sonar that would find the U-boats wherever they hid. Six months after SC 107, the naval clashes of Black May would signal the fall of the wolfpacks.

Articles

Britain’s ‘unkillable’ soldier gave zero Fs about pain or death

There are officers who seem to be made of glass, staying firmly behind the barriers and barbed wire that keep them protected from the enemy guns.


And then there are those guys who are basically the Black Knight from Monty Python, declaring every injury a flesh wound and jumping back into the fray like an amputated hand ain’t no thang.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
British Army Lt. Gen. Adrian Carton de Wiart. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

That’s why Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart is a British legend; he literally lost a hand, an eye, and part of an ear while serving in three wars, including two World Wars.

Carton de Wiart was born to Belgian nobility in 1880 and sent to prestigious schools. But in 1899, the British found themselves in the second Boer War and Carton de Wiart jumped at the chance to experience combat. But the British only wanted British subjects aged 25 or older or who had their father’s consent.

So, Carton de Wiart employed a clever tactic called “lying” and shipped out under a pseudonym. His first war ended when he received enemy rounds to the stomach and groin and a trip back to England to recover.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
The Boer War was old, nitty-gritty-style fighting. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

But flesh wounds couldn’t keep the Black Knight out of the fight for long, and he volunteered for duty in 1914 during World War I, this time under his actual name as a naturalized citizen.

Similar to in the Boer War, Carton de Wiart found the enemy guns quickly and caught a few rounds from them, this time in his arm and face while fighting as a member of the Somaliland Camel Corps.

He accepted a Distinguished Service Order and headed out for a quick convalescence for his missing eye. According to Lord Ismay, Carton de Wiart was probably happy about the whole situation.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?
Then-Lt. Col. Adrian Carton de Wiart led British troops to victory after three other battalion commanders were killed at the Battle of La Boiselle. (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

“I honestly believe that he regarded the loss of an eye as a blessing,” he said, “As it allowed him to get out of Somaliland to Europe where he thought the real action was.”

And Carton de Wiart did get into the action. He was sent to the Western Front in 1915 (that’s the year after the enemy rounds knocked out his left eye and took a part of his ear, for those keeping track). Sporting a black eyepatch over his empty socket in the Second Battle of Ypres, he was probably laughing when the German artillery barrage slammed into his position, severely injuring his left hand.

Doctors refused to amputate the hand, so our Black Knight tore off two of his fingers and went back to work. Doctors finally gave in and took the rest of his hand later. That was 1915.

In 1916, Carton de Wiart took command of a regiment at the Somme. Yeah, he once again returned to the front just a year later after a serious injury that would have ended anyone else’s career.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

At the Battle of the Somme, then-Lt. Col. Carton de Wiart saw three other battalion commanders die in the back-and-forth fighting at La Boiselle. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.

During World War II, the hero of one war and a distinguished veteran of another took an assignment in Yugoslavia. When — at the age of 60 — his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean, he went ahead and swam his way to shore and was captured by the Italians.

Fun fact: that was Carton de Wiart’s second plane crash. He survived another crash in Lithuania between the wars.

Of course, even capture by the Italians wasn’t enough to stop him, and he attempted multiple escapes. At one point, he managed to evade capture for eight days.

He survived the war and continued to serve the British until he retired in 1947 as a lieutenant general.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why a Civil War soldier would drop a gun to pick up his unit’s flag

If during the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, you watched the superb 1993 movie that starred Martin Sheen, Sam Elliot, Jeff Daniels, and Tom Berenger, you probably noticed something that may not have made a lot of sense at a couple of points in the movie.


Perhaps the best-known instance is at the 3:55:09 mark of the Extended Edition of “Gettysburg” (available at Amazon.com) where an artillery round takes out a group of Confederate troops, including the soldier holding the flag.

The troops re-organize to fill the gap, but one of the troops picks up the flag and drops his rifle. That’s right – that soldier has taken his gun out of the fight!

Screenshot from Gettysburg trailer

Sounds completely crazy, right? What the heck is going through someone’s mind that they would take their gun out of the fight in the middle of the Civil War’s bloodiest battle? I can just hear Gunny Hartman shouting, “What is your major malfunction?”

Well, in 1863, war was much different. There were no radios. Messages were delivered by junior aides – essentially acting as runners with messages back and forth. Blue Force Tracker was 140 years into the future. But there was still the need to tell whose units were friendly, which were okay to shoot at, and where the heck all of them were.

The answer back then was to have each regiment have a specialized flag – or “colors.” So, now everyone – from the commanding general to the lowest private knows which unit was where. This was important, as the Minnesota Historical Society noted, since it meant troops could rally behind them for a charge, or to fall back.

That meant whoever held the colors had to have a lot of guts. He was out in the open, and he was a target. During some fighting on the first day of Gettysburg, one Confederate regiment had 10 different color bearers in 10 minutes, and lost 14 color bearers that day. The Union regiment opposite them lost at least three of their own.

The colors had such importance that many a Medal of Honor citation involved either capturing an enemy unit’s colors, or saving the colors of a soldier’s own unit. Given that importance, it is not surprising then, that in 1863, a soldier’s logical response when a color bearer was hit would be to drop his gun and pick up the colors.

MIGHTY HISTORY

An ancient king whipped the ocean to protect his troops – and it worked

There’s an old military adage that goes “if it’s stupid and it works, then it isn’t stupid.” This idea clearly dates all the way back to the Classical Era, because the stupidest thing ever done to protect a fighting force was perpetrated in 480 BC. By a King.


Say what you want about Persian King Xerxes I, he knew how to fight a battle. That is to say, he always brought enough men and material to get the job done. Yes, this is the same Xerxes seen in the movie 300, but before the Persian Army could get to Thermopylae, they had to cross the Hellespont, what we call the Dardanelles today. It did not go exactly as planned.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Like a lot of things the Persian Army tried.

Xerxes was coming right off of victories over uprisings against Persian rule in Egypt and Babylon and had acquired a massive army, as-then-unheard-of in ancient times. Some 300,000 troops were ready to pour into Greece to avenge the ass-kicking the Greeks perpetrated on Xerxes’ father, Darius. Xerxes was not one to overthink things. The simplest way to get a massive army from one land mass to another was to simply build a bridge and roads to it. Xerxes even had the bridges built in advance so his army wouldn’t have to wait to get to Greece.

This did not go exactly as the Persian Army planned. Before he and his troops could arrive, the seas swelled up and swallowed the bridges, completely destroying them. When the King arrived, it was just debris. Infuriated with the seas, Xerxes marched out to the sea and whipped it with a chain 300 times as his soldiers watched and shouted curses at the water.

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

He also beheaded the engineers who built the bridge, which may have been a contributing factor to his eventual success.

The bridges were then rebuilt to the exact specifications required to hold 300,000 Persian troops bent on destruction, along with their pack animals, cavalry, and whatever else they could carry. This time, the bridges held and the Persians marched out to meet the Greeks – who would kick the Persian Army right back out of Europe by the following spring.

When the Persians arrived at the bridges in full retreat, they had been destroyed again.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information