There’s a lot of uncertainty to life in the 21st century.
But on one point, we can say we have a definite answer.
It was in the tiny village of Gonzales, Tejas, a territory of the newly sovereign Empire of Mexico, that scholars can definitively pinpoint the historical birth of the notion that, though there are many things you might be tempted to mess with, you don’t, if you know what’s good for you, mess with Texas.
Ironically, Texans apply this sentiment liberally. Photo via Flickr, brionv, CC BY-SA 2.0
In Gonzales, on Oct. 2, 1835, a village militia vigorously resisted disarmament at the hands to Mexico’s newly self-declared dictator, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, who, for obvious reasons, usually went by Santa Anna.
Santa Anna was the prime mover of 19th century Mexico’s socio-political agenda — the man who would shape its fate as a nation independent of Spain.
Gonzales was just one tiny frontier town in the vast sweep of Mexico’s northern territories, populated largely by settlers from the United States. And the skirmish that occurred there, hardly deserving of even that wimpy designation, was really more of a loud, multi-day argument over possession of Gonzales’ single, miniscule 6-pound cannon in which the Texians were the aggressors and the Mexican army tried quite hard to avoid an actual battle.
Casualties on both sides of the skirmish amounted to two Mexican soldiers killed and one Texian with a bloodied nose.
Doesn’t sound like much of anything, does it?
Indeed, the incident at Gonzales was just one small fracas in a centuries-long stretch of conquest and political rebellion in Mexico. Nevertheless, the battle, such as it was, marked the beginning of the Texas Revolution, which would lead to the establishment of the Republic of Texas and the Mexican Cession of all of its North American land holdings to the United States.
Viewed from our 21st Century vantage, it’s easy to see larger geopolitical forces at work here. The Gonzales brouhaha exemplifies a trend that was sweeping the globe at the time, namely the collapse of monarchy as an acceptable form of government and the concurrent rise of democracy in all of its multivariate shapes, forms and means.
Rebellion at that time was so commonplace as to be unremarkable — witness the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Mexico’s own war for independence from Spain in 1821 and the hundreds of micro uprisings that initiated it. All over the world, kings were getting the boot if they were lucky and the ax if they weren’t.
Santa Anna himself had played an instrumental role in winning Mexico’s Independence and protected the democratic government that replaced it from power grabs by several of its generals in the years that followed. Yet even he was unable to resist the temptation of centralized rule. In 1835, just prior to the Battle of Gonzales, Santa Anna overthrew the Mexican constitution and named himself dictator, putting himself firmly on the wrong side of history.
And when he tried to take one, lone gun away from some Texians in Gonzales, he put himself on the wrong side of the eventual founders of the Lone Star Republic. The flag they raised during the Battle of Gonzales had one star, one cannon and coined a simple message that modern Texans still live by to this day: “Come and Take It.”
It’s an idea as old as nuclear weapons themselves: If you could slip a nuke into a city and detonate it, the enemy would never know it was coming. No missiles detected, no early warning radar, just one day: BOOM. In Cold War lore, these man-portable devices were usually envisioned as suitcase bombs. But the U.S. Army doesn’t do suitcases.
They used to though. They used to do suitcases really well.
No, the Army’s man-portable nuclear weapon was, of course, a duffel bag of sorts – and it was designed to be carried by a paratrooper, Green Light Team, or Atomic Demolition Munitions Specialists in case of World War III. NATO knew if the Soviets invaded with a traditional, conventional force, it would take time to mount any kind of meaningful resistance or counterattack. So in the 1960s, the Army came up with the brilliant idea to pack nukes on the backs of individual troops and drop them into strategic places to deny their use to the enemy.
One single paratrooper could cut off communications, destroy crops, and demolish key infrastructure in both the Soviet Union and in recently-captured, Soviet-held territory. There’s just one problem with this plan that the Army didn’t really see as much of a problem, apparently.
Humans can run faster than nuclear blasts?
Humans can’t run faster than nuclear blasts. In theory, the idea would be that the troop in question would either set a timer and secure the location before hoofing it out of there, with plenty of time to spare. But let’s be real: is the U.S. Army going to leave that much to chance? What if the enemy found it, disarmed it, secured it and then was able to reproduce it or use that weapon against NATO forces? They wouldn’t because Big Army isn’t that dumb.
Even if it were possible to outrun the timer on the bomb and/or the bomb yield was small enough for the munitions crew to escape, there’s no way the team would be recoverable due to the fallout or the alarm raised by such a weapon – or more likely because the use of a nuclear weapon triggered a full nuclear exchange.
During this period of mutual terror, NATO held regular war games. One annual event was Able Archer, a command post exercise in Western Europe that tested the ability of NATO to respond to a nuclear attack. In 1983, a particularly realistic iteration of the event nearly triggered an actual nuclear war.
Modern intelligence reviews of the exercise, the Soviet response, and information gleaned from spies indicates that the Soviets truly thought that Able Archer 83 was an attack.
A British spy in the KGB, Col. Oleg Gordievsky, said that about a week into the exercise, the KGB sent out a cable alerting KGB officers that the American military had just elevated their alert level and that the countdown to war may have already started.
Gordievsky alerted London to the risk the West was running in the exercise and London lobbied America to take steps to prevent a disaster.
Luckily, nothing in Able Archer 83 pushed Soviet fears over the edge and Russia never launched a preemptive strike. Reagan, who later met Gordievsky in the Oval Office after the spy defected to England, wrote that he thought someone should tell the Soviets directly that America had no intention of launching a first strike.
In November 1978, 909 members of a fanatical cult died — killing themselves and their children using a cyanide and Valium-laced grape drink — to make a political statement: they would die on their own terms in a “revolutionary suicide.” It would be the largest single loss of civilian life until the September 11th terror attacks.
The People’s Temple, as the cult was called, was founded by Jim Jones, a former monkey salesman and self-ordained minister in 1950s Indianapolis. He later moved the church to California. There, the size of the cult grew to around 20,000.
With that growth, Jones became a public figure and fled to the South American country of Guyana to escape the negative press surrounding the People’s Temple. Jones faced accusations of financial fraud and child abuse and sought to escape what he thought was the persecution from U.S. intelligence agencies.
More than 1,000 members went with him.
Jones and his cult founded Jonestown, an agricultural cooperative on 4,000 acres of poor soil and limited access to fresh water. Temple members worked long days and were punished for disobeying Jones’ orders. They were allowed limited contact with friends and family. Jones even confiscated their passports.
Toward the end of the Jonestown experiment, Jones became inceasingly paranoid as his mental state broke down. Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown to investigate allegations that his contituents’ loved ones were actually hostages there. People’s Temple members asked to return home with the Congressman, who took them back to his plane.
That’s when tragedy struck.
After arriving at the airstrip that took Congressman Ryan to the People’s Temple collective, Jones’ armed thugs gunned down the contingent, along with members of the press and some of the defectors. At the same time, Jones was distributing the poisoned punch (which was actually Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid, as the saying goes) to the cult members.
An aerial view of the bodies of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. U.S. Army personnel from Fort Bragg, North Carolina (NC), are placing the remains into body bags. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Nov. 20, 1978.)
There is evidence that those who didn’t want to imbibe were forced to drink the punch. Jones himself was found dead with a bullet in his head, among the other 900+ bodies.
Within hours of learning about Congressman Ryan’s death, the U.S. State Department received assistance from the 437th Military Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina. Charleston C-141 Starlifters led what would be “the most unusual airlift operation since the Berlin Airlift.”
Col. Bruce M. Durvine, vice commander of the 39th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Wing, and members of the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron carry boxes of plastic body bags to an HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter for use in the evacuation of bodies from Jonestown. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Jonestown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Air Force Combat Controllers were the first American forces on the ground, securing the airstrip area, providing security, and operating the airspace. The Starlifters had to be staged more than 150 miles away from the dirt airstrip where Ryan’s body was found because they were too large for the field.
The military Aeromedical Evacuation Team repatriated eight wounded survivors from the area. It wasn’t until November 20th that Guyanan Defense Forces could reach the Jonestown Compound. The small contingent was overwhelmed by what they found there and asked the Americans to take over.
A U.S. Air Force HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter from the 55th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron stands by to assist in the removal of the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Jonestown victims’ bodies were to be airlifted to Dover Air Force Base, but first they had to be moved by three HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters to the Starlifter staging area. There were so many bodies, the Air Force ran out of remains transfer cases.
U.S. Army UH-1 Iroquois helicopters are loaded aboard a C-141 Starlifter aircraft for transport back to their home base in the Canal Zone. The helicopters were used during humanitarian relief efforts following the Jonestown tragedy. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Jose L. Sanchez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
“Stacked like cordwood,” the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition. It took 30 helicopter sorties carrying 30 bodies each to get the remains to the Starlifters for transport. Each C-141 could handle 81 remains cases — as long as they were stacked on pallets.
The stench of death in the helicopters was so bad, they were deemed medically unsafe. Task Force personnel who handled the bodies burned their clothing on the runway at the end of the mission.
U.S. military personnel place a body bag containing the remains of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy in a coffin for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. (Photo by: Staff Sgt. Pedro J. Gonzalez, Georgetown, Nov. 20, 1978.)
Jeff Brailey, the Army medic who entered Jonestown, wrote a book about his experience, “The Ghosts of November.”
There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a movie where the good guy says some really dope stuff right before he takes out the bad guy – but that doesn’t happen in real life, does it? It DOES. Throughout the history of warfare, those who have chosen warfighting as their profession have kept cool enough under fire to reply, retort, and rebuff their enemies with a weapon as lethal as firearms and blades – a silver tongue.
Daniel K. Inouye
“Nobody called off the war!”
Inouye had just pulled off some epic, Medal of Honor-winning fighting, which included being gutshot, taking a frag grenade blast, and being shot in the leg and arm. He told his men to hold back while he went off and cleared the area. He was successful in breaking the confidence of the enemy. He said this as he was moving to get back to the aid station when reinforcements began to arrive in order to keep the men on target. He would lose that arm.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington,
“I have seen their backs before, Madam.”
This incredibly awesome line wasn’t technically made in wartime. It was made by a wartime Field Marshal, however, by the name of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. While at an event in Vienna, he was asked about how he felt about French Generals turning their backs on him at a conference in Vienna. This was his reply when asked about the event.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
“Men, I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.”
The founding father of modern-day Turkey was actually a wordsmith of the highest caliber. He rose to power and reformed the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I, but he rose to prominence defending Turkish lands during the battle for Gallipoli. This was his order to the 57th Infantry Regiment defending Gallipoli.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“No damn man kills me and lives to tell about it!”
What makes this quote so epically cool is that Forrest was shot and wounded by a fellow officer, a subordinate of his. Even though Forrest would survive the wound, he said this before taking his turn to shoot back. Forrest survived. The officer did not.
United Flight 93 passenger probably never predicted such an offhand remark might one day become synonymous with that day and the American resolve to defeat terrorism. This is what he told his fellow passengers right before they all fought to recapture their airplane and try to avoid crashing into something important. Instead, they opted to down it in a rural field.
General George S. Patton.
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no one because I am the most evil man in the valley.”
Yeah, Patton had a lot of cool things to say in combat. But nothing tops this one-liner. Patton was a religious man, growing up in California, he was a regular at his local church, which helps the street cred for this sentence. What also helps is that Patton didn’t care if the enemy thought he was evil or not – he was coming, and he knew the enemy was afraid.
“If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
The Great Khan was ruthless in his efficiency, brave in his execution, and fearsome until the very end. Khan accumulated an empire that would be the largest on Earth until the British Empire reached its apogee. Until then Khan controlled 17 percent of the Earth surface, killing so many people, it led to global cooling.
Sgt. Maj. Daniel Daly
“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?!”
Of course, leave it to a United States Marine to top this list of dope sh*t said in the face of certain death. There are few Marines as storied as Sgt. Major Daniel Daly one of a very short list of people to earn the Medal of Honor. Twice. Daly said this at the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood, where Marines earned their nickname “Devil Dogs.”
There are many outstanding sailors who could lay claim to the title of the U.S. Navy’s saltiest, but since the term is synonymous with “experienced,” there’s one who stands above all others: Nathan E. Cook.
Many people haven’t heard of Nathan Cook. He wasn’t a Medal of Honor recipient and he didn’t save hundreds of lives in a single day, but what distinguished Cook from other American sailors is his 44 years of service to the Navy, through some of its most disruptive changes – and his long life.
Cook was born during Grover Cleveland’s presidency in 1885 and two years before he died, he received a letter from President George H.W. Bush congratulating him on his 104th birthday. When he was 15 years old, he was working in a Kansas City meat packing plant when he came upon a poster that read “Join the Navy and See the World.”
So he did. In 1901, he lied about his age and enlisted, soon finding himself aboard the screw steamer USS Pensacola, a Civil War-era training ship in California, where he learned to sail, operate the coal steamer, and most importantly, swim.
His first real assignment was aboard the USS Adams, another screw steamer, headed to fight the Boxer Rebellion in China. The Boxers surrendered soon after he arrived, so he was soon back at sea, headed for the Philippines. Although Cook was too late to see service in the Spanish-American War, he was just in time for the Philippine Insurrection.
The people of the Philippines had helped the Americans take the island nation during the Spanish-American War, but once the war was over and Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the Filipinos realized the U.S. had no interest in granting them independence, so they decided to fight for it.
After serving in and around the Philippines, he was transferred to the protected cruiser USS Columbia and sailed around the world, his first of four circumnavigations, bound for New York, where he met his first wife in 1905. He soon found himself aboard the USS Kansas, a pre-dreadnought battleship and part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, and making his second trip around the world.
A chief petty officer by then, he befriended two ensigns aboard the Kansas, Chester Nimitz and William Halsey.
Cook later injured himself off the coast of Gibraltar and was kept in the sickbay until he returned to New York. He learned his appendix had burst while underway but it had dried up and he had no complications.
Cook sailed into Veracruz with the Atlantic fleet aboard Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher’s flagship, the dreadnought battleship, USS Florida.
By the time the United States entered World War I, Cook had been temporarily commissioned as a lieutenant. He was placed in command of a submarine chaser that sunk two U-boats and was later in command of a seagoing tug, the USS Favorite, in Brest, France. While on a rescue mission, towing a ship back to France, the Favorite was attacked by another U-boat.
As they towed the damaged ship, two torpedoes were headed in the Favorite’s direction. Cook ordered a hard right rudder and they missed entirely. Cook returned fire with the tug’s 3-inch gun and sank the attacker. He was soon sailing the tug back to New York, where he returned to his permanent rank of boatswain.
When World War II began, Cook was in the Caribbean operating out of Haiti and Panama. It was in Panama that he experienced his proudest moments of his naval career.
“I was the acting commanding officer,” he said. “The Canal insisted that every ship have a pilot aboard to take all the ships through the canal. Everyone else took a pilot except me. I was the only one to take command whenever I got orders to go through the canal. I was the only Naval officer allowed that duty, that’s a fact!”
Later, he was transferred to the USS Falcon, a minesweeper that was converted into a submarine rescue ship. He retired in 1942, but the Navy promoted him to the permanent rank of lieutenant in recognition of his World War I service.
Although he was not a Spanish-American War veteran, he was a member of the United Spanish War Veterans, which was open to members who served during that era, even if they didn’t serve in the war itself.
Nathan Cook would live another 50 years after retiring from the Navy at age 56, dying in 1992 of what the Department of Veterans Affairs says was just old age. His secret to longevity was keeping fit and avoiding the vices of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
History is full of urban legends… The fog of war doesn’t fade when history’s most notorious monster and a gallant British soldier are on both ends of the story.
When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, he found the German dictator owned a reproduction of a painting by Italian artist Fortunino Matania. The painting depicts a British soldier at the Battle of Menin Crossroads in WWI carrying another to safety.
Chamberlain asked Hitler – a clearly firm German nationalist – why he would choose to have a painting depicting Germany’s WWI enemies in the Berghof, his mountain retreat. Hitler replied that the painting featured a soldier who spared his life in combat.
“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” Hitler is alleged to have said. “Providence saved me from such devilish accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”
That British soldier is believed to be Henry Tandey, a Victoria Cross recipient who remembers sparing a German soldier’s life at Marcoing. At just 27 years old, Tandey led a bayonet charge at Marcoing. He and his nine fellow Tommies took out a German machine gun nest and took 37 prisoners before sending the rest of the Germans in retreat.
Tandey fought in the First Battle Ypres in 1914 and the Somme in 1916, where he was wounded. He was out of the hospital in time for the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, and in 1918, was at the capture of Marcoing, where he recalls sparing a German soldier’s life.
“I took aim but couldn’t shoot a wounded man,” Tandey remembered, “so I let him go.” Tandey said the German soldier nodded in thanks, and disappeared.
The accuracy of the story is disputed by historians. Though Hitler’s special interest in the painting is odd, he is known to have owned it as early as 1937, acquired from Tandey’s old regiment.
Historians argue that the faces of both men would likely have been unrecognizable, covered in mud and blood (and who-knows-what-else). They also argue that Hitler, even though he was a message runner, would have been up to 50 miles north of where Tandey was that day. Either that, or the future dictator was on leave.
Later, during WWII, a Coventry-based journalist approached the British WWI vet and asked him about the alleged encounter. As Tandey stood in front of his home, which had just been bombed by the Luftwaffe, Tandey said:
“If only I had known what he would turn out to be… When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.”
The loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589) was the last peacetime loss of a Navy vessel until the Avenger-class mine countermeasures vessel USS Guardian ran aground off the Philippines. Unlike the case of the Guardian, 99 sailors lost their lives when USS Scorpion sank after an explosion of undetermined origin.
For the time, America’s Skipjack-class submarines were very fast. According to the “13th Edition of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet,” these 3,075-ton submarines had a top speed of over 30 knots. Armed with six 21-inch torpedo tubes capable of firing anything from World War II-vintage Mk 14 torpedoes to the early versions of the multi-role Mk 48, this sub was as lethal as they come.
The USS Scorpion was the second of the six vessels to be completed and was commissioned in 1960. According to GlobalSecurity.org, she carried out a number of patrols between then and 1967 before being slated for an overhaul. However, this overhaul was cut short by operational needs. The Scorpion was sent out on Feb. 15, 1968, for what would become her last patrol.
After operating in the Mediterranean Sea, she began her return voyage, diverting briefly to monitor a Soviet naval force. The last anyone heard from the sub was on May 21, 1968. Six days later the Scorpion failed to arrive at Norfolk, where families of the crew were waiting.
The Navy would declare her to be “overdue and presumed lost,” the first time such an announcement had been made since World War II. The sub would not be found until October of that year.
The Navy would look into the disaster, but the official court of inquiry said the cause of the loss could not be determined with certainty. But there are several theories on what might have happened.
One centered around a malfunction of a torpedo. But others suspect poor maintenance may have been the culprit, citing the rushed overhaul.
Check out this video about what it was like to be on the Scorpion.
“Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming, Can’t you see their spearpoints gleaming? See their warriors’ pennants streaming, To this battlefield. Men of Cornwall stand ye steady, It cannot be ever said ye For the battle were not ready. Stand and never yield!”
As employees of Morgan Stanley evacuated the South Tower on 9/11, they heard a familiar voice singing to them. Rick Rescorla, their Vice President of Security, was calmly and efficiently guiding them out of the offices and down a stairwell. Moments earlier, a plane had struck the North Tower, and a PA announcement had told workers in the South Tower to remain at their desks.
Rescorla would have none of that.
Grabbing his bullhorn and walkie-talkie, he immediately ushered the employees out. As the employees were going down the stairwell, the building lurched suddenly. The second plane had hit above them, and the building violently shook. As the evacuation started to turn to panic, the voice of Rescorla called out. Remain calm, help each other, be proud of being Americans, we will get through this. Then the singing. The employees took strength in his calm demeanor and followed and helped each other down the tower. By the end of it, almost 2,700 employees made it safely out of the building. Of all of Morgan Stanley’s employees, only six didn’t make it.
Rescorla was one of them.
He was last seen on the 10th floor and like many heroes who perished on that day of days, was headed up the stairs, into the fire to find more people to save. His body was never found.
As Morgan Stanley employees shared their stories about Rick and how calming he was, quite a few talked about the singing. How it was surreal yet calming as if telling them everything would be ok.
As the stories spread, a few men heard about that and were quite familiar with Rick singing. He had sung to them when they were in a life or death situation and it had calmed them down too. It was years earlier on the edge of a mountain in the Ia Drang valley in Vietnam.
Rick Rescorla was born in Cornwall in the United Kingdom in 1939. When he was 16, he signed up to join the British military and ended up fighting against insurgents in Cyprus in the late 1950s. From there, he ended up in Rhodesia (present-day Zambia) as part of the North Rhodesian Police. He met an American named Daniel Hill, who would later become a lifelong friend. Rescorla, by this time, was very much an anti-communist, and Hill had told him that the United States was sending troops to a place called Vietnam to prevent the spread of communism there.
As soon as his contract was up, Rescorla worked to make his way to the U.S. He lived in a hostel and waited for the first chance to enlist in the United States Army. He ended up being selected to Officer Candidate School and, after further training, ended up on the 7th Calvary. The unit had once been led by George Custer into the last stand at Little Bighorn. Rescorla would be under the command of Hal Moore, and would find himself headed into a last stand of his own.
Most of us have seen the movie, We Were Soldiers or read the amazing book the movie was based on.
Rick Rescorla was a platoon leader and was one of many American soldiers who showed their bravery and tenacity on that battlefield. The battle was the first major engagement of the war and Rescorla saw first-hand how bloody it would be.
“There were American and NVA bodies everywhere. My area was where Lt. Geoghegan’s platoon had been. There were several dead NVA around his platoon command post. One dead trooper was locked in contact with a dead NVA, hands around the enemy’s throat. There were two troopers – one black, one Hispanic – linked tight together. It looked like they had died trying to help each other.”
Through the thick of battle, Rescorla was seen moving from position to position, encouraging his men and singing Cornish and Welsh hymns to them. It put them at ease and got them settled down to see their leader keeping his cool. At the end of the battle, Rescorla famously found an old French bugle on the body of a dead North Vietnamese soldier. It was a trophy from the previous war fought in Vietnam between the Vietnamese and French colonialists. A photo of Rescorla moving around the battlefield became one of the enduring images of the Vietnam war.
After the military, Rescorla went into academics for a while, before deciding to get into the world of private security. He ended up becoming the head of security of Dean Whitter, which later would merge into Morgan Stanley. Working out of the World Trade Center, he once brought in his old friend from Rhodesia, now also a security consultant, to give a security analysis of the complex. They both headed down to the underground garage and found an exposed load-bearing beam that might crumble with a powerful enough explosion. They wrote up a report saying the load-bearing beam was too accessible and should be protected. The report was made in 1990. It was ignored. Three years, later Muslim extremists drove a rental truck laden with explosives into the basement of the World Trade Center and targeted that column. Luckily it held, but Rescorla knew they would try again someday….
He implemented major changes at Dean Whitter and later Morgan Stanley to ensure that employees would know what to do in case of a major emergency. He drilled them constantly on evacuation drills and made sure everyone knew where to go if the worst happened. As usually happens, as the years since the bombings passed, people got complacent. Management would throw fits during drills as they view them as unnecessary and a distraction. Rescorla didn’t care. He was certain another attempt would be made and even asked Morgan Stanley to move to a location in New Jersey. He even ventured the next attack would be via a cargo plane laden with explosives.
He was almost right.
On the fateful day as Morgan Stanley employees filed out of the building, they saw a familiar face. With his bullhorn, Rescorla projected calmness as he directed them down the stairwells. As they walked down two by two and maintaining space so they wouldn’t bunch up as they had drilled constantly, they heard the singing.
As he was with his troops in Vietnam, Rick Rescorla was the cool, calm and collected leader in the maelstrom of hell on the fateful September day.
For his bravery, this past year, Rescorla was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizenship Medal by President Donald Trump in a ceremony at the White House.
Time and again, the oft-repeated military adage is proven right: if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid. This old saying might be the military’s version of necessity being the mother of invention. Except in the military, necessity could mean the difference between life and death. This was certainly true of U.S. doughboys on the battlefields of World War I, where a single battle could cost up to 10,000 American lives or more.
Americans were used to overcoming long odds in combat. Our country was founded on long odds. But in the Great War, U.S. troops had to contend with a weapon from which they couldn’t recover: poison gas.
Many different gas masks were used on the Western Front, but one was more improvised than others.
Throughout American involvement in the First World War, poison gas attacks killed and maimed some 2,000 American troops and countless more allies who had been fighting for years before the doughboys arrived. As a result, all the Allied and Central Powers developed anti-gas countermeasures to try and give their troops a fighting chance in a chemical environment. But gas was introduced as a weapon very early in the fighting, long before the belligerents knew they’d need protection.
But they did need protection. Gas on the battlefield was first administered by releasing the gas from canisters while downwind – a method that could go awry at anytime, causing the wind to shift toward friendly forces. Later on, it would be used in artillery shells that would keep the gas in the enemy’s trench – at least, until the friendly troops advanced to take that trench.
German soldiers ignite chlorine gas canisters during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium on April 22, 1915.
But early gases weren’t as terrifying as chemical weapons developed in the course of the war. The first uses of gas attacks involved tear gas and chlorine gas. While tear gas is irritating, it’s relatively harmless. Even the first uses of tear gas on the Eastern Front saw the chemical freeze rather than deploy when fired. Chlorine gas, on the other hand, could be incredibly fatal but was not effective as an instrument of death. Chlorine gas had a telltale smell and green color. Troops knew instantly that the gas had been deployed.
To safeguard against it, allied troops used rags or towels covered in urine to protect their lungs from the gas. The thought was that the ammonia in urea was somehow neutralizing the chlorine to keep it from killing them. That wasn’t it at all. Chlorine just dissolves in water, so no chlorine would ever pass through the wet pieces of cloth on their face. They could have used coffee, and the trick would have still worked.
Water (or urine) wasn’t effective against what was to come.
Troops burned by mustard gas in the First World War.
More than half a million men were injured or killed by poison gas during World War I. The terrifying, disfiguring effects of gases like colorless phosgene gas that caused lungs to fill with fluid, drowning men in their beds over a period of days. Then there was mustard gas, a blistering agent that could soak into their uniforms, covering their entire bodies with painful, burning blisters.
Small wonder it was banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925.
Third baseman Brooks Robinson played for the Baltimore Orioles between 1955 and 1977. Robinson also served in the military. (Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)
Most baseball fans recognize the name Brooks Robinson. He played for the Baltimore Orioles from 1955 to 1977 and is widely considered to be the best defensive third baseman ever.
Robinson joined the Arkansas Army National Guard in March 1958. He was activated and assigned to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and later to the Army‘s 78th Field Artillery Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas.
He served as an ordnance parts specialist. While on the rifle range for qualification with the M1 Garand rifle in November 1958, Robinson received a commendation for his performance as a squad leader for his unit. It stated, ”He has performed his duties in an excellent and commendable manner. It is recommended he be considered for more rapid promotion than his contemporaries.”
(Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)
Officials with the Arkansas National Guard at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Arkansas, said he was honorably discharged from Company A, 739 Ordnance Battalion, in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Jan. 2, 1962.
In 1966, Robinson, by then a civilian, visited troops in all four Corps Tactical Zones of South Vietnam. Traveling with him on the morale-boosting tour were Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, Joe Torre and Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves, Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins, and sportscaster Mel Allen.
During the tour, Killebrew was heard telling Robinson that the league champion Orioles played the best ball in the American League that year and that the Orioles deserved to win the pennant.
Robinson helped the Orioles advance to the postseason six times, with Baltimore winning four American League pennants (1966, 1969, 1970 and 1971) and two World Series (1966 and 1970) during his career. In 39 career postseason games, Robinson hit .303 with five homers and 22 runs batted in.
The Orioles retired his No. 5 jersey in 1977. He led all American League third basemen 11 times in fielding percentage and eight times in assists. His 2,870 games at third base rank No. 1 on the all-time list.
Frank Robinson, another baseball great, once said that Brooks was the best defensive player at any position. ”I used to stand in the outfield like a fan and watch him make play after play. I used to think, ‘Wow! I can’t believe this,”’ he said.
(Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)
Frank Robinson also played for the Orioles. His time with the team overlapped with that of Brooks Robinson from 1966 to 1971.
More About Brooks Robinson:
As a boy, Robinson operated the scoreboard at Lamar Porter Field in Little Rock. The baseball sequence from the 1984 film ”A Soldier’s Story” was filmed there.
In 1955, Robinson played baseball in South America; he played in Cuba in 1957.
In 2012, a large bronze statue of him was unveiled at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Karuika asks: Who was the first person to figure out what dinosaur bones were?
From around 250 to 66 million years ago various dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Today the only dinosaurs left are birds, which are coelurosauria theropods — funny enough the same sub-group Tyrannosauruses belong to. (Think about that the next time you’re enjoying a McDinosaur sandwich or scrambling up some dinosaur eggs for breakfast.)
Beyond their avian progeny, all that mostly remains of these once dominate creatures are fossilized bones, footprints, and poop. While many dinosaurs were actually quite small, some were comparatively massive, bringing us to the question of the hour — what did people first think when they pulled huge dinosaur bones out of the earth?
To begin with, it is generally thought humans have been discovering dinosaur bones about as long as we’ve been humaning. And it appears that at least some of the giant creatures of ancient legend likely stemmed from the discovery of dinosaur bones and fossils, and the subsequent attempts of ancient peoples to explain what they were.
For example, 4th century BC Chinese historian Chang Qu reported the discovery of massive “dragon bones” in the region of Wuchen. At the time and indeed for many centuries after (including some still today), the Chinese felt that these bones had potent healing powers, resulting in many of them being ground down to be drunk in a special elixirs.
As for the exact medicinal purposes, in the 2nd century AD Shennong Bencaojing, it states,
Dragon bone… mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts; it also treats cough and counterflow of qi, diarrhea and dysentery with pus and blood, vaginal discharge, hardness and binding in the abdomen, and fright epilepsy in children. Dragon teeth mainly treats epilepsy, madness, manic running about, binding qi below the heart, inability to catch one’s breath, and various kinds of spasms. It kills spiritual disrupters. Protracted taking may make the body light, enable one to communicate with the spirit light, and lengthen one’s life span.
While fossilized bones may not actually make such an effective cure-all, all things considered, the classic depictions of dragons and our modern understanding of what certain dinosaurs looked like are actually in the ballpark of accurate.
Moving over to the ancient Greeks, they are also believed to have stumbled across massive dinosaur bones and similarly assumed they came from long-dead giant creatures, in some cases seeming to think they came from giant human-like creatures.
Moving up to that better documented history, in the 16th through 19th centuries, the idea that the Earth was only about six thousand years old was firmly entrenched in the Western world, leading to these fossils creating a major puzzle for the scientists studying them. Even Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition found a dinosaur bone in Billings Montana, but in his case, he decided it must have come from a massive fish, which was a common way they were explained away given that no creatures that then walked the earth seemed to match up.
The various ideas thrown around around during these centuries were described by Robert Plot in his 1677 Natural History of Oxfordshire:
[are] the Stones we find in the Forms of Shell-fish, be Lapides sui generis [fossils], naturally produced by some extraordinary plastic virtue, latent in the Earth or Quarries where they are found? Or, [do] they rather owe their Form and Figuration to the Shells of the Fishes they represent, brought to the places where they are now found by a Deluge, Earth-quake, or some other such means, and there being filled with Mud, Clay, and petrifying Juices, have in tract of time been turned into Stones, as we now find them, still retaining the same Shape in the whole, with the same Lineations, Sutures, Eminencies, Cavities, Orifices, Points, that they had whilst they were Shells?
Plot goes on to explain the idea behind the “plastic virtue” hypothesis was that the fossils were some form of salt crystals that had by some unknown process formed and grown in the ground and just happened to resemble bones.
Triceratops mounted skeleton at Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
However, Plot argues against this then popular notion stating,
Come we next to such [stones] as concern the … Members of the Body: Amongst which, I have one… that has exactly the Figure of the lowermost part of the Thigh-Bone of a Man or at least of some other Animal…a little above the Sinus, where it seems to have been broken off, shewing the marrow within of a shining Spar-like Substance of its true Colour and Figure, in the hollow of the Bone…
After comparing the bone to an elephant’s, he decided it could not have come from one of them. He instead concluded,
It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days
Thus, much like is thought to have happened with certain ancient peoples, he decided some of these bones must have come from giant humans of the past. During Plot’s era, the Bible’s mention of such giants was often put put forth as evidence, such as in Numbers where it states,
The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim… and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.
Though the bone Plot was describing has since been lost to history, he left detailed drawings, from which it’s thought to have come from the lower part of the femur of a Megalosaurus (literally, Great Lizard).
Modern restoration of Megalosaurus.
But before it was called the Megalosaurus, it had a rather more humorous name. You see, in 1763 a physician called Richard Brookes studying Plot’s drawings dubbed it “Scrotum Humanum” because he thought it looked like a set of petrified testicles. (To be clear, Brookes knew it wasn’t a fossil of a giant scrotum, but nevertheless decided to name it thus because apparently men of all eras of human history can’t help but make genital jokes at every opportunity.)
While hilarious, in the 20th century, this posed a problem for the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature when it eventually came time to formally classify the Megalosaurus as such. The problem was, of course, that Brookes had named it first.
Eventually the ICZN decided that since nobody after Brookes had called it Scrotum Humanum, even though he was the first to name it, that name could safely be deemed invalid. Thus Megalosaurus won out, which is unfortunate because discussion of the rather large Scrotum Humanum would have provided great companion jokes to ones about Uranus in science classes the world over.
Moving swiftly on, humanity continued to have little clear idea of what dinosaurs were until William Buckland’s work on the aforementioned Megalosaurus in 1824.
As for the word “dinosaur” itself, this wouldn’t be coined until 1842 when British scientist Sir Richard Owen noted that the few dinosaur fossils that had been scientifically studied at that point all shared several characteristics. For the curious, those species were the Megalosaurus, Hylaeosaurus and Iguanodon. He further concluded that the fossils could not have come from any creature that currently roamed the Earth and thus came up with a new name — dinosaur, meaning “terrible/powerful/wondrous lizards”.
Of course, it should be noted that despite being knighted for his life’s work in 1883, Owen was renowned for stealing other people’s ideas and calling them his own, in at least one case even after having previously ridiculed the person he stole the ideas from — paleontologist Gideon Mantell. In several instances, Owen would attempt to take credit for some of Mantell’s pioneering work on the Iguanodon, while downplaying Mantell’s contributions in the process.
paleontologist Gideon Mantell.
To add insult to injury, it is speculated that the much more distinguished Owen actively worked to stop some of Mantell’s work and papers from getting published.
To further illustrate Owen’s character and rivalry with Mantell, after near financial ruin in 1838, his wife leaving him in 1839, and his daughter dying in 1840, Mantell would become crippled after a fall from a carriage on October 11, 1841. Previous to the accident, he had frequently suffered from leg and back pain, but the source of it was dismissed as likely due to the long hours of work he put in and the like. Things got worse when a coach he was on crashed, shortly before which Mantell leapt from it. In the aftermath, his former pain became extreme and he ceased to be able to use his legs properly. As he writes, “I cannot stoop, or use any exertion without producing loss of sensation and power in the limbs… and could I choose my destiny, I would gladly leave this weary pilgrimage.” He later laments in his journal, “my long probation of suffering will be terminated by a painful and lingering death.”
What does any of that have to do with Owen? To add insult to injury, after Mantell died from an opium overdose taken to help relieve some of his constant and extreme pain, several obituaries were published of Mantell, all glowing — except one…
This one was anonymously written, though analyses of the writing style and general tone left few among the local scientific community with any doubt of who had written it.
In it, Owen starts off praising Mantell, stating, “On Wednesday evening last, at the age of about 63 or 64, died the renowned geologist, Gideon Algernon Mantell…” It goes on to note how Mantell’s memoir on the Iguanodon saw him the recipient of the prestigious Royal Medal. Of course, later in the article, Owen claims Mantell’s work for which he won that medal was actually stolen from others, including himself:
The history of the fossil reptile for the discovery of which Dr. Mantell’s name will be longest recollected in science, is a remarkable instance of this. Few who have become acquainted with the Iguanodon, by the perusal of the Medals of Creation would suspect that to Covier we owe the first recognition of its reptilian character, to Clift the first perception of the resemblance of its teeth to those of the Iguano, to Conybear its name, and to Owen its true affinities among reptiles, and the correction of the error respecting its build and alleged horn…
The article then goes on to outline Dr. Mantell’s supposed various failings as a scientist such as his “reluctance to the revelation of a truth when it dispossessed him of a pretty illustration”, as well as accusing him of once again stealing people’s work:
To touch lightly on other weaknesses of this enthusiastic diffuser of geological knowledge… we must also notice that a consciousness of the intrinsic want of exact scientific, and especially anatomical, knowledge, which compelled him privately to have recourse to those possessing it… produced extreme susceptibility of any doubt expressed of the accuracy or originality of that which he advanced; and in his popular summaries of geological facts, he was too apt to forget the sources of information which he had acknowledge in his original memoirs.
It finally concludes as it started — on a compliment, “Dr. Mantell has, however, done much after his kind for the advancement of geology, and certainly more than any man living to bring it into attractive popular notice.”
It’s commonly stated from here that, out of spite, Owen also had a piece of Mantell’s deformed spine pickled and put on a shelf in the Hunterian Museum in London where Owen was the curator. However, while this was done, the examination and study of his spine was done at the behest of Mantell himself.
British scientist Sir Richard Owen.
Thus, an autopsy was performed and an examination of Mantell’s spine showed he had a rather severe and, at least at the time, peculiar case of scoliosis. As to what was so interesting about this case, one of the physicians involved, Dr. William Adams, states, it was discovered “that the severest degree of deformity of the spine may exist internally, without the usual indications in respect of the deviation of the spinous processes externally.”
In other words, in other such cases, it was clear the spine was not straight from visual observation of the person’s back where a curve could be observed. Mantell’s spine, however, exhibited severe scoliosis, but in such a way that upon external examination methods of the day where the person was lying down or standing up, it otherwise appeared straight.
To Adam’s knowledge, such a thing had never been observed before, but if Mantell had this particular brand of scoliosis, surely many others did as well. But how to detect it. Mulling over the problem inspired Dr. Adams to come up with a method to make such a deformity visible with external examination, thus giving the world the Adam’s forward bend test which many a school student even today has no doubt recollections of being subjected to periodically.
Going back to Owen, as to why he seems to have hated Mantell so much, this isn’t fully clear, though it may have simply been Mantell’s work sometimes resulted in showing Owen’s to be incorrect in various assumptions, jealousy of a scientist he deemed inferior to himself, or it could just be that Owen was a bit of a dick. As noted by famed biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, “[I]t is astonishing with what an intense feeling of hatred Owen is regarded by the majority of his contemporaries, with Mantell as arch-hater. The truth is, [Owen] is the superior of most, and does not conceal that he knows it, and it must be confessed that he does some very ill-natured tricks now and then.”
Of course, if you steal other people’s work long enough, eventually you’ll get caught, especially when you’re one of the world’s leading scientists in your field. Owen’s misstep occurred when he was awarded the prestigious Royal Medal from the Royal Society for his supposedly pioneering discovery and analyses of belemnites, which he called the Belemnites owenii, after himself and gave no credit to anyone else for the ideas in the paper. It turns out, however, four years previous he’d attended a Geological Society get together in which an amateur scientist by the name of Chaning Pearce gave a lecture and published a paper on that very same creature…
While Owen was allowed to keep his medal even after it was revealed he’d stolen the work of Pearce, the rumors that he’d similarly “borrowed” other ideas without credit and this subsequent proof resulted in the loss of much of his former academic prestige. Things didn’t improve over the following years and Owen was eventually given the boot from the Royal Society in 1862 despite his long and rather distinguished career.
While he would never again do any scientific work of significance, his post plagiarist career did prove to be a huge boon for those who enjoy museums. You see, up until this point, museums were not places readily open to the public, and to get access, you usually needed to be an academic. They were places for research, not for random plebeians to gawk at things.
After losing any shred of respect from his peers, he eventually devoted his energies into his role as the superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum. Among other things, as superintendent, he pushed for and helped develop London’s now famed Natural History Museum, London. He also instituted a number of changes such as encouraging the general public to come visit the museum at their leisure, devoted the majority of the displays for public use, had labels and descriptions added below each display explaining what each was of so anybody, not just the educated, could understand what they were looking at, etc. Many among the scientific community fought against these changes, but he did it anyway, giving us the modern idea of a museum in the process.
In any event, after Owen, Mantell’s, and their contemporaries’ work finally revealed these long extinct creatures for what they were, interest in dinosaurs exploded resulting in what has come to be known as the “Bone Wars” between rival paleontologists in the 1890s which got so heated, some paleontologists literally resorted to dynamiting mines to beat their rivals in discoveries.
The most famous such rivals were Othniel Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale and Edward Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
While the pair started out friendly, even choosing to name species after one another, they eventually became bitter enemies, and when they weren’t doing everything in their power to find dinosaur bones as fast as possible, they were writing and giving talks insulting one another’s work, attempting to get each other’s funding canceled, stealing discoveries from one another or, when not possible, trying to destroy the other’s work. In the end, the product of this rivalry was the discovery of a whopping 142 different species of dinosaurs. (For the record, Marsh discovered 86 and Cope 56.)
Before ending, any discussion of this wild west era of dinosaur bone hunting and scholarship would be remiss without noting the unsung hero of it all — Mary Anning, who is credited with finding many of the fossils used by other scientists for “their” discoveries like of the long-extinct Ichthyosaur, Plesiosaurus (in fact finding the first complete Plesiosaurus), and the flying Pterosaur.
Anning was also noted to be popularly consulted by scientists the world over for her expertise in identifying types of dinosaurs from their bones and various insights she had on them, with many world renowned scientists actually choosing to make the journey to her little shop in person where she sold these bones in Dorset England.
Almost completely uneducated formally and having grown up relatively poor, with her father dying when she was 11, Anning’s expertise came from literally a lifetime of practice, as her family lived near the cliffs near Lyme Regis and from a little girl she helped dig out bones and sell them in their shop.
Portrait of Mary Anning.
Without access to a formal scientific education, she eventually took to dissecting many modern animals to learn more about anatomy. She also was an insatiable reader of every scientific paper she could get her hands on related to geology, palaeontology and animals. In many cases, unable to afford to buy copies of the papers, she’d simply borrow them from others and then meticulously copy them herself, with reportedly astoundingly exact replication of technical illustrations.
On that note, Lady Harriet Silvester would describe Anning in 1824,
The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved… It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour—that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.
Despite finding some of the best known specimens of these creatures and risking her life on a daily basis during her hunt for fossils around the dangerous cliffs, Anning got little public credit for her discoveries owing to a number of factors including that she was a woman, from a dissenting religious sect against the Church of England, and otherwise, as noted, had no real formal education. So it was quite easy for scientists to take any ideas she had and the bones she dug up and claim all of it as their own discovery. As Anning herself would lament, “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.”
A companion of hers, Anna Inney, would go on to state, “these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”
That said, given the esteem she was regarded among many scientists, some of them did desire she be given credit for her contributions, such as famed Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz who was one of many to visit Anning’s shop and to pick her brain about various things, ultimately crediting her in his book Studies of Fossil Fish.
Further praising her work a few years later was an article in The Bristol Mirror, stating,
This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: – to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections …
Of the dangers of her work, Anning once wrote to a friend, Charlotte Murchison, in 1833,
Perhaps you will laugh when I say that the death of my old faithful dog has quite upset me, the cliff that fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet … it was but a moment between me and the same fate.
Beyond academic credit, in one lean stretch where Anning’s family was unable to find any new fossils and they had to start selling off all their worldy possessions just to eat and keep a roof over their heads, one of their best customers, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, decided to auction off many of the bones he’d bought from them and instead of keeping the money, gave it to Anning’s family.
Of this, in a letter to the Gideon Mantell, Birch stated the auction was,
for the benefit of the poor woman… who… in truth found almost all the fine things which have been submitted to scientific investigation … I may never again possess what I am about to part with, yet in doing it I shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the money will be well applied.
Beyond the approximately £400 this brought in (about £48,000 today), this also significantly raised the awareness among the scientific community of the family’s contributions to this particular branch of science.
Further, when she lost her life savings apparently after being swindled by a conman in 1835, the aforementioned William Buckland managed to convince the British government and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to give her a pension of £25 per year (about £3,000 today) in recognition of her work’s importance to science.
On top of this, when she was dying of breast cancer in the 1840s and couldn’t continue on in her work as before, the Geological Society provided additional financial support to make sure she was taken care of.
After her death, they also commemorated a stained-glass window in 1850 in her memory with the inscription:
This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some members of the Geological Society of London in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.
The president of the Geological Society, Henry De la Beche, would also write a eulogy for her, which stated in part,
I cannot close this notice of our losses by death without adverting to that of one, who though not placed among even the easier classes of society, but one who had to earn her daily bread by her labour, yet contributed by her talents and untiring researches in no small degree to our knowledge…
This was the first eulogy for a woman the society had ever published, and the first time such a eulogy had been given for a non-fellow.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
In the early days of World War II, battleships were still considered kings and all of the combatants hunted for their enemies’ greatest ships. The battleship Bismarck, the largest battleship in commission at the start of 1941, was the pride of the German Kriegsmarine and an epic combatant. Britain desperately wanted to sink her before she could break into the open Atlantic.
Luckily for Britain, a badly timed, badly encoded radio transmission allowed British warships to find and kill the vessel.
The Bismarck fires during the Battle of the Denmark Straits in May, 1941. It sank the pride of the Royal Navy, the HMS Hood, during the engagement.
(German federal archives)
In May, 1941, the U.S. and Russia had not yet joined the Allies as combatants, and Britain had already been pushed entirely off the continent. Morale was low in Great Britain, and its control of the seas was challenged by German U-boats that preyed upon convoys from the U.S.
One of Britain’s greatest fears was that Germany would starve the island kingdom out, potentially by sending more and larger ships into the Atlantic to prey on shipping. One of the most frightful possibilities was the Bismarck, a massive craft that was, at the time, the largest battleship in active service in the world (Japan’s Yamato-class and America’s Iowa-class would later beat its records).
The Bismarck had 16-inch guns and thick armor, and it could hit most convoys with impunity if it ever broke out of the Baltic and North seas. In May, 1941, it attempted to do just that.
Spoilers are above, but this story originally played out over 70 years ago, so you should’ve seen it already by now.
(Citypeek, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Bismarck left port on May 18 and attempted to slip out undetected. It made it through the North Sea with the Prinz Eugen as well as a number of smaller vessels. But when the flotilla passed between Denmark and Sweden into the North Sea, Norwegian resistance members and Swedish forces got a good look at the ships, and someone passed the report to Britain.
It’s unsure how much detail Britain received (Norwegian resistance members only identified “two unidentified major ships”), but British naval officers immediately suspected that the Bismarck was breaking out.
On May 21, the ships were spotted, and the British gave chase. The full story is great, from British cruisers tailing the massive vessel to attackers hiding in fog banks to when the Bismarck sank Britain’s pride and joy, the HMS Hood, with a single hit from the Bismarck’s main guns. The YouTube channel Extra History has a great series on the hunt, available here for all who want to watch it.
But we’re going to skip ahead to the final days of the chase.
By dawn on May 25, the Hood was sunk, the Prinz Eugen had escaped into the Atlantic, and the Bismarck had evaded the British cruisers in pursuit. But the Bismarck had been wounded and was now leaking oil across the ocean, limiting its range and speed.
The British, more desperate than ever to prevent the Bismarck from joining the war in the Atlantic as well to avenge the loss of the Hood, had called every available ship into the hunt.
But the days of naval maneuvering had left the Bismarck hundreds of miles out to sea, and the British didn’t know if the ship would head to Norway or France for repairs. Britain didn’t have enough ships to search both routes.
Hunting the Bismarck – A Chance to Strike – Extra History – #3
The British commander sent most of the fleet north to search the route to Norway, leaving one battleship and a few other vessels within range of the route to France.
This problem was compounded when the Bismarck made a monumental mistake, sending two 30-minute radio transmissions, but some of the British intercept officers made a mistake and pinpointed the transmission as coming from the route to Norway, when the transmission actually came from the route to France. It would take them hours to catch the mistake.
At this moment, the Bismarck’s path into France was relatively clear. The German vessel had the lead, and the British fleet was headed the wrong way. But the rumors of the Bismarck’s fighting had made it to the continent, and a concerned father made one of the worst mistakes of the war.
The general had a son on the Bismarck, and he asked after his son’s status. The request was transmitted to the Bismarck, and the Bismarck responded. Then, that response was relayed back to the general. It said the Bismarck had suffered no casualties and was now headed to Brest, a port city in France.
When the message was relayed, though, it was done on a Luftwaffe enigma machine with only four wheels instead of the more secure, five-wheel model used by the Admiralty. The British quickly decoded the message, and the entire British fleet turned back south to intercept the Bismarck before it could reach Brest.
On May 26, the HMS Ark Royal, an aircraft carrier, was chasing down the Bismarck as night came on. It was mere hours till darkness would halt any more attacks. By morning, the Bismarck would be under the protection of Luftwaffe planes taking off from France.
It was now or never, and the Swordfish planes flying from the Ark Royal had just enough time for two attacks. But the first attack was a ridiculous catastrophe. The British planes made a mistake, attacking the British ship chasing the Bismarck instead of the Bismarck itself. Luckily, they were equipped with magnetic detonators that set off the torpedoes as they hit the water.
The Swordfish returned to the Ark Royale to re-arm, and then headed back out for Britain’s last chance at the Bismarck before it was safely in France.
The HMS Ark Royal sails with its swordfish overhead.
The planes chased down their quarry, and the Swordfish flew into the teeth of the Bismarck’s guns. The rounds shredded the canvas wings of the planes, but the planes managed to drop a spread of torpedoes anyway.
There were two hits. One struck the Bismarck’s armor belt and did little damage, the other struck low in the water but did no visible damage. The Swordfish pilots turned home in dismay.
But when they landed, they learned glorious news. The Bismarck had been in a hard turn to port when the second torpedo struck, and the strike had knocked out rudder control. Since the Bismarck had been in a hard turn at the time, it was now stuck turning in tight circles in the Atlantic, out of range of Luftwaffe protection.
The HMS Dorestshire rescues survivors of the Bismarck. Only about 114 sailors made it out.
The rest of the British fleet barreled down on the stricken foe, and eventually, four battleships and cruisers were circling the Bismarck, pounding it with shell after shell. They knocked out turrets, they shredded the decks, and they terrified the crew.
It only ended when the British fleet ran low on fuel. It was under orders to sink the Bismarck at all costs, so as most of the ships headed to refuel, the HMS Dorsetshire was left to finish the job. It dropped torpedoes into the water, and finally, the Bismarck suffered holes beneath the waterline. The Bismarck sank. The pride of the German fleet was done. Just over 100 sailors survived of the 2,200-man crew.
If the general had loved his son a little less, or, you know, if signals officers had been more careful to use the best available encryption or leave the ship’s destination out of the message, the Bismarck likely would have made it to France without further damage.