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George S. Patton

April 30th, 2011 No comments

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

General George Smith Patton, Jr. was easily the most colorful and controversial American general of World War II. Part of the controversy around Patton concerned the fact that he could, and would, “curse like a stable-boy”. As related by Charles M. Province:

“Patton had a unique ability regarding profanity. During a normal conversation, he could liberally sprinkle four letter words into what he was saying and the listeners would hardly take notice of it. He spoke so easily and used those words in such a way that it just seemed natural for him to talk that way.

He could, when necessary, open up with both barrels and let forth such blue-flamed phrases that they seemed almost eloquent in their delivery. When asked by his nephew about his profanity, Patton remarked, “When I want my men to remember something important, to really make it stick, I give it to them double dirty. It may not sound nice to some bunch of little old ladies at an afternoon tea party, but it helps my soldiers to remember. You can’t run an army without profanity; and it has to be eloquent profanity. An army without profanity couldn’t fight it’s way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.”

“As for the types of comments I make”, he continued with a wry smile, “Sometimes I just, By God, get carried away with my own eloquence.”

Source:

[1] The Famous Patton Speech, by Charles M. Province

Noms de Guerre

April 30th, 2011 No comments

“Nom de Guerre” is a French expression which, translated literally, means “war name”. Think “Maverick”, “Ice Man” and “Goose” in Top Gun. From a more historical perspective, think of General Thomas J. Jackson. Almost everyone calls him only by his nom de guerre: “Stonewall Jackson”. Many of our better-known military leaders have had a nom de guerre. In fact, some have had several, which reflect the relative success (at least as perceived by the public) of their military careers at the time the name is conferred.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Take for instance General Robert E. Lee. At the end of the Civil War, Lee was so venerated in the South (and pretty much in the North, too) that a small boy, learning about Lee in his classroom, asked his mother, “Momma, I’m confused. Was General Lee in the Old Testament or the New?” [1] But Lee was not always so lofty a figure in the public’s eye. At the start of the war, Lee was in charge of the disappointing Cheat Mountain Campaign in western Virginia. He was viewed by the public as being too cautious in battle, and was dubbed “Granny Lee”. After this campaign, Confederate President Jefferson Davis reassigned Lee (who had a background with the Corps of Engineers) to supervise the build-up of coastal defenses in South Carolina. This, and the construction of defensive trenches around Richmond earned Lee the sobriquet “King of Spades”, and it was not conferred in a positive tone. These early names gave way later to more positive nicknames later, after Lee’s brilliance as a field commander was established. Later we see him referred to affectionately as “Bobby Lee” and reverently as “Marse Robert” (marse is slang for master).

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

And how about Lee’s nemesis, General Ulysses S. Grant? After the successful investment of Fort Donelson, Grant received a request for surrender terms from the rebel commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant’s famous reply was “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” [3] The capture of Fort Donelson in 1862 was one of the earliest Union successes in the Civil War, when the North was hungry for good news. The press seized upon the term “unconditional surrender”, and since it fit neatly into Grant’s initials, U.S. Grant became “Unconditional Surrender Grant”. Later, during the long and bloody campaign against Lee in 1864, when the war seemed interminable and Northern morale was flagging, Grant was nicknamed “The Butcher” or “Grant the Butcher” due to the high number of Union casualties, especially at Cold Harbor. This was not any more descriptive of Grant than “Granny Lee” was descriptive of Lee, since Grant had shown time and again during the war his care of the troops under his command. When Grant was finally able to pin Lee down and force a surrender he offered generous terms, according to Abraham Lincoln’s wishes to “let ’em up easy” and his own inclinations. After the surrender he was the “Hero of Appomattox” and once again the darling of the North.

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

In World War II, General George S. Patton was known as “Old Blood and Guts” because he was the most aggressive fighting general in the European Theater. Check out his speech to his troops upon assuming command of the Third Army just before D-Day, and you’ll get a little insight to his approach to war. In North Africa, he squared off against a wily opponent in Germany’s Erwin Rommel, respectfully called “The Desert Fox” by the British. Which reminds me of the unstated rule of noms de guerre. A regular pseudonym may be self-imposed, say for example “Mark Twain”, which Samuel Langhorne Clemens chose to commemorate his days as a Mississippi riverboat pilot (“mark, twain” was the boatman’s call at measuring two fathoms, a minimum safe depth for navigation). Not so a nom de guerre, which must be chosen by your friends, the soldiers under your command, the press, or perhaps by your enemy.

Sources:

[1] The History Channel Presents The Civil War, The History Channel DVD Collection
[2] Lee’s Nicknames, Son of the South
[3] Correspondence Between Ulysses S. Grant and Simon B. Buckner Discussing Surrender Terms at Ft. Donelson, CivilWarHome.com
[4] The Famous Patton Speech, by Charles M. Province

Mystery Image Five

April 30th, 2011 No comments

Mystery Image Five

Mystery Image Five

The duct-taped box in the image, planned and built impromptu in a crisis, was very special – it saved three lives. What is it? Click on the image to see. You may also read more about it here.

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Mystery Image Four

April 25th, 2011 No comments

Mystery Image Four

Mystery Image Four

This implement was a common sight up until the 1940s, and was an especially welcome sight in the summertime. What is it? Click on the image to see.

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The California Clipper

April 23rd, 2011 No comments

Most aviation records set in the pioneering first half-century of manned flight were accomplished after months or even years of careful planning, funding, determination and daring. Often the aviators and their backers were in pursuit of prize incentives offered by newspapers, aviation societies or wealthy enthusiasts. Sometimes, the aircraft was specially designed and built for a single attempt at a record. A great example is the Ryan NYP (New York to Paris), dubbed the Spirit of St. Louis to recognize the financial backers. Charles Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 in the first successful attempt at a solo non-stop crossing of the Atlantic and claimed the Orteig Prize.
Such was not the case with the first round-the-world trip by a commercial airliner. In fact, when the crew of Pan Am’s California Clipper left Los Angeles on December 2, 1941 for a regularly scheduled round-trip flight to Auckland, New Zealand, they had no idea they were going to set an aviation record, that they were going to go around the world, and that they would be gone from home five weeks.

California Clipper

California Clipper

The California Clipper, a Boeing B-314, was one of Pan Am’s famous fleet of China Clipper ships: flying boats designed for long-range flights over the ocean. In the 1930’s, the public was more apt to trust a flying boat in trans-oceanic travel because if there were engine troubles or navigation errors, the aircraft could land on the water. This was not a trivial concern at the time – air travel over the ocean was still a new and somewhat unproven method of getting from one shore to another. For the passenger service operators, they could extend their service to any city with a sheltered harbor, in the days when adequate airports with long runways were scarce. Marketed to the super-rich, the Pan Am China Clippers represented the pinnacle of luxury air travel and the fastest way to get over the ocean. The California Clipper had one class of service, and that was first class. In comparative dollars, a flight on a clipper was more expensive than flying the supersonic Concorde sixty years later [3].
Boeing B-314 Dining Room

Boeing B-314 Dining Room

So how did the California Clipper come to set a record for traveling around the world? What happened was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on December 7th, when the clipper was en route to New Zealand. When they landed at Auckland, the captain and crew discovered they were in the middle of a war zone, in possession of a large and valuable aircraft, and easy prey to Japanese fighters. Ruling out a return trip by the way they had come, Pan Am instructed Captain Robert Ford to continue flying westward. There had been no plan for this of course, so there were no navigation maps, no carefully scouted re-feuling stops, no waiting maintenance hangars. Leaving Auckland and headed west, the clipper began a month-long odyssey characterized by hazards, improper fuel, overloaded take-offs and close calls with the enemy (at one harbor they were confronted by a Japanese submarine, and had to beat it to get out of the range of its’ guns).
With grit and determination, Captain Ford and the crew were able to finally bring the clipper home to the Marine Terminal at La Guardia Field, New York on January 6, 1942. “The flight was a thirty-four day ordeal. It took over 31,000 miles, 3 oceans, 5 continents, 12 nations, 22 landings, and crossed the equator 4 times.” [7] After the California Clipper was safely brought home, Pan Am renamed it the Pacific Clipper, partly due to the media attention it was receiving. Soon after, the Pacific Clipper, along with all of Pan Am’s flying boats, was requisitioned by the Army Air Force for military duty, although it continued to be flown by the experienced Pan Am crews. After the war, the concept of the commercial flying boat gave way to land-based airplanes, and the now-obsolete Pacific Clipper was sold to Universal Airlines. It never flew commercially again, however: it was heavily damaged in a storm and consequently sold for scrap.
Vox’s Take: Sadly, none of the Boeing B-314s survive today. There is, however, a full-scale mock-up at the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in Limerick, Ireland [4] – one of the terminals for the Pan Am clippers flying Atlantic routes.

Sources:

[1] Boeing B-314, Virtual Aviation Museum
[2] Pacific Clipper, Wikipedia
[3] Boeing 314, Wikipedia
[4] Boeing B314, Foynes Flying Boat Museum
[5] The Long Way Home – Revised Edition, by Ed Dover
[6] 75th Anniversary Celebration of the China Clipper, Pan American Airways
[7] Pacific Clipper: The Untold Story, Albert S. J. Tucker and Matthew W. Paxton with Eugene Dunning

Mystery Image Three

April 9th, 2011 No comments

Mystery_Image_Three

Mystery_Image_Three

Take a look at the photo. Readers beyond a certain age will recognize this piece of machinery easily, but I wonder whether the younger generation will. Here’s a hint: as a kid I used to watch my grandma using a machine very much like this on her enclosed back porch, and was always nervous about her getting her fingers pinched in it. Click here for more information.

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The Block at the Top

April 9th, 2011 No comments

This week, the Federal Government almost shut down, due to lack of an approved budget. The media was keen to point out expected impacts of the looming shutdown, one of which was to close National Parks and Monuments. Featured prominently was the Washington Monument, a close-by and convenient symbol of our National treasures. This reminded me not of budget issues, but a newspaper feature from long ago, called Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which used to be included in the Sunday funny pages. The particular feature I remember brought attention to what was at the very top of the Washington Monument – not a granite capstone, but a solid pyramid of aluminum.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Aluminum? Really? Why aluminum? Well, I’ll tell you. When the Washington Monument was being built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1884, it was well known that tall, pointy structures were an irresistible invitation to lightning. (This had been noted long before Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 [1], when it was a special irony that church spires were frequent targets of the Almighty’s wrath.) Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, the engineer in charge of construction, asked a foundry owner, William Frishmuth, for a quote on a metal pyramid for the top of the monument, to be attached to the lightning protection system being incorporated into the obelisk. The preferred metals were copper, bronze or brass, plated with platinum. Frishmuth instead suggested aluminum, and provided a quote of $75. This was accepted.
The Ripley’s article, as I remember it, suggested that aluminum was chosen because in 1884 it was a precious metal, about the same price as silver (~ $1 an ounce). This turns out to be an urban myth. Aluminum was chosen because it conducts electricity well and was expected to remain bright with long exposure to the elements. It was expensive because an efficient technique for separating aluminum metal from its natural mineral form was yet to be invented. Moreover, casting aluminum was an especially tricky process. Aluminum tended to bubble in the casting process and leave a porous surface. With great difficulty, Frishmuth was able to cast a 100 ounce pyramid with a smooth surface, the largest aluminum casting ever done to date, to be placed on the tallest man-made structure in the world.
Aluminum Pyramid

Aluminum Pyramid

The nine inch by six inch pyramid was polished and inscribed, and displayed at Tiffany’s in New York for several days before delivery to the Corps of Engineers. The pyramid was displayed on the floor, so that people could “jump over the top of the Washington Monument” (har har). Due to the cost of materials and the difficulty in casting the aluminum, the final bill presented was for $256.10. Colonel Casey was livid, but eventually he and Frishmuth settled on $225. On December 6, 1884 the aluminum pyramid was attached in a special ceremony. It was soon discovered, however, that the lightning protection system was inadequate, and copper rods were added to bolster the system. In 1934, the system was again modified with the addition of a copper collar and taller copper rods. The copper rods go unnoticed to a visitor at the monument, standing at street level 555 feet below.
Vox’s Take: The Washington Monument is no longer the tallest man-made structure in the world (losing that title to the Eiffel Tower in 1889 [3]), but is still the tallest free-standing masonry work. The aluminum capstone, now blunted by lightning strikes, still has held up well enough to read the inscriptions. Even at the inflated price of $225, it seems to have been worth it!

Sources:

[1] Lightning Rod, Wikipedia
[2] The Point of a Monument: A History of the Aluminum Cap of the Washington Monument, Journal of the Metal, Minerals and Materials Society
[3] Washington Monument, Wikipedia

Worst U.S. Maritime Disaster

March 19th, 2011 No comments

I would make a bet that if you took a poll, asking the average Joe what is the worst U.S. maritime disaster, you would get “The Sinking of the Titanic” as the number one answer. I would agree that the RMS Titanic is by far the most famous, but it was not really a U.S. disaster, and not the worst in terms of loss of life (in U.S. History). That grim distinction belongs to the explosion and subsequent sinking on April 27, 1865 of the SS Sultana, a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler.

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

SS Sultana on April 26, 1865

The Sultana was a new, state-of-the-art steamboat, built in 1863. She had been making regular runs up and down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans during the last two years of the Civil War. On her last trip, she was commissioned by the Federal Government to carry Union solders upriver, on their way home as the war came to a close. In fact, most of the passengers were newly released prisoners of war, from the Cahaba and Andersonville prisons.
The high death toll was due to the fact that the ship was dangerously overloaded. She was by law limited to 376 passengers and crew. However, there were thousands of former Union prisoners at Vicksburg, Mississippi, anxious to take the first available ship and get home. The government was paying a lucrative $5 per soldier to get them home, so the ship’s captain, J. C. Mason of St. Louis, was incented to put as many passengers on board as possible. According to some, the military officers were being paid a kickback of $1.15 per person to look the other way and ignore the overcrowding. [2] At any rate, the Sultana was carrying 2,200 to 2,400 people at the time of the disaster, six times the legal limit. So many people were crammed on board they decided not to make out a passenger list. As you can see from the photo taken the day before she sank, the Sultana was packed with people literally shoulder-to-shoulder. Extra stanchions were installed to support the hurricane (top) deck, which was sagging from the weight of the passengers.
At Vicksburg, the engineers discovered leaks and a bulge in one of the boilers. Not wanting to lose time and take a chance on another steamboat getting the opportunity to carry the passengers, the captain decided to patch the boiler rather than replace it, which would have taken three days.

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

Sultana Burning, Harper's Weekly

The Disaster: After stopping in Memphis, Tennessee, Sultana started upriver, headed for the next stop at Cairo, Illinois, where most of the passengers were scheduled to disembark. The spring runoff was underway, so the river was high and the current strong, which meant that the Sultana needed a higher than normal head of steam to make her way upstream. The steamboat, top-heavy from too many passengers, was careening from one side to the other. At 2:00 a.m. on the 27th, about seven miles upriver from Memphis, three of the four boilers exploded. The explosion tore a gaping hole in the Sultana and sent burning pieces of coal flying everywhere, which quickly caught the wooden ship on fire. Men were blown off the ship, or jumped into the icy spring water to escape the flames. Soldiers drowned, burned, died from hypothermia, or were crushed when the smokestacks collapsed onto the stricken ship. About 500 men were rescued from the water, of which some 200 to 300 died later from burns, hypothermia, or their general poor health resulting from their captivity. Altogether some 1,700 to 1,800 people died, making it the worst maritime disaster in American History.
The Cause: The explosion was likely caused by four factors: the steam pressure was probably abnormally high due to the need for extra power to overcome the strong current. The hasty boiler repairs were inadequate to insure safety. The careening could also have played a part – the four interconnected boilers were arranged side-by-side, which meant that water could flow from the highest boiler to the lowest as the ship tilted to one side then the other. If the water level was not properly maintained, hot spots could develop, where the iron boilers become red-hot due to lack of water, then when the water rushes back it would instantly turn to steam, causing a sudden surge in the overall steam pressure.

Coal Torpedo

Coal Torpedo

Sabotage? Another possible cause for the boiler explosion was reported in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in an article on May 6, 1888. [4] In this article, William C. Streetor, a resident of St. Louis, reported that while he worked as a clerk and assistant keeper in the Gratiot and Myrtle street prisons, an ex-Confederate Secret Service agent and boat-burner, Robert Louden (or Lowden), claimed he had smuggled a coal torpedo aboard the Sultana at Memphis. The coal torpedo was a small explosive device made to look like an ordinary lump of coal, but would explode in a coal furnace, causing a secondary explosion of the boiler. (During the Civil War, a broad variety of explosive devices were called “torpedoes”.) Some sixty Union steamboats were destroyed by Confederate agents during the war. [5] The sabotage theory was called “wholly baseless” in one source [2], and given credibility in others. [5]
Why is the Sultana Disaster unknown? When the Sultana’s boilers burst, the nation was inundated with news. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated, and John Wilkes Booth had been caught and killed on April 26th, the day before the Sultana exploded. Also on the 26th, the last major Confederate Army, under Joseph E. Johnston, surrendered to William T. Sherman. Possibly because of the shady nature of the circumstances around the overcrowding, the Army was not anxious to publicize the story. The public was either tired or desensitized to news of death, having just gone through a war in which at least 618,000 soldiers were killed. Finally, anything which happened in the West received less coverage in Eastern papers.
Vox’s Take: Whether the sinking of the Sultana was accidental or deliberate, it was an especially tragic end for the Union prisoners of war who survived incredible deprivation in Southern prison camps, only to be killed when they were so close to getting home. In a small way, the incident helped bring former enemies together: the people of Memphis cared for the survivors and raised funds to help them. [3] One ex-Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have single-handedly rescued fifteen Union survivors. [2] Perhaps someday this incredible story will find its way into the history books. Interestingly enough, the remains of the Sultana may have been found in 1982, 32 feet under a soybean field in Arkansas. [3] The Mississippi River has changed course many times, and the wreckage is now two miles from the current location of the main channel.

Sources:

[1] Remembering Sultana, National Geographic News
[2] Death on the Dark River, The Story of the Sultana Disaster in 1865, ancestry.com
[3] SS Sultana, Wikipedia
[4] Sabotage of the Sultana, Civil War St. Louis
[5] The Boat-Burners, Civil War St. Louis

Mystery Image Two

March 11th, 2011 No comments

What's it called?

What's it called?

You’ve seen this type of bicycle before – it’s an icon of the Victorian Era. The large wheel on this direct-drive bicycle enabled the operator to go faster with a more comfortable ride. But what is it called? Click here to find out.

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Swastika: Good Luck Symbol

March 8th, 2011 No comments

Many years ago my Dad was showing me some coins and knick-knacks he had. One item, a token from a 1930-something Boy Scout National Jamboree, caught my attention. On the obverse side of the token was, naturally enough, a picture of a Boy Scout on a horse. On the reverse was a great big swastika. Dad can’t locate the coin now, but it was very similar to the one pictured here, recently posted on ebay:

Boy Scout Token Obverse

Boy Scout Token Obverse

Boy Scout Token Reverse

Boy Scout Token Reverse

What was the symbol of Nazi Germany doing on a Boy Scout token? Well, with a little reflection one realizes that the token pre-dates the prominence of the Nazi Party. Looking closely at the token, you’ll see other good luck symbols: a four-leaf clover, horseshoe, wishbone, and something I can’t make out. (Anybody know what that is?) Actually, the swastika has been a symbol of good luck, happiness and prosperity to a number of Eastern, Western and Native American cultures. [1]
Apache Basket

Apache Basket, Glen Isle Resort

At left is an Apache basket I recently photographed, part of the collection of Native American artifacts at the historic Glen Isle resort in Colorado.
Picture of Navaho Man, Miramont Castle

Picture of Navaho Man, Miramont Castle

Another example I recently came across is this picture of a Navaho man, hanging in the Miramont Castle in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The caption states the symbol means “rolling log” in Navaho culture. Not sure why that would be at the top of this picture. Check out the amazing variety of cultures that have used this symbol over the centuries on this page. It’s use dates back thousands of years, but so great was the tragedy inflicted on the human race by the Nazis that the good luck symbol they adopted for their party emblem is now in most Western cultures seen exclusively in its role as the emblem of the Nazi party and more recently, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In Germany, the swastika is illegal to display as a symbol of “unconstitutional organizations”, a law enacted as part of that country’s denazification efforts following World War II. [2]
Catalog Image of Bf-109E with Swastika Replaced by Diamond

Catalog Image of Bf-109 with Swastika Replaced by Diamond

Restored Bf-109E with Swastika on Tail

Restored Bf-109E with Swastika on Tail

Restored BF-109E in Germany, no Swastika

Restored BF-109E in Germany, no Swastika

To take an example of how strong the stigma is and how difficult it seems to be for our culture to deal with it, let’s look at three representations of a classic Luftwaffe fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109E. Model airplane kit builders see advertisements for Luftwaffe aircraft model kits with the tail emblem blotted out, morphed into a big black diamond, eliminated or replaced with the black cross of the wing and fuselage insignia. (Hopefully the swastika decal is still in the kit for those who can handle authenticity.)
Even more amazing to me is to see full-size restorations and replicas of Luftwaffe aircraft with no swastika on the tail. Normally, aircraft restorers have an overriding passion for historical accuracy, but the quest for absolute authenticity apparently can’t always compete with the swastika’s stigma in Western culture. The sample Messerschmitt Bf-109E with the swastika shown correctly on the tail was flown in the Yankee Air Museum Airshow 2005. The restoration shown with no Swastika on the tail appears on a .eu (European) Web site. The aversion to even acknowledging the swastika in an historical context is not universal. The swastika continues to be used in its original positive context in Eastern cultures, but its stigmatization in the West prevents us from thinking of the symbol in anything but the “Nazi” context.

Vox’ Take: In some places, “political correctness” has trumped historical truth. That’s a shame. I think it would be very hard for most of us in Western cultures to ever think of the swastika in the positive context it once held, but I don’t think it helps to pretend it never existed. To understand history, we need to always look at the unvarnished truth.

Sources:
[1] Swastika and Cross, Swami B.G. Narasingha
[2] Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, Wikipedia
[3] Swastika, Wikipedia