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The Most Famous (Historical) Topless Lady

January 5th, 2014 No comments

Let’s face it: Americans are prudes. I first learned this when traveling overseas, and found that people from other countries are not freaked out about exposed skin the way Americans are. For example, in South Africa, people did not need changing tents on the beach, they simply changed into their swimsuits. And no-one cared. The little kids ran and played on the beach naked. And no-one cared. In America, people would be scandalized. It wasn’t always that way, but it seems Victorian sensibilities have been stuck in our society for quite a while, at least among the more conservative elements. Refer to this amusing bit of prudery.
And this one.
liberty-leading-the-people-eugc3a8ne-delacroix-1830Racy Lady Liberty
But what about the topless lady I speak of? Why, none other than Lady Liberty! One of the most famous paintings depicting Liberty comes out of the French July Revolution of 1830, one of many struggles for liberty in France. This is Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. In this painting Liberty, in the person of Marianne, is gallantly waving the French Tricolors, leading the Parisians in their quest for freedom and democracy. Why the exposed breasts? Some historians attribute this to the Romantic style of the painting with classical references – in the classics women are very often unclothed. Another reason is that Marianne is an allegorical figure, an idea rather than a real person, and the rules regarding exposed flesh were different for mythical figures. [1]
When the French sculpture Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to create the Statue of Liberty as part of an 1876 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, he created Liberty in more modest garb, perhaps to accommodate American tastes? (Actually, due to funding and other delays, the statue was a bit late for the 1876 centennial of the Declaration of Independence: it was not finished until 1886.) [2]

Original Standing Liberty quarter with breast exposed.

Original Standing Liberty quarter with breast exposed.

The “Dirty” Quarter
Here’s a famous incident involving American squeamishness over nudity: in 1916, the U.S. Mint debuted a new quarter featuring a Standing Liberty. On the new quarter, Liberty is shown in the classical style with one breast exposed. According to some sources, public outcry immediately ensued, and the Mint was forced to quickly redesign the new “obscene” quarter. [3]
Redesigned Standing Liberty quarter with chain-mail vest.

Redesigned Standing Liberty quarter with chain-mail vest.

Perhaps making a veiled statement about the hub-bub, the sculptor, Hermon Atkins MacNeil, corrected the situation by depicted Liberty wearing a chain-mail vest covering the offending torso up to her neck, rather than simply rearranging her gown. You should know there is an alternate version to the story. [4] Some historians don’t accept the “public outcry” explanation. You see, in 1916 America was very concerned about defense and was about to reluctantly enter World War I. In this atmosphere Liberty was depicted in a defensive posture (note that she’s holding a shield). The Mint may have belatedly decided it was inconsistent for Liberty to be so vulnerable in her dress and should be better protected. To me, the addition of the chain-mail vest is the inconsistency, since the shield, depicting defense, is on the left side of the figure, while Liberty’s right side, where she’s holding an olive branch, represents peace. Also, if the officials at the Mint thought there was a design inconsistency, why would that have not been fixed before going into production? An ironic side-note is that, due to the quick design change, the “breast-exposed” quarter became an immediate collector’s item.

A well-endowed Mexican Libertad.

A well-endowed Mexican Libertad.


The Rest of the World
Other countries are not so worried about Liberty’s modesty.
Liberty is shown breaking the chains of tyranny in this Chilean 10 Pesos coin.

Liberty is shown breaking the chains of tyranny in this Chilean 10 Pesos coin.

Note these coins from Mexico and Chile depicting a winged Libertad. No worries here about using the classical form.
On the French 50 Francs coin, Liberty (on the left) stands with Hercules and Justice.

On the French 50 Francs coin, Liberty (on the left) stands with Hercules and Justice.

See also this French coin with Liberty (the figure on the left holding a Liberty Cap on a pole) next to Hercules and Justice.

Sources:
[1] Romanticism in France Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, smarthistory.org
[2] History of The Statue of Liberty, statueofliberty.org
[3] The Bare-Breasted Liberty Quarter – 1916 & 1917 Standing Liberty Type, by Susan Headley, About.com/coins
[4] Standing Liberty Quarter, StandingLibertyQuarter.org

Polio: Ancient (and Modern) Scourge

February 17th, 2013 2 comments

I remember distinctly my first polio vaccine. Now usually it would be very unusual for me to remember getting a vaccination, but this was a special case. One day, about 1963 I’m thinking, my entire grade school class was taken to Gove Middle School in Denver, where sugar cubes containing a drop of the new oral polio vaccine were being given en masse to school children. This was because the much-anticipated polio vaccine was finally available in quantity, and a major health risk for children could now be effectively fought. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the first half of the 20th Century polio was one of the most feared diseases and the annual polio outbreaks were a common and dangerous occurrence.
Poumon_artificielPre-Vaccination
Polio (also known as poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis) is a highly contagious viral disease which has dogged the human race throughout its history. Polio was first described in 1789 by English physician Michael Underwood as a debility of the lower extremities in children. [1] Polio outbreaks were first reported in the United States in 1843. Polio did not, however, reach epidemic proportions until the industrial revolution and the concentration of people in cities. This was due to the normal transmission method of polio: people drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food. In medical terms this is the fecal-oral route of disease transmission. (Eewww!) Cities were notoriously dirty in the early industrial age, with inadequate waste water disposal systems.
With the rise of the cities the number, scope and intensity of outbreaks gradually increased. In addition, increasingly older people were becoming sick with polio. For over a hundred years, the annual summer and fall outbreaks increased, until the U.S. reached a peak of polio cases in 1952. In that year, the U.S. incurred some 58,000 reported cases, with 3,145 deaths and 21,269 cases of paralytic polio. The real number of cases may actually have been much higher, since modern research indicates that only about 1% of polio cases result in paralysis. [2] The number of new cases began to drop after 1952 with improvements in sanitation and with municipalities banning public swimming venues upon news of an outbreak starting.
My mother-in-law Betty and her brother Jimmy were both inflicted with polio as children. Nana remembers being treated with Sister Kenny’s controversial treatment. [3] Sister Kenny developed her treatment of hot compresses and passive exercise from practical experience, and despite her success the technique was not accepted by many in the medical establishment of the day. Betty and Jimmy were spared the paralysis and pretty fully recovered, though Betty has one leg ½ an inch shorter than the other and Jimmy suffered from post-polio syndrome in his later years. My brother Marty remembers going over to one of his friend’s houses, whose polio-infected mother was not so lucky and was confined to an iron lung in the living room. The iron lung was necessary because the paralysis had affected the muscles of her chest, making breathing impossible without assistance.
2013-02-17 13.08.29_SmallThe March of Dimes
The March of Dimes, originally known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 3, 1938 in response to the increasingly severe polio outbreaks. [4] Roosevelt, himself diagnosed with polio, was unable to move his legs, a fact (though not secret) that was carefully de-emphasized throughout his political career. After Roosevelt’s death, the nation wanted to commemorate Roosevelt in many ways, including coinage. The U.S. Mint concluded that the dime was the obvious choice for honoring FDR. Interestingly, modern medical scholars think that Roosevelt may actually have had Guillain-Barré syndrome rather than polio.
Modern Times
The World Health Organization reports that the polio vaccine has been enormously successful in combating the spread of polio throughout the world, except in three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What’s going on there? Well, sadly there are many people in these countries who won’t get vaccinated, either because of rumors that the vaccine is harmful or because of pressure from Muslim extremists, who view the Polio Global Eradication Initiative as a Western conspiracy. In fact, on several occasions polio vaccination workers have been murdered [5] by these misdirected individuals.
Vox’s Take: There’s no good reason why polio could not join smallpox on the tragically short list of infectious diseases to be completely eradicated by medicine. [6] However, it cannot be eliminated until everyone cooperates, including the religious zealots.

Sources:
[1] Polio History, EMedTV
[2] Poliomyelitis, Wikipedia
[3] Sister Kenny: Confronting the Conventional in Polio Treatment, by Miki Fairley, Orthotics & Prosthetics.com
[4] January3, 1938: Franklin Roosevelt founds March of Dimes, This Day in History, History.com
[5] Gunmen Kill Nigerian Polio Vaccine Workers in Echo of Pakistan Attacks, By Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times
[6] Pages in category “Eradicated diseases”, Wikipedia

The Last U.S. Cavalry Charge

June 5th, 2011 No comments
The Cavalry Charge, Frederic Remington

The Cavalry Charge, Frederic Remington

You are all familiar, I’m sure, with the image of the horse-mounted Cavalry from movie Westerns. Care to guess in which war the last United States horse-mounted cavalry charge took place?

o Civil War (1861-1865)

o Spanish-American War (1898)

o World War I (1914-1919)

o World War II (1939-1945)

The answer may surprise you: it was during World War II. It happened January 16, 1942 near the village of Morong on the Bataan Peninsula, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, when the U.S. Army’s 26th Cavalry surprised a Japanese infantry unit and scattered them. [1] A nice painting commemorating the charge can be viewed here. But didn’t they have tanks and jeeps and half-tracks in World War II? Sure they did, but while the Army began the process of mechanization during World War I, this process was not complete even at the start of World War II. There was still a little room for an old-fashioned cavalry charge. The U.S. example, by the way, is not the last in history. As with a lot of historical trivia, there’s a lively debate over when the last cavalry charge in the world actually took place.

U.S. Special Forces on Horseback

U.S. Special Forces on Horseback

The traditional mission of the cavalry was as a specialized scouting and quick assault force. Military commanders used the cavalry to find the enemy’s forces, screen the enemy from finding their own forces, and strike the enemy at focused points in a battle. This is not to be confused with the use of horses as a means of military transportation. Dragoons, or mounted infantry, use horses to get to the scene, but any fighting is done while dismounted. As the photo shows, there are some pretty recent examples of the military use of horses – such as U.S. Special Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2006. Sometimes the terrain just isn’t suited to mechanized vehicles, as anyone who has hiked in the Rockies can attest.

Sources:

[1] The Last Mounted Cavalry Charge: Luzon 1942, The CBS Interactive Business Network
[2] Cavalry, Wikipedia

D.S.P.&P.R.R.

June 5th, 2011 No comments

D.S.P.&P.R.R. Locomotive

D.S.P.&P.R.R. Locomotive

I took this shot of a steam locomotive on my recent visit to South Park City, a re-creation of an early Colorado mining town. This locomotive, painted to represent an engine of the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad (D.S.P.&P.R.R.), is a survivor of the era of the “Narrow Guage” railroads. In Colorado we hear about narrow guage all the time, but for those of you not familiar with narrow guage, this refers to the distance between the rails of a railroad track. Standard guage is 4 foot, eight and 1/2 inches between the rails’ inside edges, where the width of a narrow guage track might be 3 foot or less. The narrower guage allowed the train to make sharper turns, necessary in the mountains where digging railroad grades was enormously expensive. The depot’s large red tank in the background held water to fill the steam locomotive’s boiler; and the black car immediately behind the engine held wood or coal for keeping the engine’s fire box fed.

“Good” Friday?

May 8th, 2011 No comments

Good Friday – the Friday before Easter, has not been so good for the residents (human and otherwise) around Prince William Sound, Alaska. Two disasters, 25 years apart, continue to leave their mark on the area.

Damage to houses from landslides in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage

Damage to houses from landslides in Turnagain Heights in Anchorage

The first, which occurred on Friday, March 27, 1964, was the Good Friday Earthquake, also called the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964. At 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, this was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America, and the second-most powerful in the world. I remember watching a documentary on this earthquake many years ago (sorry, I can’t remember the name), where a man was describing the scene during the 4 to 5 minutes of shaking: “You think of the ground as being solid. I looked out, and saw the ground rolling like the waves of the ocean.” A woman tearfully described seeing a fissure in the ground open up, her son fall in, and then the ground close up again. However, the earthquake had a very low fatality rate due to the sparsely populated area where it occurred, and the fact that most buildings in the shaking zone were made of wood. Most of the 131 deaths actually resulted from the ensuing tsunami, which killed people in Alaska, Oregon and California. [1] One of the highest fatality areas was the dock area of the port of Valdez, where a section of land 4000 feet by 600 feet slid into the ocean. [2] The ground was permanently raised in some areas by as much as 30 feet, and lowered in other areas by eight feet.
Downtown Anchorage after the quake

Downtown Anchorage after the quake

The town of Portage on the Turnagain Arm was lowered to below sea level, and so had to be permanently abandoned. The village of Chenega was destroyed by the tsunami and 23 of the 68 inhabitants killed. The downtown area of Anchorage experienced heavy damage. Seeing the second story of some buildings at street level makes it a wonder to me that more people weren’t killed. The effects of the earthquake were felt worldwide: “Seiches, a sort of sloshing of water back and forth in a small body of water like a boat harbor or swimming pool, were observed as far away as Louisiana where a number of fishing boats were sunk. Oscillations in the height of water in wells were reported from as far away as South Africa.” [1] An asphalt storage plant near Valdez was destroyed, spilling an unknown quantity of asphalt into Prince William Sound. With the area inundated with relief efforts pertaining to the earthquake and tsunami, no particular clean-up effort was attempted for this spill. Today, remains of the asphalt spill are mixed with remains of another spill [3], which brings us to the second Good Friday disaster.
Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef

Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef

On March 24, 1989, the supertanker Exxon Valdez was navigating Prince William Sound (outside of normal shipping lanes to avoid ice) when it struck Bligh Reef and spilled 11 million of its’ 53 million gallons of toxic, unrefined crude oil into the sound and fouling 1,100 miles of coastline. [4] This spill was particularly egregious because it happened in a wild and beautiful setting and because of the culpability of the captain, third mate and Exxon itself in causing a completely avoidable disaster. In the aftermath of the spill, Exxon did not take the high road, dragging its’ feet in the cleanup and contending and delaying any payout for punitive damages, claiming they were not appropriate in an “accident”. More than 20 years later, the effects of the spill are still being felt in the area, with some wildlife species still not having recovered. [5]
Vox’s Take: Sadly, the infamous Exxon Valdez Spill is dwarfed by the Deepwater Horizon Spill of 2010, which spewed an estimated 218 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. [6] Given the Exxon example, and the ability of huge corporations with their teams of lawyers to avoid accountability for their misdeeds, its seems unlikely that British Petroleum (BP) will end up paying for more than a small fraction of the damages.

Sources:

[1] The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, Alaska Earthquake Information Center
[2] The Great Alaskan Earthquake & Tsunamis of 1964, by Thomas J. Sokolowski, West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, Palmer Alaska
[3] The Good Friday Catastrophes in Prince William Sound, Alaska, U.S. Geological Survey Energy Resource Surveys Program
[4] Exxon Valdez oil spill, The Encyclopedia of Earth
[5] A Report on the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Spill from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC), Information About Alaska
[6] Deepwater Horizon oil spill, The Encyclopedia of Earth

The Perfect Swarm

April 30th, 2011 No comments

Have you ever heard of the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus spretus)? Mid-western farmers in the 19th Century sure knew of it. Every 7 to 12 years, this normally benign grasshopper entered a gregarious (swarming) phase and became a locust, and what swarms they made! The largest recorded concentration of animals ever, according to The Guinness Book of Records, was a swarm of Rocky Mountain Locusts. [1]

Rocky Mountain Locust

Rocky Mountain Locust

The swarm was observed by Dr. Albert Child of the U.S. Signal Corps in 1875, remembered by midwest farmers as the Year of the Locust. From timing the swarm as it passed overhead for five days, and telegraphing associates in other towns, Dr. Child estimated the size of the swarm as 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide: 198,000 square miles containing 3.5 trillion grasshoppers! [2] Swarms of locusts, though not usually this size, descended on farming communities from Texas to Minnesota like a Biblical plague, eating every green thing in sight. When the plants were gone, the hungry insects ate leather, cotton and wool (still on the sheep). Housewives vainly placed blankets over their gardens. The pests ate the blankets, then the gardens.

Brief extracts from contemporary accounts will suggest the nature of the locust plague: “They came like a driving snow in winter, filling the air, covering the earth, the buildings, the shocks of grain and everything.” “Their alighting sounded like a continuous hailstorm. The noise was like suppressed distant thunder or a train in motion.” “They were four to six inches deep on the ground and continued to alight for hours. Their weight broke off large tree limbs.” “By dark there wasn’t a stalk of field corn over a foot high. Onions were eaten down to the very roots. They gnawed the handles of farm tools and the harness on horses or hanging in the barn, the bark of trees, clothing and curtains of homes and dead animals — including dead locusts.” [3]

A swarm of locusts devastates the family farm in Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s book On the Banks of Plum Creek. After this biological tsunami passed through, the crops were devastated and the settlers faced starvation, forcing the Federal and state governments to supply the stricken pioneers with food, clothing and seed for replanting crops.

Persons in the East have often smiled incredulously at our statements that the locusts often impeded the trains on the western railroads. Yet such was by no means an infrequent occurrence in 1874 and 1875-the insects pawing over the track or basking thereon so numerously that the oil from their crushed bodies reduced the traction so as to actually stop the train, especially on an up-grade. – Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture For The Year 1877. Washington, DC 1878. [7]

So why don’t you hear about these critters now? Because, in the space of 27 years, the Rocky Mountain Locust population went from an estimated 15 trillion to… zero. Nada. Extinct. The last known pair was collected in 1902, and is now at the Smithsonian Institution. The species was declared extinct in the 1950′s. How can such a thing happen? Just as “being smart is no guarantee against being dead wrong” – Carl Sagan, it turns out that large numbers are no guarantee against a spectacular decline.

Locust-Killing Machine

Locust-Killing Machine

During the settlement period of the midwest, farmers tried many contraptions to try to eradicate the grasshoppers. It was like trying to empty the ocean with a teacup. However, the species had an Achilles heel, and that was: like Monarch Butterflies, after the swarming phase the population naturally declined and retreated to its breeding grounds. In the case of the Rocky Mountain Locust this was the fertile mountain river valleys. The whole population of these grasshoppers in this phase of their life cycle could fit into a 20-mile diameter circle. [2] It just so happened that the farmers who were so chastised by the locust were plowing up these same river valleys, and in the process, inadvertently decimating the locust’s breeding grounds. Farm records from the late 19th Century tell of plowing up egg sacs by the thousands during the spring planting. And so the grasshoppers died. It is one of the few agricultural “pest” species to have been eradicated, and it was done by accident.
Vox’s Take: Accidental demise or not, the story of the Rocky Mountain Locust is a cautionary tale we should heed. Life on this third rock from the Sun can be more fragile than is commonly supposed.

Sources:

[1] Rocky Mountain Locust, Wikipedia
[2] Six-Legged Teachers: Lessons from Locusts and Beetles, by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, WyoFile
[3] A Plague of Locusts, by Gerry Rising, August 1, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News
[4] Albert’s swarm, Wikipedia
[5] Looking Back at the Days of the Locust, By Carol Kaesuk Yoon, April 23, 2002 issue of The New York Times
[6] The death of the Super Hopper, by Jeffrey Lockwood, High Country News
[7] When The Skies Turned To Black: The Locust Plaque of 1875, Hearthstone Legacy Publications

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

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

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