At 5:12 a.m. Northern California was awakened by an earthquake that is now considered one of the most significant of all time. The epicenter was near San Francisco and the shaking lasted between 45-60 seconds. It was so powerful that it was felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and as far east as central Nevada. The intensity showed the clear difference between bedrock and sediment (or land filled) geology. Those that got the strongest shaking were in sediment filled areas rather than bedrock. Which explains why in San Francisco the damage was the most severe in those areas. Specifically it is the area called SOMA (South of Market or the old term south of the slot)where the greatest damage resulted. That area used to be part of San Francisco Bay but was filled in for more housing, commercial, and industrial uses. Houses and buildings were damaged or collapsed.
Although San Francisco got a significant amount of damage, other areas were likewise damaged. Cities like Santa Rosa got hit hard(the entire downtown was destroyed) and many in the countryside suffered building or infrastructure damage as well. The magnitude of the quake was originally thought to be around 8.3 on the Richter scale. However others argue it was between 7.7 and 7.9 based on new interpretations of earthquake data. However you measure it, the earthquake was one of the most severe in the modern era. The earthquake not only destroyed buildings, injured scores and killing 3,000 (estimated) but caused the fires that made it much worse with water supply being severely limited by broken pipes. City leaders would claim later, to ensure people would come back to the city, that San Francisco was not destroyed by the earthquake but the fires. The truth was (and later researchers would learn this)how extensive the earthquake had been to San Francisco. The fires were a direct result of the earthquake and made a bad situation that much worse. The Army used dynamite to blow up areas to block fires. This usually is a good tactic to blow up ground to create firebreaks. This made it much worse since no one thought about the possibility of flying embers from blown up buildings causing more fires. Which is what happened and made it that much worse.
Today we look back at the old pictures but not really appreciate the total magnitude of the disaster. San Francisco rebuilt but continued its old ways for a long time. Buildings went up in the very areas worst hit by the earthquake with little attention to earthquake safety. But by the late 20th century that had changed as city leaders realized how damaging another 1906 type of quake would be to a modern city. New ordinances were passed and many of the taller buildings in San Francisco today in the Financial District were constructed to handle earthquakes. I learned this from being in one such building during the Loma Prieta Earthquake (17 Oct 1989 at 5:07pm). That earthquake was centered near Santa Cruz and measured 6.9, much less powerful than 1906. But it caused a lot of damage and some loss of life as well. The building I was in (since it is on landfill) was built to sway with the earthquake rather than remain locked in place. It was a weird experience to feel the building rock as it did but it survived just fine while a building across the street and built long before that standard had its top cave in. That building had to be torn down.
Some things did stay the same as 1906. There was little official guidance, mass transit was down, lots of cars stuck in traffic, and plenty of people milling about trying to figure out how to get home. I was lucky as I took a SamTrans bus to Daly City from the old Transbay Terminal. It was long bus ride that took close to 3 hours but I was grateful that bus was running. Those living in the East Bay would have to wait a good long while for BART to run again. And those that watched the World Series that night saw an earthquake live at old Candlestick Park.
On this date in 1941, Japan launched a carrier based strike on U.S. military forces based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Their strategy was to use this attack to convince the country and its leaders that war with Japan would be futile. The achieved tactical surprise as no warning of an attack had yet been received. While decryption of their codes had revealed their intent, the warning did not reach Pearl Harbor until after the attack had begun. The Japanese legation in Washington did not deliver their governments official response to a recent diplomatic exchange until after the attack due to problems in transcribing the message. The attack began at 07:55 local time (12:55 p.m. eastern standard time). It was early afternoon when President Roosevelt was notified by Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the attack. There was some doubt amongst some staff as to the validity of the report but President Roosevelt believed it. And subsequent reports would show it was true. Radio was soon reporting on it as well and the entire nation soon learned of the shocking event that had taken place in the faraway location.
The purpose of the attack was to seriously cripple the U.S. naval and air operations (both the navy and army air corps). The surprise was effective and sank or crippled numerous American ships. However the jewel of the fleet were the aircraft carriers and they were not there. And the Japanese had no idea where they were. After conducting the first two strikes, a third strike was considered to more completely wipe out the storage, maintenance and dry dock facilities. Captain Minoru Genda,who helped in the planning,argued for invasion to maximize American losses. Admiral Nagumo decided to retire because of deteriorating weather, the unknown location of the American carriers, the long turnaround time required for a third strike that would allow American forces to gather and counterattack, and the fact the Nagumo’s strike force was at the extreme limit of logistical support. They were low on fuel and another strike would require them to travel at reduced speeds to conserve fuel. So he headed home. Much later Admiral Yamamoto, who supported the decision at the time, would in retrospect say it was a mistake since it allowed the U.S. to come back quickly.
Most of those who died at Pearl were sailors aboard the ships that were damaged or sunk. Of the 2,008 sailors killed, 1,177 were killed when the forward magazine on the USS Arizona exploded. Eighteen ships were sunk, beached, or run aground. 188 aircraft (mostly Army Air Corps) destroyed, 159 damaged. Most of the planes were destroyed on the ground. Only eight pilots got airborne and did attack Japanese aircraft but only one was shot down. Some pilots were killed or shot down later by friendly fire. Five inbound planes from USS Enterprise were shot down. The Navy lost 24 of its PBY planes. Additional casualties came from when Japanese attacked barracks. 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 others were wounded. Since the U.S. was not at war, they are all classified as non-c0mbatants. The Japanese lost 55 airmen, nine submariners and one captured. They lost 29 planes in battle and 74 were damaged by antiaircraft fire.
Most Americans were enjoying a pleasant Sunday. Secretary of State Cordell Hull met with the Japanese ambassador around 14:30 (2:30 p.m.) just when the first reports were coming in about the attack. Popular Sunday afternoon radio shows were interrupted with the stunning news about the attack on Pearl Harbor. From coast to coast, Americans were riveted to their radios listening to the latest updates. Lines of volunteers began forming outside military recruitment centers. The isolationist sentiment was ushered to the rear while most of the nation united against the Japanese. On 8 November before a joint session of Congress, President Roosevelt asked for a declaration of war.
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.
And a hour later Congress officially declared war on Japan. Far from causing the U.S. to cower, it brought Americans together like never before. Hitler’s decision to join with Japan on 11 Dec was somewhat of a surprise-to his German High Command! They had not planned with war with the U.S. so soon and now they faced a two front war with an highly industrialized power against them. Mussolini foolishly committed Italy to the war with the U.S. as well. For Japan they had control of the Pacific until June 1942. That is when the U.S. Navy engaged the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. At the end of the battle, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk to our one (the Yorktown). It was a shocking loss to the Japanese (and one they kept secret for as long as possible). The Doolittle Raid had convinced them to take on the American Navy directly. They did and lost spectacularly. And it shifted the balance of power in the Pacific. Admiral Yamamoto had been correct in his assessment of how the war with America would go:“I shall run wild considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.”
Yamamoto would not survive the war. President Roosevelt ordered that he be taken care of for his part in planning the Pearl Harbor attack. Thanks to the work of U.S. Naval Intelligence that had broken Japanese codes (code named Magic), his travel plans to the South Pacific in April, 1943 were learned. Orders were given and select pilots were used to target a very important high officer but were not told who it was. On 18 April 1943, a squadron of Lockheed P-38’s were assigned to intercept and bring down his transport being escorted by Japanese zeroes. There were two Japanese transports. After a dogfight with the Zeroes and transports, the transport with Yamamoto’s plane crashed into the jungle north of Buin, Papua New Guinea. Japanese search parties found his body, thrown from the aircraft and under a tree. He had two .50 caliber bullet wounds, one in his left shoulder and the other that had exited through his right eye. The true manner of his death was hidden from the Japanese public and not revealed until long after the war had ended. He was cremated, given a state funeral, and given posthumous titles and awards. Today the place where his plane crashed is a tourist attraction.
1. Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition will be at Dubuque, Iowa, National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium from 23 May-7 Sep 2014. Details are still being finalized as to admission costs. Further information can be found at their website.
Source: Titanic Exhibit Coming To Dubuque’s River Museum(25 Sep 2014,Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
2. Finding the Northwest Passage has been the dream of many explorers. At one time, some believed there was a navigable path between east and west just above Canada. In 1845 an expedition led by Captain Sir John Franklin with two ships–H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror–set off to traverse one of the last unnavigated sections. They were last seen in Greenland in late July, 1845 and later in Baffin Bay by whalers. After that they were never seen again. Later expeditions found relics and heard stories from the Inuit. It was learned thirty-five had died of starvation heading south. It was suspected some died of poisoning from eating from tinned cans. Darker talk of cannibalism also were said and much later confirmed by examining remains. Many of the remains confirmed that lead poisoning probably contributed to the death. Their ships though remained lost until recently when a Canadian search team appears to have found one. It is not known whether it is the Erebus or Terror that has been found. A great deal of mythology and popular storytelling has grown up around this ill-fated expedition. Perhaps this find will lay some of them too rest.
1. The Franklin Ship Myth, Verified(24 Sep 2014,The New Yorker)
2. Franklin’s Lost Expedition (Wikipedia)
Horatio Hornblower is the titular character in a series of novels written by C.S. Forester about an officer in the British Royal Navy set chiefly during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). He first appeared in the 1937 book Beat To Quarters(The Happy Return in UK) as the captain of HMS Lydia on a secret mission to Central America. Spain is allied with France and he is to make contact with a leader who will lead a rebellion. It turns out to be a madman who calls himself “El Supremo.” He captures a Spanish ship, the Natividad and reluctantly must hand it over to him. Later though he learns Spain has switched sides and now is with Britain. So he now has to stop the madman who has command of a formidable Spanish warship. And he also picks up a distinguished passenger: Lady Barbara Wellesley. She is the (fictional) younger sister of Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had gained prominence in India and commands the British troops in Spain and Portugal. The tension between the two would be part of future stories.
The Hornblower books entertained old and young alike with vibrant characters and good storytelling. And of course a far dose of adventures against the enemy both on land and sea. The books were not written in chronological order so Forester went back and wrote books about the younger Hornblower to fill out his career. When put together, they take us from when he was a lowly midshipman all the way up to becoming Admiral of the Fleet. You also get a fair dose of what it was like to run ships back then. And why many, if they could, avoided naval duty due to the harsh conditions, cramped quarters, and often long sea duty. You get fully developed characters in the novels, not just cut-up figures placed in the novels for no better purpose than to fill a gap.
Back then there was no naval academy (nor one for the army either) so aspiring officers signed on as midshipman to be trained. Hornblower, coming from a modest background but decent education, had no wealth or mentor. So he would have to do it all himself. The Royal Navy, unlike the British Army, did not allow the purchase of officer commissions so promotions were either by merit or by family connections. Hornblower was driven to prove himself though he often had doubts about his abilities. He also often withdrew to himself making him incomprehensible to even his closest friends. Yet he was a daring, resourceful, and loyal officer who gained the trust and loyalty of his crew and officers. He also had problems with the draconian punishments he was required to do under regulations. In one case he helped a former steward of his, who assaulted another officer, to escape. Gene Roddenberry drew upon this character to develop Captain James T. Kirk of Star Trek.
Captain Horatio Hornblower(1951) starring Gregory Peck is an excellent adaptation of Beat To Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours. Forester apparently had a significant role in keeping the script from becoming the ordinary swashbuckling movie. It gets high marks to this day for its action and surprising introspection. There were some radio performances done as well of the books. More recently there was a British television series Hornblower which ran on ITV in the UK and A&E in the U.S from 1998-2003. The high points of these dramatizations were using real ships and an excellent cast. Ioan Gruffudd played the role of Horatio Hornblower. However while it is drawn from the Forester novels, the stories were altered, changed, and in some cases rewritten making them very different from the source material. There is nothing more disappointing than to see a great Forester novel hacked up in this manner. So while the television series has high marks in sets and acting, it gets low marks in adapting the original work. That is why the 1951 movie still stands in my mind as the better screen adaptation.
The Hornblower books, in chronological order:
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower Lieutenant Hornblower Hornblower and the Hotspur Hornblower and the Atropos Beat To Quarters Ship of the Line Flying Colors Commodore Hornblower Lord Hornblower Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
Check your local library for the Hornblower novels. Many booksellers do carry them as many online sellers like Amazon (disclosure-I am an Amazon Associate). Netflix does have the dvd versions of the movie and television series. They can also be purchased from Amazon as well.
If you want to dip your toe into the Hornblower novels, I think Beat To Quarters is still the best one to read first. I really sets the tone that the later novels will follow. The earlier stories fill in much detail about his early career. The Midshipman book is really a collection of short stories, many of which were the basis of the first episodes of the television series
Some Historical Trivia
*The British Army of this period had to recruit. Each regiment sent out recruiting parties to get lads to sign up. All promotions, ranks, and rates were regimental. Any general army rank was brevet, only your regimental rank counted in the end.
*The Royal Navy had severe recruitment problems. The best sailors were on merchant ships. They got paid better and less strict discipline. The Royal Navy had the power to press able bodied men (called impressment) into service. They would await the arrival of merchant ships and then take the crews as soon as they got off. Or they would scour the major port areas–pubs, lodgings, gaming houses etc–of eligible men. They preferred those with sailing experience but would take non-sailors if they had too.
*The practice of impressment also occurred at sea. The Royal Navy could stop a British ship and take some of its crew into naval service. But what got them into trouble was conscripting American citizens on those ships or stopping an American ship and taking some of its crew. That led to the War of 1812. The practice ended in 1815.
*Shanghaiing is the disreputable practice of crimpers and ship owners to kidnap able bodied men to work on merchant ships. They would get them drunk or drug them and them get them aboard ship before they could do anything about it. And then they were stuck.
*The ranks in the British Royal Navy during this period were (lowest to highest)midshipman,lieutenant,commander,captain,commodore,and admirals. The rank of ensign was an army rank (today’s 2nd Lieutenant). There were no official junior ranks such as lieutenant junior grade or lieutenant commander. Today midshipman is now reserved for naval academy cadets and ensign is the lowest naval officer grade. During this period, date of commission was how seniority was determined. The youngest commissioned lieutenant was the junior lieutenant while the oldest commission made him the senior lieutenant. The problem with this system was inflexibility and led to promotion of officers who might otherwise not deserve it.
*Many navy officers during this period would be put on half-pay during the brief periods of peace that occurred. Admirals and lieutenants had to live on half pay. Okay if you were already from a wealthy family but Hornblower found it very difficult. Playing whist, which he was good at, brought extra money. It was worse for the common sailor. They got nothing and had to find a berth, if they could, on a merchant ship.
Today marks the anniversary of the tragic sinking of PS General Slocum on the East River in New York City. She was taking members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to a church picnic. It was supposed to be a wonderful outing for all and many children were aboard. Fire broke out, most likely in the Lamp Room, and then spread. Due to inadequate safety inspections, failure of Knickerbocker Steamship Company to maintain safety standards, and the ship’s captain, the safety equipment aboard was completely unusable. Ship hoses could not function due to age, most life preservers were so old they fell apart or were weighted inside, and lifeboats were inaccessible. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 passengers perished in the tragedy mostly from drowning. It was the single worst loss of life in New York City history until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Sadly many who died were children though sometimes parents or members of the extended family also perished. Some victims were never identified because there was no one living to do so. The funeral procession of the dead was witnessed by many and the small coffins caused many to cry. One notable incident was a man accompanied by his wife carrying a small coffin under his arms. He could not afford a funeral wagon and so was walking to the cemetery. Fortunately a man delivering flowers offered him a ride.
The subsequent investigation revealed the poor state of safety equipment on General Slocum. The company laid the blame on Captain Van Schaick and the government inspectors for failing in their duties (who were likely bribed). It would lead to reorganization of the government agency responsible and tighter accountability of ship owners to safety regulations. Today that function is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the United States has one the toughest maritime safety regulations in the world.
The Knickerbocker Steamship Company was fined and Captain Van Schaick would be imprisoned for several years. He was paroled in 1911 and in 1912 President Taft pardoned him. Many believed, although he was captain of General Slocum, the company was ultimately responsible for the tragedy. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church was part of the Little Germany community in New York. The loss brought many together to help the church and its members. However as people began to move away from the area, the Germans that had made up its base went with it. The church closed and is now a synagogue. A stone memorial to the victims of the General Slocum is at Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan. Today there are those that get together to remember this terrible event in New York City history. Sadly all the survivors have passed away, the last one in 2004.
The movie Manhattan Melodrama(1934), which stars a young Clark Gable, has as its opening moments the events of the General Slocum which sets in motion the lives of the two characters the movie depicts. Not a bad movie for its time and worth looking at if you have the opportunity.
A memorial plaque placed near the former church of St. Mark’s on the centennial of disaster states:
This is the site of the former St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1857–1940) a mostly German immigrant parish. On Wednesday, June 15, 1904, the church chartered the excursion steamer, GENERAL SLOCUM, to take the members on the 17th annual Sunday school picnic. The steamer sailed up the East River, with some 1400 passengers aboard, when it entered the infamous Hell Gate passage, caught fire and was beached and sank on North Brother Island. It is estimated 1200 people lost their lives, mostly woman and children, dying within yards of the Bronx shore.
The GENERAL SLOCUM had been certified by the U.S. Steam boat Inspection Service to safely carry 2500 passengers five weeks before the disaster. An investigation after the fire and sinking found the lifeboats were wired and glued with paint to the deck, life jackets fell apart with age, fire hoses burst under water pressure, and the crew never had a fire drill. Until the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001,the Slocum disaster had been the largest fire fatality in New York City’s history.
Dedicated Sunday, June 13, 2004, by the Steam Centennial Committee.
The Maritime Indistry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY
1. Robert Ballard has begun his 2014 Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico Exploration. He and his crew will research marine ecosystems and tectonic activity over the next four months. People can view the progress and other details at www.nautiluslive.org.
Source: US Titanic Discoverer Embarks On New Mission(13 June 2014,New Vision)
2. The Titanic Honour and Glory exhibition has opened at Clydebank Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. According to Evening Times: Visitors to the free exhibition will get to see an assortment of items from the liner’s passengers and crew, including some of the beautiful china dinner plates used to serve meals aboard the stricken ship. Also on show will be the nameplate from one of Titanic’s lifeboats which collectively saved 706 of the 2,223 passengers.There are also rare examples of tributes made in the aftermath of the sinking, including Titanic relief fund cheques which were given to help support the families of those who were lost.
3. The tragedy of the sunken South Korean ferry is an opportunity to revisit better ways to save lives at sea. Clive Schofield notes that with more cruise ships going into areas not traveled before for adventure cruising(and given the fact many who are on cruise ships are older people), the need for better approach is at hand. He suggests liferafts over lifeboats since the former deploys much faster (in minutes when time is crucial). Also passengers need to be marshaled on deck quickly rather than remain below and possibly die (and divers possibly dying getting to them).
Source:Another Titanic Change Is Needed To Save More Lives At Sea(10 June 2014,The Conversation)
*Summer is nearly here and most schools are finished for the year. When I was a kid, my mother had to devise ways to keep us from hanging around the house. That meant day camps, athletics, and swimming aside from whatever chores we had to do. I have no doubt she would have confiscated smart phones, computer games, and locked out the computer had we had them back them. Oh and the television would be embargoed as well.
*Being kind of a fan of railroads, I like occasionally to play computer simulation games. I tried a demo for one called Rails (Belight Software). It is based on a game called Short Rails from a long time ago. Essentially you run a short line railroad and have to handle the assorted issues of routing trains etc. But the new version is not so good. Track layout is restricted, stations appear randomly, and the assorted challenges make it more frustrating than enjoyable. I ended up trashing the program wishing I had not spent the money. A lesson learned is to pay attention to demos more carefully otherwise you end with something you could have avoided.
*Hell’s Kitchen is, I think, a joke on the entire food competition shows. You have serious ones out there but this one strikes me as more of a trip for Gordon Ramsay then anything else. I mean who wants to spend weeks under his exacting drill sergeant routine to get a job that, if accurate, never quite materializes? You get the title of winning Hell’s Kitchen that season but the promised job does not quite come out that way. Some lesser positions than promised, take cash payouts because they cannot assume the job, or once their contract is up leave. I am certain that in the contract they sign it says you may get the position but it is up to the needs and decision of Gordon Ramsay. And Ramsay admits some of the participants on the show are there to be filler, just there to cause tension and issues to see if the real chefs can be found. And to be honest, I would rather eat the food of most Masterchef contestants and winners than some of those who claim to be cooks on Hells Kitchen.
*In April 1942 there was a daring raid on Japan called the Doolittle Raid. B-25’s took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet and bombed industrial sites in Japan. Because they had to take off earlier than expected due to a Japanese craft sighted nearby, they barely had enough fuel to land in China. Some were captured by the Japanese and killed, and some others were imprisoned until freed by American soldiers. A few ended up in Russia (neutral territory since they were not at war with Japan at the time) and interned. They were relocated near to the Iranian border where they were helped to escape over the border into British hands and ultimately back to the U.S. Others who crashed in China were helped by locals and partisans fighting against the Japanese and ultimately would be returned home. Lt. Colonel Doolittle, who had thought the raid was a failure and expected to be court martialed upon return, learned it had boosted morale and widely acclaimed back home. One of its participants, a young Army Air Corps pilot named Ted Lawson, returned home with an amputated leg. He would stay with the Army Air Corps and be promoted to Captain and later Major before retiring in 1945. Lawson wrote a book called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo which the famous 1944 movie is based on. None of the men involved thought they were heroes but striking a blow to the Japanese for what they did to Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Wars are not often determined by the largest battles but sometimes the best shots that down the road lead to a more secure victory than thought possible.
Today we cannot imagine or fathom the resources and manpower needed for this highly complex operation. It took years of planning, putting together needed resources, and training the men needed. Even then things went wrong right away but despite the terrible odds and the high casualty rate, the Allied forces prevailed. With many junior officers wounded or killed right away, it was the ordinary soldier that won the day.
March comes from Latin Martius, the first month of the early Roman calendar. It is named for Mars, the Roman god of war and agriculture. And Romans believed he was the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. March would remain the first month of the new year for many until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 although Great Britain did not change till 1752. Greece was the last European country to switch over in 1923.
March has two birthstones, aquamarine and bloodstone. The birth flower is the daffodil.
“A cold wave is indicated for Dakota and Nebraska tonight and tomorrow; the snow will drift heavily today and tomorrow in Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”
In January 1888 a terrible blizzard caught many by surprise in Dakota and Nebraska leaving many dead in its wake–and many of the dead were children. The blizzard became known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, Schoolchildren’s Blizzard or simply The Children’s Blizzard. David Laskin takes us back to recount what happened on 12 January 1888 and why people were so unprepared. He looks at the people who emigrated from Europe and Russia to settle in the plains, at the Weather Bureau which at the time was part of the Army Signal Corp, and why the storm itself was so particularly nasty. The event is still remembered today though sadly knowledge of this event seems to have slipped from being taught today in many U.S. history classes.
Laskin paints a portrait of the various people that came to live in the area to start a new life. Perhaps that is not a new story but consider they gave up everything to do so. Some came because land was too limited for their children to make a living or government edicts made it impossible either to stay or make a living. The journey to America was not easy for any of them but those who bonded together in common faith had a support group on the journey. Children were lost on the journey and it was not comfortable at all. First having to suffer through unpleasant conditions on ships and then finding out the rail car they reserved was nothing more than a glorified cattle car with hardly any amenities. When they arrived they found a land that stretched flat in all directions with the occasional clump of trees for shade. They began with the sod house and started farming the land.
They quickly learned though this was no Eden but often an unforgiving area. Prairie fires spread quickly through the tall grass. Locusts and grasshoppers would descend on their crops eating their hard earned work. And the winters were nothing like they experienced at home. They were not only exceptionally cold but dropped huge amounts of snow sometimes trapping them inside their homes for days. Early settlers learned how to make ersatz coffee and other foods while they waited out the storms. The cold and heavy snow winters were no fluke. They were the norm as they learned. Yet they persevered despite the many problems and raised families.
The other part of the story is the Weather Bureau and by extension the weather itself. The Weather Bureau was run by the Army Signal Corps. While there were dedicated personnel doing their jobs correctly, many were not. There was lots of graft and corruption inside it despite leadership that tried to correct the problems. The Weather Bureau was not considered reliable but remained largely intact due to lethargy on the part of Congress to reform it and those that supported keeping it in the Army Signal Corps. The Weather Bureau relied on weather readings from stations and reports by others to make its forecasts. Telegraph was the fastest means of the day to send messages but the offices were not manned 24 hours a day, not unlike the wireless operators at sea before Titanic disaster. The knowledge of weather systems was not as developed as it is today so they did not understand the severity of the weather that was heading towards them on that fateful day. But the lack of manning weather offices 24-7 meant urgent notices of changes were not read right away causing forecasts to be way off. Which is what happened here.
The day of the storm was unusually warm for January and many were out doing things. Farmers were outside tending their crops and livestock. Children were at school and people went about their daily business. They had no clue something was wrong until the storm slammed down on them all at once. First it got cold, very cold. The temperature dropped rapidly well below freezing (-40 in some places) and then was followed by howling 80 mile hour winds and blowing snow. The snow had been tossed around so much in the atmosphere that it was tiny but in a storm of this size millions of them became like a sandstorm in winter. You literally could not see your hands in front of your face. People were later found near their homes frozen inches from safety. Many kids in one room schools had to be sent home since there was not enough heat or the building suffered damage in the storm. Those that made it to a warm place or stayed in the schoolhouse that had warmth survived. Children that got separated or tried to walk home alone perished. Animals perished too often right were they stood. For many families, it was heart wrenching losing not just one but perhaps two or three children. Some bodies were not found till the spring thaw.
The aftermath of the storm did not immediately cause change at the Weather Bureau. Astonishingly there was not much public outcry against the Weather Bureau. General Greeley tried to play down how bad the storm was as typical press exaggeration, though later he changed his mind on that point. In fact the only person that was demoted was 1st Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff who was in charge of the Saint Paul office. And that was due to enemies he made in Saint Paul who were determined to drive him out and the fact his indications (forecasts) were considered lowest in the service. But two months later another blizzard would hit, this time in the American northeast hitting the major cities and completely shutting down New York. Like what happened two months prior, the forecast was totally inaccurate. In New York City all commerce and traffic came to halt. Elevated trains were stopped in their tracks. No vehicles could move in the streets. Power lines went down as did the telegraph isolating New York and other cities (including Washington D.C.) and everyone stayed inside until the storm had passed. 400 hundred people (estimated) died from being stranded when this storm struck quickly and hard. This time the reaction was loud from the New York press and quickly Greeley ordered weather stations to be manned 24-7 so they could update when forecasts changed. Most telegraph and telephone lines were moved underground as well. It also finally resulted in moving the Weather Bureau away from the Army Signal Corps into the Agriculture Department in 1890 (it would later move to Commerce under President Franklin Roosevelt and much later into National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration then renamed National Weather Service in 1970).
Life continued for many where the Children’s Blizzard occurred but over time, due to economic changes and the era of family farms dwindling, many of the farms disappeared. Today many areas where they once settled are empty returning slowly back to what it was when those settlers arrived. Perhaps that is the natural tide of history for archaeology has shown peoples have moved when the climate or trade routes changed. It is happening today but people are not recognizing quite that way. Just look at the once powerful industrial cities that fueled an industry that now are in decline. Laskin’s book is a fascinating look at an event in American history that is being sadly passed over these days in classrooms. And that forgetfulness is costly when the same type of cold storm comes down from the north causing severe damage, power outages, and sadly deaths.
Laskin, David The Children’s Blizzard, New York: HarperCollins, 2004
The book is available at Amazon in hardcopy, paperback and Kindle versions. Check your local library as well.
Labor Day is a national holiday in the United States and became a federal holiday in 1894. The holiday was created to celebrate the “the strength and spirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Usually a parade occurs followed by a get together where people celebrate workers and their families. Aside from that, it is also marks the end of summer with schools now open and summer vacations at an end. Of course retail businesses like to use the day as an important sale day. For many though it is a nice long weekend.
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