Category Archives: History

Welcome to Summer/Summer Solstice

With the Summer Solstice today, summer officially begins in the Northern Hemisphere. Below the equator, the seasons are reversed, and it is the Winter Solstice. The June Solstice takes place between June 20-22. To determine the exact time of the Summer Solstice in your area, go to timeanddate.com.

This illustration shows how daylight falls on Earth at the seasonal points.
Image: NASA

Summer is the warmest of all the seasons with daylight hours the longest. The Summer Solstice has the longest day of sunlight. Prior to the solstice, daybreak gets earlier, and sunsets much later. While it gets warm and dry in North America (except for thunderstorms and hurricanes) and Europe, other areas particularly in Asia see tremendous amounts of rain called monsoons. Summer is usually time off for students in schools and universities. Also, many take time off from work to celebrate vacation with their family and friends. A lot of sporting events and outdoor concerts take place during this time as well. In areas of the far north, the sun never truly sets during this period (and in wintertime the sun never really rises either).

Summer field in Belgium (Hamois). The blue flower is cornflower and the red one a corn poppy.
Image credit: Luc Viatour (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Summer Solstice (or the local beginning of summer depending on custom and tradition) is celebrated in different ways. Some light bonfires, houses are decorated with festive banners, and special foods are eaten. Some go to Stonehenge and watch the sunrise of the first rays of summer. In Sweden, it is tradition to have the first strawberries of the season and the first full moon after the solstice is called the Strawberry moon. In some places, Midsummer’s Day is celebrated on 24 June preceded by Midsummer’s Eve. Since summer means then end of long and dark winters in some places of Europe, lighting torches and bonfires became a way to note it, sometimes in town squares or mountainsides.

Sources

Summer Solstice 2024: When is the first day of summer? (2024, June 17). Almanac.com. https://www.almanac.com/content/first-day-summer-summer-solstice

June Solstice: the Longest (and Shortest) Day. (n.d.). https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/june-solstice.html

Wikipedia contributors. (2024, June 3). Summer. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer

Today is Juneteenth (US)

Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas.
Original source: The Portal to Texas History Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate states. Most African Americans would not learn of this act until after the areas they lived in were liberated by Union troops. On 19 June 1865, Union troops entered Galveston, Texas (Texas was a Confederate state during the war) and learned that they were freed. Celebrations began with prayers, feasts, and dance. The following year it would take place throughout Texas on the same date becoming an annual tradition  and holiday in 1980. The celebration would spread to other states and sometimes recognized as a state holiday as well. As a result of its importance to African Americans and to the United States as well, the U.S. Congress made it a national holiday in 2021 with President Biden signing the resolution of Congress, It formally began as a holiday on Monday, 20 June 2022. Per federal law, since June 19th fell on a Sunday this year, it was celebrated the following Monday as a national holiday. The formal name of the holiday is Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Lyrics to Battle Cry of Freedom

Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom,
We will rally from the hillside, we’ll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

We are springing to the call with a million freemen more,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And we’ll fill our vacant ranks of our brothers gone before,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

We will welcome to our numbers the loyal, true, and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And although he may be poor, he shall never be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

So we’re springing to the call from the East and from the West,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!
And we’ll hurl the rebel crew from the land we love best,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

The Union forever! Hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor, up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

Composed and lyrics by George Frederick Root in 1862.

Sources

Nix, E., & Nix, E. (2024, June 11). What is Juneteenth? HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth

Juneteenth. (2024, June 14). National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/news/topics/juneteenth

Remembering the Tragic Sinking of the General Slocum (15 June 1904)

On 15 June 1904 the General Slocum was taking members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Church to its annual picnic. Sadly, most would perish when the ship caught fire making it the worst maritime disaster in New York City and for a time the United States until Titanic sank in 1912.

General Slocum, date and author unknown.
Image:Public Domain (National Archives)

The PS General Slocum was built in Brooklyn, New York in 1891. She was designed as a sidewheel passenger steamboat to ferry passengers to locations on the East River. Named for the famous Civil War general (and New York Congressman), Henry Warner Slocum, the ship conveyed the image of reliability. With three decks-main, promenade and hurricane-and with the capacity to hold up to 2,500 passengers, the ship was very popular especially with groups that were holding major events and needed a ship to convey them.

The Slocum was owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company and had been captained for many years by William H. Van Schaick with a total crew of 22 aboard. It had several mishaps before the 1904 disaster. After launching in 1891, she ran aground in Rockaway and tugboats had to pull her free. 1894 saw a number of accidents from running into a sandbar, running aground, and colliding with a tugboat that had caused serious damage. In 1902, the ship ran aground and was stuck there overnight forcing the passengers to camp out on the ship for the night.

By 1904, the Slocum had been superseded by other more modern ships but was still popular for excursion travel around New York City. St. Mark’s Evangelical Church in Little Germany district (Kleindeutschland) of New York had used the Slocum for its annual picnic for the past 17 years. The annual picnic was to celebrate the end of the Sunday School year. Teachers, mothers, and children attended this event. Since it was held during the weekday, most fathers were at work. Pastor George Haas had chartered the ship for $350. On 15 June 1904, the group of 1,358 of mostly women and children boarded the ship at the Third Street Pier. The Slocum would take them up the East River and then through Long Island Sound to its destination of Locust Grove, in Eaton’s Neck, Long Island where the picnic would be held.

The ship departed at 9:30 am and everything seemed to be going well. Nearly all the passengers, mostly women and children, were dressed up for the event. There was a band playing music and food for the trip was served by those attending the picnic. By 10 am the Slocum had made her way up to the passage of Hell Gate, between Ward’s Island and Queens. It was around this time a fire broke out in the Lamp Room. The Lamp Room (the third compartment from the bow under the main deck) as the name indicates, was used to store lamps and its oil. Rags with oil on them were around and packing straw was also in the room as well from the boxes of glasses the group had brought with them for the trip. No one can say for certain how the fire was started, but most likely caused by a discarded cigarette or match. The fire was soon noticed by crew who attempted to put it out using the emergency water hoses. Unfortunately, they were old and leaked so little water could be applied. It would be learned later that the company that sold them to Knickerbocker had used materials that were quite thin and cheap.

The captain was first notified by a child but dismissed it. He was officially told 10 minutes later but by now the fire was ablaze and passengers were now getting frightened. The ship was equipped with lifeboats, but they could not be released. They were held in place by wire and in many cases were covered with paint making it impossible to release them. People were getting frantic now. Life preservers were available but were so old that the cork inside had disintegrated into dust. And the dust absorbed water. In some of them were bits of metal put in by the manufacturer to make them weigh the same as ones with cork. Mothers watched in agony as the children they had put life preservers on sink and drown in the water. Also, few knew how to swim at the time as well so could not swim to safety. Adding more to this situation were that at the time people wore wool clothing even in summertime. So even if they could swim, it was very difficult with the heaviness of the wool weighing you down.

Captain Van Schaick initially ordered the ship full ahead as the nearest area of land had oil storage. He would change his mind a few minutes later and order the ship beached on North Brother Island. He would remain on the Hurricane deck until the last moments of the ship forced him to jump overboard into shallow water. The ship had been completely engulfed by the time she was beached-a mere 20 minutes after the fire had been discovered, Fortunately North Brother Island was a quarantine island and there were both doctors and nurses to assist those that had gotten ashore. Several vessels nearby had come to assist those they found in the water and responsible for saving 300 lives.

Victims of the General Slocum washed ashore at North Brother Island
15 June 1904
Possible source: Gustav Scholer (1851 – 1928)
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Most however did not make it off the Slocum. An estimated 1021 would die according to a government report and of that only 2 were crew (though some sources put the figure lower). 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. Captain Van Schaick was injured in an eye and lost its use as result of the tragedy.

The city was aghast at what had happened. In supposedly one of the great cities of the world, a ship burned within its sight. A floating horror of fire and people frantically trying to escape facing either the flames or drowning. Newspapers carried headlines of the many funeral processions that occurred. Everyone wanted answers and President Roosevelt ordered a commission to investigate what had happened on the Slocum. And what the commission found was startling. Nothing had been done to maintain and replace as needed the safety equipment. The report found the fire hoses were made of cheap linen and full of kinks (and of course leaked). And of course, how the life preservers had failed as well along with the lifeboats that could not be accessed. Also, they found no safety drill had been done in over a year. Captain Van Schaick was found responsible as master of the Slocum and sentenced to 10 years in jail for failing to maintain the safety equipment. Since the captain bore the brunt of the blame, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid only a small fine though it was learned they had falsified safety records.
Later Van Schaick would be paroled and pardoned by President Taft in 1912 since many believed the company was at fault.

Aftermath

As a result of the tragedy, a reorganization of who was responsible for inspecting ships and tighter safety regulations would result. Today that is handled by the U.S. Coast Guard. The community of Little Germany in Manhattan was severely affected with the loss of so many in the tragedy. It brought the community together and St. Mark’s would continue to serve its community. Little Germany had grown and flourished from the 1840’s but by the end of the 19th century had already started to contract. The once solidly German area began to diminish and in many ways the tragedy of the General Slocum hastened it. Many began to resettle in Brooklyn. A new wave of immigrants was coming in from Italy and Eastern Europe. It would become eventually the Lower East Side forever changing the character with areas where Italian, Russian, and Yiddish would now be heard.

St. Mark’s Evangelical Church would never recover from the 1904 loss as most of its congregation were dead. While the parish would continue elsewhere, the church would become a synagogue (and still is to this day) in 1940. The building itself is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In 1946 the parish of St. Mark’s merged with the Zion Church in Yorkville in 1946 to become Zion St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
Image:Public Domain (Wikipedia)

In 1906 a marble memorial fountain, which stands to this day, was erected in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. There is also another memorial in the Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens where many graves of the victims are to be found. The last survivor died in 2004.

The General Slocum was salvaged and turned into a barge renamed Maryland. Continuing its history of mishaps as before, it sank in the South River in 1909 and in 1911 while in the Atlantic off the coast of New Jersey. No one died in the 1911 sinking.

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 Industry Museum
SUNY-Maritime College, Fort Schulyer, The Bronx, NY

Sources

History.com Editors. (2020, June 12). Fire on Riverboat leaves more than 1,000 dead. History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/river-excursion-ends-in-tragedy

The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904 | The New York Public Library. (2011, June 13). The New York Public Library. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/13/great-slocum-disaster-june-15-1904

General Slocum | National Underwater and Marine Agency. (n.d.). https://numa.net/expeditions/general-slocum/

Wikipedia contributors. “PS General Slocum.” Wikipedia, Aug. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS_General_Slocum. Accessed 11 June 2024

Wikipedia contributors. “Little Germany, Manhattan.” Wikipedia, Aug. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Germany,_Manhattan. Accessed 11 June 2024

Zion-St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. (n.d.). http://www.zionstmarks.org/ourhistory.htm

Videos

Fascinating Horror. (2023, August 8). The General Slocum | a short documentary | Fascinating horror [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38NfsPVC6m8. Also available on Rumble: https://rumble.com/v3kq60p-the-general-slocum-fascinating-horror.html

Hank Linhart. (2017, June 13). Fearful visitation, The Steamship Fire of the General Slocum,1904 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU1QzU8tCnk

The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered. (2017, June 15). New York’s worst maritime disaster, the General Slocum [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGlLwtqhUKE. Also available on Rumble: https://rumble.com/v2nsnrq-new-yorks-worst-maritime-disaster-the-general-slocum.html

Suggested Reading

Editors, C. R. C. R. (2015). The sinking of the General Slocum: The History of New York City’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster. CreateSpace.

Eggleston, M. A. (2021). Fire on the water: the General Slocum disaster. Independently Published.

O’Donnell, E. (2004). Ship ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum. Crown.

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Captain Bligh and Others Arrive Safely After 4,000 Mile Trek (14 June 1789)

Bligh and other officers and crew put adrift by HMS Bounty mutineers on 29 April 1789.
Painting: Robert Dodd (1748-1815)
Public Domain (National Maritime Museum, London, UK)

On 14 June 1789 Lieutenant William Bligh of British Royal Navy who formerly commanded HMS Bounty and eighteen others arrived at Timor in the East Indies after nearly a 4,000-mile trek in a small boat. Bligh and the others were put on the boat back on 28 April after Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and others led a mutiny on the Bounty. The ship was tasked with transporting Tahitian breadfruit saplings to the British Caribbean colonies. The Bounty arrived for a five-month layover in 1789. During that time many of the crew lived ashore and formed relationships with the locals. This caused a serious issue for discipline and Bligh began handing out harsh discipline and criticism of the crew.

When Bligh and his other supporters were put into the boat, they had 25 gallons of water, 150 pounds of bread, 30 pounds of pork, six quarts of rum, and six bottles of wine. They were not expected to survive but through Bligh’s exceptional navigation skills and careful rationing of the supplies, they made and survived the ordeal. For the mutineers, life was not as it was hoped. Some of the crew decided to stay in Tahiti despite the possibility of British capture. Christian and six others including some Tahitian men and women ultimately settled on Pitcairn Island about 1,000 miles east of Tahiti.

Aftermath

After returning to England, the HMS Pandora was dispatched to Tahiti in April 1790. 14 of the mutineers were captured but failed to find Christian or his party, On the return voyage Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef resulting in 31 crew dead and 3 of the mutineers as well. After a court martial in 1792, four were acquitted, three pardoned, and two were hung. The fate of Fletcher Christian was not determined until 1808. An American ship drawn by a fire visited Pitcairn. Only one mutineer, John Adams, was still alive. The Bounty had been scuttled and all of the other mutineers (including Christian) had been killed either by each other or by the Tahitians. He was not arrested and today many of the descendants still live on Pitcairn, which is a British Overseas Territory

Rear Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey, 1814
National Library of Australia
Public Domain (US via Wikimedia Commons)

HMS Bounty was not a ship of the line, but a small commercial vessel purchased by the Royal Navy for the botanical mission. As such command of a vessel of this kind would fall to a senior lieutenant. Bligh was selected because he had served under James Cook in his third and final voyage (1776–1780). After that voyage, like many officers of that time, he was put on half-pay as the American war was over. He commanded a commercial vessel before being given command of HMS Bounty. After the court martial in 1792, the general opinion of Bligh was negative both in the Royal Navy and by the public. And the fact that those who survived confirmed some of the cruel and possibly paranoid actions also fed into a negative opinion of him. He would be put on half-pay and wait a long time for his next appointment in 1797 where he commanded HMS Director at the Battle of Camperdown (October 1797). He would next command the HMS Glatton in Battle of Copenhagen (March 1801) and be praised by Lord Nelson for his actions. While in command of the HMS Warrior he was court-martialed for use of bad language to his officers and officially reprimanded in 1805. In 1806 he was sent as Governor to New South Wales in Australia

His style of leadership was a firm disciplinarian which made him ill-suited to the position where you had to deal with wealthy and important landowners on one hand, and powerful officials on the other. He managed to anger both with his confrontational style. He did face a serious problem in that some of these wealthy landowners and crown officials were engaged in private trading. His attempt to shut them down was met with the Rum Rebellion in 1808. On 26 Jan 1808, Major George Johnson of the Royal Marines led 400 soldiers of the New South Wales Corp to Government House in Sydney and arrested Bligh. Bligh was placed on HMS Porpoise where he would remain until January 1810. Bligh tried and failed to get the British authorities in Hobart to support him in retaking New South Wales. Bligh would be allowed to leave in 1810 and eventually returned to England for Major Johnson’s court martial. The trial court sentenced him to be dismissed from the Royal Marines, a very mild sentence considering what he had done. He would return to Australia without his officer’s commission but his wealth from the private trade deals were more than sufficient for him to live a comfortable life.

As the Royal Navy promoted on seniority and patronage rather than by merit, Bligh would be promoted to rear admiral in 1810 and in 1814 admiral of the blue. He would never hold command again even during the height of the Napoleonic War when commands were available. He would design the North Bull Wall on the River Liffey in Dublin. He also mapped Dublin Bay. Bligh died on 7 Dec 1817 at the age of 63. He was buried at the family plot in St. Mary’s, Lambeth though now the church is now the Garden Museum. His tomb is topped with a breadfruit.

Sources and Further Reading

“Mutiny on the HMS Bounty.” HISTORY, 26 Apr. 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mutiny-on-the-hms-bounty.

Tomes, Luke. “Bligh, Breadfruit and Betrayal: The True Story Behind the Mutiny on the Bounty.” History Hit, www.historyhit.com/mutiny-bounty.

“Mutiny on the Bounty.” Royal Museums Greenwich, www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/mutiny-on-bounty.

Books

Alexander, Caroline. The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. Penguin, 2004.

Nordhoff, Charles, and James Norman Hall. Mutiny on the Bounty. Back Bay Books, 1989.

FitzSimons, Peter. Mutiny on the Bounty: A Saga of Sex, Sedition, Mayhem and Mutiny, and Survival Against Extraordinary Odds. 2020.

The Mutiny on the Bounty: Texts From Captain Bligh, Sir John Barrow, and Amelia Rosalind Young. Bybliotech, 2017.

Movies

Mutiny on the Bounty. Directed by Frank Lloyd, MGM, 1935. This excellent movie stars Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh. The movie comes from a time when epic swashbuckling action movies filled the screen. The acting is top rate, and the action will not leave you disappointed. Perhaps not historical as some would like, but a great movie to watch.

Mutiny on the Bounty. Directed by Lewis Milestone, Arcola Pictures, 1962. This 1962 movie in stunning color features Marlon Brando as Christian and Trevor Howard as Bligh. They filmed some scenes in French Polynesia giving the mostly fictional account a good telling. The film gets mostly positive reviews though some think Brando’s performance was not as good as it could have been. There were a lot of problems in filming, the change of directors, Marlon Brando causing some issues and so forth. Still worth taking a look at considering the lush scenes the movie has, along with some good acting as well. It certainly shows the changed times from 1935 when some things were not mentioned or referenced.

The Bounty.  Directed by Roger Donaldson, Dino De Laurentiis Company, 1984. This updated telling of the famous mutiny is told via flashbacks as Bligh is giving testimony in his court martial. Anthony Hopkins plays Bligh while Mel Gibson is Christian. Previous movies have shown Bligh as an outright tyrant, which was not entirely the case. However he did seem to get more strict as time went on during the voyage and in Tahiti. So this movie tries to show both sides and seems to do it well for the most part. While it gets positive reviews, some think Gibson was too bland. However it is more realistic in showing what it was like to be on a ship back then. And how Tahiti would seem like a paradise when the women walked around topless, which was something no European was used to at all.

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Fascinating History: Ben Franklin’s Famous Electricity Experiment (10 June 1752)

Photograph of painting depicting Franklin’s famous kite and key experiment. Circa 1911.
Artist: Charles E. Mills (American, 1856-1956)
U.S. Library of Congress, Digital Id#cph 3b42841

On 10 Jun 1752 Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment on electricity that has become both famous and legendary. Electricity was already understood by this time, and many were studying static electricity. What Franklin was studying was the connection between lightning and electricity. Originally, he wanted to do the experiment on a church spire but decided using a kite would be better. As a thunderstorm began to develop over Philadelphia, he and his son William headed out to a field with a kite to conduct the experiment.

The Experiment

Contrary to popular belief, the experiment itself was conducted without lightning striking the kite. According to the Franklin Institute, he constructed a kite and attached a wire at the top to act as a lightning rod. The bottom of the kite used hemp string, which when wetted with rain, would be an excellent conductor for an electrical charge. And then he attached silk string that he would hold the kite from the doorway of a shed. With his son’s help, they got the kite aloft and just waited to see what would happen during the storm.

Then just as they were about to give up, Franklin noticed the loose strands of hemp were standing erect. Moving his finger near the metal key they had attached; he felt the electricity. He and his son using a Leyden jar collected the static electricity they would discharge later. It was a significant achievement and added more to the study of understanding and using electricity. He wrote of the experiment to the Pennsylvania Gazette (19 October 1752) and how to recreate it. Also, he was not the first to do this type of experiment. One had been done a month earlier in France by Thomas-François Dalibard. A year later Georg Wilhelm Richmann attempted to do the same thing in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, he was struck by ball lightning, which is very rare and to this day baffles scientists and died.

Aftermath

Franklin went on to invent the lightning rod, which over time became widespread in use for homes and buildings. The electrical charge from a lightning strike would pass harmlessly through the rod and cables keeping it safely away from any conductive material. Airplanes utilize them as well since they often have to fly near or around storms where lightning is present. Ships use them as well and the charge is dispersed into the water. Franklin would receive the Copley Award from the Royal Society for his experiments.

Needless to say, many doubt the experiment happened but one has to bear in mind whether the doubters read his own words of how it was done or simply accepted the common fable he stood outside in the rain waiting for lightning. Mythbusters actually tried to do the second one, which is to have lightning strike the kite. And they found it would likely be fatal to do that and that if Franklin really did do it, he was very lucky to have survived. What happened to Richmann is often cited to show how fatal it could be as well. Except Richmann was struck by ball lightning, a very rare occurrence that is not wholly understood. And Franklin was clear lightning never struck the kite and that what he was trying to do was see if lightning generated electricity in the air, which it did. Others either misread or, for reasons of their own perhaps in jest, said Franklin stood out in the rain and flew a kite to get struck by lightning. And it got into the public consciousness where it became considered true after a while. It is not the first, and likely not the last, where an event gets retold and later key facts get lost and the wrong story takes hold instead.

Sources

Ameyers. “Benjamin Franklin and the Kite Experiment.” The Franklin Institute, 19 Oct. 2023, fi.edu/en/science-and-education/benjamin-franklin/kite-key-experiment.

—. “Benjamin Franklin Flies Kite During Thunderstorm.” HISTORY, 6 June 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/franklin-flies-kite-during-thunderstorm.

Ben Franklin’s Contribution to Our Understanding of Electricity. www.ushistory.org/franklin//science/electricity.htm.

Suggested Reading

Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. Anchor, 2002.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: The Original 1793 Edition. Independently published, 2022.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Book of Virtues. Books of American Wisdom, 2016.

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Forgotten History: Infamous Port Royal Sinks Into Sea Taking 3,000 Lives (7 June 1692

In the tale of Atlantis related by Plato, the island sinks into the sea. While today nearly all historians and archaeologists consider Atlantis a myth, there is one story that true and that is the sinking of Port Royal into the Caribbean Sea on 7 June 1692.

Pre-1692 Port Royal Illustration
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Port Royal was located in southeast Jamaica on the peninsula of Kingston Harbor. It was founded in 1494 by the Spanish though the area where Port Royal was located was of little interest to them. Jamaica was an important island strategically for them since it was located inside the major trade routes. The Spanish primarily used the island for sugar cane and would remain under Spanish control until the British seized it in 1655.

The British added houses, shops, warehouses, and two forts into the area that would be called later Port Royal (it was originally called Cagway). Port Royal would be the unofficial capital of Jamaica (though Spanish town was the official capital under the 19th century when Kingston was made the capital. Privateering found a convenient home in Port Royal. With its easy access to the Spanish Main, privateers carrying Letters of Marque (a document issued by the government authorizing the private person to raid ships of their enemies) could easily attack and bring back their spoils to sold for profit. It also had a large and well protected harbor for the privateers to return to and get ships repaired. Many well-known buccaneers of the period used Port Royal as their base of operations. Between the British Royal Navy and these privateers, the Spanish were on the defense. Additionally, it made it difficult for them to resupply their colonies or ship items home. Thus Spanish, with trade interrupted by ships captured by privateers, were forced to buy their supplies from merchants who got their them from privateers. It was a system called Forced Trade.

Port Royal became a city tied to the fortunes of the privateers as they raided Spanish ships and towns. They privateers received a great deal of money from bringing the items back to Port Royal where merchants would buy them. From all accounts, just about everyone in Port Royal benefited in one way or another from the privateers. Port Royal became a fast-growing city reaching up to 6,500 people at its height making it one of the largest cities in the Caribbean. It also acquired a reputation for its gaudy display of wealth and the large numbers of privateers that lived there. It became widely known as a place of loose morals as well. There were numerous taverns (one for every 10 people), prostitution was widely in use, and money was spent freely causing many of the privateers to go broke. There were also goldsmiths and merchants of all kinds to sold or bought products from the privateers. The city ran out of room due to the increased population, so they had to fill in areas and build on it or build structures above the water (sort of like Venice).  While there were some advice buildings should be built with wood and build them low, many opted to build with bricks not realizing they were not building on bedrock but sand.

By 1692, the need for privateers had diminished for the British with the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 ended their need to raid Spanish ships and cities. Henry Morgan, one of the famous and celebrated privateers of the era, would end up serving in the Jamaican government and even its governor at times. Privateers would still use Port Royal, but they had to be sure never to attack British ships. Morgan could no longer issue Letters of Marque but the French needed them, so they would sail for France against, you guessed it, the Spanish. Morgan received a payment for each Letter of Marque that was signed. It did cause problems for Morgan since some said he was helping the French against the Spanish. France though had become a major threat to the British. Morgan was replaced as governor (he only held the position when the person appointed was away or vacant). During his times as governor he increased defenses of the island from the French. But the accusations (falsely made it seems) would doom him and he would be out of power (except for a brief period) and died in 1684.

Changing attitudes also occurred as well. While many privateers had done service for the realm, pirates were a threat to everyone. And many people in Port Royal had tired of the drunkenness and other things that had given the city quite a sordid reputation. Anti-piracy laws enacted in 1687 turned Port Royal into a place where pirates were executed rather than tolerated. Ships called there and many sailors spent their money in taverns and other places, but pirates were now executed when caught or imprisoned. Then on 7 June 1692 around 11:43 a.m., everything would change. Three massive earthquakes hit Jamaica but was hardest on Port Royal. Buildings built over the water or filled in areas collapsed. Also, the peninsula was mostly sand and soil liquefaction occurred collapsing buildings as they sank. Then to make matters even worse, the tsunami created by the earthquakes struck putting half of Port Royal under water. Nearby Spanish Town was destroyed, and landslides claimed victims as well inland.

Over 3,000 people were killed outright by the earthquakes and tsunami. Many more died later from the looting, from injuries, and from diseases. The wicked pirate city as it was called was gone. While parts of it still remained, it was never rebuilt (subsequent attempts ran into real difficulties) and Kingston became more important as a result. Today there is an effort to restore a small part of it for tourist and also to make it a world heritage site. A large floating pier for cruise ships has been built but much more needs to be done according to news reports. A lot of study by geologists, historians, oceanographers and others of the remains under the sea is being done to understand how it happened. Port Royal, once the haven for pirates, has become known as the city that sank. Many actually were happy to see it suffer its fate from some writings of that time.

Map showing shoreline changes caused by the 1692 Port Royal earthquake
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sources

Ugc. “Sunken Pirate City at Port Royal.” Atlas Obscura, 3 June 2024, www.atlasobscura.com/places/sunken-pirate-stronghold-at-port-royal.

“Port Royal | Jamaica, Map, History, and Earthquake.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 June 2024, www.britannica.com/place/Port-Royal-Jamaica.

“Letter of Marque | Definition and Examples.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 Nov. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/letter-of-marque.

 “Earthquake Destroys Jamaican Town.” HISTORY, 6 June 2024, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/earthquake-destroys-jamaican-pirate-haven.

Vallar, Cindy. Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy – Pirate Havens Port Royal. www.cindyvallar.com/havens4.html.

“Port Royal.” Wikipedia, 3 June 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Royal.

Documentaries & Films

The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered. “Pirates and the Earthquake That Destroyed Port Royal.” YouTube, 7 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EypOHCv2JsY.

NTIONAL GEOGRAPHIC WILD. “Best Documentary History of Port Royal Underwater Cities.” YouTube, 22 Jan. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1VLUevIWIs.

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering D-Day, 6 June 1944 When The Allies Began Liberation of Europe

[Note this has been updated with new source information and the inclusion of Eisenhower’s message to troops on the eve of the invasion. MT 2024]

“Into The Jaws of Death”
U.S. troops from Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division disembarking landing craft on 6 June 1944.
Photo:Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration)

In June of 1944, Nazi Germany held total control over Western Europe except for Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland who remained neutral. However its invasion of Russia had collapsed at this point with the German army now forced to retreat. It had already been forced out of North Africa and Allied troops had landed in Sicily in 1943 and by 1944 were in Italy. Mussolini had been deposed in 1943, rescued by German paratroopers, and put in charge of a German supported puppet state in Northern Italy. The Germans knew the allies were planning a major invasion along the coast of France. The question was when and where.

Crossing the English Channel was going to be an enormous challenge. Despite what some want to believe, it was easier in concept that actual implementation. While cries of a second front had been going on for years, it required a vast amount of resources to pull off. You not only needed the men, but they all had to be trained, fed, and properly outfitted. Not just the foot soldiers but also the special units. Then you needed ships not only to bring them over to England, but camps to house them and continue their training. The Army Air Corp needed runways and facilities. The list goes on and on. Imagine a list of needed items that stretches, when laid out flat, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you get an idea of how enormous an operation this was going to be. And that is just on the planning and supply side.

Then the problem of getting men over to France was a major hurdle. Landing craft at the start of the war were not very good and unreliable. New ones would have to be devised (they were, the Higgins boats) that would allow troops to be dropped off as close to shore as possible. Then you needed accurate intelligence to tell you what the troops were going to face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had put up every possible fortification on the beaches and the area around. From mines in the water to barbed wire to turrets filled with guns and German troops. Hitler wanted an Atlantic wall and Rommel was pretty darn close in getting it done.

Thanks to cunning deceptions, the Germans were led to believe the attack would be at Calais. They also did not figure the Allies would attack without a long clear window. And the North Atlantic is a tricky place where weather can be a good one day and stormy the next. Despite all the planning and training, nearly all the top leaders including Eisenhower knew how risky the operation was. And that once begun, it would not go to plan. And they had to consider the possibility the Germans would be able to repel and push back the invasion.

What made the difference was the sheer martial weight thrown at the Germans. With most field officers incapacitated or killed approaching beaches or not long after arrival, it was up to noncoms and ordinary soldiers to put their training and discipline to work. Unlike what was shown in movies, most of the troops did not land on beaches but in the water. Many drowned because the weight of the gear sunk them. Others were killed by gunfire, mortars, mines striking the craft. Yet despite all these odds especially when they landed on the wrong places, allied troops managed to push in and take on the Germans.

It was a bloody day and casualties were high (sometimes 70-80% in some units). One of the big blunders were not understanding the famous hedgerows. These were not hedges like you think of but thick and gnarly. Germans could hide in them and fire on soldiers below. And they were impassible even to tanks. Special ones had to be fitted out to go through the hedges to drive German soldiers out.

Although the term D-Day is used routinely as military lingo for the day an operation or event will take place, for many it is also synonymous with June 6, 1944, the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.

With Hitler’s armies in control of most of mainland Europe, the Allies knew that a successful invasion of the continent was central to winning the war. Hitler knew this too, and was expecting an assault on northwestern Europe in the spring of 1944. He hoped to repel the Allies from the coast with a strong counterattack that would delay future invasion attempts, giving him time to throw the majority of his forces into defeating the Soviet Union in the east. Once that was accomplished, he believed an all-out victory would soon be his.

On the morning of June 5, 1944, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious military operation in history. On his orders, 6,000 landing craft, ships and other vessels carrying 176,000 troops began to leave England for the trip to France. That night, 822 aircraft filled with parachutists headed for drop zones in Normandy. An additional 13,000 aircraft were mobilized to provide air cover and support for the invasion.


“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is will-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower message to troops on 6 June 1944. It was sent out with the Order of the Day and distributed to 175,000 on the eve of the invasion. He also recorded the message so that others involved with D-Day would hear it as well. You can listen to it here.


By dawn on June 6, 18,000 parachutists were already on the ground; the land invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture Gold, Juno and Sword beaches; so did the Americans at Utah. The task was much tougher at Omaha beach, however, where 2,000 troops were lost and it was only through the tenacity and quick-wittedness of troops on the ground that the objective was achieved. By day’s end, 155,000 Allied troops–Americans, British and Canadians–had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches.

For their part, the Germans suffered from confusion in the ranks and the absence of celebrated commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was away on leave. At first, Hitler, believing that the invasion was a feint designed to distract the Germans from a coming attack north of the Seine River, refused to release nearby divisions to join the counterattack and reinforcements had to be called from further afield, causing delays. He also hesitated in calling for armored divisions to help in the defense. In addition, the Germans were hampered by effective Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.

Though it did not go off exactly as planned, as later claimed by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery–for example, the Allies were able to land only fractions of the supplies and vehicles they had intended in France–D-Day was a decided success. By the end of June, the Allies had 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles in Normandy and were poised to continue their march across Europe.

National D-Day Memorial at Bedford, Virginia
Photo:Public Domain

The heroism and bravery displayed by troops from the Allied countries on D-Day has served as inspiration for several films, most famously The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). It was also depicted in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers (2001).

Further Information & Suggested Reading

  1. Books

Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. 1992.

—. D-Day: June 6, 1944 — The Climactic Battle of WWII. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

—. The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II. 1998.

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. Macmillan, 2004.

Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris; June 6 – Aug. 5, 1944; Revised. Penguin Books, 1994.

Ryan, Cornelius. Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D Day. Simon and Schuster, 1994.

2) Websites

McGrath, John. Normandy. history.army.mil/brochures/normandy/nor-pam.htm.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

Normandy Landings, Operations Overlord and Neptune. www.naval-history.net/WW2CampaignsNormandy.htm.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

World War II: D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy | Eisenhower Presidential Library. www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/world-war-ii-d-day-invasion-normandy.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

Heijink, Eric. “Veterans Remember Normandy Invasion 1944.” Eric Heijink, normandy.secondworldwar.nl/index.html.
Accessed 3 June 2024.

3) Films & TV

The Longest Day. Darryl F. Zanuck Productions, 1962.
This is an excellent adaptation of the book. It is mostly accurate though there are some places where they decided to cut short what really happened or altered it for the film. Many of the actors who were in the movie served in World War II and at least one actor was actually part of the invasion.

Ambrose, Stephen. Band of Brothers. DreamWorks, HBO Films, Playtone, BBC, 9 Sept. 2001. HBO, www.hbo.com/band-of-brothers.
This miniseries is based on the book of the same name and includes interviews by the real people who were there. It does follow the book accurately though there are some small differences between the book and miniseries. The actors were in contact with their real counterparts and learned from them how they reacted to the battles they were in. I highly recommend you read both the book and watch the miniseries. The book goes into details not covered in the miniseries. Note for parents: There is a lot of violence depicted and uses very foul language at times (though it was toned down considerably from what was really used).

Saving Private Ryan. Directed by Steven Spielberg, DVD, Amblin Entertainment, Mutual Film Company, 1998.
While the story is fictional, it is based on real events that took place during World War II. This movie really shows graphically what happened on D-Day as the troops landed. Many movies shy away from showing the true horror of the day, so be warned as what is depicted is very graphic to show what happened to our brave soldiers who came under withering German fire.

 

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Remembering History: Battle of Midway (4-7 June 1942)

[This post has been updated for 2024 with better sources, links, and some punctuation corrections. MT]

Midway Atoll, 24 November 1941
Public Domain (Official U.S. Navy photo)

In June 1942 the Empire of Japan had become the dominant power in Asia and ruled a sizable empire. It acquired Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895, Korea in 1905, and Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo) in 1931. It invaded China in 1937 seizing control of key cities such as Shanghai, Nanking and Peking (Beijing). French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand) were invaded after the fall of France in 1940 to prevent it from being used by the Chinese to funnel arms. A treaty with German backed Vichy France made French Indochina neutral but within the Japanese sphere of power. British Hong Kong fell to the Japanese after 18 days of heavy fighting on Christmas Day in 1941. Fortress Singapore, so-called because it seemed impregnable to attack, would fall to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942. The Japanese avoided a frontal assault by coming through the less protected jungle at its rear. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was conquered by March 1942 and The Philippines would fall in May. Burma would also be taken over as well. To protect their position in Dutch West Indies they began attacking northern Australia to prevent it from being used as a staging area. With the old imperial powers gone and Japan firmly in charge, nothing seemed to be in the way of Japan. The Battle of Midway changed that.

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec 1941 was considered a success in Japan, the United States was still in the game. The unexpected bombing of Tokyo on 18 April 1942 (The Doolittle Raid) and its ability to fight as shown at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942) convinced Japanese leaders they needed to so demolish American morale they would not want to fight any further. They choose a small virtually unknown atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Midway to draw out the American fleet to be destroyed. Midway is aptly named and 1300 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor and nearly halfway between Japan and the West Coast of the United States. Its strategic importance meant it was valuable for both sides. A military base was already there and seizing it from the United States would draw out their remaining carriers along with support craft to be destroyed. The plan was to send four carriers and support craft for the initial attack. Then a larger task force comprised of destroyers, support craft and troops commanded by Admiral Yamamoto would follow up to destroy the American ships than came to liberate Midway. A feint of attacking American outposts in the Aleutian Islands was used to distract the U.S. while it attacked Midway.

The Japanese, however, did not know that its code had been broken. A special naval intelligence unit called HYPO had broken it in March resulting in much of the plan becoming known to the U.S. A task force was assembled of three carriers (Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown) seven heavy cruisers, 1 light cruiser, 15 destroyers, and 16 submarines would go out to meet the Japanese fleet. The Yorktown, already in badly need of repair, was patched up and its depleted aircraft and pilots scrounged up from whatever was available. In overall command was to have been Vice Admiral William Halsey but fell sick prior to the mission. Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, who headed up the escorts under Halsey, would command Enterprise and Hornet. Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher was in command of Yorktown.

On 4 June 1942, Admiral Nagumo aboard the carrier Akagi launched the initial air attack on Midway comprised of dive and torpedo bombers escorted by Zeroes. PBYs launched that morning from Midway would sight two Japanese carriers and radar picked up incoming Japanese fighters. Midway sent up unescorted bombers to delay the attack while the fighters remained behind to defend Midway. Midway came under heavy attack and its air interceptors took a heavy beating fighting the Japanese. Anti-aircraft fire from ground personnel proved to be more precise. Midway took a beating but was still functional and could launch planes.

The pilots of the U.S. Navy Torpedo Squadron 8 (VT-8) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), circa mid-May 1942, shortly before battle of Midway. They flew unescorted by fighters to attack the Japanese aircraft carriers. The slow moving planes were no match for the fast Zeros that attacked them. Not one torpedo they launched did any damage. However because of their bravery, the Zeros were out of position when the American dive-bombers arrived allowing them to bomb the Japanese carriers. Ensign George Gay was the only survivor.
Photo: May 1942
Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, digital ID NH 93595
Public Domain

Meanwhile scouting reports flying ahead of the American carriers placed the Japanese carriers at the extreme range for air attack. Making matters more difficult was the fact that Japanese scout planes had sighted the American fleet. Despite the extreme range, Spruance ordered the planes to be launched and increased the speed of the task force to close the distance. The torpedo squadrons left first but due to mechanical problems in launching the dive-bombers, had to fly unescorted. They would reach the Japanese and be quickly shot out of the sky by Japanese Zeroes and anti-aircraft fire. Not one torpedo launched did any serious damage.

Admiral Nagumo had a problem. His planes returned from Midway and were being re-armed for the next bombing run. But he had just gotten a report that the American navy was in the area. Its exact composition was unknown. So, he ordered a change in the ordnance for the attack planes. Instead of attacking land-based targets they would arm to destroy ships. The result was there was a lot of ordnance out on the deck on the carriers where this was being done. With the Japanese combat air patrol out of position having dealt with the torpedo squadrons they were not able to intercept the next wave of attack. American dive-bomber squadrons from Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown would seemingly arrive nearly at the same time. It was one of the greatest coincidences in military history. Three Japanese carriers–Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu–would be sunk that day.

Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu, photographed by a Yokosuka B4Y aircraft from the carrier Hosho shortly after sunrise on 5 June 1942.
Photo: Public Domain ( U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

The surviving carrier Hiryu counter-attacked by sending our air squadrons to attack any American carrier they could find. They found Yorktown and dropped three bombs heavily damaging the ship but not sinking it. Admiral Fletcher moved over to cruiser Astoria while it was being repaired. A second air attack an hour later would further damage Yorktown. She would later sink when being towed on 6 June by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine, which also sank the destroyer Hamman.

The Japanese believed they had turned the tide and would be able to go on with the Midway plan. They knew a huge fleet of destroyers and support craft was on the way. However, the Hiryu was found late in the afternoon. An air attack by Enterprise and Yorktown bombers resulted in four or possibly five bombs seriously crippling her. The fires prevented any planes taking off or landing. The crew would evacuate and later Hiryu would sink. Spruance, not wanting to risk exposure to Japanese forces and wanting to protect Midway would retire to the west. Admiral Yamamoto still wanted to invade Midway and proceeded on course. Had Spruance not changed course, the remaining two carriers of the American fleet would have been exposed to Yamamoto’s destroyers. Spruance would go after the stragglers. Yamamoto ultimately ordered the fleet back to Japan not knowing the full composition of the American forces that might be pursuing.

The U.S. Navy lost 1 carrier, 1 destroyer, 150 aircraft and 307 killed. Many of those killed were from the torpedo squadrons that lost 80% or more of their pilots. The Japanese lost 4 carriers, 1 heavy cruiser, 248 aircraft and 3,057 killed. It was a major victory for the U.S., but most Japanese would never learn the full details until after the war was over. The survivors of the sunken carriers and those aboard the ships that survived would be quarantined or sent on duty assignments far away from home. None of the senior officers would face any serious repercussions. Only those at the very top were informed as to what really happened. Only the Emperor and the top naval officers knew the full details. The public was told it was a great victory and the Imperial Japanese Army believed the navy was in good condition. However, Admiral Yamamoto and the other senior leaders of the Japanese Navy knew the truth. The United States would soon come out stronger than it had been before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the United States it would prove the value of intelligence gathering and codebreaking. It would continue to be an important part of the war effort and would yield even more useful information down the road with dire consequences for Admiral Yamamoto. The code breaking led directly to his plane being shot down in 1943 as payback for Pearl Harbor.

(Please note this is a very condensed description of the Battle of Midway and had a lot more stages in it than reflected in this writing).

Sources:

Books

Lord, Walter Incredible Victory. First Edition, New York, Harper and Row, 1967.

Prange, Gordon William, et al. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. McGraw-Hill Companies, 1981.

Websites

Battle of Midway. www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/midway.html.

Significance, Battle of Midway-Location Outcome &. “Battle of Midway – Location, Outcome and Significance.” HISTORY, 17 Dec. 2019, www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-midway.)

Michal. “The Battle of Midway.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans, 22 June 2017, www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/battle-midway.

Battle of Midway: June 4 – 6, 1942. www.cv6.org/1942/midway.

Movies & Documentaries

“Midway Is East.” Archive.org, 1952, archive.org/details/VAS_04_Midway_Is_East. This is episode 4 from the excellent Victory at Sea series which was shown in 1952-1953. Using archived footage along with excellent music, the series conveyed the scope of naval warfare in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Watch the entire series if you can.

“The Battle of Midway (Short 1942) ? 6.1 | Documentary, Short, War.” IMDb, 14 Sept. 1942, www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498. This is a documentary made in 1942 right after the battle with John Ford directing. It uses actual footage and uses actors to voice over parts of accounts of the sailors and aviators that participated. It is available (for free) from some streaming services like Tubi. You can also view it on YouTube (the version linked here is the colorized version, not the original Black & White).

The Federal File. “Destination Point Luck Voices From Midway – Battle of Midway WWII Documentary.” YouTube, 24 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vqpk4Rmfbm8.

Midway. Directed by Jack Smight, The Mirisch Corporation, Universal Pictures, 1976. This 1976 movie starring Charlton Heston uses old stock footage and pushes the real historical figures in the background while pushing a fictional story line. While entertaining, many will find it lacking in a lot of real historical depth. The subplot involving Heston’s son in the movie makes it more of a soap opera at times. Worth watching to see some great actors but not so much if you are looking for something that will relate the real story of the battle.

Midway. Directed by Roland Emmerich, Summit Entertainment and others, 2019. This 2019 version significantly was better in terms of better effects and depicting events leading up and the Battle of Midway itself. Most of the characters are based on historical ones. Reviews were mixed on this one. Some thought it was a decent movie but the story itself was not compelling. Rotten Tomatoes has it as 42% like it and IMDB users rate it as 6.7. It is certainly more historically accurate and shows the Japanese side (with actual Japanese actors speaking Japanese).

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Welcome to June

June calendar from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
From Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 6, verso: June
Between 1412 and 1416, circa 1440 or between 1485 and 1486
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

June is the sixth month on both the Gregorian and Julian calendars.  June is one four months to be only 30 days long. June marks the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere (and the reverse below the equator.) The Summer Solstice usually occurs between the 20-22 of the month and is the longest day of the year. June gets its name from the Latin Iunius, which was used on the old Roman calendar (which June was the fourth month since March used to be the first month) and believed to be named for the Roman god Juno. Juno was the wife and sister of Jupiter (the Roman version of Zeus, king of the gods). Juno was the protector of the nation and watched over women. She was also associated with youth.

Midsummer is celebrated in June on the summer solstice or St. John’s Day on 24 June. It is mainly celebrated in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden but the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania celebrate it as well.  Father’s Day is celebrated around the world in June but not on the same date. 19 June is Juneteenth, a federal holiday  in the United States, which commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud in Galveston, Texas. This freed the enslaved people in the state that had been outside of Union Army control.

Rose is the June Flower.
Les Roses by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840)
Photo:Public Domain (US Library of Congress: lccn.loc.gov/50049695)

It is a month of celebrations and weddings are very popular during this month. During Roman times getting married during the month of June was considered lucky and has become traditional since then as the month for preferred weddings. The June symbols are pearl, alexandrite and moonstone for the birthstones, with the rose and honeysuckle for the flowers. Although officially summer does not begin until the solstice, for commercial and agricultural purposes summer begins when the month begins.

Sources

“The Month of June 2024: Holidays, Fun Facts, Folklore.” Almanac.com, 29 May 2024, www.almanac.com/content/month-june-holidays-fun-facts-folklore.

The Month of June. www.timeanddate.com/calendar/months/june.html.

—. June – Wikipedia. 2 June 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June.

Remembering the Johnstown Flood (31 May 1889)

Main Street, Johnstown, after the flood
Source Public Domain (Original source:Andrews, E. Benjamin. History of the United States, volume V. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1912)

On 31 May 1889, a terrible flood devastated the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. A catastrophic failure of a dam on the Little Conemaugh River, approximately 14 miles upstream of the town occurred. Several days of heavy rains resulted in a large volume of water in the Lake Conemaugh reservoir. It is estimated 20 million tons of water were unleashed when the dam broke. Scientists believe today the volume of water released through the narrow valley to the town temporarily equaled the flow of the Mississippi River.

It took 57 minutes for the water to traverse the distance to Johnstown, whose citizens were unaware the dam had burst. Several towns along the way were hit by the raging waters along the way. Debris included livestock, homes, railroad cars and whatever it picked up along the way. It was temporarily stopped at the Conemaugh Viaduct, a 78-foot railroad bridge but it gave way allowing the flood to resume. This is believed to have made the flood stronger and thus hit Johnstown traveling at 40 mph and reaching 60 feet in height. People who managed to flee to high ground, whether it be in attics or racing to higher ground, generally survived. Many were crushed by falling debris or hit by debris within the flood surge. A second surge to hit Johnstown occurred when flood waters that had been stopped by debris at Stone Bridge gave way and entered the town from a different direction.

The Great Conemaugh Valley Disaster — Flood & Fire at Johnstown, Pa.
Unknown Artist, 1890
Reproduced from a lithograph print published by Kurz & Allison Art Publishers,Chicago Ill.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

When it was all over, Johnstown had been devastated and the death toll stood at 2,209. This made it the largest single loss of life up to that time. 99 families died, 396 children. A large number of widows, widowers, and orphan children resulted from the tragedy. Some remains were never identified and buried in “Plot of the Unknown” in Grandview Cemetery in Westmont. Property damage was extensive with homes and industry damaged. The American Red Cross, newly founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, assisted survivors and stayed for five months. Although significant improvements have been made to protect residents of the area from floods, they still occasionally threaten and cause damage to property and life. The last major catastrophe occurred in 1977 when severe thunderstorms caused the river to rise and reaching heights of 8 feet and more. 78 people died in the area and $200 million in property damage occurred.

Many blamed the dam failure on the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club for failing to maintain the dam properly. Many of its members were millionaires (and the lawyers that defended it in court were also members). However, due to limited liability laws and a determination that the dam broke due to an act of God, the South Fork Club was deemed not liable and so no money was paid to survivors. However, many members did contribute money to the relief funds for the town. Andrew Carnegie built a new library. Laws would change so that strict liability would be assessed against such organizations in the future.

Postscript

My grandfather was born in Johnstown a few years after this disaster and grew up knowing about what happened. Years later after moving to Leavenworth, Washington (known today as the Bavarian Village) he met a survivor of the flood. She had been a very young girl back then and her entire family had been wiped out. Worse the damage had destroyed the local records office where birth records had been kept. So, while she knew her first name, her family name was unknown. A lasting reminder of the effects of such disasters can have on people

[Note: This has been edited for spelling and punctuation from earlier postings. I have also updated the sources for this post as well and added in a YouTube documentary.]

Sources

Johnstown Flood National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service). www.nps.gov/jofl/index.htm.

“Flood History – Johnstown Area Heritage Association.” Johnstown Area Heritage Association, 13 Dec. 2019, www.jaha.org/attractions/johnstown-flood-museum/flood-history.

Hurst, David. “It’s Still Controversial’: Debate Rages Over Culpability of Wealthy Club Members.” The Tribune Democrat, 25 May 2014, www.tribdem.com/news/it-s-still-controversial-debate-rages-over-culpability-of-wealthy/article_efecef7a-4a87-5b22-95e7-866e8f48206c.html.

Pennsylvania Highways:  Johnstown Flood. www.pahighways.com/features/johnstownflood.html.

—. “Johnstown Flood.” Wikipedia, 25 Apr. 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnstown_Flood.