A Disaster in Luxemburg and Lightning Awareness Week

Yeah, like living in the Great Lakes we’re not “aware” of lightning.

Anyway, 26 June is one of those days that, well, is not blessed with an excess of National Days (except for National Hair Stylist Appreciation Day and (National Chocolate Pudding Day), and a plethora of events including the murder of Pizarro in 1541, the battle of Mechanicsville in 1862, the beginning of the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.  But today, we have to be obscure…and talk about lightning.

In the early 19th century, during the French occupation of Luxembourg , the 75 year old fortress of Fort Thungen in Kirchberg (now a part of Luxembourg City), was being used as a magazine and gunpowder factory by the ammunition-hungry armies of Napoleon.  On 26 June 1807, a lightning strike touched off the powder, destroying two city blocks and killing at least 300 people.  If my sources are right, most simple gunpowder in the pre-industrial era was made from November to March to avoid dampening the mixture, so its not clear if the powder works was operating.

At this distance it’s hard to say exactly what happened, but either the walls of the fortress were very stout or there wasn’t a great deal of powder there.  This accident took place just twelve days after the battle of Friedland in Prussia, the battle that ended the War of the Fourth Coalition, enabled the Treaty of TIlsit and pulled Russia into the Continental System, at least for a while.  It was also four months after the battle of Eylau, and barely a month after the siege of Danzig ended.  In six months, Napoleon had consumed several magazines of powder so far that year, so it’s just possible that the magazine was lower than normal.

National Lightning Awareness Week was last week (last full week in June), regrettably, but I couldn’t resist the connection.  Neither accidental explosive detonations nor lightning strikes are that rare or unusual, but this one was both.  It’s called the deadliest lightning strike in history by some, but the Lightning Safety Council doesn’t mention it on its web site.  As of 2001 lightning strikes killed about 50 people a year in the US: at this writing that number is about 30.  The Lightning Safety Council claims its because of their efforts, but it seems more likely that people are spending less time outside and electrical codes have caught up with the need for extensive grounding.  I’ve been in airplanes when they were struck by lightning (flash/boom/passenger hollers/PA says “nothing to worry about”), but with modern aircraft the problem isn’t what it once was.

Lightning and gunpowder–dangerous mix.

Emancipation and Juneteenth Day

There was a lot going on in history on 19 June: Robert Peel started the Bobbies/Peelers in London, the first organized police force in 1828; USS Kearsarge sank the Confederate raider Alabama in the Bay of Biscay in 1864; Maximilian I of Mexico was executed in 1867; the first Father’s Day was observed in Spokane, Washington in 1910; the Marianas Turkey Shoot (also called the battle of the Philippine Sea) destroyed much of the remainder of Japan’s naval aviation in 1944; and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953.

It’s not often that historians can point to a single moment in history and declare: there is where it was all changed, where the fates were fixed.  On 19 June in 1862 and in 1865, such an event occurred, but not for the reasons usually ascribed.  On 19 June 1862, Congress passed a law prohibiting slavery in US territories–not the states, and not everywhere that Federal troops didn’t stand in the Confederacy.: that would come later.

This was landmark legislation because it completely repudiated the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and ended the Southern notion of “popular sovereignty” in the territories being the controlling factor.  Though Lincoln was still on a lawyerly fence about a general emancipation, he was discussing the matter with his cabinet even at this early date.  The Congress’ action on 19 June galvanized and accelerated Lincoln’s thinking. Though the news of the horrible carnage at Shiloh in April had reached Washington and most of the Union by then, it hadn’t sunk in yet to the halls of power or the general public that the river of blood spilled in the Tennessee pine barrens decided that the conflict would not end with two separate countries.  It would, though, soon enough .

Fast forward to 19 June 1865, when Gordon Granger and his XIII Corps landed on Galveston Island.  Lincoln was dead; most of the principle Confederate armies had given up and gone home, but still word of the Emancipation had yet to reach this somewhat remote former Confederate territory.  Granger read General Order #3 almost as soon as he got off the boat:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

There were a thousand or so slaves in Galveston at the time, and a great celebration ensued.  The next year the anniversary was observed, and has been on 19 June ever since.  The day had been called Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, even though the actual emancipation was 1 January 1863.  But because the commemoration/celebration started on 19 June and the local vernacular “Juneteenth” was catchy, the tradition stuck.

Like most holidays in America, business has grabbed the opportunity, but not as much as other “greeting card” holidays like St. Valentine’s or Grandparent’s Day.  So 19 June didn’t free all the slaves, and it didn’t grant them any more rights than they had before but it did signal the end of chattel slavery in the United States.  And that’s worth taking note of.

Anne Frank’s Diary and National Red Rose Day

Connections? Read and find out.  I find it quaintly coincidental that anyone should declare a day celebrating the flower that symbolizes romance and love on the same day that a young Jewish girl in the Netherlands should get the autograph album that would become her famous diary.  Or, for that matter, the same day Medgar Evers was killed on the same day in 1963, or that Gregory Peck died in 2003.  It’s also the anniversary of the Virginia v Loving decision that legalized interracial marriage in the US in 1963. Just coincidence…I suppose.

Anneliese Marie “Anne” Frank was born in Germany on 12 June 1929, but spent most of her short life in and around Amsterdam. Stateless in 1941 after German Jews were stripped of the citizenship, she and her family hid out in various places in Amsterdam until August 1944, when the family was discovered and they were shipped off to the camps.  Anne and her sister died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen sometime between February and March 1945. All but her father died somewhere in the camps.

But between her thirteenth birthday on 20 June 1942 and 1 August 1944–three days before she was captured–Anne made entries in her diary nearly every day. It described everyday life for Jews in Amsterdam, for just over two years.  Her first –and only–romance with fellow attic refugee Peter van Pels is described, as is her exploration of her own sexuality (in the 1995 edition)–a series of entries her father left out in earlier editions but that some educrats have take exception to.  But she was a teenage girl stuck in an attic with strangers, that included her family.  The internal tensions she described with her family and the others that she was enclosed with in that attic.  The food they ate–especially how much–and their attitudes towards nearly everything were carefully compiled. After the war, and after the Red Cross had confirmed Anne’s death, Anne’s father, Otto, went back to the attic and found the diary hidden away. Since its publication in 1947 the Diary of Anne Frank has gone through numerous editions under different names, translation into sixty languages, and has withstood accusations of hoax, forgery and worse, but has been authenticated by more than one authority.

A rose, according to WIkipedia,  “is a woody perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae, or the flower it bears.”  According to Gertrude Stein, “a rose is a rose by any other name:” by Shakespeare’s lights “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  All of that aside for the moment, a rose is a flowering ornamental shrub that thrives nearly everywhere, from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas.  Most garden roses (and there are over a hundred different varieties) prefer somewhat temperate climates where they can hibernate for a few months between blooming seasons.  My dear wife struggles mightily with the roses in her garden every spring, and they seem to respond in kind, thriving from year to year.

But National Red Rose Day?  OK, I get the romance part (I never gave a woman a red rose who didn’t appreciate it in some way–and there have only been two), but a national day?  Oh, why not? Today’s Peanut Butter Cookie Day too, and Jerky Day…and Loving Day, after the Loving decision.

So a rose for the famous diarist on what would have been her 88th birthday. We wish you might have gotten one from some young admirer at least once in your short life.

Missing the “Memorial Day” Point, Aren’t We?

One of the best things about a blog is that from time to time I can say things that I couldn’t ordinarily express.  This may be one of those times.

But, I digress…and I likely will again.  Today is Memorial Day in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, an excuse for retailers to lower their prices slightly to take advantage of the increased volume, and an opportunity for many to sleep late.  There will be parades today–I’ll take my three-year old great-grandson to one, and the service afterwards.  I’ll also sleep late, and take advantage of at least one Memorial Day sale to get some lumber and maybe some groceries.

I’ll also go up to the VA Hospital to see a buddy of mine–one of my oldest friends–who May not leave there alive. His Memorial Day “celebration” for 20+ years of service might be a lung transplant.  But he’s marginal for that, so it’s likely to be a laurel-and-hearty handshake from some stranger to thank him for his lifetime of service, and the sacrifice of his health, wealth and welfare for the freedom of the Republic.

Many of us will go to cemeteries and see the ocean of flags decorating the resting places of thousands–millions, even–of men and women who did the same as my buddy up in the VA.  Many made the ultimate sacrifice far away.  Many others were accused of crimes committed by others in conflicts they didn’t understand. Some others died ignobly of the flu, or food poisoning, or a ruptured appendix. But most of those in those graves with the flags, you understand, died at home, peacefully of natural causes, with their families around them, having done their bit years or even decades before. Not all of them were blown apart by artillery, or cut in half by machine guns, or caught by a sniper’s bullet, or met their Makers in any of the myriad ways people get killed in war.

The one thing that all of them share–all of them in those flag-bedecked graves that most Americans will honor by sleeping late, lounging in the back yard, taking advantage of five-year special financing or going to the beach–was the fact that they didn’t make their sacrifices so they could be honored with flags and five-year special financing after they did the Mortal Coil Shuffle. Nope.  They did it so the beach and sleeping late and special five-year financing would be possible in a free republic that has the honor and the luxury of putting a real estate mogul/reality TV star into the highest elected office in the land.

They paid that price so Americans can make their own mistakes, and not truly “honor” anything on the last Monday in May except their own welfare, if they are so inclined.

Get it?

So thanks guys for your sacrifice.  And for my quarter century in uniform…you’re welcome.

Strategy, Theory, and History

Interesting take on the evolution of a scholar.



In September 2015 I accompanied the Headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) to Sicily, a trip which I’ve described in a previous post. My role, in concert with my colleague Professor Niall Barr, was to act as an historical advisor to the assorted gathering of senior officers, civil servants and diplomats who generally make up the annual COMARRC (Commander, ARRC) ‘staff ride’. My job was to describe and relate actions on Sicily during the course of Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily in July-Aug 1943) to the issues with which the ARRC is concerned; strategy, joint planning, operational level warfare, command and control, logistics, intelligence, pol-mil interface, civ-mil planning etc. These staff rides (Sicily, Monte Cassino, and the Gothic Line, all done on a yearly rotation) are fun, but hard work. Academics and assorted invitees are required to sing for their supper and the…

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Ellen Church and National Nylon Stockings Day

Among aviation pioneers, the name of Ellen Church is not exactly up there with the Wright Brothers or Louis Bleriot, Jimmy Doolittle or John Glenn, but she was pretty important in her own quiet way as the first “stewardess”. But the Ides of May (every month has ides, defined as the middle of the Roman calendar month, not just March that Shakespeare and Caesar made famous) is also known for the beginning of the Seven Years’/French and Indian War in 1756, the 1864 battle of New Market in the American Civil War, the birth of Madeline Albright in Prague in 1937, the beginning of the Women’t Army Corps in 1942, and shooting of George Wallace in Laurel, Maryland in 1972. But today, stewardesses and nylons.

In September 1904 Ellen Church was born in Cresco, Iowa, and had an early fascination with airplanes and flying. She studied nursing at the University of Minnesota and took off for San Francisco, where she took flying lessons and managed to get a job at Boeing Air Transport (BAT), the forerunner of United Air Lines.  Though they would not hire her as a pilot, Church had the idea that nurses acting as flight attendants on board (the term stewardess wouldn’t come into use until the late 1930’s) would be good for publicity, making flights seem safer.  Thought there had been stewards on airships since 1910, there were no women before Church first took to the air on a 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago on 15 May 1930–with thirteen stops and fourteen passengers.

After Church’s first flight, BAT hired more “sky girls”–registered nurses, younger than 25, single, weighed less than 115 pounds and were less than 5’4″. The physical requirements saved weight, and allowed the young women to stand up while serving drinks and snacks in the small passenger cabins of the time. In addition to their cabin duties, they also had to help fuel the airplanes and move them in and out of the hanger.  For this they were paid the then-princely sum of $125 a month–nearly twice what most nurses made, and almost as much as the average civil pilot.  While she liked the work, a car accident  ended her career with BAT after a year and a half.  She went back to nursing, and in 1942 she joined the Army Nurse Corps and rose to the rank of captain.  Church was responsible for training evacuation nurses in preparation for the Normandy invasion in 1944. Ellen Church was active to the end of her life, when she was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1965.

Now, as you ladies who read this blog at all regularly (bless you, you poor dears) know,  I have very little experience with wearing nylon stockings myself (though I have done so for a few hours at a time as a preventative against man-of-war stings), so at least some of my remarks about National Nylon Stockings Day (and no one knows why its 15 May) will seem insensitive or sexist or something.  So, as always…get over it.

The DuPont Chemical Company first made their miracle of chemistry dubbed “nylon” in 1935: a woven material made of threads manufactured in chemical factories and thus, theoretically infinite.  The product’s first practical commercial product had been nylon toothbrushes first marketed in 1938.  In 1939, legend has it, that a young woman who worked for at the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware complained that her silk stockings didn’t fit right.  Seeking a wider market, the company reasoned that weaving nylon threads into a fabric pulled over a mold in the desired (by the makers) shape and color (early formulas could be made in nearly any color by adding aniline dyes) of a woman’s legs would be technically feasible. The rest, as they say, is history…maybe.  Still, legends often have roots in facts, so it sounds plausible.

At the World’s Fair in 1939, DuPont showed their mass-produced ladies nylon stockings to rave reviews, and sales of the more easily-obtainable stockings (more available than silk since Japan’s war with China started in 1937) skyrocketed right up until 1942, when manufacture of stockings was suspended for the duration of the war.  Manufacture resumed in 1945 and has continued unabated, with demand far outstripping supply in the 1940’s to the point of riots in late 1945 and early 1946.

But there was (and is) a catch: nylons weren’t and aren’t perfect.  They are more flexible than the cotton and silk they replaced, but not infinitely: until the 1980’s and the introduction of longer-chain “memory” polymer yarns, they squeezed the leg into the shape of the maker’s dies whether the wearer’s flesh was that shape or not.  This created not just discomfort but, in some cases, pain.  Modern hose are more forgiving of thicker thighs or longer calves but are still very form fitting, so the slightest hair stubble will catch in their mesh.  And shaving legs is not like shaving faces, you guys: leg skin never really toughens up like cheeks and chins…so I’m told. Further, the seams were unsightly (though they were eliminated by continuous weaving in 1965) and hard to keep straight.

Worldwide sales of nylon stockings has always been high and is still mind-boggling.  Since their introduction sales of nylon hosiery has been consistently in the mid-hundreds of millions of units–at first because of their fragility, and then because of population explosions, the introduction of nylons for younger girls, and increasing social acceptability of…well, more exposure of the leg. Since 1958 and the development of panty hose the sale of accompanying garters  and belts has declined: since 1980 panty hose demand has exceeded single hose demand.

The silky wonders of science are still popular, despite the discomfort to the wearers. Demographically, regular nylon wearers have been women under fifty since wearing trousers became fashionably acceptable for ladies in the 1960’s.  I’m told by reliable authorities (better than you, wiseguy) that this has been first because of the shaving requirement, second the expense (better-quality units can run $25 and more, and only last three months of weekly wear), and third because of the general discomfort that accompanies having one’s flesh squeezed into someone else’s idea of what their legs should look like because sizing–even three quarters of a century–hasn’t been perfected.

Ellen Church almost certainly wore nylons: hard to imagine such a trailblazer not wearing them at least once.  One wonders if she stood in one of those outrageously long lines for them. My late mother once said she stood in line for half a day outside Hudson’s in Detroit for a pair in about 1946: she would have been 23 or so, a bride of three years.  Then again, that may be more legend than fact, too.  Still, a bit of personal history for context.

Harry Truman and VE Day

The 8th of May has been a very popular day for momentous events.  For one thing, it’s early enough in the traditional Northern Hemisphere’s spring “campaign season” to be able to mark battles like Palo Alto in 1846, and Spotsylvania in 1864, among many others.  But also on this day in 1541 Hernan DeSoto reached the Mississippi River near modern Memphis, Tennessee, and a new celebration for Armistice Day–11 November–was proposed in a London newspaper on this day in 1919.  But today, we’re going to remark on a coincidence too big to miss.

On 8 May 1888, Harry S. Truman was born at Lamar, Missouri (the “S” was chosen to honor both his grandfathers).  Living most of his youth on various farms in central Missouri, he didn’t attend a conventional school until he was eight. Truman worked various non-agricultural jobs around Independence and Kansas City, including haberdasher.  He finished high school in Independence but never finished college.  Even though he was legally blind he joined the Missouri National Guard in 1905.  In WWI he rose to the rank of captain in Battery D, 129th Artillery in the hard-luck 35th Infantry Division.  Even after the war, Truman officially stayed in the Army Reserves until he was retired a Colonel in 1953.

After WWI Truman became active in Missouri politics until 1934, when he won election to the US Senate with the backing of the notorious Pendergast political machine.  Despite the stink of corruption that wafted around him, Truman kept winning elections, freinds, and a reputation for integrity and plain-speaking. While investigating waste and fraud in the War Department during WWII he is thought to have saved billions of taxpayer dollars–and enough notoriety to get him on the cover of Time Magazine. Truman was popular…and electable.

When Truman was approached by party officials at the 1944 Chicago Democratic Convention to stand as FDR’s Vice President, it was realized at the time that Roosevelt’s health was deteriorating, and that a replacement for the sitting VP–the unpopular Henry A. Wallace–had to be found. FDR was elected to a fourth term with Truman as his running mate in November, but less than three months after he was sworn in as VP, Roosevelt died and Truman took the oath as president.

April 1945 was an awkward time for a two-term senator from a rural state to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful force of military projection the world had yet seen. Nearly four million Americans were in uniform in over a hundred countries, and only fifteen sovereign states worldwide had not gone to war by that fateful spring.

Though the end of the war in Europe was in sight, the war against Japan did not appear to be abating.The Soviets were hammering Berlin from the suburbs while they shook hands and swapped uniforms with the Americans on the Elbe; Vienna was on fire; concentration camps containing stark testimony of the enormity of the Nazi’s crimes were being found daily; Tokyo or some major city in Japan was being razed every fifth night; on a high spot in the ocean called Okinawa nearly 70,000 American soldiers and Marines had begun a campaign that was planned to last a month but was to go on for nearly three.

By the end of April the carnage in Europe reached it’s horrible crescendo.  Hitler killed himself on 30 April; German forces in Italy surrendered effective 2 May; the Berlin surrendered on 3 May.  On the evening of 8 May, 1945–Harry Truman’s 61st birthday–the German authorities signed an Instrument of Surrender at Karlshorst, a Berlin suburb. “The mission of this command was concluded…” Dwight Eisenhower telegraphed his Commander in Chief that evening.  One wonders if Ike knew (or if Truman remembered) that Eisenhower’s older brother Arthur worked and lived with Truman in Kansas City before they both became famous.

When we think of all the coincidences in daily life, this one–VE Day on Truman’s birthday– hangs on for a while.