Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Texas Rising Won't Tell You

The History Channel will shortly air a new series about the birth of Texas and the rise of Sam Houston, which evidently starts with the Alamo.  I haven't seen the series yet, but if the teaser ads are any indication, I am sure there are a few things they will not tell you.  Or perhaps, they may omit will telling you the full story.

The Alamo Battle Was Fought, In Part, Over Slavery 

The Texans were planting coastal cotton, a crop that relatively quickly depletes the soil without the use of fertilizers, whose invention was more than a century in the future.  The easiest way for a planter to get around this problem was just to move westward and acquire more inexpensive land.  Planters needed good soil close to a river or creek to use for transporting the bulky cotton to the coast.  Almost all of the land along the Gulf Coast of Texas was perfect for growing cotton.

This type of farming was not profitable without slavery.  The settlers needed slaves and in their original agreement with Mexico encouraged them to bring in slaves as they migrated into Texas.  They also swore allegiance to the Mexican government and promised to convert to Catholicism.  But, in 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery.

The Texans appealed this, and got a short term exemption.  The slaves were converted over to indentured servants with a 10 year contract that was signed for the slaves while they were still legally slaves.  (Cute lawyering is a Texas tradition.)  When the ten-year exemption was up, the settlers didn't want to give up the roughly 5,000 slaves already in Texas (20% of the new immigrant population) and were trying to get a longer exemption, but Mexico refused.

While the battle at the Alamo was being fought, Stephen Austin was in Mexico trying to get that extension—if he had been successful, there probably would not have been a fight at the Alamo.

Slavery wasn't the only issue between the Anglo settlers and Mexico, but it was only issue that couldn't be compromised or resolved.  In many ways, this was a precursor to the American Civil War.

There were no "Thirteen Days of Glory"

When Santa Ana's army reached San Antonio in February, the defenders were shocked, believing it would take far longer for the Mexican Army to arrive.  (Santa Ana was a better general than is commonly believed.)

As soon as he arrived in Bexar, Santa Ana put a loose guard around the Alamo and waited while the rest of his forces arrived.  This would take two weeks, and while he waited, Santa Ana met and married a beautiful local girl, Melchora Barrera.  (Well, kind of married her—the priest was actually a lieutenant in his army who had faked more than one wedding for the general.  After the honeymoon, his “wife” would learn the truth and end up the mistress of one of his junior officers.  No one ever said that Santa Ana was a nice guy.)

According to most historians, during the time it took for the army to arrive—those "Thirteen Days of Glory"—not a single defender of the Alamo died until the morning of the final attack.  There was little fighting and no effective bombardment of the fort.  The largest pieces of Mexican artillery were the last of Santa Ana's units to arrive, and by the time they reached Bexar, the Alamo had fallen.

The Battle Was Not a Costly Victory for the Mexicans.

There is a general rule of thumb in military battles: the defenders have a 3:1 advantage.  If there are a thousand defenders, you need at least 3000 men to attack.  Following this rule, the 180-250 (estimates vary endlessly) defenders of the Alamo should have killed far more than the 450-600 Mexicans believed to have been killed during the battle.  A casualty ratio of 2:1 is considered fairly low for the defenders of a fort.

As Santa Ana said, “What are the lives of soldiers than so many chickens? I tell you, the Alamo must fall, and my orders must be obeyed at all hazards. If our soldiers are driven back, the next line in their rear must force those before them forward, and compel them to scale the walls, cost what it may."

Actually, the Mexican army almost reached the wall during the early morning attack without an alarm being raised.  The Mexican reports show that the Texas guards were asleep.  The first attack was successful and the battle was over in just a few hours.

The Alamo Was Not an Important Fort

Actually, Sam Houston wanted to destroy the fort, but was prevented from doing so by Governor Henry Smith.  The damn fort was not in a strategic location and was far too large for the number of men present to guard it.  This was precisely why the Texans were able to take it away in 1835 from General Cos—who went to Mexico and came back with Santa Ana and enough men to take it back. 

With the few men Travis and Bowie had under their command, they could not adequately defend the walls and still man their cannons—nor had they used their time wisely while waiting for the Mexican Army to arrive.  There were several weak points in the wall that almost could not be defended.  And no preparation for feeding the men had been made until February 23—the date the Mexican Army arrived.

If Travis had burned the fort and joined up with the men at Goliad, this would have added about 700 additional men for General Houston, an incredibly valuable addition.

Some of the Texas Heroes Are....Different!

Sam Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee after his wife left him—shortly after the wedding.  For years, there were strange rumors of alcoholism and infidelity.  During this time, Houston met Congressman William Stanbery while walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Since Stanberry had recently publicly accused Houston of fraud, Houston beat the congressman to the ground with his hickory cane.  Though the congressman tried to shoot Houston with a pistol, the former governor escaped when the gun misfired.  Despite being defended by no less a lawyer than Francis Scott Key, Houston was fined $500 in damages, but left for Texas without paying.

Jim Bowie was a criminal wanted in America for illegal slave trading and in Mexico for land swindles.  If he had survived the Alamo, he would probably have spent the rest of his days in prison.

Jim Bowie was already famous for a spectacularly crazy battle called the Sandbar Duel.  He, and at least 5 other men, had variously shot, stabbed, and cut each other until the fight was over, by which time Bowie had been shot at least twice and stabbed six times.  This kind of lunacy made him, and his large knife, famous (or infamous). 

David Crockett had just been voted out of Congress, and was looking for a small pond in need of a big, albeit second-hand, frog.  Before leaving Tennessee, he wrote to friends encouraging them to move with him to Texas “if Van Buren were elected President.”  Van Buren was, and Crocket did, along with 30 friends. 

When William Barrett Travis arrived in Texas, he was running away from a failed marriage, mounting debts for which he was about to be arrested, and two children when he came to Texas.  At least one historian has put forth the theory that Travis was insane as a result of drinking mercury in a failed effort to treat his venereal disease.  Somehow, he had accomplished all of the above relatively quickly—he was only 26 years old when he died at the Alamo.

There Were No Survivors.

Well, yes and no.  None of the men who fought survived.  While there is scant evidence that a handful of men, including David Crockett, were taken prisoner during the fighting, if so, none were allowed to live long.  While General Cos did not believe in executing prisoners, and argued for mercy at both the Alamo and later at Goliad, General Santa Ana insisted that Mexican law, which labeled the defenders of the Alamo as pirates, be enforced. 

There were certainly survivors.  Nearly twenty women, children, and slaves did survive the siege of the Alamo and were allowed to return home.  The best known of these were Susanna Dickinson and Joe, the slave/indentured servant of William Barrett Travis.

The Battle Did Not Buy Time for Sam Houston

First, the battle did not delay Santa Ana any significant amount of time. 

Second, for most of the time during the actual battle, Sam Houston was on leave from the army, which existed mainly in theory, anyway.  During this time, he took care of personal business, negotiated with the Cherokee Indians, and was a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Conventions.  Houston did not return to the army until March 6, the same day the Alamo fell. 

Now in command of a small, but growing, army, Sam Houston planned to lead Santa Ana ever closer to the Louisiana border, where an American army was waiting, just across the Sabine River.  While Washington debated the wisdom of adding more slave territory to the Union, the army was waiting on the border to implement whatever policy the politicians finally agreed upon.  If Houston could somehow create a conflict between Mexico and America, Texas would gain a powerful supporter in the latter.

Sam Houston knew his army was what were at the time called irregulars, meaning an undisciplined and untrained force.  Houston knew that he could probably get, at most, one good fight out of them before they deserted and went back to their families. Knowing their true worth, he was not about to risk the future of Texas by actually using the army unless he had to.

Santa Ana had almost forced Houston to strike by dividing his army twice while pursuing the Texan army over the 45 days after the fall of the Alamo.  Then, suddenly, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston realized his chance and attacked the sleeping army of Santa Ana at San Jacinto.  In a battle that lasted eighteen minutes, Houston had done the impossible, securing Texas Independence.

But I'm pretty sure the TV show will tell you that.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Goering’s Bison

Perhaps one of the weirdest stories about animal conservation involves the strange and twisting story about the European Bison, or Wisent.  These strange, large herbivores—distant cousins to the American Buffalo—once survived only in a few scattered zoos.  Today, they number in the thousands, with over two thousand reintroduced into the wild.

The largest wild animal left in Europe (bulls can weigh more than a ton), once had a range that stretched across the continent of Europe.  Where the American bison prefers to live on the grassy prairies, its slightly larger European cousins lived in forests, and as man converted the continents forests into farmland, its habitat shrank rapidly.  The bison disappeared from Greece by the 3rd century AD, from Gaul by the 8th century AD, and from England by the 12th century AD.  Their numbers drastically reduced, the bison survived in only a few forests in Eastern Europe.
As their habitat shrank, bison were hunted for their meat and frequently just for the sport.  Just as the American bison were brought to the edge of extinction by hunters seeking only their hides or tongues, European bison were slaughtered to make beer steins from their horns.
Eventually, the only preserve left was Bialowieza Forest in Poland, and after the 16th century, this area was "usually" a royal preserve with hunting limited only for the highest nobles.  The exact legal status changed from monarch to monarch until 1887 when Tsar Alexander II established it as his private preserve.  While the Tsars rarely exercised their royal prerogative—Nicholas II's last hunt was in 1912—they did occasionally find a use for the last remaining bison, quite a few were shipped off to various zoos across Europe.    

The First World War was tough on the bison (and Tsar Nicholas II didn't fare much better).  The preserve was invaded by the German army, who shot all of the bison, along with thousands of deer and wild boar, motivated equally by hunger and boredom.  By the time the Germans withdrew, there were only 54 bison left in Europe and none of them were in Poland.
This might be a good place to mention that these are not really what you might call "game animals."  The bison are not shy, nor are they fast or elusive.  Frankly, they would be about as hard to shoot as a city bus driving in slow, lumbering circles in an empty parking lot.  The Tsar and his wife used to shoot a few dozen in a single day with almost no effort—they sat in chairs and slaughtered the bison as they were herded past them by beaters.  A herd of one-ton animals with wide horns, stumbling through a forest, is going to be about as hard to locate as a big-haired blonde at a Texas wedding.

With 12 animals from various zoos, a breeding program was started at Bialowieza.  Slowly, the bison were reintroduced into the forest, and their numbers started to climb, until by the beginning of the 1930's, hunting was allowed, in order to stabilize the population at a manageable number.  Herman Goering, Hitler's second in command, hunted in the preserve, and quickly identified with the bison.
In some strange way, Goering thought of the bison as "Aryan".  (If this seems absurd, remember that in 1936 the Third Reich would sign a treaty with Japan that not only made the two countries allies, but identified the Japanese as ehrenarier, or "honorary Aryan.")  Just as Goering believed that racial inbreeding had diluted the true majesty of the Aryan man, he believed that domestication had diluted the nature of animals.  In the bison, Goering believed he was turning back the clock to true essence of the beast.

Goering quickly arranged to take four bison—three cows and a bull—back to Germany for the preserve he was building 40 miles north of Berlin.  The fact that his miniature herd was impossibly inbred (coming from a pool of only 12 animals from zoos), seems to have been lost on him.

At Carinhall, named for his deceased first wife, Goering created a perfect playhouse for an immature Nazi.  Huge banquet halls, an indoor pool, lakes, shooting boxes, hunting trophies, incredibly elaborate furnishings, and a blonde mistress.  Goering even built a huge model train layout with over 320 feet of track, tunnels, and bridges.  This train layout was so elaborate that on the eve of the war, it was insured for $265,000 (the equivalent of millions today).  Eventually, he planned a 960 foot wing addition to house the Herman Goering Museum featuring the art he had stolen from all of Europe.
When Goering was ready to show off his toys to the outside world, he invited a large group of ambassadors to tour the grounds with him.  As they stood around a pen containing the three cows, Goering made a long winded speech about the triumphal nature of all things Aryan before opening the gate that would allow the bull to rush into the pen and demonstrate the virility of the true Germanic animal. 
Goering, besides being Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe and second-in-command of the German Reich, was also the Reichsminister of Forestry and the Hunting Master of Germany.  As such, he should have known that like most wild herbivores, bison only mate in season.  So, unfortunately, at his demonstration of "German virility", the bull refused to enter the pen with the cows, and when forced to pass through the gate, took one look at the cows and scampered back to safety. 
Well, perhaps, it really was a perfect example of Nazi Virility.

The ambassadors quickly wrote up the account and sent it to their respective countries.  Sir Eric Phipps, the ambassador to Germany from Great Britain, was so derisive that his cynical dispatch is legendary; historians refer to it as the "Bison Dispatch."
Eventually, after Germany invaded Poland, the herd of bison at Bialowieza came under the control of Goering, who ordered the continuation of the preserve and the protection of the herd.  As Germany lost the war, he ordered his Luftwaffe to totally destroy Carinhall.  While almost all of the buildings—and the incredible model train layout—were destroyed, the preserve and most of the animals survived.
The preserve at Bialowieza changed hands several times.  In 1939, the Russians chased out the Polish gamekeepers and replaced them with Russian gamekeepers, who were replaced by German gamekeepers in 1941.  The Russians were back in 1944, and declared the area a park.  In 1991, representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met in the park and formally signed the Belavezha Accords that formally dissolved the Soviet Union.  Today, the preserve is slightly over a hundred square miles, which straddle the border dividing Poland and Belarus.

And the bison?  Today, there are roughly 5000 of them, with about half of those in the wild and the other half living in zoos and scattered breeding programs.  And if you go to Germany, for about $2,000, you can prove shooting one.  Goering would be proud of you.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Who Are You?

I'm face blind.  There is a much longer term term for this conditionprosopagnosiabut this is just a fancy way of saying that I rarely recognize anyone, even my friends.

You know that little voice in the back of your head that tells you who a person is when you meet then on the street?  Well, I don'tthat little voice stays mainly silent.  I can usually figure out who someone is.  If I knock on Chuck's door and a large mustachioed man answers it, I know that it is Chuck.  And if I go to Beth's office, that is almost certainly Beth.  But when Beth saw me in the mall and ran in circles around me waving her arms, I just assumed some random nut needed to be shoved out of the way.  (She spoke just before I clobbered herI'm very good at recognizing voices.)

If people are out of context, I usually don't recognize them.  My own two sons, What's-His-Name and The-Other-One, have snuck into my classroom at Enema U just to hear me lecture, and I didn't catch on until the students kept laughing and looking at them.  This is also one of the reasons I never take attendance in classas far as I can tell, everyone is always there.

People with face blindness learn to cope.  I use things like gait, hair color,  makeup, and clothes to try and reason out people's identity,    Personally, I think people who aren't face blind stop looking at people as soon as they recognize them.  On a regular basis, I am told that I am the only one to notice a haircut, new makeup or glasses, or that someone is ill or has lost weight.
While scientists are still doing a lot of research, it does appear that face blind people have a little trouble linking certain facts to people.  Little facts like names or the names of spouses.  (You would not believe how often my wife, The Doc, and I have stood on the sidewalk outside of a friend's home while she reminded me of the names of people we have known 20 years.)

Face blindness is not that rare, about 2.5% of people have it.  Some prominent sufferers, besides me, include Brad Pitt, Dr. Oliver Sacks, and Jane Goodall.  In Dr. Goodall's case, her practice at analyzing faces she didn't recognize probably helped her in research on chimpanzee facial expressions.  And what all of us with prosopagnosia need, is someone to follow us around and whisper into our ears the names of the people we meet.  What we need is a nomenclator.

During the Roman Empire, a rich and powerful nobleman met far too many people to remember, so he did what a rich Roman nobleman did whenever he had a problem:  he bought a specialized slave.  A nomenclator was a slave with a remarkable memory; his job was to remind the nobleman of who he was meeting.  (Maybe a few of those noblemen were part of the 2.5% crowd.)

There is a more modern systemone that does not require slaves.  The modern version is the Farley File.

James Aloysius Farley was a consummate New York politician and political kingmaker, and his specialty was being a political advisor and campaign manager.   After successfully helping Alfred E. Smith win the governorship of New York in 1922, he managed the campaigns of a relatively unknown politicianFranklin Delano Roosevelt.

With Farley as his campaign manager, Roosevelt won the governorship of New York in 1926 and 1928, and then challenged President Hoover for the presidency in 1932.  Jim Farley was the campaign manager for FDR's first two presidential elections.  Now I can't prove that Roosevelt had a problem recognizing people and remembering certain facts about them... And I can't prove he had a bad memory in general, but he was the president who said:  "Nothing is so responsible for the good old days as a bad memory."

A bad memory is not a great asset in politics, so Jim Farley devised a clever remedy: he kept an index card of every person that Roosevelt met, and recorded the names of spouses, children, hobbies, education, place of employmentany personal information that you could reasonably expect a "good friend" to remember.  If Roosevelt returned to the same area, Farley would hand him the index cards of everyone he might meet.

The records soon became known as a Farley File, and as the years went by, Roosevelt's files became massive, and with them, FDR could remain personally close with all of his supporters.   Farley, as a reward for his efforts, was appointed Postmaster General and Chairman of the Democratic Party.

The index cards are no longer needed, today, a Farley File is an app for your iPhone.  Ironically, while every modern politician has such a Farley File, very few remember James Farley
And 2.5% of people wouldn't recognize him if they saw him again.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Other Presidential Car

Everyone knows about Air Force One, although most people believe that the title refers to a single airplane.  Actually, this call sign is given to any Air Force plane carrying the president.

Similarly, when the president is aboard the large Sea King helicopter operated by the United States Marines, the helicopter is known as Marine One.  Any Marine aircraft containing the president would be so designated, regardless of the type of aircraft.

While the presidential limousine--a General Motors Cadillac--is sometimes referred to as Cadillac One by the press, the vehicle doesn't actually have an official name.  The Secret Service, however, has given the car an unofficial name, "The Beast." 

Personally, I've always believed the car should be known as "Dracula," since it always travels with a refrigerated blood bank in the car's trunk, stocked with the president's blood type.  The vehicle is a combination armored car and bloodmobile.

Sadly, the president no longer has a yacht, (the USS Sequoia was sold by President Carter in 1977), and if President George W. Bush had a special name for his mountain bike, I have been unable to locate it.

That leaves just one last piece of presidential transportation gear: U.S. Car No. 1, the official railroad car of the Commander in Chief.  Yes, the Presidential Railroad Car.  Actually, there have been several of them through the years.

The first one belonged to Abraham Lincoln and was a passenger car that had been  refitted for the president's use during the Civil War.  The resulting car, named The United States, was so opulent that Lincoln refused to use it, believing that such an ostentatious display of luxury was unseemly while the country was at war.  This was the first private railroad car in America.

Unfortunately, in the end, Lincoln did travel in the car: it carried his coffin from the capitol to Springfield, Illinois, making stops in most of the larger Northern cities along the way.  On a trip lasting over 1600 miles, the car visited over 300 communities where untold thousands of grieving Americans met the train along the way.

Presidents certainly traveled by train after Lincoln, but simply used whichever premium Pullman car was available.  The Pullman company built rail cars in several grades, and the president usually used the highest quality available.   Since trips were relatively short (Presidents then did not conduct endless campaign trips, but left undignified campaigning to minions), there was not much use for an official car.

One of those cars used temporarily by a president--a Pullman Palace coach--still survives.  President Theodore Roosevelt rode in the car several times on trips to Texas, but today it is part of a bed & breakfast inn just outside of Fredericksburg, Texas.  If you have a desire to sleep where Teddy did, it will set you back about $225 a night.

President Taft used a Pullman Car named the Mayflower to travel to El Paso, Texas, in October 1909, to meet Mexican President Porfirio Diaz.  The two men met in El Paso, then journeyed across the Rio Grande to a magnificent dinner in Ciudad Juarez, where they dined on a gold and silver dining service that had once belonged to the Emperor Maximilian.  This was the first international travel by a sitting president of either country.  Just 19 months later, the Diaz government would fall with the capture of Ciudad Juarez that was the beginning of the lengthy Mexican Revolution.

Three years later the Mayflower railroad car would be used by former President Theodore Roosevelt, as he unsuccessfully ran for the Presidency in 1912.  Campaigning as a "Bull Moose," Roosevelt set up a grueling campaign schedule, often speaking from the rear platform of the Mayflower as many as 30 times a day, at every "whistle stop" and train station in the country.  This schedule was prematurely halted in Milwaukee after the former president, en route to give a 90 minute speech, was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin.  Though wounded, Roosevelt still made the speech, then spent the next several weeks recuperating in a hospital.

When Woodrow Wilson toured the country in 1919 to drum up support for the Versailles Treaty, he used the same railroad car--the Mayflower--throughout the trip.  Wilson spoke from the rear  platform of the car across America.  This trip, like Roosevelt's, came to a premature end when the President suffered a cerebral thrombosis (a stroke) and had to return to the White House for a lengthy recovery.

The Federal, a 1911 Pullman business car--which was used extensively by Presidents Taft and Wilson--is still riding the rails and is available for charter.  If you even wondered how much this costs--you can't afford it.  On the other hand, since it sleeps eight (and two of the double brass beds are original), at least you could take a few rich friends and split the cost. 

In the end, however, the ultimate presidential railroad car has to be the Ferdinand Magellan, officially known as U.S. Car No. 1.  This is the only railroad car ever rebuilt exclusively for presidential use, and is the heaviest railroad passenger car ever used.

In 1928, the Pullman company built six large luxury cars, named for famous explorers, for private charter.  In 1941, President Frankly D. Roosevelt accepted the recommendations of his aides to have one of these cars refitted for his use.  The entire car was armor-plated, the windows were replaced with bullet-proof glass three inches thick, and two emergency escape hatches were added.

The resulting car is 84 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 15 feet tall.   Adding all the armor plating doubled the cars weight to 285,000 pounds.  Inside the coach are a presidential suite, two guest bedrooms, a dining room that can double as a conference room, and a spacious observation lounge.

This luxury train car even sported air conditioning. Special bunkers held 12,500 pounds of ice blocks.  Water sprayed over the ice was used to chill metal coils circulating air to the inside of the compartments.  This water was collected and pumped back to spray again over the ice blocks.  During the Eisenhower administration, this system was converted to a more modern refrigeration system.

For security purposes, the name "Ferdinand Magellan" was painted over, leaving only the "Pullman," so that from a distance, the car appeared to be an ordinary railroad car.  When it traveled, several other cars always traveled along with it, providing space for crew quarters, a kitchen, and one entire car, nicknamed "The Crate,"  that carried the massive radio and communication gear required to keep the president connected to the government while he traveled.

FDR loved his train and traveled extensively on it throughout the war.  When he traveled by airplane to North Africa--the first sitting president to use an airplane for international travel--it was U.S. Car No. 1 that took him to the airport in Miami.  Between trips, the railroad car was hidden at various secure locations around Washington (occasionally in the sub-basement of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing--a building that obviously already had excellent security.)

Sadly, the car was with FDR in Georgia when he died.  When the Secret Service tried to move the president's coffin into the rolling fortress, it proved impossible to remove any of the incredibly heavy bullet proof windows to get the coffin into it, resulting in its returning to the capitol in one of the cars used to house the train's staff.  Eleanor Roosevelt and President and Mrs. Truman rode in the presidential car, directly behind the car containing the coffin, to Hyde Park for the funeral.

Both Truman and Eisenhower used the train extensively for official business and campaign trips.  The famous photo of Truman holding the newspaper erroneously stating that his opponent had won the 1948 election, was taken with him standing on the rear of the presidential rail car. 

Even by the middle of the Truman administration, presidential planes were beginning to eliminate the need for presidential trains.  Where FDR had loved to travel across America at a stately 30 MPH, Truman demanded speed and had the trains moving along at speeds up to 80 MPH, something that terrified every engineer who found the heavy car attached to his train.

U.S. Car No. 1 was declared surplus to government needs in 1958 and sold to the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, Florida.  The train, on display inside a large building at the museum, was directly in the path of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The building was destroyed, and two large steel beams fell directly on top of the Pullman car.  All of the cars inside the shed were heavily damaged--including two cars that were snapped in half.  All, except U.S. Car No. 1, that is--the armor plating worked well so that the car only needed to be repainted.

This is not quite the end of the story, however.  In 1984, when President Reagan was campaigning for reelection, his staff asked to borrow the car.  For a single day, President Reagan made speeches from the rear of the car at campaign stops between Toledo and Dayton, Ohio.

Who knows?  The car is still around, the track system is still there....maybe the story is not over.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Wing and a Prayer

Forty years ago this week, Major Buang Ly had an impossible problem.  He was an officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force, but his country was dying and it was far too late to fight. This was also the last possible day to escape to safety because the forces of North Vietnam were sweeping southward throughout the entire country.  

On April 29, 1975,  the country of South Vietnam was quite literally in the process of ceasing to exist.  All over the country, prominent members of the dying country were being arrested or killed by the communists taking over.  Even if the major could avoid that fate, he would be forced to live in an oppressive communist state where the best he could hope for would be a lengthy prison term in a reeducation camp.

And, of course, Major Buang had a family—a wife and five children.  His youngest child was barely 14 months and his oldest was only 6 years old—he certainly did not want to be separated from them.  Since he and his family were located on Con Son Island—located off the southeast coast of South Vietnam—there was still a very small amount of time in which to flee.

Major Buang seized the only chance he had available.  Taking his family to the nearby airfield, he loaded them into an impossibly small airplane, a tiny O-1 spotter plane.  Nicknamed the Bird Dog (the plane is supposed to fly low and slow while the pilot 'sniffs out' the enemy), this is the military version of the Cessna 170 civilian airplane popularly used for training pilots. 

The Bird Dog is slow (flying at only 90 knots), unarmed, and impossibly small (it only has two seats).  Even if he could take off with a full tank of gas, the plane's maximum range is just barely over 500 miles—much too short for the major to reach a friendly country.  And with seven people on board, the plane would be overweight, meaning the major could not take off with a full tank.

Even if he did manage to get the plane off the ground, and if he could manage to avoid the inevitable enemy ground fire, where could he go?

Major Buang Lee loaded his family into the plane.  What few possessions the family took with them fit into a single pillow case.  As the plane took off and slowly climbed to an altitude just barely above the treetops, the major had to weave and bank to avoid enemy small arms fire.

The Major headed his plane eastward, out to sea and away from land.  His plan was simply to hope for the best: He had to hope there was an American ship out there somewhere....And that he could be find it before he ran out of fuel....And that the ship he found would be an aircraft carrier, since his five small children would not survive the plane ditching at sea....And that he'd find a way to communicate with the carrier, since his radio was out....And that he could land the plane on an aircraft carrier—something he had never done before. 

As a matter of fact, the major had never even seen an aircraft carrier and it was highly unlikely that he'd be able to see one that day.  The weather was not good, with the ceiling down to 500 feet.  This meant that if the little plane climbed above that altitude, he would be in the clouds and wouldn't even be able to see the water directly below him.   But from only 500 feet up,  the misty clouds limited visibility to only five miles, making it almost impossible to find any ship.

Even if all those hopes were realized, the Cessna Bird Dog was not designed to land on an aircraft carrier.  No one had ever even attempted such a ridiculous thing.  Since the plane normally lands at 70 knots, even if it could touch down on the moving ship, what would stop it?

Far to the east, Captain Larry Chambers of the USS Midway was finishing up his mission.  Days earlier, he had been ordered to participate in Operation Frequent Wind, a last ditch effort to save as many Allied personnel as possible from South Vietnam before the country was overrun by the communists.  Half of the carrier's planes had departed for Subic Bay in the Philippines to make room for 10 large Sea Stallion helicopters.  All morning, the large helicopters had made trip after trip to the country.  Other helicopters, including several UH-1 Hueys had followed the larger choppers back to the ship.  In 19 hours, 81 helicopters had rescued nearly 6000 refugees.  As a result, the flight deck of the large ship was crowded with helicopters.

Somehow—against all odds—Major Buang did find an aircraft carrier he was seeking: the same USS Midway.

When the diminutive Bird Dog slowly approached the carrier with its landing light on, a helicopter was dispatched to ascertain the plane's intentions.  The pilot of the helicopter radioed back to the carrier that the plane held "at least four passengers."

Clearly, the plane was not attacking. 

Slowly, Major Buang circled the carrier.  Flying directly over the center of the ship, he tossed a handwritten note out the window, only to see it land in the sea.  As did the second note.  Finally, on his third attempt, the note landed of the flight deck and was taken to Captain Chambers.

"Can you move the helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly for one hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me! Major Buang, wife and 5 child."

Both Major Buang and Captain Chambers also understand what the note did not say: with only one hour of fuel remaining, the small plane was too far from land to make a return.  The Bird Dog had to land somewhere.

Carrier landings are hard.  And a failed attempt would be hazardous to the crew of the ship.  Captain Chambers was in communication with the fleet admiral, who told the captain to not even attempt to land the Cessna.

Captain Chambers ordered all hands—regardless of rank—to help clear the flight deck.  Helicopters that could not be moved from the flight deck were simply pushed overboard.  An estimated $10 million of Hueys were simply pushed overboard.  In addition, the captain ordered the deck crew to remove the large landing cables stretched across the angled flight deck.

Finally, the captain ordered the Midway to turn into the wind and for engineering to increase speed to 25 knots.  Almost immediately, engineering reminded the captain that since the ship was engaged in helicopter recovery, half of the massive steam turbines were shut down.  With the remaining power plants, the ship could not generate enough power to reach 25 knots.

Captain Chambers ordered all power from the operating plants to be used for propulsion.  All other electrical needs for the ship were to be powered by the emergency diesel generators.  The Midway slowly moved into the 15 knot wind and slowly increased its speed until it was making 25 knots. 

Captain Chambers knew that if the pilot could slow down the Bird Dog's air speed almost to the plane's stall speed, the plane's relative speed to the ship would only be 15-20 knots.  While this was good, there were still problems.  First, a carrier deck is narrow, so the pilot would have to be perfectly lined up.  Second, the pilot would have to apply the landing gear brakes on the plane as soon as the plane touched the deck.  The most important problem, however, was that the stern of a moving carrier creates powerful downdrafts.  The captain knew this, but there was no way to communicate this problem to the Bird Dog's pilot.

When Major Buang made his approach, everything was perfect.  Captain Chambers later stated that if the Cessna had been equipped with an arresting hook, it would have been a perfect third wire landing.  In the picture to the right, the deck crew can clearly be seen waving its hands in the air in congratulations. 

Amazingly, Major Buang stopped the plane after a landing roll of roughly 200 feet.

The crew of the Midway quickly adopted the family and raised funds to help them get established in America.   Recently, Major Buang Ly and his family, now much larger, were reunited with  Admiral Larry Chambers (RET) at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.  If you go there, you can see the only Cessna O-1 Bird Dog to ever land on an aircraft carrier.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

If We Had Only Known Him

Damn!  It's been almost 20 years!  While I remember the boys—What's-His-Name and The-Other-One—being smaller, I only have my wife's word as proof of when we made that trip.

Strange—while I'm a historian, my wife, The Doc, is....well, a doc.  This would lead you to believe that I would have some ability to remember dates, yet—for some reason—I have never had any idea when events in my own life have occurred.  Anything before lunch yesterday, is only a faint, dim memory.  In my own fuzzy way, I remember events by presidential terms.

I learned to read while Ike was on the golf course, I first noticed girls during the Kennedy years, I met The Doc (then The Pre-Doc) during Nixon's first term, I married her during Tricky Dick's second term (Don't Change Dicks in the Middle of a Screw—Vote For Nixon in '72!), and the boys were born during Reagan's tenure.

So, while The Doc remembers the exact date of the vacation, to me it is just vaguely Clintonian.  If you want an exact date, you'll have to check with The Doc.

The vacation was a canal boat trip through the Oxford countryside of England.  For a blissful week, my family motored through the beautiful countryside on a rented 53' canal boat—my first command!  If you go back about six years and  read the very first of what was originally intended to be only about a dozen blog posts, you will see that this nautical experience was far more successful than my first attempt at boating.

Truthfully, it wasn't that difficult a job—the canal boat was a large metal floating mobile home that at full throttle could achieve a stately (that's a nautical term meaning dead slow) four knots.  If we had raced a crippled hearse horse, we could have bragged that we came in second, while the poor nag was next-to-last.

At that pace, you could step off the boat, take a leisurely stroll down the tow path adjacent to the canal, admire the magnificent greenery, sit down and read for a while, and still have time to watch your boat slowly catch up with you.  Best of all, the only real physical labor could all be performed by my crew: the boys were assigned as deck hands and steersmen while The Doc was the Cabin Wench.

This is by far the best way to travel: you cook, eat, and sleep on the boat, and at the end of the day, you simply pull over to the bank, cut the engine, and go get another excellent English beer out of the fridge.  Better yet, tie up at one the countless historic pubs that were built along the canals to cater to the working men who earned their living on those canals and get several excellent English beers.

The countryside we traveled through was an endless magnificent park, featuring adjoining cricket fields, rugby fields, and stately homes.   The English people were so kind and friendly, that everywhere we went, we made instant friends.  I remember an enthusiastic—and highly inebriated—group of men who eagerly explained an ongoing cricket match to me.  It appears that several pints of stout are necessary to really understand this game.  I can remember making excited noises about "a wicked googly," and (from the reaction of my new friends) at the appropriate times, too.  The Doc swears I spent the rest of the day discussing drifters, bunsens, and bosies.  Alas, the effect was temporary; as the stout wore off, so did all understanding of the game.

Equally enjoyable, was meeting the people on the other boats on the canals.  Since the canals were usually too narrow and the boats too slow, rarely did you pass a boat traveling in the same direction.  For days at a time, you had the same floating neighbors, who quickly became friends.

It wasn't long before we made the acquaintance of the people in the 70' canal boat ahead of us.  A family of about our age with children roughly the same age as our boys, they were traveling with their elderly grandmother.  Our families quickly became rather close, occasionally sharing meals or an evening in a nearby pub.  You can imagine my surprise on one such night, when my new friend informed me that his grandmother had worked during World War II as one of the secretaries to General Montgomery.

Monty!  General Monty!  The only man in the war that General Patton wanted to fight almost as badly as he did the Germans.  In England, this was the great war hero who had defeated Rommel.  In America, he was seen as damn near as obstructionist as French General Charles de Gaulle.  No, I take that back—even the Germans cooperated with America more than General de Gaulle.

General Bernard Law Montgomery (after the war he was promoted to Field Marshall and made Viscount) was one of the most controversial leaders of the Second World War.  Brilliant, dedicated, and a gifted strategist, he was also tactless, arrogant, and completely devoid of any trace of diplomacy.  The only other man in the war that fit this description was General George Patton.  It is testament to the skill of General Eisenhower that he was able to keep these two eccentric geniuses from disengaging with the Germans and attacking each other.

I had to talk to this woman—she had actually met many of the famous men of the war that I had only encountered in books.  The next morning, I was sitting in the large front cabin of their boat—it was arranged as a cross between an observation room and a parlor—as I discussed the war years with her.  I remember vividly trying to summon up social graces few Texans have ever possessed as we drank tea and talked.  (What is the purpose of those silly little handles on tea cups?  No man can get his finger through the twisted foolish handle, and you end up gripping the damn thing as tight as a vise.  Were these handles actually designed to be as inefficient as possible?)

She had worked as a secretary for Montgomery only while he was stationed in England before D-Day, but this was sufficiently long enough to have gotten to know the man, meet most of the important generals of the war, and observe the way the American and British armies worked together.  I could have easily spent another week in England just talking to her.

This is not the place to talk about all of her memories or all the things I learned from her, but eventually, we did discuss at length the different ways Montgomery was portrayed in both the English and American press.  I can still picture this quite elderly and remarkably tiny woman sitting primly erect in her chair, a china saucer in her lap, and a delicate teacup in her hand.

She spoke at length about her duties, the people she worked with, and the excitement of feeling one's work was making a real contribution to the war.  I wish I had recorded our conversations, not only for the things I learned, but to have captured the way she spoke.  Every word was pronounced so crisply and so clearly, I had no doubts that as she spoke, she was reliving the events in her mind.  Today, in my own memory, I can still hear her final words to me at the end of the interview.

"You Americans did not like General Montgomery," she said as she stopped to sip her tea.  "But if you had only known him, as I did," she continued, stopping once again to sip her tea, "you would have loathed him."

Patton probably wasn't a pleasant cup of tea to be around, either.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Hedging Your Bet

It was dark by the time the gambler rode into El Paso, coming south out of New Mexico, skirting the southern badlands, and following the east bank of the Rio Grande.  By the time he stabled his horse, got a room at the Grand Central Hotel, and walked the three blocks to the Acme Saloon, he arrived later than he had intended tonow, it would be hard to find an open seat at a game.

Sure enough, he ended up having to wait for a seat to open in the only game.  To pass the time, he nursed a short beer, and played “Ship, Captain, Crew” (a dice game) with a stranger.  From where they stood at the end of the bar, he could keep an eye on the card game.

Poker dice was one of those games that the gambler was almost ashamed to be seen playing.  (His pappy had always said he would shoot the first of his sons he caught shooting dice!)  The problem was that, while poker was a game of skill, dice was a game of 'chance.'  Good gamblers don't believe in gambling.

As he took a sip of his beer, he idly asked the stranger what he did for a living—the man looked too well-dressed to be a rancher or a farmer, but he didn't have the manner of  a clerk or a merchant, either.  The question was just a way to be polite—most of his attention was focused on the poker game at the corner table.  He was hoping to learn how the men played before he had a chance to join the game and had to pay for the same knowledge. 

"I'm a lawyer," said the stranger.  "I practice law here in El Paso, but occasionally, I have business across the border in New Mexico.  Your roll.  I’ve got nine in cargo for a total of 24."

As the gambler reached for the dice, the room seemed to explode in sound and motion.  Everything seemed to happen almost at once, as the lawyer suddenly jerked to his left and someone yelled, "Hardin!" From the door, a shot rang out.  Then, the lawyer gasped and fell to the floor.

It took a long second for the gambler to take in what had happened.  The smoke-filled room was still, everyone was either staring at the lawyer lying face down on the sawdust covered floor or looking at the man standing just inside the swinging doors, his right arm extended into the bar, still holding his smoking Colt Single Action.

For a long count, everyone in the bar remained stock still, then it seemed to the gambler as if everyone was moving and yelling at once. 


"He shot Hardin!"

"He killed John Wesley Hardin!"

"Selman shot him!"

The gambler turned to the bartender and asked, "Was that really John Wesley Hardin?  Was I shooting dice with John Wesley Hardin?"

The bartender nodded his head.  "I thought you knew."

"He said he was a lawyer!  John Wesley Hardin is the most famous gunfighter in the west.  He's killed more men that Billy the Kid!"

Once again, the bartender nodded his head.  "Yes, but he ain't wanted for anything in Texas.  In Texas, he's a lawyer.  When he's short of money, then he crosses the border into New Mexico territory and hires his gun out.

By this time, the men of the bar were beginning to argue about whether Selman had shot Hardin in self-defense, or if it was murder.

It turned out that John Selman was an El Paso constable, and had a long standing feud with Hardin over a woman.  Earlier in the day, Hardin had announced that the next time he saw the constable, he was going to kill him.  Wisely, Selman had believed Hardin.  If the famous gunslinger said he was going to kill you, in all likelihood, you could start making plans for your dirt nap.

Selman had decided to act first, and went looking for Hardin.  Walking down the main street, he had checked into every bar, gambling den, and the other assorted playhouses that made up the red light district of the border town.  Finally, at the Acme Saloon, he had found his man.

The problem now, was that there were two opposing camps about how the shootout had occurred.  As more and more men began to push into the barhoping to catch a glimpse of the famous outlaw's bodyit seemed plain that half of the men were friends of Hardin, and demanded that Selman be hanged for murder.  Several of these men claimed that they had seen the constable shoot Hardin in the back as he yelled the outlaw's name.  According to them, Hardin had been shot before he had a chance to turn and face his assassin—a clear case of murder.

"Not so!" said the friends of the constable.  Selman had stood in the doorway, and yelled the outlaw's name.  Then, as Hardin had turned, he had begun to draw his gun, and Selman had beat him to the draw, shooting Hardin in the chestmaking this not only self-defense, but a clear case of public service.

The argument was beginning to get heated.  The men examined the body of Hardin, but found the bullet had passed all the way through the man's torso, leaving no clue as to which side it might have entered or exited.  The slain gunfighter's Smith & Wesson Model 1881 was found on the floor near the man, but had it fallen out of the holster when the outlaw fell or had he drawn the weapon and dropped it when he was shot?

The debate continued, well lubricated by a brisk business at the bar.  Finally, the bartender offered a suggestion:

"Hey!  This man's a stranger here, he didn't know either of these men," he said pointing at the gambler.  "And he was standing right beside Hardin.  He has to know what happened.  He was looking right at the man when the fight started."

The bar's patron's crowded around the gambler.  One large man, reached out and grabbed the gambler's arm.  "That's right, you were shooting dice with Hardin when he died.  What's your name, mister?"

"Bret Maverick," said the gambler.  "But, I'm just passing through El Paso.  I don't want to get involved in your argument."  Maverick tried to pull loose from the man, but the crowd seemed to push in even tightly around them.

"Don't give us any of that guff," said the man still holding the gambler's arm.  "We want to know what happened and you're going to tell us.  We have a right to know!"

When the large angry crowd murmured their agreement, Maverick realized he had a problem: No matter what he told this mob, about half of the men present were going to be angry with him.  (And as liquored up and hostile as they were, they were likely to take their anger out on him.)

Maverick smiled, reached into his pocket, and dropped two-bits on bar as ample payment for his short beer. 

"You're right, boys, I did see the whole fight.  And I'll be happy to tell you exactly what happened."  As Maverick said this, he gently pulled his arm loose from the grip of the larger man, carefully stepped over the lifeless form of the famous gunman, and moved slowly down the bar, away from the far corner. 

"I have to tell you, I had no idea that I was with John Wesley Hardin, but I have certainly heard of his reputation.  And while I had never met the constable here, before tonight, I think we all know what kind of man he is, too."

"Would you stop stalling," urged one of the men in the crowd.  "Was he shot in the chest or the back?"

"That's exactly what I'm about to tell you," said Maverick.  By now, he had made his way across the bar and was standing on the door sill, with his back to the swinging doors of the bar.

The whole bar stood still and waited for the verdict.

"If he was shot in chest," continued Maverick, "it was damn fine shooting.  And if he was shot in the back, it was damn fine judgement."

And with that, the gambler slipped out the door into the night and hurried away from the bar.

NOTE.  You will have to forgive me for playing fast and loose with the facts here.  John Wesley Hardin did meet his end in the Acme Saloon at the hands of Constable Selman.  Hardin was indeed shot while playing dice at the bar, and there is still debate about the fairness of the shooting.

At his trial, Selman claimed that Hardin had spotted Selman's reflection in the mirror over the bar and started to draw immediately, but from where the mirror was located, this seems unlikely.  In addition, Selman shot Hardin a total of four timesan unnecessary detail for our story, since all the number of shots proves was Selman's sincerity. 

While Selman wasn't hung, the jury wasbut only in the sense that they never reached a verdict.  On this technicality, John Selman was a free man.  In the end, perhaps Maverick's conclusion was correct.

I have no idea whether Bret Maverick was actually there or not.  He might have been, the newspaper accounts are a little fuzzy.  But since the famous gambler's birthday was this week, on April 7, I thought I would take the liberty of celebrating by writing a small tribute to him.  If you are going to buy him a cake, you will need 168 candles.  (His birthdate was revealed in Greenbacks Unlimited, which aired 3/13/1960.)