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Category Archives: Military History

The Righteous Cyclist

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There was once a man in a large department store in America, balancing a canoe on his head as he passed the cashiers at the front of the shop, and the security guards; he smiled sheepishly and pointed to the canoe, saying, “They didn’t have a bag big enough.”  Only after he was long gone did they find out that he’d stolen the canoe – it was in plain sight, but because it was so bold, no one ever thought to ask to see a receipt.

Hiding things in plain sight is a frequently-used form of deception, from animals to thieves, and in this particular story, a cyclist whose racing bike was stuffed with forged documents; but the cause was much more important, and changed the lives of countless thousands through the generations.

Gino Bartali (July 1914 – May 2000) was a champion racing cyclist in Italy, who won races both before and after World War 2.  A devoutly religious man, he used his celebrity status, as well as the cover story of “training” to ensure that hundreds of Jews were rescued from the Nazi occupation in Italy.  Not only did he risk his and his family’s lives by hiding a Jewish family in his cellar, but he also used his fame to slip by undetected as he delivered forged documents and messages hidden within the frame and handlebars of his bike.  In 1943, he led a group of Jewish refugees toward the Swiss Alps; he cycled, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment; when he was stopped by a German patrol, he simply said that it was part of his training.  Working with the Assisi underground, his speed, fame and cover story enabled him to quickly travel 35-40 trips between Florence to Perugia, Assisi, Lucca and Terontola to deliver paperwork that saved the lives of over 800 Jews; if you look at those distances on a map, its mind boggling to think that he often made the trip out and back within the same day.

When he went to train stations, he would use the confusion of the crowds of fans to distract the German guards checking the identifications of passengers entering the train, thus slipping the Jews aboard in the chaos.  Once, when he was taken in for questioning, he asked that they not touch his bicycle, claiming that its parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.  He believed that talking about the good one does is taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for personal gain.  “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”  He refused to wear the label “hero”, wanting instead to be remembered for his sporting achievements; he said, “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”

He kept his actions hidden for over 50 years, and only after his death did the story begin to emerge; he was declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2013.  Please click on the image to watch a short video about a cycling tribute along the routes he traveled.

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Historical Tales of Cross-Dressers

Throughout history, men and women have sometimes found it expedient to take on the guise of the opposite sex.  For men, it was often a tool to avoid military duties or to escape punishment of some kind; for women, the reasons were often due to the fact that men’s lives were easier – they had access to higher education, could rule, could lead, could travel more safely than a lone woman, and had far more freedom in society; another frequent reason was to avoid being forced into a loveless marriage.  There are many, many documented histories of cross-dressers; I will therefore focus my selection on a few of those cases where expediency was the factor, and not a question of sexual preference.  Some were androgynous, while others were unattractive or neutral enough in features to pass as either gender.  To read each history, click on the links:

Deborah Sampson Gannett (December 17, 1760 – April 29, 1827):  Served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War as Timothy Thayer.

Hannah Snell (1723-1792): Served as a Royal army foot soldier, and a marine.  She is one of the few cases who became famous within their own lifetime; she revealed her true identity in 1750, and used her tales of adventure to pecuniary advantage.

Catalina de Erauso (late 15oos):  She held many positions, some under the very noses of relatives searching for the missing woman.

Chevalier d’Éon (5 October 1728 – 21 May 1810):  French diplomat, spy, freemason and

chevalier-deon

Chevalier d’Eon

soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.

Frances Clayton (1830s):  Female Soldier in the Civil War.

Billy Tipton (December 29, 1914 – January 21, 1989):  Jazz musician.

Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar (1683-1733): A Swedish Corporal under the name of Vilhelm Edstedt.

Shi Pei Pu (1938-2009): A Chinese opera singer and spy.

Margaret Ann Bulkley (ca. 1789-1865): An Irish military surgeon in the British Army, as James Barry.

Marina the Ascetic, Monk (Fifth Century):  She chose exile from her monastery and to raise the illegitimate child of a woman who wrongly accused “him” of raping her, rather than reveal her true gender.  Only after her death was the truth discovered.

Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904): Explorer in the Arabian region, under the assumed name of Si Mahmoud Essadi.  Also, spy during the Algerian revolt against France.  She died in a flash flood at the age of 27.

Anne Bonney and Mary Read (18th century):  Ruthless pirates, they started off as cross-dressers, but once their reputations were established they dropped the male guise.

 

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This Day in History: Apollo 11 Landing

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Found on the official website of the Department of Homeland Security, in their history section, this customs declaration form of Apollo 11’s crew reentry to Earth is entertaining, when you read the details… like they might have disembarked somewhere between the moon and Earth, travelling at roughly 205 miles per second; or they might know what diseases they brought back to Earth from the moon (“to be determined”)…

To check out NASA’s history page, just click on the Apollo 11 crew’s photo below.

General Declaration of Customs, Apollo 11 Crew 24 July 1969

Apollo 11 Crew - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin,  Michael Collins

Furry Therapists

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It’s long been accepted that animals play an integral role in the overall well-being of humans.  One would be tempted to say that the significance of animal-human interaction is a modern discovery, and it may well be in the sense of measurable data, as science can monitor the changes in a heart rate (if you want a really science-y report, click here), though anyone who owns a cat can tell you that stroking a purring cat is calming.  But from the time that man domesticated wild dogs and wolves to become a vital part of their daily lives in hunting, protection and companionship, animals have been prevalent.   However, as hunting and gathering gave way to farming homesteads, which gave way eventually to urban development as the predominant habitation of modern man (particularly in western societies), we began to lose touch with just how important animals are to us.

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1956:  Three little boys reaching into a water bin of baby ducks as one of the hospital’s methods of using therapy with animals. Source:  Time Magazine

Now, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and even prisons have begun to rediscover the rehabilitating effects of furry therapists.  More recently, a VA hospital in Los Angeles, California has recognised the effects of animals on PTSD sufferers; yet they’ve gone a step farther:  They’ve paired PTSD birds with their human counterparts.

Please click on the links to watch videos of amazing work being done with and for animals; that both species benefit from the interaction is more than evident, and will make you smile!

Leader Dogs trained in Prison

Hawaii, ca. 1924

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By clicking on the image below, you can watch a ~9-minute video of a series of short video clips from the 1920’s of Hawaii, interspersed with silent-film era title cards.  Not only is it an interesting time-capsule glimpse of a simpler time on the islands, but it’s also an insight into what the rest of America knew about the islands, the foods and customs.  Back before you could find certain fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores year round, many people didn’t know what some were, such as papaya.  My Swiss mother-in-law remembers when bananas came to Switzerland, and were exotic and expensive; in her house they were only bought for her brother, who was very sick at the time, as a source of energy; that was during World War 2.  Once, she confessed stealing a bit of money from her brother’s piggy bank to buy herself a banana.

Back then the world in general also knew very little about strange customs such as “surf riding” (surfing), and the footage of surfers is utterly tame compared to the monster wave-riding considered “for surfers” today!  Volcanic activity also seems to have been a fascination; such footage may well have been the first time anyone had seen such a thing outside of volcanic regions; it still had to be described in colours, however, such as “cherry red” for the lava, as the footage was, obviously, black and white.

The image below is of King’s Mansion, in Kealakekua, Hawaii, on the Big Island.  I actually lived here in 1986, as a student (my dorm window was the left bay window at the front).  The mansion originally belonged to Kamehameha dynasty; thus the name.  We had avocado trees in the back garden, and our neighbour’s horses, across a stone wall, would come trotting to the wall when they saw us in the garden, hoping for an avocado; we’d feed them, entertained as they carefully chewed away the flesh around the pit (reminding me of an old man chewing tobacco!), and then skillfully spit the seed aside.  In the bottom of our front garden stood a huge banyan tree [if you were standing on the covered lanai (porch) at the front of the house, it would be to your left]; it was a favourite tree to climb.

King's Mansion

Not Just Another Pretty Face

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We tend to think of such modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to be inventions of our generation; but in fact they go back to the 1940s.  Bluetooth was itself named after the 10th century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united Danish tribes into a single kingdom and introduced Christianity to his people (its name was chosen to imply that it would similarly unite communication protocols into a common standard).

So, what do the following three things have in common:  A young Jewish woman by the name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria; the spread-spectrum technology that enables Wi-Fi, CDMA & Bluetooth; and a Hollywood starlet discovered in Paris by Louis B. Mayer in 1937?  Quite a lot, in fact; because the woman born in Austria was otherwise known as Hedy Lamarr, inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for developing technology useful for a radio guidance system for torpedoes, the concept behind Bluetooth, Wi-Fi & CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and now used for entertainment and communication around the globe.

Lamarr, who became known as “the most beautiful woman in Europe”, was the only child of a prominent upper-class Jewish family.  At 18, she married Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third wealthiest man in Austria and an arms dealer who made a killing during the wars (in both senses of the word), in the proverbial bed with both Mussolini and the Nazis.  Lamarr would attend lavish dinner parties and business meetings with her husband as he networked with scientists and those involved in military technology, and her intelligent mind soaked up the information, nurturing her scientific talents.  Lamarr escaped her controlling and jealous husband by disguising herself as a maid and fleeing to Paris, where she obtained a divorce.  There she met Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for European film talent.  In 1938 she made her American film debut in “Algiers”, but because of her beauty, she was often typecast as a seductress; to alleviate the boredom, she set up an engineering room in her home and turned to applied sciences and inventing.  With the outbreak of World War II, she wanted to help in the war against the Germans, particularly in improving torpedo technology.  She met a composer, George Antheil, who had been tinkering with automating musical instruments; together they came upon the concept of “frequency hopping”:  Until then, torpedoes guided by radio signals could be jammed and sent off course just by tuning into their broadcasting frequency and causing interference; hopping frequencies would enable torpedoes to reach their target before their signal could be locked down.

Hedy Lamarr - Austrian-Actress-Invents-Control-DeviceIn classic Hollywood-portrayal style, the US Navy wasn’t interested in a technology developed by a beautiful actress and a musician in some suburban home.  I find the Stars and Stripes article above very telling, as to their views of a pretty face actually being smart too; its tone is quite condescending from beginning to end.  The US military didn’t apply the groundbreaking technology for another 20 years, until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  That same technology serves as the basis for our modern communication technology, enabling many people to use broadband simultaneously without interfering with each other; such situations as portrayed between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” are unthinkable today, and all because of Hedy Lamarr.

So the next time you’re sitting in a café using Wi-Fi next to someone else on their own cell phone, give a wink to the memory of Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr 3

 

Robert Smalls

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Robert Smalls - Wikipedia

Credit:  Wikipedia

Once in a while, an individual rises up who surpasses every social boundary and every limitation to change history.  Robert Smalls was such a man:  Born on the 5th of April, 1839, Robert Smalls went from being a slave in South Carolina to a Civil War hero (he commandeered a Confederate ship, rescued slaves including his family along the way, and gave the Union valuable information along with the ship and its code books), and eventually went on to become a Congressman as well as a Senator, elected no less than five times; he has been given honours such as having met President Lincoln and thereby convincing Lincoln to accept African American soldiers into the US Army; he became the first black captain of a US vessel during the Civil War, and had a US army ship named after him as late as 2004 (the first army ship to be named after an African American).  He eventually bought the house of his former master for his family home, and lived to see the outbreak of World War I; he passed away on the 23rd of February, 1915.

His epitaph reads: “My race needs no special defence, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere.  All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

To read more about this man’s fascinating life and accomplishments, please click on the image.

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