Sunday, June 3, 2012

Vegard the Viking

In the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, Norwegian skiier Vegard Ulvang, called ‘the Viking’, became a national hero by winning three gold medals in the 10 km and 30 km cross-country races, and in the 4x10 cross-country relay, and a silver in the pursuit.  His popularity soared: He was chosen as the most loved by residents of Norway - besting even the King - and Norwegians named the children after him in numbers.  The next winter Olympics were only two years later, and in Ulvang’s home country, so expectations were high for him to match, or even exceed, his record showing.  However, that was not to be: by the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the celebrated skiier’s prowess had slumped considerably, not due to age or poor conditioning, but due to a sudden and high-profile tragedy in his family.  

Ketil Ulvang was Vegard’s older brother by two years, and the two of them grew up in the snowy fields of extreme northeastern Norway near the small town of Kirkenes, far above the Arctic Circle.  They spent their childhood in the area, setting out on skis or on foot, hunting and hiking through the wilderness.  The area is remarkably remote; Vegard once remarked, “From our house, you can walk for 14 days without seeing a man or crossing a road.”  As adults, Ketil - a physical therapist by trade - advised and accompanied Vegard on his training as a matter of routine, and accompanied him to exotic training excursions; the pair climbed Mount Blanc together, completing a marathon crossing of Greenland on skis, and had even been detained together for four days in Mongolia, questioned by hard-nosed security agents after their guide attempted to defect to Russia.  They scaled Mount McKinley, and on the way down, Ketil fell in freezing water; Vegard and another friend dove in to fish him out, and after reviving Ketil, Vegard remained with his brother for hours until the friend summoned a helicopter rescue crew.

On the evening of October 13, 1993, as Vegard was away training in Italy’s Dolomite Alps, Ketil spoke with some students in the neighboring town of Neiden, then delivered lesson plans to another who lived nearby.  With night having fallen, he rode back toward his home with some friends, but then hopped out of the car with about 25 km (15 miles) to go, saying he preferred to jog the rest of the way, even though it would take him over a mountain ridge called Munkeneset.  For most, 15 miles over a 1,000 foot high peak, at night, in the snow and wind, in northern Norway in October, would be daunting (if not suicidal), but Ketil was in superior physical shape, and, having travelled them regularly in far worse conditions, was intimately familiar with the landscape.  Ketil was well capable of running 12 to 15 miles at a time, so he was confident in his ability to make the trip in only about two hours, in plenty of time to watch the Norway-Poland World Cup qualifier match with his youngest brother, Morten, who was waiting for his arrival.

After five hours, Ketil had not appeared, and a heavy snowstorm was rolling in.  Morten, his uncle, and a friend set out to find Ketil, to no avail.  They called others, and before long the word was out that Vegard Ulvang’s brother was missing.  Hundreds of volunteers from all over Norway streamed in, including some in helicopters and armed with heat-detecting lasers, along with generous cash donations.  Vegard himself flew back from Italy the next day, skis in tow, and immediately began scouring the area where he and Ketil spent much of their youth, personally covering 30 to 40 miles per day for weeks.  The Norwegian police’s Search and Rescue teams covered the area for four full days, twice as long as their usual protocol allows.  Top-tier detectives, teams of bloodhounds, and even several psychics lent their expertise, but there was still no sign of Ketil.

Despite Ketil’s intimate knowledge of the terrain, there were many hazards in that area.  Ketil had been warned earlier in the evening about bears, who roam the areas frequently.  If he had been knocked unconscious after a fall, the snow could have covered him, concealing him from the searchers.  Some began also to float the theory that he had been hit by a car by accident, and the driver hid his body to escape prosecution.  Due to its proximity to Russia, the area is also frequented by smugglers, and so others were beginning to suspect foul play, especially after several witnesses reported seeing another jogger whom no one was able to subsequently identify.  After the searching stretched on, Vegard stated that the thought Ketil fell in some water - a frozen pond, maybe, its surface disguised by the falling snow - and drowned.

The search continued fervently, but the volunteers were fatigued, the donated money was all gone, and the wintry weather was getting dramatically worse.  Volunteers, angry and upset but unable to continue, steadily returned to their homes.  Heartbroken, Vegard abandoned the search in late November and returned to his Olympic training.  It was clear throughout the training and the Olympics that his heart was not in the competition, however - he stated in interviews that he fully expected to return at the spring thaw to continue searching for Ketil.  "I will go back and keep looking for Ketil in the spring," Vegard said. "I will look until I find him."  

After dominating the 1992 Olympics, and despite his teammate Bjorn Daehlie winning four medals, Vegard Ulvang performed disappointingly, capturing only one silver medal in a team event.  In the spring, after the Olympics had ended, the searching resumed, and after only a single day, a volunteer spotted Ketil’s red jacket, floating in an icy pond.  His brother Vegard’s supposition had been true; Ketil was following a set of power lines, and the snow had obscured a pond whose ice had not completely frozen over.  

Two days after Ketil’s discovery, his girlfriend gave birth to a healthy baby boy, conceived just before Ketil’s disappearance.  Vegard and the Ulvang family have taken great joy in the baby’s arrival.  “I try to remember that this is nature.  People come and go, just like nature does,” Vegard later said.  “The baby means a lot to us.  It gives us something back.”

Links and Sources:

Clarey, Christopher, “Vegard Ulvang's Lonely Quest; Norway's Olympic Hero Seeks Gold, and Something Far More Precious”, New York Times, December 13, 1993, available here.

Schmitz, Brian, “Norway Skiing Hero Vegard Ulvang Has More Than Medals On His Mind”, Orlando Sentinel, February 13, 1994, available here.
Husar, John, “A Nation Stands at Attention: Norway Set to Salute Hero Ulvang’s Quest”, Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1994, available here.
Johnson, William Oscar, “The Last Viking”, Sports Illustrated, January 24, 1994.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Siege of Newbury Castle, 1152

Stephen of Blois, King of England

Despite having more than twenty children, when King Henry I of England died in 1135, he had no surviving legitimate sons.  He left his kingdom to his daughter Matilda, but common citizenry and powerful nobles alike rejected her in favor of Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, who was crowned King in 1135.  However, Matilda had her supporters, and a civil war called the Anarchy broke out between the two factions.

One of Stephen's knights, John Marshal, deserted his service and backed Matilda instead.  He forged an alliance with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, by deserting his wife and marrying Patrick's sister Sybilla instead.  In 1152, he found himself in Newbury Castle, 65 miles west of London, under siege by King Stephen himself.  The conflict was not going well for John, and he and Stephen signed a truce while John supposedly was to plead with Matilda for allowing the castle to surrender.  As assurance that he would comply with the terms of the truce, and as was the custom of the day, Stephen accepted John's fourth son William as a hostage.  Stephen kept William, then about six years old, in his personal tent, where they would sit on the floor and play undertake games of chance, which Stephen naturally let little William consistently win.

John, however, had no intentions of surrendering the castle.  During the break in hostilities, he filled the keep to capacity with men and supplies - a gross violation of the truce - and then informed the King that he would not surrender after all.  Stephen was infuriated by this betrayal, and his advisors informed him that William's death would have to be at least threatened, if not carried out.  Stephen sent John an angry message, threatening to publicly hang the boy if John did not cease his actions.  John, apparently caring more for the castle than for the fourth of his six sons, essentially dared Stephen to carry through on his threat, replying "I have both the hammer and the forge to make more, and better, sons!"

Stephen's advisors told him that he must then carry through with the threat.  Begrudgingly, but still angry over John's violations, Stephen ordered that the young boy would have to be killed as custom dictated.  On the way to the execution, little William asked to play with the shiny, bright javelin of one of his escorting soldiers.  When they approached the catapult with which William's body was to be hurled back at his father's forces, the cheerful boy said the bucket was just his size, and asked if he could swing from its ropes.  Stephen could no longer bear the thought of killing the boy, and personally lifted William up in his arms and carried him back to his tent.  On the way, the King chastised his advisors, saying that "one would have a heart of iron to see such a child perish."  

William stayed with King Stephen for another two months, during which time they would play a game of toy soldiers, using plantains as stand-ins for duelling knights; William was quite pleased with his repeated victories over the King.  As for Newbury Castle, as it turns out it did not fall; a peace treaty was derived in 1153 in which Stephen would continue as King, but upon his death the title would pass to Matilda's heir; the war was over, and William was returned to his father.  Stephen died only a year after that in 1154, and Matilda's son Henry became King Henry II of England, in whose time Newbury Castle was disassembled so thoroughly that its very location is no longer certain to anyone.  John Marshal fell out of favor with the court, and William cut ties with him before his 20th birthday.

William Marshal in a tournament
It was also fortuitous that King Stephen decided to save young William Marshal.  Despite the fact that landless fourth sons of disgraced, brutish soldiers usually amounted to very little in feudal England, William served as a notable exception to this trend.  He sought his fortune in France, where he was knighted in 1166.  Sponsored - and, at one point, ransomed - by Eleanor of Aquitaine, he grew to be known (without hyperbole) as the greatest knight that ever lived, winning tournament after tournament and defeating more than 500 knights during his career.   He served Henry II as a military captain, went on Crusade, and married the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke.   After Henry II's death, he served Richard I, and after Richard's death, he served King John, supporting him even in the face of rebellion and promoting the Magna Carta, which may not have passed otherwise.  After John's death, William served as Regent for the nine-year-old Henry III and personally leading the Royal Army to victory in a charge at the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, despite being over 70 years old at the time. 

William died two years later.  William's father had originally taken his surname from his occupation, as 'Marshal' at the time meant 'Stable keeper'.  It is because of William's achievements that the word has its current meaning, as the commander of an army.
Pembroke Castle, which became William Marshal's home

Sources and Links:
William Marshal on Wikipedia
William Marshal in the Dictory of National Biography 1885-1900, as presented in Wikisource.

Duby, Georges and Richard Howard, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry, Random House, 1987.
Money, Walter, The History of the Ancient Town and Borough in Newbury in the County of Berks, Parker and Co., 1887.
Painter, Sidney, William Marshal, Knight-Errant, Baron, and Regent of England, University of Toronto Press, 1933.

Image of William Marshal on horseback is by Angus McBride, and appeared in Christopher Gravett's Elite 17: Knights at Tournament, Osprey Books, 1988.
Photo of Pembroke Castle by Athena's Pix.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Highlander on D-Day

On the morning of June 6, 1944, the invasion of Normandy was under way. An armada of landing ships chopped through the icy, stinging waters of the English Channel, ferrying thousands of troops toward the German-held beaches in a surprise attack that would change the course of the war and of human history. On the far eastern edge of the invasion fleet, one landing craft held a special commodity which no other could boast: deployed along with the 1st Special Services Brigade, many of whom were Scottish, was 21-year-old Bill Millin, a Royal Marine Commando in direct service to the brigade commander. Private Millin was preparing for the landing, but he was not going to be wearing a helmet, wielding a rifle, or affixing a bayonet; Millin instead hoisted and readied a traditional and iconic instrument of Scottish warriors: bagpipes.

Bill Millin’s father had played the bagpipes in World War I years before, and as Millin himself was growing up in Glasgow, he also excelled in their use. He played in the pipe bands of two separate Highland regiments before volunteering as a Commando during World War II. While there, he caught the ear of Simon Fraser, 17th Lord Lovat, the eccentric 32-year-old commander of the Special Services Regiment, who quickly volunteered Millin as his personal piper. When the troops assembled for the D-Day Invasion, Lovat - disobeying recent standing orders that bagpipes, being obvious targets, were not to be deployed in battle, on the grounds that English rules did not apply to Scots such as them - ordered Millin to report for duty with his bagpipes.  

As the landing craft headed down the River Hamble toward the Channel, Millin raised the spirits of the men by standing on the bow and playing Scottish standards on his pipes. Someone relayed the music over the loudspeaker, and passing ships - including a destroyer named the HMS Montrose, which Lovat gleefully saluted - cheered at the sound of bagpipes rising over the waters. As soon as Millin’s ship reached the choppy seas of the Channel, he was concerned about falling over the edge, so he retired inside and closed the lid.

At Normandy, early in the morning of the 6th, the rear door to the lander opened and it was time to take the beach. Resistance was light but present, and Millin watched as his fellow Scots lept into the seas to wade to shore. After Lord Lovat himself jumped in, the next man in line - standing next to Millin at the time - was shot in the face and dropped dead into the water. Millin immediately lept in to the Channel and hastened toward the shore.

Millin, being a loyal Scot, was the only man on the beach wearing a kilt, which floated up around him like a ballerina’s tutu as he waded ashore.  He held his bagpipes over his head to protect them from the sea water, but he lowered them and began playing as soon as he was able. He played “Highland Laddie” as he strode ashore through the surf, and when finished, Lovat insisted that he continue, specifically requesting “The Road to the Isles”. Millin - again at Lovat’s request - then strode back and forth along the battle lines, standing up straight and playing the bagpipe music that filled the air. Someone called him a “mad bastard”, an epithet that had until then been generally reserved by the troops for Lovat.

The sound of the pipes did wonders for the morale of the soldiers; some even stopped digging cover for themselves to wave at the piper. One soldier, Tom Duncan, would years later recall, “[Millin’s piping] reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.” German soldiers were similarly impressed; some snipers would later recount how they had Millin in their sights, but decided not to shoot him because they thought he was crazy.

Millin and Lovat continued with the 1st Special Services commandos up the beach and toward the key village of Caen. Along the way, Millin marched at a walk down the center of contested streets while his fellow soldiers used rifles and grenades to clear adjacent buildings of enemy soldiers. At one point, Millin stopped playing as he dove for cover from a German sniper; Lovat personally stalked and shot the harassing rifleman, and then nonchalantly motioned for Millin to continue his music.

Lovat’s forces reinforced the first wave of Commandos at the crucial battle of Pegasus Bridge, which Millen crossed alone while under direct fire that had killed twelve of his compatriots just minutes before, to many cheers and much fanfare. While clearing out the countryside, Millin’s eyes were caught by a family of terrified French villagers. Their red-haired daughter kept crying for “Music! Music!”, and so Millin obliged her by playing “The Nut Brown Maiden”, which she enjoyed greatly.  

Millin continued to serve during the war, and afterward donated his pipes, beret and the skean dhu (Scottish dagger) he wore strapped to his leg to the Pegasus Bridge museum. He worked for a while on Lovat’s estate, but desiring more adventure he left to play pipes in a travelling theater group, and then later became a psychiatric nurse. He returned to Normand frequently for services and memorials over the years; during one of these visits, he was enthusiastically welcomed by a French woman with faded red hair, who remembered the special tune he had played just for her, years ago.

Bill Millin married and had a son named John, then retired to Devon. He suffered a stroke in 2003, and died in 2010 at the age of 88 years old.  

Links and Sources:

"Bill Millin", in The Economist, August 26, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", in The Telegraph, August 18, 2010.
"Piper Bill Millin", on Pegasus Archive, retrieved May 22, 2012.

Ambrose, Steven E., Pegasus Bridge, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Bruce, Duncan A., The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts, Citadel Press, 1998.

The color painting of Lovat and Millin is by David Pentland, and is available for sale here.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Malta 1565

Jean de Valette

After nine Crusades spanning nearly 200 years, the Christian armies were finally expelled from the Middle Eastern coast by the successful Muslim Siege of Acre in 1291.  Over time, Turkish armies spread westward, intent on spreading their religion throughout Europe.  In 1453, Turks captured the mighty Byzantine city of Constantinople, and their gateway to the west was opened.  In 1523, the order of Knights Hospitaller were defending the island of Rhodes, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, when the Ottomans - under 28-year-old Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent - besieged it as well.  Despite a valiant stand, the Knights eventually ran out of supplies and were forced to withdraw, first to Crete, and then to island of Malta, just south of Sicily.  One of those retreating was a French Knight named Jean de Valette. 

In the years that followed, the Christian Mediterranean kingdoms were under near-constant assault by the Ottoman forces, most notably by the ships commanded by the famed corsair Turgut Reis.  In 1551, Reis invaded Malta, but abandoned the attempt after only a few days.  De Valette - who in the meantime had spent a year in slavery under Reis, but who escaped and was by then the commander of the Knights - ordered the defenses of the city of Birgu to be strengthened.  De Valette was a severe but pious commander, the descendent of a family of Crusade knights and specially chosen to prepare for what was seen as the inevitable Ottoman assault on the island.  The walled city of Birgu sat on a rock promontory on the southern side of the Grand Harbor, and was already protected by Fort St. Angelo, jutting out over the Harbor; to this was added Fort St. Michael on an adjacent outcropping, and Fort St. Elmo across the harbor.    

De Valette had roughly 600 knights under his command.  He also hired about 1,200 men, received about 1,000 in assistance from Italy, and there were a little over 6,000 militia men and galley slaves.  On May 18, 1565, over 30,000 Ottoman troops began to land on Maltese shores from 180 ships; roughly 20% of the Ottoman foot troops were the justifiably-feared Janissaries, elite Ottoman arquebusiers (that is, medieval gunmen) representing the personal investiture of the Sultan himself, who held the customary Janissary rank of Private.  The Ottomans were known for the effectiveness of their artillery, and to that they did not disappoint; 13 cannons were set up only a short distance from Fort St. Elmo, their first target, including two culverins hurling 60-pound balls, 10 cannons hurling 80-pound balls, and one Basilisk, a multiton monstrosity that hurled 160 pound cannonballs.   Mustafa Pasha, the overall commander of the Ottomans, expected that Fort St. Elmo would be overrun and siezed within days, but due to an error in artillery placement (his sub-commander had placed it within range of the Christian artillery from Fort St. Angelo) and the stalwart defense of the 200 Knights assigned to defend St. Elmo, the siege of even this first fort lasted for more than a month, and cost the Ottomans more than 2,000 men - one of which was the pirate Reis. 

Mustafa now turned his army's attentions to Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the town of Birgu.  The Ottoman cannons were of less use, especially as Mustafa feared Maltese reinforcements and therefore attempted to siege the island with more haste than usual.  Meanwhile, De Valette and his defenders posed a staunch resistance.  Ottoman ships sent to attack from the sea were targeted and sunk by Maltese cannons.  Siege towers, forty feet high and filled with assault soldiers, approached the gates but were hobbled when de Valette ordered some ground-level wall blocks removed and had cannons blow the legs off of the structures at point blank range.  One of Mustafa's lieutenants found a way to ignite a barrel of black powder within a crevice in the otherwise smooth rock face supporting the fortress walls; in response, de Valette himself - at the time about 70 or 71 years old - grabbed a spear and led his men to defend the breach, driving the Turks back and securing the hole. 

Probably the most terrifying weapons developed by de Valette and the Maltese Knights were their incendiary devices.  They developed an early form of hand grenades, clay pots filled with napalm-like Greek Fire and hurled at their opponents; the shards of clay would explode as shrapnel, and the Maltese kept piles of these to throw at their tormentors.  They also invented fire hoops, which were wooden rings, about the size of a modern hula hoop, wrapped in layers of burnable material such as brandy, gunpowder, turpentine, and heavy cloth, then ignited and rolled down the hills towards attackers, by the hundreds.  Perhaps most terrifying was the Trump, a hollow metal tube filled with flammable sulfur resin and linseed oil; when lit, a gout of flame several yards long would issue forth from the snout for as long as a half hour.  The defenders stationed these primitive hand-held flamethrowers  at doorways, portcullises, breaches, and other choke points to deter any approach; as the attacking Turks typically wore long, flowing robes, the effects of being set on fire were particularly devastating to them.  One account of the battle records a lone Maltese knight in Fort St. Elmo, visible from across the harbor as he held off many Ottoman assaulters while armed with only a single trump.

The attack, which Mustafa had originally estimated would take only days, lasted for three months.  The Ottoman soldiers, seeing soldier after soldier meet grisly, sudden, or incendiary deaths, lost heart and morale among the attackers plummeted.  Finally, in September, word reached Mustafa that Sicilian reinforcements were heading for the island, and he made the decision to withdraw.  By that time, only about 600 defenders remained, and about 1/3 of the entire population of the island of Malta had been killed in the fighting.  The Turks, including periodic reinforcements, had totalled about 40,000 men, and the battle had cost them about 25,000.  Immediately following the Ottoman retreat, the Knights decided to build a city where Fort St. Elmo once stood; De Valette himself laid the first cornerstone in the city which bore his name.  Today, Valetta is the capital city of the sovereign state of Malta.

Fort St. Angelo today
Links and Sources:
Balbi, Francesco, The Siege of Malta, 1565, Boydell Press, 1965.
Bradford, Ernle, The Great Siege: Malta 1565, E-Reads/E-Rights, 2010.
Pickles, Tim, Campaign 50: Malta 1565, Last Battle of the Crusades, Osprey Publishing, 1998.  The image of the cannon crippling the tower is by Christa Hook, and appeared in this book.
"The Last Crusaders", episode of Warriors, The History Channel, 2009.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sgt. Stubby, the War Dog

In late 1918, a group of American soldiers from the 102nd Regiment of the 26th "Yankee" Division were patrolling the area around their foxholes in the Argonne Forest of northeastern France, near the Belgian border.  The density of the woodlands made infiltration by spies and reconnaissance troops relatively easy, as so patrols were required to sweep the area for any German presence.  One of the patrolling troops that day was Private John Robert Conroy from Connecticut, who was unique among the soldiers of the 102nd because when he shipped off to war, he brought his dog, a tiny terrier mix named Stubby.  During the patrol, Stubby broke free without warning, and immediately darted off into the underbrush, barking as he went.  Conroy and other American soldiers followed him, and when they found Stubby, his jaws were clamped around buttocks of a German infiltrator, who was mapping out the American trenches when he was surprised by Stubby.  The spy attempted to flee, but Stubby tripped him up by nipping at his heels.  The American soldiers quickly disarmed and captured the insurgent, but it reportedly took quite a bit of convincing before Stubby would let go of the man's rear end.

Stubby was a stray mutt only a year before, when he wandered in to the 102nd's mustering camp on the grounds of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.  Conroy adopted him and the little dog became very popular with the Connecticut men, and when they shipped out for France in October of 1917, Conroy smuggled Stubby aboard the troop ship SS Minnesota, by hiding the small dog under his greatcoat.   

Despite the fact that the US at the time had no official combat dog program, Stubby was adopted as the mascot of the 102nd by the time they were sent to the front in February of 1918.  His presence not only increased morale, but had practical advantages as well; Stubby could hear the whistling of falling bombs before his human counterparts would, and would warn them of the incoming dangers.  Stubby could also smell gas attacks, and his warnings gave the soldiers more time to put on their gas masks (and to help him with his own); this ability grew even more acute after Stubby survived a mustard gas attack, enhancing his sensitivity to the specific odor.

American soldiers in Seicheprey
In April of 1918, the American Expeditionary Force - of which the 102nd was a part - had its first major test during the German assault on the French hamlet of Seicheprey, Lorraine, on the border with Germany.  The Americans did not perform to the best of their abilities; confusion and poor command decisions allowed the German assault to sieze the village, but they withdrew in the face of approaching American reinforcements.  Stubby, in his exuberance, bounded ahead a little too far and was wounded in one of his forelegs. 

The Americans redeemed themselves with a major victory in the capture of Chateau Thierry on July 18, and in the wake of that victory, some of the appreciative women of that town sewed a chamois uniform jersey of sorts for Stubby, on which he could hang his medals and commendations.  The 102nd also took part in the Meuse-Argonnes offensive in the autumn - the same action in which Sergeant Alvin York famously earned his Medal of Honor - and this was when Stubby ran off and captured his spy; the German's captured Iron Cross was awarded to Stubby, who wore it on his uniform for years.  As a reward for capturing an enemy combatant without any assistance, General 'Black Jack' Pershing, the commander of the US contingent of Meuse-Argonne, promoted Stubby to the rank of Sergeant, meaning that, if he could speak, he would have had the right to give orders to the soldiers who accompanied him.

After Armistice, Private Conroy returned home to Connecticut, once again smuggling Stubby back with him on the troop ship.  "Sgt. Stubby", as he was now known, achieved a certain amount of celebrity due to his heroics, and was given lifetime memberships to the YMCA and Red Cross.  He marched in numerous parades, appeared in fund-raising and recruitment drives for the Red Cross, and met with three separate US Presidents.  His list of awards include the Yankee Division's YD patch, a Wound Stripe, a gold medal from the Humane Society, and the French Grande War Medal.  When Conroy later attended Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Stubby became one of the early mascots for their sports teams. 

Stubby eventually died in 1926.  His remains are currently on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, as part of a display called The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  For those interested, it's on the eastern side of the third floor.

Links and Sources:

"The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum, retrieved May 6, 2012.  The specific page for Stubby's display is here.
"Stubby the Military Dog", Connecticut Military Department, retrieved May 6, 2012.

Stone, Barry, The Diggers' Menagerie: Mates, Mascots and Marvels - True Stories of Animals Who Went to War, HarperCollins Australia, 2012.
Garden, Joe, et. al., The Dangerous Book for Dogs, Random House Digital, 2007.
Goodavage, Maria, Soldier Dogs, Penguin, 2012.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Apache Woman

An unidentified Apache woman, late 19th century
In the mid-1860's, Sonoran merceneries raided a small Apache town near the US-Mexican border, near what are now the cities of Esqueda, Mexico and neighboring Douglas, Arizona.  After slaughtering the captured males, they force-marched many of the surviving women southwest to the Gulf of California. Many of the women died en route, and the rest were sold into slavery and put to work in the fields of a local hacienda.

Several of the Apache women, including a middle-aged grandmother from the Eastern Chiracahua nation named Dilchthe, hatched a plan to escape and return to their tribe.  They surreptitiously gathered some supplies, and successfully broke away from the patron and, remembering the route they took in, fled east to the Gulf.  Once their disappearance was discovered, the hacienda owners dispatched vaqueros to track them down, but the group of women evaded them.  When they reached the gulf, they travelled north along its shore.   After the food they brought with them ran out, they subsisted by eating leaves and bugs.

The group of women travelled for nearly 300 miles up the coast, until they reached the mouth of the Colorado River.  None of the women could swim, so they had no direct way of crossing the great river until Dilchthe made friends with an old Mexican woman who lived nearby.  The woman told the party of a shallow spot in the river far to the north, where the confluence of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, near present-day Yuma, at the southern tip of the California-Arizona border.  Dilchthe led the group up there and herself waded out into the Colorado River.  Discovering it was safe to walk across, she motioned the others to join her, and they continued east.  They were halfway home.

They followed the Gila River toward Apache land.  Despite the scorching heat in the Yuma Valley, Dilchthe prevented them from moving to the cooler, higher land because of enemy tribes.  After three days of following the Gila, the women were ambushed by a party of Yuma warriors, who were no friends of the Apache; Dilchthe and one other Apache woman escaped by hiding in some brush, but the Yuma captured one other woman, and killed the rest.  Dilchthe and her companion were the last two remaining, and they continued their walk, past what is now Phoenix and Tucson.

Finally, they could not go any further.  Suffering from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst, they were reaching the limits of their endurance; for their last hundred miles they had only been able to move at a slow walk.  Finally, one misty morning, they collapsed on the side of a mountain near what is now the city of Safford.  When the sky cleared, Dilchthe could see a heart-shaped mountain in the distance.  Being an Apache, she knew the mountains of the desert southwest very well, and she recognized that one at once.  She built a smoky fire as a signal beacon, and she and her companion laid down on the earth, too tired to move.

In a moment of sheer coincidence, the Apache that investigated, and found the two women lying on the rocky soil, was Dilchthe's own son-in-law.  In those days, it was customary for a man and his mother-in-law to avoid physical contact, but they both ignored that custom and embraced heartily.  After walking for more than a thousand miles through harsh desert terrain, with no map or weapons and almost no food, these two women made it back from a life of slavery to their home tribe.  Dilchthe was received back into her tribe as a returning hero.

Links and Sources:
Aldama, Arturo J., Elisa Facio, Daryl Maeda, and Reiland Rabaka, Enduring Legacies: Ethnic Histories and Cultures of Colorado, O'Reilly Media Inc., 2011.
Kan, Sergei, Pauline Turner Strong, and Raymond Fogelson, New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations, University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Wright, Mike, What They Didn't Teach You About the Wild West, Presidio Books, 2000.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Many Men in the Water

There is a memorable scene in the 1975 movie Jaws in which Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, tells of his World War II experience onboard the USS Indianapolis as it sank in shark-infested waters in 1945.  Although the characters in the film were all obviously fictitious, the sinking actually happened, and it was every inch terrible enough to warrant its inclusion in one of the most horrifying thriller movies ever produced.

The Indianapolis was a heavy cruiser, first commissioned on November 15, 1932, and it served in various capacities for about seven years before entering dry dock.  After America entered the war, the Indianapolis become one of many to be recommissioned for wartime duty, despite its age.  On March 31, 1945, it was hit by a kamikaze, and although the plane itself did very little damage, a bomb it was carrying plunged through several decks and exploded, killing nine sailors and doing extensive damage to the propellor shafts and several fuel tanks.  The Indianapolis spent the months of May and June in San Diego, undergoing extensive repairs and being retrofitted with newer, updated electronics. 

At the time, the US had also developed the atomic bomb, and were preparing to drop the first two - code-named Fat Man and Little Boy - on the Japanese mainland.  The crucial ingredient in the bombs' design was a supply of Uranium-235, and the Indianapolis - due to her speed and proximity - was chosen to convey the radioactive material to the Pacific island of Tinian, leaving port in California on July 16.  Although no one on board - including Captain Charles McVay - knew what was in the mysterious containers, the Indianapolis and her crew dutifully conveyed the mysterious cargo across the Pacific, a journey of more than 6,000 miles.   After arriving in Tinian on July 25th, the Indianapolis headed south to Guam for new orders, and from there proceded west.  As about 400 of the cruiser's 1,196 men were raw recruits, the Indianapolis's next mission was to proceed west another 1700 miles to the Philippines for a training mission with the USS IdahoIndianapolis left dock on Sunday, July 28, and headed west, and straight into the hunting grounds of the Imperial Japanese submarine I-58, and the Indianapolis - for an unknown reason - was denied it request for a destroyer escort ship, which were specially equipped to detect and destroy enemy subs.

The Indianapolis was making good time, but it was alone and blind, so a highly vulnerable target.  Fourteen minutes after midnight, in the early morning hours of July 30, a torpedo from the I-58 struck the bow of the Indianapolis with tremendous force.  It was nighttime, but it was also right about the time of shift change aboard the cruiser, so many of the officers were awake, but in their own cabins, which happened to be right about where the torpedo struck.  One such officer, the ship's doctor, was awoken by his cabin porthole being blasted past his face by the explosion as he lay in bed.

While the crew was reeling from the impact, a second torpedo struck the Indianapolis on the port side amidships.  The cruiser, having been built for speed, had armor of only about four inches thick (compared to about 13 for a battleship) so the torpedo punctured the skin with relative ease, striking and igniting several powder magazines and fuel oil tanks.  The resultant explosion tore the Indianapolis open with terrible ease, not only causing the ship to topple, flounder, and begin to quickly sink, but also knocking out the power, and coating everything in the area - the ship, the crew, the ocean - with a layer of black inky oil.

The ship's momentum continued to carry it forward as it spent the next twelve minutes pitching, breaking apart, and finally sinking nose-first into one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean.  About 300 of the crewmen died in the initial blasts, and the remaning 900 were spread out over about a mile of water.  Some clung to debris, some to the hastily-deployed life rafts, and others floated free; Captain McVay, who escaped the ship, clung first to a box of potatoes, then to a desk, and finally he met up with other sailors aboard a rubber life raft which had been deployed upside-down.  Not all were so fortunate in their ability to spot their fellow sailors - at water level, visibility is very limited, especially when bobbing up and down in estimated 12 foot waves. 

The men took what comfort they could in the fact that since the Idaho knew they were on their way, they would be missed and a search party would be sent out.  Unfortunately, a cascade of sloppy decisions, bad policies, and stunning coincidences ensured that that was not the case.  The message to the Idaho was garbled, and no request was made to re-send the confusing message, so it was ultimately ignored.  The ship-tracking logistics at the time assumed that all large warships such as the Indianapolis would reach their destinations safely, so there was so system to account their actual arrival.  At least one distress call was sent out before the power went out, but it was discounted as a Japanese fake; other receptors of the call were drunk, or failed to respond as they didn't want to be disturbed.  As no one received a warning or alarm, no one was aware the Indianapolis was missing, and so no help was forthcoming.

At first, the men did relatively well; they organized themselves as best they could, they looped their arms through straps in the back of their fellow sailor's life vests to keep them from sinking, their clustered together to support the wounded and preserve their body heat.  Some men scavenged potatoes and Spam from floating pieces of debris, and they ate, albeit sparingly.  Over time, however, their conditions deteriorated.  With no fresh water to drink, some men panicked and drank salt water, the diarrhea from which causing them to dehydrate more quickly; this, along with the constant chill of being submerged, and the rampant salt poisoning, caused a delerium, and many men went mad, started fights, and drowned.  The oil on the water, while it protected them somewhat from sunburn, caused photophobia, or a type of sun blindness caused by the reflection of the light off of the oil-coated ocean water.  Others died of thirst.  

Perhaps most terrifying, however, were the constant schools of sharks circling the water-borne sailors.   Many of the sailors they ate had already died on their own, but the survivors in the water could often sense the lurking presence of hundreds of hunting sharks just below the waterline.  Screams could be heard in the distance as lone stragglers, unable to find their companions, were regularly dragged underwater and devoured.  This constant threat added to the despair and madness, and it lasted for several days.

At 10:25 on Thursday, August 2, the two-man crew of a PV-1 bomber, on a mission to find and sink enemy subs, saw a lengthy, oblong oil slick, and thought it was evidence of a recently-submerged Japanese submarine.  As the bomber opened the bay doors and prepared to drop explosives, he noticed a long trail of men, waving and shouting for his help.  They immediately notified their command of "many men in the water", and spent hours circling the crash site, relaying specifics.  It took hours for their commanders to decide it was not, in fact, a prank, and rescuers should be dispatched immediately.

Next at the location was a heavy PBY seaplane piloted by Adrian Marks, who promptly disobeyed safety procedures and landed on the open ocean water, nearly crashing in the process.  Marks puttered about in circles for hours, collecting the most vulnerable survivors, even lashing some to his wings with parachute cord when he ran out of interior space; he collected 56 men in total.  When the destroyer Cecil Doyle arrived, Marks transferred his rescues to that ship, then sunk his seaplane, as he had damage it irretrievably during the course of the rescue.

Five more ships eventually arrived, searching the water for further survivors for almost a week.  In all, 317 sailors survived the four days floating in the Pacific Ocean.  These survivors were brought aboard a hospital ship and treated for dehydration, starvation, and all sorts of injuries and wounds suffered both aboard the ship and in the water.  On August 6, Enola Gay delivered the two atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Captain McVay was court-martialed for the loss of his ship, on the basis that he didn't take sufficient precautions, but in 2000 Congress retroactively overturned the result after further investigation and the availability of previously-declassified files on the subject. 

Links and Sources:
"Narrative of the Circumstances on the Loss of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", press release by the U.S. Navy, February 23, 1946, retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Finneran, Patrick J., "The Tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", on, retrieved May 1, 2012.
Haynes, Lewis L., "Recollections of the Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis", retrieved from the Naval Historical Center web page, on May 1, 2012.
Kurzman, Dan, Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, Random House Digital, 2001.
Newcomb, Richard F., Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster, HarperCollins, 2002.

Portrait of the U.S.S. Indianapolis CA-35, by Michael Guyot, from Art of the U.S.S. Indianapolis on the Maritime Quest web site.
Film clip from Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975.

Friday, April 27, 2012


On the Salita Santa Anna in Naples, not far from the Palazzo Reale, is nestled a modest restaurant called the Pizzeria Brandi, which has been serving various types of pizza in the same building for over 200 years.  It first opened in 1780 as the Pizzeria Pietro e Basta Cosi (meaning "the pizzeria of Peter, and that's enough"), but eventually its childless owner, called simply Peter the Pizzamaker, transferred its ownership to Enrico Brandi. 

Enrico's daughter was married to a pizzaiuolo (pizza-maker) named Raffaele Esposito, and it was he who was the running the restaurant in June of 1889 when the shop got a visit from royalty.  King Umberto I of Italy had been the monarch since the death of his father a little over ten years earlier; he and Queen Margherita had once lived in Naples and, as they were planning a trip back to the city, they decided to indulge themselves in the local cuisine.   

Mediterranean people had been enjoying rudimentary forms of pizza for centuries, if not millenia, beforehand, with various dishes comprised of flat bread with toppings.  However, it was not until tomatoes were added about 100 years prior that pizza began to take its modern form.  Pizza soon became a fad of central Europe; monarchs built outdoor pizza ovens at great expense, and Alexander Dumas mentioned it as a winter food in his work Le Corricolo in 1835.    

King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy
Esposito made three pies for the visities royals: the first was a traditional marinara, with olive oil, garlic, and oregano, and topped with anchovies; the second, a bianca, or white pizza, with basil, pork fat, and caciocavallo cheese.   Esposito believed garlic to be too gauche to serve to the King and Queen, so he created a patriotic third pizza, with tomato sauce, white mozzarella cheese, and basil standing in for the tri-colors of the Italian flag.  Raffaelle Esposito and his wife, Maria Giovanna Brandi, personally transported the pizzas to the royal palace aboard a donkey-drawn cart.

The royals tasted of all three pizzas, but Queen Margherita especially loved the third version.  Esposito immediately dubbed it the "Pizza Margherita" and wasted no time marketing his new flavor to any and all Neapolitan townspeople and visitors.  On June 11, 1889, the office of the Queen sent Esposito the following letter, the original of which still hangs in the Pizzeria Brandi:

Dear Mr. Raffaele Esposito (Brandi),
I confirm that the three qualities of Pizza You prepared for Her Majesty the Queen were found excellent.
Sincerely Yours,
Galli Camillo
Head of the Table of the Royal Household

The new flavor was a rousing success, and ever since then, mozzarella cheese has been a staple of pizza everywhere.  Tourists flocked to what was by then renamed the Pizzera Brandi to taste the original.  One such tourist was Gugliermo Marconi, inventor of wireless radio, who visited in 1896 but complained that the cheese was too stringy; "Perhaps," his quick-witted waiter replied, "Marchese Marconi should have invented wireless mozzarella."

Links and sources:
Stradley, Linda, "History and Legends of Pizza", on What's Cooking America, retrieved April 27, 2012.
Reinhart, Peter, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, Random House Digital, 2003.
Schwartz, Arthur, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, Harper Collins, 1998.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The White Ship

Henry Beauclerc, the youngest and last surviving son of William the Conqueror, served as King Henry I of England after the death of his older brother, William II, in 1100.  Nineteen years into his reign, he and his only legitimate son, William the Atheling, celebrated a successful military campaign against Louis VI of France, and the marriage of the teenaged William to Matilda of Anjou, the daughter of a powerful French Count.  They remained in Normandy for some time and, on November 25, 1020, Henry, William, and their respective entourages were prepared to return back to England.

Captain Thomas Fitz-Stephen, whose father personally piloted William the Conqueror across the English Channel during the invasion 54 years earlier, beseeched King Henry to allow him to ferry the royal retinue back to England upon his ship, called the Blanche Nef, or the White Ship, a fast, well-constructed, and recently refitted ship worthy of a monarch.  Henry himself declined, having already made other arrangements for his travel home, but he instead accepted on behalf of his son William; the ship carrying the King therefore departed from the port city of Barfleur, Normandy, just before twilight on November 25, 2012.  William, by then all of 17 years old, decided he wanted to stay in Barfleur and enjoy the festivities for a few hours longer and, in a bout of youthful indiscretion, further decided that he wanted the crew of the ship to enjoy the evening as well, and to that end he ordered that three barrels of wine be sent for them to drink as well.

The party continued as the ship departed.  The prince's entourage included about 300 passengers, including 140 knights, and they all proceded to become seriously drunk; William's cousin, Stephen of Blois, was among those intended to be on the ship, but he declined at the last minute owing to a case of diarrhea.  The crowd became increasingly rowdy as the ship departed for England in the dark of night.  The drunken Prince called for the ship to overtake his father's vessel, and to that end, the crew rowed with reckless abandon while the festivities raged on.  No one noticed the Catte-Raze, a submerged rock not far from the Norman coast, until the White Ship impaled itself upon it, punching a hole in the port side of the hull, and holding the ship fast.

Bedlam ensued.  Crewmen, still drunk, raced to the gaping hole and attempted through torrents of seawater to extract the ship from the rock.   Others rowed furiously backward, but still the vessel remained stuck.  Many fell into the water in the chaos.  A quick-thinking bodyguard rushed Prince William to a lifeboat, and put out to sea while the sea ultimately sundered the crippled ship and the White Ship began to break apart and sink.  William was safely out to sea when he heard his illegitimate half-sister, Matilda of Peche, calling out to him by name and begging him not to abandon her.  He commanded that his tiny skiff return to the wreckage to rescue her, and once it did, other passengers and crewmen, frantic and panicking as they floundered about in the water, swarmed and sank the Prince's craft. 

In the end, only three men remained bobbing in the water.  One was a butcher from Rouen named Berthould, who was only aboard in an attempt to collect a debt owed to him by some of the Prince's followers.  As Berthould clung to the White Ship's mast, he caught the attention of Thomas Fitz-Stephen, the Captain, who wearily called out to him and asked the Prince's fate.  Berthould, who had seen the events unfold, told Fitz-Stephen that the Prince had drowned, at which point the Captain lost all hope and let himself slip beneath the waves.  A boy, Gilbert de Craigle, lasted for a while in the water, but when his strength failed and he too drowned, Berthould was the only one remaining.  He climbed to the crow's nest and remained there, bobbing, until fishermen rescued him in the morning.

Besides William, numerous other members of the royal family perished aboard the White Ship: Matilda of Peche, the king's illegitimate daughter; Richard, his illegitimate son; Richard Earl of Chester, and his brother Outell, both nephews of the King; the countess of Chester, his niece; and most of the royal court.  William's new wife was left a widow at the age of 12.  For days, no one could bring themselves to tell him what became of his son and family, until Theobold de Blois conscripted a young, much-adored pageboy to break the news, at which point the King broke down, inconsolable.   The loss of the only legitimate male heir also cast the nation into a dynastic crisis.

King Henry broke tradition and named his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter Matilda of Blois, as the heir to his kingdom.  The English nobility, still chafing from dislike for the Norman dynasty, largely rejected the idea of being ruled by a woman.  Ironically, it was Stephen de Blois, the King's nephew who missed the doomed trip due to his bout with diarrhea, who contested her appointment.  When King Henry died in 1135, the forces of cousins Stephen and Matilda became embroiled in a civil war called the Anarchy, which lasted for 19 years.  After Stephen's death in 1154, the crown passed, through mutual agreement, to Matilda's son, who became known as Henry II.

Links and sources:
"TheWreck of the White Ship",, retrieved April 26, 2012.
Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica.
Strickland, Agnes, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, Lea and Blanchard, 1848.
William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England, and Of His Own Times, Seeleys, 1854.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Ultimate Protest

In the morning of June 11, 1963, a beat-up light blue Austin Westminster sedan rolled into the busy Saigon intersection in front of the Cambodian embassy, only a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace. About 350 Buddhist nuns and monks followed the car on foot and, upon reaching the crossroads, spread out to form a circle and blocked off the intersection. The car's doors opened, and Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc stepped out, flanked by two acolytes. Quang Duc was 76 years old, tall, bald, and wizened, and dressed in the recognizable orange robes of the Buddhist monks. Slowly and purposefully he made his way to the center of the intersection, where one of the others placed a cushion upon which Quang Duc would sit. When the respected monk had assumed the traditional lotus position, the other of his supporters produced a five-gallon can of gasoline and soaked Quang Duc with its contents. As the other protestors protested loudly, and someone announced the spectacle through a megaphone, Thich Quang Duc lit a match in one hand, and, in full view of the city, the people, and the world press, set himself on fire.

The early 60's were the height of the Cold War between West and East. America were relying on South Vietnam to resist the draw of Communism spreading down from the north, but South Vietnames e president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic, was carrying out a policy of repression against the Buddhist majority of the state. As time went on, Buddhist protests were met with force by the Diem administration. American President John F. Kennedy was ready to pull the roughly 16,000 US soldiers out of South Vietnam and strike a treaty with the North, but Diem's soldiers continued to raid Buddhist pagodas and other strongholds, and soon Diem's own generals were plotting to overthrow him. Diem responded to this by declaring martial law.

Vietnam was new to the concept of instant global world opinion, and public self-immolation was without precedent in Vietnamese history. Quang Duc, however, had been a devout Buddhist since he began studying at age seven. He had become an ordained monk at 20, and had spent more than 50 years since teaching, studying, and building temples for his fellow adherents. He had been heavily involved in the struggle for religious and human rights through non-violent means, but his many letters written to the Diem government exhorting them to cease the persecution of Buddhists went unheeded. Crucially, his studies had led him to the enlightenment that his existence was not tied solely to his physical form, leaving him free to bereft himself of that form and still exist. Obviously, sacrificing his life for such a radical form of protest was not a decision he took lightly, but his ultimate insight into his spiritual self allowed him to do so without attachment, fear, or suffering.

Thich Quang Duc sat perfectly still as his body burned in the city street. Photographers, having been alerted beforehand to the protest, snapped away with their cameras, and onlookers alternate chanted protests and gasped in horror at the sight. The air was filled with oily black smoke and the smell of burning flesh. Quang Duc was beyond saving, and after burning for about ten minutes, he slumped forward and the fire burned itself out. His followers loaded his remains into a coffin and spirited them away.

Within minutes, the dramatic photos were on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Diem had lost control of his people completely, and the Americans abandoned their support of his regime. On November 2 of that same year, Diem was overthrown and assassinated, and his successors halted the persecution of the Buddhists in Vietnam; 20 days later, President Kennedy was also killed in a separate attack. The struggle against Vietnamese Communism would escalate and evolve into the Vietnam War, which stretched for more than ten years. Protests ranging from Vietnam to American colleges were common, including several further instances of public self-immolation as forms of protest.

Quang Duc himself was re-cremated, and to this day his heart - which did not burn in either fire - is on display in the Xa Loi Pagoda in Ho Chih Minh City, a symbol representative of Quang Duc's extraordinary compassion and dedication to the freedom of his people.

Links and Sources:
Biography of Thich Quang Duc at the Quang Duc Buddhist Homepage (in Vietnamese), retrieved April 24, 2012. 
Bradley, Mark Philip, Vietnam at War, Oxford University Press, 2009. 
Nhat Hanh, Thich, Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, Parallax Press, 2009. 
Solheim, Bruce O., The Vietnam War Era: A Personal Journey, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Rain of Pumice and Ash

In the summer of AD 79, the Roman Empire was at its height. A Roman fleet was stationed at a town called Misentum, on the western coast of Italy about 150 miles south of Rome. Misentum was on the western horn of the Bay of Naples, and in one of its lavish seaside villas, the commander of the naval detachment, a philosopher named Pliny, laid on a blanket in the yard, writing his latest work. Pliny was famous, fat, rich, and Roman, and was attended to by a sizeable staff who answered every command he instituted.

Pliny's sister Plinia, who shared the villa with him, appeared and drew his attention to an oddly shaped cloud coming from inland. Pliny called for his shoes and moved to a place where he could better see what was happening. From the earth sprouted a vertical column of gray and white, rising straight up toward the sky. Once it reached a certain height, the cloud spread out to the side, so it gave the impression of a pine tree's umbrella canopy. Pliny, being a prolific writer of nature, immediately recognized it as curious enough to warrant a closer inspection. He most likely recognized it as a volcanic eruption, although he could not tell at first from which specific hill it was rising. Later, it would be revealed to be Vesuvius, and what Pliny was observing was only the first stage of its colossal eruption.

Pliny decided to ready a ship to allow him a view from the sea. He offered to bring Plinia's 17-year-old son with him, but the boy, unimpressed by the phenomenon, preferred to remain in the villa, and his mother refused to leave her child. As Pliny therefore headed toward a small, fast cutter he had chosen to take, he received an urgent letter from Rectina, the wife of one of his friends, pleading for assistance; their house was in a town at the foot of the erupting volcano, and they had no means of escape except by sea. Grasping the scope of the danger, Pliny changed his orders and commanded several larger galleys to accompany him into the the heart of the Bay of Naples to evacuate as many as possible from the coastal villages of Pompeii and Stabia. On his way in, Pliny noted that the cloud he had first seen owed its gray and white coloring to the fact that it was comprised of rocks, ash, and pumice projected violently into the air; now, with some time having passed, that cloud of debris was raining down on the Bay, the ships, and the coastal towns, pelting the inhabitants and making passage difficult, even by sea.

Pliny, all the while painstakingly noting the natural effects in his journal, commanded his ships into the heart of the bay, even as numerous other Pompeiian and Stabian ships were frantically fleeing the volcano. His helmsman, concerned about the danger, advised Pliny to flee, to which the commander replied, "Fortes fortuna iuvat" - "Fortune favors the brave" - and they made for the town of Stabia, where they met with another of Pliny's friends, Pomponianus. As they landed, both parties were being pelted with falling pieces of rock, which by this point covered the ground.

Pomponianus was visibly upset. Pliny, in an attempt to calm his friend by displaying his own composure, ordered his servants to carry him into the bathroom for some relaxation time. He was relaxed and happy and repeatedly told Pomponianus and his staff that there was nothing to fear; the fires on the side of the mountain were probably abandoned peasant bonfires, or burning houses left unattended. Even as the home continued to be pelted by the falling stones and ash, Pliny cheerfully ate, and then took a nap; the depth of his sleep was confirmed by the servants outside the room, who could hear the corpulent commander snoring heavily.

Eventually the rocks and debris gathering outside piled up so high that they threatened to seal the house in. Pomponianus awoke Pliny, informing him of this development and telling him they must make a decision soon. The group decided to abandon Pomponianus's villa and escape across the sea while they could; they all tied pillows to their heads to protect themselves from the falling objects and, although Pliny had slept through the night and the sun had risen, the volcanic cloud had blocked out the sun almost completely, so they needed to light torches to see as well. The party headed down to the water's edge, anxious to escape the disaster. Pliny saw the choppy, disturbed water and realized it was too difficult to navigate, so he called for his servants again to set down a blanket. The heavyset man then laid down on it for a rest, exhausted by the travel and exhibiting increasingly severe breathing difficulties, and called for some cold water to drink.

The initial, ash- and pumice-spewing phase of the eruption of Pompeii - known now to vulcanologists as the Plinian phase - was about to come to an end, and the parties of Pliny and his friend Pomponianus could sense it. Fires were drawing nearer to the town of Stabia, and the air reeked strongly of sulfur. Many of the people cried out to the gods for assistance, and others were convinced that the gods were all dead and the world was coming to a fiery end. They informed Pliny that it was time to go, and the big man struggled to get to his feet. Despite being supported by two of his slaves, he could barely stand, and almost immediately collapsed to the ground. The rest of the party, fearing for their own lives, fled.

Not long thereafter, Vesuvius exploded into two pyroclastic clouds, asphyxiating anyone left in the towns of Oplontis, Herculaneum, and Pompeii, burying the latter in over nine feet of ash, dust, pumice, rocks, and debris. There is no more mention of Pliny's friend Rectina, and it is likely that she was not rescued in time. Pomponianus and his party managed to escape the eruption, catching up with Plinia and her son - Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, commonly called Pliny the Younger, and eventually reaching the esteemed position of Roman Consul, it was he who interviewed the survivors and chronicled the incident in a series of letters to the historian Tactitus. Pliny the Elder's body was discovered two days later, in the ash-buried ruins of Pomponianus's villa; it was reported that he choked on the volcanic fumes, but as no one else in his party was affected, it seems likely that he instead died of a heart attack or another weight or fitness-related malady exasperated by the choking atmosphere.

Vesuvius itself last erupted in 1948, and is today a national park. Any seismographic activity is vigilantly monitored by the Osservatorio Vesuvio, and there are numerous plans to evacuate the 600,000 or so people in its shadow.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia articles on Pliny the Elder and the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The letter from Pliny the Younger to Tactius is online here.

Painting of Pompeiians fleeing Vesuvius is by Peter Bianchi, from National Geographic.
Map is from NASA.