Often times, people and events are covered on this channel that have genuinely managed to influence the history of humankind – for better or worse. Some of these people are more well known than others. Now, what if I told you that you owe your life to a relatively unknown Soviet Navy Officer. But not just you, though, I do as well, and more or less everyone alive today.
Because it was the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. On the 27th of October 1962, the B-59 submarine was trapped under an American fleet and, in their perception, was under attack by depth charges exploding around them. The submarine had embarked on a mission from the Soviet Union nearly four weeks earlier, in order to guard Soviet weapon transports to Cuba. Onboard were 70 crewmen. The three most senior officers were Captain Valentin Savitsky, the political officer Semonovich Maslennikov and the 2nd Lieutenant Vasily Arkhipov.
The B-59 was a submarine that initially was built for Arctic expeditions and was driven by diesel. It was now stuck underwater near Cuba, in a climate that it wasn’t built for. According to letters from the crew of the submarine, the inside would often reach temperatures over 50 degrees with poorly filtered oxygen and mounting pressure from the depths. All in all, Soviet submarines didn’t have the ideal circumstances to make rational decisions in.
There also was a US fleet guarding Cuba, consisting of the USS Randolph and 11 destroyers. They received orders, when they detected unidentified submarines, to use depth charges to force submarines to the surface. Now, President John F. Kennedy worried about this practice because the subs could mistake the depth charges for an actual attack. According to Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, the depth charges were ‘the greatest source of worry for the president.’ And, well, funnily enough, President Kennedy wasn’t too wrong to worry about the practice. When the US fleet realised there was an unidentified submarine, they launched the depth charges to try and force it to surface.
In the B-59 its commanders and crew thought they were under attack when depth charges exploded around them. The fact the submarine had lost all radio contact with Moscow days before didn’t really help the situation. They never received the message that depth charges would be used by the US navy to try and establish contact with submarines. The submarine had also listened to US radio broadcasts, and from those programs, its crew understood that the US knew missiles were being shipped to Cuba in secret and that Cuba had shot down a US spy plane earlier that day. So the crew knew of the troubled situation on the surface, and now they were being bombarded with depth charges. It caused them to dive even further down below to avoid the impact of the charges but resulted in them unable to listen to the American radio stations as well.
Taking all things into consideration two of the submarine’s commanders figured the Third World War had broken out and decided to launch nuclear torpedoes against the US war fleet. For a nuclear torpedo to be launched three commanders had to agree to the launch, however. And this is where Arkhipov came in.
Arkhipov was well-known among Soviet navy personnel and although formally he was outranked by Savitsky, in practice they were on equal footing. He thanked his status to an incident that occurred a year beforehand when he was the second commander on the Soviet K-19 nuclear submarine that suffered a near-meltdown. Following the accident Arkhipov went to repair the reactor, being exposed to much nuclear radiation. Meanwhile, a mutiny broke out among its crew and was only subdued because Arkhipov openly supported the submarine’s captain. Because of his heroic actions during that incident, at least among navy circles, he became a respected commander.
According to eyewitness accounts, a heated debate broke out onboard between Savitsky, Maslennikov and Arkhipov. The latter tried to convince the other commanders that if the war had broken out the US fleet would have scored a direct hit instead of exploding depth charges around them. Furthermore, it was the protocol that nuclear missiles only could be used if the Soviet Union was under direct attack, or an attack was imminent. The submarine was incredibly close to launching a nuclear missile against the US fleet and only because Arkhipov kept a cool head he managed to prevent it.
Because the necessary unanimity to use nuclear weapons wasn’t achieved, eventually, the commanders decided to rise to the surface instead. On the surface, a US destroyer sailed past, but no one entered the submarine. This meant the US navy had no idea there was a nuclear warhead on board, nor how close they got to all-out nuclear war. If the missile had been launched, it would have led to a chain effect where the US retaliated, and the Soviet Union retaliated again, with complete nuclear destruction of the world as a result.
As for Arkhipov, as far as we know he wasn’t punished, but he wasn’t lauded either. He became a commander on his own submarine and eventually commanded an entire submarine squadron. In 1975 he was promoted to rear admiral and became head of the Kirov naval academy. He ended his Navy career with the rank of vice admiral. He died in 1998 at the age of 72, from kidney cancer, supposedly caused by his exposure to radiation on the K-19 submarine a year before the Cuba Crisis. Forty years after the Cuba Crisis in 2002 the director of the national security archive, Thomas Blanton, stated that a man “with the name of Vasily Arkhipov saved the world.”
There was another nuclear scare over 20 years later. Because of a faulty detection system commanding officer, Stanislav Petrov had to determine whether or not a nuclear strike was launched against the Soviet Union. His decision not to retaliate that night also saved the entire world from a nuclear war. If you’d like to know more about that, check out my article about the nuclear close call of 1983.
At the beginning of 1944 six divisions of the German Army Group South, some 56.000 men, were encircled by the Russian Army. They were stuck in a pocket of around 48 kilometres wide and 20 kilometres deep around the Ukrainian town of Korsun, in the South-West. What followed was a desperate fight of the Germans, fighting against the encirclement of Soviet forces outnumbering them. Eventually, the situation got so bad German General Wilhelm Stemmermann decided to group all the German combat troops inside the pocket, arrange them into two columns, and force a break-out of the Cherkassy pocket, straight through the surrounding Soviet lines.
The Soviets Attack
Once the German forces under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s Army Group South had retreated back into Ukraine from Russia in late 1943, the Soviet Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov realized the potential a certain strategy had. He planned to encircle the German army, just as the Soviets had done at Stalingrad against General Paulus’s army, in order to crush the Germans. With diligent planning and quick mobilisation, the Soviets rushed their troops, some 80.000 men, to encircle the German pocket located near the city of Cherkassy. Commander of the German forces inside the Cherkassy pocket was General Wilhelm Stemmermann. German forces inside the pocket consisted of 56.000 troops, 30 operational tanks and over 200 artillery pieces.
On January 24th, at dawn, the Red Army launched their attack against the German troops. Thing is, the encirclement of the Germans, as was planned, wasn’t yet complete. Nevertheless, Soviet General Ivan Konev lead the attack with his 2nd Ukrainian Front.
At first, a massive artillery barrage lasted for several hours. The battalions of 4th Guards and 53rd armies followed up and throughout the day they broke through into the German forward positions. Up to 5 kilometres of depth was won.
The next day Konev’s troops launched infantry attacks at dawn. Later that day, the fifth guards tank army, an elite tank division under the command of the highly capable general Pavel Rotmistrov, launched an attack at the base of the Cherkassy pocket.
The Germans managed to halt Rotmisov’s advancement with heavy anti-tank fire, but the next day the northern line of the Cherkassy pocket was breached by General Nikolai Vatutin’s First Ukrainan Front. Here too a tank division took the lead role, namely the Sixth Guards Tank Army under General Andrey Kravchenko. The Germans managed to hold the breaches by the Soviets and fought for their dear lives. All the while, the Soviets managed to establish several strong points around the German troops.
By the end of January, the Soviets managed to establish both an outer and inner encirclement of the Cherkassy pocket. The Fifth Guards and Sixth tank armies, reinforced with rifle divisions, stood ready to fight the tanks of two German Panzer Corps from the outside. They were desperately trying to break through the Soviet lines to come to the aid of the Germans trapped in the pocket.
Next stage of battle
The conditions inside the pocket started to deteriorate rapidly. Now, the Germans were trapped in an area that housed several villages and forests, yet the area also had many ravines, marshland and streams of the Dnieper. Although it was still winter in Ukraine, a sudden thaw turned large parts of the area into a muddy mess. The Germans were rather immobile within their pocket. Landing zones washed away due to the thaw, and as such air support was impossible. Then again, the Soviets surrounding the pocket would fire at any aircraft approaching the area anyway. Ammunition and petrol supplies ran low, unable to be restocked. Germans guarding the frontlines of their pocket were subject to a near 24 hour a day broadcast of Soviet propaganda, urging the Germans to surrender. It wasn’t just Red Army commanders and soldiers that delivered the propaganda, though. German generals that were captured often were made to broadcast appeals to German soldiers to surrender.
Considering the situation the Germans found themselves in, when the Soviet forces began to launch direct attacks against certain weak points at the pockets defences, the Germans were quickly pushed back. When a scattered Belgian SS formation, the Wallonian Brigade, approached the small settlement of Moshny, they witnessed from closeby German artillery firing point-blank at waves of Red Army soldiers throwing themselves onto their position. Everyone in the village was fighting for their lives: from mud-clogged anti-aircraft guns to drivers, cooks, radio operators and quarter-masters. Abandoned trucks and field kitchens scattered around the area.
February 12th, 2 weeks after the Soviets initial attack on the Cherkassy pocket. At this point four German panzer divisions stationed outside the pocket wanted to breach through the Soviet lines, including the Sixth Tank Army, that surrounded the pocket. The divisions in the south-west of the pocket, near Odessa, desperately attempted to break out of the pocket to join forces with the German panzer units. The columns of German trucks, soldiers and armoured vehicles were subjected to merciless bombing by the Red Air Force. But a blizzard later on the day forced the Soviet aircraft to abandon its bomber missions for now. It didn’t matter though. Within three days the pocket was reduced to around 90 square kilometres with its frontline rapidly decreasing, German forces desperately holding the lines were pushed back by the vast amount of Red Army soldiers throwing themselves at them.
Of the Germans still inside the pocket, only ⅓ were soldiers. There was barely any shelter and aside from the psychological torment the men must have gone through, I mean, constant shelling, bombarding, red army infantry on a suicide mission and German generals broadcasting their pleas for you to surrender… but the physical conditions were horrible as well. It was cold, mud caked to the soldiers and wherever you’d look, there were at least several bodies lying around.
General Stemmermann, who had been trying to get relief forces to come to the aid of his troops since the beginning, now frantically tried to organise his best fighting units. The SS Panzer Division Wiking was among them. He rounded up his forces and did what he thought was their only option left: breakout to the west, through Lysyanka, towards the German 3rd Panzer Corps.
The Cherkassy Break-out
General Stemmermann ordered the destruction of all vehicles except for tanks, self-propelled guns, tracked vehicles and enough horse-drawn wagons to carry the wounded. Though over 1000 wounded were left behind as there simply was no capacity to bring them along. The breakout was organised in two columns and by the night of the 16th of February the 3rd Panzer Corps managed to come closer from outside the pocket, towards the point where Stemmermann and his units were going to break out. Just before midnight, February 16th, the breakout was launched and as snowstorms raged over the troops, Stemmermann’s columns started to move.
Two soviet armies, the 27th and 4th guards, were waiting for the Germans. Due to miscommunication Stemmermann wasn’t informed about the fact the hill they had to pass was occupied by the Soviets. At first the Germans seemed to be doing well, but it soon deteriorated into complete chaos.
The SS Wiking Division panzergrenadier regiment came under fire and was forced south, to the 15 meter wide river, the Gniloy Tikich. Under pressure from the barrage of fire by Soviet artillery, many saw the river as their only means of escape. Panicking, some men ran into the ice-cold water, others used tree trunks as makeshift rafts. Hundreds of Germans died, whether they were swept away by the stream or by hypothermia. That wasn’t the end of it though.
As the rest of the German columns emerged into open country, the columns behind the Wiking Division were flanked by Cossack cavalry and Tanks. Both the rear and flanks of the columns breaking out of the pocket were set upon by both. Those that raised their hands in surrender to the Cossacks were cut down by their sabres. On the banks of the Gniloy Tikich, troops were struggling to cross the river. They were bombarded by Soviet artillery, while Soviet tanks flanked them on both sides and rear. The SS Wiking Division had fallen apart and for most Germans
During the breakout, the car of General Stemmermann was hit by a Soviet anti tank gun. With him, around 28.000 German soldiers died, were wounded or captured during the siege of the pocket. Some 30.000 German soldiers managed to break out, of whom 6.000 men were of the SS Panzer Division Wiking. Lieutenant General Theobald Lieb assumed command after Stemmermann’s death, though the SS divisions had disintegrated to the degree that most soldiers had left behind their weapons and simply tried to get away from the battlefield as fast as they could. On screen is footage from a German newsreel from 1944, where Theobald Lieb is given a medal by Hitler for his role in the Cherkassy breakout.
The Soviets suffered over 75 thousand casualties, of whom around one-third were killed. The Red Army commanders received a personal congratulations from Joseph Stalin and Konev was appointed as Marshal of the Soviet Union for his role during the siege. Nikolai Vatutin would be killed within 2 months by Ukranian nationalists and it would take a little more than a year for Hitler to take his own life and the Second World War to come to an end. This is an interesting tale of the horrors from the Eastern Front, especially because so much effort was put in avoiding this to become a second Stalingrad. Nevertheless, it turned out horrible for the Germans, and it would take little more than a year for General Alfred Jodl to sign the unconditional surrender of Germany.
The Second Sino-Japanese war, that waged over China from 1937 to 1945, was the gruesome climax of Sino-Japanese hostilities that persisted over decades. In China, serving under Chiang Kai-shek, an American volunteer took it upon himself to establish his own volunteer air force to fight against the Japanese. Throughout the war, the record of these volunteers was remarkable, to put it mildly: they destroyed 297 enemy aircraft while losing only 14 of their own planes in combat. This is the remarkable story of the First American Volunteer Group, also known as the Flying Tigers.
Background of the Tigers
In winter 1941, the frozen airfield of Kunming, in China’s Yunnan province, harboured a little over 50 American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters. They were marked with the blue-white Kuomintang flag, the Chinese nationalists that had fought against the Communists. The Kuomintang had now taken up arms against the Japanese invaders, however, agreeing to a temporary ceasefire with the Communists. On the planes were painted snow-white teeth, some planes even had extra large fangs painted on them. Barracks stood near the Tomahawks. In them, the American pilots of the First and Second squadron of the American Volunteer Group in China (the AVG) resided. The squadron was under the command of the American Claire Chennault, who was nicknamed ‘old leatherface’. He had been the aviation adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, the successor of Sun Yat-sen and leader of the nationalist Kuomintang. As Chiang’s adviser, Chennault felt he too had been at war with the Japanese for over 4 years by now.
Initially Chennault had retired from the American Air Corps in 1937. It didn’t take more than a few months for him to turn up in China, however. The Chinese air force was small, badly equipped and poorly trained. They were unable to resist the military machine of Japan. Chennault was tasked with organising and overseeing the construction of airfields in remote areas where the Japanese wouldn’t be able to reach them, establishing radio net so others could be warned when a bombing raid by the Japanese took place and he introduced western battle tactics. It is safe to say that Chennault wasted no time and his projects were incredibly successful. Within several days of his battle tactics to be implemented, 54 Japanese aircraft had been shot down. Before this, the Japanese let bombers fly over China unescorted as the Chinese posed no threat. Now they had to revise their tactics and have bombers escorted, at least.
As for Chennault, well aside from his management on the ground he flew several missions as well. He did so in his trusted aircraft, a curtiss hawk 75 Special, bought for him by Madame Chiang Kai-shek. That reminds me, I promised to make a video about the Soong sisters over 2 months ago… it’ll come, eventually! Now, as the war lasted on, developments in aircraft became the focus on both sides. On the Japanese side the Mitsubishi Zero came into service. It was Japan’s main fighter plane for the first three years of the second world war. The plane had its upsides and downsides. To begin with, it was heavily armed with two 20mm cannons, two 7.7mm machine guns and two 130 pound bombs. Its top speed was 300 miles per hour (which is around 480 kilometres per hour). Due to this, and its ability to easily perform agile moves and climb, it was an ideal dueller. The Tomahawks certainly were up for a challenge.
While the Flying Tigers are the main focus in this video, politics too continued during the war. In the summer of 1937 a non-aggression pact had been signed between China and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union supplied China with military material, but by the end of 1940 this stream of supplies started to dry up. They became occupied with their own German problem all the way in Europe, the other side of the world. Chennault was quick to realize China could only last against Japan if they received American aid. The United States wasn’t too eager as they stuck to their neutrality, which caused serious diplomatic problems. Direct intervention wasn’t likely. But by February 1941 a persistent Chinese lobby managed to persuade the US government and military to agree to the formation of an American aerial foreign legion. 190 ground personnel and 109 former army, navy and marine corps pilots would serve in this legion. A private company, the central aircraft manufacturing company would employ them, and in June 1941 the first US volunteer group set sail from San Francisco to China.
The Flying Tigers
The American volunteers were to fly the Curtiss Wright P-40 Tomahawk. It wasn’t one of the greatest fighter planes but it certainly stood the test of time and was able to do the job. It had a self-sealing fuel tank and its two wing mounted .303 browning machine guns and .5 browning AN/M2 light barrel pair of synchronised guns that fired through the propellor certainly packed a punch. Thanks to its weight in armor and guns, the Tomahawk was able to outdive the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero. But dueling up in the sky… well the Tomahawk certainly had a hard time against its nimble adversary.
The American volunteers first were based in Toungoo, in Burma. Surrounded by a malarial jungle, the airfield was leased by the Chinese government from the British RAF, as long as the area was only used for training. Chennault enjoyed much freedom training the volunteers at their Burma base. Some of the men had never even flown an airplane and Chennault now took on the task to mould this group of pilots into a disciplined fighter force. Placing emphasis on tactics, gunnery and outsmarting the Japanese Zero’s that most likely wanted to duel with Tomahawks, the tension between the United States and Japan kept increasing.
By December 1941 Chennault had trained 82 pilots and had 62 aircraft in commission. That month, on the 7th of December, the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. The following day the US declared war on Japan. Chennault was ready to go on the offensive. It is what he had trained his men for. Ironically, he initially was ordered to remain in Burma to cooperate with the British RAF. A week after Pearl Harbor he received orders to maintain one squadron in Burma, and move his other two towards Kunming in China. The idea behind this was that 2 squadrons would fight in the violent and chaotic months ahead, whilst one stood on standby in Burma. As such, two volunteer units moved to Kunming and one stood in standby.
Right before Christmas day in 1941 the volunteers saw their first combat. Monsoon season was over and the Japanese made eager use of the calmer weather to increase the volume of bombers flying over China. Over the city of Kunming, 10 Japanese planes were intercepted by the Flying Tigers. 6 of the Japanese were downed, while the Flying Tigers lost none. It was the first time the Japanese experienced serious resistance in China’s sky, and thus the sudden appearance of the Flying Tigers was a real blow to the Japanese morale.
Three days later the Third Squadron that was held back at Rangoon fought their first battle. They were utterly outmatched. 54 Japanese bombers that flew from their air base in Bangkok were escorted by 20 fighter planes, including eight Mitsubishi Zeros. 14 Flying Tiger Tomahawks and 23 Buffalo fighters from the RAF faced the Japanese. 32 Mitshubishis were shot down, while between the Tigers and RAF 14 aircraft and 7 crewmen were lost.
Something else happened during this battle. Tigers’ Bob ‘duke’ Hedman and R.T. ‘Tadpole’ Smith both shot down 5 Japanese aircraft, making both of them the first Americans ever to become aces in a single encounter. The Tigers became a force to be reckoned with and caught the attention of the press, not to mention the US military high command.
As Christmass passed savage fighting in the air over Rangoon continued. Heavily outnumbered, the Flying Tigers managed to stay on par with the superior Japanese airforce. Changing tactics after several humiliating defeats, the Japanese now tried a new tactic: luring the Tigers up as other Japanese Mitshubishis hid among the bright rays of the sun. The Japanese amped up their bombing volume of airfields in the area as well. But the Tigers had a nice little deception in store for them. They’d build dozens of dummy Tomahawks, stuffed them with combustible rice straw only to line them up on the runway. As such, the real Tomahawks often evaded the attention from the Japanese bombers(they would be stored under mango and banyan trees next to the airfield). The Japanese thought they destroyed countless aircraft, when in fact most Tomahawks evaded being destroyed. The Tigers’ deception paid off very well during the war.
The Tigers’ Stagnate
Due to the Tigers’ continued success over the Japanese, even though they were outnumbered and out armed, there were calls to change tactics on the Japanese side. Daylight raids, bombings and firefights were canceled. From now on, the Japanese Mitsubishis would engage in night bombings. While the Tigers enjoyed success over the Japanese near Rangoon, the Japanese managed to extend their control over the Pacific islands. They invaded lower Burma as well and by March 1942 they were directly threatening the Tiger base in Rangoon.
The Japanese weren’t the only persistent threat however. The United States Army Air Force had been operating, ever since Pearl Harbor, to try and get the Tigers back under the American flag. Chennault was opposed to this – he saw the benefits of an independent force. It was flexible, could strike whenever time allowed it without waiting for agreement from higher up and the damage it did to the Japanese far outsized the benefits the US would enjoy by integrating them into their own air force.
As Chennault was discussing this behind the scenes, on the battlefield the Japanese advanced onto Rangoon. In march the Tiger base was abandoned. It was the Tigers that protected the fleeing columns of military personnel, mechanics, civilians and what not from Japanese air attacks. The Tigers settled in Magwe, deeper in-land of Burma. The lack of resources and continual trekking from airbase to airbase, meant infantry opposition to the Japanese became more prioritized. Now, during this time a third problem arose for Chennault. The new US military commander of China, Lieutenant-General Joseph Stilwell, arrived. His nickname, ‘Vinegar Joe’, gives an idea about his personality and tact. Stilwell was an infantryman and as soon as he was appointed a discussion between prioritizing airforce over infantry emerged. This debate would not be settled for several years.
Chennault wasn’t going to win the two battles outside of the battlefield. In April 1942 he was recalled to active duty by the US air force. Promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General, he became the commander of the China Air Task Force. It was basically the Flying Tigers squad, except they were now officially serving under the US flag. On July 10th they formally joined the US air force. At their disposal they had 34 Tomahawks and 7 B-25 bombers. Within a year Chennault was promoted to Major-General and the China Air Task Force was redesignated as the 14th Air Force. During this time Chennault had managed to get the Air Force command to agree to let his squadron serve independently once again. Oh, and he was still engaged in a bitter battle for power against Stillwell.
On the battlefield against the ever advancing Japanese, heavy fighting continued. As the Japanese overtook Burma, Chennault’s forces had to relocate in Baoshan, far west in China. The fact the Flying Tigers were no more in name due to Chennault being drafted for active duty in 1942 left them an incredible legacy. At the time of disbandment they officially destroyed 297 Japanese aircraft, merely losing 14 of their own. They not only ensured the safe evacuation of Rangoon as the Japanese advanced on the stronghold, but they also played a crucial role in defending the Burma Road as the Japanese were advancing onto it. The road itself wasn’t saved eventually, and the Japanese cemented their power base in the area. As for the feuding with Stillwell, in 1944 Chennault managed to convince Chiang Kai-shek to plead with President Roosevelt to send home Stilwell. Stilwell was subsequently recalled.
This fascinating story about the Flying Tigers, the American volunteers that fought in China’s skies, is one of the many incredible stories from the second world war in that region. Now, in 1944 the Japanese met a disastrous fate during their U-go offensive, namely the Battle of Kohima and Imphal. The Battle of Kohima is also referred to as the ‘Stalingrad of the East’, just to give you an idea of the horrors. That’s the battle I’ll cover next week.
During the Second World War, the Japanese had quite a different war ethos than the Allied powers and even their own allies such as the Germans and Italians. During the later stages of the war, they deployed so-called kamikaze pilots: pilots that mobilised their aircraft as a weapon and crashed into enemy ships. So where exactly did the term kamikaze come from and what is the story behind these pilots?
As for the origins of the word kamikaze, there actually is a very long historical tradition of the word. It refers to a mythical divine wind that supposedly blew over Japan centuries ago. According to this tale, this divine wind protected the island when during the 13th century the Mongols tried to invade it with boats. The grandson of Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan, attempted to invade the island twice with a massive fleet. These invasions failed because a typhoon destroyed the majority of the Mongol fleet. These storms were called kamikaze and served an important role in later history when explaining the failed Mongol invasion. During the Second World War the Japanese army command reasoned that just like the divine wind that repelled the Mongols, the Japanese kamikaze pilots would fight the US ships.
Now using kamikaze pilots wasn’t a familiar tactic at the beginning of the war. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until late 1944 that the Japanese high command considered the idea of utilising kamikaze pilots. This idea of sacrificing oneself in such a way for the emperor and empire wasn’t completely new though. Before the first kamikaze attack the second world war had already seen Banzai-charges: Japanese soldiers, and sometimes even civilians, that charged at their enemy, sometimes with bombs strapped to their body, sometimes without. They preferred death over capture by US troops. Japanese propaganda played an important role as well: Japanese soldiers were told horror stories about the treatment of POWs by US soldiers, which led them to think death was the least painful and most honourable way out.
Yet as the war progressed, Japan suffered material and resource shortages. By late 1944 the Japanese high command considered an American invasion on the mainland to be a serious threat, if not inevitable. By October 1944 the recently appointed commander of the 1st Air Fleet Takijiro Onishi started to test the waters with other commanders about a new strategy. In his opinion, it was the only strategy that could win Japan the war, or at least prolong it: use pilots that would suicidally charge into US ships with their specifically designed aircraft, including attached bombs.
Now initially while some commanders accepted his plan, there was some resistance among both the top Navy and army commanders. As internal discussions went on, several high-ranking officers felt there was no time to waste, however. Disregarding the fact kamikaze was not yet an official strategy, rear admiral Masafumi Arima decided to organise his own kamikaze mission.
And on the 15th of October 1944, he became Japan’s first kamikaze pilot. He used his Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine bomber and supposedly flew into the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin. Although sources are conflicting on whether Masafumi actually reached the USS Franklin or he crashed beforehand, what is certain is that the carrier suffered considerable damage. Regardless of whether the kamikaze attack was succesful – it became a massive propaganda-tool for Japanese media and the military and Masafumi was credited with being Japan’s first kamikaze pilot. Following this attack Onishi established the first suicide brigade, the tokkotai, an abbreviation of the Japanese term of special attack unit. It earned Onishi the dubious nickname the “father of the kamikaze”. But the term kamikaze was only used informally, and only after the term gained popularity abroad did it become a commonly accepted term in Japan.
The brigades were formed on the Malabaca Air Base in the Philippines. When the concept was relayed to the local squadron commanders it is said they received it in ‘a frenzy of enthusiasm and happiness’. In short: Japanese soldiers received the order to die for their fatherland. That goes for all those Japanese soldiers that literally fought to the last man: there are so many accounts of battles for islands in the pacific where thousands of Japanese soldiers were killed and only a dozen captured. One of the reasons was the military code from 1872, stating that soldiers that surrendered or fled should be killed. But there is a deeper, collective psychological reason for this notion as well. It was the heritage of the feudal samurai culture and the tradition of bushido and harakiri: committing suicide was seen as a sign of personal courage.
During those last couple of months of the war, Japanese Kamikaze pilots managed to sink 34 United States ships and aircraft carriers, and seriously damage hundreds of others. A common myth is that these kamikaze pilots willingly carried out their missions. While some pilots certainly jumped at the opportunity to sacrifice their life for the emperor, anthropologists and historians dispute this claim. The social pressure these pilots suffered was very extreme. Japanese anthropologist Ohnuki-Tierney refutes the myth of voluntary sacrifice among pilots. One of the key differences was that traditional harakiri was an individual decision. At the same time, kamikaze pilots were selected in groups and if you didn’t want to go on the mission, you’d have to withdraw in front of your peers. As you can imagine, the peer pressure was immense, and those that did refuse their assignments were sent to the deadliest fronts, where one would near certainly perish in the last stand.
Now, I mentioned the first unofficial kamikaze mission, but the first official kamikaze attack is much better documented. This photograph shows the men of the first of three kamikaze units having a ceremonial toast of water as a farewell. 23-year-old Lieutenant Yukio Seki led the squadron. It consisted of 5 Mitshubishi Zero’s each carrying a 250 kg bomb with the mission to fly it into US aircraft carriers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The goal of the mission was to paralyse the US fleet for at least a week, for the Japanese fleet to prevent a US landing on the mainland. The mission, however, wasn’t a success. It wasn’t, like the earlier mission, because the pilots missed their targets. All five planes crashed into US carriers and even sank the USS St. Lo, killing 143 of its crew. But the damage on other US carriers didn’t cause too much disruption and at most delayed the US fleet for several days.
Even though the mission cannot be considered the staggering success the Japanese military command hoped for, vice-admiral Onishi and the Japanese propaganda machine welcomed it as if it was an unprecedented victory. They broadly publicized about the courage of the kamikaze pilots. Due to this propaganda-storm, both the military and the Japanese public started to see kamikaze missions as a necessity for the war effort.
The initial kamikaze missions were carried out with Japanese Mitsubishi fighter planes. But soon the Japanese developed the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ohka, a human-guided kamikaze attack aircraft. On it the cherry blossom was painted, a symbol used to stoke militarism and nationalism among the populace. These aircraft were specifically designed for suicide attack missions.
And as for the composition of Kamikaze units, well it had some very telling statistics. Over 75 per cent were young men, most of them in their late teens and early 20s. In total well over 3800 Japanese pilots ended up dying in kamikaze attacks. Around 1000 of these were young men that had just graduated university and were promptly selected to join a kamikaze unit. No high-ranking officers were recruited, and no descendants of prominent Japanese families either. That is not to say high-ranking Japanese officers didn’t join kamikaze missions – the first unofficial mission was carried out by a rear admiral and the last attack, which I made a separate video of, was carried out by another admiral. Kamikaze missions initially remained small in scale. The Battle of Okinawa in June 1945 saw the first large-scale use of kamikaze pilots. During this battle, one of the bloodiest of the entire war in the Pacific, over 1500 Kamikaze attacks were registered. The incredibly bloody battle led to between 77 and 110.000 killed Japanese soldiers and Okinawan conscripts. Yet it was not for another two months, until the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, that Japan finally surrendered.
The day after Japan surrendered Takijiro Onishi committed ritual suicide, seppuku, and wrote a letter in which he apologised for the deaths of around 4000 pilots he had sent on kamikaze missions. He included a poem that read “Refreshed / I feel like the clear moon / after a storm”. He then slit his abdomen with his sword and stabbed himself in the chest. After the war one of Onishi’s subordinates wrote a classic book called ‘the Divine Wind’ in which he called the use of kamikaze pilots unforgivable. In 1975 the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots was built. It is built on the site of the airbase at Chiran, where hundreds of kamikaze pilots took off for their final flight during the last stages of the war.
Now if you’re interested in more stories about Kamikaze pilots, there will be some end-cards on-screen about both the story of the last Japanese kamikaze attacks and the incredibly tragic story of First Lieutenant Hajime Fuji, a man whose family sacrificed themselves so he would not be held back in performing his perceived duty of carrying out a kamikaze attack.
I would like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!
Welcome to House of History. Have you ever heard of the Chilean settlement Villas Las Estrellas? Well, I’d be surprised if you have. This settlement is located on King George Island in the Antarctic region. During the summer around 150 people live there, and during winter the settlement is inhabited by approximately 80.
The conditions on the island are harsh, with temperatures easily reaching sub-zero degrees and without any form of wildlife. Nevertheless, the settlement has a post office, a school and homes of course. It is mainly inhabited by scientists and Chile’s air force and navy personnel. Now, this settlement is fascinating because there is a very curious requirement for all those that live there, including the children. Because the nearest major hospital is over 1000 kilometres away, in order to move to the island, every long-term resident has to have their appendix removed. There are doctors on the island, but none are specialised surgeons.
This rule wasn’t thought up on a whim. As a matter of fact, there are cases in history of explorers that developed appendicitis while far away from civilisation. Without a capable surgeon on the team, severe appendicitis meant certain death. Right, so obviously developing appendicitis on an exploration to Antarctica is horrible. Still, a 27-year-old Soviet general practitioner that took part in the sixth Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1960 truly drew the short end of the stick. Because, well, he was the only doctor on the team and as his illness grew progressively worse, he was left with only one option to survive.
This general practitioner, Leonid Rogozov, had interrupted his training to become a surgeon in order to join the Sixth Soviet Antarctic Expedition in 1960. He was the only doctor on the team and together with 12 researchers, the expedition group was tasked with building a new base at the Schirmacher Oasis, about 75 kilometres removed from the Antarctic coast. Four months in, in January 1961 the station was up and running. Now, this was in the midst of the severe winter months Antarctica is notorious for, and the group decided to sit out the harshest of the winter.
But on the 29th of April, Rogozov started to experienced classic signs of appendicitis. Weakness, tiredness and nausea. The next day a distinct irritation began to develop on the right side of his abdomen. As a general practitioner and surgeon-in-training Rogozov had operated many people with appendicitis. And in reality, it was a routine operation, it still is. The thing is, it isn’t an ordinary operation when you’re in the middle of Antarctica. The boat trip to get there had taken 36 days, and the ship would not return for another year. Taking an aeroplane wasn’t possible because it was the middle of winter and blizzards made it impossible to take off. Rogozov’s situation rapidly grew worse, and as the only doctor, he realized the gravity of the situation: if the appendix burst it would near certainly kill him. As such, all abandoned in Antarctica Rogozov was stuck with an impossible choice between life and death: he would have to operate on himself.
At that time it wasn’t known if it was humanly possible to operate on oneself and, well, it certainly would hurt terribly because he couldn’t sedate himself. In addition, the commander of the expedition had to request official permission from Moscow because all this happened during the height of the Cold War, and a botched operation would put a dent in the prestige of the mission. Then again, without the surgery Rogozov would undoubtedly die, so even in Moscow they probably realised they had no other option.
As the symptoms worsened considerably, Rogozov made his decision: he had to perform an auto-appendectomy on himself. Now Rogozov wrote a diary while he was at the station. His diary the night before the operation read: “”I did not sleep at all last night. It hurts like the devil! A snowstorm whipping through my soul, wailing like 100 jackals.”
“Still no obvious symptoms that perforation is imminent, but an oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me… This is it… I have to think through the only possible way out – to operate on myself… It’s almost impossible… but I can’t just fold my arms and give up.”
Fortunately for Rogozov, there were 12 other men. Although they didn’t have any real medical knowledge he assigned them specific tasks for the operation as he worked out a detailed plan for the surgical procedure. Two close aides had to position the lamp a certain way and hand instruments when he requested them. In the unfortunate event that he would pass out, he even taught them how to inject adrenalin and perform artificial ventilation. Because he would have to operate ‘from above’, an unusual angle, an assistant had to hold a mirror so Rogozov could see what he was doing.
As I mentioned, Rogozov couldn’t sedate himself. He managed to apply a local anaesthetic but could not take any as he was performing the surgery in order not to get cloudy. Rogozov later said about the moments leading up to the surgery:
“My poor assistants! At the last minute, I looked over at them. They stood there in their surgical whites, whiter than white themselves. I was scared too. But when I picked up the needle with the novocaine and gave myself the first injection, somehow I automatically switched into operating mode, and from that point on I didn’t notice anything else.”
As for using the mirror, the upside-down view made operating more difficult, so Rogozov quickly switched to working by touch without gloves, instead of sight. Now during the operation, the bleeding was rather intense and there were several moments where Rogozov thought he would pass out and bleed to death. He later wrote:
“The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time… Opening the peritoneum, I injured the blind gut and had to sew it up,” I grow weaker and weaker, my head starts to spin. Every four to five minutes I rest for 20 – 25 seconds. Finally here it is, the cursed appendage! With horror I notice the dark stain at its base. That means just a day longer and it would have burst… My heart seized up and noticeably slowed, my hands felt like rubber. Well, I thought, it’s going to end badly and all that was left was removing the appendix.”
After the 2-hour surgery, Rogozov managed to remove his appendix, and as his notes reveal if he had waited one more day, it would have burst which would have ended in certain death. After he removed the appendix, he recovered just two weeks before he managed to pick up his regular duties. The British medical journal published a case report about Rogozov’s auto-appendectomy in the Antarctic; I’ll post the link in the description if you want to read through the full account of the surgery.
After his surgery, the men held out until the agreed-upon time to leave Antarctica. But due to an extreme polar winter, the ship couldn’t pick them up, which meant the entire team would be stuck in the base for another year. Fortunately, they ended up being airlifted out, albeit slightly later than planned and due to the bad weather one of the planes nearly crashed.
Regardless of Rogozov’s heroic feat that became a media spectacle in the Soviet Union and abroad, Rogozov didn’t have many pleasant memories of the expedition. He later stated he felt saddened that he wasted two years of his life in the icy abandoned place, which had lost its mystery within the first month. Due to the height of the Cold War Rogozov’s story was a welcome one after another success: just 3 weeks before his self-surgery Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in orbit. Both men were 27 and both became somewhat of the embodiment of a Soviet hero.
Upon his return, Rogozov didn’t seek a public life. He received the Order of the Red Banner of Labour, a prestigious award for exceptional achievements. And, well, ever since participants of expeditions to the Antarctic are subject to a thorough medical examination because of the risk involved. Rogozov’s story explains the rule for the Chilean town on the Arctic island as well: without a hospital closeby it is safer and better to remove an appendix preemptively.
I would like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!
In July 1943 the fascist regime in Italy fell. It ended Benito Mussolini’s 21 year-long fascist regime. The crucial external element in the toppling of Mussolini had been the allied landings in North Africa in November the year before. Besides the landings in North Africa, the allied powers also emerged victorious in their siege of Malta, an island to the south of Italy. They established a base there from which they used to dispatch Royal Air Force fighter planes over Italy and bombing raids over Axis-controlled territories.
During such a flight mission on June 12th 1943, 22-year-old sergeant Sydney Cohen, a young Jewish RAF pilot from London, flew his Swordfish bi-plane back to the base in Malta. He had looked for, but failed to locate a supposedly crashed German aircraft in the Mediterranean sea. On his way back, Cohen got lost due to problems with his compass, however, and flew past Malta towards the North African coast. In Cohen’s words: ‘the compass had a fit of the gremlins.’ Realising his aircraft didn’t have enough fuel to return to Malta, it was necessary to find a landing base to refuel. As such, he made the emergency landing on an island much smaller and much further south than Malta: Lampedusa.
The island he stumbled upon had a large landing strip, and he managed to reach the ground safely. Now, Cohen didn’t yet know it, but the fact he ran out of fuel seemed to become the least of his worries. The thing with Lampedusa was that it wasn’t yet under allied control. A garrison of around 4300 Italians held the island despite constant allied bombings. Cohen made the emergency landing on Lampedusa, between “burnt-out aircraft everwhere.” He recounted there were big holes in the field, as a result from the constant bombing by allied aircraft. But as he got out of his plane, he was immediately approached by Italian soldiers, wearing a “Tyrolean hat, with long plumed feathers, a leather jacket, khaki shorts and high boots”, as Cohen recalled.
Cohen put his hands up in surrender. However, the Italians didn’t accept it. Instead, the Italian soldiers exclaimed, “no, no – we surrender!” A little bit baffled, Cohen was then led to the commander of the island. When Cohen arrived at the island’s headquarters, a dozen Lockheed P-38 Lightning came over for another bombing raid over the island. During that bombing raid, the harbour was destroyed, and Cohen could see why the Italians wanted to surrender: they were sitting ducks. The commander then confirmed the surrender by signing a scrap of paper, which he gave to Cohen. As Cohen refilled his Swordfish bi-plane another pattern bombing occurred, and four fighter-bombers zoomed over the island, saw the markings on Cohen’s aircraft and turned around. Eventually, Cohen managed to refuel his plane and take off. He didn’t fly to Malta, but to a United States base in Tunisia to officially deliver the document of surrender to Allied command.
When news reached the United Kingdom of this pilot that managed to force an island with 4300 Italian soldiers to surrender, the propaganda value obviously knew no bounds. Mainly because this happened during a time when morale was low. The News Chronicle, a British newspaper, titled Cohen the ‘King of Lampedusa’. The Sunday Pictorial ran the front-page headline “Lampedusa Gives in to Sgt. Cohen!” Basically, this mass surrender was one of the first victories in a much larger operation that would eventually lead to the demise of the Axis powers.
The joy of this event didn’t just remain in newspapers. Within the Jewish community, Cohen quickly became a well-known hero. S.J. Charendorf, a playwright, actually wrote a Yiddish play about Cohen’s story. Due to legal issues, the main character was named Sam Kagan, but the narrative was based on Cohen. The play, titled the King of Lampedusa, was one of the most successful Yiddish productions ever. There were 200 non-stop performances and was broadcast by the BBC, boosting British morale. The play didn’t go unnoticed in Germany either, and Lord Haw-Haw, the British Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom, even threatened the theatre in East End with Luftwaffe bombings if they continued to stage the play. Even Cohen himself saw the play in 1944 while on leave in Haifa.
The film rights to this play were sold to director Walter Sistrom. Unfortunately, he died due to a burst appendix on a plane to Hollywood, and nobody knows what happened to the film rights he bought. As such, a film about Cohen’s adventure was never made. An article from 2001 reveals that director Arnold Schwartzman has been interested in the story of Cohen and wants to create both a documentary and a feature film about his story. According to his filmography, Schwartzman released the documentary “Anna and the King of Lampedusa” in 2006, 3 years after he initially planned it. As for the feature film, I cannot find anything on it. Schwartzman has done interviews with still-living people that knew Cohen and used newspaper articles for his story. It tracks Cohen, who was an orphan and became a tailor’s cutter, working in the sweatshops of the East End until he joined the RAF.
Unfortunately, Sidney Cohen himself couldn’t enjoy his new-found fame for too long. In August 1946, following the second world war, he disappeared over the straits of Dover. He most likely crashed because he was notorious for flying low and recklessly. And, well, that is the tale of the RAF soldier that, on his own, managed to force an entire Italian garrison to surrender and become somewhat of a war-hero in the process.
If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. If there is a person or event from the Second World War you would like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!
Welcome to House of History. As I was researching this video, which is about the oldest kiss in the world, I stumbled upon the world record of the longest kiss in the world. Apparently, in 2011 a Thai couple has managed to establish the new record: 46 hours, 24 minutes and 9 seconds. They beat the record by two Germans from 2009 that spent 32 hours, 7 minutes and 14 seconds kissing. Right. I doubt you’d ever want to kiss again after such an experience, but okay. Now, today I’m not going to talk about people that kiss longer than most people have ever been awake in one go. I want to talk about the oldest kiss in the world. I’m talking about the so-called Hasanlu lovers, an incredible archaeological find. Excavated in 1972, this “kiss” is estimated to have lasted for 2800 years and still fascinates archaeologists and the world alike. We’ll also be looking at some other rare archaeological finds of remains discovered in a loving embrace.
Teppe Hasanlu is an ancient city located in north-western Iran. It was inhabited from approximately 6000 BC to 300 AD, and nowadays there are still attempts by institutions to get the entire site to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And that isn’t too odd; in fact, it is rather strange the site isn’t on the list already. The city was destroyed in a fire during the 9th century BC, in effect rendering an entire layer of the city frozen in time. Knowing this, archaeologists had a field day: pots and pans, skeletons, artefacts and constructions remain preserved in the layer to be studied. Now, between 1956 and 1974 a team of scientists and archaeologists of the Metropolitan Museum in New York in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania excavated the archaeological site. Already in 1957 the archaeologists Robert Dyson discovered the Golden bowl of Hasanlu. The bowl was of solid gold and preserved in a great state, and estimated to be well over 3200 years old!
Besides the bowl, it was this excavation that lasted for 18 years that led to another surprising discovery. In 1972 two human remains were found on the excavation site. Now, there were 246 skeletons found in total, so that isn’t too rare. No, what was really surprising was the position of the remains. Apparently, this couple had been lying there, embracing each other in a kissing position for thousands of years. They were nicknamed ‘the Lovers’ and upon discovery became famous throughout the world.
So do we know what happened in the lead up to their deaths? It is assumed the couple died during a battle for control over Teppe Hasanlu during the 8th century BC. The 246 other skeletons found at the site and the injuries they sustained support that thesis. The Lovers, I’ll call them, sought refuge in a hole which must have collapsed on top of them leading to suffocation. They died together in an endearing embrace. Carbon-dating confirms them passing away around 800 before Christ, so a bit over 2800 years ago. The right skeleton was confirmed as being a man because of his pelvis structure. For a long time, it was assumed the way the man is positioned makes it seem he protected his lover as she was kissing him.
New research shows that the body on the right is a young adult between the age of 19 and 22, whereas the other skeleton is between 30 and 35. This skeleton’s gender cannot be determined for sure, but there are studies that state both skeletons were male. And because no scientific research has conclusively confirmed the gender of the skeleton on the left, there is still an ongoing debate what the relationship between the remains was.
Although the Lovers of Hansalu are technically the “oldest kiss” in the world, there are more examples, although they are rare, of skeletons excavated in a romantic position. The Lovers of Valdaro, for instance. Excavated in 2007 in San Giorgio near Mantua, Italy, human remains from the Neolithic era were found. Now to put that into perspective: archaeologists concluded the remains were over 6000 years old! Two skeletons appear to be embracing each other, looking in each other’s eyes as they died. The remains were of a man and woman, around 20 years old, face to face with their arms and legs intertwined. Thing is, these so-called double burials, where a couple is buried together were rare, if not unique during the Neolithic period. Certainly for Italy: this is the only double-burial from this era discovered. The region the couple was discovered was great for preservation: it consisted of marshland and rivers, which is why the skeletons were preserved so well.
So then there is the big question: how did they die? It is a bit of irony, but Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is situated in Verona, very closeby to where the lovers were found. Unfortunately, their deaths were probably a bit less romantic than in Shakespeare’s work. Well, the man had an arrow in his spinal column and the woman had an arrowhead in her side. The head archaeologist, Elena Maria Menotti, had this to say about the discovery: “We have never found a man and a woman embraced before and this is a unique find. We have found plenty of women embracing children but never a couple. Much less a couple hugging΄and they really are hugging. It’s possible that the man died first and then the woman was killed in sacrifice to accompany his soul. From an initial examination they appear young as their teeth are not worn down but we have sent the remains to a laboratory to establish their age at the time of death. They are face to face and their arms and legs are entwined and they are really hugging.”
If you’re interested, the skeletons are on permanent display in their own rooms in the Archaeological Museum of Mantua!
Alright, so the last example I want to talk about is an interesting one as well. Closeby our previous example, in Modena, Italy, a couple was found that had been holding hands for 1600 years! These “lovers of Modena” were unearthed in 2009 and the media’s attention was drawn to it because of their seemingly romantic position. The skeletons had degraded to a point where archaeologists had difficulty establishing the gender of both skeletons. In 2019 a team of scientists ran teeth-analysis on the couple in order to determine their gender. Both skeleton’s teeth contained a protein called amelogenin isoform Y, a protein that is only found in the teeth of men. In the study, the scientists wrote “We suggest that the ‘Lovers of Modena’ burial represents a voluntary expression of commitment between two individuals,” and that they were uncertain if the reason for their position was romantic or not.
It could very well have been the two were war friends. 11 other skeletons were found at the excavated site, all of them with injuries suggestion they died during a war. These two bodies could have been friends and have been lumped together in a grave because of that, according to the researchers. Or they could have been cousins or brothers due to their age, sharing the grave because of their family bond. The researchers reasoned that they could not be sure the two weren’t in a romantic relationship, but it is unlikely that [the] people who buried them decided to show such [a] bond by positioning their bodies hand in hand.” Many of the people in the region had converted to Christianity by the time the men were buried, and authorities held a negative view of same-sex relationships, although admittedly Greek and Roman culture did allow for very intimate bonds between men to be expressed, and even encouraged.
Now as for the Hasanlu Lovers debate will continue about the gender of the skeletons since there cannot be a conclusive decision on the left skeleton. Nevertheless, it makes for a fascinating archaeological find and all three cases are, in my opinion, incredibly interesting.
I would like to thank all my Patrons for their generous support. If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. If there is a person or event from the Second World War you would like to know more about, let me know your thoughts in a comment. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!
During the twentieth century, barbed wire became the symbol of war, death, destruction and human suffering. We all know the imagery from the First World War, the no-mans-land littered with barbed wire and bodies hanging in it. But it didn’t just remain in the First World War, after all, barbed wire is insanely effective and cost-efficient. During the Second World War, the Germans eagerly used it for concentration camps, and after the war, the iron curtain and the primitive version of the Berlin wall consisted of barbed wire.
And it is still used to protect borders and to imprison dangers to society even today. But the invention of this symbol of war wasn’t out of any military necessity. During the late 19th century a businessman and cattle-rancher from the United States wanted to keep his cattle in a particular area and did some experimenting. Little did he know his invention would not just change his personal fortune, but the history of the United States and the entire world. His invention brought an end to the Wild West, and greatly influenced the way warfare was conducted in the century afterwards. There is a reason why Native Americans referred to barbed wire as the ‘Devil’s rope.’
Barbed wire was invented in 1874 by the American businessman and rancher Joseph Farwell Glidden. It is the type of barbed wire we still know today, robust, sturdy and cost-efficient. It’s effective in its simplicity: two steel wires wrapped along with barbs at regular intervals. Glidden initially invented it as a way to enclose cattle on massive American ranches and to mark private property.
Before we get to Glidden’s version of barbed wire we know today, I want to take a quick look at its earlier versions.
Because in 1860 Léonce Eugène Grassin-Baledan, a French inventor received a patent for his version of barbed wire. He created a form that was used to protect trees against wildlife and animals. It is said this version did what it was meant to do, but it was challenging to produce and use on a large scale. Farmers and ranchers didn’t necessarily see a use for it yet. Seven years later Lucien B. Smith obtained a patent on his version of barbed wire, which he named “thorny wire”, although that too didn’t see any mass-production or use. According to a Popular Science article, between 1867 and 1874 over 200 different patents for “spiked fencing” were processed. There were variations in the design; some had alternating spikes or wood with studded tips. But all of these types of barbed wire were still made by hand, thus making it inefficient for mass production.
Now, as for Joseph Glidden, his success was in part thanks to the favourable circumstances. His timing was perfect and his product was better than that of his competitors because it could be mechanically-produced. As for the timing, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act opened up millions of acres. Any adult could apply and claim 160 hectares if they were willing to settle on, and farm the land. But because of the rough conditions, there was a lack of trees, and wooden fences weren’t that efficient to close off land.
In the little American town of Dekalb in Illinois, Glidden purchased 243 hectares of ground where he wanted to establish a cattle ranch. It was challenging to keep the cattle in the enclosed area; the story goes that the cattle regularly broke out, only to start grazing in the vegetable garden his wife tended to. After some brainstorming Joseph thought of a solution: he bought multiple rolls of iron wire. He then used a coffee mill to wrap the wire tightly around barbs, and used a second wire to keep the barbs in place. The final product was very effective. It kept the cattle in check and at the same time was a great way to mark his lands.
He patented barbed wire in 1874, but before long questions arose about its originality. Glidden ended up involved in a legal dispute, which was not settled until 1892. You can view the original case of 1892 on the official website, of which the link is in the description. Already before Glidden won the case he established the “Barb’s Fence Company” in DeKalb. It led to him rapidly earning enough to become a wealthy and affluent businessman. Glidden ended up with five patents on barbed wire and by 1877 he was already producing three million pounds of barbed wire annually.
Because of its simplicity news rapidly spread and in the region dozens of barbed wire factories sprung up. Not all of these factories held the patent, and as such, the illegal production of barbed wire too increased. One of the best examples is that of John “Bet-A-Million” Warne Gates. According to the Texas State Historical Association, he built the largest manufacturer and distributor of unlicensed non-patented, so-called moonshine, barbed wire, earning him quite the fortune.
The popularity of barbed wire grew across the nation, and as news about this efficient method to keep cattle enclosed spread throughout the United States, everyone wanted a piece. The wire, at first glance, didn’t seem as sturdy as a wooden fence. So imagine the surprise when a cheap and seemingly weak wire managed to stop cattle from breaking out. It only added to the enthusiasm surrounding the product.
To give you an idea: in 1884 the newspaper ‘The Prairie Farmer’ published a special edition about the ‘phenomenon that in industrialised history has met no equal.’ And the sales numbers backed that up. In 1882 the same newspaper published some statistics about barbed wire: that year 82 million kilos were sold, an 18000-fold increase since 1874. Joseph Gidden managed to become a millionaire, a rare feat at the time. Throughout the years he became, besides a businessman, the sheriff, member of the Board of Supervisors of Dekalb County and member of the executive committee of agriculture. In 1876 he even was the candidate for the democratic party for the US Senate elections. At the time of Glidden’s death in 1906, he was among the richest men of the United States, having a net worth of around a million dollars including the Glidden House Hotel, the DeKalb Rolling Mill, a factory, the DeKalb Chronicle newspaper and farming grounds in Illinois and Texas. The little town Glidden in Iowa is named after him.
Barbed Wire in War
The invention of barbed wire did influence the history of the United States significantly, and world history as well. As for the United States, it led to the rapid progression of the final stage of colonisation and the trek westward. Barbed wire made it incredibly easy to enclose private territory, which led to an end of the real Wild West.
The volume of confrontations between farmers and cattle ranchers increased. Farmers that marked their territory with barbed wire in effect closing it off to third parties, and made it impossible for other cattle to graze on it. There even is a Lucky Luke story about this development: Barbed Wire on the Prairie. In effect, the cowboys and cattle ranchers had to start sharing the Wild West with farmers. Because of the ability to fence off property, the gap between landless and landowning-classes became more apparent than it had been.
By 1885, only 11 years after Glidden started the mass-production of barbed wire, the entire Texas Panhandle was wired. Its effects, aside from clashes between cattle ranchers and farmers, was disastrous for wildlife. Suddenly many animals could not exploit their natural habitat anymore, losing meadows they grazed on or springs they used to drink out of. Wild buffalo, known for having impaired vision, could not see the wire and often became entangled in it, dying of hunger, thirst or their wounds. It was the reason Native Americans referred to it as the devil’s rope.
Aside from the Wild West, barbed wire became an icon of the horrors of the First World War. . Aside from the trenches, it was used to close off borders. One of the notorious examples is the Dodendraad, the wire of death: a lethal electric fence put up by the German military to control the Dutch-Belgian border during the First World War. These fences were put up to prevent smuggling and military desertions. The wire of death on the border caused dozens of deaths between 1915 and 1918, often killing smugglers, but occasionally unaware citizens too.
But the Dodendraad is a pretty uncommon example for the use of barbed wire. Because trench warfare and the no man’s land between the German and French trenches are more potent icons of the misery of the First World War. Over a million miles of barbed wire was laid out on the Western front during the war. Everyone knows the photographs of bodies hanging in it. During this war barbed wire became a symbol of the hopelessness of trench warfare and the millions of lives wasted on the frontlines, in suicidal charges.
Yet although it was deadly and used for those horrors, we cannot deny its success. A testament to the success of barbed wire is the incredible amount of variations of it. In Jack Glover’s ‘The Bobbed Wire Bible’, published in 1972, over 700 types of barbed wire knots are listed. And even nowadays developments aren’t finished yet. In the 1980s the substance of the steel wires was mixed with carbon fibre, creating more flexible, yet still strong and durable wires. By subjecting the wires to extreme heat the carbon molecules crystallised. Evoking this chemical reaction, in short drastically decreases the weight of the wire whilst maintaining its strength. In addition, during the early 21st century, the contents of the coating of anti-rust for the wire changed. This led to the tripling, if not quadrupling of the life expectancy of barbed wire. As such even though officially barbed wire entered the stage during the 19th century, and it changed the entire world, even today it is still not done developing.
Hey, welcome to House of History. Today I’m going to tell you about Charles Vance Millar, who definitely is one of the most colourful characters in Canada’s history, but only truly managed to rise to fame, or perhaps infamy, after his death. During Millar’s lifetime, he already made a name for himself. He was a Canadian corporation lawyer and financier and for that time he amassed a considerable fortune. He was part-owner of the O’Keefe Brewery, acquired BC Express Company, gained the government mail delivery contracts in Northern British Columbia and he was an avid fan of horse-racing, owning several horses himself. All in all, he was a rather successful man. Now, during his lifetime, Millar’s became known as quite the practical joker, and he was notorious for connecting his humorous jokes to the price of people’s ethics. Some anecdotes state that he would often leave money on the sidewalk and enjoy to see people rush and pick it up, and other small innocent pranks like that.
But his final prank was undoubtedly his greatest. In order for it to be successful, he required quite a bit of patience, and he wouldn’t even be there to enjoy the end results. Honestly, I believe Millar’s elaborately planned prank easily make him one of the greatest pranksters of history. So what did he do? Well, on the 7th of June 1921 at the age of 68 he wrote his will. After a poor relationship as a young man, he never married and he didn’t have children. His parents had passed away long before him and as such he probably figured he could play a prank with the businesses and capital he would leave after he passes. In his will, Millar bequeathed his entire estate, but it would take five more years for anyone to find out to whom, and on what conditions.
Millar died of a heart attack on the 31st of October 1926, at the age of 73. The will was filed with Ontario’s Surrogate’s Court, and the opening passage revealed the general tendency of the entire inheritance:
“This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependants or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death, and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime”.
Alright, so there were 4 bequests that were humorous in the short term and one that I’ll leave for last, that basically rocked the entire province of Ontario and Canada as a whole for an entire decade.
To begin with, Millar owned a vacation home on the island of Jamaica. As a lawyer, over the years he met several other lawyers that he knew detested each other. In his will, Millar bequeathed his Jamaica holiday home to all three lawyers who shared joint lifetime tenancy. After their deaths, the property would be sold and the proceeds would be distributed among the poor of the city. But until that moment these three lawyers now were joint owners of a holiday home. During his lifetime Millar had already sold his home and as such we’ll never find out how this would have went on.
The next bequest was about his shares of the O’Keefe brewery stock. He gave each practising Protestant minister and every Orange Lodge member, an international Protestant fraternity, in Toronto a share, but only if they participated in its management and drew on its dividends. Now, that shouldn’t be a problem, should it? Thing is, the O’Keefe brewery was a Catholic business. But that’s not all, it was Protestant ministers that led the Temperance movement, a movement that propagates the abstinence from alcohol. A practical problem within the company’s structure prevented the legates from receiving their money initially, until the brewery was sold for 1.35 million dollars in 1928. Every protestant minister and Orange Lodger that accepted the bequest ended up receiving 56 dollars and 38 cents.
As for his very valuable stocks of the Ontario Jockey Club, the horseracing track, Millar bequeathed these to two very vocal opponents of horse racing, William Raney and reverend Samuel Chown. These men were known as moral pillars of the community. A third man who hated the Ontario Jockey Club, Abe Orpen, received shares as well. Orpen owned several horse-racing tracks in Canada and due to his shady reputation was not allowed to become a member of this Jockey Club, his competitor. He thus received a share of his most important rival. But there was a catch: all three men had to become shareholders within three years. Contrary to most reports only Orpen accepted his share, once again proving Millar’s notion that some men’s morals have their price. Still, Raney and Chown’s shares were supposedly given to charity.
Lastly Millar left one stock of the Kenilworth Jockey Club to each practising ministers of three towns close to Ontario. Obviously accepting the stocks would go against a certain moral conviction for these ministers, and there was quite a public struggle on whether they would accept the stock or not. Thing is, the Kenilworth Jockey Club wasn’t publicly traded, and after the embarrassing public struggle it turned out the share was worth around half a cent.
But although these clauses were funny in itself and caused a public uproar, it was clause 9 that really did the trick and dominated the news for a long time to come. Basically, Millar left the rest of his estate to the mother that would be able to give birth to the most children in the ten years following his death. As such, the Great Stork Derby began. Clause 9 read:
All the rest and residue of my property wheresoever situate I give, devise and bequeath unto my Executors and Trustees named below in Trust to convert into money as they deem advisable and invest all the money until the expiration of nine years from my death and then call in and convert it all into money and at the expiration of ten years from my death to give it and its accumulations to the Mother who has since my death given birth in Toronto to the greatest number of children as shown by the Registrations under the Vital Statistics Act. If one or more mothers have equal highest number of registrations under the said Act to divide the said moneys and accumulations equally between them.
In short: the woman in Toronto that would in the ten years after Millar’s death have the most babies would receive the remainder of Millar’s estate. Right, so some other things were set in motion during these ten years that Millar could not have known about. For one, the great depression from 1929 led to a massive unemployment wave in Canada. Jobs were very scarce and families often were fully unemployed: around a quarter and a third of all working-age Canadians were out of work in 1933. As such, by 1929 some families started to seriously consider the Great Stork Derby as an only viable way to survive and have any income.
The thing is, due to a fortunate sequence of events the value of Millar’s left-over estate increased significantly. He had made some long-term investments, for example, in the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. He invested 2 dollars, but his share would be worth over 100.000 dollars by the time the Stork derby was over. His entire estate was valued at around 750.000 dollars by the time the derby was over. Considering the minimum wage was 12 dollar 50 for a 60-hour workweek, even a fraction of Millar’s estate could lift many families out of poverty.
Throughout the years, several mothers that were ‘competing’ became famous in Canada and the Derby itself became famous around the world. Though many women that were in the race didn’t necessarily have their children because of it, and would probably have had large families if it wasn’t for the derby either. Anyway, after a decade of a media spectacle, the Great Depression and an ever-increasing estate, by 1936 the results were in.
Four women eventually tied “first place” with nine babies each. All four received 125.000 dollars each. In the aftermath of the great depression, this windfall obviously was lifechanging. Two other women were awarded 12500 dollars after a court battle. One of them had an uncertain claim because of two stillborn children when Millar’s will expressly stated ‘live children’. A very sad and grim twist to an otherwise funny and curious event. The other woman simply cheated on her husband and bore several illegitimate children.
All in all, Charles Vance Millar ended up indirectly fathering 36 children, and another 16 of the two women with disqualified claims. Not bad for someone that never had any children himself. According to a news article, the four families that won the fortune spent it in a very responsible manner. They bought a home and a car and provided a proper education for their children. As for Millar, 10 years after his death and during the worst economic crisis in history, he managed to improve the lives of six families with his final and incredibly sensational practical joke.
If you enjoy House of History and want to support my work consider checking me on Patreon. For just 1$ a month you will gain access to the exclusive Patreon series. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next time!
Welcome to House of History. Today I want to talk about one of the longest missing, presumed dead, Japanese soldiers that turned up alive. Now the aftermath of the Second World War was incredibly chaotic and missing Japanese soldiers that turned up years later weren’t that rare initially. One of the most curious cases must have been that of Hiroo Onoda, one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender after the Second World War. He held out for close to another 30 years after the war ended and astonished the world by emerging in 1974, still wearing the uniform he wore during the war. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t worry: I’ll link my video about him in the description.
But today I want to talk about another bizarre case, one that arguably is more bizarre than Onoda’s case. Ishinosuke Uwano was last seen by his family when he went off to fight in the Second World War. Uwano was drafted to the Imperial Japanese Army as a teenager and in 1943 he was sent to Sakhalin Island, to the north of Japan. The northern part was occupied by the Soviets, with the Japanese on the south. When in august 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, they rapidly invaded and seized the remaining half of the island. All Japanese soldiers that surrendered were forced into a prisoner of war camps, frequently spending decades in these gulags.
And as for Uwano, well, after the Second World War ended, he didn’t come home. Now, it wasn’t rare for the Soviet Union to send captured Japanese off to labour camps which was assumed had happened to him. And Uwano wasn’t a rare case of a missing soldier either; there were thousands of Japanese that were either left stranded on islands in the pacific, perished in gulags or were never found again and probably killed in action. The last part did not happen to Uwano for sure because the last confirmed sighting of him was on the Sakhalin island in 1958. Other sources state that year was the last time he had been in touch with his family. Either way: it was certain he was alive by 1958. One theory goes that once he found himself behind enemy lines on the island, he tried to survive in the wilderness of Sakhalin. After realising Japan had lost the war he must have surrendered himself to the Soviet Union. Even today the Sakhalin island remains Russian territory, so it isn’t too odd for Uwano to surrender himself after realising there would be no Japanese counter-offensive.
Now it is certain Uwano was put in a forced labour camp for several years, if not decades after the war. But it is blurry what exactly happened after 1945 and after 1958. What is certain is that in 1965 Uwano somehow ended up in Ukraine, probably after he was allowed to resettle by the former Soviet government. He moved to Zhytomyr, a city in central Ukraine. Over there, he married a local woman and raised three children, living his life closed-off from his past for multiple decades. Considering the last sighting was in 1958, his family tried their best to locate him in the following decades, but without any success. In 2000 they gave up hope of ever finding him alive, assuming he probably perished in a forced labour camp. Even the Japanese health ministry, which was tasked with finding missing overseas veterans, said they believed Uwano had died. So imagine the surprise when the Japanese embassy in Ukraine contacted them in 2006 saying that Uwano came to them and asked them to locate his surviving family in Japan.
So why didn’t he reach out to them earlier? According to Uwano, the Soviet government prevented him from contacting his family and considering the circumstances that is very likely. The Soviet Union was notorious for being secretive. Since Uwano seems to have been both captured and moved to Ukraine at the height of the Cold War, it is understandable the Soviet Union didn’t feel like informing the Japanese government, let alone Uwano’s family. When the Japanese embassy of Ukraine reached out to the family, the Japanese government prepared for Uwano to come over to Japan. It finally happened in 2006, when Uwano was 83 years old, as he arrived at Tokyo airport to meet his family he hadn’t seen in over 60 years. His Japanese was rusty, which is understandable, after all, he hadn’t spoken Japanese in 6 decades. Because he was declared legally dead in 2000, he could only visit Japan as a Ukrainian tourist instead of an actual citizen, something the Japanese government promised to resolve.
I wish I could tell you more about Uwano, but literally all sources are of his visit from 2006, which lasted for 9 days. I don’t think there has been an English news-outlet that has done a follow-up article. It is curious, because even today, 14 years later, Uwano is still alive. He is currently 97 years old and although the Japanese government said that they would try to give him back his Japanese citizenship, I assume he is still living in Ukraine.
Although Uwano is the last missing Japanese soldier to turn up, the year previous to his discovery there was another fascinating case. In 2005 a media-craze erupted about supposedly missing Japanese soldiers. On the island of Mindanao two men, Yashio Yamawa who was 87 years old and Tsuzuki Nakauchi, who was 85 years old, claimed they had been Japanese soldiers during the second world war. It seems these men knew the war was over but decided to remain on the island to start a new life. Not quite for any easy reasons though: according to the men they had stayed on the island for 60 years because they feared returning home. It was because of their fear of being court-martialed for getting lost from their division during the fighting. Now, if you’re interested in Hidoo Orona, the soldier that emerged from the jungle in 1974 to surrender his weapons finally, then make sure you watch that video after this one. I’ll link it here.