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The Chinese Soldier Serving in the German Wehrmacht: Chiang Kai-shek’s Son

The military histories of Germany and China in the years preceding the Second World War are inextricably linked. One of the more curious testimonies of their close ties must have been when in March 1938 the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria. The Austrian military didn’t oppose them, and the event subsequently became known as the Anschluss, sometimes referred to as the Blumenkrieg, or war of flowers. 

Among those Wehrmacht soldiers was the 21-year-old sergeant officer-candidate. Now, sources vary, with some indicating he served in the 98th Gebirgsjäger Regiment, the Wehrmacht’s specialised mountain troops. Others state he commanded a Panzer regiment driving across the border. All that is for sure is that this cadet stood out from the rest of his men. He wasn’t German, and well, he wasn’t even European. Chiang Wei-kuo was the son of Generalissimo Chiang-Kai Shek, President of the Republic of China and head of the Kuomintang, China’s nationalist party. Wei-kuo’s presence in Germany is curious for multiple reasons, especially considering that within two years, China’s adversary during the Second Sino-Japanese war, Japan, would ally with Germany. 

Chiang Wei-kuo with his father Chiang Kai-shek

So how did Chiang end up invading Austria with his Wehrmacht unit? Well, to begin with, Chiang Kai-shek adopted him when he was three years old. Officially, his father was Tai Jitao, an intimate of Chiang Kai-shek. Tai had an affair with a Japanese woman, who gave birth to Wei-kuo in 1916. Wei-kuo was born in Tokyo, Japan. Tai, fearing his illegitimate child could end his career and marriage, requested Chiang Kai-shek to adopt Wei-kuo. The plan was that Chiang could claim Wei-kuo was a child of Yao Yecheng, one of his concubine’s children. Having one of his concubines raise him as one of her own, Chiang did adopt Wei Kuo as his second son. His oldest, biological son, was Chiang Chin-kuo who would result in quite a bit of diplomatic troubles throughout Chiang’s career. Thanks to this, Tai was able to remain involved in the Kuomintang. For most of Wei-kuo’s life, up until the 1980s, he held up the claim he was Chiang Kai-shek’s biological son. Although rumours certainly persisted throughout his life and career. 

As for Wei-kuo, he studied physics in eastern China, at the Dongwu University. Meanwhile, he enrolled as a reserve officer in the Kuomintang army. During this time his brother, Chiang Ching-kuo, left for Moscow to study there. Ching-kuo remained in Moscow for over a decade, and after his father purged leftist elements from the Kuomintang in 1927, Ching-kuo was detained in the Soviet Union, albeit as a… “guest”. We all know what that means. Chiang Kai-shek refused to negotiate a prisoner swap for his son, reasoning that China’s fate was not worth his son’s fate. In 1937 Ching-kuo, together with his Belarusian wife he met there, returned to China. 

With one of his sons just returning from virtual imprisonment in the Soviet Union, in late 1937 Chiang decided to send Wei-kuo to Germany to receive a military education there. After all, the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out in July that year. Chiang had great contacts among the German military. For example, Hans von Seeckt, the Chief of the German Army Command during the Weimar Republic, served as Chiang’s military consultant from 1933 to 1935. Alexander von Falkenhausen, another German general, also served as Chiang’s military advisor, playing a vital role during the early stages of the Second Sino-Japanese war. As for Wei-kuo, German military education, renowned for its efficiency and innovation, would be a great asset to him in both the war against the Japanese, but also in the subsequent inevitable war against the Chinese communists. 

Chiang Wei-kuo as a Fahnenjunker

Wei Kuo enrolled in the Kriegsakademie, or War Academy, in Munich, Bavaria. While he was there, many impactful political developments rapidly followed each other up in Germany. Hitler had been Germany’s dictator for nearly five years and had been planning to incorporate Austria into his German Reich. After blackmailing the Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, he forced him to abdicate. Subsequently, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nazi-party member Arthur Seyss-Inquart was named Chancellor of Austria. His first act in office on March 12 was to send the Germans a telegram requesting the Wehrmacht to ‘bring peace and security, and prevent bloodshed.’

And that’s how 21-year-old Wei-kuo crossed the Austrian border together with the Wehrmacht. By this time he recently completed his initial training earning him the rank of Fahnenjunker, an Officer Candidate. According to some sources during the Anschluss Wei-kuo, a sergeant officer-candidate by this point, commanded a Panzer unit. After the successful Anschluss, the Wehrmacht began integrating Austrian army units into their own ranks. This led to Wei-kuo and other officer candidates to command Austrian army units. Wei-kuo was assigned as Lieutenant to a Panzer unit. So basically, a Chinese man in German service commanded an Austrian Wehrmacht Panzer unit following the Anschluss. 

Following the Anschluss, Hitler set his eyes on Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, arguing there was a significant German-speaking minority there. It led to the historical, and rather ironic speech by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain who claimed he brokered ‘peace for our times’ after allowing Germany to demand Sudetenland. Wei-kuo didn’t participate in the annexation of Sudetenland, nor in the subsequent German military campaigns. Although according to Jay Taylor, biographer of Wei-kuo’s brother, he claimed he would have liked to.

Weeks before the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War, Wei-kuo graduated. It isn’t exactly clear how, but either upon instructions from Chinese authorities or simply by the Wehrmacht command, he was assigned as Lieutenant to a Panzer division lined up along the Oder River, near the Polish border. Yet on his way to his destination, he travelled through Berlin. Over there, he visited the Chinese embassy, where he received new orders. Due to shifting alliances, he was ordered to travel to the United States to receive military training there. Much to his own disappointment later on, when it became clear he missed the German invasion of Poland because of this. So in the days preceding the outbreak of the full-fledged war against Poland, Wei-kuo sailed to the United States for his new mission.

When he arrived in the United States, Wei-kuo enrolled in the Army Air Corps School in Alabama. Yet within too long, he was moved to the Armored Force Center at Fort Knox since it became clear to his commanders that he commanded a Panzer regiment in Germany and had received extensive training there already. In fact, Wei-kuo was specialised in Alpine warfare, and his Wehrmacht uniform sported the Gebirgsjäger Edelweiss sleeve insignia as a testament of his skill and experience.

After a little over a year, in late 1940, Wei-kuo returned to China. By this point, war had already broken out in the European theatre, but it would take another year before the United States entered the war against Japan. But Wei-kuo arrived in a war-torn China. Since 1937 they faced Japanese offensives, leading to extreme bloodshed. He was stationed in Xi’an, central China, where he commanded a Kuomintang garrison. 

For the next five years, Wei-kuo assisted his father Chiang Kai-shek in commanding Chinese efforts against the Japanese. When they emerged victorious in 1945, they faced a new threat: the communists. The subsequent Chinese civil war, pitting the Kuomintang against Mao Zedong’s communist armies, lasted for four years. It again resulted in extreme bloodshed. Wei-kuo commanded an M4 Sherman tank battalion, initially claiming several victories over Mao’s communists. 

But it was no use. In 1949 the communists defeated the Kuomintang and Wei-kuo, together with Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan, together with the majority of Kuomintang soldiers and his tank battalion. As for Tai, Wei-kuo’s biological father, he took his own life following China’s Communist takeover in 1949. In the immediate aftermath of his arrival, Wei-kuo became a divisional strength regiment commander of the armoured corps outside Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. He continued to play a role in Taiwanese politics up until the 1990s. Yet after one of his subordinates, General Chao Chih-hwa attempted a coup in 1964, the so-called Hukou Incident, Wei-kou only played a marginal role in the military. But in name, he remained present and was promoted to the rank of general and president of the Armed Forces University. 

Chiang Wei-kuo in Taiwan, 1950

And Wei-kuo never forgot his time served in the Wehrmacht. Some online archives and articles reveal Wei-kuo’s affinity with the German military in his later life. In November 1970 he sent a letter to Erich Stoelzner, a German military adviser during the 1930s who retired as a major general of the Kuomintang army. Wei-kuo reiterated Chiang Kai-shek’s gratitude for the “faithful assistance and friendship Stoelzner’s team rendered [the Chinese] during those difficult times.” Not to mention the fact he was the founder of the Chinese Institute of Strategy and Sino-German Cultural and Economic Association. 

And Wei-kuo certainly wasn’t the last Chinese soldier to receive training in Germany. From 1964 to 1972, 18 high-ranking Taiwanese officers spent a year training at the General Staff College of the Bundeswehr, the West-German armed forces. 

As for Wei-kuo, he retired from the army in 1986 and served as Secretary-General of the National Security Council, advisor of the president of the Republic of China. Eleven years later, in 1997 at the age of 80, Chiang Wei-kuo passed away from kidney failure. His last wish was to be buried in Suzhou on mainland China, but he was buried in a Taiwanese military cemetery due to politics.

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The Brownout Strangler and Battle of Brisbane: Americans in Australia during World War 2

Often, the Allied powers during the Second World War are seen as a united front. And obviously, they were, leaving out many caveats and nuances. One example is Australia, a country that allowed American servicemen to set up base in their cities to prepare for the Pacific theatre campaign. There were some fundamental cultural differences between the Americans and Australians, and oddly enough this even led to the infamous Battle of Brisbane between American and Australian service troops. But aside from this battle, an even weirder event led to… well I’d say horrible PR for the Americans. Among their troops stationed in Australia was a serial killer. In contrast to his fellow soldiers preparing an attack on the Japanese Empire, this soldier waged attacks on Australian women. Dubbed the ‘Singing Strangler’, Eddie Leonski was an American serial killer, stationed in Australia during the Second World War. 

American-Australian Relations

Australia formally entered what would become the Second World War on September 3rd, 1939. Its government accepted the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany. And that isn’t too surprising. To many Australians, servicemen and civilians alike, their primary loyalty aside from that to Australia itself, was to Britain. It was part of the Commonwealth and had obvious historical and cultural ties. 

Yet, due to how the war progressed in the European Theatre, namely not too good for the allies, Churchill had to make a difficult decision. Australians were, with right, worried about Japanese offensives and perhaps even an attempted invasion. Yet British prime minister Winston Churchill declared that if he had to, he would use British troops to protect Britain, rather than help the Australians against the Japanese. Due to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the United States entered the war. It led to Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to call on the United States’ President Roosevelt for help, a turn of events that surprised many older Australians.

Before the month of December ended, over 4000 American servicemen entered Brisbane, preparing for the Pacific Theatre campaign. Within one year over 250.000 American troops were stationed in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. In total it is estimated that nearly one million soldiers passed through Australia, of whom 80.000 were stationed in Brisbane. By this time, most Australians didn’t travel, let alone to the United States, so Hollywood films mostly shaped their perception of these new servicemen. 

American military historian Ian W. Toll writes about the surprise among many Australians. As soon as the curiosity about the waves of Americans subsided, the limits of Australian hospitality were explored. Bribane had around 335.000 inhabitants, so the influx of so many American troops certainly had an impact. 

Due to American spending, since they were paid twice as much as Australians, the Australian economy boomed. Unfortunately, it led to pubs selling beer under the counter, overcharging Americans, while telling their Australian customers there wasn’t any left. There were several deadly incidents on the road due to drunk Americans driving on the wrong side. And the smooth-talking, slick Americans were much more popular with Australian women. Newspapers even published articles about Australian women not getting their hopes up once marrying an American soldier, because the country itself wasn’t what it was made out to be in Hollywood films. The fact Americans had sharper uniforms and could afford chocolate and cigarettes, goods Australian servicemen couldn’t easily lay their hands on, and the wooing of Australian girls, inevitably led to conflict. 

In addition to these issues on lower levels, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was stationed in Australia as commander of all Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific. He never hid the fact he thought Australian troops weren’t up to the American standard. There were competent Australian commanders, such as General Sir Sydney Rowell. Rowell was respected among his forces and the public, and he bravely fought, and eventually halted the Japanese advance towards Port Moresby. Yet MacArthur ended up relieving Rowell of his command because, as mentioned earlier, he didn’t think he was up to the task. This inspired a widespread grudge against his person among Australian troops. All these irritations resulted in a powder keg, although a relatively small one.

Eddie Leonski

Considering all this you’d not be surprised American commanders were anxious for bad PR surrounding the U.S. army. Well, what certainly didn’t help was the fact that one of the strangest cases perhaps any nation at war has seen, walked around in Melbourne. 24-year-old American soldier, Eddie Leonski, wasn’t there to protect Australia. At least, not on an individual level. In fact, he preyed on Australian women – he was a serial killer during wartime. Dubbed the Singing Strangler and the Brownout Strangler he killed three women during his service. 

Eddie Leonski

Leonski was born in December 1917 at Kenvil, New Jersey, in the United States. He was the sixth child of a Russian émigre family. In 1933 Leonski left highschool, taking a secretarial course which he excelled at. It was surprising that the boy excelled considering his home circumstances: his mother was known to have serious mental health issues. One of his brothers was locked away in a psychiatric ward, and two other brothers had prison records. He worked multiple clerical jobs before he was called up for military service in February 1941. 

Initially stationed with the 52nd Signal Battalion at San Antonio, Texas, Leonski developed an unhealthy alcohol habit. According to court proceedings, during this time Leonski attempted to strangle a woman for the first time, yet this wasn’t known until after his final arrest. Because it wasn’t known, Leonski was deployed to Australia in January 1942. He arrived at Camp Pell in Melbourne, where he continued his alcohol habit. Again, according to court proceedings he allegedly raped a woman in her apartment, but the army didn’t find out about it.

Due to his drinking habit, he was locked up thirty days early on during his deployment, but he simply continued his habit upon release. There weren’t any established psychiatric issues known about Leonski, but it’s safe to assume they simply went undetected. One important aspect of his subsequent crimes was that Australia’s wartime reduction of streetlight allowed him to use the cover of darkness. 

On May 3rd 1940, 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod’s lifeless body was discovered in a doorway near Albert Park, Melbourne. She was throttled and her valuables and purse were left untouched. Detectives quickly established theft wasn’t the motivation. Press dubbed the murder the ‘Brownout Murder’, leading to Leonski’s eventual nickname of the Brownout Strangler. 

But he didn’t just take a break. Six days later the 31-year-old Pauline Thompson was strangled after leaving a pub. Upon interviewing witnesses that had been with her the night before, she was accompanied by a man that stood out due to his American accent. 

Another week later the body of 40-year-old Gladys Hosking was found. She had been murdered, in the same way the previous two women had, walking home from work. A witness told detectives an American man, covered in mud, asked for directions in the area. 

Eddie Leonski

Now, Leonski wasn’t exactly the brightest bulb in the shed. He confided his crimes to another soldier, and in combination with Australian detectives questioning many Americans, eventually, Leonski’s name turned up. In combination with several other witness statements, 24-year-old Leonski was arrested and during a police, lineup witnesses picked him out. He was subsequently charged with the murders of three women. Leonski had a boyish appearance, big smile, was powerfully built and of average height. The only statement he gave about why he murdered the women was that he “wanted their voices.” When newspapers got a hold of this piece of information, Leonski was dubbed the ‘Singing Strangler.’

Due to the case obviously being rather controversial, and Americans standing not being ideal in Australia either, there was much discussion about whether the Australian government or the U.S army should try Leonski. Eventually, the Curtin government decided a United States court-martial should try him. The investigation declared him sane and on July 17 Leonski himself pleaded guilty to the charges. 

During his last few months on death row, Leonski corresponded with a woman and became a Catholic Church communicant. On November 9, 1942, he was hanged. His remains are buried in a cemetery for prisoners that died in military custody in Hawaii.

The Battle of Brisbane

Later that same month, another event truly put to the test the Australian-American relations. The general dissatisfaction among Australian troops, who felt disadvantaged to the Americans, in combination with the Leonski case and several smaller riots where American military police singled out Australians made the powder keg explode. All of this led to the infamous Battle of Brisbane. Australian war correspondent John Hinde remarked that the battle of Brisbane was the most furious battle he ever saw during the war. It was like a civil war. Because it wasn’t a fight with the Japanese, but a two-day battle between American military police and G.I.s against Australian soldiers.

On the night of November 26, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a scuffle unfolded on Brisbane’s streets. Ironically a group of Australian soldiers defended an American serviceman they befriended against the American military police. Private James R. Stein, intoxicated after a night of drinking, was halted by MPS while on his way to the Post Exchange. After exchanging words, things got heated, and surrounding Australian servicemen and civilians jumped in to help Stein against the MPs. Heavily outnumbered and facing an increasingly aggressive crowd, the MPs retreated into the Post Exchange, while the crowd outside grew to hundreds of Australians throwing bottles and bricks at the building. 

U.S. Servicemen in Brisbane

More MPs arrived and they were pelted with rocks. When one of the MPs sported a shotgun, the crowd turned against him and a fight for control of the weapon ensued. During the scuffle it discharged, striking Australian gunner Edward Webster, killing him. Several more Australians were injured during the riot, and the mob was not controlled until late that night. The main floor of the post exchange had been destroyed, and there were injuries on both sides. The censor’s office immediately began preventing any press publishing about the deadly clash between the Allied groups.

The thing is, army command on both sides figured the major chaos had passed. As such, troops from either side weren’t confined to their barracks. The following night, this became an issue when groups of intoxicated Australian servicemen gathered in the area and moved through the streets pelting any American servicemen they found. Reports state several hundred Australians made their way through town. Americans, together with Australian women, were especially mercilessly beaten. Provosts, the Australian military police, barely intervened, and that night over 20 American troops were injured by mobs. Hostilities finally ended when provosts received the order to act much more aggressive towards misbehaving Australians. The censor’s office censored the events of the Battle of Brisbane to prevent more conflict between Allied soldiers, but the events certainly put a dent in cooperation. Just six Australians were convicted, serving several months in jail. The MP that shot Gunner Webster was court-martialed but acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

Sources:

http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/australia-wwii/home-wii/americans-australia
http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leonski-edward-joseph-10814
The Battle of Brisbane by Raymond Evans and Jacqui Donegan
Toll, Ian W. The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944 (Vol. 2)(Pacific War Trilogy): War in the Pacific Islands, 1942–1944. Vol. 2. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
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The Sad Life and Crazy Anatomy of Charles II, King of Spain

Nowadays people, at least in the Western world, tend to marry when they are in love and do so on an unpressured basis. Throughout history it hasn’t always been like that and although marriage was seen as a tool to increase, or preserve wealth and power, it was often brought to extremes by powerful dynasties. One of the most powerful and influential families of European history was the House of Habsburg. As a matter of fact, the House is the embodiment of what can happen if you properly play your marriage politics. The house’s power expansion started with a Swiss count, only to end up ruling over seven countries as monarchs. This was achieved by practicing cunning and practical marriage politics and always marrying up the ‘power-ladder’.

But this is also where we get to the issue of the whole situation. Perhaps some of you have already thought of this – but within a few generations of upward-mobility-marriage… well… who are you going to marry? If your family is the embodiment of power in Europe and no other family can even compete, then any marriage with other royal families will only net you losing control. And if, for example, your children marry into another family, why would the other family not practice the same marriage-politics that you practised to get on top and erode your power-base? And, well, yeah. You guessed it. The Habsburgs did what other royal families had figured out as well: they decided to marry each other to maintain their power base. And for multiple generations Habsburgs married their first- or second cousins. The thing is, nature has a system to prevent this type of inbreeding. And within several generations, the Habsburgs started to experience the effects of marrying within their bloodline.

Inbreeding tends to have some very disturbing genetic effects on offspring, and multiple generations of Habsburgs already suffered from this. But the man that really got the worst end of the stick and was more or less the embodiment of the effects was Charles II, King of Spain. Now as for Habsburg influence in Spain, due to a fortunate chain of events since the early 16th century, the Swiss Habsburgs provided its king. And the Spanish Habsburg line was notorious for their inbreeding. They frequently married close relatives such as uncle-niece, first cousins and if you look at their family tree, you will see that it often loops back into itself. Charles’ father, Philip IV and his mother, Marianna were uncle and niece, and their grandparents, Charles’ great-grandparents, were all descendants of the same 2 people: Joanna and Philip of Castille. 

Charles II, 1661-1700

So, well, it is quite the understatement to say Charles had some inferior genes. This section of a biography sums it up quite well: 

The Habsburg King Carlos II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child. The nature of his upbringing, the inadequacy of his education, the stiff etiquette of his court, his dependence upon his mother and his superstition helped to create a mentally retarded and hypersensitive monarch.

It’s an incredibly sad description but the paintings of Charles really do show a man that isn’t entirely… 100%. He had the traditional Habsburg features such as the long jaw, flattened face and turned-down nose, but all these features were brought to the extreme in his being.

When Charles was 4 years old his father passed away and he became King. Obviously he couldn’t rule himself, certainly not at that age, so his mother became his regent. Due to his weak body and mind his tutors thought it irresponsible to educate him, so the boy wasn’t properly educated at all. It was terrible to the degree that he wasn’t even taught to keep himself clean, and he became notorious for his lack of hygiene. Contemporary descriptions state his stench was unbearable and his hair was unwashed. He walked around in a state of permanent filth. And as he grew older his underbite got worse, and he couldn’t even chew any food, not to mention the drooling.

Mother and Regent Mariana of Austria

As Charles turned 14 he could now legally rule the Kingdom by himself, but obviously he was in no capacity to do so. His mother, the queen-regent, continued her regency, something that didn’t sit well with the only son out of wedlock Charles’ father had recognised, John of Austria the Younger. With ever-increasing tensions at court and rising debt of the Habsburg crown, John launched a palace coup against the queen-regent in 1677. He now took control of the country, but ‘setting things straight’ proved much more complicated than he had probably expected.

To begin with, Spain had many overseas colonies, but the gold and silver flowing in from the new world led to reckless spending and thus rapid inflation, rendering Spanish currency devalued. Furthermore, the domestic political infrastructure was chaotic. Spain was nothing more than a patchwork of barons and counts, a bit like the Holy Roman Empire. Now, perhaps John could have made progress in this department, was it not for him dying two years after taking power. Charles wasn’t up to the task to rule so a marriage was arranged for him. He married the French Marie Louise D’Orléans. Now, the girl was appalled at the thought of marrying him and is said to have spent most of the time weeping. A very long sad story short: the marriage remained childless and due to strict Spanish court customs and the mental infirmity of Charles, Marie remained a very lonely and depressed woman. That is not to say Charles didn’t love her, because he certainly did and throughout the entire marriage he would. 10 years after the wedding, in 1689, the depressed Marie fell off a horse and passed away.

Marie Louise D’Orléans, Charles’ first wife

Charles and Marie’s marriage remained childless, however, so another wedding was arranged. After all, a successor to the throne was necessary. Charles now married the pro-Austrian Maria Anna of Neuburg. Still, this marriage too remained childless with many concluding that Charles must be infertile. The last decades of Charles’ life were subject to constant war with France over Spanish possessions in the Netherlands and court intrigues between pro-Austrian and pro-French factions. And over the years Charles’ health deteriorated. Contemporaries had expected Charles to die very young, but to many surprise he managed to survive his 20s. Yet by 35 it was apparent his already minimal physical and mental capabilities were deteriorating.

The last years of his life were marked by ‘acts of madness’. He died at the age of 39. Following his death, a doctor performed an autopsy on him and he found the following:

the king’s body, “Did not contain a single drop of blood; his heart was the size of a peppercorn; his lungs corroded; his intestines rotten and gangrenous; he had a single testicle, black as coal, and his head was full of water.”

It is the incredibly sad life story of Charles II, the unfortunate product of the Habsburg mission to try and keep power within their family. Ironically, because of Charles’ disabilities, following his death the War of the Spanish Succession broke out. Charles had named Philip, the grandson of the French King, as his successor. This would establish a massive power base for the French in south-western Europe, leading to the Netherlands, England and the Holy Roman Empire to wage war against Bourbon Spain and France. In essence, Charles’ death led to the decline and removal of Habsburgs ruling over Spain. 

Oh and as for Charles second wife, Maria Anna, she was exiled to Toledo after his death. She was deported to France in 1706 and lived there until 1739. She died in 1740, one year after returning to, and living quietly in Spain. Basically the life story of Charles is a sombre one and only has losing sides for those directly involved. Not to mention the shocking anatomy of the man.

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What Happened to the Ghost Ship SS Ourang Medan?

In early February 1948, a strange and urgent Morse-code SOS, three dots, three dashes and three dots again, came from a Dutch cargo ship, the S.S. Ourang Medan that sailed through the Strait of Malacca. This strait was a much-used passage between the island of Dutch-governed Sumatra, Indonesia and British Malaya. Allegedly, in its vicinity Dutch and British listening posts and the U.S. vessel, Silver Star received the distress messages. The timing of the distress signal was curious, for the “sea was calm and the weather clear.” 

The Morse-code distress call came in once again. But, as a report about the event recalls, after a brief pause, a string of dots and lines were sent that shocked the stations receiving them. When deciphered, they spelt: “… All officers, including Captain dead, lying in the chartroom and on Bridge ….  Probably whole crew dead…” A series of frenzied gibberish dots and lines followed, before the closing message came in, simply stating “I die.” And then nothing more. Upon investigation of the ship, indeed, the entire crew was found deceased, supposedly with shocked expressions on their face. But the rescue parties could not identify anything that could have caused it. The mystery of the S.S. Ourang Medan became one of the greatest mysteries in nautical history, and to this day there has been no conclusive answer to what happened… or if it even happened.

The Incident

Now, I want to preface that this mystery and its documentation are shrouded in mysteries itself. But official CIA files declassified under the Freedom of Information Act show that even if the event didn’t happen, the CIA did acknowledge its rumours by replying, instead of dismissing letters asking about it. Okay, so what supposedly did happen? I’m going to go with one of the declassified letters sent to the CIA on December 5th, 1959, which was declassified by the CIA in 2003. 

The letter the CIA received, page 1

So, listening posts and nearby ships received the distress calls from the S.S. Ourang Medan. Following the strange distress calls a rescue mission was set up. Rescue ships from Dutch Sumatra and British Malaya quickly embarked on their search for the troubled vessel. One of the ships found the vessel, about 80 kilometres away from where they pinpointed it from the messages. Some sources stated the U.S. Ship Silver Star was closest, and reached the Ourang Medan as it lay motionless in the water. Other sources make a note of an unnamed ship investigating. The vessel circled the Ourang Medan multiple times, but could find no movement on-board and establishing contact seemed impossible. Its crew decided to board the ship. Using smaller boats, sailors went over to investigate the ship, laying still in the water. 

When the boarding party entered the Ourang Medan they stumbled upon a frightful scene. It was dead-silent, with the emphasis on the dead. The captain lay dead on the bridge, bodies of officers and sailors alike lay sprawled on deck and in the wheelhouse, chartroom and wardroom. Perhaps more shocking was what they found in the radio-shack. The party found the sailor that sent out the distress message. He was still sitting in his chair, slumped over the keys he used to send the distress signal. The men explored the rest of the ship and found bodies of the crew everywhere, from their cabins to the passageways and the engine compartment. Even the ship’s dog lay on board lifeless. Some reports state that although the weather was pleasantly warm and calm that day, the party that boarded the boat, reported it was considerably colder on deck.

A 1952 copy of the “Proceedings of the Merchant Marine Council”, published by the United States Coast Guard, written four years after the incident, describes the state the dead sailors on the ship were in: “Their frozen faces were upturned to the sun, the mouths were gaping open and the eyes staring… the dead bodies resembled horrible caricatures. Yet the bodies seemed to bear no sign of injury or wounds.” And that is quite weird, because, well, other reports reiterate that there was no damage found on the ship nor any injuries on the crew. Due to the absence of superficial damage to the ship, it excluded a rogue submarine attack or a collision with something as a cause.

The letter the CIA received, page 2

The boarding party returned to their ship and decided the logical course of action was to tow the vessel to the nearest port and investigate the matter. But there wasn’t an extensive investigation. Upon assembling the tow, smoke emerged from a compartment of the ship below deck. Suddenly fire rapidly spread through the entire ship, making it impossible to extinguish.

The boarding party managed to escape the fire, but as they sailed away to a safe distance, an incredibly loud explosion occurred on the Ourang Medan. Following this, the ship rapidly sank with its crew and potential evidence of their deaths. Nobody has been able to retrieve the remains of the vessel or its crew to this day.

Theories

Because of the strange nature of the case surrounding the Ourang Medan, people have suggested some mysterious ‘secret’ caused it. Theories range from carbon monoxide poisoning, to the illegal shipping of poisonous material that started leaking, to a supernatural force. For example, the letter sent to the CIA in 1959 suggests that “the tragedy holds the answer to many aeroplane accidents and unsolved mysteries of the sea.” The writer, C.H. Marck writes about fiery spheres noticed by ships crews and captains, disappearing into, or rising up from the sea during the 18th and 19th centuries.

He remarks how old English chronicles and ancient books mention these fiery spheres, such as Roman soldiers reporting these sights. It’s a bit of a large jump from the Ourang Medan and the general hypothesis to some mysterious fiery spheres. That’s probably what the assistant to Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, thought when he sent a reply simply stating “they acknowledge and thank” Marck for his letter and “although unable to answer” his questions, they think it’s “interesting and appreciate the concern in these matters.” In other words, they dismiss him in a profoundly polite way.

At first sight, a more likely course of events was that of the Ourang Medan smuggling illegal contraband, such as the explosive liquid nitroglycerine or sulphuric acid. It would also be somewhat of an explanation why the Ourang Medan didn’t appear in any shipping registers, or perhaps was removed from there. If it was a poisonous cargo-load that leaked during transit, perhaps the fumes killed off the entire crew. It could potentially explain the explosion as well, if the nitroglycerine leaked and had contact with its surroundings leading to an exothermic process. But if this was the case then the rescue party certainly didn’t notice any of it. 

Right, so carbon monoxide poisoning is another explanation. A simmering fire below deck could have emitted the poisonous gas slowly killing everyone on board. While this could also explain the fire and explosion, it is very unlikely for several reasons. To begin with, how is it possible the crew didn’t notice any smoke coming from below deck? It doesn’t explain the facial expressions or paleness of the bodies either. Generally, carbon monoxide poisoning is painless and causes a flushed face and red eyes. Not to mention that the crew above deck could not be poisoned by the carbon monoxide, as the gas flows away with enough ventilation. All in all none of the rational explanations seem satisfying… and perhaps that is because a very strong case can be made for the Ourang Medan tragedy never happening at all.

Missing details

Okay, so there are several details concerning the case that make it rather difficult to properly explain how the story reached the public and what might have happened to the ship and its crew. To begin at the beginning: the Dutch Cargo Vessel S.S. Ourang Medan wasn’t registered anywhere. I suppose you could say the S.S. Ourang Medan was a ghost ship before it became an actual ghost ship. 

There are some articles that claim the ship was registered in Sumatra, although none offer any credible registers. Not to mention that the Silver Star, although it did exist in 1948, was renamed the year before to SS Santa Cecilia and sailed mainly around Brazil, not the Pacific. Yet I suppose this could be explained if the Ourang Medan was used to smuggle contraband. If that was the case perhaps someone with influence simply ensured the ship was removed from registers to prevent a real investigation.

But another curious inconsistency in the story is about the date the Ourang Medan was discovered, but also about the date that it was published about. The letter to the CIA said it happened in February 1948. And Estelle, an author from the Skittish Library, really did the research on this one. She dug up every news article she could find, in various languages, documenting the dates the Ourang Medan popped up in articles. And that’s where the timeline gets very weird. So the Marine report I cited to describe the state of the crew on deck was published in 1952. Yet a British newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, published about the Ourang Medan on November 21st 1940. That’s eight years before it supposedly happened. It’s the article on-screen right now. It detailed an eyewitness account by a merchant marine officer that supposedly was on the ship receiving the distress calls and was among the boarding party. The content of the distress call is different, but it’s certainly about the Ourang Medan. The location doesn’t exactly match up either: it reports that the ship was discovered to the south-east of the Solomon islands… way to the east of the Strait of Malacca.

Yorkshire Evening Post, November 21st, 1940.
The Daily Mirror, November 22nd, 1940.

The next day the Daily Mirror published their article about it. They write that the fire lasted for a day, before it finally sank the vessel. It published the firsthand account of this merchant marine officer just like the Yorkshire Evening Post. 

It took seven or eight years for the story to surface again. Between February 3rd and 28th 1948 the Dutch-Indonesian newspaper De Locomotief: Handels- en advertentieblad published multiple articles about the case. This story recollected the story of a U.S. ship receiving the distress message about the deceased crew, somewhere in June 1947 and locating the ship quite a bit to the south-east of the Marshall Islands. Now, the Marshall Islands are quite a long distance away from the Strait of Malacca, not to mention that there now are three different dates that the incident supposedly occurred on. 

But De Locomotief published another interesting detail: the source of the story. Because they didn’t have the 1952 Marine Report, obviously. The newspaper managed to interview a man that claimed he knew a missionary that spoke with a surviving German sailor of the Ourang Medan. After the tragedy, the sailor swam ashore on the Bokak atoll, where he told his story to a missionary on the island. This missionary reproduced the story to an Italian from Trieste, Silvio Scherli. According to Scherli, the ship was indeed smuggling sulphuric acid. When the fumes got out it overwhelmed the crew killing all of them. 

Article in De Locomotief

Two problems with this story, aside from the obvious reproduction of a story told to someone else. Firstly, the Bokak Atoll is uninhabited due to its lack of fresh water, so it is highly unlikely a missionary was present on the island. And secondly, although the 1948 article mentions Scherli by name, the 1940 English newspaper articles we discussed note that the story was written in Trieste, which happened to be Scherli’s hometown. And, well, Trieste is a beautiful city but it is on the other side of the world. It is nearly impossible two different witnesses reported it in that exact city. It is much more likely Scherli was behind both the 1940 and 1948 publications. There are some other inconsistencies between both stories of 1940 and 48. In 1940 a marine officer recalled the story, yet in 1948 it supposedly was recalled by a surviving crew member of the Ourang Medan.

The article in De Locomotief even emphasizes in closing that “they don’t have any other data on this mystery of the sea. The author, Silvio Scherli, assures them of the authenticity of the story.” In short, although it has been well over 80 years ago since this story was initially published in the newspaper, and over 60 years since the CIA acknowledged the case with a dismissive reply, any real credible answers are still missing. But it certainly makes for an interesting story, I’m sure you’ll agree. Thanks to the research on Skittish Library the earlier news articles surfaced. These support the notion that it is doubtful the Ourang Medan disaster happened. There are just too many inconsistencies that don’t add up. I’ll link the article in the description if you want to read some further about the event. 

But it wasn’t completely coincidental this happened around the Pacific area, because it definitely was an area for mysteries. Because to the south-east of the Marshall Islands lies Gardner Island. And this coral atoll supposedly is the final resting place of Amelia Earhart, who tragically disappeared in July 1937, as she was attempting to make a circumnavigational flight over the globe. I’ve created an entire video about that, if you’re interested.

Sources:

http://skittishlibrary.co.uk/the-myth-of-the-ourang-medan-ghost-ship-1940/
https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/cia-rdp80r01731r000300010043-5
https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP80B01676R003800130059-5.pdf
https://www.dulcet.nl/2017/01/23/ourang-medan-mysterie/
https://www.de173.com/the-ss-ourang-medan/
https://www.delpher.nl/nl/kranten/view?query=ourang+medan&coll=ddd&identifier=ddd:010862872:mpeg21:a0050&resultsidentifier=ddd:010862872:mpeg21:a0050

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The Wow! Signal of 1977

During the 1950s over in Ohio, Professor of Electrical engineering and astronomy, Dr John D. Kraus, designed the Big Ear Radio Telescope. It was a prototype that cost 23000 dollars and preceded the building of the Big Ear Radio Observatory. Although the telescope was seated on the roofs of two university buildings, Kraus was eventually granted twenty acres of land to construct the radio observatory. 

The choice of land wasn’t completely random. Its remote location ensured a minimal risk of other interfering radio signals. Because the observatory wasn’t built to pick up radio signals from the earth, or satellites even. No, Dr Kraus hoped his observatory would manage to find proof of extraterrestrial life. 

The project was quite something. From 1956 to 1963 the observatory was constructed, mainly by students in order to reduce the costs. When the observatory, nicknamed ‘Big Ear’, was finally operational it was larger than three football fields. The Big Ear was equipped with two ‘ears’ if you will. On this photograph, you can see them. Generally, if radio signals were received by one ear, after several minutes, the other ear received them as well.

In order to potentially receive radio signals from extraterrestrial life, Kraus first had to map outer space for radio waves. It was quite the pioneering project and only after ten years, in 1973, was it completed. From then on they could ‘monitor’ these wavelengths, to detect radio transmissions that potentially originated from extraterrestrial entities.

It wasn’t until four years later that the Big Ear Radio Telescope detected a signal that was… unusual to say the least. The radio telescope received a powerful unidentified signal on August 15th 1977. Because of the technology used back then instead of acting on radio signals immediately, astronomers would look at a cluster of radio signals that had been picked up in the past couple of days. Usually, these were all somewhat predictable and the same. But astronomer Jerry Ehman, going over the documentation of the past couple of days noticed the unusual signal. The powerful narrowband radio signal, expressed as a string of code, captures his attention.

The signal contained signs of potential extraterrestrial origins, and certainly a source that wasn’t within our solar system. In total, the signal lasted 72 seconds. Because of how spectacular it was Ehman, circled it and wrote “Wow!” next to it. From then on the signal was known as the Wow! Signal. 

So why was this seemingly innocuous string of letters- and numbers so special? Well, several things about it are unusual. I am going to get into the technicalities for a short bit – so bear with me. Basically, the string of code, the 6EQUJ5, portrays the intensity of the signal. The graph you’re seeing right now visualizes that intensity. The numbers between 1 to 9 indicate the variation of intensity between 1.000 and 9.999, above 10 the intensity is indicated by a letter, in this case A for 10.0 to 10.999, B for 11.0 to 11.999 and so on. Right, so the strength of this signal had several values. Generally a .5 error margin is included: 6 being 6, E being 14.5, Q being 26.5, U being 30.5, J being 19.5 and 5 as 5.5. In the colour chart that is on-screen right now you can see the exceptional values. The short Wow! Signal burst is in the bottom left. 

Those strings of numbers don’t really say anything, until you know that when Big Ear received the peak of this signal’s intensity, namely U (between 30 and 31), it was the highest measured intensity by a radio telescope… ever. So, the intensity of this number is literally devoid of any dimension.

Because the Big Ear is a stationary telescope that scans space through the earth’s rotation, it observes a limited area. The maximum amount of time to observe an object was 72 seconds before the earth’s rotation moved the telescope away from it. Knowing this, it was hypothesised that any signal that lasted for exactly 72 seconds, would have a rising intensity for the first 36 seconds before it reached the core of the telescope, only to proportionately lose intensity the next 36 seconds. Both the length of the Wow! Signal, namely 72 seconds, as the trajectory of the signal’s intensity corresponded with the expectations of a signal of extraterrestrial origin.

Scientists have not been able to find the source of the signal. Since 1977 no such similar signal has been detected. It was received from a part of space where you wouldn’t expect any radio waves of the sort. What’s curious as well is that although the first ear received it, the second ear never confirmed the signal passed. This indicates that the signal was abruptly cancelled.

The SETI – Search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a term for scientific searches for intelligent extraterrestrial life. SETI has not been able to explain the source of the radio signal for the past 40 years. Now, the sole purpose of SETI is to identify signals such as this one, and the Wow! Signal is the only one of all those years of which the source has not been located. 

Now, there is an understandable reason for why after over 40 years nobody can say where the signal originated. It has only been detected once. So astronomers that investigate it, bump into the same problem over and over again. In the words of an astronomer: “image if you hear a sound in your basement one night, but you cannot find its source and it never appears again, then it’s near impossible to discover what made the sound.” And until another signal such as this one is detected its origin will most likely never be found.

Because there is no obvious source for the signal, many scientists theorise about its origins. The past four decades have seen many theories. Obviously, the most exciting one is that of extraterrestrial life that sent the powerful short signal. Yet other theories are perhaps a little bit more plausible. Many scientists claim that it is probably because of human interference that disturbed the activities of the radio telescope which led to the curious signal. Because of the contents of the signal: a strong radio signal on a very narrow frequency, which means that it has a specific wavelength. Generally, this is seen with electronic devices or fighter jets. Yet there are particular ways that signals from the earth can be filtered out from the signals Big Ear receives. And those filters have been used on the Wow! Signal… many times of the past years. And time and time again the signal proves that it did, in fact, originate in space.

In 2015 the scientists Paris and Evans published a new theory in an attempt to explain the origins of the Wow! Signal. A hydrogen cloud surrounding a comet could explain it. Back in 1977, the astronomers hadn’t detected any comets in the area that was scanned by Big Ear. It was in 2006, nearly 30 years later, when recalculating orbits of comets, it was determined two of them, the 266P/Christensen and the p/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) must have been in the area where the Wow! Signal originated.

Other scientists generally disagree with this theory because of two reasons. Firstly, comets are not known to produce signals with this type of intensity, nor on the wavelength that the signal was received on. And secondly, if it was a comet then the second ‘ear’ of Big Ear should have received the same signal after 70-odd seconds. That didn’t happen. And it’s impossible for a comet to disappear from Big Ear’s range within this timeframe. 

As for the Big Ear Radio Observatory, its scientists were included in the Guiness Book of Records thanks to their prolonged search for extraterrestrial life. The university sold the land the observatory was built on in 1983, and the land developers had different things in mind for it. In order to expand a nearby golf course and construct hundreds of homes they demolished the Big Ear Radio Observatory in 1998. And, well, other observatories around the world are still searching for unknown radio signals that could indicate extraterrestrial life, but so far none have been found. Well over 40 years after the Wow! Signal was received; it remains one of our closest encounters with potential extraterrestrial life. But fortunately for those curious about extraterrestrial life: SETI-telescopes are continuously scanning space for unusual radio signals. So if another Wow! Signal were to be transmitted, the modern technological improvements most likely would be able to determine where it came from.

Sources:

https://ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Big_Ear_Radio_Observatory
A. Paris, E. Evans: Hydrogen Clouds from Comets 266/P Christensen and P/2008 Y2 (Gibbs) are Candidates for the Source of the 1977 “WOW” Signal. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Winter 2015

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The Prussian Scam Artist that Robbed an entire Town

Prussia during the 19th century was an anomaly in the European theatre. By the early 20th century Prussia had managed to unify Germany in the German Empire, with its Kaiser, Wilhelm II at its head. Ingrained in Prussia’s culture was undisguised militarism, including the collective urge to obey army officers. Prussia’s militarism and its population’s docility to the army stand central in today’s story about a poor shoemaker, a petty criminal and scam artist that happened to be born in Tilsit, a city in then-Prussia. Thanks to a well-executed ruse, this man, Wilhelm Voigt, managed to impersonate a Prussian military captain, rally a troop of soldiers behind him and pulled off an extraordinary heist near Berlin which launched him to international fame.

The Prussian Scam Artist

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was born in 1849, Tilsit. Already at the age of 14, Voigt was convicted of petty crime and two weeks of imprisonment. He was expelled from school following the conviction and took up an apprenticeship with his father, a cobbler. According to Christopher Clark, he was convicted six times for theft, robbery, and forgery for which he received a prison-term totalling 25 years. He was released in February 1906, and settled illegally near the Schlesischer Bahnhof railway station, since Berlin authorities would not grant him a residence permit. He spent several months there as a night lodger, sharing his bed with factory workers that worked night shifts. 

Wilhelm Voigt

A bit over half a year after his release, in October 1906, in Western Berlin, Voigt managed to purchase second-hand Prussian military uniform parts from multiple thrift stores. He eventually managed to assemble the uniform of a captain of the First Foot Guards Regiment. On the morning of October 16th Voigt went to the Jungfernheide Park in Berlin and changed clothes into the captain’s uniform. He then made his way to the local military barracks, when he encountered four soldiers and a non-commissioned officer that were on their way back from guard duty at the Plötzensee prison. The officer told his soldiers to stand to attention while Voigt explained to them that he was under direct orders from the King and had to take command of the unit. He dismissed the officer and took the four soldiers with him to the Putlitzstrasse station. On his way there, he managed to get another 6 on-duty soldiers from the nearby rifle range to join his group in order to “carry out the supposed mission of the king.” He led his troops into a train that was bound to Köpenick, a historic town to the south-east of Berlin. On their way there Voigt treated ‘his’ men to beer bought at the station.

In Köpenick the band of soldiers made their way to the council chambers. There Voigt ordered his men to guard the main entrance, entering the building with the rest of his troops. They made their way to the suite administrative offices, the mayor’s workplace. In there were mayor Dr Georg Langerhans and the city’s most senior secretary, Rosenkranz. There, Voigt ordered the arrest of both men. Mayor Langerhans himself had served in the Prussian military as a reserve lieutenant. As such, when he saw Voigts epaulettes displaying his rank, the mayor immediately stood up and did not even consider resisting the arrest. Both the mayor and his secretary were told they were to be escorted to Berlin. Voigt also reached the office of the council police inspector. The inspector was sleeping, after all, this was an incredibly quiet district, and it was a pleasant early-autumn afternoon. Voigt reprimanded the inspector, before making his way to the office of the municipal cashier, von Wildberg.

Moving through the building Voigt arrived at von Wildberg’s office. He ordered him to open the municipality’s safe and give its entire contents to Voigt. Wildberg willingly did so, not even considering resisting a captain. Voigt cashed in 4000 marks and 70 Pfenning, and in turn, handed Wildberg an “official receipt”. Having managed to grab all the money the municipality had, Voigt now ordered his men to take their prisoners to Berlin and report to a military command post there. He himself left as well but disappeared on the way to Köpenick station. Much later Voigt told about what he did afterwards: he got rid of his military clothing, took another train to Berlin and settled in a café across the military outpost, the Neue Wache, he ordered his men to take the prisoners to. There he drank a beer as he watched the entire spectacle of confusion unfold in front of him. He then left the café and was on the run for six weeks before he got captured. He was arrested in December 1906 and received a prison sentence of four years.

Aftermath

Within days Voigt’s exploits launched a real media spectacle. German newspapers wrote about the ‘unheard-of trickster’s exploit’ and ‘a robber’s tale as adventurous and romantic as any novel’. The crime was perceived to be genuinely funny and Voigt’s motives were often elevated to him wanting to prove Prussian ‘militarism’ was dangerous. Berlin newspapers described Voigt as ‘cheeky’ ‘brazen’ ‘clever’ and ‘ingenious’ and for a while, everyone talked about it in taverns, on the street and on trains. Postcards of the ‘captain of Köpenick’ were produced and sold with considerable success. 

Statue of Voigt

International media too wrote about it. The Times reported that an event such as this could only happen in the militaristic German culture. Voigt rapidly became one of the famous fables of modern Prussia. In 1931 Carl Zuckmayr, a German writer and playwright, created the stage play Hauptmann von Köpenick which was later turned into a film which I have used clips of during this video. 

Voigt himself was one of the beneficiaries of his crime as well. He served less than half of his sentence when the German Kaiser and Prussian King, Wilhelm II ordered his release granting him a royal pardon. Within a week he was speaking to crowds in galleries and bars, reminiscing about his crime. Berlin authorities forbade him to make any such appearances and that is when Voigt capitalised on his foreign fame. He made an incredibly successful tour to the Austro-Hungarian empire, visiting Vienna and Budapest. He spoke at nightclubs, restaurants and fairs, talking about his adventure and selling postcards with his face on it. In 1910 he even left Europe to the United States and Canada. Apparently even a wax statue of him was created in London’s Madame Tussaud’s. In 1909 he published his memoirs: How I became the Captain of Köpenick, which earned him enough money to buy a house in Luxemburg, where he settled permanently. He stayed there during the first world war, living relatively comfortably from his book sales and tours. 

Wilhelm Voigt passed away in January 1922 at the age of 72. He started as a petty thief but due to his rather amusing crime, he ended up being an international celebrity for the last years of his life. I certainly think his story is worth telling and really enjoyed reading about him. And not just me, in 1996 the Köpenick municipality even created a statue for him, which stands in front of the council house.

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Rear Admiral’s Porter Ironclad Hoax during the American Civil War

When the American civil war broke out in 1861, the Union was pitted against the Confederate states. Besides all the underlying political reasons for this war breaking out, it is interesting for another reason. Because when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, it took decades for another war to break out between Western powers. Sure, there were uprisings such as the Belgian Revolution against the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the 1848 revolutions that spared nearly no European state, and even the First Schleswig War from 1848 to 1851 between Denmark and mainly Prussia. 

But all these wars had at least one relatively small party. No full-fledged war between ‘Great Powers’ occurred. These decades of relative peace saw a lot of technological advancements in warfare, yet there was no real war yet where these weapons had been tested out. I suppose what got closest was the Crimean war of 1853 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain. This war was one of the first to see modern technology and tactics in use, such as trenches, artillery fire, tactical use of railways and explosive naval shells. I mention this war because I want to paint the full picture, but the American Civil War really was one of the first, if not the first war where modern weaponry such as the Gatling gun was used.

Now, another modern technological invention saw action: the Ironclad. Ironclads were the first type of armoured ships, powered by steam, armoured with iron or steel plating, hence the name. Because of the technological advancements in warfare, such as explosive naval shells, classic wooden ships became a hazard to enter combat due to them being very flammable. There wasn’t enough technical knowledge yet to build fully armoured ships. Instead, Ironclads were wooden ships that were covered with iron- and steel plating to mitigate the impact of explosive shells. 

Ironclads weren’t exactly first used during the American Civil War though: during the Crimean War at the Battle of Kinburn three French ironclad batteries, so a primitive version of the eventual warship, besieged Russian fortresses on the Kinburn Peninsula. These batteries were covered with iron plating, but by no means had the qualities a mobile ironclad warship would have. Although the batteries were hit several times, they weren’t destroyed nor did the crew suffer many casualties. Drawing on this success, other states started to develop and improve armoured batteries, leading to the eventual ironclad warship design.

The first ocean-going ironclad was the French warship Gloire, launched in 1859. With its steam engine and sails, it could reach a speed up to 13 knots, about 24 kilometres per hour. One year later the British launched their own ironclad warship, the HMS Warrior. Due to the heavy metal plating, the ships lay rather deep in the water. 

Construction of the Indianola

This too was the case for the Union’s ironclad river gunboat, the USS Indianola. The ship was commissioned after the American Civil War had broken out, was launched soon after and belonged to a new, ‘faster’ type of Ironclads. It had a three-inch iron plate in the bow and stern and was equipped with two 11-inch Dahlgren cannons and two nine-inch guns on its rear. It was a relatively mobile vessel too, thanks to independently powered paddle wheels. Its commander was George Brown, a capable lieutenant. In late January 1863, the Indianola joined the Union Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s Mississippi squadron, consisting of steamboat rams, mortar schooners and Ironclads. They were positioned north of the City of Vicksburg, which was a confederate stronghold, fiercely defended by its strategically located batteries. 

Gideon Welles, nicknamed “Father Neptune” was secretary of the Navy. He described Rear Admiral Porter as having “stirring and positive qualities. He’s fertile in resources, has great energy and is brave and daring.” As the confederacy would soon find out, Porter indeed was fertile in resources.

The USS Indianola

An overview of the Civil War Campaigns, with the Mississippi River to the west.

By this point of the war, the Confederacy still controlled nearly 400 kilometres of the Mississippi River, among which the Red River of the South. This tributary was essential to the Confederacy for its supply lines. Capturing Vicksburg was vital to the Union to disrupt the Confederacy. But after bombarding Vicksburg for months, Rear Admiral Porter could only admit that this tactic was far from effective.  

Porter switched up his tactics: he sent the 19-year-old colonel, yes colonel, one of the youngest of the Union, Charles Rivers Ellett, on a mission with the ram ship USS Queen of the West. Ellett initially had some successes, capturing a confederate steamboat, the Era No. 5, and burning plantations of Union sympathisers. But on February 14th, 1863, Ellett made a fatal mistake. Neither he nor any of his crew knew the Red River’s layout. As they approached Fort Taylor, Ellett decided to wait until nightfall to attack. When that night they sailed within range of the fortresses cannons, the helmsman ran the Queen of the West into a mudbank. They were bombarded by the Fort’s 32-pounder cannons and had to abandon the battered ship soon after. In a lifeboat, the crew managed to be rescued by the steamer De Soto, anchored downriver. But due to thick fog, this vessel too ran into a mudbank. Eventually, most of the crew was rescued by the recently captured steamboat, Era No. 5. The mission was a complete disaster: they lost the USS Queen of the West and the De Soto, not to mention several dead among the crew.

USS Indianola

Two days before this disaster Rear Admiral Porter, unbeknownst of what was going to happen to part of his fleet, sent the USS Indianola downstream from up north, to resupply the Queen and De Soto. The Steamboat Era No. 5 was sailing upstream, but during its escape ran out of coal. This led to Colonel Ellet ordering the burning of corn. As you can tell, they were rather desperate. So when the USS Indianola came in sight, they could not be happier, mainly because this Ironclad brought fresh coal supplies with it. A contemporary reporter from the New York Tribune wrote: “It was a miraculous escape… [for] from the depths of despair they were raised to the heights of exaltation.” The Indianola stayed behind to guard Red River, while the Era No. 5 sailed back to base up north.

But Porter’s trouble wasn’t over yet. After all, the captured Queen of the West would certainly be salvaged and reused on patrol as a Confederate ram. And it was, near-immediately. Major General Richard Taylor, the confederate commander, ordered it to be repaired and simply changed its prefix from USS to CSS. Long story short: the Queen of the West ended up, together with the William H. Webb and the steamers Grand Era and Dr Beatty to pursue the Indianola, which was slowly heading back north against the current. Although it had a lead, it was much slower than the small Confederate flotilla. 

David Dixon Porter (1813-1891)

On the evening of February 24th, the Queen of the West caught up to its former ally, and a bit north of Palmyra Island the Indianola came under attack by the Confederate ships. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned it didn’t take long for commander Brown to surrender, offering his sword to the commander of one of the steamers. The entire crew of the Indianola was put in jail at Vicksburg, only to be sent off to a POW camp in Texas. 

The Confederate forces ordered nearby labourers, including slaves, to repair the Indianola so they could redeploy her, just like they did with the Queen of the West. Over in the North, Rear Admiral Porter had other plans, however. He was incredibly frustrated he lost the Indianola, and understandably so. In his eyes it was of vital importance to recapture the Ironclad, not just because of its military value, but also because without it, the South would gain an advantage by continuing to use the Red River as a supply line. But Porter was painfully aware he didn’t have enough naval- and manpower to recapture the Ironclad. 

Porter Tricks the Confederacy

In Dutch, we have a saying: “wie niet sterk is, moet slim zijn.” It translates to as much as those that aren’t strong must be clever. That is what Porter must have thought when he created a ruse to prevent the Confederacy from salvaging the Indianola.

In order to do so, Porter used a flat-bottomed boat, akin to a barge, used to transport coal. He then ordered his men to build it up, use canvas and wooden planks to create the outer shape of an Ironclad, a hull. They tried to construct a proper dummy Ironclad, with a wheelhouse and casemate and a fortified gun site on deck. 

Porter’s men crafted two fake lifeboats for the non-existent crew. Besides the wheelhouse barrels were placed that resembled chimneys. They contained pots with tar that, when set alight, produced actual smoke like Ironclads produced. To appear more threatening the dummy Ironclad was painted black and to top it all off tree trunks, painted black as well, were positioned on it as cannons. Sources state the entire hoax cost Rear Admiral Porter half a day of construction work and 8 dollars and 63 cents. The ship was, fittingly named, the Black Terror. 

The Dummy Ironclad

The night after the Indianola was captured by the Confederacy, somewhere near midnight, the Black Terror was sent on its way. There was no crew on board, and the only thing that captured the eye aside from the slowly moving silhouette of the mock Ironclad was the “coal barge with stacked pork barrels to represent smokestacks and logs shaped like a cannon.” Because there was no crew on board to steer the vessel (although it couldn’t be steered even if there was) the Black Terror ran into the riverbank once. The Union soldiers had to manually push the dummy ironclad back onto the river, where it slowly drifted downstream to the confederate camp. It must have been quite a sight, to see soldiers push a wooden raft that was nothing more than a bunch of wooden planks and pots of burning tar onto the river, in an attempt to intimidate their enemy.

But it did intimidate the confederate soldiers. The ram Queen of the West, which laid in the trajectory of the Black Terror, quickly turned around to sail away upon the realisation that this Ironclad was undeterred, and seemingly in pursuit. Unbeknownst to its crew if they only waited a little longer, or decided to confront the slowly approaching vessel, would they have found out it was nothing to be feared.

A bit more downstream of the Red River, at their guardpost, a salvaging crew was repairing the Indianola. As the guards saw the silhouette of the Black Terror approach in the moonlight, a black skull-and-bones flag on its bow, they rang the alarm and opened fire. Although several of their cannons hit their target, it didn’t seem to dissuade the ironclad slowly moving their way. Rear Admiral Porter later recalled: ‘Never did the batteries of Vicksburg open with such a din.’ Because the barrage of fire didn’t deter the vessel, the confederate soldiers had to act quick: the last thing they’d want was to lose a firefight with an Ironclad and in turn, lose their recently captured Indianola. 

The Explosion

Although unsure who gave the command, the confederate soldiers decided to scuttle the Indianola. The only thing that they took off the vessel so far was the drink. Classic. So there was enough flammable material to sink it. They set its magazine, still filled with ammunition, ablaze. A massive explosion followed, here’s an original sketch of the blast by Theodore Davis, published in Harper’s Weekly in 1863 following the event. The explosion ended the Indianola. The ruse by Rear Admiral Porter, surprsingly enough, worked.

Following the scuttling of the Indianola, the Black Terror drifted on, towards the confederate soldiers. I mean, obviously, it wasn’t like someone would turn it around. It ended up running into a riverbank, again, and this time the confederate soldiers discovered what it consisted of: nothing more than some wood, tar and canvas. 

Learning about the true nature of the craft, Southerners “became convinced that their enemies were diabolically cunning”, according to contemporary reports in papers prepared for the Ohio Commandery. The Richmond Examiner ran the headline “Laugh and hold your sides lest you die of a surfeit of derision.” And the ruse by Rear Admiral Porter lived on to cause laughs over the years. It is quite the exceptional story for sure.

As for the war itself: in the next couple of months, both Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the Confederacy’s strongholds around the Mississippi fell, and eventually, the Union emerged victoriously.

Sources:

Girardi, Robert I. The Civil War Generals: Comrades, Peers, Rivals-In Their Own Words. Zenith Press, 2013.
Hearn, Chester G. Ellet's Brigade: The Strangest Outfit of All. LSU Press, 2006.
Hess, Earl J. "Northern Response to the Ironclad: A Prospect for the Study of Military Technology." Civil War History 31, no. 2 (1985): 126-143.
https://www.historynet.com/admiral-porters-ironclad-hoax-during-the-american-civil-war.htm
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Leonid Rogozov: The Soviet explorer that performed self-surgery all abandoned in Antartica

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.

Leonid Rogozov

Leonid Rogozov

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. 

The self-surgery

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. 

Yuri Gagarin

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! 

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The Oldest Kiss in the World

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. 

Lovers of Valdaro

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!