Sunday, 15 January 2017

THE GREAT BLIZZARD OF 1899

A snowball fight on the front steps of the Florida
Capitol Building in Tallahassee, February 13, 1899
(US Public Domain)
Living in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan (19 of those in Regina) for the first 24 years of my life, I know personally what erratic weather is all about. Almost every summer there was--and still is--at least one full week where the mercury reaches between 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit (35-38 degrees Celsius). Yes, heat does exist throughout the Canadian West in those “dog days of summer.”  But a dry heat, not coupled with the high humidity of, say, Southern Ontario, where I have lived since 1976. A prairie friend of mine described Ontario’s heat and humidity best when he came here in 1975: “It’s like breathing through a sponge.”

Still, the prairies have always been known for its frigid temperatures and snowstorms. The worst recorded blizzard that this continent has ever seen, however, spread from Saskatchewan all the way down through the United States to the northern Caribbean. The resulting weather system tied up this wide swath of land for several days, bringing everything to a standstill. Ironically, Canada was not affected that much. The Eastern United States, by comparison, bore the full brunt of it. This phenomenon began when two fronts collided in what could best be described as an once-in-a-lifetime fluke: a Perfect Storm scenario, you could say, using more modern terms.

It all started on February 10, 1899 when record-high barometric reports--in the form of dense, frigid air--were tracked over the District of Assiniboia, North West Territories (a southern Canadian landmass absorbed into the new province of Saskatchewan six years later in 1905). At the same time, a series of winter storms that first week of the month had already deposited a large amount of snow over the American Great Plains and Midwest, keeping the cold air coming out of the Canadian prairies from warming up as it worked toward the usually mild southern states. It’s interesting to note that cold temperatures seemed to be the norm earlier that February all the way out to the West Coast. Days prior to the storm, Los Angeles, California saw 33 degrees Fahrenheit (1 C), and Portland, Oregon hit 9 F (13 C).

Meanwhile, the previously mentioned front over the District of Assiniboia now had a clear path to move quickly with high winds and wet, heavy snow in its wake from Maine to Florida, from Montana and the Dakotas to Louisiana, and as far west as the Lone Star state of Texas. Following the snow, plummeting temperatures moved in. For days, people were house-bound, businesses closed in masse, water pressure dropped, pipes burst, coal and furnace deliveries were disrupted, livestock perished, snow and ice damaged buildings, and barge and boat traffic was halted on the Great Lakes and the length of Mississippi River.

Some of the American centers that set then-record temperatures during The Great Blizzard of 1899 are as follows (in Fahrenheit, followed by Celsius):

Rapid City, South Dakota:
-39 F (-40 C)
Sioux Falls, South Dakota: -42 F (-41 C)
Milligan, Ohio: -39 F (-39.4 C) still the record low for Ohio
Fort Logan, Montana: -61 F (-51.7 C)
Cape May, New Jersey: 0 F (-18 C) still their record low
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: -20 F (-29 C) their coldest temperature on record until -22 F (-30 C) on January 19, 1994
Kansas City, Missouri: -22 F (-30 C) their coldest temperature on record until December 1989
Monterey, Virginia: -29 F (-34 C) lowest for Virginia until 1985
Washington, DC: -15 F (-26 C) still their record low
Raleigh, North Carolina: -2 F (-19 C)
Austin, Texas: -1 F (-18 C)
Dallas, Texas: -8 F (-18.3 C)
San Antonio, Texas: 4 F (-15.6 C)
Atlanta, Georgia: -9 F (-23 C) still their record low
Gainesville, Florida: 6 F (-14.4 C) still their record low
Tallahassee, Florida: -2 F (-19 C) the only recorded below-zero Fahrenheit temperature in Florida

Towns along the West Coast of Florida reported snow flurries without significant on-the-ground accumulation. Washington, DC witnessed 51 straight hours of snowfall that eventually amounted to 34 inches. Baltimore, Maryland and Cape May, New Jersey--situated along the Atlantic and very seldom had snow--saw approximately the same amount of snow as Washington. Cape May’s snowfall is still the most ever in that state. Ice flows--called drift ice--meandered from the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, of all places.

The port of New Orleans was completely iced over and had so much snow that the city had to delay its Mardi Gras celebrations—shockingly for the revelers--until the streets could be plowed out. It was also the city’s coldest February 14 Mardi Gras on record at 7 F (-14 C). In the northeast, the storm dropped 16 inches of snow on New York’s Central Park, while surrounding areas received 2-3 feet of the dense white stuff. The storm even reached the island of Cuba, where it didn’t snow but did leave a hard frost that either killed or damaged crops on the tropical island.

By February 14, after four days, the storm was officially over, leaving 100 dead and millions devastated. To put the 1899 Blizzard in perspective, the worse snowstorm to hit the southern states since has been the 1985 Deep Freeze that destroyed many Florida citrus groves, thus sending up prices at the grocery stores of the ones that did make it. The result: The freeze convinced the Florida citrus growers to move their crops further south, where they remain today.


Wouldn’t you know it, within a week, most the area affected by the February 1899 storm enjoyed early spring-like conditions, as the snow melted about as fast as it had first appeared. The Great Blizzard of 1899 (also called The Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899 and the Deep South Deep Freeze) is still considered the point of reference that all other American southeast winter storms are measured by.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

RAYMOND BERRY: MAN OF TRUE GRIT

Growing up, future National Football League receiver Raymond Berry was a scrawny kid with terrible eyesight. His eyes were so bad, in fact, that he couldn’t even see the large E at the top of the optometrist’s chart. As a result, he had to wear thick horn-rimmed glasses, which he continued to do off-field into adulthood as a pro. Meanwhile, on the playing field, he wore contacts. He also played with a tight back brace to realign a crooked spine. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he had one leg shorter than the other, forcing him to wear a lift in his cleat. He also wore special rib pads for protection.

However, Berry was one determined fellow. None of these obstacles would stop him from becoming one of the greatest pass receivers in NFL annals. In fact, his physical negatives forced him to work that much harder at other aspects of the game to achieve success.

1961 Fleer football card of
Raymond Berry (US Public Domain)
Born February 27, 1933 in Corpus Christi, Texas, Berry wasn’t talented enough to make his Paris, Texas high school football team until his senior year, although his father coached the team. No favoritism there. After catching only 33 total passes in his three years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he was chosen by the Baltimore Colts in the twentieth round, 232 overall in the 1954 NFL draft. By then, Berry was 6-foot-2 and a lanky 185 pounds. In 1955, his first year at Baltimore, he played all 12 games and caught 13 passes for 205 yards, with no touchdowns. The next year, he improved to 37 passes, 601 yards, and two TDs. From then on, Berry never looked back, no pun intended.

His best season was 1960, where he grabbed 74 catches for 1,298 yards, the same season he had his longest gain after a quarterback throw: 70 yards to paydirt. In 1959, he scored his personal-best 14 touchdowns, while collecting 959 yards on 66 catches. An awkward runner, he wasn’t the fastest receiver or the strongest, but he got the job done. And he was hard to tackle. He had sure hands; and through intense determination, he prepared himself more than any other receiver. He was quoted as saying: “Luck is something which happens when preparation meets opportunity. One play may make the difference in winning or losing a game. I must be prepared to make my own luck.” He also said, “The most prepared are the most dedicated.”

In order to stay a step or two ahead of his pass defenders, Berry learned to run 88 possible pass patterns and practiced every one of them over and over again until he could perform them in his sleep. After team practices, he would get either the backup quarterback or another teammate to throw him deliberate bad passes, forcing him to dive or reach out for them. He would also spend considerable time perfecting pass and run plays with quarterback Johnny Unitas, another player who came out of nowhere.

Graduating from Louisville College, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round, 102 overall, by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. But he didn’t even make it through training camp because the team had three other signal-callers and he was the odd one out. Coach Walt Kiesling said Unitas wasn’t smart enough to be an NFL quarterback, words he would live to regret. So, Unitas--now married--went home and worked in construction to support his young family and on weekends played two-way football on a local semi-pro team for $6 a game.

Meanwhile, a Baltimore Colt scout happened to watch one of the games in which he played and was stunned. He immediately called his office to tell them that there was a kid named Unitas in a Pittsburgh sandlot league who could throw better than most NFL quarterbacks. The rest is history, so they say. For the next dozen-plus years, Unitas and Berry, once they became Colt teammates, were one of the best pass-and-run combinations in NFL history.

Together, they shone in the 1958 Championship Game in Yankee Stadium before 64,000 fans on December 28 against the New York Giants, a game that made the NFL the iconic sport that it is today. And television helped do that: 45 million nationwide saw one of the greatest football games ever, a thrilling contest that wasn’t decided until 8 minutes and 15 seconds of overtime.
 1961 Fleer football card of Johnny Unitas
(US Public Domain)

The morning before the game, Berry walked the field alone and checked every inch of it: soft spots, holes, mucky areas, you name it. He determined that the field was remarkably dry except for a handful of frozen patches and hard sections inside the five-yard lines at each end. His conclusion after surveying the sight like a surgeon: He decided to switch from his usual regular-length cleats to his longer ones, which would give him that extra dig into the turf, allowing him to turn without slipping. Due to the  Yankee Stadium field condition on game day, both Unitas and Berry, as well as the Baltimore coaching staff, knew in advanced that the Colts would be putting the ball in the air.

Berry’s cleat decision paid off that afternoon, catching 12 passes for 178 yards and one TD. With the Colts behind by three points late in the game, he caught three consecutive passes for 62 yards to bring the team into field-goal range. Kicker Steve Myhra put it through the uprights from 20 yards out to tie the affair at 17-17 with seven seconds on the clock.

In sudden-death overtime, Berry made two pressure catches in the final drive where Unitas led the team 80 yards on 13 plays, climaxed by an Alan Ameche one-yard romp up the middle to win it 23-16. Unitas threw 40 passes, completing 26 for 349 yards. The Colts still ran the ball though to keep the Giants honest: 138 yards on 39 attempts. Incidentally, the game featured 17 future Hall of Famers (players and coaches combined on both teams), Berry and Unitas included in the mix.

In his 13-year NFL career that spanned 1955-1967, all with the Colts, the sure-handed Berry caught 631 passes for 9,275 yards and 68 TDs at a time when the league played only 12- and 14-game schedules. Overall, he dropped only two passes and fumbled only twice--in the days of no padded receiver gloves. He led the league in receptions and yardage three times and TDs twice while playing in a total of 154 regular-season games.

He didn’t miss a single game until his eighth year in the league. Selected to six Pro Bowls, he made the NFL First All-Star team from 1958-1960, and the Second team twice. He played on two championship teams, 1958 and 1959, and in the 12 seasons that he and Unitas played together, they faced only one losing season: 1956, when they finished 5-7.

Upon retirement from active playing, Berry was a receivers coach with the Dallas Cowboys, University of Arkansas, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and New England Patriots before becoming the Patriots’ head coach from 1984-1989, where he won 48 games and lost 39, his best season being 1985 when he took the 11-5 Patriots to the Super Bowl before losing to the Chicago Bears 46-10.  In 1991 and 1992, he was the quarterback coach for the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos, respectively.

Berry was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1973 and was ranked #40 on The Sporting News list of 100 Greatest NFL players.  His friend, four-time league MVP Johnny Unitas, made it to the HOF in 1979 and was selected #5 on The Sporting News list, after passing for 40,239 yards and 290 TDs in his star-studded career.


Unitas-to-Berry
must have been quite a sight to watch. One was a Pittsburgh Steeler castoff, the other a sleeper who probably had a 50-50 chance at best of making the Colts’ receiver corps. For both players, it was all about determination and, of course, grit. True Grit.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

AN EARLY MORNING WAKE-UP CALL

It happened 75 years ago…

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese pilots and crew strapped inside 354 aircraft cockpits--torpedo bombers, dive bombers, fighters, and high-level bombers--were launched from six aircraft carriers strategically situated 200 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. The accompanying force--the largest naval air invasion group ever assembled up to that time--also included two battleships, two heavy cruisers, along with destroyers, support vessels and tankers. The destination: the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and surrounding military bases and airfields.

 Battleship Row taken from a Japanese torpedo aircraft during the Pearl Harbor attack
(US Public Domain)

In two waves of attacks beginning 07:55 hours and lasting one hour and fifteen minutes, the undetected Japanese Imperial Navy fighters and bombers caught the Americans totally by surprise. Very few expected Japan--4,000 miles from Hawaii--to attack that far from their homeland. The Imperial Navy destroyed or damaged 188 US aircraft and 19 ships in the harbor, including eight battleships: 2,403 American personnel lost their lives, 68 of those civilians. An additional 1,178 were treated for wounds and injuries. Twenty-nine Japanese aircraft failed to return, with 74 damaged from anti-aircraft ground fire.

The sinking of the USS Arizona--a 30,000-ton battleship that had taken on 1.4 million gallons of oil the day before the attack--was America’s greatest catastrophe that day. Over 1,000 men were killed instantly, trapped inside the structure, when an 800-kilogram bomb struck from high altitude, exploding the forward magazines. As a result, the concussion from the blast raced across the water and land for miles.

The next day, in Washington, DC, with the USS Arizona still burning thousands of miles away, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood before Congress. Charged with emotion, he opened his address with these strong words:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval forces of the Empire of Japan.”
He went on to inform his shocked country on the other Japanese attacks in the Pacific, then ended with a harsh truth. “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

“With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph--so help us God! I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

And so, the die was cast...

Two years after World War II had begun with Adolf Hitler’s attack on Poland, the Americans were now forced into the conflict. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not have been happier. With the American industrial might officially on his side, he reportedly slept well the first night upon hearing the news of the attack; Roosevelt--with the pressure on him now--reportedly slept badly.

Congress had one dissenting vote out of the more than 500 in the House that December 8: sixty-one-year-old Montana Republican Representative Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress, and a pacifist. “As a woman,” she informed the press, “I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Once Rankin’s brother heard the news of the vote, he told her: “Montana is 100 percent against you!” In Congress since 1916, she had also voted against America entering World War I. In early 1942, she retired from public office rather than face certain defeat in the coming election for her Montana seat.

The USS Arizona burning after the Pearl Harbor attack (US Public Domain)

In retrospect, the Japanese made two crucial errors during the Pearl Harbor strike. Actually, one of them just happened to be bad luck. Both ended up being their undoing. First off, the man in charge of the attack force, First Air Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, decided against unleashing his third attack wave, despite protests from several of his high-ranking officers, including Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave. The proposed third wave targets were the dry docks, the massive oil storage tanks, repair facilities, large machine shops, and torpedo storage units. By the Japanese not hitting these, the US Navy was able to use the untouched machinery to salvage most of the damaged ships and eventually put them back in use. Had they unleashed the third wave, the Japanese could have knocked the US Pacific Fleet out of the picture for years.

Some of the reasons Nagumo considered for pulling back after two attacks were that the American anti-aircraft ground fire had improved by the second wave (downing 20 aircraft in the second wave, compared to 9 in the first wave), the deteriorating weather north of Hawaii which would make take-offs and landings hazardous, besides having to land them nearer to nightfall combined with refueling aircraft and such. Besides, the First Air Fleet ships would be running low on fuel had they remained in the area another half-day.

Secondly, despite excellent intelligence gathering from Japanese spies on the Hawaiian Islands--especially pertaining to the ships along Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor--the US aircraft carriers, a prime target for the Japanese strike force, were nowhere to be found, another reason for Nagumo to cancel the third wave. Up to that time, the Americans had three carriers assigned to the US Pacific Fleet. They were the USS Saratoga, the USS Lexington, and the USS Enterprise, the same name used in the Star Trek flicks that so many of us love.

The Enterprise had been off to Wake Island, 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, delivering Marine squadron VMF-211 personnel and aircraft; and was expected to return to Pearl Harbor on December 6, but was delayed due to bad weather. The Lexington was on a similar mission, experiencing the same meteorological condition while ferrying dive bombers of VSMB-21 Squadron to Midway Island, a distance of 1,500 miles west. The third carrier, USS Saratoga, was still docked at San Diego, California, making arrangements to set sail for Pearl Harbor loaded with men, equipment, and airplanes within days.

The Enterprise arrived at Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 7 to see the carnage the Japanese had left behind from the two attacks. The Lexington never arrived at Midway because she was ordered directly to Pearl on the day of the attack, arriving there a week later. It’s interesting to note that carriers in general up to that time were not considered the air weapon they are today, but were deployed more for battleship support, instead. Overnight, to America’s shock, the Japanese had proven that wrong.

Then, six months later, from June 3-7, 1942, the US Navy took that strategy to the next step, complete with their own carrier force, by surprising the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, in what military historian John Keegan referred to as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”  Four of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor plus a heavy cruiser were sunk, while the US lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown, and a destroyer. It was the turning point in the Pacific War and US naval carrier power was responsible in a positive way, changing marine warfare forever. Three years later, after the Americans beat the Japanese all the way back to their homeland, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it was all over.

For more than 50 years now, a 184-foot-long memorial stands over the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, where oil drops from inside the ship still rise to the Pearl Harbor surface at the rate of more than a gallon per day. While there were many financial contributors, we can also thank rock-n-roll star Elvis Presley for the site because he took the time to give a benefit concert in March 1961 that helped raise $64,000 for the future construction of the memorial--completed in 1962--that honors over 1,100 US Navy sailors still entombed below the water line following the “date which will live in infamy”--December 7, 1941.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

NAZI GERMANY’S AERIAL WEAPONS

Nazi German aerial technology during World War II left the world, and especially the Allies, in awe. At a time when our Allies relied on piston-driven combat aircraft, the Germans had a jet stealth fighter/bomber made of wood, a jet fighter, a rocket fighter, an unmanned flying bomb, and an intercontinental missile that broke the sound barrier several times over. Impressive, to say the least, right?

But in every above case, it was too little, too late, at least for the Germans. Taking the atomic bomb aside, had Adolf Hitler’s masterminds brought some of these weapons into the war sooner or had they been given more hours to perfect their creations, the Germans may have won the war and sued for peace. As a result, we would see a different world today.

What were these highly advanced pieces of machinery?

Horten HO IX glider-version line drawings (US Public Domain)

Designed by brothers Reimer and Walter Horten, the Horten Ho-229 V3 was the first flying wing aircraft powered by jet engines. Three prototypes were built. The first, in glider form, flew March 1944. Then came the jet-propelled version made of a steel fuselage with plywood coverage. With its dual turbojet engines capable of a combined 4,000 pounds of thrust, it weighed 20,000 pounds overall. It was expected by the Luftwaffe to carry a bombload of 2,200 pounds for 620 miles at a whopping speed of 620 miles per hour and use two 20mm cannons to defend itself.

The Luftwaffe hoped that the aerodynamic shape of the Horten 229 with its thin leading edges would allow it to escape English ground-based radar, at the same time cut its air-time in half over the English Channel, compared to previous German aircraft, forcing the English into sheer panic when scrambling their own fighter-interception aircraft. Near the end of World War II, an advancing US Third Army unit discovered one of the two propelled prototypes--the other one crashed during a test flight a few weeks before--in a German hangar outside Dusseldorf.

In July 1945, it was shipped secretly to America where it sits today in a closely guarded army compound outside Washington, DC. Ironically, the US Air Force’s Northrop Grumman B-2 Stealth bomber, which first flew in 1989, looks very similar to the Horten Ho-229 V3.

Captured Messerschmitt Me 262 in United States, 1946 (US Public Domain)

Unlike the Horten 229, the Messerschmitt Me 262--the world’s first real jet fighter--went into production, although late in the war: 1,400 were produced (in single-seat fighter, photo reconnaissance, light bomber, and two-man night-fighter versions). The 262 in fighter form was a marvel to fly, according to German ace Adolf Galland, and the only turbojet fighter that made an impact during World War II. The dual engines, with 1,980 pounds of static thrust each, took it to max speeds of well over 500 miles per hour, 100 miles per hour faster than the top-of-the-line props at that time.

With its swept-back wings, the Me 262 appeared to be right out of a Buck Rogers comic book. It first saw combat in mid-1944, had a surface ceiling of 37,000 feet in pure fighter form, and was fitted with four 20mm cannons in the nose. The only drawback: Due to this new technology, the jet engines had to be overhauled after only 20 hours or so in the air. In all, the Me 262 tallied more than 450 Allied aerial kills, while losing approximately 100.

Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet seen through USAAF P-47 Thunderbolt fighter camera
(US Public Domain)

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-powered fighter was a radical design and a very deadly machine: to Allies as well as to the German pilots who braved flying her. The fuel was the scary part of it: a combination of hydrogen peroxide and hydrazine/methanol.  Test-flown in July 1944, it reached 702 miles per hour, making it faster than the speed of sound. Over 370 of these tailless monsters with a short, stubby fuselage were built for the sole purpose of intercepting the daylight American bomber streams over German territory.

When taking off, the Me 163 pilot would jettison the landing gear and climb to 39,000 feet--well above the bomber streams--in only three minutes! Then he would dive into the formations. Due to its short fuel range (only 25 miles), the pilot could make only two passes at best, having to aim and fire the two 30mm cannons in split seconds before heading back to base. This is where matters got extremely tricky.

Without a landing gear, the pilot used a skid to land on a grass field. Trouble was, he had to land the Komet nice and easy, just right, with no yawing, or the rocket fuel could ignite, blowing him and his craft to smithereens. Many Komets were lost this way. Anywhere from 10-15 kills were reported by Komet fighter pilots, while losing, perhaps, 10—the latter number done by Allied fighters following the Komets back to base and blasting them out of the sky before they could land.

V-1 Flying Bomb cutaway (US Public Domain)

Londoners during the war were well-acquainted with the unmanned V-1 Flying Bombs, the forerunner of the American-built Cruise Missile. They called them “Buzz Bombs” and “Doodlebugs” for the pulsating sound the single jet engines made when they flew over the city at low-altitude. I know of an ex-Londoner who told me that when they saw V-1s overhead, they would wait and listen for the jet sound. As long as they could still hear it, they were OK. When it stopped, it had run out of gas and would drop out of the sky. At that point, you had better dive for cover and fast.

The V-1 was actually the first guided missile, containing an auto-pilot system aboard. A range of 160 miles, it would fly 350-400 miles per hour at an altitude of 2,000-3,000 feet. Weighing 4,740 pounds, it carried a 1,870-pound warhead of a TNT/ammonium nitrate fuel combination. They were first launched from Calais, France--22 miles across the Channel from Dover, England--on June 13, 1944, exactly one week after the successful Allied D-Day landings at Normandy.

In all, about 9,500 Flying Bombs were fired at southeast England, sometimes as many as a hundred a day. Near the end of 1944, once the Allies had overrun the Calais sites, the Germans fired an additional 2,450 at Belgium from other sites. In total, 4,260 V-1s were destroyed by Allied fighters, anti-aircraft fire, and stationary barrage balloons that were braced to the ground by cables. Destruction on London alone, where 2,400 V-1s were fired upon, saw 6,100 people killed and 17,900 injured.

United States Army cutaway of the V-2 (US Public Domain

Talk about terror: There was no defense against the V-2 Rocket, the brainchild of brilliant German engineer Wernher von Braun, a rocket and jet propulsion expert. The V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. It was massive: 45 feet long and weighing 27,600 pounds. Propelled by a mixture of ethanol, water, and liquid oxygen, the V-2 reached an altitude of 55 miles and a speed of 3,580 miles per hour as far as 200 miles away before descending and heading to its target at an impact speed of 1,790 miles per hour. The 2,000-pound warhead contained the same explosive mix as the V-1 Flying Bomb.

What made the V-2 Rocket unique was its overall speed. Because it flew several times faster than the speed of sound, it would hit the ground and explode, then people nearby would hear the sound of the engine descending from the sky. The rocket’s speed cut down on casualties and the destruction zone area as it would bury itself deep into the ground before detonating. V-2 launching began September 1944. Over 3,000 missiles were fired on London, and Antwerp and Liege in Belgium. Over 2,500 civilians and military personnel were killed, and another 6,000 injured.

Following the war, all of these German inventions fell into the hands of the Allied military. Wernher von Braun, in particular, along with his entire rocket team, surrendered willingly to the advancing American forces before the Russians caught up to them. In the next two decades, von Braun and his German associates contributed mightily to the US Space Program by putting the first man on the moon.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

WHAT WAS “THE NATURAL” MOVIE BASED ON?

Robert Redford starring in The Natural (courtesy TriStar Pictures)

Many of us have seen the baseball flick, The Natural. But if you haven’t, you should catch it, whether a sports fan or not because it has a great storyline. Based on Bernard Malamud’s novel of the same name, this outstanding baseball-drama-mystery came to the silver screen in 1984 with a star-studded cast featuring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Barbara Hershey, Darren McGavin, Joe Don Baker and Kim Basinger. It has to be one of my favorite sports movies. By the way, Redford looks exceptional with a bat in his hands--a real pro. He revealed later that for the movie he modelled his swing after that of Boston Red Sox slugging great Ted Williams.

For those of you who haven’t seen the TriStar Pictures film, here’s a rundown in a nutshell: The hero is Roy Hobbs--played by Redford--a young man of considerable baseball talent. As a kid, he carves his own bat--which he calls “Wonderboy”--from a tree that had been struck by lightning on his farm. As a 19-year-old, in 1923, Hobbs is a promising left-handed pitcher who had been asked to tryout with the major league Chicago Cubs.

On way to Chicago by train, he meets a confidant, chubby bore of major league ball player named “The Whammer” (Joe Don Baker) and a sensual woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey). Incidentally, the Whammer and his physique bears an uncanny resemblance to Babe Ruth. At a stop along the way, after a dare, Hobbs strikes out the bragging hitter on three pitches. Ms Bird  then becomes obsessed with Hobbs. After the train reaches Chicago, Bird entices Hobbs to her hotel room where she shoots him in the chest. Then she jumps out the window. Hobbs’ career appears over…

The screen jumps ahead 16 years to where the 35-year-old Hobbs is signed by the fictional major league New York Knights. As a mysterious unknown rookie, he quickly makes his presence felt in a positive way as a middle-aged slugger with a bad ball team. In short, Hobbs’ hitting leads the Knights to the National League pennant on the last day of the season. Of course, there’s highs and lows along the way and a love interest with beautiful Kim Basinger--influenced by his gambling uncle--who tries to lead him astray.

Most of the field scenes were filmed at the old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo, New York, and one distinct scene at Buffalo’s All-High Stadium to depict Chicago’s Wrigley Field. There, Hobbs smashes the right-field clock with one of his home run blasts. Both venues have since been torn down. The Natural took four Academy Awards and one Golden Globe.

Bill Jurges 1933 Goudey Gum card
(US Public Domain)
So, where did author Bernard Malamud--who was not a baseball fan--get the inspiration for his 1952 novel? Actually, from stories surrounding two major leaguers who had been stalked by women about as looney as the fictitious Harriet Bird. The first player was fiery shortstop Billy Jurges, a defensive specialist who played for the Chicago Cubs and New York Giants from 1931-1947. The second was quality first baseman Eddie Waitkus, a Cub, Philadelphia Phillie, and Baltimore Oriole from 1941-1955.

In his rookie season, twenty-three-year-old Jurges fell madly in love with the stunning Violet Valli, a baseball groupie and sometimes-showgirl. When Jurges broke off the relationship a year later, Valli confronted the player on the morning of July 6, 1932 at Hotel Carlos in Chicago, a few blocks north of Wrigley Field. They argued, then she pulled out a loaded .25-caliber gun. During the struggle, Jurges was shot twice: one bullet went off a right rib, coming out his right shoulder, while the other ripped flesh clean off his left-hand little finger. A third bullet struck Valli in her left hand, lodging six inches up her arm and breaking her wrist. Jurges decided against pressing charges against her, and a year later married another woman, a good move on his part. The Cubs won the pennant in 1932 with former-Yankee Mark Koenig replacing Jurges at shortstop for a few weeks and jolting the Cubs’ pennant surge during the Jurges recovery period. The Cubs won two more pennants in 1935 and 1938, with Jurges and second base partner Billy Herman playing significant roles in a top-notch infield, while Valli went on dabbling in show business here and there across the country, along with enticing young men with her charms.


Eddie Waitkus 1950 Bowman Gum card
(US Public Domain)
Going back to his minor league career, Eddie Waitkus made everything look easy and was known as “a natural.” Hey, just like the movie! How about that! And he threw and batted left, the same as Robert Redford. A decorated World War II hero--four Bronze Stars--who saw heavy fighting with the US Army in the Pacific, Waitkus returned to America to play exceptional ball, at the plate and at first base for the Chicago Cubs. One of his biggest fans was 19-year-old, six-foot brunette Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who enjoyed seeing him live at Wrigley Field, without getting to know him or even so much as meeting him on the fly by asking for an autograph. All was fine and dandy until Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1948 season.  Then Steinhagen snapped.

Unable to see her obsession--Waitkus--as much as she had done previously, Steinhagen booked into the Edgewater Beach Hotel on June 13, 1949, during a Philadelphia Phillies road trip to Chicago. By then, Waitkus was having the time of his life, enjoying a .306 season with his new club. Using the alias of a former high school classmate whom Waitkus had known, she left a note at the front desk for the player to meet her at her hotel room. When Waitkus arrived and walked into the room, Steinhagen removed a .22-caliber rifle from the nearby closet and shot him in the chest, very close to his heart.

Coming to her senses as Waitkus lay bleeding on the floor, Steinhagen called the front desk on the room telephone. When a member of the hotel staff approached, she was found cradling the player’s head in her lap. Nearly dying on the operation table more than once, Waitkus returned to the playing field for the first time since the shooting on August 19 for “Eddie Waitkus Night” at Shibe Park, Philadelphia where he was smothered in gifts by adoring fans and associates. Although in uniform that one occasion, he didn’t suit up again until the following spring, ready to resume his baseball career. In 1950, he played the full 154-game schedule, hit .284 and was named the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year. He experienced a few more major league seasons until the mid-1950s, although he wasn’t quite the same again after the shooting.


Never charged with attempted murder, Steinhagen did, however, end up in a mental hospital for three years before considered sane enough to leave in 1952--ironically, the same year that Bernard Malamud’s publisher released The Natural.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

THE LIGHTER SIDE TO WORLD WAR II

Most Second World War stories consist of the “blood-and-guts” type. The following are some first-person accounts on the lighter side, coming from Allied air force veterans living in Ontario--one American and four Canadians…who I had interviewed over the years.


RCAF Flying Officer Roy Schmidt

“While in training, I was stationed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We used to have supper around 6 o’clock, then we’d leave, go out on the town, and have to be back to the base by 11 for roll call. One night a bunch of us got back in time except for one guy who was a few minutes late. The sergeant taking roll call wasn’t too happy, and he gave us all hell. Well, one guy in the back row couldn’t take it anymore and yells, “Up yours!”

The sergeant stomped all the way to the back row, singles this guy out, then says, “What’s your name?”

He then gave the sergeant my name! “Roy Schmidt, sir.”

But the dumb sergeant wasn’t smart enough to ask him his regimental number because I’m the only one who knew that. Meanwhile, I was in the front row when all this was going on and didn’t want to say otherwise because I didn’t want to be a shmuck.

So, next day, I’m called out of parade and marched to the CO. The CO asked me if I talked back to the sergeant and I answered, “No, sir, it wasn’t me. I didn’t know who said it but it wasn’t me. If you call the sergeant, he’ll be able to identify me and say I didn’t do it.”

Anyway, the sergeant came over and said, “Well, I don’t know for sure because I was so mad. Yeah, you look like the guy.”

So, I got KP duty--seven days--washing dishes, with no leave. And that dirty guy who gave my name wouldn’t even take half of it for me.”


Messerschmitt BF-109 fighter off North African
coast, 1941 (US Public Domain)
RCAF Flight Sergeant W. W. Baron…

“In 1942, I was posted to RCAF Headquarters in Ottawa, where I was told I’d be going on a promotional tour in the United States. I was part of an 8-man crew. The idea was to help in a fund-raising tour called “Bundles for Britain” and display a shot-down German Messerschmitt 109 fighter. The public would pay an admission and would look at the fighter while me and another member handled the microphone. We’d give a lecture and answer questions. It went on six days a week from 10 AM to 10 PM. We each had two hours on and two hours off, and some of them were radio interviews.

The 109 fighter we used was one that had been shot down over Kent, England in August 1940, during the Battle of Britain and had made a forced landing. It was in pretty fair condition except for bent prop blades and a few scratches.

It was interesting work at first, but I got tired of it after a while. The same questions over and over again were too much. I was getting to hate facing the people. One of the questions they kept asking me was, “Why are the blades bent back like that?”

So, I’d tell them something dumb like, “So they could cut their way through the jungles!”


RAF Flying Officer “Bunny” Baker…

“I was a student pilot at a base near Neepawa, Manitoba. When practicing circuits-and-bumps there, the pilots had to concentrate on four things: watch for a certain red farmhouse and turn left; look for four trees and turn left; look for a wheat field and turn left; there in front of you should be the runway and you land. Easy right.

Well, one pilot lost his way and landed his Tiger Moth a hundred miles away. He said later, “When I saw the red farmhouse, I turned left; when I saw the four trees, I turned left; but when I looked for the wheat field, it was gone! It probably never dawned on the pilot that they were in the middle of a prairie harvest and the grain had been cut.”


15th Air Force B-24 Liberator bombers over Polesti, Romania oil targets, 1943 (US Public Domain)

USAAF Staff Sergeant Richard Wirth…

“Our crew used to fly the B-24 Liberator and it was so drafty that we called it the “Whistling Shithouse” because the wind used to whistle through it like crazy. The wind was so strong, you could hardly light a cigarette inside it. The B-24 flew like a big bird. The wings would actually flap.

We were stationed at Cerignola, Italy with the 458th Bomber Group, 459 Bomber Squadron. On a bombing run to Austria in 1944, we ran into a real pile of flak on way to the target. Several pieces hit our aircraft. One big piece of flak hit the leading edge of one wing, but we weren’t too worried. On the way back to base, the pilot said to the co-pilot “OK, put the landing gear down.”

But when he did that the wheels went down only half-way, and we could see the hydraulic fluid pore out the hole in the wing. The flak had hit the hydraulic system and all the fluid was lost. So, everyone in the crew urinated into the hydraulic tank inside the airplane to get any form of fluid into it. The wheels came down, but still hadn’t locked into position. This meant that the wheels might collapse when we touched down.

Again, the pilot wasn’t too worried, because he said we could manually drop the nose wheel, then hook up a couple parachutes to the ball turret and throw them out the waist windows to act as brakes to stop the airplane. We hooked up the chutes, then the pilot said, “Everybody else go to the tail.” So, everybody went except for me and my buddy because it was our job to throw the chutes out on either side of the aircraft.

So, we’re coming to our base and we’re set to land on a special dirt landing strip that was used only for crash-landings. We came in low and the pilot gently set the wheels down, and the wheels held. The pilot screamed out, “I think we made it! The wheels are holding! I’m going to ease the nose wheel down now.”

As soon as he did that, the nose wheel--not the main wheels--collapsed! We went from 100 miles per hour to zero in about 50 feet! Everybody in the tail wasn’t in the tail anymore. They were on top of my buddy and me, and all of us ended up in the bomb bay rear bulkhead. When it was all over, we looked around at each other and, amazingly, nobody was hurt. Not a scratch! And no fires either because the pilot cut the switches on impact.”

  *      *      *

I’ll end with a story that had occurred about 40 years after the war. Burlington, Ontario resident, Pilot Officer Alan Hall--an RCAF navigator who flew a tour of bombing operations on Lancaster bombers--told me that he and his wife booked a light aircraft flight from Toronto to North Bay, Ontario in the early 1980s. Hitting some fierce turbulence shortly after leaving Toronto, the aircraft rocked around a lot, enough to unsettle Hall’s wife, while Hall was just looking around calmly, not a care in the world.

Finally, Mrs Hall glanced over at her husband and said, “Doesn’t this bother you?”

“Not at all,” Alan answered her, shaking his head. “Nobody’s shooting at me.”

Saturday, 1 October 2016

MICKEY AND WILLIE

1951 Bowman rookie card of Mickey Mantle
(US Public Domain)
Ever since I can remember, the big talk in baseball going back to when Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays broke into the game in the same season was who was better? Constantly compared throughout the next two decades, they were two distinct players, but they also had a slew of similarities. In addition, they had unique and noteworthy entrances into the majors--different, yet similar.
Both players were born in 1931: Mantle in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, Willie in Westfield, Alabama. Both fathers had the burning ambition to see their sons play pro baseball. Mantle’s father, Mutt, toiled in the dangerous and unhealthy lead and zinc mines by day. After the whistle blew, he would then work with his son until sundown on the finer points of the grand old game, especially switch-hitting. The last thing Mutt wanted was his son spending the rest of his life as an underground miner. Willie’s dad, Willie Sr., played semi-pro ball in the heavily competitive Negro industrial leagues of the Deep South. In this environment, the younger Willie grew up watching--hanging around the dugout--eventually advancing to playing alongside his dad and his black teammates.  

Mantle and Mays were teenage sensations fast-tracked to the majors. Mantle jumped from C ball in Joplin, Missouri to the parent New York Yankees in early 1951. A few weeks into the same season, Mays left the AAA American Association Minneapolis Millers for the New York Giants. The two were destined to meet that October.

In spring training, Mantle astounded the Yankee staff with his foot speed running the bases, a reported 3.0 seconds to first from the left side and 3.1 seconds from the right side. They had never seen any prospect that fast. His hard, on-the-money throws from the outfield were equally astonishing. Said fellow-rookie teammate Gil McDougald: “It was like watching a young, blond god.”

Then, the switch-hitting, 19-year-old Mantle put on a clinic during an exhibition game against the University of Southern California Trojans in Los Angeles on March 6, 1951 where he crushed two long home runs hitting left-handed, one measuring 656 feet in the air before it landed well beyond the right-center field fence, the other an opposite-field shot that soared across the street before descending to earth in a backyard 500 feet from home plate. On the day, the mighty Mantle went 4-for-5, with two homers, a single, a bases-loaded triple and seven RBIs.

On a roll, Mantle opened the season crushing every ball in sight. That is until the American League pitchers found his weaknesses and starting striking him out with high fastballs and outside breaking curves. Sent down to the minors in Kansas City for fanning far too often--and obliterating a water cooler or two--the unpolished Mantle continued in his woes at the plate by swinging at bad pitches, until he was ready to quit and go home to the mines.

Frustrated and in tears, he called his father, Mutt, who drove six hours from Oklahoma to Mantle’s hotel room in Kansas City to tell his son in person and in no uncertain terms to smarten up and be a man. An hour or so later in the hotel restaurant, Mutt told his boy, “Everyone has slumps; even Joe DiMaggio. It’ll come together for yuh.” A renewed Mantle returned to Kansas City Blues lineup. Two days later in Toledo, he hit for the cycle, two of those hits being homers over the right-field light tower. All told, in the 40 games spent with Kansas City, Mantle hit a blistering .361 with nine doubles, three triples, 11 homers, 50 RBIs and a .651 slugging average. After that, he was recalled to the Yankees for good.

Thirty-five games into the Minneapolis Millers schedule (in the same Triple A American Association as Mantle), Mays got his call to the majors via Giants’ manager Leo Durocher on May 24, 1951. The to-the-point long distance telephone conversation went something like this…

Durocher
: “Willie, I need you in New York. I want you to play center field for me.”
Mays: “I don’t know if I can hit major league pitching.”
Durocher: “What are you hitting now?”
Mays: “.477.”
Durocher: “You think you can hit half that in the majors?”
Mays: “Yeah, I think so.”
Durocher: “Okay, then. What are you waiting for? Get the hell over here!”

Mays went oh-for-12 in his first major league at bats before blasting a home run over the left-field roof of New York’s Polo Grounds off pitching great Warren Spahn. After the game, Spahn was asked by reporters what happened, to which he replied, “For the first 60 feet that was one helluva pitch.” Years later, in retrospect, he said, “I’ll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out!”

But before that pitch, Willie had his freshman troubles too: Only at the plate, and not the field. After a one-for-25 start to his rookie season, he burst into tears in the near-empty Giant clubhouse. Durocher was quickly summoned by a coach where another player-manager conversation between the two occurred…

Durocher
: “What’s the matter, Willie?”
Mays: “Mr. Leo, I can’t buy me a hit. I’m letting you, the team, and the fans down.”
Durocher: “Lookit, Willie. I don’t care if you don’t get a hit for the rest of the year. You’re my center fielder now and will be for the rest of the year. Now, quit you’re balling and get back out there tomorrow!”

1951 Bowman rookie card of Willie Mays
(US Public Domain)
Like Mantle, Mays recovered. He went on to take the National League Rookie-of-the-Year Award by season’s end. In 121 games, he hit .274 with 22 doubles, five triples, 20 homers and 68 RBIs. He also used his speed to steal seven bases. Learning to take a walk instead of swinging at bad pitches, Mantle finished 1951 by playing in 96 games, hitting a decent .267 with 13 homers, 65 RBIs, and stealing eight bases. Defensively, Mays threw out 13 base runners. Mantle nailed eight runners, while playing almost exclusively in right field. The following year, with center fielder Joe DiMaggio retired, Mantle switched to center.

That fall, the New York Giants and New York Yankees met in the World Series. In the fifth inning of Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, Mays--wouldn’t you know it--hit a high fly to right-center. Mantle, playing his usual right field, ran towards the ball, but was called off by DiMaggio who had it all the way. Out of respect for his veteran teammate, Mantle ground to a halt, but as he did that his cleat caught an open drainpipe used for the sprinkler system, thus tearing his right knee to shreds and leaving him with knee problems for the rest of his career.

Passing their 1951 initiation season was only the beginning for Mays and Mantle. The Hall of Fame was dead-ahead for the two hard-hitting center fielder icons. Their achievements are as follows:

Mickey Mantle…

--18 seasons (1951-1968), all with the Yankees
--lifetime: 536 homers, .298 batting average, 1509 RBIs
--excellent career walk/strikeout ratio for a power hitter: 1734/1710
--16 All-Star Games
--12 pennant winners, seven World Series championships
--Triple Crown winner in 1956 (52 homers, 130 RBIs, .353 BA), along with a league-leading .705 SA
--four-time AL home run leader
--hit 50 homers twice, including 54 in 1961, the same year Roger Maris hit his coveted 61
--hit .300 ten times
--AL MVP three times, two other near misses (both taken by teammate Roger Maris in 1960 and 1961)
--hit numerous tape-measure shots, including three over the right-field roof of Detroit’s Briggs  Stadium, and two high-arching blasts within mere feet from exiting Yankee Stadium
--In 65 World Series games, he hit 18 homers, 40 RBIs, and 26 extra-base hits
--rated #17 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players
--His #7 uniform retired in 1969
--1974 Hall of Fame member on the first ballot with 88.2% of the vote

Willie Mays…

--22 seasons (1951-1973) with the New York Giants, San Francisco Giants, and New York Mets
--12 Glove Gloves, all consecutively from 1957-1968
--24 All-Star Game appearances
--eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons
--two NL MVPs
--hit 50 homers twice
--NL batting champ in 1954
--classic catch off Cleveland’s Vic Wertz’s long fly in the first game of 1954 World Series that stunned those who saw it. Now known as “The Catch”
--four-time NL homer king
--hit .300 ten times
--hit four homers in one game in 1961
--lifetime: 660 homers, 3283 hits, 1903 RBIs, 338 stolen bases, .302 batting average
--on four pennant winners and one World Championship
--his #24 uniform retired by the San Francisco Giants in 1972
--Hall of Fame member in his first year of eligibility in 1979 with 94.7% of the vote
--rated #2 on the 1999 Sporting News List of 100 Greatest Baseball Players


So, Mickey or Willie, who was the best? What do you like, apples or oranges? Let’s just say they were both great.