World War I

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The SS California, owned by Anchor Line Steamship Company; a Scottish merchant shipping company that was founded in 1855 and dissolved in 1980; departed New York on January 29, 1917, bound for Glasgow, Scotland, with 205 passengers and crewmembers on board. While the trip should have been a pleasant journey, world events would soon happen that would change everything in an instant. On February 3, 1917, United States President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he “broke diplomatic relations with Germany and warned that war would follow if American interests at sea were again assaulted.” Of course, all ship sailing the seas, especially those departing or arriving in the United States, or any that had US passengers were warned about the possibility of a German attack.

February 7, 1917, found the SS California some 38 miles off the coast of Fastnet, Ireland, when the ship’s captain, John Henderson, spotted a submarine off his ship’s port side at a little after 9am. I can only imagine the sinking feeling the captain must have felt at that moment. The Germans were not known for any kind of compassion, and they didn’t particularly care if this was a passenger ship. They figured that the ship might be carrying weapons, and they actually might have been. Captain Henderson ordered the gunner at the stern of the ship to fire in defense, if necessary. Unfortunately, there would not be time to do so, because moments later and without warning, the submarine fired two torpedoes at the ship. The first torpedo missed, but the second torpedo exploded into the port side of the steamer, killing five people instantly. The explosion of that torpedo was so violent and devastating that it caused the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer to sink just nine minutes later. The crew quickly sent desperate S.O.S. calls, but the best they could hope for was a hasty arrival of rescue ships. Time was simply not on their side, as 38 people drowned after the initial explosion, and with the initial 5 who died when the torpedo impacted the ship, a total of 43 died. It was an act of war by the Germans.

The Germans were known for this type of blatant attack, in complete defiance of Wilson’s warnings. It’s almost as if they were simply crazed with hatred. Because of Wilson’s warnings about the consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare and the subsequent discovery and release of the Zimmermann telegram, the Germans reached out to the foreign minister to the Mexican government involving a possible Mexican-German alliance in the event of a war between Germany and the United States. That caused Wilson and the United States to take the final steps towards war. On April 2, 1917, Wilson delivered his war message before Congress. It was this action that brought about the United States’ entrance into the First World War, which came about just four days later.

In World War I, airplanes were a relatively new item. The Wright brothers made their first sustained flight on December 17, 1903, so by 1918, they were still barely more than a novelty, but that didn’t matter. The world needed these machines, if the Allied countries were to win World War I. I’m sure that no one really knew how these new machines were going to work out, and I can only imagine how the pilots that had to fly those first planes felt about not only flying in them, but doing combat in them. One of those first crew members was Stephen W Thompson, a 24-year-old gunner on a French aircraft in February 1918.

Thompson was born on March 20, 1894, in West Plains, Missouri. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Thompson was a senior in electrical engineering at the University of Missouri. Men were needed to go and fight, so the school announced that seniors who joined the military before graduation would receive their diplomas in June. Being a loyal American, Thompson enlisted in the Army. He was sent for basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, and by June he was sent to Fort Monroe, Virginia for training in the Coast Artillery Corps. The train ride to his post would change his life forever, when he spotted an airplane in the sky. It was the first one he had ever seen, and when he got the opportunity, he went to the flying field, the Curtis School at Newport News, and asked if he could take a ride. He figured it might be the only chance he would get, and he didn’t want to miss out. Thomas Scott Baldwin, who had been a famous performer in his own balloons and dirigibles, was in charge and he agreed to give Thompson a ride. The plane was a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and the pilot was Edward Stinson, a prominent flyer at the time who later founded the Stinson Aircraft Company.

After his ride, in which Stinson did a number of aerobatic maneuvers, including looping the loop five times in a row, Thompson said that the only thing that kept him from falling out of the plane at the top of the last loop was the lap belt. I can only imagine how he felt, but that flight changed Thompson’s whole life. He decided to apply for duty in the Air Service. He was accepted, and on February 5, 1918, flying as a gunner on a French aircraft in February 1918, he became the first member of the United States military to shoot down an enemy aircraft. He was not the first person to shoot down another aircraft, because Kiffin Rockwell achieved an earlier aerial victory as an American volunteer member of the French Lafayette Escadrille in 1916. Nevertheless, Thompson was the first “official soldier” to do so. That day, the 1st Aero Squadron had not yet begun combat operations, and Thompson visited a French unit with a fellow member of the 1st Aero Squadron. The men were invited to fly as gunner-bombardiers with the French on a bombing raid over Saarbrücken, Germany. Well, nobody had to ask them twice. The run was successful, but after they had dropped their bombs, the squadron was attacked by Albatros D III fighters. Immediately taking action, Thompson shot down one of them, thereby carrying out the first aerial victory by any member of the US military. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm for the action.

After the war Thompson worked at McCook Field for several years as an engineer. Today, McCook Field is Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Following his time at McCook Field, he became a high school mathematics teacher. During World War II, he taught preflight and meteorology. He maintained an interest in aviation and in 1940 he received US Patent Number 2,210,642 for a tailless flying wing. He died on October 9, 1977, in Dayton, Ohio at age 83.

As kids grow up, you suddenly find yourself looking at a whole new person. It’s not just the normal changes that happen as kids grow, like height and a new grown up look about them. Suddenly, they have interests that are very different than yours. Sometimes that could be a bad thing, but for my grandnephew, Ethan Hadlock those new interests are different than many kids his age. Ethan is really into history, and especially World War I. History is often the last thing kids are interested in, but for Ethan, history and especially World War I are the coolest things. He even wanted his friend birthday party to have a World War I theme. His mom, Chelsea Hadlock did a great job creating that for him.

Ethan is the grandson of a retired cop, my brother-in-law, Chris Hadlock and an uncle who is a cop, Jason Sawdon, so security is important to him. With that in mind, Ethan has joined the club Cyber Patriots which teaches kids to check websites and things for cyber security threats. I think that is an amazing club to have. These kinds of threats are a very real part of life these days, and everyone needs to know about it, especially kids. Ethan is also in a welding class right now and he really loves it! That isn’t surprising either, considering his great grandpa, my dad, Allen Spencer was a welder by trade. Christmas brought Ethan a couple of new horizons to try. He was give golf lessons, and he can’t wait to start them and learn the game of golf. He also received a World War I tiger tank Lego set. It is an RC car that he will have to put together. He can’t wait to get going on that. Everyone loves Legos, and Ethan is no exception. He’s really good at Rubik’s cubes too! He can put them right really quickly!!

Ethan loves animals. The Hadlock family is a family of “dog lovers” and Ethan loves all of them. He is always willing to help with the animals, whether it is feeding them, playing with them, or chasing them down when they don’t want to come in the house. Recently, his aunt, Kellie Hadlock hired him to watch her bird. Ethan quickly accepted the job, but really thought it was a volunteer job. When Kellie paid him, he was so thankful that he honestly thanked her every time he saw her for like a week!! It was so sweet! Ethan is no stranger to volunteer work either. Each summer, he volunteers at the Vacation Bible School at his Aunt Lindsay Moore’s church in Laramie! He always works in the recreation area and gets to do things like shoot water rockets!! He always has a blast!! Being the only boy among the cousins, Ethan is always ready to take care of all his cousins too! He watches out for them!

Now that Ethan is 15 years old, he is ready to take his drivers ed test!! He is very excited about learning to drive. He and his mom went to get his study books a while back, and he is ready for the test on Monday. I can’t believe that this sweet boy, who picks on everyone just like his dad, Ryan Hadlock, but is always ready to give a hug to anyone in the family, and even seeks out the family for a hug, is old enough to learn to drive. While it may seem impossible in years, it isn’t surprising in size. Ethan is already well on his way to gaining the height of his dad and grandpa, who are both well over six foot. Ethan is close to six foot now, and with a number of years to grow yet. Today is Ethan’s 15th birthday. Happy birthday Ethan!! Have a great day!! We love you!!

The RMS Leinster was an Irish ship, which served as the Kingstown-Holyhead mailboat and was operated by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. In 1895, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company ordered four steamers for Royal Mail service, named for four provinces of Ireland. The ships were RMS Leinster, RMS Connaught, RMS Munster, and RMS Ulster. The Leinster was a 3,069-ton packet steamship with a service speed of 23 knots. The ship was built at Laird’s in Birkenhead, England. It had two independent four-cylinder triple-expansion steam engines. She has launched September 12, 1896. In a perfect world, guns would not be needed on a mail ship. Then, during the World War I, the twin-propellered ship was armed with one 12-pounder and two signal guns. The war made this protection necessary. Even with the guns for protection, RMS Leinster, like her sister ships, was vulnerable to the ever present and dangerous German U-Boats. The ship continued her run, until she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. RMS Leinster was torpedoed and sunk by the German U-Boat U-123, on October 10, 1918. She sank just outside Dublin Bay at a point 4 nautical miles east of the Kish light.

The ship had, in addition to its crew, a number of civilian mail workers. The exact number of dead is unknown, but researchers from the National Maritime Museum believe it was at least 564. The ship’s log, however, states that she carried 77 crew and 694 passengers on her final voyage. This number would seem more correct to me simply because of the records normally kept in logbooks. There is someone assigned to keep that log, and while they could have done a poor job, it is more unlikely that just trusting the number to a random guess of a historian who came along later. The sinking wasn’t the first attack that had been waged on RMS Leister. She had been previously attacked in the Irish Sea, but the torpedoes missed their target. On October 10, 1918, the manifest included more than 100 British civilians, 22 postal sorters (working in the mail room) and almost 500 military personnel from the Royal Navy, British Army, and Royal Air Force. Also aboard were nurses from Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.

Just before 10am, as RMS Leister was sailing east of the Kish Bank in a heavy swell, some of the passengers saw a torpedo approach from the port side and pass in front of the bow. I’m sure a panic ensued, and then a second torpedo followed shortly afterwards. This torpedo struck the ship forward on the port side in the vicinity of the mail room. The ship attempted evasive action, trying to make a U-turn in an attempt to return to Kingstown, but the damage was done. As it began to settle slowly by the bow, RMS Leister sank rapidly, helped along by a third torpedo strike, which caused a huge explosion. Whether the number of victims listed is right or wrong, doesn’t really matter, because either number would make the sinking of RMS Leister, the largest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.

Despite the heavy seas, the crew managed to launch several lifeboats and some passengers clung to life-rafts. The survivors were rescued by HMS Lively, HMS Mallard, and HMS Seal. Among the civilian passengers lost in the sinking were socially prominent people such as Lady Phyllis Hamilton, daughter of the Duke of Abercorn, Robert Jocelyn Alexander, son of Irish composer Cecil Frances Alexander, Reverand John Bartley, the Presbyterian minister of Tralee who was travelling to visit his mortally wounded son in hospital, Thomas Foley and his wife Charlotte Foley (née Barrett) who was the brother-in-law of the world-famous Irish tenor John McCormack who adopted their eldest son, and Richard Moore, only son of British architect Temple Moore. The first member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service to die on active duty, Josephine Carr, was among those who died, as were two prominent officials of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, James McCarron and Patrick Lynch. Several of the military personnel who died are buried in Grangegorman Military Cemetery.

On October 18, 1918, at 9:10am U-125, outbound from Germany, picked up a radio message requesting advice on the best way to get through the North Sea minefield. The sender was U-123. Extra mines had been added to the minefield since U-123 had made her outward voyage from Germany. As U-125 had just come through the minefield, U-125 radioed back with a suggested route. U-123 acknowledged the message and was never heard from again. The following say, ten days after the sinking of the RMS Leinster, U-123 detonated a mine and sank while trying to cross the North Sea and return to base in Imperial Germany. There were no survivors. In 1991, the anchor of the RMS Leinster was raised by local divers. It was placed near Carlisle Pier and officially dedicated on January 28, 1996.

I love watching the pigeons that fly around at one end of the walking path I use regularly. They are wild of course, but maybe at one time they were owned…or maybe their parents were. Now, they are free to soar around in beautiful formations, as they enjoy the freedom of being carefree and, well just being birds. Not all pigeons are free, however, and some even perform a very important service…some to their country. Pigeons have actually been used in wars to carry messages to different battalions, sadly because they were expendable, where the men were not.

One famous pigeon known as “President Wilson,” was hatched in France. “President Wilson” (this special pigeon) assisted both the American tank corps and US infantry men in their fight against Germany. It was in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, that “President Wilson” made his most famous flight. He was assisting the 78th Infantry near Grandpre. The battle had been a vicious one, and while engaging the enemy on the morning of October 5, 1918, President Wilson’s unit released him to request artillery support. No flight through a battleground was easy, but this one was especially dangerous. A bird can’t really fly without being seen, and the Germans knew to watch for pigeons. The German soldiers opened fire on him, peppering him with bullets. “President Wilson” sustained numerous injuries, nevertheless, he was able to make his flight back to headquarters in record setting time…under 25 minutes. “President Wilson” survived his wounds, after which he was retired and sent to the US Army Signal Corps Breeding and Training Center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he would live another eleven years. After his death, Wilson was taxidermized and presented to the Smithsonian Institution. He was transferred to the custody of the US Army in 2008. “President Wilson” is now located in the prestigious halls of the US military’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. He serves as a reminder that these simple birds…often considered a nuisance by the general public…were once war heroes.

Another famous pigeon was known as Cher Ami, who also gained fame during World War I. Cher Ami’s moment of heroism came during the actions of the so-called “Lost Battalion.” With the 77th Division finding themselves surrounded by the German army, besieging them for five days, Cher Ami was the third pigeon sent out to tell division headquarters that the men were surrounded and were taking fire, both enemy and friendly!! Cher Ami was hit almost as quickly as he rose. He was shot down but managed to take flight again. He arrived back at his loft at division headquarters 25 miles to the rear in just 25 minutes, helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors. He had been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and had a leg hanging only by a tendon. Cher Ami was the last pigeon available. Had he not made it, the men would have been on their own. Cher Ami was stuffed and mounted after his death and is now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Looking back on World War I, and the many lives lost, we also need to remember that without war heroes like “President Wilson” and Cher Ami the losses would have been far greater. Many pigeons lost their lives in these efforts, but they were heroes for the sacrifices they made. I’m sure the soldiers knew that well.

The radioman had done his best. He tried to warn the radioman on RMS Titanic about the dangers lurking in the dark, moonless night…icebergs. Mistakenly believing that Titanic was unsinkable, 25-year-old John George “Jack” Phillips, a British sailor and the senior wireless operator aboard the Titanic during her ill-fated maiden voyage in April 1912, was too busy to listen or heed the warnings. So, the radioman on SS Mesaba turned off his radio and went to bed, making the ship unaware of the disaster the Titanic was experiencing after she hit an iceberg and began to sink. Many rules of the sea changed after that, and from then on, the radio had to be monitored 24/7…in case a disaster happened again. Sadly, safety laws come after disasters.

So, what happened to the ship that tried to save the Titanic? I had never given that any thought, but now, more than 110 years after the Titanic sank after striking an iceberg, I read that SS Mesaba, the ship that sent warnings to the famous vessel has also been discovered on the ocean floor. Of course, this was not a surprise to those who found the ship, because they knew what had happened to the ship. Those who knew…researchers at Bournemouth University and Bangor University in Wales, sent a team, using multibeam sonar to find the now famed “ship that tried” to save Titanic.

What I didn’t know, until now, was that just six years after the sinking of RMS Titanic, the SS Mesaba was sunk in the Irish Sea during World War I. Mesaba was making a convoy voyage from Liverpool to Philadelphia on September 1, 1918, when a German U-boat’s torpedo took out the merchant ship, killing twenty people. Titanic was finally found in 1985, but the “ship that tried” to save her, took more than 100 years to locate. Possibly it was because of all the new technology we have, including sonar, which “uses sound waves to measure the distance between a sound source and various objects in its surroundings. This kind of method can be used for navigation, communication, and mapping. It is also frequently used by underwater vessels.” The Bangor researchers used active sonar to map the seabed, and also identified the Mesaba wreckage by emitting pulses of sounds and listening for echoes. Innes McCartney, who is a researcher with Bangor, says the multibeam sonar is a “game-changer” for marine technology. Finally, SS Mesaba’s final resting place is known, although that doesn’t change anything for the ship. After all these years of wondering, the ship will stay right where it is, although it may be explored now and any valuables can be removed by the team, who was the first to locate, and is therefore eligible to salvage if they choose to.

The dynamic of the world wars was probably different than most other wars…especially when it came to which units and countries were fighting side by side or against each other. When Britain declared war against Germany in August 1914, Australia was automatically also at war, because it was part of the British Empire. The New Zealand government (also under the sovereignty of the British Empire) followed without hesitation despite its geographic isolation and small population. The British Empire is for most of us, a difficult to understand group of countries that while largely independent, is also part of a larger government…the British Empire. The British Empire is a worldwide system of dependencies—colonies, protectorates, and other territories, that over a span of some three centuries was brought under the sovereignty of the crown of Great Britain and the administration of the British government. The policy of granting or recognizing significant degrees of self-government by dependencies, which was favored by the far-flung nature of the empire, led to the development by the 20th century of the notion of a “British Commonwealth” that was comprised of largely self-governing dependencies that acknowledged an increasingly symbolic British sovereignty. The term was embodied in statute in 1931. Today the Commonwealth includes former elements of the British Empire in a free association of sovereign states. Now, I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of the British Empire or the British Commonwealth, but Australia and New Zealand apparently had the option to join Britain in the war or to stand back and remain neutral. Both nations were loyal and joined Great Britain.

The Australian 6th Battalion was sent into warfare just two months after WWI began in August 1914. They met up with and joined the New Zealand Army, becoming the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) from April 1915, while maintaining status as the Australian 6th Battalion until the unit was evacuated in December 1915. The Australian 6th Battalion fought German troops on the Western Front alongside the Allies. They were a good battalion, but for most of the time, there were no major decorations awarded…until. in September 1917, while serving in Belgium, Lieutenant Frederick Birks was awarded the only Victoria Cross ever granted within the unit. Sadly, Birks was killed in action the following day.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is “the highest and most prestigious decoration of the British honors system. It is awarded for valor ‘in the presence of the enemy’ to members of the British Armed Forces and may be awarded posthumously.” On September 17th, Birks’ battalion was moving parallel to a German line, with the orders to attack and capture the German line and blow them up. The men began moving toward their positions from Zillebeke on the night of September 18th, and immediately came under fire from gas shells. September 19th found the men holding their line, while the battalion prepared to attack the German line the next day. The battle that ensued became known as the Battle of Menin Road. Masked by a “light drizzle” of rain at 4am on September 20th, the Germans sent barrages in front of and behind the battalion’s position. The battalion began their advanced at 5:40am. Birks and a corporal met the first German resistance and took two machine-gun positions, as another group of officers rushed a strong post. The Germans attacked the group with bombs, seriously wounding the corporal. Birks had to continue on alone. Birks advanced to the rear of the pillbox and forced the occupants to surrender. Birks went on to lead an attack a series of dugouts and pillboxes on the edge of Glencorse Wood, and fought against machine gun and bombs. He also assisted in the reorganization and consolidation of Australian men who had drifted away from their unit. September 21st brought more enemy shelling in response to the movement of Allied artillery. The shelling buried some men in Birks’ platoon. Birks attempted to dig the men out, “standing exposed” in the effort, another shell aimed at the C Coy post killed Birks, and four others, before he could save them. For his actions at Ypres, Birks was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the announcement was made on November 8, 1917.

Out of necessity, comes innovation. Many of history’s great problems were solved because it was a necessity. For the most part, Britain has maintained a small British Army. Somehow, probably mostly due to geography, rather than might, the British Royal Navy was able to protect the island nation from its enemies quite well…until World War I, that is, and indeed, young men did not feel the need to join the army due to patriotic duty, but rather due to a shortage of other working options. In fact, a career in the military wasn’t looked upon favorably at all.

When World War I broke out in 1914, Britain suddenly experienced a huge shortage of trained military personnel, especially officers. This was further complicated by heavy casualties in the British Expeditionary Force in France, which dwindled the limited supply even further. That meant to keep up, they were going to need a large number of officers to be sourced and trained quickly. Their only real solution was to take young upper-class men and put them through officer training. These were teenagers, young men still in school, but it was necessary, and so schooling was either ended or postponed.

During World War I, as was seen with the RMS Titanic, class was considered of the utmost importance. In Britain, only a gentleman could be an officer. The working-class and lower-class men were put in as the average soldier. Somehow it was thought that “Short of actual military credentials, a person’s schooling was thought to be a reasonable litmus test for leadership.” To further confuse things in the minds of most Americans these days, a public school in Britain is actually a very exclusive private institution. Eton College, a private institution attended by no fewer than 20 prime ministers, is probably the best example of that. Anthony Eden, who would later become prime minister, was an Eton alum, who also served as an officer in the British Army.

When World War I broke out, Eden was just 17, and after a rushed officer training course, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant a year later. It seems strange and almost reckless to have upper-class teenagers leading working-class soldiers, but in this case, it actually worked well. The teenage future prime minister recalled his men “were tolerant of me as we were all learning together.” Eden quickly learned that “As long as the officer showed proper concern for the well-being of his men and courage under fire, the men in turn would show great loyalty.”

The commissioned officers were also helped enormously by the noncommissioned officers. The noncommissioned officers were usually working-class men who had been promoted from the ranks after showing leadership abilities throughout their military careers. Thankfully so, because as Eden would later recall of a sergeant named Arnold Rushworth in his post-war memoirs, “He was my right hand and no small part of my brain as well.” I’m sure that part of the reason this plan of upper-class men becoming officers worked was the sheer compassion of the working-class men, who helped them along the way. It was the way of the times, and I suppose that the men simply accepted their “position” in life as being the way things were, and that it could not be changed.

Most of us would never think of using an elephant in a battle, but James Howard Williams, also known as Elephant Bill, who was a British soldier and elephant expert in Burma thought about it. Born on November 15, 1897, at Saint Just, Cornwall, he was the son of a Cornish mining engineer, who had returned to Cornwall from South Africa, and his wife, a Welshwoman. Williams went to college at Queen’s College in Taunton, and following in his brother’s footsteps, studied at Camborne School of Mines. He then went on to serve as an officer in the Devonshire Regiment of the British Army in the Middle East during the First World War and in Afghanistan from 1919 to 1920. Williams served with the Camel Corps and as transport officer in charge of mules. The military was very different then, from what we know today. After his service was over, he decided to join the Bombay-Burmah Trading Corporation as a forester working with elephants to extract teak logs. Little did he know that this would be a life changing decision for him.

Williams learned so much about the elephants in Burma, that it was during that time he acquired his nickname, “Elephant Bill.” While his biggest calling was his work with the Fourteenth Army during the Burma Campaign of World War II, he was also known for his 1950 book Elephant Bill. He was made a Lieutenant-Colonel, mentioned in dispatches three times, and was awarded the OBE in 1945. His interest in elephants came after he read a book by Hawkes, called “The Diseases of the Camel and the Elephant” and decided on the postwar job in Burma. Initially he was at a camp on the banks of the Upper Chindwin River in Upper Burma. There, Williams was responsible for seventy elephants and their oozies (in Burma an oozie was an elephant trainer) in ten camps, in an area of about 400 square miles in the Myittha Valley, in the Indaung Forest Reserve. The camps were 6 to 7 miles apart. Between the camps were hills, three to four thousand feet high and filled with teak. To mill them, one tree was killed by ring-barking the base, and then felled. The three-year-old trees were mature and were now light enough to float. The logs were hauled by elephant (known as “sappers”) to a waterway, then floated down to Rangoon or Mandalay. The elephants were needed by the Royal Engineers for use in bridge building in places where heavy equipment could otherwise not be brought in, the Royal Indian Army Service Corps wanted them to be regarded simply as a branch of transport, but they also had great value in rescue. Elephants were so important to the harvesting process, that one elephant could be sold for $150,000, which is $2000 in American dollars. The elephants were as big a commodity as the teak wood. Believe it or not, teak was “as important a munition of war as steel,” so its extraction was an essential industry.

While elephants were most often used to extract the teak from the forests, they were used for another important extraction during World War II. When Japan entered the war, it was expected that they would be held in Malaya and Singapore. While many people were critical of them, the Bombay Burma Corporation arranged evacuation of European women and children, even though the government had no such plans. That evacuation took place in 1942, from February till the end of April. The retreat from Burma was to Assam via Imphal. The road to Assam went up the Chindwin to Kalewa, then up the Kabaw Valley to Tamu, and across five thousand-foot-mountains into Manipur and the Imphal Plain. During this time, Williams was attached to one evacuation party, which also included his wife and children. The Kabaw Valley was nicknamed “The Valley of Death” because of the hundreds of refugees who died there from exhaustion, starvation, cholera, dysentery, and smallpox. Nevertheless, while many people died along the way, many were also saved due to the elephant evacuation process. The well known “elephant whisperer” and his best beloved helpers waged guerrilla warfare and carried refugees to safety. They sometimes had to fight, possibly even while working to help the refugees to escape. He was a Burmese speaker with knowledge of Burma, including the Irrawaddy River area and jungle tracks, which gave him a distinct edge when it came to getting precious human cargo out of the danger zones.

Not all treatment of elephants during that time was humane, and many elephants that were captured by the Japanese, and later recaptured by Williams’ group and others like it, had to be “cured” after being attacked by Allied fighters when they were used in Japanese warfare, or treated for acid burns from wireless batteries carried on their backs in straw-lined boxes. I’m sure it was hard for the handlers to see their precious elephants after such treatment. After World War II Williams retired to Saint Buryan, Cornwall, as an author and market gardener. He married Susan Margaret Rowland in 1932 after they met in Burma; they had a son, Treve and daughter, Lamorna while in Burma. After his death, on July 30, 1958, his wife Susan Williams wrote of her life with him in “The Footprints of Elephant Bill.”

It is not usually my habit to talk about the spectacular ships built by our nation’s enemies, but IJN Mikasa might be a worthy exception. The Mikasa is a “pre-dreadnought” battleship built for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in the late 1890s and is the only ship of her class. I didn’t know what a “pre-dreadnought” ship was, so I looked into it. “Pre-dreadnoughts were battleships built before 1906, when HMS Dreadnought was launched. Dreadnoughts were more powerful battleships that followed the design of HMS Dreadnought and so made pre-dreadnoughts obsolete.” The ship displaced over 15,000 long tons, with a crew of over 800 men.

While she might not have been as powerful, IJN Mikasa was nevertheless a well-built ship, that was able to withstand more than most ships of her time. Named after Mount Mikasa in Nara, Japan, she served as the flagship of Vice Admiral Togo Heihachiro throughout the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. That war included the Battle of Port Arthur, which occurred on the second day of the war, as well as the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. Just a few days after the Russo-Japanese War ended, Mikasa’s magazine (a ship’s magazine is where the powder and shells are stored) suddenly exploded and sank the ship. The explosion killed 251 men. Shortly before the Mikasa’s fatal accident, the ship had been involved in the Battle of Tsushima (May 27, 1905), during which she had shrugged off over 40 shell strikes from heavy Russian naval guns! In that battle 113 of her crew were killed or injured. While such an event would usually mean the end of a ship, IJN Mikasa was salvaged, and while her repairs took over two years to complete, she went on to serve as a coast-defense ship during World War I, and she supported Japanese forces during the Siberian Intervention in the Russian Civil War. Ironically, in 1912 a despondent sailor among her crew tried to blow the ship up once again while the ship was anchored at Kobe. In the end the ship served until 1923, after being pulled up from the drink, repaired, and recommissioned.

IJN Mikasa was decommissioned on September 23, 1923, following the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. At that time, she was scheduled for destruction, but at the request of the Japanese government, each of the signatory countries to the treaty agreed that Mikasa could be preserved as a memorial ship. The agreement required that her hull be encased in concrete. On November 12, 1926, Mikasa was opened for display in Yokosuka in the presence of Crown Prince Hirohito and Togo. Unfortunately, the ship deteriorated under the control of the occupation forces after the surrender of Japan in 1945. Finally, in 1955, American businessman John Rubin, who had formally lived in Barrow, England, wrote a letter to the Japan Times about the state of the ship. His letter served as the catalyst for a new restoration campaign. The Japanese public, who were widely onboard with the idea, supported the project, as did Fleet Admiral Chester W Nimitz. The ship was once again restored, and the museum version reopened in 1961. On August 5, 2009, IJN Mikasa was repainted by sailors from USS Nimitz, and she is now the only surviving example of a “pre-dreadnought” battleship in the world. IJN Mikasa is located in the town of its construction, Barrow-in-Furness, near Mikasa Street on Walney Island.

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