A poster of a young man in Tegucigalpa’s central square. Kidnapped April 19, 1988. It’s in a photograph I just happened to take when I was there one year later. Looking at it recently, I wondered who is he? Thanks to search engines and dedicated searchers for the disappeared in Honduras, I found him. Roger Gonzáles, 24 year old student. Still disappeared.
Last week I’d wondered if Donald Trump remembered anything about the 1980s US interference in Central America. If he really didn’t realize that there might be a connection between then and the caravan of people at the US border now. (see Honduran Contra Camps 1989)
Disappeared in 1988: ROGER SAMUEL GONZALEZ
The contradictory responses of the military no longer surprise Elvia Zelaya, mother of the “disappeared” student Roger González.
Roger González, a 24-year-old leader of the Federation of Second-Year Students (FESE) and employee of the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation (COHDEFOR), was kidnapped before witnesses on April 19, 1988, at noon, while walking through the Central Park of Tegucigalpa. His captors were two men and a woman dressed in civilian clothes. Subsequently, one of them was identified by a witness as a member of the DNI*.
In the Honduran courts, five writs of habeas corpus were filed in favor of Roger González. In response to these appeals, several members of the DNI, FUSEP* and the First Infantry Battalion denied having Roger González in their custody. In one case, the executing judge was not even allowed access to the cells of the police unit cited in the habeas corpus. A statement by a spokesman for the Armed Forces, according to which Roger González had been captured by FUSEP, was later vehemently denied by agents of FUSEP itself, one of whom added that, in fact, FUSEP was looking for Roger González in relation to a violent demonstration held before the United States Embassy in Tegucigalpa on April 7, 1988.
In May 1988, relatives, friends and colleagues of Roger Samuel González Zelaya began a hunger strike in the Central Park of Tegucigalpa to protest their arrest and demand their release. The hunger strike lasted 23 days, and was suspended when Roger’s mother became ill.
In an interview with the press on October 8, 1988, the then head of the armed forces declared that Roger Samuel González Zelaya was probably hiding somewhere abroad.
However, Fausto Reyes Caballero, a former member of Battalion 3-16* who fled to the United States of America after deserting, testified in a testimony before several human rights groups in 1988 that he had seen Roger González in mid-July in the barracks of Battalion 3-16 in San Pedro Sula.
(Google translation of COFADEH page)
*DNI is Dirección Nacional de Investigación, National Directorate of Investigation (police).
FUSEP is Fuerza de Seguridad Pública, Public Safety Force (police).
Battalion 3-16 was an intelligence unit of the Honduran army “responsible for carrying out political assassinations and torture… Battalion members received training and support from the United States Central Intelligence Agency” (Wikipedia).
Reyes said he last visited the [Battalion 316] office in San Pedro [Sula] in mid-July , caught a glimpse there of a pale youth, handcuffed and blindfolded, and was told by a sergeant on duty that the prisoner was Roger Gonzalez. Gonzalez disappeared in Tegucigalpa during a police sweep in which about a dozen Hondurans were arrested after the burning of the U.S. Consulate there April 7…
Honduran police first acknowledged, then denied Gonzalez was in their custody.
Where are you Roger?
“My tongue sticks to my palate from so much repeating your name to the wind. My hands age playing insensitive gates They offer me silences for an answer … “
– Fragment of the poem Where are you Roger?, written by his mother Elvia Zelaya.
In a 2017 Conexihon post (Spanish, or see in English), Doña Elvia remembers her son Roger. He’d be 52, she says. She still offers a Mass for him. Aside from protests for answers, that’s all she can do in his memory. “When the mother buries her son, she knows that she is going to put a flower in the cemetery, she is going to visit there,” she says, but “not even that” for her. There still are no answers to what happened to Roger Samuel González Zelaya.
Donald Trump calls it “the Democrat Party led… assault on our country by Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador…” (Twitter Oct. 18, 2018). A caravan of migrants started in Honduras, headed to the US border. This is one time when he legitimately can blame his predecessors. Especially the Reagan Republican administration which did everything it could do, legally and illegally, to get rid of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. That included funding an army and basing them in – guess where – Honduras. Honduras and all of us are still paying for that today. This is what I saw at a contra camp in 1989. (Click/tap photos to enlarge.)
Killing Time in the Honduran contra camps
The Sunday Express, August 20, 1989 pp 25, 40
Last week, five Central American presidents signed a peace accord for that region, agreeing to demobilize the Washington-backed rebel army by December 1989. Contra leaders say they will not lay down their arms, but nine commanders have already asked for asylum in the U.S. In April, Dorothy Anger visited the contra camps.
By Dorothy Anger, Special to The Sunday Express
From 1 a.m. until almost daybreak, the slap-slap-slap of hands shaping corn meal into tortillas is the only sound heard in the camp in the jungle of the Yamales Valley in southern Honduras. This is the strategic command base camp of the Nicaraguan resistance army – the contras. Nearer dawn, the noise of roosters and cicadas is joined by noise of the waking troops. The soldiers bathe and do morning exercises before daylight.
At 6:30 breakfast is served from a kitchen hut just outside the barbed-wire which surrounds the camp. Fifteen kilometres from the Nicaraguan border, this is the administrative centre for the 10,000 contra troops. The troops are divided into 26 regional battalions scattered over several kilometres in the valley.
Women and men commandos
Most of the commandos, as they call themselves, are men, but there are some women among them. Now that they are not engaged in active fighting, the women have been removed from combat roles and instead are responsible for cooking. The soldiers said that when they were militarily active, both men and women cooked and fought.
The women, both commandos and civilian family members, seemed shy. They, and the children, avoided me during this visit, only occasionally scurrying by with a pot of food or jug of water. The men, however, were happy to talk about anything from politics to North American music. Most of the men I met were young, in their 20s. However, there were some as young as 13 years old carrying rifles in the drills. They jokes and laughed, talking about being homesick, posed for pictures, wanted to take pictures, and were quite happy to talk in sign language to a non-Spanish speaker like me. No different than the guys on the other side of the border, except that these guys were killing the ones across the river in Nicaragua.
Outside the base camp is a collection of plastic-covered tents, hammock shelters and small wooden huts. The soldiers on guard duty are rotated from within the ranks of the regional commands. Some soldiers, such as the five musicians in the camp band, are permanently stationed in these huts. Half a kilometre from the guard post there is a row of wooden shacks where Hondurans sell pop and food or clothing and trinkets to the troops.
Large pine trees, palm trees and ferns cloak the surrounding hills. Helicopters go back and forth all day long from a nearby U.S. Agency for International Development landing pad used to supply the contra. Security measures for visitors to the camp are even stricter since a news photograph was published, showing the USAID helicopters carrying armed contra troops, in direct violation of U.S. regulations prohibiting military assistance by the agency. Everywhere there are automatic rifles – a presence that was very disturbing at first, though I soon stopped noticing them.
Eventually I was allowed into the camp, accompanied by a man who used as his nom de guerre Commander Jackson, and was second in command of psychological operations. With him, I visited a classroom where a human rights class was in progress, a regional command post, and the strategic base command.
Classes are periodically given in literacy, artillery practice and human rights. Human rights in this context does not only mean what the contras must do to ensure they do not violate human rights. Rather, it is mostly an explication of the ways in which the Sandinistas violate Nicaraguans’ human rights. Literacy classes are held less often but are necessary because, according to one estimate, as many as half the contras are unable to read or write. Skill-development classes, such as carpentry, are supposed to be taught in order to prepare troops for return to civilian life, but as yet none have been held.
Salvador Perez regional command
In the Salvador Perez regional command, 500 commandos and some family members live in plastic-covered or wooden huts perched on the side of a hill. At the bottom of the hill is a parade ground which doubles as a baseball diamond and volleyball court. I watched a dress rehearsal of military drills being prepared for a visit by American officials the next day. Commander Jackson gave the troops a pep talk, exhorting them to remember the struggle, and the importance of throwing over the so-called communist dictatorship of the Sandinistas. The weapons carried by the soldiers included AK-47 automatic rifles obtained from the U.S. and some weapons taken from Sandinista soldiers. At sunset, the men sang the Nicaraguan national anthem, followed by their own Resistance army hymn. Night fell quickly, as it does everywhere in Central America, and the troops dispersed back up the hill in virtual blackness, to sit outside their tents and talk or play cards by flashlight.
Waiting while war is on hold
Military drills, particularly with arms, are rare now that the contra war is supposedly on hold. They probably provide the most excitement available in a very boring routine. A tiny girl of about three looked out through the doorway of her family’s hut, watched by her grandfather who lay on a hammock inside. A pig strolled across the parade ground during the exercises, causing a recess until it was shooed away.
Back at the strategic command base, there was a bit more excitement this evening, for the guide brought movies with him. The choices are a soft porn movie, “The Terminator” or “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” The VCR machine made the decision for us, giving only Indiana Jones both a clear picture and sound. About 50 men crowded around the rolled-up flaps of the administration tent, standing or sitting on wooden benches, to watch the derring-do of Harrison Ford.
$4.5 million US per month
The overwhelming impression of the camps is of people putting in time. They are no longer actively fighting, but neither are they farming or doing any other type of productive work. They are being paid $4.5 million U.S. per month to be there.
Washington has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the contras over eight years in military and non-lethal aid. Nicaragua has moved ahead elections by six months to February of 1990 as part of a deal which would have demobilized the contras within 90 days. This was the peace plan signed by the presidents of five Central American countries in February of this year. Despite this accord, the Washington administration wants to keep the contras in place until the Nicaraguan elections take place. The American argument is that the contra presence will ensure that the Sandinistas run a fair and open election and that without this threat they would not. The problem is, contra leaders such as Adolfo Calero have stated that, “If it is a free electoral process, it is almost impossible for the Sandinistas to win.” A Sandinista victory, therefore, could provoke charges of unfairness and allow the Americans to justify re-engaging the contras in military action.
Pawns in international games
So for the time being, the soldiers wait, with their material needs looked after but their futures in limbo. They are pawns in the international games of the United States, as ex-contra leaders have said, but they get three good meals a day to be pawns. That is more than they would get in Nicaragua or as civilians in Honduras.
A storehouse by the kitchen hut is filled with sacks of rice and flour. Big slabs of beef are served along with rice and beans for breakfast. Cattle awaiting slaughter are kept in pens near the camps. The men receive soap, toothpaste and other such items. Bedrolls and tents are basic, but durable and warm, and have “U.S. Army” stencilled on them. Cigarette rations are supplied fortnightly.
The only items in short supply in the camp are cash and information from the outside. The men get about five Honduran limpira a month – enough to buy a couple of beers and a few packs of cigarettes in Los Trojes, the nearest town. Thirty-five kilometres away, Los Trojes is as far as the men can go without special permission and a pass. The town is small, with wide dusty streets with more horses on them than cars. Along the main street in its small wooden or adobe buildings are stores, restaurants, bars, and even a disco and hotel.
No communication but contra radio
But for the most part, the troops stay at the camps or surrounding area if their families are living there. In the camps, they see no newspapers and hear no radio aside from the contra radio station. They have no communication with their families in Nicaragua. Many have been told that family members are dead or imprisoned.
The level of political analysis ranges from simple repetition of anti-communist slogans, from most of the men to whom I talked, to a willingness to consider both sides of Nicaraguan-American history and philosophy, from Pepe, a senior advisor with the contras. His willingness to discuss the possibility that the Nicaraguan people might want a Sandinista government did not extend to permitting such thoughts to be recorded on tape, however. The other extreme, more commonly found, was the opinion that life in Nicaragua would be better under anyone other than the Sandinistas. An 18-year-old recalled how much better life was under the ex-dictator Anastasio Somoza and said he was fighting to restore that. When Somoza was overthrown, he would have been eight years old.
Somocistas, anti-Sandinistas and non-affiliated
There are some Somoza-regime leftovers in the contras. Some others are disenchanted Sandinista supporters. However, most had no overt political affiliation with any side in Nicaragua, but are poor peasants or labourers who volunteered or were recruited by the contras. Coming from these men, the political rationale of oppression in Nicaragua sounds like so much cant. For example, torture by the Sandinistas was frequently given as the reason for joining the contras, although the only example of torture provided was the men’s conscription into the Sandinista army.
Despite the ban on military action, the troops still get to see some fighting. During my visit, they were talking about a recent incursion into Nicaragua and another planned for the next month. And the next week, near the border on the Nicaraguan side, I was told of a recent attack in which contra soldiers repeatedly raped a 16-year-old girl in front of her house and then kidnapped her.
There, I met two “secuestrados,” people who had been kidnapped and held by the contras. In April they and two others were released by the contras after two American doctors and a journalist located them in the camps. The Nicaraguan National Reconciliation Council, a bipartisan committee headed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop, says that 3,000 of the contras are secuestrados. The contra leaders do not like discussing the point, acknowledging only that they “conscript” people.
Dr. Susan Cookson and Dr. Tim Takaro, now living in North Carolina, worked in the northern Nicaraguan province of Jinotega. They knew nine people from the area, including several community health workers, who had been kidnapped by the contras. Finding these people in the Honduran camp was made very difficult by the contra officials, but the doctors succeeded in talking to five of the nine. One young woman to whom they talked did not want to leave the camp. She was pregnant by one of the soldiers and wanted to stay with him.
They were examined and interviewed by the doctors, with a contra lawyer in full military uniform present. The four who left signed statements which were taken to the United Nations human rights officer in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, who arranged for their return to Nicaragua.
Health-care worker and a cook
I talked to José Gabriel Lopez, a farmer and health-care worker near the village of Mancantal in northern Nicaragua, and Gema Valásquez, a 16-year-old who had been working as a cook at a Nicaraguan army camp near the town of Jinotega. Both still feared that the contras would return and kidnap them again.
José Gabriel spent nine months with the contras after he was taken from his house at night. Gema had been walking home from work when she was taken, and spent 10 months in Honduras.
The prisoners’ walk to the camp took six weeks. Neither José Gabriel nor Gema attempted to escape during the walk; José Gabriel saw what happened to people who did try. One of the men with him tried to run the night they were abducted, and was shot as he ran. Gema was beaten with the butt of a rifle when she was unable to keep up the pace.
Isolation and indoctrination
Once in the camp, isolation combined with indoctrination to make the secuestrados believe that they had no choice but to stay with the contras. Gema was told that her mother, a Sandinista supporter, had denounced her. When Dr. Cookson told her that her mother sent her love, Gema simply cried, saying, “I knew my mother hadn’t forgotten me.”
Neither Gema nor José Gabriel have strong political leanings in either direction. Gema is a young girl concerned with music and clothes, the usual interests of 16-year-olds, even in Nicaragua. José Gabriel is a Catholic lay minister whose foremost allegiance is to his faith. José Gabriel assumes he was abducted because of his health care work and Gema says the contras took her employment at a military camp to mean she was a Sandinista supporter.
For two weeks after her arrival in Honduras, Gema was imprisoned in the military police camp. She was kept blindfolded the whole time, was beaten with a hose, tied up all day with no water. What she especially dreaded was having a poncho wrapped tightly around her head smothering her, a torture widely used in Latin America, and known as la capucha, or “the hood.” Dr. Cookson said that many women are sexually molested but Gema was fortunate to escape that, although she did see another woman die after being beaten by the soldiers.
Gema said that during the night that the doctors talked to her, Pepe, Jackson and other officials warned her that she would be killed by the Sandinistas if she left, offered to move her to any camp she wished to go to, and, finally, asked that she make clear in her statement that she had not been mistreated in any way so that negative publicity would not result for the contras.
Gema and José Gabriel both said that there are many in the camps – “hundreds,” according to José – who would like to go home. They do not go because, unless people like Drs. Cookson and Takaro find them, there is no escape. They do not know whether they will be safe in Nicaragua or if their families are alive. And even if they do not believe what the contras tell them, they have no money and they cannot get further in Honduras than Los Trojes without official contra permission. If they overcome these obstacles, they must then navigate through the contra land mines on the border with Nicaragua.
“they don’t want to leave”
According to the contra human rights officer at the base camp, although the contras do take people by force, “after they see what it’s like with us, they don’t want to leave. There is no one here who does not want to be.”
Gema and José Gabriel, as well as the other two men who were freed, have returned to their customary routines. José Gabriel is again living with his wife, child and parents on their farm about an hour’s walk from Mancantal, a small community north of Jinotega. He said that he intends to continue his health care work.
Gema is in Managua living with her mother and brothers and sisters. Her father lives in Jinotega, but the teenager does not intend to visit him again until she feels safe, for the contras still patrol the area. Sitting on the couch holding a doll, she talked only to an intermediary until he convinced her that I was trustworthy.
Aileen Tobin is a Canadian nurse working in Mancantal, the village close to José Gabriel’s farm. Several of the area’s health care workers have been kidnapped or threatened by the contras, and the small clinic in town has been attacked five times in the past three years.
Afraid to travel
Ms. Tobin said many health workers have stopped going about their jobs because they are afraid: they have to travel long distances to small settlements and outlying farms and they are vulnerable to attack on the lonely roads. More importantly, they feel that they are special targets for the contras because of their work in the health field. Ms. Tobin agrees with them, but laments the resulting loss of proper health care. A Canadian doctor in Jinotega, Dr. Myung Kim, said that his tuberculosis patients often do not get the necessary treatment because they don’t have transport to the clinic and he can’t travel to outlying areas because of risk of attack.
Dr. Kim, Ms. Tobin and other health workers are angry because they see the deterioration of a health system which won a World Health Organization award in 1983, and they can do little about it. They have no medicine or supplies, and a worsening economy means there is no money to buy any. Fear of contra attack keeps patients away from clinics.
If children start to die again…
Ms. Tobin said health care workers and teachers are targets of the contras because they represent the most basic and universally available improvements in ordinary people’s lives brought about by the revolution. If children start to die again from malnutrition and other easily-cured illnesses, and if access to basic education is lost, then ordinary people will no longer see that the revolution is giving them fundamental social benefits. Combine this with an inflationary economy which means that while food is available, people have no money to buy it, and the foundation is laid for a crisis of confidence in the government.
On both sides of the Nicaragua-Honduras border there are Nicaraguans carrying no strong ideological flag who have become part of a battle which, at root, is about the right to self-determination on the part of Central America. The United States has long considered Central America to be its backyard, with plantations and industries which produce goods for the American market, and governed by American-installed or approved leaders. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 made official policy of the American belief that no other country had any right to intervene in the Americas. Nicaragua is the first country since Cuba in 1959 that blatantly went against this dictum, accepting support from Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Contras, Cubans and Washington
The perception of Nicaragua is so radically different in Miami, Honduras and Nicaragua that one could be excused for not realizing that the same country is being discussed. In Miami, contra leaders and the Cuban exile community plan a new Nicaraguan revolution, a reversed one. In their minds, even if Washington backs down in its support of the contras, their movement will continue, with the help of “right-thinking” Americans like Oliver North.
In Washington, the highly charged rhetoric of the Reagan administration is being downplayed by President George Bush, but the same interventionist policy is being pursued.
In the Honduran contra camps, where the commanders imagine victory and the U.S.-supplied soldiers regularly eat meat, Washington is criticized because more aid is not forthcoming. In the Honduran capital the views are more diverse, but with one factor remaining constant. If you walk through the crowded main square, it is almost impossible to find a Honduran who does not want the contras to leave immediately.
Coping with an embargo and war
And in Nicaragua the leaders cut back on social programs, and devalue the currency, and scramble to obtain the hard currency needed to buy industrial equipment and other goods. They try to cope with the continuing American trade embargo and rebuild the Atlantic coast after the devastation of Hurricane Joan. They still find time to release National Guard prisoners, remove restrictions on La Prensa, an opposition newspaper, and prepare for the February 1990 election. Ordinary people now watch their children die of malnutrition and lack of health care. (In Mancantal, Aileen Tobin says, “Even aspirin, I often haven’t even got that to give people.”)
In this eight-year war, 40,000 have been killed on both sides and hundreds of millions of dollars given to the contras by the United States. Although former president Ronald Reagan did not succeed in displacing the Sandinista government, his actions in promoting trade embargoes and a costly war did succeed in destroying the economy.
“Washington created them…”
Now, thousands of Nicaraguans are leaving the country. Because the U.S. considers them to be fleeing “communism,” none have been sent back to Nicaragua. If the American demobilize the contras, most spokespeople for all sides of the issue believe the U.S. has a responsibility to take them in. Julio Somoza, a Miami restaurateur who is the nephew of the ex-dictator of Nicaragua, has said “Washington created them, Washington has to look after them.”
There are two great tragedies in this seemingly never-ending war. One is the waste of lives on both sides, through death in battle and through the slow death of poverty and displacement. The other tragedy is the possible death of a Nicaraguan idealism which brought social justice to a country and a region more accustomed to mass poverty amid pockets of opulence and brutal repression.
It has been said that the real threat posed to the United States by Nicaragua is not the threat of encroaching communism, but “the threat of a good example.” That example is of a Central American country which despite the opinion of its critics is democratic and independent. Against all the odds, it still exists.
With reverence, Bill Davis cracked the seal on a carefully preserved bottle of 51-year-old whisky Thursday [Sept. 25, 1987] and tipped out shots for himself and three old buddies.
“This is it. There won’t be any more,” said Davis as he clinked glasses with Walter Allsop, Walter Day and George Parker.
Davis wasn’t talking about the bottle of whisky in this bittersweet moment at the Grosvenor Club on a bright September afternoon.
It was the 67th and final reunion of the 63rd Battery.
Davis, 88, Walter Allsop, 91, and Walter Day, 89, all of London, and George Parker, 89, of Sarnia tipped their glasses and drank a final toast to Bill Riseborough, 90, of Goderich, who couldn’t attend, and to all their dead comrades of long ago as trumpeter Earl Todd sounded the Last Post.
1921 was 1st reunion of 63rd Battery
“There will be no more reunions, at least not as a unit,” said Davis, who could recall Toronto in 1921 when 600 attended the first reunion of the London-based depot battery that supplied trained gunners and drivers to the Canadian artillery on the voracious western front.
“It’s gradually slipped,” Davis said of the number attending the annual reunion down the long years. In 1978, at Blenheim, only eight of the old-timers were on hand.
The carefully hoarded bottle of Seagram’s Crown Royal was set aside at a battery reunion at the old Hotel London in 1936.
“The stipulation was that it wouldn’t be opened until the reunion of the last four or five members,” Davis said. “This is it.”
The four who gathered Wednesday with a handful of friends and relatives are all old men. All, except Parker, spent time on the western front in 1917-18.
All are deaf to some degree, perhaps as a result of the crash of howitzers across the mud of Flanders.
The Western Front
“I was there – everything from Passchendaele to the armistice in 1918. I was in Mons the day after the war ended,” said Day. I never expected I’d be sitting down at a reunion in 1987. But then, I never thought that even last year.”
Allsop said he “started at Vimy and went right through.”
How was it?
“Oh, good and bad.”
The manpower shortage was so bad in late 1917 that Davis and his draft were shipped out of Halifax on Dec. 1 after only one week of what was supposed to be a two-week quarantine. Five days later, an ammunition ship exploded in the harbour, killing 1,630 people.
“We were supposed to still be there,” Davis said.
Parker admits he got only as far as England but there, he says, “I learned to roller skate.”
His combat was limited to a trip to Dublin “where we all ended up in jail.”
Bob Symington, a nephew of Davis and a Sarnia justice of the peace, drove Parker to London for the reunion.
When the glasses were recharged with what Davis called “sipping’ whisky,” Symington proposed the toast: “We’ll all meet again in 20 years.”
Replied Parker: “Not unless some of you young fellows change your ways.”
1936 Seagrams Crown Royal
Davis said the group had planned one toast, then would decide on the fate of the remainder of the bottle of 1936 whisky. But it soon became apparent the bottle was about to become a certified casualty of the day.
Davis said the bottle – “they don’t make them like this any more” – had been sought avidly by a distillery representative.
“I’m going to give to the RCR (Royal Canadian Regiment) Museum …
… was opening that bottle, all I could think of was all the fellows who have passed on.
“I feel it in my bones, I know I’m going to be the last guy.”
Mom clipped this article out of the London Free Press in September 1987. However, she missed part of the conclusion on the other side of the page. That’s why there’s a bit missing at the end of my transcript.
So I don’t know who felt it in his bones that he’d be the last guy alive. But from what I found out about these men, maybe it was Bill Davis. Here’s what I learned googling them:
William Carlton Davis, Driver, Reg. No. 334049
Bill Davis was born June 29, 1899 in Exeter in Huron County, Ontario, son of Ellen and Arthur Silas Davis. His attestation papers give printer as his occupation. He married Ruth H. Hills. He died in 1996, aged 96 or 97. The troopship he sailed on from Halifax, just before the explosion, was the White Star Line’s SS Megantic. She went out of service in July 1931.
Walter George Day, Gunner, Reg. No. 334125
Walter Day’s attestation papers say he was born in 1895. This article says he’s 89, making his birth year 1898. Perhaps he made himself older when he enlisted. His papers list his occupation as farmer. He died in 1990. An online genealogy of his wife’s family says, “On January 15, 1917 Walter enlisted with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force with the 63rd Artillery Battery… While in Europe he was involved with the battle at Vimy Ridge.”
George William Parker, Sgt. Reg. No. 3132758
George Parker was born in 1897 in Watford, Lambton County. His occupation is farmer on his enlistment papers. He died in 1990. The Lambton County Museum website says, “William and Sarah [Parker]’s son George served in the 63rd Battery in World War I where they used horses to pull big guns into position. When he returned from the war, he began working at Mueller’s Brass Foundry in Sarnia. Despite having only a Grade 8 education, he became President of the company. He also had a farm at Lot 28, Con. 1 SER.”
George Walter Allsop, Gunner, Reg. No. 333829
Walter Allsop was born in 1896 in Toronto. His parents Charles and Matilda lived on Askin Avenue in London when he enlisted in 1915. His occupation was given as printer. I found reference to a marriage that might be his. If so, he married Madeline Mabel McCullough, on September 23, 1922 in Middlesex County, Ontario.
William James Riseborough, Driver, Reg. No. 334338
Bill Riseborough was born in 1899 in Blenheim, Chatham-Kent in Ontario. His parents were Elizabeth and George William Riseborough. He was a student at the time he enlisted.
That is all I could find out about these five men. Their attestation papers are at Library and Archives Canada. And the Seagrams bottle? The RCR Museum at Wolseley Barracks in London doesn’t yet have a full listing online of their artifacts. I took a virtual tour of their WWI display (in Gallery) but did not see it.
63rd Battery, CFA CEF
The 63rd Battery was based in London and Petawawa, Ontario. It was part of the Canadian Field Artillery of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Organized in March 1916, absorbed by No. 1 Artillery Depot in Oct. 1918, it disbanded on 1 Nov. 1920.
I am so glad my mother kept this article. It was a joy to read and to get to know these men a bit. Also humbling. Especially Mr. Allsop’s assessment of going “right through” from Vimy Ridge to the end as “oh, good and bad.” To their descendants, you have good reason to be proud. Thank you, Drivers Davis and Riseborough, Gunners Day and Allsop, and Sgt. Parker.
Lest We Forget
100 years ago today, the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. After four years and three months of war. 1,564 days. Nearly 60,000 of about 620,000 in the Canadian Expeditionary Force died in battle.
A big year for royal weddings. Tomorrow, October 12th, Princess Eugenie will marry. In May, her cousin Prince Harry married Meghan Markle. Both large, lavish and televised. But, in between the weddings of the Queen’s grandchildren, a distant Mountbatten cousin got married. That wedding was private but it caused a big ‘wow’.
Princess Eugenie of York is marrying Jack Brooksbank. “Who?” seems to be a common question in online comments – about both of them. She is the younger daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Jack worked in a bar in London. Yes, he’s a commoner. But it’s an upscale bar, and his pedigree has baronets and the like in it. He and Eugenie are third cousins and he has kin connections with other royals. As the Daily Mail put it, his family may have started as Yorkshire farmers, but “they grew rich… and married well.”
Eugenie and Jack will marry in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, same place as Harry and Meghan. A two-day reception will be at Eugenie’s family home, the Royal Lodge in Windsor. Their guest list, at over 850 for the ceremony, is even larger than Harry and Meghan’s.
But there is not as much public hoopla for Eugenie’s wedding as there was for Harry’s. That is despite Eugenie’s being the first wedding of a British Princess since her Aunt Anne’s. Maybe that’s because she’s the daughter of the Queen’s second son whereas Harry is the second son of the first-born. Maybe too because Jack, in himself and his family background, does not cause celebration of Royal Family diversity and inclusivity as Harry and Meghan’s marriage did. Also as the wedding of their distant cousin did.
Lord Ivar Mountbatten
‘I’ll see your divorced American bi-racial bride, and raise you a white English groom.’ So might Lord Ivar Mountbatten have said. His engagement caused a flap when it was announced in June. The second marriage of a British aristocrat – what was the big deal? First gay marriage in the Royal extended family, that’s what. Lord Ivar married James Coyle in front of a couple hundred family and friends. None of the Royals were there, but they sent their best wishes.
Who’s Lord Ivar Mountbatten? You might ask. I did. His late father was David, 3rd Marquess of Milford Haven. David was the Queen’s third cousin and Prince Philip’s first cousin. He was Philip’s best man at his wedding and a close friend. Read any biography of Prince Philip, you’ll find David Mountbatten stories. He was quite the lad.
David and Philip’s uncle was Louis Mountbatten, Earl Mountbatten of Burma. The last Viceroy of India, he was assassinated by the IRA in 1979. Louis’ wife was Edwina Ashley. Read any book about interesting – ‘scandalous’ – women of the early 20th century and you’ll find Edwina Mountbatten.
In those same stories is Edwina’s friend and sister-in-law, David’s mother Nadejda de Torby. An English marchioness by marriage, Nada was a Russian countess by birth. She was also Russian literary ‘royalty’, being a great granddaughter of Alexander Pushkin.
So an interesting family. Lord Ivar Mountbatten’s own life was pretty standard for the aristocracy. A geologist and gentleman farmer with a wife and daughters. Then, in 2011, an amicable divorce. Four years later, he came out. He and James Coyle made public their relationship. Mr. Coyle, an airline cabin services director, has no royal antecedents as best my googling can detect.
Lord Mountbatten and Mr. Coyle married Sept 22, 2018 at Lord Mountbatten’s Devon estate. Those are the names and titles each will continue to use. So the protocol people didn’t have to scramble to figure out title usage for same-sex spouses, but this marriage gives them a heads-up on it.
Princess Eugenie’s wedding will be televised on TLC in the US (starting live at 4:25 ET). It’s on ITV in the UK. But apparently not in Canada at all. Pity! You can read more here about the Mountbatten family. For my thoughts on Harry and Meghan’s wedding, see Princess Harry.
In 1971 my parents and I drove through West Virginia on our way from Ontario to Kentucky. We’d never been there before and it was stunningly beautiful. So we took back roads and made lots of stops.
The stop I remember most was at a small house. A wooden sign, “antiques for sale”. A table covered with old glass bottles and china. Over by a tree, machine parts and old tools.
Everybody came out to see the pickup with Ontario plates come in the driveway. A man from somewhere out back. Woman and kids from the house. Lots of kids, teenage to toddlers.
Mom looked at the glass, Dad the car parts. But I saw a kid holding a pup. Then I saw kittens playing in the flowerbed. Chickens scratching around the side of the house. I went to the kids, and the animals.
We stayed a long time, long enough for the woman to ask if we’d like a cold drink. So lemonade and cookies, served on a small table under a tree. When we left, with some blue medicine bottles, they asked if I wanted a pup or the kitten I held. A gift. No, sorry, our dog doesn’t take kindly to sharing.
That small farm in the hills was one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. They farmed a bit and they hunted. The kids knew the woods as well as they knew the inside of their house.
I don’t remember anyone mentioning coal. But it had to be coal country. Commercial coal mining had been a part of West Virginia for a century and a half by then. But underground mining, not strip mining. Not mountaintop removal. Not on a large scale anyway. Mountain-top removal mining started in the 1950s but didn’t take off as the preferred method of mining until the early 1970s. Just a couple years after we stopped at that house to look at glass bottles.
The oil crisis of 1973 gave an impetus to fast, cheap coal mining. Bulldozing and blasting soil, trees and rock to reach the seams of coal under the land. Taking down the mountain to reach what’s underneath. And taking it down further and further, to reach each seam deeper in the mountain. Until there is no mountain left.
All that soil, vegetation and rock has to go somewhere. Into the valleys, filling them. Thereby filling rivers and lakes, farms and houses. Then the mined coal has to be cleaned. More waterways polluted by the runoff from the washing process.
This is the industry that President Trump wants. Despite the demand for coal having dropped over the past years, due to no real need for it and no desire for the air pollution that burning it causes. Yes, less coal mining in Appalachia caused unemployment. But retraining and economic aid programmes were helping. Then Trump swore he’d revive coal. Miners would go back to work, he promised. Are there really markets for what they’d produce? Not so sure, even in China where coal-burning plants are being phased out.
EPA and coal lobby
The US Environmental Protection Agency, under Trump, is now headed by a former coal lobbyist. Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator, took over from Scott Pruitt, himself a former energy industry lobbyist and a big friend of big coal. Neither Wheeler nor Pruitt have rethought their former employment positions. Both have publicly stated their support for coal and energy industries, even their pride in their former work. Both in charge of the federal agency responsible for, well, protecting the environment. Fox guarding the henhouse?
Mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed the mountains of West Virginia and throughout Appalachia. Destroying the mountains also means destroying the entire waterway system of lakes, rivers and ponds. It destroys wildlife and fishstocks and their habitats. It also destroys human habitats.
The other big industry in West Virginia is drugs; meth labs and distribution of opiods. That filled the economic gap left by the loss of mining jobs. It destroys people’s health and lives. But it doesn’t destroy the environment as well. Mining destroys people’s health, their homelands and the whole environment. That damage hurts Appalachia and everywhere else too.
If you want a quick primer in the coal industry and mountaintop removal mining, and a good story, read John Grisham’s 2014 novel Gray Mountain. He also writes about those fighting back. The lawyers and legal clinics who fight big coal and fight for the miners suffering black lung disease and other debilitations caused by their profession.
Today, the Trump Administration announced a major scale back of constraints on emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA said the regulations set by the Obama administration were “burdensome”. President Trump will celebrate this at a political rally in Charleston, West Virginia, tonight.
On Saturday, Meghan Markle will become Princess Harry. That is when she will marry Prince Henry of Wales, second son of the Prince of Wales and better known as Prince Harry.
She probably won’t be called Princess Harry. Although it is the proper form for non-royal wives of princes, it has not been used often. The only example I know of is Princess Michael. That is how Baroness Marie Christine von Reibnitz has been known since 1978 when she married Prince Michael of Kent, first cousin of the Queen.
The Queen likely will give Harry a dukedom or earldom, as she did his elder brother William upon his marriage. That way, his wife can be called the Duchess or Countess of whatever.
Meghan is American and an actress. Although Grace Kelly and other American actresses have married into European royalty, this is a first for Great Britain.
A more serious aspect of British royal marriage rules does not have to be an issue for them, or the Queen or Parliament. Meghan is divorced, with a living ex-husband. Despite being founded by a King who wanted to divorce and remarry, the Church of England long forbade the marriage of divorced persons unless the ex-spouse had subsequently died.
For being free to marry Harry in the Church of England, Meghan has 1992 to thank. That year, called by the Queen an “annus horribilis”, Harry’s parents Charles and Diana separated after scandal upon scandal. Tabloid photos of his Aunt Sarah, Duchess of York, scandalized the world after she and Prince Andrew split up. His Aunt Anne, Princess Royal, divorced her husband Mark Phillips then married Timothy Laurence. All this in one year.
Princess Anne and her second husband Timothy Laurence married in the Church of Scotland. It allowed the marriage of divorced, but not widowed, persons. So by getting married at a church near Balmoral, her family home in Scotland, they sidestepped Church of England dicta.
Dissolution of Charles and Diana’s marriage was a thornier issue. He was heir to the throne, therefore the next head of the Church of England. Their marriage and its problems were much more public than his sister’s first marriage had been. However, Charles and Diana did divorce in 1996.
The next problem was what to do about his relationship with Camilla Barker-Bowles. She too was divorced, and her ex-husband was alive. So in November 2002 the Church of England changed its rules. The General Synod said that divorced people with living exes could remarry in the Church.
Despite having the way open to a church wedding, Charles and Camilla did not marry until 2005 and then in a civil ceremony, followed by a Church of England blessing.
Three Kings in One Year
It is the story of Harry’s great-great uncle, 82 years ago, that has been most compared to Harry and Meghan. In December 1936, the new King Edward VIII abdicated the throne rather than give up the woman he loved. She was an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson.
1936 was commemorated in a plate my mother had as Three Kings in One Year. George V died in January, Edward abdicated December 10th, and his brother became George VI. The former king and his new wife were given the titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and effectively banished from the UK.
While Meghan Markle’s story invites comparison with Wallis Simpson, Harry’s story is maybe more like that of Princess Margaret. Like Harry, Margaret was a member of the inner circle of Royals and always would be. Also like him, she was in little danger of actually ever becoming monarch.
In 1953 Margaret was third in line for the throne, behind her nephew Charles and niece Anne. She was in love with RAF Group Captain Peter Townsend, and he proposed to her. Problem was he had just divorced his wife. The Queen and Parliament would not agree to their marriage. Over the next two years, they sought ways to allow it without compromising Church or government rules. If Margaret gave up her place in the line of succession, they eventually decided, she could marry him in a civil ceremony. But in 1955 Princess Margaret said that, due to “the Church’s teachings” and her “duty to the Commonwealth”, she would not marry Townsend.
In 1960 Margaret married Antony Armstrong-Jones. Wikipedia says she “reportedly accepted his proposal a day after learning from Peter Townsend that he intended to marry a young Belgian woman [who] bore a striking resemblance to Princess Margaret.” True or not, it fits well in the story of thwarted romance. Princess Margaret and Armstrong-Jones’s wedding was the first to be televised. Fitting for her, the glamorous sister and maybe the first Royal media star. Also maybe in keeping: in 1978 they divorced amid tabloid scandal.
So, from Edward VIII and Wallis, through Princess Margaret to Harry’s own parents, the path has been cleared for him and Meghan. The Church, the Queen and the public have given their blessing.
A girl from Tinseltown and a prince. Maybe General Hospital will use the storyline. The soap opera is part of Meghan’s story. Her parents met while working on it and Meghan got her acting start there.
The Princess Harry story is a happy-ending romance, one hopes. Wallis and Edward, Princess Margaret too, are more tragic romance stories.
See The King and Us for why I think Wallis Simpson and Parliament did us all a favour. Also, although Coronation Street hasn’t yet mentioned Harry’s wedding (at least in Canadian airtime), I loved their take on William and Kate’s marriage in 2011.
Doug Ford as leader of the Ontario PC probably means that Kathleen Wynne will be re-elected as premier in May. Or he gets elected premier. Either way, it’s a disaster for Ontario. I’m sure there’s still a leader of the NDP but I’d have to google to find out who it is. And I have no real faith that she or he would be all that much of an improvement on either of the other two. Just mess up the province in new and different ways.
I am very glad I am no longer living there. Living under the Liberal flag of first Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne was an endless nightmare of trying to survive under their endless, non-essential ‘improvements’. And also an endless source of amazement of what stupidity they could dream up next. Kind of like what living in Donald Trump’s USA must be like.
But I have another reason for being glad I have been well clear since long before this latest move to crazy-land in Ontario politics. A friend once told me that when I moved to a place, it tanked.
He was speaking about my move to St. Thomas, Ontario, years ago. When I moved there, a Ford assembly plant had been in operation for four decades. Then it shut down and over 1,000 people lost their jobs. It was the largest employer in town.
I moved to Sussex, New Brunswick, where PotashCorp had operated a mine for four decades. Then it shut down and over 400 people lost their jobs. It was the largest employer in town.
So, superstitious or not, I’m glad I am far away from Ontario. I do not have to feel any responsibility for this newest shit show. Doug Ford and Kathleen Wynne could be the dictionary definition of ‘between a rock and a hard place’. Good luck, Ontario!
One Trump year is like one dog year – very long! Tomorrow, January 20th, is the first anniversary of his inauguration as the 45th President of the United States. A lot has happened, both silly and serious. The tweets and braggadocio coming from the White House have been entertaining and frightening. Also so mind-occupying that it’s hard to think of the serious stuff that’s happened. Actual legislation passed, revoked, deferred and proposed.
So here’s a summary of just one aspect of the past Trump year, the effect of his administration on the environment.
Earth’s 1st Trump Year
January 20, 2017
Trump is inaugurated. He says he’s going to drain the swamp. He meant the swamp of Washington politicos. But it’s real swamps that need to worry.
January 24, 2017
Trump issues memoranda to permit Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. He does this despite indigenous peoples’ protests and environmental concerns.
January 25, 2017
All references to climate change removed from White House website.
February 1, 2017
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is appointed Secretary of State. From 18 Dec 2016 in OilPrice.com:
[P]utting Tillerson at Secretary of State does present some questions over conflict of interest. After all, Tillerson could be instrumental in removing sanctions on Russia, which would be a highly favorable outcome for ExxonMobil, where Tillerson has worked for his entire 41-year career… As Vox’s Brad Plumer succinctly put it, “In a lot of ways, Putin and Exxon need each other. And Tillerson is now in the middle.”
February 14, 2017
Trump signs a Congressional Review Act resolution that ends a financial disclosure requirement for energy companies.
February 16, 2017
Trump signs joint resolution passed by Congress revoking “Stream Protection Rule”. The rule had placed restrictions on dumping mining waste into surrounding waterways.
February 17, 2017
Scott Pruitt confirmed as head of Environmental Protection Agency. When he was Attorney General for Oklahoma, Pruitt was best known for suing the EPA. He was also known for his close relationship with oil and gas companies.
March 2, 2017
Newly appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rescinds ban on lead ammunition on federal lands and waters. NRA approves the move as being good for hunters. Conservation groups disapprove as poisonous for wildlife.
March 6, 2017
After ordering an EPA review of it on Feb 28th, Trump announced his decision to rescind or revise the “Clean Water Rule: Waters of the United States”. Intended to clarify federal jurisdiction over US waters, it had extended federal protection to some waterways, wetlands and lakes.
March 7, 2017
EPA Office of Science and Technology removes word “science” from its mission statement. New wording stresses “economically and technologically achievable performance standards”.
March 13, 2017
First preliminary budget makes cuts to EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, other science and environmental agencies and social programmes. The cuts are made in order to allow $54 billion increase to defense spending.
March 15, 2017
EPA considers rolling back emissions standards for future new vehicles, as goal of greater fuel efficiency said to be unachievable.
March 17, 2017
EPA does not rescind $100 million to Michigan for water infrastructure upgrades in Flint. Hurray.
March 21, 2017
The rusty patched bumblebee is listed as an endangered species. Trump had previously signed an executive order that delayed its listing by one month. It used to be a variety of bee commonly found in North America.
March 24, 2017
Keystone XL pipeline given permit by State Department.
March 27, 2017
Oil is pumped into the Dakota Access Pipeline.
March 28, 2017
Trump signs Executive Order to begin rescinding EPA’s Clean Power Plan, moratorium on coal leases, and more.
April 3, 2017
Trump donates first quarter of his presidential salary to National Park Service. His 2018 budget plan includes a $1.5 billion cut to the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service is part of that department. Funding for some National Heritage Areas will be eliminated.
April 19, 2017
All but one reference to climate change are removed from the climate change page on the Interior Department’s website.
April 26, 2017
Trump signs Antiquities Executive Order, instructing review of national monuments created since 1996.
April 28, 2017
Trump signs an executive order for a review of bans on offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Also stops designation or expansion of National Marine Sanctuaries unless an “energy or mineral resource potential” estimate has been done by the Interior Department.
April 28, 2017
EPA climate change website is removed, remaining on the new page only in archived form.
May 5, 2017
EPA dismisses several scientists from the Board of Scientific Counselors. The EPA says this allows a “more diverse” membership of the board, including industry representatives.
May 23, 2017
Trump sends his budget to Congress. It proposes a 31% cut to the EPA budget. It also eliminates Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound restoration programmes.
June 1, 2017
Trump says the US will pull out of the Paris climate agreement.
June 12, 2017
Interior Secretary recommending decreasing size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
June 13, 2017
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cancels a rule designed to prevent endangered whales, dolphins and sea turtles getting entangled in fishing nets.
August 7, 2017
Interior Department recommends relaxing plan for protection of greater sage grouse habitat. The Department also recommends reprioritizing oil development in the affected federal lands.
Interior Departmental Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement stops a study of health risks from mountaintop removal coal mining. Also, the Trump administration disbanded a federal advisory panel for National Climate Assessment.
October 9, 2018
EPA head Scott Pruitt announces plan to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, saying “the war on coal is over.”
October 23, 2017
Department of Interior announces largest ever auction of offshore oil and gas leases. 77 million acres of federal water in the Gulf of Mexico outer continental shelf, off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The announcement comes days after a 672,000 gallon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico due to a pipeline leak off the coast of Louisiana.
December 4, 2017
Trump announces an 85% reduction in size of Bears Ears National Monument and an almost 50% reduction of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Both are in Utah. The Valley of the Gods, above, is now outside the boundaries..
December 18, 2017
Trump administration drops climate change from national security threat list.
December 20, 2017
Congress approves opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. It was bundled with the tax reform bill.
December 22, 2017
Department of the Interior removes “incidental takes” – industry-caused bird deaths – from being a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
January 4, 2018
Interior Department releases new offshore drilling plans. 5 days later, Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts are excluded. “Florida is obviously unique” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. It’s also home to Trump’s “Winter White House”.
January 6, 2018
Interior Department says it will approve a road to be built through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. One village and a fish cannery wanted it. It was added to the tax reform bill passed by Congress in December.
January 15, 2018
Nine of the 12 member National Park System Advisory Board resign. From their letter of resignation: “For the last year we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet” with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Halifax Harbour, December 6 1917, two ships collide. An explosion, followed by a tsunami and a fire that burns much of the city. The next day, a major snowstorm.
A rare photograph of the actual explosion. The photographer is unknown. But other photos of the explosion turned up a few years ago. Royal Navy Lt. Victor Magnus was in Halifax. His daughter, Ann Foreman of Cornwall, UK, found his photographs of the explosion long after his death. You can see them and read the full interview in the Daily Mail. This is part of what she said in November 2014:
My father was a great photographer. He always had a camera around his neck… It was just a coincidence that he was at the Halifax disaster. The actual explosion was a massive amount of smoke. He was very lucky to survive, especially as it destroyed the town. He took some photos on the shore and it looked like the London Blitz.
W. G. MacLaughlan, Halifax Photographer
Many of the images of the destroyed city came from the cameras – still and film – of W. G. MacLaughlan. His daughter, Rose Edna, recalled the day of the explosion.
Just before war was declared in 1914, Dad opened a studio – he was a photographer- on the corner of Buckingham & Barrington, over the Royal Bank and [sister] Bea and I worked in the reception room awhile before she went to Normal College and I to Business College.
I was there on the morning of the explosion- a Belgian Relief Ship and another loaded with explosives collided in the harbour. The North end of the city was partly destroyed and a great many people killed. No one at the College was seriously hurt, although a number of the windows were shattered. The College was about three miles from the Harbour…
I knew Bea had gone to Dad’s studio uptown, so I went down and met her on Barrington St. coming for me. We went back to the Studio but Dad hadn’t come in. Mr. [George] Nason, who worked there had been in the developing room and had his head done up as he was cut when the skylight broke up, but not badly. We were living out at Armdale then, about five miles from Barrington St. and we had to walk home, as everything had closed in the city. The traffic was terrible – cars and trucks taking people, who had been hurt, to the hospitals. When we got home we found mama and sister Marguerite ok and Dad had been a few miles from the house on his way to work. He went back home to see if they were ok and then left for the city. Nearly all the windows in our home were shattered, but that was all the damage.
Benjamin Smith, Hillview, Trinity Bay, Royal Navy
A Newfoundlander, Ben Smith, was in Halifax on that day. His story was told in a 1977 Offbeat History column. Here’s part of it.
The account doesn’t say where Ben Smith joined the Niobe. Most likely he had to go to Halifax. In any case he was in the Niobe at the time of the cataclysmic explosion, December 6, 1917, when the city was half destroyed. Ben Smith was below decks when the blast occurred and perhaps he owed his life to that fact. As he hurried on deck in the confusion and terror he lost his cap, and when he reached the deck the first thing he saw was the bodies of two of his shipmates who had been killed. He thought to himself: “Well, they won’t need their caps any more.” So he picked up one of the dead men’s caps and put it on his head and wore it until the end of the war.
He saw a lot of grim sights on that terrible day in Halifax after the Niobe’s crew was allowed ashore but ordered to stay out of the explosion area. As the men were walking down the streets they heard a woman screaming from a window. They asked her if there was anything they could do. She beckoned to them to come up and three of the sailors went into the house and the woman asked them to take out her invalid mother, aged 80 years, and bring her downstairs so she could be taken into the country for safety. It was lucky they went in for there were so many dead and dying and injured people about that no one would likely have bothered to rescue the old lady.
Men who tried to save Halifax Harbour
From the Shelburne Gazette, Feb. 6, 1918 (complete article at Shelburne Co. Coast Guard). Nineteen of 24 crew members of the tugboat Stella Maris, including the Captain, died in the explosion.
Capt. Brannen’s Great Work
One of the outstanding characters who lost his life in the great Halifax disaster was Captain Horatio H. Brannen, commander of the S.S. Stella Maris, who was making an heroic effort to reach the burning Mont Blanc and tow her to a place of greater safety before the catastrophe came.
Captain Brannen was born at Woods Harbor, Shelburne County, forty-five years ago, and so was just coming into manhood’s fullest prime when his life was so tragically cut off…
Captain Brannen had never been discharged from the naval service and, on the morning of the great disaster, he was taking the S.S. Stella Maris into Bedford Basin when he was sent to the aid of the burning ship. Aided by British blue-jackets he was trying to reach the Mont Blanc with a line in the hope of towing her to a place of greater safety when the explosion came.
In the early part of World War II, the enemy was breaking every military code that was being used in the Pacific. This created a huge problem for strategizing against the enemy. Eventually a suggestion was made in early 1942 to use the Navajo language as a code.
The Marine Corps recruited 29 young Navajos, not telling them what they are being recruited for because this was a top secret operation. They were just asked ‘you wanna join the Marines? You wanna fight the enemy? Come join the Marines.’ Then they were separated from all the rest of the Marines. Took them to a top secret location. That’s where they created a military code to be used in the Pacific.
After creating 260 code words, the 29 young Marines – half of them were sent overseas to join the 1st Marine Division. On August 7th 1942, 1st Marine Division hit the beaches of Gaudalcanal. This was the first battle where the Navajo code was to be tested in actual battle.
Three weeks after the landing, General Vandegrift, Commander of the 1st Marine Division, sent word back to United States saying, this Navajo code is terrific. The enemy never understood it, he said. We don’t understand it either, but it works. Send us some more Navajos. So that opened up the gate for United States Marine Corps San Diego to start recruiting more and more Navajos, using the same tactics.
The 13 of us, we still have one mission. That mission is to build National Navajo Code Talker Museum. We want to preserve this unique World War II history for our children, grandchildren, your children, your grandchildren.
Why? Because what we did truly represents who we are as Americans. America, we know, is composed of diverse community. We have different languages, different skills, different talents, and different religion. But when our way of life is threatened, like freedom and liberty that we all cherish, we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible.
-Peter MacDonald, Sr., Navajo Code Talker
This is part of what Peter MacDonald Sr. said at the White House on Monday. Mr. MacDonald, Fleming Begaye and Thomas Begave are Marine Corps veterans of World War II, Navajo Code Talkers. It played on Wednesday’s As It Happens on CBC Radio (beginning of Part 3).
This was a rare opportunity to hear about the history of the unit directly from those involved. But Mr. MacDonald’s speech didn’t get a lot of television coverage. Yep, President Trump opened his mouth.
So thank you, CBC, for playing this excerpt. It made me go look for the full speech, which I found on Real Clear Politics – both transcript and video.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.