March 12, 2013
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible—a 19th-century raid as elaborate and preposterous as any Ocean’s Eleven script. It was driven by two men—a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain—a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts—with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was “the right thing to do.” Along with a third man—an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire—they devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and more than a little luck of the Irish. The slightest slip-up, they knew, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbor in August, 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
The tale began with a letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a former senior leader with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians. Devoy, who was born in County Kildare in 1842, had been recruiting thousands of Irish-born soldiers who were serving in British regiments in Ireland, where the Fenians hoped to turn the British army against itself. By 1866, estimates put the number of Fenian recruits at 80,000—but informers alerted the British to an impending rebellion, and Devoy was exposed, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ labor on the Isle of Portland in England.
After serving nearly five years in prison, Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with clan na gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States.
Devoy was in New York City in 1874 when he received a letter from an inmate named James Wilson. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote, reminding Devoy that his old Irish recruits had been rotting away in prison for the past eight years, and were now at Fremantle, facing “the death of a felon in a British dungeon.”
Among the hundreds of Irish republican prisoners in Australia, Wilson was one of seven high-profile Fenians who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging until Queen Victoria commuted their sentences to a life of hard labor. After being branded with the letter “D” for “deserter” on their chests, the Fenians were assigned backbreaking work building roads and quarrying limestone beneath an unforgiving sun. “Most of us are beginning to show symptom of disease,” Wilson wrote. “In fact, we can’t expect to hold out much longer.”
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian—John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the clan na gael and mount a rescue attempt.
It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved. And he couldn’t ignore Wilson’s letter, imploring him not to forget the other Fenians that he had recruited. “Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me,” Devoy later wrote. “I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.”
At a clan na gael meeting in New York, Devoy read Wilson’s “voice from the tomb” letter aloud, with its conclusion, “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”
Devoy put the letter down and in his most persuasive voice, shouted, “These men are our brothers!” Thousands of dollars were quickly raised to mount a rescue. The original plan was to charter a boat and sail for Australia, where more than a dozen armed men would spring the Fenians out of prison. But as the planning progressed, Devoy decided their odds would be better using stealth rather than force.
He convinced George Smith Anthony, a Protestant sea captain with whaling experience, that the rescue mission was one of universal freedom and liberty. Before long, Anthony concluded that the imprisoned Fenians were “not criminals,” and when Devoy offered the captain a “hefty cut” of any whaling profits they would make, Anthony signed on. He was told to set out to sea on the whaler Catalpa as if on a routine whaling voyage, keeping the rescue plans a secret from his crew; Devoy had decided that it was the only way to keep the British from discovering the mission. Besides, they were going to need to return with a full load of whale oil to recoup expenses. The cost of the mission was approaching $20,000 (it would later reach $30,000), and one clan na gael member had already mortgaged his house to finance the rescue.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin—a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent—to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labor. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works; avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity; there would be only one.
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. He found the waters mostly fished out, so the whaling season was a disaster. Very little money would be recouped on this trip, but financial losses were the least of their worries.
Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, April 15, 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.”
Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea—outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, April 16, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison—and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day.
But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer.
Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised.
Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls.
Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house.
And Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche “was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his fellows ten long years before,” when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British, Anthony later wrote. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
They hadn’t been gone for an hour before the guards became aware that the Irishmen had escaped. Breslin and the Fenians made it to the shore where Anthony was waiting with his crew and the boat. The Catalpa was waiting far out at sea. They’d need to row for hours to reach it. They were about half a mile from shore when Breslin spotted mounted police arriving with a number of trackers. Not long after that, he saw a coast guard cutter and a steamer that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to intercept the rowboat.
The race was on. The men rowed desperately, with the authorities and the British, armed with carbines, in hot pursuit. To spur on the men, Breslin pulled from his pocket a copy of a letter he had just mailed to the British Governor of Western Australia:
This is to certify that I have this day released
from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen,
condemned to imprisonment for life by the
enlightened and magnanimous government of Great
Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and
unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened
portion of mankind as “love of country” and
“hatred of tyranny;” for this act of “Irish assur-
ance” my birth and blood being my full and
sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that in taking
my leave now, I’ve only to say a few cells I’ve emptied;
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid yon good-day,
from all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
John J. Breslin.
The Fenians let out a cry and the crew kept rowing for the Catalpa, which they could now see looming in the distance. But the steamer Georgette was bearing down, and the wind was rising—the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves came crashing down on the overloaded boat as it was blown out to sea. Captain Anthony was the picture of confidence, giving orders to bail, but even he doubted they’d make it through the night.
By morning, the Georgette reappeared and went straight for the Catalpa. The Georgette‘s captain asked if he could come aboard the whaler.
Sam Smith, minding the Catalpa, replied: “Not by a damned sight.”
The Georgette, running low on fuel, then had to return to shore. Anthony saw his chance, and the Fenians made a dash for the whaler, this time with a cutter joining the race. They barely made it to Catalpa before the British, and the ship got under way. Anthony quickly turned it away from Australia, but the luck of the Irish seemed to run out. The wind went dead, the Catalpa was becalmed, and by morning, the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, pulled alongside. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia aboard the British ship, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
Captain Anthony told the Fenians the choice was theirs—they could die on his ship or back at Fremantle. Though they were outmanned and outgunned, even the Catalpa’s crew stood with the Fenians and their captain, grabbing harpoons for the fight.
The Georgette then fired across Catalpa’s bow. “Heave to,” came the command from the British ship.
“What for?” Anthony shouted back.
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Anthony snapped. “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They’re all free men.”
The British gave Anthony 15 minutes to come to rest before they’d “blow your masts out.”
The Catalpa was also perilously close to being nudged back into Australian waters, with no wind to prevent that from happening. It was then that Anthony gave his reply, pointing at the Stars and Stripes. “This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind kicked up. Anthony ordered up the mainsail and swung the ship straight for the Georgette. The Catalpa’s “flying jibboom just cleared the steamer’s rigging” as the ship with the Fenians aboard headed out to sea. The Georgette followed for another hour or so, but it was clear the British were reluctant to fire on an American ship sailing in international waters.
Finally, the British commander peeled the steamer back toward the coast. The Fenians were free.
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, as a cheering crowd of thousands met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and George Anthony were hailed as heroes, and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.
The British press, however, accused the United States government of “fermenting terrorism,” citing Anthony’s refusing to turn over the Fenians, and noted that the captain and his crew were only “laughing at our scrupulous obedience to international law.” But eventually, the British would say that Anthony had “done us a good turn; he has rid us of an expensive nuisance. The United States are welcome to any number of disloyal, turbulent, plotting conspirators, to all their silly machinations.”
The Fremantle Six still carried the torment from their ordeals at the Convict Establishment, and despite their escape, the men remained broken, Devoy noted. He’d known them as soldiers, and he was not prepared for the changes that ten years under the “iron discipline of England’s prison system had wrought in some of them.”
Still, the Fenians had reinvigorated the spirits of their fellow Irish nationalists at home and abroad, and the tale of their escape inspired generations to come through both song and story.
So come you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
* The Real McKenzies “The Catalpa,” 10,000 Shots, 2005, Fat Wreck Chords
Books: Zephaniah Walter Pease, Capt. George S. Anthony, Commander of the Catalpa: The Catalpa Expedition, New Bedford, Mass, G. S. Anthony Publication, 1897. Peter F. Stevens, The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2002. John DeVoy, Edited by Philip Fennell and Marie King, John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition, New York University Press, 2006. Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World, National Geographic Society, 2006.
Articles: “The Escaped Fenians,” New York Times, June 11, 1876. “The Rescued Irishmen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1876. “The Fenian Escape,” by J. O’Reilly, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1876. “The Arrival,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1876. “Irish Escape,” Secrets of the Dead, PBS.org, Thirteen/WNET New York, 2007, http://video.pbs.org/video/1282032064/ “Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel,” Ask About Ireland, (John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel: A Personal Narrative by John Devoy, Chase D. Young Company, 1929.) http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/ebooks-2011/Recollections-of-an-Irish-rebel/DEVOY_RECOLLECTIONS%20OF%20AN%20IRISH%20REBEL.pdf ”Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians,” by J.G. Burdette, September 13, 2012, http://jgburdette.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/over-the-sea-and-far-away-the-catalpa-and-fenians/ “Catalpa (The Rescue) A Brief Compilation of the Major Points of the Catalpa Rescue Story,” by Paul T. Meagher, Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, http://friendlysonsofsaintpatrick.com/2010/09/catalpa-the-rescue/.
March 1, 2013
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
Sign up for our free newsletter to receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.
Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.
Articles: “The Whale and the Horror,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May, 2000. “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” by Susan Beegel, The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-beegel.html. ”Herman Melville and Nantucket,” The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/faq/melville.html. Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, “Biography: Herman Melville,” American Experience, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. “No Moby-Dick: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed,” by Jesse McKinley, New York Times, February 11, 2011. “The Essex Disaster,” by Walter Karp, American Heritage, April/May, 1983, Volume 34, Issue 3. “Essex (whaleship),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship). ”Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821., Thomas Nickerson, http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM
February 19, 2013
There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.
South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”
Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.
January 8, 2013
On April 30, 1945, as Soviet troops fought toward the Reich Chancellery in Berlin in street-to-street combat, Adolf Hitler put a gun to his head and fired. Berlin quickly surrendered and World War II in Europe was effectively over. Yet Hitler’s chosen successor, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, decamped with others of the Nazi Party faithful to northern Germany and formed the Flensburg Government.
As Allied troops and the U.N. War Crimes Commission closed in on Flensburg, one Nazi emerged as a man of particular interest: Albert Speer, the brilliant architect, minister of armaments and war production for the Third Reich and a close friend to Hitler. Throughout World War II, Speer had directed an “armaments miracle,” doubling Hitler’s production orders and prolonging the German war effort while under relentless Allied air attacks. He did this through administrative genius and by exploiting millions of slave laborers who were starved and worked to death in his factories.
Speer arrived in Flensburg aware that the Allies were targeting Nazi leaders for war-crimes trials. He—like many other Nazi Party members and SS officers—concluded that he could expect no mercy once captured. Unlike them, he did not commit suicide.
The hunt for Albert Speer was unusual. The U.N. War Crimes Commission was determined to bring him to justice, but a U.S. government official hoped to reach the Nazi technocrat first. A former investment banker named Paul Nitze, who was then vice chairman of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, believed it was imperative to get to Speer. As the war in Europe was winding down, the Americans were hoping that strategic bombing in Japan could end the war in the Pacific. But in order to achieve that, they hoped to learn more about how Germany had maintained its war machine while withstanding heavy bombing. Thus Nitze needed Speer. In May 1945, the race was on to capture and interrogate one of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen.
Just after Hitler’s death, President Donitz and his cabinet took up residence at the Naval Academy at Murwik, overlooking the Flensburg Fjord. On his first evening in power, the new leader gave a nationwide radio address; though he knew German forces could not resist Allied advances, he promised his people that Germany would continue to fight. He also appointed Speer his minister of industry and production.
On May 15, American forces arrived in Flensburg and got to Speer first. Nitze arrived at Glucksburg Castle, where Speer was being held, along with the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was also working for the Strategic Bombing Survey, and a team of interpreters and assistants. They interrogated Speer for seven straight days, during which he talked freely with the Americans, taking them through what he termed “bombing high school.” Each morning Speer, dressed in a suit, would pleasantly answer questions with what struck his questioners as remarkable candor—enough candor that Nitze and his associates dared not ask what Speer knew of the Holocaust, out of fear that his mood might change. Speer knew his best chance to survive was to cooperate and seem indispensable to the Americans, and his cooperation had a strange effect on his interrogators. One of them said he “evoked in us a sympathy of which we were all secretly ashamed.”
He demonstrated an unparalleled understanding of the Nazi war machine. He told Nitze how he had reduced the influence of the military and the Nazi Party in decision-making, and how he had followed Henry Ford’s manufacturing principles to run the factories more efficiently. He told his interrogators why certain British and American air attacks had failed and why others had been effective. He explained how he’d traveled around Germany to urge his workers on in speeches he later termed “delusional,” because he already knew the war was lost.
In March 1945, he said, with the end in sight, Hitler had called for a “scorched earth” plan (his “Nero Decree”) to destroy any industrial facilities, supply depots, military equipment or infrastructure that might be valuable to advancing enemy forces. Speer said he was furious and disobeyed Hitler’s orders, transferring his loyalty from der Fuhrer to the German people and the future of the nation.
After a week, Nitze received a message from a superior: “Paul, if you’ve got any further things you want to find out from Speer you’d better get him tomorrow.” The Americans were planning on arresting the former minister of armaments and war production, and he would no longer be available for interrogation. Nitze did have something else he wanted to find out from Speer: He wanted to know all about Hitler’s last days in the bunker, since Speer was among the last men to meet with him. According to Nitze, Speer “leaned over backwards” to help, pointing the Americans to where they could find records of his reports to Hitler—many of which were held in a safe in Munich. Nitze said Speer “gave us the keys to the safe and combination, and we sent somebody down to get these records.” But Speer was evasive, Nitze thought, and not credible when he claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust or war crimes against Jews laboring in his factories.
“It became evident right away that Speer was worried he might be declared a war criminal,” Nitze later said. On May 23, British and American officials called for a meeting with Flensburg government cabinet members aboard the ship Patria and had them all arrested. Tanks rolled up to Glucksburg Castle, and heavily armed troops burst into Speer’s bedroom to take him away. “So now the end has come,” he said. “That’s good. It was all only kind of an opera anyway.”
Nitze, Galbraith and the men from the bombing survey moved on. In September 1945, Speer was informed that he would be charged with war crimes and incarcerated pending trial at Nuremberg, along with more than 20 other surviving members of the Nazi high command. The series of military tribunals beginning in November 1945 were designed to show the world that the mass crimes against humanity by German leaders would not go unpunished.
As films from concentration camps were shown as evidence, and as witnesses testified to the horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis, Speer was observed to have tears in his eyes. When he took the stand, he insisted that he had no knowledge of the Holocaust, but the evidence of slave labor in his factories was damning. Speer apologized to the court and claimed responsibility for the slave labor, saying he should have known but did not. He was culpable, he said, but he insisted he had no knowledge of the crimes. Later, to show his credentials as a “good Nazi” and to distance himself from his co-defendants, Speer would claim that he’d planned to kill Hitler two years before by dropping a poison gas canister into an air intake in his bunker. On hearing that, the other defendants laughed in the courtroom.
In the fall of 1946, most of the Nazi elites at Nuremberg were sentenced either to death or to life in prison. Speer received 20 years at Spandau Prison in Berlin, where he was known as prisoner number 5. He read continuously, tended a garden and, against prison rules, wrote the notes for what would become bestselling books, including Inside the Third Reich. There was no question that Speer’s contrition in court, and perhaps his cooperation with Nitze, saved his life.
After serving the full 20 years, Speer was released in 1966. He grew wealthy, lived in a cottage in Heidelberg, West Germany, and cultivated his image as a “good Nazi” who had spoken candidly about his past. But questions about Speer’s truthfulness began to dog him soon after his release. In 1971, Harvard University’s Erich Goldhagen alleged that Speer had been aware of the extermination of Jews, based on evidence that Speer had attended a Nazi conference in 1943 at which Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s military commander, had spoken openly about “wiping the Jews from the face of the earth.” Speer admitted that he’d attended the conference but said he had left before Himmler gave his infamous “Final Solution” speech.
Speer died in a London hospital in 1981. His legacy as an architect was ephemeral: None of his buildings, including the Reich Chancellery or the Zeppelinfeld stadium, are standing today. Speer’s legacy as a Nazi persists. A quarter-century after his death, a collection of 100 letters emerged from his ten-year correspondence with Helene Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance leader. In one of the letters, Speer admitted that he had indeed heard Himmler’s speech about exterminating the Jews. “There is no doubt—I was present as Himmler announced on October 6 1943 that all Jews would be killed,” Speer wrote. “Who would believe me that I suppressed this, that it would have been easier to have written all of this in my memoirs?”
Books: Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, Simon & Schuster, 2006. Dan Van Der Vat, The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997.
Articles: “Letter Proves Speer Knew of Holocaust Plan,” By Kate Connolly, The Guardian, March 12, 2007. “Wartime Reports Debunk Speer as the Good Nazi,” By Kate Connolly, The Guardian, May 11, 2005. “Paul Nitze: Master Strategist of the Cold War,” Academy of Achievement, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/nit0int-5. ”Speer on the Last Days of the Third Reich,” USSBS Special Document, http://library2.lawschool.cornell.edu/donovan/pdf/Batch_14/Vol_CIV_51_01_03.pdf. “The Long Arm of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey,” by Rebecca Grant, Air Force Magazine, February, 2008.
Film: Nazi Hunters: The Real Hunt for Hitler’s Henchmen, The “Good” Nazi? History Channel, 2010, Hosted by Alisdair Simpson
December 19, 2012
With powerful engines, extensive firepower and heavy armor, the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia in August of 1942 spoiling for a fight. The crew was made up of “green boys”—new recruits who enlisted after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor—who had no qualms about either their destination or the action they were likely to see. Brash and confident, the crew couldn’t get through the Panama Canal fast enough, and their captain, Thomas Gatch, made no secret of the grudge he bore against the Japanese. “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific,” one naval historian wrote.
In less than four months, the South Dakota would limp back to port in New York for repairs to extensive damage suffered in some of World War II’s most ferocious battles at sea. The ship would become one of the most decorated warships in U.S. Navy history and acquire a new moniker to reflect the secrets it carried. The Japanese, it turned out, were convinced the vessel had been destroyed at sea, and the Navy was only too happy to keep the mystery alive—stripping the South Dakota of identifying markings and avoiding any mention of it in communications and even sailors’ diaries. When newspapers later reported on the ship’s remarkable accomplishments in the Pacific Theater, they referred to it simply as “Battleship X.”
That the vessel was not resting at the bottom of the Pacific was just one of the secrets Battleship X carried through day after day of hellish war at sea. Aboard was a gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation’s youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, the fresh-faced seaman who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942, was only 12 years old.
Graham was just 11 and in the sixth grade in Crockett, Texas, when he hatched his plan to lie about his age and join the Navy. One of seven children living at home with an abusive stepfather, he and an older brother moved into a cheap rooming house, and Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school. Even though he moved out, his mother would occasionally visit—sometimes to simply sign his report cards at the end of a semester. The country was at war, however, and being around newspapers afforded the boy the opportunity to keep up on events overseas.
“I didn’t like Hitler to start with,” Graham later told a reporter. When he learned that some of his cousins had died in battles, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to fight. “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent, but they preferred 17,” Graham later said. But he had no intention of waiting five more years. He began to shave at age 11, hoping it would somehow make him look older when he met with military recruiters. Then he lined up with some buddies (who forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp from a local hotel) and waited to enlist.
At 5-foot-2 and just 125 pounds, Graham dressed in an older brother’s clothes and fedora and practiced “talking deep.” What worried him most was not that an enlistment officer would spot the forged signature. It was the dentist who would peer into the mouths of potential recruits. “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth,” Graham recalled. He lined up behind a couple of guys he knew who were already 14 or 15, and “when the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17.” At last, Graham played his ace, telling the dentist that he knew for a fact that the boys in front of him weren’t 17 yet, and the dentist had let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.” Graham maintained that the Navy knew he and the others on line that day were underage, “but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”
It wasn’t uncommon for boys to lie about their age in order to serve. Ray Jackson, who joined the Marines at 16 during World War II, founded the group Veterans of Underage Military Service in 1991, and it listed more than 1,200 active members, including 26 women. “Some of these guys came from large families and there wasn’t enough food to go around, and this was a way out,” Jackson told a reporter. “Others just had family problems and wanted to get away.”
Calvin Graham told his mother he was going to visit relatives. Instead, he dropped out of the seventh grade and shipped off to San Diego for basic training. There, he said, the drill instructors were aware of the underage recruits and often made them run extra miles and lug heavier packs.
By the time the USS South Dakota made it to the Pacific, it had become part of a task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise (the “Big E”). By early October 1942, the two ships, along with their escorting cruisers and destroyers, raced to the South Pacific to engage in the fierce fighting in the battle for Guadalcanal. After they reached the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, the Japanese quickly set their sights on the carrier and launched an air attack that easily penetrated the Enterprise’s own air patrol. The carrier USS Hornet was repeatedly torpedoed and sank off Santa Cruz, but the South Dakota managed to protect Enterprise, destroying 26 enemy planes with a barrage from its antiaircraft guns.
Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as a 500-pound bomb struck the South Dakota’s main gun turret. The explosion injured 50 men, including the skipper, and killed one. The ship’s armor was so thick, many of the crew were unaware they’d been hit. But word quickly spread that Gatch had been knocked unconscious. Quick-thinking quartermasters managed to save the captain’s life—his jugular vein had been severed, and the ligaments in his arms suffered permanent damage—but some onboard were aghast that he didn’t hit the deck when he saw the bomb coming. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship to flop for a Japanese bomb,” Gatch later said.
The ship’s young crew continued to fire at anything in the air, including American bombers that were low on fuel and trying to land on the Enterprise. The South Dakota was quickly getting a reputation for being wild-eyed and quick to shoot, and Navy pilots were warned not to fly anywhere near it. The South Dakota was fully repaired at Pearl Harbor, and Captain Gatch returned to his ship, wearing a sling and bandages. Seaman Graham quietly became a teenager, turning 13 on November 6, just as Japanese naval forces began shelling an American airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Steaming south with the Enterprise, Task Force 64, with the South Dakota and another battleship, the USS Washington, took four American destroyers on a night search for the enemy near Savo Island. There, on November 14, Japanese ships opened fire, sinking or heavily damaging the American destroyers in a four day engagement that became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Later that evening the South Dakota encountered eight Japanese destroyers; with deadly accurate 16-inch guns, the South Dakota set fire to three of them. “They never knew what sank ‘em,” Gatch would recall. One Japanese ship set its searchlights on the South Dakota, and the ship took 42 enemy hits, temporarily losing power. Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth; another hit knocked him down, and he fell through three stories of superstructure. Still, the 13 year-old made it to his feet, dazed and bleeding, and helped pull other crew members to safety while others were thrown by the force of the explosions, their bodies aflame, into the Pacific.
“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Graham later said. ”It was a long night. It aged me.” The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth, and he had flash burns from the hot guns, but he was “fixed up with salve and a coupla stitches,” he recalled. “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead. It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” In fact, the ship had casualties of 38 men killed and 60 wounded.
Regaining power, and after afflicting heavy damage to the Japanese ships, the South Dakota rapidly disappeared in the smoke. Captain Gatch would later remark of his “green” men, “Not one of the ship’s company flinched from his post or showed the least disaffection.” With the Japanese Imperial Navy under the impression that it had sunk the South Dakota, the legend of Battleship X was born.
In mid-December, the damaged ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for major repairs, where Gatch and his crew were profiled for their heroic deeds in the Pacific. Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. But he couldn’t bask in glory with his fellow crewmen while their ship was being repaired. Graham’s mother, reportedly having recognized her son in newsreel footage, wrote the Navy, revealing the gunner’s true age.
Graham returned to Texas and was thrown in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas, for almost three months.
Battleship X returned to the Pacific and continued to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky. Graham, meanwhile, managed to get a message out to his sister Pearl, who complained to the newspapers that the Navy was mistreating the “Baby Vet.” The Navy eventually ordered Graham’s release, but not before stripping him of his medals for lying about his age and revoking his disability benefits. He was simply tossed from jail with a suit and a few dollars in his pocket—and no honorable discharge.
Back in Houston, though, he was treated as a celebrity. Reporters were eager to write his story, and when the war film Bombadier premiered at a local theater, the film’s star, Pat O’Brien, invited Graham to the stage to be saluted by the audience. The attention quickly faded. At age 13, Graham tried to return to school, but he couldn’t keep pace with students his age and quickly dropped out. He married at age 14, became a father the following year, and found work as a welder in a Houston shipyard. Neither his job nor his marriage lasted long. At 17 years old and divorced, and with no service record, Graham was about to be drafted when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He soon broke his back in a fall, for which he received a 20 percent service-connected disability. The only work he could find after that was selling magazine subscriptions.
When President Jimmy Carter was elected, in 1976, Graham began writing letters, hoping that Carter, “an old Navy man,” might be sympathetic. All Graham had wanted was an honorable discharge so he could get help with his medical and dental expenses. “I had already given up fighting” for the discharge, Graham said at the time. “But then they came along with this discharge program for [Vietnam-era] deserters. I know they had their reasons for doing what they did, but I figure I damn sure deserved [an honorable discharge] more than they did.”
In 1977, Texas Senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower introduced a bill to give Graham his discharge, and in 1978, Carter announced that it had been approved and that Graham’s medals would be restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving disability benefits for Graham.
At the age of 12, Calvin Graham broke the law to serve his country, at a time when the U.S. military might well be accused of having had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to underage enlistees. For fear of losing their benefits or their honorable discharges, many “Baby Vets” never came forward to claim the nation’s gratitude. It wasn’t until 1994, two years after he died, that the military relented and returned the seaman’s last medal—his Purple Heart—to his family.
Articles: “A Medal of Honor,” by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1994. “Life Aboard ‘Battleship X’: The USS South Dakota in World War II,” by David B. Miller, South Dakota State Historical Society, 1993. “Calvin Graham, 62, Who Fought in War as a 12-Year-Old,” by Eric Pace, New York Times, November 9, 1992. “Congress Votes WWII Benefits For Boy Sailor,” Washington Post, October 23, 1988. “Underage Sailor Wins Recognition,” Hartford Courant, May 9, 1978. “U.S. Battleship’s Green Crew Bags 32 Planes, 4 Warships,” New York Times, January 4, 1943, “Civilian Seeks Navy Discharge,” Hartford Courant, April 12, 1977. “The Navy’s ‘Baby’ Hero Who Won the Bronze Star at 12 Now Wants Justice From the Nation He Served,” by Kent Demaret, People, October 24, 1977. “The USS South Dakota (BB-57) Battleship,” by J.R. Potts, MilitaryFactory.com, http://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=USS-South-Dakota-BB57 “USS South Dakota BB 57,” http://www.navysite.de/bb/bb57.htm “Decades Later, Military Veterans Admit Being Underage When They Enlisted,” Associated Press, November 3, 2003. “Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Turning Point in the Pacific War,” by David H. Lippman, World War II Magazine, June 12, 2006. “I’m Twelve, Sir: The Youngest Allied Soldier in World War Two,” by Giles Milton, http://surviving-history.blogspot.com/2012/07/im-twelve-sir-youngest-allied-soldier.html “Sailor Who Enlisted at 12 Seeks Help,” Washington Post, April 20, 1978.
Film: “Battleship X: The USS South Dakota,” Produced by Rich Murphy, 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1mX_K9lFbA