February 21, 2013
Lyudmila Pavlichenko arrived in Washington, D.C., in late 1942 as little more than a curiosity to the press, standing awkwardly beside her translator in her Soviet Army uniform. She spoke no English, but her mission was obvious. As a battle-tested and highly decorated lieutenant in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, Pavlichenko had come on behalf of the Soviet High Command to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe. Joseph Stalin desperately wanted the Western Allies to invade the continent, forcing the Germans to divide their forces and relieve some of the pressure on Soviet troops.
She visited with President Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt asked the Ukranian-born officer to accompany her on a tour of the country and tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat. Pavlichenko was only 25, but she had been wounded four times in battle. She also happened to be the most successful and feared female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills to her credit—the majority German soldiers. She readily accepted the first lady’s offer.
She graciously fielded questions from reporters. One wanted to know if Russian women could wear makeup at the front. Pavlichenko paused; just months before, she’d survived fighting on the front line during the Siege of Sevastopol, where Soviet forces suffered considerable casualties and were forced to surrender after eight months of fighting. “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”
The New York Times dubbed her the “Girl Sniper,” and other newspapers observed that she “wore no lip rouge, or makeup of any kind,” and that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform.”
In New York, she was greeted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and a representative of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, C.I.O., who presented her with, as one paper reported, a “full-length raccoon coat of beautifully blended skins, which would be resplendent in an opera setting.” The paper lamented that such a garment would likely “go to the wars on Russia’s bloody steppes when Lyudmila Pavlichenko returns to her homeland.”
But as the tour progressed, Pavlichenko began to bristle at the questions, and her clear, dark eyes found focus. One reporter seemed to criticize the long length of her uniform skirt, implying that it made her look fat. In Boston, another reporter observed that Pavlichenko “attacked her five-course New England breakfast yesterday. American food, she thinks, is O.K.”
Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Still, Malvina Lindsey, “The Gentler Sex” columnist for the Washington Post, wondered why Pavlichenko couldn’t make more of an effort with regard to her style. “Isn’t it a part of military philosophy that an efficient warrior takes pride in his appearance?” Lindsey wrote. “Isn’t Joan of Arc always pictured in beautiful and shining armor?”
Slowly, Pavlichenko began to find her voice, holding people spellbound with stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion on her homeland, and her career in combat. In speeches across America and often before thousands, the woman sniper made the case for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis in Europe. And in doing so, she drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight.
Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in Balaya Tserkov, a Ukranian town just outside of Kiev. Her father was a St. Petersburg factory worker father, and her mother was a teacher. Pavlichenko described herself as a tomboy who was “unruly in the class room” but athletically competitive, and who would not allow herself to be outdone by boys “in anything.”
“When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range,” she told the crowds, “I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.” After taking a job in an arms plant, she continued to practice her marksmanship, then enrolled at Kiev University in 1937, intent on becoming a scholar and teacher. There, she competed on the track team as a sprinter and pole vaulter, and, she said, “to perfect myself in shooting, I took courses at a sniper’s school.”
She was in Odessa when the war broke out and Romanians and Germans invaded. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” Pavlichenko recalled, noting that officials tried to steer her toward becoming a nurse. To prove that she was as skilled with a rifle as she claimed, a Red Army unit held an impromptu audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” Pavlichenko said, noting that she did not count the Romanians in her tally of kills “because they were test shots.”
The young private was immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, named for Vasily Chapayev, the celebrated Russian soldier and Red Army Commander during the Russian Civil War. Pavlichenko wanted to proceed immediately to the front. “I knew that my task was to shoot human beings,” she said. “In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy—and paralyzed by fear, unable to raise her weapon, a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle with a PE 4x telescope. A young Russian soldier set up his position beside her. But before they had a chance to settle in, a shot rang out and a German bullet took out her comrade. Pavlichenko was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”
She got the first of her 309 official kills later that day when she picked off two German scouts trying to reconnoiter the area. Pavlichenko fought in both Odessa and Moldavia and racked up the majority of her kills, which included 100 officers, until German advances forced her unit to withdraw, landing them in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. As her kill count rose, she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all—countersniping, where she engaged in duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko never lost a single duel, notching 36 enemy sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and night (and, in one case, three days). “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 or 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.”
In Sevastopol, German forces badly outnumbered the Russians, and Pavlichenko spent eight months in heavy fighting. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she said. In May 1942, she was cited in Sevastopol by the War Council of the Southern Red Army for killing 257 of the enemy. Upon receipt of the citation, Pavlichenko, now a sergeant, promised, “I’ll get more.”
She was wounded on four separate occasions, suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel in her face. From that point on, the Soviets decided they’d use Pavlichenko to train new snipers. “By that time even the Germans knew of me,” she said. They attempted to bribe her, blaring messages over their radio loudspeakers.“Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
When the bribes did not work the Germans resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces—a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!”
Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko was pulled from combat. Just two months after leaving Sevastopol, the young officer found herself in the United States for the first time in 1942, reading press accounts of her sturdy black boots that “have known the grime and blood of battle,” and giving blunt descriptions of her day-to-day life as a sniper. Killing Nazis, she said, aroused no “complicated emotions” in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
To another reporter she reiterated what she had seen in battle, and how it affected her on the front line. “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks,” she said.“Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
Her time with Eleanor Roosevelt clearly emboldened her, and by the time they reached Chicago on their way to the West Coast, Pavlichenko had been able to brush aside the “silly questions” from the women press correspondents about “nail polish and do I curl my hair.” By Chicago, she stood before large crowds, chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” Her words settled on the crowd, then caused a surging roar of support.
Pavlichenko received gifts from dignitaries and admirers wherever she went—mostly rifles and pistols. The American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “Miss Pavlichenko,” about her in 1942. She continued to speak out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at the American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity,” she said, “a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
While women did not regularly serve in the Soviet military, Pavlichenko reminded Americans that “our women were on a basis of complete equality long before the war. From the first day of the Revolution full rights were granted the women of Soviet Russia. One of the most important things is that every woman has her own specialty. That is what actually makes them as independent as men. Soviet women have complete self-respect, because their dignity as human beings is fully recognized. Whatever we do, we are honored not just as women, but as individual personalities, as human beings. That is a very big word. Because we can be fully that, we feel no limitations because of our sex. That is why women have so naturally taken their places beside men in this war.”
On her way back to Russia, Pavlichenko stopped for a brief tour in Great Britain, where she continued to press for a second front. Back home, she was promoted to major, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her country’s highest distinction, and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. Despite her calls for a second European front, she and Stalin would have to wait nearly two years. By then, the Soviets had finally gained the upper hand against the Germans, and Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Eventually, Pavlichenko finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian. In 1957, 15 years after Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied the young Russian sniper around America, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. Roosevelt persisted until she was granted her wish—a visit with her old friend Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Roosevelt found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably and “with cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight, Pavlichenko threw her arms around her visitor, “half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her.” In whispers, the two old friends recounted their travels together, and the many friends they had met in that unlikeliest of summer tours across America 15 years before.
Articles: “Girl Sniper Calm Over Killing Nazis,” New York Times, August 29., 1942. “Girl Sniper Gets 3 Gifts in Britain,” New York Times, November 23, 1942. “Russian Students Roosevelt Guests,” New York Times, August 28, 1942. “Soviet Girl Sniper Cited For Killing 257 of Foe,” New York Times, June 1, 1942. “Guerilla Heroes Arrive for Rally,” Washington Post, August 28, 1942. Untitled Story by Scott Hart, Washington Post, August 29, 1942. “’We Must Not Cry But Fight,’ Soviet Woman Sniper Says,” Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1942. “Step-Ins for Amazons,” The Gentler Sex by Malvina Lindsay, Washington Post, September 19, 1942. “No Color Bar in Red Army—Girl Sniper,” Chicago Defender, December 5, 1942. “Only Dead Germans Harmless, Soviet Woman Sniper Declares,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1942. “Russian Heroine Gets a Fur Coat,” New York Times, September 17, 1942. “Mrs. Roosevelt, The Russian Sniper, And Me,” by E.M. Tenney, American Heritage, April 1992, Volume 43, Issue 2. “During WWII, Lyudmila Pavlichenko Sniped a Confirmed 309 Axis Soldiers, Including 36 German Snipers,” By Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, June 2, 2012, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/during-wwii-lyudmila-pavlichenko-sniped-a-confirmed-309-axis-soldiers-including-36-german-snipers/ “Lieutenant Liudmila Pavlichenko to the American People,” Soviet Russia Today; volume 11, number 6, October 1942. Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/pavlichenko/1942/10/x01.htm
Books: Henry Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2003. Andy Gougan, Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.
February 4, 2013
By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.
Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”
But what his contemporaries may have been lacking in scientific talent (by Tesla’s estimation), men like Edison and George Westinghouse clearly possessed the one trait that Tesla did not—a mind for business. And in the last days of America’s Gilded Age, Nikola Tesla made a dramatic attempt to change the future of communications and power transmission around the world. He managed to convince J.P. Morgan that he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and the financier gave Tesla more than $150,000 to fund what would become a gigantic, futuristic and startling tower in the middle of Long Island, New York. In 1898, as Tesla’s plans to create a worldwide wireless transmission system became known, Wardenclyffe Tower would be Tesla’s last chance to claim the recognition and wealth that had always escaped him.
Nikola Tesla was born in modern-day Croatia in 1856; his father, Milutin, was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From an early age, he demonstrated the obsessiveness that would puzzle and amuse those around him. He could memorize entire books and store logarithmic tables in his brain. He picked up languages easily, and he could work through days and nights on only a few hours sleep.
At the age of 19, he was studying electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute at Graz in Austria, where he quickly established himself as a star student. He found himself in an ongoing debate with a professor over perceived design flaws in the direct-current (DC) motors that were being demonstrated in class. “In attacking the problem again I almost regretted that the struggle was soon to end,” Tesla later wrote. “I had so much energy to spare. When I undertook the task it was not with a resolve such as men often make. With me it was a sacred vow, a question of life and death. I knew that I would perish if I failed. Now I felt that the battle was won. Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could not yet give it outward expression.”
He would spend the next six years of his life “thinking” about electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternate-current that would and should work. The thoughts obsessed him, and he was unable to focus on his schoolwork. Professors at the university warned Tesla’s father that the young scholar’s working and sleeping habits were killing him. But rather than finish his studies, Tesla became a gambling addict, lost all his tuition money, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be his last.
In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, after recovering from his breakdown, and he was walking through a park with a friend, reciting poetry, when a vision came to him. There in the park, with a stick, Tesla drew a crude diagram in the dirt—a motor using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents. While AC electrification had been employed before, there would never be a practical, working motor run on alternating current until he invented his induction motor several years later.
In June 1884, Tesla sailed for New York City and arrived with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor—a former employer—to Thomas Edison, which was purported to say, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
A meeting was arranged, and once Tesla described the engineering work he was doing, Edison, though skeptical, hired him. According to Tesla, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could improve upon the DC generation plants Edison favored. Within a few months, Tesla informed the American inventor that he had indeed improved upon Edison’s motors. Edison, Tesla noted, refused to pay up. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke,” Edison told him.
Tesla promptly quit and took a job digging ditches. But it wasn’t long before word got out that Tesla’s AC motor was worth investing in, and the Western Union Company put Tesla to work in a lab not far from Edison’s office, where he designed AC power systems that are still used around the world. “The motors I built there,” Tesla said, “were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision, and the operation was always as I expected.”
Tesla patented his AC motors and power systems, which were said to be the most valuable inventions since the telephone. Soon, George Westinghouse, recognizing that Tesla’s designs might be just what he needed in his efforts to unseat Edison’s DC current, licensed his patents for $60,000 in stocks and cash and royalties based on how much electricity Westinghouse could sell. Ultimately, he won the “War of the Currents,” but at a steep cost in litigation and competition for both Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Company.
Fearing ruin, Westinghouse begged Tesla for relief from the royalties Westinghouse agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he said. Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, walking away from millions in royalties that he was already owed and billions that would have accrued in the future. He would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world—a titan of the Gilded Age.
His work with electricity reflected just one facet of his fertile mind. Before the turn of the 20th century, Tesla had invented a powerful coil that was capable of generating high voltages and frequencies, leading to new forms of light, such as neon and fluorescent, as well as X-rays. Tesla also discovered that these coils, soon to be called “Tesla Coils,” made it possible to send and receive radio signals. He quickly filed for American patents in 1897, beating the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to the punch.
Tesla continued to work on his ideas for wireless transmissions when he proposed to J.P. Morgan his idea of a wireless globe. After Morgan put up the $150,000 to build the giant transmission tower, Tesla promptly hired the noted architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead, and White in New York. White, too, was smitten with Tesla’s idea. After all, Tesla was the highly acclaimed man behind Westinghouse’s success with alternating current, and when Tesla talked, he was persuasive.
“As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere,” Tesla said at the time. “He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind.”
White quickly got to work designing Wardenclyffe Tower in 1901, but soon after construction began it became apparent that Tesla was going to run out of money before it was finished. An appeal to Morgan for more money proved fruitless, and in the meantime investors were rushing to throw their money behind Marconi. In December 1901, Marconi successfully sent a signal from England to Newfoundland. Tesla grumbled that the Italian was using 17 of his patents, but litigation eventually favored Marconi and the commercial damage was done. (The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld Tesla’s claims, clarifying Tesla’s role in the invention of the radio—but not until 1943, after he died.) Thus the Italian inventor was credited as the inventor of radio and became rich. Wardenclyffe Tower became a 186-foot-tall relic (it would be razed in 1917), and the defeat—Tesla’s worst—led to another of his breakdowns. ”It is not a dream,” Tesla said, “it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”
By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from that doubting world. He was clearly showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was potentially a high-functioning autistic. He became obsessed with cleanliness and fixated on the number three; he began shaking hands with people and washing his hands—all done in sets of three. He had to have 18 napkins on his table during meals, and would count his steps whenever he walked anywhere. He claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight, and he later wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.”
Near the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons, especially a specific white female, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being. One night, Tesla claimed the white pigeon visited him through an open window at his hotel, and he believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. He saw “two powerful beans of light” in the bird’s eyes, he later said. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his arms, and the inventor claimed that in that moment, he knew that he had finished his life’s work.
Nikola Tesla would go on to make news from time to time while living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel. In 1931 he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. And in 1934, the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. He hoped to fund a prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but his appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. Tesla did, however, receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but the project languished. He died in 1943, in debt, although Westinghouse had been paying his room and board at the hotel for years.
Books: Nikola Tesla, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, Hart Brothers, Pub., 1982. Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Touchstone, 1981.
Articles: “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy With Special References to the Harnessing of the Sun’s Energy,” by Nikola Tesla, Century Magazine, June, 1900. “Reflections on the Mind of Nikola Tesla,” by R. (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, Centre for Intelligent Information Processing Systems, School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, Augst 27, 2006, http://www.ee.uwa.edu.au/~chandra/Downloads/Tesla/MindOfTesla.html”Tesla: Live and Legacy, Tower of Dreams,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_todre.html. ”The Cult of Nikola Tesla,” by Brian Dunning, Skeptoid #345, January 15, 2003. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4345. “Nikola Tesla, History of Technology, The Famous Inventors Worldwide,” by David S. Zondy, Worldwide Independent Inventors Association, http://www.worldwideinvention.com/articles/details/474/Nikola-Tesla-History-of-Technology-The-famous-Inventors-Worldwide.html. “The Future of Wireless Art by Nikola Tesla,” Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony, by Walter W. Massid & Charles R. Underhill, 1908. http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1908-00-00.htm
January 18, 2013
Picture the British countryside and the chances are that you are picturing the unmatched beauty of the Cotswolds, in England’s green heart, west of London. Picture the Cotswolds, and you have in your mind’s eye a place like Hullavington: a handful of cottages, some thatched, but all clustered around a village green, a duck pond and a church. The latter will most likely be ancient, 600 or 700 years old, and its graveyard will be filled with generation after generation of villagers, the same family names carved on tombstones that echo down the centuries even as they weather into slabs of rock.
Visit the church at Hullavington, though, and your eye will soon be drawn to one century-old grave, placed against a bank of ivy and remarkable not merely for its pristine whiteness, but also for the identity of the young man buried there. James Idle, who died a couple of miles away late in August 1914, was a soldier who had no family or friends in the village; indeed, in all likelihood he’d never even been there when he was killed guarding a railway in the very first month of the First World War. But Idle’s funeral—held a few days later in the presence of a handful of men from his regiment and a gaggle of respectful villagers—inspired a remarkable response in one girl who witnessed it. Marjorie Dolman was only 9 years old when she watched the soldier being carried to his grave; she is probably among the village girls pictured in the contemporary postcard shown above. Yet something about the funeral touched her so deeply that, from then until almost the end of her life (and she died at age 99), she made it her unbidden duty to lay fresh flowers daily on Private Idle’s grave.
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
December 6, 2012
To this day, he is considered one of the most influential politicians in U.S. history. His role in putting together the Compromise of 1850, a series of resolutions limiting the expansion of slavery, delayed secession for a decade and earned him the nickname “the Great Pacificator.” Indeed, Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote later said, “Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-’61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.”
Clay owned 60 slaves. Yet he called slavery “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country” and did not modify his stance through five campaigns for the presidency, all of which failed. “I’d rather be right than be president,” he said, famously, during an 1838 Senate debate, which his critics (he had many) attributed to sour grapes, a sentiment spoken only after he’d been defeated. Throughout his life, Clay maintained a “moderate” stance on slavery: He saw the institution as immoral, a bane on American society, but insisted that it was so entrenched in Southern culture that calls for abolition were extreme, impractical and a threat to the integrity of the Union. He supported gradual emancipation and helped found the American Colonization Society, made up of mostly Quakers and abolitionists, to promote the return of free black people to Africa, where, it was believed, they would have better lives. The organization was supported by many slaveowners, who believed that free blacks in America could only lead to slave rebellion.
Clay’s ability to promote compromise in the most complex issues of the day made him a highly effective politician. Abraham Lincoln said Clay was “the man for a crisis,” adding later that he was “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.”
Yet there was one crisis in Henry Clay’s life in which the Great Pacificator showed no desire to compromise. The incident occurred in Washington, D.C., when he was serving as secretary of state to President John Quincy Adams. In 1829, Charlotte Dupuy, Clay’s longtime slave, filed a petition with the U.S. Circuit Court against him, claiming she was free. The suit “shocked and angered” Clay, and whatever sympathies he held with regard to human rights did not extinguish his passion for the rule of law. When confronted with what he considered a “groundless writ” that might result in the loss of his rightful property, Henry Clay showed little mercy in fighting the suit.
Born into slavery around 1787 in Cambridge, Maryland, Charlotte Stanley was purchased in 1805 by a tailor named James Condon, who took the 18 year-old girl back to his home in Kentucky. The following year, she met and married Aaron Dupuy, a young slave on the 600-acre Ashland plantation in Lexington, owned by Henry Clay—who then purchased her for $450. The young couple would have two children, Charles and Mary Ann Dupuy.
In 1809, Clay was to elected to fill retiring Senator John Adair’s unexpired term at the age of 29—below the constitutionally required age of 30, but no one seemed to notice or care. The Dupuys accompanied him to Washington, where they lived and worked as house slaves for the congressman at the Decatur House, a mansion on Lafayette Square, near the White House. In 1810, Clay was elected to the House of Representatives, where he spent most of the next 20 years, serving several terms as speaker.
For those two decades the Dupuys, though legally enslaved, lived in relative freedom in Washington. Clay even allowed Charlotte to visit her family on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on several occasions—visits Clay later surmised were “the root of all the subsequent trouble.”
But in 1828 Adams lost in his re-election campaign to another of Clay’s rivals, Andrew Jackson, and Clay’s term as secretary of state came to an end. It was as he was preparing to return to Kentucky that Charlotte Dupuy filed her suit, based on a promise, she claimed, made by her former owner, James Condon, to free her after her years of service to him. Her case long predated the Dred Scott suit, which would result in the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, that the Constitution did not apply to people of African descent and that they were not U.S. citizens.
Dupuy’s attorney, Robert Beale, argued that the Dupuys should not have to return to Kentucky, where they would “be held as slaves for life.” The court agreed to hear the case. For 18 months, she stayed in Washington, working for wages at the Decatur House for Clay’s successor as secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Meanwhile, Clay stewed in Kentucky. The court ultimately rejected Dupuy’s claim to freedom, ruling that Condon sold her to Clay “without any conditions,” and that enslaved persons had no legal rights under the constitution. Clay then wrote to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, encouraging him to order the marshal to “imprison Lotty.” He added that her husband and children had returned with him to Kentucky, and that Charlotte’s conduct had created “insubordination among her relatives here.” He added, “Her refusal therefore to return home, when requested by me to do so through you, was unnatural towards them as it was disobedient to me…. I think it high time to put a stop to it…How shall I now get her, is the question?”
Clay arranged for Charlotte to be put in prison in Alexandria, Virginia. “In the mean time,” he wrote Fendall, “be pleased to let her remain in jail and inform me what is necessary for me to do to meet the charges.” She was eventually sent to New Orleans, where she was enslaved at the home of Clay’s daughter and son-in-law for another decade. Aaron Dupuy continued to work at the Ashland plantation, and it was believed that neither Clay nor the Dupuys harbored any ill will after the freedom suit was resolved—an indication, some historians have suggested, that Clay’s belief that his political adversaries were behind Charlotte Dupuy’s lawsuit was well-founded.
In 1840, Henry Clay freed Charlotte and her daughter, Mary Ann. Clay continued to travel the country with her son, Charles, as his manservant. It was said that Clay used Charles as an example of his kindness toward slaves, and he eventually freed Charles in 1844. Aaron Dupuy remained enslaved to Clay until 1852, when he was freed either before Clay’s death that year, or by his will.
Lincoln eulogized Henry Clay with the following words:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Books: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House, 2010. Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capital: Discovering African American History in and Around Washington, D.C., Globe Pequot, 2007.
Articles: “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square, 1795-1965, Presented by the White House Historical Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” http://www.whitehousehistory.org/decatur-house/african-american-tour/content/Decatur-House ”Henry Clay and Ashland,” by Peter W. Schramm, The Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, http://ashbrook.org/publications/onprin-v7n3-schramm/ ”Henry Clay: Young and in Charge,” by Claire McCormack, Time, October 14, 2010. “Henry Clay: (1777-1852),” by Thomas Rush, American History From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/henry-clay/ “American History: The Rise of the Movement Against Slavery,” The Making of a Nation, http://www.manythings.org/voa/history/67.html “Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6, 1952, Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Online, Speeches and Writing, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/clay.htm