Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Whale of a Tale—Blowing up Blubber

Early in November 1970, a 45-foot long, 8 ton sperm whale beached itself near Florence on the central Oregon Coast.  This turned out to be fatal for the unfortunate whale which, which, based on its size—about half the length of a full grown bull, was likely an adolescent female.
Sperm whales were still being actively hunted by several countries, most notably the Japanese, Soviets, and Norwegians though their numbers had been reduced to the point where the species was threatened.  Although the United States was out of the business, its fleets of whalers had roamed the globe from New England ports from the late 18th Century to the early mid-20th Century and had taken the biggest toll on the population of the world’s largest toothed predator.  The waxy substance known as spermaceti which is encased in a large compartment comprising most of the animal’s large, boxy head produced oils which were the most commonly used lamp fuels in North America and Northern Europe up until the development of kerosene.  It was also a fine lubricant for industrial machinery.  Bi-products including parts of the skeleton provided the tough but flexible whale bone required in ladies’ corsets and ambergris, a waste product from the digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes.
The great American whale fleets—think Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, and the Pequod—generated great fortunes.  But when progress—and petroleum—replaced prime market for whale oil and ladies’ undergarments became all about the latex and wire, there was no profit left and American turned to other occupations.  The Japanese pioneered in new uses for whale carcasses, including as pet food, and developed modern factory ships to process the kill and were thus still in the business.

The dead Oregon whale should not be confused with Moby Dick....
Various whale species, including the great krill sifting Humpbacks and Blues as well as more diminutive Minkes were a common sight in the waters off of the Pacific Northwest.  But sperm whales were rare.  So uncommon that despite the beached animal’s distinctive blunt block head, it was commonly reported that the animal on the sands at Florence was a Gray Whale.
Beaching of whale species was not unknown, although it was then far less common then than it is today when various factors—infections and destruction of hearing by underwater explosives and Navy sonar technology—is suspected.  But this sperm whale carcass, which quickly began to emit a tangy aroma, was much bigger than anyone called upon had ever had to deal with. 
The authority in charge, due to a quirk in the Oregon law at the time which classified the state’s beaches as public highways, was the Oregon Highway Division evidently because it had the heavy equipment and manpower to deal with damage and beach erosion after heavy storms.  Unfortunately it did not have expertise in this kind of mortuary disposal.
Evidently someone at the Highway Division consulted someone at the Navy.  The concern was that if the carcass was buried on the beach under the sands, it could become exposed again by surf erosion and that it was too big to haul away without being cut into pieces.  Nobody seemed to have the stomach to do that.  So the Navy, which had a hammer and saw all problems as nails, cheerfully suggested blowing the damn thing up and letting scavenging birds take care of the pieces.  Unfortunately, they provided no suggestions on just how to do it.
That job fell to career civil engineer George Thornton, who got the job because the chief district engineer was conveniently away on a hunting trip.  Although Thornton may have been a whizz at designing ramps, widening lanes, and overseeing heavy equipment, he had little experience with explosives—and none at all with explosives and tons of soft tissue.  Before carrying out his job he blithely told Portland TV newsman Paul Linnman that he wasn’t exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.
Finally he figured that 20 cases of dynamite—half a ton—of explosives would do the trick and blow the whale away like a boulder that had rolled onto a highway in an earthquake.  Sand was scooped out under the body and the dynamite shoved underneath.
By chance among the growing crowd gathering to watch the unusual operations was Walter Umenhofer, a veteran with experience in blowing things up with the Army Corps of Engineers.  He just happened to be in the area scouting the location for a new manufacturing facility for his employer.  Umenhofer was aghast by what he was seeing.  He hastily advised Thornton that he was using far too much dynamite—ten strategically placed sticks would do the job.  Thornton was not open to unsolicited advice.  He proceeded as planned.
A KATU-TV cameraman, covering the operation with Linnman, was set up to capture the blast.
And it was one hell of a blast.  The explosion threw huge chunks of whale flesh over 800 feet away, raining down on buildings, businesses, autos, and an actual State highway that separated the beach from the town.  One huge chunk fell on Umenhofer’s almost new Oldsmobile 98 which he had recently bought at a dealer’s Whale of a Sale.  Despite being built like a Sherman tank, the shiny new Olds was crushed.
Yet only part of the whale was actually removed—the part directly over the explosives, which also dug a deep hole in the sand underneath it.  Most of the carcass remained on the beach.  Worse, the scavenger birds counted on to devour the leftovers were frightened away by the blast and did not quickly return.
Linnman filed a pun-filled report with his Portland station, “land-lubber newsmen became land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”  The report was aired locally that night and was a one-day local sensation, soon faded from memory.

...or Willy the Singing Whale
Highway Division workers had to come in and bury the bulky remains anyway, pretty much where they laid—and of course had to assist the local populace clean up the shreds and chunks of rotting flesh on their property. Thornton maintained that the operation had been “largely successful in meeting its objectives.”  He was promoted within a few months and served out a distinguished career until retiring from the Highway Division’s successor, the Oregon Department of Transportation.  He would be plagued by questions about the operation the rest of his career and steadfastly stood by his assessment of his own success.
Someone at the Division, however, must have learned something.  A few years later in 1979 and not far away a whole pod of 40 sperm whales beached themselves and the Department burned and buried the remains in the sand.
Within a few years the exploding whale had become something of an urban legend of suspect reliability.  Then almost 20 years later on of May 20, 1990 humor columnist Dave Barry in his popular nationally syndicated Miami Herald column claimed to be in possession of footage of an explosion.  Without mentioning that it had occurred decades earlier he wrote, “Here at the Exploding Animal Research Institute we watch it often, especially at parties.”  An excerpt from the longer article ran in many newspapers as The Far Side Comes to Life in Oregon—a reference to the popular comic panel by Gary Larson.

In 1990 columnist Dave Barry resurected the story of the exploding whate propelling it to the realm of an Urban Legend with a cult following.
The Highway Department was deluged with calls, many of which were from outraged animal lovers who were convinced the dastards had blown up a still living whale.  And although they gradually tapered off, they never disappeared.
However a story this good has legs.  The original TV story, or clips from it, became a sensation on the Internet circulated by a web site called explodingwhale.com which features all sorts of coverage of exploding whales—usually blown up by expanding gasses in their rotting corpses.  YouTube spread it further.  At one point it was reported to be the most watched local TV news story in history and had racked up over 350 million hits world-wide.
And every time an anniversary rolls around or some asshole with a cheeky blog like Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout files a story, the folks at Oregon DOT are deluged anew with calls and the long retired Thornton has to fend off new generations of reporters.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day 1918—The Long Winding Road to an American Holiday

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that finally ended the meat grinder horror of the Great War which ushered in the era of industrial scale warfare.  The aftershocks of the carnage are still being felt today.  The event will be solemnly commemorated around the world by combatant nations, most intensely in Britain and it Commonwealth countries, France and even Germany each of which lost nearly a whole generation of young men.
President Donald Trump is in Paris for international commemorations and is already in a nasty spat with French President Emmanuel Macron over his remarks earlier this week that a true European army needs to be established “to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.”  That’s how seriously Trump’s bellicosity has sunk relations with our oldest ally.
In the U.S. in addition to the usual Veteran’s Day parades and ceremonies the anniversary will be marked by the Bells of Peace. At 11:00 a.m. bells will toll slowly 21 times with a five-second interval between tolls at houses of worship, cemeteries, military installations, ships at sea - anywhere that Americans gather to honor their veterans.  And in Washington D.C. Vets for Peace and allied organizations will stage Reclaim Armistice Day.  Planning for that march and rally began when Trump announced his desire to have a grand military parade on today early in his administration.  Pressure from the unhappy military has greatly scaled back and put off the parade to sometime in 2019, if it ever happens at all.
Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, First Sea Lord, and Marshal Ferdinand Foch (standing), the French leader of the Allied forces accept the German surrender ending fighting in the Great War.
11/11/11.  That’s how Americans remembered the Armistice that went into effect on November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. local time in France ending hostilities on the Western Front in what was up to that time the most catastrophically bloody war in history.  The German High Command signed the armistice just two days after revolutionaries in Berlin overthrew Kaiser Wilhelm and proclaimed a Republic. The shooting part of the Great War was over.  It would not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.
President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the day as Armistice Day, an occasion for “national Thanksgiving and prayer.” Americans and the world were thankful, but they were more in the mood for wild celebration than for sober reflection and prayer.  From the great cities of Europe to the simplest of rural American villages spontaneous celebrations erupted in the streets.

A spontenous parade around Woodstock Square in Illinois was one of the eruptions of celebration on November 11, 1918.
By the time of the first anniversary most Allied nations had officially adopted November 11 as a holiday.  In the United States, where holiday proclamations were traditionally left to the states, only a handful had yet designated a formal holiday.  But with troops only recently come home, cities and towns across the country marked the day with parades and speeches.

The spread of the day as an official holiday was promoted by veterans’ organizations.  One such organization was envisioned by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. as a group analogous to the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Civil War Veterans which had dominated American public life for more than 50 years.  Within days of the Armistice Roosevelt gathered officers in Paris to plan for the organization.  In March 1919 the Paris Caucus of over 1000 officers and enlisted men adopted a temporary constitution and the name American Legion.  Congress granted the Legion a charter in September and a founding convention was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota over three days that coincided with the 1919 Armistice celebrations.

Unlike the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), an existing organization of Spanish Civil War, Philippine Insurrection, Boxer Rebellion, and Mexican Expeditionary veterans which began accepting Great War veterans into their existing network of Posts, the American Legion had a distinctly ideological tone.  From the beginning, its leadership was in ultra-conservative hands and some were eager to mobilize the ranks in campaigns against the Red Menace of the post war period.  Legion officers often encouraged their members to act as organized strike breakers.

The American  Legion  parading on Amistice Day 1919 moments before they  broke ranks to attack the IWW Hall

On that same Armistice Day in 1919, an American Legion parade in Centralia, Washington, the heart of lumber country and long running labor strife, broke ranks on a pre-arranged signal and attacked the local Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) hall. 

Wobblies in the hall opened fire in self defense as the Legionaries tried to charge up the stairs.  Four Legionaries were killed in the attack and several others were wounded inside the hall in a confusing melee before most of the union men were disarmed.  Wesley Everest, himself a veteran and in uniform, escaped although wounded and was chased down to the river where he shot two or more of his pursuers before being overwhelmed.   

That night a mob of Legionaries, with the complicity of authorities, seized the wounded Everest from his jail cell, dragged him behind an automobile, castrated him, and hung him from a railroad bridge.  Several IWW members including those captured in the hall and others tracked down by posses in a massive man hunt were put on trial.  Eight Wobblies were convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to long prison terms.  No Legionnaires were charged in the initial assault.  

President Warren G. Harding, standing left at the entombent of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day 1921.  He also proclamed a one-time Federal Holiday for the occasion.
When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated on Armistice Day 1921, a onetime Federal Holiday was declared.  In 1926 a Congressional Resolution proclaimed the “recurring anniversary of should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” and that the president should issue an annual proclamation calling for the observance of Armistice Day.  It still fell short of the declaration of a Federal holiday.  At the time 27 states had official observances.  Spread of the holiday, although popular with the public, was strongly opposed by business interests.

Although the rival veterans organizations both campaigned for the establishment of Armistice Day as an official Holliday and supported wounded veterans, their emphasis and political agenda, were clearly different.  The VFW was more interested in obtaining benefits and support for veterans while the Legion promoted respect for the military and patriotism.  The VFW spearheaded the campaigns that resulted in the first Veteran’s medical benefits, vocational training for wounded veterans, the establishment of the Veteran’s Bureau, and an act of Congress to pay Great War veterans a Bonus in 1942. 

When the Depression hit veterans especially hard, the VFW endorsed efforts to get Congress to authorize an early payment of the promised Bonus.  Although not officially a supporter of the Bonus March on Washington in 1932, the VFW was outraged when troops under General Douglas MacArthur violently dispersed the demonstrators and destroyed their camp.  The Legion, on the other hand, supported MacArthur and the Army. 

In the early days of the Franklin Roosevelt administration some Legion leaders were involved in the aborted plot to stage a military coup against the President and replace him with a military Man on a White Horse.  They planned to use legion members as Italian Fasciitis and German Nazis had used their Black and Brown Shirts, which were largely drawn from the ranks of their own veterans.

On May 13, 1938 Congress finally approved of a Federal Holiday on November 11 “dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’”

By then another world catastrophe was on the horizon.  After World War II veterans organizations and the public were both divided between creating a new public holiday making the end of that war, mostly likely on V-J Day, or if Armistice Day should be renamed to include the new wave of veterans.  Veterans of World War I, as the first conflict was now called, were united in their desire to keep Armistice Day for themselves.  The huge wave of young vets was split.  What ever happened, business interests were strongly opposed to the creation of any more Federal holidays for any reason.
After signing legislation creating the official new Federal Veteran's Day holiday, President Dwight D. Eisenhower posed with leaders of the American Legion, left, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, right. Representative Edwin Rees of Kansas, the sponsor of he legislation is to the immediate left of Ike.
Finally the issue was settled when on June 4, 1954 with a whole new crop of veterans from the Korean War already coming home, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Act of Congress that transformed Armistice Day into Veterans Day.

Traditionalists still grumbled.  But they were really given something to complain about in 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which sought to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees and to encourage tourism and travel by celebrating four national holidays, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day on Mondays.  Federal Veterans Day was moved to the last Monday in October.  When the first observance under the new scheme was held on October 21, 1971 the public was outraged and most states refused to go along, maintaining November 11 as the state holidays.  In many states that meant two observances—and competing claims for paid holiday by workers in private industry covered by labor contracts.  Businesses hated that. 

Bowing to public pressure President Gerald Ford signed a new law returning the observation of Veterans Day to November 11th beginning in 1978. If November 11 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the Federal government observes the holiday on the previous Friday or following Monday, as it does this year.

In recent years the mid-week observance of Veterans Day has lowered its public profile.  Fewer and fewer cities and towns held Veterans Day parades.  Participation in local commemorations faded as first the World War I veterans passed and then the ranks of World War II and Korean Veterans shrank.  Veterans of the unpopular Vietnam War often felt unwelcome in Legion and VFW posts and were stigmatized by the public as troubled and possibly dangerous. 
Veterans organizations became outraged as a wide-spread movement to “keep kids in school” resulted in Veterans Day being dropped as a school holiday in many places.  Ironically, with school in session and many state legislatures mandating veterans curricula on that day, the holiday may have gotten a boost in interest from students who previously would have just enjoyed a day away from studies.

The lingering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing new rounds of veterans, many of them National Guardsmen and Reservists, older soldiers with deep roots in their home communities.  They are giving the day new meaning.

A typical municiple Veterans Day parade in Loveland Colorado.

Both hawks and anti-war people have used the day to advance their causes.  Despite the predictably bellicose stance of the national leadership of the American Legion and to a lesser extent the VFW, most of these new veterans adamantly refuse to allow the holiday to be politicized.  They want to honor the service of all veterans regardless of opinions on the war by the public—or by the veterans themselves.