Archive for the ‘Heroism’ Category

Historical note, suitable for use in schools.

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Fifty years ago today, on October 17, 1966, members of the New York Fire Department responded to a fire at East 22nd Street in Manhattan.

The firefighters didn’t know where the fire was burning (though the smoke was obvious) so some of them went into the building at 23rd Street. The idea was to bring hoses in and hit the fire from behind.

What was burning in the 22nd Street building, a subsequent investigation showed, was paint and lacquer that had been stored in the basement by an art dealer. What the firefighters who went into Wonder Drug & Cosmetics, at 6 East 23rd Street, across from Madison Square Park, had no way of knowing was that the store and the 22nd Street building shared a basement, and that an interior basement wall had recently been moved to give the 22nd Street building more underground storage space.
That meant that the drugstore’s thick floor was poorly supported, and as the fire burned below it collapsed, sending 10 firefighters plunging into the basement. Two others were caught by the flames that quickly roared up to the first floor through the huge hole left by the collapse.

12 firefighters were killed that day. At the time, it was the worst loss of life in the history of the NYFD.

I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but there’s a short documentary (produced by the department) about the fire on the NYFD Foundation website.

From Wikipedia, the names of the dead:

Deputy Chief Thomas A. Reilly, FDNY 3rd Division
Battalion Chief Walter J. Higgins, FDNY 7th Battalion
Lt. John J. Finley, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Lt. Joseph Priore, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter John G. Berry, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Firefighter James V. Galanaugh, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter Rudolph F. Kaminsky, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Firefighter Joseph Kelly, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter Carl Lee, FDNY Ladder Co. 7
Firefighter William F. McCarron, FDNY 3rd Division
Firefighter Daniel L. Rey, FDNY Engine Co. 18
Firefighter Bernard A. Tepper, FDNY Engine Co. 18

(I can’t find an official NYFD memorial page. There’s a unofficial historical site,, that does have a memorial page.)

(Does anyone remember being in elementary school and having to watch fire safety films? You know, how to behave when the fire alarm goes off and your school is burning to the ground? Was that only a thing in the mid-1970s? Or even just in certain parts of the country? It seems to me in the distant mists of memory that we were always watching one fire safety film or another when I was in elementary school.)

Obit watch: September 1, 2016.

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

There’s a nice obituary in today’s Statesman for Tom Anderson, who passed away a few weeks ago.

Mr. Anderson was the carillon player at the University of Texas since…well, since Jesus was a private:

He played from 1952 until 1956 while a graduate student. In 1967, a year after he returned to UT to work in the international office, where he was assistant director, UT President Harry Ransom asked him to serve as carillonneur, and he continued to play until about three years ago.

I never met Mr. Anderson, but I remember when we toured the Tower some years back, he came up in conversation: the tour guide told us that he always said he was going to keep playing until he could no longer physically make the climb.

He was 93 when he died.

Marvin Kaplan has also passed away. He is perhaps best remembered as Henry Beesmeyer on “Alice”. though he was also in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “The Great Race”.

Finally, I intended to note this one earlier in the week, but the past few days have been hard. Jeremiah J. O’Keefe passed away on Tuesday. He was 93.

Mr. O’Keefe was a Corsair pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, the “Death Rattlers”. During the course of his first combat mission, on April 22, 1945, he shot down six enemy planes.

The squadron claimed 23 of the 54 Japanese planes downed that day. Two other Death Rattlers also scored five or more kills. Maj. Jefferson D. Dorroh Jr., the squadron’s executive officer, downed six planes. Maj. George C. Axtell Jr., the commanding officer, scored five. An article on the battle in Time magazine carried the headline “One Deal, Three Aces.”

Obit watch: June 23, 2016.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

David Thatcher has passed away at the age of 94.

Mr. Thatcher was the tail gunner in the “Ruptured Duck”, one of the 16 B-25s in the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan.

After the raid, the Duck crash-landed and several of the crew were injured. Mr. Thatcher tended their injuries.

Corporal Thatcher, the only crew member able to walk, joined with Chinese peasants and armed guerrillas to take the four injured airmen on a grueling five-day trek, by land and boat, to a hospital on the mainland, carrying them on stretchers and sedan chairs and managing to evade Japanese troops.

All of the crew evaded capture and eventually made it home, though the pilot (Ted Lawson, who also wrote Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, a book I remember reading when I was very young) lost a leg.

As cited in James M. Scott’s book “Target Tokyo” (2015), Colonel Doolittle told Corporal Thatcher’s parents that “all the plane’s crew were saved from either capture or death as a result of his initiative and courage in assuming responsibility and in tending the wounded himself day and night.”
Corporal Thatcher was awarded the Silver Star for valor.

Mr. Thatcher’s death leaves one surviving crew member from the raid, Richard Cole, who was Doolittle’s co-pilot.

Obit watch: December 24, 2015.

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Eden Pearl.

Pearl joined the Marine Corps in July 1994 from the town of Monroe, N.Y., before turning 19. After graduating from recruit training at Parris Island, S.C., he became an infantry rifleman, and then completed virtually every difficult form of training the service had, becoming a scout sniper, reconnaissance Marine, combat diver and critical skills operator in MARSOC. His training left him capable of performing anything — from free-fall aerial dives from airplanes to close-quarters combat after breaking down a door.

Sgt. Pearl was critically injured by an IED in 2009, and died on Sunday as a result of his injuries.

Fernande Grudet, aka “Madame Claude”. I note this here for two reasons:

2) In one of my favorite Ross Thomas books, The Seersucker Whipsaw, there’s a character named “Madame Claude”. I’m wondering if this was a very subtle reference on the part of Thomas…

Obit watch and other random notes: November 11, 2015.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of West Germany.

Allen Toussaint, noted New Orleans musician.

In 1964, trumpet maestro Al Hirt covered Toussaint’s jaunty instrumental “Java,” which became a No. 1 hit. In 1965, Mr. Toussaint’s “Whipped Cream” not only became the title track on a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album, it later became the bachelorettes theme of the television game show “The Dating Game.”

Vito J. Lopez, former New York assemblyman who resigned due to a sexual harassment scandal.

Non-obit, but interesting:

The police in Northern Ireland arrested a 66-year-old man on Tuesday in connection with Bloody Sunday, the infamous massacre of unarmed civilian marchers by British soldiers in Londonderry on Jan. 30, 1972. It was the first time anyone has been arrested in the massacre, for which the British government formally apologized in 2010.

The individual is not named, but is described as a “former lance corporal”.

“Former fugitive fish smuggler pleads guilty, prosecutors say”. Somebody at the LAT was having a bit of fun…

Second day coverage of the Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow trial. Doesn’t seem like much here: one of “Shrimp Boy”‘s confederates claims he ordered a hit, but he never explicitly said anything beyond “take care of this”.

The patrol reached a small bridge over a canal and was approached by men on motorcycles coming from the opposite direction — possibly members of the Taliban. They began crossing the bridge but stopped partway and retreated in the opposite direction. The suicide bomber appeared on foot to the left of the patrol after coming out of a building. Groberg ran at him and threw him to the ground with the help of another soldier, Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, who would later receive the Silver Star for his valor.

Where do we get such men?

Obit watch: October 16, 2015.

Friday, October 16th, 2015

There’s a really nice obituary in today’s NYT (written by Bruce Weber, one of the paper’s best obit writers) for Sybil Stockdale.

Mrs. Stockdale was the wife of James B. Stockdale. You may remember him as Ross Perot’s vice presidential candidate in 1992. But before that:

A captain when he was shot down over North Vietnam on Sept. 9, 1965, Admiral Stockdale was listed for several months as missing in action before the Pentagon learned he was being held in Hanoi at Hoa Lo prison (the so-called Hanoi Hilton). He survived seven and a half years there, subject to torture and held in leg irons and solitary confinement for long periods, before he was released, returning home in February 1973.

During his captivity, Mrs. Stockdale became a leading advocate for the POW/MIA cause. She also worked with the CIA to gather information. This story brings a smile to my face:

In one [letter -DB], she sent a cheery note about his mother along with a picture of a woman bathing in the Pacific Ocean. Admiral Stockdale’s mother loathed swimming, however, and the picture was not of her; the note said she had come to visit because she wanted to have a good “soak,” a code word that instructed him to soak the photograph in urine. When he did so, he discovered, hidden behind the backing of the photograph, a small swath of special carbon paper that could be used to press messages in invisible ink into his own letters home.

Speaking of the CIA and other bits of history, Ken Taylor has also passed away. Mr. Taylor was the Canadian ambassador to Iran during the hostage crisis:

When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by Islamist students and militants, six American diplomats escaped and found sanctuary in the homes of Taylor and his first secretary John Sheardown. In addition to shielding the Americans from Iranian capture, Taylor also played a crucial role in plotting their escape.
Working with CIA officials and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, Taylor obtained for the Americans six Canadian passports containing forged Iranian visas that ultimately allowed them to board a flight to Switzerland. He undertook all these covert actions at a high personal risk, as he and his team would have been taken hostage themselves in the case of discovery by the Islamist militants.

Last, but by no means least: “fresh-faced ingénue” of the 1940s, Joan Leslie.

At 9, touring with her sisters, she played Toronto. Their act included her impression of Durante.
One night after the show, her dressing room door opened to reveal a man armed with nothing but criticism. Her Durante was all wrong, he told her. Unbidden, he showed her the right way to do it.

Read the obit for the punchline, if you haven’t already guessed it.

Obit watch: March 31, 2015.

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Robert L. Hite passed away on Sunday.

Lt. Col. Hite was one of Doolittle’s Raiders. He was captured by the Japanese after his plane ran out of fuel and the crew bailed out over China.

Mr. Hite was imprisoned for 40 months, 38 of them in solitary confinement. His weight had dropped to 76 pounds from 180 when the war ended.

A couple of random notes: November 14, 2014.

Friday, November 14th, 2014

When asked whether disparities in treatment were based on race, gender, rank or nepotism, officers overwhelmingly said they believed decisions about discipline revolved around an officer’s rank and whether he or she was well liked by their superiors in the department. Command-level officers routinely received slaps on the wrist or no punishment, while lower-ranking officers were suspended for similar misconduct, officers wrote.

From the LAT archives, some spectacular photos of firefighters responding to a DC-6 crash.

Former Seattle Sonic Robert Swift has been charged with a gun crime one month after police claim to have seized drugs, guns and a grenade launcher from the Kirkland home where he was living.

What I find interesting about this story is that, with the exception of the standard “junk on the bunk” photo, all the weapons photos are of guns “similar to one police say was seized from Bjorkstam’s Kirkland home”. No photos of the actual guns? Also, heroin dealing must not be that lucrative if all you can afford is a Taurus.

Obit watch: October 30, 2014.

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Col. Jack Broughton (USAF – ret.) passed away last Friday.

Col. Broughton was a former Thunderbird and wrote several books, including Thud Ridge and Going Downtown.

He is perhaps most famous for an incident that occurred during the Vietnam War. At the time, Col. Broughton was vice commander of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing. One of his pilots approached him after a raid and stated that he might have accidentally hit a Soviet ship with cannon fire while he was bombing Vietnamese anti-aircraft positions located nearby. The next day, the Soviets complained that one of their ships had been bombed; Col. Broughton, in an attempt to protect his pilots, ordered the gun camera film from their aircraft destroyed.

Col. Broughton and two of his pilots were court-martialled for allegedly bombing the Soviet ship. However, the gun camera film was the only evidence of what happened; since it had been destroyed, there wasn’t any evidence that the ship had actually been bombed, and Col. Broughton and the pilots were acquitted on that charge. Col. Broughton was, however, found guilty of “destruction of government property” (the gun camera film, with an estimated worth of $5). His conviction was later overturned due to “undue command influence”.

One observer on the Board for the Correction of Military Records called the court-martial ‘the grossest example of injustice in history.’ As Broughton himself wrote in his book, Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington, ‘I found it interesting that in the entire history of the United States flying forces, only one other officer had ever had a general court-martial set aside and voided. His name was Billy Mitchell.’

Here’s a pretty good article reprinted from Vietnam magazine that covers the cases of Col. Broughton and Jack Lavelle. (I’ve also written about the Lavelle case; the linked article is from 1997, and doesn’t cover the more recent developments.)

Obit watch: September 11, 2014.

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Colonel Bernard F. Fisher (USAF – ret) passed away on August 16th, though his death does not appear to have been widely reported until today.

Col. Fisher (he was a major at the time) received the Medal of Honor for pulling off one of the greatest rescue missions in the history of the Vietnam War.

(I swear that I read this story in Reader’s Digest when I was a child, maybe as a “Drama In Real Life”.)

The paper of record does not seem to have deigned to note the passing of Richard “Jaws” Kiel, but the LATimes and the A/V Club have.

Edited to add: now the NYT gets around to it.

And speaking of obits…

Friday, May 9th, 2014

I am sad that William Ash, a gentleman I was previously unfamiliar with, has died.

On the other hand, 96 years is a pretty good run, and his NYT obit is quite entertaining.

Before the war ended, he had attempted 13 escapes and made it outside the barbed wire a half-dozen times. He went under, over and through fences. He walked out in disguise. He tunneled through a latrine. He was always recaptured.

I suspect one reason he was always recaptured is that the Germans could hear him clanking as he walked from miles away.

Obit watch: March 29, 2014.

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., retired from the Navy as a rear admiral and a former US senator from Alabama.

He was also a war hero.

Over the next seven years and seven months, Commander Denton was held in various prison camps, including the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” and endured beatings, starvation, torture and more than four years of solitary confinement, including periodic detentions in coffinlike boxes. He and other officers nevertheless maintained a chain of command and a measure of discipline among the prisoners.


The North Vietnamese, who lost face, were even more outraged when they learned that Commander Denton, in the Japanese-taped interview broadcast on American television on May 17, 1966, had blinked out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.” It was the first confirmation that American prisoners of war were being subjected to atrocities during the Vietnam War.
The commander was beaten all night.