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Saturday, February 14, 2009


I would suggest that Quincy Gillmore (double L’s) was simply frustrated. His logical and precise mind recognized that by any logical application of the rules he had won. But the rebels simply refused to admit his victory and surrender Charleston. Perhaps Gillmore (above) should have remembered the Massachusetts newspaper writer who described secession minded South Carolina as “…too small for a nation and too large for an insane asylum.” Gillmore had proven the power of his logic at Fort Pulaski (above), whose massive brick walls guarded the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Gillmore’s advantage at Fort Pulaski was the Parrot Gun, the invention of the precise and logical mind of Robert Parker Parrott, who ran the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York.

Mr. Parrott’s invention was to rotate a cast-iron cannon barrel while applying a band of hot wrought-iron around the breech (or base end), which would clamp solid as it cooled. This band offered additional strength, allowing for larger powder charges and thus increased range. Parrott guns tended to explode with overuse, but as the sad faced Mr. Parrott (above) explained, “I do not profess to think they are the best gun in the world, but I think they were the best practical thing that could be got at the time.”

Gillmore carefully arraigned his 36 Parrott guns against the rebel fortress and opened a long range fire on April 10th 1863. The fort surrendered at 2:00 pm on April 11th. Savannah itself still held out, but rebel supply ships and blockade runners could no longer get in. With that success Gillmore had been promoted to Major-General of Volunteers, and was ordered to do to Charleston what he had done to Savannah.On the southern shoulder of Charleston’s inner harbor loomed the battered remnants of Fort Sumter, where the Civil War had begun in April of 1861. The Washington Republican newspaper waxed poetic when describing Gillmore's technical attack upon this birthplace of the rebellion. “From well-known mechanical laws, ...the penetration of the 24 pound shot at 3,500 yards…in brickwork, is six inches. The penetration of the 10 inch projectile will therefore be between six and seven feet of the same material…equal to the united blows of 200 sledge hammers weighing 100 lbs each, falling from a height of ten feet and acting upon a drill ten inches in diameter.” It could have been lifted from General Gillmore’s notebooks, and probably was.By midsummer Gillmore’s Parrott guns had reduced Fort Sumter to “a shapeless and harmless mass of ruin.” Yet Charleston still held out, because defending the outer harbor on Morris Island was Fort Wagner, situated directly astride the channel ships used to approach Charleston. Fort Wagner’s low packed sand and timber walls simply swallowed whole the explosive shells from Gillmore’s Parrotts, and punished the 54th regiment when they tried a direct ground assault (above - from the movie "Glory"). In his frustration Gillmore came to the logical conclusion that the Confederates would surrender when faced with the correct application of the power of his guns.On the morning of July 16, 1863, Gillmore ordered Colonel Edward W. Serrell of the engineers to find a spot for a new battery within range of Charleston itself. Col Serrell and an aide spent the day wandering across the slat marshes “…carrying a fourteen foot plank…Where the inundation would not bear them they sat on the plank and pushed it forward between their legs. When the soil appeared stiffer, they carried the plank until they reached the soft mud once more.” (Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, Underwood et al, The Century Co. 1884) By evening this method had located a rectangle of more or less solid ground (in the low brush in the background, above) 8,000 yards from Charleston, at the maximum range of the Parrotts.It took a month to build a battery (above) amongst the muck, and on August 21st Gillmore sent a note to General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the rebel commander, warning that if he did not at once surrender both forts Wagner and Sumter, Charleston would be bombarded with “Greek fire”. However, the note did not arrive until 10:45 p.m., and General Beauregard had gone to bed. And in any case the note bore no signature. The offended gentlemen of the Confederate headquarters returned the offensive note for signing. The 19th century industrial revolution and just run up against 18th century social graces.

While this farce was being played out, at 1:30 a.m. on August 22nd, the “Swamp Angel”, as the big 8 inch Parrott had been christened, opened fire. The exploding shells were loud and frightening, but no one was killed and the “Greek Fire” failed to start any fires. As the brilliant writer Bruce Catton noted, “This had very little to do with winning the war. It was simply an exorcise in the application of violence.” (Never Call Retreat, p. 215 Washing Square Press, 1965)The amended note re-arrived at Beauregard’s headquarters at 9:00a.m the morning of August 23rd, and Gustave Toutant responded in his best Southern aristocratic outrage. “It would appear, sir, that despairing of reducing these works you now resort to the novel measure of turning your guns against the old men, the women and children, and the hospitals of a sleeping city.” In response Gillmore gave the Confederates a truce of 24 hours to evacuate Charleston before the Swamp Angel would continue its bombardment. In fact the Parrott had slid out of position after 16 shots and it would take hours of work to move the 8 ton cannon back into place.As darkness fell the Angel opened fire again. But this time, as the barrel heated up the shells began to show a nasty tendency to explode in the barrel, and the breech band expanded so that it started to slide around on the breech. Col. Serrell wisely had a second lanyard tied to the first, to give his men some distance when they fired the darn thing, and after another 13 shots, as the Swamp Angel let go her 38th attempt at burning Charleston to the ground, the gun exploded, blowing off the breech band, cracking the breech itself, blowing three feet off the end of the barrel, and landing the cannon atop her own battery (below). This exercise in the application of violence was finished, for the moment.Not that Gillmore was about to give up. The relentless bombardment of Fort Wagner had converted that post into an open wound through which the defenders were slowly bleeding to death. Two weeks after the Swamp Angel blew up, on September 7, 1863, Beauregard pulled his troops out.

So Fort Wagner was finally captured. The Parrott guns had reduced Sumter to harmless rubble. And still Charleston resisted. And the frustration that drove General Gillmore’s precise and logical mind to accept such violence was shared by much of the nation, who cheered the wonder and the power of Gillmore’s Parrott guns and their punishment of the birthplace of the war.In far off New York, Herman Melville, a man who knew something about the dark effects of obsession on the human heart, was inspired to put pen to paper; “There is a coal black Angel, With a thick African lip, And he dwells (like the hunted and harried), In a swamp where the green frogs dip. But his face is against a City, Which is over a bay of the sea, And he breathes with the breath that is blastment, and dooms by a far degree…Who weeps for the woeful City, Let him weep for our guilty kind; Who joys at her wild despairing – Christ, the Forgiver, convert his mind.”

And a century later, Bruce Catton, in his centennial work on the American Civil War, reviewed the entire bloody affair and wrote, “It would hardly be worth mentioning except that it showed how war had hardened men’s emotions, so that things that would have been horrifying in ordinary times horrified no longer…Good men even rejoiced in it…When good men could talk so they consented to terror.” (ibid. p 217-217) You can see that terror now, in Cadwallader Park in the city of Trenton, New Jersey, preserved as a memento of one of humanities’ early attempts at a logical application of terror. And, no, it didn't work; terror rarely works, and never for long.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I think the key to understanding the Malbone Station crash is to remember that when they built New York City Hall in 1812, the budget conscious city fathers used expensive white granite on the front facade but cheaper brownstone on the north side, because they could not conceive anybody would ever see the back of the place - because nobody would want to live that far north. They were wrong.
Forty years later the population of New York City was still half a million. But thirty years later, thanks innitally to the Irish potato famine, the city had over a million residents, by 1890 a million and a half, and by 1910 three and a-half million poor, tired, huddled masses were yearning for their own few square feet of New York space. By then there were lots of people living North of City Hall, and even across the East River in Brooklyn. And they were still using the same city hall. In fact it remains the oldest city hall in the nation. So even from it's foundations, New York City has always been a work in progress; i.e. -The most immediate cause of the tragedy at Malbone station was the construction of The Manhattan Bridge. This third suspension span across the East River, which opened on the last day of 1909, was meant to make travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan safer and easier. The bridge even had its own mass transit, The Bridge Three Cent Line. But the inconvenience of having to transfer from the Bridge Line to the trains of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (later the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit, or BMT) drove the bridge lines out of business, and by 1915 you could take an elevated BMT train all the way from Coney Island to City Hall.But making the connection to the bridge required the BMT to complete considerable reconstruction. And while this re-construction was going the directors of the BMT built a temporary 90 degree right hand blind curve (recommended to be taken at a reduced speed of just six miles an hour) which funneled the trains leaving the elevated right-of-way on Flatbush and Ocean Avenues and Malbone Street, in Prospect Park, toward the Manhattan Bridge. Worse, this temporary junction required a rail switch-over as well, making this one of the most complicated rail connections in the entire city of New York. Still the junction worked smoothly during the lengthy reconstruction as long as the operating personal were well trained and familiar with the system. And that is what made the wild cat BMT strike of 1918 such an invitation to disaster.The strike was the result of an attempt by politicians to keep transit fares low. All the transit companies in New York City were still private entities, but their fares were regulated and for five long years were locked in at a nickel per trip. The voters approved. But eventually wartime inflation put the squeeze on the company, which responded by holding the line on salaries. And in the fall of 1918 the desperate members of The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers went out on a wildcat strike. The BMT management stepped in, following the typical American management anti-union animosity. They shifted personnel and hired strike breakers (scabs) to keep the trains running on normal scheduals. And that was how a 23 year old dispatcher named Edward Luciano found himself at 6:40 PM, on Friday November the First, starting his second ten hour shift of the day, working at a job he had not been trained for; operating a crowded, standing room only, five car train approaching the Malbone station junction, which he had never seen before, in the dark. And he was running late.He was bound to make a mistake. It was almost guaranteed. He was tired. He was confused. He was harried. He had never driven this route before. And he did make a mistake. As he came down the long grade (above) and approached the curve, he clicked over the points on the switchover and found himself headed into the Malbone station, rather than around the curve, leading to the bridge and City Hall.
Luciano slammed on the brakes, backed the train up over the switch, and closed the points. Then, frustrated and exhausted, he slammed the accelerator forward. The electric motors in the "drive cars", in each truck or pair of wheels, immediately jerked the five cars forward. Quickly they reached thirty or thirty-five miles an hour (above), heading straight down the long ramp toward the tunnel, toward the hairpin right hand turn and into the dark.The front truck under the first drive car somehow made it around the curve, even tho the right side, leaning on the curve, smashed into the tunnel wall. But the rear truck derailed. This dragged the two following cars off the rails and threw them into the tunnel walls.
Those two cars were called “trailer cars”, in that their trucks had no electric motors in them. This made “trailers” top-heavy. Standard procedure was not to run two “trailers” together because they were unstable as a pair. But because of the strike standard procedure had not been followed.An historian described how “The second car (above) slammed violently into a concrete abutment, losing its roof and one of its sides…The third car disintegrated into a tangled mass of wood and glass. Dozens of passengers died immediately, many of them decapitated or impaled by shards of wood and glass.” The New York Times provided all the grizzly details. “Scores of men, women and children were flung by the impact…against the pillars and concrete wall, where they were killed instantly or ground under the wheels after falling upon the tracks. Some…were killed when they fell upon the broken seats, splintered timbers and iron beams which projected through the shattered bottoms of the car…” The fourth and fifth cars, both being a motor cars, suffered almost no damage at all. But as the horrible echoes of the crash faded in the tunnel, things got worse.When the cars derailed they pulled up the third rail, supplying power to the motor cars. This automatically shut off the power for the entire system. But supervisors at the power station had been briefed and assumed the sudden shutdown was the result of union sabotage. They immediately threw the power back on. Dozens of injured and uninjured passengers in the damaged and undamaged cars were immediately electrocuted to death.One who survived was motorman Edward Luciano. He stumbled from the tunnel, dazed and slightly injured, and with a growing terror based on the horror he had witnessed. He panicked and went home. Behind him the New York Times recorded the scene; “Nearly every man, woman and child in the first car (sic -second car) was killed, and most of those in the second (sic - third car) were killed or badly injured…At 11 o’clock eighty-five bodies had been taken from the wreckage, and the police announced that no more bodies were in the tunnel…police estimate that at least 100 had been injured.” The final count, including those who died later of their injuries, came to 103 dead and more than 100 injured.
At one in the morning Edward Luciano was arrested at his home. Once he had told his story the district attorney had him charged with manslaughter, as in the "reckless disregard of human life" in the operation of his train. Also charge with "reckless disregard" were the
the president and vice president of the BMT. The D.A. also ordered that the chief of police was to “…station policemen at every terminal and car barn…No man will be permitted to run a train unless he has had at least three months experience.” At 2:00 a.m. the motormen, seeking to avoid any public anger over the disaster, and honestly stunned by the accident, voted to end their wildcat strike at once. Edward Luciano and both of the BMT authorities were acquitted of manslaughter charges, and no one was ever held morally or financially responsible for the 103 deaths. Within a few months the construction work was finished on the new connection line, and the blind curve was regulated to an occasional service of a shuttle line, which it still operates today, usually safely (below). The BMT line now enters Manhattan directly, avoiding the Manhattan Bridge. And out of respect for the dead and the living, Malbone Street was renamed Empire Avenue.
And all of these changes were incorporated into the “new” New York City, built, as always, out of the bits and pieces, good and bad, of her past; so much so that at times it seems as if the D.A. should be laying charges of recklessness disregard against the ghosts of that 1812 city council.
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Monday, February 09, 2009


I don’t know who the two fishermen pulled out of the high tide off tiny Pilsey Island (above)on June 9, 1957. It was probably the earthly remains of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb. But the body had been in the water for so long that when they lifted the corpse into the boat the head fell off and was lost amongst the mud flats. The hands were already gone, whether by accident or design. Margaret Player, Lionel’s ex-wife, could not identity what was left and neither could his current girlfriend, Patricia Rose. At the inquest a diving partner, William McLanachan, identified a scar on the left knee as Lionel’s, but later recanted.DNA technology was still a half century in the future, but still the evidence seems convincing. The diving suit matched the 2 piece type Lionel had been wearing. The stature of the corpse matched his. The body hair matched. The clothing Lionel had been wearing under the suit, matched. Even the “hammer toes” of the corpse matched photographs of Lionel Crabb’s feet. The coroner ruled that it was Lionel Crabb and that he was dead. And if the suspected body was claimed to have belonged to anyone else but Commander Lionel Crabb, the mystery would have ended right there, in the tidal flats of Chichester Harbor, 17 miles to the east of Plymouth Harbor. But what if I suggest that the body was claimed to be that of Commander James Bond? Would you still be so certain?Lionel Crabb didn’t look like the movie version of James Bond, but he was a dead ringer for the Bond from the books. He hated to exercise. He was a chain smoker, and an aficionado of “boilermakers” (whisky with a beer chaser). He distrusted academics and experts (he would have shot Q long ago). And Lionel couldn’t swim three lengths of a swimming pool without collapsing from exhaustion. Still, a friend described him as having, “…a singular ability to endure discomfort…His lack of fear was unquestioned….(a) curmudgeonly but kindly bantam cock,…a most pleasant and lively individual. (However) His penchant for alcohol remained undiminished.”Lionel Crabb started out as a Merchant seaman. And when World War Two began he was already thirty years old, well past his physical prime. He joined the Royal Navy in 1940 and eventually ended up as a bomb safety officer on Gibraltar, a job requiring calm dedication and not for a dare devil. But that is where the legend of Commander “Buster” Crabb really begins.
Across the straights from Gibralter, in Algeria, was a force of Italian divers who were skillfully planting limpet mines on British transports and warships in the anchorage of Gibraltar Harbor (above). Lionel became part of the team assigned to protect those ships.
He learned to dive in the war zone, wearing the bulky “Sladen Suits” (above), often referred to as “Clammy Death”, and using the ancestor of the aqualung, the re-breathers invented by the American Dr. Lambersten. The British team didn’t even have swim fins until two Italian divers where machine gunned by a sentry one night and Lionel retrieved their fins and started using them out of curiosity.Working often in the black of night Lionel would inspect hulls for any sign of explosives, then carefully remove them, bringing them to the surface and disarming them, which was the only part of the job he had actually been trained for. For his work Lionel was awarded the St. George Medal in 1944. By that time he was commanding the entire unit. Lionel was a pioneer in the field, learning to disarm the new German magnetic mines. In August of 1945 he was assigned to disarm mines placed by Zionists terrorists on shipping in the port of Haifa. He received another medal for his role in disarming mines and explosives in Europe left over from World War II. And in 1949 Lionel managed to produce underwater photographs of a British cruiser’s spinning propellers while the big ship plowed through the sea within feet of him. He explored a British submarine lost in the Thames esturary (above), and helped build the outflow system for a top secret nuclear weapons factory. Lionel had become the “go-to guy” on anything involving underwater espionage, not because he was a genius at it but because he was the only person doing it.Lionel was released from active service in 1953 but remained in the Reserves. And in October of 1955, when the new Soviet cruiser Sverdlov paid a “good will” visited to Portsmouth, Lionel and a friend, Sydney Knowles, made nighttime dives, examining and measuring the hull, in an attempt to explain the ship’s powerful maneuvering abilities. And so both men seemed obvious picks to repeat that dive in April of 1956 when the Soviet Cruiser Ordzhonikidze (above) paid call to Portsmouth carrying Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party Leader, Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit.The matter might never have become public knowledge except that after the visit the Soviets filed an offical protest that a British diver was seen close to the Soviet cruiser on April 19th. Lionel’s war record had made him the most famous diver in Britain, and the press quickly tracked him to the Sally Port hotel in Old Portsmouth (above) where he registered the night before the incident. (The day after the press discovered the ledger, the page was ripped out of the book.) The British navy eventually claimed that Lionel had been testing new diving equipment in the Solent to the West of Portsmouth, when he had disappeared and was presumed to have drowned. But that story seemed so absurd it produced even more speculation. It is speculated that the new British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, had hopes of reaching a rapprochement with the Soviet leadership and had forbidden Lionel from making this second dive inside Portsmouth harbor. But the CIA and reactionary factions within the British government had stepped in to encourage Lionel to make the attempt even without official endorsement. Those who believe this version are either pro or con toward Anthony Eden’s alleged policy of appeasement. What we do know about this version is that Eden issued a public statement on May 14, saying that “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death. I think it necessary, in the special circumstances of this case, to make it clear that what was done was done without the authority or the knowledge of Her Majesty’s Ministers. Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken.” Shortly thereafter the head of Britain’s MI6 was relieved.But from this point the stories only multiply. In 2007 Eduard Koltsov claimed he had been a diver onboard the Cruiser Ordzhonikidze when, while on underwater patrol, he spotted Lionel fixing a mine to the Soviet ship, and had cut his throat. Lionel’s fiancĂ© claimed in 1974 that he had defected and was training Soviet frogmen in the Black Sea. Another version says Lionel suffered a heart attack while inspecting the Ordzhonikidze, had been rescued by Soviet divers but had died on board the Soviet ship, perhaps under torture, perhaps several days later, and that they dumped his body overboard after leaving port.What we know for certain is that on April 17, 1956 Lionel and another man checked into the Sally Port Hotel, in Portsmouth. On the 18th, Lionel entered the water from The King’s Stairs Jetty (above), about 80 yards from where the Soviet warship was berthed. Lionel returned to the surface just 20 minutes later, having gotten confused in the dark amongst the pier’s pilings. The decision was made to try again in daylight.
Lionel returned to the jetty just after 7 a.m on April 18th, in full daylight this time, and re-entered the waters of Portsmouth harbor (above). He came back up just 20 minutes later complaining of some problem with his equipment. Repairs were made, and within a few minutes Lionel went down again for another try. But this time he did not resurface, at least not until fourteen months later when his body was supposedly pulled from the shallow tidal inlet some seventeen miles further up the coast, to the West. But was that really the body of Commander Lionel Crabb? We still don’t know for certain, and won’t until at least 2057, when the British government has promised to tell all they know.
Of course they had originally promised to do that in 1987, but then they changed their minds. They could do that again, too.

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