A Hidden Drama


When Japanese forces took Wake Island in December 1941, they put 98 captured Americans to forced labor. When the American military threatened to retake the island in October 1943, the Japanese took these civilians to the north end of the island, blindfolded them, and executed them by machine gun.

One of the Americans somehow escaped this massacre and fled. We know this because he returned to the scene and carved the legend “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a coral rock near the mass grave. He was subsequently captured and beheaded.

The rock remains a landmark on the island. The American’s identity has never been discovered.



At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.

In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”

That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”

Ship of State


In 1855, American whaler James Buddington came across an abandoned vessel stuck in the ice off Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. It was HMS Resolute, a British exploration ship that had been abandoned two years earlier and drifted rudderless through 1200 miles of the Canadian Arctic.

The U.S. Congress returned the ship to Queen Victoria, and in 1879 its timbers were made into two desks with admirable pedigrees: One resides in Buckingham Palace … and the other is in the Oval Office, where it’s been used by almost every president since Rutherford B. Hayes.


The Bat Bomb


Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.

Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.

Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”

Lost History


Each year on the last Saturday in April, the citizens of Ocean Shores, Washington, celebrate “Undiscovery Day” to commemorate the night in 1792 when British explorer George Vancouver sailed right past their harbor without discovering it.

At midnight they gather on the shore and shout “Hey George — over here!”



In July 1945, a former inhabitant of Poland’s Lódz ghetto, Avraham Benkel, returned to find his home in ruins. Lódz had been the last of 200 ghettos in German-occupied Poland, and as the war neared its conclusion tens of thousands of its inhabitants had been deported to death camps. When the Red Army reached it in January, only 877 survivors remained.

In the abandoned building next door to his own, Benkel found a book, François Coppée’s The Truly Rich, on whose endpages and margins an anonymous boy had kept a diary of his ordeal:

June 1, 1944: “I just finished my ‘loaf, which I had to have for eight days; today is the third. It may turn [out] to be lethal for me to behave in such a manner, but my will-power is so weakened and my ever increasing appetite so strong that I can’t help it. Is there no bread, dry unsavoury bread enough for me and my fellow-sufferers in this world?”

July 10, 1944: “I am exhausted, I have no more patience, my nerves are frayed. What I do have is an indescribable disgust toward the world and mankind, toward the masses and people, toward doctrines and dogmas. I do not believe, I do not believe in any change in the world, no! Anyone who can sink as low as the modern man has can be nothing more than an unsuccessful experiment of nature, which certainly regrets it!”

July 20, 1944: “I feel such a need to open my diary and to write in order to ease my bitter heart, about what hell we go through, how terribly we suffer. During the time when we had literally nothing to eat, we were willing to believe that the physical annihilation of men, women, and children of our nation had appeased the blond beast. But now it looks as if they have not had enough, and that they want to satisfy their thirst with the blood of the innocent.”

Almost nothing is known about the boy’s identity, age, background, schooling, or fate. Only the verb forms in his entries tell us that he was male. In all likelihood he was deported to Auschwitz as the Russians closed in.

“My God, why do you allow them to say that you are neutral?” he wrote in a final, undated entry. “Why will you not punish, with all your wrath, those who are destroying us? Are we the sinners and they the righteous? Is that the truth? Surely you are intelligent enough to understand that is it not so, that we are not the sinners and they are not the Messiah!”

(From Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, 2002.)

Shell Sense


In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes a battlefield reflex that is “far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness”:

A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down. But had he not abandoned himself to the impulse he would now be a heap of mangled flesh. It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how.

Apparently this was a real phenomenon, at least in World War I. Stephen Foot, a British officer who spent three years on the western front, writes in his 1934 memoir Three Lives:

It was about this time that I suddenly realised that I had become acclimatised to shell fire; not that I liked or had ceased to fear it, but that I was able to discriminate between a shell that was coming near and one that was far enough away not to worry about. Some officers recently arrived from England were responsible. They were in charge of one of the working parties, and while we were standing in a group, not far from Plug Street, we heard the whine of a German shell. I looked instinctively in the direction of the church to see the usual cloud of dust and stones, and at the same time I realised that the officers with me had ducked. I was certainly no braver than they were — quite the contrary; but my ear had somehow become attuned, so that as soon as the first sound was heard I knew approximately where the shell would burst.

Foot calls this sense “a great relief to one’s nervous system” and speculates that the worst cases of nervous breakdown occurred in men who didn’t have it. “One cannot explain it,” Remarque wrote. “If it were not so, there would not be one man alive from Flanders to the Vosges.”


  • What time is it at the North Pole?
  • The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
  • After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
  • 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
  • “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial

When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.

The Richardson Effect

How long is a coastline? If we measure with a long yardstick, we get one answer, but as we shorten the scale the total length goes up. For certain mathematical shapes, indeed, it goes up without limit.

English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson discovered this perplexing result in the early 20th century while examining the relationship between the lengths of national boundaries and the likelihood of war. If the Spanish claim that the length of their border with Portugal is 987 km, and the Portuguese say it’s 1,214 km, who’s right? The ambiguity arises because a wiggly boundary occupies a fractional dimension — it’s something between a line and a surface.

“At one extreme, D = 1.00 for a frontier that looks straight on the map,” Richardson wrote. “For the other extreme, the west coast of Britain was selected because it looks like one of the most irregular in the world; it was found to give D = 1.25.”

This is a mathematical notion, but it’s also a practical problem. On the fjord-addled panhandle of Alaska, the boundary with British Columbia was originally defined as “formed by a line parallel to the winding of the coast.” Who gets to define that? On the map below, the United States claimed the blue border, Canada wanted the red one, and British Columbia claimed the green. The yellow border was arbitrated in 1903.

alaska panhandle dispute

A Horrid Coincidence


In April 1819 the French slave ship Rodeur set sail for Guadeloupe from the Bight of Biafra with a crew of 22 men and 162 slaves. After 15 days, a disease of the eyes appeared among the slaves in the hold. The heartless captain threw 36 slaves overboard, but the illness soon spread to the crew, and eventually everyone on board except for a single man was blind.

And then came one of the most remarkable incidents in the history of sea commerce. As the Rodeur was crawling along with this one man at the helm, another ship, with all sails set, was seen. That was a glad moment on the Rodeur, and she was quickly headed for the stranger, hoping to get men who could navigate the ship. Drawing near, the Rodeur’s lone helmsman observed that the stranger was steering wildly, and that no one could be seen on board. But the moment the Rodeur had arrived within hailing distance men came to the stranger’s rail, and in frantic tones said that every one on board had become blind, and begged for the help that the Rodeur had come to secure. The stranger was the Spanish slaver Leon.

That’s from journalist John Randolph Spears, who wrote a history of the American slave trade at the turn of the century. This is such a horrible story that I hoped it was just folklore, but it’s borne out in the inquiries that followed and commemorated in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “The Slave-Ships”:

“Help us! for we are stricken
With blindness every one;
Ten days we’ve floated fearfully,
Unnoting star or sun.
Our ship’s the slaver Leon,–
We’ve but a score on board;
Our slaves are all gone over,–
Help, for the love of God!”

On livid brows of agony
The broad red lightning shone;
But the roar of wind and thunder
Stifled the answering groan;
Wailed from the broken waters
A last despairing cry,
As, kindling in the stormy light,
The stranger ship went by.

Unable to help one another, the two ships parted. On June 21 the Rodeur reached Guadaloupe, where the last man went blind. The Leon passed into the Atlantic and was never seen again.