Get Out of Jail Free

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In 1941, as the British War Office searched for ways to help Allied prisoners escape from German POW camps, it found an unlikely partner: John Waddington Ltd., the U.K. licensee for Monopoly. “Games and pastimes” was an approved category of item to be included in care packages sent to captured soldiers, so Waddington’s set about creating special sets to be sent to the camps.

Under the paper surface of each doctored board was a map printed on durable silk showing “escape routes from the particular prison to which each game was sent,” Waddington’s chairman Victor Watson told the Associated Press in 1985. “Into the other side of the board was inserted a tiny compass and several fine-quality files.” Real French, German, and Italian currency was hidden in the stacks of Monopoly money.

MI-9, the intelligence division charged with helping POWs escape, smuggled the games into prison camps, where prisoners would remove the aids and then destroy the sets in order to prevent their captors from divining the scheme.

“It is not known how many airmen escaped thanks to these Monopoly games,” writes Philip Orbanes in The Game Makers, his 2004 history of Parker Brothers, “but 35,000 POWs did break out of prison camps and reach partisans who helped them to safety.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Private Exit

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:

I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.

Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’

They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’

The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.

It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.

Tanya

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In August 1942 a students’ nursing brigade discovered 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, weak with hunger, living alone in an apartment in Leningrad, which had been besieged by Hitler since September 1941. She had kept this diary:

  1. Zhenya died on December 18, 1941, at twelve noon.
  2. Grandma died on January 25, 1942, at three in the afternoon.
  3. Leka died on March 17, 1942, at five o’clock in the morning.
  4. Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at two o’clock at night.
  5. Uncle Lesha on May 10, 1942, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
  6. Mama died on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning.
  7. The Savichevs are dead.
  8. Everyone is dead.
  9. Only Tanya is left.

The nurses evacuated her along the narrow lifeline that had been opened that summer by the Soviet army and placed her in an orphanage in a nearby village, but she died there, probably of chronic dysentery, in July 1944. The diary is kept today in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

An Ancient Mystery

Around 1275, a native culture known as the Gallina vanished from northern New Mexico. And almost every Gallina skeleton ever found has been that of someone brutally murdered. No one knows why.

“[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time,” U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Tony Largaespada told National Geographic News in 2007.

Seven skeletons found in a remote canyon paint a typical picture — one had a fractured skull, forearm, jaw, thighbone, pelvis, and several broken ribs; another bore cut marks on the upper arm that suggested blows from an ax. A 2-year-old child had had its skull crushed.

In other cases the victims’ necks have been broken, and the bodies are commonly thrown into a house, which is then burned to the ground.

Possibly this was a genocide, or possibly internecine conflict within the Gallina. Either could have been exacerbated by a drought that is known to have gripped the area around this time. But, so far, no one knows the reason.

Planning Big

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When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it interrupted one of the most ambitious building projects in history. Situated near the Kremlin, the Palace of the Soviets would have commemorated the founding the U.S.S.R. with a 21,000-seat congress hall, 100 stories of administrative offices, and a crowning statue of Lenin 75 meters tall.

It would have been both the largest and the tallest building in the world. But only the foundation had been built when the war intervened, and the frame was disassembled for its steel. Construction never resumed, and in the 1960s the site was turned into an open-air swimming pool. This must symbolize something.

The Dumbbell Cipher

In 1777, British general Sir Henry Clinton sent this message to his fellow officer John Burgoyne, lamenting that he’d be unable to join him in a plan to divide the colonies along the Hudson River:

dumbbell cipher 1

This was a ruse — Clinton’s real meaning can be revealed by applying a mask:

dumbbell cipher 2

Historians aren’t certain whether the message reached Burgoyne or influenced his decisions. As it happened, Clinton didn’t participate in the conflict, and Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war.

Plan B

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As a boy Harry Truman practiced piano for two hours a day. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician,” he said later. “And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

At age 12 he attended a concert by Paderewski. “And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski. And when he got through with his concert — which was a wonder — he played that Chopin A-Flat Waltz, Opus 42, which has always been a favorite of mine. And he played the waltz rendition of the Blue Danube, and so on.”

“When we went back behind the scenes, [my teacher] took me with her, and it almost scared me to death. She told him I didn’t know how to make ‘the turn’ in the minuet, and he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Postdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.”

He gave up piano because “it was a sissy thing to do. So I just stopped. And it was probably all for the best. I wouldn’t ever have been really first-rate. A good music-hall piano player is about the best I’d have ever been. So I went into politics and became president of the United States.”

Better Safe

To give his “Infamy” speech on the day after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt rode to the Capitol in a car owned by Al Capone.

The Secret Service was concerned about assassination attempts, and Roosevelt’s regular state car had no protective features. So the president made use of Capone’s heavily armored 1928 Cadillac 341A Town Sedan, which the Treasury Department had impounded after the gangster’s arrest.

(Thanks, Ron.)

The Football Charge

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On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British Army captain Wilfred Nevill needed a way to keep the East Surrey Regiment’s B Company organized and advancing toward the German trenches. He had been told that continuous shelling had left nothing alive in the German lines, but night patrols had shown him this wasn’t true.

So Nevill produced four footballs, one for each of his platoons to kick across no man’s land as they charged the German position.

Private L.S. Price of the 8th Royal Sussex, who was looking on, recalled, “As the gunfire died away I saw an infantryman climb onto the parapet into no man’s land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football; a good kick, the ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.”

The four platoons followed suit, kicking their balls continuously across 300 yards of ground to reach the German trenches. Twenty thousand British soldiers were killed that day, including Nevill, who was shot when they reached the barbed wire, but his company gained its objective. The Daily Mail commemorated their charge with a poem:

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The Surreys played the game.

Two of the footballs have been recovered. One is in the National Army Museum, the other at the Queen’s Regiment Museum, Howe Barracks, Canterbury.

A Living Casualty

On Feb. 1, 1918, a French soldier appeared in the railway station in Lyon. He had lost his memory: He muttered that his name was Anthelme Mangin, but he didn’t know who he was or where he belonged. His uniform lacked unit tags, and his pockets held only a cigarette lighter. The authorities placed him in an asylum and published his photograph in newspapers, hoping that his family would recognize him.

This gave desperate hope to scores of families whose loved ones had disappeared. World War I had claimed the lives of 1.4 million Frenchmen, and 300,000 of their bodies were unidentified or never found. Three hundred families claimed Mangin as their own, and dozens of these were given personal interviews with him. But he responded to none of them.

In 1930 he was identified tentatively as Octave Monjoin, a French waiter in the London embassy of the Ottoman State who had returned to his homeland to fight and been taken prisoner on the western front in August 1914. Judicial officers dropped him off near Monjoin’s hometown and observed him from a distance. He went from the railway station to the village, sat in a café that Monjoin had once enjoyed, walked to the house of Monjoin’s father, whom he did not recognize, and said, “The church has changed.”

But others, who had different hopes for Mangin’s identity, refused to accept the validity of the test, and Mangin remained in official limbo until his death in a French mental institution in 1942 — in the midst of another wrenching war.