Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Bombardment of Ellwood

A detailed map of the Ellwood Oil Fields, which were shelled by a Japanese sub.

A detailed map of the Ellwood Oil Fields, which were shelled by a Japanese sub.

One of the main reasons for America’s rise from power to superpower in the wake of World War II was the fact that, while Europe and broad swaths of the world were in shambles from six years of ferocious fighting, the American homeland remained largely untouched. This, however, does not mean that the United States never suffered attacks. The history of attacks on the American homefront is both fascinating and little known, mostly due to war time censorship meant to maintain morale. Several such attacks occurred in the wake of Pearl Harbor, when German U-boats attacked American shipping off the East Coast.

On West Coast, the fear of attack by Japanese forces was palpable, understandably so since the logical next step after Pearl Harbor was an attack on California. If the Japanese launched an invasion of the West Coast, many believed that the onslaught could not be stopped until their forces thrust deep into the heart of America. In reality, the Japanese lacked the capability for such an assault, and instead settled for pinprick attacks, some using the rather ingenious methods. The first such attack occurred on February 23, 1942, when a Japanese sub shelled an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, eventually provoking one of the strangest events in American history.

 

The Shelling of Ellwood

The Ellwood oil fields lay 12 miles north of Santa Barbara, California. At 7:10pm the night of February 23, the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-17 surfaced off the coast. It was sighted a mile off shore by Mrs. George Heaney, who caught a glimpse of the sub through binoculars and called the police. Five minutes later, the sub opened fire with its deck gun. The reports about the number of shells fired that night vary wildly, but the consensus is about 16. Most of the shots fell short, dropping into the ocean. One shell overshot the refinery, exploding at a nearby ranch. Another landed at a separate ranch near the refinery, digging a five foot crater but failing to explode. Three shells struck the Bankline Co. oil refinery, damaging a derrick and a pump house. Within twenty minutes of the first shot, the sub slipped beneath the waves.

A bit of a bizarre story behind the motivations of the commander of I-17 has attached itself to the event. It goes that Kozo Nishino, the commander of the I-17, was a commander of a Japanese oil tanker in the 1930s. The tanker visited Ellwood oil field to take on crude. While walking up the beach to a ceremony welcoming Nishino and his crew, he tripped and fell on a prickly-pear cactus. The sight of the dignified commander dressed in his best plucking cactus spines from his rump made the American oil men break into riotous laughter. A humiliated Nishino vowed to get revenge.

The reality is far more mundane. Nishino was ordered to execute panic inducing attacks on West Coast population centers. San Francisco and San Diego were too well defended, so the oil fields were the next best choice.

 

Rumor, fear, and the Battle of Los Angeles

The impact of the attack on Ellwood far exceeded its scale. The shelling only partially damaged some buildings, and while one service man was injured trying to defuse a dud, no one was killed. The attack struck a nerve nevertheless. People reported having seen “signal lights” on land that night, supposedly directing the attack. The enemy seemed to be active all around, and the fear that another, larger attack might come was very real.

Rumor and fear had two effects in the wake of the shelling at Ellwood. One such effect was the event now known as the Battle of Los Angeles, when American anti-aircraft crews in Los Angeles opened fire on a mysterious object (or objects) in the skies above the city.  The so-called battle has become known as among the largest UFO events in American history, and many still speculate as to what the object was that caused the ruckus. More likely than not, the scare was caused by a combination of an errant weather balloon and fears of Japanese attack, stoked by Ellwood. So, it had more to do with mass panic than alien intervention.

 

Sources:

http://www.independent.com/news/2011/oct/02/submarine-shelling-ellwood-oil-field-1942/

http://californiamilitaryhistory.org/Ellwood.html

http://aoghs.org/petroleum-in-war/wwii-sub-attacks-oilfield/

The Battle of Los Angeles

Battle_of_Los_Angeles_LATimesThe Second World War spawned its fair share of mysteries, strange incidents, and bizarre happenings. One enduring mystery from those dark years involves the mysterious disappearance of the so-called Amber Room. The priceless work of art, ironically given to Russia in the 18th century as a symbol of enduring peace between Prussia (now part of Germany) and the Russian Empire. The beautiful room, composed of panels worked with amber and precious stones in a way that took modern experts 20 years to replicate, disappeared in the chaos of war, first snatched by the Germans as they attacked St. Petersburg, then hidden in a castle in the city of Konigsberg. From there, it is anyone’s guess where the masterpiece went, and although many theories have been presented, none leave treasure hunters and mystery buffs satisfied.

Another enduring mystery from the war; one that, in many circles, continues to defy reasonable explanation, occurred thousands of miles from the bloody battlefields of Eastern Europe, in the city of Los Angeles. The night of February 24/25, 1942, the skies above the City of Angels lit up with anti-aircraft fire, as gun crews fired at strange objects in the sky. Now known as the Battle of Los Angeles, the incident invites speculation to this day.

 

Battle of Los Angeles–The Facts

Some facts about the Battle of Los Angeles are not disputed. During the night of the 24th into the 25th, unidentified objects sighted both visually and on radar. These reports included flares and blinking lights reported around defense plants. Tensions reached a new high when, at 7:18 p.m., authorities called an alert, which was subsequently lifted at 8:23pm.

Early the next morning, radar picked up a target 120 miles west of Los Angeles. At 2:15, antiaircraft batteries were put on alert, and a few minutes later they were given permission to open fire. Army Air Force units remained grounded, conserving their small fighter squadrons for when the size of the enemy force was known. Radar tracked the unknown target to a few miles off the cost. At 2:21am, the regional controller ordered a blackout. Jittery citizens and anti-aircraft crews flooded the information center with reports of enemy planes all over the skies above Los Angeles. Soon, anti-aircraft crews in Santa Monica spotted a balloon carrying red flares. They opened fire, and soon all hell broke loose in the skies above Los Angeles.

 

Confusion and hysteria

From the point that the first  shell was fired, the Battle of Los Angeles plunged into confusion and hysteria. For three hours, Los Angeles’ air space was full of phantom planes and exploding shells. Anti-aircraft crews reported swarms of enemy planes and balloons ranging in altitude from a few thousand feet to upwards of 20,000 feet. They were said to move at speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour in tight formations. Despite the vast numbers, and despite more than 1400 shells being fired in those early morning hours, no wreckage from Japanese planes were discovered once morning broke. Certainly there were reports–one of the phantom planes supposedly landed in flames at an intersection in Hollywood–but no actual evidence was found by investigators. The aggressors never dropped any bombs–the only damage to the city came from shell fragments raining down from the anti-aircraft barrage. The only death connected to the incident was an instance of heart failure from all the excitement.

 

An Enduring Mystery

The excitement and confusion of that night made finding an explanation for the incident even more difficult. Likely many of the reported aircraft simply resulted from a combination of excitement, shellbursts illuminated by spotlights, and imagination. The Navy quickly issued a statement claiming that there was no evidence of enemy planes. The Army remained unsure, but cautiously admitted that the credibility of the reports were shaky at best. The Army Air Force claimed that the planes never existed.

Erring on the side of caution, the Army waited until witnesses were interviewed before releasing a statement. From the various witness testimony, the War Department announced that from one to five unidentified aircraft had been seen over Los Angeles. These craft were either commercial planes operated by enemy agents flying from secret fields in Mexico and California, or light planes launched from Japanese submarines. Their speculated objective was to perform reconnaissance on anti-aircraft defenses.

The disagreement between the Army and Navy, and the Army’s tepid explanation for such a dramatic incident, sparked a debate among the public not only about the battle itself but the effectiveness of anti-aircraft defenses. After all, the argument went, if there were planes in the sky, why were none of them shot down in massive barrage? Why didn’t any Army Air Force planes take off to engage the enemy?

Adding to the mystery of the incident, Japan stated after the war that it did not send planes over Los Angeles at the time of the alert (they did, however, use light submarine-launched aircraft for reconnaissance of Seattle.) The odds are that the most reasonable explanation for the incident is that the initial alarm came when people sighted meteorological balloons, which were known to have been released over Los Angeles. In the climate of post Pearl Harbor America, it was easy to believe that the enemy might attack the mainland. In such a climate, it makes mass panic more likely to spread. Odds are, the Battle of Los Angeles was more of a result of misconception and a tense climate than any enemy action.

 

Sources:

http://web.archive.org/web/20100527214255/http://www.militarymuseum.org/BattleofLA.html

http://www.sfmuseum.net/hist9/aaf2.html

What Exactly Does “Weird History” Mean?

The most common question I get about this site is how I choose what to write about. This is something that I’ve put a fair bit of thought into myself. After all, this is a site devoted to odd and interesting history. So, then, what exactly is “odd” history? There isn’t an answer that is going to satisfy everyone, of course, because different people see different things as odd.

So, I thought I might take some time and explain how I pick my topics. The short answer is that anything that makes me think, “huh, weird,” is a candidate for a post on this blog. Some choices are obvious, like the story of Elmer McCurdy and how his mummy wound up on the set of an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man (on a side note, I talk about mummies a lot on here because I have always found them fascinating.) Less obvious choices might be the post I did about the wrong turn that helped spark WWI. That the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the event that precipitated the Great War is (hopefully) well known, but the fact that the event was brought about by a simple miscommunication is, perhaps, not. Besides, the role of coincidence in history is fascinating, and it’s always fun to speculate how things might have been different if one small event had been different. An event doesn’t have to be completely bizarre to make you scratch your head and go “huh, weird.”

On that note, now and then I simply pick a topic because it is obscure. I have lists of little known historical figures; some had a big impact, but some didn’t, but regardless they are mostly unknown. Some are badasses, some are villains, and some were unjustly written out of history by rivals.

Technology and science is always good post fodder as well. This blog was originally going to be devoted to weird instances in the history of science, but I felt that topic was too narrow to sustain a blog and broadened my focus to include, well, everything. Still, from Cold War engineering shenanigans, to surprisingly advanced ancient weapons, to bizarre 20th century ideas, there’s a lot of material to be found in the world of science.

There are a lot of miscellaneous areas I focus on, from propaganda to mass hysteria. One that I debated whether to include or not was urban legends. I used to run a site devoted to ghost stories and urban legends, but eventually quit that to focus on things of a more factual nature. But I still find such stories fascinating. While I will not include anything of a supernatural or paranormal nature on this site, I don’t mind occasionally adding some odd bit of urban legend that is actually rooted in history. The post that comes to mind is this one about the legend of Bunnyman Bridge, which shows how, sometimes, reality is stranger than the stories it spawns.

Long story short, there isn’t much of a process that goes into choosing material for this blog. I simply have some loose criteria, and I make the final decision whether to include it when it comes time to do research. Regardless of whether we all agree that a bit of history is weird, I hope that you all at least enjoy reading!

Tararre–France’s Most Infamous Glutton

Lately, I have focused on bizarre food related history. This wasn’t anything that I did on purpose; in fact, it only happened that way because my research for the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 led me to the Bradford Sweets Poisoning and the London Beer Flood. This week we are moving away from food to the people who eat it. While these days, eating is a competitive sport, big appetites are nothing new to history.  If anything, historical eaters make our modern competitive eaters look like amateurs. None more so than a Frenchman only known as Tararre, whose disgusting and bizarre eating habits would go on to inspire a play in his name.

 

A life of gluttony

Tararre began his life of gluttony early on. His biographer, Professor Percy, claims that his massive appetite began in childhood, and became so out of control in his teenage years that his parents forced him out of their house because  they couldn’t afford to feed him. Now on his own, he spent years wandering France with a company of robbers and whores, and then as an act for an itinerant snake-oil salesman, drawing attention to the swindler by swallowing stones, whole apples, and live animals.

His career as a showman continued when he reached Paris in 1788, where he drew audiences with his disgusting gastronomic feats. He joined up with the French Army during the French Revolution, where he was constantly exhausted despite eating quadruple rations and scavenging in gutters and trash heaps. Military surgeons became interested in his case, and they began a series of bizarre experiments to test his appetite. He was given a live cat–he drank its blood by tearing its abdomen open with his teeth, and proceeded to eat it fur and all. He later vomited up the skin and fur. They fed him other live animals, all of which he ate with relish.

While under the dubious care of the military surgeons, Tararre met his biographer, Professor Percy. A chronicler of medical oddities, Percy took a special interest in his ravenous patient. The professor described his charge as thin and of normal height, weighing no more than 100lbs. His hair was fair and strangely soft, and his teeth were stained from his bizarre diet. His mouth was very wide. Doctors of the day did not think Tararre was mentally ill, judging by the standards of the day, but he was extremely apathetic, likely due to the constant hunger raging in him. Strangely, he was always sweaty, and his body odor was legendary even in a time period when everyone stunk. This became worse after a meal.

 

Tararre’s military career

Not knowing what else to do with the glutton, the French military decided to put his gastronomic prowess to good use. In a test run, a doctor at the military hospital persuaded the glutton to down a wooden box with a document inside, which was successfully retrieved two days later from the hospital latrines. With this test passed, Tararre became an unlikely spy.

Mission one for the glutton was to smuggle a document to a French colonel held by Prussian forces in a fortress near Neustadt. Disguised as a German peasant, despite not knowing any German whatsoever, he attempted the feat but was quickly arrested. He was beaten and eventually confessed what he was up to, and he ended up chained up until he passed the box containing the message. It turned out that the French feared trusting their new spy with anything too sensitive, and gave him a useless dummy message. The Prussians were not amused, and beat the unfortunate Tararre again before releasing him.

After that incident, Tararre returned to the military hospital and pleaded with Professor Percy to help him with his raging appetite. The doctor tried everything from opium to tobacco to cure Tararre’s out of control appetite, but nothing helped. The young man was driven by his hunter to stalk the back alleys of Paris, fighting with dogs over scraps of carrion in gutters. In the hospital itself, workers caught him more than once drinking blood from patients being bled. He was eventually banned from the morgue for taking chunks out of the corpses. Finally, a 14 month old infant disappeared from a ward. Doctors and porters blamed Tararre for the disappearance and chased him out of the hospital.

Little is known of what happened to Tararre in the next four years, but he eventually turned up at a hospital in Versailles, where he was admitted to a ward suffering the a suspected case of tuberculosis. He suffered constantly from diarrhea, and died within days of being admitted. Disgusting as he was in life, Tararre was even more putrid in death. His body rotted faster than normal, and was so foul that surgeons were unwilling to dissect him. When they finally did muster up the courage to do so, they found his entrails were swimming in pus, his liver large and swollen, and a massive gallbladder. His stomach was abnormally large, filling the majority of the abdominal cavity. The surgeons could actually see down his throat and into his stomach. His habit of swallowing food whole had distended his gullet.

Tararre’s disgusting and sad story raises the inevitable question–what was wrong with him? The go-to diagnosis seems to be polyphagia, a term for an increased and excessive appetite. However, slapping a term onto his behavior does little to explain why he was so hungry in the first place. While many diseases can cause polyphagia–from diabetes to hyperthyroidism–it is unclear which if any of these Tararre suffered from given the evidence recorded by his doctors. Any diagnosis will be speculative, and so the odds are we will never completely understand what drove Tararre’s enormous, disgusting appetite.

Sources:

Bondeson, Jan. “The Cat Eaters.” Fortean Times. October 2001. Retrieved from: http://www.lightforcenetwork.com/sites/default/files/Fortean%20Times%20%20Cat%20Eaters.pdf

Godman, John D. The Journal of Foreign Medical Science and Literature. Volume 4. pgs 135-136 1824