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Lingering Threat From a Toxic U-Boat

More than 62 years after its violent demise off the coast of Norway, the German submarine U-864 has become a menace once again. Because of its cargo— 1,857 now-rusting canisters holding about 65 tons of mercury—Norwegian authorities have declared the U-boat a serious threat to marine life and humans that can be contained only by entombing it within an underwater sand, rock and concrete sarcophagus.

When it sank on February 9, 1945, U-864 was on a secret mission to Japan, principally carrying plans for the new Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter and engine parts from Germany’s Junkers and BMW factories. By giving his ally access to such advanced technology, Adolf Hitler hoped Japan might regain air superiority in the Pacific and compel the United States to divert more troops and materiel to the Far East.

The British, however, became aware of the scheme and sent the Royal Navy sub Venturer to track down U-864. The two vessels met about 21⁄2 miles from the tiny island of Fedje, located in a fjord near the port of Bergen. Venturer fired four torpedoes at the U-boat, with the final one making contact at 12:14 p.m. U-864 broke in two and sank, along with its 73-man crew, in 500 feet of water.

The sub lay undisturbed until discovered in March 2003 by Norway’s Royal Navy. Two years later, divers recovered a rusted cast-iron bottle containing mercury, one of nearly 2,000 on board intended for weapons production. The Norwegians determined that some of the rusting canisters in the vessel were leaking.

Studies have shown elevated mercury levels in the silt around the 2,400-ton wreck, but so far only fish that live inside it have been contaminated, according to the Norwegian Food Protection Authority. Nevertheless, fish caught in the area have already revealed higher concentrations of mercury, which endangers animals further up the food chain, including humans.

The Norwegian Coastal Administration, Kystverket, has forbidden fishing in the vicinity of the wreck. About 4 kilograms of mercury escaped into the sea in 2006, according to published reports.

For the people of Fedje, leaving the sub where it lies means the toxic cargo will continue to threaten their port—possibly for generations.

The Norwegian environmental group Bellona asked that the wreck be removed, but authorities have deemed trying to raise it too dangerous. “We have to assume that there are still torpedoes on board—at least a couple,” Kystverket spokeswoman Ane Eide Kjeras told Spiegel Online.

-Jon Guttman

A Debt Repaid

In September 1945, Great Britain was in financial duress. Its economy wrecked after six devastating years of war, the nation needed money not only to pay for reconstruction but also to import food. During World War II, the U.S. Lend-Lease program had provided the Allies more than $50 billion in equipment, food and fuel at no cost, but when President Harry S. Truman terminated the arrangement at the end of the war, Britain—to avoid bankruptcy—had no choice but to ask the United States and Canada for aid. The two responded, respectively, with loans of $4.3 billion and $1.2 billion.

It took 61 years, but Britain has finally closed the book on those loans. On December 31, 2006, the Treasury sent final installments of $83.25 million (£42.5m) to the United States and $22.7 million (£11.6m) to Canada. The loans were “vital support which helped…secure peace and prosperity in the postwar period,” British Economic Secretary Ed Balls said in a statement.

Although there has been widespread sentiment in Britain that the loans should have been provided gratis or interest-free, each came with relatively generous terms: a fixed annual interest rate of only 2 percent and a stipulation that they could be paid back in 50 yearly installments, beginning in 1950. It actually took 56 years since six payments were deferred—1956, 1957, 1964, 1965, 1968 and 1976—because of economic or political concerns.

Sixty years of interest had raised the loans’ total to nearly $10 billion, about double their original value, but one can only speculate about what might have happened without them in those first few crucial postwar years.

-Chris Howland

Navy Vet and President

Prior to the state funeral at the U.S. Capitol on December 30, 2006, the hearse carrying the body of former President Gerald R. Ford pauses at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in tribute to the 38th president’s service in the U.S. Navy in World War II. During the war, Ford (shown above, as a lieutenant commander in 1945) served as assistant navigator, athletic officer and antiaircraft battery officer aboard the light aircraft carrier Monterey in nine campaigns from June 1943 to December 1945. The state funeral included a member of the Navy bearing the presidential flag, the Navy Hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a Navy rifle team firing three volleys and a Navy bugler blowing taps.

Il Duce’s Roman Villa Reopens

The Villa Torlonia in Rome, with its classically designed buildings and immaculately manicured gardens spanning several acres, was an apt symbol of the splendor and opulence that marked much of Benito Mussolini’s reign as prime minister of Italy. From 1925 until he was deposed as prime minister on July 25, 1943, Il Duce called the majestic villa home. It was where he could entertain and let his ego run wild, where he could relive some of the glory of Rome’s imperial past, and also where he likely felt most at peace.

After capturing Rome in 1944, Allied forces took control of the complex and established a headquarters there. When they abandoned it two years after the war, it quickly fell into disrepair, and for decades was a haven for extremist underground meetings and for vandals, drug users and the homeless. In 1977 the city of Rome purchased the property and opened its gardens as a public park but kept the villa’s buildings closed.

Now, after a lengthy restoration process costing nearly $6 million, those buildings are open to the public as well—in all their original splendor. The villa’s main building, Casino Nobile, contains a museum with period furniture and sculpture and an art gallery of works by 20th-century Roman painters. Displayed on the walls and ceilings of several buildings are extravagant 19th-century frescoes that were a source of pride and joy for Mussolini.

The complex also includes a Holocaust museum dedicated to the 2,000 Jews who were deported by the Nazis from Rome in 1943-44, and a high-tech playground. Beneath the landscaped park are 3rd- and 4th-century Jewish catacombs in which Mussolini built secret tunnels and a bomb shelter during the war. The reconstruction project allows access to those tunnels.

-Chris Howland

Midway: An Historic Island Getaway

Although historians, tourists and countless veterans and their families make pilgrimages to the scenes of such pivotal WWII battles as Normandy and Stalingrad, the same cannot be said of Midway Atoll, the focus of an epic carrier duel in early June 1942 that stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific theater. However, if a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan pans out, the remote atoll may soon be a lot more accessible.

At the tip of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, established in June 2006, Midway is 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu. Aside from its former importance as a waystation for trans-Pacific aircraft and the battle fought at and around it, Midway is known for its pristine beaches, spinner dolphins and the hundreds of thousands of seabirds that inhabit it— most famously its albatrosses, the so-called “gooney birds.”

Direct access to the atoll and its adjacent islands was effectively cut off in 2002 when the Fish and Wildlife Service’s sole tourist operator pulled out, citing difficulties in making a profit. Since then, the limited options for reaching Midway have been via cruise ship from Asia, hitching a ride with resident government workers or volunteering for a three-month stint doing environmental work.

FWS Pacific Islands spokeswoman Barbara Maxfield said the agency is drafting a visitor plan and could start a regularly scheduled visitor program to Midway as early as this summer. The initial plan would probably accommodate fewer than 30 visitors at a time. “We would very much like to welcome visitors back on a more regular basis,” Maxfield said.

The draft plan, including an environmental assessment, is expected to be released for public review and comment early this year. The proposal will also be scrutinized by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. Peter Young, the department’s director, said, “It is a special place and, as such, we need to make sure that our decisions are not made for today but really made for tomorrow.”

-Jon Guttman

Not Your Ordinary Hat Rack

Amon G. Carter Sr. always considered himself a true Texas cowboy, and even when he found fame and fortune he never forgot his humble roots. In the first half of the 20th century, in fact, Carter was the public face of Fort Worth, a now-booming metropolis that still bears his legacy, as well as much of northern and western Texas.

Raised in the late 19th century in a one-room log cabin in the tiny town of Crafton, not far from Fort Worth, Carter proved to be a natural entrepreneur. He was also an easygoing, candid storyteller who gambled and drank freely, made friends effortlessly and was frequently generous with his money. That often put him in a select group of cronies, which helped him gain considerable influence both in the region and nationally.

Carter earned his first fortune as the creator and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and later started the city’s first radio station. In 1935 he struck oil in the dusty plains of New Mexico. Back in Texas, he opened the state’s first television station in 1948. He also operated the Shady Oak Farm, which helped turn his beloved Fort Worth into a famous gathering place for visiting celebrities and businessmen.

In 1945 Carter established the Amon G. Carter Foundation to help provide financial support to local organizations and to revitalize Fort Worth’s downtown area. Upon his death in 1955, Carter’s will stipulated that a museum be built in the city for his art collection, which included works by the likes of Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington. The Amon Carter Museum opened in 1961.

One of Carter’s most unusual private collections was a grouping of 24 hats belonging to former World War II generals and admirals. During the war and soon after, Carter had contacted prominent military leaders, offering to exchange Stetson hats for a cap or hat they wore during the war. Last October, for unspecified reasons, the collection was put up for live auction on eBay by the James D. Julia Auction Company. The lot, with an estimated value of $38,00 to $45,000, was sold to an unidentified bidder for $90,000.

Carter’s cap collection was a who’s who of WWII military greats, and though many of the hats are in less than perfect condition (i.e., staining, detached sweatbands, crumpling, separation of felt, moth nips, scuffs), the auction received tremendous interest from live, in-house and telephone bidders.

Among the notable military leaders and hats represented in the collection are Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jonathan M. Wainwright and Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and William “Bull” Halsey.

-David Lesjak

A Fortunate Head Butt

When the horse My Buddy Chimo butted Don Karkos in the head on December 8, 2006, the paddock security guard at New York’s Monticello Raceway was more than a little shaken.

“It was totally out of character,” Karkos told the New York Daily News. “He’s been a good horse, very wellmannered, and then he did this….Being kicked is part of the job, but I’ve never been hit that hard.”

Karkos can’t complain now, however. During World War II, as a seaman on board the tanker USS Rapaden, he was blinded in his right eye when shrapnel from an explosion struck his forehead. For more than 60 years, doctors assured Karkos that he would never see out of the eye again, but it seems My Buddy Chimo was able to do something all those doctors couldn’t.

When Karkos went home the night of the incident, he said he suddenly discovered that he could see out of his damaged eye again—up to about 15 feet. Not perfect, but a whole lot better than the alternative.

“What happened is still a mystery to me,” he told the Daily News. “I do know I had gotten used to not seeing things and bumping into walls, and I don’t do that anymore.”

According to Dr. Douglas Lozzaro, an eye specialist at Long Island College Hospital, it is likely the horse butted Karkos in the same location as his WWII injury, thus knocking what must have been a dislocated lens back into place.

“Raceway employees aren’t allowed to bet, but if I could, that horse would definitely have my money riding on him,” Karkos said.

-Chris Howland

Heroic Pearl Harbor Airman Dies

Kenneth Marlar Taylor, one of the few fighter pilots to get airborne and oppose the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, died on November 25, 2006, in Tucson, Ariz., at the age of 86.

Born in Enid, Okla., Taylor was a lieutenant in the 47th Pursuit Squadron and was sleeping off the effects of an officers’ party the previous night when awakened by exploding bombs on the morning of December 7, 1941. Throwing on his tuxedo pants from the party, Taylor ran to his car, joined by Lieutenant George S. Welch, and the two drove 10 miles to Haleiwa airfield. They jumped into their Curtiss P-40s and were airborne within minutes. Each shot down a Japanese bomber, although determining which airman drew first blood remains uncertain to this day. Both pilots flew two sorties that day, with Taylor being credited with downing two enemy planes and Welch claiming four. During the second flight, a bullet entered Taylor’s plane, passed through his arm and sent fragments into his leg.

Taylor flew throughout the Pacific campaign and retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel in 1967, and from the Alaska Air National Guard in 1971 as a brigadier general. In addition to receiving (along with Welch) one of the first Distinguished Service Crosses of WWII, Taylor also received the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Air Medal and Purple Heart.

-Jon Guttman


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here