The Prisoners Who Played for their Lives

The baseball team from Wyoming State Penitentiary

The baseball team from Wyoming State Penitentiary

‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s much more important than that.’

So said Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool football manager. It’s a great line, but that’s all it is. For some unlucky men, though, sport – baseball – really was a matter of life and death

Wyoming State Penitentiary

Wyoming State Penitentiary

In what promises to be a fascinating book,  The Death Row All Stars: A Story of Baseball, Corruption and Murder, Chriss Enss and Howard Kazanjian ell the story of the death-row inmates of Wyoming State Penitentiary, who for one unbeaten season played the best baseball of their lives – and with good reason.

In Rawlins, Wyoming, in 1911, when Babe Ruth  was playing his way into baseball’s history and earning bookies fortunes, other players were on the field for much higher stakes than mere dollars.

Wyoming Penitentiary’s Warden Felix Alston formed the team, making his childhood friend, George Saban, its captain.

Saban, who happened to be serving 20 years for triple murder, was allowed to come and go from the prison as he pleased, to take bets on his team’s games in the local bars – taking a 20pc commission for himself in the process.

It was a lucrative business with the added allure for the locals that many of the men playing on ‘The Cons’ team, as one newspaper described it, would soon be executed.

Death row player Joseph Seng

Death row player Joseph Seng

Saban would provide local gamblers with updates on the team’s players.   Joseph Seng was one of those players. He was on death-row for the murder of his lover’s husband.

Seng, like the rest of the team, was under no illusion as to what they were really playing for. The book reveals a letter he wrote from prison, in which he states:  ‘prisoners who make errors that cost the team a game would have more time added to their sentence. Winning would lead to reduced time and stays of execution’.

The ‘incentive’ seemed to work because the team never lost.

Seng’s own execution was scheduled for August 22, 1911, but he obviously impressed the warden with his playing skills because he was still alive for the team’s fourth victory, on August 23.

Stories were getting out to local politicians about the goings on in Rawlins. Pressure was mounting on the warden to stop the practice. So, after the team’s fourth win, Alston decided to replace baseball with education for inmates.

What was a cruel and exploitative practice was ended – but that didn’t save Joseph Seng. He was executed on May 24, 1912.

Unfortunately, playing as though your life depended on it was not unique to Rawlins.

George Horner, of whom I’ve written before, was 19 years old when he and his family were sent to Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis, in 1942.

The camp was used for propaganda purposes, to show the Red Cross and the world that Jews were being treated well there.  It depicted a model community where people could live comfortably and in a creative and friendly atmosphere.

The reality, however, was that Terezin was a holding camp, whose inmates would later be shipped on to the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

George Horner, Holocaust Survivor

George Horner, Holocaust Survivor

George  played piano and accordion in the Terezin cabarets.  Frank Grunwald was also an accordion player. The Nazis obviously liked him. His life was saved from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by his ability to improvise American Jazz music A talented sculptor, his story is told in the moving documentary Misa’s Fugue.

Others who performed were Alice Herz-Sommer, a child piano prodigy who was forced to play over 800 recitals while she was there. Alice survived the Nazis and outlived everyone of her era,, too. She died in February, 2014, at the grand old age of 111.

And Helmut Spritzer literally whistled for his life as part of the Theresiendstadt orchestra to entertain SS officers Adolf Eichman, Heinrich Himmler, and Dr. Josef Mengele

This appreciation of music amongst the Nazi monsters saved many prisoners’ lives. Talented musicians were given better jobs or enabled them to play with the camp orchestra.

The documentary, They Played For Their Lives, tells the story of those musicians in Auschwitz who were forced to give recitals to their tormentors.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, was the cellist of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra. On the programme, she speaks of how she owed her life to her musical ability: “the cello really saved my life because to be in this orchestra was a way of survival, because as long as they wanted music they would be foolish to put us in the gas chambers”.

The orchestra played marches as the slave labourers left the camp for each day’s work and when they returned later in the day. They also gave concerts for the SS, who guarded them.

For those musicians who did survive the camps their relationship with music was more than special.

Last year, at the grand age of 90. George Horner invoked that relationship in a moving performance at Boston Symphony Hall. Alongside renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma he played the music he had performed in Terezin 70 years before.

Horner’s life was dangled before him as an incentive to entertain with his recitals, but he has proved that the the purity of music can outlast the most evil of regimes.

The death row baseball players of Wyoming State Penitentiary may not have been as blameless as those condemned to the concentration camps, but they were pawns in a corrupt system that played cruel games with their lives.

‘Playing as though your life depended on it’ is a phrase that will never feel the same again.

 

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Denmark’s Secret Army

On August 15, 1939, an English passenger plane from British Airways Ltd. crashed in Danish waters between the towns of Nykøbing Falster and Vordingborg. There were five casualties reported and one survivor. Just two weeks before, Hitler invaded Poland.

With the world at the brink of war, the manner in which this incident was investigated left much open to doubt. The jurisdiction battle between the two towns and the newly formed Danish secret police created an atmosphere of intrigue and distrust.

Bridge of DeathsOne of those who died was the maternal grandfather of author MCV Egan, who has used these events to create her novel, The Bridge of Deaths, a love story and mystery all rolled into one. 

The novel is the culmination of 18 years of sifting through conventional and unconventional sources in Denmark, England, Mexico and the United States. Here, Maria Catalina Vergara Egan explains what she unearthed during her research.

 

 

Danish resistance fighters

Danish resistance fighters

I was recently approached via Facebook by a Danish gentleman. He was organizing old papers and found a negative of a photograph; it was a picture of a British Airways Ltd Lockheed Electra 10A, call letters G-AESY, after it was salvaged from the water in August of 1939.

The photograph was taken by his grandfather, an amateur photographer. I was so happy and surprised to learn that by simply Googling the call letters of the plane he found me with ease.

Flight G-AESY., which crashed in mysterious circumstances

Flight G-AESY., which crashed in mysterious circumstances

I won’t deny for a moment how hard I have worked on making my cyber footprint as large as can be, but the feeling was still fantastic. The feeling of fun and excitement took me back fourteen years to the turn of the millennium when by word of mouth, snail mail inquiries, and sheer luck I was able to connect with fascinating people who had information about or related in some way to the crash of the G-AESY.

Interviewing and researching Danes in regards to WWII is not as easy as one may think. In a country where philosophies were much divided in that era, the comment “some Danes won’t look good” was uttered more than once in discomfort even by those who were so kind to help me.

Amongst the many who were helpful, one gentleman in particular left a strong impression. Eric, although he was, frankly, too young to fight during WWII, still carried the guilt that he did not find the way or the courage to join the Danish resistance during that time. As a problem solver and not one to wallow in discomfort of the past, he found, in his later years, a way to somehow be a part of the Danish resistance: He chose to seek out and record Resistance members who may have otherwise been forgotten.

He spent decades interviewing and taping hundreds of Danes. Every story was personal and important to him. He had an uncanny recollection of each and every one.

The room housing his library of interviews was not very small at all, and covered wall-to-wall with tapes.

One of the men he interviewed, Viggo, had started his interview discussing the crash of the G-AESY, which I investigate in The Bridge of Deaths: “As I recall, to me WWII began in the summer of 1939 when an airplane crashed near my town and a British Member of Parliament was killed…”

Viggo had joined the resistance as a 17-year-old, and remained active throughout the war. The perceptions of a seventeen-year-old were hardly better information than anything I found in the various archives (especially the Danish ones), but that day gave me an understanding, a window into the Danish Resistance Movement, that to this day makes me ponder about the amazing importance of the unsung heroes, the invisible ones that risk it all with conviction and not conscription.

Although Denmark was occupied by the Germans on April 9, 1940, it was a country with a unique and strange standing during WWII, because it was never “officially” at war with the Germans.

This makes the Danish Resistance Movement all that more interesting and unique. Although it was not officially recognized by the allies, it was easy to see by the exhibits at the Museum of Danish Resistance that the Movement was certainly put to very good use. (Today, the Museum remains closed due to a serious fire, but in my visits in 2000 and 2002 I got to learn and benefit from all their amazing exhibits.)

MCV Egan

MCV Egan

Denmark was a divided country in its loyalties and beliefs during WWII. When I worked with the Danish files at the police station in Vordingborg, I had to understand that some of the men I was researching could well have been shipped off to German work camps and others may well have had to, at least superficially, affiliate themselves with their occupier.

As someone with the privilege and benefit to have always lived in places of peace, far be it for me to imagine how I would react, especially if fighting would endanger my child. The choices made under such duress surely cannot be judged under the same premise as those made under ordinary circumstances. As such I could not, and cannot, understand the ‘embarrassment’ conveyed by the Danish people who were so open and helpful.

I often wonder about other clandestine movements, much like the Danish Resistance, that may have not succeeded even with the best of intentions, and whose heroes we may well know as culprits.

 

Find M.C.V. Egan and The Bridge of Deaths on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and online.

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The Truth About Traitors…

For quite some time, it appears that I’ve been surrounding myself with treacherous deeds and hardly been aware of it.

Brendan O'Carroll

Brendan O’Carroll

Peter O'Carroll, murdered

Peter O’Carroll, murdered

Last night, I watched a documentary. It followed the highly successful Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll, who was the subject of an edition of Who Do You Think You Are?. If you don’t already know, the programme is a kind of genealogy detective hunt of a celebrity’s ancestors.

I was interested because I happen to like O’Carroll, but also because his grandfather had

been murdered by persons unknown during the Irish War of Independence. A note had been pinned to his body claiming he had been shot as a traitor by the IRA.

O’Carroll’s hunt revealed that his grandad, Peter O’Carroll, had in fact, been assassinated by a member of British Intelligence because he would not give up his sons, who were active volunteers in the IRA at the time.

Jocelyn Lee Hardy

Jocelyn Lee Hardy

O’Carroll had always suspected that the note on his grandad’s body was bogus. He had it confirmed in the end, and even had the name and picture of the assassin, a one-legged war hero by the name Jocelyn Lee Hardy.

It was a fascinating, true story – involving murder and alleged traitors, and it had all happened in my old neighbourhood, just around the corner from my family home.

My own interest in treachery is evident in the subject matter of my new novel, which tells the story of the hunt to unmask a traitor within the IRA during the War of Independence.

Oddly, though, it’s only dawned on me in the last few days that I have been preoccupied with treachery and foul deeds for a lot longer than that.

My first published book, Tan, had a character who betrayed his own family in order to better himself, and my second book – The Golden Grave – sees friends fall out and do terrible things for the lure of treasure.

Stories of treachery can make for fascinating reading, but they can be uncomfortable, too.  For one thing, they sometimes don’t fit the narrative we have grown to associate with certain subjects. Take the example of the Jews who fought for Hitler during the Second World War.

Yes, that really did happen.

It was a quirk of history that had its origins when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939.

Finland had been ruled by Russia until its independence in 1917. Under Russian law, Jews had been conscripted into the army at the age of ten and had been forced to enlist for up to 25 years.

Therefore, it was almost without exception that the Jews of Finland were descended from Russian soldiers who had been posted to the region during their military service.

As a result, Finland’s Jews were always viewed with a little suspicion by the rest of the population. So, when Russia invaded Finland in 1939, Jewish citizens took the opportunity to prove their patriotism and joined up to fight the Soviet forces.

Both sides battled each other to an uneasy standstill, until Hitler decided to launch Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of Russia, in 1941. That’s when things became a little complicated for Finland’s Jewish troops.

Finland and Germany soon agreed a pact in which both fought their common enemy. In fact, there were occasions when Finnish Jews and Germans fought side by side against the Russians.

One Jewish Finn was even awarded one of the Nazi’s highest military accolades.

Major Leo Skurnik, a Jewish medical officer (second row, second from right)

Major Leo Skurnik, a Jewish medical officer (second row, second from right)

In September 1941, Major Leo Skurnik, a medical officer,  organised the evacuation of a field hospital on the Finnish-Russian border, saving the lives of over 600 men in the process, including members of the SS.

He did so showing little regard for his own safety, and in the face of heavy Soviet shelling. For his bravery Skurnik received the Iron Cross from the German High Command.

Many of these Jewish soldiers had relatives in Poland. They were certainly aware of the suppression that was going on there and were aware of Hitler’s policies, even if they didn’t know about the gas chambers. Had they considered what their fate would be if the Nazis actually won their war against Stalin’s forces?

Some Jews would be aghast to know that their own people would serve with the very troops who were responsible for the Holocaust.

As far as Finland’s fighting Jews were concerned, though, they were Finns first – engaged in a defensive war against Russia while their ally was fighting an offensive one. For them, it was a case of patriotism above self-preservation.

That is a notion, however, which doesn’t sit well with those African-Americans who betrayed their own communities by spying for white segregationists in Mississippi in the Sixties.

Yes, that also happened.

No logic in the world would make one think such a thing was possible. but in fact, as the documentary Spies of Mississippi outlines, several black Americans preferred the certainty of the old white supremacist system to that being promulgated by the youthful arrogance of a new generation.

In one case information provided by an African-American spy led to the infamous murder of three civil rights activists in June, 1964.

 James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (top to bottom)

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (top to bottom)

The men, Michael Schwerner (24), Andrew Goodman (20), both from New York and James Chaney (22), from Meridian Mississippi, were all members of the Congress of Racial Equality, a group dedicated to non-violent direct action against racial discrimination.

They were part of  the ‘Freedom Summer‘ campaign, which was a bid to register African-Americans to vote. The men’s bodies were discovered a little over 50 years ago, on August 4, 1964.

It later transpired that the spy in question had passed on their car’s license plate to white segregationists, who in turn passed it on to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Their murders created uproar across America and led to a FBI crackdown in the state that went a great way towards achieving the very goals those three young men had given their lives for.

It is worth remembering, though, that traitors can also bring hope.  After all, America’s founding father’s were viewed as such by their colonial rulers.

Treachery is one of the building blocks of history.  It can bring out the very worst in some and the very best in those who fight against it.

Such behaviour is part of the human condition – wreaking havoc and causing heartache as its ripples spread wider. Yet, it is in our DNA and, as galling as it is to say, the world would be a duller place without it.

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Staring Death in the Face

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Death comes to us all, but it’s how we live right up to that very final moment that can often show our true character.

Private Eddie Slovik, the only GI to be executed by his own side in World War II (and of whom I’ve written before), raged at his imminent demise in the minutes before they strapped him to a post to kill him.

‘I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.

‘They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army. They just need to make an example of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con.’

Eddie was killed because he was a deserter, but he had never gone on the run, instead he had handed himself in and simply stated that he preferred prison to battle. That wish was denied him and, on January 31, 1945, he was executed by firing squad. Who can blame his anger at the injustice of it all?

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

Others have taken a more sanguine approach to imminent death. In 1922, Erskine Childers was executed in Beggars Bush Barracks by the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War.

Childers was an historian and author of the acclaimed The Riddle of The Sands (a book I loved to read as a boy). In 1914, almost a hundred years ago to the day, he famously brought a shipload of weapons from Germany to Irish nationalists on board his boat, the Asgard. It was a pivotal act in Irish history and formed the basis of the armed struggle against British power.

Later, he was part of the delegation that traveled to London with Michael Collins to negotiate a treaty with the British. He later broke with Collins on the issue and supported the IRA nationalists who fought the Free State.

When Collins was killed, emergency laws were brought in ordering the death sentence for anyone caught with unauthorised weapons. Childers was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gun that had actually been given to him by Michael Collins as a gift back when they were on the same side.

The Free State wanted vengeance for Collins and so Childers paid the ultimate price. But Childers himself wasn’t one for revenge. On the eve of his death he asked to speak to his sixteen year-old son (also Erskine, who would one day become President of Ireland).

Erskine senior made his son promise that he would seek out every one who had signed his death warrant… and shake their hands. The following day he was was shot at the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, he said one more thing to the men about to kill him.

“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

And then they shot him.

My grandfather was one of those who pulled the trigger. He never spoke much about it, only telling my father that it was a bad business.

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Others have faced death in similar fashion. A remarkable series of photographs show IRA Volunteers Paddy Moran and Thomas Whelan about to be executed by the British in Mountjoy Jail in 1921.

The men were sentenced to die for their parts in the assassination of British intelligence officers on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. They are pictured posing happily with their captors. In one photograph, Whelan even has his arm around one British officer. A few minutes later both prisoners were hanged.

In World War I, German spy Karl Lody showed his mettle when he was in the Tower of London awaiting death.

Born in Berlin in 1877, Lody graduated as a captain from the Maritime Academy in Geestemünde in 1904, but became ill and was never able to take up the post. He married an American. Under a forged U.S. passport he traveled Europe, speaking English with an American accent.

Karl Lody

Karl Lody

When war broke out, German intelligence thought he would be useful and sent him to spy on the British naval base at Rosyth, in Scotland.

Lody was eventually tracked due to his own carelessness – he stopped encrypting his messages and even wrote them in German. He was tried and sentenced to death.

The day before his execution, on November 6, 1914, he wrote a letter to his jailers, in which he stated:

‘I feel it is my duty as a German officer to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the guards and sentries… Although they never neglected their duty, they have shown always the utmost courtesy and consideration towards me.’

So impressed was Lody by them, that he even left a sixpence tip to show his gratitude. The guards, apparently, found it all a difficult business… but they still managed to take him out and kill him.

We are strange, strange creatures. Stories such as these only reinforce the pride and shame we feel in our own humanity, leaving us with the faint hope that, come the day, we too might meet our Maker with such grace and fortitude.

 

 

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The Not-so-Great Train Robbers

Jack Graham-Parker was convicted of indecent exposure at Edinburgh station on three days in March 1920. He was sentenced to 60 days imprisonment

Jack Graham-Parker was convicted of indecent exposure at Edinburgh station on three days in March 1920. He was sentenced to 60 days imprisonment

Here we are in the centenary of World War One. There have been many ceremonies, many articles on the price paid by those who fought in the trenches.

John Moir, a goods checker at Leith Walk Goods Yard, stole some tea and was fined £3 or 10 days imprisonment in April 1920

John Moir, a goods checker at Leith Walk Goods Yard, stole some tea and was fined £3 or 10 days imprisonment in April 1920

I recently read one on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – the trigger that led to over four years carnage, and I’m sure I’ll be reading more as we hit the various milestones of terror that form the history of those years.

Private Roy Crooks, of the 2nd Battalion Australian Forces, stole a suitcase from Edinburgh Waverley station in January 1918 and was fined £7 or 30 days imprisonment

Private Roy Crooks, of the 2nd Battalion Australian Forces, stole a suitcase from Edinburgh Waverley station in January 1918 and was fined £7 or 30 days imprisonment

We think of those times and tend to get swallowed up by the epic nature of the events – the battles, the espionage, the life and death moments of individual soldiers, frightened and alone while breathing their last lungful of cordite-tainted air.

It’s all pretty dramatic stuff, but during and after those fateful  days, there were more mundane things happening, too…and some less than impressive foot soldiers of history.

John Yates, alias John Hewitt, Patrick Hines, John Miller and John Roy, was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour in March 1921 for theft of a parcel of clothing

John Yates, alias John Hewitt, Patrick Hines, John Miller and John Roy, was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour in March 1921 for theft of a parcel of clothing

I came across these images quite a while ago. They are mugshots, published courtesy of the British Transport Police’s History Group, of crooks – caught stealing luggage mostly – at train stations in the early part of the 20th Century.

I never wrote about them at the time because I wasn’t sure what could be said. What I like about the images is the level of character that comes through on their faces. One of them (John Yates) I have even included in a new novel that I am writing.

Margaret McConnell, while employed at Edinburgh Waverley station, stole parcels from an office and was fined £5 or 30 days imprisonment

Margaret McConnell, while employed at Edinburgh Waverley station, stole parcels from an office and was fined £5 or 30 days imprisonment

Their crimes, committed, around and about 1920, are unimpressive – pathetic in the case of Jack Graham-Parker – but here’s the thing… it is people just like these who made the history of the Great War.

They were the soldiers and the nurses, the cogs in the wheel that made history turn. It was these people and many others who entered that hellish cauldron and managed to emerge years later, scraping together some semblance of a life in the aftermath of the horror.

I look at their faces now and try to imagine what they saw of the Great War and what scars they took with them when they finally left the front line.

Every picture tells a story… think of the ones you could write from a few forgotten mugshots.

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Adolf Hitler and the Battle of Little Bighorn

Popular depiction of 'Custer's Last Stand'

Popular depiction of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’

You may not think the words in the headline above belong in the same sentence, but history throws up some intriguing links sometimes. This one caught my eye a while back, but I think now is a fitting time to share it.

We’re fast approaching the 138th anniversary of, arguably, America’s most ignominious military defeat. It was on June 25, 1876, that a bunch of ‘savages’ under Chief Sitting Bull aninhilated the command of the charismatic, vainglorious Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

‘Custer’s Last Stand’, as it became known in the media, was portrayed as a noble fight in which over 200 men lost their lives fighting a force of approximately 2,000 Indian warriors.

The iconic image of the day was of Custer, his golden locks flowing in the wind, standing shoulder to shoulder with his men as they tried to stem the advancing horde of blood-lusting Indians.

The soldiers were portrayed as brave souls who stood their ground against overwhelming odds. As potent as that image was, it ignored evidence that the battle was a much messier affair, with several  little ‘last stands’ taking place at various points of the battlefield.

Captain Myles Keogh

Captain Myles Keogh

Captain Myles Keogh, the commander of I Company (one of five companies to be wiped out on that day), led one such ‘stand’ in which men actually fought shoulder to shoulder.

Keogh was a Carlow man who had served with distinction in the Papal wars, had been an officer of the Vatican Guard and had then gone on to fight with the Union side in the American Civil War, ending his service as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Keogh’s body was said to have been found at the centre of a group of troopers that included his two company sergeants, his trumpeter and his guidon bearer.

Like his comrades, he had been stripped of his clothing, but not mutilated, perhaps because of the religious medal he wore around his neck.

The spot where Captain Myles Keogh fell on the battlefield

The spot where Captain Myles Keogh fell on the battlefield

Keogh’s horse, Commanche, was later celebrated throughout America as being the only survivor found on the battlefield. He had been badly wounded but would survive the ordeal and live out his final years at Fort Riley, Kansas.

But what has any of this got to do with that little Austrian Corporal Adolf Hitler, I hear you ask. Well, it so happens that Myles Keogh’s grandnephew was one Michael Keogh, a man with just as interesting a military pedigree as his late relation.

Keogh, an ardent republican, had enlisted in the British Army in 1913. He became a POW during the war, joined the Irish Brigade and then later enlisted in the German Army as he felt the Germans could advance the republican cause in Ireland.

He rose to the rank of Field Lieutenant. In his regiment he met a certain Lance Corporal called Adolf Hitler. He actually saw Hitler on a stretcher when he was wounded at Ligny in 1916.

After the war, Keogh joined the Freikorps, an early fascist organisation sworn to smash Communism. He was duty officer at a Munich barracks when he was called to quell a riot that had erupted in a gym.

Michael Keogh

Michael Keogh

When he got there a crowd of some 200 soldiers were busy beating two men to a pulp.  Some of the attackers held bayonets and it seemed to Keogh that the two victims were about to die.

He ordered his men to fire a volley over the heads of the mob. The crowd dispersed and Keogh managed to drag the two victims out of the gym “cut, bleeding and in need of the doctor”.

Keogh recalled: “The fellow with the moustache gave his name as Adolf Hitler. It was the Lance Corporal of Ligny. I would not have recognised him. He was thin and emaciated from his wounds.”

After the war he’d say: “If we’d been a few minutes later or Hitler had got a few more kicks to his old wounds or he’d been shot — what would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and he’d died?”

It’s a fascinating story that would torment Keogh for the rest of his life.

In his memoirs, Keogh also refers to a time when he was undergoing military training in America before World War I while doing service with the National Guard. He tells of how he was on a mounted infantry course at Ft. Riley and that he actually rode Commanche (who was then, according to Keogh, 34 years old).

It was the image of the young Michael Keogh riding the only mount left standing on the bloody field of the Little Bighorn that got me writing this post. The notion of the grandnephew (and Hitler’s saviour) riding his granduncle’s horse was fascinating.

Unfortunately, in my research for this article I encountered one small problem with Michael Keogh’s memoir (With Casement’s Irish Brigade)  – namely that Commanche died aged 29 years in either 1890 or 1891. Michael Keogh was born in 1891.

This incongruity is not to suggest that anything else in Michael’s memoir is suspect. I think what happened was quite prosaic… Michael may have told those at Ft Riley about his illustrious relative. Possibly, somebody there spun a yarn about Commanche being still alive and let Michael ride her for ‘old time’s sake’.

It’s a pity, because it would have tied two strands of history even closer together. Even without the Commanche connection, though, it’s a remarkable thing that two members of the same Carlow family could have been involved with such famous figures during such pivotal moments from history.

History with a twist, indeed…

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The D-Day Dogs

Last week saw the 70th anniversary of D-Day, on June 6, 1944. Newspapers and airwaves were filled with stories from that momentous event and with images of the surviving participants, now stooped with age and weighed down with their medals and their memories.

French President, Francois Hollande hosted world leaders, ranging from the Queen of England and Barack Obama to Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. There were all there to mark the moment the liberation of Europe finally began, when brave young men raced into a storm of German bullets and gave their lives for freedom.

But there was one section of the invasion force that was overlooked by all those present. Monty may have got a mention, but that was only the General. There was no reference to his namesake or to Bing, or Ranee for that matter.

If you’re finding this a little hard to follow and suspect that I am barking mad, that’s understandable because those names refer to three of our canine friends who leapt into the unknown on D-Day and helped bring Hitler to heel.

In his book, 13 – Lucky for Some: The History Of The 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion, Andrew Woolhouse tells how these ‘paradogs’  become true dogs of war.

'Paradogs' Monty and Bing with handler Cpl Aaron Watson

‘Paradogs’ Monty and Bing with handler Cpl Aaron Watson

Bing was one of them. Trained to sniff out mines, he also learned how to leap from planes thousands of feet high and even to attack sentries.

Lance Corporal Ken Bailey ran the War Dog Training School in Hertfordshire where the dogs were taught how to sniff out TNT and cordite, as well as how to keep low when bullets were bring fired all around them.

They also had to become accustomed to sitting patiently for hours on noisy transport aircraft taking them to their drop zones.

A parachute that had originally been designed to drop bicycles from aircraft was fitted to the dogs. Getting them to jump into the wide blue yonder was not so difficult. They were deprived of food and drink before the jump. Their handler would then lure them from the plane with tasty chunks of meat.

Bailey kept note of the training progress. On April 2, 1944, he wrote:

‘After my chute developed, I turned to face the line of flight; the dog [Ranee] was 30 yards away and slightly above. The chute had opened and was oscillating slightly. Ranee looked somewhat bewildered but showed no sign of fear. I called out and she immediately turned in my direction and wagged her tail vigorously.

‘The dog touched down 80 feet before I landed. She was completely relaxed, making no attempt to anticipate or resist the landing, rolled over once, scrambled to her feet and stood looking round.’

On D-Day, Bing’s jump didn’t go so well. Like many paratroopers, he landed in a tree where, injured by shrapnel from German mortars, he hung for two hours before being rescued.

But Bing and the other dogs were soon doing what they did best, sniffing out mines, and thereby saving lives.

‘They would sniff excitedly over it for a few seconds and then sit down looking back at the handler with a quaint mixture of smugness and expectancy,’ Bailey wrote.

Unfortunately, Monty was severely wounded on D-Day, while Ranee was disappeared soon after landing and was never seen again.

Bing survived the war, and went on to receive the Dicken Medal, Britain’s highest honour for animals. After the war he returned to his original owner, Betty French, and lived a happy life until dying of natural causes in 1955.

Bing’s story is even told in the children’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Bing the Parachuting Dog, written by Gil Boyd, who was himself a former paratrooper.

A life-sized model of the dog can be found in the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Museum in Duxford… standing proud and wearing his parachute.

D-Day was a remarkable event, in some ways even more so now that we know of Bing, France’s four-legged liberator who leapt into history.

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