Monday, October 13, 2014


            In what was the first combined use of seaborne and airborne military units in history, the people of neutral Norway found themselves under attack by Nazi Germany on April 9th and 10th 1940. It came as an unmitigated shock to the unprepared people of that Scandinavian country since they had declared their neutrality under international law, just as they had done in WW I. Even with the assistance of British forces and not without some naval losses itself, Germany completed the defeat and occupation of Norway in a matter of three weeks  Because Norway had unwisely required its citizens to register personal firearms, the invaders were able to identify every owner and thus confiscate virtually every gun in the country within hours, leaving the citizenry without the ability to put up any meaningful defense even as their ill-equipped and small military were being overwhelmed. Thus the people of a country known for its love of independence and home rule found themselves looking at four long years of bitter suppression under its jack-booted conquerors.
            While the King and government leaders managed to escape and eventually establish a government-in-exile in Great Britain along with thousands of their countrymen, the spark of patriotism was alive and well in the land the Germans mistakenly believed to be supine and helpless. A resistance movement quickly took shape, and with the clandestine support of Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) began a well-organized and dedicated secret war of their own.
            To understand what life in occupied Norway was like during this period, it is important to recall the name of a traitor named Vidkun Quisling, a former military officer and founder of Norway’s National Socialist political party and admirer of Adolph Hitler, with whom he enjoyed a personal friendship. Quisling was a collaborator of the occupiers from the start, and eventually became the Reichcommissioner – or titular leader – to the utter disgust of the citizenry who saw to it that he was first to face a firing squad in 1945 at war’s end. The very name became an epithet during the war years, and many people were assigned the sobriquet “Quisling” if they were perceived to be traitors.
            And this brings us to a resistance leader named Gunnar Sonsteby who was 22 years old when he traveled to England to receive Special Ops. training and returned home to begin blowing up locomotives, military armories, German aircraft and anything else that could thwart or slow Nazi exploitation of his homeland and its people. The extent and ingenuity of his sabotage activities, even as he provided inspired leadership to other resistance units remains almost without parallel. In one coups he engineered the theft of plates for the printing of Norwegian currency kept in national vaults to be smuggled out to the government-in-exile, and when it was learned that the Nazis were preparing to establish a system for inducting citizens into service on the Eastern Front he blew up the office of forced labor putting an end to the enterprise. And as is now known, the Norwegian Resistance put finis to Hitler’s atomic bomb program by destroying their heavy water plant at Telemark.
            As in other occupied countries, the Germans were bleeding Norway’s agricultural production dry and when an even more aggressive rationing system was about to be put in place, Sonsteby arranged the theft of 75,000 newly-printed ration books setting the program on its heels. Meanwhile, his group continued blowing up trains, repair depots, parts manufacturing facilities, field guns and setting fires to oil storage sites.
            A master of disguise, Sonsteby constantly changed between 40 different identities while known among his fellow resistance leaders simply as “The Chin” and to his SOE controllers as “Agent 24”.
            When Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sonsteby passed away in 2008 at the age of 94, he had been honored by more awards than any other Norwegian, and perhaps more than any Allied fighter in WWII.

  Keeping a proud memory alive, Gunnar Sonsteby’s image appears on the vertical tail of a                                                 
   Norwegian commercial jetliner today.                                   Photo by Chris Cooper

Thursday, October 2, 2014


            Long considered one of the “seven wonders of the world,” and second only to the great pyramid of Giza in size and grandeur, the Pharos light marking the entrance to the port of Alexandria, Egypt could be seen by ships nearly 100 miles at sea. It was built around 280 BC from stone and masonry rising to a height of nearly 600 feet. One can only marvel that its light source – reflected by a bronze mirror – was a fire which burned 24 hours a day and which was fed by fuel raised by workers and possibly a dumbwaiter from sea level below. And despite great storms and numerous earthquakes, its light shone for 1500 years!
            In fact, for 10,000 years of human life on earth, fire of one size or another was the only source of light to penetrate the long hours of darkness. Among my treasured artifacts is a tiny olive oil lamp whose meager glow is a sweet-smelling reminder of those modest light sources described throughout the New Testament, whose wicks needed frequent trimming and whose reservoirs should be kept filled and ready.
            The first of my ancestors to come to the New World pioneered Nantucket Island in the early 1600s where he and his sons became prosperous building and outfitting the whaling ships which plied the northern seas to harvest spermaceti and whale oil which became the favored fuel for the young nation’s hundreds of lighthouses and many homes, and which, despite its high price reached a peak of 17 million gallons by 1845. Whale oil was largely replaced as a lamp fuel by a mixture of alcohol and turpentine known as camphene, of which 90 million gallons hit the market by the Civil War year of 1862 and which was half the price of whale oil.
            All of this began to change when, in 1846, a Canadian named Alexander Gesner discovered a method for extracting oil from certain kinds of coal which he named kerosene, often referred to at the time as coal oil, or paraffin in England. With the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, from which it was quickly learned that kerosene could be distilled far more easily,  the age of kerosene-fueled lighting and heating seemed here to stay; and in a way it has, since the world’s jet engines today use that very fuel. At the worldwide rate of 5 million barrels per day!
            By 1875 coal oil street lamps began to appear in towns across the country and with them a unique but familiar public employee immortalized in song. (I recently pulled from my extensive collection of old LP albums “The Old Lamplighter” recorded in 1946 by Sammy Kaye with Billy Williams doing the vocal, and listening to it carried me back to a soda fountain called The Spot where high school kids gathered each noon to sip a Nehi and drop a nickel or two in the juke box.)
            Then on September 4th, 1882 a miracle took place on Pearl Street in Manhattan when the Edison Illuminating Company went on line generating public power sufficient to light 400 lamps in the nearby homes of 85 customers, and by the next year, Roselle, New Jersey would become the first town to be lighted by electricity. In nearby Coytesville, the 150-year old three-story home and former stage coach Inn where I was born would become the first residence to be completely electrified when old wall and ceiling-mounted “gas lights” would receive Edison bulbs and a second life. In many parts of rural America, oil lamps would supply residential lighting until 1955. Some of my fondest boyhood memories involve vacation time spent in an old Victorian home in rural Connecticut where fresh cold water was hand pumped, the outhouse was an apple orchard away, and my job each night was to make sure the lamps were filled with kerosene in each bedroom well ahead of time. For me, it was sheer magic.
            In a modern world in which technological progress offers something new and wonderful on a near-daily basis, it is easy to forget that it has been only 132 years since the moment 10,000 years of relative darkness came to an end thanks to Mr. Edison’s Pearl Street “miracle.” In my own home today I confess to taking occasional nostalgic delight in turning off the switches and watching the gentle glow of my collection of kerosene-powered Aladdin lamps push back the cloak of night.

 With its round wick and illuminating mantle, the author’s favorite Aladdin lamp represents the ultimate in kerosene-fueled home lighting efficiency. They are still to be found in virtually every Amish home and barn.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


            When United Airlines flight 232 slammed into the ground at the Sioux Falls, Iowa airport and exploded into a huge ball of flame on July 19, 1989, it became one of the most widely witnessed aviation disasters in history. The amateur video footage which captured and froze in time that terrible one minute of violence quickly blossomed on home television screens across the country and around the world; and it would be viewed repeatedly for months and even years to come. What the general public might at first have thought was just an emergency landing gone wrong was in fact the inevitable consequence of a cascade of events which had begun 35 minutes earlier and 60 miles to the east when the tail-mounted and central of the jumbo jet’s three engines exploded at 37,000 feet. In the process, all three of the plane’s supposedly redundant hydraulic lines were severed leaving the cockpit crew with no means of controlling the giant jet other than by adjusting power alternately to the two remaining wing-mounted engines. Without flaps and spoilers, the only option was to literally “fly” the plane onto the ground at 250 miles per hour, and pilot Al Haynes and his “front office” crew did a masterful job of pulling off what they did.
            That 184 of the plane’s 296 passengers survived the fiery impact was a miracle which still cannot be fully explained today.  That investigators were able to put together a jig-saw puzzle of bits and pieces spread across hundreds of square miles of space and months of time in order to solve a handful of aviation mysteries is the story behind the story; and the motivation for today’s column.
            The turbofan jet engine gets its name from the large (71/2 foot diameter) multi-blade fan which sits at the very front of a modern jet engine pulling in huge amounts of air to both feed and supplement the thrust of the fuel-driven jet behind it. It was this fan on the General Electric CF-6-6 engine mounted in the DC-10’s tail section which exploded on that July day high above Buena Vista County, Iowa, doing damage to surrounding components – including the illogically-routed hydraulic lines – before the 400-pound component departed for the earth far below, subject to the laws of gravity, wind, trajectory and sheer chance.
            In summer months, more than 12 million acres of Iowa countryside are clad in a rolling, green and nearly unbroken canopy of corn. To make searching conditions even worse, those tall rows of flowering stalks were engulfed in a nearly physical cloud of pollen dust during the weeks when thousands of citizen volunteers and law enforcement professionals were tasked with walking a grid pattern through miles of those breath-constricting rows in search of any piece of wreckage which might lead to the elusive fan hub in which the ultimate answers were believed to lie. Even a generous reward system failed to produce results as the trail grew cooler, while the use of low-flying helicopters only succeeded in angering farmers who watched their corn fields being blown into patches of mulch.
            While the airframe of the DC-10 with tail number N1819U had seen numerous engine changes in its nearly 20-year operating life, the particular GE engine in question had seen more than 15,000 cycles (landing/takeoffs) at a time when titanium-rich fan design represented a relatively-new technology. An entire industry awaited answers as one season morphed into another.
            On the afternoon of October 10th -- 83 days after UAL 232 and its pieces came to earth -- 58-year-old Janice Sorenson was driving her harvester down the corn rows near her home just north of Alta, Iowa when the machine ran up against something that shouldn’t have been there: the largest part of a disk partially buried in the rich Iowa soil. Two days later, a neighboring farmer, Harold Halverson found the rest of the 350-pound fan wheel less than two miles away, and the NTSB and a panel of waiting analysts finally had their “smoking gun.” And a surprised Janice Sorenson would receive a check for $116,000!
            The almost-microscopic flaw which had bloomed into a crack in the fan wheel’s titanium hub would lead to a whole new set of testing methods and standards, the DC-10’s hydraulic system would see major routing changes, and United and other air lines would alter the frequency and depth of engine testing and replacement protocols.
POST SCRIPT:   As a result of examining the life changes of Flight 232 survivors and their rescuers over the years following the incident, we learn that PTSD with all of its ramifications exists beyond the battlefield and is just as real.