It’s hard to even fathom what thoughts go through a person’s head in the final moments of a crisis where they must choose between their own life or the lives of others.
Such a crisis came to Captain Gary L. Herod on Wednesday, March 15, 1961. A pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, Herod was barely in the air over Houston, Texas when his plane began to falter. With the plane’s engine failing, he tried first to return to Ellington Field Airport, and radioed the control tower that he planned to eject himself from the plane.
Somewhere in those seconds, though, he realized that doing so would leave the plane to crash into a suburban neighborhood filled with young families in a popular Houston suburb known as Meyerland.
This excruciating choice included the fact that Herod had a wife and two children of his own. As the tower asked for confirmation of his intent to eject, Herod’s last words were “not yet.”
He went down with his plane into a vacant field on the north bank of Brays Bayou, the lone casualty of this tragedy. Maybe he hoped that he might be able to safely land the plane, or maybe he fully knew the sacrifice he was making.
A couple of months later, a “Hero” tree was planted with a plaque commemorating his sacrifice at the site of the popular Meyerland Plaza Shopping Center, and in 1965, a local elementary school was named for him. Nearly 57 years later, with the tree failing in health, his plaque and memorial were moved to the nearby elementary school bearing his name. Herod was also posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross from the United States Air Force.
In April of 1961, a month after the accident, a memorial fund dispersed $2,600 in donations to Herod’s wife. She wrote a thank you letter, which was published in the Bellaire Texan, a local newspaper.
“I cannot help but consider, in wonder,” she wrote, “the circumstance which could make it possible for my husband to gain for himself in a few short tragic minutes, more friends than many men gain in a lifetime.”
She went on to say that she planned to dedicate these funds to her childrens’ education. “I feel this is fitting, for I am conscious of the fact that these funds represent to a large degree the gratitude of parents for the well being of their own children and concern for our children who must face life without their father.”
She signed the letter, “Mrs. Gary L. Herod.”
To learn more about Gary L. Herod, visit these resources:
September marks the anniversary of the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666. This fire, which destroyed the homes of an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 people, raged for nearly five days.
Now, 1666 seems so very, very long ago, but the circumstances surrounding this moment in history are very familiar. The world had been through a massive pandemic, the Bubonic Plague, in 1665, just the year before, and much of the destructiveness of the fire was blamed on a hesitant and weak politician and foreign actors.
That all sounds familiar, right? We have a pandemic and massive wildfires happening in 2021 and we have our fair share of political problems and blaming. The one thing history will definitely teach you is that the way humans react to the forces of nature and other crises is fairly similar throughout the generations.
The Great Fire of London started on a Sunday in a bakery on Pudding Lane. There are many possibilities for how the fire actually got started, but the fact that it spread so far and so wide throughout the city had to do with a couple of different issues.
The first was the architecture and city planning in London at the time. Fire was an issue that people were aware and cognizant of, and even though building with wood and thatch had been largely outlawed, the poorer parts of the city still used these more inexpensive materials as well as something even worse, tar paper, to construct their homes.
And just like the urban infill building practices that we see today, the city was so crowded that people back then started building vertically with the higher floors being wider than the bottom floors, so much so, that the upper floors of buildings might protrude so far as to nearly touch or kiss the neighboring buildings across the street. There were also houses built directly on the London Bridge, which is interesting and amazing. I would have loved to have seen that.
This overcrowding, combined with a long, hot, dry summer previously, and a Lord Mayor that was hesitant to act made London a veritable death trap. There were also many foundries, glaziers and other businesses with combustible materials, and to make matters worse, the population had an excess of gun powder, often in private homes, left over from the English Civil War.
The people that suffered the most, not unlike today, were the poorest. The aristocracy had fled to their country homes during the pandemic (also sound familiar?) to avoid catching the Bubonic plague, and so crowded living conditions were deadly both in terms of health, but also destruction by fire.
The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was an ineffective politician who waited way too long to give the order to start pulling down houses. During this time in history, they had some rudimentary ways of pumping water to fires, but the streets were so crowded and the fire was moving so fast that this was not an option. What would have worked, is a fire fighting method that involved using hooks and other tools to literally bring a house down. I am including a picture of this practice. It was helpful in that it created a “firebreak” or a way to stop the fire.
The Great Fire of London raged on for days and while there are few accounts of deaths, we don’t know if all of those killed- especially the poorer folk- were accounted for. We do know that camps had to be set up for the survivors.
While King Charles II and his brother the Duke of York eventually overrode the authority Lord Mayor of London and worked hard to pull houses down and fight the fire, the final ending did not come until the fire began approaching the Tower of London on Tuesday where a garrison used gunpowder to blow up houses quickly and stop the forward progression of the fire. By the end of the day on Wednesday, four days after the fire started the previous Sunday, the fire was officially over and London was devastated.
Samuel Pepys, an author and politician, who kept a diary at the time wrote that it was, “…the saddest sigh of desolation that I ever saw.”
In addition to blaming Sir Thomas Bloodworth, many people also blamed the Catholics and foreigners and even spread rumors about the fires being part of an invasion attempt. I guess fake news is not a new thing!
It took a long time to rebuild the great city of London, but if there is one bright note to this tragic event, some historians believe that the Great Fire paved the way for better and more sanitary building standards in London and issued in a greater focus on new fire fighting methods like creating fire fighting brigades.
There is a monument that was built to remember the property and lives lost in the Great Fire, if you travel to London, you can see it today on Fish St. Hill.
To learn more about the Great Fire of London, please visit these resources:
The Chernobyl Disaster, which occurred on April 26, 1986 in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat (then a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or “Soviet Union”), was an unprecedented nuclear disaster that rocked the world. This event happened in the last stretch of the Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
I was about 13 years old when this accident occurred and had spent my early childhood being taught to fear the Soviet regime. Our elementary schools held drills where we hid under our desks to prepare for potential fallout from nuclear missiles that might be lobbed at the United States from the Soviet Union.
Of course, I was raised in rural Texas, so the likelihood of those missiles reaching us were very slim, but then again, it is never too early to scare children.
So when the Chernobyl accident happened, I gathered all of the wrong facts based on my previous experiences and assumed it was a nuclear weapons facility rather than the nuclear power plant that it actually was.
In reality, the explosion was the result of a failed safety test in nuclear reactor number four which also had flaws in its design. Additionally, it is believed that operators were not properly trained to handle the safety test or design issues.
According to Wikipedia, Chernobyl “is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history both in terms of cost and casualties.” The same article noted that the accident consisted of two explosions which ruptured the reactor core and a subsequent reactor core fire that burned for nine days afterwards dropping radioactive material throughout the USSR and Western Europe.
The death toll within the first few months after the accident was 31 of which about 28 died from radiation sickness. Since then another 15 people have died of Thyroid cancer, which is believed to be directly related to the incident.
The United Nations issued a report on the accident in September of 2005 stating that, “a total of up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident.”
Dr. Burton Bennett, Chairman of the Chernobyl Forum and an authority on radiation effects said, “This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days who received very high radiation doses, and for the thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer. By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health, with a few exceptional, restricted areas.”
The accident happened a little over a year after Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union and promised a thawing of the previous Cold War isolationist approach. The Chernobyl accident, however, turned out to not only be a global catastrophe with far reaching implications, but also was a public relations nightmare for Gorbachev as the Soviet Union was slow to release information regarding the accident.
A Washington Post article written on May 1,1986 by Michael Dobbs explains, “Western officials and foreign policy analysts agree that the Kremlin’s failure to provide detailed information about what has happened at Chernobyl could turn out to be almost as damaging for Moscow as the accident itself. The initial news blackout provoked protests from practically every government in Western Europe and raised concern among ordinary citizens on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain.’”
Further in the article, British Foreign Office minister, Tim Eggar, was quoted as saying “the ‘lesson’ of the Chernobyl incident was that ‘the openness which Gorbachev has said is necessary in Soviet society must become a reality.’”
As we all know, Gorbachev would go on to weather this storm and Eastern Europe including the Ukraine would break away by 1989 and by 1991, the Soviet Union would dissolve, but the tragedy and human impact of the Chernobyl accident will live on.
To learn more about Chernobyl, please visit these resources:
Just wanted to let you all know that I was offline last week, because I was participating (against my will) in living history. I live in Texas and as you may have heard, we had a few difficulties last week with an historic snow storm.
My family and I are fine (now), but we spent a little under 48 hours in the freezing cold with no electricity as well as some time without water. I was underprepared, to say the least, for the winter camping skills that would be required of me.
Here is what I learned:
Gas stoves are wonderful (I already knew that from hurricane season).
All of the flashlights in my house are either missing batteries or no longer work.
I am grateful to all of the people who have given me scented candles over the years, they came in clutch.
Hoarding bottled water in between natural disasters is a good idea.
Hoarding toilet paper in between natural disasters is a good idea.
Get your fireplace flue checked out before each winter season, even when you live on the face of the sun.
Even if you have decided that you are too old to ever ski again, keep your ski clothes.
Don’t feel bad if you are the type of person who neglects to clean out your pantry, you will gratefully eat those weird remnants one day.
I look forward to getting back to enjoying history together, but wanted to let you know what I have been up to!
Before “Jaws” the movie was released in June of 1975 and subsequently traumatized an entire generation away from going into the ocean past their waist (this author included); there was “Jaws” the novel published by Peter Benchley in February of 1974.
The novel was an instant success, and we all remember why– the fear created by the story sinks deliciously into your soul and really never leaves you. New York Times literature editor, Andrew C.J. Bergman wrote on February 3, 1974, “The shark’s shredding provides the novel’s supports; the story is strung between them.”
Book publisher, Doubleday, originally commissioned the novel in 1971 with a $7,500 advance to Benchley, who was a journalist and former speech writer for Lyndon B. Johnson, and the hardcover version spent 44 weeks on the bestseller list.
Of course Stephen Spielberg then procured the movie rights to the novel and in the summer of 1974, sent a draft of a script to Carl Gottlieb, a writer and story editor for the popular TV show, “The Odd Couple.”
My favorite line from the “Jaws” movie is “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Apparently, this line was not in the book or the original script– it was added in by Gottlieb, who had several different characters try to say it before Martin Brody, uttered it after seeing the size and scope of “Jaws” for the first time. And it was perfect and went on to become one of the top quoted movie lines of all time.
New York Times editor, Bergman summed up the back half of the “Jaws” novel cleverly when he wrote, “In desperation, Brody turns to a forbidding fisherman named Quint…Then the hunt is on; the horror is finally expunged; and, buckets of chum later, Brody is alone returned to tell them.”
The story originated from Benchley’s interest in sharks and a 1964 newspaper article about a fisherman catching a great white shark off the waters of Montauk, New York that weighed in at over 4,500 pounds. According to Wikipedia, he was also partly inspired by the Jersey Shore Shark Attacks of 1916 where five people had been attacked in July. Four of the victims died and one was severely injured.
The book had tremendous popular appeal, which only increased after the release of the movie, and received mixed reviews from literary critics. According to Wikipedia, some reviewers felt the shark was the only really interesting character in the book. But Benchley didn’t have Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss to help bring those amazing characters to life yet.
Many have panned both the novel and the movie since their respective releases for instilling fear and dread into so many towards sharks. It’s a fair complaint and intellectually I understand that sharks are likely not out to get me, but even still, I will never be able to swim freely in the ocean without hearing the music and fearing for my life and Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg are pretty much to blame.
To learn more about this topic, see the resources below:
February marks the anniversary of a peace treaty that literally changed the American landscape. It was a treaty that ruined the career of its US negotiator, Nicholas Trist, but nevertheless, cements his name in history as fundamentally changing the shape of the United States as we know it.
On February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was inked and ceded nearly 55% of what was then Mexico and are now parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, to the US for $15 million and an end to the fighting in the Mexican-American War.
After three years of battles and numerous attempts to renegotiate the border with Mexican dictator, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, by September 1847, US troops finally defeated Santa Anna and the Mexican army and were occupying Mexico City.
Let’s think about that for a second. At one point, the US occupied Mexico City!! That is pretty phenomenal to consider. I personally live in the Houston, Texas area and Mexico City is 936 miles away, which is a 17 hour car ride without stopping, in case you were wondering.
It’s an interesting part of our history that we don’t often think about. That in a time before cars and airplanes, our troops, many of whom were likely from the northern states, had to go all the way down to Mexico City to fight a war.
Now at the time, US President Polk and other members of Congress, wanted not only the parts of Mexico delineated on the map shown above, but also wanted Baja California, and were willing to pay up to $30 million for the entirety of it. In Polk’s eyes, his negotiator, Nicholas Trist, who was the chief clerk of the US State Department at the time, betrayed his wishes and acted in defiance of the president when he sat down with the new Mexican government (sans Santa Anna) and negotiated a smaller amount of land for $15 million. Polk had sent a message telling Trist to come back to Washington and abort the negotiations, but Trist carried on.
In a letter to his wife in December 1847, Trist said, “Knowing it to be the very last chance and impressed with the dreadful consequences to our country which cannot fail to attend the loss of that chance, I decided today at noon to attempt to make a treaty; the decision is altogether my own.”
In fairness to Polk, it doesn’t make sense even today that Baja California is still a part of Mexico but is attached geographically to the US. However in fairness to Trist, he probably had a better idea of what it would take to get the deal done with the newly formed Mexican government. As his quote above suggests, there were real consequences to delaying and real lives on the line.
In the end, Trist was fired by Polk, yet Polk and Congress also ultimately decided to ratify the peace treaty to move it forward rather than reopen the matter. The US ratified the treaty in March 1848; Mexico in May 1848 and US troops were pulled out of Mexico City by August 1848.
Trist never recovered politically even though he was married to Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter and had served as his personal secretary. He later supported Abraham Lincoln’s election, but had no role in his administration. Despite his connections, he ended up back in his home state of Virginia, but was later appointed Postmaster General in Virginia during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
In December 1848 in an address to Congress, President Polk said of US/Mexican relations, “The amicable relations between the two countries, which had been suspended, have been happily restored, and are destined, I trust, to be long preserved.”
It’s interesting to think about what the US would look like today if Baja California had been procured and also interesting to think about Trist’s reasoning for taking the smaller portion. Either way, the peace treaty made all of the difference in how the US would ultimately take shape.
For more resources on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and it’s players, visit these resources:
The last day of January each year marks the birth of one of the most influential athletes of all time, Jackie Robinson. Though his life was short– he died at the age of 53– his contributions to sports and his courage in being the first to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball in particular are enormous. Robinson’s talents and work ethic go well beyond sports, however, he was also one of the first African American vice presidents in a major corporation.
Born in Georgia into a family of sharecroppers, Jackie was the youngest of five children and just about a year after his birth, his father left the family and Jackie moved with his mother to Pasadena, California. Jackie’s older brothers were also incredibly accomplished and athletic and in fact, his older brother, Mack (Matthew), was a silver medalist at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Mack broke the Olympic record for the 200 meter run in 1936, but still came in second to famed runner, Jesse Owens.
Jackie was a star athlete at UCLA where ironically according to Wikipedia, baseball was his “worst” sport. While in college, he won varsity letters in baseball, football, basketball and track. After spending time in the military during World War II and playing for various other leagues including the Negro baseball leagues and an international league, Jackie was signed by Ricky Branch, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers to first play for the Montreal Royals with the hope that he would be called up to play for the Dodgers after his first season.
He ended up playing one season in 1946 with the Montreal Royals before playing his first official major league game with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. It is interesting to note that while Jackie Robinson is a household name, over in the American League at the exact same time, African American player, Larry Doby was also breaking the color barrier by playing for the Cleveland Indians. Doby started about eleven weeks after Robinson and thus was the second African American to play major league baseball and somehow has been forgotten by history. But Doby and Robinson helped each other and reportedly talked on the phone often about how to endure the criticism and harassment they each received.
Speaking about Ricky Branch on April 15, 1947, New York Times sportswriter, Arthur Daly said at the time, “he…has a ball club whose new first baseman is making a bit of history. That young man is Jackie Robinson, the first Negro in modern times to get a chance to become a big-leaguer.”
Later in the article, Daly mentions the “deft manner” that Ricky slid Jackie into the line up without trying to draw attention to him.
“It is merely an attempt to lighten the pressure on Robinson’s shoulders. In like fashion the Mahatma [Ricky Branch] waited until the Montreal Royals were in Panama before he ordered that Jackie be switched to first base. Yet nothing actually can lighten that pressure, and Robbie realizes it full well. There is no way of disguising the fact that he is not an ordinary rookie and no amount of pretense can make it otherwise.”
The pressure on Jackie to endure the taunting and protesting was immense, and that is in addition to the extraordinary pressure to play the game well.
And of course there were supporters and opposers, and as pioneers always do, Jackie’s presence in the league not only challenged the game itself, but helped to bring change to all of the businesses associated with the league like the segregated hotels, training facilities and restaurants that baseball teams used. It was an immensely large burden to bear, but Jackie persisted and changed so many things.
He famously said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
An interesting fact that is often left out of historical discussions of this event is that Jackie brought in the crowds, and he also brought in a more integrated audience to baseball. According to Wikipedia, when “Robinson made his major league debut at the relatively advanced age of 28 at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, more than 14,000 of whom were black.”
And Jackie continued to draw in the crowds throughout his spectacular sports career.
What I really found interesting about Jackie was his dedication to the game and to improving his performance. He worked tirelessly with Hall of Famer “Gorgeous George” Sisler in 1949 to improve his batting.
Jackie’s baseball accolades are nearly too long to list, he earned the Rookie of Year Award for his performance in 1947 (awarded in 1948), was named Most Valuable Player in 1949 and to the All Star Team among many other awards both before and after these years including in 1955 when the Dodgers won the World Series and his induction as the first African American Player in the baseball Hall of Fame.
All in all, his major league career spanned 10 years, and when he retired in 1956, he took an executive position with Chock full ‘o Nuts as the vice president of personnel where he worked until 1964. He pursued many business and political interests and was also the first African American to serve as a news analyst for the major networks commenting on baseball.
Jackie, along with his brothers, suffered from diabetes at a time when the medications and treatments were not sufficient to extend his life. He died early, in 1972, from complications of diabetes and heart disease.
The greatest quote about Jackie’s life in my opinion came from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he described Jackie as, “… a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Cheers to you Jackie Robinson on your 102nd birthday, thank you for all that you contributed to our world.
Here are some resources to help you learn more about Jackie Robinson:
It might seem perfectly perfunctory that the United States Coast Guard was formed on January 28, 1915 from the merger of the United States Revenue Cutter Services and the United States Lifesaving Service by then US President Woodrow Wilson’s signature on US Bill S2337 of the 63rd Congress, but if you dig a little deeper, you will find that this was necessary to keep some kind of coastal defense and life saving service afloat (pun intended).
In a very interesting and long article in the New York Times, dated January 31, 1915, we find that the Lifesaving Service was struggling to pay and maintain its officers and enlisted men, and the subsequent merger offered not only streamlined leadership, but also key services including longevity pay for re-enlistments, a pension, a clothing allowance (for uniforms, rubber boots and oilskins) and health services. It also provided dependent pay for Coast Guard members killed in the line of duty and created a naval reserve.
In a letter, shared with the New York Times by the wife of former US Representative, Martin W. Littlefield (he represented New York in the House from 1911 to 1913), the wife of a life saver Captain from Maine, complains that they are seeking “ready money” on a claim for what looks like an injury. “It seems hard,” she writes, “after the Captain has given his health and strength to the service for 30 years, that he should now be turned away like an old horse.”
Apparently, according to the article, previous to the creation of the modern Coast Guard, the life savers were only paid $65 dollars a month and were not paid at all when the stations were closed. Just so you know, the Internet is amazing, and I was able to find out that in today’s dollars, $65 per month would be worth just $1,670.33 per month. (To see where I did my calculations, click here.) That is not a livable wage for skilled work, then or now.
The bill creating the Coast Guard, which was apparently originally championed by Mrs. Littlefield, designated the Coast Guard as a part of the “military forces.” The Coast Guard would operate under the auspices of the US Treasury Department in times of peace and could be co-opted into the US Navy during times of war when directed so by the President.
The newly merged organization brought together approximately 255 officers, 3,900 warrant officers and enlisted men, 17 regional commands, four depots, one academy, 25 cruising cutters, 20 harbor cutters and 280 lifeboat stations, according to Wikepedia.
Of course the Coast Guard did join the Navy very shortly thereafter to assist with World War I. The Coast Guard also assisted in every major conflict to come including World War II, and has performed critical life saving missions for countless domestic emergencies including the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill clean up, the Great of Flood of ‘93 (1993 that is) and Hurricane Katrina to name a few.
The Coast Guard embodies a very rich history of nautical expertise, critical life saving services and national defense. Hat’s off to Mrs. Littlefield and all of the others who worked together to create an enduring and important institution. I could probably write 500 more blogs on the Coast Guard and all of the roles it has played in history, and maybe one day, I will.
To learn more about the creation of the United States Coast Guard, visit these resources:
While it took some time for the news of gold in California to make it all the way back to the President and Congress, the precious metal was actually discovered at Sutters Mill in Coloma, California on January 24, 1848.
US President, James K. Polk then announced the discovery in an address to Congress on December 4, 1848, nearly a year later and set off the greatest gold rush in history. According to Wikipedia, nearly 300,000 people “rushed” to California to search for gold and were dubbed the forty-niners because they didn’t start coming en masse until 1849.
In his address to Congress, Polk says: “It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”
On December 11, 1848, a few days after Polk’s announcement, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “Already people have become California mad.” The article goes on to talk about all of the boats set to leave from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore in search of “El Dorado.”
The Gold Rush helped San Francisco evolve from a tiny settlement of a couple hundred people to a city of about 36,000 in roughly three years. The toll of the Gold Rush on indigenous peoples was, of course, terrible, many Native Americans were pushed from their homes to make way for the miners.
Additionally, while many miners made some profit, very few became enormously rich and many were just lucky if they came into contact with gold residue let alone big chunks of gold. One study mentioned by Wikipedia suggested that the merchants providing services to the miners become more rich than the miners themselves. Levi Strauss, the inventor of blue jeans and founder of famous clothing company, Levi Strauss & Co., became incredibly wealthy from selling his tough work pants to the local miners and other workers in San Francisco.
The Gold Rush also gave California a nickname which stuck, the “golden state,” and also inspired the term the “California Dream,” which for many supplanted the idea of the “American Dream.”
It also kicked the area into high gear in terms of development, becoming a proper state and creating infrastructure for its newly growing population.
Polk told Congress that, “This abundance of gold and the all-engrossing pursuit of it have already caused in California an unprecedented rise in the price of all the necessaries of life.”
So basically, California got expensive and stayed that way.
Want to know about the California Gold Rush? Here are some great resources to get you started:
In our modern minds this might seem like an unbelievable story, that a Japanese soldier hid out in the jungles of Guam rather than face his country’s defeat in WWII. But Soichi Yokoi, who was discovered in the jungles of Guam on January 24, 1972, was actually not the only one. Another Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda was found in the Phillipine jungles in 1974, after hiding there for 30 years.
According to a New York Times article about Soichi’s death in September of 1997, “Japanese troops were encouraged to fight to the death and taught that surrender was deeply shameful, and so when American troops seized control of Guam in 1944, Mr. Yokoi and more than 1,000 other Japanese soldiers hid in the jungle rather than give up or commit suicide.”
Soichi spent his time in Guam, according to Wikipedia, hunting and fishing and built himself an underground living space. Soichi had been a tailor in Japan before being drafted in 1941 and arriving Guam in 1943.
Upon his arrival back in Japan, he uttered his now famous statement, “It is with much embarrassment that I return.” The New York Times interpreted this statement a little differently as, “I am ashamed that I have returned alive.”
Soichi wanted to meet the Emperor to express his regret at not having done more to win the war, but was never given an audience. He did, however, receive a hero’s welcome and quickly settled back into regular life.
He even married six months after his return and spent 25 years with his wife until his death from a heart attack at the age of 82.
According to the New York Times, “He was the epitome of prewar values of diligence, loyalty to the Emperor and ganbaru, a ubiquitous Japanese word that roughly means to slog on tenaciously through tough times.”
A nephew, who wrote a book about Soichi’s journey said that toward the end of his life, his uncle became very nostalgic about his past and returned to Guam to visit several times with his wife.
It’s nearly impossible to envision a world where hiding in the jungles is preferable to taking your chances in civilization….or maybe it isn’t that hard to imagine.
Here are few resources to help you learn more about Soichi Yokoi: