Tag Archives: World War I

World War II’s oldest casualties

With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII.  And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.

About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs.  The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time.  Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.

By Bogdanov, modified by Matt Martyniuk (User:Dinoguy2) and User:FunkMonk. Jaw muscles taken from[1] by User:Steveoc_86. (dmitrchel@mail.ru) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back.  The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.

Ernst Stromer

For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum.  Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.

On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside.  Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species).  All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.

Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect.  It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.

I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.

Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931.  Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long.  Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.

By Ornitholestes (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich.  Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.

In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus.  And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils.  Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.

Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too.  In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Volunteers at war

While my cousin and I were in Nashville last week to see the Emancipation Proclamation, we visited a collection I’d managed to miss on all my previous trips to Music City: the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch.

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Jacket, cap, leg guards, medals, and dog tags belonging to Alvin C. York

Located inside the War Memorial Building near the Capitol, the Military Museum focuses on America’s wars from 1898 through 1945 and Tennesseans’ participation in them.  It’s a small facility, but it’s chock full of impressive artifacts.  Historical weapons and uniforms make up the bulk of the collection, but you’ll also find models, medals, propaganda posters, the silver service from a battleship, and a jacket worn by Dwight Eisenhower. Some of the items on display are trophies carried home by Tennessee veterans, such as Philippine and Japanese swords and German sidearms.

Although the exhibits give you a pretty general overview of America’s wars, special attention is paid to Tennessee connections.  A special highlight is a case devoted to Alvin York containing a uniform jacket, the Congressional Medal of Honor he received for his exceptional exploits of October 8, 1918, and some additional items.  (The museum is currently running a temporary exhibit on Sgt. York and the effort to map and excavate the site of his most famous engagement, so this is a great time to visit if you’re interested in WWI’s most famous soldier.)

The exhibits are a little dated, but the items on display more than make up for the lack of bells and whistles.  Give yourself about an hour and a half to tour the museum; hardcore weapon and military buffs will probably need additional time to take it all in.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Wanna hear something ironic?

Out of Philadelphia comes a news story so bass-ackwards that it belongs in The Onion.  Dimitri Rotov has the details over at Civil War Memory.

The Olympia, veteran vessel of the Spanish-American and First World Wars and the oldest steel warship still sitting on top of the water anywhere in the world, is at the Independence Seaport Museum.  The Olympia was Dewey’s flagship at Manila Bay; he was standing on her decks when he gave the order, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”  She also happens to be the ship that brought home the remains of America’s WWI unknown soldier. 

Dewey and the crew of the Olympia at the Battle of Manila Bay. From Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideal culmination of any effort to locate and preserve some historic vessel is to raise the wreck, conserve it in a lab, and then put in on display where you can interpret it for the public.  Olympia never went to the bottom of the ocean.  She sailed home to acclaim and ended up as a museum.  No sinking, no salvage.  So far so good.

The problem is that the Independence Seaport Museum can’t afford the upkeep anymore, so they’re looking to dispose of her.  Here’s the money quote:  “‘Another option would be scrapping Olympia,’ said James McLane, interim president of the museum, which owns the ship and is adjacent to it at Penn’s Landing. ‘But the Navy has told us that ‘reefing’ is better because it would allow divers to go down on it and would preserve Olympia.’”

“Reefing” basically means towing it out to sea and then sending it down to Davy Jones’s locker, where it would be inaccessible to everybody except for scuba divers and fish, subject to the very same kind of deterioration that’s causing the Monitor and the Titanic to crumble to pieces.  

I’m not trying to criticize the museum.  Lots of museums are in a bind.  If they don’t have the funds, then they don’t have the funds, and scrapping the ship wouldn’t do anybody any more benefit than reefing it.  But the irony here is just absolutely sickening.  We spend millions of dollars and thousands of hours trying to raise historic ships from the bottom of the sea, get them afloat, and turn them into exhibits, and now here we have a historic ship that’s already afloat and on exhibit, and it might end up at the bottom of the sea.  Unbelievable.

There is, fortunately, a group of people dedicated to keeping Olympia afloat, and I urge you to visit their website.  Please consider a donation to this organization, or at least sign their online petition.

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Filed under Historic Preservation

Some Sgt. York news

…from the Museum of Appalachia near Norris, TN.  They’ve had a small Sgt. York exhibit for some time now, but it’s nice to hear that it’s getting an update.

If you can’t make the special event on Sunday, try to budget some time to visit the museum when you’re passing through East Tennessee.  It’s got a fine collection of original buildings and artifacts.

While I’m making recommendations, let me encourage anybody interested in Alvin York and the movie based on his exploits to read Michael Birdwell’s Celluloid Soldiers.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History