Tag Archives: World War II

A few links to commemorate D-Day

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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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Der Führer’s derrière

One of my students collects WWII memorabilia.  His most recent acquisition is this Hitler pin cushion, which he was kind enough to bring to class and show me.  These things were apparently pretty popular in the 1940s; even FDR had one.

Pin cushion 1

Pin cushion 2

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Here’s a treat for all you WWII buffs

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light) will be speaking at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre on Sunday, May 19 at 2:30 P.M.

Admission is free, but you’ll need to call (865) 215-8883 or click here to reserve a seat.

The guy’s a stellar writer and speaker.  Don’t miss it.

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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.


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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In infamy

I usually don’t wander into the twentieth century, either on this blog or in my own personal interests, but it seems remiss not to give a nod to the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  If you’ve got some time to do a little virtual commemoration, here are some links worth checking out:



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Getting (greatly) depressed for the holidays

Two facts you might have picked up on: I don’t regularly post book reviews, and I don’t talk about modern history much.

The reason for the first is simply that a lot of the books on my reading list have been out for a while.  A lot of fine work got published either before I was born or before I wanted to study history, while other books that I intended to read as soon as they were published just fell through the cracks.  Occasionally a book gets published that is so important to me that everything else has to take a number, and I read it as soon as it’s available.  I usually try to put up a review of these recent books here.  For the most part, though, I figure most of you don’t sit around waiting for my detailed analysis of some fifteen- or twenty-year-old monograph, so I keep my reactions to these titles to myself.

The reason for the second fact is that modern history just doesn’t interest me.  After the nineteenth century, it starts to look more and more like contemporary human activity, and contemporary human activity is something of which I often disapprove.

Right now, though, I’m going to make a rare exception to both of these generalizations by endorsing a somewhat older book on a recent topic.  Not long ago, I realized that I needed to beef up my lectures a little by filling some gaps in my knowledge about the thirties and forties.  For that reason I bought a copy of David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, part of the Oxford History of the United States.  I expected reading this nine-hundred-page behemoth to be a chore, but I was happily quite mistaken. 

Even to someone as averse to modern political and economic history as myself, this book is thoroughly enjoyable.  I won’t post a “review” here, partly because the book came out in 2001, partly because it covers so much territory that I couldn’t do it justice, and partly because I haven’t finished it yet.  Instead, let me just offer a hearty recommendation.  Like all the volumes in the Oxford series, it’s extremely readable, and Kennedy has managed to deftly orchestrate a lot of different themes and topics in such a manner that it seems effortless.  He’s also remarkably balanced in his appraisals of the leading figures of the era and the measures they undertook.  If you’re as leery about dipping into twentieth-century American history as I generally am, then this might be the best place to start.

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