Category: Articles

Faxes From the Far Side

On the 10th of January 1956—about a decade into the Cold War and about a year into the Space Race—the United States Air Force launched the first vehicle in its top secret Genetrix program. The vehicle was a balloon—an enormous, 200-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide helium balloon—the first of hundreds that the US would ultimately launch from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Upon release, each balloon ascended into the stratosphere, where the winter jet stream was perfectly situated to carry it over and across the interior of the USSR. A coffin-sized gondola dangled from the bottom of each balloon, housing a set of downward-facing high-resolution cameras. Whenever an onboard photocell detected that the surface below was illuminated by daylight, these cameras snapped periodic photographs. The Genetrix balloons were some of the original high-altitude spy cameras—precursors to spy planes and satellites.

Whenever a balloon cleared Soviet airspace, the US Air Force sent an encoded radio signal that would detonate a small explosive charge on the gondola’s attachment line. If all went according to plan, a specially equipped C-119 airplane would be loitering in the nearby airspace, ready to snag the parachuting payload of photographic film in mid-air. Once retrieved, the film was sent back to the states to be developed and analyzed.

Launching a Genetrix balloon
Launching a Genetrix balloon

The Genetrix balloons were designed to be practically invisible to radar, using very thin balloon film and a gondola much smaller than a typical aircraft. And this might have worked were it not for the fact that one of the steel rods in the balloon rigging was 91 centimeters long. US Air Force engineers didn’t realize it at the time, but 91 centimeters happened to correspond to one of the frequencies used by Soviet early-warning radar. This caused the otherwise inconsequential rod to resonate and glint like a mirror on Soviet radar screens.

Soviet leaders were understandably annoyed when their military pilots reported back regarding the nature of these radar reflections. US officials replied that these were innocuous weather balloons for the study of cloud formations, a claim which was roundly ridiculed. During the day, there was little the Soviets could do about it apart from political posturing—the balloons cruised at 55,000 feet, which was higher than Soviet weapons could reach. But MiG fighter pilots soon discovered they could shoot the balloons out of the sky at sunrise. The chill of the night robbed the balloons of some of their buoyancy, and they dipped down into weapons range.

The Genetrix program lasted only 27 days. It had originally been planned to continue indefinitely, but president Eisenhower cancelled any further spy balloon launches due to the Soviets’ strenuous diplomatic protests. Of the 500 or so spy balloons that were launched, only about 50 camera gondolas were successfully recovered by the US Air Force. These provided over 10,000 reconnaissance photos of inland Soviet Union and China, including first peeks at nuclear and radar facilities.

The Soviets recovered a number of the gondolas themselves, and engineers began to dissect them, seeking useful information. To their surprise, they found something inside that happened to solve a little problem they had been having with one of their upcoming space missions: temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film.

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The Petticoat Rebellion of 1916

Please warmly welcome our newest contributor, Jennifer Colton-Jones.

Laura Stockton Starcher, 1917 (The Oregonian/Oregon Historical Society)
Laura Stockton Starcher, 1917 (The Oregonian/Oregon Historical Society)

On a December morning in 1916, the polls opened in the small town of Umatilla, Oregon, for a municipal election. As the day stretched on, the town’s men drifted in and out, casting a ballot here or there. By midday, the men started to wonder what had happened to the women. For months, the women had talked of their newly gained right to vote—women in Oregon won the right to vote in 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment—but election morning came and went without a peep from Umatilla’s fairer residents.

Perhaps the women had decided they couldn’t spare the time to vote. Perhaps they assumed the incumbents would keep their seats with no serious opposition on the ticket. Perhaps it simply slipped their minds. It would fit: The town’s city councilmen often failed—or simply forgot—to attend council meetings themselves.

The men scratched their heads and looked around. Chickens ran in the unpaved streets, and the sidewalks were broken and cracked under dark and useless streetlights, turned off when the city didn’t pay its electric bill. For years, the women had begged, scolded, and commanded the men to clean up the town, to no avail. Yet when they had the opportunity to speak with their votes, the women’s voices were silent…or were they?

In the early afternoon, the women began to arrive at the polling stations, almost all at once, and almost without exception. By the time the polls closed that evening, the women of Umatilla had pulled off a strange sort of conspiracy unlike anything the country had ever seen.

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Up in the Air

As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town’s citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project.

Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance.

Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two hours later the families were en route to a predetermined clearing on a hill by way of automobile and moped. The other components of their project—a steel platform, a homemade gas burner, and a powerful fan—were already packed and ready to go. It was time to attempt the escape.

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The Zero-Armed Bandit

“I don’t think it belongs here.” Such was the assessment of Bob Vinson, the graveyard shift supervisor at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The “here” Vinson referred to was a nook just outside the telephone equipment room in the employees-only portion of the second floor of the hotel. The “it” was a curious piece of equipment of unknown origin loitering conspicuously in the cramped side room. It was a metallic gray box about the size of a desk, with a smaller box attached on top near the rear right corner. The front face of the smaller box was an incomprehensible control panel occupied by 28 metal toggle switches in five neat rows, each labeled with a numbered sticker. All of these switches were situated in the down position except for #23, which was toggled up—an oddly ominous asymmetry.

It was approximately 6:30am on Tuesday, 26 August 1980, and although Bob Vinson had been on shift all night long, he hadn’t heard any large equipment delivery commotion from his nearby office, and he was sure this thing hadn’t been there an hour earlier. Whoever had left the machine had taken the time to place each corner on blocks of wood, and these blocks pressed deep dimples into the red-orange carpet, suggesting that the equipment had significant mass. In spite of its resemblance to some kind of manufactured electromechanical office machine, it had no power cord, and no obvious power switch, just the 28 enigmatic toggles. To add alarm to intrigue, Vinson had found that some of the keyholes for the doors leading into the area had been hastily jammed using what appeared to be toothpicks and glue.

An envelope with “Harvey’s Management” typewritten on one side lay on the carpet alongside the object. Vinson was reasonably suspicious that the envelope did not contain anything as harmless as an invoice. “Stay here,” Vinson instructed the custodian who had been examining the mystery object with him. “Don’t touch it. Don’t let anyone fool with it. I’ll be right back.”

Vinson soon returned with companions, having summoned members of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino security, who had subsequently summoned sheriff ‘s deputies and the fire department. After prodding the envelope with a broomstick to ensure it wasn’t booby-trapped, those to whom it was concerned gingerly extracted three pages of typed text from the envelope. The letter claimed that this device was a bomb.

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The Derelict

Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning’s gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain’s chair at the captain’s table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty winds were beginning to cause some sway in the decks, putting already-eaten entrées in danger of unscheduled egress. The surly weather was bound to be a considerable distraction.

Nevertheless, the Morro Castle was a large and modern cruise ship quite capable of handling inclement weather. Chief Warms was in command of the bridge for the night shift, and he knew well enough to keep her slicing through the sea near top speed to minimize passenger discomfort. The ship made 20 knots against a gale-force headwind, so shuffleboard was out of the question, but in the Grand Ballroom, festooned with colorful flags and balloons, drinks were drunk and rugs were cut. The waitstaff served a steady supply of Cuban lobster broiled in butter, ham in champagne sauce, roast turkey, and candied sweet potatoes. The ship’s orchestra served a steady supply of dance tunes.

The Morro Castle Orchestra
The Morro Castle Orchestra

Just before 8:00pm, the orchestra abruptly stopped playing mid-song. The previously foxtrotting passengers turned to see what was the matter, and there at the bandstand they saw cruise director Bob Smith beckoning for everyone’s attention. He announced that he had some sad news to share. Their captain, Robert Willmott, had died suddenly in his quarters. The official farewell party and dance contest were therefore canceled, but the orchestra and barkeeps would remain on station late into the evening for passengers who wished to linger. Smith instructed the passengers to have a pleasant evening, and departed.

The ship’s doctor had determined the captain’s cause of death as “heart attack brought on by acute indigestion.” He had been just 52 years old. William Warms and the other officers were shocked and saddened by the turn of events, but there was also an unmistakable undertow of apprehension on the bridge. In recent weeks Captain Willmott had confided in some of his fellow officers that he had reason to believe that a “red” was aboard the ship plotting revenge against the Morro Castle and her captain. Although Willmott had never seemed particularly prone to paranoia, his remarks had been dismissed as such. The wild sabotage speculations were more difficult to ignore under the new circumstances, but scrutiny would have to wait. Chief Warms—now Acting Captain Warms—was understandably anxious. It was he who had discovered the captain’s body face-down and motionless in his bathtub, and he was having trouble keeping the image out of his mind. Now he was obliged to assume command during some of the worst sailing weather he had ever seen, and he had already been awake for over twenty-four hours. Even if sleep had been possible under such conditions, there was no time for it. It was going to be a long night.

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Surface Tension

Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.

The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.

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Welcome to the Jungle

In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.

Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.

From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.

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White Death

In April of 1938, representatives from the USSR approached the Finnish government and expressed a concern that Nazi Germany could attempt to invade Russia, and such an attack might come through parts of Finland. The Finns replied that they were officially neutral, but any Nazi incursion on Finland’s borders would be resisted. This did not mollify the Soviets. Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, was published thirteen years previous with specific note that the Nazis would need to invade the Soviet Union. The Red Army was determined to “advance to meet the enemy” and refused to accept promises from the smaller country. As negotiations continued, the Soviets tried to coax Finland into leasing or ceding some area to serve as a buffer to Leningrad. In November 1939, however, all negotiations ceased, and on 30 November 1939 the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland.

In the municipality of Rautjärvi near the Soviet/Finnish border, 34-year-old Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter leading a flagrantly unexciting life. Upon news of the hostilities, he gathered up food, plain white camouflage, and his iron-sighted SAKO M/28-30—a variant of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant rifle—and went to defend his country. Before the four-month war ended, humble Häyhä would gain infamy among the Russian invaders, and come to be known as the “White Death.”

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