War Stories
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

War Stories

Knowledgeable, experienced General William Sherman defined war succinctly—"War is at best barbarism"—and unequivocally—"War is hell." Those who have lived through it will agree that war is about as bad as things ever get. But occasionally events that happen during a war can make it even a little worse.

Tempest, not Temper, Control

In the year 483 b.c. Xerxes the Great, king of Persia, assembled an enormous army and armada to fulfill his father's thwarted plan to conquer Greece. By 480 b.c. his forces had arrived at the strait of Dardenelles (Hellespont). To carry his armies rapidly across the narrow waterway (less than a mile in some places) he ordered his engineers to erect a pontoon bridge of boats. At first the crossing went well, but an intense storm came up and wrecked the bridge. That the defiant storm should join forces with the Greeks was unacceptable to the uncompromising, imperious Xerxes. Therefore he ordered his men to give the Hellespont 300 lashes, and to throw a symbolic pair of shackles into the waves. This didn't seem to intimidate the raging waters, so he had the water branded with hot irons. In his arrogant perception, the hissing sounds were the water's cries of pain. The engineers who had built the bridge were beheaded for their faulty workmanship.

The Hellespont, obviously no match for Xerxes, calmed down. Newly appointed engineers rebuilt the boat—pontoon bridge and kept their heads.

Xerxes' invasion was initially a success, but he suffered a crushing defeat at Salamis later that year and was forced to implement a strategic withdrawal. The river gods were vengeful and whipped the Hellespont into an even greater storm. Knowing his days would be short in number should he remain in Greek territory, he made a long, tempestuous crossing. Safely at home in Persia and wallowing in a life of pleasure such as great kings deserve, Xerxes was murdered by palace guards.

Enemy Secret Weapon

A veteran of World War II recalls the time that almost the entire platoon came down with food poisoning. All were so miserable that they agreed later they would have considered an enemy attack an act of mercy. As they were behind enemy lines, any attack would have been a total disaster. There was no field operation that day; the only action was the medic making rounds as he administered morphine, the available painkiller. Most soldiers recovered by the next morning, but the sore stomachs hung on for several days.

This kind of wartime double whammy was a big reality during the Spanish—American War, when one of America's greatest food scandals took place. Over one thousand U.S. soldiers died from eating tainted canned beef, a most miserable way to die. In the final reckoning, more casualties resulted from "embalmed" beef, as it was called, than from enemy action. Only 279 U.S. soldiers died in combat from enemy gunfire.

The tainted beef caused quite a scandal back in the United States, but the results were favorable. This tragic incident led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, requiring government inspection of all packaged food.

Bees as a Weapon of War

The use of bees in human conflict is probably as old as civilization itself. Records show a number of incidents in which bees were used as weapons in warfare. For example, when Henry I was besieged by the Duke of Lorraine, the garrison's commanding general ordered beehives thrown among the horses of the attacking forces. The bees caused such confusion among horses and soldiers that the siege was quickly lifted.

Richard Coeur de Lion (the Lionhearted) reduced the citadel of Acre by a similar means. He ordered beehives to be hurled among the defending garrison. To escape the angry bees, the defending soldiers took refuge in their cellars. Thus Richard's men easily battered their way into the defenseless citadel—and were almost driven back by their former bee allies.

Bees have put soldiers to flight in more modern times. In India a cavalry soldier accidentally put his lance through a beehive. The angry insects swarmed out of the hive and attacked the nearest group of men, a company of kilted Highlanders whose bare knees were easy prey. The soldiers broke and ran, leaving the Indian troops to celebrate victory.

During World War I, German soldiers employed bees successfully as a weapon against the British on several occasions. They gave the bees a reprieve during World War II.

Angry Fire Gods

Accounts of the last days of Pompeii have been recorded over and over again. Recall that Mount Vesuvius destroyed the famous city in a.d. 79. The volcano then was less active for over 1,500 years, with moderately violent eruptions occurring about once per century. After an eruption in 1139 no activity occurred for about 500 years, so Vesuvius was thought to be extinct.

For centuries people settled the surrounding countryside and cultivated the fertile soil of the volcanic slope and plain. The land was alive with activity. Unfortunately, so was the volcano; on December 16, 1631, it erupted violently. This eruption may have been even stronger than the historic activity of a.d. 79 and was definitely more destructive. Over 18,000 people were killed, most of them farmers who lived in the shadow of Vesuvius. In a matter of minutes a cloud of incandescent gas and ash exploded down the side of the volcano at hurricane speed, engulfing neighboring farms and towns.

After that great convulsion Vesuvius was never totally inactive; it erupted several times but never so violently. People grew accustomed to its controlled fury and gradually moved back into the vicinity, although their sense of history encouraged them to maintain a respectful distance from the volcano.

Vesuvius decided to let go again on March 18, 1944, at 4:30 p.m. Italy was already having its share of headaches, especially since the Allies had gained control of the area. But this last great eruption temporarily halted the war. Everyone retreated to volcanically neutral territory, and no further fighting occurred until Vesuvius's fury was spent. That was several days later, after the explosive phase had reburied the ruins of Pompeii under almost a foot of ash. No army dared to compete with the ferocity of the fire god!

The Time Justice Was Just

Even in total war, justice seems to prevail at times. So it was with Baron Von Schlavrendorff in early 1945. The man had been brought to trial before a Nazi court and charged with an attempt on Hitler's life, a charge of which he was probably guilty. Had he been successful, the war would have ended sooner, and thousands of lives would have been saved. In a very short trial, the baron was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. The court ordered that the execution by firing squad take place at once.

As the baron was being led out of the courtroom, a surprise Allied air raid began. Before anyone could run to shelter, a bomb demolished the court building. All connected with the trial were killed instantly by the explosion. All, that is, but one man.

Incredibly the blast that killed everyone else in the courtroom spared the life of the condemned baron. He was knocked almost unconscious but realized, when his head cleared, no one was around to hold him. All his captors lay dead in the rubble of the courtroom. The baron fled the shattered building and successfully found his way to freedom.