Category Archives: Discover History

A Salute to My World War II Heroes

MariePortraitFormalNsgSMThis November 11th, America will honor her veterans of all wars. Being from a family of pack rats, Old Granny has agreed to share some of her souvenirs of her stint as a nurse in the Army during World War II. At ninety-one years old, Lt. Marie is feisty with an amazing memory for detail. Because she values her privacy, I agreed to omit her last name and call her Lt. Marie. Lt. Marie maintained all of her records from the time she graduated from nursing school and joined the Army Nurse Corps in April, 1945 to her discharge the following year after the war ended. The pic is Lt. Marie in her dress uniform.

Lt. Marie will share some pics and papers (and an occasional true story) on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the month, while I’m trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  If necessary, use the magnification button in the bottom right corner to read the text of the docs. Next year, Papa’s WWII pics of England when he was stationed in London to repair the ships as they returned to port.


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Mount Vesuvius: Does the Past Foretell the Future?

imagesOn August 24, A.D. 79, the area surrounding Mount Vesuvius was a thriving mix of bustling town, elite retreat, and productive estates. Less than twenty-four hours later, thousands had died and the area was buried between three and twenty-five yards of fiery volcanic debris. Until 1748, the existence of the towns was totally erased from memory

­Does the past foretell the future? Experts hope not. Almost four thousand years ago, a larger eruption (called the Avelino eruption) killed thousands and made the area a desert for centuries. Dozen of eruptions have occurred since but another four thousand victims were killed in the particularly lethal 1631 eruption.

Today, Mount Vesuvius is a ticking time bomb with another eruption imminent. The volcano looms above Naples and the surrounding areas with its 600,000 residents in the  nine mile “red zone.” The Italian government monitors the activity twenty-four/seven. Emergency evacuation plans would take 72 hours to empty the red-zoned area.

Next week, The North Georgia Mountains & The Caretaker’s Lady



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Pliny the Younger Describes the Eruption of Vesuvius – Letter #2

Pliny the Younger (a lawyer, writer, and civil administrator) wrote two letters to historian Cornelius Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The letters were written about twenty-five years after the actual eruption.  The letter is excerpted from Letters 6.20 by Pliny the Younger.

So the letter which you asked me to write on my uncle’s death has made you eager to hear about the terrors and hazards I had to face when left at Misenum, for I broke off at the beginning of this part of my story.  “Though my mind shrinks from remembering…I will begin.”

After my uncle’s departure I spent the rest of the day with my books, as this was my reason for staying behind.  Then I took a bath, dined, and then dozed fitfully for a while.  For several days past there had been earth tremors which were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania: but that night the shocks were so violent that everything felt as if it were not only shaken but overturned.  My mother hurried into my room and found me already getting up to wake her if she were still asleep.  We sat down in the forecourt of the house, between the buildings and the sea close by.  I don’t know whether I should call this courage or folly on my part (I was only seventeen at the time) but I called for a volume of Livy and went on reading as if I had nothing else to do.  I even went on with the extracts I had been making.  Up came a friend of my uncle’s who had just come from Spain to join him. When he saw us sitting there and me actually reading, he scolded us both—me for my foolhardiness and my mother for allowing it.  Nevertheless, I remained absorbed in my book.

By now it was dawn, but the light was still dim and faint.  The buildings round us were already tottering, and the open space we were in was too small for us not to be in real and imminent danger if the house collapsed.  This finally decided us to leave the town.  We were followed by a panic-stricken mob of people wanting to act on someone else’s decision in preference to their own (a point in which fear looks like prudence), who hurried us on our way by pressing hard behind in a dense crowd.  Once beyond the buildings we stopped, and there we had some extraordinary experiences which thoroughly alarmed us.  The carriages we had ordered to be brought out began to run in different directions though the ground was quite level, and would not remain stationary even when wedged with stones.  We also saw the sea sucked away and apparently forced back by the earthquake: at any rate it receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand.  On the landward side a fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size.

At this point my uncle’s friend from Spain spoke up still more urgently: “If your brother, if your uncle is still alive, he will want you both to be saved; if he is dead, he would want you to survive him—why put off your escape?”  We replied that we would not think of considering our own safety as long as we were uncertain of his.  Without waiting any longer, our friend rushed off and hurried out of danger as fast as he could.

Soon afterwards the cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea; it had already blotted out Capri and hidden the promontory of Misenum from sight.  Then my mother implored, entreated and commanded me to escape the best I could—a young man might escape, whereas she was old and slow and could die in peace as long as she had not been the cause of my death too.  I refused to save myself without her, and grasping her hand forced her to quicken her pace.  She gave in reluctantly, blaming herself for delaying me.  Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly.  I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.  “Let us leave the road while we can still see,” I said, “or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.”  We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.  You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices.  People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying.  Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.  There were people, too, who added to the real perils by inventing fictitious dangers: some reported that part of Misenum had collapsed or another part was on fire, and though their tales were false they found others to believe them.  A gleam of light returned, but we took this to be a warning of the approaching flames rather than daylight.  However, the flames remained some distance off; then darkness came on once more and ashes began to fall again, this time in heavy showers.  We rose from time to time and shook them off, otherwise we should have been buried and crushed beneath their weight.  I could boast that not a groan or cry of fear escaped me in these perils, had I not derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.

At last the darkness thinned and dispersed into smoke or cloud; then there was genuine daylight, and the sun actually shone out, but yellowish as it is during an eclipse.  We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts.  We returned to Misenum where we attended to our physical needs as best we could, and then spent an anxious night alternating between hope and fear.  Fear predominated, for the earthquakes went on, and several hysterical individuals made their own and other people’s calamities seem ludicrous in comparison with their frightful predictions.  But even then, in spite of the dangers we had been through, and were still expecting, my mother and I had still no intention of leaving until we had news of my uncle.

Of course these details are not important enough for history, and you will read them without any idea of recording them; if they seem scarcely worth putting in a letter, you have only yourself to blame for asking them.

Tomorrow, Author Liz Fountain on Thursday Redux


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Pliny the Younger Describes the Eruption of Vesuvius – Letter #1

Pliny the Younger (a lawyer, writer, and civil administrator) wrote two letters to historian Cornelius Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The letters were written about twenty-five years after the actual eruption.  The letter is excerpted from Letters 6.16 by Pliny the Younger.

Thank you for asking me to send you a description of my uncle’s death so that you can leave an accurate account of it for posterity; I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you.  It is true that he perished in a catastrophe which destroyed the loveliest regions of the earth, a fate shared by whole cities and their people, and one so memorable that is likely to make his name live for ever: and he himself wrote a number of books of lasting value: but you write for all time and can still do much to perpetuate his memory.  The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.  Such a man was my uncle, as his own books and yours will prove.  So you set me a task I would choose for myself, and I am more than willing to start on it.

My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance.  He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books.  He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon.  It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can be best expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.  Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.  My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished.  I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

            As he was leaving the house, he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat.  She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero.  He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.  He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone.  He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them.  Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.  For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves round a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread.  Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell.  This wind was of course full in my uncle’s favour, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom.  After his bath he lay down and dined (8); he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous.

            Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.  My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.  Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door.  By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out.  He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.  They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro, as if they were torn from their foundations.  Outside on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter.  In my uncle’s case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears.  As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

            Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp.  My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous.  A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.  Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up.  He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.  When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

            Meanwhile my mother and I were at Misenum, but this is not of any historic interest, and you only wanted to hear about my uncle’s death.  I will say no more, except to add that I have described in detail every incident which I either witnessed myself or heard about immediately after the event, when reports were most likely to be accurate.  It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.

Tomorrow, Pliny’s Second Letter


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The Eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD

Pompeii CityMount Vesuvius is one of a line of volcanos where two tectonic plates (African and Eurasian) collide. The others volcanos along the plate are either extinct or haven’t erupted variously in tens of thousands or hundreds of years. Vesuvius in the only volcano to have erupted on mainland Europe for several centuries.

Mount Vesuvius has erupted often. Though there have been several large eruptions, the famous eruption of 79 AD was the most destructive. Vesuvius has erupted every century or so and more but has not erupted since 1944. Some eruptions have been so large that they blanketed all of southern Europe.

The 79 AD eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum was described by Pliny (a Roman lawyer, author, and civil magistrate) in two letters to the historian Tacitus which have survived for almost two thousand years. Because of his thorough descriptions, the explosive eruption at Vesuvius is termed a “Plinian eruption.” According to Pliny, Vesuvius ejected a cloud of stones, ash and fumes about twenty miles high. The molten rock and pumice released was a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

An estimated 16,000 people died due to pyroclastic flows which are fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock (1800+° F) which can flow downhill at speed up to 450 mph. Today, Because of its location and  explosive eruptions, Vesuvius is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The area is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world with 3,000,000 people living in nearby Naples and the surrounding areas.

Tomorrow, One of Pliny’s Letters on the eruption of Vesuvius.


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Prelude to a Dark, Dreadful Day in Pompeii

HeculaeneumunderothertownsArchaeological investigations constantly add to the body of knowledge about the dark days of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Two decades ago the story of the eruption of Vesuvius went that in August of 79 AD a quiet mountainside with vineyards growing on its slopes exploded killing an estimated 16,000 victims and burying two towns, several smaller communities, and much of the countryside under layers of ash and mud. Over time the names of the towns, even their existence, was lost to memory until they were rediscovered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is known for sure is that in February, 62 AD the area was rocked by an earthquake that caused massive destruction along the bay of Naples and in Pompeii. The city was undergoing restoration when the volcano erupted. Since six hundred sheep were reported to have died on the slopes of Vesuvius, the earthquake was likely associated with Vesuvius.

Family groupThe main (actually only) eyewitness reports that survive of the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction that followed are two letters from Pliny the Younger, a nephew of a prominent Admiral of the Roman fleet who died attempting to rescue survivors, written 25 years after the event. (They’ll have their own day later.) The actual date of the eruption has even been called into question. While August has long been the date attributed to the eruption, some experts claim that the cooler weather clothing the victims wore and the food in season – even some references in one of Pliny’s letters – indicate November 23rd as the correct date.

The residents of Pompeii, a busy trading town in Campania which was several centuries old, were originally believed to have been killed by suffocation from poisonous gases, experts now believe – based on the condition of the bodies (see pic of contorted limbs of  cast of family unit at display in British Museum)– that they died from the superheated temperatures. The town was buried under 13-20 feet of pumice and ash. More wealthy resort town of Herculaneum was initially inundated by a flow of superheated ash (pyroclastic flow) that buried the town under about 75 feet of pumice and ash that hardened into “tuff” and encased the town in an airtight shell that left the town remarkably preserved. It has revealed fewer of its secrets because it lies beneath to small towns. (See pics)

Tomorrow, A Visit from Author V.C. Locey




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I Climbed Vesuvius … and Strolled the Streets of Pompeii

Pompeii CityWhen I lived in Italy, I walked the halls of dozens of museums across Europe, participated in archeological digs, lived in a convent for weeks while on an extended stay in Rome, and much more. Nothing, however, touched my soul like wandering the haunted streets of Pompeii with Vesuvius looming above threatening to rain destruction down upon the city and the surrounding area and its three million inhabitants once again.

While I’m on my final push to complete two stories before the end of August and tend some family business, I plan to feature the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii for the rest of August. I needed something that wouldn’t require huge amounts of research because I will be in a writing frenzy in which I clean the house, cook and freeze food, then close the door to my office to write. One of the advantages of being an empty-nester is warning the family to enter my office or disturb my writing only in case of major emergencies – like the house on fire or major health catastrophe.

For two years, I lived a couple of hours drive from the dead city of Pompeii and its vibrant neighbor, Naples.  Between my addiction to visiting the area and escorting guests who demanded guided tours, I visited Pompeii-Naples-Vesuvius more than a dozen times. Over the next three weeks, my posts will share some of the history and science of Vesuvius, the history and culture of Pompeii and Herculaeneum, and, finally, the cities’ destruction, re-discovery, and excavation.

Tomorrow, The Dark and Dreadful Day


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The Martyrdom of St. Cyprian

WheSt Cypriann the martyr went out of the court, a great number of soldiers attended him, and he was guarded by centurions and tribunes marching on each side of him. They led him into the country, into a large plain, thick set with high trees; and many climbed up to the top of them, the better to see him at a distance, by reason of the crowd. St. Cyprian being arrived at the place appointed, took off his mantle, fell upon his knees, and prostrated himself before God. Then he put off his Dalmatic, which he gave to the deacons, and remained in a linen vestment, or shirt, expecting the executioner, to whom he ordered a sum of twenty-five golden denarii, amounting to about six pounds English, to be given. He himself bound the napkin over his eyes; and he desired a priest and a deacon to tie his hands.

The Christians spread before him napkins and handkerchiefs to receive his body. His head was struck off on the 14th of September, 258. For fear of the insults of the heathens, the faithful conveyed his body for the present into an adjoining field, and they interred it in the night with great solemnity on the Mappalian way.

Tomorrow, An Author’s Desk: V.L. Locey


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Friday Miscellany: The Trial of St. Cyprian

Cyprian2St Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage was martyred during the Emperor Decius’s persecution which was ordered to decrease the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Civil and private accounts of Cyprian’s trial and  martyrdom survive.

St. Cyprian was guarded that night by the chief of the officers in a courteous manner, and his friends were allowed to sup with him. The next morning, which the conscience of the blessed martyr, says Pontius, rendered a day of joy to him, he was conducted by a strong guard to the prætorium or court of the proconsul, about a furlong from the officer’s house where he had passed the night. The proconsul not being yet sitting, he had leave to go out of the crowd, and to be in a more private place, where the seat he got was accidentally covered with a linen cloth, as if it were to be a symbol of his episcopal dignity, says the deacon Pontius; by which it appears that bishops had then such a badge of distinction, at least at the public divine service. One of the guards who had formerly been a Christian, observing that the sweat ran down the martyr’s body, by the length and hurry of his walk, offered to wipe it off, and to give him dry linen in exchange for that he had on, which was wet, linen garments being common in hot countries. This was the soldier’s pretence; his meaning was to get into his possession some of the holy man’s garments and sweat, as Pontius observes.

The bishop excusing himself, replied: “We seek to cure complaints, to which perhaps this very day will put a final period.” By this time the proconsul was come out, and being seated on his tribunal, he ordered the martyr to be brought before him, and said: “Art thou Thascius Cyprian?” The martyr answered: “I am.” Proconsul: “Art thou the person who hath been bishop and father to men of ungodly minds?” Cyprian: “I have been their bishop.” Proconsul: “The most sacred emperors have commanded thee to conform to the ceremonies of the Roman religion.” Cyprian: “I cannot.” Proconsul: “Consider better of thy own safety.” Cyprian: “Obey your orders. In so manifestly just a case there is no need of consideration.”

Upon this the proconsul consulted with his friends, and coming to the resolution to condemn him, said: “Long hast thou lived with an irreligious heart, and hast joined great numbers with thee in an unnatural conspiracy against the Roman deities, and their holy rites: nor have our sacred and most pious emperors, Valerian and Gallien always august, nor the most noble Cæsar Valerian, been able to reclaim thee to their ceremonies. Since thou hast been a ringleader in crimes of such an heinous nature, thou shalt be made an example to those, whom thou hast seduced to join with thee; and discipline shall be established in thy blood.” Then he read the following sentence written in a tablet: “I will that Thascius Cyprian be beheaded.” To which Cyprian subjoined: “Blessed be God for it.” The Christians who were present in crowds, said: “Let us be beheaded with him;” and they made a great uproar.

Tomorrow, The Martyrdom of St Cyprian


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St. Cyprian & His Plague

CyprianusReliquiarCyprian (c. 200 – September 14, 258) was bishop of Carthage during the plague that was known as The Plague of Cyprian. The plague was named for him because of the descriptions he wrote about the plague. He was born into a wealthy pagan family and converted to the Christian religion in his thirties. He later became a bishop. He was classically educated and his Church writing made him one of the church scholars of his time.

When Carthage suffered a severe plague epidemic, Cyprian organized a program of medical relief and nursing of the sick, available to all residents.  Cyprian believed that the world was coming to an end. He wrote:

“The Kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world …”

The Carthaginians, however,  became convinced that the epidemic resulted from the wrath of the gods at the spread of Christianity. Another persecution of Christians arose, Cyprian was arrested, tried, and beheaded on in 258 AD. (See the reliquary on right.)

The world did not end, but the plague weakened the Roman Empire by killing two Emperors, Hostilian in A.D. 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in A.D. 270, and decimating the populations. The barbarians and Scythians armies, however, were also affected which put an end to large wars for a time.  The plague may have been a key driving force behind the spread of Christianity in the Empire when pagans saw the Christian response to the plague and persecution.

Tomorrow, Between and Among


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