Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Remembering the S.S. Eastland disaster of 1915

What started out as a day of celebration for more than 2,500 workers of the Western Electric Company turned into the deadliest disaster in Chicago history. On the morning of July 24, as workers and their families gathered aboard the SS Eastland for a trip to Michigan City, Ind., problems with the ship's weight and ballast tanks – which had been emptied before the launch – caused the ship to roll over while it was docked in the Chicago River.

Little known today, one of the great disasters in U.S. history occurred 100 years ago this week in Chicago, and caused heartbreak and anxiety throughout Illinois including Champaign-Urbana.

Although no one from here perished in the tragedy that struck the S.S. Eastland as it sat moored to a dock on the main branch of the Chicago River, for days afterward local newspapers carried stories about friends or relatives who were missing, or who had intended to board the boat that Saturday morning for an excursion across Lake Michigan.

Even today there is some dispute about the number of people who died when the sleek boat, called "The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes," capsized in about 20 feet of water between Clark and LaSalle streets on the south side of the river. Most accounts say 844 people died, others say 848. In those days following the accident there were newspaper reports that as many as 1,338 lost their lives.

Even so the death toll was greater than the number (766) who died in the Great Chicago Fire 44 years earlier, and is still considered one of the worst accidents (in terms of lives lost) in U.S. history.

Almost all the dead were employees or family members of employees who worked at the gigantic Western Electric plant just outside of Chicago, where telephone equipment was manufactured. Five boats, including Eastland, had been chartered to carry an estimated 7,000 people to the picnic at Michigan City, Ind.

There was immediate concern that recent University of Illinois graduates who worked at Western Electric would be among the dead.

"Walter J. Blum, who completed a course in electrical engineering at the university in 1914, and F.J. Naprsteck, who finished a course in architectural engineering in the same year, are among the former university students working for the Western Electric Company for whom no word has been received since the disaster this morning," The Champaign Gazette reported hours after the accident.

A few days later, however, local papers reported that they and others were safe. The manager of the student apprentice program at Western Electric, which included 30 UI students, wired: "All Illinois men checked up as safe."

Then came stories of narrow escapes, people who attempted to rescue survivors and local undertakers who were enlisted to care for the dead.

The sister of Champaign Police Chief A.U. Keller initially was reported among the missing "until an inquiry by wire brought the information that Miss Keller was not on the ill-faced boat. She had purchased a ticket but for some reason did not go aboard," the Urbana Daily Courier reported.

Another story said that Frank Holmgren, a young man from Rantoul, had been on the Eastland but was thrown into the river as the boat "turned turtle."

"Holmgren was on the upper deck and when thrown into the water he easily swam to the dock," the Courier said. "He and another young man were with a couple of young lades when they were thrown into the water and became separated from them, both the girls being drowned. Homlgren has been in Chicago only a few months and was employed at the Western Electric plant. He is well known (in Rantoul), having at one time had charge of a local moving picture show."

Mrs. Carrie Hatch, a nurse at the Cook County Psychopathic Hospital, wrote to her daughter in Urbana following the accident, and her letter was reprinted in the Courier.

"You can't imagine the dark pall of death that hung over the city yesterday. No theatre, no park open, nothing but hearses and ambulances flying in every direction," she wrote. "I went in my uniform and was allowed anywhere. I went on both bridges and saw the old ship on its side with 700 bodies underneath. I saw the divers bring up many bodies.

"Then I went to armory No. 2 on through the morgue and looked at the poor unidentified bodies, mangled and bleeding — people looking into every black and mangled face for their loved one. I never beheld such a sight of repulsion in all my life."

Urbana undertaker C.A. Fry left town to care for the dead, the Courier said."When the appalling number of dead was realized, Coroner Peter Hoffman of Cook County sent appeals for help to downstate undertakers, and the Urbana man responded. Mr. Fry individually prepared the bodies of 10 victims for burial," said the Courier.

A book on the Eastland, written 20 years ago by George W. Hilton, concluded that the disaster was caused by post-Titanic modifications — including the addition of lifeboats and life rafts — that made it top-heavy and unstable.

Civil lawsuits following the accident gave little comfort to the victims and their families. Laws at the time limited liability to the value of the ship, $46,000, and claims by the salvage company that towed the Eastland away took precedence. There was little money left for the families of middle- and lower-class victims, many of them immigrants with names like Buszkiewicz, Grochowksi, Cmucha, Stejskal, Cifrik and Zdrojewska.

Tuesday 21 July 2015


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Cyprus: plea for information on the missing

President Nicos Anastasiades has appealed to anyone who has information with regard to missing persons in Cyprus to come forward and share it with the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP).

Speaking on Sunday evening at an event organiSed by the Cyprus Committee of Relatives of Missing Persons and Undeclared Prisoners of 1974, at the Panorama of Missing Persons, in the village of Kornos, Anastasiades noted that this appeal was made both by him and the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community Mustafa Akinci.

“We are exerting pressure in all directions for Turkey to finally be persuaded to cooperate and allow search operations in areas which it has turned into closed military zones,” the President said, adding that he raised the issue with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Efforts have also been directed towards the five UN Security Council Permanent Members, he noted.

“As long as the Cyprus problem remains unresolved and as long as there are military occupation forces that describe some of our occupied areas as ‘military zones’, finding our missing persons or at least investigating the fate of our missing persons will unfortunately be impossible,” he said.

Anastasiades said he would not stop, together with the rest of the political leadership, to pursue a solution to the Cyprus problem that will abolish armies and military zones, and which will provide every Cypriot citizen with the right to reside freely where he or she wishes, with human rights safeguarded. The missing persons issue, he said, was one of the integral elements of the solution.

The list of missing persons includes 1,508 Greek Cypriots, 43 of whom went missing between 1963-1964 when intercommunal violence broke out in Cyprus. The list also includes 493 Turkish Cypriots, 229 of whom are thought to have been lost during the period 1963-1967.

Two hundred and sixty four Turkish Cypriots went missing during the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island and there have been some reports that 126 of them were lost in the areas of Aloa-Maratha-Sandalari.

So far 444 identifications of Greek Cypriots have been carried out and 138 of Turkish Cypriots. Approximately 200 cases are in the stage of anthropological or genetic analysis, 100 Greek Cypriot missing cannot be identified and the remains of 800 missing persons are still to be located.

Over 30 missing persons remains identified so far this year

Greek Cypriot member of the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) Nestoras Nestoros has said that the remains of 34 missing persons had been identified so far in 2015.

He told the Cyprus News Agency that the Committee was focusing both on the quality of the tests carried out and the quantity of the remains handed over to the families.

Nestoros said that the number of missing persons identified could be much more “if we gave the relatives a couple of bones of their loved ones.” He said that in the cases of ‘mixed bones’ such as those found in mass graves, they are tested but when skeletal samples fail to come up with a DNA identification or the DNA distinctiveness is low “then we deem that we must continue our efforts.”

Thos remains that fail the DNA test for one profile may match with the profile of another missing persons and the tests start over.

“We have to be able to give the families as many bones as possible,” Nestoros said.

He said that after the conclusion of the genetic tests, the lab experts evaluate whether they must send new samples from other mixed bones that have not been identified. “Our aim is to exhaust all scientific means with a view to return as much of the remains as possible,” Nestoros added. In the case of complete skeletons, when the DNA distinctiveness is low then more genetic material is sent for DNA tests, he said. Nestoros said that when the remains are handed over to each family, relatives are also given a comprehensive report comprising the anthropological findings, genetic tests and a comprehensive archeological report in Greek, English and Turkish.

He noted that according to the recommendations of foreign experts, the CMP was implementing a pilot programme with a view to determining whether it should change the protocols of its anthropological tests in the cases where mixed bones are discovered.

According to Nestoros, excavations are being carried out currently in nine areas, two in the government controlled areas and seven in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north.

He called on everyone who participated in the burial of people or has any information to give to the Committee to do so. He said that from the 444 Greek Cypriots who have been identified, 281 were found buried in different places from where they had reportedly disappeared. (CNA)

Tuesday 21 July 2015



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U.S., Japanese veterans, 95, work to find missing comrades

Tuesday, Leon Cooper, who is 95 and lives in Malibu, will leave for Japan to meet with Kokichi Nishimura, who is 95 and lives outside Tokyo.

During World War II, the two were enemies, each sent by his country to New Guinea, where they endured some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

Cooper was a boat group commander taking U.S. assault troops to the shore at New Guinea and elsewhere. Nishimura was an infantryman at an earlier battle in New Guinea called the Kokoda Track and later in Burma.

Now they share a passion: that a decent reckoning, and appropriate honors, be made for their countrymen killed in combat. Each is livid with allegations that his country is not more aggressive in accounting for the fallen.

They have never met. But each felt drawn to compare experiences. Nishimura is frail, and the meeting may take place in a hospital.

In his devotion to finding Japanese — and Australians — killed in New Guinea, Nishimura left behind his business and his family in the late 1970s and moved to New Guinea — now known as Papua New Guinea. With occasional returns to Japan, he remained in New Guinea until his health declined in 2007, forcing a final return to his homeland.

In New Guinea, he acquired the nickname the "Bone Man of Kokoda," which is the title of a 2008 book about Nishimura written by Australian journalist Charles Happell.

Cooper's efforts to find and honor the dead from the battle on the atoll of Tarawa were chronicled in the documentary by filmmaker Steven Barber, "Return to Tarawa: the Leon Cooper Story." Barber is accompanying Cooper to Japan with plans to co-produce, with Matthew Hausle, an updating of the Cooper story, "Return to New Guinea."

Cooper, in an interview Sunday, said he has heard that Nishimura wants to know if the hatred that Americans once felt for Japanese has subsided.

My feeling is: 'How long can you harbor hatred?' "Cooper said. "I don't hate the Japanese. Most of the people I hated are dead. I outlived them, which is the best revenge."

After the war, Nishimura founded a successful engineering firm. Cooper had various business ventures, including founding an early computer company and serving as chief financial officer for several corporations.

Each traces his concern for the remains of those killed to an unchanging sense of duty.

Nishimura has said that when he married his wife after the war, he told her that someday he would return to New Guinea to retrieve the bodies of his comrades. "It was a promise I made to my friends," he told Hausle last year.

Cooper remembers soldiers in his landing craft, in Tarawa, New Guinea and other battles.

"I know that some of those guys were killed and are still missing," he said. "I took them across the River Styx into the killing field. It haunts me still."

Although the Defense Department has recently reorganized its effort to account for the missing, Cooper said the effort is still ineffectual.

"I want our government to live up to its promise not to leave any man behind," he said. "There are more than 80,000 who remain where they fell. It makes me so mad."

In an interview with the Japan Times, Nishimura offered similar criticism of the Japanese government. Estimates of Japanese dead unaccounted for during World War II reach into the millions.

"They don't care; it has always been the same," he told journalist David McNeill. "Everybody today is against war in Japan, but nobody wants to talk about what happened."

While in Japan, Cooper hopes to meet with the U.S. and Australian ambassadors. He is especially eager to meet with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy.

"We share a connection," he said.

Kennedy's father's PT-109 was based at Tulagi, one of the Solomon Islands. Cooper's ship, the attack transport Harry Lee, stopped briefly at Tulagi — which proved long enough for sailors and soldiers facing combat, including Cooper, to go ashore and get drunk.

The trip to Japan is being underwritten by Gordon Cooper, a nephew of the late astronaut Gordon Cooper. Leon Cooper knew the astronaut but, similar name not withstanding, they were not related.

Cooper plans to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan's shrine to its war dead, although Cooper has mixed feelings about the shrine, particularly its inclusion of military personnel convicted of war crimes, including Hideki Tojo, Japan's prime minister during much of the war. Tojo was hanged as a war criminal in 1948.

About Nishimura, Cooper has no mixed feelings.

"Like me, he was sent [to New Guinea] to protect his country," Cooper said. "But I bet neither of us had such lofty ideas in mind. We just wanted to get the hell out alive."

Tuesday 21 July 2015


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