Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 12, 2016

History lost

A few years ago, I wrote a column about two fires. One not only made the history books, but our collective consciousness as well. The other - although it killed more people and caused more damage - is hardly known today, except to those who live near where it happened.

The two devastating fires began at about the same time - 9 p.m. - and on the same day - Oct, 8, 1871 - and were only 250 miles apart. Both continued throughout the next day. The one people hear about is called the Great Chicago Fire. It killed some 200-300 people and left 90,000 people homeless.

The second burned 16 towns, killed between 1,200 and 2,400 people and scorched 1.2 million acres. But not many know about the Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire.

Most Americans know what happened to the ocean liner Titanic. But there have been no movies or songs about the Sultana. On the night of April 27, 1865, the steamboat was carrying 2,300 just-released Union prisoners of war, plus crew members and civilian passengers. Not far upstream from Memphis, Tennessee, the boiler exploded, throwing people into the swollen river.

Some 1,700 people died - about 200 more than died on the Titanic.

But the nation's attention was focused elsewhere. Earlier in the month, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered. A few days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. On April 26, assassin John Wilkes Booth was caught and killed. Shortly after, Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Civil War was over. People were weary of war and desensitized to the associated death. Only Civil War buffs remember the Sultana.

Both of these tragedies were overshadowed by other attention-getting events. But others just fade away.

On a 1993 trip to Europe, Art met Helmut in Austria. They spoke for awhile about video cameras and Art, impressed by Helmut's command of English, asked him where he had become so proficient. Helmut explained he had been the Prisoner Of War camp interpreter during World War II. While that was interesting, what startled Art was hearing the camp was in Texas! Art didn't know until that conversation there had been POW camps in the United States. Full supply ships heading east from the United States had been returning empty. It was reasoned that prisoners wouldn't be an escape threat here, so they were loaded onto the otherwise empty ships for the return trip.

Oddly, on the same trip, Art met a second former POW. When Karl asked Art where he was from, Art answered, "Kansas." Karl immediately replied, "Ah, the Sunflower State!"

So how would Karl know the state's slogan? Karl had been a prisoner at Concordia, Kansas. He said that while they weren't required to, most prisoners felt working on farm was better than just idling about the camp during the day. In the evenings, classes were offered by the University of Kansas. Karl took a biology class that inspired him to become a medical doctor. It also led him to meet his future wife - a nurse. Karl said being taken to Kansas was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Helmut said his proficiency with English was very helpful when computers came to banking. Since much of the equipment came from the U.S., he was asked to help and ended his career as the head of data processing for a large German bank.

When I asked my parents about POWs in America, both Mom and Dad remembered the prisoners who stayed in Peabody, Kansas and helped on the nearby farms. When Art mentioned it to his mother, she said there were some in his hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. They were housed in tents at a ballfield just six blocks from his home, near the canning plant where they had worked. In neither case did our parents try to hide the fact that we had enemy soldiers in our own backyards during the war. It just never seemed important enough to them to mention it.

Other things lost from our public awareness of our past were purposely hidden. In September 1942, the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced west of the Oregon coast and launched a floatplane. The pilot dropped incendiary bombs over a wooded area near Brookings, Oregon in the hope of starting a major forest fire. Light winds, damp conditions and a quick response from fire patrols meant the bombs had little effect. A second bombing later that month also failed. The pilot of the floatplane, Nobuo Fujita, made several visits to Brookings in the 1960s, asking for forgiveness. He was proclaimed an honorary citizen upon his death in 1997.

Japan also bombed the United States using a different technique. Bombs were attached to balloons and the wind currents took them to us. Most of them landed far from any inhabited area and only one possible casualty was recorded. But to avoid potential panic, as much as possible, reports about these bombings were effectively hushed up. And after the war? Well, it was then just old news.

I have been thinking about big news events that flew under the radar such as these because I heard about another recently. On Jan. 30, 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ocean liner, was sunk by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea. Six times more died on that ship than died on the Titanic - 9,343, mostly war refugees with about 5,000 of them children. With the Soviet army advancing, people wanted to flee. More than 10,000 people were packed onto a cruise ship meant to hold about 2,000. The victims were Germans, Prussians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Estonians and Croatians. Yet the sinking was scarcely noticed by a world whose attention was focused on the war.

We like to think ... or, at least hope ... that history is self-correcting ... that in the end, the truth comes out. But sometimes, it just fades away.

The Peshtigo fire column can be found at: "Five minutes after ten."

Daughter Mariya standing with Art next to a reconstructed guard tower at Camp Concordia in 1994.

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