Articles, History

A Battle for Supplies: The Battle of the Atlantic

Supplies, Resources, and Materiel

War is fought in many ways.  It can be fought in a meeting room in an argument, a shouting match, or a passionate speech in which one side argues with another.  It can be fought on a front line, where steel coffin tanks line a battlefield, and men cross swords, bullets, and wits.  However, what is often not considered is the war of resources, materiel, logistics, and commerce.  So goes the largely forgotten Battle of the Atlantic During World War II.

HMS Courageous moments after being struck by U-29. She will sink soon after this photo is taken.

The U-boat Peril

Much like their former incarnation, the German Kriegsmarine was composed largely of U-boats (submarines).  These U-boats were tasked with the duty of carrying out warfare against the Allies in an attempt to disrupt their war producing power.  On the opening day of World War II, Hitler himself directed Erich Raeder to avoid contact with passenger ships to avoid civilian casualties.  As the war progressed, however, this quickly became inconsequential to the Kriegsmarine.   The opening shot of the Battle of the Atlantic was heard 17 September 1939, when the HMS Courage, flying the British flag, was struck and sunk by the German U-boat U-29.

A relentless onslaught of U-boat fleets, termed "wolf-pack's", began to menace British shipping immediately after this.  Ships were targeted with almost indiscriminate means as a method to strangle British (and early on, French) shipping.  Other Ally shipping industries were also threatened, including the Soviet's, the Polish, and the Brazilian's.  By mid-1940, Italian submarines had joined in the fray in the Atlantic, assisting their German comrades. This combination led to a grave situation in the war for supply and materiel.  Winston Churchill classified as the U-boat as the number one threat to the Allies, describing them as a "peril" that stalked the dark waters of the Atlantic.

Allied convoy sailing for Casablanca in 1942. This convoy included supplies for Operation Torch - the North African Campaign.

The Convoy's of the Atlantic

An intermediate method of protecting ships, supplies, and materiel, was to establish a convoy system.  The benefits of a convoy system are many, including: additional vessels to pick up survivors (if need be), increased chances for supplies to reach their disembarkation point, a natural deterrent against U-boats, and an easier means to protect more important cargo.  However, early convoys were not as well protected as they were later.  These early convoys were only defended within the air defense network of the land.  Sometimes they'd be within deployment range of naval-borne carrier fighters.  Outside of this, the convoy was largely left unprotected.  In an ocean as vast as the Atlantic, as few as only 600 miles may include protection by the Royal Navy or Air Force.

The German's enjoyed this early success and poor planning from the British, particularly when it came to their surface raiders.  The aptly named "First Happy Time", included the sinking of many cargo transports.  The German Navy at the time was centered primarily on two Bismarck class battleships.  Of the entire Kriegsmarine, only these two ships were considered flagships - a fatal flaw in the German's vying for superiority.  The First Happy Time included many U-boat accomplishments, including engagements in the Atlantic and the Arctic.

By 1941, however, the British had begun to enforce better protection of their convoys.  This included adding warships to convoys.  The British discovered quickly that the mere presence of a battleship lowered U-boat engagements on convoys.  Naval aerial reconnaissance also aided the British, scouting for submarines near the surface of the water.  All of this brought a marginal, yet noticeable, decline in ships being lost to the U-boat's.

Dixie Arrow, burning and sinking after being torpedoed by U-71. She sinks near the North Carolina coast in March 1942.

Enter: The United States

In a previous article, I wrote about how Winston Churchill was relieved at the Pearl Harbor attacks.  His reasoning for this was that he knew that the United States was to enter the war as an ally to the British, and with it came a wealth of resources that was not previously available.  There was just one significant problem with breathing that last sigh of relief: the Atlantic Ocean.

Shipping cargo from the United States to Europe was not an easy task.  Logistically speaking, shipping materiel by boat was much more feasible than airlift.  After all, stuffing M4  Sherman tanks, P-38  Lightning aircraft, and other heavy field artillery and ordnance was not something you do aboard a C-47 transport aircraft.  Not only would the quantity of transport aircraft be insurmountable, but the weight of materiel did not make such a feat possible.  As a result, cargo ships were the main go-to.  This proved difficult, as the German's almost immediately began to target American shipping.  Many American boats were sunk within sight of the coastline, in fact.

The majority of U-boat attacks on American shipping in American waters occurred at night, when the silhouette of ships and vessels crossed the lights from American coastal cities.  It was not until mid-late 1942 that the Americans began to implement a blackout for these cities.  German U-boats would come up to the surface, being well beneath the deck of a regular ship, and then shell the ship until it was rendered dead-in-the-water.  Few U-boats torpedoed ships that were near the coast.  The Germans, for this reason were able to claim early victories in their operation's Neuland and Drumbeat.  This cultivated the Second German Happy Time, as loss in Allied shipping reached its peak in 1942 and 1943.  However, the luck that the German's were enjoying was about to come to an end.

Bismarck as she appeared in 1940. The Tirpitz featured an identical design and is the only other ship in the class.

The Shortcoming of the Germans

The Kriegsmarine, the naval wing of the Third Reich's power, was arguably the most underfunded and least considered by Hitler.  The operations in the Atlantic were primarily comprised of Italian and German U-boats, with arguably a handful of surface raiders.  The flagship and pride of the Kriegsmarine were the two Bismarck class battleships.  This included the battleship of the same name.

Battleship Bismarck was destined for damnation early in the Atlantic theater, when the British struck the ship and subsequently sank her in May of 1941.  Her sister ship Tirpitz survived, operating on the high seas in the Atlantic, Arctic, and the Indian Oceans until her fate was sealed in November of 1944.

However, the German's had invested more in their U-boat operations than with their surface raiders.  The Type XXI and XXIII Elektroboot submarines were able to dive faster and cruise faster than their predecessors.  These two revelations represented the crux of German ingenuity in the Kriegsmarine.  Throughout the war, the Germans never applied full efforts to aircraft carriers nor a means to project force into the Atlantic beyond their battleships.  The U-boat was designed to be the superior firepower in the seas to deter the Allies.  Thus, the Kriegsmarine represents a major weak point in the German military structure.

A Hawker Hurricane with rockets ignited aboard a CAM Ship. Of 9 deployments of CAM aircraft, only 1 pilot was lost. 9 German aircraft were defeated.

Allied Defenses

The Allied methods of defense were improvised as situations changed.  This evolved from and was built on the convoy system.  Initially, warships were included in convoys as a means to act as a deterrent.  Later on, this included modifications of merchant ships to include military technology such as aircraft catapults (CAM ships), and Sonar (Q-Ships).  These ships were usually disguised as simple merchant ships, but were capable of launching their own defensive countermeasures against scouting aircraft and U-boats alike.

There were two major breakthroughs that ultimately put the last two nails in the coffin for the German fleet of U-boats: the deciphering of the German naval code, and the introduction of the ASDIC visual representation system for Sonar.

The breaking of this code allowed the Allies to better coordinate U-boat movements, location, armaments, and fuel level.  This put the Allies on the offensive against the U-boats in the Atlantic.  In addition, better visual displays for Sonar in the ASDIC system allowed for better threat recognition.  It also allowed Sonar to be applied in other vessels that previously were not designed with such a feature.  Ships were able to better prepare for contingency operations and, in some cases, avoid contact with U-boat wolf-pack's entirely.

U-2540, the only remaining Type XXIII U-boat. The remaining Type XXIII's were used for target practice in Operation Deadlight.

German Decline

Unlike their adversaries, the German's were faced with the issue of having limited available resources.  Most of their resources and war materiel were being tapped to the maximum extent.  Others were being brought in by railroad car.  The pressure being mounted by the Allies in North Africa, and later southern Europe resulted in the pinching of these commerce channels.  Shipping on the seas posed almost just as great of threat for the German's as it did for the Allies.

After the landing at Normandy, they faced another issue: the dwindling resources available for U-boat production and resupply.  As the Allies began to advance across France, they were overtaking U-boat bases and cutting off the lifelines of these seafaring vessels.  Incidentally, during the Normandy operation, no U-boats opened fire on any Allied vessels.  In fact, only one ship was sunk by the Kriegsmarine.  The superior firepower of the Allied air force, combined with the intense vessel numbers and deception practices, left the U-boats effectively stunned.

By 1944, U-boat losses almost completed closed to Allied shipping losses.  By 1945, more U-boats were sent to the deep than Allied ships - in combat.  Prior to the German surrender, the Germans scuttled many of their own U-boats to prevent capture.  Whatever was left was confiscated by the Allies - mainly the British.  Most of these ships were used for target practice in the 1946 Operation Deadlight.  Only about ten of those U-boats were retained for research or preservation purposes.

British seamen raise the British colors over a surrendered German U-boat U-190 in 1945 - a common sight through the end of May.

The Battle Ends

With the German surrender, the Battle of the Atlantic concluded in May of 1945.  Over 500,000 tons of Allied shipping had been lost, with over 1,000 U-boats sunk or scuttled.  3,700 Allied ships fell prey to German wolf-packs.  The Battle of the Atlantic was not a costly battle by way of casualty by comparison in World War II, with a total of around 100,000 men lost, but was costly in respects to the amount of materiel lost.

In the instance of the German U-boats, many crew went down with their ship.  Scarcely did the Germans have a chance to abandon ship.  Conversely, many times the Allied ships that were lost were able to at least partially abandon ship.  Nearby vessels allowed survivors to quickly be rescued.  As a result, when considering casualty numbers, the rate of loss was far more significant for the Germans than the Allies.  The production capabilities of the Allies, especially when the Americans entered the war, is also a factor when considering losses.  The Americans were capable of putting out one ship in less than a month per crew.  If one considered the number of shipyards, and the number of docks within those shipyards, output was greater than fifty ships per month.  The Germans were unable to meet the Allies in this feat.

Coupled with the German reluctance to embrace naval warfare, Germany's ability to project force into the Atlantic was a ticking timebomb.  The Germans would have eventually succumbed to strangulation at sea by the Allies simply due to the overwhelming production capabilities.  Some historians find themselves at odds with this, however.  In some instances, it is argued that had the Germans continued to wage war in the wolf-pack design, shipping would have eventually died out.  However, at that point, it becomes a war purely fought in the war production plants and shipyards.  Who can outproduce who, and who can do it faster.  In the annals of history the answer was and is: the Allies.

So goes The Battle of the Atlantic.

Articles, History

D-Day: 75 Years Later

It All Started With a Simple Phrase...

6 June 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in what we commonly call D-Day.  This is a milestone for us as historians, but also as a society.  The 75th anniversary marks the last major milestone anniversary where any survivors will be among us.  It signifies a great triumph, but also a harrowing reminder of mortality.  Rather than dwell on the sadness accompanied with that fact, let us instead look back on a day where 160,000 soldiers put everything on the line for freedom.

In mid-1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill communicated with top naval commanders within the British Navy to "prepare for an invasion" of Europe.  Such a feat of this magnitude would prove elusive and perilous.  Germany had long since established a bastion of defensive positions on the French coastline.  Attacks on the British mainland were becoming a growing concern.  However, within that concern, the southern coastline of Britain had been transformed into a defensive network that was capable of rivaling the German threat.  "The whole of south Britain is a haven for our defense", said Churchill, "you've got to turn it into a springboard for our attack."

Upon the Japanese surprise attack on Allied assets in the Pacific in December of 1941, Churchill recounted that he had slept with the greatest amount of peace the following evening.  "I slept the peace of the saved", he recounted.  The Japanese had launched several assaults in the Pacific against American, French, and British assets.  This included movements in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and most notoriously, Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands.  Had Germany and Italy not opted to show good faith for the Japanese, the Americans may not have entered the war in Europe.  However, in the days that followed the surprise attack in the Pacific, the rest of the Axis Powers declared war on the United States.  In the course of a week, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies.  Much to the miscalculation of the Axis powers, the Americans were capable of leveraging a rapid response to the attacks and were able to mount an unrivaled mass of resources and war materiel.

The United States public, having been able to readily identify the enemy in the Pacific as Japan, was not as enthusiastic about fighting in Europe against an enemy that had not immediately been intimately known.  However, this changed when German U-Boats began to shell the coastline of American cities.  Upon the first arrival of troops in Britain in 1942, the presumption was an immediate and direct assault on the European mainland.  The British military, however, was not confident in the American's ability to wage this new brand of war.  In addition, severe losses at the evacuation of Dunkirk had led them to be more than just somewhat cautious.  It was decided that the Allied effort would instead be focused across North Africa.  Initial plans called for the invasion of Europe to begin in 1943.  This did indeed occur, but it did so in the boot of Italy in September of 1943.  The Allies were still wanting to launch campaigns into France, but were unable to do so due to the vast logistical issues they faced.

The Tehran Conference in December of 1943 solidified that the invasion of France would instead take place in May of 1944.  A large number of resources were to be mounted to successfully execute a successful campaign against the German Army.  The Allies had been conducting widespread strategic bombing of German resources, including Luftwaffe targets across the interior of Germany.  By late 1943, their focus began to shift to elements in France and West Germany.  The Americans were able to maintain air superiority due to the deployment of faster and more experienced pilots and aircraft.  In addition, American bombing campaigns utilized broader areas of air coverage allowing more bombers to penetrate German air defense networks.  By the time of the Normandy invasion, the Luftwaffe only had a force of less than twenty percent of its original strength.  It was so weak, in fact, that most German aircraft flew single passes on the beaches before retreating to Germany.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, GEN Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed as the Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.  Under his direction, he had ordered GEN Omar Bradley to conduct operations with the U.S. First Army on the day of landing.  Meanwhile, GEN George S. Patton was instructed to deploy a phantom Eighth Army at Dover.  The Germans were expecting an Allied crossing from Dover to Calais - the shortest point in the English Channel between Britain and France.  The Allies created fake radio signals, blew up fake balloons in the shape of tanks, and even mounted fake rubber landing craft in the coastal areas near Dover.  A second decoy group was near Edinburgh Castle, and purportedly poised to strike the Germans in Norway.  Both diversionary tactics were given the names FORTITUDE NORTH and SOUTH, respectively.  The decoy plan was so successful, that over 29 German Army divisions, including Panzer units were concentrated on Calais and Norway all the way up through the Normandy invasion.

The Germans were already concerned due to their loss of Rome on 5 June 1944.  The American forces swept through the city after the Germans executed a fleeting retreat.  However, the American victory in Rome was not meant to make it to the headlines in newspapers around the world.

De l'automne Blessent mon cœur D'une langueur monotone.

0530, 6 June 1944 - "[The violins] Of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor."  With those words uttered over the air of the BBC radio waves, elements from the United States First Army began their landing assault on the beaches at Utah.  Airborne troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Battalion's had already parachuted into regions of Normandy the night before.  They had cut supply lines, communication lines, and were lying await in ambush to pinch the Germans in and drive them off the beaches.  Of the men who deployed that evening, eighty percent lost their lives or were captured.  Violent waves and a sea of led and fire awaited these brave first soldiers who stepped off the landing boats at Utah.  The Second British Army was the next to follow further to the east, with follow-up landings occurring throughout the morning.  The Germans were surprised and caught off guard.  They had no reinforcements.  They had no communication.  They had no supplies.  While well stocked, any advanced movements on their position was unable to be checked, ultimately resulting in retreat.  By the end of 6 June, the Allies were able to claim OVERLORD as a success.

"Viva la France! The liberation of France has begun!" These words were shouted in a cramped news room in Britain in the afternoon of 6 June.  Reporters were hard at work typing up their story about the liberation of Rome.  One reporter commented that there was an awkward silence of a few moments before the room erupted into the sound of paper being ripped from type-writers and thrown away.

By 22 June, the Allies had full control of the coastline that comprised Normandy, as well as the port facilities.  They had also taken the city of Caen, a major springboard location for their launch into Paris.

A follow-on operation in the southern part of France would launch in August, codenamed DRAGOON.  This landing was to secure Monaco and Toulon, launched from the newly established Allied bases in Italy.  All but a few fringe states of France would be liberated by the end of 1944.  With the Soviet Red Army continuing to put force on German's eastern flank, Germany's days were numbered as it entered into a three-front war.

At the end of the landings, over 4,000 Allied troops had lost their lives.  Total Allied casualties exceeded 10,000.  These included missing, captured, injured, and dead.  The German's lost between 5,000 and 10,000 men.  The diversionary tactics of the phantom army surely aided in the assault, and the subsequent damage to German morale certainly was palpable.

The 1962 film The Longest Day featuring Henry Fonda and John Wayne depicts the events of the landings at Normandy fairly true to form.  It is a must-see for any history buff.

As this month closes, let us all take a moment to reflect on these brave soldiers who put everything on the line for us to be here today.  Let this last month serve as a somber reminder to all of you to thank those who do serve and have served to preserve freedoms and safety around the world - in all nations, of all nations.


Context: SGT Christianson Versus the Devil


Within the confines of history live stories.  That’s what history is an abundance of, really: stories.  Those stories are what can make history so compelling and so mesmerizing that it can leave any person starry-eyed.  That being said, often times there are stories of embellishment, but as history has taught us, some of those tall tales have a shroud of truth to them.  In the story of SGT Christianson, PVT Tumbleweed, and the Devil, one certainly would think to themselves that the story is too incredible to possibly be true.  However, immediately chalking up a tale to the impossible is not appreciating the work of an author to their true worth.  Likewise, it is not in any way appreciative of history to dismiss a story simply because of its awesomeness.

The Context of Time

The story makes several references as to its date of publication and the time frame of its sequence of events.  I found no evidence of who wrote the story, or where it was originally published.

The story clearly references a time when the Clock Tower on Rock Island Arsenal, now dubbed Building 205 – home of the Rock Island District Army Corps of Engineers – was newly established.  With the first stone of Building 205 (or Storehouse A, as it was originally known) having been first laid down sometime in 1862 or 1863, the story of course took place after this.  The history of Rock Island Arsenal also includes the Rock Island Prison Barracks which were present from 1863 to 1865.  Storehouse A was likely completed sometime between 1865 and 1867.  The mention of Abraham Lincoln’s soon-to-be assassin (John Wilkes Booth) implies this is before his death in April of 1865.  As a result, it is likely that this story took place in the midst of the summer of 1864 – possibly August.  More justification is provided in further details mentioned below.

The mentioning of auto traffic, and the astounding prediction of the American flag over France and “far away” islands (Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii, for example) suggest the author at least must be addressing the topic on the other side of World War I and the Spanish-American War.  Likewise, it is likely the article was composed after World War II due to the nature of classifying the cannon as a road hazard.  As such, the most likely date of publication would be between 1943 and 1945, when the Arsenal’s workforce was at its peak.

The 1943-45 timeframe assumes the late SGT is not a fortune teller.  To entertain the idea of this potential, if we assumed that he in fact was able to predict the future, the mention of the 1903 fire that destroyed several shops, as well as the hydroelectric power dam, indicates the story must be published post 1903.  The mention of traffic hazards suggests that the author’s telling of the tale must still be on the other side of 1908.  As a means of appreciation, the estimation using these presumptions would date the account to 1910-1920.

The reader should feel free to decide, but to keep these thoughts in mind.

The Sacred Object: The Cannon

The story references that a cannon with its muzzle pointed towards the earth below marks the site of where the SGT had broken the heel of the Devil.  There is, indeed, a cannon at the juncture of which the author describes that splits Rodman Avenue from Rock Island Avenue.  The cannon is located just outside of an old guard shack that still has part of the gate intact today.  The boundaries of the installation have since moved beyond this and encompass both Building 205, the Annex, the Naval Annex, and several other ancillary buildings.  The cannon is situated approximately 30 feet to the west of the shack, however.

Historically, cannons have been used to mark the gravesite of an important person, such as a General, or well respected service member.  However, they have also been used as sign posts for gates and entries into installations.  In the case of the cannon at Rock Island Arsenal, this is likely the case.  Indeed, this cannon is not the only one that is used as a sign post.  However, it is by far the largest cannon to be wedged in the ground, and is slightly off kilter.

The author specifies that the cannon at the time of writing was painted black and yellow to warn traffic of the hazard on the side of the road.  It is possible that the cannon was struck at some point, either in the service of being a gate, or a side-road object.  It would then make sense for the cannon to be clearly marked for motorists.  The cannon’s current scheme is black, indicating that it has not been a hazard for some time.  This also lends evidence to when the story was written, as the increase in traffic would mean that the author is writing post 1908, when the first mass produced automobile was put on the market.


The cityscape that is described in the story is relatively accurate.  It is important to note that the wagon bridge in the story is not the 1856, nor the 1868 railroad bridge that crossed the main channel of the Mississippi River.  A wagon bridge would not cross this channel until 1872.  Instead, the wagon bridge being described is the bridge that spans the southern channel, known as Sylvan Slough, that crosses from Rock Island to Arsenal Island.  This wagon bridge was situated at an angle, veering southwest (~200 degrees) to northeast (~60 degrees).  The current bridge carries (as the previous one carried) Fort Armstrong Avenue, which passes by Building 205 – where the good SGT was supposedly keeping watch.

Having walked the approximate trail, it would take around six minutes from the start of the wagon bridge to the Davenport Gate (the closest gate to the location of the cannon) jogging.  It would take an additional two minutes if PVT Tumbleweed approached the single access to the bridge from the south, and four minutes from the north.

“How fares the Arsenal?”

We are treated to this a few times in the story of SGT Christianson.  Likewise, we also see mention of “her citizenry.”  The fact of the matter is that at the time the story supposedly would have taken place, Rock Island Arsenal would have only had one incomplete building to call its own.  The prison barracks on Rock Island were not associated with the Ordnance Corps, and likewise were not part of Rock Island Arsenal.  Even if the story took place in an abnormally warm spring of 1865 (which it wasn’t), Storehouse A would still only be mostly complete.  It is difficult to establish where this pride in the Arsenal comes from, therefore.

As for the citizenry of Rock Island Arsenal, at the time the story took place, only officers who were employed for watch over the prison barracks and a few soldiers on sentry duty for the Arsenal itself would have been residents there.  D.B. Sears, and the Davenport family had since moved from the island, leaving only a military presence and captive presence.  These would only be temporary residents as well.

In 1867, BVT BG Thomas J. Rodman would be brought to Rock Island Arsenal, where he would establish his plans for a grand arsenal.  Up until this point, the arsenal was merely one of three separate locations for a national arsenal within the Union.  The notion of “pride in the Arsenal”, therefore, likely would not begin until Rodman arrived on the island in 1867.

The Verdict

With there being no records of a SGT Christianson, nor a PVT Tumbleweed ever having been tasked to Rock Island Arsenal, the story falls apart rapidly.  No gravesites on the post are isolated – save for COL D. M. King, and BVT BG Thomas J. Rodman’s graves.  Ignoring that fact, many other factors contribute to the unbelievable nature of the story.  The description of the 1903 fire is certainly one to raise question with.  By the time of the 1903 fire, the area that now makes up the Greater Quad City area had been well industrialized and a well-defined population was present.  Three newspapers serviced the region.  The fact that no accounts mentioned the events as such should be a giveaway – especially considering the interest and importance of the Arsenal in the local area.

That being said, Sylvan Island does sit abandoned today.  It is accessible openly for hikers and the public.  People frequently find scraps from when Republic Steel Works was present on the island.

In addition, the cannon’s presence does not seem to quite fit the location of the guard shack that sits behind it.  This likely allowed these stories to grow in some form of credibility as well.  This coupled with the existence of caves that run under the west side of the island, where local Sac and Fox tribes believed a “great spirit” dwelled, certainly spurred the imaginations of storytellers.

However, at the end of the story, this sadly remains just a story.  Regardless of how absolutely “‘Muricuh” a red, white, and blue cannonball destroying Hell is, such a notion is the work of fiction.  So goes the tale of SGT Christianson, PVT Tumbleweed, and the Devil.


Lore: The Devil and Sergeant Christianson’s Cannon


Often times, a historian digs through the rubble of texts and finds a gem that leads them down a rabbit hole.  The story of a poor soul, known to us as Private Tumbleweed, and his dealings with the devil, have certainly raised an eyebrow in our historical section.  The story follows below.

The Tale

It’s a story that is told down near the border area, where the Arsenal shore faces Sylvan Island across the slough and pool.  It is said that on a dark night, one can gaze across the water and see patches of greenish-blue light passing amidst the growth and timber on the old abandoned island.  Occasionally, one or another near-panic observer has reported that when this occurs, it is accompanied by the long mournful howl of a wolf, and yet something in the sound suggests that there is something more than a wolf that is making that soulless wail.  Some of the more superstitious claim that it comes from a poor lost creature from beyond, who is seeking vainly to find some memorable piece of machinery or someone he knew when the Republic Steel works was in full operation.  Those who know better, of course, claim that wolves and their like have not been in this area for over a hundred years.  Besides, they argue, a wolf is not likely to be in the area where the smell of sulphur is so strong on those nights that it floats down river as far as Credit Island.

Sergeant Christianson is dead now, or it is claimed that some old timers, now themselves gone, claimed that they saw him buried and that it took two dozen men to carry him to the grave site.  Incidentally, he was buried, so it is rumored, at a spot where there were no other graves.  Folklore has it that he had a head as big as a huge bull, shoulders as broad as an elephant, and hands that could load a wagon after just two scoops of earth.  When he spoke, it is reported, that the earth shook for a good distance in all directions, and to this day it is said that if you should stumble upon his grave in the dead of night, a voice like rumbling thunder will be heard to say: “Halt! Who goes there? How fares the Arsenal?”  Then you had better come forth with your name and state … “The Arsenal stands as she stood, bedrocked and solid as her citizenry, one and inseparable with the Union which she serves …,” or with a mighty rush of wind, a giant hand will spring upward and pull you beneath the sod.

As the story goes, Sergeant Christianson was in charge of the guard detail one dark dreary night at about the time the Clock Tower’s foundation was beginning to take shape.  It so happened that this was “liberty” night for the other’s of the small group of soldiers that made up the garrison, and it was a special time of vigilance for the Sergeant because of Private Tumbleweed, who was notorious for his love of “Rock Island and Davenport dew.”

Now Private Tumbleweed, aside from his intemperence on occasion, was a likable fellow who had known no equivalent to a father after reaching the age of ten.  His simple backwoods mind therefore had conjured up an image of such an esteemed being and personified it in the person of the strict but sensitive Sergeant Christianson.  The Sergeant, in return, had accepted the role of mentor and Christian guide for the wayward Private.  It had been on a night such as this, during the previous week, that Private Tumbleweed confessed, naturally after returning from Sadie’s Bar in Rock Island, that he was in dire need of advice and protection, for none other than the Devil himself was out to collect an overdue debt.  Sergeant Christianson listened in awe, for he was not given to disregarding the tales his elders had told about a flickering hearth as dark shadows danced against the cabin walls.

According to Private Tumbleweed, he had spent some time as a cavalryman in the West before coming to this area.  It was during an expedition against the Apaches that he became separated from his troop and wandered into the desert, where he soon exhausted his supply of water, and after a day or so, gave up much hope of rescue.

While half delirious, he vowed that he would swear off hard drink in favor of water for the rest of his life in pain of eternal fire if he could be saved.  No sooner had he uttered these words before the wind began to howl and the sky began to turn a foul black – – the smell of fire and brimstone were overpowering.  Just before terror allowed him to lapse into oblivion, Private Tumbleweed claimed that a hollow voice from everywhere, yet nowhere, said, “So be it.”

When he awoke, he lay in a pool of water at the foot of his horse, who was content in savoring this apparent favor from heaven.  The now saved soldier was aware of a burning sensation on his wrist, which upon inspection, revealed a scratch that evidently had been made by a foul-smelling goose-point quill that lay nearby.  His superstitious mind immediately renewed all of the tales of the terrors of Satan.  He was so numbed with fear, that upon being found wandering aimlessly by a patrol, he was confined to an aid station where he babbled incoherently about a year’s contract with the Devil and a rider named “Scratch,” who had led him within sight of the searching party.

Upon his release from the hospital, Private Tumbleweed soon fell back into his intemperent habits.  From time to time, his sojourns were all the worse, for on occasion, he would glance up from the bar to meet the soul-piercing eyes of a stranger at his side.  The evil smile and the smell of Sulphur were enough to cause the purchase of several more quaffs, both at his and the stranger’s expense.  The most recent occasion had resulted in his confidence in the good Sergeant.

On this particular night, while Sergeant Christianson was in charge of the guard, Tumbleweed had been up to his usual alcoholic adventures, and had again found himself in the company of the gleaming-eyed stranger.  After several hours of malingering at the bar, the half-sober Private announced that it was getting late, and that midnight was the deadline for his leave.  His fears were most oppressing this particular evening.

“Indeed it is late,” said the stranger as a smile split his face from ear-to-ear, baring for the first time that Tumbleweed could remember, a vicious-looking set of eye teeth that extended well below pointed fangs between.

“Your year is up,” continued the stranger, “Do you remember?”  And with that, he grasped the soldier’s wrist with a hand that burned unmercifully.

“Are you ready to go, for a bargain is a bargain, you know?”  With this last utterance in his ears, Tumbleweed let out a howl of despair, shook himself loose – – leaving a singed portion of his uniform in the stranger’s grasp – – and fled out the door.  In record time, he crossed the wagon bridge to the Island and dashed into the arms of the Sergeant, where he half collapsed.

“Help me, help me!” he cried.  “Please, he can’t be far behind!”

With all the determination that his training had given him, the Sergeant managed to assure Tumbleweed that none but the Eternal Maker himself would harm him as long as he stayed within the Sergeants protective presence.

Hardly had the Sergeant pronounced these words before the camp fire nearby grew in intensity, and then retreated to a blue-white flame that pierced the darkness – – from which stepped the stranger.

“Ah, my dear Sergeant,” he cackled, “you do drive a hard wedge between my property and myself.”

For the first time in his life, the Sergeant felt a twinge of fear, for here was what appeared to be an enemy such as he had never faced.  Nevertheless, he was a soldier to the core, so if fear were part of the bargain, so be it.  He drew himself up to his full height, causing the stranger to tilt his head back in order to see the tip of his chin, which was barely within reach.

Sergeant Christinson’s voice boomed like thunder as he said, “I take it you be Mr. Scratch!”

The stranger nodded in accord and replied, “Some call me that, but I have other names.”  With that he placed his finger along the side of his pointed nose and continued, “Names are not important, and I am not here to discuss that anyway.”

The fire flicked lower, and then shot up again to an intense brilliance that showed the full outline of the Sergeant.

“My, you are a fine figure!” remarked the stranger.  “Perhaps we can come to some agreement, or otherwise I shall have that pitiful wretch and begone.”  With that he pointed a long-nailed finger at Private Tumbleweed, who let out a shriek and near fell into the fire save for the quick action of the Sergeant who caught him.

By now the Sergeant realized what bargain the stranger had in mind, and the sweat stood out on his forehead like giant drops of blood and water.

“By heaven, Sir,” he roared, for he felt that Mr. Scratch did hold some rank or authority, “even if you be Satan himself, you shall not touch one thread of this uniform nor that of this man beside me!”  With that, he pointed to the ground to which Tumbleweed had slipped, having lost his grasp on the Sergeant’s belt, and where he lay in a swoon with his eyes rolled back in his head.

“I see that you have my true identity,” the stranger countered.  “Yes, I have had considerable difficulty with that uniform in the past, but . . . !”

Without warning, he made a lunge for the prostrate figure of Private Tumbleweed.  His smile had faded into the most horrible animal-man counterance that one could imagine.  His well soled shoes in a puff had become cloven hooves, and the back of his jacket split open as large bat-like wings sprung forth as if to waft him away.

Although he moved with the swiftness of an elk, the Sergeant moved even faster, and caught him by the back of his hairy neck with which he held him high in the air and shook him violently.

“Ouch, ouch!” he screamed.  “Ye Gods man, if you’ll excuse the expression, you’re hurting me!”  And he began to plead and beg, promising that he meant no harm to either man, and that he was willing to compromise.  Without ceremony, he was deposited on the ground with a thud.

The Sergeant by now was in a rage, and his great hands were clenched like twin granite mounds.  WIth an obvious warning of dire things possible, he half hissed, “Now, I’ll listen to anything within reason, but mind you, you shall not touch one button on this uniform . . . Sir!”

By now, Mr. Scratch, or the “stranger,” if you please, had gained some of his composure, and brushing back an obviously damaged wing, he smiled and pointed a crooked finger at the darkness beyond the two men.  THe one, of course, was still on the ground.
“I believe,” chuckled Mr. Scratch, for he began to feel somewhat brave again, “that Private Tumbleweed was supposed to lower the flag before he went on . . . eh . . . ‘liberty,’ is that not so?”

The Sergeant grunted in the affirmative, half fearing what was to come next.

“Well now,” continued Mr. Scratch, “I’ll just take that flag, which was not lowered, as ordered, with me as a token of, shall we say, ‘compromise’?”

Well, if the Sergeant felt rage before, he now passed into an unspeakable frenzy.

“What . . .?” he sputtered in a roar like thunder, “what, what, what . . . ?” for he could not make himself believe what had been said.

Mr. Scratch had recoiled slightly at this outburst, but, since it is held true that the Devil must have his due, he fancied that even under these circumstances, a token at least must fall his way.

“Well Sergeant,” he half begged, “maybe just a piece of it will do!”

The Sergeant staggered back, still in half disbelief, while he sought support on the muzzle of a cannon that, for some unknown reason, had been delivered along with some building material.  His voice that sounded like thunder before, now belched forth like the roar of a volcano.

“By all the forks and spears of Hell, you will not touch one thread Sir,. . . Not one thread, do you hear me?”

“But it is only a piece of cloth . . . ” replied Mr. Scratch.  “You certainly can hold little value in that.”

Sergeant Christianson tightened his grip on the cannon’s mouth, and his temples appeared ready to burst as his words rushed out in a torrent of defiant rage.

“That Sir, that flag is the symbol of our national unity in spite of our different opinions.  IT is the spirit of devotion and all of God’s best in us.  It represents man’s most noble of dreams for which generation’s have aspired.  In its folds are Hancock, Franklin, Washington, Paul Revere, Thomas Payne.  By all that’s holy, I have had visions of tomorrow, of far away islands and that flag being lofted in the breeze.  Yes, and I have tossed in my sleep in visions of it flying even over fields in France.  No Sir, you may by some measure unholy take the best of me, but you shall not, even if the angels of Heaven do not come to my aid, so much as touch one single blessed star of it.”

As everyone knows, the Devil claims any nationality, including “American,” if it suits his purpose, and though he was half swayed, evidenced by a barely susceptible tear in one eye, he insisted in pursuit of his claim.

“I too am an American, and no-one can lay better claim to this proud land than I.  Yes, although I wore a different uniform, I sat in on the bargain for the proposed capture of West Point, and I rode with Quantrill in Kansas and I expect I shall meet him shortly in Kentucky.  Oh, by the way, I now have some dealings with a Mr. John Wilkes Booth, but you wouldn’t know him although his name will soon become associated with your President.  Now, the President, there’s a man that I could never hope to make a deal with.  Why one time, many years ago, he took a swing at me with an axe.”

Without a dissipation in rage within, the Sergeant had to chuckle a little as he retorted. . . “That’s because he’s honest and has earned his title as ‘Honest Abe,’ and ‘honesty’ is something that you know precious little about.”
The chuckle emitted by the Sergeant sharpened the keen sense of his tormentor, who by now had been forced to seek any weakness – – no matter how trivial.

Mr. Scratch smiled wickedly, declaring in his misled judgement that the Sergeant also was not an honest man, for his obvious bit of humor indicated that he had been bluffing with a show of rage and uttered threats.  With further bravado, he stated that he was through talking, that he would have all of the flag, and, maybe if he felt like it, would return with a legion or two to claim both the Sergeant and Private Tumbleweed.  Private Tumbleweed had recovered just in time to hear these last statements, and again, he left out a shriek and dropped his head back to the ground in oblivion.

The action of Tumbleweed distracted the burly Sergeant’s attention for an instant – – an almost fatal instant, for with the turning of the Sergeant’s attention, Mr. Scratch made a bat-like effort to pass both men and streak for the flag pole.  Still clutching the cannon’s mouth with one hand, the Sergeant reacted with lightening speed with his free palm.  There was a resounding ‘thud,’ as Mr. Scratch met the free swing of the Sergeant in mid-air, causing a complete reversal in his direction which was followed with a sickening crash of bone on ground.

Now there were two enraged combatents, for with the loss of his cunning, Mr. Scratch too had been forced to act in violence.  Cursing, he leaped to his feet, and assumed the pose of a animal about to seize its prey.  With a leap, he charged in the direction of the Sergeant, whose super human strength had multiplied thrice in his rage.

With one hand still around the muzzle of the cannon, he grasped the ‘lift ring’ on the opposite end of the weapon with his other hand and raised the entire tube from its carriage.  This obvious agressive action caused Mr. Scratch to terminate his flight in mid-air, and take to the ground on which he scampered away with a screech of fear.  But he was not fast enough to escape the rim of the cannon, which had been hurled in a high arch that terminated on one heel of the fleeting phantom.
A cry of anguish was followed by a resounding but commanding thud as the weapon burried itself, nose first, in the ground.

The earth had no sooner stopped its trembling before a cock began to crow and the faint rays of an early dawn began to light the sky.  Both men were now fully conscious of what had transpired – – well, at least one was.  For the first time, and in spite of all his combat experience, the Sergeant was visibly shaken, for he had made the best of an enemy who would have recognized no exchange.  The Sergeant had saved the souls of two men, and the flag of the Union still waved in the light of the dawn over Arsenal Island – – one and inseparable.  “Let’s go to chow,” said the Sergeant.

Yes, the Sergeant accomplished more than he was to realize – – locally that is, for no report of the Devil himself visiting the Island has ever been made since then – – not even by the Arsenal Guard force.  Of course, this does not hold true for Sylvan Island, of which we had something to say previously.  Perhaps the latter piece of land is a point of departure for an occasional scounting party to find a weakness in the structure of the Arsenal’s foundation or its citizens thereon.  But all know that such effort is doomed to failure for all eternity.

Some old timers, now gone to greater glory with the Sergeant, claimed that his ghost holds eternal vigilance here, and that at one time came to grips with the fiery scount legions of the Devil.  This they said accounted for the great fire of 1903 in which the storehouse behind Shop A was destroyed.

“Sonny,” one old timer said to me, “you never in your born days heard such a battle.  In the midst of all the yellin’ and screamin’ one could faintly hear the sound of fifes playing “Yankee Doodle,” and the sky was lightened up by red and white stripes through which one would plainly see a field of blue with dazzling white stars.  When the screamin’ and hollerin’ died down, I swear there were far away voices singin’ ‘The Battle Hymn of the Repuiblic.'”  Some of the old fire fighters, with furtive glances at each other, did not lend credit to this story, but neither did they denounce it as wholly untrue as they suddenly found some task they had forgotten and which required their immediate presence elsewhere.

What about the cannon?  Oh yes, it is still there as it has been for decades at the junction of Rodman and Rock Island Avenues.  The only difference today is that it is painted with yellow and black stripes to ward off traffic at the “V” where the avenues join beyond the main gate.

Some say that the reason the Devil himself never visits the Island is because the muzzle of the weapon below ground will belch forth a red, white, and blue cannonball if he ever does and will destroy his domain below.  I still insist that its just a half-buried cannon, but then, what was that soft gentle sound on the breeze one summer’s evening – – like a flag so gently waving?  And was it just imagination, or did I hear a voice fading away at dawn saying, “All’s well”?