Voices from the Past

The Feast Of Saint Barbara

Today, 4 December, is the feast day of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillerymen! (And miners and engineers and anyone who works with explosives). In honor of her feast day, I will present her story here.

Barbara has long been venerated by Christians but there is little evidence to recommend her historicity. Jacobus de Voragine, a 13th century archbishop of Genoa, wrote a hagiography of her in his collection of hagiographies known as the Legenda Aurea (“Golden Legend”). This version mentions that Barbara lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Maximian, who ruled from 286-305. But no early Christian writer mentions her. Voragine appears to be one of the earliest if not the earliest author to record anything about her. The translations used below are by the 15th century English printer William Caxton.

She was a Christian, the daughter of a local rich man, Dioscorus, who was a dedicated pagan. One version mentions the family being from Nicomedia in the north of modern Turkey. She refused to marry, despite her father’s wishes that she do so; therefore he built her a tower. Though the plan called for only two windows, she convinced the builders to add a third to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Upon hearing what she had done and what it meant, Dioscorus drew his sword intending to kill his daughter on the spot.

Then her father took her and went down into the piscine [fountain or pool], demanding her how three windows give more light than two. And S. Barbara answered: These three fenestres or windows betoken clearly the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the which be three persons and one very God, on whom we ought to believe and worship. Then he being replenished with furor, incontinent drew his sword to have slain her, but the holy virgin made her prayer and then marvellously she was taken in a stone and borne into a mountain on which two shepherds kept their sheep, the which saw her fly.

One of the shepherds gave her away; he was turned to stone and his flock into locusts. Dioscorus brought his daughter to prison, where Jesus appeared to her. A magistrate questioned her and attempted to get her to venerate the Roman gods, but she refused. Then she was subject to torture.

Then the judge, replenished of ire, commanded that she should be hanged between two forked trees, and that they should break her reins with staves, and burn her sides with burning lamps, and after he made her strongly to be beaten, and hurted her head with a mallet. Then S. Barbara beheld and looked upward to heaven, saying: Jesu Christ, that knowest the hearts of men, and knowest my thought, I beseech thee to Ieave me not. Then commanded the judge to the hangman that he should cut off with his sword her paps, and when they were cut off, the holy saint looked again towards heaven, saying: Jesu Christ, turn not thy visage from me. And when she had long endured this pain, the judge comnnanded that she should be led with beating through the streets, and the holy virgin the third time beheld the heaven, and said: Lord God, that coverest heaven with clouds, I pray thee to cover my body, to the end that it be not seen of the evil people.

Her father became her executor. He took her up to a mountain and slew her with his sword. Then, as he came down, he received his retribution for his act and Barbara gained a symbol.

But when her father descended from the mountain, a fire from heaven descended on him, and consumed him in such wise that there could not be found only ashes of all his body.

He was struck by lightning, which would become heavily associated with Barbara and form the root of her protection of artillerymen, miners, engineers, and all who work with explosives. I am unsure what evidence exists concerning when artillery soldiers adopted the cult of St. Barbara. The best theory is that it is connected to the high probability of misfires and explosions that were endemic in early cannons. Today, the United States Army and United States Marine Corps maintain the Order of Saint Barbara to honor the service of exemplary artillerymen.

Saint Barbara Directing the Construction of a Third Window in Her Tower by the Master of the Joseph Sequence (15th century). Currently in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Saint Barbara Directing the Construction of a Third Window in Her Tower by the Master of the Joseph Sequence (15th century). Currently in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.



Landing at Peleliu: 70 Years Later

On 15 September 1944, American forces landed on the shores of a tiny spit of lobster-claw-shaped coral rock in the western Pacific named Peleliu. The landing was spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division of the United States Marine Corps under MajGen. William Rupertus, as the U.S. pushed forward in its island hopping campaign against the forces of Imperial Japan. The 11,000 Japanese defenders of the 14th Infantry Division under Col. Kunio Nakagawa were well-fortified in the ridges of the island’s center. They exercised effective fire discipline in order to prevent their positions from being discovered, and planned out interlocking defensive positions with fields of fire covering almost every part of the island.

Eugene B. Sledge was a mortar man with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment during the landing and subsequent battle across Peleliu. In his 1981 memoir With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa, Sledge leaves us with a haunting description of the terrifying effect that Japanese artillery had on the attacking Americans.

There was nothing subtle or intimate about the approach and explosion of an artillery shell. When I heard the whistle of an approaching one in the distance, every muscle in my body contracted. I braced myself in a puny effort to keep from being swept away. I felt utterly helpless.

As the fiendish whistle grew louder, my teeth ground against each other, my heart pounded, my mouth dried, my eyes narrowed, sweat poured over me, my breath came in short irregular gasps, and I was afraid to swallow lest I choke. I always prayed, sometimes out loud.

Under certain conditions of range and terrain, I could hear the shell approaching from a considerable distance, thus prolonging the suspense into seemingly unending torture. At the instant the voice of the shell grew the loudest, it terminated in a flash and a deafening explosion similar to the crash of aloud clap of thunder. The ground shook and the concussion hurt my ears. Shell fragments tore the air apart as they rushed out, whirring and ripping. Rocks and dirt clattered onto the deck as smoke of the exploded shell dissipated.

To be under a barrage or prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity.

MajGen. Rupertus had predicted the island would be secured in four days. The effectiveness of the Japanese defense dragged the battle out for two months. By the end of November, the Americans had suffered more than 8,000 casualties, including more than 1,500 killed in action. Nearly all the Japanese soldiers died defending the island, and the Imperial Japanese Army’s 14th Infantry Division effectively ceased to exist. Peleliu was targeted by the Americans in order to use the airfield and to protect the eastern flank of the planned assault on the Philippines. However, the island ended up being of limited value as U.S. forces moved to re-take the Philippines.

Peleliu, with airfield visible in the southwest.

Peleliu, with airfield visible in the southwest.

Peleliu, in the modern Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific.

Peleliu, in the modern Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific.

Voices from the Past: The Battle of Fort Sumter, 1861

“Boom, boom go the cannon. Now the puff of white smoke comes from Fort Johnson. There goes one from Castle Pinckney. The Floating Battery, too, has taken position, while Steven’s Battery, the first to speak on that momentous morning, still continues to send forth its iron messengers. Fort Moultrie also joins the fray and thus from all sides shot and shell pour down upon that one sole representative of the detested northern oppressor. All the pent up hatred of the past months and years is voiced in the thunder of these cannon, and the people seem almost beside themselves in the exultation of a freedom they deem already won.”

–William Merrick Bristoll on the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861.

Source: American Heritage Vol. 26, April 1975.

“Bombardment of Fort Sumter by the batteries of the Confederate states,” 1861. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“Bombardment of Fort Sumter by the batteries of the Confederate states.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.