Arctic Exploration vs. the Treaty of Versailles
In 1928 two seasoned arctic explorers, the Australian George H. Wilkins, and the American Carl B. Eielson were planning a new expedition.
Wilkins (1888-1958) had been adventuring around the world for a number of years; he’d photographed the Balkan Wars, then done the same on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1913-1915, learned to fly and risen to captain in the Australian Flying Corps, and even earned a Military Cross in the trenches; Australian Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash called him "the bravest man I have ever seen.” After the war Wilkins had undertaken expeditions into the wilds of Northern Australia and the Arctic. Eielson (1897-1929), had dropped out of the University of North Dakota in 1917, to join the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I, rising to lieutenant. After the war he returned to college, to graduate in 1921, and gone on to become a bush pilot in Alaska. In 1925 Wilkins and Eielson cooperated on a pioneering non-stop flight from Barrow, Alaska, to Spitzbergen, Norway, which was an enormous success. Thereafter they made several other Arctic flights.
This time they had their sights on an Antarctic expedition, using a Lockheed Vega to conduct exploratory flights during the southern summer of 1928-1929. But how to prepare runways on the ice cap? Well, after some hard thinking, one of them had a bright idea; why not use flamethrowers?
Now Germany had introduced flamethrowers to modern warfare in 1915, and had the most extensive experience with their manufacture and use. So Eielson and Wilkins entered into negotiations with the German firm that had produced the weapons, to procure several for use on their expedition. Well, it turned out that there was a little problem. As the Germans pointed out, they were banned from producing flamethrowers by the Treaty of Versailles. Securing permission from the Allies to make any would require extensive diplomatic negotiations.
This seemed an overwhelming obstacle, and stories even circulated in the press that the expedition would probably be scrubbed. But then the assistant U.S. Army Attaché to Germany for Aviation, Maj. George Reinberg, pointed out that the Germans were permitted to produce some modified flamethrowers for use as “insect killers,” designed to burn out large infestations of noxious bugs.
At that, there was considerable joy all ‘round, since Eielson and Wilkins got their flamethrowers, and Germany gained some international recognition as supporting scientific endeavor. Eielson and Wilkins were even feted by President von Hindenburg before leaving the country.
The Wilkins-Eielison Antarctic Expedition was a great success. The first attempt at aerial exploration in the Antarctic, on December 20, 1928, the pair flew a round trip of some 1,300 miles over the Antarctic Peninsula in about 10 hours. As Wilkins summed it up, "We had left at 8:30 in the morning, had covered 1300 miles – nearly a thousand of it over unknown territory – and had returned in time to cover the plane with a storm hood, go to the [base ship] Hektoria, bathe and dress and sit down at eight o'clock to dinner as usual in the comfort of the ship's wardroom".
Oh, and those flamethrowers, well they proved useless.
- Eielison: Returning from Antarctica in 1929, he was commissioned a colonel in the North Dakota National Guard, and began operating an airline in Alaska, but died in a plane crash later that year.
- Wilkins: Returned to Antarctica for a second expedition in late 1929. In 1931 he bought a war-surplus U.S. submarine for an under-the-ice expedition to the North Pole, but the undertaking failed spectacularly even before they’d left New York, with one man killed. Wilkins later led a more sedate life, becoming a technical advisor on arctic matters to the U.S. government, and even took part in Operation Deep Freeze in 1957, at the age of 68! He died the following year, and his ashes were scattered at the North Pole from the U.S.S. Skate (SSN-578).
Notable One-Eyed Commanders
In his Life of Sertorius, the ancient biographer Plutarch (c. A.D. 45-120) remarked that “The most warlike and successful generals have been one-eyed men.” He then went on to list a few.
- King Antigonus I of Asia (r. 332-301 B.C.), one of Alexander’s Successors, has lost an eye in combat, and was nicknamed “Monopthalmos – The One-Eyed” historians).
- Hannibal (247–183 B.C.), the great Carthaginian commander, had lost an eye to an infection.
- King Philip II of Macedon (r. 359-336 B.C.), the father of Alexander the Great, lost an eyed in battle.
- Quintus Sertorius (c. 123-72 B.C.), the famous Roman rebel commander, had lost an eye in combat.
Not a bad lot, actually, as these men were certainly among the most effective commanders in the Classical world. And while Plutarch’s conclusion may be somewhat extreme, there certainly have been other one-eyed men who have attained some distinction in the profession of arms.
- Baybars, the Mamluke general and later Sultan of Egypt (r. 1260-1277), who defeated Mongols and all other comers, had became blind in one eye as a young man, due to a cataract
- Masamune Date (1567-1636), noted samurai and general, was blinded in one eye as a child – he was nicknamed "Dokuganryu—The One-Eyed Dragon”
- Moshe Dayan (1915-1981, the Israeli general and later Defense Minister, lost an eye on campaign against the Vichy French in Syria in 1941.
- Mikhail Illarionovich Golenishchev-Kutuzov (1747-1813), who defeated Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, had lost the use of one eye, variously reported as due to combat or a cataract
- Liu Bocheng or Po-cheng (1892-1986), one of the most notable Red Chinese commanders, who survived the Long March, and fought in the Chinese Civil Wars and World War II, had lost an eye as a young man, and was also nicknamed, “The One-Eyed Dragon”
- Andre Massena (1758-1817), among the most distinguished of Napoleon’s marshals, was accidentally blinded in one eye in 1808 by Marshal Berthier during a shooting party, though this apparently did not affect his military skills..
- José Millan Astray (1879-1954), the founder of the Spanish Foreign Legions, lost an eye in the Moroccan Wars, as well as an arm and several fingers from the other hand.
- Lord Nelson (1758-1805), lost the sight of his right eye in action in 1794, though he made good use of it at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801
- Sir Archibald Wavell (1883-1950), who commanded in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and later India, during World War II, had lost an eye in 1915 in Flanders.
- Garnet Joseph Wolseley (1833-1913), Queen Victoria’s finest commander, lost an eye during the Crimea War
- Yamamoto Kansuke – Haruyuki (1501-1561), a noted samurai and general, is traditionally believed to have been blind in one eye
- Jan Žižka (c. 1360-1424), the noted Hussite general, had lost an eye as a child, which did not prevent him from winning a lot, nor did complete blindness later hamper his final battle.
So Plutarch was certainly right that having only one eye has been no bar to distinction as a warrior, though the notion that one-eyed men make the most successful commanders is perhaps exaggerated.
Currently, the most “notable” one-eyed commander is Mullah Omar, of the Taliban.