Japanese-American internee letters found in Denver wall

Letters to T.K. Pharmacy found in wall of Denver buildingWhile renovating a historical brick building in Denver that once housed a pharmacy, Alissa Williams and her husband Mitch discovered a cache of 250 letters and postcards sent from Japanese-Americans being held at internment camps during World War II. The letters had been sent to the T.K. Pharmacy, owned by Coloradan of Japanese descent Thomas Kobayashi and managed during the war by his brother-in-law, Yutaka “Tak” Terasaki. Written in Japanese and English, the notes came from internment camps in California, Wyoming, Arizona, Arkansas, Utah and Colorado and requested everything from chocolate to cough drops to condoms and cold cream.

Internees could make as much as $19 a month doing jobs around the camp, and some of them were able to bring some money from home. Newspapers published in the camps carried advertising for products that could be purchased by mail, and mail order catalogs also floated around. Some catalogs and advertising were discovered among the cache of letters.

American soldier guards Japanese internment camp at Tule Lake, CANeither Thomas Kobayashi nor Tak Terasaki are still with us, but Tak’s younger brother Sam says that Tak was a longtime member of the Japanese American Citizens’ League, a non-profit found in 1929 dedicated to Asian-American civil rights. Tak’s wife Mitchie worked for Ralph Carr, Governor of Colorado from 1939 to 1943. Carr put his career on the line to advocate for the rights of interned Japanese-Americans while he was governor. He spoke out publicly against internment, saying it violated the Constitution, and he welcomed displaced Japanese-Americans into the state even though paranoia and racial animus against them were widespread. His courageous stance did in fact cost him his political career — he lost a senate race in 1942 and never again held elected office — but it won him an enduring reputation as a voice for justice under the hardest of circumstances.

According to Colorado State Historian Bill Convery, the T.K. Pharmacy was one of the few pharmacies owned by Japanese-Americans in the west, since all the property of Japanese-Americans in the coastal west had been confiscated by the government and their owners interned.

[The Denver pharmacy] could offer products favored by internees – who had one week to pack up two suitcases and sell any assets – and they might have felt more comfortable dealing with a Japanese-American-owned company, given tensions during the war.

Internees couldn’t bring much to camp and they didn’t know where they were headed or how long they’d be gone. “So as much as anything could soften the blow of that unimaginable situation, those businesses did what they could,” Convery said.

Wall where letters were foundIt’s not clear why the documents were hidden in the wall. There were letters from internment camps out in the open as well, so why this particular collection was squirreled away is a mystery. The building had been vacant for seven years when the Williamses purchased it in 2010.

Alissa and Mitch Williams have notified the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles of their find. The museum is currently in the midst of a major initiative to collect the oral histories, pictures, and letters of internees, so I’m sure they’ll be very much interested in such a unique perspective into the daily needs and wants of interned Japanese-Americans.

The Remembrance Project was launched earlier this year on February 19th, the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, the presidential order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt which authorized the military to declare parts of the United States areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” That order led to the internment of people with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” living in the designated areas, primarily the Pacific coast. The initiative seeks to make a permanent online museum of the memories of people who were interned as a result of Executive Order 9066. You can read some of the many tributes that have already been uploaded to the site, or you can donate money to the project or upload a tribute of your own by interviewing someone you know who experienced the internment camps.

Here is George Takei reading some of the memories of interned Japanese-Americans and then relaying his own memories of the day he and his family were taken from their home by US soldiers and made to live in a stable at the Santa Anita racetrack. The Takeis would go on to be interned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas and at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California.


Chimney carrier pigeon code stumps UK experts

Carrier pigeon remainsThe United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British government’s code-breaking unit, has officially given up on cracking the coded message carried by a pigeon whose remains were found in a chimney in Surrey in 1982. GCHQ only began working on the message last month after curators at the Bletchley Park museum spent two years trying to decipher it but were unable to make any headway. When the story first made the news at the beginning of November, GCHQ said they wouldn’t comment on it until the code was broken. Now they’ve released an official statement in which they throw their hands up.

During the war, the methods used to encode messages naturally needed to be as secure as possible and various methods were used. The senders would often have specialist codebooks in which each code group of four or five letters had a meaning relevant to a specific operation, allowing much information to be sent in a short message. For added security, the code groups could then themselves be encrypted using, for example, a one-time pad.

The message found at Bletchingley had 27 five-letter code groups, and the GCHQ experts believe its contents are consistent with this method. This means that without access to the relevant codebooks and details of any additional encryption used, it will remain impossible to decrypt. […]

The basis of a “one-time pad” encryption system is that a random key is used to encrypt (and subsequently decrypt) only one message. The advantage of this system is that, if used correctly, it is unbreakable as long as the key is kept secret. The disadvantage is that both the sending and receiving parties need to have access to the same key, which usually means producing and sharing a large keypad in advance.

Coded message found attached to the pigeon in the chimneyThey’d have more of a chance if they could find out more about the pigeon, its destination “X02” and its sender “Sjt W Stot” because it would narrow down the potential codebooks used. However, they still don’t know what “X02” refers to and haven’t been able to locate a “Sjt W Stot” in the records or a pigeon with either of the code numbers listed in the message. Colin Hill, curator of Bletchley Park’s war pigeons exhibition, is still working on tracking down the pigeon.

There is a very slim chance that a surviving World War II veteran might have saved a codebook or two or might be able to identify Sjt Stot and X02. This BBC article includes a contact form at the end for people who have any information or ideas on how to crack the code to submit their ideas. The Telegraph is asking people to email them their solutions. The sender of the best suggestion will win a crossword book.

GCHQ clearly thinks it’s a futile enterprise. They entitled the press release “Pigeon takes secret message to the grave” and include a tribute to the genius of the war-time coders who created encryption methods that could not be broken decades later with all the fancy technology in the world. A GCHQ historian known only as Tony told the BBC that “the most helpful suggestion we had through all of this was from a member of the public who suggested that, since the message was found in the chimney, the first two words were most likely to be ‘Dear Santa’.” No need to be a smartass, Mr. Secret Agent Man, just because you can’t crack a 70-year-old code.

Predynastic Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back

Gebelein Man on display in the British MuseumA CT scan of a predynastic natural mummy excavated in 1896 from a shallow sand grave in the desert near Gebelein, Egypt has solved a cold case 5,500 years old: Gebelein Man was murdered, stabbed in the back, to be precise. After 112 continuous years on display in the Early Egypt Gallery of the British Museum, on September 1st Gebelein Man was taken to Bupa Cromwell Hospital for a CT scan. He is the first predynastic mummy to receive this treatment. Since he was mummified naturally, Gebelein Man’s organs were not removed and the dry heat of the Egyptian desert preserved much of his organ tissue as well as his skeleton and skin. The scan produced detailed high resolution images of the body which allowed experts to examine the interior of the mummy in great detail.

Gebelein Man's shoulder and rib fractureThe new data showed that the mummy was a young man between 18 and 21 years of age when he died. There were a number of posthumous bone fractures, but his left shoulder blade and the rib right below it were cut. The bone fragments from that injury are still embedded in the muscle, and there’s a clear entry wound in the skin above his shoulder blade. There are no defensive wounds, which suggests that his murderer took Gebelein Man by surprise rather than during a battle. The murder weapon was a copper or flint blade at least five inches long and it was planted with such force that it shattered the rib, penetrating the left lung and severing the surrounding blood vessels. This was a very severe wound and there is no evidence of healing, so the British Museum is calling it: cause of death is murder by person or persons unknown.

The entry wound in Gebelein Man's shoulderJust in case that weren’t cool enough, they went full CSI. Thanks to advanced touchscreen and imaging technology by the Interactive Institute and Visualization Center C from Sweden, the 3D high resolution layered scans of the body have been uploaded to what is basically a huge iPad that works off of gestures. This virtual autopsy table allowed the British Museum experts and consultants to look inside the body in detail without damaging it or even being in the same room with it.

Lucky them, right? They get all the fun toys. But no! Restrain your grumpiness! Between November 16th and December 16th, the virtual autopsy table is in Room 64 of the museum out in the open, available for all visitors to play with. If you’re in London, get thee to the British Museum stat. Maybe you’ll find something the experts missed.

Gebelein Man is one of six discovered by Wallis Budge, a British Museum Keeper for Egyptology, from the same grave site about 25 miles south of Thebes. They were the first complete predynastic bodies discovered in Egypt, and Gebelein Man in particular was instantly popular when put on display in 1900 because of his excellent state of preservation and the visible tufts of red hair which earned him the nickname “Ginger.” He doesn’t go by that anymore, in keeping with the more respectful treatment accorded the archaeological dead these days.

You can see Gebelein Man go through his hospital CT scan and the virtual autopsy table at work in this video:


Moctezuma’s headdress restored

The Aztec feather headdress known as Moctezuma’s headdress or the Penacho has been restored and is now back on display at Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology. The headdress was cleaned and conserved with much success. The faded colors of the feathers have been brought back to vibrancy: feathers from the Squirrel Cuckoo that looked orange are now a deep brick red, the small blue Lovely Cotinga feathers that looked powder blue are now a brilliant turquoise, and the smaller quetzal feathers that looked the same powder blue as the Cotinga feathers are now their proper iridescent green, as are the 400 long Resplendent Quetzal tail feathers.

A commission of historians, archaeologists and ornithologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Austria’s Kunsthistorisches Museum spent two years studying the incredibly fragile piece, investigating its historical significance and documenting its condition. They focused on historical questions — its composition, the materials and technique used in its creation — and conservation issues — how to keep it from any further deterioration.

This is the last Aztec feather headdress to have survived, and people have been trying to ensure its survival for centuries. Conservators found and removed several old restoration attempts. They did keep a few springs added in the 16th century. They’re something of historical note in and of themselves, a testament to how long this gorgeous piece has been on display, starting with Archduke Ferdinand II’s extensive private collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck in 1575.

There was an agenda on the table other than cleaning and conservation, namely, could the headdress survive a trip to Mexico. It was once part of the regalia either of the last Aztec king Moctezuma II or of a high priest; the Penacho was either gifted to conquistador Hernán Cortés by the king or he looted it during the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521. At some point thereafter it made its way to Europe where it was first documented in the collection of Ferdinand II, who in addition to being Archduke of Austria was also the nephew of Cortés’ boss, Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Mexico figures half a millennium of absence is long enough and would like it back for a very long term loan. The Austrian museum authorities are amenable to the idea, but only if means of transportation can be found that will not damage the piece.

Such means have not yet been found. The Museum of Ethnology constructed a display case that was custom-built to compensate for the vibrations caused by the footsteps of visitors walking around the room, because even such a small amount of movement could harm the delicate piece. They’ll have to invent something far more complex to protect the headdress from the motion of an airplane or a ship voyage. Although this isn’t likely to happen any time soon, Austria is definitely open to the prospect and talks are ongoing. Austria and Mexico are currently negotiating a new treaty on cultural exchanges. The Penacho will play a starring role in the discussions.

Now, because you’ve been so patient to read down this far (assuming you didn’t just skip to the end which is what I would have done), here are the before and after pictures:

Moctezuma's headdress before restoration Moctezuma's headdress after restoration

Miscellaneous distractions

Much like the rest of the country, I’m on the road today. While I’m being hassled by the TSA and marching through airports with the joylessly heavy pace of the workers entering and exiting the factory in Metropolis, you can frolic through the following fragrant, flowering historical meadows.

Mrs. Virginia Davis works in the assembly and repair department, the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas, 1942Need to prepare mentally for the trauma of Thanksgiving dinner? Not in the mood to read much? Here are 1600 color photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information between 1939 and 1944. They were taken all over the United States, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and focus on rural life, farm labor and World War II industrial production. It’s a neat contrast. You go from mule teams pulling a cart in Georgia to a state fair in Vermont to real life Rosie-the-Riveters. The color is great too, still rich after all these years.

Roman remains found in BanwellIf it’s the excitement of a new historical discovery you require to keep you sane, check out this article about a wealth of Roman remains, human and material, unearthed during the construction of a water main in Bramwell, North Somerset. They’ve found three inhumation burials, one of them in a partially preserved wooden coffin; several Roman brooches, including a small one that may have belonged to a child; a 4th century coin from the reign of Constantine the Great; a bone stylus; a bronze bracelet; and 9,000 pieces of pottery. The article is a fascinating read not so much because of the things found, but because of the picture they paint of Roman history in the area. Evidence of a removed wall and charcoal deposits, for instance, suggest a structure was destroyed by fire. Fragments of tiles in the debris indicate the building that once stood there was a sumptuous one with its own hypocaust heating system for a private bath.

Archaeologists dig up skeletons of Norse settlers in Greenland, 2010Perhaps you need some reassurance that no matter how much turkey you’ll be force-fed, you could always be worse off. You could be a Viking in 14th century Greenland where in order to survive, you’d have to eat mainly seals. According to a Danish-Canadian study of 80 Greenlandic Norse skeletons, 50 to 80 per cent of their diet was composed of seal meat. That’s not how it was supposed to be. When they first settled in Greenland, the Norse planned to farm and raise stock they had brought with them. As the climate cooled and it became increasingly clear that Greenland was poorly named, they had to supplement their diets with seafood. Eventually, seals became staples for them just as they were for the Inuit who had moved to Greenland from Canada in the early 13th century. (Did you know that the Inuit and Norse lived side by side in medieval Greenland? I did not know that.) No doubt the blubbery monotony of the seal-based diet played a part in the eventual Viking abandonment of Greenland.

Hunt's Link variation patented in 1877 by George G. HuntFinally, if you’re feeling a little hemmed in, consider the unexpectedly awesome story of collectible barbed wire. Until yesterday, it didn’t even occur to me that people would collect rusty, pointy, dangerous chunks of old wire fences, but they do and now I can see why because there are some incredibly intricate, beautiful period designs. Barbed wire came into its own in the second half of the 19th century, spurred on by the growth of the railroads and the demise of the open range brought on by homesteaders fencing in former pasture they’d converted to farm land. Ranchers and farmers went to war over barbed wire. Barbed wire designers went to war with each other to secure patents. Fortunes were made and lost thanks to barbed wire.