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8 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains

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While researching the post 10 Heroic Battlefield Medics, I came across a couple of fascinating stories about military chaplains and their wartime exploits. Those stories were filed away for later, and they grew into a list of stories that deserve to be told and remembered. They are presented here in more or less chronological order.

1. Anthony Rey

Some contemporaries wrote of the Mexican-American War as one of U.S. Protestants against Mexican Catholics. President Polk responded to such allegations by appointing two Catholic priests to serve as military chaplains. Father Anthony Rey, a Jesuit from Georgetown University with no military background or training, participated in the battle of Monterrey in September of 1846. He tended to the wounded on the battlefield and gave last rites to the dying. Afterward, serving in north Mexico, he ventured out of the U.S. garrison to minister to the locals, despite warnings of the danger. In 1847 he said a mass at the village of Ceralvo, and never made it back. His body was found a few days later, stabbed through by lances. He was mourned by both the U.S. troops and the Mexicans he served.

2. Horatio Stockton Howell

Presbyterian minister Horatio Howell was chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. Most military chaplains at the time wore clerical black, but Howell preferred a regulation captain's uniform. On the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863, Howell was serving at the infirmary set up at a church in Gettysburg when he went to the door and was confronted by a Confederate soldier demanding his surrender. The minister began to argue that he was a non-combatant and not subject to capture, but was shot and killed, probably due to the uniform.

3. John P. Chidwick

Father John P. Chidwick was the chaplain serving on the battleship USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898. Tensions were already high, and this incident was the spark that began the Spanish-American War. Father Chadwick worked tirelessly through the night to rescue injured sailors and tend to their wounds. He was the last man to leave the ship. Two days later, Chadwick conducted the funeral rites in Havana for those who died.

4. John B. DeValles

Father John B. DeValles earned the nickname the "Angel of the Trenches" during World War I. He ventured into No Man's Land in France to search for wounded and dying soldiers, and ministered to both the Allies and the Germans. During one foray, he did not return and was found unconscious and wounded, next to a dead soldier he had tried to help. DeValles' wounds caused his health to suffer, but he continued to serve in France until 1919. He died a year later, never having completely recovered from his wartime attack. France awarded DeValles the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. Only a half-hour before he died, DeValles was notified that he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. It was pinned on him at his funeral in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The funeral carried full military honors, and all town flags were flown at half-staff. A school in the town was named in his honor.

5. Colman O'Flaherty

Father Colman O'Flaherty was an Irish immigrant who was educated in Canada and then worked to establish several schools in South Dakota in the early 20th century. When World War I began, he joined up and was sent to France as a chaplain with the the 28th Infantry. O'Flaherty was shot and killed while helping the wounded on the front lines on October 1, 1918. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for extraordinary heroism in action.

6. Francis P. Duffy

Canadian-born Father Francis Duffy served in the Spanish-American War, and returned to service in 1916 to accompany troops in Mexico. Then during World War I he ministered to soldiers on the front lines in France. During battle, Duffy administered first aid and last rites as well, often under heavy fire. For his service and bravery, the priest was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal. After the war, Duffy served as pastor of Holy Cross Church near Times Square in New York until his death in 1932. Duffy Square in the city's theater district is named after Father Duffy. He was portrayed by Pat O'Brien in the 1940 film The Fighting 69th. Father Duffy is pictured on the right.

7. John G. Burkhalter

Rev. John G. Burkhalter was a professional boxer who became a Southern Baptist minister in Florida in 1932. He then earned a degree in history and immediately joined the military when he graduated in 1942. Burkhalter was assigned as a chaplain with the First Infantry and landed in Normandy with Allied forces during the D-Day invasion on August June 6, 1944. In October, Burkhalter worked to recover the wounded and dead during the Battle of the Bulge. He went missing for several weeks and was discovered in a French hospital, having sustained several head wounds during the battle. Burkhalter was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star as well as a Purple Heart for his activities under fire. After the war, he stayed with the army, eventually serving in the Korean War. Burkhalter retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1969. In 1992, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

8. Francis L. Sampson

If you've seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, you might be surprised to learn that the real hero who reunited the soldier Private Ryan was based on with his remaining family was a chaplain. Father Francis L. Sampson was "The Paratrooper Padre" with the 101st Airborne Division who jumped into Normandy on D-Day, landing behind enemy lines in a river. He dove to the bottom to retrieve his equipment because he couldn't lose his Mass kit. Sampson was once captured but was saved from being shot by an enemy unit leader who was Catholic. He ministered to friend and enemy alike, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his activities in France. Sampson then went into action in Holland, where his parachute jump landed him again in water -a castle moat. He was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned near Berlin for four months. That camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945. But that wasn't the end of Sampson's heroics -he went on to serve in Korea, then stayed with the army to train other chaplains and eventually became Chief of Chaplains. He retired with the rank of Major General and a slew of medals in 1971. But that's not all! Father Sampson was then appointed to head the USO, and he spent the rest of the Vietnam War visiting troops with entertainment tours. He died in 1996 at the age of 83.

We've only made it to World War II, and there are other heroic stories from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and more recent conflicts. Those are found in the post 12 Heroic U.S. Military Chaplains.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]