WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax

Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

12 Surprising Facts About Red Dawn

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

On August 10, 1984, Red Dawn stormed into theaters. The Cold War-era film envisioned a WWIII-like scenario of what it would look like if Communist Soviets and Cubans invaded a small Colorado town, and what might happen if a group of teenagers fought back with heavy artillery. The cast included then-unknowns Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and Charlie Sheen, plus rising stars Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell (who had co-starred in 1983’s The Outsiders), plus veteran actors Powers Boothe and Harry Dean “Avenge Me!” Stanton.

John Milius, who had been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Apocalypse Now and who had co-written and directed 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, directed Red Dawn from a script—originally named Ten Soldiers—written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds. With a budget of $17 million, the film—the first to be distributed with the newly formed PG-13 rating—grossed $38.3 million. Here are some things you might not know about Red Dawn.

1. John Milius rewrote the script of Red Dawn.

Kevin Reynolds wrote Red Dawn while still a student at USC film school. MGM optioned the script and asked Milius to direct it. “I brought the writer in and said, ‘This isn’t going to be easy for you to take because, you know, you’re kind of full of yourself, but I’m going to take this and I’m going to make it into my movie, and you’re just going to have to sit back and watch, and it may not be too pleasant,” Milius told Creative Screenwriting. “My advice is to take the money you have and spend it on a young girl. Enjoy getting laid and write another script. Because this isn’t going to be fun to watch.’”

Milius said Reynolds’s script was similar to Lord of the Flies. “I kept some of that, but my script was about the resistance. And my script was tinged by the time, too. We made it really outrageous, infinitely more outrageous than his vision. And to this day, it holds up, because people ask, ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I say that movie’s not about the Russians; it’s about the federal government.”

2. Milus had a very unique way of auditioning actresses for the film.

Red Dawn co-casting director Jane Jenkins explained that Milius would ask each auditioning actress “What would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?” “And he’d always say a bunny, not a rabbit,” Jenkins said. “And he’d say, ‘Could you kill a bunny and skin it, and eat it?’ And the girls were horrified at that suggestion, and needless to say didn’t go any further. The girls who said, ‘Well, if it were life or death …’ got to go on and read for the parts they eventually were going to play.”

3. Red Dawn was described as "the most violent movie ever made."

After the movie was released in 1984, The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn “the most violent movie ever made.” They said it contained 134 acts of violence an hour, and they rated it X. “This summer’s releases are the most violent in the history of the industry, averaging 28.5 violent acts an hour,” the Coalition said. They also gave X ratings to Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

4. Milius put Patrick Swayze in charge of Red Dawn's cast.

Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, and Doug Toby in 'Red Dawn' (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Because Patrick Swayze was older than most of the actors, and because he had more acting experience than them, Milius trusted Swayze to control his co-stars. “Milius is a very intense director,” Swayze said in the Red Dawn commentary. “He’s a very wonderful director, but we had to call him the General and he called me, he says, ‘Swayze, you’re my lieutenant of the art. I’m directing these little suckers through you.’ He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously.”

5. The U.S. military named an operation after Red Dawn.

In 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Army Capt. Geoffrey McMurray named the mission Operation Red Dawn. “Operation Red Dawn was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie,” McMurray told USA Today. A commander in the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division had already named the target farmhouses Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2, so McMurray said the name made sense.

6. Milius knew Hollywood would "condemn" him for making the film.

“I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for it,” Milius said in the Red Dawn commentary. “That I’d be regarded as a right wing warmonger from then on, uncontrollable and un-housebroken.” Milius supposedly left one of his guns on his desk while journalists interviewed him, so he demonstrated his ideals well.

“I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” he said. “Hollywood was very left-wing. But I have a lot of contractions. I’m a militarist and an extreme patriot at times, so I believe in all of that rugged individualism hogwash.”

7. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did not get along.

Not all the actors were thrilled with Milius's decision to put Swayze in charge of the cast. Swayze told Daily Mail that he butted heads with Jennifer Grey in particular, who disliked how he ordered her around. “At the end of Red Dawn, however, when we shot her character’s death scene, she seemed to warm to me,” he said. “It's a tender scene and, as I stroked her hair, it was truly emotional. I think it endeared me to her, and it was clear she and I had chemistry together.” Almost exactly three years later, the pair’s chemistry would ignite the dance floor in Dirty Dancing.

8. Patrick Swayze got frostbite.

Filming in Las Vegas, New Mexico, sometimes meant extremely cold conditions. So cold, in fact, that Swayze ended up with frostbite. “I got frostbite so bad in my hands and my toes, that now if my hands and fingers get the slightest bit cold it feels like someone’s shoving toothpicks under my fingernails,” he said in the Red Dawn commentary.

C. Thomas Howell had a different perspective on the cold temperatures. “You know it’s cold when you’re forced to spoon Charlie Sheen,” he said. “That’s what we were forced to do: to huddle together and pretend we liked each other.”

9. William Smith frightened Charlie Sheen.

William Smith played the Russian Colonel Strelnikov, but in real life he had been a Russian Intercept Interrogator for the CIA. “He was terrifying,” Sheen said in the Red Dawn commentary. “I don’t know if he was in character the whole time, but you couldn’t talk to him on the set. You just kept your distance. But it worked in the movie—look how brilliant he is in the film. He’s an imposing force.”

10. Milius thought Red Dawn was a "zombie movie with Russians."

In the ‘80s, the Cold War was in full swing, and the world lived in fear of a nuclear attack. (Not totally unlike today.) “Red Dawn the film was about the impending possible reality, which at that time was an actual fear of the Soviet Union invading this country,” Milius told Mandatory. “People actually thought that way. That’s why I made that movie, that’s why people liked it. The fear was real and it played on that. That’s what made it an exciting movie.”

Milius compared the film to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “In this case, I made a movie of the same vein but with Russians. It’s like a zombie movie with Russians. That’s what it was like at the time. People were paranoid about aliens and people were paranoid about Russians. It was Close Encounters with Cold War Russians.”

11. The studio cut a love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe.

In the Red Dawn commentary, Thompson described a “beautiful love scene” between her and co-star Powers Boothe, who was 13 years older than her. “I say, ‘I’m going to die before having made love. Will you please make love with me?’ We said okay, and disappeared out of frame. And they took the scene out of the movie, which was sad because it explained my character. It was a nice scene.”

12. Fans still yell "Wolverines!" at C. Thomas Howell.

Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, and C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn (1984)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

One of the most iconic lines in the movie comes from C. Thomas Howell’s character, Robert. From a mountaintop he shouts “Wolverines!” which is the name the guerilla group gives themselves. It’s also the name of their high school mascot.

“I get that about twice a week in real life,” Howell told USA Today in 2012. “And about 40 times a day through Twitter.” He said in real life he doesn’t shout back, “but on Twitter, I cannot help typing a ‘Wolverine’ with a few exclamation points on it.”

10 Things You Might Not Have Known About Pearl Harbor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Pearl Harbor is best known as the site of the Japanese military strike that propelled the United States into World War II. But Pearl Harbor's contributions to history didn’t begin—or end—on what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941. From epic rock concerts to astronaut visits, the storied lagoon has seen quite a lot. Here are 10 things you may not know about it.

  1. Pearl Harbor's Hawaiian name is Wai Momi.

Translated, that means "Pearl Waters"—a reference to the plentiful shellfish that lined its floors. (The area is also known as Pu’uloa, or "Long Hill," due to its terrain.)

Unfortunately, overharvesting, pollution, and human-induced sediment changes decimated the harbor’s native oyster population by the end of the 19th century. But in February 2019, the U.S. Navy announced that it was teaming up with the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pacific Aquaculture and Coastal Resources Center and O'ahu Waterkeeper two reintroduce to native bivalve species: The Hawaiian oyster and the black-lip pearl oyster. Since they filter out pollutants, their presence may help clear the water in the Pearl Harbor area.

  1. A shark goddess was said to live in Pearl Harbor.

According to Hawaiian legend, Kaʻahupahau was a former human who had transformed into a shark. It was said that she lived with her brother (or son) in the caves beneath Pearl Harbor. Together, the pair defended the scenic lagoon and the native people who fished there. In 1902, the entrance channel was artificially widened so large American ships could pass through. (Hawaii wouldn't become a state until 1959, but it was annexed in 1898.) Locals became concerned that the project would upset Kaʻahupahau. When a newly finished dock collapsed in 1913, it was said to be the irate deity’s work. Others speculated that damage to the harbor caused Kaʻahupahau to leave—and she took the oysters with her.

  1. Pearl Harbor’s resident naval station was established in 1908.

In 1887, 11 years before Hawaii’s annexation, the United States was given the exclusive right to set up a naval base in Pearl Harbor. But the federal government didn’t formally establish one there until 1908. Decades later, in 1940, that naval station became the main base of operations for what would soon become the U.S. Pacific Fleet, where it was intended to curb Japanese expansionism. The fleet’s relocation to Oahu set the stage for the devastating surprise attack.

  1. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor came in two waves.

Before the assault on Pearl Harbor, Japan stationed six of its Imperial Navy’s aircraft carriers, which carried 414 planes in total, at a pre-chosen locale 230 miles north of Oahu. The ships maintained radio silence to keep their movements a secret. On December 7, 1941, at 6 a.m., the first wave of Japanese planes took to the air, and just before 8 a.m., they began an all-out assault on the Hawaiian base. Caught unaware, the American forces were pummeled by bombs and torpedoes.

A second wave arrived on the scene at about 8:50 a.m. Unlike its predecessor, this one didn’t include any torpedo planes and it inflicted less damage. Still, by the time Japan’s second wave pilots returned to their carriers at 9:55 a.m., the U.S. had lost 188 airplanes while 159 more sustained damages. Some 21 American ships were sunk or damaged. And then there was the human cost: 2403 Americans died in the attack, and an estimated 1178 others were injured.

  1. Thirty-eight sets of brothers were on the doomed USS Arizona.

Nearly all of the American vessels that were hit during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack were later repaired, but the USS Arizona wasn’t so lucky. The 608-foot Pennsylvania-class battleship went under after an ammunition magazine exploded. Some 1177 marines and sailors perished aboard the Arizona. Altogether, there were 38 sets of brothers, representing a total of 79 men, on the battleship at the time. Within that group, 63 individual men were killed.

  1. Pearl Harbor was rocked by mysterious explosions in 1944.

On May 21, 1944, a tank landing ship (or Landing Ship, Tank) in the lagoon’s West Loch suddenly burst into flame. Next came a string of explosions that killed 163 people, damaged more than 20 buildings, and took out a grand total of six LSTs. The disaster’s cause has never been verified, but it has been theorized that someone may have accidentally set the whole thing off by dropping an explosive mortar shell.

  1. Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida visited Pearl Harbor in 1951.

By all accounts, the visit was a muted affair. Yoshida was returning from a diplomatic visit to San Francisco when he opted to spend a little time in Hawaii. On September 12, 1951, the prime minister briefly met up with Arthur Radford, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, at Pearl Harbor. Three other Japanese prime ministers have since visited the lagoon. Ichiro Hatoyama dropped by in 1956; Nobusuke Kishi made the trip in 1957; and Shinzo Abe gave a speech there (with Barack Obama by his side) in 2016.

  1. Elvis Presley helped raise money for the USS Arizona memorial fund.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the building of a USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. Three years later, the king of rock ‘n roll put on a benefit concert to raise money for the project. Presley sang “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and 13 other classic songs before a roaring crowd of around 5000 fans in Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena. The big event raked in over $64,000 and created public interest in the memorial—which was officially dedicated in 1962.

  1. After returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 crew made a pit stop in Pearl Harbor.

Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. Due to concerns about lunar diseases, the astronauts were confined to a quarantine trailer—which was ferried to Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Hornet. The contraption was later transported to Houston, Texas, with all three space travelers still inside.

  1. The naval base at Pearl Harbor merged with another military property in 2010.

Prior to 2010, Pearl Harbor’s resident naval base and the neighboring Hickam Air Force Base were two separate properties. But that year, they were combined into the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. According to its official website, the base currently has a population of over 66,300 and is “home to more than 175 tenant commands, 11 ships, 18 submarines and six fixed-wing aviation squadrons.”

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