The Charlotte News

Monday, November 30, 1942


Site Ed. Note: Proliferating through the war news of the day, as reported on the front page, were several continuing stories of Allied success: from Tunisia, the British-American coalition was pressing its wedge deeper toward Tunis, reported being east of Djedeida, within twelve miles of the capital, and, being astride the rail line between Tunis and Bizerte, had effectively split off the Axis forces occupying each vital link in the Axis North African supply chain; from Libya, it was reported that the British Eighth Army under Bernard Montgomery had pounded the defensive line set up by Rommel at El Agheila; from the Buna-Gona area of New Guinea, General MacArthur’s men made steady advances to within 900 yards of Gona; from the Russian front, the counter-offensive continued by the Russians, reportedly killing 10,000 Nazis per day, as the Germans were pushed back from Stalingrad to the east side of the Don River Bend; from the RAF bombing front, the 12th raid on northern Italy occurred since October 24, the 23d of the war, again this time on Turin for the second night in a row, while other raids successfully targeted Bizerte, Tunis, and Tripoli in North Africa--all confirming Churchill's Sunday warning to the Italian people to lay down their arms and join the Allies against their Fascist dictator, reported by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to be tottering on the precipice; from Toulon, Russia’s Tass reported that Heinrich Himmler was now present in the French berth of the once-proud Fleet, now as proudly at the bottom of the harbor, ferreting out Resistance members who had helped scuttle the Fleet the previous week as the Nazis closed in to take control of it--death being their probable fate; in Spain, the French submarine Iris, having escaped from the eye of the storm in Toulon, had been interned and disabled by Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s parlous warriors, seeking to remain neutral, while mobilizing to thwart any attempt by the Allies to seize any part of Spain, now arguably committing an act of war by the internment of a non-hostile vessel.

While all of those occupying those desperate straits of the world were proceeding to pound relentlessly to seek an end to this devastating worldwide war, itself seemingly seeking of its own moment, cast into motion by the Devil Incarnate, to end the world itself, on Saturday night, the Cocoanut Grove fire occurred in Boston, now reported by The News for the first time.

As indicated Saturday, out of the thousand persons in the club at the time of the fire, 490 lost their lives, the second worst single structure fire in the country’s history, the worst having occurred at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1901. Another 166 people were injured, either by the fire or being trampled in the melee which ensued, seeking exit from the encroaching fireballs finding vent in the stairwells and narrow corridors leading to exits.

The 10,250 square foot nightclub, in business since 1927 during Prohibition, went up like a match. Despite fire trucks being on the scene within three minutes of the first alarm, and despite the fire having been largely extinguished within minutes, it was already too late to avoid disaster from the quickly spreading inferno. But the source of the fire, while pinned to a location in a corner of the Melody Lounge, could never be determined, even if numerous building code violations on the premises contributed to the rapid spread and intense heat generated by the fire, igniting trapped gases in the false ceiling and in corridors between rooms.

The lighting of a match in the area of the fire’s origin, as a 16-year old bus boy admitted having done while changing a light bulb, the initially presumed cause of the fire as reported, was considered by the official report of the incident issued in November, 1943 but determined not to be the source of ignition. The report considered various other potential causes, including spontaneous combustion from alcohol fumes, but found no basis for asserting the cause to be among any of the known evidence, and so found the fire to be of undetermined origin.

The sad woman, reported in the front page piece, looking for her “Sammy”, who did not return home Saturday night after the fire, searching among the corpses which had been laid out in the makeshift morgue set up in the garage of the local mortuary, presumably was the mother of Samuel Suckenic of the U.S. Navy, whose address was listed as 721 Huntington Avenue, Boston, an address near the present location of the Harvard Medical School. He did not die in the fire, but was injured and transported to Chelsea Naval Hospital. The other two Samuels among the dead or injured, who were killed in the fire, were not from the West End of Boston: Samuel Falcone was from Worcester; Samuel Dowilaby was from Lawrence.

The tragic loss of nearly 500 lives obviously touches hundreds of people. In perspective, it constituted over a fifth of the loss of life occurring at Pearl Harbor not quite a year earlier.

The club’s owner, Barney Welansky, was tried and convicted on nineteen counts of involuntary manslaughter based on his negligent operation of the club while in violation of state and local building codes, a basis for alleging negligent or reckless homicide. He was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison, but after serving four years, had his sentence commuted in late 1946 by Governor Maurice Tobin, Mayor of Boston at the time of the fire, the reason for the commutation being that Welansky was dying of cancer. That there were only 19 counts rather than 490 alleged against him was simply out of prosecutorial expedience to reduce both the length of the trial and to avoid the potential pitfalls of presenting too much evidence to a jury which might be picked apart by the defense as either inconsistent or, in this case, too remotely connected with the cause of the fire to have been proximately, and therefore legally, the result of the owner’s negligence--such as the more tenuous connection to the violations of statutes and ordinances to be adduced out of the numerous deaths resulting from stampeding for the exits, escaping the fast following Pandemons.

In 1997, a new study of the fire concluded that the probable origin was escaping refrigerant gases ignited in nearby flame.

Two and a half years earlier, on April 23, 1940, the Rhythm Night Club fire in Natchez, Mississippi had claimed 209 lives when, presumably, a carelessly tossed cigarette set the place aflame, as The News, in an editorial titled "Frying Pan", forewarned of potential dangers for other similarly operated establishments, those possessed of fire accelerating accoutrements and structural characteristics persisting in jam-packed conditions, where the unmindful tendencies inevitably accompanying celebration often defied the ordinary astuteness of common sense, and ordinarily watchful eyes were too studied upon youthful pursuits in the dimly lit corners to be much concerned of something so casually undisturbing as the slight glint of a spark, caught just out of the corner of the kaleidoscopically closing iris.

On the preview side of The News, Emil Ludwig’s prediction that Hitler would not survive the war, and would be killed by his own generals of the Prussian Junker class of professional soldier, would nearly come true, not just once, but on several occasions. The pervading evil of the man, however, somehow enabled his escape by tricks of fortune in each of the several attempts on his life in 1943 and 1944, the most notable coming in July, 1944 resulting from the Valkyrie conspiracy when the Fuehrer escaped by the fortuity of the bomb in the briefcase having been set by Lt.-Col. Claus von Stauffenberg beside a particularly strong leg of the conference table at which Hitler sat, thus preserving the Devil, despite the pandemonium he had spread throughout the world, for his final due, the single silver bullet issued from his own Luger pointed to his temple, as the Russians encroached on his Fuehrerbunker from the east and the American and British came steadily from the west into Berlin on Walpurgis Night, 1945.

Three brothers from Rock Hill, South Carolina, Brenton, Otto, and Buster Blackwelder were reported safe, having survived two direct hits by a Japanese cruiser in the Solomons near Guadalcanal on their mutual ship, the light cruiser Boise, after being a vital part of the crew which summarily dispatched to the depths fully six ships of the Japanese Fleet in the space of 27 minutes. This trio of brothers were not ones with whom the enemy should have messed, it would seem.

The action had occurred in the Battle of Cape Esperance, also known as the Second Battle of Savo Island, occurring October 11-12. The Boise lost fully 107 of its crew when the Japanese cruiser Kinugasa sent two shells into the ship’s main turrets, nearly causing the total destruction of the ship by igniting its powder magazine, saved by the rush of sea water into its hold.

The Kinugasa was sunk a month later on November 13 in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The Boise, as of November 20, was safe in home waters for repairs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it would remain for the ensuing four months, before returning to action in June in support of the Allied landings on Sicily in July and August, and in Taranto and Salerno in September. Despite further active service in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945, the ship survived the war.

The editorial page begins with a tribute to the heartening but cautionary speech of Prime Minister Churchill on Sunday, (the full text of which is set out in Saturday’s note). There is also a summary on the front page of its anticipated impact.

“The Bluff” comments on the indomitable Swiss will to resist the treachery of the Axis jowls, ever seeking to exercise predation on anyone it could conceivably manipulate into its collection of satrapies. It neglects to point out, however, as DeWitt MacKenzie had informed on September 23, that the Swiss had remained neutral for essentially three reasons: for the country being largely inaccessible through the Alps, for it offering no significant geographic or material benefit to the production and maintenance of the Axis war machine, and for its standard as a perfect neutral listening post of communications between the Axis and Allies, thus being deemed fit for the Nazis to deign allow its continued sovereign existence, aloof from the traditional Axis offer of salubrious caretaking.

Apparently, the tempting promise of its vast stores of butter and cheese to feed Hitler's Wehrmacht, especially now that substantial numbers of that which remained of it were mired once again in the mud and snow of Russia, wasting away at the rate of 10,000 per day before Russian-fired, American-British-made bullets, was outweighed by Hitler's fear of something forbidding, perhaps the chirp-chirp-chirp of the cuckoo striking midnight, signalling that the re-conversion of the Belle of the Ball into the peasant girl was fast approaching, knelling her to obtain homeward passage before he turned into a Frog.

Dorothy Thompson compares the British form of censorship of the press with that in America and finds the latter overburdened with war worries; that the British Parliamentary debate, more open than that of the Congress, regularly reached the ears of the citizens of the United States while the Fourth Estate’s ordinarily counter-balancing voice first had to receive the imprimatur of the government for release to a British audience. She asks, in conclusion, whether this newly incorporated limit to American freedom, contrary completely to the goals enunciated for the post-war world, for instance, in the Atlantic Charter of just over a year earlier, was simply a quieter, more romantically, soft-mood seductive version of gleichschaltung, the Nazi form of rhythmic cooperation enforced on all its subjects, while the force of the Fourth did not even know how or why they were being pressed into line as if by Nazi rapiers.

Raymond Clapper cautions the odds-makers at the betting windows to mind their bets when wagering that the war would be over by March, 1943. He ventures that such idle optimism could be costly to the continued stewardship of war preparation. He urges the recognition that the highest priority belonged to the building of escort ships to protect the crucial transports across the still perilous Atlantic, rife as it was, though calmer since the high storms of June and July, with U-boats aplenty awaiting in stealth their daily provender--as there was no way home now but death on the high seas for these plunderers of the depths.

As to Mr. Mallon’s commentary presented on the prospective travails of Governor Lehman, newly appointed food distribution czar, whose office Mallon characterizes as being more a trapeze than an office, when placed alongside Mr. Henderson’s Office of Price Administration, Mr. Jeffers’s rubber czardom, and Mr. Nelson’s Office of Production Management, we can only imagine that it was a splendid time guaranteed for all, especially for Mr. Kite of Berlin.

And, the offbeat hoofs generated by “High Tribute” in beat of the hoofs proved prophetic in a sense: Count Fleet would win the Triple Crown come spring, 1943.

But, by 1944, the horse world perhaps had tired of bellicose names, as Pensive won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, while the wistful-sounding Bounding Home won the Belmont Stakes; in 1945, putative basketball fan, we assume, Hoop, Jr., won the Derby, as the shimmying, swaying, sashaying Polynesian took the Preakness and the pacific sounding--no doubt with every whinny and neigh quite sonorously as sweet and gently upliftingly lilting in its proud head's own right as that conveyed, as would be a solitary flute heard echoing through the craggy faces of the Fletschhorn within the Swiss Alps, by Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane--, Pavot took the Belmont, even if the latter was dam-sired by Man o' War.

Yet then, as all good things prove short-lived, in 1946, came apparently another streak of casus belli in the world as Assault became the Triple Crown winner that year. Phalanx won the Belmont in 1947; Faultless, the Preakness; and Jet Pilot crossed the finish line first in the Derby. Citation posted first across all three boards in 1948.

Step up, gentlemen and ladies, and place your bets. It’s post time.

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