History's Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events

Khalid Elhassan - January 27, 2018

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
The Honorable Cacareco, the rhinoceros who charged to first place in Sao Paulo’s 1959 city council elections. Whale Oil

Voters Elect a Rhinoceros in a Landslide

In 1959, the voters of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, were fed up. Corruption was rampant, garbage went uncollected, sewers overflowed, inflation was rising, and supplies of basic foodstuffs such as meat and beans were dwindling. And as elections loomed that October, they faced a choice of a crowded field of 540 candidates, ranging from the uninspiring to the outright criminal, competing for the 45 seats of Sao Paulo’s City Council.

Faced with such dismal options, some local students decided: “Better elect a rhinoceros than an ass“. Their candidate of choice was a 5 year old female black rhinoceros named Cacareco, a local celebrity on loan from Rio de Janeiro’s zoo to the recently inaugurated Sao Paulo zoo. So the students printed and distributed 200,000 ballots with her name on them.

On election day, not only did Cacareco win, she charged to first place and won in a landslide, garnering over 100,000 votes, amounting to 15% of the total cast. As The New York Times reported, Cacareco “earned one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s recent history“. It was actually the highest ever total won by any city council candidate up to that date.

A sore loser party leader complained bitterly: “A ridiculous vote for a ridiculous rhinoceros. Nowhere, and never before, have 100,000 literate adult voters cast their ballots for a silent, absent, and nut brained quadruped“. One of the failed candidates was so humiliated that he lost to a beast, that he committed suicide. Cacareco’s victory caused significant concern and hand wringing in Brazil’s intellectual and political circles, as some worried it indicated the country was on the verge of revolt. In the meantime, the Sao Paulo zoo’s director asked the city to pay Cacareco’s City Councilman salary. However, the fix was in, and election officials nullified her ballots.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Tootsie Rolls, and a US mortar position in the Chosin Reservoir. We Are the Mighty

Beleaguered American Troops Request Ammunition, Receive Candy Instead

The first half of the Korean War (1950 – 1953) was a seesaw affair. It began with the North Koreans launching a surprise attack that routed their opponents. Within weeks, the North Koreans had overrun most of the Korean Peninsula, and all that was left under the control of South Korean and US forces was a small corner around the port city of Pusan.

Then American general Douglas MacArthur outflanked the North Koreans with a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, which led to the invasion’s collapse. MacArthur then chased the routed North Koreans up the Peninsula. Despite warnings that China would intervene if his forces reached the Chinese border, MacArthur insisted that they would not dare, and his forces pushed up to the Sino-Korean border. Unfortunately for MacArthur, the Chinese dared. In a sudden attack, they caught MacArthur off guard, routed his forces, and chased them down the Peninsula even faster than they had raced up it a few weeks earlier.

In the desperate fighting following the Chinese intervention, American troops in the Chosin Reservoir found themselves in dire straits. They numbered only 15,000, while the Chinese attacked them with around 120,000 men. Supplies were running low, temperatures plummeted to minus 25 degrees, and what food they did have was almost impossible to warm up. And to top it off, they were running low on mortar shells – which were particularly effective in the mountainous terrain. So they called for an immediate airdrop of mortar shells, using a code name they had established for the munitions: Tootsie Rolls.

Quartermasters in the rear jumped into action, and the Air Force swiftly organized an airlift and airdropped their cargo within US positions in the Chosin Reservoir. The beleaguered troops eagerly rushed to recover the precious mortar shells. However, when they cracked open the crates, they were horrified to discover that instead of life-saving munitions, they were packed with actual Tootsie Rolls.

Fortunately, the troops soon discovered that Tootsie Rolls were among the few food items that were actually edible when frozen, and the sugar boost gave the weary fighters a needed jolt. Additionally, innovation being a major component of the American national character, the troops soon found other innovative uses for the candy. Chewed up Tootsie Rolls became like putty in the mouth, but froze solid when exposed in the frigid conditions of the Chosin Reservoir. So using Tootsie Rolls as improvised epoxy, the troops patched up bullet holes in equipment, and repaired broken tools. Then, on a sugar high and with their equipment fixed, the American forces broke out of the Chosin Reservoir, and fought their way to safety.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki. Wanpela

Hitchhikers Picked up in Iwo Jima Turn out to be Japanese Soldiers in Hiding for 4 Years

By 1945, the tide of WWII had turned decisively against Japan, as the American advance across the Pacific drew ever closer to the Japanese home islands. American planners set their sights on Iwo Jima, a small volcanic island about 750 miles south of Tokyo, as a suitable staging area for an eventual invasion of Japan. The Japanese, aware of the threat posed by an Iwo Jima in American hands, set out to garrison it.

Ymakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki were two Japanese machine gunners assigned to the island’s garrison. Iwo Jima was invaded in February of 1945, and some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the entire Pacific War ensued. The defenders fought fanatically, almost to the last man: out of a garrison of 21,000 Japanese, nearly 20,000 died before the island was declared secured.

Linsoki and Kufuku were among the few Japanese survivors who neither died fighting, nor committed suicide. Believing their government’s propaganda that Americans tortured and killed prisoners, they were too afraid to surrender, and so they went to ground. They hid during the day in the warren of tunnels that honeycombed the rocky island, and emerged at night to pilfer food and other necessaries from the American garrison’s supply and trash dumps. Via such means, Linsoki and Kufuku managed to survive for a long time in a barren and inhospitable island bereft of vegetation and game. The American garrison’s lack of interest in scouring Iwo Jima hard landscape enabled the Japanese duo to go unnoticed for years.

That lasted until January 6th, 1949, when a pair of US Air Force corporals in a Jeep spotted two pedestrians in uniforms a few sizes too big, walking alongside a road. They took them for Chinese laborers, and although they spoke no English and were uncommunicative, the American airmen assumed they were hitch hiking to the island’s main base. So they kindly gave them a lift, and dropped them off in front of the garrison’s headquarters building.

From there, Linsoki and Kufuku wandered around the American base for hours, until a passing American sergeant realized that they were Japanese and took them in. After the initial interrogation, the duo took their captors to their hideout. There, the Americans found a cave richly stocked with canned foods, flashlights, batteries, uniforms, boots and shoes and socks, and sundry goods that the pair had been pilfering over the years.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Pancho Villa. Biography

Pancho Villa Can’t Think of Something Deep to Say as He Lay Dying, So Asks Followers to Make Something Up

A romantic hero’s legend can always use some romantically heroic last words to close the tale. But what if the hero can’t think of anything memorable to cap off his story? The tale of Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878 – 1923) illustrates what might happen then. Villa was born into an impoverished family of Mexican sharecroppers. He received some elementary schooling, but had not progressed beyond basic literacy when his father died and he had to quit school and help his mother. Villa worked a variety of menial jobs, interspersed with stints of banditry. At age 16, he reportedly killed his first man: a hacienda owner he accused of raping his sister. He then stole his victim’s horse and fled to the hills, beginning his career as a full time bandit.

Villa was captured in 1902, but was spared the death penalty, and got drafted into the Mexican army instead. He deserted after killing an officer and stealing his horse, and returned to banditry. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution began, and Villa was persuaded that he could fight for the people by directing his banditry against hacienda owners. He turned out to be a natural at the revolution’s style of warfare, and was instrumental in defeating the government’s forces in northern Mexico.

After victory, the rebel alliance split when the new government failed to enact promised land reforms. Villa, appointed a brigadier general, supported the new government, but struck a superior general during a quarrel and was sentenced to death. He was saved from the firing squad by a last minute telegram from the president, ordering his imprisonment instead.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Photo of Pancho Villa in front of a firing squad, moments before his scheduled execution. He was spared seconds later, by the arrival of a telegram with a presidential reprieve. Wikimedia

Villa escaped prison and fled to the US, but returned to Mexico in 1913, after securing American support to fight against a new government that had seized power in a coup. In the second round of fighting, Villa again achieved considerable success, and he was appointed governor of the state of Chihuahua. As governor, he confiscated grand haciendas, breaking them up into smaller plots which he redistributed to the families of fallen revolutionaries. It was during this period that Villa gained international fame, and was depicted as a romantic bandit-warrior who took from the rich and gave to the poor.

The coup-installed government was overthrown, but the victorious allies again fell out. This third round of fighting did not go well for Villa, and he suffered repeated setbacks. By 1915, his forces had shrunk to a small band hiding in the hills, and the US shifted its backing from Villa to his opponents. Feeling betrayed, he began attacking American interests in northern Mexico, and in 1916, crossed the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. The US responded with a military expedition to Mexico, to hunt down Villa. He eluded the Americans, and his popularity rose among Mexicans resentful of the intrusion.

Villa continued guerrilla warfare until 1920, when he made peace and recognized the Mexican government in exchange for an amnesty and a 25,000 acre hacienda. In 1923, he announced plans to run for president, but soon thereafter, his car was ambushed and shot up. Fatally wounded, Villa realized that a life as interesting as his should end with an interesting final statement. However, he could not think of anything memorable, so his last words as he lay dying were: “Don’t let it end like this! Tell them I said something!

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Egyptian prisoners captured during the Six Day War. Mint Press News

Egyptian President Trash Talks His Way Into Disaster

In the months before the Six Day War (June 5 – 10, 1967), tensions steadily mounted between Israel and her Arab neighbor. Raids from Palestinian guerrillas based in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, increased, and elicited massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in a bind. He was the Arab world’s most popular politician, and a hero of the masses for his defiance of Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Now, he was being criticized for failing to aid fellow Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Nasser knew that the Egyptian military was in no shape to fight Israel, but he tried to regain his stature in the Arab world by bluster. So he broadcast increasingly heated speeches threatening Israel, and sought to convey his seriousness with demonstrations short of war. He got carried away with his own rhetoric, however, and took the demonstrations too far.

He began by massing Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula. A few days later, he demanded the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers separating the Israelis and Egyptians. A few more days after that, he closed to Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. A week later, Jordan’s king arrived in Egypt to ink a mutual defense pact. The Iraqis followed suit, soon thereafter.

However, Nasser’s bluster seemed all too real from an Israeli perspective. And the Israelis, who actually were prepared for war, had just been itching for an excuse to stick it to Nasser. So on June 5th, 1967, they launched preemptive air strikes that destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian and Syrian air forces. Then, having secured aerial supremacy, the Israelis launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days. They then routed the Jordanians and seized Jerusalem and the West Bank within two. Egypt and Jordan accepted a UN ceasefire, but the Syrians, unwisely, did not. So the Israelis attacked Syria on June 9th, and captured the Golan Heights within a day. Syria accepted a cease fire the next day.

The defeat was humiliatingly lopsided: about 24,000 Arabs were killed, versus only 800 Israelis, with similarly disproportionate rates for wounded and equipment losses. Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world, which he had sought to burnish with warlike rhetoric and demonstrations short of war, took a severe hit from which it never recovered.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Shah Muhammad II’s Khwarezmian Empire. Wikimedia

Ruler of Prosperous Empire Needlessly Insults Genghis Khan – Then Dares Him to Do Something About It

Life’s greatest joy is to rout and scatter your enemies, and drive them before you. To see their cities reduced to ashes. To see their loved ones shrouded and in tears, and to gather to your bosom their wives and daughters” – Genghis Khan.

The kind of person who drops chilling quotes like the preceding is probably not somebody a wise ruler would go out of his way to insult. Yet that is precisely what Shah Muhammad II, ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire from 1200 to 1220, did. And as if to double down on the stupid, Muhammad II then dared Genghis Khan to do something about it.

Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227) founded the Mongol Empire, the world’s largest contiguous empire, and was one of history’s most terrifying figures. His conquests were often accompanied by widespread massacres, even genocide. As a percentage of global population, the estimated 40 million death toll of the Mongol conquests initiated by him would be equivalent to 278 million deaths in the 20th century.

In 1218, Genghis Khan was busy fighting the Chinese, when he sent an embassy and trade mission to Muhammad II. In addition to diplomatic emissaries, it included numerous merchants with valuable trade wares. Genghis had hoped to establish diplomatic and trade relations with the Khwarezmian Empire, which encompassed most of Central Asia, and stretched from today’s Afghanistan to Georgia. The Khwarezmian ruler, however, was suspicious of Genghis’ intentions. So he had one of his governors halt the Mongol embassy at the border, accuse it of spying, arrest its members, and seize its goods.

Despite the insult, Genghis tried to keep things diplomatic, and sent three envoys to Muhammad II, requesting that he disavow the governor’s actions, and hand him over to the Mongols for punishment. Muhammad executed the envoys, and followed it up by ordering the execution of all members of the earlier embassy and trade mission. Those turned out to be bad decisions.

Genghis interrupted his campaigning in China, and concentrated a force of over 100,000 against the Khwarezmian Empire. It was smaller than Muhammad II’s forces, but the Mongols struck in 1218 with a whirlwind campaign that caught Muhammad off balance, and he was never given an opportunity to recover. Genghis’ invasion was a military masterpiece that overwhelmed Muhammad’s empire, and extinguished it by 1221.

As to the unfortunate Muhammad II, he was forced to flee, but the Mongols never gave him a chance to find sanctuary and recover for a comeback. Genghis put two of his best generals, Subutai and Jebe, in charge of hunting the Khwarezmian ruler. Muhammad was chased and hounded across his domain to his death, abandoned and exhausted, on a small Caspian island as his relentless pursuers closed in. It was in this invasion that the Mongols gained their reputation for savagery. Millions died, as Genghis ordered the massacre of entire cities that offered the least resistance, and sent thousands of captives ahead of his armies as human shields.

By the time Genghis was done, Khwarezm had been reduced from a thriving and wealthy empire to an impoverished and depopulated wasteland. At the grand mosque in the once thriving but now smoldering city of Bukhara, Genghis told the survivors that he was the Flail of God, and that: “If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you“.

There was nothing funny about that, of course. But the fate of Muhammad II, who brought catastrophe upon himself by insulting somebody he assumed was just another upstart barbarian nomad chieftain from the Steppe, was. He discovered, too late, that he had challenged history’s greatest conqueror. Muhammad’s subsequent flight, as he was chased across his ever shrinking domain by relentless Mongol pursuers, could probably be set to chase scene music from Benny Hill.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
French capture of Stettin in 1806. Wikimedia

Prussian General Hoaxed Into Surrendering Strong Fortress to Tiny Force He Outnumbered 20 to 1

In 1806, Prussia declared war on France, only to have its armies swiftly wrecked by the French in the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. Napoleon ordered a vigorous pursuit of the routed Prussians, and the reduction of their garrisons to keep them from linking up with and reinforcing their Russian allies, who were still under arms. The once-proud Prussian army, less than two decades removed from its glory days under Frederick the Great, was demoralized. It was in that state that a French cavalry brigade under general Antoine Lasalle approached the Prussian port city of Stettin.

Lasalle had about 500 hussars under his command, and 2 light field guns. Stettin was a strongly fortified port city, with a garrison of nearly 10,000 men, protected by 281 cannons. Their commander was general Friedrich von Romberg, a veteran with over 50 years’ experience, who had fought under Frederick the Great as far back as the Seven Years War. The city was well provisioned by the British Royal Navy, whose vessels sailed in and out of the port with no hindrance.

On the afternoon of October 29th, 1806, Lasalle sent a messenger under flag of truce to demand Stettin’s surrender. Von Romberg refused, vowing to defend the city to the last man. An hour later, the emissary returned, this time with a more ominous message: “If by 8AM you have not surrendered, the town will be bombarded by our artillery and stormed by 50,000 men. The garrison will be put to the sword, and the town will be plundered for 24 hours“. An alarmed von Romberg consulted with the town leaders, who urged capitulation. That night, the details of the surrender were negotiated and finalized. The following morning, the garrison marched out in perfect order, and filed past the French to throw their arms down at their feet in a steadily growing pile.

When von Romberg discovered just how tiny a force he had surrendered to, it was too late, and he had little choice but to stick to the agreement. Lasalle became a national hero, while von Romberg became a laughingstock. The Prussian general was tried by court martial in 1809, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for surrendering without a fight. He died two months later.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
‘In Front of Yorktown’, by Winslow Homer. Wikimedia

Confederate General Outnumbered 10 to 1 Bamboozles Opponent Out of Taking Richmond

The American Civil War came close to ending in the spring of 1862. In March of that year, Union General George B. McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia by landing 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to the south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates had time to rush in reinforcements to protect their capital. Things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and began marching on the Confederate capital.

All that stood between McClellan and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by John B. Magruder, who found himself outnumbered 10 to 1 by Union forces. Magruder, realizing his small force stood no chance in a fight, and desperately needing to buy time until reinforcements arrived, set out to bamboozle McClellan into slowing down.

From a Confederate perspective, Magruder turned out to be the right man in the right place at the right time. He was known before the war for his florid manner, proneness to theatrics, and ostentatious displays. Magruder now resorted to theatrics and display to put on a show and trick McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was the case.

Taking advantage of the small Warwick river which separated him from the advancing federals, Magruder set out to convince McClellan that its 14 mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. While the fortifications were real, Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked.

Magruder ordered his forces to create a din, with drumrolls and men cheering in woods behind the lines, to fool their foes into believing the Confederate were more numerous than they actually were. He also made repeated use of a single column of men, marching them within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line. He would then slip them away outside the Union observers’ line of sight, reassemble them in column, and march them back to the defensive line to take up defensive positions once more.

The theatrics convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal attack. It was a task made easier by McClellan’s predisposition to take counsel of his fears, and to constantly believe himself outnumbered. Although he could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized Richmond, McClellan ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick river, had his men dig in, and set out to conduct a siege.

For a month, McClellan methodically prepared a powerful attack to break through Magruder’s “strong defenses”. He concentrated men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5, 1862, followed by an overwhelming assault. Magruder had no intention of waiting to get attacked. Having already bought his side a month to prepare the defenses of Richmond, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3rd, leaving behind empty trenches for the enemy to occupy.

McClellan resumed his advance on Richmond. By then, however, the Confederates had concentrated sufficient forces to defend their capital, and the Union commander was halted at the gates of Richmond. McClelland was then pushed back to his starting point with furious attacks during the Seven Days Battles, and the Peninsula Campaign came to an ignominious end.

History’s Humor: 10 Funny and Often Overlooked Details from Historic Events
Scale model of the Russian monitor Novgorod. Picssr

Russian Navy Commissions Round Ship Whose Gunfire Caused it to Spin in Circles

In 1874, the Russian Navy commissioned Novgorod, a monitor ship with a controversial design that featured a round hull. It quickly earned a reputation as one of the worst ships in history, often compared to a floating soup dish for its clumsiness. The 2500 ton vessel had six steam engines that drove six propeller screws. On the plus side, the Novgorod was largely immune to ramming – a common naval tactic of the day. It had a 9 inch armored belt, its round shape deflected strikes, and its vital components were well inside the hull. It had a pair of 11 inch guns, which were powerful for the era. Its shape and flat bottom also gave it a draft of only 12 feet, allowing it to operate close to the coastline in shallow waters.

However, the Novgorod’s advantages were outweighed by serious disadvantages. The circular hull played havoc with the rudder’s ability to steer the ship or turn it around: in a storm, the Novgorod was unsteerable, and even in calm weather, it took 45 minutes for the ship to make a full circle. In rough seas, the wide flat bottom led to severe pitching, that caused the propellers came out of the water. The blunt hull did not slice through water so as to reduce its resistance, but pushed large volumes of water out of the way by sheer brute force. That made the ship very fuel-inefficient, causing it to consume coal at a prodigious rate.

On top of the design defects, the Novgorod was also plagued with manufacturing defects. Low quality materials and poor workmanship led to persistent recurring problems with the ship’s propulsion, from blades to shaft to drive, that lasted for the vessel’s entire career. Additionally, the Novgorod suffered from poor ventilation that no amount of troubleshooting could fix, even after ventilation cowls were installed on the gun emplacements.

Even at its core function as a fighting platform, the Novgorod had serious problems. Its two 11 inch guns had an exceptionally slow rate of fire, at 10 minutes per shot. The rotating mounts on which the guns were placed were also slow, taking 3 minutes to traverse 180 degrees. The problem was made worse by weak locks that caused the gun mounts to rotate on their own from the guns’ recoil. And the guns’ firing caused the entire ship to rotate uncontrollably. Because the flat bottomed vessel had no stabilizing keel to keep her in line and keep her guns pointed towards the target, the only solution was to moor the Novgorod in a fixed position. That essentially transformed her from a ship to a floating fortress anchored in place, with her guns pointed seaward.

The Novgorod and other round hulls were summarized thus by a naval historian: ” they were a dismal failure. They were too slow to stem the current in the Dniepr, and proved very difficult to steer. In practice the discharge of even one gun caused them to turn out of control and even contra-rotating some of six propellers was unable to keep the ship on the correct heading. Nor could they cope with the rough weather which is frequently encountered in the Black Sea. They were prone to rapid rolling and pitching in anything more than a flat calm, and could not aim or load their guns under such circumstances“.

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Sources and Further Reading

Catton, Bruce – The Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Six-Day War: Causes and Summary

Inc. – What Tootsie Rolls and the Korean War Can Teach Us About Innovation on Veterans Day

Preston, Antony – The World’s Worst Warships (2002)

The Daily Beast – The Rhinoceros Who Won an Election by a Landslide

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia – Trenton and Princeton Campaign (Washington’s Crossing)

Wanpela – Yamakage Kufuku

We Are the Mighty – Marines Were Once Saved by Candy From the Sky

Wikipedia – Capitulation of Stettin

Wikipedia – Mongol Conquest of Khwarezmia

Your Dictionary – How Did Pancho Villa Die?

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