Vietnam War veteran Willie Roger Holder had served with distinction in the 68th Assault Helicopter Company. Despite his decorations, however, he was court-martialed, demoted, and imprisoned, for smoking a joint while off duty in Saigon. Between that and PTSD, he grew embittered and resentful.
Back in America, Willie met Catherine Marie Kerkow in San Diego when he knocked on her door looking for her roommate. Cathy opened the door, barely wrapped in a bathrobe and with soap in her eyes. He liked what he saw, she returned the soldier’s suggestive smile, and a romance was born then and there. It also led to one of America’s most bonkers hijackings.
Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow really liked weed, and really liked counterculture politics. At some point while the duo were very high, Willie suggested that they hijack an airplane. The couple would take the passengers hostage, and swap them for Angela Davis, a UCLA professor and Black Panther then on trial for the murder of a judge (she was acquitted). Cathy was game.
On June 2nd, 1972, Willie, in his Army dress uniform with Cathy by his side, boarded Western Airlines Flight 701, a Boeing 727 headed to Seattle. Mid-flight, he handed a stewardess a note stating that “There are four of us and two bombs. Do as you’re told and No shooting will take place“. He also showed off a briefcase with wires ominously sticking out of it.
Whether it was Willie Roger Holder’s PTSD, or all the weed he and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow had smoked, the hijacking duo had no clue what to do next after seizing control of Western Airlines Flight 701. Initially, their nebulous plans included taking Angela Davis to North Vietnam to expose the evil of the war there, then retiring to a farm in Australia. However, they changed their minds multiple times, before they finally ended up in Algeria.
Willie and Cathy released half the passengers in San Francisco, then crossed the country and released the other half in New York, before ordering the plane to take off again. To relax, they then lit up joints and got stoned in coach. Cathy pulled up the armrests along a row of seats, and removed her slacks while Willie dropped his Army dress pants to the floor. The couple then joined the Mile High Club.
From New York, the aerial Bonnie and Clyde, who had collected $500,000 in ransom, headed across the Atlantic on a prolonged international odyssey. Their misadventures en route took them, among other places, to Switzerland. There, the authorities refused to allow the plane to land in Geneva, out of fear of attracting copycats and turning their country into a “Cuba of the Alps” – a destination of choice for hijackers.
The duo eventually ended up in Algeria, where they were granted political asylum, and joined the international branch of the Black Panthers. In 1974, however, the political environment changed in Algeria, and the couple were forced to flee to Paris, using fake passports. Their cover in France was blown in 1975, however, and they were arrested. They were convicted for passport fraud, but were granted political asylum, on grounds that the hijacking had been political in nature.
Willie Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow became celebrities in France, where they were befriended by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, and actress Maria Schneider, who had co-starred with Marlon Brando in The Last Tango in Paris. Eventually, however, Cathy dumped Willie in 1977, telling him she was going to Switzerland to get some new fake documents, and never came back.
Willie eventually agreed to face justice in America, returned in 1986, and did two years in a federal prison. Upon his release, he struggled to find his place in society, and made a living mostly as a day laborer, before dying in 2012 at age 62. As for Cathy, she never resurfaced after vanishing into Switzerland in the 1970s.
Alternating current (AC) lights up our homes and workplaces, and powers up our appliances through wall sockets. AC is relatively cheap, and its high voltage allows it to be transported long distances. The other main current, direct current (DC), is relegated mostly to batteries. However, there was a time in the nineteenth century when the issue was still undecided, and powerful interests competed fiercely to decide whether AC or DC would dominate the world.
AC had been invented by Nikola Tesla, and was supported by George Westinghouse, who pushed it as the best means to bring electricity to the masses. On DC’s side was Thomas Edison, who had developed it to power his light bulb. There was serious money at stake, so Edison launched a smear campaign against AC, on grounds that it was unsafe and deadly. He went to great lengths to make his point.
Compared to alternating current, direct current is crappy because it is weaker, and can only be transported short distances. However, Edison had already invested millions in DC, and he was not about to let the upstart AC flush that investment down the drain if he could help it. So when a dentist named Alfred Southwick sought his help to develop a humane method of execution by electrocution, Edison decided to turn AC’s strength into a liability, by highlighting its ability to kill.
He talked Southwick into using AC in what became the electric chair. Also, to cement in the public’s mind the link between AC’s risks and its promoter, George Westinghouse, Edison coined a catchy term for the new method of execution: “Westinghousing”. Edison then went on a whirlwind public tour to demonstrate AC’s deadliness, and used AC to publicly electrocute dozens of dogs, cows, horses, and a circus elephant named Topsy.
4. When America Had Hundreds of Thousands of Child Soldiers
Today, child soldiers are a tragic phenomenon associated mostly with domestic conflicts in the Developing World countries and failed states. However, there was a time when child soldiers did not even raise eyebrows in the US. The most extensive use of American child soldiers occurred in the country’s bloodiest dispute, the US Civil War.
It is estimated that a fifth of all military personnel in the Civil War were under eighteen. More than 100,000 soldiers in the Union Army alone were fifteen years old or less. There were even cases in which children as young as eight were put in uniform.
3. America’s Child Soldiers Were Often in Even More Danger than the Adults in Uniform
For the most part, child soldiers in the US Army were utilized as drummers, buglers, cooks’ assistants, nurses, orderlies, general gophers, or put to work in other non-combatant positions. However, during the storm of shot and shell as battles raged, Civil War child soldiers were frequently just as exposed to bullets and artillery as were the grown men on the firing line.
In the US Navy, children frequently served as “powder monkeys” in warships. Tasked during combat with rushing gunpowder from magazines to canons, they were just as exposed to danger during action as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, considering that they were scurrying about carrying sacks of gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment, the little powder monkeys might have been at greater risk than the rest of the crew.
During the Civil War, the military made some nominal effort to keep its child soldiers safe. They were prohibited from fighting on the front lines or being present in the firing line during combat. However, children are children, full of curiosity and frequently heedless of and insensate to danger and mortal risk to life and limb. They often ignored the restrictions.
During the war, there was no dearth of instances in which child soldiers snuck off to the firing lines in order to see for themselves the excitement of battle from up close. In the heat of battle, many picked up rifles and rushed into the maelstrom, fighting and dying alongside the adults.
During the Civil War, there were age restrictions on official enlistment in the military. In the Union, enlistees had to be over 16. However, such restrictions were usually honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Many an under-aged Northern boy, eager to enlist, had little trouble in finding a recruiter willing to sign him up so long as he was willing to put one hand on the Bible, raise the other, and swear that he was “over 16”. Some children ingeniously reconciled their consciences with the lie by writing the number “16” on a piece of paper, and sticking it to the bottom of a shoe, thus enabling them to honestly swear that they were “over 16”.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading