Pebbles in the sky


    EJECTA. Ballistic materials. Death from above. Courtesy of the erupting Taal. “The earliest known published reference is by Father Gaspar de San Agustin, written in 1680. This account is given in full by Centeno for the light it throws on the condition of the volcanoes prior to the more recent eruptions, and I have examined the original work. Father Gaspar says: ‘In this Lake of Bombon there is a small island upon which is a fiery volcano, wont at times to eject numerous and very large burning stones, which destroy and lay waste many cultivated fields which the natives of Taal possess on the slopes of the said volcano’.”

    “All the eruptions have consisted of showers of burning ashes and scoriae, between which showers, great blocks of basalt were thrown out, covering the whole region to a depth varying from a few centimeters to two or three meters and causing the different strata of volcanic material which can be seen throughout the province.” [Rev. M. Saderra Maso, S.J., Assistant Director of the Philippine Weather Bureau. Volcanoes And Seismic Centers Of The Philippine Archipelago. Manila: Department Of Commerce And Labor Bureau Of The Census, 1904]

    More than pebbles dotted the sky 109 years ago. “Taal Volcano, in southwestern Luzon, ‘began throwing out steam and mud on January 27, and continued in eruption with increasing violence during January 28 and 29, culminating in an explosive outburst early on the morning of January 30, which laid waste the surrounding country over an area of 230 kilometers, killing practically all life within this area. Mud or ashes spread over more than 2,000 square kilometers in southwestern Luzon’.” [Walter E. Pratt, “The Eruption Of Taal Volcano,” The Philippine Journal of Science, Vol. VI, 1911, No. 2, pp. 63-83]

    A different tragedy afflicted Europeans who were prisoners of the Germans 75 years ago.

    “Between January 17 and 21, about 56,000 prisoners from the main camp, Birkenau, Monowitz, and numerous sub-camps were led westward in marching columns. About 9,000 completely exhausted or seriously ill prisoners and members of the inmate staff of the hospital barracks were left behind. A small number of relatively healthy prisoners even managed to ensconce themselves in hiding places, in the hope of speedy liberation by the Red Army.”

    “Many men, women, and children died of exhaustion or froze to death. A far greater number, however, were killed by the SS guard escorts, who shot or beat to death anyone who lagged behind. Along the primary routes of the death march, about 3,000 corpses were left behind in the province of Upper Silesia, and to this day we have no verified information about the number of those killed along the routes through Lower Silesia and the northern regions of Moravia and Bohemia. Between January 19 and 23, a great part of the marching columns—approximately 35,000 to 40,000 prisoners—reached Gliwice (Gleiwitz) and Wodzisław Śląski (Loslau), where they were crammed into railroad freight cars and transported to concentration camps deeper inside the territory of the Reich.

    During the transports, which in some cases were made in open freight cars, hundreds of people died of exhaustion, thirst, hunger, or cold. Estimates of the number of people who died or were murdered during the clearing of the camp complex and the death marches from Auschwitz range from 9,000 to 15,000.” []
    It was a death march but not in Bataan; it was in Eastern Europe. “Partly to conceal evidence, but also because they thought they might need slave labour in the months ahead, the Nazis forced nearly 60,000 Auschwitz prisoners, already weak from hunger and abuse, to march in freezing conditions without proper clothing or food to railway junctions over 60 kilometres away. From there they were transported to different concentration camps.”

    “Of the almost 60,000 people who were evacuated from Auschwitz, it’s thought that around 15,000 died on the death marches alone, due to exposure, starvation and exhaustion. In addition to this, the escorting SS guards had strict orders to shoot and kill prisoners who were too physically exhausted to keep up with their fellow unfortunates. More died in the camps they arrived at.” []

    The Death March from Auschwitz was accompanied by some good news. As reported by the New York Times seven decades ago: “MOSCOW – Warsaw fell today [Jan. 17] before the Russian hurricane which shattered the German line in Poland and pushed to within 15 miles of the Reich border. The order of the day, issued by Marshal Josef Stalin, testified to the utter defeat of the Wehrmacht on the Polish frontier. It proclaimed the liberation of Warsaw after more than five years of Nazi domination. Fourteen European capitals have now been freed from German occupation.”

    The cited Order of the Day, No. 223, was addressed to the Commander of the Troops of the 1st Byelorussian Front, Marshal Zhukov, and to the Chief of Staff of the Front, Col.- Gen. Malinin: “To-day, January 17, at 19 hours (Moscow time), the capital of our Motherland, Moscow, in the name of the Motherland, will salute with 24 salvoes from 324 guns our gallant troops of the 1st Byelorussian Front, including troops of the 1st Polish Army, which captured the capital of Poland, Warsaw…Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in the struggle for the freedom and independence of our Motherland and our Ally Poland! Death to the German invaders!” [J. Stalin, Supreme Commander-in-Chief, Marshal of the Soviet Union]
    In the Philippines, the Allies had momentum and the liberation of Pangasinan was progressing: “On our west flank strong patrols reached Alaminos on the Bolinao Peninsula, 10 miles northwest of Port Sual. Our columns in the right sector moved on south and east from Camiling. Patrols reached Moncada, 10 miles southeast of Bayambang and 32 miles inland from the landing. In the left sector we seized Binalonan, five miles above Urdaneta, thus severing the main north-south highway at two points. Our patrols are operating in the Cabaruan hills. Farther north our troops closed in on Pozorrubio, repulsing an enemy night counterattack. Our forces maintained pressure on the enemy east of Damortis; this and an enveloping move cut the road in his rear three miles west of Rosario…Our command of the air is complete.” [G.H.Q. Southwest Pacific Area Communique No. 1015, January 17, 1945]
    In the American mainland, the California sky was marred not by pebbles but by a unique (although ineffective) enemy weapon. A Japanese balloon bomb was shot down by a P-38 Lightning warcraft near the Tule Lake Detention Center for Japanese-Americans. Oh, the irony of January 10, 1945. This planet was at war 75 years ago; only the humans cared?
    “To the rest of the Galaxy, if they are aware of us at all. Earth is but a pebble in the sky. To us it is home, and all the home we know. Yet we are no different from you of the outer worlds, merely more unfortunate.” [Isaac Asimov. Pebble in the Sky. Galaxy Science Fiction Novel 14, 1950]