Saturday, June 6, 2015

World War One: The original code talkers

(L-R) Joseph Oklahombi, Tobias Frazier and Otis Leader
The men rarely talked about their role when they returned from the war

When US military codes kept being broken by the Germans in WW1 a Native American tribe came to the rescue. They just spoke their own language - which baffled the enemy - and paved the way for other Native American "code talkers" in WW2.
It's an irony that probably didn't go unnoticed by Choctaw soldiers fighting in World War One. While the tribe's children were being whipped for speaking in their native tongue at schools back home in Oklahoma, on the battlefields of France the Native American language was the much-needed answer to a very big problem.

In the autumn of 1918, US troops were involved in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Western Front. It was one of the largest frontline commitments of American soldiers in WW1, but communications in the field were compromised. The Germans had successfully tapped telephone lines, were deciphering codes and repeatedly capturing runners sent out to deliver messages directly.

"It was a huge problem and they couldn't figure out a way around it," says Matt Reed, curator of American Indian Collections at the Oklahoma History Center, the headquarters of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The solution was stumbled upon by chance, an overheard conversation between two Choctaw soldiers in the 142nd Infantry Regiment. The pair were chatting in camp when a captain walked by and asked what language they were speaking. Realising the potential for communication, he then asked if there were other speakers among the troops. The men knew of Choctaw soldiers at company headquarters. Using a field telephone the captain got the men to deliver a message in their native tongue which their colleagues quickly translated back into English. The Choctaw Telephone Squad was born and so was code talking. "Using the Choctaw language had huge advantages," says Dr William Meadows of Missouri State University, the only academic to have studied and written extensively on the Choctaw code talkers. "It was a largely unknown language. Only a few American Indian tribes had more than 20,000 people so their languages weren't widely spoken and most weren't written down. Even if they were, it was usually only the Bible and hymns, which were consumed locally."

The squad was put into action almost immediately. Within hours, eight Choctaw speakers had been dispatched to strategic positions. They were instrumental in helping US troops win several key battles, says Meadows.

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Communication in WW1

A WW1 soldier with messenger dogs

  • Why pigeons and runners were vital to frontline communication
  • WW1 Uncut: Dan Snow on the battlefield messenger dogs

  • Even if the Germans were listening, they couldn't understand. It was also the quickest way of coding and decoding information, faster than any machine, giving US troops a crucial edge over the enemy.
    "The language flabbergasted the Germans," says Reed, who adds that strange theories began to circulate about how these sounds were produced. "There are stories that they thought the US had invented a contraption to speak underwater."
    Choctaw didn't cover many military terms so coded words were devised. Machine gun was "little gun shoot fast" and battalions were indicated by a number of grains of corn. It created a "code within a code" and made the language even more impenetrable, says Meadows.
    In total, 19 Choctaw soldiers were recruited to the telephone squad. They came from the 141st, 142nd and 143rd Infantry Regiments, says Meadows. Many knew each other from Oklahoma. Later, other American Indian tribes were used in the same way, the Comanche among them.
    The Meuse-Argonne Offensive turned out to be part of the final Allied campaign on the Western Front, but the work of the Choctaw shaped military communications in future conflicts. The Navajo and Comanche code talkers of WW2 are the most famous.
    Two types of code talking were used in both wars, says Meadows, author of The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II. The first used special military terms devised in the native language, the second didn't and just used the native vocabulary already spoken. It is believed none of the languages or codes used have ever been broken by an enemy, he adds.
    "Code talking was an idea that was copied over and over but it may never have happened had it not been for the Choctaw," says Nuchi Nashoba, president of the Choctaw Code Talkers Association. Her great-grandfather Ben Carterby was one of the men used in the original test to send a message on the Western Front.
    "They were the original code talkers and that will always be a source of immense pride to our tribe."
    But at the same time,the Choctaw language was under pressure back in the US. It was a time of cultural assimilation. Government attempts to "civilise" American Indians involved putting their children in state-run boarding schools, where they were often severely punished for speaking in their native tongue.
    Nuchi Nashoba holding a photo of her great grandfather Ben Carterby
    Relatives fought to get recognition for their ancestors
    "You had this crazy situation where the Choctaw language was being used as a formidable weapon of war, yet back home children were being beaten at school for using it," says Judy Allen, senior executive officer of tribal relations with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. "The two soldiers who were overheard by the officer probably thought they were in trouble rather than about to provide the answer to the army's communication problems."
    Like other tribes, the Choctaw's whole way of life was under threat. Little more than a generation before, they had been forcibly removed from their ancestral land. Under the 1830 Indian Removal Act they were marched from areas around Mississippi to what is now Oklahoma. It is known as the Trail of Tears - of the estimated 12,000 Choctaw moved, some 2,500 died of hunger, disease and exhaustion.
    But when the US government needed them, they responded, says Meadows. "The Choctaw soldiers were incredibly gracious and willing to share their language. They didn't have to but they did. They had something unique and were incredibly proud of that."
    Nationwide, American Indians didn't get US citizenship until 1924, years after WW1 had finished, yet more than 12,000 fought, according to the National Museum of the American Indian. They volunteered to fight because defending their land and people was part of their culture and tradition.
    "It was an extension of the traditional warrior role," says Reed. "Men protected and provided for those who couldn't do it themselves or weren't expected to. It's about what it means to be a man and a leader. Warriors were regarded with the utmost respect in their communities. It was the same with veterans and still is today."
    Choctaw code talker Joseph Oklahombi with family
    The code talkers spoke very little about their role
    All of the telephone squad returned home to their families, says Meadows. For decades, their role in code talking was barely known outside the tribe and their efforts went unrecognised. In some cases, their own wives and families knew very little.
    "It is not Choctaw belief to talk about your own achievements, it's up to others to praise you," says Nashoba. "The code talkers would not have told many stories about themselves, they regarded what they had done as just doing their duty. When my great grandfather was interviewed for a local publication after he returned from the war, he simply said, 'I went to France, I saw the country and I came back alive.' Just that."
    It was also a sensitive issue for the government. It would have been difficult to explain that the very languages they were trying eradicate in America had been instrumental in communicating on the battlefield. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and government did not emphasise their use, says Meadows. Military leaders also realised the potential of using native languages and didn't want the strategy widely known.
    "Although the Navajo code talkers of WW2 received public attention when their code was declassified in 1968 and received congressional recognition and gold and silver medals in 2001, all other code talkers remained federally unrecognised," says Meadows.
    But the attention the Navajo code talkers received soon sparked interest in the Choctaw code talkers. The men's relatives and tribe gathered what information they could but only a handful of documents existed and few veterans were still alive. They worked and campaigned hard, along with other tribes, to get recognition for the men.
Code Talkers Recognition Act 2008

In 1989 the French Government bestowed the Chevalier de L'Ordre National du Merite (Knight of the Order of National Merit) posthumously to the Choctaw code talkers of WW1 and WW2 and the Comanche code talkers of WW2.
But it was only in 2008 that the Code Talkers Recognition Act was passed in the US recognising the hundreds of overlooked code talkers from different tribes, including the Choctaw. Finally, in November last year, each tribal government received Congressional Gold Medals, America's highest civilian honour. They were inscribed with a unique design to represent their tribe. The families of each code talker received a silver version of the gold medal.

At the ceremony Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: "In this nation's hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed. The United States Government turned to a people and a language they had tried to eradicate."

It was a bittersweet moment, says Nashoba. "The original code talkers never got to see that day and many of their relatives who had campaigned so hard to get recognition for them had also died. But it was also an incredible moment, I can't put into words the joy and pride we felt. Those men deserved to be honoured."

No-one could have known that a conversation overheard by chance would end up being so significant, says Meadows. "Sometimes great things come about by accident rather than design."

Discover more about the inventive weird and wonderful ways messages were sent during WW1 and more about the World War One Centenary.

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War veterans whose unclaimed remains were held at Kingston funeral home buried in upstate cemetery

STILLWATER >> Eight late U.S. war veterans, including seven whose remains were being kept in Kingston, were given a final resting place Friday — in one case more than a quarter-century after death.

Five served during World War II, one was in the Vietnam War, and one was in both of those wars.

Their unclaimed cremated remains, held in funeral homes anywhere from one to 27 years, were interred with full military honors at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, named for a former congressman who represented part of the Mid-Hudson Valley.

“Mission accomplished,” said Bill Schaaf of Troy, state coordinator of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York Veteran Recovery Program. “These veterans are sadly without families. Today, all of us are their family.”

The program’s purpose is to locate, identify, and inter the unclaimed remains of veterans in New York state. Schaaf said he believes thousands more still are unaccounted for.

In many cases, deceased veterans had no survivors, or their relatives — for financial or other reasons — never gave them a funeral.

“Today we honor eight veterans who will no longer be held in the dark, in the custodial care of funeral homes,” Schaaf said.

Of the men buried Friday, Tec5 Victor Kostelak, Pfc. Eugene Armitage, Pvt. Frank Williams, Pfc. George Vanderworken and Master Sgt. James Davide served in the Army during World War II. Davide also served in the Vietnam War. Seaman 1st Class Irving Mills and Cpl. Herbert Martin were in the Navy and Army Air Corps, respectively, during World War II. And Pfc. Sigurd Macs was a Vietnam veteran.

Members of each veterans’ respective military branched placed urns containing their remains in a cemetery interment wall on Friday.

Seven of the eight interred Friday had been held at the Joseph V. Leahy Funeral Home on Smith Avenue in Kingston, and one came from the Dain-Cullinan Funeral Home in Oswego.

Dozens of Patriot Guard Riders, with American flags waving from backs of their motorcycles, escorted the veterans’ remains from the W.J. Lyons Funeral Home in Rensselaer and the Flynn Brothers Funeral Home in Schuylerville, where the remains were held temporarily prior to Friday’s ceremony.

“This is our way of remembering them,” said motorcyclist Patty Boyle of Galway, Saratoga County. “Somebody who did what they did should not be forgotten.”

Schaaf credited the New York State Funeral Directors Association for making the recovery program possible. Until five years ago, funeral homes were not allowed to share personal information with anyone other than a deceased person’s family.

The group successfully pushed for passage of state law that allows the homes to give names to veterans’ organizations. Names then are checked against military records to determine if the deceased person is a veteran.

Before releasing remains to the Veteran Recovery Program, funeral directors must make one last attempt to contact the deceased person’s family. Thanks to such efforts, six other veterans — all from Kingston — were reunited with their families for separate burial, in addition to the eight interred Friday.

Schaaf also thanked Northeast Woodworkers Association volunteers for crafting the handsome wooden urns the remains were buried in. Association member Fred Mapes, of Saratoga Springs, was among the many onlookers. School children from nearby Schuylerville also turned out to pay their respects.

“These are men who served their country,” Mapes said. “It’s important for somebody to be here.”

German 1st foreign instructor at US Europe NCO academy

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — When Brig. Gen. Markus Laubenthal was appointed U.S. Army Europe’s chief of staff last year, it signaled commitment to strengthening operational partnerships with key allies, Germany in particular.

As a further sign of that commitment, a German is currently training Americans at the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy in Grafenwöhr.

German 1st Sgt. Andreas Gross has become the first foreign instructor at the academy, which is responsible for training almost 2,000 NCOs every year.

An airborne soldier who has worked with several other national armies, Gross is currently a platoon sergeant at the German NCO academy in Delitzsch, Germany.

While attached to the American school in Grafenwöhr, Gross is partly responsible for the direct mentorship of American NCOs, something that has never happened at this academy prior to his arrival.

“I have experience in the past with some different armies,” Gross said, including French and Belgian.

“It was an honor for me to be with the French troops, it was an honor to be with the Belgium troops, so it is an honor to be here,” he said in an interview.

According to the school’s deputy commandant, the academy trains more than 100 foreign NCOs every year, but they have never had a foreign NCO directly serving as an instructor until now.

“These students, most of them, have never worked or partnered with international before. Everything that we do now is international,” said 1st Sgt. Joseph Rothgeb. “When we deploy, we have international partners to our right helping us go toward the greater cause of what we’re deploying for.”

Gross said part of his job while at the academy is to shore up those gaps in knowledge of those troops who have yet to work with other nationalities.

“I give a German overview of all the things; I give a French overview of all the things; I give a Belgium overview about the military things,” he said. “It’s important that the guys get a 360 overview as a future leader about what’s up in another nation.”

For now, Gross’ tenure at the academy will be a short one. After his company graduates on Thursday, he’ll go back to Delitzsch to resume teaching German NCOs. Both he and Rothgeb say they hope this program will continue and maybe expand in the future to include American soldiers teaching at the German academy.

Escape from Dunkirk: Hitler's four strategic mistakes - WWII

75 years ago this week, the British army stood on the brink of disaster. Routed by the Nazi blitzkrieg, and facing annihilation in a town in Northern France, most of the troops escaped in what some called a miracle.

Within days, a "colossal military disaster" (in the words of Lord Gort, Commander of that army) had somehow been turned by the British into a glorious symbol of resistance and their indomitable island nation. Indeed, the term "Dunkirk spirit" is still used to describe a collective pulling together in the face of adversity.

Dunkirk represented the first of four massive strategic errors of judgment by Hitler. Two were committed in 1940, and involved Germany failing to finish off the British when they were down and effectively alone. The second two mistakes, even more significant in global terms, took place in 1941 and ensured Hitler's eventual defeat as he brought first the USSR and then the USA into the war on Britain's side.

As their French, Dutch and Belgian allies collapsed before the German onslaught, the survivors of the British Expeditionary Force retreated to the channel port of Dunkirk. With their backs to the sea and on the brink of obliteration by the vastly superior Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, the British were saved by what must be the most remarkable evacuation of modern times. In "Operation Dynamo", the Royal Navy – assisted by hundreds of private fishing boats, life-boats and yachts from England (200 of which were sunk by German air attacks) – ferried to safety a third of a million British and French soldiers.

But for all the heroism on display in the Channel that week, equally important was a bizarre decision by Hitler to halt his Panzer divisions for 36 hours, instead of letting them finish off the exhausted and outnumbered British. He explained to his generals why he had held them back: "it's always good to let a broken army return home to show the civilian population what a beating they've had". If this was part of his reasoning, it was an epic misjudgment of his opponent's national psyche.

Had all the British soldiers at Dunkirk been killed or captured, the nation would have been utterly traumatized, and it is hard to imagine that the British have been able to resist for long. As it was, the troops returned home to a rapturous reception.

"Wars are not won by evacuation; but there was victory inside this deliverance." So declared Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Parliament, before uttering his most phrases about defending our island, fighting on the beaches, and never surrendering. The Dunkirk evacuees formed the core of the British army that went on to defeat the Germans in North Africa and later – with American and other allies – returned to the European continent on D-Day in 1944.

Hitler's second mistake occurred three months later, in August 1940. Vast waves of aircraft were launched to achieve German air superiority over England. But with the Royal Air Force again outnumbered, and its losses mounting dangerously, Hitler suddenly instructed the Luftwaffe to shift bombing targets away from the airfields of the beleaguered RAF to London and other cities. So at this pivotal moment, RAF Fighter Command was granted time to recover and regroup, allowing its pilots to continue their heroic defence, and the Battle of Britain was won.

Dunkirk anniversary
Little Ships' begin their journey across the English Channel from Ramsgate harbour in south east England, May 21 , 2015. Over fifty 'Little Ships', used in action in 1940, sailed to Dunkirk in northern France to mark the seventy fifth anniversary of Operation Dynamo in World War II when a mass evacuation took place of Allied troops as German forces advanced through France.

Again, Hitler had psychologically misread his opponents. In switching his attacks away from the airfields, he assumed that incinerating thousands of civilians in the cities would cause British morale to surrender. But the actual British response was epitomized when Churchill went to visit the bombed-out working class areas of East London: "It was good of you to come Winnie," the crowd shouted. "Give it 'em back, we can take it!"
If they could not control the skies, the Germans would be unable to ship their invasion force across the Channel without being sunk by the Royal Navy. Britain was therefore saved - for the time being - but for the next eight months it faced the Nazi war machine alone. Despite warnings from Churchill and others that the Germans intended to invade the USSR, Stalin continued to believe Hitler was a sincere ally.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there was little desire to join the European war. The US Administration of President Franklin Roosevelt faced an assorted group of Republican isolationists (such as Senator Taft of Ohio); Democrat appeasers and defeatists (Ambassador Joe Kennedy); pro-German sympathizers (the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh); anti-semitic industrialists (Henry Ford), and sections of the Irish-American, German-American and Italian-American communities. All of these bitterly opposed FDR's efforts to support the desperate British and preserve the world from a comprehensive Nazi victory.

Earlier that summer, Churchill had declared that "Hitler knows he will have to break us in this island or lose the war." But Churchill was only half right. Right in the sense that, without breaking the British, Hitler was indeed going to lose eventually. But wrong that Hitler fully knew it. By September 1940, facing a reconstituted British army (thanks to Dunkirk), British control over its own skies (thanks to the Battle of Britain), and mastery of the seas (thanks to the Royal Navy), Hitler realized that he could not launch what would have been the first successful invasion of England since 1066. And he turned his attention elsewhere.

Hitler's third strategic mistake was rooted in his deep loathing of both Communism and the "Slavic races" that formed the USSR. Frustrated that his lesser foe to the west was unvanquished, he persuaded himself that the Nazi conquest of Russia would cause Britain to surrender anyway. "Barbarossa" was launched in July 1941, unleashing the largest invasion force in history, with 4 over million soldiers. Within months, the Germans had lost hundreds of thousands of men - and murdered millions themselves, mostly Red Army prisoners of war and Jewish civilians.

The fourth error committed by Hitler was his declaration of war against the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. On hearing the news, Churchill said he "went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful". It was poetic, but premature. After all, the Japanese attack indeed ensured that the US would go to war – but only against Japan.

Without Hitler's wholly gratuitous declaration, the Roosevelt Administration would never have persuaded Congress to go to war in Europe instead of focusing on the Pacific. And without US involvement, and knowing that the British could never have launched a D-Day type invasion on their own, the Germans could have kept a far smaller presence in France, which would thereby have allowed them to concentrate overwhelmingly on defeating the USSR. Once Hitler was forced to engage in monumental struggles for existence on both his eastern and western fronts simultaneously, the end was never really in doubt.

Churchill was surely right to declare that 1940 was the British people's "finest hour", as they resisted the Nazis alone. But key to British success and survival were the four unforced errors committed by the Fuehrer. Had any one of those decisions gone the other way, the result would have been very different, indeed catastrophic.

His fatal and perennial misjudgment is the one thing about Hitler anyone has to be grateful for. As the British justly celebrate the extraordinary evacuation of their troops from Dunkirk thanks to the motley but heroic motley flotilla 75 years ago, they should also recall that over-arching piece of good fortune which helped ensure their survival – and thereby that of the free world.

(Andrew Gilmour is the director of Political, Peace-keeping, Humanitarian and Human Rights in the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General. He wrote this essay in his personal capacity.)

Tories U-turn on pledge as Royal Navy jobs axed

THE UK government has admitted that it will cut the number of Royal Navy personnel despite the Tories promising in their manifesto to maintain current manpower.

The decision has been attacked by the SNP who has also raised concerns that the move could impact on new Type 26 frigates being built on the Clyde.

But the Ministry of Defence has insisted it was part of existing plans to reduce the size of the regular forces.

In a written answer, the new armed forces minister Penny Mordaunt, who herself represents a Royal Navy base within the Portsmouth North constituency, said the strength of the Royal Navy is to be cut by 400 by April 2018.

It will bring the current requirement of 30,300 down to 29,900. While the number is relatively small, the decision comes despite election promises made by the Conservative.

In their manifesto, the Tories said: “We will maintain the size of the regular armed services and not reduce the army to below 82,000.”

SNP shadow defence secretary Brendan O’Hara MP suggested that the cuts – from already record low levels for the Royal Navy – could place a question mark over plans to have two full crews for each of the new Type-26 frigates.

The final contract for the frigates to be built on the Clyde has still not been signed between the government and BAe, with the deadline of the end of last year already missed.

Mr O’Hara said: “Less than a week into government and the Tories have already broken their manifesto promise to maintain service personnel numbers. They plan to cut 400 Royal Navy jobs – which is the equivalent of over two full crews for a frigate.

“This can only be bad news for Scotland, which already has a historic record low of service personnel based there. It also suggests yet more cuts to the fleet, which has to be seen in the context of future Type-26 orders.

“It’s clear that the Tories are picking up where they left off, by breaking promises on defence and slashing the conventional defence budget.”

But an MoD spokesman said: “This is part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2010, so nothing new and nothing to do with anything that’s happened since the election.”

The written answer came shortly after Chancellor George Osborne announced further cuts to departmental budgets of 3 per cent outside protected areas of international aid, health and schools.

The reduction means that the Ministry of Defence will have to find £500 million more in savings, which has raised fears over further cuts to the armed forces. In the Queen’s Speech, the Tories also announced that they would launch another strategic defence and security review which opposition parties have suggested could herald another round of cuts to the UK’s defences.

While the Tories have promised to protect defence equipment expenditure, the review is also likely to question the future of military bases including at Rosyth, Fort George near Inverness, Kinloss in Moray and Redford Barracks in Edinburgh.

Concerns have also been raised that attempts to recruit reservists to fill in the gaps left by the reduction in regulars have not been on target.

Last year experts commissioned by the MoD warned there had been “an extremely poor start” in recruitment and the deadline of having new personnel trained by 2018 would not be met.

Airplanes Over France, June 6, 1944 by David Langbart on June 5, 2015

Airplanes Over France, June 6, 1944

by on June 5, 2015

Airplanes filled the sky over Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. D-Day. Some planes dropped bombs; some planes towed gliders; some planes dropped paratroopers; some planes dropped . . . paper. Paper in the form of propaganda leaflets. The propaganda was aimed both at the French and at the Germans.
Two days after D-Day, William Phillips, then working in the U.S. Embassy in London, sent his colleague James Clement Dunn, Director of the Office of European Affairs in the Department of State, copies of several of those leaflets (now found in file 811.20200/6-844 of the Central Decimal Files, 1940-1944, NAID 302021). Two examples of the leaflets follow.
The first example, addressed to the “Citizens of France” by Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, informs them that “The day of deliverance is coming.” Among other things, this leaflet states (translated from selected portions of the text):
-We will destroy the Nazi tyranny root and branch, so that the people of Europe are reborn in liberty.
-The courage and the immense sacrifice of millions who fought under the banner of the Resistance have already contributed to the success of our arms.
(Continuing translated text):
-The presence of the enemy among you has imposed the tragic necessity of aerial bombing and military and naval operations that have caused you so much loss and suffering. You have accepted these sacrifices with courage and in the heroic tradition of France, as it was the inevitable cost to which we all had to consent to achieve our goal: liberty.
-I am counting on your help for the definitive crushing of Hitlerite Germany and for the restoration of traditional French liberty.
-Once victory is won and France is liberated from the oppressor, the French people will be free to choose, as soon as possible under democratic methods, the government under which they want to live.
-The enemy will fight with the courage of despair. He will employ all means – no matter how cruel – to try to block our progress. But our cause is just, our arms powerful. With our valorous Russian allies, we march towards certain victory.
The second example is aimed at German troops. The front says “Four Front War” and illustrates the existence of the four fronts: the Eastern front (“Ostfront”), the Southern front (“Sudfront”), the Home front (“Heimatfront”), and the Western front (“Westfront”). Note how the arrow showing the Cross-Channel attack points to Calais, not Normandy, apparently as part of the continuing misinformation campaign aimed at diverting German attention away from the primary landing area.

“Four Front War”

The second page says “East front . . . . Home front . . . . South front . . . . and now West front.” The numbered paragraphs describe the reverses befalling Germany on the three fronts listed. The leaflet closes with:
“Four Front War” reverse

Source and Notes:
William Phillips to James C. Dunn, June 8, 1944, file 811.20200/6-844, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

I thank my colleagues Ashby Crowder and Sylvia Naylor who provided the translations of the documents used to prepare this post.

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