Execution of Charles I, 1649

2023-01-30T17:43:44-06:00January 30, 2023|HH 2023|

“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” —Proverbs 29:2

Execution of Charles I, January 30, 1649

Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the Tudor line of the English monarchy came to an end, and the Stuart family of Scotland inherited the English throne; James VI, Elizabeth’s first cousin, twice removed, became James I. The Stuart Kings of England emerged as a troubled and controversial series of stubborn autocrats whose word became law and their position as “head of the church” resulted in ecclesiastical tyranny known as Erastianism. James had been tutored by one of the most brilliant and theologically Reformed men of his day, George Buchanan, but his stubborn student was easily swayed when he ascended the throne of England. Persecuting the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians, incrementally, James was able to maintain a shaky peace. Charles picked up where his father left off, but even more uncompromising and antagonistic than the senior Stewart. Charles I’s character and perseverance in promoting his own insistent tyranny over the Church and Parliament cost him his throne and head, “for committing treason and subverting justice.”

James VI and I (1566-1625)

Charles I (1600-1649) as Prince of Wales

Born in 1600, Charles had been a sickly child and spoke with a stammer his entire life. A presbyterian Scot, Thomas Murray was appointed his tutor throughout his younger years. Charles overcame his childhood physical weakness to become an accomplished rider, marksman, and fencer, destined as the Duke of York to play second fiddle to his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales. Providence, as is so often the case, stepped into Charles’s future with the death of Henry at the age of eighteen. Thus, Charles became the heir apparent at age twelve.

Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales (1594-1612)

King James died in 1625, leaving a rebellious and recalcitrant Parliament for the twenty-five-year-old Charles I to contend with, along with various ecclesiastical and foreign policy controversies to settle. Charles swiftly married the fifteen-year-old Princess Henrietta Maria of France, secretly promising to his brother-in-law Louis XIII to lift restrictions against Catholics in England. Charles told Parliament that he would maintain the restrictions on the Catholics of England, thus demonstrating (to history at least) the duplicitous nature of his character, a pattern he would follow all the way to his death. He was crowned on February 26, 1626 without his wife by his side because she would have nothing to do with a Protestant ceremony.

Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669)

Charles embraced Arminian theology, thus rejecting the Calvinism inherited through his own education, and he chose as Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, who codified Charles’s innovations in the Church liturgy, seeming like a return to Roman Catholic practices. When Parliament resisted both the religious changes and also refused the King’s request for increased tax revenues, the monarch suspended Parliament and ruled England by royal fiat for the next eleven years. Puritans who resisted increased power of the King’s bishops and regarded his innovations in worship as heresy faced torture and persecution. In the decade of the 1630s, more than 20,000 English Puritans sailed for New England to establish a biblical commonwealth in the New World, without bishops.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1573-1645)

Jenny Geddes famously pitching her stool at James Hannay, Dean of Edinburgh, as he reads from the politically and religiously controversial Book of Common Prayer, which event kicked off riots against the English Catholicizing of staunchly Protestant Scotland, and from there further uprisings, quickly rising to the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640

Charles I tried to stop the Second Reformation in Scotland. The Holy Spirit won that encounter as He does them all, with the widespread revival that swept Scotland in the 1640s. Our Lowlands tour focuses on that spiritual awakening, and the subsequent persecution that lasted from 1660-1688. How ironic that the trumpet of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox, is buried within a few feet of the monument to Charles, behind St. Giles Kirk, where the Gospel rang out for three hundred years. Learn More >

In 1640 Charles gathered a royal army to attack Scotland and force the “covenanted Presbyterians” to conform to the new liturgies in the Church. When met with overwhelming force, Charles negotiated a quick peace and called Parliament back into session to request money to raise a larger army to defeat the Scots. Rebuffed by the new Puritan-dominated Parliament, Charles tried for two years to extend his powers over Parliament and to make war on Scotland for rejecting his ecclesiastical authority. Failing on all fronts, Charles I raised his standards at Nottingham and established his court at Oxford. He, in essence, declared war on the England and Scotland who would not conform to his high-handed “divine right of kings.” The English Civil Wars lasted from 1642 to 1648.

“The Divine Right of Kings” is pictured here as Charles I is portrayed being crowned by a hand reaching out of heaven

Charles I (center, in blue sash) before the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, during the English Civil Wars; the young Prince of Wales (later Charles II) and Duke of York (later James II) can be seen on the left as both were present for the battle and even had to be ushered away to safety as the Royalist lines faltered

Through the first three years of the war, neither side could gain a decisive advantage. The Parliamentary and Scots Army won a number of significant engagements, as did the Royal forces. After the Battle of Naseby in 1645, however, the Royal forces suffered a succession of defeats as the Parliamentary army—redesigned and in the field as “The New Model Army”, led by Lord Fairfax and his best general, Oliver Cromwell—finally surrounded Oxford. The King escaped the encirclement and surrendered to the Scots, expecting good treatment and a negotiated peace with them. In 1647 the Scots were persuaded to turn over the King to Parliament.

The victory of the Parliamentarian New Model Army at the Battle of Naseby (June 14, 1645) marked the decisive turning point in the English Civil War

At first Parliament tried to negotiate with the King, offering a constitutional arrangement sharing powers. Charles rejected any compromise regarding his absolute authority, and he secretly accepted the Scottish covenant in return for recognition and assistance, known as “the Engagement,” thus provoking the Second Civil War against Parliament. General Cromwell—the most influential member of Parliament and the Army—considered Charles’s secret negotiations with the Scots, Irish and French the height of treason against England. The majority “presbyterian party” of the parliament sought further treating with the King, but Cromwell and the Army intervened after defeating the Royal forces again, and purged the legislature of all representatives not in agreement with the Army.

Death warrant of Charles I, signed and sealed by 59 of the 67 commissioners

The new “Rump Parliament” established a high court tribunal to try the King for high treason. He was held accountable for the deaths of more than 185,000 people who had perished in the wars, and for making war against his own nation. The trial began on January 19, 1649 when the Solicitor General John Cooke read the indictment. Charles refused to enter a plea, declaring the court invalid and the trial an illegal mockery of justice. His authority came from God and he was the legal crowned and anointed King; he claimed sovereign immunity from prosecution. Fifty-nine of the sixty-seven commissioners signed his death warrant, which declared that Charles would be beheaded as a tyrant, murderer, and public enemy to the people of England. His execution was carried out on January 30, 1689.

The public execution of Charles I for his many crimes against his subjects

A third Civil War broke out, with fighting in Ireland, England, and Scotland, with the utter defeat of all the armies loyal to the King by Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army. Cromwell rejected the offer of the crown and instead established the English Commonwealth, with himself as “The Lord Protector”, which lasted about ten years. This ended with the return to England from France of exiled King Charles II: a tyrant, consummate liar, murderer, and voluptuary that put his father’s crimes in the shade—a story for another day.

Cromwell viewing the body of Charles I

Resources for Further Study

For further study, read The Tyrannicide Brief, by Geoffrey Robertson

Missionary John Hunt Arrives in Fiji, 1838

2022-12-20T13:35:40-06:00December 20, 2022|HH 2022|

“Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” —Acts 14:38

Missionary John Hunt Arrives in Fiji,
December 22, 1838

Note: The grossly pagan practices mentioned here may be disturbing to some, but are the common end results of every culture that turns its back on God.

The year 1838 was auspicious in the life of John Hunt. In February he met two missionaries to the Islands of Fiji in the Pacific Ocean and heard of the rampant cannibalism there. The Wesleyan Mission House asked him to go to Fiji as a missionary, a request he accepted. On March 6, he married his longtime sweetheart, Hannah Summers, and was ordained to Gospel ministry on March 27. He and his new bride departed for Sydney, Australia on April 29. In October, the now Reverend Hunt joined fellow Methodist missionary James Calvert, arriving at Lakemba, Fiji, on December 22. Over the ten more years of life that God granted him, John Hunt and a number of fellow missionaries witnessed the cannibalization of hundreds of people and the salvation of multiple thousands.

John Hunt (1812-1848)

James Calvert (1813-1892)

John Hunt’s early life began as so many did in 19th Century England: in a moderately prosperous home, soon to be thrown into poverty. Born in 1812, the third of four children born to an illiterate country bailiff, his father lost his job, was forced to move to the city, and barely kept the family out of the almshouse till he found other work, making just enough to feed the family. John’s father often told stories late into the night of the heroism of English soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, sparking the keen imagination of young John, who subsequently dreamed of military adventure and the dangers of the battlefield. He attended school and learned to read and write, proving to be a quick study and zealous student. From his parents he learned to pray and developed a keen sense of God’s Providence. After barely surviving a bout of “brain fever’ at age sixteen, John heard the Gospel at a Methodist Chapel and became a devout Christian; his life ambition began to change.

Fijian village of Navala in the Nausori Highlands

At nineteen he read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and pursued a steady diet of good Christian books, from commentaries to apologetics. The ploughboy believed God called him to the Gospel ministry, and after meeting missionaries to Fiji and attending seminary classes in London, he determined to join the Methodist mission teams of the Pacific Islands. In 1838 at age twenty-six, John Hunt sailed for the Pacific. Upon reaching the Fiji Islands, he found that the missionary stories of a terrible paganism in many places were true. “Two-thirds of all children were boiled and eaten. Every village had its human butcher. Aged parents were . . . eaten by their children. A man would often cook his best wife or tender child as a feast for his closest friends . . .”

Two mountain men of Fiji

The Wesleyan Chapel in Vewa (Viwa), Fiji

Rev. Hunt and his wife were posted to Rewa, the 105-square-mile island out of the 300 islands that make up the nation of Fiji today; the island contains the capital city of Suva. By February of 1839, Hunt had learned enough of the Fiji language to begin preaching in that language. Within five months he began translating the Bible directly from Greek to Fijian. At the invitation of the King of Rewa, he established a mission at Somosomo and after three years moved to Viwa Island. Hundreds, then thousands of people embraced Christ under the preaching of John Hunt. The culture of those islands changed dramatically as cannibalism ceased, churches emerged from the pagan wreckage, and a tradition of Gospel witness continues down to this very day. The chiefs and priests did not receive the English-speaking missionaries lying down, however, and the push-back from their demon-based religious leaders took the form of armed rebellion and civil war. Nonetheless, the Gospel eventually triumphed, much to the dismay of the modern anthropologists who view the conversion of Fiji as another horrible example of Christian cultural hegemony, destruction and European imperialism.

The massacre of missionary John Williams, one of many who gave his life to bring the light of the Gospel to dark Fiji

The tomb of John Hunt in Vewa (Viwa), Fiji

John Hunt died at the age of thirty-six of dysentery, a common and often fatal illness of the islands. Among his last words, he cried out “God save Fiji!” His story inspired others to join the efforts of Christians to evangelize the various island groups of the Pacific. Today, about 65% of the Fiji islanders are self-described Christians, 64% of them are Methodists, 14% Roman Catholic, and most of the rest Anglican, Assemblies of God, and Seventh Day Adventists. Twenty-seven percent of the population is Hindu and about 6% Muslim. The Fijian sports teams, especially their rugby players, have gained international standing and they always gather before and after a game to sing praises to Jesus Christ and hallelujahs to Jehovah, the God of their nation. Listen in on YouTube here and here.

Someday all sports teams will do this! “Every knee shall bow.”

A traditional Fijian temple

Fijian children playing rugby

Resources for Further Study

The story of John Hunt is best told in The Life of John Hunt: Missionary to the Cannibals of Fiji, by George Stringer Rowe, 1874

Roald Amundsen Arrives at the South Pole, 1911

2022-12-15T17:42:12-06:00December 15, 2022|HH 2022|

“Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.” —Job 38:29-30

Roald Amundsen Arrives at the South Pole,
December 14, 1911

Norwegian explorer Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen lived almost at the other end of the world. He defied the predictions that he would end up a failure or dead, as had all his predecessors in known history, by discovering the South Pole a week and a day before Christmas in 1911. It was a magnificent and almost fatal accomplishment; it made the unsmiling Amundsen the leader of the greatest Polar expedition in history. Cold but alive, Roald and his crew found the most inhospitable spot on planet earth.

Members of Roald Amundsen’s South Pole expedition 1910-12 at the pole itself, December 1911, (from left to right): Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting

Although his mother did not want Roald, her fourth son, to enter the maritime world of his ancestors, and set him on a medical career, at the age of fifteen he read Sir John Franklin’s accounts of his overland Arctic expeditions, which subsequently, “shaped the whole course of my life.” Books sometimes have a way of defining the rest of a person’s life, especially in their teens. At the age of 25 in 1897 Amundsen joined a Belgian expedition to Antarctica as first mate on the Belgica.

The Belgica during the Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899

Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872-1928) in 1906

He learned a great deal from this expedition that would come in handy in future endeavors, especially as they relate to diet and disease. In his first independent exploration command in 1903, Amundsen led the first successful expedition through Canada’s “Northwest Passage,” from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. From local Inuit tribes he learned Arctic survival skills including wearing animal skins instead of wool in wet weather, and to use sled dogs to transport goods across snow-bound landscapes. Amundsen was one of a number of hard-core explorers determined to get their names in the history books for being the first to accomplish spectacular feats of discovery. Roald secretly planned to lead the way to the discovery of the South Pole. He left Oslo, Norway on June 3, 1910. On the Island of Medeira, he informed his discovery team of their destination—Antarctica—and sent a telegram to his chief competitor, Robert F. Scott, a British naval officer and fellow explorer, also heading for Antarctica in an attempt to get to the South Pole first.

Amundsen in a fur suit and snowshoes

Captain Robert F. Scott journaling in his cabin on October 7, 1911, shortly before setting out on the race to the South Pole

The geographic South Pole is at the southern end of the Earth’s axis, in the Continent of Antarctica, which has no full-time inhabitants or “owners.” The South Pole is approximately 300 miles South of the Ross Ice Shelf at about 9,300 feet above sea level, though it is constantly changing in the 8,850 foot thick ice sheet. Like its opposite pole, the South Pole is in darkness six months of the year and bright sunlight six months. The continent of Antarctica is 5.275 million square miles.

The respective routes of the Scott and Amundsen expeditions

Amundsen had twenty men, all good skiers, and fifty-two sled dogs aboard the Fram. Scott took about sixty men, along with ponies, dogs, and sleds in his ship the Terra Nova. They began the hunt for the South Pole from the Bay of Whales and Camp Evens respectively. Amundsen prepared very carefully for the trek—mistakes in Antarctica could prove fatal very quickly. He positioned food caches along his route ahead of time to be sure he had supplies coming and going. On October 19, 1911, Roald Amundsen set out across the ice sheets and mountains of Antarctica with four of his men and the dogs; Scott and his men left on November 1 with the ponies, on a longer but safer route than that taken by Amundsen.

Amundsen’s South Pole party, en route to the pole, November, 1911

Braving the bottomless crevasses, mountains of ice, and temperatures that are much lower than the North Pole’s, the many pieces of knowledge Amundsen had acquired in previous expeditions came together to enable him to survive the trek to the Pole, arriving there on December 14. He planted the Norwegian flag and left a note for Captain Scott. The English Captain reached the South Pole on January 17, with four of his men. They had been forced to eat the ponies, and travelled many miles further than his Norwegian rival. The extreme cold killed two of his four companions on the return trip, and Scott himself with his fourth man got caught in a blizzard with high winds, and they both also perished.

Cairn over the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson, and Bowers

The crew of Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition at the Pole, from left to right: Oates (standing), Bowers (sitting), Scott (standing in front of Union Jack flag on pole), Wilson (sitting), Evans (standing), photo by Bowers who took this photograph using a piece of string to operate the camera shutter.

Roald Amundsen became the toast of the world of explorers and the subject of front page news around the world. With the fame and popularity came enough money to start his own shipping business. His book entitled The South Pole proved a commercial success. In 1928 Amundsen died at the age of fifty-six, when his plane went down over the ocean on the way to rescue a friend whose derigible had crashed, but his reputation was secure as the man who first found the South Pole. The United States built a station on the South Pole, with an airstrip known internationally as Amundsen-Scott. The quest for adventure and discovery has moved from earth to space. Who will be the first man to land on Mars?

Amundsen and Hanssen at the South Pole, marked by their Norwegian Flag

Anselm Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, 1093

2022-12-05T11:08:22-06:00December 5, 2022|HH 2022|

“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” —Acts 17:11

Anselm Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury,
December 4, 1093

Scholasticism is the term given to the theology of the Middle Ages (c.500-1500 AD). The Schoolmen “collected, analyzed and systematized” the doctrines of the Church worked out by the post-Apostolic Fathers, and argued their “reasonableness against all conceivable objections.” (Schaff, Vol. V, p. 587) They accepted the authority of the Scriptures but never attempted to discover the best ways to interpret them; they set out to confirm the traditions they had been handed by the Church Fathers and the papacy. The Scholastics made no contributions to exegesis and biblical theology but did pass on the dogmas developed by their predecessors. Most of them were monks, living in cloisters, devoted to God and scholarship. Their ultimate goal was to reconcile dogma and reason and to arrange the doctrines of the Church in an orderly system called summa theologiae. Anselm of Canterbury was the first of the great Scholastics. He was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury on December 4, 1093.

An ailing King William II of England (c. 1056-1100) forces the unwilling Anselm to take the crozier (shepherd’s crook) as a sign of his appointment to the position of
Archbishop of Canterbury

Anselm (1033-1109) began life in Aosta in the region that divides Italy from western Switzerland. He claimed that as a child he conceived that God sat on a throne at the top of the Alps, and in a dream, Anselm climbed up the mountain to meet Him. He was served white bread and treated kindly and, in the morning believed he had actually been to Heaven and back. His father opposed his taking the cowl and leaving for a monastery, but Anselm did so anyway, settling in and taking orders at La Bec in Normandy, France. Anselm wrote most of his works at La Bec and became prior, and in 1078, abbot. He succeeded his friend and mentor Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury in England, where he served until his peaceful death in 1109 at the age of seventy-one. He is venerated by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans and respected by other Protestants as well.

The averred birthplace of Anselm in Aosta in what was formerly Upper Burgundy, now part of the Republic of Italy

Bec Abbey, western face—on the left, the old gatehouse and, on the right, the abbey dwelling

His writings were theological, pastoral, and personal, with several major treatises, homilies, meditations, and 412 letters to friends and colleagues. As was evident, “love to God was the soul of his daily life and love to God is the burning center of his theology.” One of his most famous theological aphorisms has been quoted a million times: fides praecedit intellectum—faith precedes knowledge, which churchmen have seen as a harmonization of supernaturalism and rationalism. He was so close in theology to St. Augustine that he has often been called “the second Augustine” and the “tongue of Augustine.” For Anselm, the two sources of knowledge were the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, which were in perfect agreement, according to Anselm. That belief set the tone for all the other scholastics that followed him.

The west front of Canterbury Cathedral in 1821 showing the Norman north west tower prior to rebuilding

Canterbury Cathedral today

On November 29, 1943, the crew of Riki Tiki Tavi flew their fifth bombing mission—target: Bremen, Germany. After dropping their payload, the plane headed for home in England. For some reason, the plane fell behind the fleet—perhaps the engines had been struck by flak or machine gun fire. As the Riki Tiki Tavi fell behind, the German fighter planes pounced, machine guns and cannons firing. In the chaos of the fight, eight of the crew were killed, the navigator successfully bailed out, and Gene was severely wounded in both arms and his parachute shredded. The battle had been fought four miles above the earth so Gene’s arms bled little in the fifty-degrees-below-zero temperature. As he reached for his backup chute, the tail section broke off from the plane and began spinning toward the ground, four miles below, with nineteen-year-old Eugene Moran clinging to the seat. The speed and air pressure popped the gold teeth out of his head and blood pooled in his eyes, obscuring his vision.

Anselm dons the pallium, a symbol of his position as Archbishop of Canterbury

The meeting of Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury in the presence of Pope Urban II
—Matilda was a staunch and abiding supporter of Anselm

Anselm also set out to prove that Christ’s atonement was necessary using the processes of pure reason. Again, logical argument was the monk’s vehicle to prove that Christ’s satisfaction of justice for sin required the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. All sin must either receive punishment or be covered by satisfaction. Can man make this satisfaction? No. Only the God-man could provide atonement. Anselm’s desire was to provide the pagan with no logical way out but through Christ.

The Church historian Phillip Schaff summed up Anselm’s character and contribution to the Church:

“He was the first of the Great schoolmen, was one of the ablest and purist men of the medieval Church. He touched the history of his age at many points. He was an enthusiastic advocate of monasticism. He was archbishop of Canterbury, and fought the battle of the [papal] hierarchy against the State in England. His Christian meditations give him a high rank in the annals of piety. His profound speculations marks one of the leading epochs in the history of theology and won for him a place among the doctors of the Church. . . . He was the most original thinker the Church had seen since the days of Augustine [4th Century].”

Anselm washes the feet of the poor

The Life of Anselm as told via a stained glass window in his honor, St. Corentin Cathedral in Quimper, Finistère, Brittany, France

Anselm laid the intellectual groundwork for those brilliant Scholastic churchmen who came after, as they systematized dogma and doctrine; the clergy were trained in logic and scholastic argument right up through the Protestant Reformers, who turned to the Scriptures themselves rather than just the early Fathers of the Church and their medieval exponents. After Anselm came Roscellinus, Abelard, Bernard, Hugo de St. Victor, and Gilbert of Poietiers. The second period provided Peter Lombard, Alexander Hales, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, Ockam, and the greatest of them all, Thomas Aquinas. In the fullness of time, by the marvelous Providence of God, they were all superseded by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox who loved Augustine and Anselm and appreciated some of those who presented the Scholastic way, but returned to Sola Scriptura to reform the Church.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4–1109)

Resources for Further Study

For a good introduction and succinct narrative of the Medieval Church Scholastics, we recommend Volume 5 of Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church.

Gene Moran Falls from the Sky, 1943

2022-11-30T15:26:02-06:00November 30, 2022|HH 2022|

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” —Jeremiah 29:11

Gene Moran Falls from the Sky,
November 29, 1943

In war there are a million ways to die. Occasionally someone, by the providence of God, survives what killed almost 100% of men caught in the same situation. A Wisconsin farm boy, eager to enlist in the Army Air Corps the second he turned 18, finally got his chance to fly against the Axis enemies of his country. Gene Moran would spend his combat time in Europe as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and experience one of the million ways to die. Only he didn’t.

Gene Moran posing in uniform in 1943, the same year his plane was shot down (photo courtesy of John Armbruster)

A farm in the Kickapoo River Valley of Wisconsin

Raised in the Kickapoo Valley on a dairy farm, 17-year-old Gene Moran saw the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor as his ticket out of shoveling cow manure and farm chores. His mother did everything in her power to keep the boy out of the war, arguing that serving his country as a farmer was a perfectly acceptable alternative to getting killed on a battlefield. And since he wanted to join the Army Air Corps, a parental signature was needed after he turned 18, for without it, the enlistment age was 21. After trying three times to lie his way in with fake signatures, he lied to his parents about already enlisting, and they signed to keep him from getting picked up for being AWOL.

A B-17 Flying Fortress in flight, 1942

After completing gunnery school, Gene was promoted to Sergeant and ordered to join a B-17 Squadron as a tail gunner. The Boeing bomber carried a crew of ten. It was constructed as an offensive platform sporting a load of bombs and 13 .50 Cal. machine guns in nine positions (the Germans called the B-17 “the porcupine”), with a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio man, ball turret, and top turret gunner, two waist gunners, and a tail gunner. Their “job” was to drop up to 8,000 pounds of bombs on enemy factories, railroad yards, and war installations. The B-17 provided the backbone of the Eighth Air Force bombing fleet in the European Theatre of the Second World War.

The tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress

Part of the crew Gene Moran flew with during World War II. Kneeling from left to right: Donald Curtis and Jesse Orrison. Standing from left to right: Walter Reed, Edmund Swedo, Gene Moran and Wilbert Provost (photo courtesy of John Armbruster)

The rear gunner sat on a bicycle seat and leaned into a steel chest plate to fire his twin machine guns, protecting the rear of the plane from enemy fighters. Gene Moran held that position on the plane named Riki Tiki Tavi, one of the ten-man crew. They were assigned as one of the forty planes of the 96th Bomb Group, one of forty Groups of the 8th Air Force, stationed at Stetterton Heath in East Anglia, England.

An RAF airfield in Ayshire, Scotland during WWII, typical of the makeshift airfields that served as home base for Allied air power

On November 29, 1943, the crew of Riki Tiki Tavi flew their fifth bombing mission—target: Bremen, Germany. After dropping their payload, the plane headed for home in England. For some reason, the plane fell behind the fleet—perhaps the engines had been struck by flak or machine gun fire. As the Riki Tiki Tavi fell behind, the German fighter planes pounced, machine guns and cannons firing. In the chaos of the fight, eight of the crew were killed, the navigator successfully bailed out, and Gene was severely wounded in both arms and his parachute shredded. The battle had been fought four miles above the earth so Gene’s arms bled little in the fifty-degrees-below-zero temperature. As he reached for his backup chute, the tail section broke off from the plane and began spinning toward the ground, four miles below, with nineteen-year-old Eugene Moran clinging to the seat. The speed and air pressure popped the gold teeth out of his head and blood pooled in his eyes, obscuring his vision.

A local newspaper recounting Gene’s remarkable survival story (photo courtesy of John Armbruster)

The crew of Gene Moran’s plane that was shot down on Nov. 29, 1943 during a bombing mission in Germany (photo courtesy of John Armbruster)

“The severed tail blasted into a forest, snapping limbs from trees. The crash spun Gene around in a half loop. His head slammed into the steel cables housed in the tail above him. The open end of the tail swung toward the ground and came to a screeching halt.” He crawled toward the dim light and out on to the forest floor. He was alive but with all his ribs broken, compound fractures in both arms, and a piece of his skull missing, exposing his brain! Gene was rescued by German soldiers and put back together by Serbian doctors in a German POW hospital. He spent the next two years in four different POW camps, survived a death ship and a six-hundred-mile death march, and was rescued by American forces at the end of the war. He lived until March of 2014, having fathered nine children with his beloved wife Peg, and died at the age of 92. They sang his favorite hymn at his funeral—“The Old Rugged Cross”.

Gene Moran in 2011 (photo courtesy of John Armbruster)

Of the approximately 120,000 American airmen who died in the war, historians believe only three men who fell without parachutes from such a height survived, and the only full-length detailed story that has been recorded is that of Eugene Moran, the farm boy from Wisconsin who couldn’t wait to get off the farm and into the fray.

Resources for Further Study

  • For the whole story, read Tailspin by John Armbruster (2022).

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