SS American Victory: History of a WW2 Cargo Ship

She is not glamorous to look at–just a big boxy grey ship with cranes sticking out everywhere. But the USS American Victory, and her 500 sister ships, were absolutely vital to winning the Second World War.


The SS American Victory, docked in Tampa Bay as a floating museum.

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Wild Florida: Tillandsia Air Plants

The Tillandsia are odd little plants. They have no stems, they have no roots, and their leaves don’t look anything at all like leaves. Oh, and they require no soil at all, either, and don’t live in the ground. And they are related to . . . pineapples.


Tillandsia air plants. The clublike growths are the seedpods.

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Aircraft Carrier in the Sky: The F9C-2 “Parasite Fighter”

In the years before World War Two, the US found itself in a unique–and difficult–situation. On one side of the country was the Atlantic Ocean.  On the other side of the country was the Pacific Ocean. In those days before radar or satellites, the US could only know what was happening out in the open seas by going there and searching. Reconnaissance flights by aircraft, however, could only cover a relatively short distance near the coasts. The US needed another way to monitor the vast empty oceans, searching for approaching enemy fleets from Europe or Asia. And the method the Navy adopted was one of the oddest aerial projects ever attempted–the flying aircraft carrier.


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Florida’s Invaders: Black-Hooded Parakeet

Florida is the land of invasive species. Because of our status as a center for the importing of exotic pets and houseplants from overseas, and our neo-tropical climate, we have been invaded by everything from kudzu plants to Burmese pythons.

One of these non-native settlers is the Black-Hooded Parakeet, also known as the Nanday Parakeet or the Nanday Conure. A small parrot, Aratinga nanday is native to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. It’s diminutive size, its brash personality and its high intelligence have made it a long favorite in the pet trade–and that’s how it got here.


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Kikka: Japan’s WW2 Jet Fighter

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the Japanese Zero fighter could outfight anything the US could put into the sky, and Japan enjoyed unquestioned air superiority. But while the US soon produced a number of new aircraft designs, including the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair, Japan, with its limited industrial abilities, continued to rely on the Zero. As a result, Japan lost its air superiority, and in 1944, at the air battle over the Marianas (known by US pilots as “The Great Turkey Shoot”) the US destroyed virtually the entire fleet of Japanese carrier aircraft. If Japan were to regain the ability to wage war in the air, it would need a radically new and superior aircraft design. The result was the Nakajima “Kikka” (“Orange Blossom”) jet fighter.


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World War One: Life and Death in the Trenches

The First World War was a defining event that determined the course of the entire 20th century. The bloody quagmire of 1914-1918 led to the birth of modern “total warfare”, in which not just an enemy’s armed forces but his entire social capacity to wage war became legitimate targets, and the distinction between “soldier” and “civilian” became blurred. It also led to the development of modern weapons like the tank, the airplane, chemical weapons, the machine gun, the massed artillery barrage, the aircraft carrier, and the submarine.

In the political sphere, the Great War led to the emergence of the United States as a world power, to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War, and to the appearance of the Soviet Union and then the Cold War which dominated the second half of the 20th century. The slaughter of virtually an entire generation in the trenches also led to labor shortages in the industrial nations which strengthened the positions of labor unions and socialist political movements, leading to sweeping social and political changes in Europe and the United States. And World War One and its aftermath re-drew much of the world map, particularly in places like the Middle East and Africa.

Today, 100 years later, we still live with the effects of the Great War.


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U-505: The Only Captured German Submarine in the US

In June 1944, the US Navy captured a German submarine off the coast of Africa after her crew failed to scuttle her. The U-505 was the first enemy ship captured by the US since the War of 1812, and the first of six U-boats to be captured during the war. To protect military secrets (including the breaking of the German Enigma codes), the capture of the U-505 was classified, the ship was renamed and hidden, and the crew were interred in a special POW camp and their existence was concealed from everyone, including the International Red Cross and the German Government.


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Corfe Castle, One of the Oldest Castles in England

Almost a thousand years old, Corfe Castle, on the Isle of Purbeck in the south of England, is one of the oldest castles still in existence. Built in the “motte and bailey” style by William the Conqueror on the site of a Saxon stronghold, it withstood several sieges before finally being captured and deliberately destroyed by the forces of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. It is now part of the British National Trust, and is a popular tourist destination.


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Winter the Dolphin: Clearwater FL Aquarium

The nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida, has been doing marine mammal, bird, and turtle rescue work since the mid-1980’s, after the city of Clearwater donated an old water treatment plant to the Aquarium, which was modified into holding tanks for rescued animals. More a working marine hospital than an exhibit aquarium, the center rehabilitates and releases injured and distressed marine wildlife, and keeps those animals which cannot be released on exhibit (currently including dolphins, sea turtles, river otters and pelicans) for use in educational shows and as a way to raise funds through admission tickets for the hospital operations. For years, the center was barely making ends meet. Then in December 2006, the aquarium took in a young rescued female dolphin who had become entangled in a crab trap and had lost her tail. Because it was December, the staff named her “Winter”.


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The First Passenger Airliner: The Benoist XIV and the St Pete-Tampa Airboat Line

In a glass-walled hall in the tiny St Petersburg FL Museum of History, a replica of a smallish “flying boat” biplane hangs from the ceiling. It is little-noticed by the tourists who walk past on their way to the beaches and high-end shops and bistros in downtown St Pete, but the Benoist XIV seaplane (pronounced “ben-wah”) made aviation history when it flew on January 1, 1914–it was the first regularly-scheduled commercial passenger airplane flight in the world.


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