Death of Samuel McAllister

On this day in 1903, Samuel McAllister, Irish-born recipient of the American Medal of Honor, died at sea. Samuel was born in Belfast on the 23rd of January 1869, though both of his parents were born in Scotland.[1] He moved to the United States in 1886, and by the time of the 1900 federal census, he was already serving in the US Navy. In June of that year, when the Boxer Rebellion in China finally broke out into open war, Samuel was serving on the USS Newark

The Boxer Rebellion was a war against foreigners. The spread of foreign influence through trade, religion, and (in one case) actual invasion was resented by many Chinese, and this resentment led to the rise of a nationalist movement called the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists – soon dubbed ‘Boxers’ by the Europeans. The Boxers comprised mainly peasants and artisans whose jobs or land had been lost as a result of foreign involvement in China, but they had friends in high places: In early June 1900, as violence increased, the Dowager Empress authorised war on foreign powers. By the end of that month, hundreds of foreigners from various places, and literally thousands of Chinese Christians, were trapped in two locations in Beijing, where they remained under siege for 55 days.[2]

The governments of eight nations, including the US and Great Britain, sent military forces to try to free their besieged citizens. Among the ships carrying American troops was the Newark. According to his citation, on “20 June 1900, while . . . [c]rossing the river in a small boat while under heavy enemy fire, Ordinary Seaman McAllister assisted in destroying buildings occupied by the enemy.” This “extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy at Tientsin, China” earned him the Medal of Honor, which he received from President Theodore Roosevelt on the 22nd of March 1902.[3]

Just over a year later, while serving aboard the USS Wisconsin, Samuel McAllister was lost at sea.[4]
Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012.

[1] “1900 United States Federal Census,” database, (accessed 12 December 2012), entry for Samuel McAllister, [b.] 1869, in Ireland. 
[2] For more information on the Boxer Rebellion, see Cultural China, “Origins of the Boxers, and Department of the Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command, “The Boxer Rebellion and the U.S. Navy, 1900-1901“. (This site also links to an extensive bibliography.)
[3] Military Times Hall of Valor:  Samuel McAllister (accessed 10 December 2012).
[4] Find-a-Grave: Samuel McAllister

By Order of Hitler

On this day in 1944, John Kenneth Macalister died at Buchenwald concentration camp, executed as an Allied spy on the personal order of Adolf Hitler. He was 30 years old.

Macalister, a native of Guelph, Ontario, was the only son of the editor of the Guelph Mercury. After completing a degree at the University of Toronto, he went as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and then passed the Bar exams in London. He was studying at the Institute of Corporate Law in Paris when WWII broke out in 1939 and immediately tried to enlist in the French infantry, but his need for thick eyeglasses disqualified him for active service. Instead, he returned to Britain and joined the Special Operations Executive. This organisation, established by Churchill specifically to locate, support, and build resistance groups in occupied countries, was “like something out of a John le Carré novel”. U.S. General Eisenhower believed that its efforts “shortened the war by months”[1], but the work was so dangerous that hopeful agents were warned they had only a 50% chance of surviving the war.[2]

On 24 June 1943, Captain Macalister and another Canadian, Frank Pickersgill, were parachuted into occupied France to set up an SOE wireless network, codenamed ‘Arch-deacon’. Although the men connected with resistance agents as planned, they were almost immediately arrested by the Gestapo – as spies rather than prisoners of war, which meant their rights were not protected by the Geneva Convention.  Several explanations are given for their quick capture. Most sources suggest that the Gestapo had been tipped off, possibly by a mole within the resistance, though such a person has never been identified. One of the other airmen captured by the Nazis blamed their exposure on Macalister’s ‘terrible French’ (which seems odd considering he had studied the language enthusiastically for years, had lived in France, and had a French wife). In fact, it seems likely that the Gestapo needed neither a mole nor bad French to discover the spies. Only days before the men were dropped in France, a preparatory drop of explosives had been made. The explosives went off upon landing, and about 2,000 German soldiers “poured into the area to investigate.” If the Germans thought these explosions suspicious enough to send so many soldiers, surely they would have been actively looking for the explosives’ intended recipients. The SOE agent on the ground certainly believed Archdeacon endangered: He immediately radioed London advising that the second drop (of Macalister and Pickersgill) be aborted. Whether the message was received or not is unknown, but the mission went ahead.

Macalister and Pickersgill were interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo for some time. The Nazis hoped to convince the men to set up the wireless network as planned; the Nazis could then use it to lure other Allied agents into a trap. But SOE agents were trained to resist torture, and neither would agree to help. They were finally sent to Buchenwald[3], where they arrived on 27 August. Only two and a half weeks later, as the Allies closed in, Hitler ordered they be hanged and their bodies destroyed, so that their fate would never be known. Several of their fellow inmates survived, however, and before too long the story of Macalister and Pickersgill emerged. Today they are remembered as war heroes.

John Kenneth Macalister is commemorated on a memorial in Surrey, England, and by a plaque in Scotland (where the SOE men underwent training) as one of the agents who died for the liberation of France. He is listed in the Roll of Honour at the Valençay SOE memorial in France itself; there is a park named after him in Guelph, and a Pickersgill-Macalister garden at the University of Toronto. In 1995, late University College principal Douglas LePan, who was also a poet and had known Macalister personally, produced the epic poem Macalister, or Dying in the Dark in his honour.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1]A. Scott, Behind Enemy Lines, University of Toronto magazine on-line, Autumn 2012. The SOE was originally intended to be part of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), but its particular mission led to its establishment as a separate organisation. Known as ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ and ‘The Baker Street Irregulars’, its existence was not even officially acknowledged until years after the war had ended. When the group was dissolved in 1946, most of its responsibilities were given back to the SIS.[2] Of the first 10 Canadians parachuted into occupied France, seven – including Macalister – would never return (Requiem for the Brave, University of Toronto magazine on-line).
[3] Buchenwald Concentration Camp was one of the first camps established on German soil. Between July 1937 and April 1945 about 250,000 people were imprisoned there, roughly 56,000 of them dying. It was the first camp to be liberated by the US army, 13 months after Macalister’s death.

Macalisters in Viet Nam

On this day in 1973 the Peace Paris Accords were signed, officially ending the United States’ part of the Vietnam War, although the last troops did not leave for months. There were certainly Macalisters among the Americans lost in the conflict (the name appears in various forms twelve times on the Vietnam Wall memorial in Washington, DC), and many others served but survived. 

But Americans were not the only Macalisters to serve in Viet Nam. Among the nearly 60,000 Australians who fought there were at least eighteen members of this clan.[1] New Zealand sent about 4,000 combatants altogether, including Squadron Leader D G McAllister and Sgt. R L McAllister.[2] Canada was officially a neutral country, but “while Canada as a nation was not involved, Canadians themselves formed the largest foreign contingent in the U.S. military during the Vietnam era”. Perhaps 12,000 Canadians saw combat in Viet Nam[3]; it is not unlikely that some of these were Macalisters. (For several reasons, details about individual Canadians who fought in Viet Nam can be difficult to find.)

All of the Australian and New Zealand Macalisters appear to have survived the war, but Vietnam veterans of these countries faced the same difficulties back at home as their American comrades. They returned to fellow citizens who were at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile to them. Veterans of their nations’ previous wars often refused to acknowledge their service and suffering. For years their governments denied that exposure to chemical agents like Agent Orange might have caused the lingering physical problems some of them faced, and so the medical help they needed was often not forthcoming. In Australia and New Zealand, as in the US, it was not until the late 1980s that the sacrifices of these veterans were recognised and they were formally welcomed home.

The experience of Vietnam vets who returned to Canada has been a bit different. The war in which they fought was not a Canadian war, and so they are not recognised as veterans in their own country. This means that many of the support structures available to other Canadian veterans are not open to them. They are not usually included in Remembrance Day events or admitted to official veterans organisations.[4] Many Canadians (and most Americans) are unaware that they even exist. It can certainly be argued that since their government didn’t send them to Viet Nam, it has no responsibility to acknowledge or reward their service there. However, the isolation of these vets and the lack of any official support have made the lot of Canada’s Vietnam veterans (and any Macalisters among them) perhaps the most difficult of all.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

[1]Australian Government Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Nominal Roll of Vietnam Veterans
[3]Fred Graffen of the Canadian War Museum, in an article that first appeared in Vietnam Magazine. It is now available on-line.
[4]Ibid. That said, there are several informative web sites operated by individual veterans of Canada’s own military which have attempted to make people aware of these veterans, and they are honoured along with veterans of other conflicts in the Canadian War Museum.