The Battle of Alcatraz

Dec 2, 2013 - by Robert Walsh - 0 Comments

The Battle of Alcatraz, a desperate attempt to break out of the most penal prison in the United States, raged for four days in 1946. The Marines had to be called in to quell the riot that resulted.

by Robert Walsh

Its official title was the United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz, but it was better known as “America’s Devil’s Island,”  “Hellcatraz,” or just simple “The Rock.” Whatever people called it, it was the most infamous penal institution in U.S. history.

Alcatraz wasn’t simply America’s first “supermax” prison. It was born of the legendary “Crime Wave” of the 1930s when racketeers like Al Capone ruled U.S. cities like their personal property and when the likes of John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd went on interstate crime sprees robbing banks, kidnapping wealthy citizens for ransom and shooting their way from one tight spot to another. It was the era of Prohibition, Bonnie and Clyde, the “Public Enemies” and the formation of their nemesis the FBI.

To contain the worst of the Depression-era desperadoes the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided it needed something different to existing state and federal prisons and penitentiaries. The bureau decided on one particularly strict, secure prison to warehouse the worst of the worst, the inmates with records so bad and sentences so long that they were never likely to be released. With the opening of Alcatraz in 1934, wardens all over the country now had somewhere to ship inmates with particular reputations for violence, repeated escape attempts, inciting riots, bribing prison staff and general trouble-making. As the warden in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz put it: “If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of prison, they send you to Alcatraz.”

Right from the start the Alcatraz regime was expressly designed to be punitive, to break even the most stubborn inmates and deflate the largest egos. Within federal prison rules and the Constitution, every effort was made to constantly break inmates down, forcing them to accept that while they may have been media darlings on the outside, but at Alcatraz they were simply a name, a number and a mug shot. Nothing more. Even the most notorious inmates such as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, Harvey Bailey and Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis arrived as big-shot gangsters and left as relative nobodies, barely remembered by the time their sentences were served.

The Rule of Silence

There were no “trustee” jobs. Warden Olin Blackwell said that any Alcatraz inmate deserving trustee status didn’t belong on the island. Knowledge of the world outside the island was strictly censored. Any visitors or letter-writers were subject to an FBI background check. If they didn’t pass they were allowed no contact with an inmate. For the first four years since its opening Alcatraz had a “rule of silence” where inmates were barred from making any more conversation than was absolutely necessary. If they were overheard having what guards considered unnecessary chatter then they went to solitary confinement for a minimum of 10 days. Even a prison job such as working in the laundry, normally handed out as standard at other prisons, was a privilege at Alcatraz that an inmate had to earn by good behavior.

Discipline (official and unofficial) was equally repressive. Solitary confinement was regularly imposed on inmates for such minor offences as talking, not eating all their food at mealtimes, keeping an extra pair of socks in their cells, not keeping their cells clean and tidy enough to pass inspection and a whole host of things that even other prisons wouldn’t consider deserving of punishment. If ordinary solitary didn’t suffice then there was the “Dark Hole,” individual cells with no bed, toilet, chair or even light because the doors were solid steel instead of ordinary bars. The Dark Hole cells were cold, draughty, often damp (according to a number of former prisoners) These were the cells where guards liked to administer a little extra punishment often involving blackjacks, brass knuckles, rubber hoses, belts and billy clubs. There were no incentives or bonuses for inmates who abided by the rules, only maximum misery for those who broke them. It was this policy of maximum repression and minimum comfort that spawnedwhat became known as the “Battle of Alcatraz” or the “Alcatraz Blast-Out.”

The Alcatraz Blast-Out

Ringleader and plotter Bernard Coy

The main players were a motley crew. Joseph “Dutch” Cretzer made the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list before being shipped to Alcatraz to serve out 25 years for armed robbery, five years for escaping from McNeil Island and life for killing a U.S. marshal while attempting to escape again. Marvin Hubbard was serving life for armed robbery, kidnapping, stealing firearms, escaping from a county jail, driving a stolen vehicle across a state line and inciting a mutiny at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Miran “Buddy” Thompson was serving life plus 99 years for escapes, kidnapping, robberies and murdering a detective. Sam Shockley was an armed robber, kidnapper and also mentally impaired, a man of 36 with a mental age of 8, prone to fits of manic rage often accompanied by extreme violence. The baby of the bunch was Clarence Carnes, aka the “Choctaw Kid.” Carnes was only 19 but arrived at Alcatraz serving life plus 99 years for murder, robbery, kidnapping and various assaults on guards and inmates, plus a lengthy juvenile record.

The real ringleader was Bernard Coy, serving life for armed robbery committed in Kentucky. It was Coy who spotted previously unseen weaknesses in the outwardly impregnable security set-up. Coy worked as a janitor with greater access around the prison than most inmates. He spotted that Guard Burch habitually left his post on the gun gallery overlooking C Block at the same time every day and was gone for a couple of minutes at a time checking D Block. Burch had a Springfield rifle, a .45 pistol and, most importantly, the vital key giving him access to D Block where the solitary cells and “Dark Hole” were located. Coy could use Burch’s regular absence to climb up the bars protecting the gun gallery, force a man-sized gap in the bars using a convict-made bar spreader, enter the gallery and overpower Burch as he returned from D Block.

He also noticed that Guard Miller, usually posted at the entrance to C Block from the prison kitchen, had the key to the door opening onto the exercise yard and, from there, down to the island dock where a prison launch made daily runs between the island and the mainland. Miller was supposed to send that key up to the gun gallery before entering C Block via a length of rope pulled up by Burch, but Coy noticed he often didn’t bother.  If kitchen orderly Marvin Hubbard could help him deal with Miller and Coy could overpower Burch then the escapers would have weapons, ammunition and the keys needed to open the right doors, knock out the armed guards in the guard towers using Burch’s rifle, reach the dock, hijack the prison launch and then head for the mainland and freedom.

To put it mildly it was a somewhat desperate plan and almost certainly doomed even before it began. But escapers are a strange breed. What seems desperate (or even outright insane) to people who have never served time can seem somehow plausible to people destined to spend the rest of their lives in prison and probably die there of old age. Inmates of that kind often decide they have nothing to lose. Whether they die in prison of old age or are shot down during a desperate escape attempt makes little difference to them. Death is death, it’s just a matter of what kind of death they choose.

Coy knew he needed extra muscle if the plan were to have even the tiniest chance of success. Having recruited Hubbard out of necessity he also recruited Thompson, Carnes and Cretzer as extra muscle. Cretzer, however, demanded that his friend Sam Shockley be included as well. It was a demand that everybody involved would later come to regret. Shockley’s sudden mood swings and violent tendencies made him difficult to handle at the best of times and his inclusion was partly responsible for the violence that followed. Cretzer also wanted the inmates confined in D Block (home of the solitary cells and the “Dark Hole”) freed as one of them, Rufus “Whitey” Franklin, was a personal friend and had a talent for lock-picking that Cretzer felt might well be useful.

Executing the Escape Plan

It was on May 2, 1946 that Coy and his accomplices made their move. Months had been spent casing the routines of Guards Burch and Miller. A bar spreader had been secretly obtained to force a gap in the gun gallery bars so Coy could attack Burch. Coy himself had been dieting for several months, making himself as slim as possible. He would have only a couple of minutes to climb the gun gallery bars, spread them, squeeze into the gallery itself and jump Burch as he came through the door from D Block. Hubbard had been casing Miller’s routine to judge exactly when to jump him and steal the key that Miller carelessly kept on his person instead of delivering to Burch according to prison rules. Cretzer, Shockley, Thompson and Carnes were available as extra muscle and there was always a chance that other inmates might decide to tag along. The “Battle of Alcatraz” was about to begin.

Hubbard approached Miller. Miller knew that Hubbard had finished his kitchen duties and was headed back to his cell. Miller unlocked the door intending to make a brief pat down search for stolen food or cutlery. He didn’t know Coy was behind him or that Hubbard had a carving knife up his left sleeve. As Miller opened the door, Hubbard shoved it open as hard as possible while Coy slugged Miller over the head. They stole his keys and his “gas billy” (a combination truncheon and tear gas dispenser) before shoving him into Cell 403. Miller wouldn’t be alone for long but he as he was being dragged to the cell he managed to slip the unauthorised key off his key ring and into his pocket. The escape was already in dire jeopardy.

Coy and Hubbard released Cretzer and Carnes from their cells. Using Miller’s keys they opened the utility corridor running parallel to C Block, retrieving a pair of pliers and the bar-spreader. A bar spreader is simply two threaded brass pipes and a threaded nut that can be placed between two bars. When the nut is turned using the pliers the bars are forced apart until they either crack or bend wide enough for an inmate to squeeze between them. Once the gun gallery bars were spread and Coy was through he could tackle Burch.

Burch now took his habitual stroll into D Block. In the two minutes between Burch leaving his post and returning, Coy had shinned up the bars, forced them apart, squeezed himself through and was waiting when Burch came back. Burch barely knew what hit him. Coy attacked Burch the second he opened the door. Burch’s rifle was wrenched from his hands and blows rained down from Miller’s gas billy. Coy wrestled him to the floor, choking him unconscious with his own necktie. Coy now had the key to D Block, a .45 pistol, a Springfield rifle and spare ammunition for both weapons. Coy stripped Burch of his uniform, snatched the key cord from its wall peg and used it to tie Burch securely before dropping the .45 and twenty cartridges down to Cretzer. Cretzer also received the key to the main cellhouse while Carnes got the gas billy and the pliers. Coy kept the rifle and 50 cartridges. As far as the inmates knew the escape was going to plan and on schedule.

Next to fall was Guard Corwin. Corwin was on duty in D Block and realized something was wrong when he heard the key unexpectedly thrust into the lock. He went to jam the lock when he realised Coy was aiming Burch’s rifle straight at him. Corwin backed away from the door and Cretzer, Carnes and Hubbard barged in. Cretzer demanded that “Whitey” Franklin’s dark cell be unlocked. Carnes asked Corwin whether that would trip any alarms. Corwin told them that if the door were unlocked that an alarm would sound. Cretzer decided Franklin would have to be left behind as the escapers were already pressed for time. Franklin probably didn’t realize it at the time, but Cretzer’s change of mind probably saved his life. Other D Block inmates were freed, however and, while most of them sensibly stayed inside D Block, ”Big” Sam Shockley and Miran “Buddy” Thompson didn’t.

Corwin ended up in Cell 403 with Miller. Two men crammed into a cell designed for one was crowded enough as it was, but Cell 403 would soon become a temporary home for several more guards as events unfolded. Burch had regained consciousness and freed himself. He peered over the edge of the gun gallery straight at a startled Joe Cretzer who promptly fired two .45 pistol rounds straight at him. Any thoughts Burch had of using the gun gallery phone to alert the prison control center (known as “The Armory”) vanished when the bullets whizzed within inches of Burch’s head.

Guard Burdett was next to be overpowered. He saw Coy running down the main C Block corridor (known to inmates as “Broadway”) and tried to chase him down. What he actually achieved was to be beaten and thrown into Cell 403. It was now that the escape failed. Burdett asked Carnes if he could untie Miller. Carnes unwisely agreed. While the inmates were distracted Burdett and Miller managed to hide the key Miller had removed from his key ring while being dragged into Cell 403. It was the key to the exercise yard door and, without it, there was no way for the inmates to get from the cellhouse to the dock, hijack the launch and head for the mainland. In that small moment of kindness Carnes had foiled the whole escape. At his trial later in the year, Carnes’ kindness would also save his own life.

Hostages

Cretzer and Coy took turns trying every key they had in the cellhouse door. None worked. What they didn’t know was that the locks at Alcatraz were designed in such a way that repeatedly trying different keys caused them to jam solid so that, even if they had found the right key, no key at all would have opened the lock. It was a simple security measure expressly intended to make it more difficult for anybody with either stolen keys or copied keys to simply unlock the right doors and head off to freedom. They turned their attentions to Miller, searched him again and beat him to a pulp when the right key wasn’t found. Now they all knew their escape had failed and that it was now a hostage situation. It wasn’t about escape any more, simply whether they surrendered meekly or went down fighting.

They chose to go down fighting. Steward Robert Bristow was returning to the kitchen via C Block when Carnes grabbed him, threatening to cut his throat with the pliers. Bristow was next into Cell 403. Guard Ernest Lageson came back from lunch, walked down through C Block, was grabbed from behind and tossed into Cell 403. An inmate coming back from a work detail noticed there was no guard to check him into the cellhouse. He reported this to Officer Stucker who spent a couple of minutes looking through the gate before realizing that something was very, very wrong. Stucker phoned the Armory. The Armory despatched Captain Weinhold, Lieutenant Simpson, and Guards Sundstrom and Baker to investigate. None of them returned or reported back. They had been ambushed, disarmed at gunpoint, beaten and were dragged off to join their colleagues.

Cell 403 being full, Weinhold, Simpson, Sundstrom and Baker were crammed into Cell 402. Baker was chief mail censor and instantly took a beating from Shockley for being a “Goddam mail thief.” Sundstrom’s wallet was stolen by Cretzer and Captain Weinhold was made to strip and hand his uniform over to Coy.

Escape was now completely impossible but Coy decided to try shooting the tower guards anyway. The inmates had decided that, if they couldn’t actually escape, they could at least take some guards with them when the prison authorities tried to retake the main cellhouse. Coy headed to the mess hall and kitchen to use their windows to snipe the guards in the three towers overlooking the exercise yard and the dock.

Having heard nothing from Weinhold’s group and suspecting that something had gone very wrong the Armory phoned the west gun gallery. No reply. With no report from Weinhold and no reply from the gun gallery the Armory set up a conference call between all guard posts. When the call came Officer Comerford and Associate Warden Miller discussed the situation. At that instant a bullet crashed through the window of Comerford’s tower. Miller responded, leaping into a nearby truck and speeding away to warn his boss, Warden James A. Johnston. Coy fired a second shot, this time towards the hill tower. The bullet struck the metal tower and shattered, crippling Guard Best with dozens of metal splinters in both legs. Then Coy aimed for the third tower overlooking the road linking the dock and the cellhouse, occupied by Guard Levison. He missed Levison’s head by mere inches.

The Armory called Johnston, reporting the trouble just as Miller staggered out of the cellhouse. Miller had gone in with a gas billy to assess the trouble and Coy had fired at him twice, missing Miller but exploding the gas billy in his face. Miller staggered out to Johnston dazed, coughing and gasping for breath. He told Johnston that Coy was loose in the cellhouse and had tried to kill him.

Inside, the inmates were starting to lose their composure. They hauled Guard Miller out of Cell 403 and delivered another severe beating without finding the yard door key. They shouted, screamed, cursed and raged as the prison siren blew, alerting anybody within earshot (which was as far away as San Francisco itself) that there was serious trouble on Alcatraz. Weinhold told the inmates in so many words that they had no chance and they’d be killed if they didn’t surrender. Cretzer’s response was that the hostages would die as well. Weinhold (very foolishly) said that they could only die once. Cretzer roared:

“Then go ahead and die!”

Two bullets struck Weinhold in the belly. Shockley, by now in one of the feared rages he was well known for, started shouting for all the hostages to be killed. Cretzer then shot Corwin in the head as Shockley bellowed:

“Kill every one of the yellow-bellied bastards! We won’t have any testimony against us!”

Cretzer emptied the remaining five .45 caliber rounds into Cell 403, hitting Miller in the chest. The other hostages hit the floor and played dead, hoping that Cretzer or the others wouldn’t be thorough in finishing the job. Having emptied his pistol Cretzer dropped the empty clip, slipped in a full one, cocked the pistol, headed for the hostages in neighboring Cell 402. He emptied another clip of seven rounds into the cell. Lieutenant Simpson stopped two slugs in the chest. Baker was hit in both legs. Burdett was seriously wounded. Sundstrom was unhurt but hit the floor anyway and also played dead. Cretzer returned to Cell 402 to inspect his handiwork and noticed that Guard Lageson was still alive. Cretzer didn’t want to shoot Lageson as Lageson had always treated him well, but Shockley’s rage persuaded him otherwise. He aimed and squeezed the trigger, on an empty chamber. Lageson looked up at Cretzer and said:

“Take it easy, Joe…”

Cretzer’s response was a bullet that wounded Lageson’s cheek and mangled his ear as well. Lageson had the presence of mind to lie there and hold his breath, hoping Cretzer would have had enough.

Retaking Alcatraz

Warden Johnston had hoped to settle the trouble without too much publicity, but soon had to inform the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington D.C. Bureau Director James Bennett promised immediate help, summoning available officers from prisons all over the country. Further help came from the United States Marine Corps, who sent a platoon to Alcatraz fully armed and equipped. Coast Guard cutters now circled the island and military aircraft circled overhead. At every vantage point on land it seemed as though most of San Francisco had taken time off to watch the action.

Later that afternoon Johnston sent in a strong force of armed guards to try to retake the cellhouse. They failed. Guard Stites died fighting a pistol duel with Cretzer who also wounded three other guards as they tried to enter the cellhouse. The three wounded guards were taken to Johnston’s office which served as a first aid post. Stites was brought there later. The guard force did manage to locate and free the hostages, sprinting into the cellhouse as Cretzer and his accomplices were kept pinned down by withering machine gun fire.

The rioters didn’t know it, but that list would prove fatal for two of them after the battle was over.

Searchlights were played constantly over the cellhouse windows all night and military aircraft dived low over the island until dawn in a form of psychological warfare. Guards spent much of the night shooting tear gas grenades through the ventilators where the rioters were thought to be pinned down. While the battle raged, Lageson managed to scrawl a list of names on the cell wall: “Cretzer, Coy, Hubbard, Carnes, Shockley, Thompson.”

By morning the prison was a mess. The cellhouse exterior was pockmarked with thousands of bullet holes, the water pipes had ruptured, the windows shattered, clouds of smoke and tear gas wafted in and around the inside and outside of the prison. And it was about to become a great deal worse.

Calling in the Marines

Enter Warrant Officer Buckner of the United States Marine Corps. Buckner was a decorated veteran of World War II and, after discussing the situation with Johnston, was cleared to start dealing with the problem leatherneck-style. Buckner started by climbing up on the cellhouse roof and drilling holes. Through the holes he began dropping modified anti-tank shells onto the top of the utility corridor where the rioters were thought to be hiding before going down to ground level and examining the cellhouse windows. The bars on the windows made simply throwing hand grenades too dangerous, so Buckner spread the exterior bars on one of the windows and fired three boxes of rifle grenades into the cellhouse. This completed, he climbed back up to the roof and dropped 150 hand grenades, some tied on string to explode at different heights, through the holes he’d left in the roof.

The rest of San Francisco Bay was in chaos as well. Navy warships and Army boats enforced an exclusion zone that a dozen boatloads of reporters did their best to breach hoping for better photographs and newsreel footage. Military aircraft still dived over Alcatraz, their screaming engines deafening and terrifying the convicts trapped in their cells and workplaces all over the island. Suddenly at around noon the shooting stopped. The rioters had managed to reach a phone and had called asking about a deal. Warden Johnston’s deal was simple:

“The only possible deal is this: Throw out your weapons.”

The ceasefire held long enough for Johnston to move convicts secured in the prison yard and discuss progress with two distinguished visitors, General Frank Merrill (of “Merrill’s Marauders” fame) and General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell (famed for his seemingly permanently sour personality). They agreed that the situation for the rioters looked bleak and that the siege was unlikely to last much longer. The water supply was cut, the rioters had no food, presumably very little rest and no chance whatever of ending things on their own terms. Or so Johnston, Merrill and Stilwell thought.

The End

The final contact between the rioters and the authorities came on the afternoon of May 5, 1946, when a single shot whizzed by the head of a guard sent to reconnoitre C Block. It was the rioters’ answer to Johnston’s demand for unconditional surrender. The location of the shot, fired down the utility corridor, also indicated that the rioters had moved from the cut-off tunnel between C and D Block. Dusk fell and still no surrender. The siege was destined to go into one final day of bloodletting. Fusillades of rifle and machine gun fire peppered the cellhouse until 9 p.m. when Johnston ordered a ceasefire and stationed sentries to watch for any movement overnight.

It was 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 6, 1946 when some of Warrant Officer Buckner’s Marines went to take a cautious look into C Block. They set a ladder by a cellhouse window and carefully looked through. A prison guard fired a single shot into the cellhouse to test for any reaction from the rioters. Nothing.

At 9:20 a.m. the comparative silence was shattered. A burst of a dozen gunshots came from inside C Block before silence resumed at 10:40 a.m. when three more shots rang out. They were the last shots of the Battle of Alcatraz. One of America’s most violent prison disturbances was over. The dozen shots in C Block had come from guards raking the utility corridor with rifle fire. The three other shots, the last shots of the battle, had been fired by the convicts. Not at the guards or the Marines or the reporters, but into themselves.

It was Guard Mowery who found them as he waded through the waterlogged, pitch-dark utility corridor. Coy sat on the ground in Captain Weinhold’s uniform, Burch’s Springfield rifle still in his hands. Cretzer was found wearing Burch’s jacket and holster, still clutching Burch’s .45. Between them lay Hubbard, still holding the carving knife he’d stolen from the kitchen when the original escape plan started. They had all found their final, permanent release from “The Rock.”

Clarence Carnes, Miran Thompson and Sam Shockley hadn’t found release. They’d gone back to their cells hoping Cretzer’s shoddy marksmanship had left no witnesses to testify against them. They were wrong. All three were dragged from their cells and identified by the surviving hostages. All three would stand trial for capital murder. All three would be convicted and sentenced to death.

Carnes was lucky. His having shown some small mercy to the hostages and being only 19 years old softened the sentencing judge just enough to see him avoid the death sentence, although an extra life sentence was tacked onto the life plus 99 years he was already serving. Carnes eventually earned parole in 1973 aged only 46. However, it wasn’t to be his last acquaintance with prison life. His parole was revoked due to violations and he finally ended his days in the Medical Centre for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri on October 3, 1988. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. In November 1988 a former fellow inmate of Alcatraz paid for his body to be exhumed and reburied on land in the Choctaw Nation in his native Oklahoma in an expensive casket with a car to transport him on his final journey. The former fellow inmate was none other than notorious Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

For Sam Shockley and Miran Thompson legal justice moved rather more swiftly than natural justice. Like Carnes they were convicted of capital murder in the deaths of Guards Stites and Miller. Unlike Carnes, the trial judge and appeals courts showed them no mercy. They were condemned to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin, only a few miles from Alcatraz. At 10 a.m. on the morning of December 3, 1948 they were taken from the so-called “Ready Room” on Death Row and escorted to the octagonal, green-painted steel capsule inmates called the “coughing box” or “the little green room.” As guards strapped them into the two steel chairs in the chamber Thompson looked through an observation window at Captain Philip Bergin, commander of the Alcatraz guard force, who was there as a witness. Thompson said nothing, giving Bergin a weak, wan smile as the straps were tightened. Shockley was strapped in beside him as both men were given San Quentin’s traditional gas chamber farewell. Both men received a pat on the shoulder and the traditional advice:

“When you hear the pellets drop count ten, breathe deep, don’t fight the gas. It’s quicker that way. Good luck.”

gas hambe san quentin
Gas chamber at San Quentin

Thompson said nothing. Shockley spat in the guard’s face before the airtight door was sealed and the cyanide pellets and acid mixed to form the gas. Thompson and Shockley were dead within 10 minutes.

And that was where the Battle of Alcatraz ended. Two dead guards, eleven wounded guards and inmates, three convict suicides and two executions. Warden Johnston retired in 1948 and died in 1954. Associate Warden Miller was later promoted to Warden at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Captain Philip Bergin remained at Alcatraz until 1957.

As time passed Alcatraz itself began to decay and not just physically. While the buildings began to crumble and rust due to age, salt water, fog and general use, the rationale behind its very existence as a penal concept of maximum discipline for minimum comforts became increasingly unpopular and discredited. Finally, on March 21, 1963, the last inmates of “The Rock” filed out of the old cellhouse onto a launch to be shipped to the mainland and onward to other, less discredited penal institutions. Today, despite suffering the ravages of vandalism, occupation, arson, the weather and time itself, Alcatraz has successfully been turned into a major tourist attraction under the auspices of the National Park Service, drawing over a million visitors each year.  

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