Not Invented Here

While the “World War 2 – Fact and Myth” series of pieces tied to anniversaries of under-covered events of the war officially ended on VJ Day, First Ringer and I both found that the crush of events around actual life led to us missing deadlines to a few stories we really, really wanted to write.

So we’ll be filling in a few in coming months, on the way to a completely different project.  More on that, later. 

World War 2 was not only the greatest conflagration in human history – it also led to the greatest advance in industry since the Industrial Revolution, and some of the greatest relative leaps of science, and especially technology, ever.

And leading the way, naturally, were the major powers; the elitist craftsmanship and ingenuity of the British, the innovatory engineering prowess of the Germans, and the relatively nimble manufacturing brawn of the United States.

But along the way, a few other nations contributed lesser-known, but vital, advances to techology, on both sides of the war.

There were plenty of them, of course.  For all their ingenuity at building planes and tanks and submarines, the Germans never did design a workable aerial torpedo; they had to buy theirs from the Italians, and eventually pillage them from the Norwegians, who built an excellent aerial torpedo before the war:

A torpedo – a direct copy of the Norwegian “Horten” air-dropped torpedo – being loaded onto a German HE115 torpedo bomber.

And of course, the biggest, baddest example; the lowly Poles, whose intelligence service was credited since the sixties with doing the groundwork that led to the breaking of the German “Enigma” code – and, as we discovered since the Cold War, did more than that.

Here’s one of those stories.

Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t…Yet:  The fact that air power became a decisive arena of conflict surprised nobody at the beginning of the war; since the end of World War I, air power theorists like the American Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and the British Air Marshal “Boom” Trenchard, among many others, had grabbed their various nations’ high commands’ attention and held onto it during the years leading up to the war.  Even the most humble, minor nations invested heavily, albeit not always wisely, in air power.

And the world’s armies and navies in turn invested heavily in the means to attempt to defend against aircraft.

The anti-aircraft gun was invented during World War I.  Anti-Aircraft Artillery – henceforth “AAA” – followed two basic patterns:

  • “Heavy” AAA attempted to calculate where an enemy aircraft was going to be at the time it took to fire a cannon shell with a timer to somewhere close to that point, where it’d explode, hopefully riddling the target aircraft with enough holes to disable it or scare it off, if not destroy it outright.  Until the advent of radar, this involved complex listening and angle-measurement devices to calculate the target’s speed, altitude and heading, and a lot of complex math to try to make sure the planes, shells and explosions intersected.
  • “Light” AAA was basically skeet shooting with heavy – very, very heavy – machine guns.  The goal was to put up a lot of bullets or light cannon shells, and try to physically hit the target.  It sounds simpler – but it’s not; hitting a more or less fast-moving target whose distance, speed and course aren’t precisely known, and which is maneuvering in three dimensions, is a complex undertaking.

Now – both of those cases assume one constant; the location of the guns that are doing the shooting, as would be the case with anti-aircraft guns on land.  On land, AAA guns sit in one, known spot to do their shooting.  Which makes the complex math just a little simpler.

Now – put an AAA gun on a ship, with not only it’s own speed and bearing to track, but the roll and pitch and yaw of wave action and the other forces acting on the vessel to compensate for – and the job of making a bullet or shell intersect with a plane, with its own elevation, angle, range, speed, heading and altitude – and the job just got intellectually herculean.

Think about it:  try skeet-shooting at ac clay pigeon whose launcher you can’t see and whose path you don’t know in advance – from a moving vehicle.

The US created a system that addressed the first, “Heavy” shipboard AAA scenario most effectively; we deployed the “Mark 37 Fire Director”.

Mark 34 Fire Direction system concept drawing.

It linked optical sensers, and eventually radar, to an analog, electromechanical fire control computer that digested all the inputs – target elevation/bearing/altitude/heading/speed, ship speed/heading/roll/pitch/yaw, as well as temperature and humidity – and spit out the bearing and elevation for the guns, and settings for the guns’ fuses and precise firing cues for the guns, allowing the whole process to end in a plane-shattering kaboom somewhere close to the moving target.

It worked well; it’s was still in service, with updated radars and electronics, until very recently in the US Navy.

But for the problem of making light AAA – guns of 40mm or less, basically large machine guns – hit the target, the solution was more byzantine.

The first half came from Sweden.  Bofors Weapon Works invented a 40mm heavy machine gun that fired two two-pound shells a second to a range of about a mile.

A 40m Bofors gun – in this case, in Finland, although interchangeable with guns that served in the US, the UK, all of their allied powers, and even Germany.

It became the iconic anti-aircraft gun of the war; it’s still in service in some parts of the world; it’s immediate descendent is still one of the most popular guns of its type.   I its original, land-based form, it fired from a trailer that sat on jacks on the ground; its’ “fire control system” was a couple of optical sights and a pair of hand cranks to control vertical and horizontal training.

It’d take some work to make it a usable naval system.

It was a Dutch inventor, Walter Hazemeyer, who first developed a mounting that could fight effectively on shipboard.  He fitted a gyroscope and a set of servos to a twin-gun mounting, which effected “triaxial stabilization”; the gun would automatically be kept steady against side-to-side roll, lateral pitch, and horizontal yaw. And it was revolutionary; the Hazemeyer mountings serviced on Dutch naval vessels in the years before the war, and gave a fairly excellent account (which has been largely forgotten, given the speed with which the Dutch fleet collapsed).

A Hazemeyer mounting, with an early British radar, demonstrating stabilization with a pretty fair roll.

And the timing couldn’t have been better.  British ships – lacking the radar-guided heavy AAA of the American Mark 37 and a light AAA gun that had anything other than manual compensation to stabilize it – suffered terribly from close range air attack in the first year of the war.  The standard British light AAA gun, the “Pom-Pom”, had been invented nearly 40 years earlier, and was showing its age.  The alternative – the .50 caliber machine gun – was even worse; a lethal shredder in ground and air-to-air combat, it was useless as an anti-aircraft gun.

An octuple “pom-pom”, found on most British battleships and aircraft carriers, especially earlier in the war. The guns themselves dated from before 1910, and it was optically-trained, and threw itstwo-pound shell at relatively low velocity to a range of a little less than a mile. Still – this mounting would throw out sixteen shots a second, which was nothing to sneeze at in a torpedo bomber that was flying in a straight line at 150 knots…

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Holland, a Dutch minesweeper, the Willem Van Der Zaan, limped into a British port with one of the few Hazemeyer mounts to survive in the European theater.  British (and, shortly, American) engineers swarmed over the mounting, reverse-engineering it and getting it into mass-production in record time.  The Brits teamed the gun with a “Type 282” radar – one of the first attempts at a fire control radar for light AAA.

The results were astounding.  Stabilized Hazemeyer mounts were 2-3 times as effective as the British “Pom Pom”, and similarly superior to the American gun of the day.  And as air threats ramped up later in the war, culminating in the Japanese Kamikaze offensive later in the war, there’s a fair case to be made that the Hazemeyer (and the improvements made on it in the US later in the war), installed in numbers that would have made pre-war naval architects blanche, along with the Mark 37 Heavy AAA controller, allowed the US and British fleets to survive.

An American quadruple 40mm mount. The product of both endless American tinkering with the original Hazemeyer concept, and of the desperate need to increase the amount of light AAA against the rapidly expanding air threat by 1944, this gun mount survived in US service well into the 1980s.

Including, I’ll add, my ex-father-in-law, who was the gun captain of what was essentially a second-generation Hazemeyer mounted-twin Bofors gun in the Pacific – a Swedish gun with Dutch fire control system and British-designed radar – and who bagged a couple of Japanese planes himself.

The Flag

It was a hot, dry summer – like most summers in North Dakota, really – 39 years ago.

I was going into seventh grade in the fall.  But that was a few months away.  Like most sixth-graders in those days before video games, I spent my days biking, playing sandlot baseball and football (usually behind the Stutsman County Jail), and spending lots of time at the library – which was the only building to which I had regular free access that had air conditioning.

But boredom drew me to a lot of other things.

One of my favorite haunts was the Stutsman County Historical Society – an 1890’s vintage mansion on Third Avenue in Jamestown, built by, of all things, a North Dakota timber baron.

I kid you not.

The museum’s lovingly-preserved rooms were a time capsule of life in central North Dakota from about 1860 to probably the ’50s; rooms were dedicated to the kitchen, entertainment, children and schools, stores, doctor’s offices, the railroad…

…and, on the second floor, to Fort Seward.  An army outpost built in 1867 to protect the railroad’s construction crews, the Fort covered the crossing of the James River right around the confluence with Pipestem Creek.  It was there, where the rivers and train came together, that Jamestown formed.

The Seward room covered the city’s military history – the fort, and Jamestown’s contributions to the wars since then; the 1st North Dakota Volunteers who fought in Cuba during the Spanish American war, and Company H of the 164th Infantry, which fought in both World Wars 1 and 2 and Korea.

I knew all this.  My first “big kid” book, at age 5, was my dad’s old book of World War 2 aircraft, from when he’d been about my age.  I’d learned them all – and, as my parents walked among the people getting ready for the town’s Memorial Day parade in, probably, 1969 or so, I showed the book to one of the National Guard guys who was getting ready to march in the parade.

“Yeah”, he nodded.  “I was there”.  And he had been; into middle age now, he’d been a teenage infantryman at the end of the war.

So I took to this stuff early.  And as a 12 year old military history buff, I was able to rattle off the story behind each of the pieces of equipment in the room to the attendant – the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfields of the fort’s original infantrymen (three companies of the 20th US Infantry), the M1903 Springfields of the WW1 doughboys, the Garands that the town’s GIs carried on Guadalcanal and Bougainville and the Philippines and Korea, the various uniforms, and on and on.

The ladies who worked there were impressed enough to ask if I’d like to come in and be the “docent” for the room.  It was something to do – so I spent a few Sundays explaining, and knowing me, over-explaining the room, to passersby.

Not that it was that busy.

The “job” – I got paid in cookies and lemonade – left me lots of free time to explore.  One the things I explored was a large wooden trunk sitting below the Fort Seward room’s window.

One day, I opened it.

I found a large piece of red and white fabric, folded many times, neatly stored in the trunk.  On top of it was a small typewritten piece of paper.  It was actually a Japanese “Rising Sun” flag.

But not just any flag.  The flag that’d been given by the Japanese delegation at the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, to General Douglas MacArthur, as a traditional part of the surrender ceremony.

The piece of paper noted that the flag had been given by MacArthur to a Colonel DuPuy, a US Marine who was a native of Jamestown.  This, he took home with him, and at some point in the fifties or early sixties, gave it to the Stutsman County Historical Society.

Which put it in the trunk and forgot about it.

Until that sweltering Sunday afternoon in August of 1976, when I found it.

I told the museum ladies – the museum owned a big piece of history.

“That’s nice, Mitch”, they nodded.  There was a reason I was handing the Fort Seward room; it really wasn’t their subject.

I told my parents.  “That’s interesting, Mitch”, they said, not very interested at all.

I told other people, over the years, but nothing much came of it.  It was only me, after all.

Sometime about 20 years ago, my dad called me; some history buffs had “found” the flag.  They’d carefully unfolded it – it was huge – and gotten a picture taken; it made the front page of the Jamestown Sun, along with the story behind how it got to Jamestown.

Twenty years after I found it and tried to tell people the story, naturally.

It was good preparation for being a conservative in Saint Paul, actually.

My good friend First Ringer and I just finished writing our six-year-long series on the seventieth anniversaries of events of World War 2 yesterday.

Continue reading

The Beginning

It was a little before 9am in the morning as Mamoru Shigemitsu, Japan’s foreign minister, and the rest of the Japanese delegation, boarded the massive American battleship the USS Missouri on September 2nd, 1945.

The small Japanese contingent was dwarfed by the presence of the American military, and the number of representatives from other Allied forces.  89 warships, the majority American but a handful of them British, lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay, while hundreds of American planes flew in formation overhead.  The deck of the Missouri itself was overflowing with brass and press, the occasion dripping in symbolism of the American military might than had finally brought Japan to surrender.

At 9:04am, Shigemitsu signed the Instrument of Japanese Surrender on behalf of Emperor Hirohito.  In a small form of irony, Shigemitsu had been among the few prominent figures in the government to oppose a war with the United States (Japan’s militarists never trusted him) and yet stood signing for a surrender to a war he had never wanted.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur, milking the moment, signed as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces before turning the pen over to the representatives of the other Allied nations.  By 9:23am, the signatures had been completed and the brief ceremony finished.

World War II had ended.  The challenge of the post-war world had begun.

The formal Japanese surrender – the actual ceremony was very brief

Defeating the Axis powers had been a monumental task, won at the cost of perhaps 50 million dead or more (some estimates range as high as 80 million).  Rebuilding those same powers would prove to be a nearly equal task.    Continue reading

The End

On August 14th, 1945, the Second World War had but hours to go.

Since the atomic bombings and Soviet invasion of Manchuria just days earlier, Japan had begun secret communications through the neutral powers of Switzerland and Sweden to accept the Allies’ demands for unconditional surrender.  Unbeknownst to all but a few within the government and military, Emperor Hirohito had already recorded a radio address to accept the Potsdam Declaration.  The recording would be played on August 15th and subject Japan to an unknown fate in the hands of the Allied powers.

Major Kenji Hatanaka knew of the Emperor’s recording on the night of August 14th as he and a group of fellow officers entered the Imperial Palace.  Hatanaka burst into the office of Lt. General Takeshi Mori, the commanding general of the 1st Imperial Guards Division whose troops were responsible for defending the Palace and royal family.  Hatanaka made his intentions plainly known – he and his co-conspirators intended to stop the Emperor’s broadcast and continue the war.  Mori was horrified; Hatanaka and his men were violating an explicit order from their superiors.  Mori immediately demanded that Hatanaka return to his barracks.

But Kenji Hatanaka was not going to be following orders on this night – he was going to be giving them.  Hatanaka and his officers quickly shot Mori and Mori’s visiting brother-in-law.  Using Mori’s official stamp, Hatanaka forged Strategic Order No. 584 – an order to surround the Palace and prevent anyone from coming or going.  The 1st Imperial Guards Division was now at Hatanaka’s disposal and the Emperor was, in essence, his prisoner.

The end of World War II rested upon Japan’s ability to withstand a coup.

Major Kenji Hatanaka – the mastermind of the August 14th coup. He was only 33 years old and managed to convince older, higher-ranking officials to take his orders

Just days earlier, Tokyo had seen two different conferences attempt to address the end of war – each with very different conclusions.    Continue reading


Tsutomu Yamaguchi was eager to go home.

For three months, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries draftsman had resided in the port city of Hiroshima, doing his job designing Japanese oil tankers.  His job had become increasingly difficult as supplies for ship building became fewer and fewer.  American submarines,  warships and planes were sinking the tankers faster than Yamaguchi and his co-workers could design and build them.  The work had forced Yamaguchi to be away from his family and he was thankful for the opportunity to see them again when he arrived at the Hiroshima train station on August 6th, 1945.

His joy turned to frustration – he had forgotten his hanko, or hand-stamp that allowed him to travel.  Rushing to his office, Yamaguchi noticed the American bomber in the sky above.  The bomber, any American bomber, was an unusual site over Hiroshima as the city had been spared the sort of conventional air campaign that had devastated the rest of the country.  The bomb dropped its cargo – one bomb in a parachute.

Above Yamaguchi, a great flash brightened the August morning sky, blinding him and knocking him to the ground.  Within that flash, 80,000 Japanese were instantly killed.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi – and the world – had witnessed the horrible birth of the atomic age.

Tokyo firebombed – the Allied conventional campaign could cause as much damage as the atom bombs did

With the narrative of how the first atomic bomb came to be dropped on Hiroshima, the inevitable question and debate rides alongside of it – should it have been?    Continue reading

The Feeding Frenzy

It was barely 14 minutes past midnight when the twin explosions, coming almost one on top of the other, rocked the U.S.S. Indianapolis on July 30th, 1945.

Coming from Guam by way of Tinian, few of the crew of the Indianapolis – and none of the crew of the Japanese submarine that had just given her a mortal wound – knew of the cargo she had just recently delivered.  The first atomic bomb had laid in her depths just days earlier.  The ship, having seen near constant action since 1942, was en route to Leyete to join Task Force 95 in sweeping the South China Sea of Japanese shipping.  She would never see her destination, sinking within 12 minutes of being hit.

Of the Indianapolis‘ 1,200 man crew, only 300 had perished when the ship went down, despite the speed of her sinking.  Nearly 900 men had thrown themselves into the vast expanse of the Pacific to avoid becoming trapped in the vessel as she listed and then rolled.  They leaped in with few rafts or lifejackets.  There had been no distress call.  The speed of the sinking meant the U.S. Navy had no idea so many of their sailors were in the water.

But the sharks knew.  And for the next nearly four days, almost another 600 men would be lost.

The U.S.S. Indianapolis – with a long Naval career and good speed, the Indianapolis was a logical choice to escort the first atomic bomb in 1945

There’s a temptation to believe that had the Indianapolis not been linked with the atomic bomb – and the tragedy of her sinking – the ship might never have been notable at all.  Rather, the Indianapolis had 13 years of distinguished, and interesting, service before meeting her untimely end.     Continue reading

The Brave New World

“To the victor belong the spoils.”

– Sen. William L. Marcy (1828)

It had been perhaps the strangest coalition in human history – the foremost democratic, colonial, and communist powers in the world, rallying together to defeat a nation antithetical to all of them, despite their immense differences.

Fear of defeat had united them; the prospects of victory had already been slowing dividing them.  By the time the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had gathered in mid-July of 1945 at Potsdam in Germany, their once-unified vision for the brave new world that would emerge from the carnage of war was breaking apart.  While there was still plenty of fighting to do to bring the last of the Axis powers down, the democratic and Wilsonian ideals pushed largely by the United States were quickly buckling under the weight of political reality.

The hopes of avoiding another Versailles-like post-war environment were fading.  The victors were eagerly eyeing their spoils.  And the red-hot war that had engulfed the globe was freezing over into a cold one.

The Victors: the dynamics of previous Allied conferences were no longer in play as Truman replaced FDR – determined to strike a harder, anti-Soviet tone

The world – and the participants – had looked much different just five months earlier at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945.    Continue reading


The shelters were scattered across the cool New Mexican desert, one in each direction, 5 miles away from the target – a simple wooden 100-foot tower, looking much like an oil derrick.  Yet for most of the observers, the VIP shelter 20 miles away seemed the safer bet.

The mood was tense.  The gathered collection of scientists and soldiers tried breaking the tension with betting pools on the power of the explosion they were about to witness.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the program, was on the low end of most of the predictions – only 30 tons of explosive power.  More confident scientists guessed the explosion would be 1,400 or 3,000 tons.  One pessimist wagered zero.

At 5:29am on the morning of July 16th, 1945, the “Gadget”, as it had come to be known, was triggered.  The surrounding mountains were said to have been lit up as though it was the middle of the day.  The shockwave could be felt 100 miles away.  A mushroom cloud 7.5 miles high was all that was left at the center of the detonation.  The explosion had the effect of 200 kilotons or 20,000 tons of TNT.

Operation Trinity – the testing of the first atomic bomb – had been a success.

The Los Alamos headquarters for the Manhattan Project.  An inauspicious backdrop to the most destructive weapon in human history

The path to Trinity had been an arduous one.  Six years, 130,000 workers, $2 billion worth of expenses (the equivalent of over $25 billion today), espionage and dissent all hallmarked the journey to the design, development and eventual use of the atom bomb.  It was a journey started in August of 1939 with nothing more than a letter.    Continue reading

The Last Act

It was well after 2:00am on May 7th, 1945 when the first cars pulled up to a little red schoolhouse in Reims, France.

Shuffling inside, and out of the cold morning air, were representatives of most of the major combatants in Europe.  Few were major commanders – the closest being Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, the chief of staff of Gen. Eisenhower.  Accompanied by the Soviet liaison officer Ivan Susloparov and French Major-General François Sevez, the Allies awaited their guests.

Arriving in an Allied-driven staff car, Generaloberst Alfred Jodl and his staff entered the schoolhouse.  Given the assignment of representing the German government by Admiral – and now, with the suicide of Adolf Hitler, President – Karl Dönitz, Jodl had arrived two days earlier with simple instructions – negotiate a surrender to the Western Allies only.  Eisenhower had made it clear to Jodl just hours earlier that only a complete unconditional surrender would be accepted.  Otherwise, Eisenhower would order the Western Front “closed” to German surrender, forcing the Nazis into the waiting arms of the Soviet Army.  Neither Dönitz or Jodl wished that fate.

At 2:41am on May 7th, 1945, Nazi Germany agreed to unconditionally surrender by the following day, May 8th.  The war in Europe was finally about to end.

German POWs in Soviet Custody – these men probably wouldn’t have smiled if they knew their fate. The Soviets confirmed that 380,000 German POWs died under their watch. Post-war estimates suggest that number was substantially higher

The events of May 7th/8th were the culmination of numerous, “smaller” surrenders over the preceding weeks. Continue reading

The Spectator

The sun was setting in the tiny hamlet of Giulino di Messegra as the Fascist prisoners were off-loaded from a truck.  The handful of men, and one woman, had spent the previous night in a cold farm house, having just been captured off a German convoy by Italian communist partisans.  The partisan’s local leader, Walter Audisio, ordered his prisoners to stand against a wall at the entrance to the Villa Belmonte.  One of the other partisans closely watched the prisoners, noting that the most prominent one among them “was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind. I read utter exhaustion, but not fear…[he] seemed completely lacking in will, spiritually dead.”

What happened next remains somewhat debated.  Audisio, reading orders from his superiors in the Italian Communist Party, supposedly issued a death sentence to those held captive.  He immediately aimed his machine gun at the group and squeezed the trigger.

The gun jammed.  The life of Benito Mussolini would gain a few additional seconds.

“Yes, madam, I am finished. My star has fallen. I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.”

Benito Mussolini to a Journalist in January of 1945

Mussolini’s Rescue – September, 1943: Despite the Italian government’s efforts to hide the former Il Duce, German intelligence quickly located him after the Italians switched sides

Benito Mussolini had spent a lifetime fighting.  Fighting Austrians and Germans in the Great War.  Fighting communists in the early days of the Fascist Party.  Fighting wars from Abyssinia to Greece.  By September of 1943, the deposed Italian Head of State, Il Duce (the leader) hadn’t the stomach for another battle. Continue reading

The Anti-Williams

On April 18, 1945, the war in Europe was almost over.

But the war in the Pacific was rising to a bloody climax – and to most observers, the worst looked to be yet to come.

On Okinawa, the largest amphibious operation of the Pacific War was raging, as the Japanese – finally pushed back to a piece of land that was (and is) considered part of the home islands – fought like hell against US soldiers and Marines, and gave the US Navy the bloodiest slog in its history, raining down kamikaze attacks that sank nearly fifty US and Canadian ships and killed nearly 5,000 US Navy sailors.

And on an island near Okinawa, Ie Shima, a small observation post located astride a route that would be vital to the upcoming invasion of Japan, a jeep attached the US 77th Infantry division, which had landed a few days earlier, probed the island for the small, isolated, doomed Japanese garrison.

In the jeep rode a colonel and another man, a 44 year old war correspondent.  A concealed Japanese machine gun opened fire.  The men dove into ditches on both sides of the trail, unharmed.

The correspondent poked his head out of the ditch to check on the welfare of his companion (and, apparently, Brian Williams).  He asked the colonel if he was OK – a shaved second before a followup burst that caught him in the head, killing him instantly.

The reporter, of course, was Ernie Pyle.  And he may have been that last journalist in American whose death was mourned outside America’s newsrooms and journalist bars.

Another Time:  If I’d had my way in high school, I’d have spent my life as some sort of news reporter; preferably in broadcast, but at that point I didn’t care much.  I was drawn to the idea of storytelling, especially telling real peoples’ real stories.  Just like Ernie Pyle.

These days, used car salesmen are generally regarded as more trustworthy than news reporters.

It wasn’t always that way, of course.  In the early seventies, reporters were lionized; Woodward and Bernstein and Seymour Hersh became heroes for “speaking truth to power” and other such conceits.

One of the things that brought the turnaround in journalists’ public esteem was public revulsion over their treatment of Vietnam; it was in Vietnam that the term “selective reporting” entered the lexicon; in covering the war, its aftermath, and its human cost among our veterans, the phrase “selective reporting” followed suit.

Within a decade of Walter Cronkite’s retirement, journalism toppled from being one of America’s most respected fields to one of the most reviled.

And most of that fall was utterly justified.

And even the apex, in the sixties and seventies, was a far cry from the thirties and forties, when the media were taken largely at face value, and even held in some esteem.

The modern American media as we know it today got its start during World War 2.  The war was the first great acid test of broadcast news, of live and nearly-live spot reporting, and of the celebrity journalist.  Edward R. Murrow was the prototype of the cool, detached anchor, who led to the sublime (Cronkite, himself a veteran of wartime spot reporting) and the ridiculous (Dan Rather, the entire staff at CNN).

And ahead of them all in public regard was Ernie Pyle.

The Wanderer:  Pyle, a native of Dana Indiana, had served three months as a Navy reservist in World War I.  Then he’d attended Indiana University, before dropping out to spend a brief career in Indiana media before moving to Washington DC.  There, he spent several years as a reporter and editor, while married to a deeply mentally ill woman.  +

Pyle as a college student.

Finally, in 1935, he went on the road, becoming a sort of roving syndicated columnist, picking up a tradition started by Heywood Broun, and which Charles Kuralt would eventually inherit.  He spent the waning years of the Depression roaming America’s small towns, writing “slice of life” pieces about ordinary Americans, becoming a C-list celeb in the process.

When the war started, he took those skills to war with him.  While most war correspondents stuck close to headquarters looking for the big picture, Pyle spend the war years in the field, in North Africa and Italy, including a stint trapped in the misbegotten beachhead at Anzio, and witnessing the Normandy invasion.  He was nearly killed in the same botched close-air-support bomber attack that killed General Leslie McNair and dozens of other GIs.

Throughout, he brought the same homespun style to covering America’s infantrymen and tankers and other grunts that he’d brought to covering hardware stores and custom combiners and shopkeepers in America’s hinterlands.  He’d been compared to Mark Twain before the war, and the comparison stuck while in action.

Pyle shares a cigarette and some stories with Marines on Okinawa, shortly before his death.

After the liberation of Paris, he’d taken some down time to recover from his own deep depression, before departing for the Pacific .

Not everyone was a fan; the Navy felt slighted by his coverage of the Navy’s war; Pyle for his part had always felt closer to the infantrymen and other foot-sloggers out in the mud and the weather, although he eventually learned more of the difficulties and horrors of the war at sea as well.

This led him to Ie Shima, seventy years ago today.

The news media has fallen a long way since the 1940s.  Some of it’s inevitable; there’s competition.  Some of it’s the media’s own doing; can anyone imagine the blow-dried hamsters that report today’s news slogging through the mud on an infantry patrol?

And part of it is that the major media is run by a self-appointed “elite” that doesn’t really care about mainstreet, or GI Joe, and hasn’t in forty years.

That didn’t die seventy years ago on Ie Shima, of course; but by the 1960 and 1970s, the idea of Ernie Pyle was more historical artifact than journalistic present tense.

“For The Tradition and Glory of the Navy”

The ship was already listing badly at 4:02pm when the order was given to abandon her on April 7th, 1945.  Seven torpedo hits, and countless bombs, were the source of belching smoke and fire that could be seen for miles.  The ship’s magazine stocks were engulfed in flame as well, reaching critical levels that might set off the ammunition.  The cooling pumps, designed to douse such fires, had long since been broken in the battle.

By 4:05pm, the ship was sinking, listing so badly that when the final wave of American torpedo bombers attacked, they actually struck the bottom of the hull.  The ship rolled completely to her side, her 70,000 tons shifting so dramatically that the ship’s forward magazines collided, setting off a massive explosion that was witnessed as far as 100 miles away.  3,055 of her 3,332 crew would join her at the bottom of the Pacific.

The largest battleship in history – the Yamato – was no more.

The Yamato in 1941 – along with her sister ship the Musashi and the German Bismarck – were the largest battleships that fought in World War II. All three would not survive the war

It could said that the Yamato was an anachronism by the time she first set sail in the fall of 1941.  After all, nearly 12 months before the Yamato launched the British were proving at Torino that the aircraft would soon reign supreme at sea.  But then, the Yamato was as much the product of political concerns as military ones. Continue reading

The Chinese Finger-Trap

Everywhere, Japan was in retreat.

In April of 1945, the Japanese Empire was being pushed on almost every front.  Americans bombers were decimating Japanese cities and industry.  British troops were reoccupying Burma.  U.S. forces were slowly driving Japanese troops out of their positions on Okinawa – all with frightening levels of casualties for Japanese soldiers and civilians alike.

But on one front, Japanese troops were advancing – China.  On April 6th, 1945, the Empire of Japan began their last offensive of the war.  An offensive they hoped would finally end the fighting on a front that had consumed nearly 10 million combatants and taken almost 25 million lives.

A Japanese soldier stands guard at the Great Wall. The Sino-Japanese War rivaled only the Eastern Front in terms of scale; over 25 million Chinese and Japanese died in China from 1937 to 1945. Even more were wounded

Throughout the course of this series, we haven’t commented on the fighting between China and Japan.  That’s unfortunate, because while World War II officially started on September 1st, 1939, it could just as easily have been said to have started on July 7th, 1937. Continue reading

“For Most Of The Things I’ve Seen, I Have No Words”

Buchenwald – the name means “Beech Forest” – was among the first of the concentration camps, built in 1937, two years before the war started.  And it was the first to be liberated by US troops – although many would follow in the weeks before the war ended.

The video, photographic and dramatic record we have of the liberation of the camps in the West is, of course, one of those things that makes anyone with a human soul wonder what the hell went wrong with humanity.  It certainly has for me over the years.

And yet inside Buchenwald in the days before liberation came proof of how not merely resilient, but powerful, humanity actually is.


Buchenwald was one of the first, and largest, in the SS’  Konzentrazionslager (Concentration Camp or “KZ”) system.  As such, it wasn’t specifically dedicated to exterminating people, like the later Vernichtungslagern (“Extermination Camps”, or “VZ”); the camp, which was actually the hub of a network of camps, provided slave labor for German war industries, agriculture and other enterprises.  But Buchenwald’s command, especially after the war started, emphasized the ideal of Vernichtung dürch Arbeit, “Extermination via Work” – best summed up by Oswald Pohl, the Nazi director, essentially, of slave labor:

The camp commander alone is responsible for the use of man power. This work must be exhausting in the true sense of the word in order to achieve maximum performance. […] There are no limits to working hours. […] Time consuming walks and mid-day breaks only for the purpose of eating are prohibited. […] He [the camp commander] must connect clear technical knowledge in military and economic matters with sound and wise leadership of groups of people, which he should bring together to achieve a high performance potential.

And so for eight years, Buchenwald saw an endless parade of victims.  Before the war, it was the Nazis’ political enemies – non-Nazi socialists, communists, clergy that wouldn’t go along with the Nazi’s co-option of the church, and of course Jews, the mentally ill, Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the physically-disabled and those with birth defects.  After the war started, the population boomed, with more Jews, Poles and other Slavs, and many prisoners of war – mostly Soviet, but some notable Americans as well.  Over the years, about a quarter-million people passed through the camp.  Official German records record the offical deaths of 56,000 of them, but inmates noted many – especially Soviet POWs – were routinely murdered before they could be registered.  Many others died after being “transferred to Gestapo custody”, shipment to other camps (especially VZs like Auschwitz, Majdanek and Sobibor) or, later in the war, forced marches elsewhere.

The camp’s inmates included the famous (Jewish political leaders from France, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands), the great (Dietrich Bonhöffer, the Lutheran theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, and Elie Wiesel, the humanitarian and Nazi-tracker), and the counterintuitive (Robert Clary, a young French-Jewish actor who’d go on to star as “Lebeau” in Hogan’s Heroes).

But most notable to today’s story and the theme of this series, there were a group of inmates who had, under the noses of the guards, built a resistance movement.  Over the years, the resistance bided its time, shunting children into less-demanding jobs (and taught them skilled trades, to forestall their being shipped to extermination camps), and eventually stealing or otherwise purloining weapons.

And one inmate – Polish engineer Gwidon Damazyn, deported to the camp in 1941 – incredibly managed to build a radio transceiver and a small generator, which were carefully concealed beneath a barracks floor.  Using this, the inmates’ resistance committee were able to track the Allies’ progress across Europe, and wait for their moment of liberation.

Touch And Go:  As the Americans closed in on Buchenwald and other camps in the west. the Germans got nervous.  While the Soviets had liberated several camps in Poland as early as July of 1944, including the Majdanek extermination camp, the fact that the news was filtered through the Soviets – who were often clumsy propagandists – meant the horrific news was taken with a large grain of credulous salt in the West.

The Germans knew it’d be another matter with the Western allies.  And so the plan went through – destroy Buchenwald, and its inmates.

Plans started falling into place to evacuate the prisoners via forced march to other camps in the interior (or mass death by starvation and shooting).

But the plans were slowed by the guards’ incipient panic – many checked out and ran before the plans could be carried out – and sabotage by the inmates.

But on the evening of April 10, the inmates figured their window of opportunity was closing.  Every day that passed was a day closer to the Nazis pulling the plug on the whole thing.  But to rebel without Allies nearby  – as earlier inmate rebellions in the Warsaw Ghetto and the extermination camps at Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz had had no choice but to do, in the wilds of rural Poland and long before the tide of war turned – would be suicide.  Pointless suicide, with the war clearly nearly over.

So at noon on April 8, 1945, engineer Damazyn and Russian POW Konstantin Leonov took the radio out of hiding, and fired up the transmitter; Damazyn keyed a message in English and German Morse code to any allied units that could hear; Leonov did the same in Russian.

To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.

The men keyed the messages three times in each language.

Finally – three minutes after the last transmission – an unknown radioman at Patton’s headquarters replied:

KZ Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.

Damazyn reportedly fainted when the reply came through.

The rest of the Buchenwald resistance moved into action.  They dug out their stash of weaopns – an incredible 91 rifles and one machine gun – and, three days later on April 11, stormed the guard towers, killing the guards that hadn’t fled.

One prisoner walked into the vacant administrative building, and picked up a ringing telephone.   On the other end was a Gestapo officer, asking when they could drop off the truckloads of explosives, to blow up the camp and its inmates.

The prisoner cooly told the Gestapo that the camp had already been blown up.

And that did the trick.

About four hours later, the halftracks of a company of 200 riflemen of the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion, under Captain Fred Keffer, part of Patton’s 6th Armored Division, gingerly entered the camp.  That company was the first of a flood of Westerners who’d follow and witness what they discovered with their own eyes.   The things they saw are a part of one of the most wrenching public moments of truth in human history.

And the rest is history.

Many other camps were liberated in the month before the war ended; Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Teresienstadt, Ohrdruf, Nordhausen, and dozens of others.  But Buchenwald, along with Dachau, was the first major camp to get the full attention of the western media – including Edward R. Murrow, who produced one of the most immortal news reports in the history of broadcasting:

His report is sonorously grim, and horrific for all Murrow omitted

 “I reported what I saw – but only part of it.  For most of what I saw, I have no words”.

And yet it had been those same skeletal, starved, half-dead men, the ones Murrow described, who had summoned the energy not only to survive, but – in a miracle of stealth, guile and craft – to kill their tormentors in their hour of liberation.


It was reading the story of the Buchenwald uprising, among the other uprisings, the Warsaw Ghetto and Sobibor and Treblinka and Auschwitz itself, as a high school kid that rocked me back on my heels; this, I thought to myself, is why the people must never be disarmed.  This was why our forefathers had the wisdom to recognize our God-given right to armed self-defense; this, and moreso, to prevent it from ever happening again.

And beyond that?  When the people are armed, these are the miracles they, humiliated wretches, starved and sick and beaten and fighting against a brutal, well-fed enemy though they may be, can wrench from nowhere.

The Hail Mary Shot

There’s nothing shooters like more than a good fish story.

And there is no group of shooters that participates in legend-mongering with as much glee as partisans of the Colt M1911A1, which was the service handgun of the US military for over eighty years, and over 100 years after its development is still one of the world’s premier defensive firearms. 

But 72 years ago today, this story – possibly but probably not aprocryphal – may have established itself as the grand-daddy of all handgun legends.

In 1943, the Tenth Air Force was the smallest, most isolated, and most under-reported unit in the US militiary.  Flying out of airfields in rural India, they hauled supplies over the Himalayas – “over the Hump” – to support US and Chinese troops cut off from the coast by Japanese invaders; they also harassed the Japanese supply lines. 

On one of those raids, by the 9th Bomber Squadron of the 7th Bomb Group, was against a railroad bridge between Rangoon (today called “Yangon”) and Mandalay, in Japanese-occupied Burma.  One of the planes – at the right wing of the squadron leader – was a B-24 “Liberator” flown by 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Jensen.  His co-pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Owen Baggett. 

On the approach to the bridge, the formation was attacked by Japanese fighters.  The squadron leader was badly wounded; Jensen’s plane took severe damage.  After an uncontrollable fire broke out, Jensen ordered the crew to bail out.  Five of the nine man crew escaped before the plane exploded.

The Japanese pilots then began shooting at the airmen in their  parachutes, killing two of them, and grazing 2LT Baggett’s arm with a bullet.

And then…:

The pilot who had hit Baggett circled to finish him off or perhaps only to get a better look at his victim. Baggett pretended to be dead, hoping the Zero pilot would not fire again. In any event, the pilot opened his canopy and approached within feet of Baggett’s chute, nose up and on the verge of a stall. Baggett, enraged by the strafing of his helpless crew mates, raised the .45 automatic concealed against his leg and fired four shots at the open cockpit. The Zero stalled and spun in.

Jensen, Baggett and one of the gunners were captured by the Japanese.  And it was in a POW camp that Baggett learned the unbelievable:

A few months later, Col. Harry Melton, commander of the 311th Fighter Group who had been shot down, passed through the POW camp and told Baggett that a Japanese colonel said the pilot Owen Baggett had fired at had been thrown clear of his plane when it crashed and burned. He was found dead of a single bullet in his head. Colonel Melton intended to make an official report of the incident but lost his life when the ship on which he was being taken to Japan was sunk. Two other pieces of evidence support Baggett’s account: First, no friendly fighters were in the area that could have downed the Zero pilot. Second, the incident took place at an altitude of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. The pilot could have recovered from an unintentional stall and spin. Retired Colonel Baggett, now living in San Antonio, Tex., believes he shot down the Japanese pilot, but because that judgment is based on largely indirect and circumstantial evidence, he remains reluctant to talk much about it. We think the jury no longer is out. There appears to be no reasonable doubt that Owen Baggett performed a unique act of valor, unlikely to be repeated in the unfolding annals of air warfare.

Try that with a .357 Magnum!

Great Danes

At roof-top levels, the British de Havilland Mosquito F.B.VI fast bombers buzzed through the heart of Copenhagen on March 21st, 1945.  The 18 bombers, supported by 30 P-51 Mustang fighters, raced past shocked German anti-aircraft gunners.

Their target was the Shellhus, the headquarters of the Gestapo in occupied-Denmark.  With Allied forces breaking through the German lines in both the East and West, the sense that the war had but months or weeks or go was becoming rapidly apparent.  For the dozens of Danish resistance fighters imprisoned in the Shellhus, an attack by the RAF might be their only hope of escaping execution.  Despite the risks of attacking a target in the middle of a heavily-fortified city, both for civilians and attacking pilots (one plane flew so low that it was clipped by a lamp post), the British went ahead.

The raid would be among the last acts in the unique history of Denmark’s survival under Nazi occupation.

Danish troops the morning of the German invasion in 1940 – 2 of the young men in this photo were killed later that day. In all, it only took the Germans 6 hours to subdue Denmark – the shortest campaign of World War II

The history of Nazi Germany’s occupation throughout Europe was one of human degradation and political humiliation for the vanquished.  Where German boots touched the ground, the Nazis found either willing collaborators like Norway’s Vidkun Quisling or politically expedient allies like the Vichy French.  Whether direct or in-direct, Nazi rule bled into every facet of the society of its occupied victims.

Except in Denmark. Continue reading

9,300 Fire Balloons

By the standards of the preceding weeks, the activity at Hanford on the night of March 10th, 1945 was relatively quiet.

The Hanford Site, sitting on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, was the first large-scale plutonium production reactor in the world.  The facility had just produced the plutonium delivered for the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico a month earlier.  While that first batch of plutonium had taken Hanford over a month to produce, the site was now quickly shipping large quantities of plutonium every five days as the first atomic bombs were being assembled.  The work was top secret (few staff even knew what they were producing or why) and extremely dangerous.

Thus few could have anticipated the explosion outside the site that knocked out power to the reactor’s cooling pumps.  Without electricity running the cooling pumps, the reactor could have easily melted down.  Who could have known the military value of Hanford, yet alone where to strike at such a vulnerable part of the site?  The answer was even harder to believe – the explosion had been the result of a billion-to-one shot; a bomb from a Japanese Fu-go or “fire balloon.”

Fu-go yourself: the Japanese launched 9,300 “fire balloons”, or Fu-go’s, at North America in the later months of the war. Highly ineffective, they nevertheless caused considerable concern in Washington

From the moment Japanese bombs had fallen on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial High Command had dreamed of striking the American homeland.  And while there were a handful of incidents throughout 1942 of Japanese submarines shelling the U.S. and Canadian coasts, these were, at best, singular attempts to cause panic.  A concentrated campaign against the American interior had not been given serious consideration.  An earlier proposal of putting the Japanese equivalent of a submarine “wolf-pack” together to strike Los Angeles on Christmas Eve in 1941 had been dismissed amid Japanese concerns about potential retaliation. Continue reading


It was 70 years ago today, as US Marines were fighting the most brutal battle of their war, trying to eke out a foothold out on a tiny volcanic rock about one third the size of Manhattan named Iwo Jima – that five Marines and a navy medic raised an American flag atop Mount Suribachi, long extinct volcano.

As it happens, photographer Joe Rosenthal was there to record the image – one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century:


The story of that flag raising, and of the six Marines – three of whom were killed before the battle ended, over a month later – is pretty well-known.

Less well-known is the fact that it was the second such flag raising, a reenactment of an event that that had happened a few hours earlier. A small group of other Marines – including a young flamethrower operator from Linton North Dakota, Charles Lindberg – had tied a flag to a piece of scrap pipe and hoisted it atop the mountain earlier that morning.


The flag was smaller, and less imposing, but no less a symbol to the Marines clinging to their foothold on the beach below.

Lindbergh wrote a book about his experiences in the early 1960s , which I read in high school. Lynberg moved to the Twin Cities not long after, and lived at his days as an electrician. David Strom interviewed him on his leg, great radio show about 10 years ago; one of my great regrets is not having gotten to interview him before he passed away.

Common Virtue

At first, Corporal Ellis didn’t understand what he was seeing.

Two stranglers, dressed in U.S. Army field uniforms easily two sizes too big were limping down by an access road to the airbase on Iwo Jima.  At 9:30 in the morning, they weren’t hard to spot, seeing that the small island, not even a third the size of Manhattan, was mostly flat other than the imposing volcanic mountain of Mount Suribachi at the extreme southwest end of the island.  The men were Asian and looked extremely malnourished.  They put up no fight as Corporal Ellis took them into custody.

At the airfield, the men identified themselves as Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki, members of a Japanese machine gun unit and part of the island’s defense force.  They felt ashamed that they had defiled their orders to resist the American invasion.  Their American captors had assumed the men were from a nearby Chinese ship, as their story seemed too unbelievable to be taken seriously.

It was January 6th, 1949.

Such was the tenacity of the Japanese soldiers who met U.S. Marines on February 19th, 1945 – one of the few land battles of the Pacific War that saw more American casualties than Japanese.

Iwo Jima (Sulfur Island in Japanese). Iwo must have felt like Hell for the 70,000 Marines and 22,000 Japanese troops who fought on this tiny, isolated island in the middle of the Pacific

By the beginning of 1945, there was barely any pretext of victory for Japan’s military planners. Continue reading

“The Greatest American Battle of the War”

The cold had taken its toil – on American and German alike.

The remnants of the U.S. Third Army, the majority of which had, under the leadership of Gen. George S. Patton, moved to relieve the surrounded men of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, Belgium, were now exhausted.  Furious German counterattacks from Unternehmen Nordwind (Operation North Wind) had bloodied both sides.  On January 25th, 1945, more than a month after launching the largest offensive of the Western Front through the Ardennes, the Wehrmacht had not only stopped punching, but were back on the front they started from.

The “Battle of the Bulge” – the largest single battle of the war in the West was over – at the staggering cost of perhaps as many as 108,000 American casualties.

The German Advance: few expected the Germans to attack, and even fewer thought it would come from the Ardennes

By the winter of 1944, distance, not determination, was the only factor keeping the Allies from delivering the final blow to the Nazi regime. Continue reading

The Bloody Return

For weeks, minesweepers had combed the vast expanse of the ocean to the south of Luzon, the major island in the Philippine archipelago.  Filipino guerrillas had begun operating in the open in the south of the massive island, and the Japanese had even heard reports of paratroopers and gliders operating in the nearby countryside.  U.S. warplanes constantly bombed Japanese positions in southern Luzon.  The location of the Allied invasion of Luzon seemed obvious.

It was all an elaborate ruse.  The “paratroopers” were dummies.  The guerrillas, minesweepers and bombers – diversions.  The real target for the start of the liberation of the Philippines was further north, at Lingayen, far to the north of Manila.  And unfortunately for American landing troops on January 9th, 1945, the Japanese had not been fooled in the slightest.

He Returned: MacArthur wades ashore Leyte in Oct of 1944. Luzon, the main Philippine island, was viewed publicly as the “real” start of the liberation of the country – a liberation most of the U.S. command fought against conducting

Continue reading

North Dakota’s Greatest Sailor

Today’s story ties together a bunch of my favorite themes; Epic Historical Events that happen as a series of happenstances and blunders; second-chance redemption stories; untold stories of great significance.

But most of all, it’s the story a maritime people sweeping the seas of their foes.

The maritime people, in this case, is North Dakotans.

We Come From The Land Of The Ice And Snow:  Joseph Enright was born in 1910 in Minot, North Dakota.

Enright, near his retirement in 1963, as a Captain.

He graduated from Annapolis, spent three years on the battleship USS Maryland, and then transferred to submarines, qualifying as a sub officer in 1936.  As the Navy, and especially the submarine service, grew frenetically before World War II – part of FDR’s version of “shovel ready jobs”, as well as getting ready for the war everyone on both sides of the Pacific knew was inevitable – Enright moved up fast, serving on the crews of the World War I-vintage subs S-35 and S-22; not long after the war started in 1942, with a new promotion to Lieutenant Commander, Enright was given command of an even older boat, the USS O-10, a predecessor of the S-boats, used as a training ship.

USS O-10

The early years of the war were tumultuous ones in the submarine service; equipment problems dogged American submariners’ efforts for the first 18 months.  It didn’t take long for a combat command billet to open up for Lt. Commander Enright; he assumed command of the brand-new USS Dace.

USS Dace, which went on to a stellar war career.  In one notable episode in 1944, after participating in sinking two Japanese cruisers and damaging a third, it rescued the entire crew of the USS Darter, which had run aground in an area crawling with Japanese ships.  It ended up in the post-war Italian fleet from 1955 to 1975.

Take Me Out, Coach:  He took command of the boat in July of 1943.  By November, he had the boat worked up and ready for action.  The boat’s first war patrol took it into Japanese home waters.

Enright, aboard Dace.

On November 15, a few weeks into the patrol, directed by an intercept from the US Navy’s “Ultra” cryptography unit, Enright and Dace were directly in the path of the Japanese aircraft carrier IJN Shokaku, one of two surviving carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor.  Enright made contact with the carrier’s task group – a powerfully-escorted force, dangerous to attack – but couldn’t quite maneuver into position by daybreak; in his own report, he described having made a “timid approach, breaking off as daylight approached”.  Later in the patrol, an attempt on a Japanese tanker ended with a sound depth-charging at the hands of Japanese escort ships.

The seven week patrol ended with no sinkings.  Disappointed in his own performance, Enright asked to be relieved of command.  Admiral Lockwood, the crusty submariner who commanded all US subs in the Pacific, obliged, as he had not a few earlier officers who’d decided they didn’t pack the gear.  Enright was assigned to administrative duties at the Midway Island submarine station.

And with most officers relieved of a combat command, that’s where it would have ended.

Redemption:  After six months of administrative penance, Enright asked Lockwood for another shot.

Incredibly, Lockwood said yes, assigning him to command the USS Archerfish.

USS Archerfish

Archerfish had had almost as disappointing a war as Enright so far.  In four war patrols, they had attempted three attacks, for zero kills.  They hadn’t even seen a ship on two patrols, and had spent one patrol on “lifeguard” duty off Iwo Jima, rescuing one shot-down naval aviator from the water.

Crew of the Archerfish on Guam, Christmas 1945, on their way home from their fateful fifth war patrol.  I’m not positive, but I think that’s Enright, in the baseball cap, on the far left of Row 2.

And so in October, Enright took Archerfish out on its fifth war patrol.  From November 11 to November 28, the boat cruised off the Japanese coast not far from Tokyo, on “lifeguard” station again – cruising in a small, fixed area that damaged American B-29 bombers could get to if they were too badly damaged to make it back to their airbase on Saipan.

With the cancellation of the day’s strikes on November 28, Archerfish was cut free from lifeboat duty, and was free to patrol.

And there, toward dark, his lookouts spotted what they originally thought to be a Japanese tanker, with an unusually heavy escort of three first-line destroyers, leaving Tokyo Bay.

Enright and his officers soon figured out it was actually an aircraft carrier; the ship was moving at a good clip, zig-zagging toward the south.  The officers worked out the math, and moved Archerfish as fast as its 20-knot surface speed could manage, to get it into position for a shot at the one point in the zig-zag they could intercept.

After six hours of maneuvering – much on the surface, but the last stretch underwater to avoid detection – the ship zagged into Archerfish’s path.  Enright ordered all six of the boat’s forward torpedo tubes fired, and watched as the first torpedoes hit and the ship began to list, before ordering the boat deep to avoid a depth-charging.

Four of Enright’s torpedoes hit the ship.  Although Enright never did see the final outcome, his sonarmen could hear the sound of internal compartments rupturing, the unmistakeable sound of steel ripping and crumpling. They knew they’d drawn blood.

They returned to Pearl Harbor, claiming an aircraft carrier.  The Navy staff was certain it had to have been a cruiser; they were pretty sure there were no surviving Japanese aircraft carriers in the area.  They grudgingly credited Enright and Archerfish with a light carrier after Enright sketched what he’d seen through the periscope in great detail.

The Big Kahuna:  They were both wrong.

The ship was the IJN Shinano, at 70,000 tons the largest aircraft carrier ever built.

The only known photo ever taken of Shinano (other than one taken from an Air Force reconaissance plane), on its very brief sea trials in Tokyo Bay, days before its sinking, taken by a civilian photographer on a harbor tug, who had no idea that he was committing a capital offense (for which he was thankfully never discovered).

The ship had started life as a sister ship to the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi, the biggest battleships ever built to this very day.  As it became clear that the age of the superbattleship had ended and the aircraft carrier was here to stay, the Shinano was converted into a large aircraft carrier.  It retained much of its battleship structure, including armor.

It had been built under complete secrecy, so paranoid that most of the Japanese fleet knew nothing about it; built in a covered drydock, by workers sworn to secrecy on pain of death by beheading, with no mention of it ever made on the radio or any other medium that the Allies could monitor.  It was the only major warship of the 20th century never to have an official construction photograph.  Shinano was in fact a complete surprise to the Allies – so complete, in fact, that they didn’t believe what Enright had sunk until they looked at records after the war.

It was the largest aircraft carrier ever built (until the American supercarriers of the 1950s through today).  It was the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine – and one of the largest ever sunk in combat, period (only its half-sisters, Yamato and Musashi, were bigger).

The moral of the story?

Forget F. Scott Fitzgerald; America is all about second acts.  Enright came back from palookaville to score one of the biggest notches in the history of naval warfare.

And watch out for North Dakotans.  We’re a maritime people.

And we know how to break things.


It was a solemn march to the Hôtel Meurice in Paris for German General Dietrich von Choltitz on August 25, 1944.  The German Army in Normandy had been smashed.  The encircled Falasie pocket, containing 50,000 German troops – the last of the men who had defended Normandy – had given up.  American General George S. Patton’s Third Army was running wild through the disoriented German lines.

As for Paris, the Meurice had become, just hours before, the advance headquarters of Free French General Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque, better known simply as Leclerc – de Gaulle’s de facto right-hand man.  Despite explicit orders from the Führer himself to destroy Paris, von Choltitz chose instead to surrender the city without a fight (whether this was out of a desire of self-preservation or the preservation of Paris became the subject of great debate after the war).

The City of Lights was back in the hands of Allied forces.  While history credited so many famous names with Paris’ eventual liberation, perhaps the greatest credit is due to a man few would ever know – Juan Pujol Garcia, better known as the double-agent “Garbo.”

Juan Pujol Garcia – his intelligence work as the double-agent “Garbo” convinced the Axis that the Normandy invasion would come at the Pas de Calais – so much so that the Germans never truly left their positions

Continue reading


The Polish National Anthem is a song that conveys the central theme of Polish nationalism over the past 300 years; it’s always been undereground, or elsewhere. 

Polish English
 Jeszcze Polska nie zginela,
Kiedy my zyjemy.
Co nam obca przemoc wziela,
Szabla odbierzemy.
Our Poland has not yet perished.
As long as we remain,
What the foe by force has seized,
Sword in hand we’ll gain.

 The song goes on to list decades, centuries of betrayals, and false hopes (the Poles bet long on Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars, and paid horribly for it). 

Seventy years ago today, one of the great examples of heroism, and the most ignoble examples of betrayal, launched.

 The Armed Citizenry:  The first European country to fall to the Nazis, the Poles were the first to organize their resistance.  Tens of thousands of Poles fled through Romania to North Africa, thence to France (we’ve written about some of them), and to Britain; others defected to the Soviets, and fought in the Red Army. 

Among Poles that remained, several resistance movements started.  Polish Communists formed a large underground force. It was (like most communists) internationalistic, and allied with Moscow, and one of the two Polish governments-in-exile.  

But the biggest group, the Armia Krajowa or “Home Army”, was Polish nationalists. 

The flag of the Armija Krajowa.

 They were intensely nationalistic; some were monarchists; most importantly, they owed their allegiance to the government in exile in London.   The Armia was , in every particular, a shadow government and military operating under the Nazis’ noses, complete with an underground media, rudimentary education and social services, and underground weapons plants producing explosives, grenades and bombs, and even small arms.  And, most of all, a military.  Estimates of strength vary between 250,000 and 600,000, with most estimates coagulating around 400,000. 

An AK unit along the Burza river, 1944

And at times the Communists and the Armia Krajowa fought each others more than the Nazis (and after World War 2, this would continue). 

“But how will you fight tanks with rifles?” An AK unit on a captured German “Panther” tank, 1944.

But both managed to spare plenty of aggression for the Nazis; both movements caused immense damage to the Nazi war machine.  The AK in particular focused on attacking the road and rail grid through Poland, which connected the German industrial heartland with the war front in Russia.  It’s estimated that an 1/8 of all German trains through Poland were either destroyed or severely delayed – and that transferred into shortages of ammunition, food, and troops at the front as the brutal meatgrinder of the Eastern Front dragged on toward its fourth unprecedently bloody year. 

Opportunity:  But seventy years ago, the tide of war had turned.  Stalingrad had fallen over a year earlier; the last major German attack at Kursk had failed, and the German front in Russia was collapsing ever more rapidly back on the Fatherland. 

And as the Red Army moved into Poland, the Armia Krajowa readied its greatest operation; a revolt to eject the Germans from Warsaw, and welcome the Soviets as liberators. 

Seventy years ago today, on August 1, 1944, the Armia Krajowa launched the Warsaw Uprising. 

The story is told in the great detail it deserves in many places; suffice to say that the AK took much of the city, but failed to overrun several key German strongpoints, including the bridges over the Wisla river, or Mokotow airport, into which it had been hoped supplies could be flown from the USSR or even Britain. 

AK troops herding captured German troops into captivity. While the AK tried to act like the Geneva-Convention signing force that Poland had been, the SS massacred thousands of AK prisoners and innocent civilians.

Still, the AK – very well-armed for an underground force, with improvisations including a homemade armored car – controlled much of the city, and engaged the Nazis in what Heinrich Himmler called the most brutal street street fighting since Stalingrad.  By the end of August, the Germans controlled the main strongpoints – and the Poles, most of the rest of the city. 

An AK soldier with a captured German flamethrower.

All that remained was for the Soviets to drive the Germans out of the eastern suburbs, and cross the bridges over the Wisla. 

AK troops, with captured German helmets as well as a German MG42 machine gun, during the Uprising.

Halt:  But although the Soviets fought their way to the east bank of the Wisla by mid-September, they pressed the attacks slowly, allowing the Germans to blow the bridges connecting Warsaw with Praga, the main east-bank suburb. 

And there, they halted. 

And slowly, through attrition and supply exhaustion (despite an effort to airdrop supplies by British, US and Polish exile air forces flying from the UK), the Armia Krajowa was ground down, with about half the original 50,000 combatants escaping into the woods, leaving behind over 200,000 dead civilians – killed in the battle or murdered by Germans in wholesale lots, until even the SS realized it was only making the Poles fight harder – and nearly 10,000 dead Germans, and a city that was destroyed nearly to the last building. 

SS troops advancing through “Old Town”, the first major AK stronghold to fall. The SS – which included Russian POWs as well as ethnic Aryan Germans, all of whom hated the Poles – was especially brutal during the uprising.

Belatedly, the Soviets, under General Rokossovskii, allowed a number of Polish exile units fighting under the Soviet flag – “Berling’s Army” – to attempt to cross the Wisla; 5,000 casualties and no significant benefit resulted. 

Of course, there had never been any intent to cross the Wisla and rescue the AK on Stalin’s part; the pause on the east bank was done entirely to allow the Germans to kill off as many conservatives, monarchists and western-aligned troops as possible, so that he’d not have to do it himself later.  And the costly frittering-away of Berling’s Army?  A bloody whittling-down of two forces the Russians needed cut down to size; uppity Poles in Soviet uniforms, and Germans. 

When the Soviets finally took Warsaw and the rest of Poland, they installed a puppet government that lasted 45 more years.  Many of the survivors of the Armia Krajowa fought on until the late forties, even the early fifties, killing communists long after all hope of relief from the West was gone. 

I always thought the Polish Anthem should add a verse dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising.

Good Intentions

Seventy years ago today, a 500-pound bomb from an American bomber that dropped its payload miles short of its intended target fell 20,000 feet, and landed squarely on top of Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

General Lesley McNair, who died – spectacularly – 70 years ago today.

Literally. The bomb fell directly into McNair’s foxole, landing physically directly on top of the three star general. McNair was dead from being hit by 500 pounds of metal screaming earthward at 600 miles per hour, even before the bomb exploded.

But explode it did, further mangling the unlucky general’s body so badly that the only parts that were immediately recognizable were the three gold stars from his collar, found some distance away from the bomb crater that remodeled the general’s foxhole.

The graves registration detail found the parts the best they could – which is exactly as difficult a job as you might imagine for a body that had been almost literally wrapped around 400 pounds of explosives and 100 or so pounds of steel. His mortal coil thus uncoiled and then re-coiled, he was buried at the American Cemetary in Normandy – the senior American interred at this most holy of shrines to America’s sacrifice in Europe.

He was one of four American three-star generals killed in action during the war.

It wasn’t McNair’s first brush with death; he’d been wounded by German artillery in North Africa the previous year.

McNair (center) in Tunisia. The day after this photo was taken, McNair was wounded by fragments from a German artillery shell.

But neither his bad luck nor his bravery were the the most notable thing about General Lesley McNair. For while his death was one for the trivia contests, his life was of immense impact – much of it controversial to this day.

For while generals like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall, Patton, Bradley, Clark, MacAuliffe and Gavin were household names in America, then and (mostly, and among historians) now, there were few men in history who had more to do with how America fought the war, and the lot of the American fighting man, than Lieutenant General Lesley McNair.

And most of the legacy was just as bad as McNair’s end was spectacular and bizarre.

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