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

Trinity

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

Anniversary

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:

IMG_3286.JPG

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.

IMG_3287.JPG

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

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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.

Garbo

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

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Betrayal

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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Logistics

“Mediocre minds discuss strategy; Good minds discuss tactics; Great minds discuss logistics”
– Unknown, possibly aprocryphal

Every “war” in the living memory of any American under the age of probably 60 has been the sort of thing a peasant in the 1700s might recognize; a country’s professional military duking it out with another country’s military, or with insurgents in some unruly province, while back things went on more or less as normal.

The idea of “total war” – the complete mobilization of every factor of a nation’s economy toward a war effort – sounds completely foreign to people today.  The idea that entire nations would devote their entire economies – down to the food on one’s table – to defeating an enemy who similiarly engaged?  That may as well be words from another language.

But seventy years ago today, there were not one but two separate stories that illustrated how deeply America’s raw industrial output affected the outcome of history’s greatest war.

Shorefront:  For centuries, the greatest problem with launching an amphibious invasion – landing troops from the sea to not merely harass the enemy and leave, but to stay and conquer their target – wasn’t landing the troops on the shore.  Any boat can land a group of soldiers on a beach; with enough courage and skill, they can overwhelm the defenses (if any) and prevail.

The hard part is keeping those troops supplied.  You can’t just land soldiers and expect them to keep moving; you need to supply them with ammunition, food and clothing.  Their artillery support needs to land.  And they all need ammunition.  Vehicles – jeeps, tanks, personnel carriers, to fight the battles, and trucks to carry supplies to the troops at the front – all have to be landed, as well as fuel, oil and spare parts for all the vehicles.  And the men; field hospitals, replacment soldiers, medicine, body bags.  And ever more of all the above.

The irreducible fact of fighting a war across any sizeable body of water is that the bridgehead, sooner or later, would need to capture an intact port, with dock facilities capable of unloading ships full of cargo to be tranported to the front.  Cranes, wharves, warehouses, roads and railroads, all the infrastructure needed to accept, unload, sort, transfer and dispatch cargo to the front to support millions of fighting and support soldiers – there was only one way to get those.

In the case of D-Day, it was complicated by the fact that the same geography that made the invasion beaches usable for the initial assault – a long, gently sloping shelf out from the beaches, with shallow water extending out hundreds of yards – made it exceptionally difficult to bring in cargo ship, which have deep “drafts” – they run aground in water less than 20-30 feet deep.

Or that was the conventional wisdom.  British and American engineers, in the runup to D-Day, hatched the idea of the “Mulberry” – an artificial harbor, capable of providing a shelter from the weather of the English Channel, and instant wharves and jetties and docks built straight out from the invasion beaches, capable of unloading bulk lots of cargo from ships designed to carry lots of it, in water deep enough for the ships to approach and navigate.  They consisted of…:

  • A “breakwater” constructed of long chains of sunken ships and large concrete boxes, to create an area of calm water
  • Instant docks made out of large, prefabricated cement and steel sections that would be towed to the beach and moored in place.
  • Long stretches of floating roadway to join the beach to the docks, so trucks could take unloaded cargo from the jetties directly to the beach, and thence to the road system.

    The Arromanches Mulberry, in service.

 

There were two Mullberries – an American one off Omaha Beach, and a British one off Sword Beach.  And in the two weeks since D-Day, the two harbors had been erected, and had started their job of moving cargo…

Floating roadways in from a Mulberry dock to the beach.

…when, seventy years ago tonight, a huge gale struck Normandy.  The American Mulberry, anchored in softer sand, was broken apart; floating roadways were washed away; docks were pulled out of place and damaged beyond repair.

The British Mulberry was badly damaged, and out of service for a few days – but it served on at reduced capacity until, later than fall, the Allies finally captured the port of Antwerp (after the Germans destroyed the ports facilities at Cherbourg, Le Havre and Dunkirk).

The remains of the British Mulberry can be seen from Google Maps today, off “Sword” beach, at the French city of Arromanches.

What that meant was the Allies – especially the Americans – had to do what had been considered impossible; bring in all the supplies needed for a huge army, “over the beach”.

And there was the other huge American success story; they pulled it off, using hundreds of “Landing Ship, Tank” vessels.

A row of LSTs, disgorging cargo at Utah Beach.

About 300 feet long, fairly flimsy by naval standards, but designed to run up in waters less than five feet deep to drop off tanks almost directly onto the beach, an “LST” could also carry trucks loaded with supplies that could drive onto the beach with needed cargoes.

And the US built well over 1,000 of them.

LST-1, the first of well over a thousand nearly identical ships. Some are still afloat today.

So when the pre-invasion calculus of moving supplies to the troops got blown away seventy years ago tonight, there was a “Plan B” – raw, brute carrying force.

Raw Numbers:  Meanwhile, halfway around the world, the Battle of the Philippine Sea – the run-up to the invasion of the Philippines – was underway.

Let’s go back in time a bit, first.

Two years ago, the US Pacific Fleet was far from recovered from Pearl Harbor.  For that matter, it was reeling from losses at Coral Sea, Midway, and the Solomon Islands.

At one point, the US was down to two carriers – the Saratoga and theEnterprise – afloat in the Pacific.  We had had to resort to the subterfuge of “borrowing” the British carrierVictoriousfor a few months, and masquerading it as an American ship, to deceive the Japanese.

But in the intervening two years, the US had commissioned nearly a dozen new “fleet” carriers (each carrying 90 aircraft), and nine “light” carriers (converted cruisers, designed mostly to carry fighter escorts for the main fleet, and carrying about 40 planes).  More importantly, its pilots had gone from a mass of untrained college graduates to a highly-trained force adept at handing down hard-won experience from combat veterans to newbie pilots.

Five “Essex” Class Carriers – all commissioned since 1942; more carriers than the US actually owned in 1941.  There were eventually nearly twenty Essexes.

In the meantime, the Japanese Naval Air Service – in 1942 perhaps the most elite body of pilots in the world – had been ground down by massive casualties at Midway, whittled away in other battles across the Pacific…

…and finally, launched into an epic attack on the American fleet.

Which led, seventy years ago tonight, to “the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

Nearly 600 Japanese planes were shot down; the US Navy lost about 120, two-thirds of them due to running out of fuel while attempting to attack the Japanese fleet (which escaped, although not without terrible cost) at extreme range.

Japanese fighter going down at the Battle of the Philippine Sea – one of nearly 600 lost in two days.

The battle left the Japanese navy’s air service with enough trained aircrew to fit out one light carrier; without air cover, there was no question of the Japanese Navy undertaking any non-suicidal offensive action for the rest of the war.

And the bulk of the backstory for this pivotal battle came down to industrial production; the United States had replaced its casualties from Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, Midway and the Solomons at least twice over (and even more so in terms of smaller warships, supply vessels and especially aircraft and aircrew).

The battle spelled the end of any rational Japanese threat in the Pacific.

And between both episodes, on both sides of the world, it showed what a crushingly immense thing US productivity was.

Back To The Future

It’s been about a decade now since the “Drone” – the unmanned aircraft remotely-controlled by a human – promised to revolutionize warfare. 

It was a solid decade before that that the “precision-guided weapon” became the star of the first Gulf War.

And it was a decade and a half earlier that the “Cruise Missile” became first the great destabilizor of the endless series of nuclear arms talks, and then one of the hammers with which Ronald Reagan beat the Soviet Union on the anvil of unbending socialist economic stagnation.

But all three of these currents got their bloody start seventy years ago today, with the first “Buzz Bomb” attack on London.

Hitler and the German bureaucracy were famous for squandering immense effort on weapons, strategies and programs that served no useful purpose but to indulge the vendettas of one Nazi leader or another.  As the German army was running short of tanks on the Eastern Front, Hitler was devoting immense engineering effort to building a rocket to attack New York.  As the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front scraped to supply itself with food and ammunition, railroads were forced to reserve masses of rolling stock to transport people to and among concentration camps. 

And as the tide turned against the German military on land, sea and air – culminating in the D-Day invasions 70 years ago last Friday – Hitler squandered a king’s ransom on weapons designed to terrorize enemy civilians.

70 years ago today the first “V-1″ “Buzz Bomb” struck London.

A V1, captured at the end of the war.

The Vergeltungswaffe 1 – or “Reprisal Weapon 1″ – was the world’s first operational “Cruise Missile” – basically an unmanned aircraft whose sole mission was to fly a preset distance, crash into the ground, and detonate the 1,800 pounds explosives it carried.  It was nicknamed the “Buzz Bomb” by the Allies due to its pulse-jet engine, which burned fuel in a series of bursts rather than in a continuous stream like a modern jet engine, causing the weapon in flight to sound like a very long, immensely loud, dry fart in flight.   The crude jet drove the weapon at around 400 mph – faster than all but the very fastest Allied fighters, the Mustang, Spitfire, Tempest and Mosquito.

V1 in flight

It was a crude weapon.  It wasn’t “guided”, per se – it flew in the direction in which it was launched, from large launch ramps in Holland.  They were stabilized – they had a reasonable chance of flying in a more or less straight direction – and carried a crude timer powered by a propellor which, after a designated number of spins, would send the plane into a power-drive straight into the ground; on contact, the detonator would explode the bomb.  

A V1 on a launch ramp. This was the “guidance system”.

It was crude, not really capable of “hitting a target” so much as “blowing up somewhere in a large area”. 

And London (which was really the only target the bombs were aimed at until the Allied advances during autumn put the launch sites out of range, when they switched to the Allies’ main supply port at Antwerp, Belgium) was a very big target.

The reactions in London have been toned down by the historians – but the attacks caused the RAF and USAAF to redeploy a huge number of anti-aircraft guns and their fastest fighter planes – the P51 Mustangs, Supermarine Spitfire XVs, De Havilland Mosquitos and especially Hawker Tempests that were so direly needed to maintain air supremacy over the continent.   Countering V-1s was the first job of Britain’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor.   This was among the most dangerous jobs in the RAF during this last year of the war; shooting a buzz bomb could set off an explosion that’d take out both planes.  Many pilots preferred to “tip” the V1s – using their wings to flip the buzz bombs’ wings, sending them either off-course or into the ground.  The campaign against the buzz bombs killed 300 Allied airmen.  

A Spitfire “tipping” a V1 in flight. Bear in mind, both planes are moving at 400-450 miles per hour.

The countermeasures – a huge ring of anti-aircraft guns, and squadrons of patroling fighters – killed nearly 75% of the incoming cruise missiles. 

Of 10,000 V1s fired at London, about 2,400 got through. 

Saint Paul’s Cathedral, with a V1 diving to impact in the background.

And while it was nowhere near as deadly as the Blitz of 1940 – the months of firebombing that killed 92,000 Britons (at a cost of 3,000 aircraft and over 7,000 German aircrew), the V-1 campaign destroyed almost the same number of structures, killed 22,000 (mostly in and around London), and incurred no direct German casualties. It was one of the most cost-effective terror campaigns in history.

While the weapons were crude, and the goal was futile, in another sense the first explosion of the first Buzz Bomb 70 years ago today was the first explosion of the 21st Century way of making war.

Flags Of My Ex-Father-In-Law

My ex father-in-law, Al, had been married about a week when Pearl Harbor was attacked.  The next morning, he and his umpteen brothers (I lost count and never really found it again) volunteered for one of the armed forces or another (except for one older brother who had already joined the Navy in the thirties).

He had a busy war.

As I recall the story; he started off working as a cook, then trained as a gunner’s mate.  He shipped aboard theUSS Iowa, and cruised to North Africa to take FDR to the Casablanca conference.

Then, when cleaning his gun (a 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine gun), a recoil spring popped loose, catapulting him over the edge and down a deck or two, cracking a vertebrae or two.  He was in the Naval Hospital for months recuperating from the injury, as Iowa sailed on.

Iowa, later in the war. Iowa has no further place in the story, but it’s cool picture. That’s USS Indiana steaming in the background, in the Pacific in 1944. Collett is actually most likely not too terribly far from these ships…

And so he was reassigned to “new construction” at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, upstream from the Atlantic along the border with New Hampshire – a shipyard that still builds all the US Navy’s destroyers.

He was assigned to the fitting-out and commissioning of a brand-new destroyer – DD-730, to be christened the USS Collett. The destroyer was named after Navy Lieutenant Commander John A. Collett, commander of a torpedo bomber squadron who’d been shot down and killed at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in 1942. In a highly unusual non-coincidence, the ship’s first commander was Collett’s brother, Commander James D. Collett.

Collett during its sea trials, off Boston, May 31 1944.

And seventy years ago today, Collett was commissioned into the US Navy.  Al was a “plankholder” – a member of the crew that put the vessel into service.

Side elevation of a Sumner class destroyer.

Collett was an “Allan Sumner” class destroyer – the first class of US Navy destroyers designed entirely after the war started.  With six five-inch guns in three turrets (instead of the four or five single turrets of earlier designs, all capable of shooting at either ships or aircraft), and twelve 40mm anti-aircraft machine guns, the Sumners reflected the lessons learned so far in the war; anti-aircraft firepower was a matter of life or death.  As indeed for the Collett it would be shortly.

After its shakedown – a fast, wartime working-up period – Collett set sail to join the Pacific Fleet, arriving in Pearl Harbor exactly five months from its commissioning date, and at the massive forward base at Ulithi Atoll three weeks later.

Ulithi Atoll during the war. A squat little coral atoll, it had an immense lagoon, providing a sheltered anchorage big enough for hundreds of Allied ships. Home to hundreds of supply ships, repair ships, barracks barges, ammunition ships, factory ships (including a floating foundry), water distillery barges, hospital ships, even a barge that produced ice cream by the barrel, Ulithi was perhaps the greatest naval base in history – and when the war ended and the fleet pulled anchor, it disappeared virtually without a trace.

And then it was off to war.

Two weeks later, she was off to start in the run-up to the invasion of the Philippines.  And there – on November 14 – Collett was part of an extraordinary encounter.  The destroyer was posted on radar “picket” duty – sailing well north of the main invasion fleet, to provide early radar warning of incoming air raids.  It was among the most dangerous jobs in the Navy; the Japanese knew what the long chains of lone destroyers were doing.  Of course, the carriers provided air cover – but it didn’t always work. 

Destroyers – even big ones like the Collett  – had their limitations.  The general assumption was that one destroyer could take on one attacking aircraft at a time.  That wasn’t chicken feed; an incoming combat aircraft flown by a competent pilot is a formidable target.  And while the fire control systems on American destroyers were wonders of analog technology – by far the most advanced of their day – the complexity of the problem generally boiled down to the simple fact that a destroyer could reasonably hope to deal with one attacking aircraft at a time.  (Larger ships – cruisers and battleships – could deal with more, and a formation of ships escorting an aircraft carrier could put up a storm of anti-aircraft fire that made attacking a US formation a very risky, costly thing by 1944.  Indeed, a kamikaze mission.  But we’ll get back to that).

On November 14, four Japanese G4M2 “Betty” torpedo bombers approached Collett.

A formation of “Betty” bombers.

Seventy years of being the victors in the war have given Americans a sense that Japanese military equipment was junk – but in fact the “Betty” was one of the better torpedo bombers of the war.  It was fast (for a twin-engined bomber), with an extremely long range, and armed with Japanese torpedoes (and unlike American torpedoes, Japanese torpedoes were excellent, accurate, and utterly reliable), the “Betty” was a formidable plane.  And there were four of them.

And they were clearly led by a competent tactician, because the four planes fanned out around Collett, turned, and came in from all four points of the compass – a tactic that virtually ensured that at the very least three planes and likely all four would get to drive their attack home, that three or four torpedoes would be launched, and at least one would almost certainly hit the target, definitely crippling it, probably sinking it.

But the American ship – Commander Collett and his anti-aircraft crews, including Al, who was the gun captain of a 40mm mount to starboard of the forward smokestack – pulled off an incredible performance, shooting down two of the incoming bombers.  In those days, it was an amazing display of gunnery.

A twin 40mm mount, similar to (indeed, interchangeable with) the one Al captained on the Collett. Each barrel fired two two-pound shells a second to a range of about a mile. The gun was a Swedish design, appropriated and used by nearly every country still extant by 1944; the US, Britain, and even Germany built them under license. Some are still in active service today.

The other two launched their torpedoes – and, in a feat of seamanship that sounds pretty trival in written English, but which in practice was a couple steps shy of parting the Red Sea, Commander Collett managed to “comb the wakes” of the two incoming “fish”, dodging them both.

The feat may have stopped short of “miracle” – but it was an exceptional display of gunnery, seamanship, and 1940s analog computing technology. 

The Collett – and Al – went on to much more; they battled Kamikazes off Okinawa.  Its’ squadron was among the first American ships to sortie into Tokyo Bay, torpedoing several Japanese merchant ships in the process.  She escorted the Missouri to the surrender ceremony.

And that wasn’t all.  She fought in Korea – Collett was the second ship into Inchon Harbor, battling it out with the Korean shore batteries, among a group of destroyers that were expected to be “sitting ducks“, drawing North Korean fire to mark the guns for obliteration from fleet gunfire and air attacks.  In fact, the destroyers silenced the Korean guns, and Collett suffered light casualties.

She was an active unit of the Pacific Fleet until 1960, when she collided with the USS Ammen, had her bow replaced with the bow from another WWII destroyer, and then served off Vietnam.

Collett in 1969

Then, in 1974, she was sold to Argentina.  The USS Collett became the Argentinian navy ship ARA Piedra Buena.

The Piedra Buena

During the Falklands Islands war of 1982, Piedra Buena was escorting the Argentinean cruiser General Belgrano (formerly the US light cruiser Phoenix) when the Belgrano was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Conqueror.  Piedra Buena picked up survivors, then returned to Argentina.

The ship’s long career ended in 1988, when the Argies sank her as a missile target.

That, as it happens, was maybe a year before I met Al.

Like a lot of WWII vets, Al apparently didn’t talk a lot about the war (or so his various kids told me).  In 1990, out of ideas for Christmas presents, I built a small scale model of Collett, and mounted it on a plaque with a couple of wartime photos of the ship.

After that, he started talking a little more about the war; he dragged out his old blues, and some of his photos, and some of the stories.  He passed away about ten years back.  Unlike a lot of ex-in-laws, Al and I always got along famously. 

Apropos not much.  I just noticed the anniversary.

Boarders Away

There are (or were, at least – I can’t speak for how schools teach history today, and I’m not sure I want to know) a number of battles in World War 2 that are (or were) household knowledge, knowledge of which was part of the common cultural currency of being an American.

D-Day and Pearl Harbor are still fairly well-known.  Americans who’ve served, or know people who’ve served, or are casual history buffs, might know about Midway, the Bulge, Iwo Jima.

You usually have to get into more-serious history, or people who’ve followed their own family histories closely, to find people today who know anything about Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Anzio, Monte Cassino, Saint Lo.   People who watched Band of Brothers might know Market Garden.

But even the serious history buffs, when asked about the truly pivotal battles of World War 2, will frequently omit what may have been the most important battle of all – the Battle of the Atlantic.

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The Great Escape

One of the things that fascinated me as a kid – from about fifth grade through high school, at least – was escapes from places like POW camps, concentration camps, and the like.

I’m not sure what fascinated me so much about them; perhaps because they were the ultimate “do-it-yourself” job; putting together the means and resolve to break out of a closely-guarded prison deep in the middle of hostile territory, with little on ones’ side in the way of materials or supplies – nothing, indeed, but the scraps around you and whatever your ingenuity could make of them.

I read many of these stories when I was a kid; Escape from Colditz by P.R. Reid, about the men who resolved to break out of the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle.  More fascinating still, Paul Williams’ The Wooden Horseone of the most improbable sounding ones of all; British prisoners at a camp in German/Polish Silesia built a wooden vaulting horse, which dozens of POWs used for daily exercise.

Scene from the British film version of “The Wooden Horse”. Yes, this happened.

Inside the horse were two men.  The other POWs carried the horse to the exact same spot in the middle of the compound every day, above a concealed trap door under the sandy topsoil.  The men inside dug first down, and then under the wire, every day for eight solid weeks on end – and then were carried, complete with their load of excavated sand, back to the barracks at the end of the shift.  Finally, the three men involved – Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot – completed the tunnel, and made their break.

Another scene from “Wooden Horse”. Not a matter for claustrophobics.

Incredibly, all three made it back to safety; Williams and Codner via Denmark and Sweden, and Philpot to Switzerland.

Perhaps it’s my trait of rooting for underdogs – but I’ve always been fascinated by these stories.

One thing that amazes some people – who know that most of what Hollywood peddles as “history” is utter BS – is that the movie The Great Escape, the early-sixties classic starring Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen and “based on a true story”, actually is not all that loosely based on a real escape.

And it happened seventy years ago tonight.

And in some ways, the story was more incredible than the movie could have portrayed.

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