The Hit

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was, by a long stretch, the greatest Japanese leader of World War 2.  A naval genius, the primary planner behind Pearl Harbor, he had an impact far beyond any other Japanese leader on the conduct of the war.

And while the general American public have lionized leaders in the past – Patton, MacArthur, Schwartzkopf, Petraeus – it’s hard for Americans to comprehend what a huge public figure a successful leader could become in a society as militaristic as pre-1945 Japan.  Rarely since the Vikings had there been a society that so revered accomplishment on the battlefield.

And rarely had any society a warrior leader as accomplished as Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Admiral Yamamoto’s PR head shot. It was his plan that conquered the entire Pacific Ocean, from the shores of China and New Guinea all the way to Hawaii’s doorstep at Midway Island.

And the Americans knew it. And seventy years ago today, they carried out an unprecedented action to change that – an action that showed the strengths, weaknesses, and ludicrous foibles of both sides of the war in the Pacific.


The Japanese military was deeply divided before and during World War 2.  ”Interservice rivalry” is, of course, endemic in every nation.

Healthy expressions of esprit de corps are a good thing in the military, of course; what would the Marines be if they didn’t think they were better than the rest of the services?

But in Japan, the problem swerved almost beyond caricature.  The Japanese military was divided between the Army and the Navy, and the Generals and the Admirals operated their services like feudal fiefdoms, to the point where both services were nearly completely redundant to each other.  Not only did the Army and Navy each have their own air forces (with completely separate development, procurement and manufacturing efforts, with all the duplication of effort and waste that attended such redundancy), each duplicated each others branches; the Japanese Army built its own navy (including cargo-carrying submarines), and the Navy’s “Marines” served as a duplicate Army.

And each service had its own culture.

The Japanese Army was steeped in the samurai tradition and “State Shinto”, the militaristic Japanese state religion; it was insular, Japanese-culture-centric, and by western standards a little barbaric.   It became moreso over time; before World War 2, most of the Army served in Korea (a Japanese colony at the time), Manchuria (which Japan had annexed in 1931) and China (which Japan had invaded in 1937); its entire background was in Asian societies that had changed little in hundreds of years.

The Navy, on the other hand, had been heavily influenced by the British, adopting British design standards and working with many British advisors.  While it had its samurai traditions as well, it was much more cosmopolitan than the Army.

The IJN Kongo. The first world-class Japanese battleship, and the oldest Japanese battleship to serve in World War 2, it was actually built in 1912 in Britain (as Japanese engineers observed, building its three sisters in Japan). Leave aside the “pagoda” bridge; the rest of the ship looks exactly like a World War 1-era British battleship.

Young Japanese naval officers went on long training cruises before the 1930s, routinely docking in in Western ports, including San Francisco and Seattle.

Yamamoto knew America; he’d studied at Harvard (1919-21) and as Naval Attache (1925-28).

A young Yamamoto with US Navy Secretary Curtis Wilbur.

Yamamoto’s respect for America varied; he didn’t much care for the Navy’s officer corps, thinking them a bunch of careerist golf-course commandos.

But he had much respect for America’s industry, and its drive to innovate.  And as he rose through the ranks, he urged the Army to show a little restraint about engaging the US in a war he felt Japan could not win in the long run.

The road to Pearl Harbor led through an epic political battle between the Army – especially its radicals who believed that they could sweep aside the soft, effete British, French, Dutch  and American presences in the Pacific – and the Navy, which favored expansion (indeed, needed it to get the resources they’d need to continue expanding, to say nothing of the justification for more Navy).

In 1938, the Army won the political battle, empaneling Hideki Tojo – an Army man – as Prime Minister.  While some worried that that could have resulted in Yamamoto’s ouster or even murder, Tojo kept Yamamoto on as head of the Combined Fleet – the highest operational command in the Navy – and charged him with planning to sweep the enemy from the Pacific.

Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister during most of the war years.

Yamamoto realized that the only way to effect this against the US was to wipe out its Pacific Fleet, buying the Japanese fleet (carrying the army) time to consolidate the advances into a position that the US couldn’t recover.

The rest is history; they nearly did it.  But for the fact that the Navy’s aircraft carriers had left Pearl Harbor for a training exercise, Yamamoto might have won World War 2 in the Pacfic on December 7.   It nearly worked anyway.

And Yamamoto’s stock soared; in a nation that revered martial accomplishment, he became a superstar.

And the US needed to fix that.


In recent years, as information has been released with the end of the Cold War, the story of US intelligence’s great coup in cracking Japanese codes has become less obscure.  Like the British efforts against the Germans, the US code-breaking effort led to our knowing most of what the Japanese were doing in nearly real time; the biggest Japanese successes, like Pearl Harbor, were the ones that relied on absolutely no radio traffic.

And in the spring of 1943, Navy code breakers found out that Admiral Yamamoto would be touring Navy installations in the southwest Pacific.  In particular, the tour – aboard a couple of Japanese bombers that were being used as passenger ferries – would spend a bit of time on the Japanese-held island of Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands chain.

Japanese G4M medium bomber. Codenamed “Betty” by the Allies, it was a fast, long-ranged bomber with a heavy bomb or torpedo load. It was a very successful plane during the first two years of the war. By 1943, the Japanese were starting to discover it was vulnerable, and didn’t absorb damage well – to Yamamoto’s chagrin.

Which was about 400 miles away from the nearest US base, on the island of Guadalcanal.

It was the Navy’s job – but 400 miles was beyond the range of any current Navy or Marine fighter planes.  So the Navy “borrowed” the US Army Air Force’s 339′s Fighter Squadron.  The 339th flew the Lockheed P-38 Lightning – the longest-ranged fighter in the US arsenal at the time.

The P38 Lighting. Tell me that’s not one cool airplane. I dare you. It had two engines, for added range and reliability – but unlike most two-engined fighter planes of the war years, it was agile enough to mix it up with enemy fighters on more than even terms. The highest-scoring US ace in history, Superior, Wiscinsin’s Richard Bong, flew a P38 for all of his 40 air-to-air kills.

To avoid detection by Japanese radar, the Navy and Army planners drew a route for the 339th that would take it far out to sea at wavetop level and approach the airfield indirectly, from over the mountains; four of the P38s would drive straight for Yamamoto’s plane, while the rest would fly top cover against any escorting fighters; then, with no further need for stealth, they’d fly the 400 miles directly back to Guadalcanal.

And seventy years ago this morning, the mission went ahead.


The mission was a very difficult one in the context of the times; in the days long before GPS or any other electronic navigation aids, the pilots navigated by dead reckoning and timing. Flying very, very low was dangerous, with little visual cue as to actual height and no radio altimeters (which would have tipped the Japanese off anyway); one of the P38s actually brushed the water with its propellors, but averted disaster, recovered and kept flying.

The attack itself went off as planned; as the cover team rocketed up to altitude, the four planes of the killer team saw the two Japanese “Betty” bombers in the landing pattern, with six escorting “Zero” fighters orbiting above.

Two  P38s, flown by Captain Thomas Lanphier and 1st Lt. Rex Barber, engaged the first of the two bombers; Lanpher fired in a slashing attack from the front, while Barber lined up behind the “Betty”, which burst into flame and disappeared, crashing into the jungle.

Artists conception of Barber closing in for the kill

Barber and another pilot, 1st Lt. Besby Holmes, attacked a second bomber which was trying to sneak away at wavetop level; the bomber crashlanded in the ocean.

Capt. Lanphier, Lieutenants Holmes and Barber

The first bomber carried Yamamoto; all aboard, including the Admiral, were killed.  The second plane yielded three survivors, including Yamamoto’s chief of staff, Admiral Matome Ugaki.

The wreck of Yamamoto’s plane today. A Japanese search party retrieved the bodies from the plane shortly after the raid; Yamamoto’s ashes were returned to Japan on a battleship.

One P38 was apparently shot down by the escorting Zeros, although the plane, flown by 1st Lieutenant Ray Hine, was not seen to get hit or crash, and apparently fell into the sea.   Hine was the only US casualty; the remaining P38s made it back to Guadalcanal, so short of fuel that some of the  planes’ engines sputtered to a stop on rollout after landing.  As he came in on final approach, Lanphier radioed ” “That son of a bitch will not be dictating any peace terms in the White House” – a huge security breach that risked tipping the Americans’ intelligence hand to their enemies.

But the secret was safe.

The Japanese government, knowing the blow Yamamoto’s death would be, concealed the news from the public for six weeks.  The American press ran it immediately, of course – with the cover story that Yamamoto’s plane had been spotted taking off by Australian “Coastwatchers”, scouts who operated on the small islands in the middle of Japanese territory with radios and binoculars.  They were a key part of the Allied intelligence network (and played a key role in John F. Kennedy’s crew’s survival after the sinking of PT109), but had no involvement; the story was intended to prevent the Japanese from figuring out that their codes were nearly transparent to the Navy’s code breakers.


But the story didn’t end there.  It went on for nearly fifty more years.

Lanphier immediately claimed credit – and popular accounts, starting with a Time Magazine story in 1943, and including the first story I myself read about the raid as an eight year old history geek, credited Lanphier – who was a one-man public relations machine.  Indeed, one of his squadron-mates noted that Lanphier started a manuscript in which he claimed to have gotten the kill himself.

Lanphier at the end of the war. Promoted to Colonel, he’s with his father – also an Army colonel – and mother.

That – and a meeting after the war with one of the Japanese fighter pilots that’d unsuccessfully escorted Yamamoto – irked Barber, who appealed to the Air Force, getting half credit for the kill.  The case between Barber, Lanphier and the Air Force wended its way through channels until 1991, when the US Ninth Circuit refused to hear it; good thing, as the Ninth Circuit would have awarded the kill to Michael Moore.

Major Richard Bong  in the cockpit of his P38. The Superioe native remains the too-scoring fighter pilot in US history.  He had nothing to do with the Yamamoto mission – dour changing photos from an iPhone is a pain.  .

Lanphier died in 1987 after a career in the Idaho Air National Guard; Barber passed away in 2001 after working as an insurance salesman and Little League baseball supporter.

And in 2003, after both men were long gone, an examination of the wreck showed that all of the damage to Yamamoto’s plan came from fire from the rear – Barber’s approach.  At long last, the Air Force gave full credit for the kill to Barber.

Ten Men And The End Of The Nazi Bomb

I first wrote about this episode three years ago; today is the seventieth anniversary of the Ryukan Raid,  in which ten Norwegian commandos with the British “Special Operations Executive” raided a hydroelectric dam that produced most of the world’s supply of “Heavy Water”, a key component of the process the Nazis were using to try to build an atomic bomb.

It was a good piece, so I’m going to re-run it, with a few suitable revisions.


I’ll cop to it; after the 2009 “Nobel Peace Prize” award to a president who, as of the award deadline, had done nothing to warrant it, and has done even less since, my self-esteem-respect as an American of Norwegian anscestry has taken a bit of a beating.

But it’s on days like today – the 70th anniversary of the Norwegian raid on the Vemork heavy-water plant at Ryukan, Norway - that I get a bit of that old Norse møjø back.

You may not have heard the story – largely because most American history teachers are illiterate about history, and partly because the font of all historical knowledge for most of them, Hollywood, transformed the event into an Anglo-American triumph (the atrocious Heroes of Telemark).

Like much of what you learn about “history” from Hollywood, it’s BS.

A little scientific and historical background:  nuclear reactors need something to “moderate” their fission reactions – i.e. to keep them under control.  The United States program used a mixture of Cadmium and Graphite.  The Germans, for reasons best explained by a physicist, chose Deuterium Oxide – aka “Heavy Water” – a compound found in infinitesimally tiny quantities in all water.  All you need to do is refine it out of all the regular water.

And in all of Europe in the early 1940s, there was exactly one facility that could refine bulk lots of Deuterium Oxide in the quantities a nuclear weapons program would need; the Vemork plant near the village of Rjukan, Norway.

Vemork in 1940

Vemork sat by a hydroelectric dam – so both  water and the electric power needed to find the Heavy Water were available in immense abundance.

The British had wanted to attack the plant ever since they learned of its significance.  The British “Special Operations Executive” – a wartime organization that sat at the intersection of intelligence and special operations, much like “Special Operations Command” in the US does today, and whose American analogue, the “OSS”, became the anscestor of the CIA and US Special Forces - established an agent inside the plant (Einar Skinnarland) who smuggled out blueprints and paved the way.

Einar Skinnarland
Einar Skinnarland

In October of 1942, an SOE reconnaisance team with four more Norwegian operators (Jens Anton Poulsson, Arne Kjelstrup, Knut Haukelid and Claus Helberg), men who’d fled to the UK after the German invasion and undergone commando and intelligence training, were infiltrated into Norway to reconnoiter the area for a followup British commando raid.  The four men were air-dropped into a remote area far from Ryukan, and skied for days through the gathering mountain winter before they could even begin their mission.

A plan came together…

…and then completely unraveled.  The followup British commando raid to attack the plant failed catastrophically, with gliders and tow planes crashing in the snow and all the commandos either dying in the crashes or being caught and executed by the Gestapo, after revealing under torture the target of their raid.  The Germans reinforced Vemork, in case the Brits tried again.

The four-man recon team had to not only survive a mountain winter, but do it with an alerted enemy actively searching for them, and stay on the grid and able to assist the followup mission that had to come.

Later that winter, it fell to them and six more Norwegian commandos to finish the job.

The six reinforcements – Joachim Holmboe Rønneberg, Knut Haukelid, Fredrik Kayser, Kasper Idland, Hans Storhaug and Birger Strømsheim – dropped into Norway, linked up with Poulsson, Kjelstrup, Haugland and Helberg, and carried out the plan.

Bypassing the heavily-guarded bridge that ran 600 feet above the Maan River, the team descended from the plateau above into the river gorge, snuck across the icy stream, up a cable tunnel, and through a window.

Up for a bit of a climb?
Up for a bit of a climb?

They encountered a caretaker – who turned out to be a Norwegian who was happy to help.

The team placed the bombs – which destroyed the entire 1000-pound heavy-water supply – and escaped unscathed.  The Germans dispatched 3,000 troops to try to catch the commandos – but all escaped, with six of them staying in Norway to carry on the battle, and the other five skiing to Sweden to return to the UK to carry on the war.

Most of the team, after the war. Front: Poulsson, commander Leif Tronstad, Rønneberg. (Back) Storhaug, Kayser, Idland, Helberg, Strømsheim.

Being lucky and skillful, they all survived the war.

Being Norwegian, most of them lived long, healthy lives afterwards; all but Idland lived into the 1990′s; Poullson and Knut Haugland in the past few years, Strømsheim just last December.  Haugland was probably best-known to Americans, having participated in Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon Tiki expedition in the late forties. Joachim Rønneberg is still alive.

There are those who say, with some factual backing, that the German nuke program could never have caught up with the US program, even without the Vemork raid.


Thanks to eleven brave underdogs and their mission, patched together against impossible odds, we never needed to even try to imagine what London and Moscow would look like as craters.

PBS’ Nova did an excellent documentary on the Vemork raid and its larger context, the Nazi nuclear weapons program.  It includes  a useful bio page on the whole group of Vemork raiders.  This site also explains the raid, and the science, in excellent detail.

The BBC also did a documentary – some forty years ago, now – on the subject. Hopefully it’ll stay available for a while:

It’s funny; listening to the guys from the raid (when I heard them on a different documentary from about ten years ago, since removed from Youtube), you’d think you were looking at and listening to old Norwegian guys at a Lutheran church lutefisk dinner in Park Rapids – and then you remember these are guys who sailed across the North Sea, went through British commando school, airdropped into Norway, spent a winter in a forester’s cabin living on reindeer meat and moss, and then carried out the kind of raid that ends up in the history books.

Every American schoolchild should be forced to listen to Rønneberg’s send-off at the end of the third installment of the documentary (around the 7:50 mark):

You have to fight for your freedom. And for peace. It’s not something that you have every day; you have to fight for it every day, to keep it.  It’s like a glass boat; it’s easy to break.  It’s easy to lose.

Whenever the Nobel committee embarasses Norway, I remember them, and feel much better, mange takk.


Nearly everything I needed to write about today’s anniversary, I wrote three years ago – with one exception.

For most of the past 40-50 years, the conventional wisdom was that the Vemork raid, and the equally-daring followup the next year (in which Norwegian resistance fighters and SOE agents sank a ferry boat carrying the little heavy water that’d been salvaged by the Nazis) merely “bounced the rubble” of the German nuke program; that the bravery, endurance and ingenuity of the ten Norwegians was a great human story, but had little to do with affecting the outcome of the war.  The Nazis were never close to having a bomb, says the revisionist history.

The revisionism needs to be revised, though.

Tim Gawne, who’s spent a considerable amount of time researching ORNL’s archives and the Weinberg papers, recently came across a declassified Nov. 8, 1945 memo from Weinberg and L.W. Nordheim, the first physics director at the Oak Ridge lab (then called Clinton Laboratories), to Compton. Weinberg, who later directed ORNL for 18 years, died in 2006.

“We are writing in order to correct what we believe to be a very prevalent misconception concerning the state of the art as known to the Germans in 1945,” Weinberg and Nordheim wrote in the three-page memo, noting they had read a few of the relevant German documents.

There has been a lot written, of course, regarding Germany’s work on the atomic bomb and various analyses. I’m no scholar on the topic, by any stretch, but the Weinberg/Nordheim memo seems to offer a more generous assessment of Germany’s progress than some other post-war reports and subsequent analyses.

They addressed multiple questions in the memo, including a concluding one, “What bearing does this have on the general question of our ‘secrets’?”

Here’s part of their answer:

“On this we can presume to speak only as individuals.

“The general impression from the German reports is that they were on the right track and that their thinking and developments paralleled ours to a surprising extent. The fact that they did not achieve their chain reaction is primarily due to their lack of sufficient amounts of heavy water.

“In one of the reports a vivid description is given of the German efforts in this respect. The heavy water factories in Norway were designed for a capacity of 3-4 tons a year and were successfully operating during part of 1942 and 1943. This capacity would have been sufficient for the construction of a pile (reactor). However, the production was interrupted by sabotage and finally the main factory was destroyed by a bombing attack. Toward the end of 1944 plans were made to initiate production of heavy water in Germany and to use enriched uranium in order to reduce the material requirements.

In other words, the Germans never came close to having the bomb – in large part because due to the Vemork Raid, they could never get a reactor built.

Pass as Prologue

By February of 1943, the American military was starting to get use to combat.  For a military force that rivaled Portugal in size in the early 1940s, the U.S. Army had to undergo a rapid education in modern military tactics against better trained, sometimes better equipped opponents.  There had been plenty of bloodied noses in this trial-by-fire – Pearl Harbor, Bataan, Guadalcanal, the U-boat attacks of ’41/’42 – but one opponent remained to be engaged: the Wehrmacht.

On February 19th, 1943, American troops received their first education of German military tactics by the regime’s most noted teacher, Gen. Erwin Rommel.  The school was a dusty spot in the Tunisian desert known as Kasserine Pass.

Kasserine Pass was not the first time American troops had come under German fire, but it would become the most notable of the early engagements following the Allied invasion of French North Africa.  Operation Torch in November of 1942 was the largest Allied invasion of the war thus far, placing 107,000 British and American troops in Morocco and Algeria.  Coinciding with the British offensive at El Alamein, the goal had been a grand-scale encirclement of German and Italian forces in Libya and western Egypt.  Instead, Hitler doubled-down on the North African front, committing 250,000 more troops and drawing the Allies into another protracted desert campaign.

American troops in Tunisia: the Allies lost more men in 11 days at Kasserine Pass than in 6 months at Guadalcanal

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Taking It On the Chindits

As conventional forces went, they were an unconventional bunch.

The unit was weighed down by equipment (70 pounds of gear per man), experience (most were second-line reservists) and age (older draftees).  Their leader was forged in the classic mold of the British eccentric, perfect for a forgotten front against a larger opponent filled with combat veterans.  But neither the obstacles or the odds daunted the men of the King’s Liverpool Regiment and 2nd Gurkha Rifles, together better known to history as the Chindits, as the crossed into Japanese-controlled Burma on February 8th, 1943.  Their mission would be part of the beginning of the modern-era of Special Forces.

The Burma that the Chindits marched into was far from friendly territory – even before the Japanese invasion.

Burma had been among the last of the British possessions captured in the colonial era.  The Anglo-Burmese wars of the mid-19th Century sapped the Burmese monarchy and military, leading to fall of the capital Rangoon after the Third Anglo-Burmese war and the absorption of Burma into a province of India in 1886.  The Burmese populace responded with a grueling four-year guerrilla war followed by decades of hostility.

The Rising Sun In Burma: the Japanese were welcomed as liberators but massacres of civilians like at Kalagong village quickly revealed the Japanese as far more brutal colonial masters

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No Respect

One of my favorite lines about resurrecting history is from a movie - Braveheart, I want to say – and goes something like “History is written by those who kill the heroes”.

Much of what we Americans today “know” as received conventional wisdom about World War 2 is the self-serving version that the victor gets to write.  The idea that the Poles were anachronistic bumblers who charged at tanks with cavalry lances was a German propaganda fiction, ladled on top of centuries of ethnic and tribal prejudice. The notion that the French were cowardly “cheese eating surrender monkeys” is more of the same, filtered through American Cold War-era impatience with the frustrating inscrutability of their post-Gaullist foreign policy – and the enduring references to “Maginot Mentality” is a begged historical question, using the conclusion that “France Fell” as evidence that the Maginot Line was in and of itself a dumb idea.

It’s tempting to say the Italians got the same short shrift; it’s almost equally tempting to say their reputation as bumbling Barney Fifes who couldn’t shoot straight and whose tanks had one speed forward and four in reverse would seem to have been amply supported by their record during World War II.  From their misguided adventures in Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Eritrea today) to their snake-bitten attempt to subdue Greece (drawing the Germans into war on a second front) to their inability to break into France even as the Germans were mauling the bulk of the French army, to the collapse of their North African army (drawing the Germans into war on a fourth front), the Italian war effort seemed often to provide comic relief to those who wrote the history books.

Of course, as Ringer and I have written this series, we’ve found bits and pieces of some inconvenient truths about the Italians; as inept as Mussolini had left the military’s higher leadership, and as poorly as the anemic socialized economy allowed Italy to equip her troops (especially the Army), there were some examples of redoubtable courage, esprit de corps and can-do-ism; the Italian Marines’ special forces attacks that crippled a significant chunk of the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the daring guerrilla war that the Italian remnants fought amidst the ruins of Mussolini’s East African “Empire”…

…and, seventy years ago today, in the midst of the disaster that would doom the German/Italian advance in Russia, one of the most titanic displays of sheer force of will in military history, around and about a forgotten little village in the middle of the endless steppe.


Mussolini, seeking to increase his stock value after having been bailed out by the Germans in Greece and North Africa, committed a force of about 60,000 men in three divisions to support the initial invasion of the USSR in 1941; he shortly quadrupled down, increasing the force to almost 240,000 men in ten regular divisions, plus a German division and brigades of Croatians and Camicia Neri (“Blackshirts”) as a reserve and to fight Russian guerillas.

Priest ministering to Italian troops in Russia

The 8th Army deployed to the German’s southern offensive, holding the flanks of the German’s high-water strike deep into southern Russia.  By the winter of 1942, the Italians, along with Romanian and Hungarian troops, were holding the flanks of the German spearhead as it tried to fight its way out of being stopped cold at Stalingrad.

Mussolini inspects Italian troops from the initial “mobile” contingent. If the trucks don’t look very uniform – they’re not. They were impressed from commercial uses.

The Italians were never intentionally the focal point of the action – or at least the Germans didn’t intend for them to be.  The main goal of the Italians, and the Hungarians on their own flanks, was to make sure nothing snuck behind the Germans to cut them off at Stalingrad.

Although the original Italian deployment was intended to be a “Mobile” force, the 8th Army itself was not only mostly foot-borne and horse-drawn, but it had virtually no tank support. The Italians had to settle for a few captured Russian vehicles, like this T-34.

But on December 16, 1942, two Soviet Armies – the 1st and 3rd Guards Armies, a total of some 100,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops – crossed the Don River and attacked the 8th Army, in temperatures that dipped to -40F at night.  A follow-up attack in early January overwhelmed most of the 8th Army, destroying three divisions outright.  The Hungarians on the other flank also gave way, and the Soviet Guards encircled what was left of the 8th Army – which amounted to the “8th Alpini Corps”, composed of three Alpini (mountain) divisions (the Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions), among the elite of the Italian Army – before pressing on toward the town of Rostov, through which the German lines of communications to Stalingrad ran.  The Soviets, with an overwhelming force of tanks, proceeded to capture Rostov, putting 120 miles of Soviet-held territory between safe German lines and Stalingrad…

Troops of Tridentina in the Russian winter.

…and, cut off to the northwest of Stalingrad, the 8th Alpini.   The Italians had two options – surrender, or fight their way to friendly lines.
They opted to fight.  
The Alpini, along with stragglers from the other Italian units and a few German, Hungarian and Croatian troops, began fighting their way across the steppe, through the brutal Russian cold.  The Italians had never been well-equipped with vehicles; so badly-equipped was the Italian Army, most of the trucks from the two “motorized” divisions had been commandeered commercial vehicles with their company logos still on the doors and side panels – and those vehicles were long dead and gone.  A few German tanks led the column, which was led by the Tridentina division, the least-mauled by this point.  The vast mass of those 40,000 men walked.
120 miles.  In 15 days.  Through temperatures that never got above 0F, and frequently dipped down to -40F.
The Russians were at a disadvantage, too; the focus of their effort was on moving into German-held territory, to the West.  But they left behind troops in every village, and every one of these village defenses put up a fight, and the fight to pass through every village ate time, energy and manpower that the Italians didn’t have.   
And yet they carried on.  And as of 70 years ago today, the Alpini and the rest of the survivors were on the brink of safety…
…and the Soviets knew it.  They reinforced the force holding the village of Nikolaevka with a division with 6-10,000 infantry – outnumbered by the Italians, but with supplies of food and ammunition.  
The Tridentino was down to 4,000 effective soldiers.  Julia and Cuneense were in worse shape still, and the rest of the force was mostly stragglers in small groups, none of them an effective or sizeable fighting force.  
Tridentino attacked on the morning of the 26th – and bogged down fighting the superior Russian force; the Italians’ chief of staff died fighting for one Soviet strongpoint. 
The battle – and the fate of the entire Italian force – hung in the balance.  To break through the Soviets meant safety; to fail meant death, either on the battlefield or in captivity.  
As legend has it the commander of the Tridentino, General Luigi Reverberi, jumped on top of one of the last three functioning German tanks, and bellowed “Tridentini Aventi” – Forward Trident.  The exhausted, frozen Tridentini picked themself up and charged one last time.  The example caused the rest of the mass of stragglers to grab their rifles (or whatever weapon they had) and follow into the attack, which turned into a barely-organized melee, more a feeding frenzy, ending with the Soviet division being overwhelmed.  There were no more Soviets between the Alpini and safety.  
Of the 45,000 Alpini that had started the battle on January 13, there were fewer than 6,000 left.  And the remnant of 8th Army that they led was well under 40,000 out of about 150,000 that had been in the lines six weeks earlier.  

The Battle of Brisbane

The 738th American MP Battalion was surrounded.  Unaccustomed to being in the midst of fighting, the scattered remnants of the unit grabbed any weapon they could in a vain attempt to defend a Red Cross Service Station and PX against hundreds of enemy troops.  A handful of shotguns were distributed to go with the MP’s standard issue Smith & Wesson Victory Revolver.  They knew reinforcements weren’t coming – thousands of American & Allied troops were engaged in street-by-street fighting.  The 738th left their defensive positions in the Red Cross building and meant the enemy head on in hand-to-hand fighting on November 26th, 1942.

The battlefield wasn’t in the sands of North Africa, nor the jungles of New Guinea, but the streets of Brisbane, Australia.  And for two nights, the opponents weren’t the Axis powers.  For two nights in 1942, America and Australia went to war.

The Aussie & The Yank

The phrase ”they’re overpaid, oversexed, and over here” has usually been attributed to British attitudes about the influx of American servicemen in World War II.  Yet the same was said by many an Australian as the Yanks came marching in by the thousands.

Over one million American soldiers would pass through Australia from 1942 until the end of the Pacific War, increasing the overall population of the country by 10%.  Nearly overnight, Australian cities on the populous eastern coast found themselves overrun with American servicemen.  Brisbane was among the worst affected.  By the end of 1942, the city of 300,000 now had to provide food and utilities for a population of over 600,000 – the difference all made up in U.S. GI’s.  The sewers and electrical grid couldn’t possibly adapt quickly enough.  For many Aussies, the Yanks brought brownouts, garbage in the streets, and increased crime and prostitution – not protection from the Japanese.

The View From Down Under: Americans saw the Aussies as quaint and the Australian front as a relaxing sideshow

Much like in England, the GIs also brought a considerably higher paycheck than their Allied counterparts, a fact that chaffed relations largely because American servicemen could afford to woo the locals with chocolates and silk stockings – luxuries in wartime.  Over 12,000 Australians married American GIs during the course of the war, but it wasn’t a lifetime of companionship that Australian troops were searching for when they grumbled that the ladies of Brisbane preferred the handsome foreigners who could buy otherwise limited goods at American PXs.  Compounding the Aussie’s frustrations were that the Yanks hadn’t just taken all the girls, but all the booze.  Alcohol shortages were so common that hotels became limited to two one-hour long servings each day – leading to binge drinking among civilians and servicemen of both countries.

Actions on the frontlines hardened attitudes as well.  The brutal Buna-Gona campaign in New Guinea was being waged at the same time with Allied forces counter-attacking well-fortified Japanese defense in the thick New Guinea jungle.  The percentage of casualties at Buna exceeded the better known Battle of Guadalcanal 3-to-1 and the brunt of the fighting was being borne by Australian troops.  That fact mattered little to General Douglas MacArthur, who reported on “U.S. victories” at Buna-Gona while setbacks were attributed to the Australians.  Aussies who had fought and bled in hard-won victories returned to Brisbane unable to get a date or a drink while reading that nearly non-existent American forces had won the day.

The American Invasion: Members of the US Navy march in Brisbane

By the end of November, 20 brawls a night between Aussies and Yanks were being broken up, mostly by American MPs.  Not only would the MPs usually believe their fellow Americans, getting them out of trouble, but the MPs quickly developed a reputation as violent and arrogant.  More and more Australians took to mob justice when they felt wronged.  20 Australian civilians jumped a group of American submariners just nights before November 26th, beating them mercilessly.

With this backdrop, it was somewhat surprising that what touched off two nights of intense rioting started with Australian servicemen trying to defend an American from an American MP.

Private James Stein of the U.S. 404th Signal Company had been abusing the limited alcohol policies of Brisbane, and like many soldiers was trying to get to a new bar that would soon be open for one-hour only.  Clearly drunk, Stein found himself in front of an MP demanding to see a leave pass.  The MP’s verbal abuse caused several Australian soldiers that Stein had been talking with to engage the MP, trying to get him to lay off a drunk but not AWOL Stein.  The MP’s response was to lift his baton as if to strike one of the Aussies.  One of the Aussies struck first instead.  A melee ensued as more MPs, Australian and American soldiers ran to the fight outside the American PX.  News of the initial fight spread, starting new brawls.  By 8pm – just an hour after the first fists were thrown – over 5,000 people, civilian and military, were engaged in a series of battles across Brisbane.

Japanese Propaganda: Much like the Nazis in Europe, the Japanese played upon fears of lustful American troops

The fights quickly became more than drunken brawls.  Guns and grenades were passed about on both sides.  Shots were fired by MPs and Aussies.  One correspondent called Brisbane “the most furious battle I ever saw during the war.”  By night’s end, at least one Australian soldier was confirmed dead – shot by an American MP – and dozens more were seriously injured by gunshot, stabbing or clubbing.

The passage of a day did little to calm matters.  500-600 Australian troops surrounded the PX the next night, eager to get revenge.  The MPs were better prepared, armed with machine guns and rifles.  What started as a mob turned into a battle line as both sides took up defensive positions and prepared to assault the other.  Australian MPs sent to break up the crowd took off their armbands and joined instead.  With neither side willing to make a move, elements of the Australian mob moved elsewhere, assaulting Americans around the city.  Unconfirmed reports suggested that several Americans were killed that night, either shot or beaten to death by the Australian mob.

The fighting was almost entirely ignored by the wartime press.  Other than a brief bulletin mentioning an incident that left one dead and six wounded, media both in Australia and the U.S. were censored to prevent news of the incident from spreading.  If the censorship was designed to cool tensions, it backfired.  Brisbane sources spread rumors of absurd levels of violence, including a suggestion that 15 Australian servicemen had been shot by Americans with machine guns – their bodies stacked like cordwood outside a Post Office.  Although that report is almost certainly false, the true number of dead or wounded has never been released.

Few were punished for the fighting.  Units on both sides involved were transferred out of the city.  The MP responsible for killing an Australian was acquitted.  And despite five convictions on the Australian side, only one served any jail time – for a total of six months.  The incident was pushed down the memory hole and forgotten.

Other “battles” would occur in Australia and New Zealand.  A similar fight, named the Battle of Manners Street in Wellington, New Zealand had over 1,000 participants in 1943.  And much like the Battle of Brisbane, the fight was blacked out by the media.


The end was but hours away.  A small French force, numbering less than 50,000, took up a last-ditch defense; horribly outnumbered by the 1st & 7th German Armies crashing down upon them.  Even the Italian 4th Army was managing to swallow territory and POWs.  The French government radio broadcasts vainly tried to rally their people to the defense, but such cries fell on deaf ears.  The defeat was total.

Only this wasn’t June of 1940.  Nor was it the fall of the Third Republic.  Rather, the soldiers who fought and died on November 10-12, 1942 did so under the colors of the État Français or French State.  It was among the final chapters – but not quite the last – of the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis.

Defeat in 1940 had cost the French more than their freedom; it cost them their identity.

Hitler’s brutal terms of the June 22nd armistice stripped France of little actual territory – only the long fought over Alsace-Lorraine region changed hands (and even that wasn’t actually annexed).  Most of the northern half of the country, and the Atlantic coastal region, was deemed the “occupied zone”, allowing for German troops to remain stationed against any potential Allied invasion, but be civilly administered by the new French government based out of Vichy.

Petain assumes command.  The Victor of Verdun immediately blamed democracy for the fall of the Third Republic and adopted a quasi-fascist government model

Petain assumes command. The Victor of Verdun immediately blamed democracy for the fall of the Third Republic and adopted a quasi-fascist government model

At the helm was a man hailed as a French national hero.  Marshal Philippe Pétain had rallied French troops amid the slaughter of Verdun in World War I and was widely credited at home as having turned the tide of the war against the Germans.  Pétain’s patriotism and anti-German credentials were seen as beyond question.  It was little wonder then that as Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned (his cabinet refused to support his intention of relocating the government to North Africa and continuing the war), Pétain was tapped to succeed him as PM.  At 84 years of age, Pétain took charge of a nation reeling from a shocking German offensive.  Six days into his government, with still more than half the nation free of German occupation, Pétain chose surrender to resistance.

His choice set the stage for the next 2 1/2 years.

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Desperate Measures

In an era where the United States can send troops and inflict mayhem halfway around the world with, it seems, little visible effort, it’s hard for modern American to realize what a major undertaking simply getting troops across the atlantic, much less halfway around the world, was.

Not just getting them there, mind you, but keeping them supplied with food, ammunition, fuel and everything else a military needed to fight in the field.

And then there was the whole fighting thing.

It was seventy years ago yesterday that the 164th Infantry Regiment landed on Guadalcanal.

“Who?  What?  Where?”

Listen up.


For all the shock and awe that Pearl Harbor was, World War 2 itself didn’t catch America flat-footed.  Much of the nation’s leadership had seen war as more or less inevitable for the better part of a decade.  FDR had started a national buildup to war in the mid-thirties, modernizing and adding to the US Navy starting in about 1934.

And he’d started calling up the National Guard not long after Hitler’s ransacking of Europe.

And so the 164th Infantry Regiment – comprising most of the North Dakota Army National Guard – had been called into federal service 20 months earlier, in February of 1941.

Troops of the 164th Infantry, drilling at Camp Claiborne five months before Pearl Harbor.

By Pearl Harbor, they had been training for ten months, and were among the most combat ready units in the US Army, and were thus selected to make the long trip across the Pacific Ocean with two other National Guard regiments – the 182nd Infantry from the Massachusetts National Guard, and the 132nd Infantry from Illinois – to the island of New Caledonia.  There, the three units were organized into a division, the “Americal Division”, short from “American Caledonian” (later officially called the 23rd Infantry Division) in May of 1942.


Over the first six months of the war, Allied planners juggled two disparate goals; find some way to start taking offensive action against the Japanese, and defend Australia.

Achieving the first goal, naturally, was the subject of a massive strategic wrangle; the Army, led in the Pacific by General MacArthur, favored an “island-hopping” campaign through the southwest Pacific up through the Philippines; the Navy (along with the Marines) favored a direct assault through the Central Pacific.  The battle between the two strategies would be the major strategic decision of the war in the Pacific…

…and was rendered moot by the news that the Japanese were building an airstrip on a dismal, malarial island in the Solomon Islands chain, Guadalcanal.  In combination with other airfields in the Solomons, this could support further advances on bases like Fiji, New Caledonia and New Guinea; if each of those fell, the supply lines from the US to Australia would be cut off, rendering Oz useless as a base.  With Darwin already under air attack, the threat to Australia was dire.

Henderson Field. Today, it’s Honiara International Airport, serving the Solomon Islands.

And so the first step in MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign went ahead. On August 7, the First Marine Division – the first division-sized unit in the Pacific ready for combat – landed on Guadalcanal and seize the Lunga Point landing strip from the Japanese engineers who had just completed the field the night before; the Japanese engineers had gotten an extra ration of sake rice wine for getting the job done early.  The Marines quickly took the airfield, renamed it Henderson Field (after a Marine squadron commander killed at Midway Island in June), and landed Marine fighters and dive bombers, who promptly went into action.

Over the next two months , the battle seesawed back and forth; the Marines decimated the first round of Japanese defenders and counterattackers; the Japanese ran reinforcements to the island and, after dealing the US Navy a bloody defeat at the naval Battle of Savo Island in mid-August, bombarded the airfield with several of their cruisers and battleships.  Mired in the malarial, swampy muck, the Marines held their perimeter.

The 164th Infantry, under Colonel Robert Hall, was dispatched from New Caledonia to reinforce the Marines against the fresh Japanese troops.  Seventy years ago today, they landed; two of the regiment’s three battalions took positions on the east side of the perimeter, allowing the Marines to consolidate against the expected attack from the west.  The third battalion, the 3rd/164th, was held in reserve.

Ten days later, on the night of October 24th, the Japanese would launch what would end up being the most serious ground attack on Henderson, attacking the Marines along the Matanikau river, the western anchor of the beachhead.  Their scouts had uncovered a gap in the Marine lines inadvertently left when one of the Marine battalions changed its orientation to the south.  The Japanese, heavily outnumbering the Marines, launched an attack into the gap against one 700 man Marine battalion, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment.  While the attack was badly coordinated, it still drove a wedge into the Marine lines.  The Marines called for reinforcements; the 3rd of the 164th moved into the line as the Japanese attacks peaked.

The 164th had some disadvantages; they were new to combat – indeed, they were the first US Army unit to take offensive action in World War 2; except for the Army garrison in the Philippines, they were the first Army unit to fight at all.  And they were being fed into the line piecemeal, in platoon and company-sized groups (40 to 160 men), to react to various crises on the Marine front as the situation developed.

They had a few advantages, too.  They were the first American unit to carry the M1 “Garand” rifle in action.  The rifle – the first semi-automatic rifle issued in large numbers to combat troops – would go on to be called “the greatest implement of war ever invented” by General Patton later in the war.  Patton was being a little hyperbolic, but the M1 gave each North Dakotan roughly double the firepower of the Marine fighting along side him, who was still carrying the World War 1 vintage M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle, to say nothing of the Japanese infantry with their bolt-action Arisaka rifles (cousins of the Springfield via their mutual design parent, the German G98 Mauser, but firing a much weaker round of ammunition).   And in the desperate, confused action in the dark and in the jungle, when the Japanese closed to ranges too close for the Marines’ artillery to be used, the extra firepower was vital.  And they were from North Dakota, where even today the average eight year old can hit a running squirrel in the head with a .22 in the dark at 75 yards.  [1]

The M1 Garand. The standard American infantry rifle for the rest of the war, it served through Korea, and with some troops in Vietnam, Latin America and reserve units in the the South Korean military until the 1980s.

The North Dakotans held up, meeting and beating the Japanese in the brutal night jungle fighting, and went on to carry the attack to the Japanese, helping drive them from the island (or, as it’s known in the annals of the First Marine Division, The Island).

Troops of the 164th on Guadalcanal.

And the regiment of 2,200 North Dakota tractor drivers and mechanics and teachers and railroad workers and high school kids earned a rare honor.  While the Marines, then as now, have made it a matter of their own esprit de corps to look down on the Army (they usually referred to soldiers as “Doggies”.  But the Marines’ commander, General Vandegrift, paid the 164th a very rare honor after the Battle of the Matanikau:

But that was all a week and a half in the future.  Seventy years ago today, the 164th were just the first US Army unit to take offensive action when they stepped ashore on a malarial cesspool that none of them could have found on a map six months earlier.

164th Infantry troops on Guadalcanal

And when I was a kid growing up in Jamestown thirty-odd years later, most of my classmates couldn’t find it, either.  The town’s National Guard unit at the time, H Company (which had been a part of 2nd Battalion of the 164th) had been an Guadalcanal.  Many of the names on the Roll of Honor above the junior high entrance, listing Jamestown High School graduates who’d died in the wars up to that time, had served in the 164th – and the ones that came back, and were in not a few cases still serving as senior NCOs in the town’s National Guard unit at the time, like most World War 2 veterans, were still years away from talking about their war.

I used to dream of being able to write their story – doing a Steven Ambrose-style reconstruction of the war that that regiment of depression-era kids from the middle of nowhere fought, in a place that could not possibly have been less like North Dakota.  Other priorities intervened, of course; the guys who were in their late sixties when I hatched the idea of doing the history of the 164th are in their eighties and nineties now, the ones that are still with us at all.

Chalk it up among my life’s great regrets.

[1] I made that part up.  Allow a guy a little homer hyperbole, will ya?

For Norge

I’ve always been fascinated by exiles – people who are forced from their homelands for whatever reason.  From the Volgadeutsch of rural North Dakota – Germans who fled to Ukraine and then  to the US, where they fully assimilated but still observe and in some cases mourn their old country (Stalin killed most of the Ukrainian Germans during the war), or the Cubans of Florida, many of whom share a nominal goal of getting their homeland back by one means or another.

And it’s soldiers in exile that fascinate me most.  Poland has supplied many of them; several generations of Polish warriors fought, either to regain their home or to serve foreign rulers who promised, someday, maybe, to do it for them.  Among them were Napoleon’s Polish Legion, an elite cavalry unit that fought all over the continent (and other continents – 600 of them fought in Haiti, most of them dying of one miserable tropical disease or another).  Most of whom would never see their homes again.  And from among these men sprang a song, Mazurek Dabrowskiego that with independence and nationhood became Poland’s national anthem.  The song speaks of the yearning of the exile with raw, painful emotion.

Norwegians aren’t prone to expressing raw, painful emotion, of course.

We – and I can say “we”, since four of my eight great-grandparents, on both sides of my family were born in Norway – are most famous for calm-to-the-point-of-dull accommodation and negotiation, accompanied by a nasty passive-aggression that is more prone to being internalized than acted on.  A Norwegian builds to violence famously slowly – but practices it in a way that people from Russia to Ireland, from Scotland to Algeria, still keep tucked away in a dark corner of their ethnic and national consciousnesses; “Viking” is still a synonym for ruthless, calculated remorselessness that would make a Mafioso gag up his skull; for the old Norsemen, it truly was just business.


It was that sense of dull accomodation, of orderly communitarianism and plaintive idealism, that was conquered in the spring of 1940.  In the two and a half years since the sucker-punch invasion of officially-pacifistic and almost-completely demilitarized Norway, thousands of Norwegians signed up for one form of service or another; tens of thousands served in Norway’s massive Merchant Marine, which provided a huge proportion of the allies’ shipping across the Atlantic.  Many more served in the Army and, even moreso, navies in exile; Norwegian-manned British ships were involved in most of the Royal Navy’s major and minor operations in the Atlantic.

And veterans of Norway’s tiny, obsolescent Air Force escaped across the North Sea, by plane or boat, and thence to Canada – where a group of exiles set up a training airbase at Toronto Island, christened by the locals “Little Norway“.  There, equipped with American-built planes that had been completed just too late to be shipped to Norway as the government frantically tried to re-arm, they learned how to fly modern aircraft, before shipping back across the pond to the UK to form a new squadron, “331 Squadron” of the British Royal Air Force.

The squadron was equipped with the iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane, perhaps the most aesthetically beautiful instrument of war ever produced, and issued the RAF fuselage code “FN” – reputed to be, by design or coincidence, the abbreviation of the squadron’s motto, For Norge, “For Norway”.

Spitfires of 331 Squadron at their first base, at Catterick, Scotland

And it was 71 years ago today, at Catterick Scotland, that 331 Squadron became operational.

In the Dieppe Raid of August 1942 – a commando raid that served a shake-down for D-Day – 331 (and its sister squadron, 332 Squadron) shot down 15 German planes for a loss of three, making it the  highest-scoring RAF squadron during the raid.

The squadron spent 1943 doing “sweeps” over Belgium, France and Holland, attacking German ground transport and mixing it up with German fighters that came up to fight.

331 Squadron Spitfires taxing out for a fighter sweep in 1943.

331 was the highest-scoring fighter squadron in the RAF in Europe during 1943.

Captain Svein Heglund, Norway’s top-scoring fighter pilot of World War 2.  The dent in his Spitfire’s propeller spinner was from a part of one of the German aircraft he’d just shot down.  Heglund ended the war with 17 confirmed kills.

The two squadrons of Norwegians were among the mass of aircraft flying top cover over the D-Day invasions, and met and drove off one of the few attempts at a Nazi air raid that day.   Not long after, they relocated to the continent, among the first Allied fighter squadrons to move operations to France and, eventually, the Netherlands.  As the German Luftwaffe faded from the battlefield, the Norweigans spent a good chunk of the rest of the war shooting down German V1 “buzz bomb” cruise missiles.

The two Norwegian squadrons ended the war with 300 confirmed, “probable” or damaged German planes; they lost 131 planes and 71 pilots in combat and accidents.  This, out of squadrons that at full combat strength had 18-24 pilots and planes.

331 Squadron F16 lining up to fly a mission over Libya last year.

The Norwegian Air Force’s two current combat fighter squadrons are still named 331 and 332, in homage to their ancestors who, seven decades ago, fought a lonely, hopeless battle far from home.

The Soldier In Hell

People who’ve never served in the military – and some who do, but aren’t in the infantry – shake their heads and wonder what it takes to find someone who can run toward gunfire, when the natural numan instinct is to run away from it.

But training, and the testosterone that most young men have in great abundance, mixed together with enough esprit de corps or coercion or whatever, can overcome, or at least tame, the instinct of self-preservation enough that armies can and do exactly that; charge toward people who can kill them, and – sometimes – vanquish them.

But beyond that – what does it take to not only see and understand hell, but willingly walk into it?

It was 72 years ago today that Witold Pilecki (pronounced “Pi-LETZ-ki”) undertook perhaps the most daunting intelligence mission in history.

And if you’re American and not Polish, your response may well be “Witold who?”

Sit back for a moment.

If you were to develop a laboratory process to develop a perfect strain of militant patriot, the end result might be a lot like Witold Pilecki.

Pilecki in his Polish cavalry uniform

Born in the Finnish-Russian area near Petrograd, Russia, where his family was forcibly resettled by the Czarist Russians after his grandfather spent seven years in Siberia for participating in a failed uprising against Russian rule in 1863, he grew up steeped in the militant patriotism of the motivated exile.  The family moved to Lithuania when he was a boy – where he joined the Boy Scouts.

For those of you who have watched your kids make Pinewood Derby cars and go camping, that seems pretty innocent.  But in Poland – or among ethnic Poles scattered all over Russian Europe at the time – Scouting in Poland – the “Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego” (Polish Scouting and Guides) or ZHP – was, however, considered an underground paramilitary organization and an instrument of undesirable Polish patriotism.  ZHP fought in the Russo-Polish war as well as as part of the Polish Underground in World War 2.

And that was Pilecki’s introduction to war.  At age 17, as World War 1 devolved into the Russian Civil War, his Boy Scout troop became an irregular combat unit that fought against the Bolsheviks and, when the area was overrun, served as a guerrilla group until Poland’s independence.  He then joined the new, regular Polish Army as a cavalryman, and fought at the Battle of Warsaw, the high-water mark of the Bolshevik advance into Poland. as well as the ensuing pursuit of the Bolsheviks back to Ukraine.

And then he finished high school, at age 20.

Over the next decade and a half, he was a gentleman farmer, a reserve cavalry officer, a husband and father (with two children born in the thirties), and a social worker.

Pilecki during his brief civilian life

When World War 2 started, he was called up and, at age 38, served as a cavalry platoon leader, and a ferocious one; his platoon destroyed seven German tanks, shot down one airplane, and destroyed two more on the ground as they retreated across Poland.  During the war – which lasted barely over a month – he went from leading a platoon of 40 horsemen to the deputy commander of an Infantry division with a paper strength of 12,000 men (although by that point in the war it was more like 4,000).  When Poland surrendered, he and his commander, Jan Włodarkiewicz. slipped away and went to Warsaw to found a resistance group.  The two men built the group into one of the network of underground armies that undertook the resistance against the Nazis.

And it was while serving among the commanders of the Polish underground that the word of a German concentration camp near the Polish town of Oświęcim – “Auschwitz”, in German.

It was believed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill labor camp at the time Pilecki undertook the mission. On September 19, 1940 – 72 years ago today – carrying fake paperwork undre the name “Tomasz Serafiński”, Pilecki deliberately out into the middle of a roundup of Jews, and was hauled off to Auschwitz.  He undertook to form an underground organization to gather information and eventually rebel against the Germans.

Tomasz Serafinski, Auschwitz Prisoner 4859

At the time, Auschwitz was still a labor camp – a terrible enough place, to be sure, but it hadn’t  yet morphed into the Vernichtungslager, or “Extermination Camp”, that it would shortly.

But as it did, Pilecki was there.  He and his organization – the “ZOW” (“Związek Organizacji Wojskowej“, or Union of Military Organizations) gathered information, built a radio transmitter out of smuggled parts and improvised bits and pieces, and reported on the gathering horror as the work camp evolved into a death camp.

It was Pilecki’s intelligence that the final, definitive reports of trains full of Jews being brought to the camp, gassed and burned – transmitted seventy years ago this month, and then smuggled via the Polish Underground (the “Home Army”, or Armija Krajowa, as it had become, the Polish nationalist branch of the resistance) to the Polish Government in Exile, and thence to Winston Churchill and FDR.

Who did shamefully little with it.  We’ll come back to that later in this series.

Remember – this was in the middle of a concentration camp.  The Gestapo eventually caught wind of the guerrilla group forming amid the death camp, with the radio transmitter, and began homing in on Pilecki.  And in April of 1943, he and a couple of comrades overpowered a guard while assigned to a job outside the wire, cut the phone line to buy time to escape, and got away cleanly.  Pilecki linked up with the Armia Krajowa in a few weeks, and went  back to Warsaw.  His war wasn’t nearly over.

He led an AK unit in the Warsaw Uprising in August of 1944 (of which much more in a couple of years); after the uprising’s betrayal by the Soviets, he – saved by his military commissions from drumhead execution – went into a German POW camp.

Which was liberated by the Soviets; Pilecki went to Italy and served in the Free Polish Army for the remainder of the war.

And that was when the real war began.  The Polish government in exile sent Pilecki, under another fake ID, to organize anti-Soviet resistance; it’s largely forgotten in the west today, but armed resistance to the Soviets continued in Poland until the early fifties.

It was there, in 1946, that Pilecki’s cover was blown.  He was arrested, tortured by the Soviets’ Polish Communist puppets, and executed after a show trial on May 25, 1948.

Pilecki on the stand at his show trial

A few weeks back – not long after President Obama was making his “Polish Concentration Camp” gaffe – the people of Poland were undertaking a forensic expedition to find Pilecki’s remains; buried in an unmarked grave by the Communists, it’d taken decades of research.

“[Pilecki is] a hero because he volunteered to go to Auschwitz,” says Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland.

“He went to find out what was happening and tell the world.”…Since the fall of Communism in Poland, Pilecki has received several posthumous honors from the Polish government.

“But he is even more of a hero to the Jewish people of Poland,” according to Rabbi Schudrich.

Pilecki’s story is, in many ways, a microcosm of the Polish story; Poland was torn over the plight of its Jews; many Poles were virulently anti-semitic and actively collaborated with the Nazis – but the biggest contingent among the Righteous Among The Nations are Poles who risked and frequently lost all to help Jews hide, escape and resist; the nation then suffered years of battle between Stalinists and nationalists and the ensuing decades of Communist rule before finally leading the Soviet world in its own flight to freedom starting thirty years ago.

War Horse

The ground was wet and the air noticeably cool for a late August morning in 1942.  The men of the Italian Savoia Regiment were likely nervous.  In the midst of a Russian counterattack than had driven a wedge between the Italian 8th Army and the German 6th Army in the Ukraine, the Savoia had been thrown as a last-second, stop gap measure.  Facing them were 2,000 men of the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment.  With bugles blaring and cries of “Savoia!” and “Caricat” (charge), the Savoia Regment galloped into the record books.

It was the last cavalry charge in military history.*

The regiment was the 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalleggeri (Cavalry Regiment), one of oldest and last actual combat cavalry units in any of the major military powers by World War II.  Founded in 1692, by Gian Piossasco de Rossi, one of the most powerful Italian noble families, the Savoia Cavalleggeri carried forward a number of ancient traditions to the modern battlefield.  The unit’s helmets were emblazoned with black crosses, in commemoration of the Battle of Madonna di Campana in 1706 when the unit captured a French battle flag. Each of the 600 men wore a red necktie in honor of a wounded dispatch rider – from the 1790s.  And last, but not least, the units still carried sabers.  Sabers that were drawn on August 24, 1942.

The Italian 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment in training. One would have found few changes from the units’ drills 250 years earlier

The 3rd Dragoons was but one unit of many among the Italian military presence in Russia.  From early July of 1941, the Italian military had sought to provide assistance to the German invasion of Soviet Russia.  Indeed, the entire Eastern Front became a clarion call to unify the various fascist and nationalist element of Europe that had for decades defined themselves in large part to their opposition to Communism.  Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovakian, Finnish, and various Norwegian and French units would eventually fight on the Eastern Front and Italy would be no different.

Despite Hitler’s misgivings, Mussolini provided two corps-sized units: the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia) and the Italian 8th Army (otherwise known as the Italian Army in Russia).  10 divisions in all would serve in Russia, roughly 290,000 men, largely in a support capacity.  Neither Hitler or the German High Command trusted the Italians, routed on so many other battlefields when bereft of German leadership, to do much more than play a patchwork role on the front line.

An Italian soldier in Russia. Over 54,000 Italians would die as POWs on the Eastern Front alone

A patchwork role was precisely what the 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment played starting on August 23rd, 1942.  As the Axis advance on Stalingrad commenced, the Russians attempted a counter-attack at the River Don.  Focused at the point between the Italian 8th Army and German 6th, the Russian found themselves able to separate the two Axis forces.  No organized force stood in the way of the Russians being able to get back behind the German or Italian line – and thus the Savoia Regiment was quickly dispatched to block any Russian advance at the small village of Isbuschenskij.

As August 23rd gave way to the 24th, the Italians skirmished with elements of the Siberian 812th Infantry Regiment.  The Savoia was already outnumbered, 2,000 to 600, with all but one squadron on horseback when the regiment’s commander, the aristocratic royalist Colonnello Alessandro Bettoni-Cazzago gave the order to charge.  Bettoni-Cazzago, assuming that the longer he delayed an offense action, the worse the Italian position would be, attacked.  In an age where cavalry divisions were made of steel, not flesh, and fed diesel, not oats, the Italian charge seemed destined to match Lord Cardigan’s ill-fated “Charge of the Light Brigade” against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.

The Italian 3rd Dragoons Savoia Cavalry Regiment rides into battle

The move completely took the Russians by surprise.  One squadron flanked right against the Siberians’ left flank before wheeling around again to press the advantage from behind, hurling hand grenades into the quickly disintegrating enemy line. The another squadron attacked head on and the battle wore down into brutal hand-to-hand fighting, many of the Savoia having dismounted.  Supported by a machine-gun squad, the Italians amazingly took the field, suffering only 40 killed and another 79 wounded (to say nothing of the 100 horses lost).  In return, the 3rd Dragoons killed or captured over 1,000 Russians.

Il Duce visits the Russian Front

Isbuschenskij was a rare Italian triumph on the Eastern Front and was quickly forgotten amid the horror of Stalingrad.  Six months after the last successful cavalry charge in history, the Italians had 150,000 men either killed or captured as the Axis front was smashed by the Soviets.  Italian survivors of the East were hidden by the Rome press, as veterans angrily voiced their contempt for a government that sent them to Russia woefully unprepared for the winter conditions or the enemy they faced.  Like Greece or East Africa, Russia was yet another front that Il Duce had sent Italian sons to fight and die under misleading or under-informed pretenses.  The defeat did not go unnoticed by the Italian monarchy.

Savoia’s commander, Bettoni-Cazzago, was among those royalists who returned from the Russian cold with a heated hatred for the Fascist regime.  Bettoni-Cazzago would eventually join the anti-Mussolini conspirators who would aid King Victor Emmanuel III in disposing of the Mussolini government in the late summer/early fall of 1943.

* Yes, there were horse-mounted units that fought as recently as Afghanistan and South Ossetia in 2008, but Isbuschenskij remains unique as an actual cavalry unit in an organized charge.

Guerrillas in the Midst

By August of 1942, to call Addis Abeba even a distant battlefield in the scope of the Second World War seemed charitable.  The Italian Army had been routed almost 10 months earlier.  Most of the troops that had liberated Abbyisania were en route either to Egypt or the Far East.  The main British ammo depot in Addis Abeba hardly seemed to need guarding under such circumstances – until it erupted in flames, destroying ammunition for the new British Sten machine guns badly needed on other fronts.

The explosion was an act of sabotage – one of many in the unheralded Italian guerrilla war in East Africa.

The East African Campaign wasn’t merely a footnote to the Second World War but a colonial anachronism.  Despite the scale of soldiers involved – 250,000 British, Commonwealth, French, Belgian and Abyssinian troops versus nearly 280,000 Fascist troops, the majority of whom were Eritrean or Somali colonial recruits - the conflict seemed over 19th century Imperial goals than 20th century ideological concerns.  The targets were of minimal strategic importance, the battles fierce but relatively bloodless (10,000 casualties total between all sides), and the leading combatants a collection of eccentrics fighting for the right to plant their flags in desolate locations for the glory of far-flung maps.

Ethiopians paying homage to their conqueror, who demanded they call him the "Great White Father"

East Africa presented greater political victories than strategic ones.  Certainly, the presence of nearly 280,000 Fascist troops to the south of the Suez Canal represented a viable threat to the British Empire.  Between Benito Mussolini’s North & East African “Empires”, Italian divisions vastly outnumbered the British, perhaps as much to the tune of 500,000 to less than 50,000.  But for those quarter of a million Italian and Italian colonial soldiers stationed in Abyssinia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, the outpost might as well have been the moon as they were cut off from supplies and reinforcements.  Such tactical issues were of little concern to Rome who saw the war as an opportunity to occupy surrounding colonies.

In the late summer of 1940, Italian forces captured British possessions in East Africa, including Somaliland, Kenya, and portions of Sudan.  Despite far more pressing concerns, including the Battle of Britain taking place in the English skies, Churchill was furious that Britain had lost such minor colonial outposts and demanded retaliation.  For Mussolini, bogged down in Greece and unsuccessful in North Africa, East Africa represent a triumph of the Blackshirts – even if the battles saw Italian forces suffer ten times the killed and wounded of their opponents.

The formal end to the East African Campaign: Italian Troops "Saluted" into Surrender

The formal end to the East African Campaign: Italian Troops "Saluted" in Surrender By South African Soldiers

The initial Italian victories in East Africa may have included Blackshirt units such as the Camicie Nere battalions and Security Volunteer Militia (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale), but most of the fighting was being done by black faces.  70% of the East African Italian Army was Askari (native soldiers), many of whom were Eritrean.  In fact, the Eritrean battalions of the “Royal Corps of Colonial Troops” (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali) were likely the best trained and equipped soldiers in East Africa – the equal or superior of white Italian or British troops.

Black or white, the Italian numerical advantage disappeared by the end of 1940 as Allied troops prepared to invade with a force of 250,000 by January 1941.  Part of the invading army included irregular Abyssinian troops under British command.  Named the Gideon Force, the unit may have only numbered 2,000 “patriots” as the British called them, but became extremely feared by Italian soldiers.  Like Lawrence of Arabia a conflict before, Gideon Force cut supply lines, blew up key positions, harassed the enemy and was led by a British eccentric – in this case, Orde Wingate, who would go on to greater fame as the leader of the “Chindits” in Burma.  And like Lawrence’s Arab irregulars in World War I, the Gideon Force, although nominally a British infantry regiment, took few prisoners.  Italian pacification of Abyssinia had been particularly brutal, and Wingate’s “patriots” relished the opportunity to inflict their revenge.

Orde Wingate: the epitome of the East African Campaign - brave, bold and forgotten to history

The invading Allied armies discovered what the Italians had in 1935 – Abyssinia had little infrastructure for a modernized, motorized army to use. Lacking the ability to be resupplied, the Italian Viceroy for East Africa, Prince Amedeo, the Duke of Aosta, fought a rear-guard campaign, holding defensive positions until his units, worn by constant attack and dwindling resources, moved on to the next redoubt.  The strategy worked – sort of.  Addis Abeba fell in early May, almost five years to the day of the Abyssinian defeat and five months after the initial invasion.  While the crown jewel of the Italian Empire had surrendered, the Italian regular army fought on with the last 23,000 troops giving up at the Battle of Gondor in late November.  The Italians had accomplished their only possible objective – draw out the operation and keep British forces away from North Africa.

"We will return"....yeah, you won't...

The fall of the Italian East Africa Empire meant freedom for the Abyssinians and at least a change to a democratic colonial master for others, but left one group in political limbo – the 40,000 Italians who had been convinced by Mussolini to move to Abyssinia.  Some were simply bureaucratic paper-pushers or government-sponsored engineers, but others were a part of Mussolini’s grand ambition to solve Italy’s problem of emigration.  Abyssinia would become India and the Bronx all in one – the economic engine of Italian colonialism and the settling ground for a planned two million Italians immigrants.

For those unlucky enough to believe Rome’s propaganda found a country far different than advertised.  Abyssinia was poor in resources but rich in hostilities.  Rebels loyal to exiled Emperor Haile Selassie controlled perhaps as much as 1/4 of the country’s hinterlands and for the 3,200 farmers who attempted to cultivate the land found it as unforgiving as the gun-wielding partisans.  Nothing grew in Abyssinia except hatred for Italy.

Seeing no future in East Africa, the only hope for Italian civilians was in the past – a return of the fascist regime.  Two Italian guerrilla organizations grew quickly in the wake of the defeat.  One of the groups, Fronte di Resistenza, (Front of Resistance) was a combination military and civilian resistance group operating out of the major cities.  Lacking weapons, the group resorted to sabotage (like the Addis Abeaba ammo depot bombing) and spying on British troop movements.  The other, Figli d’Italia (Sons of Italy), was a Blackshirt-recruited organization that also sort of involved Italian civilians.  Only that the Figli, after finding out how hard it was to kill British troops, preferred shooting Italian civilians they thought were collaborating.

An Italian "flying column." Even as guerrillas, the Italians were dappy dressers

Not all Italian troops embraced these forms of resistance.  Roughly 7,000 Italian soldiers managed to escape capture and conduct a guerrilla war on the African plain for almost two years.  Calling to mind the World War I German General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who successfully evaded capture of his East African Army for the entire war, a series of Italian commanders led their small bands of guerrillas, literally called “bande” in Italian, in raiding party attacks from 1941 to 1943.

The most memorable of these holdouts were the ”Tigray” fighters of Lt. Amedeo Guillet in Eritrea.  Guillet had already earned the reputation from the British as the “Devil Commander” for his brazen, bordering on reckless, attack strategies during the British invasion.  Ordered to protect an Italian retreat in early 1941 against an advancing British tank unit, Guillet and his calvary unit charged with swords drawn.  Despite heavy colonial losses, Guillet halted the British advance while riding his horse between enemy tanks.

If Orde Wingate was “Lawrence of Abyssinia”, Guillet was the “Lawrence of Eritrea.”  Guillet remained popular with the Eritrean populace, even with the brutal fascist rule that predated his arrival.  Guillet himself, like many in the Italian military, was not a fascist but a monarchist and loyal to King Victor Emmanuel III.

Guillet not only evaded capture but managed to sneak back to Italy in 1943.  His first request?  To be sent back to Eritrea with gold and weapons to continue the guerrilla war – this despite the total Axis defeat in North & East Africa.  Guillet’s request was denied as days later, Italy would change sides.  For the rest of the war Guillet would perform risky missions in German-held Italy, ironically working with a British commando unit whose previous task had been to try and capture him in Eritrea.

Amedeo Guillet: The Devil Commander

Amedeo Guillet: The Devil Commander

The British might have viewed Guillet and other Italian holdouts as relatively minor irratants, but the guerrillas’ actions caught the attention of Emperor Haile Selassie.  By the summer of 1942, with Rommel at El Alamein and the British forced to send reinforcements to sections of East Africa to quell Italian fighting, Selassie hedged his bets and extended terms to the Italian rebels should the Allies be defeated.  Selassie declared his willingness to accept an Italian Protectorate if the Italians agreed to:

  1. a total amnesty for all the Ethiopians sentenced by Italy
  2. the presence of Ethiopians in all levels of the administration
  3. allow Selassie to maintain under throne under Italian rule
Selassie later denied that he made the offer.  And for good reason.  Shortly after the ammo depot explosion, British authorities decided to round up all Italian civilians and place them in internment camps for the duration of the war (they were actually called “concentration camps” but the name was not yet synonymous with mass genocide).  The sabotages ceased.  By October, the Fronte di Resistenza was no more.
A few guerrillas remained in the field, fighting even after Italy’s surrender and switch to the Allied side.  Colonel Nino Tramonti was the last to give up in October of 1943, a month after his forces were technically attacking their now British allies.  The war in East Africa was finally over and for those few Italian civilians who chose to stay in Abyssinia, they discovered an unlikely protector – Haile Selassie.
Selassie did not force Italians to leave his country.  Only after Selassie was overthrown and murdered by Communist forces in his own military in 1974 did the country embark on a forced emigration policy.  22,000 Italo-Ethiopians were forced to flee – many to a country they had never known.  Today, fewer than 100 of the original Italian settlers who came during the ’30s & ’40s remain in the country.

Ash Wednesday & Salvation

It was a tiny desert coastal town, notable only for its modest railway and relative proximity (a scant 66 miles) to Alexandria.  Even today, El Alamein is small, home to only 7,400 people total.  But on July 1st, 1942, the town whose name in Arabic stands for “two flags” saw 250,000 men under various national flags collide in one of the most important battles of World War II.

For nearly a year-and-a-half, the war in North Africa seemed stuck on a bloody Mobius strip.  With infrastructure at a bare minimum and lines of supply stretching from Axis Tripoli in the West and British Alexandria in the East, the battles in the desert took on a repetitive nature.  One side would score a crushing victory, over-extend their ability to be resupplied or reinforced, and the other side would counter-attack until they too had simply exhausted their gas, ammo and food.  Heat, time and distance gave the desert tremendous power over armies.  The sands of Libya and Egypt soaked up fuel and blood in massive qualities, bits of which are still being discovered today.

Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel: The Desert Fox befuddled Britain for 1 1/2 years in Libya. At El Alamein, his signature strategy of outflanking proved impossible

Few mastered the limitations of the desert better than German General Erwin Rommel.  Rommel had arrived in Libya on the heels of an impressive rout of the Italian 10th Army.  Using small amounts of armor striking quickly through the vast desert interior, 36,000 British soldiers under Gen. Richard O’Connor managed to outflank and capture 130,000 Italian troops plus much of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) including the key port of Tobruk.

Rommel didn’t need to emulate O’Connor, having been one of the pioneers of rapid, outflanking armor as part of the German strategy of blitzkrieg (lightning war).  Rommel’s own 7th Panzer had developed the nickname “Ghost Division” in France since even the German High Command often had no idea where Rommel was or where he was heading.  Arrogant, egotistical, and unwilling to follow orders he personally disagreed with (Rommel disobeyed orders for him to kill enemy prisoners, civilians and Jews), Rommel was also a tactical genius.  Protected by his successes and friendship with Joseph Goebbels, “The Desert Fox” was given a free hand in North Africa.

Claude Auchinleck: Halted Rommel twice and was the victor of El Alamein. His reward? Replaced and largely forgotten by history

The British were less graced with military leadership in North Africa.  A revolving door of generals came and left Cairo, each seemingly unable to master the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee for more than a few fleeting moments.  It didn’t have to have been this way.  If not for large portions of the British Army in Egypt being recalled to fight in Greece, Richard O’Connor’s victory over Italian Libya might have been complete.  Instead, despite a numerical advantage over the Afrika Korps in both men (150,000 versus 96,000) and tanks (179 to 70), by the end of June of 1942, the British had retreated to Mersa Matruh – 100 miles inside Egypt and the furthest retreat thus far in the campaign.  The British commanding general was relieved again (this time it was Lt. Gen. Neil Ritchie, for those who cared) and in a desperate move, the Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command, Claude Auchinleck, personally took over operations.

Auchinleck, nicknamed “The Auk” by his men, had taken over command before.  The C-in-C of the Middle Eastern Front since the summer of 1941, Auchinleck had relieved Sir Alan Cunningham in November of ’41, saving the British Army from defeat.  But Auchinleck either couldn’t delegate authority well or had poor resources to draw from (maybe both) and now found himself having direct control over the British 8th Army.  His first decision sent panic across Egypt.

“The Auk” knew Mersa Matruh was not defensible – at least not with the 8th Army in the condition it was in.  To the south was yet another giant open flank of desert, the kind that Rommel had used again and again to defeat British forces.  Lacking natural defenses and perhaps not trusting that his tank commanders could match Rommel’s in open battle, Auchinleck made the risky decision to retreat to the railway junction of El Alamein.

What followed would be known as “Ash Wednesday.”  British Command in Cairo assumed Rommel would be in the heart of the Nile valley in days and began frantically burning anything of military value.  With Alexandria only 66 miles away from the front, Auchinleck made contingency plans to construct bunkers east of the city and flood the Nile to slow the enemy advance.  Even the Axis believed the fall of British Egypt could arrive at any minute.  Benito Mussolini, wishing to create his own “Hitler at the Eiffel Tower” moment, flew to Libya and anxiously awaited his victorious march into Cairo.

Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee: the majority of the Afrika Korps was, in fact, Italian

Auchinleck may have been making back-up plans, but he knew what he was doing.  El Alamein was an unknown dot on a dusty map in Cairo, but in military terms was a modern Thermopylae.  Hedged by the Ruweisat Ridge and the Qattara Depression to the south, Rommel would have to go through the Sahara itself to outflank the 8th Army – a distance and environment too far and too harsh to overcome.  Rommel would have to mount a frontal assault on a relatively small front of 20/30 miles.  The British had foreseen the potential of this area even before the war, building pill boxes and mine-fields in the open terrain.  Rommel would fight a numerically superior force in a brutal, head-to-head battle.  There would be no flanks to turn this time.

The First Battle of El Alamein didn’t start well either for the Axis on July 1st.  The 90th Light Infantry Division, whose mission was to clear the coastal road, wandered off and found themselves pinned against a South African division.  The main lines of attack, led (as always) by Panzer divisions, spent most of the first day under air assault by both British planes and desert storms.  By the time they made their target destination of Deir el Abyad, the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade had already hunkered down with their 25-pound, heavy artillery guns.  Fierce fighting into the night gave the Afrika Korps the ground but at a high price – only 37 tanks remained.

The 8.8cm FlaK gun: the German transformation of an anti-aircraft weapon into an anti-tank gun was key in the early North African Axis successes

While the next two days were a mix of battles without a clear front line, the coastal road necessary for the Axis advance remained in British hands.  Sensing that the offensive was stalling, Rommel pulled back armored units from the desert in an attempt to shore up the 90th Light Infantry’s hard fighting.  It had no effect.

Auchinleck too had a sense of the direction of the fight and sent the New Zealand 2nd Division along with the Indian 5th to outflank and surround the German 90th Light Infantry.  They ran head-long into the Italian Ariete Armored Division.  The Italians foiled the effort to surround the 90th Light Infantry, but at a cost – only 5 of their tanks remained.  By July 3rd, the entire Afrika Korps had at best 26 tanks left.  The dream of bathing in the Nile was dead – for now.

The View at the Time: El Alamein was viewed, at best, as a bloody stalemate. Few understood that Rommel had reached the end of his supply line. The Nile was no longer a goal but the state of mind of the Afrika Korps

In truth, both sides were exhausted.  The British had been on the run for weeks and the Axis had few offensive options left.  The tank and infantry battles ceased.  The battle of supplies started.

Rommel had been receiving 34,000 short tons of supplies a month back in May of 1942.  With naval patrols hitting Italian shipping and British bombers attacking his supply lines, Rommel’s troops were down to 5,000 short tons by the end of June.  Vehicles too were in short supply.  4,000 had made it to Libya and the front in May.  400 made it in June.  In contrast, not only were the British getting new supplies every day, but within a week, two new Indian Brigades and a new Australian Division were now at El Alamein.

Renewed fighting on July 8th reflected the imbalance.  Depleted Panzer groups mostly counter-attacked, trying to stop Australian units from overrunning the center of the line.  Despite heavy Australian tank losses (as much as 50%), within a week of fighting, the Germans had suffered nearly 6,000 casualties and lost Signals Intercept Company 621.  The company, a forward unit charged with picking up British radio signals and other intelligence, had been Rommel’s strategic ace-in-the-hole.  By the middle of July, Rommel had lost most of his tanks and now his ears and eyes on the front.

"Mancò la fortuna, non il valore" (A failure of fortune, not of valour). A Italian marker at the site of the furthest advance of the Axis armies in Egypt

The tide had turned.  But now the coastal road was no longer blocking an Axis advance but a British one as Auchinleck was determined to destroy Rommel once and for all.  In late July, having now twice tried to push the Axis out of the El Alamein region, Auchinleck launched a furious armored assault with Operation Manhood.  Not only were the Germans expecting the offensive, but not for the first time, British forces got lost in the desert.  Anti-tank defenders got separated from their tank units, some brigades stumbled into mine-fields, and in general communication was poor.  Even with having told Berlin that “the situation is critical in the extreme”, Rommel was able to counter the attack, causing 1,000 British and Australian casualties for no gain.  Rommel would not be in Cairo but nor would Auchinleck be in Tripoli anytime soon.

But how had the British been unable to defeat Rommel even after his forces had suffered terrible losses?  Largely it was about coordination.  British units simply hadn’t been trained well enough for joint aerial, infantry and armored action.  But the terrain too hurt the British once the tables had been turned.  Like Thermopylae, the battles were contained on narrow ground and the defenders had plenty of time to prepare.  El Alamein’s natural defenses bled the fight out of the Axis and returned the favor to the British.

The cost of battle: at least 23,000 British & German troops were killed or wounded at El Alamein.  Italian deaths are unknown but considerable

The cost of battle: at least 23,000 British & German troops were killed or wounded at El Alamein. Italian deaths are unknown but considerable

The significance of the First Battle of El Alamein was lost to the British Command in London.  Claude Auchinleck might have stopped Rommel and saved the critical shipping artery of the Suez Canal, but he had done so at a frightening loss of men and material against a smaller force.  Nevermind that thus far Auchinleck had been the only commander of any nation to beat Rommel, “The Auk” was seen as a command liability.  Auchinleck was offered a revised C-in-C command for Persia and Iraq (the Middle Eastern Command was now split in two, with Egypt and Libya a separate office) but turned it down.  He would resurface by 1943 in India in a similar role and was credited, in part, in changing British fortunes in the Indian/Burmese theater of operations.

To replace Auchinleck, British Command chose Gen. William Gott – a corps commander with excellent tank skills.  But Gott never took command.  On route, his plane was attacked and Gott was killed instantly by a Messerschmitt round through the heart.  Instead, a Home Defence Lt. General by the name of Bernard Montgomery was named the new C-in-C of the Middle Eastern Front.

Montgomery would get his own chance at Rommel at El Alamein that fall and the end result would be quite different.

The Thin Reed

If you read enough history, you eventually realize that history, especially the history of warfare, is less a matter of “who makes the best plan”, and more “who comes reacts best to and endless series of unplanned errors, mistakes and unforeseeable twists of fate?”

It was seventy years ago today and tomorrow that one of the most important battles in Western civilization was being decided.  At about this time (after allowing for time zones),  two days of furtive maneuvering about tens of thousands of square miles of ocean led to 90 minutes of frantic back-and-forth air strikes on the morning of June 5, a series of battles that began at dawn and were substantially over by 2PM.  And the results were largely the confluence of a long series of strokes of luck, caprice and erroneous decisions – good and bad.

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the pivotal moment in the Battle of Midway.  The battle has been seen as the turning point in the war in the Pacific – and it’s an accurate perception.  Since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had been running the table; after wiping out the US battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor, they’d taken Hong Kong, Malaysia, Wake Island, Guam, and finally the huge US colony in the Philippines and the equally important British base in Singapore;  they sank a pair of British battleships (HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse) on their way to assist Singapore, and followed up by destroying virtually the entire Dutch fleet, along with most of the supporting British, Australian and American units, in the Battle of The Java Sea, while conquering Indonesia and its immense oil and rubber reserves.   They’d raided as far afield as Sri Lanka and Darwin, Australia.

Then, a month ago, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, they’d won a tactical victory over the US and Australians – sinking the carrier Lexington, and damaging the USS Yorktown badly enough to keep it in dry dock for three months, leaving the US with only two functional carriers, Hornet and Enterprise, in the whole Pacific (and five in the whole world – Wasp and Ranger, both of whom were regarded even then as failed design experiments, were still in the Atlanticm and Saratoga was undergoing maintenance in San Francisco).

Hornet and Enterprise had just returned from the “Doolittle Raid“, launching 16 Army bombers on a pinprick raid on Tokyo and Kyoto, which had no military effect but immense, intense moral impact on Japan, especially its leadership.  If American bombers could reach Tokyo – even via extraordinary means like the Doolittle Raid – then drastic action was needed to shore up the home islands’ defenses.

WIth this in mind – as well as to deny the Americans a key base for patrolling the Central Pacific – the Japanese planned to seize Midway Island, so named because it was halfway between Hawaii and Tokyo.  It would secure much of the vast ocean waste from American reconnaissance, making it easy to conquer Fiji and Samoa and close up the last remaining gap in the Home Islands’ outer ring of defenses.  Most importantly to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the planner of the Pearl Harbor raid and many of the other successes of the previous six months, it would lure the surviving American aircraft carriers – two, he thought, Hornet and Enterprise – out for a fight at 2:1 odds.

IJN Kaga, Japan's first large aircraft carrier. Like the USS Lexington and Saratoga, Kaga was a converted battleship, and in its day was the most powerful aircraft carrier afloat. A veteran of Pearl Harbor and the battles afterward.

The US Navy had, of course, broken the Japanese Navy’s codes, and knew of the operation long enough in advance to order the three months of work on Yorktown to be completed in there days (we covered that here) and to move the three carriers out to a place in the Pacific from where they could try to ambush the Japanese.

Less well-known?  The Japanese, worried about security, had actually ordered a change in code-books, which would take the US Navy some time to re-break.  But the change didn’t go into effect until the beginning of June – enough time for the USN to get all the information it needed.

The Japanese were hampered by their own bureaucracy and doctrine.  They’d had two of their newest carriers – Shokaku and Zuikaku – badly damaged at Coral Sea.  Shokaku was out for three months – and unlike Yorktown, out for three months it stayed.  And Zuikaku‘s air group had been so badly mauled at Coral Sea that it would take a few months to bring in and train up replacements…

…which was also a problem for Yorktown - but its air group was brought up to strength by borrowing squadrons from the USS Saratoga, which was refitting in San Francisco.  Zuikaku could have done much the same – but Japanese doctrine at the time was to keep ships and their air groups together.  It’d cost them.

But beyond doctrinal differences and top-secret technological prowess and the foibles of leaders and nations, the Battle of Midway was decided as much by three ill-timed bits of fortune – good or bad, depending on your point of view – that had relatively little to do with the battle itself.

Oceanfront Real Estate – Now, in those days before satellites and drones and over-the-horizon radar, the biggest problem was finding the enemy.  And that meant hundreds, thousands of hours spent crisscrossing the Pacific in search planes – long-ranged land-based bombers and, especially, “Seaplanes” or “Flying Boats”.  Almost unknown today, flying boats – which could land on water – were the key to patrolling most of the Pacific at the time.

An American PBY "Catalina" flying boat. This clumsy-looking plane was among the most important of all in World War II; it, more than any other, was the "eyes of the fleet" for the US and British navies. A Catalina caught the first whiff of the Japanese fleet at Midway - and many other battles.

One of the reasons the Japanese were able to so precisely pinpoint the US fleet at Pearl Harbor was that they had set up a “flying boat” base at a bare, uninhabited coral atoll and rock called “French Frigate Shoals”, from which their “flying boats” could reconnoiter Pearl Harbor.   Refueled from Japanese submarines who waited in the lagoon, the flying boats gave the Japanese a very up-to-date picture of what was at the base before the attack.

Aerial view of the main island ("Tern Island") of French Frigate Shoals. The airfield happened later in the war. The island is inhabited by birds and researchers.

They then frittered that advantage away by launching a series of pinprick bombing raids from the Shoals, causing the US Navy to send a small squadron of destroyers and a few “Seaplane Tenders” – squat little ships with none of the glamor of the aircraft carrier or dash of the destroyers or cruisers – whose job was to serve as a floating base for US flying boats.

And so when the Japanese submarines returned to the Shoals to set up the base again, they found the harbor full of US ships and aircraft.  They aborted the mission – leaving Yamamoto blind, with no idea what US units were in or near Pearl Harbor and – due to the radio silence he’d ordered – no idea that that part of the plan had gone awry – and worst of all, no scout planes crisscrossing the Central Pacific looking for the American carriers.

The Right And Wrong Places At The Right And Wrong Time - The Japanese had attacked Midway the previous day, and had shredded the defending Army and Marine aircraft.  There had been several rounds of counterattacks – US Army and Marine planes from Midway finding and trying to attack the Japanese carriers, without effect, but more or less fixing the Japanese position for airstrikes launched from the American carriers, which, unknown to the Japanese, were lurking within range.

It’s here that timing intersected with doctrine – or as people in business or politics call it, “policy”.

It was American practice to launch airstrikes as soon as possible and send them on their way; minutes were precious and irrecoverable when a strike or counterstrike ending in a ten-minute air raid was all that separated your fleet from disaster.  The American carriers launched as soon as they could, each carrier’s air groups proceeding toward the best guess they had of where the Japanese fleet lay – with the torpedo bombers flying low, and the dive bombers up high…

…and, due to a math error, flying on the wrong course, getting separated from the torpedo planes below.

A Douglas TBD "Devastator" torpedo bomber. Obsolete, underpowered and almost unarmed, it was further hampered by the fact that US torpedoes, early in the war, had a habit of not blowing up when they hit targets. Of 41 Devastators to attempt attacks at Midway, only four returned to their ships - a 90% casualty rate in ninety minutes.

And so the torpedo bombers went in to attack, unescorted, flying low and slow (so the torpedoes would work), and they got mowed down; every single plane in Hornet’s “Torpedo Squadron Eight” was shot down by the defending Japanese fighters; only one man, Ensign George Gay, survived, floating under a seat cushion.

Ensign George Gay (right), the sole survivor of the 45 pilots, bombardiers and gunners of Torpedo Squadron Eight, from Hornet. Shot down by a Japanese fighter, he floated under a seat cushion, watching the first three carriers get hit and set ablaze. He was picked up by a Catalina the next day. He spent 30 years as a pilot for TWA He passed away in 1994, and had his ashes scattered over the same piece of water where he'd floated, and his squadronmates had died.

The dive bombers, who had started their flight on the wrong course, found nothing…

…but the wake of a Japanese destroyer, three miles below, that had diverted to try to attack an American submarine, and was returning to the fleet at top speed.  The dive bombers followed the destroyer’s course, and arrived over the Japanese fleet…

IJN Arashio. The destroyer had spent the morning trying to depth-charge the submarine USS Nautilus. It failed, and was returning to rejoin the fleet when Lt. Commander McClusky's dive bombers saw its wake from three miles up. Lost and out of ideas and, nearly, fuel, they turned to match Arashio's course - and found the carriers.

…as the torpedo bombers were being slaughtered.  Which, as it happened, had drawn all of the defending Japanese fighters down to nearly ocean level, unable to respond as the dive bombers tipped over and began their attacks almost completely unmolested.

Indecision - The Japanese, on the other hand, had a policy of only sending complete strikes.  The Japanese admiral – Chuichi Nagumo, who commanded the carrier fleet as Yamamoto’s subordinate – had two missions on his plate; bombard Midway (the scheduled invasion was two days away), and sink the carriers (without which the invasion was a moot point).  Each mission required his planes to carry different weapons; his torpedo bombers would carry bombs to attack land targets; his dive bombers would carry armor-piercing bombs to attack ships.

And Nagumo had just changed his mind, switching from attacking Midway to going after the carriers, and ordered his planes to begin the one-hour re-arming process as the American air raid closed in – a Japanese search plane found the American carriers just about the time they were launching their air strikes.

And so the decks of the Japanese carriers were piled high with bombs and torpedoes as the Americans closed in.

The Japanese carriers, all veterans of Pearl Harbor, were a mixed bag; Kaga and Nagumo’s flagship Akagi were old converted battleships (like the American Lexington and Saratoga), big ships with some serious design weaknesses.  But Hiryu and Soryu were newer ships, designed largely according to British design practices, including armored hangars capable of withstanding some damage (unlike the American carriers, whose flight decks were wood and whose hangar decks were largely open).  In theory, the Japanese carriers were tougher propositions for a bomber than were the US ships.

But the Japanese Navy had never really emphasized damage control, or damage prevention – which would plague them for the entire war.  And in any case, having decks piled high with bombs, torpedoes and criss-crossed with hoses full of aviation fuel, and with flight and hangar decks lined with airplanes full of fuel and carrying explosives, would make any damage a dicey proposition.

Artist' rendition of a Douglass "Dauntless" dive bomber pulling out of its dive by a blazing IJN "AkagI".

And so instead of attacking ships buttoned up for action, with explosives stowed under armor and gas lines drained, the US dive bombers attacked ships that were practically rigged to explode.

And when the bombs hit – four on Kaga, three each on Soryu and Akagi.  The hits set off chain-reaction explosions on the fueled and armed planes, which also detonated the stacks of bombs and torpedoes, dooming the three ships.

A Douglass SBD3 "Dauntless" Dive Bomber - the hero of the battle - after landing on Yorktown after bombing Kaga. Note the damage to the rear "elevator" fins.

The battle went on for two more days, officially – but it was all decided seventy years ago today.  Two waves of Japanese counterattacks from Hiryu, the lone surviving carrier, crippled Yorktown, which was sunk the next day by a Japanese submarine.   Follow-ups from Enterprise and Hornet finished off Hiryu that afternoon.

IJN Hiryu, the last carrier afloat, ablaze after being set afire later in the afternoon on June 5. It would be sunk later by a Japanese destoyer.

Four of the six Pearl Harbor carriers, and the elite of the Japanese carrier air force, was wiped out in a matter of hours.  The Japanese Navy would never again carry out an offensive action during the war.  The full weight of America’s industrial might would come to bear in the next year and a half, as the US would commission 24 aircraft carriers to replace the two they’d lost (and the two more they’d lose in the coming year – of which more later).

The lesson?

In war, as in so many areas of life, it’s not so much who has the best plan, the best process or the best equipment so much as the one that can react fastest, and best, to a fluid, confusing and changing situation.


On this Memorial Day weekend, I thought we’d remember an amazing event in the history of American enterprise.

It was seventy years ago today that the most important repair job in American history began.

The aircraft carrier USS Yorktown had begun its life six years earlier, as one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “economic stimuli” as the administration prepared for what they saw – correctly, this time – as an inevitable war with Japan.

The carrier was an important ship; America’s previous carriers were had been two converted battlecruisers (the Lexington and Saratoga) and an unsuccessful, too-small USS Ranger (*). The Yorktown served as the lead ship of a class of two other carriers, the Hornet and Enterprise, that themselves served as the prototypes for the 24 wartime Essex class – by far the biggest class of aircraft carriers in history, and one of the most successful classes of warships ever, which served in front-line service into the seventies, and as training and reserve ships until the nineties.

But that was all in the future.

Yorktown had spent the first months of the war escorting convoys and raiding isolated Japanese garrisons when intelligence discovered a Japanese invasion fleet heading for Port Moresby, an isolated and malarial outpost on the eastern end of New Guinea of little economic or demographic influence…

…except that it had enough flat ground to build a big enough airport to put northern Australia, and all maritime traffic in the area, under threat of Japanese air attack.

The two American carriers, Lexington and Yorktown, sank one small Japanese carrier, and drove off the invasion fleet.  In return, the Japanese sank the Lexington, and after the Yorkdown’s captain dodged eight near misses from Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes, the Yorktown was hit by a single Japanese bomb that killed or injured 66 men.

The engineers on board figured it’d take three months in a shipyard to repair the damage.

The battle – almost unknown to Americans today – was crucial; it was a tactical defeat for the Americans, who lost a carrier, a tanker and a destroyer, with Yorktown badly damaged.  But it marked the high-water line for Japanese expansion.  The six month wave of success had ended.  That was a strategic win for the US – the first of the war.

But Naval Intelligence indicated the Japanese didn’t know that yet; signs pointed to an attempt to invade Midway Island, by way of staging for a potential invasion or neutralization of Hawaii.  And if Midway fell, and Hawaii was jeopardized, that “strategic victory” would mean little.

And the US had almost nothing to respond with; six months after Pearl Harbor, there were no seaworthy battleships in the Pacific; worse, we were down to two functional aircraft carriers, Enterprise and Hornet had just returned from the Doolittle Raid, and Saratoga was in a long refit in San Francisco.

That was it.

So the commander of the US Pacific Fleet took a desperate gamble; he sent Yorktown back to Pearl Harbor, and mobilized the entire base’s civilian and military workforce to do the unthinkable; get Yorktown ready for battle in three days, rather than three months.

Yorktown in drydock at Pearl Harbor This is where the repair work was done.

And so for the next 72 hours, a horde of sailors and dockyard workers swarmed over the ship; they repaired the massive structural damage from the bomb, and the leaking from the fuel tanks whose walls had been shredded by shrapnel from the near-misses, causing Yorktown to trail an oil slick all the way home from the battle of the Coral Sea.

And it worked.  Right on schedule, after three days of frenzied, 24-hour-a-day work, Yorktown departed Pearl Harbor, escorted by a small gaggle of cruisers and destroyers, to join Hornet and Enterprise on a fast voyage to the central Pacific…

…whose destination we’ll talk about in a couple of days here.

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The “Gibraltar of the East”

Broken and burnt, its nearly 14,000 inhabitants starving and weary of 6-months of near constant aerial and coastal bombardment, the final holdout of American and Filipino resistance to the Japanese invasion of Philippines succumb.  The island of Corregidor, affectionately known to American troops as “The Rock”, and triumphed as the “Gibraltar of the East,” had finally fallen on May 6th, 1942.

The last redoubt for the "Battling Bastards of Bataan." As their saying went, "no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam."

What ended in an American defeat had been a Japanese embarrassment for months.  Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, commander of the 14th Imperial Army, had been tasked to deliver the Philippines (and the critical port of Manila Harbor) in a brisk two months.  Instead, Homma found himself dragged into a slow war of attrition against nearly 80,000 American and Filipino troops on the Bataan Peninsula and unable to use Manila Harbor as the gun batteries of Corregidor’s Fort Mills swept the surrounding bay.  For months, Japanese propaganda repeatedly claimed that Bataan and Corregidor were about to fall followed by weeks of silence.  Despite Japanese forces pushing aside Allied forces on all fronts, Bataan and Corregidor remained a strategic thorn in side of Japan’s military planners.  Without Manila Harbor, supplying troops invading the raw material rich areas like Malaysia and Indonesia would become even more difficult and could bring the Japanese advance to a halt.

Resistance may have inspired Americans back home and frustrated Tokyo, but the defense of Bataan and Corregidor had been badly botched.  Despite his accomplished military resume (including being Army Chief of Staff, Field Marshal of the Philippine Army & Commander of US Forces in the Far East), Gen. Douglas MacArthur refused to follow the army’s War Plan Orange 3 strategy of retreating into Bataan and holding up with enough supplies until reinforcements arrived.

Yes, the Japanese used flamethrower on American bunker positions too. Here we see Japanese troops fighting against American positions on the Orion-Bagac Line on Bataan

Instead, MacArthur wanted to meet the enemy on the beaches – a near strategic impossibility on an archipelago.  Coupled with a failure to defend the airbase on Clark Field on December 8th, resulting in the loss of American air support, supplies for the defense of the Philippines were scattered across the islands when the first Japanese troops came ashore.  Despite a numerical parity with the Japanese (nearly 80,000 versus 75,000 Imperial troops), the lack of even basic supplies on Bataan put American forces at a significant disadvantage.  By April 9th,  the Japanese had breached the Orion-Bagac Line, among the last lines of defense in the US strategy of Bataan, and Major General Edward P. King agreed to surrender the 75,000 US and Filipino troops who remained.  MacArthur and his superiors had seen the writing on the wall even earlier, transferring MacArthur to Corregidor in March and then Australia.  MacArthur declared “I shall return.”  10,000 Filipinos and 650 American POWs didn’t as they were shot, stabbed and starved in the Bataan Death March.

American and Filipino POWs from Bataan. 60,000 Filipino troops were among those who suffered on the infamous "Bataan Death March"

Bataan had fallen but Corregidor had not.  The tiny 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide island posed a political dilemma both in Tokyo and Washington. The battle for control of Philippines was most assuredly over, but 14,000 soldiers and civilians continued to block Manila Bay – seemingly unreachable by both Japanese bombers and American reinforcements.  Protected by the vast underground bunker and tunnel system on Malinta Hill, armed with an independent water pump and vast (if shrinking) supplies, and stocked with numerous anti-aircraft guns and naval batteries, Corregidor was earning the “Gibraltar” description.

The Island's main defense. Corregidor had 45 gun batteries stationed over the island, but most were from WWI

The Japanese had already discovered that Corregidor would be a tough nut to crack.  Early in the invasion, on December 29th, 91 Japanese bombers, the whole of the local Japanese bomber air force, hit the island with nearly 50 tons of explosives.  The bombs did little; the American AA guns did more – shooting down 7 planes.  The attacks continued until Jan 6th, with Japanese planes dropping their payloads at higher and higher altitudes to escape AA fire.  Unwilling to suffer further losses, the air fleet was moved to Thailand and General Homma refocused his attention on Bataan.

Tunnel vision: the sight for most American soldiers on Corregidor during the siege

Corregidor wasn’t regularly targeted again until February as Japanese artillery was able to set up positions close enough to hit the island.  By then, life on the island had settled into a dreary routine. When the men were not building fortifications or going about their daily chores, they had little to do.  Rations had been cut in half at start of January and an island that was built to house only 6,000 was overwhelmed with civilians and political refugees, including Philippine President Quezon who gave his second inaugural address amid an air raid while sheltered in the Malinta tunnel system.

 Mac's staff car.  The general himself had long since left

Mac's staff car. The general himself had long since left

The fall of Bataan brought the full weight of the Japanese Army back on Corregidor.  By now, troops were down to 30 ounces of food a day with drinking water rarely getting distributed.  And with the arrival of the 22nd Air Brigade, the Japanese air attack had returned with vigor.  An estimated 365 tons of bombs were dropped on Corregidor and in one day alone, May 4th, 1942, 16,000 shells hit as well.  Worse for those trapped on the island was the realization, post Bataan, that their only options were death or brutal imprisonment.  There would be no rescue operation, no American Fleet arriving to save the day.  The longer they held out, the greater they aided the overall war effort, but at the likely expense of Japanese retribution.

The last act on Corregidor began on May 5th as 790 Japanese soldiers invaded.  Pushed by strong currents between Bataan and the island, landing proved difficult, especially under American fire.  Quickly bogging down, the initial invasion fared better than the 785 reinforcements who landed in the wrong location opposite the 4th Marines.  Most of this invasion force was killed, with the survivors escaping along the island’s edge to join the main invasion force.  Together, they pushed forward and captured one of the main battery stations.  A desperate US counterattack with 500 Marines failed as another 800 Japanese troops arrived, along with several tanks.  With Japanese troops just yards away from the Malinta tunnel complex, housing civilians and 1,000 injured troops, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright radioed Washington with a simple message: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.”   By 1:30pm on May 6th, the last of American and Filipino forces had surrendered.

The last American holdouts pose for Japanese propaganda

Survivors were marched in downtown Manila as trophies of war.  The “lucky” made it to Japan as slave laborers.  Gen. Wainwright eventually returned home a hero despite his concern that his status as the highest-ranking American POW would have made him a military and social pariah.  Wainwright would receive the Medal of Honor for his defense of Bataan and Corregidor.  The only voice of dissident?  Gen. MacArthur – despite having won a Medal of Honor for the same defense.

Wainwright and MacArthur’s opponent also had his reputation defined by Bataan and Corregidor.  General Masaharu Homma was relieved of command after his failure to quickly defeat the Americans and retired from military service.  Homma resurfaced after the war as accountable for the Bataan Death March and was found guilty.  On April 3rd, 1946, almost four years to the date of the surrender of Bataan, Homma was executed by a firing squad of Americans and Filipinos.

Black Panthers

Although I’ve been waiting on the anniversary for almost a year, it almost passed by me without enough time to write about it; Sunday was the seventieth anniversary of the forming of the 761st Tank Battalion of the US Army.

As divided as racial politics in America are today, they were of course much worse in 1942, at the very nadir of the Depression-era Jim Crow south.  The US military was intensely segregated – there were those who didn’t even want to go that far, believing that blacks didn’t have the intelligence to train or the courage to fight (notwithstanding the long combat record of black troops in the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Indian Wars).

Almost worse?  As a “compromise”, the chief of Army personnel matters, General Robert E. Lee (no, I’m not making that up) decided that black units should be formed, mostly for labor and support duties – and those units should be led by white officers from the deep south, since they had the most experience dealing with African-Americans.

Not everyone agreed, of course; reformers believed that blacks should have the same right to fight for this country as any other citizen.  One of their supporters was General Leslie McNair – an officer who had many sweeping impacts on the US Army during the war, most not nearly as positive (we looked at the first of them last year).  McNair and his reformers had a powerful supporter – First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  And the First Lady exerted her considerable political force on the Army, which grudgingly agreed to start forming combat units.

Including the 761st Tank Battalion.

The unit was formed at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana.

We’ll come back to them in a bit.

Hell’s Project Kickoff

History is full of examples of the sort of evil that makes most people with living souls need to find a baby to look at to rouse their spirits.

Of course, evil on the dime-lot level surrounds us; everything from premeditated murder to child-abduction to terrorists blowing up innocent people to further political goals – when any person says “my ends justify my means”, and the “means” include depriving another of their liberty or their life, it’s evil.

There are greater, more spectacular evils; people crashing planes into buildings full of people, or blowing up buildings, or spree killings, or…the list is depressingly long.

Of course, most people know, or eventually learn, the great pinnacles of evil; when nations harness their governments’ entire political system and means to power to deprive people of their liberty, their property, their sanity and their lives.  The title “Greatest Murderer in History” has several contenders; Lenin and Stalin killed anywhere from 40-60 million, maybe more, between them.   Mao was probably not far off that pace.  Both operated over decades, of course; there were a few great surges in killing (the Ukrainian Holodomor, the Great Leap Forward, several surges in purging), but all three of the great Communists plied their bloody trade over the course of a miserable generation or two.  And they – and the other great mass-murderers, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Robespierre, the Ottomans in Armenia and a grim list of others – as a rule did their killing the old-fashioned way; by various flavors of pseudo-judicial murder, with firing squads or destruction of food stocks or guillotines or pistols to the back of the head; with machine guns next to ditches; with mustard gas from the air; with government-induced mass-starvation.

All very slow, brutal and inefficient.

The fact is, killing people is difficult.  People want to stay alive.  They fight, hard, to stay that way.  And while people under dictatorships learn to be docile in order to survive (especially in the absence of any other hope), they will occasionally rise up and throw monkey-wrenches in the works.  And try as you may to indoctrinate your own followers to perform evil on your behalf, there will be some that will retain some innate good; they will interfere, or at least not participate in your plans with the enthusiasm needed to get the job done.

Any good engineer knows that, when you want an efficient process – an assembly line, a decision-making process, a nuclear power plant, the code for a Nintendo game, anything – you need to factor out as many variables as possible; to strip out the moving parts.

Germans are, stereotypically, great engineers.  They build things.  And when an engineer builds a complicated thing – a BMW or a camera or a system to eliminate a race of people – they’ll start with a prototype or two, to test out the theories and work out the bugs before going into mass production.

And so, with teutonic thoroughness, did the Germans.

In the eighteen months since they’d conquered Poland, the Germans had been testing out methods for killing people – Gypsies, gays, the mentally ill, dissidents and, of course, Jews.  They’d been through the “traditional” methods; roving units of SS troops tried go from village to village trying to herd Jews to mass graves and machine-gun them; it was slow, manpower-intensive, and left too many loose ends (including a few survivors – a precious few of whom, unbeknownst to the Germans, would survive the war to testify against their would-be murderers).  They settled on poison gas, of various varieties.

And like any good manufacturer, the Germans knew that the technical solution was only part of the job; the rest is logistics – in this case, the task of identifying, assembling and transporting all of those Jews.

The Germans, working with the sort of meticulousness we’d recognize in any good process engineer today, factored out the moving parts, and arrived at the solution for an industrial killing system; a series of centralized camps.

And to tie together all the pieces of this immense project, it was seventy years ago today that the Nazis held a conference at a villa at 56–58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee.

The villa in Wannsee where the conference was held 70 years ago today.

At the conference, the senior leadership of the various bureaucracies in Nazi Germany were gotten up to speed, with the job at hand, given a mission statement and were directed to start planning.

The “Wannsee Conference” was the project kickoff meeting from Hell.

The goal of the conference – to take the “learnings” from eighteen months of “rehearsals” in the fields of Poland, and experiments at Chelmno and Treblinka, and start the actual execution of what the Germans called the “Endlösung”, or “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”.

Adolf Eichmann's census of Jews. This list reflected the number of Jews already murdered. He was proud to note that Estonia was already "Judenfrei" - free of Jews.

The meeting was attended by a who’s who of Nazi leadership, and for an assembly focused on one of the greatest single acts of evil in human history, the proceedings were remarkably banal.  From the Wikipedia entry on the subject – which, for Wkipedia, is pretty useful and concise:

Heydrich spoke for nearly an hour. Then followed about thirty minutes of questions and comments, followed by some less formal conversation.[33] Luther from the Foreign Office urged caution in Scandinavia, “Nordic” countries where public opinion was not hostile to the small Jewish populations and would react badly to unpleasant scenes. Hofmann and Stuckart pointed out the legalistic and administrative difficulties over mixed marriages, arguing for compulsory dissolution of marriages to prevent legal disputes and for the wider use of sterilisation as an alternative to deportation. Neumann from the Four Year Plan argued for the exemption of Jews who were working in industries vital to the war effort and for whom no replacements are available. Heydrich (keen not to offend Neumann’s boss Hermann Göring) assured him that these Jews would not be “evacuated”.[34] There were questions about the mischlings [mixed-race people of quarter-to-half Jewish anscestry] and those in mixed marriages: the details of these complex questions were put off until a later meeting.[35]

Finally Bühler of the General Government in occupied Poland [the German term for the administration of Poland] stated that:

“the General Government would welcome it if the final solution of this problem could be begun in the General Government, since on the one hand transportation does not play such a large role here nor would problems of labor supply hamper this action. Jews must be removed from the territory of the General Government as quickly as possible, since it is especially here that the Jew as an epidemic carrier represents an extreme danger and on the other hand he is causing permanent chaos in the economic structure of the country through continued black market dealings.”[36]

The meeting itself was of little note in the schedules of the men involved – it lasted less than two hours, one of many such meetings on the schedules of busy bureaucrats in a nation at war.  No great decisions were made; the decision was in fact Hitler’s, and had been made years earlier.  There was no “go/no-go” moment; the leadership, Hitler and Göring, Himmler and the rest, were already fully on board.   There was no question of stopping the “Final Solution” – which was, in a sense, already well underway.  The idea of killing Jews was well-enough known. but fairly oblique at the meeting; the actual killing was an internal matter for the SS.

In a sense, the meeting was a set-up; Heydrich’s way of making sure the civilian and petty-military leadership of the entire German bureaucracy was linked to the Solution, as accomplices.  In a larger sense, it was to get the German bureaucracy’s buy-in to the idea of finding and deporting 11 million Jews from around the occupied world (Eichmann still planned on getting his hands on Jews in England and Ireland) to extermination camps in Poland.

Not a whole lot different than kicking of the adoption of an Oracle database, if you leave out the subject matter.

Which is, really, the point; evil is boring and banal.  If evil came strutting onto the stage in a red cape with horns sticking out of its head and blood soaking its beard, it’d be easy to pick out and deal with.

Real evil walks among us, wearing a suit or a petty uniform or a Mao jacket, and speaks the same language you do.

And evil has meetings.  Probably catered.

Sea To Blazing Sea

One of the major lures of America has always been its isolation.

For centuries, people tired of the constant bickering and warring between Europe’s myriad princes and petty nobles were drawn to America, snug behind its two immense ocean ramparts.

And for over a century and a half, the idea of seriously attacking America verged on science fiction.

Oh, it happened; British troops sacked Washington DC in 1812 – but that was when Canada was a serious military base for the British.

British troops burning Washington DC in 1812. Some liberals claim this was the Tea Party.

But as Canada receded into relatively pacific independence and various other powers’ attempts to turn Mexico and the Caribbean into bases succumbed to America’s enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine (and, mostly, tropical diseases), America’s position as a great, isolated, isolationist power gradually coalesced.

Not that other powers didn’t want to take a run at it.

Germany in particular was fascinated with cracking America’s invincibility  Back in 1899, a German naval captain, Adolf Golzen, drew up a plan to blockade New York and Long Island and, as a coup de grace, land German infantry on Long Island to create a bridgehead.  These troops would consolidate a foothold on the then-sparsely-populated island, while raiding into Manhattan.  It seems far-fetched, and it was, although not perhaps for the reasons you’d think; the force the Germans planned to land may have outnumbered the entire regular US military at the time.

During World War I, the Germans pondered building Zeppelins that could bomb New York – but those plans were shelved at the end of the war.

Hitler pulled them out of the file cabinet when he started planning his war.  New York in particular obsessed him; seeing it as a major Jewish population center, he dreamed of pounding New York into rubble.

He sent the German aircraft industry onto a long quest to build a bomber that could carry a ton of bombs to New York and return – and had his planners develop lists of targets for them to hit once they were built.

The Messerschmidt 264 "Amerika", designed to be able to reach targets in America as well as prowl the Atlantic to find targets for the U-boats. Oddly - for a nation known for great cars and engineering - the Germans never developed an aircraft engine capable of reliable long-range performance. .

To his last days, as the Russians poured into Germany, his scientists worked on fanciful guided missile and long-range jets capable of bombing the city.

But as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Germans had a much more practical means of attacking the US.  The fall of France had given their U-boats – Unterseeboote, or submarines – bases only 2,000 miles from the US coast.

And the commander of the German U-boat force, Admiral Karl Dönitz, saw the opportunity.

But at the beginning of 1942, he had only five boats available that could easily reach the east coast of the United States.  Obsessed with choking off Britain, Hitler had ordered the construction of hundreds of smaller “Type VII” U-Boats, capable of about thirty days of cruising, enough to patrol to the mid-Atlantic without much support.

German Type VII (top) and Type IX U-boats. Note that the Type IX was about twenty feet shorter than the typical American submarine of World War II, which were designed for the even longer ranges of the Pacific Ocean.

There were fewer of the larger, longer-legged Type IX boats – a few dozen, in early 1941 – and many of them were busy prowling the South Atlantic and even as far afield as the Indian Ocean to raid British commerce.  Of the entire German U-Boat fleet, only five Type IX boats (U-123, U-130, U-66, U-109, and U-125) were available when Germany declared war on the US..

The U-505, on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, was a Type IXc boat that spent its 11 war patrols in the South Atlantic and Caribbean - but also patrolled off the US East Coast, sinking a few ships. One of few U-boats to survive the war, it was captured by US forces in 1944; we'll come back to that in a couple of years. And if you've ever taken a tour of the cramped, claustrophobic U-Boat, do try to imagine what it was like riding the thing for 80-days at a shot -a typical patrol for a Type IX boat.

The Admiral called it Operation Paukenschlag - “Drumbeat”.

Dönitz gave Drumbeat a big patrol area – from the Chesapeake Bay up to the Saint Lawrence – and told them to focus on on bigger ships. over 10,000 tons.

And so in late December of 1941, the five boats sallied forth.

It may seem incredible in retrospect, for those who remember the fleets that the US and Britain sent forth later in the war – the thousands and thousands of ships that carpeted the English Channel on D-Day, the thousands of warships and thousands more support and supply ships that carried the war across the Pacific – but the US east coast was very sparsely defended in early 1942.  To watch the entire US coast, the Coast Guard had a few dozen aircraft, mostly obsolete, and three operational cutters, along with a polyglot collection of WWI-vintage patrol boats, converted yachts and wooden “sub-chasers”.  The Army Air Force had a few dozen bombers based on the East Coast.  And on any given day, the Navy would have two destroyers, and the AAF a couple of short-ranged B-25 bombers, on duty to guard the entire Eastern Seaboard.

So short was the US of aircraft to watch for U-boats on the East Coast, the Army Air Force was forced to enlist civilian aviation enthusiasts. So was formed the "Civil Air Patrol". Today, they focus on finding wayward hunters and snowmobilers; seventy years ago, they scoured the ocean for U-boats. A U-boat couldn't tell the difference between a private plane and a patrolling bomber loaded with depth charges - so they'd submerge, greatly shortening their range and hampering their search for targets. And occasionally the CAP would radio a target to the Air Force, which could take more aggressive action. Ro so went the theory; while coordination improved with time, inter-service rivalry and focus on other areas of the war hindered such coordination.

Naturally, inter-service rivalry being what it was, these units could not communicate with each other, much less coordinate their efforts.

It was 70 years ago today, about 75 miles off the coast of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina – directly east of the spot where the Wright Brothers had made their first flight a little over 38 years earlier – that U66, commanded by Korvettenkapitän Richard Zapp, stalked the American tanker Allan Jackson,  a 7,000 toni tanker loaded with 72,000 barrels of oil and bound for New York.  (We’ll encounter the U66 again in a couple of years).

The SS Allan Jackson.

Zapp hit the tanker with two torpedoes and slipped away.  13 of the ship’s crew of 35 were picked up the next day by an American destroyer.

Zapp returns from patrol, atop the conning tower of the U66. The boat would be sunk in one of the most bizarre incidents of the war (well get to that in 2014). But although over 3/4 of U-boat crewman would die during the war, Zapp survived the war.

In and of itself, the sinking of the Jackson was a minor event – one of thousands of ships sunk by U-boats during the war.

But the episode was the first in what became an epic – and largely unreported – bloodbath along the East Coast, and one of the greatest examples of bureaucratic incompetence in the history of this country.

A freighter, down by the stern off the US coast, viewed from the conning tower of the U-boat that had just torpedoed it.

The British – who, remember, were reading Germany’s U-boat communications in very nearly real-time by this point, thanks to their code-breaking operation that we talked about six months ago - had warned the Roosevelt Administration at the highest levels that Paukenschlag was underway, and to expect U-boat attacks.

Over the course of 1942, a total of forty U-boats carried out missions along the US coast, sinking ships with wild abandon, almost unopposed by any US forces.  Between January and June, they sank 400 ships, totaling 2,000,000 tons (not counting their cargos), killing a total of 5,000 of their crew and passengers.  The pickings for those six months were so  easy, they went down in German U-boat lore as the “Happy Hunting Time”.  Ships were being sunk within sight of American cities…

…which, due to an incredible bit of bureaucratic and political fumbling, remained brightly lit and, more importantly, pretty much uninformed about what was going on.  The Roosevelt Administration didn’t want to create excessive panic on the East Coast – and so for the first month of Paukenschlag, it was business as usual along the East Coast.

But between the Administration’s political desire not to panic the entire East Coast - or to admit America was too vulnerable in what was, after all, a mid-term election year where Roosevelt rightly feared Republican backlash from the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor (which, indeed, led to the GOP’s best showing since the debacle of 1936), and the Army and Navy’s inability and unwillingness to either coordinate their efforts or divert forces from what they saw as their real missions – attacking Germany and Japan – virtually nothing was done.

So as the sinkings skyrocketed, the US didn’t institute a convoy system until February, and didn’t start truly devoting enough resources to the job until summer.

The USS Roper - a World War I-vintage destroyer plucked from the reserve fleet to patrol the coast for subs. In a controversial incident in 1942, Roper sank one of the few U-boats actually sunk during Operation Drumbeat. In an unrelated incident, I met one of Roper's crew at the dedication of the World War II memorial in Saint Paul, in 2007.

The U-boats got so bold that they were actually able to land agents and saboteurs on the US coast.  They didn’t have any great effect – indeed, the first batch of them landed smack-dab on one of the few stretches of shore that was regularly patrolled by the military, and were promptly captured – but it was a sign that the US’ vaunted isolation, our ocean rampart, was porous.

Which is something Americans learn every few generations – in 1812, or 1942, or 2001 or…

…well, who knows?

Operazioni Speciali

One of the most enduring myths of World War 2, along with “the cowardly French” and “the incompetent Poles”, is “the inept, gutless Italians”.

Of course, with the Italians there is plenty of circumstantial evidence.

In 1940, Italian troops were routed in Mussolini’s attempt to invade Greece.  The Germans had to rescue the Italians – a humiliating setback for Mussolini.

The Italian attempt to join Germany in invading France was stopped cold by France’s line of border fortresses.  Italian gains in France were measured in yards, not miles.

Then, early in 1941, the Italian army in North Africa was demolished, with hundreds of thousands of POWs, by a much smaller British force.  This required the Germans to send Erwin Rommel – the leader of the Panzer group that had cut France in half the previous summer – to intervene with the German “Afrika Korps” – leading to a seesaw year and half of battling across Egypt and Libya.

Italy had several strikes against it, militarily.

Socialism: “But wait, Merg – Mussolini was a fascist!  Literally! Fascists are the opposite of communists!”  Only if you’re a professor with Marxist leanings.  Fact was, Mussolini made the trains run on time by nationalizing them – and much of everything else.  Since he seized control in 1922, Mussolini latched onto a vision of building a bigger, stronger Italy through aggressive government intervention in industry and economy.

As a result, Italy was deeply in debt when the war began; money that Italy could have used to modernize its military – to say nothing of its economy – was being paid out in debt servicing.

Just like in Obama’s USA.

Evolution: Italy was still a developing country in 1940.  Italy’s industrial GDP was only a sixth that of France or Britain.  It was still primarily an agricultural nation.

Bad Gear: In part because of industrial backwardness, but more because of the crushing debt burden, Italy’s military equipment was backward and largely obsolete, and sparse even so.

Not only was Italy’s primary tank during the war – the Fiat – yes, Fiat – Carro Armato M13/40 - a hopelessly obsolete mid-thirties antique even though it was built in 1940…

…but only 3,500 of them were built during the entire war – less than two months’ worth of production for the American Sherman tank.

Italy’s main fighter plane?  The Fiat (!!!) CR42…

A pair of CR42 biplanes.

…which was distinguished by being the last biplane in first-line service with any major air force.   It was, by the way, an excellent biplane fighter – which, in the life-or-death of air combat, is a poor consolation prize.

Italy’s rifle?  The “Terni”- the Mannlicher-Carcano M1891 – was, as its model number shows, entering its fiftieth year of service.

It was a small, underpowered turnbolt rifle with an obsolete and troublesome mechanism.  Worse, Italian doctrine and industry felt it sufficient for the Italian infantryman to be issued with 36 rounds of ammunition as his basic combat load.  Bubba Schlockdorf carries more ammo into the woods to hunt deer in the fall.

Bad Leadership: All armies to one extent or another distinguish between officers and enlisted men. Officers are usually separate from the men – largely so life-and-death decisions don’t get colored by being excessively close to the men.

The Italian military took this to a highly dysfunctional extreme.  Officers in the Royal Italian Army – remember, fascist government aside, Italy was still technically a monarchy – subscribed to many of the worst habits of militaries in monarchies; the enlisted men combined terrible living conditions, lousy pay and miserable status as draftees with a fairly weak non-commissioned officer corps.

As a result, Italian regular units’ morale often collapsed in the field under fire.

But Italian non-regular units – units selected from men who wanted to be there, and who were motivated to kick ass – fighter pilots, and especially men who fell under the very loose category “specal forces?”   That was another story.

It was seventy years ago tonight that Italian “special forces” carried out one of the most devastatingly successful special missions in the  history of warfare – one that very nearly changed the course of World War II.


Ever since the Italian fleet had been gutted at Taranto the previous winter, the British fleet had kept the Italian Navy bottled up in harbor.

But seventy years ago tonight, a tiny team of six Italian Navy frogmen riding three torpedos that had been converted into transports launched from an Italian submarine.

An Italian manned torpedo. It was designed to carry two men, and a demolition charge, to the target; the men would swim to shore and attempt to escape.

They slipped past the harbor defenses, and left a set of demolition charges underneath the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, as well as a Norwegian oil tanker.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

And in the wee hours of the morning, all three charges exploded, ripping the stern off the tanker, and sinking the two battleships.  They sank in shallow water, and both were recovered and returned to action…

…after a year during which their absence was badly felt in the Mediterranean.

The six Italian marines were captured by Egyptian police and turned over to the British.

At any rate – one of the enduring myths of World War II was “the Italians were incompetent cowards”.  And – like “The French ran like scared bunnies” and “the Poles rolled over” – it’s as true as any wartime oppo propoganda ever is.

“Send More Japs”

It was seventy years ago today that an episode of American history occurred that is only just barely starting to see its due in our popular culture.

It may be too little, too late, as the generation that felt the reverence due the event passes from the public stage.

Consider this my attempt to fix that.

Wake Island was a tiny outpost in the middle of the west-central Pacific.  It was a stop

And seventy years ago today, the Japanese Navy (and its attendant Marines) planned to invade the island.

We’ll come back to that.


Wake Island, all 1,300-odd acres of it, is as barren a piece of real estate as there is in the world.  It had no permanent inhabitants – Marshall Islanders would hunt birds on the little coral atoll, but until the Western world invented long-range flight, the island served no habitable purpose to humanity.

The Pan-Am Clipper changed that.  The atoll’s three islets sheltered a lagoon whose calmer-than-the-open-ocean water was an ideal landing place for the Pan-Am Clipper’s flying boats (which was the mainstay of transoceanic travel in the 1930s, long before transcontinental jets).

A Clipper, anchored in the lagoon at Wake Island, 1936

So Pan-Am built a fuel and rest stop at Wake, with a hotel and a small village for the workers that would service the planes and the passengers as a near-last stop on the three-day, San Francisco to Hawaii, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, Manila, and Hong Kong itinerary.

And an airbase that was useful for long-range civilian aircraft was even more useful, in those years when we awaited war with Japan, to the military.  And so in the previous January, the Navy started buildng a base in the lagoon to support the fleet and, vitally in this pre-jet, pre-satellite days, long-range patrol aircraft.  The job was a crash program, bringin 1,200 American civilian workers to the island and, in August, in view of the skyrocketing tensions between the US and Japan, the island’s first permanent garrison, 400 Marines of the “First Marine Defense Battalion” and 55 more to run a dozen Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters of Marine Fighter Squadron 211.

A Marine F4F Wildcat, flying over a ground crewman on Wake Island before the war.

Along with seventy sailors, that made up the entire American force on the island, commanded by Lieutenant Commander WInfield Cunningham, USN.

The island was, in the perspective of the vast Pacific, practically on Japan’s doorstep.


Four days before, on December 7 (the eighth on their side of the International Date Line, on which Wake also lay), as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and invaded Malaysia, Hong Kong, Guam and the Philippines, a Japanese air force raid from nearby Saipan hit Wake.  Wake’s defenders fared about the same as those at Pearl Harbor – eight of the 12 Marine fighters were destroyed on the ground in a bombing raid that also killed or wounded most of the men in the Marine air detachment.  The four surviving planes couldn’t catch the bombers (on December 8, anyway; they did kill two Japanese bombers in a followup raid the next day.

And then, on the morning of December 11, the Japanese closed in for the coup de grace.

And the Marines – armed with a bunch of old pre-World-War-1 cannon that’d been removed earlier that year from a scrapped battleship –  waited until the Japanese were less than two miles offshore before opening up a withering bombardment.  One of the Marine shells hit the shell magazine of the Japanese destroyer Hayate, blowing it up, killing the entire crew.  It was the first Japanese surface ship sunk in World War 2.

IJN Hayate

In the meantime, the four surviving Marine Wildcats, loaded with light bombs, took off, and attacked the Japanese invasion fleet – which was operating without direct air support (no aircraft carrier).  One Wildcat landed a 250-pound bomb on the afterdeck of the destroyer Kisaragi; ordinarily a destroyer would have a decent chance of surviving a hit by such a small bomb…

IJN Kisaragi

….but the Japanese sailors, displaying a lack of damage-proofing that would plague their Navy throughout the war, had left the anti-submarine depth charges armed.  They exploded, sinking Kisaragi, also with all hands.

The Marines also hit the Japanese flagship, the old light cruiser Yubari, nearly a dozen times in the lightly-armored superstructure…

IJN Yubari, which was sunk in 1944 by an American submarine.

…killing dozens and prompting the Japanese commander, Admirial Shigeyoshi Inouye, to abort the landing attempt.

The news of the victory- the closest the US came to good news that first awful week of the war – was spread far and wide throughout the US, along with Commander Cunningham’s message back to the US, which ended with the phrase “Send more Japs”.  It was treated as a “remember the Alamo”-type act of defiance. It was most likely “padding” – extraneous phrases thrown into messages to throw off Japanese-native translators eavesdropping on the transmission. But it was the sort of story Americans wanted to hear amid the unrelenting bad news of that week.

It was the first and last time in history that an amphibious attack would be repelled by coastal defenses.

And with the US and British Pacific Fleets sunk, Hong Kong lost, the Philippines invaded, British troops being outfought and outmaneuvered on the Malay approaches to Singapore, that was as close to a victory as the Western Allies could find in that dismal first few weeks of World War 2.

It couldn’t last.  While the Pentagon pondered sending a relief mission, bigger priorities – defending Hawaii from an expected invasion, reinforcing the Philippines – took precedence.  The Japanese peeled off two aircraft carriers that were returning from Pearl Harbor, and dispatched a brigade of Japanese marines.  And 12 days later, those Marines rammed two old destroyers ashore on a Wake-island beach, clambered off, and in a short, sharp, ugly battle subdued the Marines. It was incredibly bloody; estmates are that nearly 800 of the Japanese attackers were killed (on top of the entire crews of the two destroyers).  About 100 Americans were killed all told, with the rest being bundled off into captivity. Some of the American civilians were kept on the island – where, in 1943, a Japanese commander had them all executed.  One survivor managed to carve the inscription “98 Wake Island 5-10-43″ into a rock before being captured and killed himself.

The "98 Rock" on Wake Island - today, a monument to the American victims of the Japanese war crime.

The Japanese commander was executed for the war crime after the war.

An Industrial Solution

Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Sunday has two anniversaries; one of them is the Nazi declaration of war on the US (and you’ll see the other one on Sunday).

But today is the seventieth anniversary of the war’s most ghastly contribution to human history; it was the opening of a “camp” near the Polish village of Chelmno, on the grounds of a former baronial manor.  It was a placid looking place that would add a new word to the world’s vocabulary of evil: the German Vernichtungslager.

We’ll come back to that.


Concentration camps – places to put people who were for whatever reason inconvenient or needed to be held in one place – had existed for quite a while.  They got the name from the British during the Boer War, when they “concentrated” the families of Boer fighters in a few easily-guarded locations. They turned out to be ghastly places – not so much because the Brits intended it as through bureaucratic incompetence.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, their agenda bode ill for lots of people – gays, the mentally ill, Romany (“Gypsies”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents of all stripes, and especially the Jews.  And, following Lenin’s lead, they started straight in with their own Konzentrazionslagern – the Germans called them “KZs” - as a place to put all manner of undesirables.  There were hundreds of KZs, starting with Buchenwald in 1937, in Germany and in every corner of the Reich. They served many purposes – holding tanks for political prisoners, forced labor camps, even propaganda facades.  And thousands died in the KZs – from disease, malnutrition, overwork exposure, the brutal and capricious “discipilne”, even the whim of the guards; 50,000 at Buchwald and Ravensbrück, similar numbers at Dachau, Nordhausen, Theresienscadt, and Sachsenhausen and many, many more.

But the process of hauling a prisoner off to a KZ, there to die slowly of any number of causes, didn’t serve the goal of ridding the world of Jews (first; the Slavs and other “Lower” races would follow) fast enough.   The Nazis, being analytical Germans, experimented with many different means of killing people without all the procedural overburden, and removing impediments like “the human will to survive and endure”, from the equation; roaming teams of SS who’d shoot people in the hundreds were the first method, tried over the previous year and a half since the fall of Poland.

The idea had been broached to make the process more an industrial than military one.  The next question was “what sort of industrial process”.  The idea of using some sort of poison gas was broached.

Being a nation of engineers, the Nazis thought to prototype a couple of different approaches, to remove all the variables and find the optimal approach before switching into full production.  Among the variables to be removed was the pesky issue of “neighbors”; unlike the KZs, which would be tucked in next to towns and factories and farm regions all over Germany and the occupied countries, the new camps, Vernichtungslagern, or “Extermination Camps”, and called “VZs” by the Germans, would be be located in rural Poland – a backward place in those days, far from any potentially friendly borders, away from prying media eyes, and very sparsely populated by European standards.

And it was at Chelmno, seventy years ago today, that the first approach – vehicle exhaust gases piped into the back of a panel van jammed with 60-odd victims.

The Chelmno gas van.

…followed by burial in a mass grave in a nearby forest, was first tried.

Like any good engineers and scientists, they kept meticulous notes.  The exhaust gas -mostly carbon monoxide – was just too slow.  And burial was far too labor intensive; at another “prototype” VZ at Treblinka, cremation seemed to work much more efficiently. All of the data points led to the conclusion that carbon monoxide was far too slow and inefficient a means of killing; when the Nazis designed camps to optimize the approach, they settled on Zyklon-B, a form of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) in pellet form, which worked twice as fast.

And so both of the “prototype” plants were shut down after relatively short runs in service; about 152,000 Jews, Poles and Gypsies died at Chelmno in the next two years.

We’ll have more on Treblinka later.


If the above seems banal – it’s intentional.  The most jarring thing about reading about the Holocaust was its turning of modern industrial methods – the 1940′s equivalents of “Lean Six Sigma” and “Total Quality Management” – to the process of genocide, reducing it to a bean-counting, widget-producing exercise.  Genocide – the planned destruction of an entire race of humanity – had always been a brutal, bloody thing.

Seventy years ago today, the effort to turn it into just another waterfall project got underway for real.


It’s in all the papers; today is the seventieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

All the TV stations will show the familiar footage – the USS Arizona, ablaze from several bomb hits, exploding, spewing a geyser of greasy smoke hundreds of feet in the air, killing 1,000 men in a matter of seconds; the blazing and capsized battleships on Battleship Row…

…the rows and fields full of wrecked aircraft…:

All that’s true.

One thing Americans rarely see, or have to study, is that Pearl Harbor was just one of many similar attacks all around the Pacific Rim.  At the same time as the Japanese carrier-based planes were attacking Pearl Harbor, more planes, launched from Taiwan (then called Formosa) attacked America’s huge base at Clark Field, in the Phillipines:

25 US bombers and dozens of fighters were destroyed on the ground.

:The Japanese also captured Hong Kong, crossing from occupied China and taking the British colony (with its garrison of Brit, Canadian, and Chinese troops) in a short, sharp, brutal battle:

Singapore – Britain’s easternmost colony and naval base – was attacked.  More devastating to the Brits, the naval expedition they sent to reinforce Singapore, the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse, were sunk off the south coast of Malaysia by Japanese torpedo bombers:

The Prince Of Wales and Repulse (background) burning on the left side of the photo. The ship moving in the foreround is a British destroyer.

At the same time, the Japanese invaded Guam…

..and attacked Wake Island, of which more later this month.

It was, in short, the the biggest – in terms of area covered – attack in the history of warfare.  And it plunged the half of the northern hemisphere that wasn’t already at war with Hitler into the greatest session of human bloodletting in history. This blog focuses mostly on the smaller stories, and the unknown ones, in the war.  There were many at Pearl Harbor – most notably to this blog’s audience, the fact that the first shots fired that morning were fired by Minnesotans.  A gun crew of Minnesota Navy Reserve sailors from Saint Paul, crewing a cannon on the U.S.S. Ward, a refurbished World War I destroyer on antisumbarine patrol off the entrance to the harbor, spotted a Japanese midget submarine that was attempting to infiltrate the harbor.

The crew of the starboard four-inch gun on the USS Ward. Some of the men, mostly from Saint Paul, are still with us, thank God. Their gun is on the state capitol grounds, on the frontage road by the Vets building near Wabasha street.

The Minnesotans – using the very cannon that currently sits in the yard at the Veterans building, at the foot of Capitol Mall in Saint Paul – hit the submarine twice, sinking it before it could get into position.  I wrote about them four years ago.

Here’s the long and short of it; to a generation of Americans who think – with reason – that 9/11 was a catastrophe…well, it was.  But our nation’s power and ability to respond to the aggression was not affected.  Clearly not – our military riposte was sudden and overwhelming.

Now – imagine an attack that sank three or four of our Supercarriers, the mainstays of our Navy, in the matter of an hour, and cut off and isolated, say, Korea, leaving its tens of thousands of American troops isolated, cut off from supplies, devoid of air cover, and pretty well helpless, and left us more or less unable to respond in kind without massive effort and sacrifice, at all?

Because that, adjusting for modern military doctrine, is what happened on December 7.  That was where this nation was at seventy years ago at this hour; not just bloodied, not just beaten , but truly unable to respond.

And very few Americans alive today can imagine that.


As Americans from coast to coast scratch their heads and wonder about US troops being deployed to Uganda, it’s a good time to remember when brinksmanship really took a nation to the brink.

It was 70 years ago today that the destroyer USS Kearny was torpedoed.

USS Kearny

In the wake of the Battle of Britain – mainly, with the strong indication that the United Kingdom would survive – Franklin D Roosevelt ordered the beginning of “Lend Lease” shipments to the British.  He also traded fifty World-War-1-era destroyers to the British in exchange for bases in the Azores and Canada.

Which was just diplomatic business, really; it meant the US was taking sides, to be sure, but it didn’t put any Americans into harms way.

Now, October of 1941 was pretty close to the nadir of the Battle of the Atlantic, as far as the UK was concerned.

Part of convoy in 1941, shot from a British cruiser.

German U-Boats were sinking British and allied merchant ships far faster than they could be replaced – and killing about half of the even harder-to-replace merchant marine crews with each ship that sank.  And beyond that, the supply of “escort” ships – the destroyers, frigates, corvettes and sloops that tried to protect the merchant ships from the submarines’ depredations – was getting destroyed as well; Britain’s destroyer fleet had suffered grievous casualties at Dunkirk, in the Mediterranean, and defending Norway, as well as to the U-boats.  And the emergency building programs to replace them weren’t close to breaking even with the loss rate, much less making up for lost ground.

Churchill later confessed that of all the situations he faced during the war – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Siege of  Malta, the titanic battles in the Western Desert – only the Battle of the Atlantic genuinely frightened him.  Britain was within a hair’s breath of being starved into submission.

So what did put Americans into harm’s way was FDR’s concord with Churchill that, to help the British focus their endangered fleets of escort ships until the huge wartime shipbuilding programs could take effect – hopefully before Britain was starved to the negotiating table – American ships would escort Britain-bound convoys into the mid-Atlantic, to a hand-off point where British and Canadian forces would take over.  Roosevelt made it known that US ships would attack any U-Boats that crossed their paths.

This act – escorting war materiel to a belligerent power, and threatening to take military action against any interference – abrogated, practically and legally, any claim America had to its “neutrality”.  Which didn’t stop Roosevelt from waging the propaganda war to claim neutrality; he called the escort efforts “Neutrality Patrols”.

It was while on “Neutrality Patrol” that the Kearny and three other American destroyers were sent on a very un-neutral mission.  A Britain-bound convoy was being overwhelmed by a U-boat “Wolf Pack”, taking terrible losses; the four American ships were sent to assist in the convoy’s defense.

Which is not what “neutral” powers are supposed to do.

And it was at about 4AM on the morning of October 17 that the German submarine U-568 fired a spread of torpedoes, one of which hit the Kearny in its forward boiler room.   It was later speculated that the commander mistook Kearny for a British destoyer.No matter – eleven US sailors were killed.

The Kearny, with the hole in its forward "fireroom".

There really were two stories here.

One would be reflected in the nation’s slow slide into war.  FDR had been setting the nation up for war for years; the National Guard and the nation’s industry had been mobilizing for over a year.  The “Neutrality Patrols” were essentially daring Hitler to hit first.  And he would; in two weeks’ time, another American destroyer, the USS Reuben James, would be sunk by another U-boat in another similar incident, this time with much greater loss of American life.  And the “Neutrality Patrols” would become, in all but name, combat missions.  In many ways, at least as regards the battle in the Atlantic Ocean, Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war was just this side of a formality.

One other story – not nearly as famous – would be reflected in the fact that “only” 11 American sailors died in the incident, and the Kearny survived, afloat, and was repaired to serve out the rest of the war (to be mothballed in 1946, and to be finally scrapped in the early seventies). It was the resolution of an engineering issue that had been roiling naval architects for a generation.

Kearmy, undergoing repair at the Boston Navy Yard

The Kearny, like all fast warships of the day, was steam-powered (gas turbine power was a generation in the future, and diesel engines don’t have nearly the power output per ton of power plant for ships this size).  Now, it’s more efficient to put the steam turbines (which drive the propellors) together near the rear of the ship, and the boilers together as close as possible near the boilers – more efficient in terms of space, engine efficiency, and cost.

But that also means that a bomb or shell or torpedo hit in the boiler room, or engine room, will knock out either all steam power or all engine power.  And so US naval architects started separating boilers and engines.  Now, destroyers are long, narrow ships – with a length to “beam” (width) ratio of 10:1 (your cruise ship may be more like 6:1) – so that meant half of the ships’ lengths were eaten up by a boiler room, an engine room (for the left propellor), and then another boiler room and the engine for the right prop.  It meant that a ship could – as the Kearny did – take a hit that would knock out one engine unit, but still allow it to steam to safety.  Now, a “destroyer meets torpedo” encounter usually ended with a sunken destroyer, and it usually did, throughout the war; life on destroyers was the second most dangerous one in the floating Navy, after submariners.  But this design redundancy made American destroyers, and the British and other foreign ships that copied it, able to survive damage that would have acrippled and sunk similar ships, and often did.

Beyond that, the Kearny incident first displayed what would become one of the US Navy’s great strengths during the war; damage control.  The US Navy stressed damage control in a way that no other navy did – allowing US Navy ships to survive damage that frequently did leave other nations’ ships crippled or sunk.

More on that later next year.

Big Iron

Seventy years ago today, the German U-Boat offensive was at its peak, and the battle that the German Luftwaffe had failed to win in the summer of 1940 was very, very nearly won by Germany’s submarine fleet.

Britain being an island, it depended on foreign trade.  And that trade – and the food, fuel and raw material it provided – were being choked off, rapidly rather than slowly, by the staggering attrition of the world’s merchant fleets.  It was later said that of all the threats the British home island faced during the war, the U-boat threat was by far the one that most vexed Churchill.

The British merchant fleet, and those of the rest of the countries that traded with the UK, were being sunk far faster than the world’s shipbuilding industries could replace them.


With that in mind, it was 70 years ago today that the SS Patrick Henry was launched.

It wasn’t a warship.  It was, in fact, a dumpy, unprepossessing freighter.  Instead of the steam turbine engines that ran most of the world’s fleets of newer ships, and almost all warships, the Henry was powered by a reciprocating steam engine based on an 1890′s-era British design that could drive the ship at 11 knots, maybe, in smooth seas, but was really designed to keep the ship puffing along at a cruising speed of six knots for weeks at a time.

It was a good-sized freighter – 14,000-odd tons – but by no means remarkable in any other way, except for the sheer simplicity of its design.

And yet it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt that gave the ship’s commissioning speech.

What distinguished the Patrick Henry was that it was the first of 14 ships, more or less exactly identical, that would come down the ways that same day.  As a class, they were called “Emergency” freighters.  They were built by auto magnate Henry J. Kaiser, CEO of the Kaiser Motor Company, at the brand-new Kaiser shipyards and, eventually, at many other such yards around the US, using the same techniques pioneered by the American automobile and consumer products industries.

Shipbuilding had been a craftsman’s business since the dawn of navigation.  Even in ships of the same “class”, there had always been considerable differences; each ship was pretty much a one-of-a-kind project, built from the keel up in a slipway, launched, and replaced by another keel. It was more like building a house – even a tract house – than a car or a refrigerator.

But the “Liberty” ships changed all that; their components were as standardized as those of any automobile; indeed, the Kaiser yards adopted the full assembly line idiom, with the keels being trundled down the ways, with frames and engines and plating and fittings and entire prefabricated sections being riveted or welded on at each successive station.  And so the Liberty ships were effectively identical; there were stories, possibly apocryphal, of sailors boarding docked Liberty ships after nights in port and bunking down for the night, only realizing in the morning that they’d boarded the wrong identical ship.

The Kaiser yard at Vanport, Oregon, on the Columbia River. Henry Kaiser built an entire city of 40,000 to serve the yard.

It was a technique that promised to revolutionize shipbuilding – and, more importantly, build ships faster than the Nazis could sink them.

And that was why President Roosevelt orated long and hard about the contributions of the ship’s namesake, and promised that this ship – not one of the sleek new aircraft carriers on the ways, or the fleets of destroyers and submarines working their way from the drawing board to the builders yards – would bring liberty to the people of Europe.

Because it was the most visible symbol of perhaps the most defining feature of World War II; the complete harnessing of the sheer might of American industry in every possible respect.

Beause the Henry, and her thirteen sister ships launched that day, were the first of 2,710 “Liberty Ships” built during the war.

Think about that.  From seventy years ago today until VJ Day, there were roughly – in fact, almost exactly – 1,400 calendar days.

That means after the initial fourteen-ship orgy of launching seventy years ago today, American industry produced very close to two of these freighters every day. Seven days a week.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.  The American shipbuilding industry, from 1941 to 1945, produced:

  • 33 aircraft carriers
  • 6 battleships
  • Dozens, plural, of 10,000-ton heavy and light cruisers
  • Close to 1,000 destroyers and smaller, slower “destroyer escorts”, many of which served into the 1970s
  • Over 200 submarines.
  • Over 1,000 “Landing Ship, Tank” ocean-going assault ships.
  • Thousands of other freighters, transports and tankers, in addition to the Liberty ships, including over 2,000 “C” class freighters, from the 1,200 ton “C1″ class coastal luggers to the 20,000+-ton “C4″ heavy lift haulers
  • On top of that, well over a thousand tankers.
  • Thousands of minesweepers, escort frigates,

A WWII-era "C1" steamer, in civilian use after the war.

All of those were ships – ranging from 1,000 ton minesweepers to 55,000-ton battleships.  It doesn’t even count the uncountable thousands of smaller boats – hundreds of PT Boats, sub-chasers, air-sea rescue boats and “PC” patrol craft, thousands of landing craft, and hundreds and hundreds of anonymous little utility craft; net tenders, buoy tenders, fuel lighters, and every other kind of boat needed to do every single job the Navy (and Army, which had its own navy) needed doing afloat.

The Bethlehem Steel Shipyard on Staten Island, which built cargo ships, tankers, landing craft, and a total of 43 destroyers. You can see some of each, here, with a few tankers for good measure.

And that is on top of the tens, plural, of thousands of aircraft, the 55,000+ tanks, and the hundreds (plural) of thousands of trucks, jeeps and other vehicles cranked out to support and supply not only our war effort, but those of most of the rest of the free and Communist worlds.

And it’s a fascinating look at how very different American industry is today compared to 70 years ago.

As he was planning Pearl Harbor – which was well underway seventy years ago today – Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned his leadership that the strike against Hawaii would have to be a catastrophic one – because if America wasn’t knocked out of the war immediately, our industry would drown the Empire.

As, indeed, it did.

The most amazing comparison?  We couldn’t do it today if we tried.