Twenty-One Demands

With a world at war, and new nations joining the fight, the events of May 25th, 1915 would have seemed blessedly contradictory – two nations signing a peace treaty.

There was little drama or media fanfare as representatives from Japan arrived in Peking to meet with the Republic of China’s first (semi-democratically) elected President, Yuan Shika. The course of nearly five-months of bitter negotiations, and the threat of expanded war in Asia, had led to this meeting. At issue were Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” – a list of diplomatic concessions Japan wanted from China, including territories, industry, and most concerning for Japan’s fellow Western allies, de facto control of Chinese government ministers.

If accepted, China would become little more than a Japanese protectorate. If refused, the Great War would expand even further.

Japanese artillery at Tsingtao. A German-held Chinese port, Tsingtao was captured in 1914 by a joint British-Japanese invasion, setting the stage for further Japanese expansion in China

When we started this retrospective on World War I, we mentioned that it made sense after covering World War II since the conflicts “really were two different phases of the same war.”  And most assuredly, the seeds of Japan’s imperialist designs on China - and war against the United States and Britain – were firmly planted on May 25th, 1915.   Continue reading

Italy, Unredeemed

The enthusiasm was contagious in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.  As the 482 Deputies out of the Chamber’s 500 poured into their seats, the Deputies applauded were those who wore military uniforms.  Men hooted, waiving flags amid cries of “Viva Italia!”  For the dozens of diplomatic attendees, ranging from representatives of the Entente to neutral American observers, the atmosphere was more carnival than political.

A few minutes before the session began the Italian nationalist poet, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, appeared in the rear of the public tribune which was so crowded that it seemed impossible to squeeze in anybody else.  But the moment the people saw him they lifted him shoulder high and passed him over their heads to the first row.

The entire chamber, and all those occupying the other tribunes, rose and applauded for five minutes, crying “Viva D’Annunzio!”  Later thousands sent him their cards and in return received his autograph bearing the date of this eventful day.  Premier Antonio Salandra entered, followed by all the members of the Cabinet.  “Viva Salandra!” roared the Deputies, with the cheering lasting longer than anyone cared to count.  After the formalities of the opening of the Chamber, Premier Salandra, deeply moved by the demonstration, arose and said:

“Gentlemen, I have the honor to present to you a bill to meet the eventual expenditures of a national war.”

On May 23rd, 1915, Italy willingly chose to enter the horrors of the Great War.

The Triple Alliance – Italy was allied with the Central Powers before 1914, but felt very much the junior partner. The animosity was mutual – Austria was contemplating a surprise attack against Italy as late as 1911

For most of the combatants in the Great War, their entry into the conflict was, in some way or another, strategic.  Austria had to punish a nation which had assassinated a royal heir.  Germany couldn’t afford to be trapped in a two-front war against Russia and France, and thus felt it had to strike first.  Even Britain, ostensibly fighting for Belgian independence, joined the battle to keep Germany from dominating continental geopolitics.  But for Italy, the Great War was far more ideological. Continue reading

The Last Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Deliberately Unfriendly”

The morning fog had lifted over the Atlantic, giving way to clear skies and calm seas.  120 miles southwest of Ireland, in open water, the RMS Lusitania was charting a fast, and direct, course for England on May 7th, 1915.  The ship had left New York just six days earlier, brimming with a passenger list that read as a “who’s who” of political, theatrical and financial dignitaries from Britain and America.  Many passengers were enjoying the warm, sun-swept decks as they awaited their arrival in Liverpool.

Also enjoying the sites was 18 year-old Leslie Morton, a lookout among the Lusitania‘s crew.  A commotion in the calm waters easily caught his eye; a foaming residue trail in the ocean.  Morton could barely shout out his warning, “torpedoes coming on the starboard side!” before the Lusitania was hit, just underneath her bridge.  Steel and water rocketed skyward.  Almost instantly, a second explosion, “a million ton hammer” struck the vessel.  Within four minutes, the boat had lost her engines, steering and all electric power.  All aboard understood what happened – the Lusitania was destined for the bottom of the ocean.

Nearly 1,200 lives would join her.

The scale of the loss of life wouldn’t be apparent right away, but 1,198 civilians drowned on the Lusitania

Of all the tactics the Germans had unleashed to try and turn the Great War to their advantage, unrestricted submarine warfare had been the most effective. Continue reading

The Spectator

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

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

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

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

- Benito Mussolini to a Journalist in January of 1945

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

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

Haber’s Rule

The sun was setting on the trenches of Ypres on the evening of April 22nd, 1915.  The Allied battlefield, a mixture of British regulars and French colonial troops, had been quiet for months following the First Battle of Ypres in November of the previous year.  The men of the French 45th and 87th divisions were acclimating to the routine of the trenches – a far cry from their prior lives in Morocco and Algeria.

On the darkening horizon a cloud began to form from the German line.  It moved slowly, practically crawling on the ground towards the French colonial troops.  Eyes began to itch and water; mouths filled with a distinct metallic taste.  And as the cloud enveloped the trenches, lungs seized and eyes felt like they were melting…because they were.  It was 168 tons of chlorine gas.

Science had brought another new horror to the Great War.

Clouds of Death – the use of chemical weapons at the Second Battle of Ypres contributed to nearly 70,000 Allied casualties over the course of one month

The use of new technology as new tools of terror had already been well-established in the Great War. Continue reading

The Anti-Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And most of that fall was utterly justified.

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

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

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

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

Pyle as a college student.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the World Turans

The retreat was slow, deliberate, and disciplined over the mountains leading from the Azerbaijani village of Dilman on April 15th, 1915.  For a conflict that already had claimed or maimed millions of combatants, the men of the Turkish 1st Expeditionary Force were relatively unscathed.  Few of the Ottoman regulars had lost their lives.  But their conscripted Kurdish cavalrymen were less fortunate – their entire force of nearly 12,000 men had either been killed or deserted.

The objective had been an indirect strike at Russian and British colonial influence through an invasion of Persia.  The Great War was further becoming a world war.

The Great Game, summarized in a 1911 cartoon: “If we hadn’t a thorough understanding, I (British lion) might almost be tempted to ask what you (Russian bear) are doing there with our little playfellow (Persian cat)”

By the spring of 1915, it was already clear that this was no longer just “Europe’s war.” Continue reading

“For The Tradition and Glory of the Navy”

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese Finger-Trap

Everywhere, Japan was in retreat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men keyed the messages three times in each language.

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

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

Damazyn reportedly fainted when the reply came through.

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

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

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

And that did the trick.

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

And the rest is history.

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

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

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

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

———-

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

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

The Hail Mary Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…:

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

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

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

Try that with a .357 Magnum!

Hot Gear Friday: The Energizer Machine Gun

Between its partition from the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, and its down-the-river sale at the hands of Neville “Like Obama, Only Just Clueless Rather Than Malevolent” Chamberlain twenty years later, Czechoslovakia actually had a brief vogue as an a-list industrial economy, backstayed by a weapons industry that rivaled Europe’s most legendary names; Brno, Czeskoslovenska Zbrojovka and Skoda were in the same league with Krupps, Enfield, Bofors, Hotchkiss, and Springfield.

They were behind some of the premier weapons of the inter-war era.  The Skoda Model 38 tank was among the best in the world at the beginning of World War II

So superior was it to contemporary German designs that after the annexation, the Wehrmacht took the tank into service; they played a major role in the conquest of France (Rommel’s 7th Panzer, which led the charge to the Channel, led it in Panzer 38s) and the first part of the invasion of Russia.  Outmoded as tanks by 1943, the Germans converted them to self-propelled artillery, anti-aircraft vehicles, and the famous “Hetzer” tank destroyer, which served into the 1970′s in Switzerland.

In the early 1930s, the world’s armies were starting to re-arm; war was clearly imminent, and their stockpiles of World War I-vintage weapons were old and wearing out.

During the war, machine guns were either heavy, water-cooled weapons fed by canvas or metal-link belts, capable of immense sustained fire but weighing 80-150 pounds loaded…:

A British “Vickers” heavy machine gun. Eighty pounds, with a jacket full of water but without ammo loaded. Ammo, and a water condenser can that accompanied the gun in action, not shown.

…or “light” guns extemporized during the war for infantry to haul around more handily.

The French Chauchat light machine gun. With its clunky, complex long-recoil system full of fragile moving parts, and its open-sided magazine practically designed to scoop up the mud that is synonymous with “trench warfare”, it may have been the single least reliable firearm ever issued in numbers.  And it was close to 30 pounds – a heavy “light” gun.

The products of desperation, the “light” guns were rarely especially light, and often frighteningly unreliable, and incapable of much sustained fire before their barrels overheated, stopping them entirely.

The Czech Zbrojovka Brno – “Brno Weapons” –  works developed a light machine gun in the mid-twenties which served as the starting-point for a new line of design.   The “VZ26″ was light enough for an infantryman to haul around…

A VZ26 in Czech service.

…but heavy enough to remain accurate when firing full-automatic, it had one other radical feature; a quick-change barrel.  After a few magazines of sustained fire (interrupted by magazine changes, which slowed the overheating process a bit), the assistant gunner could unlock and (while wearing an asbestos glove) remove the barrel, and replace it with a spare that he carried for the purpose.  If the crew was in heavy action, they could swap the two barrels back and forth, allowing one to cool while the other was firing.

The British Army, looking for a new light machine gun to replace its World War I-era Lewis guns, held trials in the mid-thirties – and the ZB26 swept the field (as it did for armies all over the globe; it still serves, in modified form, in the Paraguayan Army).

The British made two key modifications; they added a handle to the barrel (in case a gunner lost his asbestos glove in the heat of battle), and they rechambered it to their .303 Enfield round – a clunky old round with a rimmed base that necessitated the curved magazine on top.

And, using the peculiar British habit of the day of making new compound words for their weapons, they named it the “Bren” gun – short for “Brno”, where it was designed, and “Enfield”, where it was built in the UK.

The Brits had intended to adopt a rimless round – like the German 7.92 Mauser (which the ZB 26 used) or the American 30.06 – but their staff judged, correctly, that time didn’t permit such a radical change before the war would likely start (they didn’t finally retire the .303 from front line service until 1957).

No matter – the Bren worked just fine with the new round.  They were built in mass lots, and equipped the British Army (and the parts of the Canadian and Australian armies that went into action) by the beginning of the war.

Reliable, relatively simple to manufacture, and ideal for its role – providing covering fire to a squad of 8-12 men as they leapfrogged forward and backward and around enemy positions, the Bren served out the war.

And then, like most “light machine guns”, it was supplanted by the latest military fad.  The German military had dispensed with the separate categories of Heavy and Light machine gun, and generally equipped the Wehrmacht with just one machine gun – the MG34 or, later in the war, the dreaded MG42:

The MG42. Remember the machine gun in “Saving Private Ryan” that fired so fast it sounded like ripping carpet? That’s this one. The post-war German army kept the design, and it serves to this day in the German, Norwegian and (I think) Spanish armies.

That was it. They hung a tripod from the barrel, and issued it to their squads (of 8-12 men) for relatively light close-up covering fire; they’d mount it on a tripod, and issue it to crews of 3 men to haul it and its ammo around as a heavier fire-support weapon for companies of 160 or battalions of 800 men.

The world’s militaries jumped on that bandwagon hard.  When the Brits re-tooled their ammunition and retired the Bren and Vickers guns, they adopted the Belgian FN-MAG as a “General Purpose Machine Gun”…:

The FN-MAG. It serves in most of the western world’s militaries today – including the US, as the M-240, as a company-level support weapon.

…capable of going into the field with a bipod as a squad support gun and a tripod in the weapons platoons of larger units.

The US adopted the M-60, which served from the early sixties into the nineties, but is probably most famous to non-serving Americans of a certain age range…:

Admit it.

…in Sylvester Stallone’s hands.

But along the way, an interesting thing happened.

During and among the world’s various brushfire wars of the sixties and seventies, infantrymen had a word or two with the world’s military theorists; the “light” version of the General Purpose Machine Gun wasn’t all that light when one was hauling it, a load of person gear, and a few belts of ammo through a jungle, or through the backstreets of Belfast.

And quietly, some of the world’s military units that had the clout to do so (or, conversely, the lack of clout that allowed them to get away with it), went back to the past.  The British military – especially the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines – who depended on foot mobility, and needed something lighter than the clunky MAG for use in their rifle squads, quietly pulled the Brens out of the armories, and re-chambered them for the modern 7.62x51mm NATO caliber (same as the MAG and M60), and built some straight-walled magazines, and re-issued the Bren to elements of the British Army that needed a light, light machine gun:

A British Marine, armed with a rechambered Bren, in action in the Falkland Islands in 1982. An MAG gunner is in the background.

And it served in British reserve units through the 1990s, and in reserve units of the Irish army until 2006.

And that bit of tapdancing to fill a need for lighter, handier, but still reliable and powerful weapon at the squad level led to a wave of design of genuinely *light* machine guns, including the US’ modern “M249 Squad Automatic Weapon” – which is another light machine gun.

“But wait, Mitch”, you may say.  ”Hot Gear Friday is supposed to refer to hot gear – guitars and firearms, mostly – that you’ve personally used, yourself.  What gives?”

Well, you’re right.  But we’ll be fixing that tomorow, with any luck.  Rumor has it that a .303 Bren is among the pieces for rent at Bill’s Gun Shop and Range – where I’ll be tomorrow for the Shooter Show.  And I’ve been putting away a couple bucks a months since last March, getting ready to light up some targets with it, about this time tomorrow.

Great Danes

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

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

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

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

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

Except in Denmark. Continue reading

9,300 Fire Balloons

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

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

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

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

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

Blood on the Lakes

The morning was cold and grey as journalist J.M. Beaufort, an American observer with the German army, left with a detachment of German soldiers stationed in the Polish (then Russian) town of Augustów.  Just days earlier, on February 23rd, 1915, the town had been part of the gigantic battlefield known as the Masurian Lakes, and the German troops were looking for stranglers from both the German and Russian armies.

Deep within the woods, Beaufort and his German escort came across a disturbing scene.  Seated in the snow a “giant Russian” cradled the decapitated head of a dead German soldier, whose body lay covered by the Russian’s army jacket.  An empty flask sat between them, with the Russian dead-eyed and soaked in blood.  As they approached, the realized most of the blood was the Russian’s own – his left elbow was all but gone.  Momentarily brought out of his daze, the Russian looked at Beaufort and said only one word: “Nitchewo” (“It is nothing”).

He had been part of the 220,000 men Russia had brought to the Masurian Lakes.  Only 20,000 walked away.

The German line at the Masurian Lakes. Germany hoped to launch an offensive before Russia could launch her own

The war between Tsarist Russia and Imperial Germany was in some ways the inverse of the conflict both nations would fight a generation later. Continue reading

Anniversary

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

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

IMG_3286.JPG

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

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

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

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

Common Virtue

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

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

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

It was January 6th, 1949.

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

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

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

The Terrible Ifs

The weather in the Dardanelles – the strait that ran through Constantinople, connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – was rough.  Cloudy skies and choppy seas lashed against the Ottoman forts that dotted the coastline.  Emerging from the gray horizon, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, one of the most modern battleship of the era, let loose a volley from her deck guns, beginning a long-distance bombardment.  Behind her sat a large joint Anglo-French fleet of mostly older battleships.  This was no pin-prick attack.  The fight to clear the Dardanelles and force the Ottoman Empire out of the war had begun.

It would end less than a year later, and in humiliating defeat for the Entente.

A Beach Too Far – 568,000 Allied troops crammed into the narrow beachheads along the Bosphorus

No one expected the Ottomans to put up a fight. Continue reading

Happy Reagan’s Birthday!

The jelly beans are on my desk, to greet passersby.

I’ve got a pot of stew in the crock pot, ready for the traditional family dinner, when I tell my kids how unlikely it is they’d have been born but for today’s birthday boy, and why.

It’s time for the official Shot In The Dark holiday.  Today would be Ronald Reagan’s 114th birthday.

I’ve been writing about Reagan – who, along with PJ O’Rourke, Solzhenitzyn, Dostoevskii and Paul Johnson is the reason I’m a conservative today – as long as this blog has been in existence.  His eight years were not perfect, and I don’t beatify my presidents, even if they’ve been out of office for twenty years (to say nothing of in their first month of service).  His last term wasn’t as stellar as his first, and his last two years were very difficult.

Still and all, he was the greatest president of the second half of the 20th Century.

But in these difficult times, when a President is promoting fear and malaise in the guise of “change” and “doing something”, it’s worth remembering Reagan’s example; when times seemed at their most dire, Reagan walked onto the scene with a smile and a vision, and a backbone of steel, and cleaned up the mess lefty by his failed predecessor – something our next president will need even more of in 2016.

And the most important part? He did it by unleashing something that many, then as now, thought was dead – the inner, optimistic, take-charge greatness of the American spirit.

Oh, there are those who say “today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate Reagan!” – to which I respond with a contemptuous sign, before telling the critic to listen to “A Time for Choosing”, and tell me who is more resembles; Arne Carlson, or Scott Walker?

Reagan’s gone. But that spirit, the one he understood, almost alone among American politicans of his era, lives on in the American people. Most of it, anyway.

So Happy Reagan’s Birthday, everyone!

NOTE: While this blog encourages a raucous debate, this post is a hagiography zone. All comments deemed critical of Reagan will be expunged without ceremony. You’ve been warned.

You have the whole rest of the media to play about in; this post is gonna be gloriously one-note.

Humanity’s Scar

Today his “Holocaust Remembrance Day”, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz/Birkenau/Monowitz extermination camp.

It wasn’t the first camp liberated; the Russians had liberated Majdanek, arguably the second deadliest of the camps, the previous summer.   And they’d made their discovery public.  But Soviet propaganda even then had a history of being marginally more heavy-handed than the Alliance for a Better Minnesota’s; surely, people figured, the Russians were slandering, understandably enough, the people who’d raped the Motherland so brutally.

And the news about Auschwitz got the same reception.  It wasn’t until the Western Allies started liberating camps in the late winter and early spring (soon to come on this blog) that the story started to get some traction in the west.

There was one filmmaker at Auschwitz, Alexandr Vorontzov, a Soviet cameraman attached to the 100th “Lviv” Infantry Division, of the 1st Ukrainian Front, present at the liberation, 70 years ago today.  He spent a few weeks on the scene, documenting not only the liberation and the gruesome discoveries, but also

The most sobering thing, on this anniversary, is that so few remember what happened – and so many seem amenable to trying it again.

I’ve run across a few Holocaust deniers over the years; I interviewed Ernst Zündel, a Canadian resident who made quite the cottage industry out of denial in the eighties, in my old KSTP show.  And I’ve shredded not a few on Facebook over the years. High on my bucket list is a desire to meet one in person, and pound them until the convusions stop.

Rhetorically speaking, of course.

This is why, by the way, I’m a Second Amendment activist.

“The Greatest American Battle of the War”

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

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

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

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

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

Western Civilization’s Finest Hour

It was fifty years ago today that Winston Churchill died.

There’s a strong case to be made that Churchill was the greatest person of the past 100 years; that without him, Western Civilization might be a very different thing today.

He was a great political thinker, a great statesman, and – especially in the darkest hours of World War 2 in Europe – one of the most epochal leaders of all time.

And one of the great orators; I’m as unemotional a person as you’ll ever meet, but it’s hard not to feel something stirring at Churchill’s greatest speech, his “Dunkirk” speech:

He rallied a people whose backs were worse than “up against the wall” – and a civilization that’d just taken a massive beating after one of the bleakest quarter-centuries in history.