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Kido Butai and National Cake Day

So, glad you survived not only Thanksgiving last Thursday but Black Friday the day after, for those of you who indulge in that orgy of retail greed. But today is Cyber Monday, so those among you who want to wait in your living room watching your computer rather than standing in a checkout line for the same stuff–knock yourselves out.

On this day in 1941, the main portion of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s (IJN) Kido Butai (literally mobile force. but also known as the Carrier Striking Task Force, depending on sources) with the 1st Air Group embarked (sources differ, but this was more symbolic than a real operational command) left the fleet anchorage at Hittokapu Bay and headed for Hawaii. The six aircraft carriers in the Kido Butai were the largest concentration of naval air power anywhere in the world and would be the largest until the US invasion of the Marshall Islands in 1944.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attack_on_Pearl_Harbor#/media/File:PearlHarborCarrierChart.jpg
The course of the Kido Butai December 1941. Wiki Commons.

Though the details are sketchy, the Kido Butai proceeded on its course with strict communications discipline, giving position reports and little else. This in itself is somewhat unremarkable to serious analysts, but to conspiracy-minded Americans, it’s proof of a US government cover-up at the very highest levels.

Regardless, the Japanese force was proceeding, supposedly, under the strict control of the “government” in Tokyo, which in theory was in control of the entire mission, indeed the whole war. The story goes that there was a chance that the attack on Pearl Harbor–which had required a complete redirection of the IJN from a mid-ocean ambush of the USN strategy that had been planned since 1922 in a matter of months–would not be needed. This is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying version of what was likely the truth: the Pearl Harbor attack was going in no matter what because stopping the samurai from going to war was not going to be possible. After 1938 they controlled the economy; by October 1941 they controlled the government outright. The negotiations with the diplomats in Washington were, as FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull thought at the time, a stalling tactic.

The “go code” message “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208,” has been widely asserted to have been sent by Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, to Nagumo Chuichi, commanding the Kido Butai, on 2 December 1941. This has been interpreted to mean that the attack on Pearl Harbor was to go ahead as scheduled on 8 December (Japan time). There are many different versions of this episode, but none of these versions answer the simple question that any good analyst would ask:

WHO authorized Yamamoto to send such a message?  

THAT part of the story is left out, and there is no evidence of any discussions of any “authorizations” by Tojo Hideki’s government that would have unleashed the attack–or how a lack of any such instruction would have restrained it–outside the movies. In other words, the military government (bakufu) that ran the country didn’t appear to authorize it. Huh.

So, who was waiting for word from the negotiations in Washington? Not Yamamoto, apparently. Beyond that, where are the similar messages to all the other Japanese commands headed to Malaya and the Philippines at the same time, and those poised to strike at Hong Kong? Was it the same message for everyone? Was the Imperial Japanese Army going to be taking orders from the Navy? Really?

Another nagging part of this story is the “1208” tacked on to the end of the message, always interpreted at December 8th. Huh. Some code, eh? One would think that if they went to the trouble of encoding the actual order, the date would be too, yeah?

The “Climb Mount Niitaka” message was purportedly intercepted by the Americans and the British, and probably by the Russians (though that is unclear in the “sources”). Its significance was, of course, missed, or misinterpreted. Trouble is, there’s no original source on any intercepts, nor any record or memory of discussions of any meaning attached to such intercepts at any level. More than that, the “East wind rain” message that signaled imminent hostilities that was supposedly also sent sometime before the Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t transmitted according to Japanese sources and was almost certainly never intercepted by anyone.

The two supposed coded messages combine in some minds into a missed opportunity to alert Hawaii and minimize the loss of life on 7 December. However, they are more critical to post-war views that Japan was a rational actor, that they genuinely wished for peace, and that by extension the American peace overtures in 1945 should have been more strident…and generous. Without the “Climb Mount Niitake” message, the Pearl Harbor strike was merely ordered by a duplicitous regime, not allowed by a more reasonable one.

So, after all this…what about the Kido Butai? It was ordered to attack Pearl Harbor regardless of what happened elsewhere because the entire Southern Operation (seizure of the Duch East Indies) was the objective. Neutralizing the US Pacific Fleet, even if briefly, was seen as an essential element of that operation. These coded messages were needed for other purposes, and have no basis in fact or hard evidence to support the contention that they were final instructions.

Waking the sleeping dragon/tiger of the US was concerning, but not restricting. If the carriers were there, excellent and most desired; if not, it would have been impossible not to attack whatever ships and facilities were there.

Think about that.

Next week, I start a series called “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” to frame the publication (finally) of Why the Samurai Lost Japan on or about 15 December. The series will explore Japan’s strategic and tactical options for that December in 1941, including the folly of the mythical Third Strike on Pearl Harbor. Hope you enjoy it.


National Cake Day…who’s idea was this? No one knows, apparently.  And yet, the world continues to turn…

The word cake to denote baked goods is said to be derived from the Old Norse “kaka.” However, “kaka” in English is borrowed from the Maori and used to describe a species of birds native to New Zealand…or, for children and gremlins, poop.

No one can know how many different kinds of cake there are worldwide. There are countless recipes, some are bread-like, some rich and elaborate, and many are centuries old. Cakes typically contain a combination of flour, sugar, eggs, and butter or oil, with some variety of liquid which may be milk or water, along with a leavening agent such as yeast or baking powder. Flavorful ingredients are often added, for example; chopped nuts, fresh, candied or dried fruit, fruit purees or extracts. Cake can be enjoyed with or without frosting or icing…or eating, as these two examples show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jj89XX-7JJg
Happy birthday…cake!?

Look hard enough on the internet, and you can find some even more remarkable cakes. Since I strive to make this a family-friendly blog, I shall avoid including the more salacious images or links to them. The cake to the left is one of the tamer images I found on a particular site.

There are several “cake” days (and a month), according to at least one source. Here’s a list With luck, I won’t be punished for blatantly stealing it:

  • National Cake Month – February
  • National Lemon Chiffon Cake Day – March 29
  • National Hazelnut Cake Day – June 1
  • National Applesauce Cake Day – June 6
  • National German Chocolate Cake Day – June 12
  • National Angel Food Cake Day – October 10
  • National Cake Day – November 26

 

 

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J. Robert Oppenheimer and President’s Day 2019

I appreciate that February only has four weeks, but must they be as long as they are? What? They’re the same length as those in June? No, can’t be. You’re making that up. Next week is National Tell Me A Fairy Tale Day, not this week.

Nuclear Club: Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer 
LIFE Magazine cover, 1947.

Well, given that…Julius Robert Oppenheimer (known either as Robert or Oppie) was born on 22 April 1904 in New York City to an affluent first-generation German Jewish immigrant family in the textile business. Young Robert’s early education was typical of secular Jews in Manhattan, but untypically Robert was introduced to the quasi-Christian/quasi-atheist Ethical Culture movement in the primary grades, which may have informed his life thereafter. 

Young Robert, like the physicist Oppie would become, had a wide-ranging mind and interests that ranged from English and French literature to horseback riding and mineralogy. At Harvard he majored in chemistry but gravitated to physics, graduating summa cum laude in just three years. He moved on to Cambridge and to the University of Göttingen, where he earned his PhD in physics at the age of 23 while he developed his most cited work, the Born–Oppenheimer approximation in quantum physics.

After university, Oppie (from a Dutch-derived nickname) was much sought after, dividing his time between the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) and Harvard for a year. Known to work himself to exhaustion while still in school, he was also subject to fits of depression. He had no spare time, dividing himself between hard science and Eastern philosophy, learning Sanskrit on his own so he could read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. He supported communist ideals in the ’30s while supporting refugee scientists from Europe–including many who he would work with on the atomic bomb. At the same time he practically ignored the world around him, and was unaware of the Wall Street crash of 1929 until he was told about it two years later.

Morally Oppenheimer could be described as a mess. He had an affair with divorcee Jean Tatlock, a fellow communist sympathizer who really was a communist, that supposedly ended in 1938. Then he married another communist, divorcee Katherine Puening, who had two children with him while he was still sleeping with Tatlock from time to time. All of this made for interesting reading and constant surveillance while he worked on the most secret project of WWII.

Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project in 1942 as the head scientist, in part because he was a good referee. Oppie was the one world-class physicist among all those in the Western world who all the others would work for. The military head of the project, Army brat Leslie R. Groves, had been the overseer for the building of the Pentagon and was regarded as one of the best civil engineers in the Army. The unlikely pair–unruly and eccentric Oppenheimer and straight-laced career soldier Groves–got along famously and became lifelong friends, though Groves was always concerned about Oppenheimer’s serial indiscretions. 

In July 1945 Oppie and thousands of other workers watched the Trinity device–a plutonium core nuclear bomb–ignite the very air in the New Mexico desert.  His reaction over the years has been described and reinterpreted, but the one that makes the most sense was relief. After all, the Manhattan Engineer District had cost the United States $3,000,000 for every man, woman, and child in North America. There were scientists who thought that the thing wouldn’t work and others who thought that it would cause a continuing chain reaction and consume the Earth. If he thought of the Bhagavad Gita at that instant we can’t know now, even as much as he said he did later.

His early flirtations with communist organizations, direct or not, caught up with him in the coming Cold War. He lost his security clearance in 1954, and his situation was made worse by his pronouncements that science knew no politics. As the head of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton from 1947 until 1966 when he began chemotherapy for throat cancer, he encouraged research of all kinds and consistently spoke for harnessing science for the public good. J. Robert Oppenheimer died 18 February 1967, eulogized by many and remembered as a cautionary yet unapologetic voice for the harnessing of science for the public good.

President’s Day 2019

From right, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in College Station, Texas,  Oct. 21, 2017.  (AP Photo/LM Otero) ORG XMIT: TXMO103

The appellation “President’s Day” originated in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which took effect in 1971. The Act established Washington’s birthday as the third Monday in February, in the week of 15-21 February; it didn’t officially merge Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday, nor did it establish a “President’s Day” by law…pop culture seems to have done that all on its own. 

The photo up top is of a unique club: five men who get to be called “Mister President” at the opening of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. There’s another to the right: a hurricane relief concert in 2017 when there were five living former presidents. WIth the incumbent in the White House, this was a period during which there were six living members of the President’s Club, which has happened four times. There have been six periods when there were no living former presidents:

  • When George Washington died in 1799;
  • When Andrew Johnson died in 1875;
  • When Grover Cleveland died in 1908;
  • When Calvin Coolidge died in 1933;
  • When Lyndon Johnston died in 1973.

Richard Nixon is the only person to have been both the only living US president (January 1973, after Johnson died, to August 1974, when he resigned) and one of six living presidents (January 1993, after Clinton’s inauguration, to his death in April 1994). Everyone should be known for something odd.

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Meiji Constitution and Valentine’s Day 2019

Mid-February: still ice everywhere despite what may have come as a thaw in late January–it often does for a few days in the Great Lakes. Then it drops down to sub-zero again, even after Groundhog Day. Don’t expect the mall snow piles to be gone for another couple of months. Climate change my royal behind…

Today is many things, but the three most important, in order are:

  • My granddaughter Madeline’s  birthday, and I won’t say how old she is other than she’s eligible to vote and can drink legally in any state of the Union;
  • Foundation Day in Japan, celebrating the traditional beginning of the Empire of Japan in 660 AD;
  • Constitution Day in Japan from 1889 to 1947.

The Constitution of the Empire of Japan, known colloquially as the Meiji Constitution, was proclaimed on 11 February 1889 by the Meiji Emperor Mutsuhito and became effective on 29 November 1890. Before then Japan, like many other states, had no written constitution but a body of law, traditions, and habits for formalizing the government and institutions. That it was issued on Japan’s Foundation Day was not a coincidence, because it in effect reinforced the fact that, though many changes social and technological changes were sweeping across Japan in the late 19th century, the emperor and the samurai were still on the top of Japan’s heap.

One of the salient features of the Meiji Constitution was that it was in effect the Emperor’s to obey or ignore at his discretion. The US Constitution outlines a structure for a government, then goes on to limit the powers of that government. Whatever the Emperor did under the Meiji Constitution or–more ominously–whatever was done in the Emperor’s name was OK. It was his to dispose of or obey at will. In practice, the Diet was used to raise taxes and pass civil laws, and the courts were there to legitimize governmental actions. The primary restraint to any of the three emperors who reigned under it was that it provided a veneer of Western appearance that was almost universally recognized. The Meiji Constitution thus made many in the West (those who never read it) believe that Japan was just like them.

The Meiji Constitution set up a government, allowed for a politically-chosen and elected Diet (analogous to the House of Representatives), and an upper house of nobles (more like Britain’s House of Lords than the US Senate), a chief executive (Prime Minister) and a cabinet to control governmental functions. It then states that the Prime Minister was to be appointed by the Emperor on the advice of a privy council and the Genro of elder statesmen (who were all men) and they didn’t need to be members of the elected Diet–and in practice they rarely were. Thus, the government of Japan was not necessarily responsible to the electorate.

Finally, the Meiji Constitution made the military co-equal with the civil government, in effect making it a fourth branch of the Emperor’s controlling apparatus. If the military didn’t send a minister–a War Minister/general from the Imperial Japanese Army and an admiral/Navy Minister from the Imperial Japanese Navy–to a Prime Minister’s cabinet, or if one service or the other withdrew its minister, the government had to be dissolved and, usually, another Prime Minister chosen. The military did this when they didn’t get their way over and over again right up to 1941.

Generals and admirals were Prime Ministers about a third of the time between 1890 and 1945. From the outbreak of WWII in Europe to the surrender, “political parties” in Japan as they were understood in the West ceased to exist, replaced by the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA), an amalgamation of all Japan’s political parties (except the communists, founded in 1922, which was repressed) into one. By that time it no longer truly mattered what the civil government had to say: the decision to attack the West in 1941 and all the planning for it took place under Konoe Fumimaro, the last non-military Prime Minister before August 1945. 

The Meiji Constitution was technically revised in 1947, but it was an entirely new document under its same official name, fashioned after the US Constitution by the occupation forces. In it, the Emperor was reduced to a figurehead; the Prime Minister elected by the Diet, and the use of force and role of the military severely curtailed. No longer a veneer, Japan’s Constitution may one day end up as a model for a UK Constitutuion, should they ever write one.

Valentine’s Day 2019

Yeah, OK, a greeting card holiday. Ain’t we tired of saying that all the time, every year?  Yeah, it “celebrates” an execution–maybe (there are at least three saints named Valentine who were said to have been executed on 14 February). Only Medieval legends had such a saint performing marriage rituals, not any contemporary accounts doing so in their Third Century lives. Then what? Hey: it’s mid-February, time to feel warm about someone else. 

Initial cover for Tideline

Family loves you if you think you deserve it or not. You only have to love them back.

From Tideline

Yeah, this is another plug for another book. That’s what this blog is for.  This one’s not about anybody getting killed, though it does involve the military.  Tideline: A Story of Friendship should be ready mid-year. As my loyal readers (all three of you) know, Tideline is about two people growing up in the ’50s and ’60s  in suburban Detroit. They spend their teen and most of their young adult lives apart for reasons beyond their control. Yet, for all those years–nearly half their lives–they never entirely forget each other.

A friend will help you move; a buddy will help you move a body.

From Tideline

He joins the Army for a lot of reasons; she, the Navy for just as many. They run into each other in 1985 in the book’s first prime location, Key West Florida. They learn of each other’s lives again, yet their services could rip them apart at any time. But these two survivors of the Summer of Love (1967) cannot resist the temptations of the flesh without deciding on limits to their passions: a tideline.

TIdeline is a story of enduring friendship, heartache, and joy, adventure, and romance, of trust and two people’s grim determination to not just stay together but to convince their services to allow them to stay together and keep their careers. It was a time of chaos in the ’60s when the streets flooded with protests, and the ’80s iin the turmoil of widespread social, legal and structural changes in the post-Vietnam US armed services, and when “social media” was still a written letter.

Hey, not bad, eh? Look for Tideline about mid-year…probably.

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Emperor Norton I of the US and National Create a Vacuum Day

February in the Great Lakes: still in the depths of winter, but there are rimes of ice around everything by now. Feet don’t fail me now, we gotta make it until spring.

On 4 February 1818*, Joshua Abraham Norton was born somewhere in England (Deptford, near London, is the best candidate). At the age of two, he and his family moved to South Africa as members of the 1820 Settlers, sanctioned by the British government.  Not much more is known about him until he arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849 with some capital in his pocket–though how much is unclear and at this point unknowable. What is known is that he was a savvy investor who did well in real estate and commodities, and by 1852 was one of the wealthiest people in San Francisco, which for that time and place is saying a great deal. But he tried to corner the market in rice and lost his shirt doing it, filing bankruptcy and was living in a boarding house by 1859.

On 17 September 1859, Norton declared himself Norton I, Emperor of These United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton I, circa 1875

Well, good for him: everyone needs an emperor now and then. Having been a prominent businessman just months before, the San Francisco newspapers were more than happy to publish his announcement, and like many others regarded him as a harmless crank. It didn’t take long for His Majesty to start issuing proclamations removing and appointing the governor of Virginia (17 September 1859), dissolving the United States (16 July 1860), forbidding Congress to meet in Washington, D.C. (1 October 1860), and abolishing the Democratic and Republican parties (12 August 1869). All the while, newspaper editors attributed scores of other declarations and decrees to him, few of which were his, many were amusing, others quasi-serious.

While it was clear to nearly everyone that the guy was unhinged, it seems that he was indulged well beyond what would be tolerated a century later. Police and militiamen saluted him on the streets; society swells doffed their hats and curtsied; restaurants fed him at no charge; workmen would stop their work as he inspected; his boardinghouse used him as free advertising. Even the 1870 census listed his occupation as “emperor.”

But all good things must come to an end, and on 8 January 1880, Emperor Norton I dropped dead at California Street and Grant Avenue, on his way to a lecture.  He was adequately eulogized in the newspapers and buried at the Masonic Cemetery on 10 January. The procession was two miles long, attended by some 10,000 mourners. Since then his body was moved to Woodlawn Cemetery, where it rests today, maintained by the city of San Francisco. The City by the Bay has never hesitated to suck whatever whimsey or publicity out of Norton that it could. Persons playing the role give tours of the city, dressed in whatever imaginary finery they could imagine. Businessman, crank, emperor and tour guide: quite a career.

*The year of Norton’s birth is in dispute: as early as 1814 or as late as 1819.

Create A Vacuum Day

Um…no, not necessarily the one on the left

Today is National Create a Vacuum Day because the good folks at the National Day Calendar say so.  As we all know, vacuums (the atmospheric state) are an absence of, well, principally gas. So why is it my vacuum cleaner is always full of something–hair, dirt, paper, dust or I just don’t know what? That’s because what we call a vacuum is an absence of air. A true or perfect vacuum which is devoid of all matter is only theoretical and can’t actually be created, exist or be detected…except by the US Congress, which makes one practically every time they meet.

Now, according to Doc Elliot’s Mixology, whose graphic I borrowed above, the reason your drink shaker creates a vacuum when you shake it is because the contents of that shaker cool and contract, creating a partial vacuum that holds the lid on. Have to take their word for it because I don’t do that: hard liquor just doesn’t appeal to me.

This look is something new: a new editor for WordPress that seems easier to use.  Every paragraph, graphic, quote or what-have-you here is a separate, reusable block. It makes moving the elements around easier, but I’m nowhere near bright enough to take advantage of all this stuff. So it might look different, but it’s still my same old rambling.

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January 28th Incident and Groundhog Day 2019

As January grinds down once again, it’s time to reflect on a few truths. It’s cold in the Great Lakes, and it is in most of North America this time of year. It’s also wet, and cold and wet is the most miserable way to feel. Therefore, a good roof and furnace is vital; I hope you have both.

Since its successes of the late 19th century, the Japanese military leadership had been ever searching to expand Japan’s power base. WWI demonstrated to them that the single most important thing any state needed on its own was resources. While Japan had some things in abundance in the Home Islands–coal and silk–it lacked many of the resources that modern states needed to be competitive in the world market. Unfortunately, as an agrarian state, Japan was too poor to buy them. So the military leadership steeped in the samurai traditions resolved to take by force that which she needed.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:China-Manchukuo-map.svg
East Asia, 1932. Japanese Empire in salmon; Manchukuo in green. Wikimedia Commons

Japan’s annexation of Korea and aggrandizing its South Manchuria Railroad holdings to include all of Manchuria while China was in a state of civil war was relatively easy, often bloodless. By 1932 China itself had settled down after Kuomintang (KMT) party had taken control of the administrative apparatus of the country.

China in 1932 was a tinderbox waiting for a light, and Japan was more than willing to supply the flame. The cosmopolitan city of Shanghai on the Wangpoa River near the East China Sea coast was a busy seaport and Pacific Rim financial center, with several “concessions”–European quasi-colonies resulting from the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Japan saw Shanghai as a potential target for another takeover…as long as it could make up a reason to do so.

On 18 January 1932, five Japanese Buddhist monks were beaten by a Chinese mob in Shanghai: one died. Later that same day, a factory was burned down and a policeman killed. It is impossible to think that these incidents were not brought about at the instigation of the Japanese military, who were adept at creating “incidents” of this kind. They weren’t necessarily sanctioned by the government in Tokyo, but the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) didn’t necessarily care: they created these situations knowing that the leadership would–eventually–back them.

By 27 January, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had positioned 7,000 IJA troops, some 40 warships (including Japan’s first aircraft carrier task force of 38,000-ton Kaga and 9,000-ton Hosho) and 40 combat aircraft for the coming battle. Also, there was the Shanghai Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF) of some 2,000 men. The force that would become the Shanghai Expeditionary Army was commanded by Shirakawa Yoshinori. Just outside Shanghai, the Chinese 19th Route Army*–called by some little more than a warlord force–containing about 20,000 men in three divisions. Though they had been paid to go away, they were in the city when the fighting started. With fortress garrisons and armored trains, China had maybe 30,000 initially available men for the defense of Shanghai, overall commanded by Cai Tingkai.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/132996995218105171/?lp=true
Shanghai, 1932

On 27 January, the Japanese issued an ultimatum to China, demanding reparations for any damage to Japanese property or harm to Japanese citizens. While China agreed by the deadline, Japanese carrier aircraft attacked Shanghai at midnight on 28 January, the first major aircraft carrier attack in East Asia and a foretaste of the terror bombing of civilian populations that would follow. Simultaneously, IJA troops attacked targets all over the city, meeting fierce Chinese resistance.

As the fighting spread throughout the city, the members of the international communities tried to broker a cease-fire, which the Japanese at first refused, pouring more men and aircraft into the fighting up until 12 February, when a half-day truce was agreed to so that civilians could get out of the way.  That same day, the Japanese demanded that all Chinese troops be withdrawn. The Chinese responded on 14 February by sending the Chinese 5th Army– of two divisions and an independent brigade, perhaps another 20,000 men–to Shanghai.

The fighting continued until the Japanese had sent nearly 100,000 men into the battle. The two Chinese armies, pummeled by superior Japanese artillery and desperately short of supplies, had to withdraw on 29 February. Chinese casualties were about 13,000 to Japan’s 5,000.

The “peace process” brokered by the League of Nations that followed made a mockery of Chinese sovereignty, but there was no hope for it. Shanghai was “demilitarized” only of Chinese soldiers–the Japanese were allowed to keep a small garrison.

The 28 January Incident in Shanghai was yet another example of Japanese military passive-aggressive tactics that succeeded so often it gave them a sense of false confidence. They came to believe that anything they did–even a strong bluff like southern Indochina–they could eventually get away with because of their military prowess and the fear of the West of another war. When they went too far in 1941, their fate was sealed.

*A Chinese Route Army was a larger field force than an Army of more than two divisions, often more than three corps.


Yes, yes…Groundhog Day is 2 February; next Saturday. The American/Canadian custom date was first documented in 1840, in a Morgantown, Pennsylvania (traditionally Pennsylvania Dutch country) diary, where the locals believed that if a groundhog saw its shadow on Candlemas (also 2 February), the winter would be longer than if it didn’t.

My mother, of old German/English stock, knew the accuracy of the groundhog-swami to be absolute, declaring to my sisters and me that if the shadow were seen, winter would last another six weeks; if not, spring would arrive in just a month and a half.

Don’t overthink it.

The more formal custom followed in 1887 in Puxatawney, Pennsylvania, which is known for nothing else at this writing. The beast is coaxed out of its lodgings at a given time, and its handlers declare whether or not Puxatawney Phil has seen its shadow. Accuracy figures are sketchy but don’t seem to exceed those of random chance.

SInce 1887, other locales have acquired their own overgrown squirrels, from Texas to Russia to Nova Scotia–and some are stuffed. Potomac Phil in Washington DC predicts the end not of winter but of Congressional gridlock–and has never been right.

SOMEONE has to point out that Bill Murray has turned an otherwise dull and mundane non-holiday into a freaking meme. For those who haven’t seen the 1993 Harold Ramis film,  Groundhog Day was released to generally favorable reviews and good sales worldwide. The story centers on a TV weatherman (Murray) who is trapped in a time loop, reliving the same 2 February over and over again with the same people, but he’s the only one who realizes it. While better film analysts and critics than I have dissected the film over and again, I have to state that I found it was mildly amusing the first time, but afterward was dull not because of the repetitive nature, but because, like many comedies, the fun stems from the unexpected.

Since the film’s release, “Groundhog Day” has become shorthand in popular culture for the repetitive nature of everyday life.  Frankly, the only thing about Groundhog Day that this correspondent finds repetitive is the insistence upon attention to it. But that’s me.

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George Orwell and National Opposite Day

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t

Just to mess with your head a bit…still cold here in the Great Lakes; trust me. Today is the 52nd anniversary of the lowest daily high temperature ever recorded in the Detroit area: -26 below. Let’s hope that record is never quite met.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about a most extraordinary writer, a scrivener of ideas and thoughtful prose. George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) was born in India 25 June 1903, the son of an Englishman in Indian Civil Service and a Frenchwoman raised in Burma. Orwell and his older sister were taken to England when the boy was a year old. Though his father visited from time to time, he would not live with his father again until 1912.

As a boy, Orwell was attracted to writing poetry, stories and historical essays, earning prizes and scholarships, including one for Eton. Still too broke to graduate, he took a job with the Imperial Police in Burma in 1922. While there Orwell learned Burmese, grew a mustache, had his knuckles tattoed, started his path towards socialism, and caught dengue fever. After returning to England in 1927, he resigned from the Imperial Police to take up writing full time.

His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was an homage to Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), describing the seamier side of the largest European cities, its poverty, and degradation of people less fortunate than others. Working a number of odd jobs while writing essays and articles, Orwell associated with some of the organized labor and growing socialist movements in central Britain while writing The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which brought him to the attention of Britain’s Special Branch until the publication of his landmark–and last–book, 1984.

From late 1936 until mid-1937, Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War primarily as a fighter, but also as an observer of the political chaos that drove the many factions in Spain to cut each other’s throats with charges and counter-charges of “fascism” and “counter-revolutionary thought.” Wounded, he left Spain somewhat disillusioned about the future prospects of socialism if not even the socialists could agree with each other.

After a long recovery, Orwell published a novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), partly based on his childhood and partly not. Rejected for military service with the outbreak of WWII, he kept writing essays, reviews, poetry, stories and a journal, where he often spoke of his disillusionment with the socialist movement in practice but never in theory. He got work supervising BBC broadcasts for India, countering German propaganda.

In 1942 or thereabouts Orwell started writing his breakout book, Animal Farm, that would eventually be published in 1945. Along the way, he suffered many shocks, not the least of which was the death of his parents, losing his lodgings to a V-1 bomb, and the death of his wife. While it was in process with his publishers, it was rejected by his first publisher on the advice of Peter Smollett, a Ministry of Information official in charge of producing pro-Soviet propaganda during the war who turned out to be a Soviet agent. How this affected his later work is speculative since the connection only came after Orwell was dead. Nonetheless, 1984‘s Ministry of Truth did have a duty to change yesterday’s history to fit today’s reality.

Animal Farm won Orwell international acclaim, and without a family he submerged himself in work, producing over 130 essays and reviews in less than a year, and publishing a collection of his review essays. A boating incident in 1947 resulted in tuberculosis, which he barely survived by early 1949 while finishing his last book, published in June–it was an instant best-seller. On 21 January 1950, Eric Blair/George Orwell died at age 46.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell set out six simple rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With his impressive published output, I can’t possibly disagree with these rules, but break them most of us do, and regularly. But they come from a man of contrasts, an atheist who embraced and thrived on traditional Church-of-England values, who provoked arguments endlessly but was a loner, aloof from even his most intimate friends. Sickly for much of his adult life, his views on humanism never wavered, while he raged at the humanitarians who didn’t–or couldn’t–provide enough relief for the downtrodden. He hated the idea of dictatorship, yet understood it better than nearly anyone else. He rejected the Soviet Union but embraced socialism all the more fervently. While the Special Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police maintained a file on Orwell as a possible subversive, the Home Office’s MI-5 was just as convinced that he was not only not a communist, the communists didn’t want anything to do with him.

Reading any of Orwell’s writings after reading 1984, however, is difficult because the haunted quality of his last novel almost feels as if he knew his end was coming sooner than later. Animal Farm, which I read first in the 1960s, was spectral but not with the same feeling of doom. Reading Burma Days about his life as an Imperial Policeman or Down and Out in Paris and London recalls Jack London’s desperate despair, but contains none of the feel of death that his last works have.

For those of you who know nothing of Orwell’s prodigious body of work, you should read the significant books in the order they were published.

And if you have read him already, pause today in memory of the late Eric Blair…when the clock strikes thirteen.


One of the most extraordinary things I get to do on this blog is making pithy observations about what people expect versus what is–ahem–real. It is with the height of irony that Friday, 25 February is called by some National Opposite Day. I say “by some” because not everyone agrees that 25 February is National Opposite Day; some insist that it’s 7 January, yet others demand recognition of the “fact” that the 25th of every month is Opposite Day. Several sources speak about “experts” in the field of national days.

Orwell would have loved/hated it. “Experts on national days”–there are such things? And the idea of opposite days–where you say one thing and do another–would have fit into his Oceania very well.

No one knows when or where “opposite days” started, but the earliest reference is in the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge declared “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” At this, the punditocracy began debating if he was running or not (he didn’t).

Opposite Day is a self-referential paradox, and the perfect way to commemorate the death of George Orwell. Declare Opposite Day, and there can never be one–Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth will ensure it. Declare an orgy on Opposite Day and Julia of the Junior Anti-Sex League will spend hours deciding if she should or not.

Double-plus-good!

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Operation Ke and National Nothing Day

Mid-January already. Wow. While here in the Great Lakes we’re stuck in a deep freeze that started last November, I can only hope you aren’t. I can also hope that you keep reading.

https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/coast-watchers-in-the-solomons/
The Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea. Guadalcanal is in the lower right just about 10 degrees S latitude and bisected by 160 degrees E longitude.

As early as November 1942, low-level Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) officers had been advising that Guadalcanal couldn’t be retaken or held. At the far end of a logistical chain that stretched over 3,500 air miles back to Japan, the nearest Japanese base to Guadalcanal of any size was Rabaul, still over 600 miles away with limited air cover in between.

By January 1943, Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) decided to pull out.  The Japanese weren’t used to retrograde operations, but they were so short on troops that they had to learn, and quickly.  In five months the Japanese forces on the island had gone from less than a thousand before the US Marine landing on 7 August 1942, to 36,000 at their peak in October, to 11,000 in January 1943, and the survivors were in awful shape. Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) resupply runs from Rabaul were increasingly hazardous due to the American buildup on the island. Conditions were so primitive on what the troops called Starvation Island–where the sick rate approached 50% on any given day– IJA Seventeenth Army’s commander Hyakutake Harukichi’s staff was less than ten men.  Mikawa Gunichi commanded the IJN Eighth Fleet at Rabaul responsible for the Solomon Islands. On him would fall the responsibility for the evacuation. dubbed Operation Ke.

Commanding the Allied naval forces in the South Pacific Area was William F. Halsey with two fleet carriers and six escort carriers, six battleships, and a relay of 12 light and heavy cruisers and sundry escorts and destroyers. Commanding the American ground troops on Guadalcanal was Alexander Patch with about 40,000 soldiers and Marines. Halsey enjoyed supremacy of ships, aircraft, and logistics over Mikawa; Patch had numbers and logistics over Hyakutake. At the same time, they knew that their opponents were no pushovers. Aware of an uptick in activity in early January 1943, the Americans suspected a major reinforcement of either Guadalcanal or New Guinea, and they moved to counter both.

A fresh battalion of infantry and a battery of guns were landed on 14 January to act as a rear-guard, which was the first time that Hyakutake was aware of the withdrawal. Backed by two aircraft carriers, an IJN air superiority campaign from Rabaul commenced at about the same time. The Japanese air campaign was not a severe threat to the Allies in the area since their air power in the region was outnumbered by about 500 Allied to 400 Japanese.

Aided by covering surface ship skirmishes, radio deception, desperate air attacks, and long-practiced deception operations on the ground, the IJA ground troops disengaged and moved off from the front. The Americans, attacking as ever, exploited the weak lines and pushed forward. Still fearing a counterattack on his weary ground troops, Patch again moved cautiously. It should be remembered that tropical conditions weren’t to the liking of the Americans either: their sick rate was close to 20%. At the same time, a withdrawal was not thought to be in the Japanese playbook.

Still suspecting that a reinforcement was underway, a small surface task force under Robert C. Giffen was sent to patrol between the south coast of Guadalcanal and Rennell Island. In a confused air-surface night action 29-30 January, USS Chicago was sunk, and another US destroyer damaged to 12 IJN torpedo bombers shot down. But this minor battle had the effect of brushing back the Americans, enabling the evacuations to continue unimpeded by heavy surface forces.

The first IJN evacuation was conducted 1-2 February, pulling nearly 5,000 sick and emaciated soldiers off the island in 11 destroyers. It was opposed primarily by PT boats and ground-based aircraft from Guadalcanal. The second (4-5 February) and third (7-8 February) lifts were similarly opposed by light forces. Halsey’s ships were 200 miles away to the south. Unaware of how high Japanese casualties were among their long-range medium bombers, he did not venture to interfere in a major way. Halsey and the other commanders were also becoming convinced that the Japanese were evacuating Guadalcanal–not reinforcing–since the resistance on the ground was rapidly vanishing, and saw no need to keep the Japanese from leaving the rock that they had fought over for six months.

Operation Ke was arguably one of the last Japanese successes in WWII.  Called an “operational success” by some sources, it was nonetheless a retreat–not on the scale of Dunkirk but a retreat nonetheless.  It cost the Japanese a destroyer and a submarine sunk and 56 aircraft shot down to save a little over 10,000 sick and emaciated soldiers, about a third of whom would never serve in the field again. The Allies lost a cruiser, a destroyer, and three PT boats, in addition to 53 aircraft. The balance sheet tilted slightly towards the Japanese in raw numbers, but they also lost the southern Solomon Islands, a position they could–unlike the British and French after Dunkirk–never regain.

The Americans weren’t asking for negotiations: in fact, with the Casablanca conference underway between US, British and French leaders, such thoughts seemed ages away. After the collapse of German resistance at Stalingrad on 2 February, the Soviets weren’t giving up either.

One by one, Japanese prewar miscalculations were adding up to doom.


Wednesday, 16 January,  is traditionally recognized as National Nothing Day since it was allegedly invented in 1972 by Harold Pullman Coffin, a San Francisco Examiner columnist who went to his nothing reward in 1981. He also created the National Nothing Foundation in California, which may have gone to nothing since as well.

https://electropiknik.cz/viral/7-duvodu-proc-by-s-vami-mel-vas-pes-spat-v-posteli/2017/08/
A great way to do nothing…

Nothing Day was supposed to be the one day that we were supposed to be able to recognize or celebrate or remember anything at all. In part, it has been co-opted by a “buy nothing” movement that has always been the alternative to Black Friday: the day after American Thanksgiving. Regrettably, for Coffin’s non-day, 16 January is also:

  • National Fig Newton Day (since…no one’s sure);
  • National Religious Freedom Day (since 1993);
  • National Without a Scalpel Day (since 2016).

While the idea is pretty neat, like everything else, time and events have a way of catching up to intent. When Washington first proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, he could not have imagined the Macy’s Parade. No American could imagine a greater catastrophe than Pearl Harbor in 1941, right up until 9/11.

Or, as the expression goes: Man proposes; God laughs.

 

 

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Bataan Begins and National Cuddle-Up Day

So, you’ve survived The Holidays, that period between late November and the end of the year when the Western world goes mad for made-for-TV movies with the same plot, metalized paper strips, dead trees in their homes, and spending too much money on things that the recipients of your largesse don’t really want. Welcome to the depths of January.

The war that Japan started with the West in December 1941 had been going pretty much according to the plan by the end of the year. The earliest Japanese landings under Homma Masaharu on the big Philippine island of Luzon began on 10 December 1941. On 22 December the main offensive on Luzon began. Always outnumbered, 48,000 Japanese with complete air and sea supremacy pushed against the 151,000 American and Filipino troops who rarely saw friendly air support of any kind. The issue was never really in doubt.

https://vintagevisualizations.com/products/manila-bay-and-approaches-1
US Coast and Geodetic Survey map ca 1940. The Bataan Peninsula is right (west) of Manila Bay.

The prewar plan that the Philippines’ senior officer, Douglas MacArthur, had out was for the ground forces to fall back into the Bataan Peninsula to deny any attackers free use of Luzon’s greatest asset: Manila Bay. The evacuation to Bataan was fairly orderly, with 80,000 troops of two US/Philippine army corps filing in, along with 26,000 civilian refugees, and needed supplies ferried in from Manila.

The first problem for the Americans was that the supplies earmarked for the upcoming siege was only for 46,000 people, not 106,000. The first problem for the Japanese was that the defensive lines, the American artillery, and the American determination to make a stand were not a part of the Japanese plan.

On 7 January 1942, the same day that the Soviets declared victory at Moscow and began their own counteroffensive, Homma started a general assault on the Bataan defensive lines and was repulsed at every point. Also on that day, President Roosevelt announced the largest increase in defense spending in American history, tripling the size of the US military in 18 months. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans were acting according to the Japanese plan.

While the Bataan battle was raging, the Americans and their Filipino allies were starving, and the Japanese–some of them, anyway–were starting to wonder what went wrong with their brilliant plan. The Declaration by the United Nations, where the US, China, Great Britain, and her Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, all the governments-in-exile from Europe and Scandinavia, and a host of smaller states declared that they would fight on for as long as possible, and none would seek a separate (unilateral, like Russian pulling out of WWI) peace with any “signatory of the Tripartite Pact.” This Declaration was a direct attack on Japan’s main goal for attacking the West in the first place: a negotiated settlement to Japan’s advantage.

The American/Filipino Bataan plan was borne of the outdated hope that a US fleet and avenging army would be only a few months away from succoring the Philippines. However, as early as 1910 US planners knew that a rescue of a Philippine garrison was logistically impossible. In the 1920s, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was built on the idea that the US would crawl across the Pacific into a massive ambush. By 1940 that plan was scrapped, but the entire fleet had been trained for it, and every ship built for it. Though hastily retrained and reorganized, it was hard to get that obsolete plan out of many Japanese sailor’s heads.

But the US Bataan plan was meant to make the invader hurt–and that it did. For three months the ragtag army held out, inflicting over 20,000 casualties on the Japanese, including China campaign veterans who were impossible to replace. By the time the last position was overrun on Bataan, some 76,000 captives were in Japanese hands, more men than the Japanese had started the campaign with, and four times what they were prepared for. While the Japanese eventually defeated the Americans and Filipinos on Bataan, they did it at a cost that it would have been unsustainable, was two months behind schedule, and had consumed far more resources–especially fuel–than had been planned for.

And the Americans were showing no signs of heading to the negotiating table.

Bataan and Wake Island were only two of many early “victories” that Japan obtained in the early days of the war that were but portents of the resistance they would encounter. Read all about it in Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly now available from JDB Communications, LLC.

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan


Yesterday was National Cuddle-Up Day because:

  • The good folks at the National Day Calendar said it was;
  • 6 January is also my sister’s birthday–which has nothing to do with Cuddle-Up Day but I just thought I’d give her a holler: Hi, Barb! Happy Day yesterday! How many anniversaries of your 39th birthday have you had now?

January typically contains some of the coldest days of the year, so what better way to stay warm and reap health benefits than by cuddling with a loved one on National Cuddle Up Day? Whether it’s a three-dog-night (not the musicians but what they were named after: a night so cold it takes three dogs to cuddle up with to stay warm) or only slightly chilly, there are many benefits to cuddling with human or canine or other warm-blooded pet.

http://97zokonline.com/yes-its-cold-so-good-thing-its-national-cuddle-up-day/
The original and still the best pain-and-stress reliever

Cuddling (defined as holding another close as a means of showing affection) releases oxytocin, which gives us warm-and-fuzzies and reduces minor pain. When the cold makes muscles and joints ache, cuddling can help. Oxytocin also helps reduce heart disease, reduces blood pressure, stress and anxiety. If it weren’t free, cuddling would be covered by health insurance–but don’t give anyone any ideas.

In the days before humans became fleshy extensions of social media that they have become, personal presence was important. Communication is more than just e-mails and texts (or blogs, for that matter). Physical contact can communicate trust, commitment, safety, and reassurance. This goes for human-to-human contact as well as human-to pet-contact. Cuddling expresses everything vital in a healthy relationship.

Dopamine released while in close contact with a loved one stimulates the brain to seek pleasure…a little or a lot. Cuddling can also boost sexual desire, so, ah, hence the “warning” on the sign up on top.

Eh, just hope it was enough for ya…timer or not.

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Pearl Harbor Reconsidered Part IV: The Beginning of the End, and Christmas 2018

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

This is the final installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and the final blog of the year…therefore my last pitch for Why the Samurai Lost Japan, Those of you who have hung in there since the beginning of December…many thanks. For those just now picking it up, just go to the website and start with the 3 December blog.

And don’t forget to pick up a copy of the book while you’re there…

While the Pearl Harbor strike began five minutes or so before the actual declaration of war on the United States was to be effective (but hours before it was finally delivered), that minor misstep was a good deal more important to the civilian diplomats than it was to their bosses in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. Diplomacy no longer mattered to the samurai leadership…it hadn’t really mattered to the samurai since the Triple Intervention in 1895 “stole” Japan’s hard-won gains in China. If they were successful in their enterprise of getting the Americans back to the bargaining table in 1942, no one would either care or notice a five-minute gap between the diplomatic and the military; and if the Americans didn’t stop fighting, the samurai knew they were probably doomed.

http://www.rockit.news/2015/12/24/churchills-christmas-message/
Churchill’s Christmas Address, 1941

And there is the crux of it…all of it. Japan had to succeed big and FAST. Even the most enthusiastic samurai bosses knew that in any protracted conflict—one lasting more than six months—Japan stood no chance of being able to carry on with a conflict against any Western power, especially the United States. Resources aside, Japanese technological edges were razor-thin, and in some areas non-existent. In any prolonged war, Japan from the beginning knew that she had but two real advantages: distance and time. Japan was half a world away, and that she was but one of three major enemies that the West was fighting at the time.

The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 was expected to require only a few months…Britain was expected to capitulate…leaving the Americans alone to face a Eurasian hegemony.

But before Pearl Harbor, Japan had planned everything they were to do with a short war as the starting premise. When the British and Americans decided on “Europe first” in March 1941 it came not as a surprise but a relief to Japanese planners. As long as Britain held out, Europe would be an easier target than Japan as long as Russia was out of the equation. The attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 was expected to require only a few months before the Soviets were either destroyed or sought an armistice. After that, Britain was expected to capitulate, as were the Dutch, leaving the Americans alone to face a Eurasian hegemony.

…the samurai didn’t realize that merely wanting to break even as a war strategy made it extremely difficult to succeed against a superior enemy…

But the Japanese failed to appreciate the depths of Stalin’s hatred of the Nazi regime in 1941 and the lengths to which he could get the Soviet Union to drive its people to crush Germany. They also failed to appreciate that their own fragile war machine could be crippled in mere minutes by unforeseen events—in this case, two naval battles in early 1942 that devastated their cadre of carrier pilots and maintainers. Finally, the samurai didn’t realize that merely wanting—and hopefully being able—to break even as a war strategy made it extremely difficult to succeed against a superior enemy. Even if Great Britain only wanted a return to the pre-1941 status quo ante, they at least had the wherewithal to try and, in some cases, succeed. Japan, once it lost any of its hard-won 1941-42 gains, could never get them back, and the leadership knew it.

The complete destruction of a battleship or two in Hawaii—and twenty minutes worth of 1944 aircraft production—by a hazardous attack so far away wasn’t required to start a war with the US.

While Pearl Harbor traditionally angered the US into a dreadful fury that ended in Tokyo Bay, any military action by Japan against any American territory in late 1941 would probably have had the same result. In the Atlantic, the US Navy had already been in a quasi-war with the Germans for close to a year by December 1941 and had lost a destroyer to German torpedoes in October. The American military was already on high alert; the National Guards and Reserves had all been called up starting in 1940 with the fall of France and a draft filling in the ranks since September 1940. American war materiel was being shipped to Britain and France (and the Soviets after June 1941) and was delivered to the “fighting French” in the Pacific. Even if Japan had only ventured upon a bombing raid on the Philippines, a war in the Pacific would probably have been the result anyway: the Americans were already tacit belligerents against the Germans. The complete destruction of a battleship or two in Hawaii—and twenty minutes worth of 1944 aircraft production—by a hazardous attack so far away wasn’t required to start a war with the US.

The Pearl Harbor attack should be seen as the beginning of the end of the swaggering swordsmen of Japan

The Pearl Harbor attack, ultimately, was a devastating blow to samurai-dominated Japan far more than it was to the United States. Even if the US prewar carriers had been in the harbor, the war would have delayed the ultimate result by perhaps a few months. For while rousing the sleeping giant/tiger/dragon (choose your metaphor) was the result, the destruction of Japanese military power only left a clean palate for more representative government to take hold once the power of the samurai to dictate affairs had been broken. The Pearl Harbor attack should be seen as the beginning of the end of the swaggering swordsmen of Japan.

Future essays of the “Reconsidered” variety, based on our research for the book, will follow in the next few months. Look for future series on Coral Sea/Midway, the Solomons and the atomic bombings.


Tomorrow is Christmas in the US, and for those of my readers who are far from home serving their country in the way they can, have a restful and peaceful day, and good luck.

http://adolfhitlerbestpictures.blogspot.com/2009/12/adolf-hitler-pictures-in-christmas.html
Fröhliche Weihnachten, Mein Herr

There’s a certain ambiguity to imagery like this. Hitler is trying to be just another regular guy, and it’s before his Final Solution got started so it may be easy to dismiss this imagery as “early.” But there’s an eerie sort of shadow over it, no?

Then again, we have the image above, of future President Reagan hawking cigarettes as Christmas presents while plugging his 1952 movie, Hong Kong, which fell to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. While the ad men didn’t care, the timing seems odd. Celebrity endorsements of tobacco products were common in the 1940s and ’50s, so there’s no issue there…but giving smokes to all your friends for Christmas? Huh.

 

 

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Pearl Harbor Reconsidered Part III–Hit and Miss…and Wright Brother’s Day

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

This is the third installment of my “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered” essay, and for those of you who have read the other two, thanks for sticking with me. Of course, I know you’ve all bought copies of Why the Samurai Lost Japan for yourselves and for all your friends (perfect Christmas gifts) as soon as it was available (which should have been Saturday).

No? What are you waiting for? This essay is just a sample of our research and analysis. Get the whole picture.

As far as “gambles” go, Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t much of one, either strategically or tactically. The strikes were carefully planned practically to the last bomb, torpedo, bullet, and ounce of fuel—they had to be because Japan could not carry more fuel for an attack so far away. The aircraft were fueled and armed in a flurry of activity beginning very early in the morning of 7 December, the second wave being hoisted to the flight deck as the first was taking off, and was launching as the first wave was returning. It was a practiced ballet of logistics, material handling, and timing—and nearly impossible to repeat on the same day with damaged aircraft and tired aircrews and maintainers.

https://pearlharborwarbirds.com/japanese-attack-on-pearl-harbor-maps/
Map of the Japanese attack on Oahu, 7 December 1941

The attack had intended to catch the American aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor, but those ships were prevented from entering the harbor by the same storm that battered the Japanese task force en route to Hawaii. That the American carriers weren’t in Pearl Harbor (and their air groups parked on the airfields) was a grave disappointment…and created a grave danger. They and their 100+ aircraft were somewhere in the area…but Japanese intelligence was unable to say where. That one was near Wake Island, and two more were at sea a day away from Hawaii was unknown to the Japanese. For that reason, Nagumo had reason to fear for the safety of his command. Worse, he had no good idea how severe the American land-based aircraft losses were. His fleet was already low on fuel, including aviation fuel. Staying an extra day would have meant that some of the escorting destroyers would have been sucked dry of fuel for the carriers and abandoned…not recommended at the beginning of a trans-oceanic war.

https://www.omaha.com/news/military/timeline-of-pearl-harbor-attack-what-happened-on-dec/article_c02f0b0a-8058-5032-8116-17ae16c43077.html
Detail of Pearl Harbor

The first two attack waves had been well planned, timed and executed, but a third wave that some say should have been mounted was impractical. Sending the superbly trained pre-1941 carrier pilots on a third mission that day would have been a tremendous risk for an uncertain (and unlikely) result. Though “sparing” the dockyards, maintenance shops, and the tank farm meant the US could swing into action in the Pacific faster, it is unlikely that these less-than-vulnerable facilities could have been significantly harmed, and would have exposed the fleet to much more risk that the risk-adverse IJN would have been willing to commit to.

…at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop.

Preparing the returning planes for another attack would have taken until at least mid-afternoon, meaning that the aircraft of a third wave would have been recovering at night. In 1941, only the Royal Navy had experience with carrier landings at night. Success would have been uncertain because American anti-aircraft performance improved between the first and second waves. Moreover, the strength of Hawaii’s remaining land-based air power was undetermined. The second wave, while damaging, had not done near as much as the first in part because there was a limit to how much damage any single-engine aircraft could do.

Further, at 250 miles an hour (or more) while being shot at it is impossible for any pilot, regardless of training or nationality, to distinguish between an empty warehouse and a full one, or a storage shed from a machine shop. The odds against hitting the drydocks effectively were even higher, and severely damaging the concrete basins or the massive doors would have been sheer luck for any pilot of that time and place. Great Britain, desperate as they were, mounted a commando raid on St. Nazaire in 1942 to disable the drydocks there and expended a destroyer and several hundred men to do it. Mere air-delivered bombs—regardless of size—weren’t going to do a lot of damage to the drydocks of Pearl Harbor without a great deal of luck.

Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly excecuted with a few hours of planning and 100% successful is too much to ask.

Many “counterfactual” claims for the value of a third strike emphasize the potential damage caused by the destruction of the millions of gallons of fuel stored at Pearl Harbor. While possible, these claims require the Americans either do absolutely nothing to stop the attacks on those big targets or that they do everything wrong. Letting out a few thousand gallons and setting it alight would have created a good smokescreen in a few minutes that could have baffled any further attacks…and a single successful bomb on one tank or pump complex might have done the same thing. Presuming that the third wave attack on Pearl Harbor would have been unopposed, perfectly executed and 100% successful with a few hours planning is too much to ask.

Though the never-planned third strike on Pearl Harbor has been much touted over the years, and it is said that Yamamoto later regretted Nagumo’s decision to withdraw (though he supported that decision at the time), he afterward said it had been a mistake not to order a third strike. Sorry, but that sounds a great deal like second-guessing for the history books after the tide had already turned. While the raid on Pearl Harbor was at least a tactical success, the strategic value of it was diminished because it missed the American carriers.

In my next and final installment of “Pearl Harbor Reconsidered,” I’ll examine the consequences of the Pearl Harbor attack, and its long-term effects on Japan and, more important, on the samurai leadership that ordered and planned it. While the Eastern Operation may have been perfectly executed, that perfect attack resulted in a disastrous war with an enemy they knew they could not defeat.


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Langley’s Aerodrome

Today is Wright Brothers Day, one of the many commemorative days that is codified in US law. Though the brothers first flew on 17 December 1903, it took until 2014 before Congress passed the bill recognizing the fact. One of the reasons for the long delay was the inventor of the contraption on the left, Samuel P. Langley. He was said to have launched an unmanned powered kite in 1896 and convinced Congress to give him a contract to continue his research. It helped that Langley was the head of the Smithsonian Institutions at the time.

He had two failed manned launches in October and December 1903, and never went back to his experiments afterward in part because of the Wright brother’s success, and in part, because he couldn’t get money to continue. Langley died in 1906, having spent orders of magnitude more on several decades of failed tries to build a powered, manned, controllable heavier-than-air vehicle than the Wrights spent to succeed.

Even as the aviation industry took off and the Wrights undeniably went into the business of building airplanes, the battle for bragging rights over who flew first continued well into the 20th century. Though the first Wright Flyer was destroyed in a storm in early 1904, the Smithsonian wouldn’t even have a replica of it in its halls, instead emphasizing Langley’s efforts and even denying that the Wrights were first until well into the 20th century.

 

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Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly

Finally, it’s here! Why the Samurai Lost Japan is now available in paperback and PDF!

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

JDB Communications, LLC is proud and pleased (and relieved, after two years) to announce the publication of Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly by John D. Beatty and Lee A. Rochwerger, a reworking of their earlier and acclaimed What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War, 1941-1945 (Merriam Press, 2009).

Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t just another “west triumphant” hagiography of WWII. Nor is it a “Japan as victim” story of lost opportunities for peace. Instead, it is a study of agrarian and cash-poor Japan’s desperate need for resource independence, and of the warriors who sought to satiate that need…the samurai.

When Perry sailed to Japan in 1854, the whole of the Japanese Empire had fewer paved roads than a square mile of the city of London. In 1941, Japan sent the largest aircraft carrier task force in the world to attack the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor. How this three-generation, breakneck-paced modernization, and industrialization affected Japan is just one subject explored in Why the Samurai Lost Japan.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Imperial Japan embarked on a program of aggressive military overseas adventures in Asia and the Pacific. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Japan’s economy changed from largely agrarian to mostly industrial. Between 1904 and 1941 Japan conquered Korea, Manchuria, large parts of China, and French Indochina, and occupied large swaths of Pacific islands. This provided tremendous resources, but it still wasn’t enough: food riots wracked Japan right up to 1945. How this powerful-yet-weak empire managed these conquests is also explored by Why the Samurai Lost Japan.

Japan’s empire-building aggressions were driven by the ancient cult of samurai warriors who were answerable only to their Emperor. The samurai followed a freewheeling, freely interpreted “code” of bushido—a code better understood than it was understandable, more spoken of than written down with authority. Bushido left only one option for any failure, regardless of scale or import—death. Why the Samurai Lost Japan is also a study of that code and the warriors who followed it—their aspirations, successes, miscalculations, and follies.

In 1941 the samurai picked a fight with arguably the greatest western industrial power on the planet at that time—the United States. They led Japan into a horrible war—the Pacific Theater of World War II—stretching across a third of the Earth’s surface, and spanning an additional three years, eight months, three weeks and five days. Their early and easy victories convinced them of their invincibility. They refused to believe that their fighting spirit could be defeated by superior firepower. However, before they started the war, the samurai knew they could not win outright. The west had to stop fighting early on, or Japan was doomed…and they had no Plan B.  Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores the expectations of the samurai planners, and their main planning tool—hope.

The samurai’s war ended after two nuclear devices were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Most authorities believe that Japan’s seeking peace after the atomic bombings were connected to those bombings. Why the Samurai Lost Japan discusses and challenges how the war in the Pacific really ended…and questions the popular assumptions about governance in pre-1945 Japan.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan is available in trade paperback for $24.95 plus shipping and $9.95 in PDF from The Book Patch and fine booksellers everywhere.