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Bicycles and National Waitstaff Day

So, May is well underway, and summer is right around the calendar corner. If there’s still snow in the Great Lakes, climate change is a bummer.

Traditionally, on 21 May 102 BC, Aurelia Cotta, Julius Ceasar’s mother, was born in Rome; almost certainly not by caesarian section–then again. neither was Caesar. Also on this day in 1471, England’s King Edward IV entered London; on that same day, England’s King Henry VI was beheaded in the Tower of London–not a coincidence. On 21 May 1807, Napoleon lost to Austria at Aspern-Essling; one of the few stand-up battles his army would lose, but also a harbinger of things to come for his increasingly clumsy armies. Charles Lindberg landed in Paris on this day in 1927; Amelia Earhart landed in Ireland on 21 May 1932–Lindberg the first man to solo across the Atlantic, Earhart the first woman. But today, we’re talking about bicycles and about waiting tables.

This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after The Year Without a Summer caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.

The bicycle is said by some to date from as early as the 16th century when a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci is said to have sketched a vehicle resembling a modern “pusher” (two wheels and frame but no pedals or steering means). An 18th-century French vehicle of similar design shares the same provenance. The earliest two-wheel, steerable frame bicycle dates from 1817 Germany, called a Laufmaschine (running machine) or Draisine, hobby horse, dandy horse or Velocipede in the English press. This early bicycle was intended as a substitute for the horse, after the disastrous death by starvation of horses all over Europe after the summer of 1816’s widespread crop failure–The Year Without a Summer–caused by the explosion of the Tambura volcano in 1815.

The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet… 

Now, I know there’s those of you out there who will say “horse-hockey” to any suggestion that a mere volcano could change the global weather, but it almost certainly did after 5 April 1815. The Tambura volcano put over ten million metric tons of material into the upper atmosphere, with a column of gas and material that rose to over 140,000 feet above Sumbawa Island in what are now the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer. 

The next year, killing frosts hit in Europe and North America as late as June. Whole counties, entire countries’ crops failed; millions of acres of forests died; mountain meadows were covered by new glaciation; famine struck large swaths of Europe not yet recovered from a generation of war with France. In the United States, rivers were freezing as late as June, and crop failure was nearly universal as far south as Northern Louisiana. The sky seemed overcast all summer.

There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.

It was on 21 May 1819 that the first “swift walker” neo-bicycles were introduced in the streets of New York. Almost certainly either copies or original versions of Denis Johnson’s 1818 versions that were the toast of London, if briefly. They were largely seen as novelties even then because the original crisis had passed: the winter of 1816-17 was especially violent for most of the United States and much of Europe and is thought to have largely cleaned the upper atmosphere. Two years of good crops and imports from the Middle East had restored a good deal of the horse market. Though the popularity of these early machines waned, the idea stuck around. There were experiments in France, Germany, and Scotland with steering and with chain drives, but the first commercially successful steerable chain-drive bicycle was French, dating from about 1863.

And all because a volcano starved the horses. Makes you think again about the rationale for Boulle’s Monkey Planet, doesn’t it? You remember: a plague wiped out the dogs and cats, so the humans reached for apes as companions. Well, from a lack of horses came the bicycle.


From https://twitter.com/hashtag/nationalwaitstaffday
Or, when I get to it…

And 21 May is National Waitstaff Day. This is the one day a year when we should all tip our hats–and our waiter/waitress–generously to the grunts that put up with our intrusions into their domains. Of course, it’s their domain, dummy: they clean it, put it together, spend more waking hours in it than they do in their “homes,” smile at visitors, put up with your bad days, and get paid squat for it. In the US, a sub-minimum wage is the expected norm for compensation, a travesty that should have been addressed by legislation generations ago. Living on the off-chance that the last table for the night in their section will pay more than 10% over their $100 dinner check (consumed, mostly, after the kitchen is closed and the bussers have left) is no way to live.

Now, I’ve never had to wait tables, but I did tend a little bar. And my wife waited tables in her youth, so did my granddaughter. And my daughter has made her living at it for, well, most of the 21st century. Their living is precarious, mostly hand-to-mouth. Benefits include…tips, and maybe some vacation after a year or so.

Like doctors, they see people on their best behavior, in the best of times…and in their worst. When I laid my mother to rest a few years back my wife and I had a sit-down with my step-sister and her husband, a distant cousin and her daughter in a small restaurant in rural Iowa. We were probably the biggest group they had that day, and even at lunch, the place wasn’t half-full. But in that small town, it was the only eatery. The food wasn’t stellar but the coffee was hot. We must have sat there for two or three hours, and the waitress kept refilling the cups. Can’t remember how big a tip we left, but we didn’t actually eat that much, and considering the amount of time we spent there the gratuity probably wasn’t big enough.

Keep your cards and letters coming, folks.

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Sugar Loaf Ends and National Women’s Checkup Day

OK, 14 May. Yesterday was Mother’s Day (you did remember, didn’t you?), and I hope all you mothers out there were well feted and pampered. I also trust that those of you who still have mothers or mothers-in-law or ersatz-mothers did your duty in pampering and honoring them. One can only hope. We can also pray for a snow-free Mother’s Day in the Great Lakes.

On 14 May 1610, the colony known as Jamestown in Virginia was founded; my ancestor arrived there in chains from Ireland about a year later. Also on this day in 1686, Daniel Fahrenheit was born in what was then Prussia; he would later develop the Fahrenheit temperature scale based on the freezing and boiling points of water, then a revolutionary development. Also in the world of science, on 14 May 1796 Edward Jenner would first innoculate a patient using a cowpox strain; while Jenner was the first to inoculate using scientific means, primitive inoculations had been used using other sick patients’ weeping pus to bring on a milder form of the disease for some time before that. On this day in 1919 Henry J. Heinz–famous for ketchup–died; and on this day in 1954, Heinz Guderian–famous for armored warfare–died. But today we talk about rocks on islands and women’s health.

Announcements of the end of the war in Germany on 8 May did not affect the chaos and slaughter on Okinawa at all.

By the beginning of May 1945, most of the island of Okinawa was in American hands. Since the invasion on 1 April by the Tenth Army’s half million men, the Japanese had defended the island’s mountainous southern parts with their Thirty-Second Army’s 76,000 men plus conscripts with far more tenacity than the flatter parts to the north. The main Japanese holdouts were on the southern 1/3rd of the island, where a series of defensive lines of mutually supporting killing zones made the fighting a nightmare of noise and dust. Announcements of the end of the war in Germany on 8 May did not affect the chaos and slaughter on Okinawa at all.

To crack the Shuri Line, Sugar Loaf had to be secured. It fell on the 6th Marine Divisions to do the job.

One of these defensive lines was centered on Shuri Castle, which had been the seat of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1879. The castle itself had been shelled and bombed repeatedly, but the Japanese held firm on the defensive line. One of the many defensive positions on the Shuri Line was dubbed Sugar Loaf Hill by the Marines fighting there. Barely fifty feet above the surrounding ridgeline and perhaps three hundred yards long, Sugar Loaf Hill is just east of the city of Naha, one of Okinawa’s principle municipalities and the western anchor for the Shuri Line. To crack the Shuri Line, Sugar Loaf had to be secured. It fell on the 6th Marine Divisions to do the job.

From https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/npswapa/extcontent/usmc/pcn-190-003135-00/sec5a.htm
Shuri Line, March 1945

If only it were a simple job. Not only were the Japanese positions mutually supporting, they were mutually supporting in all directions. In some cases, it became necessary to attack in three directions at once to clear a single position. An entire book has been written on this one insignificant land feature. From the Marine Corps Association website:

The Japanese were so entrenched that many Marines fought … without ever sighting the enemy…[describing] a colonel shaking hands with the Marines who returned from one of the fights…one Marine refused to shake hands, saying: “I don’t deserve any commendation. I took the worst licking of my life and never even got one of them in my sights.”

The 6th Marine Division was practically destroyed by the time they secured the hill on 14 May 1945. Nearly a thousand Marines were killed there, and more than 2,500 wounded, at a cost of just over 1,000 Japanese. But their sacrifice helped outflank Shuri Castle itself, even though it would be another two weeks of hard fighting to before the ruins of the castle itself were secured.

When I write stories like this, I come back to the penultimate scenes in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). In its 2002 restoration form, the film becomes more than a western–it becomes an anti-war film on the scale of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1959). The cemetery where the Maguffin is buried is called Sad Hill. That cemetery is only accessible using a single bridge that has been fought over for months by opposing forces. But once the bridge is no longer an issue…no more futile battles.

What if there were no more hills and bridges to fight over? We would still fight over something…it’s in our nature.


This is National Women’s Checkup Day (the second Monday in May), a part of National Women’s Health Week (the week after Mother’s Day every year*). While women procrastinate about checkups as men do, the latest polling numbers indicate…not as much. An annual no longer costs anything in the US but time and may save your life. But…

From https://www.pinterest.com.au/bobnbarb71/funny/
Wile E. Coyote says…

But seriously, folks. Health is important for everyone. I’ve come to like going to my internist, a lovely younger woman (about my daughter’s age) who has put up with my intransigence about my shaky health for going on eighteen years. She says I’ve got at least another decade in me. Good for her.

Stop by next week, folks.

*There’s also an observance of Women’s Health Week the week of Labor Day in some locations.

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VE Day and National Packaging Design Day

And today, 7 May. Very little snow should be in the Great Lakes forecast, but that is not to say no snow. I remember well one May evening in 1988 we were told to expect partly cloudy skies and awoke to 8.5 inches of white and heavy “partly-cloudy” on my driveway and sidewalk.

Nonetheless, 7 May 1429 was when the French, inspired by Joan of Arc, lifted the siege of Orleans. Also on this day in 1660, a fella named Issac Fubine may have started the macaroni wars by patenting his macaroni in Amsterdam; funny it sounds and dubious it may be, but folks these days are deadly serious about macaroni design. And on 7 May 1765, HMS Victory, the 100-gun First-Rate line-of-battle ship that was the flagship for Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, was launched out of Chatham Dockyard; now a museum ship, Victory is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.  Also on 7 May in 1826, Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, was born in Natchez, Mississippi; Varina was the only First Lady of the Confederacy and would survive her husband by nearly 20 years.  On this day in 1815, RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale Head, Ireland; while celebrated as a cause celebre against Germany in the US, she was admittedly carrying ammunition and ordnance equipment. And on 7 May 1942, the naval battle known as the Coral Sea ended, the first naval battle where the belligerent surface ships never saw each other; while neither side “won” the Japanese lost most of two carrier air groups that would be sorely missed a month later at Midway. Today is also National Paste-Up Day for reasons known only to eternity, and National Leg of Lamb Day, ditto. But today, we talk about the end of the slaughter in Germany, and about packaging design.

Germany was losing control of territory at a rate about the size of Connecticut every day from March 1945 onward.

By the spring of 1945, Europe had been at war for almost six years. The British economy was still going only on American capital; the other economies of Europe were on life support. There had been nearly two million casualties a year since 1939, and the last eight months of the war had seen nearly a million killed, wounded and prisoners a month–except around Berlin, where the rate was doubled. The two largest land armies in Europe–Soviet and American–were hewing the remnant of the Germans into smaller and smaller enclaves by the hour. Germany was losing control of territory at a rate about the size of Connecticut every day from March 1945 onward.

By April 1945, not only were communications with Berlin unreliable, they were no longer thought of as necessary.

On 28 April 1945, Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacchi were executed by Italian partisans in Giulino in northern Italy. Their bodies were displayed at a nearby gas works. The next day, Axis forces in Italy surrendered to the Allies without reference to Berlin. By April 1945, not only were communications with Berlin unreliable, they were no longer thought of as necessary.

The Soviets, whose total casualties for WWII are still incalculable, didn’t care who they killed as long as they took Berlin.

On 30 April 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun took their own lives in the Reichs Chancellory bunker in Berlin. By then Soviet troops were within 700 yards of the structure, advancing at a rate of about 400 yards a day. They were fighting not just regular German soldiers and Volkssturm militiamen but non-uniformed civilians who took up weapons with the soldiers and started fighting–unorganized, untrained, undisciplined, but fight they did. The Soviets, whose total casualties for WWII are still incalculable, didn’t care who they killed as long as they took Berlin.

…the US Army would report some 1,300 deaths a week due to non-combat causes (including disease, booby-traps, and ruined infrastructure) worldwide in the spring of 1945.

On the other side of ever-shrinking Germany the British and Americans, French and Poles, Canadians and Dutch, Belgians and Czechs were as likely to simply round up stragglers as they were to have to fight organized German units. While the prisoner and refugee camps grew in size so did the casualty lists, and not just to combat or direct enemy action. Their own equipment was wearing out at an alarming rate: the US Army would report some 1,300 deaths a week due to non-combat causes (including disease, booby-traps, and ruined infrastructure) worldwide in the spring of 1945.

When Breslau fell on 6 May, there were simply no large German maneuver forces left.

When the end came in Germany it came swiftly.  The shooting ended in Berlin on 2 May, and the German commander Helmuth Weidling surrendered his remnants to the nearest Soviet commander Vasily Chuikov. Army Group Vistula, consisting of about 45,000 Germans, surrendered to American forces the same day. On 2 May, Bernard Montgomery accepted the surrender of about a million Germans in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. When Breslau fell on 6 May, there were simply no large German maneuver forces left.

Though VE Day is usually recognized as 8 May when the news was released in the West, it was another day in Eastern Europe, 9 May, that is usually celebrated at Victory Day.

On 7 May 1945, Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender document near Dwight Eisenhower’s SHAEF headquarters at Rheims, the same day the surrender was announced to German forces in Norway. Though all Germans were ordered to stop fighting, there were hold-outs fighting in Yugoslavia until 25 May. Though VE Day is usually recognized as 8 May when the news was released in the West, it was another day in Eastern Europe, 9 May, that is usually celebrated at Victory Day.

The Americans, still grimly planning their invasion of Japan, were trying to keep the VE Day celebrations to a minimum, not certain how the other half of their World War Two was going to be resolved.

While the celebrations were as wild in Europe as they would be three months later in the US, Europeans generally had a good deal less energy than the Americans. Worse, they had millions of displaced persons, prisoners of war, and war refugees who, though relieved by the conclusion of the fighting, still had to struggle to survive. The Americans, still grimly planning their invasion of Japan, were trying to keep the VE Day celebrations to a minimum, not certain how the other half of their World War Two was going to be resolved.


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As opposed to duct tape…?

7 May is National Packaging Design Day, which was founded by Design Packaging. a high-end retail packaging design outfit that would not design anything like the young lady’s dress above, and was proclaimed by the Registrar of National Day Calendar on April 22, 2015. Why it is today is one of the mysteries of the ages.

My brother-in-law Steve was a packaging engineer early in his post-college life. When he graduated in ’70 it was from the only 4-year program in the country at Michigan State University in Lansing (which was where he met my sister Lois and became my brother-in-law). Until then, like most everyone else, packaging was not high on my list of things to think about, but since then I attended the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and came to know some of the Packaging Technology (another unique program) students there, and gave some more thought to packaging.

Well, at least a few minutes of thought, likely more than any of you have. Packaging in the 1970s was a great deal different than it is today. So much of it these days is tamper-proof (a nice way of saying “customer-proof”) and bio-degradable or recyclable. Then, not so much. But, too, stuff like bubble wrap (which has its own day) only came along in the last couple of decades or so, and the biodegradable stuff only in the last decade. For all the packaging we discard, we keep about 10%, only to discard most of it later. Biodegradable makes sense, but as of yet it is expensive and has limited applications for consumer products. But soon, it will follow the demand for green products.

In the meantime, remember: it took longer to design and manufacture your fast food box than it will take for you to consume the contents.

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Conch Republic and National Picnic Day

Warm, balmy breezes blowing through the window; lazy sunbeams dancing on the wall; grass popping up through the sleeping ground. Yes, these are what we should be seeing now in the Great Lakes. But this little missive is being written on a February day with a high of 51 and bright sunshine, so by the end of April, we could have another foot of snow on the ground for all I know.

So, 23 April. Sir Francis Bacon calculated that it was on this date in 32 AD that the Christ was crucified on Calvary outside of Jerusalem; to that few scholars have ever had a great deal to say. But Brian Baru was killed at Clontarf on this day in 1014, and he was a myth only to those who don’t believe in Irish Exceptionalism (if you’re Irish, you’re exceptional). And on 23 April 1564, Will Shakespeare was (traditionally) born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died there on that same date in 1616, which is also St George’s Day, which celebrates yet another decapitation that took place way back in 303. On this day in 1702, we solemnly remember the passing of Margaret Fell, co-founder of the Religious Society of Freinds, known as the “mother of Quakerism.” And speaking of pioneering women, Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American woman licensed to practice law in the United States on 23 April 1872.  And, for those who really get into the esoteric, GRB (Gamma Ray Burst) 090423 was observed/captured on this day in 2009; it is the oldest and most distant (13 billion light-years away) object known to man; that explosion happened before Earth was formed. It’s also National Cherry Cheesecake Day (for those of you who like that kind of thing) and National Talk Like Shakespeare Day (if you did, according to some linguists, no one could understand you). But today we’re talking about important stuff, like micronations and picnics.

As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

Way back when the Earth was young and dinosaurs weren’t all CGA, the little island of Key West was a fishing village, smugglers port and little more. By the time of Prohibition, it was realized that it was a lot closer to Cuba and a steady source of rum than the mainland, so the town grew. A fella named Flagler built the Overseas Railroad earlier in the century, and the extension that went all the way down the Keys to Key West was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Well, it was mostly destroyed in the hurricane of ’35, so it matters very little to us. As Cuba became the playground of the rich and famous in the ’40s and ’50s, Key West became a waystation to the nightclubs of Havanna.

In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Other than a boat or an airplane, the only way to get to Key West is on the Overseas Highway (US 1) that connects Key West with the rest of the Florida Keys of Monroe County, Florida. This roadway also carries electric power, telephone, telegraph and natural gas lines down from the mainland. It is, literally, Key West’s lifeline. In the spring of 1982, US Border Patrol authorities set up roadblocks on US 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants coming up the Keys.

Latitude 25
One of many versions of the Flag of the Conch Republic; this one, a beach towel

In retaliation, the City Council of the City of Key West declared the Conch Republic on 23 April 1982. Now, this declaration had about all the legal validity as a divorce decree written on a cocktail napkin, but it created what some oddballs call a micronation. Stamps and even passports bearing the Conch Republic seal have been sold as souvenirs; one 9/11 hijacker was said to have had a Conch Republic passport. While they boast a military force that possesses nothing more powerful than any civilian arsenal, a navy of civilian pleasure boats and an air force of single-engine aircraft, the Conch Republic is about as dangerous and independent as Chicagoland.

With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and desalination plantadequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

I was stationed on Key West with the Army from 1975 to 1976, and aside from the large Navy population )about 1/3 of the residents) the citizens of the Conch Republic are mostly involved one way or another in either tourism or in commercial fishing. With commercial fishing dying out, tourism becomes all consuming. With restricted egress, any traffic in or out becomes problematic.  While even the most ardent Conchs in their most inebriated states will agree that Key West is still a part of the US, the declaration did point up a salient fact: Key West, the southernmost city in the Continental US, is terribly vulnerable to the least disturbances on its lifeline. With 62,000 more-or-less permanent residents on the Rock and a desalination plant adequate for perhaps only 40,000 in winter, anything that happens to US 1 hurts.

If you ever get that far down the Florida coast, toast the independent spirit of the Conch Republic. Frankly, it lost its appeal for me, even then.


Today is National Picnic Day in the US, and no one is quite sure why. The concept of a picnic is familiar to most, but its origins are somewhat obscure. Other than a farm hand’s or a hunter’s repast in the field or forest, the idea of finding a scenic location far from the cares and woes of routine dates from the 18th century, and was primarily restricted to the upper classes. Though the term may have appeared in a 17th-century dictionary as pique-nique, the actual usage began as pique un niche meaning to “pick a place,” an isolated spot where family or friends could enjoy a meal together away from distractions. The term morphed into pique-nique and after years of usage entered common French usage, and entered English sometime in the 18th century.

Tewksbury Lodge
An anachronism in a flower field…too bad.

In modern usage, the picnic has been confused with the newer and growing habit of tailgating at athletic events and other outdoor venues. In American hands, the picnic has also gone mainstream, the kind of event that can be enjoyed by anyone with a brown bag and a sandwich on a lawn…any lawn. But the traditional picnic with the basket and the ants and the blanket is almost extinct, except for the photographers’ models that you’ll find on the internet. For me, I’ve had my fill of eating out-of-doors…out of cans and pouches…cold. But, it’s the thought that counts. Try it sometime.

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Berlin and National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day

Well, three weeks into Spring in the Great Lakes already. Wow, where did that time go? Probably in the mud of my backyard. If you like lawns, don’t have dogs in the winter.

The one signal event on 16 April in the year 1457 BC was Meggido, a battle on the plains of Armageddon in the modern Jezreel Valley that is the first documented battle–and the earliest objectively identified event–in human history; though we know that the Egyptians and the Canaanites that resulted in Egyptian success, we know little else for certain. We are much more certain, however, that the battle of Culloden, fought east of Inverness in Scotland on 16 April 1745, was the end of the Jacobite (Stuart) uprising and marked the beginning of the end of the religious wars that wracked Europe for two centuries. Also in Britain, on 16 April 1797, the Spithead Mutiny began near Portsmouth; the labor unrest (for that’s what it amounted to) was less a mutiny than it was a work stoppage or slowdown for men who were essentially treated like beasts and hadn’t had a pay raise since 1658. The idea spread throughout the fleet, eventually reaching the Caribbean, South Africa, and Australia before the last incident was settled in 1812.  Also on this day in 1867, aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright was born in Millville, Indiana; his younger brother Orville was born in 1871, and sister Katherine in 1874. Also on this day, befitting our lead article, Lucius Clay, one-time military governor of Berlin, died in Chatham, Massachusetts. It’s also National Bean Counter Day, National Orchid Day, and in the US, Income Tax Fatality Day. But today we’re talking about the horror of the battle of Berlin, and about PJs.

By the spring of 1945, Germany was thoroughly beaten but was hardly defenseless. The Soviets had hammered the Germans back to the Oder and Neisse rivers, within long-range artillery range of Berlin by mid-February, but the Soviets were so worn down that they needed time to regroup. As Budapest fell 13 February and securing East Prussia and the northern Baltic coast by mid-March, the Soviets rebuilt and regrouped their two and a half million men in three Fronts (army groups) under Gregori Zhukov, Konstantin Rokkosovsky, and Ivan Konev. The Germans, too, under Gotthard Heinrici and Ferdinand Schoener, marshaled what resources they could, some three-fourths of a million men bolstered by an unknown corps of schoolchildren, grandfathers, housewives and factory girls formed into ad-hoc units or were simply handed a mine and a Panzerfaust to await the Soviet onslaught that they knew would come sooner than later.

Wiki Commons
Phase One, Seelowe Heights to Encirclement

On 16 April it began at the Seelowe Heights, where Zukov’s 1st Belorussian Front drove the Germans back for four days in the last truly pitched open battle of the war in Europe. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front pushed across the Oder, cutting Berlin off from the north. Konev’s 1st Ukranian pushed over the Niesse in the south, isolating Berlin from Schoener’s Southern Army Group. After four days, Berlin was cut off on three sides.

Wiki Commons
German Counterattacks around Berlin, April to May 1945

It took no time at all for the Germans to start counterattacks, but the efforts were worse than tilting at windmills. By this time the Germans had Panzer divisions with no tanks, infantry divisions the size of 1939 battalions, and horse cavalry units hunting the roads and fields for the thousands of deserters. When Army Group Steiner, an ad-hoc formation with barely 30,000 men in a single corps, attacked the northern flank of the encirclement, they were beaten down in less than twenty hours, and out of fuel in thirty.

Water was miraculous if it still came out of a tap; electricity a memory; silence an illusion.

The encirclement of Berlin was a foregone conclusion, but the Nazi propaganda machine kept up the pace with claims of Soviet-American battles that would allow Germany to divide and conquer. The few people who actually heard these pronouncements and had time to think about them knew better. Inside Berlin, Soviet troops cleared the city block by block, in some cases room by room. The cacophony of noise, dust, and waves of concussion from the continual roaring of artillery and explosives made the fighters numb to any sensation other than fighting. Housewives found themselves trapped in cellars with antitank guns, passing ammunition to the long-since deaf gunners engaging Soviet tanks down rubble-blocked streets. Squads of children made games of running up to tanks with magnetic mines, of picking off Russian drivers in trucks. Water was miraculous if it still came out of a tap; electricity a memory; silence an illusion.

Altogether the Soviets would expend about a thousand men and women an hour for three months in the last battles in Germany.

By 30 April, the inner core of Fortress Berlin was a few blocks around the Reichstag, and those defenders had barely an evening’s ammunition left. After Hitler and Braun were dead and disposed of, the survivors of the inner circle killed themselves or dispersed as best they could, but most were captured or killed. Two days later, on 2 May 1945, the Berlin survivors stopped shooting. In two weeks the Soviets suffered some 81,000 killed and quarter million wounded fighting over Berlin; the Germans probably about 44,000 dead military and civilian casualties in the Berlin Defense Area itself, but from Seelowe Heights to the encirclement at least another 50,000. Altogether the Soviets would expend about a thousand men and women an hour for three months in the last battles in Germany.

For a more detailed description of the Battle for Berlin, you can see my essays in Russia At War, edited by Timothy Dowling (2015, ABC-CLIO) available at your library.

On a personal note, my mother-in-law was ten and living in Berlin when the Russians came in ’45. I have yet to get her to talk about it much. I might not want to talk about such a nightmare, either. I get it, Lucie.


For reasons unknown to humans, today is National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day. The thing was started, speculation holds, because traditionally it’s the day after income tax returns are due to be in the mail in the US, though this year they’re due today. While this fits the procrastinator’s explanation, those of us who try to not wait in line at the much-publicized mail cues at midnight don’t have the excuse. I rather doubt that the woman above waited in a line at the post office all night. Unless you’re working from home or in professions where more exposed skin means more money, I wouldn’t advise that anyone wear pajamas like this to the office:

Flikr
Beautiful, yes, but…appropriate for the office? Maybe not.

In all things, moderation, please. I would never recommend wearing pajamas, mostly because I don’t wear them at all. And what I wear to bed is none of your beeswax, buckaroo.

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Bataan, Churchill and National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day

9 April and the snow (hopefully) continues to recede. The ground is soft and muddy, and we all look forward to spring…sooner or later.

Early April is the beginning of the traditional campaign season in the Northern hemisphere, but this early, until the 20th century anyway, the horses still had limited long forage for at least another two weeks. So, there would be a few battles. But one event that didn’t require forage or timing was the death of the first Emperor of Japan to sit on the Yamato throne. Traditionally the Emperor Jimmu died on this day in 585 BC, and though solid sources for this singular event are non-existent, it is still observed in some places in Japan. A monarch we have better evidence for is Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England, who died on 9 April 1483 in Westminster; of what we don’t know, but some sources, including Shakespeare, suspect it was his ambitious brother, who would rule England as Richard III as soon as he walked past another few coffins. Also on this day in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins lost an ear during a scuffle with Spanish authorities somewhere in the Caribbean; the resulting diplomatic dustup resulted in a conflict that, years after the conflict was over, got the funniest name on record–the War of Jenkin’s Ear. Also on this day in 1940, a far less amusingly-titled conflict expanded into traditionally neutral territory when Germany invaded Scandinavia, overwhelming Denmark in half a day and starting a two-month-long campaign that would see a third of Germany’s tiny navy destroyed. And on 9 April 2009, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles were wed in the Windsory Guildhall; rumors about premarital affairs and the like have never been put to rest, but does it really matter? Today is National Cherish an Antique Day, National Chinese Almond Cookie Day, and National Name Yourself Day (I can’t make these up). But today, we’re going to talk about the Philippine campaign of 1941-42, Winston Churchill, and prisoners of war.

Exactly why the Bataan strategy was still in place in 1941 is something of a mystery because it had been decades since the US had planned to relieve the Philippines once the war with Japan started. But it was the plan that was implemented.

The outline of Japan’s invasion of the Philippine archipelago will be familiar to many readers. On 8 December 1941, Japanese forces began to seize outlying islands of the big island of Luzon, landing troops there starting 10 December. By 14 December, the Japanese Fourteenth Army under Homma Masaharu of about 120,000 men began the offensive work of pushing Jonathan Wainwright’s Northern Luzon Force of no more than 25,000 mostly Philippine reservists stiffened by a handful of American Army regulars. The plan for the defense of the Philippines had been worked out years before by the commander of all Philippine and American ground forces in the archipelago, Douglas MacArthur. It was simply to deny the principal assets of Luzon, namely Subic Bay and Cavite, to any invader for as long as possible by holing up on the Bataan Peninsula. Exactly why the Bataan strategy was still in place in 1941 is something of a mystery because it had been decades since the US had planned to relieve the Philippines once the war with Japan started. But it was the plan that was implemented.

If Wainwright’s people hadn’t been starving, exhausted and short on ammunition, they might have broken the siege themselves.

By the first week in January 1942 the American withdrawal to Bataan was complete, and Japanese forces began to probe and scout the formidable American lines. Then, the Japanese high command, strapped for resources as always, began to strip both land and air forces from the Philippines, believing that the battle was all but won. Initial Japanese attacks were severely repulsed, and the Japanese timetable was set back first by days, then weeks. By the end of January Japanese forces in the siege lines of Bataan consisted of a single infantry brigade (three regiments, about 15,000 men) and three artillery battalions facing as many as 70,000 American and Filipino troops. If Wainwright’s people hadn’t been starving, exhausted and short on ammunition, they might have broken the siege themselves.

But now the Japanese had two significant problems: the prisoners outnumbered the Japanese forces still in Bataan, and there were four times as many of them as the Japanese had planned for. 

By late March the Japanese had built up to a bare parity with their foes on Bataan. The Americans, undaunted, patrolled aggressively and constantly, deceiving the Japanese as to how strong they were. In the first week in April, Japanese mobile units managed to outmaneuver and dislodge several strong points. By 9 April 1942, resistance on Bataan was at an end. Though hard numbers are hard to come by–and the Japanese didn’t bother to count–as many as 80,000 American and Filipino troops fell into Japanese hands. But now the Japanese had two significant problems: the prisoners outnumbered the Japanese forces still in Bataan, and there were four times as many of them as the Japanese had planned for.

Bushido has no defining text–no Bible or Koran–so it could be whatever someone says it is and had been since it was first rendered (never formalized) in the 15th century. Further, no one in Japan invoked Bushido as a justification for anything during the war.

While these issues do not excuse the brutality of the Bataan Death March of between 60 and 70 miles to the railhead and the train ride to Camp O’Donnell, the Japanese nonetheless had a series of problems that they lacked the resources to resolve. Again, disease and malnutrition saved Homma’s captors from being overwhelmed by their captives. Wartime and postwar accounts attribute most of the prisoner’s suffering to Japan’s Bushido code, but evidence for this simply does not exist. Bushido has no defining text–no Bible or Koran–so it could be whatever someone says it is and had been since it was first rendered (never formalized) in the 15th century. Further, no one in Japan invoked Bushido as a justification for anything during the war.

The IJA, for their part, lost so many China veterans in the Bataan battle that training suffered for the rest of the war.

The fall of Bataan on 9 April 1942, tragic as it was, was still a full three months behind the Japanese timetable. Homma, for his failure to stick to the timetable, was sidelined, then compelled to retire. After the war, he was tried in Manila for his failure to control his troops and was executed by firing squad 3 April 1946, nearly four years to the day after the fall of Bataan. The IJA, for their part, lost so many China veterans in the Bataan battle that training suffered for the rest of the war.

For more on Japan’s war in the Pacific, follow us at JDB Communications, LLC for the publication of Why the Samurai Lost: Japan at War late in 2018.


Wiki Commons
Classic portrait of the Bulldog

Today is also Winston Churchill Day in the United States, and it is manifest upon me to explain why. Most Right Honorable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, and EIEIO was made an honorary citizen on this day in 1963, the first of only eight honorary citizens of the US. It is also fitting that we recall that in October 1899 Churchill was captured by the Boers and put in a prison camp in Pretoria. Churchill and two others escaped in December, and Churchill was subsequently lionized in the press.

But today, too, is National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day, proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. As we recognize the Bataan survivors (maybe half survived the war) and Churchill and others, notably Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain who spent five years in Vietnamese captivity, we need to recall that prisoners of war are simultaneously helpless victims of their captors and additional burdens on them. While the definitions for “prisoner of war” are only recently formulated, PWs throughout history have always been subject to the fortunes and whims of their captors. In WWII, American flyers were sometimes executed by the Japanese; Germans captured by the Soviets were treated with benign neglect and died in droves; Soviets captured by the Germans were frequently worked to death. While Allied prisoners in German hands were never given the kind of treatment depicted in Hogan’s Heros, they didn’t have the kind of escape network that typified Allied wartime entertainments. In all they were just, as Churchill quoted above, just people caught by circumstances into situations beyond their control.

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USS Hornet and National Reconciliation Day

April already? Wow, what happened to winter? Oh, yeah, a new furnace, a busted toe while chopping ice, and another year on the roof. That’s what happened to winter. But hey, yesterday was Easter, so spring is just around the corner…for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere; you down south, yep, winter’s just around the corner.

So, 2 April. Charlemagne, king of Franks and Lombards and Holy Roman Emperor (at the time about half the known world) was born somewhere in Frankia (part of modern France) on 2 April 742. On this day in 1513, Ponce de Leon landed somewhere between modern St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach and claimed Florida (“land of flowers” in Spanish) for his masters in Spain. And on 2 April 1865, the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were forced out of their defenses at Petersburg, Virginia; that night, the Confederate government broke up and fled south, making the Southern Confederacy a dead issue. Also on this day in 1872 Samuel FB Morse, the guy with the keys and the code, died in New York.  On 2 April 1917, Jeanette Rankin first assumed her seat in the US House of Representatives, the same day that Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress for a declaration of war against Germany: she would vote against it. Speaking of wars, the Falklands Islands Crisis/Conflict/War began on this day in 1982 when Argentina invaded the islands. Today is also National Ferret Day and National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day. But today, we’re talking about the Doolittle Raid, and about reconciliation.

On 2 April 1942, USS Hornet (CV-8) departed San Francisco on what looked like a ferry mission to somewhere in the Pacific. Her decks were crowded with sixteen B-25 medium bombers and, as everyone knew, those airplanes were too large to be recovered on a carrier deck, even if they could take off. Therefore, it had to have been a ferry mission: even the bomber crews half-believed it. Well…

Wiki Commons
B-25 Mitchell medium bomber said to be that of Doolittle himself, launching 18 April 1942, from USS Hornet.

James Doolittle and his little band of bombers had intended to launch about 500 miles east of the Japanese Home Islands on about 18 or 19 April, but their plan was foiled by a picket line of Japanese vessels that included fishing boats and a 70-ton patrol craft Nitto Maru. that the US didn’t know anything about before they literally ran into them on 18 April. The intention was to have the B-25s bomb Japan, then fly on to join Claire Chennault’s airmen in China, but most of them wouldn’t make it that far.

What radars there were in Japan, and a bulk of the air observers were watching for a sneak attack from mainland Asia to the north and west, not from the sea to the east.

The true story here isn’t the well-known Doolittle Raid, but the lesser-well-known Japanese preparations for such attacks, the Japanese response to the attacks, and what happened afterward. Japan, unlike most histories of WWII say, was ready for an attack on the Home Islands, but not from the sea. Most Home Island air defenses were oriented to detect and intercept an attack from the Soviet Union. What radars there were in Japan, and a bulk of the air observers were watching for a sneak attack from mainland Asia to the north and west, not from the sea to the east.

The brave patrol boat Nitto Maru got its warning off just before one of the Hornet’s escorting cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43), sank her with gunfire, capturing four of the crew.

But the air defense of the islands was an Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) responsibility, and the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) felt it imperative to watch the seaward side of the islands. The IJN set up their cordons from 400 to 750 statute miles away from Japan, calculating that the first line would detect an aircraft carrier strike at least two days before any attack could be undertaken. The brave patrol boat Nitto Maru got its warning off just before one of the Hornet’s escorting cruisers, USS Nashville (CL-43), sank her with gunfire, capturing four of the crew.

Therefore, when Tokyo received the message from the patrol line, they believed they had at least a day before any air attacks could be mounted.

But the warning didn’t say that Hornet was carrying twin-engined bombers, if indeed Nitto Maru saw them (the record isn’t clear). In addition, only one aircraft carrier in Task Force 16 was spotted, probably USS Enterprise (CV-6), which carried no bombers.  Therefore, when Tokyo received the message from the patrol line, they believed they had at least a day before any air attacks could be mounted.

When the first of the Doolittle Raiders were spotted over Japan’s eastern coast at about 11:00 Tokyo time, the spotting stations were told that what they were seeing simply had to be a large formation of birds.

The defenses of Japan were commanded by Higashikuni Naruhiko, an Imperial prince, career IJA officer and uncle-in-law to the Showa Emperor Hirohito. Higashikuni was a capable officer but lacked imagination. Though he was aware of the limitations of Japan’s homeland defense, he, like most of the IJA, felt that a serious attack on the Home Islands could not be mounted from aircraft carriers. On the morning of 18 April, he was alerted to the presence of at least one aircraft carrier at the outer limit of the early warning cordon (that the IJN had told the IJA about just that morning), but was assured by his staff that no air attack was to be expected before the next day. However, IJN officers familiar with US aircraft carrier doctrine were not sanguine that there was only one American carrier in the task force. When the first of the Doolittle Raiders were spotted over Japan’s eastern coast at about 11:00 Tokyo time, the spotting stations were told that what they were seeing simply had to be a large formation of birds.

 Japan’s resources were so thin that no Japanese radar even by 1945 was as accurate, powerful, or rugged at Allied units dating from 1940.

About ten minutes before the first bombs dropped, the warning sirens started going off, and the intercepting fighters were launched. The antiaircraft batteries opened fire soon thereafter. It was obvious that day that neither the Ki-27 fighters that were used for homeland defense nor the 75 mm antiaircraft guns without target predictors that made up a bulk of the batteries were adequate even against these low and fairly slow threats. The Nates (Allied code name) simply didn’t have the firepower, and the 75 mm’s lacked range and power over large aircraft. These inadequacies were addressed as quickly and as simply as Japan’s resources could, but one consequence was that the numerous 75 mm anti-aircraft guns were shipped out to defend island outposts, and often were turned into ground defense weapons. More work on radar did improve the early warning network somewhat, but Japan’s resources were so thin that no Japanese radar even by 1945 was as accurate, powerful, or rugged at Allied units dating from 1940.

The strengthening of the Home Island defenses was expensive enough; the ships, planes, and men that would be expended for the rest of 1942 on islands that meant nothing to Japan but everything to the Allies would be the beginning of Japan’s downward spiral to ultimate defeat.

But the most serious consequence of the Doolittle Raid on Japan was the outrage and overreaction to that military pinprick that caused the old Eastern Operation (Midway and Hawaii) and Expanded Southern Operation (Solomons Islands and Northern Australia) to be dusted off again, and sparse resources used to stretch the frontiers of the Empire even further beyond the sustainable limits. The strengthening of the Home Island defenses was expensive enough; the ships, planes, and men that would be expended for the rest of 1942 on islands that meant nothing to Japan but everything to the Allies would be the beginning of Japan’s downward spiral to ultimate defeat.

Why the Samurai Lost, available at the end of 2018, goes into more detail on the thought processes that brought Japan to its destruction. Follow us at https://JDBCOM.COM for more information.


Today is also National Reconciliation Day in the United States, a completely unofficial observance in America. In South Africa, Reconciliation Day has been observed on 16 December since 1994 and the end of apartheid. In Australia, Reconciliation Day will be observed in the Capital Territory for the first time on 26 May 2018. In South Africa, the “reconciliation” was to correct decades of injustice under a predominantly white rule. In Australia, the effort is aimed at a recognition and remembrance of the abuses suffered by the indigenous Australian population since the European colonization of the island continent since the late 19th century.

Reconciliation in accounting and banking suggests a balancing of the books. In the Catholic faith, it’s related to Confirmation. In most contexts, the concept of reconciliation suggests a process or act of making up differences. In Australia and South Africa, this process has had definite racial and political overtones.

The idea of a National Reconciliation Day in the US was popularized by the popular newspaper columnist Ann Landers beginning in 1989 and carried on in her columns until her death in 2002. Landers urged readers to try to repair broken relationships on 2 April every year. The success of her efforts, however, are unknowable. Still, the goal is noble. I’ve had my share of broken relationships in my time, but most of those people who I’ve been alienated from are gone now. Hard to reconcile with ghosts, or with the memory of them.

 

 

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Komandorski Islands and Epilepsy Awareness Day

Oh, good, March is ending, the sooner the better. Snow melting into mud puddles faster than spit on a skillet…or at least I hope so. Looking forward to the spring cleanup and some relief from my furnace running all the time.

On 26 March we’ve got a lot of things going on. Conrad II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1027, beginning a dynasty that would include Charlemagne. English forces captured Bombay (Mumbai) on the coast of India on 26 March 1668, beginning three centuries of colonization on the subcontinent. Herman Haupt, the railroad genius of the American Civil War, was born in Philadelphia on 26 March 1817. The battle of Glorietta Pass began in what is now New Mexico on 26 March 1862, between 1,300 Union and 1,100 Confederate troops, sometimes dubbed the “Gettysburg of the West.” William Westmoreland. who would command MACV during the Tet offensive and later be Chief of Staff of the US Army, was born on this day in 1914. Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine on this day in 1953. And, on this day in 2005, James Callaghan, who had served Great Britain from 1945 to 1987, died at his home in Surrey. But today we talk about a decisive battle at sea that few have heard of, and an insidious medical condition that many know of but few know about.

At the far reaches of the North Pacific, the US and Japan dueled over the control of the Aleutian Islands for a little over a year. Though the Japanese captured Attu and Kiska easily in 1942, the Americans had other things on their plates for most of that year, leaving the Japanese more or less unmolested except for the occasional air raid. By early 1943, with a great deal more ships and men available, the US presence in Alaska was greatly enhanced. In March 1943, the Americans became aware that the Japanese were planning a resupply convoy, and a six-ship task force was sent to intercept it. The Japanese knew that eventually, the Americans would try to wrest their Aleutian conquests away from them, but felt it imperative that their toehold on American soil be preserved. To preserve their position, Japan sent a six-ship task force under Hosogawa Boshiro to escort the three transports carrying reinforcements and supplies to the garrisons on Attu and Kiska.

Though there were no clouds there was a great deal of fog, the temperature was below freezing and the sea was glass-flat: the combatants would spend most of their time dodging  between packs of ice-fog.

Before sunrise on 26 March 1943* the US task force of USS Salt Lake City (CA-25), Richmond (CL-9), Coughlan (DD-606), Bailey (DD-492), Dale (DD-553) and Monahagn (DD-534) were in a scouting line when they made radar contact with the tail end of the Japanese convoy. The sea conditions were, to put it mildly, unusual. Though there were no clouds there was a great deal of fog, the temperature was below freezing and the sea was glass-flat: the combatants would spend most of their time dodging between packs of ice-fog. After a little more than an hour of maneuvering and reacting to each other’s maneuvers, Japanese light cruiser Nachi opened fire on Richmond a few minutes after dawn at 0800. Richmond, Salt Lake City, Bailey, and Coughlan opened fire on Nachi, scoring four hits between them and crippling her. Soon, Japanese heavy cruiser Maya started firing on Salt Lake City, scoring six hits in two and a half hours, crippling her. at the end of the fighting, Bailey launched torpedoes but missed. Bailey and Coughlan were hit by Maya. After this, the Japanese, with the weather clearing and fearing an American air attack, retired to the west just after noon. For all the shooting and maneuvering in the four-hour gunfight, no ships were sunk and there were less than fifty casualties combined.

The out-gunned and outfought American task force, by luck, doomed the Attu and Kiska garrisons to starvation.

There’s been some speculation about the Komandorski Islands fight over the years, specifically on how the Americans seem to have won even though they got the worst of it. But Hosogawa never got another sea command. The Komandorski Islands battle is notable for many reasons: it was surface action fought entirely in daylight, and with no active air or submarine participation on either side. Torpedoes, though launched by both sides, were not even a factor. But as a result, the Japanese, having suffered catastrophic destroyer casualties in the South Pacific, dared not try another surface convoy. The out-gunned and outfought American task force, by luck, doomed the Attu and Kiska garrisons to starvation.

* The battle is often dated 27 March, but the US Navy used the date in Hawaii which is on the other side of the IDL, making it 26 March to the USN.


Today is Epilepsy Awareness Day, begun in 2008 by Cassidy Megan of Nova Scotia to increase awareness of this insidious condition. Wearing purple, in theory, is supposed to make public the tragedy of the wide range of disorders known as epilepsy.

The young lady at the top is only one of the best-known sufferers of epilepsy, a neurological disorder that can either be acquired or the result of some birth defects. Known throughout recorded history, it’s been called the Sacred Disease or the Noble Disease in part because genetic roots ran in intermarried families. Famous epileptics include Fyodor Dostoyevski, Edgar Allen Poe, Neil Young, Vladimir Lenin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Florence Griffith-Joyner (who died as a result of a seizure) and hundreds of others. It may have affected Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte. But because of the stigma attached, well-known sufferers, including Socrates, hid their conditions, while others were condemned and locked away, while others were hanged or burned as being possessed by evil spirits.

Most people have at least seen an epileptic episode (mistakenly called “fits”) on TV or in a movie at least once. But most episodes come and go without notice to any but the sufferers. One friend described most of his petit-mals (small seizure, as opposed to a gran-mal that is impossible to hide) as not unlike a short nap. One other sufferer, a childhood friend of the family who died in a seizure-related accident, described even her small seizures as jolting as getting an electric shock.

While I do not suffer from the condition myself I have known those who have, and more than once helped people suffering events related. While I don’t think that wearing a color would change anything–ribbon-weariness being the issue–I do think that public awareness that the condition is neither contagious or (usually) dangerous to others is a good thing. So, take a few seconds to at least become aware that epileptics are neither dangerous nor worthy of scorn, as people discovered in 2016 when Marie Ventrone (above) was chosen as Miss New Jersey.

 

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USS Franklin and National Let’s Laugh Day

Well, now, March is nearly over, and in the Great Lakes, there should be signs of spring: dirty snow piles everywhere dripping into mud. That and more road construction.

So, on 19 March there’s a whole pile of stuff that happened. In 1524 Giovanni de Verrazano landed on the Carolina coast. In 1536 Anne Bolyne went to the chopping block for the crime of not providing a male heir for Henry VIII. In 1629, Alexi Romanov was born in Moscow, who would become tsar in 1645 at the age of 17. Richard Burton (no, not that one) was born on 19 March 1821 in England: he would be credited with discovering the source of the Nile and translating The Arabian Nights into English. On this day in 1865, the last major attack by a Confederate Army in the American Civil War was carried out at Bentonville, North Carolina; the intent was to delay Sherman’s pursuit of the remnant of the Army of Tennessee, which succeeded for perhaps an afternoon. Adolf Galland was born in Germany on this day in 1912; Galland would be the last commander of the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm. On 19 March 1982 Argentina landed troops on South Georgia island, sparking the Falklands Islands War. And on this day in 2008, Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction author, died in Sri Lanka. Today is also National Certified Nurses Day (and these first-responders need a week of their own) and National Poetry Day (for reasons surpassing understanding).  But today we’re talking about a flattop, and about laughing.

The Essex-class aircraft carriers were some of the largest warships afloat in 1944. Displacing 32,000 tons and over 820 feet long overall, twenty-four of the vessels were commissioned, making them the largest class of capital ships entering service in the 20th century. USS Franklin (CV-13), nicknamed “Big Ben” for being named after Benjamin Franklin, was laid down on 7 December 1942 and commissioned 31 January 1944. With a complement of over 2,600 officers and men and shipping as many as 100 aircraft, Big Ben was a potent addition to the Pacific Fleet when she joined Task Group 58.2 off the Marianas at the end of June 1944.

Design_plan_Essex
Design Plan for Essex Class Aircraft Carriers, ca 1941

Off Pelilieu on 13 September, Franklin was struck by a Japanese aircraft abaft of the island. Sometimes called a kamikaze, this was two months before the first organized suicide plane campaign off the Philippines. It may be a case of what Japanese pilots called “belly-crashing” where a hopelessly damaged aircraft was intentionally crashed into a target. The Americans had seen such attacks as early as February 1942.

 

220px-USS_Franklin_(CV-13)_and_USS_Belleau_Wood_(CVL-24)_afire_1944
Franklin and USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) off Samar

 

After providing support for the Leyte and Luzon landings, Franklin was struck by two more apparent kamikazes off Samar on 30 October. This time, the Navy declared that Big Ben had suffered enough to warrant a trip home. She arrived at Bremerton, Washington on 28 November 1944, and was under repair until her departure on 2 February 1945. On 15 March 1945, Franklin joined Task Force 58 for a series of attacks on the Japanese Home Islands of Kyushu and Honshu.

 

USS_Santa_Fe_(CL-60)_fighting_fires_aboard_the_burning_USS_Franklin_(CV-13)_on_19_March_1945_(80-G-373734)
Franklin and Santa Fe

 

On 19 March 1945, Big Ben was fifty miles off Kyushu, closer than any American aircraft carrier had ever been to Japan during the war. Before daybreak, a Japanese dive bomber put two 550-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs through the flight deck, which set off some 47 armed and fueled aircraft both on the deck and in the after hanger. Gasoline vapor also set of a dozen Tiny Tim air-to-surface rockets. Accounts differ as to whether the attacker escaped or not.

300px-D4Y3_pulling_up
Yokosuka D4Y Judy dive bomber; may have been the type that attacked Franklin

Regardless of the fate of the Japanese dive bomber, the explosions knocked out electrical power, set Franklin on fire from midships aft on four decks, and forced the task force’s admiral to shift his flag. On his way off the ship, Ralph Davison suggested that her skipper, Leslie Gehres, abandon and scuttle Franklin. Gehres refused as long as there were men trapped belowdecks. For six hours the crew battled the infernal blazes that threatened the magazines, which couldn’t be flooded because of the damage to the electrical system. Crewmen blown overboard were recovered by destroyers and USS Santa Fe (CL-60) alongside as more ships came to the assistance of the listing Franklin. Because she carried nearly 10% more weight in ammunition, aircraft, and armor than her hull was designed for, reserve buoyancy was low, and Big Ben looked for all the world as if she was going down by the stern with a 13-degree list.

220px-Attack_on_carrier_USS_Franklin_19_March_1945
Franklin, listing and down at the stern. The crewmen on deck are non-essentials awaiting evacuation

Finally, it was decided that Big Ben was worth saving, and she was taken under tow by USS Pittsburg (CA-72) until she could move under her own power. Franklin then proceeded to the Brooklyn Navy Yard via Ulithi and Pearl Harbor, arriving there 28 April 1945. She was still under repair when the war ended, and never saw active service again. Big Ben was sold for scrap in 1966. The number of casualties suffered in the attack and the subsequent fire ranges from just over 700 to more than 800: Franklin had the highest casualty total of any surviving US Navy warship in WWII save Arizona.


LaughingDogs
Dogs…go figure

Today is also National Let’s Laugh Day, for reasons no one knows but, who cares? Laughter, the instant vacation (Milton Berle), the human race’s really effective weapon (Mark Twain), the best medicine unless you’re laughing for no reason–then you need medicine. Whatever it is the two lovely ladies on top are laughing about, let’s all take some time for laughter with someone we love.

And I’ll give you this to take along:

Any person who makes others laugh, even if for no reason,

is worthy of being loved.

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Sun Yat Sen and National Girl Scout Day

So, 12 March, and the snow–hopefully–isn’t piling up above the sills anymore in the Great Lakes. By now those of us who don’t do winter sports and live on corner lots with fireplug responsibilities are just done with it.

But a lot of things happened on 12 March. The Ostrogoth siege of Rome ended on this day in 538: it only lasted ten days, and the Ostrogoths retreated. The first mention of a Gutenberg Bible was recorded in a letter from Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini (the future Pope Pius II) on 12 March 1455: though exact dates are unclear, he had probably seen a copy of the first book printed in Europe with flexible metal type as early as the previous year. Koriki Kiyonaga, a daimyo who fought for the Tokugawas in the wars that ended in 1600, died in Japan on this day in 1608: the circumstances of his death are still controversial. John Worden, US naval officer who was the first skipper of USS Monitor, was born on this day in Mt Plesant, New York in 1818: his long naval career started when he was just sixteen. On 12 March 1910, armored cruiser Georgios Averoff was launched in Italy: built for the Royal Hellenic (Greek) Navy, she is now a floating museum and the last surviving vessel of her type in the world. On this day in 1933, President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast the first of six “fireside chats” that he used to reassure the country after its severe economic downturn, then in its fourth year: the worst of the Great Depression was yet to come. The US voting age was lowered to 18 on this day in 1970, much to the consternation of many: the reelection of Nixon in 1972 reassured the conservatives that the liberal “wave” was not led by teen voters. And on 12 March 1999 Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the NATO alliance, much to the consternation of Russia: the West was now a day’s drive closer to Moscow. Today is also, for some unaccountable reason, National Plant A Flower Day: go to it if you have a mind. Bht today we’re talking about Chinese revolutionaries, and about Girl Scouts.

When the powerful Dowager Empress Cixi died in 1908, the time was ripe for revolution.

Late 19th century China was a victim of Euro-American expansionism, and of technology gone wild. While Britain and France vied for empire in India in the 18th century, the Russian Empire continued to consolidate its far eastern holdings on the borders of Manchuria. Steam-powered ships and the demands for expanding markets led to conflicts within China over the coming of the Europeans, and the Opium Wars didn’t help. “Extraterritoriality” demands after these conflicts were impossible for the hapless Qing Dynasty which, though it knew it had to modernize, could not overcome its internal influences. A disastrous war with Japan in 1894 and another with most of Europe in 1900 led to even more foreign troops and influences on Chinese society.  When the powerful Dowager Empress Cixi died in 1908, the time was ripe for revolution.

Though the Wuchang Revolution failed, it inspired others that fired up all over China and is traditionally the beginning of the Xinhai Revolution.

By then there were literally scores of groups, societies, and organizations willing to start something, somewhere. Their goals ranged from simply anarchy to a whole new republic, and their methods from a peaceful transition to calls for mass murder. On 10 October 1911, a violent protest over a railway protection plan in Wuchang exploded into civil war. Though the Wuchang Revolution failed, it inspired others that fired up all over China and is traditionally the beginning of the Xinhai Revolution.

It would be another three months before the Qing dynasty would finally cede power to the new government in Nanking, and Sun Yat-Sen, who had spent most of his adult life out of the country, was the leader of the most populous state on earth.

After weeks of riots, battles, protests, massacres, and arguments over precedents, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was elected president of a Chinese Republic on 29 December 1911, even though the Chinese United League to which he belonged controlled only part of the county. The Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 January 1912 when Sun Yat-Sen was sworn in. It would be another three months before the Qing dynasty would finally cede power to the new government in Nanking, and Sun Yat-Sen, who had spent most of his adult life out of the country, was the leader of the most populous state on earth.

By cooperating with the Communist Party of China the KMT restored themselves to power in Nanking by 1921, but China was so severely factionalized that Manchuria was, for all intents and purposes, a separate country, an administrative fact that Japan would exploit.

But Sun was not to lead for long. On 10 March 1912, he resigned his post as president in favor of Yuan Shikai, who had been the last emperor and could control the many royalists better than an intellectual could. Sun became the president of the Nationalist Party of China, better known as the Kuomintang, or KMT. Soon, though, Yuan was plotting a return to the monarchy, broke up the KMT and exiled Sun to Japan. Another revolution was followed by another return to China in 1919. By cooperating with the Communist Party of China the KMT restored themselves to power in Nanking by 1921, but China was so severely factionalized that Manchuria was, for all intents and purposes, a separate country, an administrative fact that Japan would exploit.

On Taiwan Sun Yat-Sen is revered as the father of the Republic; in China, he is politely recognized as an early opponent of the monarchy.

By 1925 Sun Yat-Sen, by then 58 years old, was dying of liver cancer. Radium and traditional treatments failed, and on 12 March 1925, he died in Bejing. Sun Yat-Sen’s legacy in China is mixed. While he is hailed as the leader who overthrew the monarchy, Sun Yat-Sen is also the founder of the political party who opposed the Reds for nearly 20 years. On Taiwan Sun Yat-Sen is revered as the father of the Republic; in China, he is politely recognized as an early opponent of the monarchy.


Today, 12 March, is also the anniversary of the founding of the Girl Scouts of America by Juliet Gordon Low in Savanah, Georgia in 1912. The Girl Scouts do more than sell cookies and make S’mores: they have always been an organization that encourages and trains young women to lead productive lives. They do this by encouraging them to learn about traditional crafts, but also, yes, to sell cookies. Such activities build confidence and prepare them to learn even more. Merit badges are a big part of the scouting life, and there are few activities, from cooking and sewing to running a business and space exploration, that girls cannot earn a merit badge or an award for.

 

Salt Lake Tribune, 2017
The future of Scouting

 

There’s some question about the future of scouting in America. Recent court rulings and policy changes in the Boy Scouts signal that a merger of the two organizations will happen in the not-distant future. With girls joining the Boy Scouts imminently, there has been a great deal of discussion about how this might impact either or both organizations. It must be pointed out, however, that like combat arms jobs in the military, just because girls can join the Boy Scouts, there will likely be precious few who actually do. I can see that, yes, the two organizations can join together, but that there will still be boys’ troops and girls’ troops that may be together from time to time: at certain stages of their lives, the two genders just won’t mix well, no matter what the social engineers want.

In the interest of full disclosure, my sisters were Girl Scouts, and my mother was a Scout leader. I was in Scouting all the way to the Order of the Arrow. While we rarely had anything to do with any Girl Scouts officially in the ’60s and ’70s, we occasionally did, and the interactions were, well, teenage-appropriate as long as the grownups were around. But the weather was usually cold as I recall, and–let’s just say that what everyone’s afraid of just didn’t happen.

I’d prefer that young men and women were allowed to fail in the company of other young men and women before they have to learn to deal with failure in the adult world among members of the biologically-verifiable opposite sex who they may seek the favor of in future. It’s a lot scarier then, regardless of how many genders and sexual orientations someone may demand the UN to recognize.